<
>

The 2017-18 NBA League Pass Rankings, Part 1

play
Lonzo's uneven L.A. debut (0:59)

Some early flashes of brilliance give way to an injury-shortened finish as Lonzo Ball's Lakers fall in his Staples Center kickoff. (0:59)

It's time to survey our basketball entertainment options after the wildest offseason in NBA history.

So here they are: our Sixth Annual League Pass Rankings, derived from an ancient formula passed across generations by our greatest storytellers. Teams receive scores from 1 to 10 in five categories:

ZEITGEIST: How often does this team come up in conversation with normal humans who don't subsist on NBA Twitter? This category favors good teams, but hot-button losers -- the Process Sixers, the fractious Melo-era Kazoos, any team with Boogie -- fare well, too.

HIGHLIGHT PRODUCTION: Do you linger on a random game because one player might try to end Rudy Gobert at the rim, or hit four 3-pointers in two minutes?

STYLE: The coach's category. Does a team play with flair?

LEAGUE PASS MINUTIA: Sights and sounds matter, even subconsciously. When you are watching two bad teams slap-fight on a Saturday night, nice uniforms and well-timed comedy from a trusted announcing duo buoy the soul.

UNINTENTIONAL COMEDY: Bill Simmons pushed for this category back in the Grantland days, and it will live on at least as long as JaVale McGee and Dion Waiters are in the league.

I break any ties based on personal preference because I am drunk with power. Sad!

30. INDIANA PACERS (20 points)

Has a single person mentioned the Pacers in the past four months in any context other than, "That's all they got for Paul George????" Do they exist? Did you know they signed Bojan Bogdanovic, and there is a real chance he leads them in scoring? It's true!

This team had zero identity with Paul George -- no style, no bedrock philosophy -- and now George has turned into Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Opponents outscored Indy by almost seven points per 100 possessions with George on the bench last season. They were nothing without him. Not even the comedy of Lance Stephenson barking orders, dribbling to nowhere, and trash-talking LeBron like it's 2014 could keep them from the cellar.

Myles Turner is a future star on both ends, and he should get a chance to stretch himself with George gone. He will shoot more 3s, and he sniffed averaging one steal and two blocks per game last season -- relatively lofty territory for a big man. (Hakeem Olajuwon pulled this in 15 separate seasons. Hakeem Olajuwon was freaking ridiculous.)

A slimmed-down Al Jefferson might son fools with low-post fakery again. The viewing experience is pleasant, though your mileage may vary on Quinn Buckner's nonstop patter. The new Nike uniforms, with the team name forming a circle around the jersey number, have an old-school minimalist vibe befitting the Hoosier state ethos that elevates the game above the noise. (The softer blue-on-yellow version, which includes no white or highlighting, reminds of those all-gray uniforms Kevin Arnold and Paul Pfeiffer wore to gym class.)

29. ORLANDO MAGIC (21 points)

On the bright side, they are pretty deep in actual NBA-level rotation players! We are in Year 3 of wondering if Aaron Gordon might finally bust out, and whether Elfrid Payton's annual April surge meant anything. Gordon is a full-time power forward after last season's doomed experiment playing him on the wing in giant lineups. Payton and Evan Fournier do funny things with their hair. Jeff Green is gone, with $15 million of DeVos money in the back of his getaway car.

The uniforms, court, and commentary are first-rate, and their mascot -- Stuff the Magic Dragon -- is always up to no good along the baseline.

But five years after the Dwight Howard trade, can we say for sure that any player on this roster is more than a fourth or fifth starter on a good team? Gordon has the best shot at making a leap as a very, very poor man's Draymond Green, making plays in the pick-and-roll and hounding guys across all five positions on defense:

Scouts love Jonathan Isaac. The Mario Hezonja Trade Value Rehabilitation Project is worth monitoring; Frank Vogel used him a bit at power forward toward the end of last season. It's fun to watch Marreese Speights chuck -- and bleed points on the other end -- but he may struggle for minutes with Nikola Vucevic (an underrated passer!) and Bismack Biyombo (hands as stony as ever!) earning $30 million combined.

Zoom out, and it's unclear where exactly the Magic go barring a breakout from Gordon or Payton -- neither of whom seems likely to sign an extension before the Oct. 16 deadline. If the new front office builds a good team over the next half-decade without tanking -- or lottery luck -- they'll have done great work.

