30: The Chicago Bulls
When I was first making these rankings using a notes sheet on my phone, I actually had 31 rankings. I put CSKA Moscow above the Chicago Bulls. CSKA Moscow doesn’t even play in the NBA. This Chicago Bulls team is to the NBA as “We Want ‘Bama” chants are to the Cleveland Browns.
29: The Atlanta Hawks
Really going to try and focus on the good for the Hawks. Good #1, they have a few good backup big men. Dewanye Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova aren’t so bad right? John Collins could be the franchise face in a few years. Dennis Schroder could take another step? Kent Bazemore could… have some trade value? I generally pride myself on knowing most NBA rosters from at least 1-11, but I’m not sure I could tell you much about any player outside the starting five for these guys.
28: The New York Knicks
Remember how I mentioned that getting rid of Allen Crabbe could provide addition by subtraction? That’s because he was taking shots away from players that deserve them. Losing Melo doesn’t help your team if there isn’t anyone that should take those shots.
Here’s the truth. Enis Kanter is going to be a Fantasy Basketball Monster, because no one else can do much. I don’t really have faith in Kristaps to take the next leap on his own, and Tim Hardaway Jr. is the team’s second option. Come on guys.
27: The Brooklyn Nets
By taking on bad salary in exchange for draft picks, the Brooklyn Nets have ironically enough improved their team. Mozgov is a downgrade from Brook Lopez, but adding DeMarre Carroll gives them a capable starting small forward. Jeremy Lin is a good point guard, he should just be coming off the bench for a good team. Russell might slot into shooting guard, and Crabbe, for all the crap I give him, does provide positive win shares to a team that needs them (and eats into their cap for a while but whatever). This won’t be the worst team in the league, but don’t buy into the “Nets to playoffs” storyline. That still isn’t happening.
Oh, and their opener against the Pacers is going to be what I eloquently refer to as a “Clown Fiesta.”
26: The Indiana Pacers
Hey, Miles Turner is still a potential second option on a championship contender. Now if only Indiana had a real superstar. Oladipo/Joseph/Collison actually provide a decent backcourt rotation, though, with no star, no identity, and little defense, this team isn’t destined to make much noise.
25: The Phoenix Suns
Here’s a hot take; Eric Bledsoe would make the Eastern Conference All-Star Roster. Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley aren’t half bad either for veteran scorers (Dudley also has a fantastic guest appearance on the Woj Pod, link here). Why then did Phoenix sit these guys for the last two months of the season? Because trust the process. Josh Jackson should fit well next to Devin Booker. Maybe Dragan Bender improves and claims the starter position. Don’t watch this team if you like winning, but from a player development standpoint, these guys are this year’s gold standard.
24: The Sacramento Kings
The Kings aren’t making the playoffs anytime soon, but they’ve got a decent foundation to start working with. Heild isn’t the next Steph Curry, but he could work well as a spot up shooter similar to Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick. Willie Cauley-Stein is improving towards a position as a defensive anchor. De’aaron Fox showed flashes of athleticism that might let him live up to the John Wall comparisons. This team is still missing a true small forward and power forward (Skal Labissiereis more a mobile small ball center), but it’s heading in the right direction.
23: The Dallas Mavericks
Dennis Smith Jr. is my pick for Rookie of the year. Rick Carlisle is my Coach of the Year pick almost every year. Dirk is a legend. And that’s about what Dallas has going for them. This year is clearly the start of a formal rebuild around Smith Jr. and I’m alright with that.
Storylines to watch: Is Noel a max player (he isn’t). Should Seth Curry get paid more than 5-6 million dollars a year for his next contract (he shouldn’t). Will the Mavs find another gem in the D-League similar to Yogi Farrell last year (I hope so).
22: The Los Angeles Lakers
I do think the constant media attention, Los Angeles as a city and hype around Lonzo Ball drives most of this teams narrative, but even if only a little I’m buying into the hype. I don’t think they’ll be above average defensively or offensively. I do think that KCP and Brook Lopez are still likely the two best players on this team. I’m not sure I trust this potential leap from Brandon Ingram, in fact I think Ingram might turn out a bust. Yet I’m questioning if 22 is too low. What if Lonzo’s a star? What if Kuzma isn’t just unsaturated hype? The baby Lakers have a lot to show, but I’m almost ready to take the plunge.
