Much has changed since I last posted a set of power rankings right before the NBA draft in June. Then again, a lot has stayed the same. How has the NBA landscape been altered? Which teams have moved up, which teams have moved down? These rankings should be an interesting water mark as the season goes on -- check back sometime around Christmas to see how these expectations have or have not panned out.
1. Miami Heat:
Notable Losses – Ronny Turiaf
The rich get richer, but in this case, not that much richer. The Heat lost a non-rotation worthy player and added one washed up shooter in Lewis and another shooter who isn't at all washed up despite his age in Allen. Ray Allen will be an upgrade on Mike Miller, but in that offense it's hard to say how much of an upgrade he'll be. Still, the Heat are the team to beat until further notice.
Notable Additions – Perry Jones, Hasheem Thabeet
Derek Fisher is the only notable name here, and he was always probably just going to be a playoff rental. Eric Maynor will be back, and he's a better player despite the enormous difference in playoff experience. Otherwise, they are pretty much the same explosive offensive team that relies too much at times on isos and can have issues with execution on both ends. They’re still the biggest threat to the Heat, though, and my money is on them if they make it to the Finals again, because now they’re thoroughly battle-tested on the biggest stage. Durant and Westbrook are fresh off earning a gold medal, together, too, which can only help their composure and cohesion. The bench for this team remains a bit of a question mark, though, as the ineffectiveness of their supporting cast was an underrated factor in their Finals defeat.
In this case, the rich get mega-rich. The Lakers vaulted themselves up a couple notches by exchanging Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard and are solidly a top tier team again. The addition of Antawn Jamison is nice, but not a big deal -- he's a no-defense role player at this stage. Steve Nash will give the Lakers a nasty pick and roll with Gasol and Dwight Howard -- if he can ever get the ball from Kobe. The Lakers aren't the "odds on favorite" to win anything, despite what a lot of people have said in the wake of the trade. They downgraded offensively at center and upgraded pretty significantly defensively. Overall, Howard likely won't be more than a 2nd option on offense, and might spend a lot of the time being the 3rd or 4th. Let's wait and see how he handles the change in role before we anoint the purple and gold. Oh, and the Thunder are still built specifically to handle this Laker team. Remember, Kendrick Perkins might not be a lot of things, but a proven Dwight Howard stopper is one of the things he most assuredly is. Lastly, between Kobe's everything and two bad backs belonging to Nash and Howard, there are some pretty serious injuries concerns on this team. But if all goes right, they could steamroll the league.
Notable Losses – DeJuan Blair(?)
Notable Additions – N/A
The Spurs, who looked unbeatable at times this post-season and ran roughshod through the regular season (winning 50 games for an NBA-record 13th consecutive season despite the shortened schedule) essentially didn't change their roster at all, though word is that they're looking to trade DeJuan Blair. They will be very good again this year, but as always the two key questions for them will be whether they can stay healthy and whether they can get enough stops against elite offensive opponents (e.g. Thunder, Lakers).
5. Boston Celtics:
The Celtics lost three pretty key players from their playoff rotation, which sounds bad for them, until you look at who they gained. The "old" C's are now quite young outside of Pierce, KG, and Jason Terry -- and they actually got younger by replacing Ray Allen with JET. The Celtics are also, at least on paper, something they haven't been in quite a long while -- legitimately deep. Their bench could be one of the best in the league if they can keep relatively healthy and gel together like last year's remarkably tight-knit squad (Ray Allen vs. Rondo rumors notwithstanding). Alas, health is always the biggest question for this team. Also, sooner or later time will catch up with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, right? But as long as it doesn't, this team is one to be reckoned with. Don't sleep on Jared Sullinger, either, who might be the best rookie to come off the bench this season (and may earn some starts). Most importantly, this spring Rondo showed once again that he’s one of the best players in the league when the chips are on the table and every game is nationally televised. As long as that’s true, there’s no way anybody should totally count out the Celtics.
The Clippers didn't make any drastic changes to their starting lineup -- Chauncey Billups played the first portion of last season in the starting lineup -- but they completely retooled their bench (including three guys who used to play for that other LA team). They're hoping for some major contribution from a lot of older guys, but if they get those contributions, this could be a very deep team that's even more formidable than the squad that got swept by the white-hot Spurs this spring. Have to keep an eye on two sets of very important knees belonging to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, though.
