Power rankings for best NBA teams to star in HBO Hard Knocks originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
What the King wants, the King usually gets.
So, last month when LeBron James was watching the show “Hard Knocks” and tweeted that he wishes there was an NBA version of the show, executives at television networks and streaming services probably started scrambling.
The NFL Films and HBO series provides a behind-the-scenes look at one team during training camp and preseason -- and for the first time will be offering an in-season edition this November. When LeBron was watching, the team being featured was the Dallas Cowboys, a highly marketable organization featuring plenty of compelling characters and juicy storylines.
With NBA training camps opening this week, it’s time to imagine a shift from the gridiron to the hardwood. Which NBA team would be best to feature? Which would offer the most captivating peak behind the curtain? Which would the King himself tune in to watch?
Here’s an NBA "Hard Knocks" power ranking…
30. Oklahoma City Thunder
If interested in watching general manager Sam Presti acquire draft picks – the Thunder own nearly 40 picks over the next seven years - this might be the team for you. Outside of that, the talented Shai Gilgeous-Alexander coming off an injury-plagued season, and surprise No. 6 pick from Australia Josh Giddey, there’s not much to see here.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers
There are building blocks, albeit potentially redundant ones, in the backcourt with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland and the frontcourt with Jarret Allen and No. 3 pick Evan Mobley. But nothing about this team has been worthy of the TV cameras post-LeBron.
28. Toronto Raptors
The team is just over two years removed from winning the 2019 NBA championship. But key figures from that squad -- Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry -- have departed, taking the team’s more compelling personalities (or lack thereof) with them.
27. Orlando Magic
Not many teams in NBA history have had arguably their top two players rehabbing from torn ACLs simultaneously. But that’s been the unfortunate case for the perpetually-rebuilding Magic with Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz, making for some rehab-themed episodes. But at least there’s Jalen Suggs and the always entertaining Robin Lopez.
26. Indiana Pacers
Putting a mic on the occasionally outspoken Rick Carlisle could be entertaining. Carlisle returns for a second stint as head coach in Indiana after 13 years with the Mavericks. Domantas Sabonis, a two-time All Star, deserves the national spotlight. Caris LeVert enters his first full season in Indiana after having surgery to treat a cancerous mass on his kidney that was detected during a physical after he was acquired in a trade.
25. Sacramento Kings
If the Kings don’t make the playoffs this season for a 16th consecutive year, they will set the NBA record for longest postseason drought. Combine that organizational pressure with Buddy Hield trade rumors, a De'Aaron Fox-Tyrese Haliburton-Davion Mitchell backcourt and a possible segment with Marvin Bagley’s trade-demand tweeting father, and there’s a surprising amount of intrigue.
24. Memphis Grizzlies
The first-ever winners of the Western Conference postseason play-in tournament are probably more fun to watch on the court than off. Ja Morant is the unquestioned rising star, but Dillon Brooks – with his sunglasses collection and “Dillon the Villain” reputation -- would probably steal the show on “Hard Knocks.”
23. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons might have been locked into the No. 30 spot had it not been for the bounce of a few ping pong balls during the NBA Draft Lottery. Is an entire hour-long episode a week on Cade Cunningham too much?
22. Houston Rockets
The team won just 17 games last season but has some interesting plot lines other than, you know, trying to lose less. There’s the aging star on an insanely expensive contract surrounded by teenage teammates in John Wall, the comeback story of Kevin Porter Jr. and No. 2 pick Jalen Green’s transition from the G League to the NBA.
21. Milwaukee Bucks
It’s always more fun to watch the hunter than the hunted. So, better to feature NBA teams chasing a title, dealing with pressure, and overcoming drama than to go further in-depth with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks while their locker room still smells like champagne.
20. Utah Jazz
Of the true contenders, the Jazz might get the least respect when it comes to championship legitimacy. The top-seeded Jazz took a 2-0 lead on the Clippers in the second round and somehow managed to lose the next four games -- all while LeBron’s Lakers and Steph’s Warriors were already watching the playoffs from home. They’re running it back with the same starting five hoping to prove they haven’t already reached their ceiling. Perhaps part-owner Dwyane Wade can make a cameo to share his thoughts.
19. Washington Wizards
With Russell Westbrook having been dealt in the offseason, the focus would be on how much longer Bradley Beal will go before requesting a trade of his own. Intriguing ancillary characters could emerge with the unique personalities and new-found motivations of the recently-added Kyle Kuzma, Spencer Dinwiddie and Montrezl Harrell.
18. Atlanta Hawks
Another contender that won’t get the national respect they deserve following last season’s surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Trae Young has the skill set and personality to be a leading man both on the court and in front of a camera, especially if he continues trolling fan bases as he did in New York over the summer.
17. San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich coaching a starless and rebuilding team as he continues his quest to become the winningest coach in NBA history sounds like can’t-miss TV viewing. The 72-year-old Pop - with 1,310 career NBA regular season wins – needs 26 victories to pass Don Nelson’s record of 1,335. Per our partner PointsBet, the Spurs aren’t expected to win many more than that.
16. Portland Trail Blazers
When it comes to Damian Lillard’s time in Portland, there doesn’t seem to be much sand left in the hourglass. Lillard clarified his “How long should I stay dedicated?” Instagram post that was made after the Blazers’ elimination last season, but the team needs to improve to appease him. That puts plenty of pressure on first-time head coach Chauncey Billups. Dame Watch, along with Lillard’s passion for rapping and boxing, are perfect for “Hard Knocks.”
