Finally, basketball is back, and I can stop pretending to be excited about football. Judging by the amount of ridiculous moves that took place during the off-season, including the top two teams in the Eastern Conference swapping superstars, this NBA season is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in recent memory.
Multiple teams have adopted an “all-or-nothing” attitude to take down the Warriors, but have any of them done enough?
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Despite trading their superstar point guard, Kyrie Irving, to the Boston Celtics, it can be argued that Cleveland will be better off in the long run. Adding a piece like Jae Crowder will be huge for the Cavs, as his biggest offensive strength is shooting corner threes, which will be uncontested while sharing the floor with LeBron James. The Cavs’ biggest weakness last season was a lack of depth at the point guard position; now, with players like Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade potentially coming off the bench during the playoffs, Cleveland will benefit from having multiple guards who can get their own shots.
Also, Isiah Thomas is scheduled to return around mid-season, giving Cleveland a twenty-five point scorer around the All-Star break. Not to mention, Cleveland still has the best player on earth, and unless he decides to retire mid-season, it would be foolish to pick against the Cavs in the Eastern Conference.
2. Boston Celtics
As previously mentioned, Kyrie Irving has arrived in Boston. With only four returning players from last year’s roster, the Celtics will likely experience growing pains during the early stages of the new season. With new players like Irving, Gordon Hayward and third overall pick Jayson Tatum, Boston will not lack firepower on the offensive end of the floor, but with the amount of shuffling that took place on their roster, some new problems may have been raised. The Celtics were absolute trash on the glass last season, and did not really address this problem in the off-season.
Second, Boston benefitted from having one of the scrappiest defenses in the NBA last season, with former players Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder causing trouble for opposing wings, but have lost some of the grit that existed on last year’s roster. Aron Baynes will likely bring the kind of hustle that the Celtics need, but will it be enough? Even with some of these questions, Boston has enough sheer talent, in a weak Eastern Conference, to easily obtain the second spot in the standings.
3. Washington Wizards
Washington has lived in the tier just below the elite teams in the NBA for a few seasons now. After taking Boston to seven games in the second round of last year’s playoffs, the Wizards once again failed to take the next step last season. While the Cavs and Celtics have both improved on paper during this off-season, the Wizards are essentially bringing back the same core group of players.
Re-signing Otto Porter was a huge win for Washington, as he is becoming one of the most versatile players in the NBA. However, the Wizards still need one more elite player if they wish to challenge for a top spot in the Eastern Conference.
4. Toronto Raptors
Similarly to Washington, the Raptors have been stuck in the same position in the Eastern Conference for years. Unfortunately, not adding any major pieces after being swept by the Cavs in the postseason last year does not bode well for the Raptors this season. However, they should still maintain a top-four position in the East, as they have brought back essentially the same team as last season.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks’ smallest starter is 6’5″. Plus, Giannis Antetekounmpo should continue his progression into the elite class of players in the NBA this season. If Jabari Parker can stay healthy, and that is a big “if,” the Bucks could pose a major threat to some of the top teams in the Eastern Conference due to their length and defensive depth.
6. Miami Heat
Despite starting 11-30 in the first half of last season, the Heat finished with a 41-41 record, going 31-10 in the second half of the season. If they are able to maintain the level of play that they put forth in the second half of last season, Miami could finish much higher in the standings than anticipated. However, with the amount of talent at the top of the East, the Heat should remain outside of the top four seeds this season.
7. Charlotte Hornets
Charlotte seems like one of those teams that could either play way above expectations, or drastically underperform. With the question mark now hanging over the Hornets that is Dwight Howard’s effort and attitude, it will be interesting to see how the team performs. The Hornets were 3-17 when Cody Zeller did not play last season, so how will his role change with the addition of Howard?
While Kemba Walker and Malik Monk should make for an exciting backcourt duo, the backup point guard position is a major cause for concern for Charlotte, and could pose a problem against some of the better teams in the league. However, defense and another All-Star season for Kemba Walker should see Charlotte in the postseason this year.
8. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons were already a top-ten defensive team in the NBA last season, and they added the best on-ball defender in the league in Avery Bradley. However, defense can only get a team so far, as Detroit was in the bottom-third of the league in offensive rating last season, and did not do too much to improve that issue. Regardless, their defensive ability, combined with the overall lack of talent at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, should gift Detroit a spot in the playoffs next year.
9. Philadelphia 76ers
If everyone on the Sixers stays healthy this season, they will likely be a playoff team. However, Philadelphia has placed a metric ton of faith in players who cannot seem to stay healthy. Joel Embiid is great, and everyone wants him to play and succeed, but he is once again marred with the injury bug entering the new season.
Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz look fantastic on paper, but so did Michael Carter-Williams and Jahlil Okafor. The point is, no one has any idea how good this team will be, and until they prove that they have the ability to avoid major injury, they will likely remain out of playoff contention.