Notable Losses – O.J. Mayo
Losing Mayo isn’t a big deal for the Grizzlies – they’ve been trying to unload him for a couple years now. In fact, Jerryd Bayless may be a sneaky-good acquisition, as he posted a 17.8 PER last season (appearing in just 31 games) as a sixth man for the totally forgettable Raptors. Okay, that sounds like pretty faint praise, but seriously, he could be pretty good for them. The Grizzlies still have the same bruising starting five that has won them quite a few games over the past couple of years and has made them a bear to face in the post-season (tee hee), but they still lack a true star.
8. Dallas Mavericks:
So this is what the Mavs come away with after breaking up a championship core last season. Ho hum, say Dallas fans (or worse) – but really, this doesn’t look so bad. The Mavs maintained a good deal of future cap flexibility and still put together a group that should comprise a competitive supporting cast for a (hopefully) reinvigorated Dirk Nowitzki, while getting substantially younger at the same time. If Collison and Mayo deliver on the promise they showed in their first couple of seasons in the league (they both fizzled the last year or two), the Mavs could be better than advertised. Brand was underrated as a defensive anchor for the overachieving 76ers last season, and Chris Kaman isn’t as old as he looks. Hey, they didn’t get Deron Williams or Dwight Howard, but they’ll still be worth watching.
9. Indiana Pacers:
Notable Losses -- Darren Collison, Dahntay Jones, Leandro Barbosa
Not really sure what to make of the Pacers off-season moves. They didn’t really get much better, but they didn’t get substantially worse, either. They’ll still be a tough, relatively young team that nobody particularly wants to face but that nevertheless doesn’t pose much of a threat to any of the top teams due to a lack of star power. Kind of like Grizzlies East. Unless Paul George breaks out like everybody keeps saying he will . . . . (not holding my breath).
10. Chicago Bulls:
The Bulls have overachieved in the regular season the last couple of years, winning lots of games even when Derrick Rose was sidelined with injuries. They’re still going to be darn good defensively as long as Thibodeau is coaching. Can’t blame anybody for thinking they’re still going to win a bunch of games this season, but I’m not so sure. They blew up their bench, exchanging tough defensive role players for a bunch of (cheaper) shooters. Have to think Bulls ownership (notoriously cost-conscious) saw the writing on the wall with Rose, their MVP, out since April with an injury that normally takes over a year to fully recover from, and figured whatever they get this season is gravy. Nevertheless, they’ll make some higher seeded team sweat in the playoffs.
11. Denver Nuggets:
The Nuggets continue to make the very most out of the little they have to work with. They turned a late first round draft pick into one of the best rookies this past season, Kenny Faried. They turned Nene, a solid big man on the decline, into Javale McGee, a freakish young center who just needed a change of scenery and the right coach. They turned Al Harrington and his idiotic contract, along with a slightly overpaid Arron Afflalo, into borderline star Iguodala, who could be the perfect complement to their young core of Lawson, Gallo, and McGee (and he’s fairly young himself). Anthony Randolph and Wilson Chandler shouldn’t be completely overlooked, either, and Fournier seems like a serviceable replacement for Rudy Fernandez. Masai Ujiri has proven beyond any doubt that he’s one of the best GMs in the league, and if the Nuggets go over 50 wins this season he’s an early candidate for executive of the year.
12. Brooklyn Nets:
Well, they didn’t get Dwight Howard – which has to feel especially bad for them now that they know what the Magic eventually settled for. Nevertheless, the Nets go into their new arena this fall with a team that should actually be competitive, though by no means elite. By adding Joe Johnson and retaining Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, and Brook Lopez, the Nets have set themselves up to be basically what the Hawks have been the last few seasons, assuming injuries don’t totally derail them (a lot of injury concerns in that starting lineup). They have a lot of offensive firepower, but a lot of defensive liabilities, too. Their bench probably won’t blow anyone away, either. At the very least, though, the Nets might cause a few Knicks fans to consider changing allegiance.
13. New York Knicks:
Notable Additions -- Jason Kidd, Ray Felton, Marcus Camby, Ronnie Brewer
That Melo trade just keeps looking better, huh? A head-scratching end to Linsanity led to the reacquisition of Raymond Felton, who might be a solid starting PG again if he ever loses his lockout weight. Kidd, Camby, and Brewer are nice defensive pickups for the bench, but nothing to get too excited about. The Knicks are now a pretty darn old team with a lot of injury concerns. They still have Carmelo, Amare, and Chandler, though, and if those three ever figure out how to play to their potential while playing at the same time, they could shock somebody.