28. CHICAGO BULLS (21.5)

Yeah, everyone wanted the Bulls to be last. No fan base hates its own team with the venom of Chicago's. It's remarkable how fast that happened. Even the brief Zipser Fever epidemic has subsided. (A note of clarification: Paul Zipser is a human who plays for the Bulls. I did not make up his name.)

They will likely trot out the league's most depressing opening night starting five: Kris Dunn, Justin Holiday, Zipser, Nikola Mirotic (and his drippy beard) and Robin Lopez. We have to rescue Lopez. Can he really get through this by watching cartoons? Those names almost make you miss the doomed Three Alphas, which, by the way, was one of the corniest and least apt nicknames in sports history.

But the Bulls have the best logo, gorgeous jerseys, a top-notch court, a power forward "sharp-shooter" who pump fakes ghosts, and (when he returns) one player who passes the Linger On This Channel test: Zach Lavine, the best dunker since prime Vince Carter, and a space cadet liable to produce Keystone Kops-level lowlights on defense.

And I will defend the Neil Funk-Stacey King duo into eternity. Chicago fans seem to hate these guys, too, and I don't get why. Funk spits the Johnny Most rasp of a veteran who has lived hard. (If Funk is a vegan who has never touched whiskey or cigarettes, please do not tell me.) King is funny, dammit. He is a catchphrase machine, and when he lands upon one he knows is over-the-top, he just shouts it even louder. He's in on the joke (I think).

Maybe this is the season we see Fred Hoiberg's pace-and-space offense? (Stop laughing.)

27. PHOENIX SUNS (21.5)

This is too low for a team sporting a militia of interesting prospects, a pure hot-hand gunner who scored 70 points in one game, and a bulldog point guard who was so good last season the tanktastic Suns sent him home. (Eric Bledsoe looms as one of the season's most interesting trade pieces.) But the ranking system knows the Suns are too young to play the style -- part Spurs, part Blazers -- Earl Watson envisions, and that Watson may not be the coach to coax them there.

It knows that a lot of those prospects -- Alex Len, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, even the slithery TJ Warren -- haven't really shown the kind of skills that contribute to winning. Still: They carry the whiff of intrigue. Chriss is a 20-year-old jumping bean, and Bender is still a teenager; they will get better, though Chriss possibly outgrowing his "Which way did he go?" cluelessness on defense hurts the comedy score. We will miss Alan "Big Sauce" Williams and his bench antics as he recovers from injury. Sad Brandon Knight is just sad at this point, in street clothes for the season with a torn left ACL.

At least the purple is back in both the uniforms and the court design. The blocky, shadowed lettering on the jerseys is cartoonish, but that sunburst on the belt buckle is a perfect subtle touch.

And let's give one final salute to Steve Albert, Phoenix's longtime play-by-play guy who retired after last season. He inserted biting wit into every broadcast. Kevin Ray is a ready replacement, and Eddie Johnson, his partner, pulls no punches.

26. ATLANTA HAWKS (22.5)

How does this barren roster of unknowns rank above an objectively more fun Suns team? Mike freaking Budenholzer. Among the bedrock day-to-day NBA certainties: His teams always play hard, and whip the ball around while Sir Foster tickles the organ in the background.

They play the Right Way, and when they don't, Budenholzer makes the saddest agonized coach face outside of Detroit. On a random winter Tuesday of dull games, Atlanta's Spurs East verve lifts you up -- and rekindles memories of that magical 2014-15 team that won 60 games. (Budenholzer is also master of the drawn-out cross-court waves coaches have turned into a bizarro postgame ritual.)

Dennis Schroder killed it in the playoffs last season, raising hopes that he can reach another level. Taurean Prince and Deandre Bembry are potential two-way players at the league's thinnest position, learning from one of its best player development staffs. Prince's finish to last season was tantalizing. He is a grown man, ready for this.

Mike Muscala and Dewayne Dedmon, playing on one-plus-one deals, could be interesting trade bait at the deadline for contenders seeking frontcourt depth. The jerseys are nice, the Pac-Man logo remains in its rightful exalted place, and Dominique Wilkins straight-up cackles at dumb mistakes.

25. SACRAMENTO KINGS (23)

The allure of watching seven first-round picks combined from the past two drafts -- plus Eurostash star Bogdan Bogdanovic! -- can bump you only so high, especially without the rubbernecking appeal of DeMarcus Cousins. Veterans will steal minutes from the kiddos, and they aren't the most explosive bunch; Zach Randolph can still embarrass you with jab steps, but he's 36 and shot just 45 percent last season.

