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The most (and least) entertaining NBA teams to watch this season

Boston Celtics’ Al Horford, left, and Jayson Tatum celebrate during the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat on May 29 at TD Garden in Boston.  (Boston Herald)
By Ben Golliver Washington Post

The NBA has done its part to gin up interest in the 2023-24 season, unveiling an in-season tournament and crafting new guidelines to cut down on load management and flopping. Now, the pressure falls to the teams and players to deliver a more competitive nightly product with the league’s media rights negotiations looming.

Basketball die-hards have several good reasons to salivate: Nikola Jokic is set to lead the Denver Nuggets’ spirited title defense; San Antonio Spurs sensation Victor Wembanyama arrives as the most-hyped rookie in decades; and Damian Lillard, Jrue Holiday and Bradley Beal are settling in with new contenders after blockbuster trades. What’s more, the NBA is coming off its highest-scoring campaign in more than 50 years, and its superstar class enters the season in good health – though Ja Morant is out until December because of a gun suspension and James Harden remains in a standoff with the Philadelphia 76ers.

With the Nuggets set to tip off the new season Tuesday night, here’s how the 30 teams compare when it comes to entertainment value. As in previous editions, this ranking considers substance and style, with star power, fresh faces, intriguing additions and novel philosophies earning bonus points.

1. Boston Celtics

This should be the most riveting team of Jayson Tatum’s career: more functional than the Kyrie Irving circus and more whimsical than the recent groups that have stalled out in the playoffs. Kristaps Porzingis arrives as the NBA’s biggest X-factor, Holiday’s acquisition strengthens an already fierce rivalry with Milwaukee, and Jaylen Brown’s $300 million contract heightens the title-or-bust pressure.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo gets his best point guard ever, Lillard gets his big man ever, and their picture-perfect superstar marriage should make neutral viewers feel like winners. Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s rookie coach and weak bench should provide plenty of conversational fodder on the road to the playoffs.

3. San Antonio Spurs

Wembanyama, the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, has inspired a mushroom cloud of intense glee that makes it easy to forget San Antonio ranked 30th on last season’s list. The 7-foot-4 French forward is the NBA’s biggest teenage phenomenon since LeBron James, and NBA fans on social media will spend the next six months circulating his highlights even if the rebuilding Spurs remain basement-dwellers.

4. Phoenix Suns

Mad scientists worldwide are envious of owner Mat Ishbia’s crazy experiment in the desert: all offense, no defense and a revolving-door supporting cast. Whether or not Phoenix folds in the playoffs again, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Beal are bound to put on a show.

5. Denver Nuggets

Jokic’s coronation was a beautiful sight to behold, and so was Jamal Murray’s triumphant return from a knee injury that culminated in a scorching title run. Denver’s unseasoned bench will take center stage with Coach Michael Malone seeking to develop a few extra rotation players before the playoffs.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

The NBA’s deepest collection of 25-and-under talent – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Chet Holmgren, Lu Dort, Jalen Williams and Jaylin Williams – cements Oklahoma City’s standing as prototypical League Pass darlings. The Thunder plays hard and unselfishly under Coach Mark Daigneault, and Gilgeous-Alexander has a knack for delivering in clutch moments.

7. Golden State Warriors

Stephen Curry will turn 36 in March, but his exhilarating game-winners and euphoric celebrations never get old. Chris Paul should help with Golden State’s long-standing turnover issues, and moving on from Jordan Poole could be addition by subtraction in the wake of Draymond Green’s ugly punch last year.

8. Los Angeles Lakers

The long-awaited departure of Russell Westbrook transformed the Lakers from broken to harmonious, and all the key pieces are back from an energizing Western Conference finals run. With Anthony Davis poised for a monster season and a deep roster capable of picking up the slack if James’s impact slips again, Los Angeles has all the makings of an undramatic winner.

9. Sacramento Kings

Even if the prognosticators who expect the Kings to fall back in the standings are proved correct, De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis and company are still must-see television. The Kings’ pace, ball movement and shooting are delightful, and they should be fully motivated after a heartbreaking first-round playoff loss to the Warriors.

10. Indiana Pacers

Tyrese Haliburton might not be as athletic as Morant or as physical as Luka Doncic, but his composure, vision and consistency make him as enjoyable to watch as any young point guard. The Pacers will develop a cult following online with Haliburton at the helm, Bennedict Mathurin scoring in bunches and newcomer Bruce Brown playing with a chip on his shoulder.

11. Dallas Mavericks

Why does it feel as though the front office keeps turning up the difficulty level for Doncic? The captivating Slovenian star must do the impossible by coexisting with the mercurial Irving and leading a turned-over roster that lacks wing talent and experienced big men.

12. Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota is the rare team that is easy to love-watch (Anthony Edwards is the next face of the NBA!) and hate-watch (Rudy Gobert ruins everything!). While another up-and-down season would fuel Karl-Anthony Towns trade rumors, there’s enough talent on hand for a first-round series victory against the right opponent.

