NBA Power Rankings: New Year’s resolutions for all 30 teams

NBA

Health and safety protocols continue to be a concern around the league. Several stars sat out their teams’ Christmas Day matchups, including Trae Young, Luka Doncic and Kevin Durant, though James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo returned to action for Saturday’s slate of games.

Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks past the Boston Celtics, while Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors took the rubber match against the Phoenix Suns. Harden and the Brooklyn Nets overcame LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on the final Saturday of the year.

In the last Power Rankings of 2021, our NBA experts break down each team’s New Year’s resolutions. How can the league-best Warriors and Suns get even better? Can Kyrie Irving improve the Nets as a part-time player? Can the Bucks’ Big Three stay healthy? Can James and the Lakers find consistency in the new year?

What about the teams fighting for contention? Who needs to add a player before the deadline? Here’s where all 30 teams can improve in 2022.

Note: Throughout the regular season, our panel (Tim Bontemps, Jamal Collier, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin and Ohm Youngmisuk) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball now and which teams are looking most like title contenders.

1. Golden State Warriors
2021-22 record: 27-6
Previous ranking: 2

After knocking off the Suns on Christmas Day, Steve Kerr and Co. don’t appear to have many worries. The key for this group is to get healthy and keep the momentum rolling in the second half of the season. In the short term, that means getting Andrew Wiggins, Damion Lee, Jordan Poole and Moses Moody out of health and safety protocols and getting Klay Thompson (ACL and Achilles rehab) and James Wiseman (meniscus rehab) back in the next few weeks. — Friedell


2. Phoenix Suns
2021-22 record: 26-6
Previous ranking: 1

It’s hard to find much to improve upon in a team with the second-best best winning percentage in the NBA. But the Suns are in the bottom five in the league at just 10.6 second-chance points per game and 24th overall in offensive rebounds per game. Of course, those things are easier to deal with when you’re third in the league in scoring and second in field-goal percentage. — Lopez


3. Brooklyn Nets
2021-22 record: 22-9
Previous ranking: 3

Although Brooklyn has welcomed back Kyrie Irving, his immediate entry into the NBA’s health and safety protocols has delayed his official return to the court. The Nets, with their title aspirations, will hope to successfully navigate a truly unprecedented situation, having to incorporate a part-time player into their mix. Irving still can’t play in games in New York City due to its vaccine mandate. — Bontemps


4. Utah Jazz
2021-22 record: 23-9
Previous ranking: 4

Utah could use an athletic wing to address some of the perimeter defensive issues that cut their playoff run short last season. The Jazz had offseason trade discussions involving Joe Ingles, sources said. Ingles (an expiring $14 million contract) and a future first-round pick could generate significant interest in the trade market, but that would mean Utah giving up a critical role player who is a major part of the Jazz’s culture. — MacMahon


5. Milwaukee Bucks
2021-22 record: 22-13
Previous ranking: 5

The Bucks may not be dominating the regular season like they have in the past, but their team hasn’t been truly whole for most of this year. Still, Milwaukee has to be encouraged that when its Big Three — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday — all start, they are 13-2 this season. Keeping them healthy for a chance to defend their championship should be the Bucks main resolution for 2021. — Collier


6. Chicago Bulls
2021-22 record: 20-10
Previous ranking: 6

Now that the Bulls have established themselves among the top teams in the Eastern Conference, they should look to fortify their rotation for the postseason. Adding a quality bench player at the trade deadline would help maximize this team’s potential this season. The bench, which is 29th in the NBA in scoring, could use a boost, especially in the frontcourt. The Bulls mostly rely on the group of Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu, Coby White and Derrick Jones Jr. in a guard-heavy rotation off the bench. — Collier


7. Miami Heat
2021-22 record: 21-13
Previous ranking: 8

Like so many other teams, one of Miami’s biggest issues is that it hasn’t found consistency early in the year because of a variety of injuries. Jimmy Butler is finally back after missing a few weeks because of a tailbone injury. Bam Adebayo is still out as he recovers from thumb surgery. Kyle Lowry recently entered health and safety protocols. If they get healthy, the Heat have the type of established veteran talent that no team would want to deal with in a playoff series. — Friedell


8. Cleveland Cavaliers
2021-22 record: 20-13
Previous ranking: 7

The Cavs would love to have Jarrett Allen teach Evan Mobley some of his post moves. As wonderful as the start to Mobley’s career has been — along with the team’s surprising success that’s gone with it — the rookie center is shooting 47.4% from the field while Allen, in his sixth season, is shooting a ridiculous 70.2%. Imagine if Mobley can trend in that direction? — McMenamin


