NBA

NBA Power Rankings: Way-Too-Early Edition

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook celebrates after hitting a buzzer-beating, 3-point shot to win the game against the Denver Nuggets following a basketball game, Sunday, April 9, 2017, in Denver. Oklahoma City beat Denver 106-105. Westbrook also broke the NBA record for triple doubles with 42. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
NBA Power Rankings: Way-Too-Early Edition

Although the NBA season is still a little under four months away, the offseason intrigue has sparked fervent debate normally reserved for football this time of the year. The realignment of stars like Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Chris Paul has been fascinating.

The Golden State Warriors have an apparent stranglehold on the top spot in the league — and only seem to have improved their roster since last year — but the Western Conference has responded to their dominant season with an arms race…while the East has retorted with a Gordon Hayward-sized whimper.

It might be way too early to start forecasting, but, hey, you signed up for this.

Let’s take a look at my predictions for the Western and Eastern Conference playoff teams:

Western Conference

1. Golden State Warriors (67-15)

Key additions: Omri Casspi, Nick Young

Key losses: N/A

How did a team already touted as one of the best in league history improve? One Mr. Durant and some shrewd financial maneuvering are to thank for that. The pay cut he took led the way for the Warriors to replace Patrick McCaw and Matt Barnes with dead-eye shooters in Casspi and Young. Not bad.

Despite rewarding Steph Curry with the richest contract in NBA history, and despite features of the new collective bargaining agreement intended to curb the sustainability of superteams, the Warriors somehow improved upon a championship season. The question will be whether or not they can keep the squad together when the luxury tax pushes their payroll into the billions over the span of the next few seasons.

But for now, the Warriors are had and shoulders above the league, and only injuries could change that.

2. San Antonio Spurs (61-21)

Key additions: Rudy Gay

Key losses: N/A

As is NBA code, the Spurs will fly under the radar this season. They made no splashy free agency moves outside of Rudy Gay, and the Spurs will essentially court the same roster as they did last season, provided that Jonathan Simmons and Pau Gasol do indeed return. They didn’t improve much, but they’re still the Spurs.

Kawhi Leonard is an exceptional talent who has come back from every offseason an improved player. There’s no reason to believe that he’ll return anything less than a top five player. Pair Leonard with the best coach in basketball in Gregg Popovich, and the Spurs are a perennial contender until his job is pried from his cold, dead hands.

For the Spurs to improve on last season, they’ll need more consistency from LaMarcus Aldridge, who disappeared for stretches in the playoffs. Will he still be in San Antonio by the February trade deadline?

3. Oklahoma City Thunder (47-35)

Key additions: Paul George, Patrick Patterson

Key losses: Victor Oladipo, Taj Gibson

Sam Presti pulled the metaphorical rabbit out of the hat when he flipped Oladipo and Sabonis (and no draft picks!) for a bona fide superstar in Paul George. But how will Russell Westbrook and George co-exist? And will PG stick around, or will he bolt for LA, like he’s long been rumored to?

Those aren’t even the most pressing questions right now. That honor goes to Russell Westbrook — will he sign a contract extension or not? And if he doesn’t, will Presti be forced to trade him or risk losing yet another star for nothing?

There are some very real concerns with this team, but as it’s currently constructed, the Thunder are at least five victories better than last year — if not more. The Patterson addition further opens up the court for OKC, allowing the offensively limited Steven Adams and Andre Roberson to get in on the fun and prove that they’re worth their contracts — especially Adams.

There are real concerns moving forward, but there will be plenty of time to worry about that later. As it stands, the Thunder are a damn talented team.

4. Houston Rockets (55-27)

Key additions: Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker

Key losses: Patrick Beverley

I’m crazy, right? The Rockets add the best point guard in the world and they move down a spot?

There are a few reasons for that.

The first: the Thunder got that much better. The second: the Rockets leveled one of their biggest strengths in trading for Chris Paul — their depth.

