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The 15 NBA teams you have to see

Now for more of my NBA League Pass Rankings for 2017-18.

Click here for Part 1 and all the rules.

Let’s get back to it.


Barroom debate: Who is more fun to watch, John Wall or Russell Westbrook? For me, it might be Wall. Westbrook plays with sneering, physical force Wall can’t match. Westbrook flies a little higher, and comes down looking to inflict pain. His leaps carry a hint of danger.

But Wall might be faster with the ball, with a better eye for long-range, crosscourt passes to shooters flanking him. When he goes coast-to-coast, he is a little more artful finishing around the rim — even with half his body flying out of bounds as he releases the ball. Wall was more efficient on transition chances by a wide margin, per Synergy stats.

Night to night, how many players are more reliably watchable? LeBron, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Westbrook (depending on your taste) and Giannis Antetokounmpo — is that the whole list? On the right night, you could add Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, James Harden, Karl-Anthony Towns, Dion Waiters and a few others, but Wall is more consistently high wattage. You cannot take your eyes off of him.

The rest of the League Pass experience is average, especially since the Wizards are on (at least) a one-year delay incorporating the stars-and-stripes uniforms they wore at home down the stretch of last season. Those are glorious.

Markieff Morris‘ angry, clubbing forays into foul trouble make for good TV. Jason Smith morphing into a 3-point shooter was a surprise turn, and Marcin Gortat‘s mohawk scored some late bonus points. Kara Lawson is going to bring keen insight every night as Washington’s new TV analyst.

14. MIAMI HEAT (32)

We are officially in the Very Watchable section of the rankings. Miami lacks that one change-the-channel star, but the collective is strong: Goran Dragic, head down, sprint-dribbling into a whirring series of weirdo pivots; Hassan Whiteside swallowing shots instead of just blocking them; Kelly Olynyk accidentally hurting people with his herky-jerky game; James Johnson, ninja warrior, running inverted pick-and-rolls with Dragic and threading impossible passes; Erik Spoelstra waving his arms like a crazy person; and Dion Waiters, always Dion Waiters, forever calling for the ball, hoisting bananas shots, and acting like the true goddamned megastar he is.

They play so hard. There is a perverse joy in watching Miami, frothing at the mouth, pulverize some poor team coming off a back-to-back or a hard night out on South Beach. You almost see the victim pleading: “Can you guys just take it easy, once?” No. No, they cannot.

There are some interesting basketball subplots here, too. And, Spo: For the love of the basketball gods, please stop calling timeouts in the last 30 seconds of every quarter. Sometimes, a guy just wants to get to the bathroom.


You’re rolling your eyes. The Spurs are dull again, with a slow-poke offense heavy on midrange shots and lurching LaMarcus Aldridge post-ups. A whopping 33 percent of the possessions Aldridge finished came via post-ups, the third-highest such share among all players, per Synergy. He shot 44 percent from the block, and drew few fouls. Blech. (Maybe that’s why Aldridge is talking about shooting 3-pointers again?) The NBA cognoscenti turned on poor Aldridge faster than Chicago fans turned on the Bulls. And who wants to listen to two-plus hours of broadcast homerism?

But, man, the Spurs are polished. They still throw more passes than almost anyone; if you are not prepared for sustained cooperation on defense, they will humiliate you. If you play selfishly on the other end, without much zip or imagination, they will smother you. Watching the Spurs run circles around some underprepared, low-IQ Eastern Conference mediocrity is to see two teams living on different planes of existence. They are barely playing the same sport, and it somehow doesn’t even look like the Spurs are trying that hard.

And if the Spurs are off, we get Cranky Pop, with his instant hockey line substitutions. (Poor Danny Green remains his favorite victim for solo scoldings.)

Oh, yeah: Kawhi Leonard. He doesn’t leap off the screen or jack off-the-bounce triples, but he can cinch the entire game in a vice grip for 90-second Kawhigasms. It has been almost a year since Leonard just took the ball from Ben McLemore‘s hands on two straight possessions, and McLemore still hasn’t recovered. It was like a horror movie.

The bench units take us back to the nirvana of 2014 — Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills playing give-and-go-and-give-again with a flair and cleverness that is all their own.

This also feels, finally, like a pivotal year for San Antonio. Aldridge has a player option for next season, and the murmurs of at least mild mutual discontent never cease. Green and Rudy Gay both have player options for 2018-19. Tony Parker is in the last year of his contract, returning from a serious injury. If this team can’t sniff the Warriors, what does it look like in a year?


