The Annual NBA League Pass Rankings, Part 1

Must-see rookies: Brandon Ingram and Joel Embiid will make the Lakers and Sixers a lot more watchable. USA TODAY Sports, NBAE via Getty Images

It is a sin to waste time on mediocre entertainment. With that in mind, we present our Fifth Annual League Pass Rankings, an infallible, scientific watchability index for the NBA season, which somehow starts in just 19 days. Sure, you could fill a good chunk of the next six months alternating between the Warriors and your favorite team, but you are a true NBA fan. You dabble. When players fly around the league in free agency, you are the go-to expert in your friend group.

The League Pass Ranking will maximize your happiness. As usual, I've assigned every team a score, ranging from 1 to 10, across five traditional categories:

PLAYOFFS/ZEITGEIST: A rough estimate of a team's place in the national barroom debate. This naturally favors good teams, controversy and teams that might drive the trade marketplace.

INDIVIDUAL HIGHLIGHT PRODUCTION: We're looking for players who make Twitter explode and force everyone not watching them to change channels. Curiosities such as Joel Embiid and (sigh) Ben Simmons pump up a team's score here.

STYLE: Fast breaks and fancy passing are more fun than plodding iso-ball. Starless teams, such as the peak Mike Budenholzer Hawks, can gain ground in this category.

LEAGUE PASS MINUTIA: Instead of looking at your spouse, you'll be gazing at the court and the uniforms. Instead of hearing about his or her workday, you'll listen to announcers yapping about the action. On some level, these things define the look and feel of an NBA game.

UNINTENTIONAL COMEDY: This was Bill Simmons' pet category, back when we started this at Grantland. The silly, stupid and Vine-worthy get you points here: Dion Waiters' forlorn pleas for the basketball, everything JaVale McGee has ever done, Kendrick Perkins taking 17 steps without dribbling, teammate feuds, Nick Young's shot selection, Tom Thibodeau's bellow and much, much more.

I break all ties based on personal preference.

30. BROOKLYN NETS (20 points)

I'm not proud of this, but I manipulated the rankings to shove the Nets into dead last. An annual perfect 10 in the League Pass Minutia category has spared Brooklyn the ignominy of the cellar too many times. Call it the Ian Eagle Corollary: Every five years, the holy rankings system will deduct at least two points from the Nets if such a deduction is required for accuracy. And so it shall be.

Ironically, Linsanity II: The Gentrification might produce appealing hoops -- even to those beyond Boston fans rooting against the Nets. Kenny Atkinson, the team's new head coach, worked with Lin in New York before spending four years in Atlanta under Budenholzer. Plop Lin back into a Mike D'Antoni-style pick-and-roll attack, mix in some Hawksy side-to-side action, and you might brew up something fun.

The Nets just don't have the personnel to make it potent. Brook Lopez is too slow to set a pick and dive inside for an alley-oop; he's an ambler who prefers to pop for jumpers, loft floaters from the midrange, and post up on both blocks. The Nets have ranked 21st or lower in pace in each of the past five seasons, and it's hard to run when Lopez is the fulcrum.

The Nets likely won't have the spacing to unclutter the lane for Lopez, anyway, especially if they start Rondae Hollis-Jefferson -- a tenacious, switchy defender whose bricky jumper is all pointy elbows. Still, it will be fun to watch Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough and the pups develop, and Luis Scola will be sonning fools with floppy-haired up-and-under moves until he dies. Lopez improved his passing last season, and worked a mean give-and-go with Shane Larkin; maybe he'll do the same with Lin.

Hit me with a Swamp Dragons alternate jersey, and I might consider lifting the Nets out of last.


Well, this is surprising -- and a sign of how damn fun the league is now that everyone understands the power of 3s, pace, and freedom of movement. Denver has at least seven interesting 25-and-under guys, including Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic, the duo some in the Denver brain trust want starting over Kenneth Faried. (Spoiler: Faried will not take this well, and Michael Malone might start him just to avoid the awkwardness.)

Jokic shocked the league as a rookie with his shooting touch and Gasolian playmaking, including a taste for leading fast breaks. Nurkic is a bulldozer who swears so loudly you can hear it through the TV, and he had the balls to taunt Kobe freaking Bryant as a rookie.

