It seems like we say it every year after free agency, but this offseason has once again shaken the league to its core. Everything from the disaster in Sacramento, where they are now considering firing George Karl to appease star center DeMarcus Cousins merely six months after they fired the guy Cousins got along with, to the dynasty that will never fall in San Antonio, to DeAndre Jordan hostage crisis, to Blake Griffin’s tweets about the hostage crisis, to the inflation of contract dollars due to the impending salary cap rise, every team tried to either improve itself for now or for the future, even the Sixers. And, oh yeah, the best player in the world was a free agent, simply because he could be, and he might just do it every year for the rest of his career. The NBA offseason is the best soap opera out there.
Yet, coincidentally, the team that everyone is chasing, the Golden State Warriors, made no significant moves for the second straight offseason, and is still one of the two favorites to come out of the western conference. Maybe, just maybe, continuity is a little more important than we give it credit for. Regardless, here is how the dust settled, 1-30, after yet another crazy off season.
1) Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs would’ve won the title last year with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love; they almost won it anyway. Dan Gilbert swallowed the pill and doled out the cash to assure that this team remained in tact, and will likely pay the most expensive budget for any team ever. Tristan Thompson will get somewhere near a max contract to probably come off the bench, JR Smith, too, got money and is back, and Iman Shumpert was grossly overpaid at 4-years, $40 million, even accounting for the salary cap uptick. Every overpay the Cavs made this offseason was worth it, because LeBron got what he wanted. Because when you average 36/13/9 in an NBA finals series you get to call the shots.
Bottom line, barring some sort of minor miracle or catastrophic injury to Lebron, James will be playing in his seventh straight NBA finals in June, and will likely be in a better position to win that title than the previous year. The Kyrie/Love/Lebron trio will remain unstoppable offensively, and having Mozgov, Varejao (remember him?), and Thompson behind them will help. They’re insanely deep and will coast through the east as the odds-on favorites to win the title.
2) San Antonio Spurs
In a sport well known for franchise dysfunction, the Spurs continue to shine brighter than ever. So bright that a superstar, LaMarcus Aldridge, in his prime chose to live in San Antonio over anywhere else in the country, and an aging veteran, David West, chose to opt out of nearly $12 million and a likely starting spot with the Pacers to take the veterans minimum off the bench with San Antonio. They have one of the greatest coaches the game has ever seen and always seem to push the right buttons with their role players, to the point where nobody would be surprised if Jimmer Fredette becomes a valuable piece off the bench; “he’s such a Spurs signing,” would be used to rationalize. And all of this is merely a bi-product of winning consistently.
It may take the new-look Spurs awhile to get going; we know Pop will look to keep Manu, Parker, and Duncan healthy and rested for the playoffs. They will probably win somewhere close to 55 games and be a top 3 seed in the West. But nobody is going to want to face a healthy and hungry playoff lineup of Parker/Green/Kawhi/Andridge/Duncan, with West/Manu/reincarnated Jimmer off the bench and Pop uncontrollably grinning on the sideline. They’re the prohibitive favorites to represent the West in the finals, and it really isn’t close.
3) Golden State Warriors
The Warriors won 67 games, finished second in team offense and first in team defense, had a point differential of 10.1 points per game, return every contributor to that historic success, including the NBA MVP, and still fall to third on this list. That’s less of a slight to Golden State as much as it is a testament to the aforementioned teams. They probably won’t get appreciably worse – there isn’t even a reason to believe that if healthy they can’t replicate last season’s success. But be weary of the team that got all the breaks last season. They stayed healthy and faced little adversity, their luck is bound to regress back to the mean at some point – not that anyone is hoping Stephen Curry’s fortuitous ankles rear their ugly heads.
4) Atlanta Hawks
Call me a homer, but I don’t understand the dismissal of the Hawks as contenders. Maybe it stems from the popular narrative that the “team-basketball” concept can’t succeed in May and June; of course that would ignore the most successful franchise of the last 15 years. The Hawks dealt with injuries of varying severity to Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefalosha, and DeMarre Carroll all during the most crucial time of the season. While some blame can be shared by Mike Budenholzer for possibly being too liberal about resting guys down the stretch when the team needed to be hitting its stride, the Hawks didn’t get swept – in the Eastern Conference finals to LeBron James, mind you – because of any systematic issues.
