The NBA is back! Before each season, I develop subjective grades to project how well a team might perform over the course of a season. These are my “basketball units.” I look at how guards and wings primarily affect both ends of the floor, as well as the frontcourt. But while I like to use positions to evaluate players and depth charts, these nine categories consider how well a team performs in a specific area of the game:
- Perimeter offense: Generating free throws, midrange effectiveness, and 3-point shooting.
- Interior offense: Getting to the paint frequently, finishing inside consistently, and crashing offensive glass.
- Control: Not just how well a team moves the basketball but also how well a team protects it.
- Pressure: How well a defense can force turnovers, both steals and dead-ball changes of possession.
- Interior defense: Paint scoring prevention, rim protection, defensive rebounding.
- Perimeter defense: Defending without fouling, being able to contest midrange shots, and preventing 3s.
- “Basketball special teams”: Fast-break scoring differential and free-throw percentage.
Three of those categories are offensive (perimeter offense, interior offense, control), three are defensive (pressure, interior defense, perimeter defense) and three are auxiliary (“basketball special teams,” coaching, intangibles). Coaching and intangibles tend to be the most subjective items, so I refrain from grading them in a preview setting.
I refer to the transition game as a part of “basketball special teams.” Just like special teams are a factor in football — but not to the level of the offense and defense — special teams in basketball are a factor even though it is not as critical as half-court effectiveness on both ends. It’s a good way to evaluate free-throw shooting, which is not the ability to draw fouls but the ability to make free throws (kicking game in football), fast-break (return units), transition defense (kick coverage), pace (tempo) and depth (personnel).
How are these basketball units applicable on the floor? Think of a spread pick-and-roll: The ballhandler is tasked with making the best decision (control) while the defense tries to create a mistake (pressure). The ballhandler hits the roll man (interior offense) as the defending big in the action drops to cover the rim (interior defense). The roll man winds up passing out to one of the shooters (perimeter offense) while the defense recovers to close out and contest (perimeter defense).
As I preview the season, I’ll share for each team the grade I have for their best and worst unit, presented in the order I have teams finishing in the regular season by conference:
#1 Boston Celtics
Best unit: Control (grade: B) The Celtics were one of four teams to finish in the top 10 in both turnover percentage and assists per game last season, and they added All-Star Jrue Holiday, who had almost as many 10-assist games last season by himself (15) as the entire Celtics roster (19).
Worst unit: Pressure (grade: D) Boston was in the bottom five in opponent turnover percentage last season, and the team’s play in the first halves of preseason games did not suggest that this trend would be changing much this season.
#2 Milwaukee Bucks
Best unit: Interior defense (grade: B+) The Bucks were the second-best team in the league last season at protecting the rim and defensive rebound percentage, and the presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo and All-Defensive selection Brook Lopez had a lot to do with that.
Worst unit: Pressure (grade: C-) Perhaps new coach Adrian Griffin will turn up the heat on opposing ballhandlers, because the Bucks were last in opposing turnover percentage and new point guard Damian Lillard has never had a 100-steal season.
#3 Cleveland Cavaliers
Best unit: Pressure (grade: B) The Cavaliers had the best NBA defense last season, and teams spent a lot of time throwing the ball away while trying to deal with Cleveland’s length and activity.
Worst unit: Perimeter offense (grade: C) Even with an All-NBA scorer in Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland was below-average shooting outside of the paint, a major reason why former Heat forward Max Strus was signed.
#4 New York Knicks
Best unit: Interior defense (grade: B) A classic Tom Thibodeau defense that allowed the fewest points in the paint per game last season, the Knicks return all of Thibodeau’s trusted frontcourt players.
Worst unit: Pressure (grade: C-) New York is hoping a full season of Josh Hart and the addition of Donte DiVincenzo from Golden State juice a defense that finished 25th in both steals per game and opponent turnover percentage last season.
#5 Miami Heat
Best unit: Pressure (grade: A-) Jimmy Butler leads one of the most aggressive defenses in the league; of the 12 players who had at least 100 steals, Butler was the only one to have fewer than 100 personal fouls (117 steals, 80 fouls).
Worst unit: Control (grade: C-) No team scored fewer total points than the Heat last season, who then watched Gabe Vincent leave in free agency and Lillard get traded to Milwaukee, leaving 37-year-old Kyle Lowry to start at point guard again.
#6 Philadelphia 76ers
Best unit: Pressure (grade: B+) The 76ers already forced turnovers at a high rate, and they just hired Nick Nurse, who coached a Toronto team that led the NBA in steals.
Worst unit: Control (grade: C) Philadelphia’s ball movement was hit-or-miss even with James Harden leading the league in assists, so will the presence of MVP Joel Embiid make up for Harden’s lack of commitment?
#7 Toronto Raptors
Best unit: Pressure (grade: A-) New head coach Darko Rajaković comes from a Memphis coaching staff that emphasized forcing turnovers, and the Raptors still have two players in Gary Trent Jr. and league leader O.G. Anunoby who had more than 100 steals last season.
