After a wild summer of free agency moves, trades, and the draft, and as the dust settles on another successful Olympic basketball gold, the NBA Power Rankings look very different. When going through this exercise, one quickly realize that to move a team up, another must go down. If a non-Playoff team breaks through, then a Playoff team from last year has to fall out. I see only four legitimate title contenders this season: Warriors, Cavs, Spurs, and Clippers. Outside of those four, exactly zero have any chance at all to win a title this year. Of course, you never know what team will lose their star player to injury or what in-season fire-sales and trade-deadline madness, will result in a lopsided windfall for a team making a move, but here is how I see the Power Rankings as of today.
Normally I would rank the defending champs as #1 until they were knocked off, but adding Kevin Durant to Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green knocks the Cavs off as the favorite and everyone knows it. With those four, you can line up almost anyone as your fifth player and it wouldn’t matter. Adding unspectacular, but solid Pachulia was more than sufficient. Still the Warriors lost Barnes, Bogut, Barbosa, Speights, and Ezeli, weakening their bench in the process and leaving only Iguodala and Livingston as contributors from last year’s bench. People forget that Curry will be going for his 3rd straight MVP, he would join Russell, Chamberlain, and Bird as the only ones to win 3 straight MVPs. My way-too-early-prediction: These Warriors will have the greatest offense in league history, break the record for 3-pointers in a season, and meet the Cavs in the Finals for the third straight season.
The defending champs will go into the season as underdogs and I’m sure Lebron and his new 3-year contract, will embrace that role. I still don’t love the Kevin Love fit, but as long as they are not playing last year’s Warriors team, he has blended well enough to keep the Cavs as the top team in the East and should be able to hold off the Celtics and Raptors, their only real threats in the East. Kyrie will need to continue his growth as the Cavs best option outside of Lebron. The Cavs will miss Delly’s gritty defense and spark off the bench more than you’d think, but history has shown that a motivated Lebron is just about all you need to get to the Finals, which is where I think the Cavs are headed again this year for Lebron’s 7th straight Finals appearance.
Yes, they lost their leader in Tim Duncan, but it is Pop that sets the tone for the Spurs. Replacing TD with two veteran Power Forwards, Pau Gasol and David Lee, will compliment nicely the talented duo, Leonard and Aldridge. Pau looked great in the Olympics and seems to still have something left in the tank. Big question marks for the Spurs will be Parker’s health and how long he can hold off a really good Patty Mills for the starting spot. The Spurs will not fall off much, if at all this year.
Perhaps no team had a quieter off-season than the Clippers and from the looks of things that is what Doc Rivers wanted–one last run. Had Paul and Griffin not gone down in the Playoffs they would have been playing the Curry-less Warriors team in the 2nd round and the entire playoff picture could have changed. Bringing in Mo Speights and Brandon Bass strengthens the bench and the Clips brought everyone back. Will the Clips deal Blake?
Adding veteran All-Star Al Horford to a young core of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley will create a top-tiered team in the East under Brad Stevens, who has quickly become a favorite of many as the best young coach in the league. The Celtics have played so well, it’s easy to forget that Danny Ainge still has stockpiled assets of over-sea players and draft picks. Don’t think for one minute he is happy with his current roster and will continue to look for deals that make the Celtics better.
Tough to rank a team this high when the team didn’t make the Playoffs last year, but the Jazz won 40 games and lost another 17 by 5 points or less and then quietly had one of the best off-seasons in the league. Last season they lost Dante Exum for the season and Favors, Gobert, and Burks for long stretches. They added three veterans this off-season in George Hill, Joe Johnson, and Boris Diaw. With a top 9 of Exum (6’6″), Hill (6’3″), Hood (6’8″), Hayward (6’8″), Favors (6’10”), Gobert (7’1″), Johnson (6’7″), Trey Lyles (6’10”), and Burks (6’6″) this team is deep, versatile, long, and talented. It’s going to be tough to score against the Jazz this year.
The Raptors big win was resigning DeMarr DeRozan because it is rare for top free agents to stay north of the border. That said, losing Biyombo in the middle will hurt. He was key for the Raps in the Playoffs last year. Sullinger will help, but he’s a completely different type of player. The Raps will hover in the East top 3 still based the play of the All-Star backcourt and Jonus Valanchiunas.
Dwight bailed on Houston the way he bailed on Orlando and LA. This season Harden will be flanked by recent pick-ups, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, two additional shooters. One key to the Rockets success is how either Capella or newcomer, Nene, responds as the starting Center. Will either have enough length to protect the rim? I don’t see a huge drop off offensively (because Dwight never got the ball anyway), but they will miss his rim protection. Perhaps only the Thunder with Westbrook have as much riding on the performance of a single player as the Rockets do with Harden. I’m predicting he will play better without worrying about Dwight’s complaining and the Rockets’ 3-point shooting will make them very dangerous.