Malone played better defense along the sideline than James Harden played in any actual game last season, and Danilo Gallinari's hunched drives trick everyone into fouling him. And, hey! Remember Wilson Chandler?

The Nuggets will also be at the epicenter of the trade market. They've been dangling Faried off and on for three years, and continue to now, sources say. They could deal in either team-building direction: turn young players and extra picks into a bigger name, or go full rebuild by flipping their established veterans for more picks. You can win 30-something games for only so long before ownership jolts you in one direction -- even if this ownership gave its entire front office contract extensions over the summer.

Denver feels some regret over rejecting trade offers for Gallinari last season, when he had more time left on his contract, and the Nuggets face a harsh choice now, as he enters the final year of his deal: Trade him for less, pay him a ton as he approaches 30, or let him walk for nothing.

The Nuggets are just a hard sell to casual fans. There is no must-watch name, no identifiable style (yet), no powder blue on the home floor and no stopping Scott Hastings, their color guy, from ranting at the officials.


The Suns and Nuggets make you appreciate what Toronto has done in fielding two teams at once -- a veteran team that is really good and an intriguing bench squad of prospects who rarely play. Phoenix and Denver have the bifurcated rosters, but they don't win games. The intrigue of youth gets you only so far in these rankings.

Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss probably won't play much as rookies, though with P.J. Tucker recovering from surgery, Earl Watson might be tempted to (gulp) shoehorn Bender into wing minutes.

It will be nice to see Eric Bledsoe again. Phoenix has to be crushed that Bledsoe and Brandon Knight have barely logged 1,000 minutes together since the Point Guard Trading Orgy of 2015, and now Watson has Knight coming off the bench. Knight has always conceived of himself as a classic point guard, but that's not what he is, and the Suns may be nudging him toward his destiny as a Jamal Crawford type. The cap spike accidentally made it acceptable -- and in some cases, unavoidable -- for teams to bring big-money players off the bench.

Still, the Suns did not flip a coveted Lakers pick for Knight, and then pay him $14 million per season, to be a backup. The league is cool on Knight now, but given the dearth of wings, the Suns might find a palatable trade market if Knight starts strong. (There is no indication that they have any interest in trading Bledsoe right now, sources say.)

Benching Knight means fewer botched alley-oops between Knight and Tyson Chandler, and less of Chandler pouting the facial equivalent of, "Why in the hell did I sign here, again?" That hurts the unintentional comedy score.

On the bright side, the Devon Booker/T.J. Warren starting duo brings a nice new-school/old-school vibe, and dunkin' Jared Dudley always makes the smart play. Steve Albert and Eddie Johnson are secretly a top-five broadcast team, and the team finally slapped purple back onto the floor after its hideous black-and-orange Halloween phase.


Even assuming Metta World Peace doesn't make the team, the Lake Show is untouchable in the comedy category: Young (until they waive him), D'Angelo Russell's social media recovery, Chairman Yi, Timofey Mozgov being here for some reason, Lou Williams' artful flopping, Marcelo Huertas passing up layups more egregiously than Rajon Rondo and so much more.

The Snapchat (or whatever) scandal overshadowed the command Russell showed when the Lakers let him run without Kobe Bryant. He has a brainy, manipulative, stop-and-start dribble, and threads zippy, cross-court passes one step ahead of defenses. He's going to be really good. Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. are three very different front-line prospects, and everyone is going to love Luke Walton.

Jordan Clarkson could be a steal at his new salary, and Walton tossing the point guard mantle to Russell provides Clarkson a more defined role. The Lakers have the best home floor in the league, gorgeous jerseys and a play-by-play guy who might chill on the insane histrionics now that Bryant is gone.

26. MIAMI HEAT (25)

I'm as surprised as you are. A lot of the Heat's stylistic appeal left with Dwyane Wade's old man crossovers and bank shots that roll down the glass like melting candy. Chris Bosh is sidelined, leaving a heap of mostly unproven young guys around the Goran Dragic-Hassan Whiteside centerpiece.

