Each year before the start of the season, toward the end of the summer when there's nothing going on and almost all of the major moves of the NBA offseason have already happened, I like to look ahead to the regular season that is still over two months away by making a totally arbitrary, opinion-based ranking of the teams as they are currently constituted. I tend to look at the league as being separated into different groups or 'tiers' of teams with comparable talent and competitive prospects, so that's how I break down my rankings.
The Heat (60+ wins)
Notable Losses: Mike Miller
Notable Additions: Greg Oden
The guess here is that the Heat will get less out of Greg Oden overall than they got out of Mike Miller. Still, they're coming off their second championship and third run to the Finals in a row, and LeBron James is the best player in the world by leaps and bounds. They are in a class of their own as it stands, though it's possible after winning two straight championships they will be afflicted with "the curse of more" and not win quite as many regular season games as last year.
The Elite (55+ wins)
Notable Losses: Kevin Martin
Notable Additions: Steven Adams
Losing Kevin Martin is a big deal, even if 'ol K-Mart never played much defense. He is and always has been a very talented scorer. Nevertheless, Reggie Jackson looks primed to take over the bench scorer role, and Jeremy Lamb may be ready to step up and make a contribution. Who knows if Steven Adams will get minutes this season, but the Thunder still have a need for a talented rim protector not named Serge Ibaka (and they'd really like Ibaka to become a better all-around defender).
Eric Bledsoe is a major piece for them to lose; he was a huge spark-plug for them off the bench the last couple of years. Getting Darren Collison (at an amazing bargain) helps soften that blow considerably, though. Also, they really needed an upgrade on the wings, and they got it by acquiring Redick and Dudley. J.J. Redick can do pretty much anything on the offensive side of the floor that Ray Allen can do nowadays, and he should get a lot of nice looks off screens from floor general Chris Paul. Dudley is upgrade over Caron Butler at this point, whether he starts ahead of Barnes or comes off the bench. The Clips still lack frontcourt depth, though, and they still need Deandre Jordan to grow up into a well-rounded player, or else they'll need to find an upgrade at center.
Notable Losses: Gary Neal
Losing Gary Neal hurts somewhat, but Marco Belinelli can fit just fine in that offense and probably do a lot of the same things. It also opens up some ball-handling opportunities for Patty Mills / Cory Joseph. Pendergraph could give them some quality depth at either big position and is essentially the replacement for DeJaun Blair.
Notable Losses: Ty Hansbrough, Jeff Pendergraph
Luis Scola is a major upgrade over Ty Hansbrough. He should give the Pacers some nice offensive production off the bench, though they didn't really lack for inside scoring to begin with. Copeland should give them some of the shooting they lack, though he's more of a stretch 4 than a true 3. C.J. Watson is a significant upgrade at backup point over D.J. Augustin. It will be interesting to see how they handle Danny Granger's return. Does he start ahead of Stephenson, moving Paul George back to the 2? Or do they use him as a sixth man? My guess is they find a trade for Granger sooner rather than later.
Notable Losses: Darrell Arthur
Notable Additions: Kosta Koufos, Mike Miller
Swapping Darrell Arthur for Koufos makes some sense for the Grizz. They needed to make room in the rotation for Ed Davis, who has shown promise but is not a center (expect him to actually play now that Hollins is gone). They needed a better backup center than Hamed Haddadi. Mike Miller is a major get for them; he is not a starting quality player at this point, but whatever his place in the rotation, he'll give the Grizzlies some badly needed floor spacing.
The Question Marks (40-55 wins)
Notable Losses: Carlos Delfino
The winners of the Dwight Howard sweepstakes were already a pretty decent team starting Omer Asik at center last season. They had one of the best offenses in the league and a defense that was passable. Now add Dwight Howard to that. Their defense should be greatly improved, and they have a true inside presence offensively now, which they previously lacked. Still, there will be some adjustment. How will Harden and Dwight work together? They hope it'll be better than Dwight and Kobe were last season. Can Dwight fit naturally into the Rockets' up-tempo, three-heavy offensive system, or will they change things for his sake? There may be some growing pains here, but it would be a surprise to see them finish with less than 50 wins.
Notable Losses: Marco Belinelli
Notable Additions: Mike Dunleavy
Swapping out Marco Belinelli for Mike Dunleavy is a lateral move. The fate of this franchise will depend first and foremost on Derrick Rose's return. How will he look after major knee surgery and not playing since over a year ago? The second important factor is Joakim Noah's health. If Rose comes back at an MVP-caliber level and Noah stays healthy all year, the Bulls could win the East. If not . . . Thibs will still have them in the playoff hunt.
