Confetti barely settled in Golden State Warriors championship, but the NBA discussion always moves forward.
The Warriors will return to the Bay Area next week for their holiday parade before the league settles into the off-season. The 2022 draft is less than a week away June 23, and free agency and Summer League shortly thereafter. Before we know it, the teams will be back for training camp and another season will begin.
Thus, it is never too early to think about the future. With that in mind, our Post-Finals Strength Rankings evaluates where each team is in the off-season, with an early look at the 2022-23 NBA season.
The main contenders for seeds
Next season’s championship races are expected to be wide open, with no overwhelming favourite. While it’s premature to call these teams top contenders for the title, they are best placed to challenge for the No. 1 seed in their respective conferences.
1. Golden State Warriors: The all-star champion trio of Steph Curry, Clay Thompson and Draymond Green will return (albeit a year older) and the young supporting cast will continue to improve and capitalize on title experience.
2. Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo is just starting his heyday at 27 and will keep the 2021 champions in contention for the title as long as he is healthy. Jrue Holiday and Chris Middleton give them one of the best trios in the league.
3. Boston Celtics: Are they using a bitter loss in the NBA Finals as fuel for next season? Young stars Jason Tatum, 24, and Jaylen Brown, 25, already have a lot of experience at a high level and still have room to grow.
4. Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker, 25, is one of the best young players in the league, and he’s been helping to achieve high results, especially in the regular season. However, Chris Paul’s health will always be a concern, and DeAndre Ayton’s contract status will be in question during the offseason.
5. Brooklyn Nets: On paper, they have as much top-notch talent as anyone else. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are the two top scorers. But Ben Simmons is still a big question mark after not playing at all last season.
6. Miami Heat: They can always hang their hats on defense, stamina and, yes, heat culture. Jimmy Butler showed again in the playoffs that he could lead the team, but depth of performance should be a priority this offseason.
In the playoff mix
Some of these teams could easily move up to the top tier next season if things go wrong. However, some of them will make it to the play-in tournament simply because of the number of teams competing for a limited number of places. But they all have to fight for the top six and a guaranteed place in the playoffs.
7. Los Angeles Clippers: Both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George coming back from injury raise questions, but as long as the early game through rust is the only problem, they could quickly return the Clippers to the top of the Western Conference.
8. Dallas Mavericks: They made a big leap to the Conference Finals and Luka Doncic once again proved fantastic in the playoffs, showing he could be the best player in the series. Now the front office just has to keep updating the lineup around it.
9. Philadelphia 76ers: All-Star center Joel Embiid was an MVP candidate and should be again next season if there are no injuries. If James Harden manages to regain some of the explosive energy he seemed to have lost, they could still be formidable.
10. Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant and company were the best team of the season. They may take a step back after a huge jump to 56 wins, but the Grizzlies should be in the middle of a playoff race in the competitive West.
11. Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic is now a two-time MVP, but he just wants to win. With the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr next season, it will become easier. Their lineups with Murray and Porter in 2019/20 have been fantastic.
12. Utah Jazz: Big changes could be coming as rumors continue to swirl about what they’ll be doing with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. They still have the potential to be a strong contender, but they still need to hire a new coach.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers: Another young team that has made a good leap behind rising stars Evan Mobley and Darius Garland. They have to figure out what to do with Collin Sexton’s contract, but they have the flexibility to make things better in the offseason.
14. Chicago Bulls: Zach LaVine is a free agent and his re-signing is the first and most important offseason task. They would like to re-sign with LaVine and return to this group, which played well together but were hit hard by injuries at the end of the season.
Expectations vary greatly for teams at this level. Some will be disappointed that they didn’t make the top six. Others will be thrilled to be in a play-in tournament. No matter where which team thinks it should be, the best chance for each of them to make the playoffs is likely to be via the play-in route.
15. Los Angeles Lakers: It’s hard to imagine a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis here. They certainly think that they belong to the higher tier. But Davis has been plagued by injuries in the past two seasons and the line-up suits him, while James still has his shortcomings.
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 making it back to the playoffs next season.
17. Toronto Raptors: The recovery season saw a return to the playoffs. Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Rookie of the Year Scotty Barnes starred in a solid starting five that could surprise again and take a place in the top six in the East.
18. New Orleans Pelicans: After a late-season surge and a competitive first-round streak against Phoenix, Zion Williamson’s return to action alongside Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum is encouraging fans to head in the right direction.
19. Atlanta Hawks: Making the play-in after reaching the East final a year ago was a disappointing, if expected regression. They are determined to build a Trae Young point guard around them and have shown that they will be aggressive in doing so.
20. Charlotte Hornets: They brought in a new coach in Kenny Atkinson after losing the first game for the second year in a row. LaMelo Ball has become a definite building block of the franchise, but re-signing a key element like Miles Bridges will be a must.
21. San Antonio Spurs: With strong young players Dejonte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltle and a lot of financial flexibility, this is not a bad place. But they’re stuck between not being good enough for the playoffs and not being bad enough to blow it up.
22. New York Knicks: R. J. Barrett and Immanuel Quickly had good results, but the defense fell apart and they finished 11th in the East. They will always be on the market if/when a big name comes along.
23. Portland Trail Blazers: After a failed season, they will be desperate to get back into the playoffs. The front office signaled its willingness to make a win-win move to add pieces around Damian Lillard, including potentially trading a seventh pick.
Back in the lottery
The bottom of the league isn’t necessarily a basketball wasteland, as several rebounding teams here are headed for promising upward trajectories. Others, however, are less sure of the direction forward.
24. Sacramento Kings: The owners will be looking to win now with the acquisition of Domantas Sabonis paired with De’Aaron Fox, but it will be hard for them to break through in a busy Western Conference.
25. Indiana Pacers: Tyrese Haliburton’s trade at the deadline signaled a new, younger direction. With the 6th pick and possibly another trade (Malcolm Brogdon?), they are looking to get back into the playoffs sooner rather than later.
26. Washington Wizards: Potential free agent Bradley Beal looms over the team and darkens the future. He has long claimed that he wants to stay with the Wizards, but if he changes his mind, it could leave them without a rudder.
27. Oklahoma City Thunder: With the No. 2 pick in the draft, they have a chance to add another prospect alongside rising stars Shai Gilgeus-Alexander and Josh Giddy and accelerate their long recovery.
28. Houston Rockets: Jalen Green has shown that in his rookie season he can get a bucket with a good ending. They have high hopes for Green in Houston and many draft picks, including this year’s No. 3, to add or acquire pieces around him.
29. Detroit Pistons: They found the cornerstone of their franchise in last year’s No. 1 pick, Cade Cunningham. Now it’s all about building around the 6-6 declarer. Jerami Grant is a candidate for an off-season trade for youth and/or draft assets.
30. Orlando Magic: Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner, selected in the first round of last year’s draft, are the start of a good young core. Landing #1 this year gives them the opportunity to develop the franchise’s cornerstone to give this update its own identity.
Follow Matt Eppers on Twitter @meppers_.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA Strength Rankings: Warriors No. 1 at the start of the 2022-23 season