Worst unit: Perimeter offense (grade: D) Toronto was a bad shooting team last season, and they just downgraded by going from Fred VanVleet at point guard to Dennis Schröder.
#8 Indiana Pacers
Best unit: Pressure (grade: B-) The Pacers were a top-10 team in steals last season, led by All-Star Tyrese Haliburton and veterans Buddy Hield and TJ McConnell, and 2023 champion Bruce Brown should help as well.
Worst unit: Interior defense (grade: D+) One of the reasons why the Pacers had to be aggressively looking for takeaways was because they were awful at keeping the ball out of the paint and were the worst defensive rebounding team in the league.
#9 Chicago Bulls
Best unit: Pressure (grade: B) The Bulls were a top-five defense last season, and Alex Caruso’s activity on that end of the floor was so profound he was an All-Defense selection despite only 1,575 minutes.
Worst unit: Interior offense (grade: C-) Only the 76ers and Mavericks touched the paint fewer times per game than Chicago last season, and only the Nets and Mavericks were worse on the offensive glass despite 82 games from Nikola Vucevic and Patrick Williams.
#10 Brooklyn Nets
Best unit: Special teams (grade: B-) The return of a healthy Ben Simmons should foster a considerably stronger transition attack in Brooklyn.
Worst unit: Interior offense (grade: C-) The Nets are a jump-shooting team, and their best interior presences (Simmons and Nic Claxton) are chronically reluctant to attack due to their woeful free-throw shooting.
#11 Charlotte Hornets
Best unit: Special teams (grade: C+) A healthy return from LaMelo Ball should help make the Hornets a factor on the fast break.
Worst unit: Perimeter offense (grade: D+) This was a poor shooting team last season, which is one reason why Charlotte opted to select Brandon Miller over Scoot Henderson in the 2023 draft.
#12 Atlanta Hawks
Best unit: Control (grade: C+) The Hawks don’t pass the ball unless it is an assist opportunity, but Trae Young did generate the most points off of assists in each of the last two seasons.
Worst unit: Interior defense (grade: D) Only San Antonio allowed more points in the paint than Atlanta last season, and the Hawks are even smaller this season with the departure of John Collins.
#13 Orlando Magic
Best unit: Pressure (grade: C+) The Magic are another one of those long, active, young teams defensively, and they might be even peskier if they get healthier seasons from Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs, and Jonathan Isaac.
Worst unit: Control (grade: D-) The drafting of Anthony Black makes Fultz a trade candidate in a contract year, and this was one of the worst ballhandling teams in the league despite the presence of playmaking forwards Franz Wagner and Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero.
#14 Washington Wizards
Best unit: Perimeter offense (grade: C) The Kyle Kuzma and Jordan Poole show should be enthralling.
Worst unit: Pressure (grade: D) The Wizards have been one of the least aggressive defenses in the league under coach Wes Unseld Jr., and it’s unlikely the arrival of new guards Poole and Tyus Jones will change that.
#15 Detroit Pistons
Best unit: Perimeter offense (grade: C) The return of Cade Cunningham should give Detroit’s offense a major lift in the midrange.
Worst unit: Interior defense (grade: F) The Pistons return all of the young big men who played a role in the team finishing in the bottom five in paint points, rim protection and defensive rebounding.
#1 Phoenix Suns
Best unit: Perimeter offense (grade: A-) Not only do the Suns have three major on-ball threats in Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Bradley Beal, but they also have a decent shooting supporting cast with depth as well.
Worst unit: Special teams (grade: C) Phoenix won’t be last in fast-break points like they were last season, but they’re probably content to work in the half court more often than not.
#2 Denver Nuggets
Best unit: Interior offense (grade: B+) Nikola Jokić’s Nuggets were the only team in the league last season to be in the top five in both paint points per game and field goal percentage in the restricted area.
Worst unit: Interior defense (grade: C-) The best way to beat Denver’s defense is to get the ball inside, as they have some of the league’s worst rim protection.
#3 Los Angeles Lakers
Best unit: Control (grade: A) LeBron James is a computer in his 21st NBA season, and he has multiple capable ballhandlers in both the starting lineup and coming off of the bench.
Worst unit: Pressure (grade: C) Coach Darvin Ham’s scheme is conservative, and he is content to have the Lakers defend without fouling and funnel as much of the action toward Anthony Davis as possible, but that makes it hard to win the turnover battle.
#4 LA Clippers
Best unit: Perimeter offense (grade: B) The Clippers have always been one of the best shooting teams in the league with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard on the roster, and they have a player in Norman Powell capable of outscoring entire opposing benches by himself.
Worst unit: Control (grade: C-) Russell Westbrook should enhance LA’s ability to get easier baskets this season, but keeping his turnovers low will be a challenge, and the team does not have many strong passers outside of the stars and point guards.
#5 Sacramento Kings
Best unit: Control (grade: A-) The Kings have an All-NBA point guard in De’Aaron Fox, run the most handoffs in the league with All-NBA center Domantas Sabonis as a hub and have multiple responsible play starters to support what was the NBA’s best offense last season.