15. Denver Nuggets
There’s never been an MVP quite like Nikola Jokic. And it’s easy to imagine the “Hard Knocks” narrator saying something like, “The Nuggets are all smiles this season because of ‘The Joker.’” The Nuggets also have the intertwined storylines of a young star recovering from a devastating injury in Jamal Murray, and an even younger star blossoming in his absence in Michael Porter Jr., who just inked a $207-million extension.
14. Chicago Bulls
Zach LaVine’s future in Chicago – and his market worth as either a franchise cornerstone or empty stat producer – are set to be determined in his final season before 2022 NBA free agency. The Bulls continue putting pieces around him, trading for Nikola Vucevic last season and adding DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball in free agency. LaVar Ball will do whatever necessary to get in front of the camera. And an entire episode could be dedicated to new-addition and cult hero Alex Caruso.
13. Dallas Mavericks
One generational talent, the same old roster, a new head coach and a high-profile owner could be enough to keep the “Hard Knocks” crew in Dallas with the Cowboys having just been featured on the show. Luka Doncic could be a few years away from being the face of the league, Kristaps Porzingis needs to secure his role in the supporting cast, Jason Kidd returns with a somewhat questionable head coaching resume, and Mark Cuban is the closest thing to Jerry Jones that the NBA can offer.
12. Phoenix Suns
The Suns were two wins away from their first championship before losing four straight to the Bucks. While they do seem to be a team on the rise, plenty must go right to make a return trip to the Finals, especially when depending on a 36-year old point guard in Chris Paul. He is one of many compelling figures on the team. Plus, producers will likely track down “Suns in 4” guy.
11. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves’ offseason took a tumultuous turn last week when president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas was dismissed a week before camp was to open after it was revealed he had a romantic relationship with a team employee. That certainly makes for a soap opera storyline. There’s also a talented nucleus of D’Angelo Russell (if he isn’t traded for Ben Simmons), Anthony Edwards (just 20-years-old and fresh off a 2021 NBA Rookie of the Year snub) and Karl-Anthony Towns (who could be losing patience with the organization). Oh, and there’s a new owner by the name of Alex Rodriguez...
10. New Orleans Pelicans
Short and simple tagline: How far will an organization go to keep Zion Williamson happy? Find out next week on “Hard Knocks.”
9. Boston Celtics
The post-Danny Ainge era begins with Brad Stevens moving upstairs and Ime Udoka taking over on the sideline. The Jays -- Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown – will be the focal point but Marcus Smart and Enes Kanter will provide the viral soundbites.
8. New York Knicks
The idea of the Knicks being featured on the NBA-version of "Hard Knocks" is an idea that would never get out of James Dolan’s office alive. If team president Leon Rose and brand consultant Steve Stoute could somehow convince him otherwise, the Knicks could be a ratings draw. Just months after ending their postseason drought, they combine Julius Randle fresh off a breakout season with veterans with something to prove (Kemba Walker, Derrick Rose, Evan Fournier) and youngsters with even more to prove (R.J. Barrett, Obi Toppin, Mitchell Robinson). And if the cameras are on, Spike Lee will find his way in front of them.
7. Miami Heat
Pat Riley will soon be portrayed on another HBO series, which is depicting the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s, so why not go all in? He has certainly constructed a team worthy of extra attention, adding Kyle Lowry, Victor Oladipo, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris to a roster that already included Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro. A segment on any of those players – and of course on Riley himself – makes for good television for a wide variety of reasons.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers took a big step toward weakening the little brother label they are likely forever stuck with in Los Angeles. Taking the next step after advancing to their first Western Conference Finals last season – and parting ways with their co-tenants and moving into their own arena in 2024 – will only help. Kawhi Leonard’s introverted personality and reputation as the league’s quietest star is probably such a bad fit for the show that it actually makes it a good fit. Supporting roles for Paul George and Steve Ballmer make the Clippers Hollywood ready.
5. Charlotte Hornets
In what could be something of a sequel to “The Last Dance,” perhaps team owner Michael Jordan will provide a meme-worthy moment that tops Crying Jordan or “…and I took that personally.” Add in one of the league’s brightest young stars in LaMelo Ball and some cameos from his father, LaVar, and the Hornets could be one of the most compelling NBA teams for rolling TV cameras.
4. Golden State Warriors
A Splash Brothers reunion with Steph Curry and the soon-to-be-returning Klay Thompson, the never-hold-back personality of Draymond Green, an engaging head coach in Steve Kerr and a mix of lottery picks with James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody makes the Dubs a perfect fit for Hard Knocks. Golden State is a rare team trying to reignite a dynasty while simultaneously infusing young talent.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
The league’s top soap opera is currently taking place in the City of Brotherly Love. Two production crews will be needed for this series: one at training camp with a mic’d up Joel Embiid and Doc Rivers and another wherever Ben Simmons plans to be while he awaits a trade that may or may not be coming. A young star with a large price tag and shattered confidence refusing to join his championship-contending team is about as good as it gets for ratings.
2. Brooklyn Nets
Kevin Durant struggled in his pre-Hard Knocks audition with David Letterman at Media Day, making the moment somewhat cringeworthy. James Harden’s personality is much like his playing style, effective but not always fun to watch. But Kyrie Irving? With his flat earth theories, sage burning, walking stick, unexplained absences, and off-the-court goodwill that is often overshadowed, Irving could be one of “Hard Knocks” most memorable characters.
Additionally, Irving’s status for home games this season is in question having declined to get the COVID-19 vaccine, placing him at the forefront of the NBA’s biggest storyline heading into training camp.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Wish granted, LeBron. With James and Anthony Davis being joined by Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and many other household NBA names, there is no Hollywood drama or ensemble cast better suited for a hardwood version of Hard Knocks. Are there enough cameras in LaLa Land?
What the King wants, the King gets.