Welcome back to my NBA League Pass Rankings for the 2016-17 season.
For Part 1 and all the rules, click here.
Now, back to the rankings:
15. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (31)
We got exuberant slotting these guys into the No. 3 slot last season, so it feels appropriate that they've settled into the middle -- despite funny, smart mic work from Joel Meyers and David Wesley. (I'm still lukewarm on the giant pelicans shaded inside each 3-point arc.)
Anthony Davis can get you only so far, especially when he shares the floor with paint-bound centers who block his path to lob dunks on the pick-and-roll. He also needs someone to reliably deliver the ball, and the Pelicans are leaning on Tim Frazier for that with Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans out. Frazier finished last season strong, but March and April are garbage time; can he do this against starters in the meat of the season?
Alvin Gentry has made noise about sliding Davis to center more, and the Pellies should have the wing depth to pull that off once Evans and Quincy Pondexter get healthy. And yet, there is something endearing about Omer Asik. He sweats a lot, he looks exactly like Chef Linguini from "Ratatouille," and we normal lugs can relate to any NBA player who struggles just to hold onto the ball. (New Orleans needs to load Asik up with wristbands so his hands don't get sweaty.)
Terrence Jones can dribble and pass, and I'm excited to see if he can bounce back after a lost season in Houston. Lance Stephenson would have boosted the team's comedy score if he were a safer bet to make the team. Fingers crossed.
14. DALLAS MAVERICKS (31.5)
Any team with Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle is going to leverage every ounce of shooting, passing, and old-man savvy to manipulate opposing defenses -- even if no one on Dallas can, like, dribble. And it's unclear if any of the Mavs' starters can; Deron Williams looks uncomfortable below the foul line, Wes Matthews hung beyond the arc in his first year back from a catastrophic injury, and Harrison Barnes looks as mechanical in Dallas as he did as the fifth Beatle in Golden State.
Nowitzki still draws help in the post, but, holy cow, he and Andrew Bogut might form the slowest frontcourt combo in the league.
And you know what? The indefatigable Mavs will make it work: Enter it to Bogut on one elbow for a hand-off, run a cutter off a Dirk flare screen on the other side, and, boom, you've bent the defense without bouncing the rock a single time. The Mavs just magic up points.
J.J. Barea and Dirk form the all-time pick-and-roll odd couple, and Justin Anderson brings some modernity off the bench -- especially amid the switchy small-ball groups Carlisle uses when Nowitzki rests. Andrew Bogut's subtle brutality is always fun. He's like a water polo player doing unholy stuff below the surface, where referees can't see.
Dwight Powell has some bounce, and Salah Mejri deserves a second look as a shot-blocker who can rim-run through an uncluttered lane. And there's this: Is Nowitzki's one-legged fallaway banker the prettiest trademark shot in NBA history?
13. MILWAUKEE BUCKS (31.5)
POINT GIANNIS!! A shocking number of people around the league think POINT GIANNIS! was a late-season gimmick that worked against checked-out lottery bunk. Pish posh! Antetokounmpo is twitchy fast, 7 feet tall, and expert at criss-crossy gyro-steps that get him to the rim in two strides. He's so much taller than most perimeter players, he doesn't even really need to get by them in order to create a crisis at the basket and draw help that leaves shooters open.
Ah, the shooters thing. The Bucks don't have nearly enough of them with Khris Middleton potentially out all season. Antetokounmpo's positional versatility can paper over a lot of things -- he can defend the wings Middleton would, for instance -- but he can't conjure shooting from thin air. Michael Beasley is never the answer to any basketball question, Jason Terry is ancient, and the youngsters are youngsters.
Here's a lineup puzzle Milwaukee coaches are staring at: Try to get all three of Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, and Mirza Teletovic (and Teletovic's pristine gelled hair) on the floor at the same time. Slot a center with that trio, and you're playing super-big, with two of Parker/Antetokounmpo/Teletovic forced to defend wings. Downsize, and one of those three has to guard the opposing center. Milwaukee is confident all three can handle that in limited doses against some center types, and those smaller groups have a chance to be really exciting. (They could also be fatally awful at rebounding.)
As Jason Kidd works through that, expect Milwaukee's front office to chase wings; they've called the Kings about the ghost of Ben McLemore and are open to moving either Greg Monroe or Michael Carter-Williams in the right deal, league sources say.
Can we talk about Parker for a second? The POINT GIANNIS hoopla has obscured how important it is for the Bucks to figure out exactly what they have in Parker -- whether he can shoot 3s, control the acceleration on his herky-jerky drives and cuts, and defend any position. He was a glorified mooch before taking on more ball-handling duties late last season -- including fun big-big pick-and-rolls -- and the Bucks will feed him a bit more with Middleton gone.