9. Memphis Grizzlies
2021-22 record: 19-14
Previous ranking: 9

The Grizzlies have exceeded expectations, establishing themselves in the fourth spot in the West standings and strengthening that position during Ja Morant‘s 12-game absence due to a knee sprain. For Memphis to hold on to home-court advantage in the first round, the Grizzlies must figure out how to maintain their defensive success with Morant (116.1 points allowed per 100 possessions with him on the floor). It helps to have Dillon Brooks healthy. — MacMahon


10. Philadelphia 76ers
2021-22 record: 17-16
Previous ranking: 12

The 76ers’ biggest resolution could be figuring out what will happen with Ben Simmons between now and the NBA’s trade deadline. There may not be a bigger question in the NBA this season than whether the All-Star guard’s situation in Philadelphia will be resolved, and as a result, whether superstar center Joel Embiid will get some additional help to make a playoff push. — Bontemps


11. Denver Nuggets
2021-22 record: 16-16
Previous ranking: 11

The reigning MVP is shooting and rebounding better than a season ago, but Nikola Jokic doesn’t have Jamal Murray yet this season and he lost Michael Porter Jr. for the season. Murray’s return is uncertain after suffering a torn ACL last April. But if Jokic can keep the Nuggets afloat in the playoff hunt, a return by Murray will make them a dangerous team that few would want to see in the playoffs. — Youngmisuk


12. LA Clippers
2021-22 record: 17-16
Previous ranking: 10

The biggest issue for the Clippers is their health. They came into the season without Kawhi Leonard, whose return from ACL surgery looms in the background. But the Clippers have lost Paul George for at least the next month, but likely longer, due to a torn ligament in his shooting elbow. Reggie Jackson remains in health and safety protocols, though Marcus Morris Sr. just got cleared and is nearing a return. Tyronn Lue has shown he can extract more than people think out of a cast of role players, as he did last season. Now he has to keep the Clippers within striking range of a playoff spot until George, and possibly Leonard, return. — Youngmisuk


13. Charlotte Hornets
2021-22 record: 17-17
Previous ranking: 16

Charlotte has a 114.2 defensive rating, which is the worst in the league. The Hornets are a young, exciting team, but if they can’t get a better defensive effort on a nightly basis they will never turn into the type of consistent playoff threat they hoped to be entering this season. — Friedell


14. Los Angeles Lakers
2021-22 record: 16-18
Previous ranking: 13

The Lakers need to find some consistency. They have used 18 different starting lineups through their first 34 games, which tops the league. With Anthony Davis out for at least the next month, L.A. will have to find a go-to lineup centered around LeBron James and Russell Westbrook that it can stick with and not fall too far behind the top four in the West. — McMenamin


15. Washington Wizards
2021-22 record: 17-16
Previous ranking: 14

Washington has exceeded expectations — even if it has cooled off after a hot start — but the Wizards still have room to get even better. With Bradley Beal in health and safety protocols, they have to stay afloat while their star guard is out. Washington isn’t close to being whole with Thomas Bryant still working his way back from a torn ACL. Rui Hachimura has yet to make his season debut due to personal reasons but is getting closer. Washington could be back to full strength by February, and if Beal starts playing like he has the past two seasons, the Wizards can solidify their place in the East’s top five. — Youngmisuk


16. Boston Celtics
2021-22 record: 16-17
Previous ranking: 15

Celtics coach Ime Udoka has stressed pushing the pace and increasing ball movement since taking over the job this summer. Yet Boston finds itself 20th in pace and in the bottom 10 in both assists and potential assists per game so far — all of which are helping contribute to Boston’s 21st-ranked offense. — Bontemps


17. Dallas Mavericks
2021-22 record: 15-17
Previous ranking: 17

The Mavs are light on assets required for rookie GM Nico Harrison to make significant roster upgrades, so improvement will likely need to come from within. Luka Doncic rounding into shape and returning to All-NBA form would be a great start. Dallas also desperately needs Reggie Bullock and Tim Hardaway Jr. to snap out of season-long slumps and shoot the 3 at clips closer to their career norms. — MacMahon


18. Atlanta Hawks
2021-22 record: 15-17
Previous ranking: 18

As ESPN’s Zach Lowe pointed out on Friday, Atlanta hasn’t been the best in transition defense this season. But one thing it has been good at is shooting the deep ball. The Hawks lead the league while shooting 37.8% from deep. Bogdan Bogdanovic is shooting 36.3% this season — above league average — and is still 12th on the team for anyone who has attempted a 3-pointer this season. If the 3s continue to fall at that rate, it’ll allow Atlanta some room for error as it gets healthier to fix the defense. — Lopez


19. Toronto Raptors
2021-22 record: 14-16
Previous ranking: 20

Toronto has been true to its preseason defensive expectations in terms of playing fast, athletic and small. The Raptors are among the bottom five teams in the league in opposing offensive rebounding rate and they are among the top five teams in the league in forcing turnovers. If Toronto can improve the former, and keep the latter, the Raptors can move up from the middle of the pack in defense and make a push to return to the playoffs. — Bontemps