21: The Detroit Pistons
Wow, this team is bland. They didn’t do anything this summer really. No improvement, not much to look forward too. If they end up eking out a playoff spot rather than a fun team like Philly, I’ll be quite upset, and so too should the Detroit fan base. A playoff spot would mean SVG would keep his job as President of Basketball Operations, and this cycle of mediocrity might continue. Just flame out, find someone who wants Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, and hit the restart button. Unfortunately this team has just enough talent to avoid that, which in the long run will turn out negative.
20: The Philadelphia 76ers
Oh if things go right for this team, they’ll go so right. Embiid is the best center in basketball when he’s on the court. Keyword “when”. Fun stat of the day, Joel Embiid has three times as many career tweets than he does NBA minutes. Playing in 31 total games last year generally isn’t a sign of a Max contract, but that’s exactly how good Embiid played during his court time. Ben Simmons makes his debut this year, and is hoping to emulate a Magic Johnson/LeBron James style of Point Forward play. His shot is shaky, but with auxiliary players such as JJ Redick on the wing, a crosscourt chest pass could potentially serve as a scoring weapon.
Fultz is arguably the most intriguing piece the 76ers added. He’s seen his fair share of storylines before the season even started. His shooting stroke has changed several times throughout the preseason. He apparently has a nagging shoulder injury that recently came to light. Now he’s coming off the bench rather than serving as the starting point guard he was drafted for.
For Philly this year it boils down to: Come for the process, stay for the memes, and enjoy the chaos.
19: The Orlando Magic
I might be ranking the Orlando Magic slightly high, even I’ll admit that, but hear me out on this one. Aaron Gordon is a pretty solid player who could potentially even make his first All-Star appearance this year if he continues to improve. Slotting him at the small-ball four makes the most sense for his highly athletic game, and could really start meeting the expectations thrust upon him during the draft.
Elfrid Payton is about an average point guard, and paired with newly added Jonathon Simmons could make a decent defensive tandem in the backcourt. Marreese Speights could give 10 or so minutes a night and help develop the younger talent on the roster. I happen to really like Jonathan Issac and think he could provide minutes as early as late in the season. The center situation with Biyambo and Vuc is still somewhat of a mess, but unloading one of those bloated contracts could net perhaps some sort of an asset if one of the two starts producing this year. I think with strong coaching by Frank Vogel and health working out right, this team could challenge for the 8th seed in the East.
18: The Los Angeles Clippers
As my lovely and talented boss, Nikki Goel put it to me in a message at around 1:30am last night, “don’t go overboard, I don’t want you burning out around #18 and not finishing these rankings” to which I responded “I pride myself on sassy takes about Milos Teodosic.” What do you know we’re here at #18 in the rankings, so guess it’s time to write some spicy Teodosic takes. I think he’ll produce the flashiest NBA passes since Jason “White Chocolate” Williams. His defense is abysmal, and I’m not particularly sure how he’ll find his own shots but on the second unit, Europe’s best player should add pizazz and dynamism on the offensive end. The Clippers rank so low on these power rankings because I just don’t see Blake Griffin staying healthy. With the Chris Paul trade, the Clippers do have significantly more depth, adding Galo gives them the best player they’ve ever slotted in at small forward, and while Pat Beverly isn’t Chris Paul on the passing end, he’s a similar defensive style point guard that shouldn’t change the game plan too much. That said, Rivers at shooting guard will likely produce sub-par results, Blake could get injured and perhaps DeAndre finally wants out. This Clippers team healthy could surprise but I doubt that’ll happen.
17: The Memphis Grizzlies
The Grit and Grind Griz are dead, and with that we find Memphis in limbo. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are both excellent players. Their supporting cast is mired with reclamation projects such as Ben McLemore, Tyreke Evans and Chandler Parsons. Memphis supporting one of the weakest media markets forces the team’s hand when it comes to pulling the plug and rebuilding, but at what point can you say another bottom tier playoff bid for this squad is helpful. Gasol and Conley both deserve playtime with real contenders (lookin’ at you Cleveland and Houston). Watch for a blow up, but don’t actually expect anything to happen unless the situation gets truly dire.