If Parker makes a leap and Antetokounmpo is a true franchise star already -- probably a bit much at 21 -- the Bucks should be able to hang in the playoff race.
12. SACRAMENTO KINGS (32)
The Kings remain active in trade talks, and now that Darren Collison is officially out for the first eight games, I wouldn't be shocked if they dealt for a point guard before the season, perhaps as part of a larger trade. The team badly wants to chase a playoff spot as it enters a new arena, which, by the way, includes a wonderful new floor with the team's updated logo:
When DeMarcus Cousins is rolling, there is nothing in the NBA like his rampaging drives that end in implausibly soft layups. When he's tantruming, he makes for mesmerizing reality TV -- even if you tire of the sulking, sniping at teammates who have done nothing wrong, and lazy transition defense. It will be fun watching Cousins and Rudy Gay pretend to tolerate each other before the Kings inevitably trade Gay. (You almost have to admire how openly Gay disdains his current employer.) When things get really bad, as they tend to in Sacramento, the sharp-tongued broadcast duo of Grant Napear and Jerry Reynolds aren't afraid to shred the team on air.
Picking Cousins' frontcourt partner presents Dave Joerger with some thorny choices. He has talked up small ball, but the Kings have stocked the roster with centers who work in Cousins' real estate. The Cousins-Willie Cauley-Stein duo showed more promise than expected on offense last season. During his appearance on my podcast, Joerger sounded enthralled with Skal Labissiere.
Plus, the Kings are going to put Cousins and Matt Barnes on the floor together -- maybe a lot!
11. DETROIT PISTONS (32)
Now that they're decent, they check every box: solid team that should grow together; fun centerpiece player (Andre Drummond); top-notch broadcasters; uniforms that pop; and a candid, foul-mouthed coach who radiates rumpled anguish at all times. They originally finished No. 8, but we docked them a few points once it became clear Wednesday that Reggie Jackson will miss significant time.
They've even buffed up the court. Let's play some Hocus Focus, and see if you can spot the subtle improvements from Detroit's old court ...
... to its new one:
They've added Boban Marjanovic, a 7-foot, 3-inch giant with a soft touch and an array of fakes that juked poor Jahlil Okafor out of his shoes last season.
The legendary George Blaha is entering his 40th season as Detroit's play-by-play man. He is a catchphrase factory, only his favorites -- "Off the high glass!" "Floats it up, fills it up!" -- emerge so organically, you barely notice them.
Jackson and Andre Drummond ran more pick-and-rolls than any other pairing last season, and they should get more dangerous with experience. Jackson has a gorgeous floater, and Drummond is a dunk machine. It somehow looks even cooler when Drummond barely even grabs the rim, and just shoves the ball through the basket in a flash.
Drummond's free throw yips depress Detroit's rating a bit, since party poopers will smash him instead of letting him slam.
10. HOUSTON ROCKETS (32.5)
This is Houston's highest-ever finish. Free throws are boring. We'll rarely get 90 seconds of uninterrupted Rockets basketball as long as Houston pairs James Harden with a center who can't shoot free throws -- first Dwight Howard, and now Clint Capela.
But there is high art in Harden's game, and Mike D'Antoni's system might dig out the prettiest stuff more often. Harden is a brilliant passer, and he sets up diagonal bouncers with dribble moves, head fakes, and weirdo half-lunges designed to nudge defenses a hair off-balance and pry open specific passing lanes. You might think Harden is eyeing the rim as he jab-steps up top, but he's really peeking at that defender leaning away from the corner, waiting for just the right moment to whip the ball to a shooter there.
Watch the trajectory on some of Harden's passes. He uses angles and spins to squeeze the ball through limbs, along shifting pathways that should be navigable only for magic loogies and ping-pong balls. If he has to, he'll release the ball near the ground, almost skipping it along the floor like a rock on a lake.
The game bogs down when Harden goes into an aimless east-west dribble routine at the foul line, prelude to some brutal fadeaway. D'Antoni will encourage him to be more decisive going north-south, and with better shooting around him, Harden might deliver the ball earlier. He might get to the line less playing that way, but the Rockets could generate a ton of 3s and find a more watchable happy medium.
I'm a sucker for an angry Nene baseline spin-and-dunk, the K.J. McDaniels chase-down block, and Pablo Prigioni sneaking steals on inbounds passes. The new red court is a huge upgrade, and Craig Ackerman, now the play-by-play guy on road games, figures to tamp down the shrill anti-ref homerism that ruins most Houston broadcasts.
9. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (32.5)
All hail the long overdue return of Kevin Calabro to a permanent play-by-play spot! With that, all the frills in Portland are perfect.
The Blazers are a younger, more vibrant version of Dallas on offense, which makes sense, given the imprint Terry Stotts left in Dallas before taking the head job in Portland. They work the elbows, shift the ball side-to-side, and set more off-ball screens than anyone in the league. They keep all five guys involved, and make all five defenders run. They got faster and more versatile when Al-Farouq Aminu bumped up to power forward, and they will start a version of that lineup from jump street this season.
When the fancy motion doesn't work, they just give the ball to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Lillard is cold-blooded shooter who lives for late-game drama. McCollum is a jitterbug with a Hermione-deep bag of finishes from all ranges.
Stotts has to fit Meyers Leonard, settle the starting small forward spot, and figure out how many minutes Evan Turner should play with his two lead ball-handlers -- happy work for any lineup tinkerer. (Also, Evan Turner: Unblock me on Twitter! What did I do? You were a Luke Walton All-Star last season!)
8. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (33)
They should be higher, and they have only themselves to blame. Their court is boring, their uniforms are ugly, and their blah logo looks like it belongs on a Doritos bag. Their announcers puff their chests with an insular "Thunder-against-the-world" attitude, which is too bad, because they are pretty damned good when they just talk straight hoops.
Otherwise, give me all of this: the Russell Westbrook Show, the Stache Brothers, Steven Adams accidentally angering bystanders, Kyle Singler's hair, Mitch McGary's over-enthusiastic running (unless and until the Thunder cut him), Andre Roberson's 3-point prayers, and so much more.
Hopefully, Westbrook is getting all the Rondo-level overpassing out of his system in preseason, so that he can inflict holy hell on the league when the games start to count.
7. BOSTON CELTICS (33.5)
I can hear the eyes rolling: more hype for a team that has won zero playoff series since busting up its championship nucleus. (Hey, did you know Boston never lost a series when Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Kendrick Perkins were all healthy? Have you heard that before from anyone? It's true!) Oh, sure, Horford dribble hand-offs and tenacious team defense are going to have people leaping from their couches.
Well, sorry. Brad Stevens' motion-heavy offense is fun to watch, and Horford's jack-of-all-trades game is going to make it sing. Isaiah Thomas brings the "holy crap, rewind that!" highlights -- the meanest hesitation dribble on Earth, circus floaters, unconscious off-the-bounce 3s, and insane passes he has to thread over and around much larger humans. Short guys are fun to watch because of all the contortions required for them to do stuff 6-7 wings pull off standing still. Remember this pass from last season?
Like, what even is that?
Stevens prefers an aggressive defense, and Horford gives him a big man comfortable trapping dudes 30 feet from the hoop. Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Marcus Smart disregard your personal space. Only two teams forced more turnovers than Boston last season, and they might snare more this time around -- thefts that generate needed transition chances for a team that can get a little cramped in the half-court.
We haven't even talked about the background: parquet floor, best jersey set in the league, the sonorous tones of Mike Gorman, and the hammy combination of Tommy Heinsohn and Brian Scalabrine cutting promos.
6. TORONTO RAPTORS (33.5)
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan breathe life into a pretty vanilla and sometimes sloggy offense. Lowry heaves the highest-degree-of-difficulty triples outside of Stephen Curry and Lillard, and he is always on his toes, always in motion. Exhale for a half-second after he kicks the ball up top, and, zoom, he has dusted you with a give-and-go cut along the baseline. With Curry and Kevin Durant cannibalizing MVP votes, Contract-Year Lowry could be a stealth MVP candidate if the Drakes exceed expectations. (Note: This is an extreme long shot.)
DeRozan attacked the rim with a new ferocity last season. His midrange touch comes and goes, but he's good at wriggling into that weirdo floater territory inside the foul line for closer shots. Jonas Valanciunas shot a tidy 48 percent on post-ups last season and became an angrier rebounder. He also boasts the most implausibly convincing slow-mo pump fake in the league.
Valanciunas' room for improvement on defense looms as one of two wild cards that could inch this team within hailing distance of the Cavs. The other is DeMarre Carroll, who barely played last season and has never looked as comfortable defending bigger wings (i.e., LeBron) as you would expect. If he's healthy, Carroll brings a 3-and-D combination Toronto doesn't have anywhere else on the roster, plus a knack for random off-ball cuts that surprise defenses fixated on Toronto's All-Stars.
He also unlocks promising small-ball groups; the lineup of Cory Joseph, Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll and Valanciunas logged only 36 minutes last season, and it could emerge as one of Dwane Casey's crunch-time fives.