There are questions of fit as well, but I have no doubt that two of the headiest players in basketball (Harden and Paul) and the best offensive mind in the game (Mike D’Antoni) can figure out a way to make it work like a well-oiled machine. I’ll be shocked if the Rockets aren’t the best team by most offensive metrics — aside from the Warriors, of course.

The addition of P.J. Tucker is a great one, too. Tucker is a fiery competitor and an aggressive defender. Having another Trevor Ariza around is never a bad thing. I’m just not sure that the Rockets have improved all that much. They should still be a lock for home-court advantage.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves (31-51)

Key additions: Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague

Key losses: Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine

The Timberwolves are the NBA’s offseason’s biggest risers due to their draft night trade to acquire Jimmy Butler from the wayward Chicago Bulls. Jeff Teague is also an upgrade over Ricky Rubio, even if he’s only marginally better.

Butler would fit well with 29 other NBA teams, so chemistry isn’t as much of a concern as it is in, say, Houston. But there are very real spacing concerns for a team who was in the bottom third in the league in terms of three point shooting. They’ll only get worse with LaVine gone.

And then there’s this: outside of Jimmy Butler, the ‘Wolves lack winning experience. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are players with great potential who haven’t quite proven that they can win consistently. Will Butler change the culture, or will their lack of experience bring him down with the ship?

6. Denver Nuggets (40-42)

Key additions: Paul Millsap, Trey Lyles

Key losses: Danilo Gallinari

The Nuggets effectively traded out Danilo Gallinari for Paul Millsap — not a bad move, if you ask me. Millsap comes with a set of frustrations, but his versatile skillset will fit the Nuggets well. He’s also an experienced veteran with a winning résumé.

That experience will help out the Nuggets’ young core, who can fully expect to improve from last season. Nikola Jokic became a phenom last year. Now, it’s time to see if he can become a full-blown star. The unique center will have some of the offensive load taken off of his shoulders — can he show improvement defensively?

Denver will take some by surprise next season, but not me. They’re ready to take that next step.

7. Memphis Grizzlies (43-39)

Key additions: N/A

Key losses: Zach Randolph

TAKE THAT FOR DATA! For as much as David Fizdale and fans loved Zach Randolph in Memphis, this may end up being addition by subtraction. Although Randolph is a plus player in just about every aspect of the game, he’s suited to the grit-‘n-grind style that Grizz teams of the past utilized.

Jamychal Green, on the other hand, is more suited to the space-and-pace style de jure of the league. If you want evidence that Memphis is going that way, look no further than Marc Gasol taking 3.5 per game after taking fewer than .2 per game over the course of his career.

Green is the lynchpin here, though: if the Grizzlies lose out on him, they lose a lot of their oomph. He helps them space the floor as much as he helps rebounding and defending on the interior. Without him, they could still make the playoffs on the combined talents of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, but they’ll be fighting their way into the 8th seed.

As it stands, though, it’s hard to leave the Grizz out of the playoffs.

8. LA Clippers (51-31)

Key additions: Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic, Danilo Gallinari

Key losses: Chris Paul, JJ Reddick

This was a toss-up between LA and NOLA. I’m just not quite convinced that a front-court duo of Anthony Davis and Boogie Cousins can be effective in today’s NBA — giving the edge to the Clippers. Funnily enough, the Clippers are also now based on a front-court duo — it’s just that LA boasts depth that NOLA cannot.

The loss of Chris Paul may not be as injurious as it may seem. First of all (and speaking of injury), the Clips are already used to going long stretches without Paul. Secondly, they got back quite the haul in the trade that landed Paul in Houston.

Don’t get me wrong: they’ll miss CP3, especially when it comes playoff time. But if the Clippers were merely trying to remain competitive, re-signing Blake Griffin and garnering a relatively sizable haul for Chris Paul should be good enough for that. The Clippers may be looking over their shoulders towards the end of the season, but I believe they’re talented enough to grab the eighth seed.

Eastern Conference

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31)

Key additions: Jeff Green, Jose Calderon

Key losses: N/A

The Cavaliers, as they were constructed last season, did not have the firepower to keep pace with the Warriors. Except for a few great quarters, the Cavaliers looked lost in The Finals — and who wouldn’t?

