Ranking the NBA divisions: Lots to boast on each coast

Ranking the NBA divisions: Lots to boast on each coast

With the start of the 2023-24 NBA season approaching, here’s how we rank the league’s six divisions in terms of strength and competitiveness.

6. Southeast

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On one hand, the Southeast was the only division in the NBA without a top-six seed last season. But it was home to the league runner-up Miami Heat. That historic Finals run was a boost in an otherwise tough campaign for the grouping, but also partially masks the fact that no Southeast squad had a net rating above 0.3 in 2022-23.

Somehow, things could potentially be worse this upcoming season. The Heat lost starters Gabe Vincent and Max Strus in free agency and replaced them with rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr. and journeyman Josh Richardson. More notably, Miami failed to trade for superstar Damian Lillard, even though it was long reported the team was in the driver’s seat for his services. All told, expecting the Heat’s regular-season record to match their playoff success is likely a big ask.

Outside of South Beach, expectations remain limited. The Atlanta Hawks are the only real threat amongst the remaining four teams to make a jump into the East’s top six, but also added no new key contributors from a 41-41 team last season. Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic, along with LaMelo Ball and the Charlotte Hornets, each possess reasons for optimism, but a playoff competitor led by a young, inexperienced star is always a reach. Lastly, the dramatic rebuild started by the Washington Wizards this offseason makes them a candidate for the NBA’s worst record.

5. Central

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With the Southeast representing the clear bottom, it’s tough to differentiate between multiple middling divisions. However, unlike most other groupings, the Central only has two surefire playoff contenders. The most obvious one is the Milwaukee Bucks, who were already one of the Association’s better teams before they swapped the steady Jrue Holiday for the electrifying Lillard. Milwaukee seems like a strong selection for one of the NBA’s top-five regular season records, giving the Central an immediate boost.

The other projected postseason lock is the Cleveland Cavaliers. The young duo of Darius Garland and Evan Mobley flanked by proven All-Star Donovan Mitchell could help them improve on an already impressive 51-31 record last season. Adding shooters with proven role-player ability in Strus and Georges Niang should also make a big difference.

The rest of the Central is a bit murkier, however. The Chicago Bulls sport a talented scoring trio in Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic, but are primed for a teardown if winning remains inconsistent. On the other side of the spectrum, the Indiana Pacers could spike in the standings with burgeoning star Tyrese Haliburton running the show, though it may be a year too soon. The Detroit Pistons could crash the playoff parade if Cade Cunningham develops into a star, but the organization did have 10 fewer wins than anybody in the East last season. That makes a giant leap tough to envision.

4. Northwest

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It feels wrong to slot a division that sports the NBA champion Denver Nuggets, who bring back their entire starting lineup from last season, at No. 4. But with so many questions outside of Denver, the Northwest sits in the lower half of the rankings. With Bruce Brown Jr. off to the Pacers, the Nuggets may suffer a bit from a depth perspective but are still on the short list of 2023-24 title contenders. As long as Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are running the two-man game in the Mile High City, that positioning seems inevitable.

The Minnesota Timberwolves feel like a strong bet to improve on their 42-40 record from last season with the rising superstardom of Anthony Edwards and a second campaign of the Karl-Anthony TownsRudy Gobert twin towers experiment. The opposite is to be expected of the Portland Trail Blazers, who could barely muster a .400 winning percentage with Lillard’s services for 58 games and are now starting completely from scratch.

The Thunder and the Jazz are both major wild cards for different reasons. The buzz is palpable in Oklahoma City, where a bonafide superstar in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leads one of the NBA’s top young cores that added 2022’s No. 2 pick Chet Holmgren to the mix. Going from 40 to 50 wins will be an extreme task in the daunting West, though. Meanwhile, Utah may be the hardest team in the conference to peg – the developing roster that took the league by surprise in the first half of last season could reasonably finish anywhere from seventh to 13th in their conference.