10. New York Knicks
At least they still have Porzingis, right? As a Knicks fan, my hope that the team will eventually compete for a title dwindles with every season, and even though the situation with Carmelo Anthony has finally been resolved, I find myself wondering if what the Knicks got in return could potentially be more harmful in the long run.
New York took on the walking embodiment of an awful contract in Enes Kanter, and while he is still a young player, he will more than likely cripple the team when free agency rolls around next off-season after he opts into his final year in the deal. If the rookie-Frenchman Frank Ntlilikina proves to be better than everyone anticipates, the Knicks could move up significantly, but will likely still be left out of the playoffs next season.
11. Orlando Magic
I like some of the pieces on Orlando’s roster, as Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic are all relatively solid players. However, they still have not had a twenty point scorer since Dwight Howard was traded to the Lakers, and did not address this issue in the draft, despite having the opportunity to draft players like Dennis Smith Jr. and Malik Monk. Defensively, they will be interesting, but you cannot win games in the NBA with the twenty-ninth ranked offense in the NBA.
12. Brooklyn Nets
After the Nets’ first-round pick was shipped to Cleveland in the Kyrie Irving deal, some people questioned the actual value of the pick, claiming that Brooklyn could surprise everyone next season. Well, after winning a whole twenty games last season, trading away their top-scorer in Brook Lopez and placing their faith on the wildly inconsistent D’Angelo Russell, I wonder where this renewed confidence is coming from. If the Nets’ had landed Otto Porter, they could have made their case a bit more interesting, but without a dynamic scorer on the roster, Brooklyn should still be in the bottom third Eastern Conference.
13. Indiana Pacers
Indiana lost Paul George, and do not really have anyone to replace his scoring. The Pacers have some serviceable veterans on their roster, and they should still compete defensively with players like Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner, but without even a potential twenty point scorer on their roster, Indiana simply will not be able to keep up.
14. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks were robbed of all hope this off-season, with Paul Millsap heading west to Denver and Dwight Howard leaving for Charlotte. However, this will finally give the Hawks a chance to enter a full rebuild, so do not expect Atlanta to make too much noise in the Eastern Conference.
15. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls are going to be garbage this season, and it really is unfortunate for Chicago fans. After all the hype surrounding last year’s team, the Bulls fell to Boston in the first-round despite winning the first two games of the series.
Now, Chicago has lost Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade (which could be a blessing), and will rely on players like Zach LaVine and rookie Lauri Markkanen to provide scoring. Hopefully, despite the changes to the draft lottery, the Bulls will rebound from this tumultuous off-season quickly, despite the odds being heavily stacked against them.
1. Golden State Warriors
2. Houston Rockets
Honestly, choosing who will finish higher between the Spurs and the Rockets is like splitting hairs, as both sides are in the upper echelon of the Western Conference. The addition of Chris Paul is massive boost for Houston, as they now have two of the best passers in the NBA in their backcourt.
Paul also brings consistent three-point shooting from the point guard position, something that Patrick Beverley lacked. It will be interesting to see how two ball-dominant guards coexist on the same team, but the Rockets should have no trouble winning around sixty games this season.
3. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs have won fifty games in every season since 1999, and there is no reason to predict that anything will change in this upcoming season. Despite Tony Parker being inactive for the foreseeable future, Patty Mills is a solid point guard who is capable of filling in on a good team like the Spurs.
Rudy Gay is also a solid addition to the roster, and he should flourish in Gregg Popovich’s system. Kawhi Leonard will continue to play at an MVP level, and the Spurs will find themselves in a top-three seed once again.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder finished in sixth place in the Western Conference last season, despite lacking a secondary scoring option to go along with Russell Westbrook. However, after fleecing both the Pacers and the Knicks, OKC finds themselves with three twenty-point scoring options after acquiring Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, while giving up nearly nothing of value in return.
Along with the renewed offensive firepower, the Thunder maintain some of the best defensive players in the Western Conference with Andre Roberson and Steven Adams, which will make them a difficult team to beat in the postseason. Not to mention, rookie forward Terrance Ferguson could end up being the steal of the draft. The Thunder, if nothing else, will be one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the entire league, and will likely win a ton of games in the process.
5. Utah Jazz
This is where is begins to get tricky in the Western Conference, as there are so many teams that could potentially finish between fifth and eighth place. With that being said, Utah was the top ranked defense in the NBA last season, but they were also the third worst offense. This offseason, their top scorer, Gordon Hayward, left for Boston, so the Jazz’s scoring could potentially get even worse this year.
However, if they were able to finish with the same record as Cleveland last season despite not being able to score, it should not be too much of a stretch to assume that they can still compete in the West. Utah added Ricky Rubio to the mix this offseason as well, so there will be plenty of service for the ever-improving Rudy Gobert in the middle.