Uncertainty can inspire intrigue or anxiety, and the uncertain Clippers in their first season without Chris Paul fall a little toward the “anxiety” end of the scale.

It might be exciting to see Blake Griffin take on more playmaking duty, and display the full breadth of his skill amid a wackadoo supporting cast. It could also fall flat without a guard to crack holes in the defense before kicking the ball to Griffin at the foul line. Do those Griffin-to-DeAndre Jordan tic-tac-toe lobs materialize without Paul? What, exactly, is Jordan without an all-time point guard floating feathery lobs? The Clips managed well in rare minutes when both bigs played sans Paul. Will that hold up?

The roster is overstuffed with tweener forwards and centers; the guard rotation is fragile. If the Clips are just a blah 43-win team, the intrigue fades.

They do sport some classic NBA characters. It’s a trip watching Austin Rivers wave off advice from his elders. Lou Williams owns the 2-for-1 — the Lou-for-1 — and will flail his way to points until he’s 40. And get ready for Milos Teodosic, a passing savant from Serbia with a permanent three-day beard and giant, giant balls.

Ralph Lawler is a joy on the mic. Their new blue uniforms are perhaps the best in franchise history.


Denver is a few splashes of powder blue from the top eight. Powder blue is awesome! Everyone loves it! The Nuggets have shoved it to the fringes of their art — the new jerseys, and their newish court, with those shaded pickaxes and the ham-handed reminder painted along the sideline that Denver (allegedly) gets 300 days of sunshine. Shame on you, Nuggets. Shame!

But you can fall only so far when you have Nikola Jokic, the league’s best passing big man, slinging fire from every conceivable release point: two-handers from above his head, and bending, skimming bounce passes flicked from ankle level to sneak them under enemy arms. Jokic has a wink-wink backdoor cut mind-meld with Gary Harris, a slippery cutter and sneaky-explosive baseline finisher.

Jokic isn’t just a passer. He shot 58 percent (!) on post-ups, second-best among 73 guys who recorded at least 75 shots from the block, per Synergy. He can bait behemoths off their feet with wicked fakes, and bulldoze smaller dudes. If he stays in shape and avoids ticky-tack fouls, Jokic is a superstar — at least on offense.

Paul Millsap will improve the defense, second-worst in the league last season, but not enough to prevent a ton of shootouts. Jamal Murray has no conscience. Juancho Hernangomez is shifty, with a nice stroke, even if the Nuggets — stocked with a gazillion power forwards — will have to play him out of position on the wing.

Mike Malone is like a sixth defender, stomping along the sidelines. I can’t decide whether to deduct points for Will Barton‘s bogus no-look passes, where he jerks his head to a side of the floor containing zero teammates — and thus no passing target — just to show off. It’s almost avant garde in its absurdism. It also works sometimes!


This is probably lower than you expected. The Wolves will win with brute force, not style. The starting lineup features four guys who like to control the ball, and shoot from inside the arc — and (likely) Taj Gibson. They are going to lower their shoulders, drive into crowds, and bludgeon people until they find an open shot or burrow to the rim.

Karl-Anthony Towns brings needed panache. He might be the only big man in history who can overpower some patsy with a jump hook on one possession, and then run off a baseline screen, like a mutant Kyle Korver, for a catch-and-shoot 3 on the next. He has soft touch, and he accelerates through the lane with shocking speed and ferocity.

Jimmy Butler amped up his passing last season, and he doesn’t even need to beat his guy off the bounce to draw help; he dribbles into their chests, knocks them sideways, and forces the next defender to slide over — unlocking passing lanes. He has a knack for high-wire midair dishes. Gibson toying with a corner 3 is spicy.

Tom Thibodeau is a sideline burlesque show — a bellowing, wing-flapping penguin perfectionist who by the fourth quarter emits mostly guttural grunts. The Wolves might want to turn down their courtside mics, or slap a PG-13 rating onto their broadcasts.

The first two new Nike uniforms are different without treading near gaudy. The muted blues and grays give off a cool, arctic feeling.

On the other hand:

My eyes! The goggles do nothing!

Dave Benz and Jim Petersen combine for the league’s smartest broadcast, and the Wolves have finally scrapped their hideous two-toned butterscotchy court.


Variety is good. Antetokounmpo alone represents variety. There has never been anyone quite like him, covering the entire court in a few giant lunges, and reaching his extend-o arms out of bounds along the baseline to sling bullets across impossible diagonals. He has a chance to be the best player in the league when LeBron, Durant and the rest fade.