The addition of Tiago Splitter is flying under the radar, but will allow Budenholzer with maximum flexibility with his stacked frontline. A massive upgrade over the inept Pero Antic, Splitter will allow Budenholzer to use lineups with Splitter at the “5” and Horford at the “4” and occasionally all three together, while utilizing the true “Popovich-ian” strategy of limiting everyone’s minutes. While the loss of DeMarre Carroll will hurt, Tim Hardaway will bring instant scoring to a bench unit with suddenly significant upside, as well. Don’t discount the 60-win, top-seeded Hawks just because the public narrative may direct you otherwise.
5) Oklahoma City Thunder
Lost in the pre-destined plans for Kevin Durant past this season is the fact that the Thunder are still really good when healthy. They have two of the five best players in the league, a wide array of front court depth, and enough shooting to get by. Sam Presti made the necessary decision to overpay Enes Kanter in order to appease Kevin Durant, which won’t hurt them. But the bottom line is: when Russell Westbrook is playing at his top energizer-bunny level, and Durant is playing like the MVP, the Thunder are one of the most electrifyingly talented teams in basketball. Who knows what they will look like in 2016-17, but the 2015-16 Thunder are a bona fide title contender.
6) Los Angeles Clippers
The good news: the Clippers won’t have to turn to Kendrick Perkins as the opening day center. The bad news: this is the same old core that continues to make unsuccessful playoff run after unsuccessful playoff run. While I would never advocate for major change just for change sake, there doesn’t seem to be lots of optimism coming from LA. I know they were cap-tied and really had limited flexibility, but while the Spurs and Thunder (by virtue of injury recovery) made major strides toward improvement, the Clippers still seem to be lost in the shuffle. Regardless, they’re going to win plenty of games and be right there with a chance to make a playoff run. The additions of Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson, Wesley Johnson, and Paul Pierce will help them do that.
7) Miami Heat
There are lots of “ifs” involved with this Heat team. If Dwyane Wade stays healthy – or at least it healthy by the time the playoffs roll around; if Hassan Whiteside remains tame off the court and destructive on it; if Justise Winslow plays as advertised, the Heat could possibly be the most significant threat to the Cavs in the East. Pat Riley has done as impressive a job as possible given the circumstances of LeBron’s departure. The Heat are contenders while still maintaining flexibility for the upcoming plethora of free agent talent. They may not be the deepest team in the East, but a healthy lineup of Dragic/Wade/Deng/ Bosh/Whiteside, plus A’Mare Stoudemire, Gerald Green, Winslow, and Josh McRoberts off the bench, will give any team fits come playoff time.
8) Houston Rockets
Why do the Western Conference runners-up, who return there entire team, including the addition of all-star point guard Ty Lawson, seem to be forgotten? Beard aside, James Harden might be the most unlikeable superstar in the NBA, with his flailing arms and desperate attempts to get fouls called. They’re going to be really good again – which might slot them in 5th in the West. But they have loaded front court depth with Terrence Jones, the fragile but still occasionally dominant Dwight Howard Donatas Montejunas, and the human spring board Clint Capela. The addition of Lawson will help space the floor for Harden, and they are in a good position going into next offseason’s free agent frenzy. Still, there’s something distinctly unlikeable and unenjoyable about them.
9) Milwaukee Bucks
I’m all on the Bucks’ bandwagon. For one, they’re stacked with rangy wings with high upside, now have the go-to scoring with Greg Monroe and Jabari Parker to at least be competent offensively, will probably be the best perimeter defensive team in the NBA, and are really coached well.
But more importantly: GREAAAKKKKK FREEEAAAKKKKKKKK
The man can do it all. Like this:
(yes, he blocked a shot from behind, fell, then got up and swatted another.)
He’s now 20 and will be playing every position – from point guard to center – on the court at different times. His potential is astronomically higher than any other 20 year-old’s on the planet.
Seriously, if Giannis isn’t your favorite NBA player, you’re not watching the same game.
10) Washington Wizards
The Wizards are in a weird spot with this roster. While the Wall/Beal backcourt tandem is growing and becoming one of the most dynamic in the NBA, the aging front court is really an issue. Nene, Gortat, Humphries, Blair and Gooden, make up an uninspiring and potentially worrisome group down low.
