Lowe’s League Pass Rankings: The top 10 must-watch teams this season
Here we go: The top 10 in our 2022-2023 League Pass Rankings! We revealed Nos. 30-11 on Tuesday, and you can read about the rankings formula there.
10. DALLAS MAVERICKS (35)
Look at this soul-snatcher:
That is the smile of someone who knows he has you. The Mavs’ offense is one-dimensional — Luka Doncic walks ball up, runs two-man game — but that dimension contains multitudes. The typical spread pick-and-roll pairs ball handler and rim-runner; Doncic can do that with any of Dallas’ bigs. He can make all the passes blindfolded.
Doncic’s size and comfort in the middle of the paint — the dead zone for some ball handlers — open up endless possibilities. He’s at his most predatory dragging smaller defenders into pick-and-rolls. Switch, and he mashes them in the post with smirking cruelty. (He took sadistic pleasure brutalizing Patrick Beverley in the 2021 playoffs.) Send help, and he picks you apart.
Even against like-sized defenders and traditional coverages, Doncic is a three-steps-ahead genius burrowing inside. His high-arching step-back is borderline unblockable, and he has hit 50% from floater range over the past two seasons — and a LeBron James-esque 73% at the rim last season.
The threat of those shots unlocks Doncic’s generational passing. He understands how every up-fake, pivot, and half-spin freaks help defenders into thinking they should swarm — and which passes any slight rotation might expose. Last season, he even started throwing straight backward overhead passes to pick-and-pop bigs. Maxi Kleber and Christian Wood must be ready at all times.
This is my favorite piece of Mavs art in ages:
The navy sings against the new white-washed floor.
Will Josh Green look at the rim? Can the Mavs maintain their top-10 defense? How many violations of the Theo Pinson bench decorum rule will Theo Pinson commit?
9. LOS ANGELES LAKERS (35.5)
The Lakers ranked No. 2 last season, but the idea of them — How will Russell Westbrook fit? — turned out to be way more interesting than the experience.
The Lakers played fast, but they were boring — unorganized, dispirited, lacking any cohesive identity. LeBron James remains the ultimate chessmaster, but there’s little reason to suspect the overall product will be much different. (Darvin Ham said this week he’s considering starting Anthony Davis at center, and leaning there would boost L.A.’s watchability. You can’t play Westbrook, LeBron, Anthony Davis, and a traditional center — even one with decent range like Thomas Bryant or Damian Jones. Don’t sleep on Jones’ passing!)
They scored this high only because of their art — including the league’s prettiest court — and the comedy category. Are Beverley and Westbrook really friends? Like, really? Or will latent tension boil over? Comedy can become pathos, and we reached that point with Westbrook last season when the Sacramento Kings’ blared “Cold as Ice!” on every bonked jumper and layup.
Will James engage pout mode once he breaks the scoring record if the Lakers are toast? James achieved peak eye-rolling sulkiness ahead of the 2018 trade deadline, when he realized the Cavs were dead barring a roster shake-up. It was bizarrely enthralling.
Thumbs up to these white throwbacks — replicas of the jerseys the team wore in their first-ever game, per league officials. They even have faux belt loops! Powder blue is always welcome.
Lonnie Walker IV has untapped upside, and he’s going to careen into 1-on-4 attacks that will aggravate James. Stand up, Juan Toscano-Anderson hive!
8. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (35.5)
The Wolves ranked first in pace and second in scoring efficiency after Jan. 1 last season. They have one blockbuster young star in Anthony Edwards, fast becoming a three-level scorer as his confidence soars on pull-ups and step-backs.
Edwards wants to dunk people into oblivion — the bigger, the better. He flies at the rim as if he thinks he can dunk through humans — that they will disintegrate beneath him.
One of the league’s keenest offensive tinkerers — Chris Finch — must figure out how to mesh Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert in an unusual double-center look that has to work given the Wolves traded everything short of the old Metrodome baggie for Gobert.
Finch will get creative on defense, too. On some nights, the Wolves might flip-flop matchups — slotting Towns onto centers, and stashing Gobert elsewhere so he can act as roving shot-blocker. We might see glimpses of last season’s blitzing defense as a surprise adjustment.
