The make-up of the league could change a lot between now and the start of the season. Either through the draft, trade, or free agency (or all three), any team in the league could alter its fortunes for the better -- or the worse -- in the next couple of months. Still, it's interesting to look at the NBA landscape going into next Thursday's draft, because it gives a bit of perspective on what to expect for any given team next year. It also provides a sobering look at the number of teams that really have a chance of doing anything of significance in the 2013 playoffs.
Another thing in particular that stands out is how weak the Eastern conference is compared to the West. For some Celtics fans, perhaps this list will temper some expectations for next season. For others, perhaps it provides some hope.
Tier One: The Titans
These two teams that made the Finals this year each have two of the ten to fifteen best players in the league on their roster, not to mention a handful of other stars and solid supporting role players. The Heat and Thunder are poised to dominate the league for at least the next 4-5 years. It's hard to imagine either team falling out of the top two spots of these rankings over the course of next season. The next time either of these teams gets eliminated in the playoffs by an opponent that isn't the other one, it will be a shock. It could also very well be a few years from now. The Heat get the top spot automatically by virtue of winning the title in stunning fashion, but the Thunder should be equally stacked and impressive this upcoming season.
1. Miami Heat
Tier Two: The Gunners
This group includes one team, the Spurs, that looked like a Titan until it was run over in four straight games by the Thunder, that otherwise would be included with the Old Guard except for their exceedingly young and talented supporting cast. Otherwise, the group includes two teams that faced each other in the playoffs this year and were about as close as they possibly could have been in that matchup. The Grizz and Clips are very talented teams that look poised to perhaps take another step. Any of these three teams has the talent on the roster to shock somebody next season, but for various reasons (age of core stars, lack of depth, lack of shooting, defensive issues) they could also falter.
4. LA Clippers
Tier Three: The Old Guard
These are three old, proud teams with plenty of talent on their rosters and championship pedigree (they account for all the titles won between '08 and '11). The thing they have in common is that each of them face a great deal of uncertainty in this off-season, and their age means that any season could be completely derailed due to injuries. The Celtics are waiting on Kevin Garnett, and will depend on a great off-season haul to rebuild the supporting cast. The Lakers are rumored to be on the verge of trading Pau Gasol following their disappointing playoff loss in the second round. The Mavericks have a lot of cap space and are poised to pursue Deron Williams, who will probably come back to his hometown Dallas unless the Nets pull off a miracle and manage to trade for Dwight Howard. Any of these teams could look very different by the start of next season, and they could climb their way back to the top of the league, or drop a ways down.
Tier Four: The Tough-Outs
These teams, for various reasons, probably won't really contend for a championship next season; however, whoever has to face them in the playoffs will certainly have their hands full. The Bulls would normally find themselves two tiers up, but they likely won't get their MVP point guard back until March or April of 2013, and it's highly doubtful they'll be able to get themselves back to full strength in time to make a deep run to the Finals. The Knicks have the talent to go far, but haven't shown anything in the playoffs. The rest are talented teams without any true stars.
10. New York Knicks
11. Indiana Pacers
12. Denver Nuggets
13. Atlanta Hawks
Tier Five: Borderline Playoff Teams
Any of these teams could make the playoffs; they could also be solidly in the lottery next year. There's plenty of talent in this group, and a good deal of potential, too. The Timberwolves even boast an MVP candidate in Kevin Love. The Warriors are hoping they can really climb their way up in the league with the addition of Andrew Bogut after spending years in the basement. The Magic still have Dwight Howard, for now, but it's unlikely that will last the whole year. All of these teams have the potential to make some pretty major moves this off-season to try to improve their lot, or revamp a stagnated rebuilding process.
15. Houston Rockets
16. Utah Jazz
17. Orlando Magic
19. Milwaukee Bucks
Tier Six: The Basement
Talent isn't lacking here; indeed, it abounds. Most of these teams, however, are still waiting on that talent to reach its full potential, or else coalesce into something that actually wins games against talented opponents. One or more of the members of this group could really surprise and make a run to the playoffs, but once they get there, they'll exit pretty quickly.
23. Portland Trailblazers
25. Toronto Raptors
26. Detroit Pistons
27. Sacramento Kings
Tier Seven: The Midden Heap
Three hapless teams that are at least a few years away from really contending for anything -- even a playoff spot. The Suns will probably lose Steve Nash this off-season, who has been the only reason they've even competed for a playoff spot the last couple of seasons since Amare left. The Nets will probably lose Deron Williams (barring the previously mentioned miracle), and will be left holding a handful of truly flawed players who haven't shown an ability to play together, or defend a chair. The Bobcats will be better than their historically-terrible showing last season, but not likely by much. The GMs of these teams have a lot of work to do -- that is, if they keep their jobs long enough to accomplish anything.
28. Phoenix Suns
29. Brooklyn Nets
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