While the departure of veteran stalwart Paul Pierce to the Clippers isn’t ideal for the Wizards’ chances at a deep run this season, it might be the most beneficial thing for the development of Otto Porter and new draftee Kelly Oubre Jr. Additions of Alan Anderson, Jared Dudley, and Gary Neal won’t hurt the depth, but it won’t make a huge difference. A top-5 seed in the meager East seems to be a forgone conclusion barring injury to Wall or Beal, but beyond that it is difficult to see the aging big guys holding up and being productive long enough for a big run.
11) Chicago Bulls
Who knows anymore?
This middling ranking is more a product of sheer uncertainty than talent with the Bulls. Will Derrick Rose’s knees hold up and allow him to be the jumping, careening, ball of energy that MVP-level Rose was? Will Jimmy Butler play like the all-star he was last season and earn his max contract? How will the loss of coach Thibodeau affect the team?
The biggest reclamation project of them all will probably be the former stable rock in the middle Joakim Noah. Noah saw his numbers precipitously drop, from points to rebounds to assists to blocks, last season. If the Bulls have any intention of challenging the Cavs – and a healthy Bulls team can do that – Noah is the key.
12) Utah Jazz
Want a sleeper team to look forward to making a huge leap this season?
Look no further than Utah, where they are rightfully optimistic about a team brimming with talent and potential. Though the Dante Exum injury may hurt in terms of his longterm development, the second-year guard was a huge question mark coming into this season anyway.
The Jazz finished 19-10 after the all-star break last season, including wins over Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Portland, and Memphis, among others. That momentum was spearheaded by the French center nicknamed “the stifle tower.” Rudy Gobert’s borderline unprecedented wingspan and offensive potential energized a team that had been searching for an identity since the departure of Paul Millsap and Deron Williams. During the second half of the year, Gobert averaged 11.1 points, 13.4 rebound, 2.6 blocks, and 1.0 steals per game. If Giannis Antetokounmpo is your favorite player in the NBA – and he should be – Gobert is easily top-5.
13) Memphis Grizzlies
Call me cynical for being critical of the team that kept the entire team together after a 55-win season, but they don’t seem to be any better than they have been in the previous few years. While the offseason was a victory simply by virtue of Marc Gasol’s return, which acquisition will put them over the top? Brandan Wright? Matt Barnes? What about first rounder Jarell Martin? Grit and grind is great, and Memphis is going to be really good again, there just doesn’t seem to be much optimism heading into a season which could be Mike Conley’s last in Memphis.
14) Toronto Raptors
An already solid team added grit to their wing rotation when they signed DeMarre Carroll for 4-years and $60 million. Having finished 14th in the NBA is points allowed per game, Masai Ujiri and the Raptors took initiative with the Carroll acquisition to bring the defense up to the team’s offensive level. While the East is a jumbled mess, and the Raptors probably aren’t much worse than the Heat or Bulls, I’m very lukewarm about Toronto’s prospects. Norman Powell, Luis Scola, Corey Joseph, Delon Wright, and Bismack Biyombo come to Canada hoping to change their playoff fortunes. They overachieved last season until regressing a bit toward the end and flaming out of the playoffs, and are relying too heavily on the hot-headed Kyle Lowry and one-dimensional DeMar DeRozan. Meanwhile, they just extended Jonas Valunciunas – while it wasn’t egregious, given the rise in cap after the season, it also wasn’t ideal.
15) Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks, to no fault of their own, got screwed during the offseason. Having verbally agreed to a shiny new contract with the defensive stalwart and athletic freak DeAndre Jordan, Mark Cuban had already moved on to the next potential deals with the center position locked up. So when Jordan had a sudden change of heart, the Mavs were left scrambling for the Zaza Pachulias and Javale McGees. They really won’t be a threat in the West – even with Wesley Matthews (and what is left of Deron Williams) inked to a deal – and may struggle to even reach the playoffs in the crowded West.
16) Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are an intriguing team to follow this year. Few remember that before the Paul George injury, the top-seeded Pacers nearly ousted LeBron’s Heat twice. They were legitimate finals contenders. Now, without Lance Stephenson, Roy Hibbert, David West, and Luis Scola, they find themselves at somewhat of a new beginning. But Paul George is a true superstar in this league, and Myles Turner and Monta Ellis are serious additions to an already deep enough team. They could be a sneaky playoff team in the East that has room for them.
17) New Orleans Pelicans
It’s widely acknowledged that Anthony Davis and his unibrow is a true superstar, but I’m not sure he even gets enough attention. He averaged 24.3 points, 2.9 blocks, 10.2 rebounds, and 1.5 steals, while maintaining a 52.5% shooting percentage on an average team. He’s easily the second best player in the game and might be closer to #1 than most would admit. This team found its groove at the end of last season, leapfrogging the Thunder to claim the last playoff spot in the hyper-competitive West. They’re a bonafide playoff threat again, but can’t be in the upper echelon until they get some more help.
18) Orlando Magic
The Magic’s most interesting move this offseason was the one that didn’t happen. The rumor of Orlando’s interest in 30-year-old Paul Millsap at serious money – 4 years, $80 million – shows a clear intent to leave the cellar of the East and finally become contenders. And the time is right; with the potential emergence of Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo, and others, along with the explosive new first rounder Mario Hezonja, the Magic have an intriguing young core. I foresee a big step forward for the young, talented squad. And if so, maybe next offseason the major free agent will decide to not just consider Orlando, but choose them.
19) Phoenix Suns
They were in the running to get LaMarcus Aldridge, but failed, traded one of the Morris twins and now the other wants out, and decided to give 32-year-old Tyson Chandler a significant contract (4 year, $52 million) to be the anchor down low.
While I’m not necessarily sold on those moves, I can talk myself into the Suns as a possible playoff team, if everything breaks right. Brandon Knight is an underrated guard and creates a dynamic backcourt with Eric Bledsoe. I really like what Devin Booker has to offer, and he immediately fills a need for them as a great wing shooter. They’re deep, not top-heavy, but are well-coached and have a slight chance to squeak into the playoffs after a dysmal second-half last season.
20) Boston Celtics
While they squeaked into the playoffs last season, I still don’t see it in Boston. They’re a bunch of very solid role players – maybe a couple starting caliber players – but are just very mediocre. Marcus Smart is really good, though not a star. Isaiah Thomas is an electric scorer with a bargain of a contract, though not a star. And until Boston gets that star, either via the draft, free agency, or trade, they will continue to dwell in the purgatory of the Eastern Conference, no matter how much magic Coach Brad Stevens can manage.
21) Detroit Pistons
For better or worse, Stan Van Gundy is starting to make them his team. While Greg Monroe is a capable scorer and borderline star, he doesn’t have the defensive versatility to play alongside Andre Drummond. Van Gundy made the tough decision to let Monroe walk and sign a true power forward in Ersan Ilyasova. I don’t love the Stanley Johnson pick, especially over Justise Winslow, but he was clearly Detroit’s guy and might possess the alpha-dog mentality that the downtrodden Pistons have needed. If you wholeheartedly trust in Van Gundy, you should be excited about what’s going on in Detroit. I, for one, will remain skeptical until shown otherwise.
22) Minnesota Timberwolves
Now, astoundingly, with each of the past three #1 overall picks on their roster, Minnesota has talent to the moon. Andrew Wiggins showed plenty in his rookie season to suggest his unbridled path to stardom is right on track, and Karl-Anthony is the most talented big man to come out since Anthony Davis. Zach LaVine showed himself as a potentially capable starting point guard last season, though needs to improve his shot (he shot just 42% from the field last season). Expectations are rightfully high for the future in Minnesota, but I would caution the optimism at least dor this season. They simply aren’t going to be able to score enough, and really don’t have the veteran talent (Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller, and Tayshaun Prince won’t see much playing time) to compete for a playoff spot in the West. Next year, though, is a while other story…
23) Portland Trail Blazers
Among the losers of the offseason, by no fault of their own, Portland is going to see a serious drop off from last season. While LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews weren’t the entire team for a Blazers squad that won over 50 games last season, I can’t forsee a scenario where they would have enough talent around Damian Lillard to compete.
