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.
15. WASHINGTON WIZARDS (31.5)
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.
13. SAN ANTONIO SPURS (33)
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.
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?
12. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (33.5)
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.
11. DENVER NUGGETS (33.5)
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!
10. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (34)
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.
9. MILWAUKEE BUCKS (34.5)
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.
8. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (35)
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 NBA.com. 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 ESPN.com’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.
7. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (35)
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:
6. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (35.5)
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:
LOOK AT HIM!
If Joel Embiid were slated to play more, the Sixers could make a run to the No. 2 spot. But I would be surprised if he logs 60 games even if he’s healthy, which means we should prepare for an almost-best-case-scenario of 50. That leaves 30-plus for the rest of the Philly roster, still glowing with starry potential.
The Sixers have the best top-to-bottom collection of iconography in the league. They know it, too. They don’t overthink with design overhauls or crazy colors. They search out small tweaks that build on historic themes, and they almost always nail them: stars mounted on a blue stripe down the side of one jersey; cursive writing across another; the persistence of that Wilt-era “PHILA” wordmark; and their new Liberty Bell-themed alternate court (complete with crack). Everything is simple, and gorgeous.
Don’t sleep on the Dario Saric, a young and vaguely villainous Boris Diaw:
Philly is eager to investigate how it fares when Saric and Simmons — both power forward-ish players with shaky jumpers — play alongside Embiid.
4. HOUSTON ROCKETS (36.5)
Preemptive Rockets schadenfreude is flowing through the league. People love when Team Smartypants collapses amid farty chemistry, and critics are not ready to revise the narrative that Chris Paul and James Harden quake on the biggest stages. They are tapping their fingers together, Mr. Burns-style, in anticipation of the first time Paul undresses Harden for some comatose defensive blunder, grabs the ball, walks it up, and runs the slow-poke set he wants.
That will happen. But this team is going to be awesome, and a killer watch even beyond the puzzle-solving Harden and Paul have to do in learning to share the joystick.
Houston’s free throw frequency fell from “unwatchable” to “normal high-volume” last season after they ditched Dwight Howard and jacked more 3s early in the shot clock. It might fall further if the league really cracks down on those fraudulent three-shot fouls, when Harden dances around a pick, feels contact, and vomits up a brick.
Paul and Harden get to flex different muscles. Paul can stand on the wing while Harden runs a pick-and-roll, wait for his defender to sag inside to help, and zoom into a slicing drive when Harden kicks him the ball. Paul sometimes runs into airborne passes, so that he’s already at full speed by the time he catches it.
Daryl Morey has amassed enough long-armed wings in PJ Tucker, Trevor Ariza, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Troy Williams that he can play one of them at center in super-small, Warriors-specific lineups. When they play traditionally, Clint Capela and Nene Hilario — one of the all-time angry dunkers — make for ideal Mike D’Antoni centers.
D’Antoni makes funny faces. Bring back the Pringles ‘mustache!
3. BOSTON CELTICS (38.5)
The Carmelo Anthony deal triggered a dramatic last-second flip-flop between the second and third spots. It was intense! Kyrie Irving became the individual story of the season the moment he summoned the pluck to request a separation from LeBron James. Everyone wants to see if Irving, carrying zero record of NBA success without the world’s greatest player, can manage as a pseudo-alpha dog and adapt to Brad Stevens’ motion-heavy system. People will be watching every night, and a lot of them are rooting for Irving to fail.
Boston is almost literally a brand new team after imploding its roster of gritty, overlooked gems to nab two A-listers in Irving and Gordon Hayward. Expectations are high, but integration takes time. Every game will be an experiment — new lineups, new sets, new wrinkles.
Stevens favors a pleasing egalitarian style, and he’s ratcheting up the pace; Boston is pushing hard off rebounds and zipping around in a blur of cuts. They will play smaller, five-out lineups a ton.
The Celtics trail only Philly in the overall art department. The parquet floor is iconic, and their green jerseys might be the best in all of U.S. sports. They should just wear them 82 times, and waste zero nights on their black-for-black’s-sake alternates. Boston should be above such rote design trends.
If you can’t laugh with Tommy Heinsohn, I don’t know what to tell you.
2. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (39)
How do you overcome the league’s worst collection of art? By teaming an MVP who just chucked his way to the highest usage rate in league history with Carmelo Anthony and Paul freaking George — using only bad contacts and low-upside kiddos to do it! This is going to be wild.
I loved the Thunder before the Melo deal. Paul George is the apex sidekick for Westbrook. He may have to play third banana now. He’s most comfortable of the three working off the ball, and the Westbrook-Anthony pick-and-roll is more likely than the Westbrook-George version to produce exploitable mismatches; Melo can bully little guys switched onto him, and Westbrook will roast unlucky power forwards on the other end of that switch.
Watching three superstars split one ball is always fascinating. Billy Donovan can fiddle with lineups that include all three, with just one of Andre Roberson and Steven Adams — groups so heavy on shooting, they will be impossible to guard. Patrick Patterson can replace Adams at center in switchy alignments. The Thunder should at least try going ultra-big, with George as the nominal shooting guard in lineups featuring the big three and the Patterson-Adams front-line.
Alex Abrines and Jerami Grant would unlock more versatility if either rounds off the weak spots of his game — shooting for Grant, defense for Abrines. If they fizzle, the Thunder could be thin. Grant plays with a springy anger that makes him a threat to himself and everyone around him. No one dunks harder, or swings for blocked shots with more fury.
The Thunder’s newest Nike jersey is by far the best in franchise history — a low bar — and portends well for a potential makeover.
1. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (44)
What can I do? I deducted points due to the likelihood that a bunch of their games are over by the end of the third quarter. But the Warriors, League Pass Rankings champs in four of the past five seasons, have turned the process of blowing teams out into high art. They have a snappy color scheme, and their new charcoal-gray Oakland-themed “The Town” jerseys, with Oakland’s native tree logo, are perhaps the very best of the Nike alternates.
They even have the two players — JaVale McGee and Nick Young — for whom the comedy category was invented! Zaza Pachulia layups are stumbling, ground-bound adventures, punctuated by the basket mic amplifying Pachulia’s baritone groaning. It’s so loud, it’s almost uncomfortable.
I tried to fight the Warriors juggernaut. I failed. Now the other 29 teams get their turn.