13. Cleveland Cavaliers

Don’t judge Cleveland’s hard-working core solely by its whoopee cushion showing in the 2023 playoffs. Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland give opponents fits with their one-two scoring punch, and the interior tandem of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen guided the NBA’s top defense last season.

14. Miami Heat

Miami proved again that grinding defense can be charming when it somehow reached the 2023 Finals despite being outscored by opponents during the regular season. Expect more of the same without Lillard to save the day on offense, though Tyler Herro should return with a vengeance after missing the playoffs because of injury.

15. Philadelphia 76ers

In a best-case scenario, Joel Embiid turns in another MVP-caliber campaign, Tyrese Maxey makes everyone forget about Harden’s drama and new coach Nick Nurse injects some much-needed levity into an organization haunted by playoff train wrecks. Sadly, the 76ers never enjoy the best-case scenario.

16. Memphis Grizzlies

Morant’s two gun-related suspensions didn’t just short-circuit his ascendancy; they sidetracked the Grizzlies’ promising 2022-23 campaign and put the team behind the eight ball to start this season. The 24-year-old guard will miss the first 25 games, but his magnetic talent should be enough to win back fans as long as he returns with his head on straight.

17. Atlanta Hawks

Quin Snyder’s midseason arrival as coach juiced an underperforming offense and provided stability for a franchise stumbling through a management transition. Trae Young and Dejounte Murray have been less successful together than advertised, but John Collins’s offseason exit will give the guards even more room to flex their muscles.

18. Orlando Magic

Basketball hipsters can’t get enough of Franz Wagner’s polish, Paolo Banchero’s breezy scoring and a rotation stocked with 25-and-under talent. The Magic’s entertainment value would skyrocket with a better lead playmaker in the backcourt, but 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz deserves credit for resuscitating his career.

19. New York Knicks

Regression is likely for the Knicks, who rode career years from Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle to their first playoff series victory since 2013. To keep the good times rolling, RJ Barrett must make a leap from underwhelming wing to legitimate third star.

20. New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson’s potential only excites pure-hearted optimists after his first four seasons were marred by health problems. Even if Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Trey Murphy III chip in to produce their fair share of thrilling wins, the Pelicans are perpetually one Williamson injury away from a full-blown identity crisis.

21. Toronto Raptors

Raptors executive Masai Ujiri didn’t mince words when he repeatedly called out his team’s “selfish” play last season. However, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby ooze athleticism, and they deserve a second chance to prove they can create a whole greater than the sum of their parts.

22. Houston Rockets

After three hideous seasons, Houston lost its appetite for losing and sought quick fixes by signing Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks in free agency. New coach Ime Udoka should deliver a more competent product, but there will only be cause for joy if youngsters Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. start tracking toward stardom.

23. Brooklyn Nets

With Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden gone, the retooling Nets are left looking like a doughnut: sprinkles of appealing talent around the edges without a viable centerpiece. Friendly ironman Mikal Bridges should make good use of his green light, but Brooklyn has returned to anonymity after crumbling in the spotlight.

24. Detroit Pistons

Unwatchable once Cade Cunningham was lost to a season-ending shin injury in November, Detroit’s short-term future hinges entirely on the 2021 No. 1 pick’s comeback. Promising lottery picks Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren and Ausar Thompson will only shine if Cunningham is back to orchestrating at a high level.

25. Utah Jazz

Though Will Hardy delivered a top-10 offense in his first year as coach, the Jazz sputtered after an unexpectedly hot start. Increased expectations are coming for a team that needs to find more help for budding centerpieces Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler.

26. Portland Trail Blazers

Bathing in an ocean of sweet relief after the Lillard trade, Blazermaniacs will enjoy the beginning of the Scoot Henderson era free from any short-term expectations. Unfortunately, the No. 3 pick will need to have a heck of a rookie campaign to stave off anxiety over Portland’s bleak long-term outlook.

27. Chicago Bulls

Nobody does intentional mediocrity better than the Bulls, who are running it back after a dreary 40-win campaign. While many organizations would have broken up the Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic trio, Chicago seems content to keep chasing .500 rather than taking a hard look in the mirror.

28. Charlotte Hornets

Michael Jordan sold his majority ownership stake this summer, which read as a vote of no confidence in the Hornets’ stalled youth movement. LaMelo Ball must bounce back from a fractured ankle and reignite a dreadful offense that ranked 30th last season. If he doesn’t, Coach Steve Clifford’s future will be in jeopardy.

29. Los Angeles Clippers

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George just don’t generate buzz as they did three or four injury-plagued seasons ago, and the aging Clippers appear headed for a gap year as they count down until the 2024 opening of Intuit Dome in Inglewood. Perhaps trading for Harden would help shake the feeling that the championship window has closed for good.

30. Washington Wizards

The dead-end Beal era needed to be blown up, but Washington has no chance to piece together a playoff contender around Poole and Kyle Kuzma any time soon. Without proven stars to drive wins or promising young prospects to sell hope, the Wizards can start collecting lucky charms for draft lottery night.