3. Southwest

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Each squad in the Southwest division has a very sizable gap between its most and least optimal outcome this season. That sentiment is best encapsulated by the New Orleans Pelicans. If oft-injured star Zion Williamson can stay healthy alongside proven vets CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram, they should be a surefire playoff squad. But if Williamson becomes unavailable, they could look a lot more like the group that couldn’t advance past the upstart Thunder in last year’s play-in tournament.

The Memphis Grizzlies have been the most consistent team in the Southwest in recent campaigns, but Ja Morant‘s 25-game suspension to begin the season leaves them behind the 8-ball. How Marcus Smart fares running the show in the interim will reveal a lot about Memphis’ end-of-season outlook. The San Antonio Spurs’ results are also quite dependent on one player: 7-foot-4 phenom Victor Wembanyama. It remains to be seen how many games the rookie Frenchman even suits up for as he ramps up to the NBA level, let alone how effective he can be.

The first full season of the Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving experiment for the Dallas Mavericks also has the potential for drastic outcomes. The duo clearly ranks as the best isolation-scoring backcourt in the entire league and, with added defensive fortifications, they could be a force to be reckoned with. The caveat: Dallas was well below .500 in games Irving played last year, so caution should be exercised when projecting a giant jump. The same goes for the Houston Rockets. How many added wins can Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks really add to one of the league’s youngest rosters that won just 22 games last season?

2. Atlantic

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The Atlantic division could lay claim to four of the seven best teams in the Eastern Conference next season. And that’s not a bold statement – it saw four teams in the top six last year. The cream of the crop should once again be the Boston Celtics, who effectively turned Smart and Robert Williams III into Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis this offseason – a noticeable upgrade. While depth could become a concern as the campaign progresses, there may not be a better core in the NBA outside of the Nuggets.

The Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks should both be relatively safe playoff teams as well, though they each have questions to answer. Can the 76ers end the James Harden fiasco with either a solid return via trade or The Beard amicably remaining in Philly? Can Jalen Brunson once again lead a talented – but flawed – Knicks team to a successful season? If the answer to those two questions is yes, both franchises will once again join the Celtics at the top of the East.

Brooklyn could be a sneaky playoff team, too. Thanks to sizable returns in both the Kevin Durant and Irving trades, the Nets have a young, exciting core with a strong defensive profile. The growth of Mikal Bridges as a lead option and Nic Claxton as a premier rim protector could determine just how close the franchise can come to matching last year’s record that was predominantly off the backs of their former stars. That’s before the loaded Ben Simmons question. And don’t count the Toronto Raptors out, either. As long as the organization rosters valuable contributors such as Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, they’ll be a tough out for top teams.

1. Pacific

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In a classic example of the rich getting richer, the Pacific division – No. 2 in these rankings last year – was supposed to have four playoff-caliber teams, and all five of them ended up in the postseason. That’s because the Sacramento Kings finally ended their historic playoff drought and miraculously finished first in the division. Mike Brown’s group is largely intact and looking to keep last year’s positive momentum.

And yet, it’s reasonable to project the Kings will fall all the way back down to fifth, not by any fault of their own. Simply put, every other team has the chance to be elite. Explaining why the Golden State Warriors or Los Angeles Clippers could reign supreme is an easy task. The Warriors’ all-time core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green will always be worthy of sky-high expectations as long as they play together, and adding Chris Paul brings a different dynamic. Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are a menacing pairing if they can stay healthy – but that’s a significant “if.”

That’s all before mentioning the potential leaps the 45-37 Phoenix Suns and 43-39 Los Angeles Lakers could make this year. Phoenix hopes that a full season of Durant and pairing new addition Bradley Beal with Devin Booker can overwhelm opponents offensively. If nothing else, it’s the best trio of scorers on an NBA roster since Durant was flanked by Harden and Irving in Brooklyn. Finally, if the Lakers can continue their second-half success from last season and combine it with Austin Reaves‘ rapid ascension, there’s no telling how high the LeBron James-led Los Angeles squad can climb up the grueling Western Conference.

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