Get excited for Year 2 of the Skal Labissiere experience, though. Labissiere flashed a smooth, soft and versatile game once Dave Joerger threw him to the wolves. The new jerseys are sleek; the Kings went with a muted purple, and have gradually excised most of the garish stuff from their art.

Willie Cauley-Stein surged in March and April, and Georgios Papagiannis did not look as clumsy as the snickering Sacto hecklers warned.

The court is solid, though the dribbling lion at the center of the new alternate floor looks like a toddler slapping at the ball -- which I suppose is how a lion would actually fare trying to dribble:

Vivek Ranadive, the team's mad scientist owner, doubles as the league's most enthusiastic celebrity clapper, with a wide applause radius. Grant Napear and Jerry Reynolds are among the very best in the announcing business. I will miss hearing them try (and fail) to conceal their disdain for Cousins.

24. CHARLOTTE HORNETS (23)

The Hornets play with rigid, business-like precision that just isn't that fun to watch, aside from Kemba Walker humiliating suckers with jitterbug dribble moves. They slow the pace, run a ton of pick-and-roll, chuck above-the-break 3s, avoid turnovers, grab every defensive rebound, and never, ever, ever, ever crash the offensive glass. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist injects chaos into Steve Clifford's carefully calibrated ecosystem, but he appears to have plateaued.

The side dishes are tasty -- classic jerseys, the honeycombed court, Michael Jordan's hats, and lively commentary. Nicolas Batum is a canny secondary playmaker, and may function as the backup point guard for a shallow group. Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky showed a nice chemistry -- Charlotte blitzed opponents by nearly 12 points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor -- and get to work against backups now.

The battle for minutes at center between Zeller and Dwight Howard will be a key subplot. Charlotte collapsed to 3-17 without Zeller last season; his cement picks and energetic dives to the rim mesh well with Walker and Batum. He is fine scrounging for garbage points. Howard is a flashier name who brings more rebounding and rim protection. But is he better?

23. NEW YORK KNICKS (23)

This is by far the lowest-ever finish for the Knicks, despite the usual boost in the Minutia category from Mike Breen, Clyde Frazier, Madison Square Garden's spotlight-style lighting, and James Dolan's embarrassing hangdog slouch. Only the willowy Kristaps Porzingis, swatting shots and banking soft-touch turnarounds over defenders stuck at armpit level, saves New York from a bottom-five finish.

Things could get ugly without Carmelo Anthony serving as the fulcrum on offense. Porzingis isn't ready to handle the ball a ton; he shot 37 percent on post-ups and a ghastly 31 percent via isolations last season, per Synergy. The point guard spot is a sinkhole; Frank Ntilikina may be good someday, but most rookies are awful. Tim Hardaway Jr. might be the best pick-and-roll partner for Porzingis. Let that sink in.

The Knicks have four rotation centers and maybe one traditional wing player after Hardaway and Courtney Lee. It will be hard to find any minutes for Porzingis at center. Porzingis and Enes Kanter make for a good inside-out fit in a mercifully non-triangular offense, but the other end is dicey; Porzingis will have to chase opposing forwards far from the basket, negating some of his rim protection. Willy Hernangomez is better than Kanter already, anyway.

The Knicks talked a big game about recentering around hardscrabble defense. They didn't have a ton of other choices in dealing Melo -- maybe none thanks to Uncle Phil! -- but they ended up with perhaps the worst defensive roster in the league. KAZOOOOOOSSSSSSS!

22. BROOKLYN NETS (25)

We did not trigger the Ian Eagle Corollary, which calls for an artificial deduction if the Nets finish too high after their automatic perfect-10 in the Minutia category. This feels right for a frisky young team that will go all-out, run like hell, and bomb from deep.

D'Angelo Russell gets a fresh start, and he has both the creativity and the vision to be a plus playmaker if he kicks his addiction to points. He whips the ball ahead in transition, and should do well in Kenny Atkinson's go-go system. The rock will fly when Russell and Jeremy Lin play (and probably start) together.

The Nets don't have a traditional big man who can open the court like Brook Lopez did, but if DeMarre Carroll beats out Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at power forward, they should be able to stash three shooters around Lin and Russell pick-and-rolls with Timofey Mozgov.

There are fun bit players, too. Caris Levert feels the game. Isaiah Whitehead dribbles with a snappy, hunched staccato that keeps defenders off-balance, and has the strength to power through obstacles at the rim.