Handcuffed by one of the highest payrolls in the NBA, the Cavs didn’t have any wiggle room in free agency, which explains why their only acquisitions up to this point is the talented-but-frustrating Jeff Green and the nearly-washed up Jose Calderon. That’s not going to do much to change their chances against the league’s best.

But LeBron James is still the world’s best player. Kyrie Irving is still a great Robin to LeBron’s Batman, and Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and the rest of the Cavs are still a damn-talented team — and that’s good enough for second-best for now.

If they can pull a Presti and and land a star, they’re right back in the conversation. However, considering that the Cavs still don’t have a general manager after dumping David Griffin…the chances don’t seem great.

2. Boston Celtics (53-29)

Key additions: Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum

Key losses: Avery Bradley, Amir Johnson

The Gordon Hayward signing undoubtedly boosted the Celtics’ chances to reign atop the East, but does anybody really think it propels them over the Cavaliers? Not I.

Still, the Celtics have an elite starting five and a deep bench that plays right into Brad Stevens’ positionless brand of basketball. The loss of Avery Bradley certainly strings, but the Celtics definitely improved on their roster. If they can make a move to shore up their rebounding, the Celtics will be a legitimate threat to the Cavaliers. If Danny Ainge can leverage his assets into another star, the Celtics might compete for a title.

The Hayward signing will make everyone else look better, and the Tatum pick makes a deep team even deeper. But boy, those rebounding and defensive issues are tough to look past.

3. Washington Wizards (49-33)

Key additions: Tim Frazier

Key losses: Bojan Bogdanovich

The Scott Brooks-led Wizards surprised many last year, giving a great series to the top-seeded Boston Celtics. Like many other teams around the league, Washington found itself handcuffed by its own payroll, unable to do a whole lot to improve their area of biggest concern: the bench.

Matching a max Otto Porter offer sheet was the right move — what else would they have spent that money on? — but losing out on the sharp-shooting  Bogdanovich won’t help matters with the second unit.

The Wizards must look to Kelly Oubre to break out for hope of improvement. But if the Wizards don’t improve from last season, things will get frantic in Washington, as John Wall has still not signed a max extension ahead of his 2019 free agency. Could the darkest timeline be in play for the Wizards moving forward?

4. Milwaukee Bucks (42-40)

Key additions: N/A

Key losses: N/A

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the second best player in the East now, and he’s only 22. Like Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ core is only starting to realize it’s true potential.

Milwaukee didn’t bring anybody of note in, but the team didn’t lose a player either. How’s that for continuity? With a roster as young as the Bucks’, it’s exactly what the doc ordered.

Giannis is obviously a stud. Khris Middleton, back from his gruesome hamstring injury, will now have a full offseason to improve his craft. Sophomore Thon Maker showed a lot of promise last season, as did rookie of the year Malcom Brogdon. The Bucks are oozing potential, but now it’s time to put it together.

5. Toronto Raptors (51-31)

Key additions: C.J. Miles, Justin Hamilton

Key losses: DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker

The Raptors’ core took a hit, losing mainstays in the lineup in Carroll, Joseph, and Patterson, and losing out on Tucker surely hurts. Toronto got worse over the offseason; there’s no two ways about it. Their core had already peaked, and it’s plateau was always the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Securing the services of Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka was probably the right move…although the Raps may come to regret those contracts as their stars age. It was a frustrating offseason for Raps fans, but the good news is that they’re still the fifth-best team in their conference. The bad news is that, in the East, that doesn’t mean a whole lot.

6. Charlotte Hornets (36-46)

Key additions: Dwight Howard, Malik Monk, Michael Carter-Williams

Key losses: Marco Belinelli, Miles Plumlee

The Hornets were better than their record would indicate last season. Steve Clifford is one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the league, and that alone is good enough for a playoff bid in the East.

But Charlotte is a flawed team: their best player is an undersized point guard. They got Dwight Howard on the cheap, but what does he really have to offer in today’s NBA? Can Michael Kidd-Gilchrist find a way to stay on the floor? The Hornets have many questions to answer over the course of the season.