As a sign of how crazy the NBA salary cap is, Mike Conley signed the largest deal in NBA history as a player never to make an All-Star team and most experts I heard didn’t disagree with the move. If Gasol and Conley are healthy, how good is Memphis? A new coach might actually hurt in this case. Bringing in Chandler Parsons will help if he can stay on the floor. Randolph isn’t what he used to be, but Memphis has a knack of grinding out wins and will show us once again how elite team defense will never go out of style.
When the Magic lost Shaq to the Lakers the Magic went from 60 wins to 45. But, the Thunder still have a Top 5 player and they will not be in the same boat in replacing their star. They will go from one game from the Finals to a 5-8 seed in the West. Westbrook is likely to put up MVP-type numbers and may challenge averaging a triple double. Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams will continue in their development and the Thunder will be in the West Playoffs despite non-playoff teams from last year (Jazz and T-Wolves) taking steps forward.
Larry Bird wasn’t happy with the style Frank Vogel was playing and wanted him to play more uptempo, so the Pacers traded George Hill for Jeff Teague and signed aging big man Al Jefferson. So, how are they going to play faster? If Teague is healthy he can be explosive. That in combination with Paul George will be fun, but Bird’s move to sign Jefferson for $10.3M this year is perplexing. Jefferson is a black hole in the post and averages only 1.5 assists per game over his career. Look for Jefferson to come off the bench and the Pacers to run with a small ball line-up of Teague, Monta Ellis, Thaddeus Young, George, and Myles Turner.
The Blazers played a little over their head last year and got a little bit of luck with the Clippers injuries and were rewarded with a trip to the second round and suddenly high expectations. The Blazers brought back all their key players and added Ezeli from Golden State and Turner from Boston. I think they will make the Playoffs, but I do not think they are as good as many think they will be. It is clear that this is Lillard’s team and he has a knack of overachieving, but let’s see how he and the Blazers react to higher expectations.
Perhaps the most exciting young core of players in the league. Wiggins and Towns will create a dynamic duo for a long time if they want to. Add Rubio, Lavine, and Dieng along with Summer League MVP Tyus Jones and rookie Kris Dunn and you have lots to be excited for this season. With Thibodeau’s defense, the Wolves will become the dangerous team in the Playoffs that nobody wants to draw in the first round. Will it be this year or next year remains to be seen. Don’t be surprised to see Rubio moved this season as the front office’s confidence in Dunn grows. These young Wolves will be pushing for a Playoff spot.
Drummond, Jackson, Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Stanley Johnson and Tobias Harris should get me more excited, but for some reason I can’t get too excited about this team and I can’t figure out why. The talent is there, but I guess I haven’t seen who the leader is going to be and if these guys will really buy-in on defense. As it sits today, they look to be in the Playoffs, but not by much.
The Knicks are not a super-team despite what Derrick Rose says, but they did make a splash this off-season, adding Head Coach Jeff Hornacek, Derrick Rose, Joakhim Noah, Courtney Lee, and Brandon Jennings, and Justin Holiday to go with Carmelo and Porzingis. They won’t challenge for the Conference Title, but they are at least back in the Playoffs. It will take some time for them to gel, I’m sure, but if Phil can restrain himself from micro-managing Hornacek’s use of the triangle (or non-use of the triangle) they might work themselves into a position where they can not just sneak into the Playoffs, but maybe get into the second round.
Adding Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut and losing only Pachulia means that other than the Warriors, nobody benefited from Durant’s decision more than the Mavs. The question is whether this with be the year someone dethrones Dirk as the Mavs best player and if yes, who will that be. Can Barnes be the go-to guy the Mavs hope he becomes? To do it, he’ll need to shoot better than the 5-for-32 he shot in the Warriors last three Finals losses. This may be the year Nowitzki misses the Playoffs.
Goodbye Rose, Pau, and Noah, hello Rondo, Wade, and Lopez. No team changed their core this off-season as much as the Bulls did. Coach Hoiberg said he needed more 3 point shooting and instead got slashers. Rondo and Wade have never been shooters and the Bulls will look to Doug McDermott as their outside threat. The Bulls won 42 games last year and missed the Playoffs, now that this is Jimmy Butler’s team, they will take some time to gel and establish who they are as a Playoff Team. There is a nice collection of talent, but it’s unclear what type of chemistry this team will have and what Rondo will do to the lockerroom.
In Horford and Teague, the Hawks lost two more of its starting five (leaving only Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver) of the 60-win team of two seasons ago. Schroeder looks like the real deal, but can still get out of control and has never run a team. Dwight Howard is a real wildcard and its tough to say whether he should be considered an upgrade or a downgrade from Horford. Horford is clearly the better shooter, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Hawks want to use Dwight. If he returns to form and resurrects his career, the Hawks will be a 3-6 seed in the East, if he falls flat and disrupts another lockerroom, the Hawks may be on the outside of the Playoffs looking in.