Dragic can set his own pace with Wade gone, and he developed a nice pick-and-roll chemistry with Whiteside late last season. Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson transformed Miami into a turnover-producing, fast-breaking chaos engine whenever they entered the game last season, and Tyler Johnson is back to join them.

But they have to prove they can do it in larger roles, and Richardson is coming off knee surgery. I'm bullish on Johnson as a rotation guy, but it's objectively insane that the Heat have committed $50 million to a guy who has never even played 1,000 minutes in a season. (Random aside: Look for the league and union to change the obscure Gilbert Arenas rule so that matching teams can distribute salary more evenly across the length of a deal like Johnson's.)

When Wade cut the cord, Miami scrambled to fill space with leftovers and low-basketball IQ risks. The team is a bit of mystery, without much for the eyes and ears -- despite having approximately 87 jerseys. Let's hope Erik Spoelstra swallows hard and plays James Johnson, who lives on the line between insanity and genius.


Oh my god. I might have to recalibrate any system that drops Team Cognoscenti 15 spots in a single season. Do Dwight Howard's farts carry that devastating a stench? Perhaps the ratings are skeptical about mixing Howard's slowing interior game with Budenholzer's pass-happy, outside-in machine. The Hawks built their team around the idea that defenses couldn't keep up with two big men -- Al Horford and Paul Millsap -- comfortable popping, dishing, and screening 25 feet from the hoop. On defense, Horford and Millsap harassed ball-handlers 30 feet from the rim, arms spread into passing lanes, forming a hydra that swiped a ton of turnovers.

What do they do now? On offense, they want to use the Dennis Schroder-Howard pick-and-roll to batter the rim -- a fine style, but also one that robs the Hawks of what made them the Hawks.

Schroder's slithery recklessness on the pick-and-roll is magnetic, even if he struggles to finish wild flails at the rim. Millsap is one of the league's finest all-around players, but some of his best work is the stuff you miss on first watch -- not exactly "change the channel!" material.

There is something a little stale about the arena and television experience. The new court, with its shaded, feathery pattern in the paint, is a little too busy for my taste.


Yes, the conservative Hornets eased onto the gas last season and jacked more 3s than all but four teams while playing on that brilliant, teal, honeycombed floor. Yes, Kemba Walker is the Big Balls Dance incarnate late in games. Try selling non-Charlotte fans on the nuances of a Nicolas Batum-Cody Zeller pick-and-roll, or their military-grade obedience in forsaking the offensive glass to get back on defense.

As much as they moved away from him, Charlotte might miss Al Jefferson's McHaleian footwork. They don't really have anyone who gets buckets one-on-one, and they leaned on Big Al to torture Hassan Whiteside during long stretches of their first-round series against Miami.

Good thing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is back to inject anarchy. Steve Clifford has given Kidd-Gilchrist carte blanche to crash the offensive glass, and holy hell does MKG crash into everything. He is a bigger Tony Allen on defense; no one runs back harder, to the point that MKG's footsteps unnerve ball-handlers who assume everyone has given up stopping their 1-on-0 fast break.

The starting Batum-MKG-Marvin Williams trio can switch across three positions, a boon for any modern NBA defense. The Roy Hibbert Rehabilitation Project is of interest to all of us who miss Indiana Hibbert.

23. ORLANDO MAGIC (27.5)

We need Evan Fournier's hairstyle plan for the full season to really nail this ranking. I'm stoked to watch the Magic! If they are this far down, the league is in a great spot. Aaron Gordon is probably a year away from being a consistent "change the channel!" star, and the system is pessimistic about his transition to the wing -- and Frank Vogel's plan to use him like a bouncier Paul George. The trio of Gordon, Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo should form a massive switching terror on defense.

Vogel's task of sorting out the overcrowded big man rotation is more fun on paper than as a viewing experience. I am ready to not watch Jeff Green play basketball for a year. Nikola Vucevic has a smooth all-around game -- he made huge strides as a passer last season -- but he's also an obvious trade candidate when Orlando decides to balance its roster.

The trimmings are as pleasant as anyplace outside New York City: sharp court, killer black-and-blue uniform set, and announcing from David Steele and Jeff Turner that is both neutral and incisive.