16: The Charlotte Hornets
Nic Batum is not looking at a particularly long recovery time, which is great for Charlotte’s playoff odds. With a trio of Walker, Batum and Howard (did you remember that Dwight Howard now plays for the Charlotte Hornets? I think I’m still getting my head around it.), adding in Zeller at Power Forward and MKG puts a passable NBA playoff line-up on the floor. I just don’t have much to say on the Queen City. Watch them duke it out with Philly/Orlando/Detroit for the final two playoff spots.
15: The New Orleans Pelicans
This is a fun team and don’t let the national NBA media tell you otherwise. Line-ups that contained both Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins had a defensive net rating that would top the NBA. Add resolute defender Tony Allen and hope that Rondo returns to his help defender form from the Celtics days and you have a defensive powerhouse. Jrue Holiday is a good player and don’t let his injuries take away from that. I’m not sold on Gentry as a coach, but with two premier frontcourt members for an entire season, playoffs should be a lock.
Here are a few reasons why this team is so far down despite the “glowing” praise I just gave. They’re likely to become injured. They don’t really have any three point shooting. They still don’t really have a small forward. Rondo could just still not play well. It only takes one of these happening for the Pels to fall apart. But I really hope they don’t, DeMarcus Cousins deserves a playoff appearance.
14: The Utah Jazz
Who is a better player, Gordon Hayward or Rudy Gobert. The answer to that question determines if you think Utah will make playoffs or not. If you think that Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles can replicate the same sort of playmaking and stat lines that Hayward produced, then yes they’re a lock for the 8th seed. If not, Utah is lottery-bound once again, and likely bidding Derrick Favors farewell in free agency.
Here’s what Utah can offer, a stifling defense that can switch onto just about everyone. Rubio holds down the one, Jerebko and Sefolosha both can provide above average wing defense. Gobert is a DPOY candidate. Donovan Mitchell could really come into his own with Dante Exum missing. This team could bounce back from losing their biggest star within a year.
13: The Miami Heat
I honestly think that Miami could secure home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs this year. To quote Ben Golliver of SI’s Open Floor podcast “Miami went from having a big three to a medium ten”. There are so many versatile and dynamic players on Miami this year, just waiting to combine into the perfect trade package. Each contract Miami has on their books makes logical sense. If even one of them over performs to value, they have net assets on their hands. So what could happen is we see the next three years of Miami playing solid basketball, making the second round of the playoffs and losing to a real championship contender, or they could trade away their entire team in exchange for another franchise face. 50 wins is not out of the question, and within the first week Miami might just supplant the Toronto Raptors in these rankings.
12: The Toronto Raptors
Toronto generally didn’t change this year, which unlike the two Eastern Conference contenders above, actually is a mild negative. Unlike the two teams before, these Raptors are aging with no real signs of improvement. Serge Ibaka is already aging, Lowry is 31 going on 32. CJ Miles is also 30. There are a bunch of positives for this team, including the dynamism of Lowry/DeRozan back court, but, this team couldn’t beat Cleveland, likely couldn’t beat Boston and is maybe as good as the Wizards. Smart money is on another year of above average regular season play, and another second round exit.
11: The Milwaukee Bucks
Enter the Greek Freak. I still need to google the spelling on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s name, but don’t let that stop you from watching the near daily highlights he’ll produce. The only thing missing from Antetokounmpo’s game is a three point shot, and even then he’s young enough that might still develop. If not, who cares? LeBron is still the best player in the NBA and he shoots Free Throws with irritating inaccuracy. Giannis is maybe a step away from becoming a top 5 player in the NBA, and this season watch him stake his claim.
Don’t sleep on the rest of the Bucks either. Thon Maker could become the next NBA unicorn, Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon are an underrated defensive backcourt and a healthy Jabari Parker could propel this team into the East’s top three. The biggest thing to watch right now is what moves they make to escape the near Luxury Tax hell they’ve put themselves in.
10: The Portland Trailblazers
Call me a sucker, but I’m buying into the Jusef Nurkic hype. I think he’s going to be a monster and bring a much needed defensive anchor in the front court as well as a third scoring option. If players such as Maurice Harkless and Al-Faroque Aminu play even marginally better than they did last year that should push Portland into playoff contention despite how good the west is this year. Finally getting rid of Allen Crabbe might actually produce addition via subtraction. Without a go-to scorer on the second unit, Head Coach Terry Stots may be forced to stagger C.J and Dame between the two units, providing the second unit with a diverse set of offensive skills. That said, Portland is in Western Conference Limbo with teams such as Utah, The Clippers, New Orleans and Memphis for the last two playoff spots, and one little slip might just knock them right out. Watch for this team to play tough every night.