Kyle Anderson weaponizes his slowness; defenders stumble ahead of his elongated moves, allowing Slow-Mo to saunter through creases. He snatches some of the league’s cleanest live-dribble steals. Jaden McDaniels still seems like a blank canvas, and looms as Minnesota’s swing factor. Jaylen Nowell jacks and struts with a gunslinger’s bravado. How will D’Angelo Russell — on an expiring contract — respond if Finch yanks him for Jordan McLaughlin in crunch time again?
The Wolves relegated their gaudy neon green to the trimmings on this pristine new jersey:
Standing ovation for the fangs extending down off the “M” and “V.”
PSST: Towns’ averages in 11 postseason games: 19 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists, 3.5 turnovers (gag!), and many, many silly fouls. He has three single-digit scoring games, plus a dud in last season’s play-in. It’s time.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is one-of-one. He evolves each season — more floaters, more screening in the pick-and-roll, snappier passing. He supplies highlights both preposterous and of the most visceral basketball violence. Antetokounmpo rising from underneath the rim, off two feet, and cramming on someone’s head is perhaps the rudest act in the sport.
I loved his recent speech about the importance of will over skill. It was once fashionable to compare Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons — enormous, turbocharged ball handlers with rickety strokes. What might Simmons accomplish if the Philadelphia 76ers surrounded him with shooters — as the Bucks have done for Antetokounmpo?
Even five years ago, before Antetokounmpo cracked the top five in MVP voting, the comparison failed the smell test. Antetokounmpo was bigger, faster, longer — better. Most of all, he was tougher. While Simmons’ struggles at the line turned into something of a phobia, Antetokounmpo kept coming — kept drawing contact, kept risking failure, kept improving. That’s will.
The Bucks are a fast-break machine — Four Steps or Less — but their half-court offense finished dead last in points per possession in the playoffs. Even with Khris Middleton out, that raised alarms internally. I suspect the Bucks will spend the regular season honing anti-switch devices on offense and experimenting with new looks on defense — including snuffing 3s after spending years living with above-the-break triples.
Who emerges as trustworthy playoff guys among George Hill, Jevon Carter, Joe Ingles, Jordan Nwora, and Serge Ibaka? If the answer is “no one,” the Bucks could face critical depth issues. How much Antetokounmpo at center will we see?
Once every few games, an opposing player annoys Jrue Holiday — and draws out Holiday’s playoff-level defense as punishment. What a nightmare.
Marques Johnson was a five-time All-Star, nailed a supporting role in “White Men Can’t Jump,” and is now one of the best analysts in any sport. Not fair.
Boston’s stars offer different stylistic ingredients, but they don’t always synthesize on offense. The defense … holy hell. They are huge, mean, smart — a switching forcefield. (Marcus Smart and Blake Griffin have to wager on who takes the most charges, right?)
They are also strategically quirky. The Celtics clicked into place when they shifted their center — Robert Williams III — onto nonthreatening wings, unleashing him as a free safety.
Time Lord didn’t just reject shots. He obliterated them. He spiked some before they even left shooters’ hands — before they really became shots at all. Others, he smashed against the backboard with such force you almost expected them to become impaled in the glass. From mid-January on, Boston allowed 105.4 points per 100 possessions — four points stingier than the league’s No. 2 defense.
The Celtics became one of the greatest defenses of all time, even as smart opponents began exploring counters to Boston’s scheme — running Williams around off-ball screens, using more false actions. Expect more of that cat-and-mouse game now that opponents have had an offseason to study.
Boston found its flow on offense too. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Smart cooperated in more two-man actions — forcing switches Tatum and Brown could exploit. Tatum’s liquid grace and Brown’s straight-line power make for a perfect contrast. Derrick White added Spursian quick decision-making. (Update: He should be part of the Griffin-Smart charge-taking wager too!)
The Celtics’ green uniforms are maybe the best in sports, and they improved their historic court by removing the chunky white circle from underneath the leprechaun:
The tribute to Bill Russell is understated and noble.
Grant Williams never shuts up. Mike Gorman and Brian Scalabrine are tremendous. Boston is under championship pressure, with a coach — Joe Mazzulla — thrust into the spotlight under bad circumstances. What is Mazzulla about? How do the players respond?
5. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (37)
You have to be good and watchable to rise here; the algorithm sees 50-win upside.
I don’t care if these guys shoot a single 3-pointer. I just want to see Zion Williamson pinballing to the rim, bodies flying everywhere after making even glancing contact with this linebacker phenom. He gets from arc to rim faster than a camera flash, out of every action: pick-and-rolls as screener or ball handler; post-ups in which he plows through victims like shorter Shaquille O’Neal, or spins around them like wider James Worthy; end-to-end rampages you almost feel through your screen. (The Pelicans with Williamson have played at ludicrous speed.)
