The NBA is back, and for the first time in recent memory, there is not a foregone conclusion on who will be sitting on top at season’s end. After free agent movement, trades and injuries, the NBA landscape has been completely reshaped. The West is still a bloodbath to be sure, and the East is still top-heavy with quite a bit of riff-raff, but hope reigns supreme around the league.
1) Los Angeles Clippers
No team made a bigger addition to their squad than the Clippers did this past offseason, with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George now in town. They were already a deep team coming off of a playoff run last year but were missing a legitimate superstar at the top. Now they have two and combined with Patrick Beverly, they represent the most intimidating defensive backcourt in the NBA. Their ability to go ten deep on their bench while staggering their stars will give them an advantage over the entire league. George will miss a portion of the beginning of the season due to injury, but overall this team is primed for a title run.
2) Los Angeles Lakers
After a disappointing season that started with high hopes, Lebron James made it clear that he needed help. That is exactly what the Lakers did in trading for star Anthony Davis. They gave up their young core in the process, but this team is in win-now mode, and they now possess two of the top five players in the league. With shooting added around them, and an offseason of rest that James has not had in years, this team is locked and loaded to compete, not only for the best team in LA, but the best team in the NBA.
3) Milwaukee Bucks
Losing Malcolm Brogdon in free agency is going to hurt this team in some capacity, but with the rest of core returning, they are set to continue their uptick. Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez should flourish as previously done, but it all rests on the shoulders of MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and his continued shooting progress. Should he find a reliable jump shot this season, he will be essentially unguardable. Even if that doesn’t quite come to fruition, he’s dominant enough to again put the Bucks in title contention.
4) Philadelphia 76ers
No team in the league has a more interesting roster than the 76ers. They essentially replaced Jimmy Butler with Al Horford, and in doing so created a lengthy defensive lineup that will give anyone nightmares. They will be able to stagger Horford’s minutes to let him feast on opposing benches and keep both him and Embiid fresh. Ben Simmons put in work in the offseason to improve his nonexistent jump shot, and Tobias Harris is set to carry Butler’s offensive role from last year. Should Embiid stay relatively healthy (that is a big if), the Sixers will compete with the best of them.
5) Denver Nuggets
To say anyone saw last season’s surge to the number one seed in the West would be a bit of a stretch, but coming in this year, they are ready to repeat their success and prove it was not a mirage. It all starts with Nikola Jokic. He had been steady with flashes of brilliance (especially in passing the ball), but last year he finally put the league on notice. No big man in the league combines his efficiency in every facet of the game quite like him. With newly resigned Jamal Murray hoping to continue his progression, and with any help from last year’s draft pick Michael Porter Jr., they will once again be a team to beat in the West.
6) Houston Rockets
Built to compete with the Warriors these past several seasons, the Rockets find themselves without that nemesis this year and a wide-open west in its stead. As their general manager Daryl Morey is one to do, they traded Chris Paul and his albatross of a contract for Russell Westbrook and his albatross of a contract.
How successful this will end up being will begin and end with Westbrook’s ability to co-exist with former MVP James Harden, as both are the most ball-dominate guards in the league. Harden continues to cook up new tricks in his offensive arsenal and has added an absurd one-footed three-point shot over the summer. His skillset alone will keep the Rockets relevant, and should chemistry flourish with Westbrook, the sky is truly the limit.
7) Golden State Warriors
The sun has finally set on the Warriors of old. After losing Klay Thompson to injury and Kevin Durant to free agency, they find themselves with a much different identity to begin this year. Steph Curry is still their alpha-and is the odds-on favorite to lead the league in scoring. Draymond is also back after signing an extension and will continue to be their defensive everything. In town to add offensive firepower is D’Angelo Russell. His usage rate and skillset revolve around a pick and roll offense, so his ability to gel with Golden State’s free-flowing offensive scheme will ultimately decide how they will look. They will be without many of their defensive cogs, so it will be up to Curry to be the makeup for it. Should they get Thompson back at the end of the year, they will be tough to bet against.