9: The Washington Wizards
Oh good, finally, another Eastern Conference team. At this point in the power rankings, I’ve already listed the first 6 playoff teams for the West while only bringing up two Eastern Conference locks. The Wizards, outside of locking down Otto Porter on a max deal that he doesn’t deserve, mainly stayed pat this offseason. That said, once again regression from last year’s playoff teams should keep the Wizards, a decent enough team, in the playoff picture. Wall and Beal are still a dynamic backcourt. Oubre could make another jump into the starting line-up and preform as a decent small forward. The Markieff Morris acquisition is still slept on, making the Wiz a decent team in the front court. Basically the question comes down to “is this squad a 50 win group” and the answer is still, almost unfortunately, yes.
8: The Denver Nuggets
In inner basketball circles of nerdy stat-geeks, this decision to slot a non-playoff team into the NBA’s top 10 is absolutely justified, but for those of you that think this positioning seems crazy, let me provide some justification. With Nicola Jokic in the starting line-up, Denver was the NBA’s #1 offensive team. Their two best players? Still on rookie contracts in Jamal Murray and Jokic. Replacing Danilo Gallinari with Paul Milsap provides someone equally capable of scoring but improved on the defensive end. Gary Harris is primed this year to take a leap and become an elite 3-D wing. Barton is a sneaky pick for 6th man of the year. This team is just deep from top to bottom and their incredibly fast paced offensive play capitalizes on the fact that their home games are played at a significantly higher altitude than their opponents. Denver is another team to watch and could make some noise in the NBA playoffs.
7: The Boston Celtics
I’ve actually torn down the Celtics additions before on ClutchPoints which you can read here, but quickly just to run down why I don’t like this Boston Celtics team. First, I grew up in Cleveland Ohio. Second, they’re relying on several unproven talents to man their starting line-up. Brown was alright to close the season last year, but is he really a championship caliber shooting guard to start the year? Similarly is Tatum going to provide a positive defensive presence against premier small/power forwards? Kyrie Irving is a great isolation scorer, but can he effectively lead a team to the playoffs? Similarly Gordon Hayward is a great player all around, but only has one playoff series of experience. Who is the leader on this team?
By playoffs I believe Boston will likely be the second seed in the East, but a good portion of that is regression by almost all other Eastern Conference teams. I couldn’t see Boston winning a playoff series against any of CLE/HOU/GSW/SAS/OKC and I couldn’t see this team even making the 5th seed in the West. Sorry Boston, you’re wild upgrades still leave you second to the Cavaliers.
6: The Minnesota Timberwolves
Shoot three pointers you said? Yea… Thibs and his Timberpups won’t be doing that. The best three point shooter in their starting line-up this year is Karl Anthony-Towns at Center. Butler thrives off midrangers, as does newly extended Andrew Wiggins. That said, this entire line-up seems ready to fight someone on defense. Taj Gibson, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammed. All of those guys will take players into the post and bully their way to the rim. All this team needs is Kendrick Perkins and they’ll be set with the all-time “that’s not a hard screen, THIS is a hard screen” squad.
I do think Minnesota has boom/bust potential. Does Butler really add enough to this team to finally make the leap supposedly KAT and Wiggins were supposed to make? Can a team with virtually no three point shooting (Teague and Crawford pretty much make up all of it) win in the three point era? I’ve got money on them as the 5th seed in the West meaning I’d hope so, but no promises.
5: The Oklahoma City Thunder
If the Golden State Warriors are the best team in the league, and Houston is challenging for the most fun, this year’s biggest question mark is the Oklahoma City Thunder. At their ceiling, this is the second best team in the West that’s one Golden State big four injury away from making the finals. Their floor? 6th in the West and PG13/Melo both chose to leave. The success and failure of this team are dependent on how things click.
OKC’s depth is somewhat suspect. Patrick Patterson is a great defensive stopper who can slot at backup 4 and 5. Alex Abrines still has potential to play off the bench scorer. Raymond Felton is a better backup that Oklahoma City has ever seen at point guard. Is Jeremi Grant a good player? I’m from Oklahoma City and I’m still not sure. This team should thrive in the playoffs giving their stars 35+ minutes a game, but during the regular season barring a trade this team’s bench may just cause them problems. But if this works, oh man will it be fun.
