The NBA is back — and that means the ProBasketballTalk NBA Power Rankings are back. As always, we like to admit up front this entire process is moot — the NBA has a playoff to determine what team is best. What kind of ridiculous sport would use a ranking system to decide what teams get to play for a title? Here are the start of the season rankings, there is always a lot of volatility in these the first few weeks. Last seasons record is listed for this week only.
1. Warriors (73-9). About that slow start while they figure things out… this was the best team in the NBA in the preseason, outscoring teams by 13.5 points per 100 possessions (the trio of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson shot 46 percent from three). Yes it’s just preseason, so it has all the meaning of an Adam Sandler film, but a soft first few weeks of the schedule makes it likely the Durant era starts off smoothly in the Bay Area.
2. Cavaliers (57-25). It’s a good time to be a Cleveland sports fan. Tuesday night the Cavaliers get their rings, the first title banner goes up in Cleveland in more than five decades — and then the Indians throw the first pitch in the World Series. I picked LeBron to win the MVP this season, but how much will he dial back the regular season to save himself for the playoffs, and how much will voters punish him for it?
3. Spurs (67-15). LaMarcus Aldridge denies the rumors, but the buzz he’s not thrilled blending in with the Spurs come from quality sources. True or not, there is no way the Spurs are trading him during the season — they just paid Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili a lot of money to make anther run at a ring. Aldridge is key to that. Fall short of the conference finals again and next summer things get interesting.
4. Clippers (53-29). Are the Clippers better than the Spurs? Can they finally develop a real home court advantage? Blake Griffin says this is the healthiest he’s been in years and when he’s right he’s as good a power forward as there is in the league. He and Chris Paul can be free agents this summer, putting extra pressure on the Clippers to make this the year they break past the barrier of the second round, who knows if they get another shot with this group.
5. Celtics (48-34). Boston’s offensive spacing already looks better with Al Horford involved, and the hand-off play between Horford and Isaiah Thomas than often opens the Boston sets is hard to defend. The Celtics played at a high pace and guys were getting open looks all preseason, all of which are very good signs they hope to carry over to games that matter. They play three games in four days to open the season.
6. Raptors (56-26). Jared Sullinger is out for a big chunk of the season, but that’s not a massive setback for Toronto as it just means more Patrick Patterson (and likely more Norman Powell also). A healthy DeMarre Carroll is huge for this team (and he can play some four as well). They need to get some wins the first couple weeks of the season because the second half of November they are on the road a lot.
7. Jazz (40-42). Everyone’s favorite pick for a breakout season (including mine), but they are without Gordon Hayward, and that is a troubling setback. The signing of George Hill was chosen by NBA GMs as the most underrated move of the summer (in the GM survey), plus Utah snagged Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson. Those veterans and the defense should keep Utah afloat until Hayward returns in a few weeks.
8. Rockets (41-41). Who was the second best team in the preseason, outscoring opponents by more than 11 points per 100 possessions? You got it. They looked good because they scored 118 points per game and their defense was good enough (middle of the road statistically) to get them big wins. That Rockets’ defense — without Patrick Beverley due to knee surgery — will be tested early with a string of games good offensive teams from last season, plus a lot of road games.
9. Thunder (55-27). They are not going to be an offense built around subtlety and clever off-ball movement — this will be as straight ahead a team as there is in the league. Westbrook is going to put up monster numbers, and expect Steven Adams to come into his own this season. Will the Thunder get enough wins to vault Westbrook into serious MVP consideration?
10. Pacers (45-37). The additions of Jeff Teague at the point and Thaddeus Young on the wing, plus the continued growth of Myles Turner, should improve an offense that was 25th in the NBA last season but was sixth best this preseason. The question is how much defense was sacrificed to get that offense? Larry Bird wanted an offense that played faster, but they were 10th in the NBA in pace last season, how much faster can they go?
11. Hawks (48-38). Atlanta had the best defense in the NBA during the preseason, a promising sign for Hawks fans. The trademark ball movement that has defined Mike Budenholzer teams also was there, even with the addition of Dwight Howard and now Dennis Schroder running the point. If those two things can carry over to the regular season it’s a good sign. The Hawks have the softest schedule in the Eastern Conference the first month of the season, which gives them time to find their groove and rack up wins.
12. Trail Blazers (44-38). Damian Lillard is talking MVP, which is going to require a step forward by the entire team, not just him. Portland made some smart moves this offseason: matching the Allen Crabbe offer sheet, re-signing Meyers Leonard, picking up Festus Ezeli on a good contract. But they gambled big on Evan Turner as a third playmaker, that’s going to go a long way to determining if this team is better.
13. Timberwolves (29-53). Everyone expects Minnesota to make a leap this season under new coach (and GM) Tom Thibodeau. The question is how big a leap are they ready to make? One very promising sign: Minnesota had the second-best defense in the NBA during the preseason. How well that translates to the regular season remains to be seen, but that was the side of the ball where they needed to make the biggest leap.
14. Grizzlies (42-40). Even more than most teams health is the key to the Memphis season, so Tony Allen and Chandler Parsons missing the entire preseason is less than ideal (both are questionable for the opener). Memphis started launching threes at a rate we haven’t seen from them before in the preseason, expect that to carry over to the regular season. This is the new David Fizdale Grizzlies, and they play with pace and launch threes, we’ll see how that works long term.
15. Wizards (41-41). They finally start the season with a healthy backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal (now they just have to play well together), but they are banged up along the front line with no Ian Mahinmi (knee surgery, out for at least a month). Washington had the fifth-best point differential in the league during the preseason, outscoring opponents by 6 points per 100 possessions — can they keep that up when the games matter?
