<
>

The 2018-19 NBA League Pass Rankings, Part 2

play
Giannis' potential is limitless (1:00)

Giannis Antetokounmpo's array of skills make him one of the best players in the NBA. (1:00)

Now for the rest of my NBA League Pass Rankings for 2018-19.

You can find Part 1 and all of the rules here. These are not power rankings.

15. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (29)

Two things kill them:

(A) This will be the millionth consecutive year they preach diversifying the offense, and the millionth consecutive year in which they run one of the league's three most predictable offenses.

Pairing Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook offers some hope of variety. Sussing out a go-to closing lineup, and Schroder's possible role in it, presents meaty season-long challenges.

(B) They tank the minutia category. The logo belongs on an off-brand laundry detergent. The court is blah. Three of the uniforms are horrific. The broadcast radiates a screeching us-against-everyone homerism -- something I expect to continue even with a new play-by-play announcer.

But you can't deny the visceral thrill of Russell Westbrook flying down court, unconcerned with his bodily safety or those three defenders between him and the basket. Paul George is, of course, a boss. There is a delightful dissonance between the softness of Steven Adams' floater and his titanium body. He is also a nightly threat to become the first player ever to grab 20 offensive rebounds and zero defensive rebounds in the same game.

Every Andre Roberson jump shot is a cliffhanger. I enjoy the mimed muttonchops celebration for Alex Abrines 3-pointers.

I would like to know the velocity of Jerami Grant's right arm when he swings it to dunk or block a shot. He is one of the only players who really can guard all five positions. You never know when it might happen, but over short stretches, the Thunder enter into states of ecstatic frenzy on defense. They are suddenly flying at you 35 feet from the rim, screaming, taunting, arms waving, bodies pressuring every passing lane. If it made a sound, it would resemble the collective scream of the Ringwraiths. It can take good teams three possessions to adjust. Bad teams barf up turnovers until they call timeout.

14. MIAMI HEAT (29.5)

Umm ... TBD -- just like Minnesota at No. 16?

Adding another ball-dominant wing like Jimmy Butler would encroach on a lot of what made these guys more fun to watch than you'd expect of a star-less team -- the egalitarian, pass-and-cut-happy system in which everyone served as a playmaker regardless of nominal position. (Everyone but Hassan Whiteside, anyway.) James Johnson, more than anyone, embodies the appeal of this misfit crew: overlooked and discarded until he arrived at a place that would help him discover his destiny as a point forward with no backdown.

I am sworn to secrecy about the yet-to-be-unveiled uniforms and, umm, accompanying art, but let's just say they are perfect. I don't even know how the players on either team will be able to perform basketball things when the Heat wear them. I'd just stare at them.

13. WASHINGTON WIZARDS (30.5)

Oh, hey John!

I almost respect Washington officials having the gall to tsk-tsk everyone's jokes about Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers murdering their chemistry. What are we supposed to do? You acquired Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers.

Rivers is fine, actually. He's an underrated two-way player who will help Washington's bench. But what do the Wizards think will happen when Howard calls for the ball in the post, travels, and then demands it again? John Wall and Bradley Beal are going to be psyched.

But those two are so fun to watch, with complementary styles. Wall is an end-to-end demon with a different cadence and physicality in flight than, say, Westbrook. Westbrook sometimes slows down, stands up in his dribble, surveys the scene, and zooms back into high gear. Wall is a sprinter. He stays at full throttle until the ball is on the rim, or in the hands of a corner shooter.

(It would be nice if Wall didn't transform into a corpse in almost every other situation. As I first noted in January, Wall spent more than 76 percent of his time on the floor either standing still or walking -- the highest share in the league at that time. One guy fell behind him by the end: Dirk Nowitzki. Wall's average speed clocked in at 3.83 miles per hour, the fourth-lowest figure in the league, per Second Spectrum. Yeah, Wall's top speed is elite. But there is no universe in which his average -- mean, median, mode -- should be almost dead freaking last. Hopefully his knees are right.)

Beal is liquidy, with an explosiveness that pops in short bursts. Otto Porter Jr. is an ideal jack-of-all-trades type sliding across both forward positions.