4: The San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio has made several suspect moves this offseason. Losing defensive stalwart Jonathan Simmons to the Orlando Magic, Signing 37 year old Pau Gasol to a three year, 48 million dollar contract and the seemingly out of place LaMarcus Aldridge extending for another three years at 72 million, none of these moves particularly stand out as impressive. Resigning Patty Mills on a 4 year, 50 million dollar deal is reasonable but with Rudy Gay as the only notable addition, San Antonio looks like a prime candidate for regression.
Wait… That’s Gregg Popovich’s music. And from the ashes rises yet another top three seed. The Spurs are really good at winning in the regular season. That’s not to say they aren’t good at winning in the post season either, but their evening to evening formula that isn’t forced to adapt throughout a series is a winner. Their talent might be on suspect contracts, but at least for this year Pau and LaMarcus should have a positive impact on the game. Barring any long-term setback for Kawai Leonard, he should be a favorite to win the MVP award. That said, from a playoff series perspective, I’d consider the Spurs in the worst position of the 2-5 teams. Don’t be wildly surprised if a Minnesota or Denver playing far over their potential knocks these perennial juggernauts out in the first round.
3: The Houston Rockets
This is your pre-emptive NBA league-pass alert, The Houston Rockets are must-watch TV. This team is going to be all flashy offense all the time. Just imagine it, close your eyes and watch Chris Paul whip a pass across the court to James Harden, have him drive and grab an and-1 basket. How about a multi-pass lob play to Clint Capela, or a “defence be damned” (a specialty of Head Coach Mike D’Antoni) Harden/Eric Gordon backcourt. This team is going to be fun, but what makes them better than last year is their sneaky additions of depth. Nene, Capela and Black are all capable centers. PJ Tucker provides a LeBron/Durant “stopper” on the second unit behind Ariza. Ryan Anderson is still on this team I guess. I just love the idea of a position-less basketball line-up of Paul/Harden/Gordon/Ariza/Tucker closing games by daring anyone to try and outscore them. I loved watching Houston last season, this year they’ll be even more fun.
2: The Cleveland Cavaliers
I think Charles Barkley’s comments in an interview with Mark Stein yesterday best surmise my feelings going into this year’s NBA season.
“The toughest thing for me is I have to get on TV and fake it for seven months that it’s not going to be the Warriors and Cavs in the finals again,”
This offseason, just about every team’s offseason decisions were dictated by either “LeBron is still in the East so let’s just tank” or “How are we going to beat Golden State.” To be perfectly honest, any of the teams in 2-5 would be a championship favorite if it wasn’t for Golden State’s existence, and to really rank them took some thought, but Cleveland comes out on top for one reason, LeBron James. While making almost exclusively lateral moves and adding depth that won’t particularly help against the Warriors, Cleveland happened to still somehow remain relevant. Resurgences from Rose, Old Man Wade and Jeff Green may just make Cleveland a clear-cut second team in the NBA, but for now, the only think eking them out over the other western conference powerhouses is LeBron James’ seemingly unending elite play. Add a defensive stopper in Jae Crowder, a position shift for Love and a potentially healthy Isaiah Thomas and this Cleveland team might just repeat their Eastern Conference dominance for the fourth time.
1: Golden State Warriors
My thoughts on the Golden State Warriors each year since their dynasty started are the following. First, all of the outlandish post-championship rumors start to emerge (this year it was “how will GSW get Paul George”). Once those are over I tend to try and come to a logical conclusion, “They’ll likely lose Javale McGee and maybe David West. I’m sure some alright free agents will sign for the minimum to replace them, whatever.” Free agency starts, and now my thoughts are “Wow, they might actually lose Shaun Livingston and/or Andre Iguodala.” Which moves us into the final stage of the offseason, when somehow they retain all of their free agents, add Omri Casspi and Nick Young, and somehow look better than their already dominant selves. Which prompts this response.
In all seriousness, this iteration of Golden State might be the best team the NBA has ever seen. Four perennial All-Stars, two MVP candidates and a second unit that could secure a low Eastern Conference playoff spot, this massively talented squad is the favorite to win another Larry O’Brien trophy. On a week to week basis, Golden State may slip if they slump, but barring injury to either Steph or Durant, Golden State should cruise to the NBA championship.