24) Charlotte Hornets
This roster is filled to the brim with one-dimensional players. Kemba Walker can still score, but still hovers below 40% from the field and can’t play defense. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can lock down anyone, but still hasn’t figured out how to shoot a basketball – a fairly important skill for an NBA player (note: the Hornets must not think so: they just rewarded him with a 4-year, $52 million extension). I really struggle to understand teams that don’t have much of a ceiling. Teams that have neither a talented roster or assets to eventually become a talented roster. Charlotte will be fine, but seem to have no plan.
25) Brooklyn Nets
They can’t tank; at least Brooklyn fans don’t have to worry about that.
What they will have to worry about, however, is the aftermath of the beginning of the over-exuberant Mikhail Prokhorov era that saw them trade THREE first round picks for a wilting Kevin Garnett and 35-year old Paul Pierce, trade for Joe Johnson and the worst contract in the NBA, and sign veterans around them to chase a championship immediately. Now, though, after the foolproof plan came to a crashing halt, they are in the most unenviable position: no-man’s land. They don’t have their own pick for the next 450 years and have no young talent to build around. It’s going to be a bleak year (and probably many years to come) for the New York-Brooklyn rivalry.
26) Denver Nuggets
No team is more dependent – possible other than the Lakers – upon their first round draft pick panning out as the Nuggets are. Emmanuel Mudiay really needs to be good in the long run for the Nuggets to regain prominence in the near future.
A scenario in which Gary Harris recovers from a bad rookie season, and Jusuf Nurkic continues to become a tremendous young big man offers hope for the Nuggets in the future. But Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, and Wilson Chandler, despite a new contract, probably are not part of the future. Look for them to be traded imminently and the Nuggets to be one of the worst teams in the NBA
27) Los Angeles Lakers
Welcome to 2015, a time when major free agents choose to live in Cleveland, San Antonio, and Milwaukee as opposed to the glamorous Los Angeles. They struck out big time this offseason, missing out on Aldridge, Love, Monroe; instead settling for the likes of Brandon Bass, Louis Williams, and Roy Hibbert via trade. While D’Angelo Russell might be a star in this league someday, the Lakers are going to be really bad in what might be Kobe Bryant’s last season.
28) Sacramento Kings
I think the likelihood that a team with Rajon Rondo, Demarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, and coached by the egomaniacal George Karl getting through this season without confrontation is about the same as the chances they actually make the playoffs. Honestly, I would be surprised if George Karl is still coaching the Kings by the end of this year. The Kings are a jigsaw puzzle, all with the same cutouts; they’re loaded with ball-dominant players – Rondo, McLemore, Gay, etc. – who simply do not jive together. In questionably trying to clear cap space for Monta Ellis, Wes Matthews and others who would eventually spurn Sacramento, the Kings made the mistake of handed the Sixers two pick-swaps and a top-10 protected first rounder. Stupid teams gonna stupid.
29) New York Knicks
The Knicks are in the midst of an identity crisis; they’re trying to head in two opposite directions. The drafting of Kristaps Porzingis indicates a clear intention to fully rebuild and tear it down. Porzingis needs heavy minutes in which he can make errors and not be crucified by the New York media. Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony and his diva, ring-less self still occupies a spot on the roster. If they were truly dedicated to a rebuild – which they should be – Anthony would have been traded to a contender while he still has years to contribute. Phil Jackson should move Anthony as soon as is possible if he wants to see the day the Knicks are back in the playoffs in the next 5 years. For now, they’re horrendously bad.
30) Philadelphia 76ers
This will now be the third straight season in which the Sixers will be intentionally awful at basketball. Do the ends really justify the means here? Tell that to the diehard fans that had to stomach Ish Smith as the starting point guard at the end of last season. They’re borderline unwatchable, and really only have a one-dimensional Nerlens Noel and unknown Jahlil Okafor as building blocks, with the underrated Robert Covington as a potential solid role player. This “process” that is supposed to result in inevitable championships disregards the fact that there is no formula to win a championship (that is, unless LeBron James decides to play for your team. Good luck with that Philly.) How many more years can the Sixers fans survive this? How many more years can Sam Hinkie survive this? This season could very well be a breaking point – one way or the other – in Philadelphia.
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