The art is drab, though I like how the hand reaching out of the "d" at center court nods at the old Bullets logo:

Enjoy Kara Lawson's incisive commentary until some smart coaching staff hires her.

12. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (30.5)

Perfectly acceptable basketball, even if the Blazers backslid last season in the execution of their flow offense -- fewer passes and 3s, too much one-on-one, screens and cuts at half-speed. Portland corrected some of that during its second-half surge -- an annual thing -- and Terry Stotts is promising new wrinkles.

Damian Lillard transforms into fire incarnate for at least one two-week period every season. C.J. McCollum is one of the league's slipperiest ball-handlers, with an endless arsenal of floaters and pull-ups. Only Klay Thompson snaps from full sprint into a straight up-and-down shooting motion with more instant precision.

There just aren't a lot of fast breaks, or dunks. Related: It is fun watch the team's collective exasperation multiply every time Jusuf Nurkic misses a bunny when he could just dunk.

It will be fascinating to see how Portland responds to last season's first-round obliteration. The Blazers are saying all the right things, but that was not a normal sweep. That was the kind of sweep that can expose every underlying tension. Zach Collins' ability to fill the Ed Davis void will be a swing factor.

11. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (31)

This is the floor for any Anthony Davis team. Davis played the second half of last season with a controlled hyper-alertness we hadn't seen -- especially on defense. Playing harder isn't always about moving more, or moving faster. It can be about staying on your toes, head on a swivel, aware of everything -- the opponent's playbook, the strengths and weaknesses of all five enemy players, where they are on the floor, where they are about to be. Reach that level of consciousness, and you might expend more energy while moving less.

Davis got there. It was scary. That Davis can win Defensive Player of the Year, and go down as one of the dozen greatest defenders ever.

Davis is faster than almost anyone his size, and the Pelicans averaged 102.7 possessions per 48 minutes -- fastest in the league. That ratcheted up to almost 105 (!) when Davis played without DeMarcus Cousins, per NBA.com. Any combination of the Pellies' three primary big men should get out in transition. Nikola Mirotic can spray out to the wing. Julius Randle is a rip-and-run bowling ball. This team is going to absolutely fly.

The Pelicans are even talking about crashing the offensive glass after finishing 29th in offensive rebounding rate. They are one playmaker away from becoming a top-five League Pass team.

Davis can help there, too. About 70 percent of his 2-point buckets came via assist last season -- the sort of high number we'd normally associate with a rim runner like DeAndre Jordan or Rudy Gobert. Davis has the face-up chops to do more. If Elfrid Payton can't replicate Rajon Rondo's contributions, Davis may have to stretch himself.

10. UTAH JAZZ (31)

Roll your eyes, but this team has a chance to be really watchable: X's-and-O's nuance for the nerds, a whole bunch of sneering nasty, and as many as eight rotation wings -- perfect for sleek, modern NBA lineups.

The best basketball emerges when a team with an intricate system finds a star who can exist both within and outside of that system. That is happening in Utah with Donovan Mitchell. He can fit in Utah's machine of cuts, screens and handoffs -- and then bust out of it to toast some poor sap on a switch (hi, Melo!) when an elite defense short-circuits that machine.

Gobert is the system on the defense. He barricades the lane, arms spread, a gladiator daring anyone to challenge him. If someone yams on him -- it happens -- that only emboldens Gobert to swallow that guy whole next time.

Joe Ingles and Grayson Allen might become the league's prime agitator tag-team -- Ingles with knifing trash talk, Allen with "accidental" leg sweeps. Ricky Rubio reinvented himself, and injected the league's slowest team with much-needed pace -- including as a part of a lethal small-ball closing lineup.

Utah has cemented itself as a top-five jersey team with the return on select throwback nights of the Stockton/Malone-era purple uniforms. (The rippling orange-and-red beauties Utah unveiled last season are also getting another run.)

One art complaint: Utah removed the navy color from the painted area:

They call it the paint because you paint it.

9. TORONTO RAPTORS (32)

The next five teams finished so close, you could rank them in any order. Kyle Lowry is not a highlight-generator in the traditional sense; it's unclear if he can dunk. Leonard is the only defender alive who smothers NBA players until they cradle the ball, scan for help with terror in their eyes, and beg for escape. But his work on offense is more mechanical -- jab steps and midrangers.

