14 (tie). Houston Rockets
I’m a bit uneasy placing the Rockets this high. For most of last season, they were the worst watch in the league, a horrible morass of selfishness and immaturity. The excision of the execrable Kevin Porter Jr. is a massive step in the right direction, and while coach Ime Udok has character concerns of his own, he seems like an ideal hire to imprint some discipline into this young team.
There’s a chance the Rockets end up a mess of shot-hungry chuckers yet again; Dillon Brooks has already been ejected for punching someone in the unmentionables.
But Alperen Sengun throws some of the wildest passes (for good and for ill) of anyone in the league, and his footwork isn’t much saner (again, for good and for ill). Jalen Green is a volcanic eruption waiting to happen. Rookie Amen Thompson could be an important connecting piece, and he might already be Houston’s best perimeter passer. Jabari Smith Jr. looks to build upon a phenomenal Summer League in his second year. Cam Whitmore may be the steal of the draft, and Tari Eason and Jae’Sean Tate are wrecking balls.
There is too much talent here to not be fun. The Rockets aren’t likely to be good this year, but if their young guns show signs of growth, that will be more than worth watching on its own merits.
14 (tie). Detroit Pistons
The Pistons and the Rockets are in essentially the same boat, which is why I put them together. Plus, they each have a twin, and it felt good to reunite them!
Detroit’s young core of Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Ausar Thompson, and (maybe) Isaiah Stewart bring an overwhelming amount of promise to the table. Each player is flawed in some way, but each has shown enough promise that the Pistons can’t rule any of them out as a core piece of the future.
New coach Monty Williams will have a bit of a hard time establishing a pecking order, particularly on the perimeter. Where Houston suffers from a paucity of passing, Detroit has a scarcity of shooting. But Cunningham, in particular, is entering a crucial year for his development. The former first-overall pick reportedly had an outstanding summer, and his ability to carry that over to the real season is one of the biggest storylines in the league.
13. Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young is out for revenge.
The wispy point guard was loudly denied from a US team that did poorly in the World Cup, and he doesn’t seem likely to make the Olympic team, either. Not only that, but he didn’t even get an All-Star nod last year despite averaging 26-10 for a competitive team.
But Trae is as unstoppable an offensive engine as the league has, non-Jokic division. Without John Collins moping (justifiably!) in the corners, and with new coach Quin Snyder having a full offseason to concoct his evil schemes, the Hawks will look a lot different than they have in the past.
Whether it’s Jalen Johnson’s secondary playmaking or Saddiq Bey’s shooting, the power forward spot will have something new. Dejounte Murray can’t be worse defensively than he was last year (seriously, he was a huge letdown on that end), and his offense could improve even further after a full year to learn Trae’s tendencies.
Snyder’s teams have almost always been an enjoyable watching experience, and not even young Donovan Mitchell was as dynamic an offensive guard as Trae. The playoff struggles are real, but these are regular-season rankings, and the Hawks almost always bring it.
I’m devastated that Sir Foster, the team’s organ player, is leaving. He was legitimately one of the most unique and enjoyable non-ball League Pass experiences.
12. Orlando Magic
Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner are ready for primetime (and League Pass).
The team’s duo of multitalented forwards could both make All-Star pushes as soon as this season. Paolo is a free-throw-drawing machine with a beguiling blend of speed, size, and skill. Franz is the Swiss Army Knife, surgically picking apart defenses with his shooting and passing while locking down players of all shapes and sizes.
Markelle Fultz is a far more enjoyable watch than you’d think. He’s the king of the dump-off pass. Wendell Carter’s goggles have developed a nice jumper and a mean rebounding streak. This is a huge year for Jalen Suggs; consigned to a backup shooting guard role last season, the opportunity is there to take a starting spot back.
I’m not sure why the team drafted yet another guard who can’t shoot in Anthony Black, but I liked Black’s game a lot in college. Cole Anthony is a hilarious sideline interview, feisty dunker, and surprisingly prolific shot-locker. Joe Ingles talks more trash per-minute than anyone in the league.
I like all the ancillary pieces, too: the TV crew, the jerseys, the courts. But this is about Paolo and Franz. Paolo has superstar potential, and Franz could be the perfect #2. Perhaps it’s a year early for a ranking this high, but I’m excited to see what they can do.