8) Utah Jazz
The Jazz have been defensive driven for many years with Rudy Gobert protecting the rim. This is the year the offense takes off, with the team replacing Ricky Rubio with Mike Conley. His ability to score from anywhere on the court opens up the spacing in ways that Rubio never did. This makes Donovan Mitchell’s job incredibly easier on that end, as defenses can no longer put their focus on him entirely. Losing Derrick Favors will put a ding on their defensive slightly, but their offensive capabilities should make up for it and push the Jazz to be able to compete with just about anyone.
9) Boston Celtics
Has there been a more irksome season in recent memory that what the Celtics had last year? Coming off of a chemistry-driven season previously with losing Gordon Hayward after the first game and Kyrie Irving at the end of the year, no team had more hype entering the new season.
They failed to live up to that hype, with Irving seemingly having one foot out the door and Hayward never coming close to what he was pre-injury. They are setting off this year with a new car smell after letting Irving walk and replacing him with Kemba Walker. The locker room is expected to thrive now that the chemistry has been adjusted, and hopes are that Jason Tatum and Jaylon Brown continue to improve. To be sure, losing Al Horford will hurt their defensive capabilities, but head coach Brad Stevens’ progressive scheming should have them thriving regardless.
10) Toronto Raptors
Nobody was living their best life quite like the Raptors last year. After making the controversial and franchise-altering trade of DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, they marched through the playoffs and improbably won the title against the Warriors. Leonard walked in free agency, but that was no surprise. Now the remaining pieces are still in place and were still very successful while Leonard rested last year.
Consummate professionals Kyle Lowery, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka still man the floor, and newly crowned young face of the franchise Pascal Siakam has the keys from Leonard to lead this team. Should Siakam take the next step in his game, this team will continue to be near the top in the East.
11) Portland Trailblazers
Their success this season will ultimately rest of the shoulders of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, but they will need help around them. The injury to Jusuf Nurkić last playoffs led the team to trade for disgruntled Hassan Whiteside to help carry the load until his return.
Whether Whiteside is able to offer what Nurkić gave them on both sides of the floor remains to be seen, as the Heat had been trying to get off that contract for some time. Regardless, Lillard and McCollum will be the premiere wing duo this year and should keep them in the conversation.
12) San Antonio Spurs
Death, taxes, and the Spurs making the playoffs. Since 1998 (!) they have made the playoffs, which at 22 years, is tied for the league record. Last year’s appearance was nothing short of a miracle by head coach Gregg Popovich. Having just traded superstar Kawhi Leonard to Toronto to pair DeMar DeRozan with star LaMarcus Aldridge, they opted to remain competitive instead of tearing everything down. That squad would push the number one seed Denver to seven games in the first round before being ousted.
Much of the team returns, but having Dejounte Murray back from injury is a huge boost to their defense, which was uncharacteristically poor last year. Should Murray and the younger members of their team improve, 23 straight years of playoff basketball looks attainable.
13) New Orleans Pelicans
Outside of Jrue Holiday, this team is basically brand new. Having gone through the trade clouds of last year with Anthony Davis, opting to trade him to the Lakers for almost their entire starting core. Gone is Davis, but in town is now Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors, and JJ Redick. Not to mention a generational talent in Zion Williamson, which will surely inject a fervor the team hasn’t had since Davis was drafted.
How they all fit together remains to be seen, and with Williamson out the first two months with a knee injury, the true chemistry has to wait to form, but the ceiling for this team is about as high as any. Once Williamson returns, we all will see what this team of skilled youngsters is truly capable of.
14) Brooklyn Nets
More than any team this year, the Nets will be playing mostly for next year. D’Angelo Russell was replaced with Kyrie Irving, so the team will be better offensively, but the future of the franchise rests on how Kevin Durant plays next year. After suffering an Achilles injury during the Finals, Durant signed with the Nets this past offseason fulling preparing to sit out the year. Nobody has recovered from this injury to be 100%, but perhaps that will not be necessary for the Nets to succeed. Even a Durant at 85% paired with Irving would put the Nets over the hump and even more competitive than they were last year.
This year is about the continued culture within the locker room and success within the offense. The pieces are there to compete in the playoffs like last year, but Durant will be there on the sideline waiting for his return, and that narrative will be a hard one to shake.
15) Dallas Mavericks
Rookie Luka Doncic took the league by storm last year in winning Rookie of the Year and has all the tools to become a perennial MVP candidate. What he and the rest of the Mavericks were lacking was a second banana, and that is exactly what they got when they traded for Kristaps Porzingis. Coming off of a torn ACL, Porzingis has been out of commission for over a year, but they are confident that the two can work together to become one of the league’s deadliest combos.