16. Mavericks (42-40). The $94 million man Harrison Barnes shot 22.6 percent in the preseason, not a good sign. We all know what he’s getting paid Mavs’ fans, but this is a big adjustment for him and you’re going to have to be patient as he figures out how to play a leading role. Dallas had an ugly preseason, getting outscored by 8.5 points per 100 possessions (25th in the league), but that likely does not foreshadow what is to come during the regular season.
17. Pistons (44-38). This seems low, but no Reggie Jackson for the first 3-5 weeks of the season (knee tendonitis) is a blow. Stan Van Gundy wants his team to improve on the defensive end and get into the top 10 in the league, and that’s the test they face early in the season going against some the league’s best offensive teams the first three weeks. Get through the first month and things should look up in Detroit.
18. Hornets (48-34). Charlotte had the worst offense in the NBA during the preseason (90.2 points per 100 possession). Last season the Hornets made the biggest offensive leap of any team in the NBA, hopefully for them the preseason was just an anomaly (it’s hard to read much into those games). The Hornets should again be a top 10 defensive team this season under Steve Clifford, and that will carry them.
19. Bulls (42-40). The question is how the offense is going to look on a team where the key contributors — Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo — are not guys opponents fear when they take a three. Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic will be key off the bench to provide spacing. My main question: Why exactly bring Fred Holberg out of college for his pace-and-space system if you’re not going to give him players that fit it? A heavy dose of road games for the Bulls before Thanksgiving.
20. Knicks (32-50). All the roster turnover last summer followed by key players missing time in the preseason — Joakim Noah due to injury, Derrick Rose due to his trial — means it’s going to take time for the pieces to fit together in the regular season. I’m skeptical Rose and Carmelo Anthony, both ball stoppers on offense, can mesh well in Jeff Hornacek’s system. The Knicks are going to have to figure all this out against the toughest schedule in the Eastern Conference over the first month of the season.
21. Nuggets (33-49). Tough schedule to start with 6-of-7 on the road and 8-of-10 games against teams that were above .500 last season. I like that coach Mike Malone is playing Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic together to start games. There are a lot of other GMs watching to see how the Nuggets start the season because if it’s slow Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Kenneth Faried all could be put on the trade block (and there would be interest from some teams).
22. Bucks (33-49). The Kris Middleton injury is devastating — he was the glue that held some funky lineups together in Milwaukee. I like the Tony Snell deal for them better than most, but he’s still a serious downgrade at the position. The Bucks struggled in the preseason (outscored by 9 points per 100 possessions, despite the 3-3 record) because their offense was unimpressive. They need shooters around the Greek Freak.
23. Kings (33-49). With the Cubs back in the World Series, the Kings take over the dubious banner of “team who hasn’t been to its sport’s Finals for the longest time” in American major sports. The last time the Kings were in the Finals was 1951. Forget the Finals, the Kings just want to make the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Beautiful new building, but the Kings have no Darren Collison for the first eight games (suspension for a domestic violence plea bargain), and they face a tough road-heavy schedule without him to start the season.
24. Pelicans (30-52). Anthony Davis is back from his sprained ankle and will be ready to roll opening night. I like some of their summer moves — Solomon Hill, Langston Galloway, and E’twaun Moore are good free agent signings, while Buddy Hield is going to develop into a quality two guard — but they are desperately going to miss Jrue Holiday (and to a slightly lesser extent Tyreke Evans) to start the season. Holiday is the glue that brings this team together.
25. Magic (35-47). On paper this ranking feels too low for an Orlando team with dreams of a strong defense leading them to the playoffs. However, their preseason (2-5, outscored by 9 points per 100 possessions, 29th in defense) did nothing to inspire that this team will put it together. Relatively soft start to the NBA schedule for the first month, which might help them get some wins, gain some confidence, and allow coach Frank Vogel to figure out the rotations that work. I still don’t love Aaron Gordon as a three, he’s much better suited for the four.
26. Heat (48-34). Maybe this is too low, but the loss of Chris Bosh (along with Dwyane Wade over the summer) makes this look more like the start of a rebuilding process. They should be an entertaining, up-and-down team with Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow, not to mention Hassan Whiteside. Dion Waiters will have his good nights… and his bad ones. If they start slow expect the Dragic trade rumors to heat up.
27. Suns (23-59). There are a lot of good players in Phoenix: Devin Booker is going to be a stud at the two, Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler are veterans who can contribute, and Marquese Chriss shows promise (and a lot of athleticism). But the pieces have never fit together there, and I’ll need to see it to believe it. The Suns were a top 10 defensive team during the preseason, if they can carry that over to games that matter they will climb these rankings (and the standings) quickly.
28. Lakers (17-56). The team with the toughest first 20 game schedule in the Western Conference? You guessed it. Tough way for the Lakers to start with a young team and a rookie head coach. D'Angelo Russell is already a dangerous pick-and-roll ball handler who is going to put up numbers this season, and Brandon Ingram has shown flashes of figuring things out, but it’s going to a learning curve season. Also, where did this focused, sharp-shooting Nick Young come from and is he sticking around?
29. Nets (21-61). They are going to be a decent to good offensive team with Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin playing off each other and Kenny Atkinson’s offense spacing the floor. I’m far less sold that they are going to get enough stops to win many games. Bad breaks of the schedule, no team plays fewer teams on the second night of a back-to-back this season than the Nets (seven all season).
30. 76ers (10-71). Brett Brown just wants to get his numerous young front court players healthy so he can see how it all fits together, but Ben Simmons and Nerlens Noel are out with foot injuries that will eat up large chunks of their season. Joel Embiid has been a beast in preseason and if he gets enough run should be in the Rookie of the Year mix. A dark horse ROY candidate? Dario Saric. Also, this is going to be an entertaining team to watch when Sergio Rodriguez has the ball in his hands.