6. Portland Trailblazers
With one of the top scoring backcourts in the NBA, Portland should finish higher than the eighth seed this season. The Blazers ended last season by winning seventeen of their final twenty-three games before running into the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs, which should give their young-core confidence heading into this season. With Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum improving every season, and great depth in their frontcourt, Portland could be on the verge of a special season.
7. Los Angeles Clippers
After finishing in the fourth seed last season, and yet another early exit in the postseason, the Clippers traded away Chris Paul during the offseason. However, they received Patrick Beverley, one of the best defensive point guards in the league, in return, and he has served as a more than capable starting point guard for Houston for the past few seasons.
On top of that, they signed Danilo Gallinari, the versatile Italian forward, who will FINALLY fill the small forward role that the Clippers have been unable to figure out for what seems like a decade. Even if the Clippers stayed at the same level talent-wise, too many other teams improved, and they will likely slip a few spots in the Western Conference.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Similarly to deciding who would finish higher between the Rockets and the Spurs, granting the eighth seed to the T-Wolves was something that I grappled with for an extended period of time. On paper, their roster looks great, with two great wing players in Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague now running the point and All-Star snub Karl-Anthony Towns in the post.
However, Minnesota won thirty-one games last season, and I am not sure that the addition of Butler and Teague will win them more than ten extra games this season. Thus, I think they will still have to fight to get into the postseason, and they will barely get there in the end.
9. Denver Nuggets
I feel like I have more questions about the Nuggets than I should. They have arguably the most skilled big-man in the league in Nikola Jokic, they added a solid scoring option in Paul Millsap and Gary Harris should continue to score in a higher volume to go along with his incredible efficiency. Yet, I feel like the jury is still out who is going to be their point guard this season, as Emmanuel Mudiay was wildly inconsistent last season, and Jameer Nelson is another year older.
I also wonder who is going to fill the small forward role, as they are pretty much limited to playing a guard or power forward out of position after losing Gallinari to the Clippers. Maybe the Nuggets will surprise me, but it seems like there are other teams in the Western Conference who simply have more talent than Denver.
10. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are another team who will be in the mix for the last playoff spot, but simply do not have enough scoring to get there at the end. Similarly to Utah, the Grizzlies finished near the top of the league in defense, and near the bottom of the league in offense. However, I think that Memphis is much weaker at each position outside of point guard, where Michael Conley is better than any of the guards on Utah.
Chandler Parsons gave Memphis six points per game last season, and I have no reason to believe that he will vastly improve that number this season. Marc Gasol is another player who is still very effective, but will be asked to do a lot more after the loss of Zach Randolph to the Kings, and I am not sure how much more he has left to give.
11. Dallas Mavericks
After drafting Dennis Smith Jr., the Mavericks might have secured their point guard of the future. However, despite a pleasantly surprising year from Harrison Barnes last season, the Mavericks found themselves in eleventh place in the Western Conference at the end of last season. Without improving very much as a team, I suspect that they will finish in the same place this season.
12. Los Angeles Lakers
I am not on the hype train that is the Lakers bandwagon. The Lakers had the worst defense in the NBA last year and did nothing to improve it; in fact, with Brook Lopez starting at center now, it might get worse. The addition of Lonzo Ball will improve their offense, I’m just not sold on the rest of the roster.
Still, the Lakers are a young team, with some exciting players. In two or three years, they will likely be much higher on this list, but for now they remain toward the bottom.
13. New Orleans Pelicans
Despite being in possession of the two best bigs in the NBA, and having a solid point guard combo of Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo, the Pelicans are very weak at both shooting guard and small forward. Further, it remains to be seen if the Pelicans can figure out how to maximize the advantage of having two All-Star caliber frontcourt players, or if their respective playstyles can even combine to produce wins in today’s NBA. In a vacuum, I would take Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins against a lot of the teams listed ahead of the Pelicans, but it is difficult to see New Orleans being able to put together more wins than they did last season.
14. Phoenix Suns
I love Devin Booker, and I love Eric Bledsoe, but if the two top scorers on your team are not efficient or consistent, it is difficult to win games in the NBA. The addition of Josh Jackson should help the Suns defensively, but I worry that they simply will not be able to put it all together often enough to win a lot of games this season. The Suns are in a similar position as the Lakers, as they could move up in the Western Conference in a few years, but it is just too early to place them higher on the list considering that they finished last in the conference in 2016-17.
15. Sacramento Kings
The Kings will suit up nine players with less than two years of NBA experience on opening night. After deciding to pass on the obvious combo of drafting both De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk in the draft, which would have seen both of the University of Kentucky’s guards go to the same team, the Kings decided to take Justin Jackson with their second lottery pick, and are left with a young roster and a lot of questions.
Hopefully, the youth in Sacramento works to their benefit, and they play an up-tempo, exciting style, which would really fit point guard De’Aaron Fox’s skillset. I just worry that it will be difficult for the Kings to overcome adversity and close out games, as they lack the player who will consistently be able to get their own shots. While the future looks bright for Sacramento, this season will be a tough one to watch for Kings fans.