It is an interesting time in the NBA as we continuously await how teams will look next season. While in full swing, free agency appears to be on pause. Meanwhile, fans await the materialization of moves that could change the landscape of the league. Damian Lillard wants to trade Portland’s greener pastures for Miami’s palm trees and beaches. James Harden is forced to reciprocate the brotherly love in Philadelphia but has his eyes on an exit.
But not all teams carry heavy baggage from last season or into the next one. Some have remained foundationally still with minor adjustments. Some are going through renovations as they sketch out a final product.
It is a difficult time to tell where teams stand for the most part, but ESPN released their most recent NBA Power Rankings on Wednesday, Jul. 26. Here are some takeaways and surprises from their chart.
The Brunson effect remains strong in New York
Brokenhearted after missing out on Donovan Mitchell, New York Knicks fans had to “settle” for Jalen Brunson last summer. Look at how the tables turned. Under Brunson’s leadership, the Knicks eliminated Mitchell and the Cavaliers in the postseason. Despite losing to Miami in a tough second-round series and Julius Randle’s magic act of disappearing, the Knicks looked as good as they’ve been in a decade.
Meanwhile, Brunson’s former team, the Dallas Mavericks, missed out on Playoff basketball. Despite having a young superstar in Luka Doncic and signing re-signing a top player in Kyrie Irving, the Mavs (14th) trail the Knicks (13th) in ESPN’s rankings.
New York, you got your guy. Now it’s time to surround him with the right co-stars.
A lot of weight on Wemby
Since we like comparing these two so much, here’s another thing that LeBron James and Victor Wembanyama have in common. Both of their teams were in the 15th seed the season before they got drafted. At the end of his rookie season, LeBron brought the Cleveland Cavaliers to the ninth seed in the East, just missing the playoffs.
The NBA has changed a lot since. If Wembanyama can lead the San Antonio Spurs to at least the tenth seed, the Play-In tournament could unravel possibilities for them. ESPN ranked the Spurs 26th, just four spots clear of the bottom. How the Spurs will approach having such a generational talent will be interesting to see. Thankfully, Wembanyama seems to have a good grasp of the world around him, willing to learn and unfazed by the pressure.
Denver vs. The Pacific Division
Perhaps the biggest threat to the Denver Nuggets’ kingship is the city of Phoenix and the state of California. With Denver cemented at No. 1 after winning their first title, the Pacific Division collectively holds five of the next six slots belonging to a Western Conference team. All five teams made the Playoffs last season– Denver knocked two of them out on their way to the title. But how do they stack against the champions as of this writing?
Phoenix (4th) possesses star power as much as they lack depth. The Lakers (7th) are still trying to make the LeBron-AD experiment work by surrounding them with fresh legs. Golden State (8th) went the opposite direction, adding age and experience by trading Jordan Poole for Chris Paul. The Clippers (11th) can hold seminars about injuries and load management at this point but still compete when they’re at full force. Sacramento (12th) shocked the world last season, but will this Cinderella story have a sequel?
If the Nuggets get dethroned in the wild wild west, will the culprit come from this group? Or will Memphis get it together and steal the show from everybody else? Is Denver on top to stay? Or did they sign a short lease from the more decorated California teams (Lakers and Warriors)? These questions will soon be answered.
It’s a lot of fun out East
Meanwhile, the four giants in the Eastern Conference each populate a spot on ESPN’s top six. But each team is situationally different.
Milwaukee (2nd) has pretty much remained the same. They re-signed Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton to run it back with Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Why mess with something that’s not broken?
Boston (3rd) made big moves around their star Jayson Tatum. They got rid of Marcus Smart and acquired Kristaps Porzingis. Meanwhile, Tatum’s right-hand-man Jaylen Brown signed a $304 million mega extension despite a disappointing playoff run.
Meanwhile, Miami (5th) has been slowly making room, hoping the Lillard trade goes through. They have broken up a group that reached the NBA Finals to make room for something likely but still indefinite.
As for Philadelphia (6th), “trust the..” what again? It is a puzzle that remains unsolved. All the pieces are present– they just aren’t falling in the right place. Or maybe they’re the same shape but not what the 76ers need to complete the picture. Speaking of shape– will Harden report to camp game-ready if he’s not traded? Regardless, Joel Embiid is coming off an MVP season that was equally deserved and questionable. We have never seen a team with so much talent yet so much doubt do quite this well.
For the most part, I agree with ESPN on these rankings. Other than Denver being the apex predator, a lot could still happen beneath them. Especially with a good bit of deals yet to happen.