Quincy Acy smashes stuff. Trevor Booker shoves dudes out of the way for offensive rebounds, and chases people down in transition; his sheer effort seems to unnerve opponents.

Give the Nets a chance!

21. UTAH JAZZ (25.5)

Utah's offense is a pretty slog, but it's still a slog. The Jazz played at the league's slowest pace for the third straight season, and now they have to grind out buckets without Gordon Hayward and George Hill. Any team would fall in these rankings after losing Boris Diaw's meandering, ass-first drives, goofy hook shots, and daring passes.

Bearded Ricky Rubio, the best no-look passer alive, helps -- provided Quin Synder bumps the pace to leverage Rubio's hit-ahead missiles. No one plays quite like Rubio, and he remains something of an analytics black box: His broken jumper is a glaring handicap that strangles spacing, but his teams always score better when he's on the floor. He does something hard to spot that just works. It might be the timing of his passes, flicked a beat earlier or later than defenses are used to. He makes typical passes atypically. It might be the angle they take in flight, the speed of the ball, or the way Rubio leads his teammates to the right spot without them even realizing it. Somewhere in there, magic is happening.

Joe Ingles outwits everyone, and Joe Johnson will be backing his way down for last-second floaters until he's dead. Derrick Favors is healthy entering the last year of his contract, and likely to start again. Utah remains in something of an internal tug-of-war over whether the gargantuan Favors-Rudy Gobert look can get them where they want to go. The Jazz romped in the 500-plus minutes those two shared the floor last season, but they have rarely played without Hayward. Every possession is a mini-referendum.

The court is nice, and the new yellow-gold alternate jerseys pop with a welcome boldness. And trust me: The upcoming fourth jersey and accompanying court design are awesome, and like nothing you've seen before in the NBA.

Bonus points, as always, for Snyder's movie-villain faces.

20. DALLAS MAVERICKS (26.5)

Most teams don't have the bandwidth to make wholesale strategic changes for each regular-season game. They look more or less the same every night.

The Mavs are the antidote to that strategic stagnancy. You never know when Rick Carlisle will bust out a zone defense, shuffle man-to-man matchups in an unconventional way to hide Dirk Nowitzki, or play three point guards at once. The Mavs almost get more fun when they fall way behind, and Carlisle junks up the game.

I've already detailed the challenge of meshing Harrison Barnes, Nowitzki and Nerlens Noel, and we will presumably still see a lot of that trio even after Carlisle announced Noel might come off the bench. (Man, Carlisle and Mark Cuban give zero you-know-whats about cratering Noel's value in free agency after sour negotiations. Carlisle even name-checked Rich Paul, Noel's latest agent, in explaining his decision! This pettiness is juicy, but Dallas invested in Noel's future. They also can't defend a lick with Dirk at center. Can the Mavs keep this relationship from fracturing?)

We should cherish every Dirk minute -- every one-legger, every trailing 3 with the old man knee-bend, every bank shot so soft the ball drips down the backboard. He is a threat just standing, mummified, 30 feet from the rim.

The Mavs, more than almost any team outside Oakland, make a threat out of everyone; they keep all five guys in motion as screeners and cutters, so that it is hard for defenses to tell the difference between what is real and what is diversion.

You are guaranteed a smart, professional effort every night.

Cuban's Joe Everyfan antics are always fun. The floptastic J.J. Barea might bait someone into slugging him at any moment. Dennis Smith is the most exciting Mavs rookie since ... Dirk? The ace three-man announcing team has long livened up a drab setting; at least once a game, Jeff "Skin" Wade will say something with enough pique that his partners, Mark Followill and Derek Harper, don't know quite how to react.

19. TORONTO RAPTORS (27.5)

The Raptors are officially boring. They're good, but they're boring. You can close your eyes and envision every sequence: DeMar DeRozan accelerating into a handoff at the elbow, and kicking the ball up top to Kyle Lowry; the token Jonas Valanciunas post-up, complete with comically overwrought pump-fake; Serge Ibaka slipping to the wing, catching the ball, and settling for a 20-footer; the offense crapping the bed in the playoffs. DeRozan and Lowry have grooved tracks into the Scotiabank Arena (barf) floor. Even Dwane Casey's patented clap-and-scream into the ear of opposing shooters has lost its charm.

Toronto is talking big about reinventing the offense. We'll see.