The new court and logo look great, and the broadcast team is a joy outside the two weeks they spend incessantly lobbying for Lowry and DeRozan to make the All-Star team.
5. NEW YORK KNICKS (34)
Look, the Knicks just kind of break the League Pass Rankings system. A mediocre team shouldn't finish this high, but the Knicks are in the top 10 every year. Maybe we need to create a Mediocre Knicks Exception.
They have Mike Breen and Clyde Frazier, the Madison Square Garden court with that spotlight-style lighting, and three must-watch stars (for very different reasons) in Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, and Derrick Rose. How many wrong pronunciations will Clyde use for Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Guillermo Hernangomez? Will he just give up after 15 games? How annoying will Sasha Vujacic be, just in general? What is the state of Kyle O'Quinn's beard?
Watching the Knicks figure out how in the hell they want to play offense is a big enough storyline to sustain viewer interest over the first 20 games. Jeff Hornacek's comments out of training camp have been inscrutable. They want to use the triangle, but maybe not as often, or not at all sometimes, and, hey, that spread pick-and-roll thingie everyone does seems to work really well!
The novelty of that dilemma will wear off, but if the Knicks stay healthy (stop laughing) and hang in the playoff race, they will be a fun watch all season. No one cooks from the triple-threat position like Anthony when he's toying with dudes, and Porzingis is one of the most exciting players in the league -- even more so when the Knicks shift him to center.
4. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (35)
We're all going to regret this, but for now, it's fun to get carried away with Wolves Mania. Thibs is back, flapping his penguin wings and bellowing in that unmistakable baritone: "ICE, ICE, ICE!!" Thibs teaching Zach LaVine defense stands as one of the greatest educational challenges in modern world history.
This team is thinner than the hype train realizes, particularly on the wing, but the nucleus of Ricky Rubio, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins inspires legit butterflies. Can we not be in such a rush for the Wolves to trade Rubio, by the way? There isn't much evidence their offense can subsist without him, the few teams that need point guards don't have a ton to trade, and his backups might not be ready for major NBA minutes.
Subtle fundamental brilliance underlies Rubio's passing flash. His dimes hit teammates in the hands, and he releases them at the precise moment a defender is leaning away from his target. He holds the ball a beat longer than most point guards, and that half-second matters.
But the flash is high-wattage. Rubio is the league's no-look king; he literally laughs (ask him!) at fools who throw those bogus no-lookers where they stare down their target, throw the ball, and only then jerk their head in the opposite direction. (His favorite: the fake no-look where the passer turns his head toward a side of the floor where there is no teammate to even catch a theoretical pass. Will Barton does this all the time.)
Towns can do almost everything well already. The Wolves have to figure out what sort of front-court player they'd like to pair with Towns, and they are a little overloaded with center types as things stand now. Don't rule out a trade.
The butterscotchy court is still hideous, but Dave Benz and Jim Petersen bring the heat -- and the numbers -- to every broadcast. If Cole Aldrich starts flinging up duck-and-cover hook shots again, maybe the Wolves can justify this ranking after all.
3. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (35)
Same old Clippers, with their scripted precision. You can recite the steps: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin run a pick-and-roll with J.J. Redick curling up the weak side; Paul hits Griffin on the short roll; DeAndre Jordan's defender slides up to help; Griffin lobs to Jordan for a dunk.
It's like putting together a piece of prefab furniture: Each step is pretty clear, the final product looks nice, and it doesn't survive quite as long as you'd hoped. With Griffin back, hopefully Paul spices it up by relinquishing the controls so Griffin can go to work as a point forward in semi-transition; Griffin was tearing up the league before injuries hit last season.
The Clips are perpetually one wing short, but a fully engaged Griffin-Jordan combo playing to exhaustion at least gives them a chance to poke at Golden State's weak spots.
God forbid they are starting Luc Richard Mbah a Moute again when the playoffs arrive. The logo is an embarrassment, the court looks as if it were designed by a child with access to too many colors of paint, and Michael Smith, their analyst, adores every little thing about the Clippers so much, it's sickening. I do love a good Ralph Lawler "Bingo!" though.
2. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (37)
We'll spend eight months watching the next two teams circle each other, so let's be brief here: The Cavs have LeBron James, one of the five (at worst) greatest players ever, and even when they get lazy during the doldrums, they have the collective talent to find the sublime at any moment.
Also, the new court might be their best ever:
1. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (42)
Duh. The Warriors have now topped this list in three of the past four seasons, and even the haterz concede there is no other option for the top spot. Now, let's get to the stinking games already.