Playoff Wannabes Who Have What It Takes
It’s going to be a white winter in Minnesota! Aside from being one of the teams most likely to spark conversation for reasons other than wins and losses, the Timberwolves enter the season as a very interesting question mark. A lot about this team has changed in the off-season, so it’s hard to say for sure how they will perform. This is especially true because one of their key guys, Ricky Rubio, is coming off a pretty serious knee injury, and a major part of his effectiveness in his rookie season was his surprising ability to stay in front of ball handlers and draw charges. That defensive prowess helped offset his ineptitude as a scorer. Nonetheless, things should be looking up for the T-Wolves because for the most part they subtracted the guys who have been (major) net negatives for them and added guys with defined roles and more developed, if limited, skillsets. They also still have one of the most dominant yet underrated players in the game, Kevin Love, hauling down rebounds and scoring from everywhere within 25 feet of the basket. How will Kirilenko look after a year away from the NBA? Will Brandon Roy be able to play consistently and effectively, and if so, for how many minutes? How many white teenagers will be wearing T-Wolves jerseys after this season? Time will tell. The most important question – can the Wolves finally win more games than they lose and make the playoffs for the first time since KG was still in Minnie – is probably the hardest to answer. But they appear to have what it takes.
15. Philadelphia 76ers:
Notable Losses -- Elton Brand, Lou Williams, Jodie Meeks
On talent alone, the Sixers should be a few spots higher on this list. They lost their All-Star, Iguodala, who is basically a billionaire’s glue guy and defensive stopper, and in return got the 2nd best center, and perhaps the most offensively talented player within 5-10 feet off the basket, in the league. However, these Sixers are now a very young and untested group. Their gameplan should be very different, with Turner slotting into Iguodala’s role in the starting lineup (finally being given the chance to prove if he can live up to his talent or not), and Bynum assuming the role of primary offensive option – the Sixers did an offense-by-committee thing last season, and their leading scorer, Lou Williams, left town to join the Hawks in Atlanta. They should be much more potent offensively this season, but that may depend on how effective they are in getting Bynum the ball. Their outside shooting is a bit better, with the addition of Dorrell Wright and Jason Richardson, but Bynum may have trouble completely filling the defensive anchor role that the departed Elton Brand played last season, when the Sixers were perhaps the best defense in the league during the regular season. You can trust Doug Collins to push his team to work hard, especially on defense, but expect a number of ups and downs from them over the course of the season. If they make the playoffs, however, watch out.
16. Atlanta Hawks:
Notable Losses – Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Willie Green, Kirk Hinrich
Notable Additions – Kyle Korver, Lou Williams, Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow
In the wake of the Thunder’s success, more and more teams are adopting the “three steps back to take one, two, possibly four or five steps forward” approach to roster management. It’s the age of teamed-up superstars and rebuilding through the lottery. Danny Ferry’s first moves as the new Hawks GM this off-season make sense in light of that. The Hawks were going nowhere fast, and were getting kind of old while they did it. So Ferry found a desperate sucker in the Brooklyn Nets and managed to unload Joe Johnson’s absurd contract. He also got rid of Marvin Williams and came away with a starter level point guard on a shorter contract. Lou Williams was an underrated signing, too – a reasonably efficient scorer to lessen the loss of J.J.’s iso-heavy scoring. Not a bad off-season. But the Hawks will be fighting to stay around .500 as they stand, and it’d be a surprise if some of the other names on the roster aren’t on the block sooner rather than later, now that the time for Dwight Howard pipe dreams is over.
Notable Losses – Dorrell Wright, Nate Robinson
The Warriors didn’t lose much and gained a fair amount this off-season. But the real storyline to watch with the Warriors is whether the deal they made at the deadline last season will pay off. Will they finally get Curry and Bogut healthy for a significant amount of time, and if so, will they be able to play some defense, finally? On paper, the Warriors finally have legitimate bench depth and a few highly talented players. But what this team will actually do if they get everybody playing at the same time is anybody’s guess. If they ever want to be more than a low playoff seed, though, they better hope Harrison Barnes is every bit as good as people thought he might someday be a year or so ago
18. Milwaukee Bucks:
Similar to the Warriors, the jury is still more or less out on whether the Bogut trade was a decent idea. Ellis and Jennings seem like any number of things other than a natural pairing, but together they do have a lot of offensive talent. This off-season the Bucks added a couple of big shot-blocking defenders, apparently to try and replace what they lost in Bogut. They still don’t have much in the way of scoring other than their shot-greedy backcourt, and they won’t space the floor much, but in theory their defense could help them win a solid number of games. That is, of course, assuming they don’t finally get sick of their coach like every other team under Skiles has done sooner or later.