The roster isn’t really built for it, but please, Willie Green, give us some Williamson at center!
Forget second jumps. Williamson has the league’s quickest third and fourth jumps. Pity the fools who box out Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas. Reserve them extra time in the cold tub, maybe the hospital.
CJ McCollum might put a defender on his butt at any moment. He connects complex dribbles — hesitation, crossover, pull-back — with unusual fluidity, and cans all variety of floaters with either hand. Brandon Ingram’s midrange arsenal is simpler, but almost as effective.
Larry Nance Jr. is all flare screens and twirling handoffs, and he’ll play tons of crunch-time center. Herbert Jones’ arms actually typed this column from New Orleans; instead of shooting 3s, should he just reach all the way from the arc and plop the ball in?
Jose Alvarado’s crouching, hide-and-seek backcourt steals are incredible theater. He’ll have ball handlers looking over their shoulders even when he’s not in the game. He is Keyser Soze.
The Pelicans are due some fresh art. The bench overflows with interesting players. Here’s hoping Dyson Daniels earns run.
4. DENVER NUGGETS (38)
Nikola Jokic might be the most inventive passer in basketball history, and is for sure No. 1 all time among bigs. He dares passes everyone else is scared to try — slips to cutters where the passing window is no bigger than the basketball itself.
Jokic imagines passes no one else sees — and then makes them. As he’s gotten in better shape, he’s added occasional dunks and tornado baseline spins.
The regular season is about finding the right balance of defensive schemes for Jokic. This is perhaps the biggest season in Nuggets history; they need everything in place for the playoffs.
Jokic has his pick-and-roll mind-meld partner back in Jamal Murray. Murray’s role in their two-man devastation has long been underrated. He’s an ace pull-up shooter with a knack for slick pocket passes that lead Jokic into open space.
They have the league’s prettiest and most varied give-and-go partnership. We see the classic — Murray bolting away from handoffs, and Jokic lofting him buttery goodness:
But they also turn routine pick-and-rolls into give-and-gos within that tricky midpaint area:
That is a mini masterpiece. In terms of both shot selection and process, Denver is a nice antidote to 3s-and-dunks spread-pick-and-roll hegemony. Murray’s Blue Arrow celebration is cool.
Michael Porter Jr. is perhaps the X factor of the season. Will he accept third-banana status? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope locks the starting five into place. Bruce Brown does the same for the bench, and gives Denver crunch-time lineup flexibility. Once every 10 games and out of absolutely nowhere, Jeff Green posterizes someone.
Are you worried about Denver’s bench offense? Bones Hyland isn’t.
3. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (39)
Ja Morant is the new League Pass superstar. He is a hellacious rim-attacker, cocking it back and hammering pain onto larger humans; he jumped over and through Malik Beasley for the highlight of last season.
Morant’s sneering swagger set the tone for the team from day one. There is nothing fake about the Grizzlies’ puffed-chest arrogance. They do not conceive of themselves as the little guy challenging Goliaths. Trash-talking LeBron James is not, for them, unearned pluck. They believe they are Goliath, now.
Morant could chase points, dominate the ball, hunt the spectacular. Instead, he brings teammates with him — empowers them, uses the attention he draws to create shots for them. Morant is a whip-smart cutter, willing to cut as a decoy (or to catch lobs above the square). He slows down in transition, knowing trailers come open in his wake.
Memphis defends with ferocity — Dillon Brooks going chest to chest with all comers, everyone swiping at the ball. The Grizz forced heaps of turnovers, and blazed at the league’s second-fastest pace. Do not look away from the Memphis alley-oop machine.
Desmond Bane has borderline Ray Allen-level precision in his jumper. Remember when Steven Adams carried Tony Bradley — 6-10, 250 pounds — away from an altercation as if he were about to take Bradley to Suplex City? What a legend.
The young guys will get chances filling in for Jaren Jackson Jr. and departed veterans. I give it two games before an opposing announcer expresses shock at John Konchar’s leaping ability
Can you spot the subtle upgrade from last season’s court …
… to their new one?
They eliminated that silver-blue racing stripe along the baseline that always confused me.
2. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (40)
The Warriors came so close to reclaiming their No. 1 perch, with Draymond Green providing a new, unfortunate reason to tune in to Golden State’s basketball symphony.
Green’s punch might have been one hot-tempered man going through personal issues losing control, and slugging his trash-talking foil. It became more because we saw it, yes, but also because of the deeply human and almost literary arcs one could project onto it.
Green, in the final year of his contract, might be aging out of the dynasty he helped build. Jordan Poole, on the verge of his first massive deal, is a keystone in extending that dynasty beyond Green’s NBA lifespan. A decade ago, when this all started, Green was the low draft pick who roared — trash-talking his elders, challenging them, refusing to show deference. That is how Poole relates to Green now.
To win a title, there can be no fissures. There will be lingering tension over what happened last week. How will it manifest? How long will it last?
The potential basketball tragedy of all this — of contract realities and personality conflicts intruding upon this Bay Area basketball idyll — is that Green, Klay Thompson, and Stephen Curry should finish their careers together as Warriors. That is how it’s supposed to be. What they share is why we follow sports — an understanding of one another’s tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses so deep, they barely have to talk on the court. Every simple action between them contains a dozen counters, and they choose them in the moment, in sync, in step, always connected.
It is a bond of winks and nods that cannot form unless you share tens of thousands of reps at the highest level. And it is, still, beautiful to watch.
Andre Iguodala is part of their fabric too, and he gets another chance at a proper swan song. The army of lottery picks is in position to seize roles. Whether they are ready will go a long way to determining Golden State’s repeat chances. Jonathan Kuminga is at eye level with the rim before you even realize what’s happening.
Golden State is a top-five art team. Curry, Green, and Thompson will wear captain “Cs” on throwback jerseys — rare in the NBA.
These new alternates are nice:
The Warriors deal in bright yellow and blue. This clean navy look is a pleasing change, even it is eerily similar to the University of California, Berkeley color scheme. I like how the shorts echo the team’s bridge-wiring motif.
1. BROOKLYN NETS (41)
I considered invoking the Ian Eagle Corollary, which dates to the Joe Johnson “It’s not that bad here!” era and allows me to reduce the Nets score if the light-hearted categories — art, comedy — lift them higher than they deserve. I opted against it, and so the Nets three-peat as League Pass champions — which has really worked out for them in the Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving era.
This team could be gone in 30 games — boring, bad, an entire era demolished. Irving could find new reasons to be the basketball player who doesn’t play basketball. Ben Simmons could melt — flinching at the threat of contact, wilting under Hack-a-Ben, holding a prolonged missed free throw contest with Nic Claxton. (Claxton is 6-of-25 from the line in the postseason.) All that could push Kevin Durant to renew his allegedly dormant trade request, at which point the Barclays Center may as well collapse into a sinkhole.
That’s the severe downside. The more likely downside is the Nets are run-of-the-mill good — a playoff team, but not strong enough to lift the stench of self-inflicted misery.
The journey to either of those bad places is disaster-movie riveting. Simmons hasn’t played a real game in 16 months; there is justified interest in every move he makes. Even that functional downside scenario features plenty of Irving and Durant, two flashbulb attractions.
Whatever your feelings about Irving, he is a show — a Maravichian dribbling magician with a bottomless bag of soft floaters and twisting layups. His lefty runner takes your breath away. Two seasons ago, when the Nets were quasi-functional, Irving was the one who got them running in transition.
Durant is one of the dozen greatest players ever, and perhaps the most well-rounded offensive force the game has ever seen. He is elite at literally every subsection of offense. He can assume any role, at any time. Even when Durant is raining pull-up fire, it might not be the classical beauty of his gangly game that draws you in. What really hits you in the gut — what mesmerizes — is the sheer invincibility of it, the way Durant exercises total dominion over everything from every place on the floor.
And that’s the upside. The soul-sapping melodrama can make you forget: This might work. They might be happy. They could be redeemed. They might be unstoppable on offense, Simmons tapping into his inner Draymond Green with endless shooting around him. They will take risks and innovate to survive on defense, and there is night-to-night joy in watching a team sink its teeth into that challenge.
The broadcast is as good as it gets, and the art is solid — including this alternate court, first revealed here, that matches the ABA-era stars-and-stripes uniforms the Nets are bringing back:
The differently colored painted areas — one blue, one red — are a gamble, but they work here.
Admit it: You can’t wait to watch this team.