Larry Bird wants to speed things up, but the Pacers already played at a top-10 pace last season while ranking a bricky 23rd in points per possession. They were even worse when their three holdover starters -- Paul George, Monta Ellis and Myles Turner -- shared the floor, per If Jeff Teague can't at least approach his (by far) career-best 3-point mark from last season, the Pacers may struggle to generate breathing room for all their slashers. George Hill might have been a better fit for this team than Teague, at least as long as Ellis is around.

Even so, George is a liquid two-way presence, and it will be fascinating to watch Turner evolve into a stretch center who can both shoot 3s and block shots. Thaddeus Young fools defenders with arrhythmic floaters that look all wrong, but end up cash. Jefferson's post artistry is always welcome, and the Pacers are sliding him into the perfect twilight role as a second-unit destroyer. Big Al can prop up punchless bench units without having to defend opposing starters and play crunch time when the Pacers need scoring.

The clean court with its teensy center logo reflects Hoosier values: The basketball is all that matters.


The names are bright, but the downside is unsightly: three non-shooters over-dribbling amid a forest of defenders, in search of any workable shot.

The frontcourt is filled with exciting players who boost the comedy score. Nikola Mirotic and his sweaty beard are good for at least three ridiculous, infuriating pump fakes every game. Bobby Portis is going to be good. Fred Hoiberg has been starting Taj Gibson early in preseason, but Mirotic deserves first crack at that power forward spot; you can't roll out lineups featuring zero guys who shoot 3s. Don't sleep on Portis as a candidate to snag that spot for a stretch.

No one outside Chicago noticed, but Cristiano Felicio emerged late last season as a cinder-block banger with some touch. Can Robin Lopez coax Benny the Bull into a heel turn, forming a tag-team that attacks rival mascots?

The snorting bull is the league's best logo, and the court looks even better now that the Bulls have enlarged the centerpiece while removing the superfluous basketball that lingered behind it for years. The narrower baseline font, installed last season, is a massive upgrade over the cartoonish balloon font that preceded it.

If you are one of those snobs too good for Neil Funk's gravelly voice and Stacey King's silly nicknames, we can't be friends.

20. UTAH JAZZ (29)

We're all excited about the Jazz, but can they speed it the hell up already? Utah ranked dead last in pace, and their possessions after snagging defensive rebounds -- opportunities to run! -- were egregiously slow, per the tracking site Inpredictable. Utah frittered away the first 10 seconds of every possession with rote sequences of passes and cuts before getting to the real stuff.

The Hawks and Spurs go through similar rituals, but with more vigor -- and heightened awareness for openings to abort and attack. Quin Snyder has talked about ditching the prelude more often, and that would help a middle-of-the-road offense that grinds amid cramped spacing when Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert share the floor.

We saw that pairing in only 49 games last season, after they went Godzilla on the league in the last two months of the season. The Jazz need to see more of it, against top competition, before declaring Favors and Gobert the $50 million long-term frontline -- especially with Trey Lyles looking like a stretchy playmaker who could play alongside either.

Utah sussing all of that out ahead of Gordon Hayward's free agency makes for a juicy subplot. Boris Diaw is a one-of-a-kind trickster, the new court puts that perfect jazz note logo in a more prominent position, and Snyder makes the best coach faces.


The megaphone homerism of San Antonio's broadcast crew always hurts here, but it is stunning -- and probably stupid -- to see the Spurs 19th. Kawhi Leonard is the first perimeter defender since Scottie Pippen and Gary Payton so impossible to navigate, opponents just give up the ball and say, "Here, I can't deal with this dude." He gobbles up steals without gambling his way out of position or fouling -- a delicate balance almost literally no one else can strike. I'd watch a full-game camera showing only Leonard playing defense over the tanking nonsense that masquerades as basketball in April.

But there is something a little passé about these guys. The passing style that shell-shocked the league from 2010-2014 has run its course. When these Spurs ape that strategy, they will look like a slower version of the old Millsap/Horford Hawks, with LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol manning opposite wings. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili don't have the ballhandling verve of years past, and if Parker can't flit to the rim against postseason defenses, San Antonio might face a dribbling deficit.