Antetukounmpo playing point guard will be an intriguing experiment. Thon Maker looks like he may be the steal of the draft and I can’t wait to see what type of pro Jabari Parker ends up being this year. Matthew Dellavadova and Kris Middleton will make an interesting backcourt and Monroe will patrol the middle. Put it all together and Milwaukee is one of the trickier teams to rank. They have a high ceiling and a low floor. I guess that’s the hallmark of a young team.
The Hornets lost Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin and it’s tough to know whether those 48 wins last year were a fluke, but Coach Clifford has his Hornets headed in the right direction. Kemba Walker looks like an All-Star and Batum is solid, but do the Hornets have enough talent and experience on their roster to take the next step in the East? I say no. They will take a step backwards this year and be fighting for the last Playoff spot in the East.
The Wizards under-performed last year and finished at .500. If the they can get their young talent to continue to come along Wall and Beal could get the support they need to get back into the Playoffs. With Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Andrew Nicholson I just don’t see enough talent and experience on this roster for the Wiz to make many waves in the East this year.
A new era has begun in Miami…without Dwyane Wade. For the first time since 2003-04, Wade will not be the Heat’s starting 2 guard on opening day. Now this team belongs to Whiteside and Dragic. What will this team look like? It is still a question mark as to whether Chris Bosh will be able to play this year. If not, this team won’t look much like the Champs they were just four seasons ago and I see it that either way, this team will miss the Playoffs.
Lots of questions for the Pels. Can Anthony Davis stay healthy and fulfill his potential? Can Buddy Hield be a legitimate NBA scorer? Can Jrue Holiday regain his All-Star form? Can Tyreke Evans play an entire season without getting injured? The Pels have talent, but health and chemistry has been an issue the last couple of seasons. They didn’t land any big name free agents, but lost Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. The Pels have the ability to make a Playoff run, but that doesn’t mean they will.
The Nuggets lack star power and have a solid blend of somewhat talented young players. Faried and Gallinari are good players, but lack leadership and the talented youngsters Mudiay and Jokic still have a ways to go before they can win consistently in the NBA. The Nuggets are still a year or two from challenging for a Playoff spot.
Serge Ibaka will get first-hand experience as to whether it is better to be a good player on a great team or the best player on a bad team. I’m guessing it won’t take him long for him to channel his inner Cole Trickle and yearn for the days of Thunder. The Magic made an interesting move by adding both Ibaka and Biyambo to Nikola Vucevic. I’m curious who the odd man out will be or if the Magic will deal one of them. Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, and Mario Hezonja are all talented but young and that will translate to lots of losses this year.
The Kings lost Rondo, so not only are they less talented, but they are still a mess. The Kings will be irrelevant again this year. This is an ownership and management group that still doesn’t know what direction it is going. Cousins has publicly criticized draft picks and roster moves and still hasn’t grown up much. There is still discussion of Cousins being moved and that is still in play. Cousins and Gay’s talent are the only reason that the worst run franchise in the league is not lower.
How refreshing it must be for the 76ers to not be ranked as dead last. The youth movement seems to have paid off to some extent. Don’t be surprised to see Okafor moved before the season starts as I see him as the odd man out with Okafor, Noel, and Embiid. Simmons will be a solid playmaker as a rookie and will only get better. My prediction will be that it will be a 76er that will win the Rookie of the Year, I just don’t know if it will be Simmons or Embiid. Cellar dwelling looks to be a thing of the past for the Sixers. That said, don’t expect them in the Playoffs next year either.
Some signs point to a youth movement and the Suns starting three rookies, to play along side second year guard Devin Booker. Even with healthy veterans Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler, it is likely this team plays young and loses a lot of games. The Suns have a lot of work to do, but they are starting to gather some exciting talent that just needs to be developed.
The Lakers have a ray of hope with Ingram, but they still have one of the worst rosters in the league. Signing an aging Luol Deng, overpaying an old-style Center not good enough to see the floor in the Playoffs, and trading for a solid, but aging Jose Calderon was likely not what Lakers fans had in mind with all that Kobe Bryant cap space. The Lakers need to focus on giving Russell, Ingram, Randle, and Clarkson as much playing time as possible and hope they develop some good chemistry together. The Lakers have always struggled with patience in a good rebuilding process. To not even get a meeting with Durant when the Clippers did has to be discouraging. Can the Lakers return to glory without Dr. Buss driving the bus? Things are not looking good for this season, but if the Lakers can be patient, this group has promise.
Total roster make-over, but still no identity or star to lead them. You know it’s bad when you have a difficult time projecting the starting 5, not because of all of the possibilities, but because of the lack of possibilities. Brooklyn will struggle this season and may be the worst team in the league. Danny Ainge just keeps looking smarter for taking all of the Nets draft-picks in exchange for aging stars that didn’t pan out.