NBA power rankings: Bucks lead pack of contenders

Sep 25, 2022; Milwaukee, WI, USA;  Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22), guard Jrue Holiday (21) and forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) pose for a picture during media day at the Fiserv Forum.Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Until Draymond Green decked teammate Jordan Poole and took a leave of absence from the defending champs, only two teams entered the NBA season with nothing to prove.

Now just the predictable, playoff-tested and generally unappreciated Milwaukee Bucks are left standing, and because of that the 2021 champions earn the privilege of being the top-ranked team in the initial 2023 Field Level Media NBA Power Rankings.

In a season in which almost half the teams — at least privately — are focused on the Victor Wembanyama draft lottery, most of the title contenders — plenty talented to win it all on paper — open the campaign with their fingers crossed.

Will internal turmoil blow over? Will key injured players return to star form? Will superstar-overpopulated mega-teams avoid further embarrassment? Can another sleeper like the Celtics make a quiet rise while the competition crumbles around it?

The door is wide open to the NBA throne. The ceiling is high for upward of a dozen legitimate contenders. But be careful what you reach for. An NBA season can turn downright ugly — and might already have — for those whose foundations are held together by unfortified potential.

(Opening Night edition)

1. Milwaukee Bucks. The benefits of an early exit: A nice summer vacation and a well-rested Khris Middleton returning to rescue Giannis Antetokounmpo.

2. Golden State Warriors. Is Draymond Green a curse or a blessing? Guess that depends who this year’s potential Ben Simmons is knocking down.

3. Brooklyn Nets. Gone are LaMarcus Aldridge, Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap. In come T.J. Warren, Markieff Morris, Royce O’Neale and a healthy Joe Harris. Who says Sean Marks is an idiot?

4. Los Angeles Clippers. Simple math here: 42 wins a year ago plus Kawhi Leonard plus Paul George equals a legitimate Western threat.

5. Phoenix Suns. Here’s the problem with being pissy, Jae Crowder: You’re no Cameron Johnson. Don’t count the defending regular-season champs out quite yet.

6. Philadelphia 76ers. P.J. Tucker has made some wise choices in his career. That he picked Philly to go ring shopping has to tell you something.

7. Boston Celtics. One-hundred postseason turnovers. Jayson Tatum’s ugly — yet somehow still applauded — performance in the NBA Finals has to make you wonder: Who in the league office is financing his nonstop PR campaign?

8. Memphis Grizzlies. They’ve been counting the days since losing to the Warriors. Unfortunately, they won’t recognize some of the other vastly improved competition this season.

9. Denver Nuggets. The difference between the Nuggets and the Clippers: Denver has the MVP; L.A. doesn’t have Jamal Murray’s knee or Michael Porter Jr.’s back.

10. Miami Heat. Five months later, do you think Jimmy Butler yet realizes he took one of the dumbest shots in playoff history?

11. Chicago Bulls. The list of wishful thinkers starts here with a team that blamed injuries for last season’s collapse. Hello, it was basically just Lonzo Ball … and he’s already hurt again.

12. Los Angeles Lakers. Even after another disastrous offseason out West, be honest: Don’t you fear a Lakers-Nets Finals even a little bit?

13. New Orleans Pelicans. Your 2023 All-Underappreciated Team: Pascal Siakam, Domantas Sabonis, Kris Middleton, Alex Caruso and the captain, Brandon Ingram.

14. Cleveland Cavaliers. The addition of Donovan Mitchell gives the Cavs a Most-Improved look. But who are they going to catch, the Bulls?

15. New York Knicks. Adding the dependable Jalen Brunson probably comes at the wrong time with their next shot at Patrick Ewing awaiting in the lottery.

16. Dallas Mavericks. Jason Kidd has ties to Damian Lillard. That could be the tie-breaker in the fight over the biggest potential difference-maker at the deadline.

17. Toronto Raptors. What was the Canadians’ COVID policy worth to the home team last year? This is not a 5th-In-The-East roster.

18. Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks aren’t much when Trae Young doesn’t have the ball, and now they’ve imported Dejounte Murray to share it. That could go two ways.

19. Minnesota Timberwolves. Will the Rudy Gobert addition do a better job of preventing opponents’ dunks or putting a roadblock in front of high-flying Anthony Edwards?

20. Detroit Pistons. Here begins the lottery-starved portion of the rankings. Unfortunately for the NBA, at least one of them will qualify for the play-in no matter how much they tank.

21. Portland Trail Blazers. The way they’ve stockpiled the Clippers and Pelicans, at least the Trail Blazers will have two rooting interests in the playoffs. Three as soon as Lillard is set free.

22. Sacramento Kings. Poor Mike Brown. The old guy was brought in to end the franchise’s postseason drought in the one year when missing the playoffs makes the most sense.

23. Charlotte Hornets. The win total has gone from 23 to 33 to 43 over the last three seasons. Look for 53 this year … if half the teams above them implode (hey, it’s possible).

24. Washington Wizards. One big contract and defensively challenged Bradley Beal goes from underpaid to a spot on the All-Overrated Team with Jayson Tatum, Anthony Davis, Nikola Vucevic and Jordan Poole.

25. Indiana Pacers. 2023 is their time to shine: Jarrett Allen, Norman Powell, Cameron and Keldon Johnson … and Most Improved Player waiting to happen, Aaron Nesmith.

26. Oklahoma City Thunder. Get your nickname trademarked: One big injury and “The Twin Beanstalks” (Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama) is closer to becoming a reality.

27. San Antonio Spurs. Once-proud Gregg Popovich is 74 defeats from joining the NBA’s 10 losingest coaches of all time. Don’t laugh; it’s possible. And sad.

28. Orlando Magic. In retrospect, do you think the Magic wish they had traded the No. 1 pick this past June for the Jazz’s seat at the next lottery? Wonder what Utah would have said.

29. Houston Rockets. The Rockets and Thunder made an eight-player trade in September with Moe Harkless as the headliner … and someone in the NBA office wasted 15 minutes of his/her life tying it into league history.

30. Utah Jazz. The 2023 Get-Me-Outta-Here Starting Five: Mike Conley, Damian Lillard, Jordan Clarkson, Jaylen Brown and Draymond Green. Sixth man: Jae Crowder.

–By Dave Del Grande, Field Level Media

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