The incumbent starting frontcourt -- Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas -- is slow by league standards now that Ibaka has calcified. Good news: This team is so deep in multi-positional players, it might not even start that pairing -- or finish games with either one.

We fell in love with Fred VanVleet's ballsy game and Pascal Siakam's twitchy drive-and-kick skills. (If Siakam starts hitting a threshold of 3s -- the Raps are cautiously optimistic -- watch out. I love the idea of trying him as a small-ball center.) But don't forget about Delon Wright. He shot 37 percent from deep last season, he's big enough to guard three positions, and he has the best vision on the team. Toronto paid VanVleet, but that shouldn't preclude them from doing the same with Wright -- and even considering those two their backcourt of the future.

Nick Nurse likes to try out-of-the-box stuff, and these guys are so good, he'll have leeway to get crazy. The Raptors are going to run, ping the ball around, and shoot a ton of 3s.

8. MILWAUKEE BUCKS (32)

This will end up low. The Bucks last season ranked 25th in 3-pointers; 20th in pace; and third in foul rate. Expect those numbers to trend in viewer-friendly directions under Mike Budenholzer, who will surround Giannis Antetokounmpo with shooters and playmakers, and let that dude eat.

Antetokounmpo might be the league's most telegenic two-way star. He can reach 90 percent of Leonard's peak on defense, though he blocks shots like a rim-protecting center. He finished fifth in dunks last season; flip from a Bucks game, and you risk missing Antetokounmpo grab a rebound, traverse the court in four extendo-dribbles, raise up far above the rim, and unleash thunder on whatever poor defender happens to cower below.

He can stick either arm five feet out of bounds along the baseline, beyond anyone's reach, and use his giant hands to wrap passes at almost any angle.

Budenholzer dialed back Atlanta's helter-skelter defense last season without sacrificing many forced turnovers. If he can do that here, Milwaukee might live the best of both worlds: a more conservative scheme than Jason Kidd's ill-fated trapping, without the softness that often comes with laying further back.

The new floor is cleaner than the old one, which had giant M's shaded into the court:

Milwaukee has shifted those M's to the boundaries, where they look like leaves. That motif meshes with Milwaukee's forest green -- a color the Bucks alone own in the NBA.

Budenholzer's anguish face is an elite coach face.

7. HOUSTON ROCKETS (33)

Murmurs that Houston might start Eric Gordon in a three-guard lineup bode well for their watchability. A third attacker steers the Rockets away from their most stagnant tendencies. It shifts Carmelo Anthony to the bench, where he would play with only one of Chris Paul or James Harden -- alignments in which he might get to do more classic Melo stuff.

That Houston can rank this high is a testament to how brilliant, mean and manipulative Harden and Paul can be even in stasis. Houston led the league in isolation plays on offense, and coaxed the most on defense with their switching scheme, per Second Spectrum. (Their switch-everything scheme reduces their foul rate. Good thing, because the Rockets draw heaps of free throws, and no one likes a free throw fest.)

Paul's midranger erased Gobert in the playoffs. Harden's stepback murdered a man on live television. Harden is still, somehow, underrated as a passer. He sees everything. He sows panic just standstill dribbling at the top of the arc. If he spots a wing defender so much as lean toward the paint, he might slingshot a one-handed no-looker to that guy's man. The threat of that pass turns a boring situation -- 10 dudes standing around -- into one loaded with tension and possibility.

He can toss soft lobs to Clint Capela, the NBA's dunk leader, or almost roll the ball beneath thickets of swiping arms.

There is comedy potential with Gerald Green, Bruno Caboclo, Marquese Chriss and Michael Carter-Williams working under a green light from deep.

6. CHICAGO BULLS (34)

Every year, one bad team breaks the algorithm using the same formula: superficially fun offense, tidy art, players who deliver both highlights and gaffes. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2018-19 Chicago Bulls -- tackled at length here!

