Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Credit Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Let's be honest: The race to the 2021-22 NBA championship features just three thoroughbreds, all jockeyed by a decorated superstar with still something to prove.

The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, who benefited from others' key injuries a year ago, generally have stood pat with their returning cast.

That includes the incomparable Giannis Antetokounmpo, the first Most Valuable Player since Wilt Chamberlain, whose trophy was inscribed with: "Yeah, but he can't shoot free throws."

When a team wins a championship despite many calling for its coach's head en route, there have to be serious question marks about its ability to repeat. But that's only one reason the Bucks, No. 3 in the East in the regular season last year, start their title defense in just third place in these power rankings.

Despite bumps along the way, the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers appeared on a collision course in last year's Finals before Kyrie Irving, and Anthony Davis got injured at just the wrong time.

If it were to happen again, the favorites would be in much better shape. The Nets have imported LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, and Patty Mills to complement Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Blake Griffin.

Meanwhile, the Lakers have bulked up with Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Trevor Ariza to join LeBron James on the journey.

See you in April when the real NBA season begins.

1. Los Angeles Lakers. Remember when you could pencil LeBron into the finals every year because the competition in the East was so weak? Well, don't look now, but the path is much smoother out West these days.

2. Brooklyn Nets. If the Nets need a shot in the arm to make a late-season run, Irving knows where he could get it. For now, his vaccination-related absence keeps the league's most talented team out of the top spot.


3. Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks lost four games to the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns in the final two rounds of last year's playoffs. Can you imagine any other recent champ sinking to that level?

4. Utah Jazz. The Jazz led the NBA in 3-point attempts last season. It worked as they earned the top seed in the West. But six other teams also shot more than the champion Bucks, including the Rockets and Timberwolves. So maybe it's not such a great strategy.

5. Boston Celtics. Robert Williams, Payton Pritchard, and Aaron Nesmith are ready to take on much bigger roles this season. With a new coach who emphasizes unselfishness (imagine that), this team could surprise in the East.

6. Miami Heat. Among the biggest offseason moves in the NBA, you won't see Victor Oladipo's name. That's because the Heat quietly stashed him last season. He could be the East's biggest wild card.

7. Golden State Warriors. The game has changed, and Stephen Curry is its new face. He's the No. 1 reason to watch an NBA regular-season game this season.

8. Phoenix Suns. Like the Bucks, the Suns enjoyed the ride so much last year that they kept all the key pieces in place for another go at it. Unlike the Bucks, however, they still don't have Giannis.

9. Toronto Raptors. COVID-19 should be less of an issue this season for a team that spent last season in Florida. Scottie Barnes' advantage in the Rookie of the Year race: He'll be playing meaningful minutes.

10. Dallas Mavericks. Rick Carlisle believed in old-school defense. Jason Kidd believes in the new-school offense. Luka Doncic should be the MVP favorite this season.

11. Philadelphia 76ers. Ben Simmons is back, but is that good? Things could get really ugly, really fast for last year's biggest postseason disappointment. (The 76ers, not Simmons.)

12. Atlanta Hawks. Being up-and-coming is nice until you arrive and find that you don't belong. Durant, Giannis, Joel Embiid ... Trae Young? Not on this stage.

13. Memphis Grizzlies. Here one day, gone the next: Jonas Valanciunas, Grayson Allen. Stale. The new look that includes Steven Adams is fresh.

14. Denver Nuggets. Let's not forget Jamal Murray is probably out for the season. Think Golden State without Klay Thompson.

15. Chicago Bulls. This should be fun. You start with Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. You hope for more from Patrick Williams. And now you add DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball. Wow. How long's the line for season tickets?

Credit - Scanpix

16. Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers spent a lot of time and energy in recent years attempting to find the ideal supporting cast for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. This summer, they hoisted a beach umbrella and gave up.

17. New York Knicks. The defensive-minded Knicks became a team nobody wanted to play last season. The fear now is they'll look in the mirror and see just how unwatchable they've become.

18. Indiana Pacers. Few teams were involved in more trade rumors in the offseason than the Pacers. Unfortunately, they're left with a bunch of guys who now know they're unwanted.

19. New Orleans Pelicans. Like the Mavericks, the Pelicans have gone from old school (Stan Van Gundy) to new school (Willie Green) at the head of the bench. They better hope Zion Williamson likes the move.

20. Portland Trail Blazers. New coach Chauncey Billups says: "We all have to have a level of patience." Frustrated Damian Lillard has one. It's low.

21. Detroit Pistons. The Pistons better hope No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham is as good as advertised to have any hope of playing past April.

22. Charlotte Hornets. Key offseason acquisition Kelly Oubre Jr. is your classic numbers guy. Plays well on bad teams. If he has a big season, that tells you all you need to know about the Hornets.

23. Washington Wizards. The Wizards are to the East, what the Trail Blazers are to the West. They might want to believe Bradley Beal will want to be around one day after the trade deadline, but what's wishful thinking.

24. Minnesota Timberwolves. It's fitting Alex Rodriguez has jumped onboard the ownership jet because there's a recent-years Yankees feel to this club. You know the look: A lot of talented pieces that have no chance of fitting together.

25. Sacramento Kings. It's time to start over: Mix Tyrese Haliburton, Davion Mitchell, and a couple of real smart picks in the next draft, courtesy of a move down the standings, and shop De'Aaron Fox to the highest bidder.

26. San Antonio Spurs. If you know Gregg Popovich, he'd like nothing better than to start the Becky Hammon era next season the same way he entered the league - with the No. 1 pick in June. He can try to make that happen.

Credit AP – Scanpix

27. Cleveland Cavaliers. Rookie Evan Mobley might be the best young big man in the league from Day 1. But who builds around big men anymore?

28. Oklahoma City Thunder. Here's the best way of distinguishing between the NBA's three teams that wouldn't win the West Coast Conference this season: The Thunder will try to demonstrate they are improving. The Magic and Rockets don't care what you think.

29. Houston Rockets. Jalen Green is a lock to lead all rookies in scoring meaningless points in the fourth quarter of blowouts. Remember that at Rookie of the Year voting time.

30. Orlando Magic. It's a Wagner brothers reunion. Where are Milt and Dajuan when you need them?

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