On defense, the Bucks favor a frenzied trapping blitzkrieg that has gone out of vogue. It might not work; Milwaukee’s defense has regressed since 2014-15 as teams figured out how to pass around the traps — and produce a bounty of 3s and shots at the rim. But as a viewing experience, it makes for a refreshing change of pace.

The half-court offense is vanilla, though it’s fun watching Jason Kidd shift Antetokounmpo between stations — the elbows, the corners, the baseline — in trying to figure out what works best. Thon Maker‘s development as a stretch center is crucial for an organization short on cap flexibility. When Jabari Parker returns, Kidd will have access again to super-funky lineups featuring Antetokounmpo (or Parker) as the nominal center. That is the future.

One day, Mirza Teletovic is going to drop a pass because he’s brushing his hair back into place after the gel wears off. The courts and uniforms are all tidy.


Portland runs much of the same beautiful, flowing read-and-react offense the Mavericks use, though the Blazers have superstars who punctuate it with flair — or bust the hell out of it when they feel like doing their thing.

Damian Lillard has Curry range. C.J. McCollum is a fast-twitch phantom, always on the move, knees bent, ready to change direction. He might tote the league’s deepest arsenal of dribble moves and in-between shots; McCollum hit an incredible 52.2 percent of shots taken between 8 and 16 feet from the rim, second-best among 105 rotation players who tried at least 1.5 shots per game from that ultra-tricky range, per There’s a reason I’ve called him the NBA’s Dean Malenko.

Jusuf Nurkic brought some needed brutality and scoring, and nearly matched Mason Plumlee as a pick-and-roll playmaker. The Blazers’ art is all great, though their new red jersey, with monochrome black lettering, shares the Kevin-Arnold-In-Gym-Class look with Indiana’s yellow duds:
Maurice Harkless earns a bonus again if he shoots 35 percent from deep, per’s Bobby Marks, raising all sorts of hilarious possibilities if he’s on the border late in the season. Kevin Calabro is an NBA legend on play-by-play, and his partner, Lamar Hurd, is going to be an industry star.


This is Cleveland’s lowest ranking since the second coming of LeBron, and a little surprising for a three-time NBA Finalist that turned over half its roster in a spasm of classic Cavs melodrama. JR Smith alone is worth a minimum score of “7” in the comedy category.

The churn brought in more bricky shooters, and capsized a stable rotation. Ty Lue’s first solution is a shocker that bends the fundamental identity of the team in exciting new directions: shifting Kevin Love to center, starting Jae Crowder next to LeBron, and bringing Tristan Thompson off the bench.

That leaves Smith and Dwyane Wade to battle for the last starting spot. Lue still has to decide who closes games, and what happens when Isaiah Thomas comes back. Building an above-average defense will be tough, and Cleveland’s apathy last season on that end explains their drop here: We should all know by now that nothing really matters with these guys until April.

Watching Wade and LeBron team up stokes warm Heatles nostalgia. Wade became a master at leveraging LeBron’s gravity. He skulks through the backdoor like a cat burglar. He knows what he wants to do before he catches a pass, and that mental head start helps him glide through narrow crannies for soft old-school floaters.

It is apparently impossible to design a single appealing piece of art using wine and gold as primary colors. I always worry when I disagree with Paul Lukas, our resident uniform guru, but I kinda dig the new black alternates with a giant slanted “C” above the numbers:


Oh, hell yes. DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, twin-towering against the NBA grain, with Cousins heading into free agency and basically every job in the organization on the line. Toss in Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen, and the Pelicans are wired with the league’s most combustible set of personalities. Even abject failure would be spectacular, and set off another round of trade talks surrounding the league’s preeminent grump.

There will be nights when it clicks despite the alarming lack of shooting around the big guys — nights when you wonder how anyone keeps them from pillaging at the rim, and whether New Orleans might have stumbled upon the Warriors antidote. Cousins will rumble coast-to-coast, Davis will swat jumpers before the ball even leaves the victim’s hand, and they’ll take turns drawing double-teams down low. Hell, they might even grab some offensive rebounds for a team that has been allergic to the concept under Alvin Gentry.

Gentry knows that spacing will be tight, and he has already told me he plans to plop both big guys in unconventional spots — including the corners — at the start of some half-court sets. The rotating jigsaw puzzle will be fascinating.

If Jordan Crawford sticks on a non-guaranteed deal, we might have to nudge the Pelicans up one spot. Crawford owns the biggest gap between actual skill and self-perceived skill of any player, ever. Even Waiters is impressed with Crawford’s preposterous shot selection. Watch Boogie’s face whenever Crawford bricks two straight insane slide-step jumpers.

5. PHILADELPHIA 76ers (36)

I mean, look at this dude:

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