The Spurs make up for it by slowing down for Leonard and Aldridge post-ups, but those aren't must-see TV unless Aldridge gets on one of his fadeaway hot streaks. The bench beyond Ginobili and the effervescent Patty Mills is a collection of unknowns and retreads, though Jonathon Simmons brings a fun, breakneck, drive-and-dish game.


Believe it or not, these guys ranked a few spots higher before the sad news about Ben Simmons. I mean, I'm sorry, but watching Simmons and Joel Embiid develop during another mega-losing season would have been more fun -- and more appealing to dabbling fans-- than a garden-variety game between 42-win Eastern Conference teams.

As it is, we finally get to see Embiid play against something other than air, chairs, and 5-foot-10 coaches. I can't freaking wait. Once the Sixers deal either Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor, the other will get to go solo as Embiid's backup -- and probably share some minutes with him.

And they'll have real, actual NBA guards to feed them the ball! Sergio Rodriguez is a whip smart passer, and Gerald Henderson is one of the sneakiest leapers in the league when he can load up off two feet; he'll unleash a half-dozen earthquake dunks that come out of nowhere. Fans are going to love Dario Saric's blend of European refinement and sharp-elbowed grime, and if Simmons does come back this season, Brett Brown will see what the two "power forwards" can do together. I'm optimistic they can work well alongside Embiid.

Simmons' absence might open time for Jerami Grant, who hunts dunks and blocks with a full-speed violence that is scary. He is a collision waiting to happen. Sauce Castillo is still here!

Brown's enthusiasm seeps through the TV, and everything about the broadcast is aces -- the floor, the unis and the expert work of Marc Zumoff on the play-by-play.


This is the lowest-ever ranking for the team bringing Marc Gasol's unmatched high -post ingenuity and Tony Allen's Tony Allen-ness. After so many years, we can close our eyes and visualize every step of every 24-second, half-court slog involving the Grizzlies' famed Core Four: Mike Conley's in-and-out dribbles and righty teardrops, Zach Randolph's jab-step dance on the right block, Gasol's underhanded bowling ball passes, and Allen's can't-watch-but-can't-look-away fast- break adventures.

Dave Joerger, now the Kings coach, tried to bring these guys into the 2010s by briefly using Z-Bo off the bench, and David Fizdale will open the season with the same pace-and-space gambit -- giving Z-Bo's tenured starting to spot the hungry JaMychal Green. Fizdale has Marc Gasol shooting 3s in preseason, and Chandler Parsons projects as the perfect new addition to the cast: a secondary ball -handler with 3-point range who will love cutting baseline for Gasol high-lows.

Alas, Parsons' knee still isn't right. The bench is a mystery; Memphis is one injury away from the lottery, and owes its draft pick -- with top-five protection -- to Denver.

Look, I'll always tune in for Gasol's genius and Allen's caffeinated defense. The court is nice, but for the love of the Z-Bound, get Sean Tuohy's insufferable press box cheering off my television.


It seems like the Wizards should be higher. John Wall streaking down the floor, with gunners fanning out around him, is one of the most thrilling sights in basketball. Only LeBron slings better cross-court passes to corner shooters. Wall slacked on defense last season, but when he's dialed in, he can be a terror -- a long, speedy menace leaping into passing lanes at just the right moment. The Wizards need that John Wall.

Wall needs a healthy Bradley Beal, and for Otto Porter to do just a little bit more on both ends. Markieff Morris launched more triples as a Wizard, and if he (finally) gets more comfortable beyond the arc, Washington's starting five -- a solid plus-5.5 points per 100 possessions in limited minutes last season -- could coalesce into an effective spread pick-and-roll group around Wall.

But the wing rotation is scary thin beyond Beal and Porter, and it's unclear how Scott Brooks, the team's new coach, can divide minutes among a half-dozen center types. Tomas Satoransky looms as a crucial bench player -- skilled enough to run point on offense, and big enough to guard wings.

The Wiz viewing experience feels tired, and we don't have Randy Wittman around to enliven it with his whiteboard confusion and immortal Wittman Faces.

Check out Part 2.