How the rest of the roster shakes out is another story, as they the talent to back them up. Should Luka improve on his rookie season, and Porzingis make a full recovery to be the unicorn that promised, they should be successful regardless.
16) Sacramento Kings
There were few teams more entertaining to watch than the Kings were last season. Headed by De’Aaron Fox, they paced the ball up and down the court and were surprisingly competitive, considering how young they were. Buddy Hield proved to be the sharpshooter the Kings were hoping he would be when they traded Boogie Cousins for him, and (when healthy) Marvin Bagley was a problem for opposing teams in the post. Hield was just recently signed to a mega extension, so this is the core that they are riding with for the conceivable future.
With games played comes experience, and that is the only real tangible thing this team is lacking. They should continue to be competitive, but only time will tell whether they make the next step, especially in the ultra-deep West.
17) Orland Magic
Few events were more surprising than the Magic making the playoffs last year. Riding a wave of late-season momentum and a defense that was tops in the league down the stretch, they punched their playoff ticket and hope to keep the good times going. The defense most likely will regress from how dominant it was last year, but the core of Nikola Vucevis, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac remains.
Mohamed Bamba will look to improve on his rookie season, but perhaps no other player is a bigger wild card than newcomer Markelle Fultz. Traded to Orlando for pennies on the dollar, Fultz is looking to finally overcome his mysterious shoulder injury and shooting yips that have derailed the former number one pick. Should he play to any level approaching that pedigree, Orlando can be scary coming out of the East.
18) Miami Heat
Pat Riley finally got his star. After years of fighting for one of the last playoff spots in the East, they signed Jimmy Butler to immediately anchor the Heat. Gone is Heat legend Dwane Wade, Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside (and the baggage he brought to every game).
Should Butler also not bring any baggage, the team could thrive. Rookie Tyler Herro has shown this preseason to be a real player and could work well with Butler to help man the offensive end. Dion Waiters will take a step back, which will benefit the team going forward. However, barring a mid-season trade for a big fish, a real playoff run might not be in the cards.
19) Indiana Pacers
It never helps when a team’s best player has a devastating injury. That’s where the Pacers sit with Victor Oladipo currently out for the first part of the season. They replaced the departed Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young with Malcolm Brogdon and T.J Warren. How Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner-two of their young stars-mesh together will ultimately decide how their season will go. Even when Oladipo returns, it is not a guarantee that he’ll be 100% this year, so the question is whether the young players and the newcomers can keep the team afloat until it all clicks.
20) Oklahoma City Thunder
The last piece to the 2012 Finals team is finally gone, as Russell Westbrook was dealt to the Rockets this offseason. Not only that, but Paul George was also traded out of town as well. The Thunder, as is constructed, are almost entirely brand new, with newcomer Chris Paul heading the team as their new point guard. He is a favorite to be moved at some point this year, but for now, he will man the team with newcomers Shai Gilgreous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari.
Alongside Steven Adams, the Thunder will look to stay competitive in the West but will not hesitate to make even more moves for the future should things go sideways. They already have accumulated numerous first-round picks from their traded of Westbrook and George, so while the present might look murky, the future is looking bright.
21) Minnesota Timberwolves
Is there a superstar that is surrounded by less than what Karl-Anthony Towns has? The Timberwolves have an influx of less than ideal talent, with no bigger disappointment than Anthony Wiggins. He simply has not made the jump that the former number one pick was projected to make, playing at a level that in many cases, at the bottom of the league.
Towns is undoubtedly their cornerstone superstar, but he can only do so much. Even if he makes improvements on the defensive side of the floor, which is the only area in his game that needs work, the rest of the team will have to overachieve for them to compete in the West this year.
22) Detroit Pistons
Blake Griffin is the face of the franchise, and as his body continues to break down and his once-revolutionary athleticism disappears, he continues to alter his game to age along with him. His three-point percentage is up, as are his assists. The only thing the Pistons need is for him to be healthy, which is asking quite a bit.
The team outside of him is led by Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, both of which have limitations in their game and contracts that make them almost untradeable. Newcomer Derrick Rose should provide a spark here and there, but their season rests on how many games they can get out of Griffin. Even then those games of his will have to be elite for this team to compete for a playoff spot.
