The dust has almost settled on the NBA summer, with just some minor deals to get done (although there are a few good players still out there). Now that we’ve seen most the trades (probably) and gotten a look at the rookies in Summer League, it’s time to adjust the power rankings. The top of the board is easy — the Spurs move up but not to the top spot, yet — the bigger challenge is the bottom where every team has hope and think they’ve improved, but we know some will be disappointed.
1. Warriors (last season 67-15). The defending champs always start in the top spot, but the Warriors did what they needed to this off-season keeping the band together. The key was re-signing Draymond Green. Their road to a repeat will be much tougher than to their first title, but this team certainly is a contender.
2. Cavaliers (53-29). They re-signed LeBron James (no shock), Kevin Love, and Iman Shumpert, then added Mo Williams to the mix. Not bad, and they are not done with Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova and J.R. Smith still looming and likely re-signed. Plus they can make a move with the Brendan Haywood contract. The Cavs are clear and away the best team in the East.
3. Spurs (55-27). They won the off-season — Tiago Splitter was good but replacing him with LaMarcus Aldridge was a huge upgrade. Plus they re-sign Kawhi Leonard, add David West, and keep Danny Green at a fair price. This team will be hungry with it likely being Tim Duncan’s final season. But the brilliance of their off-season is they will stay near the top of the league for years even after Duncan steps away.
4. Clippers (56-26). Doc Rivers the GM bounced back and had a great summer. He kept DeAndre Jordan in house (barely), plus added Paul Pierce to start, and Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith to the bench. The Clippers have the depth they lacked last season, and they are a motivated team.
5. Thunder (45-37). Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are all back and healthy, with that the Thunder are back to contending for a title. The Thunder kept Enes Kanter (they had no choice) and I like the Cameron Payne draft pick. There may be no more of a desperate, win-now team in the NBA this season.
6. Rockets (56-26). With the Ty Lawson trade — and if he can get his head screwed on right — the Rockets move into the elite title contender status with the five teams above them in this ranking. They are going to have a quality bench this season and lots of flexibility for coach Kevin McHale.
7. Grizzlies (55-27). They did very well re-signing Marc Gasol, plus they got a good-fit pickup with Matt Barnes. But while Barnes can knock down the three ball, have they added enough shooting to balance things out.
8. Pelicans (45-37). The hiring of Alvin Gentry as coach is a fantastic off-season move, and I like the re-signing of Alexis Ajinca (they should bring back Norris Cole as well). But the two key reasons this team improves are: 1) They finally get Jrue Holiday and others healthy; 2) Anthony Davis is still improving by leaps and bounds each season (and Gentry will be a big boost to them). How good their defense is determines how far they go.
9. Bulls (50-32). Was the problem Tom Thibodeau grinding them down? We’ll find out. New coach Fred Hoiberg will trust Doug McDermott and the bench more, put in a modern offense, and likely not fight with management (at least for a couple years, if history continues). Is that enough with the same core? Can the Bulls be a team that can threaten the Cavaliers?
10. Wizards (46-36). Paul Pierce is in Los Angeles but Otto Porter can step into the three spot just fine. Added Jared Dudley and Gary Neal help make this a deeper team. The bigger questions fall to coach Randy Whitman: Will he finally trust the small lineup more like he did in the playoffs? And can this team find more offensive diversity rather than being the John Wall show.
11. Heat (37-45). They re-signed Goran Tragic and Dwyane Wade, plus added some depth with Justise Winslow, Gerald Green and Amar’e Stoudemire. With Chris Bosh back healthy is going to be a sneaky good regular season team that finishes is the East’s top four.
12. Mavericks (50-32). They bounced back well after losing DeAndre Jordan — Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews and Zaza Pachoulia make Dallas a pretty good team that should battle for a playoff spot in the West.
13. Hawks (60-22). This is a good team and they retained Paul Millsap, but the loss of DeMarre Carroll certainly does not help. That said, Thabo Sefolosha steps into that role, and the did make a quality addition with Tiago Splitter. The real question is this: Can they really replicate the first two-thirds of last season, or was that just things going perfectly for them and they are not quite that good?
14. Jazz (38-44). This was one of the better teams — and by far the best defense — in the NBA after the All-Star break. They didn’t make big off-season moves, instead banking on more growth and development (although draft pick Trey Lyles looked at Summer League like a guy who needs a couple years). If they can retain anywhere near that defense from the second half of last year, the Jazz should be in the mix for one of the final playoff spot in the West.