Not covered there: Robin Lopez's twice-a-year rage ejections, and Denzel Valentine's bizarro floater:

Get well, Lauri! The only bright spot of Markkanen's injury: We are going to see even more of Wendell Carter Jr. right away.

5. DENVER NUGGETS (35)

This is at least one spot too low. Nikola Jokic's last 18 games, amid the pressure of a playoff race: 24 points per game, 11.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists on a 54-48-89 shooting line. Yikes. Around the start of that stretch, Paul MIllsap approached Jokic and told him to seize control of the offense, team sources say. Jokic started shooting more, while still dishing his usual number of assists.

That version of Jokic is one of the game's half-dozen or so most impactful offensive players -- an offense unto himself, almost -- and a top-10-level guy if he nudges his defense toward league average.

You know how some random plays stick with you, even if they aren't SportsCenter worthy? I will never forget this pass:

That is like the 153rd-fanciest pass Jokic slung last season, but it might best encapsulate his genius. It's simple -- a pick-and-roll into a give-and-go. It is available to screen-setting bigs all the time. Some don't see it. Almost none imagine it. It requires an active, always-in-motion partner. Jamal Murray is wired that way, but playing with Jokic rewires everyone's circuitry. Move, and he'll find you.

Jokic's 2017-18 season -- six dimes per game, an assist rate of 30 percent -- was arguably the greatest passing campaign ever for a big man. If Jokic settles in as a 40 percent-ish 3-point shooter -- someone who drags opposing rim protectors outside -- he might redefine the degree to which a center can control an entire offense.

Denver's starting lineup features pulsating cutters and playmakers at all five positions -- plus a decent level of shooting. Jokic will have targets wherever he looks.

Will Barton adds freneticism. Murray and Gary Harris attack the rim with startling explosiveness; Harris is a sneaky-powerful baseline dunker. Even last season's limited version of Isaiah Thomas clowned big men -- including, memorably, Jokic:

I like the clean new court, despite the Nuggets' puzzling deviation from powder blue.

Everyone loves powder blue! If you must go the empty paint route (ugh), squeezing that snappy pickax logo into the restricted area is a nice way to do it. The 5280 thing needs to go, though.

Thumbs down to Denver's revamped white uniform:

That red is searing. The jagged mountaintop design on the bottom of the shorts is sharp, though.

This new alternate is much better:

Royal blue is so much more vibrant than the so-dark-it's-almost-black navy the Nuggets prefer. The U-shaped collar is easier on the eyes than the harder "V" style of most new Nike jerseys.

4. LOS ANGELES LAKERS (39.5)

In pure basketball terms, I'd flip Denver and L.A. But the Lakers have LeBron, the league's best court, new/old Showtime-era uniforms, and Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee to boost the comedy score. The algorithm is powerless against such buffoonery.

There is intrigue, too. Is LeBron really willing to play as fast as the Lakers did last season? Will he surrender some control? Any fit with Lonzo Ball depends on the answers (and the state of Ball's jumper).

If the Ball-Bron fit proves unworkable, the Lakers will face thorny choices. The rest of the holdover kiddos -- Brandon Ingram, the audacious Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart -- should mesh well with the King. The misfit veterans have drawn more attention, but the young bounty of the Lakers' long winter should provide more on-court value immediately.

Kumza and LeBron will spend time at center in ultra-small lineups. On the flip side, any lineup featuring LeBron, Kuzma, Ingram and a traditional center would be huge -- and create monster competition for that fifth spot. Everyone has been obsessed with the possibility of LeBron at center. Might we see him at point guard -- with both Ball and Rondo on the bench? Luke Walton has some delightfully weird crunch-time lineup choices.

This team is a giant puzzle for LeBron, Walton, and everyone else to solve piece-by-piece, night-by-night. If the Lakers fail early, the trade deadline could tilt the axis of the league.

3. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (40)

2. BOSTON CELTICS (41)

1. PHILADELPHIA 76ers (41)

The Warriors (League Pass) dynasty is over! Well, kind of. They actually won. But for the second time in the seven-year history of this column, the arbiters (me) instituted a one-time-only deduction to generate the fairest outcome. (I once introduced the Ian Eagle Corollary to deflate the Nets score.)