The single biggest addition, in my opinion, is Malik Monk. He’ll be the backcourt counterpart Kemba Walker needs to thrive. Even if Monk has a sensational rookie year, the Hornets are still a flawed team.

7. Miami Heat (41-41)

Key additions: Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo

Key losses: Josh McRoberts

The Heat (very gracefully, I might add) got Chris Bosh off the books. Although they would have wished to use that cap space on a star like Gordon Hayward, they instead inked Dion Waiters and James Johnson to new deals, and brought in Kelly Olynyk from the Celtics.

Last season, the Heat started off horribly. Thanks in large part to Dion Waiters, they were able to finish the second half of the season 30-11. That’s not really sustainable for a team of this caliber, but it did show what they’re capable of. With a weakened East, the Heat should be able to improve on their .500 record. Erik Spoelstra will have to find some modicum of consistency from his squad. Luckily, he’s just the man for the task.

8. Philadelphia 76ers (28-54)

Key additions: Markelle Fultz, J.J. Reddick, Amir Johnson

Key losses: N/A

The process has been trusted. The deals have been made, the draft picks cashed in, and now the ‘Sixers are looking at their most talented team since Allen Iverson dragged his squad to the NBA Finals.

That’s not saying a whole lot, though: the 76ers have been laughably bad over the past decade. All part of the process, of course.

Their young core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz is terrifiying — if they can stay on the floor. And that’s an Embiid sized ‘if.’

Winning starts with culture, and the imports Reddick and Johnson were brought in to help nurture that. Barring a complete injury meltdown (and with Philly, that’s never out of the picture), this squad should make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Still processing, but getting there.

Honorable Mentions

Every year, a team — usually in the West — who should have made the playoffs is excluded. There exist only a finite amount of spots. This year especially, there will be a number of teams spurned. Let’s take a look at the best of the rest:

New Orleans Pelicans (34-48)

Key additions: N/A

Key losses: Tim Frazier

The Pelicans boast the best frontcourt combo in the league. Although they should have been effective, the Pels were never able to figure it out. Part of it was due to injury, but I’m also not sure that the pairing can be effective in today’s NBA. In the 90’s, maybe. But not today.

And then there’s this: outside of Boogie and AD, who can the Pels count on? Not Jrue Holiday, who hasn’t played over 67 in games in a season since 2012-2013. NOLA also must contend with the several poor contracts scattered throughout their squad. They don’t have much leverage or upward mobility at all.

Portland Trail Blazers (41-41) 

Key additions: Zach Collins, Caleb Swanigan

Key losses: Festus Ezeli

I wouldn’t be shocked if the Blazers were able to capture, say, the sixth seed. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if they were in the bottom fourth of the conference. It all kind of depends on whether or not Jusuf Nurkic can be as effective as he was after being traded from the Nuggets to the Blazers.

In his time in Portland last season, Nurkic averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, two blocks, and shot 51% in 29 minutes. Those are some impressive averages. His injury history reared its head again, though, when sustained a non-displaced right leg fibular fracture, ending his regular season. Can he stay healthy? If so, he’s proven his effectiveness.

Dame Lillard and C.J. McCollum are fantastic players in their own right on offense, but the tandem has showed little in the way of perimeter defense. If the Blazers can shore their perimeter defense up a bit, they’ve got a great chance to make the playoffs.

Detroit Pistons (37-45)

Key additions: Avery Bradley, Langston Galloway, Luke Kennard

Key losses: Marcus Morris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Nabbing Bradley was a lucky break for the Pistons, but how much does it really improve them? With Reggie Jackson playing point, I’m not sure it matters all that much.

But they do have a lot of upside, and they’re still being coached by defensive mastermind Stan Van Gundy. Andre Drummond is still a good center, who, with some consistency, could turn this team around — especially in the East.

I am simply unimpressed with the Pistons. Until I see improvement from Jackson and Drummond, they do nothing to move the needle for me, and thus remain on the outside looking in.

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