There is some fresh blood. Norman Powell knows only one speed, and one direction -- to the rim. C.J. Miles is not shy. He'll fly off a screen, catch the ball facing the opposite shot clock, and whirl into a leg-kicky 3. Both will sop up some of the tweener forward minutes left behind by PJ Tucker, Plus-Minus God Patrick Patterson, and Carroll. Ditto for Pascal Siakam, a beam of kinetic energy who can hang with wing players on defense.

Casey is fitting a tricky frontcourt puzzle, with three true centers and a fourth guy -- Ibaka -- who will close a lot of games there. If one of the baby bigs emerges -- Jakob Poeltl would be the pick here -- Valanciunas may become someone to watch on the trade market.

All the accoutrements are solid.

18. DETROIT PISTONS (30)

It seemed like the over-choreographed Pistons ran one of two sets on every possession: high pick-and-rolls with Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith, or plays on which Kentavious Caldwell-Pope zoomed into a handoff at the left elbow.

There was no room for freelancing, in part because the Pistons lack playmakers savvy enough to freelance. Avery Bradley is a better shooter than Caldwell-Pope, and a hair better driving and dishing, but he doesn't up the playmaking quotient much. Stanley Johnson has shown flashes, and Detroit will give him every chance to earn the starting small forward spot. The frontcourt rotation will evolve all season.

Detroit will be more watchable if Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, both healthy and presumably motivated, get back to wrecking stuff on the pick-and-roll. It's old-fashioned and predictable, but a spread pick-and-roll -- even with blah shooting around it -- can do damage if the central actors are dynamic. Jackson and Drummond did good work in 2015-16 before sputtering last season.

Nobody does shoulder-sagging agony like Van Gundy. When a play goes wrong, he grimaces like an artist watching someone deface his painting. I would watch a Stan Cam.

Also: UNLEASH THE BOBAN. I am sick of hearing how he dominates in practice, and watching him pile up ungodly numbers in garbage time. Let's see what he can do with real minutes.

The court and uniforms are snazzy, and George Blaha is a legend on play-by-play. Long guns off the high glass forever.

17. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (30.5)

If League Pass broadcast every David Fizdale media conference, the Grizz would shoot up at least five spots. This is the floor for any Marc Gasol team. Gasol played with even more all-around friskiness last season, running fast breaks, jacking 3s with abandon, and flopping his arms in some sad, disquieting imitation of Conor McGregor's celebratory shimmy.

Gasol and Conley work the most subtly gorgeous two-man game in the league -- a bob-and-weave, give-and-go symphony only possible when two genius players compile a half-decade of shared knowledge. Conley is a master of feinting toward Gasol, getting his defender leaning that way, and moonwalking back toward the 3-point arc for a little pitch pass. He mimics that hide-and-seek action flitting back-and-forth around baseline screens, and he's so small, he literally disappears behind bigger bodies.

The roster around them just isn't that interesting unless Chandler Parsons can, like, run, and bring 80 percent of his peak arrhythmic playmaking. Watching Ben McLemore sort of wander around is getting old.

Keep an eye on Wayne Selden.

16. LOS ANGELES LAKERS (31.5)

I could not in good conscience award the lottery-bound Lakers the tie-break over our next team, which sports one of the league's half-dozen most telegenic players. I am wary of Bill Macdonald, the Lakers hyperbolic play-by-play man, shrieking over every Lonzo Ball assist as if they are historical events to be commemorated by our greatest poets.

But this team is going to be fun. Brook Lopez's new 3-point range will open pathways for Julius Randle and Larry Nance to rampage to the rim. Nance is like an arthouse TV show with enough explosions and plot twists to reel in more casual fans. He's all flare screens and handoffs, catnip for nerds, and then, bam, he'll destroy someone -- hey, Brook! -- with a Statue of Liberty dunk.

I will die alone on Julius Randle Hill. The flaws are obvious: Randle can't protect the rim like a center, but he can't shoot as well the modern NBA requires from power forwards. I don't care. Teams need to think very hard before they give up on a big man who can handle and pass like this. Randle's in shape, and he has the goods to be an average defender if he goes all-out.

Teammates will love Ball's unselfish game, and play harder because of it. Corey Brewer sprints so hard in transition, you almost fear for his safety. When he uses the rim to stop his momentum after a run-out dunk, he's flying so fast, he ends up hanging parallel to the ground with his feet under the backboard. It's scary.

The court is perfect. Never change it.

Click here for Part 2.