Playoff Wannabes Who Aren't There Yet
19. Portland Trailblazers:
Notable Losses – Raymond Felton
Based on summer league (admittedly a dubious basis for anything), Lillard is going to be an exciting rookie, at the least. Other than that, there’s not too much to say about the Trailblazers. This season will likely be tough for them. They have Aldridge, who is a very good player, but the rest of the roster has some growing to do before it can be a worthy supporting cast for him. Final thought – they sure better hope Batum comes close to reaching his supposedly incredible potential to make him worth that astounding contract they gave him this summer.
20. Washington Wizards:
Notable Losses – Andray Blatche, Rashard Lewis
The off-season was a huge success for the Wizards simply because they got rid of Andray Blatche. But on top of that, they unloaded Rashard Lewis’ contract and in return got two useful if overpaid in-their-prime players, Okafor and Trevor Ariza. So basically, the Wizards got Okafor and Ariza for Gilbert Arenas. Not bad at all. A lot of people will question the wisdom of a young and rebuilding team like the Wizards adding a huge chunk of salary in veterans to try to win more games instead of continuing to develop talent while stockpiling high lottery picks. But there are only so many minutes to give to young players, and there’s something to be said for giving young players the experience of actually winning some games. Especially when your franchise has endured a few years of total dysfunction like the Wizards just went through. The Wizards have a good deal to be excited about this season, even if there’s no way they’re going farther than the first round, at best. But it’ll still be a very disappointing season if John Wall doesn’t start to really deliver on the promise of his prodigious talent and athleticism.
21. Utah Jazz:
Notable Losses – Devin Harris, Josh Howard
The Jazz are in a holding pattern, it seems, until they figure out how to get the most out of their four most valuable players – Millsap, Jefferson, Favors, Kanter -- who happen to play the same position. They might be a bit better with Mo and Marvin Williams, and Foye could give them some extra scoring punch off the bench. They might make the playoffs, or not. Either way, they’ll still be the most boring playoff contender out there.
22. Cleveland Cavaliers:
Notable Losses – Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker
Kyrie Irving, a couple of young players taken a lot higher than most people thought they ought to be (Waiter and Thompson), Andy Varejao, and a hodge-podge of NBA no-names. That’s the Cavs this season. As long as Irving is on the team, the Cavs will be worth watching. But that’s about where that ends. In other words, it’s basically the same as last season.
Moving Up or Spinning Their Wheels?
23. Phoenix Suns:
The post-Nash era begins in earnest for the Suns. Contrary to expectation, though, their moves this off-season suggest they aren’t looking to bottom out and rebuild through the draft. Dragic and Scola were two of Houston’s most valuable players last season, and combined with Gortat (who had a sneaky-good season last year) and the Suns’ passable collection of wing talent, they should win a decent amount of games. Then again, they added Beasley and Wes Johnson, who were far away net-negatives for the T-Wolves the past couple of seasons. In any case, it wouldn’t be shocking to see some Suns fans down in Arizona wearing Lakers jerseys for the next couple of years.
24. Toronto Raptors:
Notable Losses -- James Johnson, Jerryd Bayless
This ranking could be a bit low for the Raptors. Jonas Valanciunas was selected in the 2011 draft but is coming over for his rookie season this fall, and though he’s not well known here, he has a reputation abroad as one of the best big men in Europe. Kyle Lowry was a borderline All-Star talent this spring before his season was derailed by a scary infection. Terrence Ross should be a decent shooting wing, at least. Bargnani was actually playing some defense last season to go with his top-notch stretch-big scoring, before he too was derailed by injury. Dwyane Casey has a lot more to work with this year, at the very least. But this is a very young team, and similar to the Sixers, though they may be impressive occasionally, they will likely struggle as they learn to play together.
25. Detroit Pistons:
Notable Losses – Ben Gordon
Exchanging Ben Gordon for Corey Maggette was a good move, if only to free up backcourt minutes for Knight and Stuckey. Maggette isn’t much more efficient than Gordon, but at least he fills more of a need. Plus, his contract is one year shorter (Gordon has a player option for next year which he’d be advised to exercise). If his freshman year of college is any indication, Andre Drummond is a long way from being an above average NBA player. But if he pans out, he projects as a great frontcourt compliment to Greg Monroe, who appears to be on the All-Star track. Things are looking up for the Pistons, but they still need their disparate pieces to develop some chemistry. Brandon Knight developing a bit as a playmaker, and not just another scoring guard in the mold of his running mate Stuckey, would help a great deal, as well.