15. Bucks (41-41). This may be low for the Bucks. They looked like a team on the rise last year under Jason Kidd and with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter Williams improving, plus Jabari Parker back and healthy. Then they nail free agency landing Greg Monroe. This team could move into the second tier in the East, but I need to see it.
16. Raptors (49-33). Toronto has spent the offseason transitioning from an offense-heavy team that doesn’t defend well to a defense first roster — signing DeMarre Carroll was at the heart of that transition. That may serve them better in the playoffs, I’m not sure about the regular season. Still, they should win the weak Atlantic division.
17. Pistons (32-50). Greg Monroe is gone but replacing him with Ersan Ilyasova, who can stretch the floor as a shooter, is a better fit for what Stan Van Gundy wants to do. Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond showed some pick-and-roll chemistry last season, with what those two are now getting paid they better have a lot more of it.
< 18. Suns (39-43). I like their guard rotation with Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe, Archie Goodwin, and Devin Booker. Both Booker and T.J. Warren looked strong at Summer League. I’m not sure about the Tyson Chandler fit, and I don’t see a big step forward in a West where there are good teams fighting for the last playoff spots.
19. Kings (29-53, LW 26). This is the hardest team to place on the board — this is either way too low or way too high for them. George Karl can coach, DeMarcus Cousins is a big-time talent, they added Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein. Karl called the mix combustable. The players will either unite (possibly in a dislike of Karl) and they will surprise people and be in the playoff mix, or they will blow apart in spectacular fashion. I don’t see much in between.
20. Celtics (40-42). They snuck into the playoffs last season in the East, then this summer made a nice pickup with Amir Johnson. Terry Rozier looked good in Summer League, and Jordan Mickey impressed as well. That said, this is still a team trying to develop into a winner and there is a lot of work to do.
21. Magic (25-57). This feels like a year the young Magic can take a step forward. They retained Tobias Harris, made a nice draft pick with Mario Hezonja, and Aaron Gordon looks like he’s going to take a big step forward based on what we saw at Summer League. If all that happens this spot is too low for them, but I need to see it happen first.
22. Trail Blazers (51-31). It’s been a rough offseason in the Pacific Northwest. Gone are LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez. This is now a rebuilding team — but one that gets to start with Damian Lillard. That’s a big head start. There are some other nice players here like Mason Plumlee but it’s going to take time.
23. Nets (38-44). They finally got out from under the Deron Williams contract and people around the team say that alone will bring the players closer together. The Nets have a nice front line with Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez, but defense and consistent play out of the guards remain a question mark (no offense intended, Jarrett Jack).
24. Lakers (21-61). After striking out when swinging for home run, the Lakers hit some solid singles this off-season landing Lou Williams, Brandon Bass and Roy Hibbert. D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle may well turn out to be players, but that is going to take a couple years of development. This team will not be embarrassing like last season, but it’s going to be more about the Kobe farewell tour than wins.
25. Pacers (38-44). Paul George will be back, which is reason to celebrate. Pair him with Monta Ellis and you have some dynamic wing scoring. But this is now a roster in transition with a lot of questions along the front line.
26. Timberwolves (16-66). They are going to win more than 16 games, and they are going to be must-watch because of the entertainment value of Andrew Wiggins in his second year, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Ricky Rubio running the show. This may be a must-watch League Pass team. But they are not going to be good. Not yet. There still is a lot of development to do, although Kevin Garnett should help speed that process along.
27. Knicks (17-65, LW 29). I like what Phil Jackson did this summer — Kristaps Porzingis looked at Summer League like he will develop into a player, Jerian Grant can help them right now, plus Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez are solid pros. The Knicks should be better, and maybe if everything comes together they can compete for a playoff spot. But with this team right now, I need to see it before I believe it.
28. Hornets (33-49). This may be too low for a team that could have a bounce-back season. I like landing Nicolas Batum, Spencer Hawes and Jeremy Lin will be better than either was in Los Angeles last season, but the question is defense and if Al Jefferson will be serious about playing it. Another team that has to prove to me on the court they can bounce back.
29. Nuggets (30-52). I love the hiring of Mike Malone to change the culture (and moving Ty Lawson had to be part of that). After seeing him at Summer League I think Emmanuel Mudiay can develop into a franchise cornerstone kind of player. All this portends good things for the future, but the present will be rough as they work to get to that better spot.
30. 76ers (18-64). Maybe this is too low for them, but if we didn’t start the season with the Sixers on the bottom it would feel wrong. It’s tradition. I saw Jahlil Okafor in Las Vegas and was impressed, he can be a franchise cornerstone. He’s also still a rookie with a rough learning curve. There are still serious questions about the backcourt.