The Nets mortaged their future for the here and now, and while the end result remains to be seen, prior to the start of the season the here and now looks pretty good. The Nets now have arguably the most talented starting 5 in the NBA with a potentially All-Star caliber player at every single position. Their bench isn't too bad, either. Jason Terry may be mostly washed up but he'll probably give them more than Gerald Wallace did last season. The Nets could implode due to injuries or simply a lack of fit among the starters. Or they could have a magical run to a title. It's all on the table.
Andre Iguodala was a really nice signing for the Warriors, who could use the perimeter defense and veteran leadership that Iggy provides. However, losing Jack and Landry is a big blow. If Barnes can thrive in a bench scorer role and Bogut can stay healthy for most of the season, the Warriors could be even better than last season. It's also conceivable they could deal with lots of injuries and struggle to make the playoffs. David Lee seems like an obvious choice to get traded for some complementary pieces that better fit what the Warriors are trying to do (and that aren't such a liability on defense).
The Knicks still have all of their highly paid marquee players, so projecting them this low may seem like an insult. However, the contributions of Chris Copeland and Steve Novak last year shouldn't be written off; they were a significant part of the Knicks' three point attack. Not to mention losing the leadership that Jason Kidd provided, both on the floor and off. Will Andrea Bargnani and Metta World Peace help the Knicks reach greater heights this season? It's hard to say, but both fit into the Knicks' prevailing MO -- prioritize recognizable names over a winning, disciplined team building strategy.
The Nuggets won a surprising amount of games last year, but still fell short in the first round of the playoffs. That led to George Karl getting canned, and may have contributed to Andre Iguodala going elsewhere (especially since he joined the team that defeated them). Those are two major losses for this team, especially in the leadership category. The Nuggets had a surplus of centers and lacked depth at the 4, so signing Arthur and letting Koufos go makes some sense. Getting Hickson as well makes less sense. Relying on Javale McGee to take the next step and Gallo to come back healthy from a knee injury, the Nuggets could be looking at an up and down season.
Danny Ferry should be considered one of the early candidates for Executive of the Year. Seriously. The Hawks let Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia walk, and then signed two more than adequate replacements in Millsap and Brand for considerably less money. Millsap's contract is an incredible bargain. It's such a great situation for Millsap that I hesitate to say that Millsap should fire his agent, but he had to have been able to get longer and more lucrative offers elsewhere. In any case, retaining Korver and Teague were good moves as well for the Hawks (smartly staying away from guys like Jennings, Mayo, and Ellis). The Hawks maintain future flexibility and may be even better this year than they were last year. Horford still has to play center, though.
The Pistons were actually not such a bad team last year -- if Andre Drummond had stayed healthy it's possible they could have challenged Milwaukee for the 8th seed. This offseason they significantly upgraded their point guard position and added Josh Smith. This could end up being a horrible waste of money, or the Pistons could have their best season since 2008. It all comes down to how the new pieces are able to fit together. Should be fun to watch -- especially if Andre Drummond stays healthy and delivers on the considerable promise he showed in his rookie season.
The Borderlines (30-45 wins)
Eric Maynor should be a significant upgrade over the scubs like A.J. Price and Shelvin Mack that the Wizards have had manning the backup PG position in recent years. Otto Porter may or may not be any better than Trevor Ariza or Martell Webster. Regardless, all the Wizards need to be a playoff team this year -- a playoff team nobody wants to face -- is for Wall, Nene, and Beal to stay healthy. John Wall quietly had a pretty great season for the Wizards last year (18.5 pts 7.6 ast 4.0 reb 20.91 PER), and they were 24-25 with him in the starting lineup. Having signed a $80 million dollar extension in the offseason, look for John Wall to make a run at an All-Star berth.
At best, the Mavericks made lateral moves this summer. I'm not convinced Monta Ellis is a good fit with Dirk, or that he'll even be an upgrade over O.J. Mayo. If they have Dirk healthy for most of the season, though, they'll still have a shot at winning 50 games and making the playoffs. Dalembert is a much better fit next to Dirk at center than Chris Kaman or Elton Brand were. Jose Calderon is a much more capable floor general than Darren Collison, too. Hard to imagine the Mavs being very good at defense, though. This is what doubling down on mediocrity for the sake of holding onto your aging star looks like, folks. Where was all that sentimentality when Cuban let Chandler et al. leave town? The "Dirk is a Mav for life and that's that" thing is a nice narrative, but the reality is they gambled on getting Dwight, D-Will, or CP3 in free agency and missed on all three. They struck out.