23) Memphis Grizzlies
Gone are the days of 'Grit and Grind' with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, and in is the flashy play the youngsters. Jaren Jackson Jr. provided a spark for this team last year and will look to improve. He will have quite the partner in rookie Ja Morant to accomplish this. Both will push the pace and have plenty of excitement this year, but the Grizzlies should not expect wins to come with it. With youngster Brandon Clarke looking to break in alongside Jonas Valanciunas, the Grizz will look to build towards their future this year rather than realistically competing for a playoff spot. Regardless, they will be fun to watch.
24) Chicago Bulls
It is not difficult to make the playoffs in the East, but the Bulls will find it hard with the youth movement that is their team. Zach LaVine will look to break free of his ‘good stats on a bad team’ label, and second-year Wendell Carter Jr. will continue to improve upon his successful rookie campaign. Rookie Coby White looks capable and able to contribute, but most of this team is too young to make hay this year. Veterans like Lavine and Otto Porter Jr. will keep the team near the playoffs, but realistically they will look to compete in the near future.
25) Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young proved to be quite the sensation last year, as he exceeded his lowly Summer League level of play and showcased why the Hawks dealt Luka Doncic away for his services. Alongside John Collins, they dazzled on the offensive side. Their defense left a lot to be desired and was the culprit for many of their losses. This is to be expected, to be sure. Add De’Andre Hunter to the fold, and this team is looking promising down the line. This season is about getting to that line. Young will excite with his wizardry in clutch moments, but this team will truly compete when the young parts mature enough and gel together to be formidable.
26) Phoenix Suns
Every year the Suns pick in the top ten and fill their team with young talent, and every year they underperform. Much of that talent never matches its draft stock, as several of those picks have been traded away.
Devin Booker is a talented player, but does he have what it takes to lead a subpar roster to success? So far no, but the Suns continue to add pieces to help him out, with Ricky Rubio to play the point guard they have not had in years, and Kelly Oubre and Dario Saric to provide more veteran minutes to such an already young team. Will the additions be enough with Booker’s play to elevate the team this year? At this point, not picking in the lottery would be an improvement.
27) New York Knicks
Few teams struck out in embarrassing fashion quite like the Knicks did this offseason. One could call them allusions of granger, but they had their eyes on free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Neither of which ended up there, with Durant adding salt to the wound by declaring it “not cool” to be a Knick. Their plan B consisted of signing as many forwards as possible in Julius Randle, Marcus Morris, Taj Gibson, and Bobby Portis.
This cluster will play off of rookie RJ Barrett and promising second-year player Mitchel Robinson. While the rest of the older players fill out the roster and give them minutes, this year is all about developing these younger players to hopefully help Knick fans forget how they whiffed on free agents so badly.
28) Washington Wizards
Bradley Beal did the unpredictable and signed an extension with the Wizards this offseason. This will keep him on their roster for the next three seasons and presumably off the trade market. He will be their best player and lead them this year in what is to be a difficult one. John Wall is coming back off of a devastating injury, but his return is not cause for celebration. Even in the East, the Wizards will struggle to string together wins, and Beal will have to make hay as their only true offensive threat. Their path forward most likely goes through the draft lottery, as this year will provide the road straight there.
29) Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs have a star in Kevin Love to hold down the fort, but unfortunately, he is surrounded by young and unproven talent. Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are raw and bumps along the road are to be expected. Their move going forward is to continue to add young talent and plan for the future. Trading Love is definitely in their best interests, as his services are currently being wasted on a team not close to competing. Acquiring more draft picks and young talent, along with developing their current young talent, is the strategy going forward for this team.
30) Charlotte Hornets
There is not a team devoid of lesser talent than the Hornets this year. Not only did they let Kemba Walker walk and get nothing in return, but they replaced him with Terry Rozier’s unfathomably bad contract. He is fine, but not at $56.7 million. Alongside Malik Monk and Miles Bridges, the young players will look to make strides with Nicolas Batum and Cody Zeller in a year that will consist of spinning wheels.
With overpaid veterans and no cap flexibility, this team is will be stuck in the mud for the foreseeable future and have their only hope rest in having their young core show any progress along the way.
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