Worst unit: Perimeter defense (grade: C-) Sacramento doesn’t foul much, but their wings don’t bother shooters much, and their reserve guards are on the smaller side as well.
#6 Golden State Warriors
Best unit: Perimeter offense (grade: A) This is still the most potent 3-point shooting team in the league, and the addition of Chris Paul allows the Warriors to get Stephen Curry easier shots in addition to Paul’s much-needed ability to generate free throws.
Worst unit: Perimeter defense (grade: C-) The flip side to Golden State adding Paul is that there is a concerning mix of age and lacking size to add to a defense that fouled too much and lost too many shooters.
#7 Minnesota Timberwolves
Best unit: Pressure (grade: A-) Perhaps the healthy return of Karl-Anthony Towns reduces the need for the Timberwolves to be as aggressive at pursuing takeaways this season, but Chris Finch’s defenses in Minnesota have always been chaotic to play against, especially with Anthony Edwards present.
Worst unit: Control (grade: C) As much as Mike Conley is a calming influence for Minnesota, he is a 36-year-old small guard who has missed double-digit games in each of the past nine seasons, and the Timberwolves have a dearth of reliable options behind him.
#8 Oklahoma City Thunder
Best unit: Pressure (grade: B) Only the Raptors and Timberwolves joined the Thunder as teams that were in the top five in both steals and opponent turnover percentage last season, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leading the way with 112 steals.
Worst unit: Interior defense (grade: C) Only the Nets and Pacers were worse on the defensive glass than the Thunder were last season, so add that to Chet Holmgren’s list of responsibilities as he makes his debut.
#9 Memphis Grizzlies
Best unit: Control (grade: B) For a young team, coach Taylor Jenkins always has the Grizzlies take care of the ball at a high level, and the addition of Marcus Smart should only help maintain that standard in Ja Morant’s absence.
Worst unit: Perimeter offense (grade: D) What Smart won’t do is give the Grizzlies a legitimate on-ball threat while Morant is out, and this was already a Memphis team that isn’t permitted to take midrange field goals and has shaky 3-point shooting outside of Desmond Bane and Luke Kennard.
#10 New Orleans Pelicans
Best unit: Pressure (grade: A-) A hallmark of Willie Green’s defense in New Orleans has been creating live ball turnovers, especially with the 2021 rookie class of Trey Murphy III, Herbert Jones and Jose Alvarado.
Worst unit: Control (grade: D) The Pelicans have become increasingly shaky at taking care of the ball themselves with CJ McCollum at point guard, and their underwhelming preseason put the confounding struggles of an offense that also has playmakers Brandon Ingram and All-Star Zion Williamson on further display.
#11 Dallas Mavericks
Best unit: Perimeter offense (grade: B) Luka Dončić is already an offense unto himself, and Kyrie Irving was even more efficient in Dallas than he was in Brooklyn with Durant.
Worst unit: Interior offense (grade: D) The Mavericks used their lottery pick on center Dereck Lively II and acquired Grant Williams from Boston in part due to ranking last in paint touches, paint points per game, and offensive rebounding last season.
#12 Houston Rockets
Best unit: Pressure (grade: C+) The Rockets are going to start fighting back after being on the wrong end of the turnover battle since the bubble; if nothing else, the additions of Fred VanVleet, Dillon Brooks, rookie Amen Thompson and coach Ime Udoka will add serious disruption to the defense.
Worst unit: Perimeter offense (grade: D) Those same additions of VanVleet, Brooks, and Thompson should keep Houston from being last in turnovers, but bad passes may be exchanged for bricks, as this projects to be one of the worst shooting teams in basketball.
#13 Utah Jazz
Best unit: Interior offense (grade: B+) Adding John Collins to a frontcourt that already had Most Improved Player Lauri Markkanen and offensive rebounding presence Walker Kessler is going to be challenging for opposing defenses.
Worst unit: Control (grade: D) Utah never replaced Mike Conley after buying out Russell Westbrook’s contract, and the Jazz may challenge to have the worst turnover differential in the NBA this season.
#14 San Antonio Spurs
Best unit: Interior offense (grade: B-) Rookie Victor Wembanyama is dunking outside of the restricted area and off of Euro steps starting just inside the 3-point line; he’s going to establish a rare level of vertical spacing while having a bodyguard center on the floor with him often.
Worst unit: Perimeter defense (grade: D) Gregg Popovich defenses don’t foul, and Wembanyama is going to help San Antonio not be the worst defense of the play-by-play era again, but there is bound to be an abundance of blown coverages leading to open shots from a group this young.
#15 Portland Trail Blazers
Best unit: Special teams (grade: C) The Trail Blazers have plenty of strong athletes now that rookie Scoot Henderson is running the show in the post-Damian Lillard era.
Worst unit: Control (grade: D-) Henderson’s jump shot being in a stage of development is going to be bad for his turnover rate, and by the time he makes that adjustment, Portland may have found new homes for some of the few decent passers on the roster such as 2023 Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.
(Top photo of Denver’s Jamal Murray and LA’s LeBron James: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)