Notable Losses: J.J. Hickson
Last season, the Blazers quietly had one of the most effective starting 5's in the NBA. This offseason, they exchanged J.J. Hickson for Robin Lopez and upgraded their entire bench at nearly every position. Mo and McCollum give them some nice scoring punch at the guard spots, Dorell Wright is a nice catch-and-shoot player, and Thomas Robinson projects as a solid hustle-board-and-dunk big. They're still depending on Aldridge to stay healthy and for Lillard and Batum to continue developing, but the Blazers have a real chance at making the playoffs and scaring some people along the way, assuming their bench additions work out for them.
Notable Additions: Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Ronny Turiaf
Andrei Kirilenko was a really effective player for a hapless and injured Wolves team last year, so losing him is kind of a big blow. Still, whether or not the Wolves challenge for the playoffs at long last will come down to the health and on-court synergy of Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love. Martin and Brewer should give the Wolves some needed wing scoring, but their roster does not appear well set up to get a lot of stops. Better hope for another 25 and 13 type season from Kevin Love.
Notable Losses: Dwight Howard, Earl Clark, Metta World Peace
Notable Additions: Chris Kaman, Nick Young
Well, at least they won't be burdened with high expectations anymore. This season, we should reasonably expect the Lakers to do more or less what the Mavs did last season, with Kobe in the injured-former-champion-scorer-in-his-mid-30's role. Lakers haters will find themselves in the awkward position of actually rooting for the Lakers to win enough games to make the playoffs so that the Lakers miss out on this loaded lottery class.
Andrew Bynum is a gamble for the Cavs, but one that makes sense for a team that has nothing to lose and a lot to gain. Even if Bynum doesn't play a single game, a relatively healthy season from Varejao, improvement from Irving, Waiters, and Thompkins, leadership and production from Jarret Jack, and a decent rookie campaign from Brandon Bass 2.0 (a.k.a. Anthony Bennett) should have the Cavs competing for a spot in the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference. Irving will be in stiff competition with Rose, Williams, Wall, Rondo, and Lowry for an All-Star spot in the Eastern Conference. Still, a lot has to go right for the Cavs to have their first winning season since The Decision.
The Mess (25-35 wins)
Notable Losses: Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, J.J. Redick, Samuel Dalembert, Drew Gooden
Notable Additions: O.J. Mayo, Luke Ridnour, Brandon Knight, Gary Neal, Carlos Delfino, Zaza Pachulia
Some people will be shocked to see the Bucks ranked this high after they let go of their chuck-happy backcourt, let Dunleavy and Dalembert walk, and amnestied Drew Gooden, but I'm not quite as low on their offseason moves as most. They still have Larry Sanders, who with a full season of starter minutes could challenge for Defensive Player of the Year and the blocks title. O.J. Mayo is a more efficient scorer than either Jennings or Ellis, and Luke Ridnour is a nice addition who can be a productive piece whether he's starting or running the show off the bench. John Henson seems primed for a bigger role, and Ersan Ilyasova will continue to be very productive. Carlos Delfino and Gary Neal are solid pros who can shoot and defend a bit. The Bucks, as is their wont, have a team loaded with productive, efficient players who don't have a ton of caché around the league. They probably won't score many points, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them competing for a bottom seed in the weak Eastern Conference.
Notable Losses: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Doc Rivers (Coach), Jason Terry
Notable Additions: Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Kelly Olynyk, MarShon Brooks
Take a 41 win team, subtract an All-Star-caliber wing scorer / defender and an All-Star caliber defensive anchor with one of the best mid-range shots in the game, and what do you get? Well, you get the 2013-2014 Celtics. Two of the 5 best remaining players on the team are coming off major injuries that required season-ending surgery in 2013, and there isn't a single starting-caliber center on the roster. Translation: don't expect this team to defend particulary well, nor score very many points. The unquestioned best player on the team is an elite distributor who is loathe to look for his own shot and is notorious for up and down focus and production in the regular season. This is a team loaded with mediocre to somewhat above-average talent and no discernable game plan or design. Of course, that in itself is part of the plan. This team isn't supposed to be good. If everything goes 'right,' this Celtics team could come close to breaking even, but I wouldn't count on it. But hey, hang on tight because "Kelly Olynyk for Rookie of the Year!" and, along the same lines, "Fire Brad Stevens because he isn't playing Kelly!" are both about to become things.
Notable Losses: Andrea Bargnani
Notable Additions: Tyler Hansbrough, Steve Novak, D.J. Augustin
Andrea Bargnani: addition by subtraction? Perhaps. Jonas Valanciunas, if Summer League is any indication (it probably isn't) is much improved. Lowry, Derozan, and Ross represent some interesting talent at the guard and wing spots. Rudy Gay could be exciting. The Raptors were actually a .500 team after the Gay trade. It's conceivable they could challenge for a playoff spot. I don't see much here to inspire great confidence, though.