The Young 'n Messy Cellar Dwellars
26. New Orleans Hornets:
Notable Losses – Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, Carl Landry, Chris Kaman, Jarrett Jack, Gustavo Ayon
If the lists of losses and additions look long for this team, it’s because they are. Essentially half the roster was overturned. Now that the smoke has cleared, what is left is a very, very young team with some interesting prospects. Anthony Davis should be must-see TV right out of the gates – assuming, of course, one of his backcourt teammates actually passes the ball now and then instead of shooting. Monty Williams and Dell Demps have earned the benefit of the doubt with their past moves, so it’s not out of line to take it on faith that this team will be good much sooner than later. Still, the addition of Ryan Anderson ostensibly means Davis will be playing center, a position he might be a bit thin to man at the moment, and other than Davis, the team appears devoid of defensive playmakers. Fans should expect the team to struggle offensively, too, while Rivers and Gordon are learning how to operate efficiently, particularly in tandem. Davis’s skillset doesn’t project him as an immediate top notch NBA scorer, either, so anybody expecting a Blake Griffin-like debut could be fairly disappointed. There’s no Baron Davis or Chris Paul on this team to throw alley-oops. Give him a couple years (and some reinforcements through the lottery), though, and The Brow should be making his fuzzy-caterpillar-esque mark on the NBA landscape.
27. Houston Rockets:
Notable Losses – Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, Samuel Dalembert, Marcus Camby
This is a situation, much like the Hornets, where the team that was on the floor last season has been almost completely replaced. In their attempt to stockpile trade assets for Dwight Howard (which fell through), the Rockets jettisoned nearly every player who was a significant contributor last season – including 4 members of their starting lineup – and replaced them with younger, higher potential players who will likely struggle to produce (this season) on the same level as the players that came before them. It will be interesting to see if Linsanity continues, at least for a while, in Houston, but this team is built to struggle. There’s enough talent in this group that they shouldn’t be total bottom-feeders, but this collection of players has no idea yet what it’s like to play alongside one another. Coach Kevin McHale has his work cut out for him, but regardless of how good a job he does, it’s unlikely this team will win many games. Luckily for him, it appears as though winning games is not one of the Rockets’ objectives this season.
28. Sacramento Kings:
Notable Losses – Donte Green, Hassan Whiteside
What does a team with three shot-happy guards and an offensively talented behemoth at center who is disgruntled due to a lack of touches need to do? Sign more shot-happy guards who play no defense and don’t pass the ball, that’s what! Aaron Brooks is a nice player, but the Kings made a head-scratching move when they signed him this summer, solidifying Tyreke Evans’ place in the rotation at small forward and ensuring that the bruising frontcourt duo of Demarcus Cousins and Thomas Robinson will have to make due on offense with table scraps left for them by Brooks, Isaiah Thomas, and Marcus Thornton. Between the poorly constructed roster and the team’s ongoing “will-they-stay-or-will-they-go” drama in Sacramento, the Kings enter the 2012-2013 season once again near the top of the list of teams most likely to bear the title of “Team Turmoil” this year.
The Garbage Heap
29. Orlando Magic:
Notable Losses – Jason Richardson, Ryan Anderson, Dwight Howard
The Magic traded away their three best players – including a MVP caliber, 3 time DPOY center -- and got back a decent, offensively limited young big, an old stretch forward, and a rough-around-the-edges athletic wing prospect. Oh, and a handful of likely-late first round picks. Magic fans, get your remotes ready in the “changing the channel” position, and check back next May when it’s time for the lottery. Better prepare yourself to do that for the next few years, in fact. Unless you’re excited by the prospect of watching Glen Davis and Al Harrington combine for 20+ shots a night.
30. Charlotte Bobcats:
Notable Losses – Corey Maggette, Derrick Brown (?)
Notable Additions – Ben Gordon, Brendan Haywood, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
It would be a surprise if the Bobcats are not once again one of the two or three worst teams in the league, if not the worst. They shouldn’t be as historically abysmal as they were last season – there are actually a couple starter-quality players on this team now – but they still don’t have much going for them. Ben Gordon should have the green light to fire away again, which will make him happy; Kemba Walker, as a similar player, will probably follow his lead. Most of the focus this season will be on MKG, simply because he’s the only interesting player on the team, but fans may be disappointed when they discover his skill-set is not suited to a franchise-player role. The concern here is that MKG may end up somewhat like Andre Iguodala (or perhaps more appropriately former Bobcat Gerald Wallace) – forced to be “the guy” by virtue of being the most talented player on his team, but not at all comfortable carrying that load, at least on offense.