Golden age: How the Warriors won their 4th NBA title in 8 years
USA TODAY’s Jeff Zilligtt recaps the NBA Finals from Boston and how the Golden State Warriors, led by Stephen Curry, won their 4th title in 8 years.
SportsPulse, USA TODAY
The confetti has barely settled on the Golden State Warriors’ championship, but the NBA discussion is always moving forward.
The Warriors will return to the Bay Area next week for their celebratory parade before the league settles in for the offseason. The 2022 draft is now less than a week away on June 23, with free agency and Summer League soon after. Before we know it, teams will be reconvening for training camp and another season will be here.
Thus, it’s never too soon to ponder the future. With that in mind, our post-Finals power rankings take stock of where every team stands entering the offseason, with an early look to the 2022-23 NBA season.
top seed contenders
Next season’s championship race figures to be wide-open entering the year, without an overwhelming favorite. It’s premature to call these teams the top title contenders, but they are best situated to compete for the No. 1 seed in their respective conferences.
1. Golden State Warriors: The champs’ star trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will all be back (albeit a year older), with the young supporting cast continuing to improve and benefit from the title experience.
2. Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo is still only beginning his prime at 27 and will keep the 2021 champs in title contention as long as he is healthy. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton give them one of the best trios in the league.
3. Boston Celtics: Will they use a stinging NBA Finals loss as fuel for next season? Young stars Jayson Tatum, 24, and Jaylen Brown, 25, already have a great deal of high-level experience and still have room to improve.
4. Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker, 25, is one of the league’s best young players, and he helps set the high floor, especially for the regular season. Still, Chris Paul’s health will always be a concern, and Deandre Ayton’s contract status looms over the offseason.
5. Brooklyn Nets: On paper, they have as much top-end talent as anyone. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are two of the best scorers around. But Ben Simmons is still a huge question mark after not playing at all this past season.
6. Miami Heat: They will always be able to hang their hat on defense, toughness and, yes, Heat culture. Jimmy Butler showed again in the playoffs that he can lead the team, but scoring depth should be a priority this offseason.
In the playoff mix
Several of these teams could easily climb into the top tier next season if things break their way. A few will end up in the play-in tournament, though, simply by virtue of the number of teams competing for limited spots. But all of them should be squarely in contention for the top six and a guaranteed playoff spot.
7. Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George returning from injuries are question marks, but as long as playing through rust early is the only issue, they could quickly have the Clippers back at the top of the Western Conference
8. Dallas Mavericks: They made a big leap by reaching the conference finals, and Luka Doncic was fantastic again in the playoffs, showing he can be the best player in a series. Now the front office just has to continue making upgrades to the roster around him.
9. Philadelphia 76ers: All-Star center Joel Embiid was an MVP candidate and should be again next season, barring injury. If James Harden can rediscover even some of the explosiveness he appeared to have lost, they can still be formidable.
10. Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant and company were the breakout team of the season. They may take a step back after a huge leap to 56 wins, but the Grizzlies should be in the middle of the playoff race in the competitive West.
11. Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic is now a two-time MVP, but he just wants to win. That figures to get easier with the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. next season. Their lineups with Murray and Porter in 2019-20 were fantastic.
12. Utah Jazz: Big changes could be coming as rumors continue to swirl around what they will do with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. They still have the potential to be a strong contender, but they still must hire a new coach.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers: Another young team that made a nice leap behind rising stars Evan Mobley and Darius Garland. They must figure out what to do with Collin Sexton’s contract, but they have flexibility to make improvement in the offseason.
14. Chicago Bulls: Zach LaVine is a free agent, and re-signing him is the first and biggest priority of the offseason. They would love to re-sign LaVine and run it back with this group that played well together but was hit hard by injuries late in the season.
The expectations vary widely for the teams in this tier. Some will be disappointed to miss out on a top-six spot. Others will be thrilled to make the play-in tournament. Regardless of where any team thinks it should be, the best chance for each to make the playoffs will likely be through the play-in route.
15. Los Angeles Lakers: It’s hard to put a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis here. They certainly think they belong in the top tier. But Davis has been beset by injuries the last two seasons, and the roster fit around him and James remains flawed.
16. Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards are one of the best young tandems in the league. They have enough flexibility to upgrade around the edges of the roster in hopes of getting back to the playoffs next season.
17. Toronto Raptors: A bounce-back season saw a return to the playoffs. Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes starred in a solid starting five that could have the talent to surprise again and nab a top-six spot in the East.
18. New Orleans Pelicans: After a late-season surge and competitive first-round series against top-seeded Phoenix, Zion Williamson’s return to play alongside Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum have fans optimistic things are headed in the right direction.
19. Atlanta Hawks: Falling to the play-in after reaching the East finals a year ago was a disappointing, if somewhat expected, regression. They are committed to building around point guard Trae Young and have shown they will be aggressive to do it.
20. Charlotte Hornets: They brought in a new coach in Kenny Atkinson after losing in the first play-in game for the second straight year. LaMelo Ball has emerged as the definite franchise building block, but re-signing a key piece like Miles Bridges will be imperative.
21. San Antonio Spurs: With solid young players in Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl and plenty of financial flexibility, it’s not a bad spot. But they’re stuck between being not good enough for the playoffs and not bad enough to blow it up.
22. New York Knicks: RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley made nice strides, but the defense fell apart and they finished 11th in the East. They will always be in the market if/when a big name becomes available.
23. Portland Trail Blazers: After the season fell apart, they will be desperate to get back to the playoffs. The front office has signaled its willingness to make win-now moves to add pieces around Damian Lillard, including potentially trading the No. 7 pick.
Back in the lottery
The bottom of the league isn’t necessarily a basketball wasteland as several of the rebuilding teams here have set themselves on promising upward trajectories. However, others are less certain of the forward direction.
24. Sacramento Kings: Ownership will be looking to win now after acquiring Domantas Sabonis to pair with De’Aaron Fox, but they will be hard-pressed to break through in the loaded Western Conference.
25. Indiana Pacers: Trading for Tyrese Haliburton at the deadline signaled a new, younger direction. With the No. 6 pick and potentially another trade (Malcolm Brogdon?), they hope to be back in playoff contention sooner rather than later.
26. Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal’s potential free agency looms over the team and clouds the future. He’s long maintained he wants to stay with the Wizards, but if he changes his mind, it could leave them rudderless.
27. Oklahoma City Thunder: With the No. 2 pick in the draft, they have a chance to add another top prospect next to rising stars Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey and accelerate their long rebuild.
28. Houston Rockets: Jalen Green showed he can get buckets with a solid finish to his rookie season. They have high hopes for Green in Houston and a lot of draft picks, including No. 3 this year, to add or acquire pieces around him.
29. Detroit Pistons: They found their cornerstone franchise in last year’s No. 1 pick, Cade Cunningham. Now it’s all about building around the 6-6 point guard. Jerami Grant is a candidate to be traded this offseason for more youth and/or draft assets.
30. Orlando Magic: Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner, last year’s first-round draft picks, are the start of a nice young core. Landing this year’s No. 1 pick gives them a chance to draft a cornerstone franchise to give this rebuild an identity.
Follow Matt Epipers on Twitter @meppers_.