Notable Losses: Greivis Vasquez, Robin Lopez
The newly-dubbed Pelicans have the one piece that really matters for building an elite team: a top shelf talent who projects as a dominant defender who can play either big position. Whatever they do, as long as they hold onto Anthony Davis, they'll probably be okay. Still, it's hard not to scratch your head a bit at their off-season moves. Jrue Holiday is a nice player, but is he really worth Nerlens Noel and next year's 1st round pick (probably in the mid-lottery), considering he commands an 8 figure salary? Tyreke Evans would be a nice score-first guard to bring off the bench, but on a team that already has Eric Gordon locked in? It's hard to make a case that the Pelicans are better off now than they would have been if they had simply held onto Vasquez and Lopez for less $$ and lined themselves up for another nice pick in a loaded draft next June.
Apparently the Bobcats, soon to be Hornets, couldn't stomach another year of out-and-out awful basketball in the name of waiting for a true franchise talent to come along in the lottery. That seems to be the meaning of the 'Cats signing Al Jefferson to a four year contract, anyhow. Big Al's defensive deficiencies mean that he's not likely to carry the Bobcats to the playoffs on his on, but adding a legit 18-20 point-per-game paint scorer to a team full of young role players is likely to guarantee they win at least 5-10 more games this season. Hip hip hooray.
Notable Losses: Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson
The Favors + Kanter era had to start sometime, right? The Jazz let Millsap and Jefferson walk for nothing this offseason after failing for two trade deadlines in a row to find any palatable deals for the borderline-All-Star big man duo. Favors and Kanters are intriguing young big men who have shown the ability to be productive and have relatively complementary skill sets. Still, unless Trey Burke shocks the world and turns out to be the next Chris Paul, this team is bound for lottery-ville for the next 2-3 years.
Notable Losses: Tyreke Evans
Notable Additions: Ben McLemore, Carl Landry, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Greivis Vasquez
Trading away Tyreke Evans is definitely addition by subtraction for this team. The fewer chuckers left on this roster, the better. Ben McLemore may or may not be a legit talent, while Carl Landry and The Prince (Mbah a Moute) give them some veteran depth at the 3 and 4. Greivis Vasquez in theory would be a good fit as a well-rounded floor general for this team, but who knows if they'll keep him, or play him. Ultimately, the fate of this team falls on Demarcus Cousins's ample shoulders. Will the infusion of good character / veteran leadership types around him, coupled with new ownership and a new coach, help foster that growth? We'll see.
The Bottom of the Barrel (25 wins or lower)
Notable Additions: Victor Oladipo, Jason Maxiell
Victor Oladipo is a nice player; he'll probably end up being something like a Rich Man's Tony Allen. He's not going to save this Magic team from being pretty terrible this season, though. Being awful is just a harsh reality when Glen Davis and Arron Afflalo project as your top scoring options.
Notable Losses: Jrue Holiday, Dorell Wright
Notable Additions: Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams
The Sixers are going to be terrible, and brazenly so, since they've gone to great pains to make it totally obvious just how teeth-grindingly atrocious they want to be this season for the sake of tanking for a top pick. Trade a super-young All-Star point guard for an injured Theo Ratliff clone and a likely lottery pick? Sure thing! Nerlens Noel probably won't play for the first half of the season (heck, perhaps he'll just sit out the whole year) and Michael Carter-Williams is probably not an NBA starter right now, but he'll play 30+ minutes a game. Evan Turner, congratulations! You get the keys to the offense. This should be fun. Fun like a catastrophic multi-car accident occurring over the course of 82 games.
Notable Losses: Jared Dudley
Notable Additions: Eric Bledsoe, Alex Len, Caron Butler
Seeing the dreadful state of the Suns heading into the 2013-2014 season is particularly sad for me considering that the 2009-2010 Suns team might be one of my favorite teams ever. This is what cheap ownership gets you. Of course, the Nash / Amare core clearly had a short shelf-life anyhow, but still. The Suns are currently rebuilding around Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Alex Len. Gortat is destined for a trade in the very near future. Michael Beasley is going to get every opportunity to throw up 20 bad shots a night. Meanwhile their strategy for attracting fans seems to be to have as many twins and lesser-known brothers as they can on the roster. Fans can play the "Is that Markief or is that Marcus?" game all night long as their team languishes down by double digits from just after the opening tip. Blech. Enjoy your top 4 pick next year, Suns fans.