20. Minnesota Timberwolves
2021-22 record: 15-17
Previous ranking: 19

Minnesota looks like it could grab a spot in the Western Conference play-in tournament this season and in both Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, the Timberwolves have a pair of young stars they can build around. Edwards’ continued development and Towns’ quiet excellence should give the Wolves a good foundation to build on and in 2022, they should continue to surround that duo with talent that complements their games. — Collier


21. New York Knicks
2021-22 record: 15-18
Previous ranking: 22

Coach Tom Thibodeau’s teams have always been known as being hard-nosed defensively. That’s what makes it particularly jarring to see New York sitting at 23rd in defensive rating almost halfway through this season. The Knicks have plenty of problems, but if they want things to improve, getting the defense right would be a good place to start. — Bontemps


22. San Antonio Spurs
2021-22 record: 14-18
Previous ranking: 25

San Antonio is fourth at preventing opponent’s free throw attempts but is also near the bottom in the league in getting to the line. Derrick White and Keldon Johnson are San Antonio’s only two players averaging at least three free throws a game. A few more trips to the line would go a long way in helping the Spurs attempt to get back to the playoffs after missing the past two seasons (after making 22 in a row). — Lopez


23. Indiana Pacers
2021-22 record: 14-20
Previous ranking: 23

The Pacers have built around the same ensemble of players for years, yet they haven’t broken through to challenge the conference’s true elite and are currently in line to miss the playoffs this season. For Indiana, finding a direction in 2022 should be essential. Can the Pacers stay on the course with the same core and expect to compete, or is a roster shakeup on the horizon? — Collier


24. Portland Trail Blazers
2021-22 record: 13-19
Previous ranking: 21

From the investigation into and then firing of GM Neil Olshey to the trade speculation surrounding Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Portland’s season is on the brink. The organization needs to decide whether to change the roster around Lillard or make sweeping changes and rebuild since the Blazers are six games under .500. Or, they can stick with what they have and hope that the team finds its groove with rookie coach Chauncey Billups and make a run for a playoff spot. — Youngmisuk


25. New Orleans Pelicans
2021-22 record: 12-22
Previous ranking: 27

A healthy Zion Williamson would be a big boost to a team that seems to be figuring things out. After a 3-16 start, New Orleans is 9-5 in their past 14 games. The Pelicans announced Williamson received an injection in his foot on Dec. 15 and that he would be reevaluated in 4 to 6 weeks. Adding Williamson to the lineup could help the Pelicans with their push for the play-in tournament. — Lopez


26. Sacramento Kings
2021-22 record: 13-21
Previous ranking: 24

The Kings need to find better looks on the perimeter. They rank 24th in the league in 3-point percentage and 24th in assists per game. The stats are linked, of course. It takes smart spacing and crisp passing to generate great opportunities from deep in today’s game, with defenses hyper-aware of the 3-point line. Tyrese Haliburton, who has topped 10 assists in four straight games, could be the key to getting the Kings on track. — McMenamin


27. Oklahoma City Thunder
2021-22 record: 12-20
Previous ranking: 28

Oklahoma City’s rebuild is still in its early stages, but rookie Josh Giddey and 22-year-old Lu Dort seem to have established themselves as long-term core pieces alongside franchise cornerstone Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. So it makes sense to keep giving Giddey, a gifted passer, and Dort, a lockdown defender who has made huge strides as a scorer, plenty of room to stretch their wings offensively, even (or especially) if it costs OKC a few wins this season. — MacMahon


28. Houston Rockets
2021-22 record: 10-23
Previous ranking: 26

No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green‘s development is, and has always been, the top priority for Houston this season. The Rockets’ sudden surge to competitiveness coincided with Green missing an extended stretch due to a hamstring strain, but the biggest factor was Houston’s shift to a small lineup, which should give Green more space to operate now that he’s back. He used his time off to make his shot release smoother and quicker, which paid off during Green’s 20-point, 25-minute performance in his return. — MacMahon


29. Orlando Magic
2021-22 record: 7-27
Previous ranking: 29

Orlando needs a talent influx. The hope is that injured building blocks Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac return in the near future to provide a lift after rehabbing knee injuries. The same goes for Jalen Suggs, who is recovering from a thumb fracture. If all three players return and can help the young group find some consistency, it could alter the Magic’s lottery odds into the spring. — Friedell


30. Detroit Pistons
2021-22 record: 5-27
Previous ranking: 30

The Pistons hit lottery gold in 2021 by landing the No. 1 pick in the draft, Cade Cunningham, to jump-start their rebuild. They still, however, have the fewest wins in the NBA this season. Their biggest resolution in 2022 should be some progress from their young players to give hope that, perhaps, brighter days are ahead for Detroit basketball. — Collier

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