Peak Golden State is objectively the most fun team. The Warriors have the most star power, only those stars subsume their individual greatness into a gorgeous, whirring system that lifts them all. They've even added a fifth star, DeMarcus Cousins, who brings back-it-down power they've never had and enough high-post passing to fit their established style. Cousins has reinvigorated them. They seem fresher and more excited. They'll probably play harder more often, and for longer, than they did in lazing through last season.

There is nothing in basketball like Golden State's third-quarter assault. You almost don't mind watching them piss away an entire half, because you know what fury will roar from that locker room. You feel the inevitability of It hovering. Fans whisper about It. You know immediately when It starts. The end-to-end velocity of It is harrowing. It renders some of the world's greatest athletes utterly helpless, and then, It passes.

But the Warriors are trying to become the first team since the Bill Russell Celtics to make five consecutive NBA Finals. They have earned the right to rest players. They will half-ass entire games. Andre Iguodala, one of my very favorite players to watch, will play maybe 100 hard minutes before the playoffs. When they do amp it up, there will be copious garbage time. They don't even have Nick Young and McGee for comedy purposes anymore. Farewell, sweet princes.

They are the most watchable team, but not the team diehards are most excited to watch every night of the 82-game season. Sorry.

That left Philly and Boston tied. There must be a winner. This isn't soccer. Philly plays faster, with Ben Simmons as chaos engine. Boston has the more elaborate half-court offense, though it's close; Philly's lack of dependence on the pick-and-roll provides welcome relief from stylistic hegemony. Brad Stevens is the only coach who makes you sit through commercials so you don't miss his out-of-timeout artistry.

Philly's starting five was perhaps the league's best lineup last season; Boston's projected starting five -- Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford -- is the most exciting non-Warriors lineup to hit the league in years. Boston brings four starter-level players off the bench, including the rudest reserve guard duo in recent history -- Terry Rozier and inveterate flopper Marcus Smart.

Philly has the best top-to-bottom art. It has literally zero misses. Boston has black uniforms it should light on fire. Philly even found subtle ways to upgrade an already pristine court:

The 76ers replaced the generic, blocky baseline font with a classic cursive wordmark that fits well with an identity rooted in U.S. history. They also realized there is no point in slapping the team's website or Twitter account along the sidelines. Anyone with a brain can find those; use space for something unique!

The Celtics, of course, sport the most famous court in the history of courts -- and the only everyday one without an arena name cluttering the playing surface. (They slapped it along the baseline instead.)

Each boasts one of the league's premiere highlight machines. Kyrie Irving is all shoulder-shimmies and mean jukes until he breaks an ankle, rises for a silky midranger, or flies to the rim for an acrobatic finish -- lefty or righty. When Irving finds a big man switched onto him, he almost views it as his public duty to humiliate the poor guy. He is our preeminent layup artist, even if he is to layups what Jim Edmonds once was to diving catches: He relishes making them look a little harder than need be.

Joel Embiid wants to eviscerate anyone in his way. Embiid's power gets the slight nod over Irving's finesse. Embiid exerts that power from so many places. He can pump-fake from the 3-point arc, drive, and then rain holy hell on anyone dumb enough to try to take a charge. (Defenders: Please don't do this. Keep JoJo safe.) He plows through post defenders with a balletic strength and savagery surpassed only by prime Shaq in the past two-plus decades. Embiid's accompanying trash talk and showmanship is unmatched.

Still: Embiid is almost embarrassingly turnover prone, and Philly games get ragged. The 76ers vomited up the league's highest turnover rate, and fouled more than everyone but Memphis -- a team that played as if it thought you received points for fouling. The Sixers also spend considerable time at the charity stripe.

Boston is undeniably more polished. Tatum is a 6-8 jar of polish.

But I kept coming back to one thing that separates Philly: Markelle Fultz. He is the biggest unknown in the league. Every scenario is on the table. He could can enough jumpers, work as the speedster pick-and-roll playmaker Philly badly needs, and solidify his spot in the starting lineup. (His first two preseason games have been encouraging. He made a 3-pointer on Monday!) He could redevelop the yips and crater. No matter what, I want to see every second of it. Philly wins.