NBA Power Rankings: Who Are the Favorites to Contend for the Title?
The draft is over, the major free agents have found new homes and, short of a Dwight Howard blockbuster, I don't think we're going to see any earth-shattering trades. You know what that means?
It's time for power rankings!
Yes, teams still have moves to make, and yes, I know Dwight Howard to (insert team here) will change how this list looks, but for now, here are my mid-July NBA power rankings.
Tier 8: The Nerlens Noel Sweepstakes
My general philosophy with power rankings is that they're useless without tiers. How else can you distinguish the difference between team No. 25 and team No. 26? There has to be a point of reference.
Every team in a tier is on a roughly similar plane in my mind. Where they're ranked is where exactly I think they stand in the league, but tier means a lot more. It shows where they are in relation to similar teams.
Anyway, the bottom tier is the group of teams in the running to win the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft and the right to select future Kentucky Wildcat Nerlens Noel.
For those of you who don't know, Noel is basically a worse unibrow. He's not the game-changer Anthony Davis is, but he's close.
Side note, we need to start working on a nickname for Noel. My vote is for the square 'fro. That's way too tall for a high-top fade. Can somebody tell this guy it isn't 1982? John Calipari really needs to get a good hair stylist for his players.
No. 30: Charlotte Bobcats
I absolutely love Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He was my favorite player in the draft with two individual eyebrows. That doesn't change the fact that neither he nor any other player on the Bobcats is anywhere near ready to be a go-to scorer.
Their starting center averaged five points per game last year. Their two best scorers (Ben Gordon and Gerald Henderson) would have to struggle for minutes on a contender. Their new head coach was hired as a college assistant.
The bottom line here is that this team is absolutely devoid of talent. They won seven games last year. Seven!
If there wasn't a draft lottery, the Bobcats would be on a tier by themselves. They are by far the worst team in the NBA. Drafting Kidd-Gilchrist was a good start, but it's going to take several years before this team is ready to fight for a playoff spot.
No. 29: Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns, a team that had only one 15 point scorer last year (Marcin Gortat), have officially downgraded from one of the ten best point guards of all time to a rookie.
For those of who didn't watch much of Phoenix last year, I'm going to break down their season in six words: Steve Nash was their whole team.
He single-handedly kept them in the playoff race by creating open shots for his mediocre teammates. He led the league in assists per 48 minutes, and he did it passing to Shannon Brown and Jared Dudley.
Other than LeBron James with the Cavaliers, no player has meant more to their team over the past decade or so than Steve Nash. Just as Cleveland collapsed without LeBron, the Suns will plummet to the bottom of the league without Nash.
Their one ray of hope is Eric Gordon. If the Suns can somehow convince New Orleans to agree to a sign-and-trade for the young shooting guard, they'll have some real direction for the future. Unfortunately, the Hornets are probably going to hold on to Gordon, meaning the Suns are in for a few years of rebuilding before they'll be relevant again.
No. 28: Toronto Raptors
Am I the only who feels like the Raptors have absolutely no idea what they're doing? Let's just recap some of their awful moves over the past few years:
They drafted Andrea Bargnani No. 1 overall in a draft with LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo.
They held on to Chris Bosh despite having absolutely no chance of retaining him long-term. Couldn't they have done better at the trade deadline than two high-20 first-round picks from Miami?
They drafted Terrance Ross, a consensus late-lottery/mid-teens pick No. 8 overall, with Andre Drummond, a potential superstar, sitting on the board.
They compounded this mistake by signing Landry Fields, yet another shooting guard, to a $20 million dollar contract despite the fact that he might not be worth $10 million. This was supposedly in an effort to stop the Knicks from using him in a sign-and-trade for Steve Nash, who wanted to go to the Lakers anyway.
They made the past two moves despite the fact that their most talented player (Demar Derozan) plays shooting guard.
Here's what the Raptors SHOULD have done:
- Taken Andre Drummond with the eighth pick in the draft.
- Shipped Bargnani away for picks.
- Held onto their cap space and rebuilt OKC-style.
Doesn't a future of Drummond and Jonas Valanciunas developing together sound appealing to you, Raptors fans? Not many teams have two seven-footers with that much talent.
But no, Bryan Colangelo is hell-bent on turning this team into a Euro-ball disaster. This is the year that it finally kills them. The rest of the league is too good, there are too few terrible teams and nobody is falling for that gimmick.
27. New Orleans Hornets
I really hate putting the Hornets this low, but their age, injury risks and overall lack of depth means they're probably looking at another year near the bottom of the league.
Give Dell Demps credit, though. A core of Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and 2013 lottery pick X is a great start for a small-market team.
The only problem here is that Eric Gordon doesn't want to play for the Hornets. He wants to go to Phoenix.
Keeping Gordon happy is critical, as he is currently their best player and the only person ready to lead the team right now. They need to make him feel wanted and a big part of their long-term plans.
Right now, though, they're looking at an unhappy star with injury risks, a future franchise player who needs time to develop and a group of young guys who need to learn how to play together. New Orleans will be good; it will just take time.
Side note: Hornets fans, stop reading if you don't want me to get your hopes up, but is there a more logical 2013 destination for Chris Paul than New Orleans?
Hear me out. He never seemed like he needed a big market; he just wanted a chance to win. Couldn't he win in New Orleans with Davis and Gordon?
He already knows the city and was beloved before his trade, and I wouldn't put it past Donald Sterling to somehow piss Paul off so badly that he refuses to return to the Clippers. It's Donald Sterling; that's always a fair bet.
I'm not saying I think he'll come back to the Hornets or that I even think he'll consider it. I just think it's a logical destination. Nothing more.
Tier 7: Slightly Promising
These are the teams that might be good enough to do something. They won't compete for the championship or even make the playoffs, but they're just good enough to make a little bit of noise.
This isn't to say that the teams in the previous tier aren't promising for the future, but these teams have the potential to something right now and will only get better.
No. 26: Cleveland Cavaliers
I've made this point several times before, but in case you don't feverishly follow everything I write, I'll point it out again: Kyrie Irving is criminally underrated. Take a look at these stat lines:
20.9 PPG, 5.9 APG, 5.5 RPG, .417 FG%
18.5 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.7 RPG, .469 FG%
The top one belongs to LeBron James as a rookie in 2003-2004; the bottom belongs to Kyrie Irving last year. Cleveland's "other" No. 1 pick put up stats comparable to the traitor-turned-champion that used to wear a Cavaliers uniform.
The Cavs struck gold with Irving; now they just have to build the roster around him. Personally I feel like they swung and missed with their next two major moves (Tristan Thompson over Jonas Valanciunas, then Dion Waiters over Thomas Robinson and Harrison Barnes), but the talent in Cleveland is starting to form.
As long as Kyrie is in Cleveland, the future will be bright. They just need to hope the other guys develop with him. Thompson and Waiters both have high upsides but aren't very refined. Neither will be a star next year, but both will be solid players down the road.
This will probably be Cleveland's last year in the gutter, so they'd better make it count by developing their players correctly and picking the right guy at the top of the 2013 draft. But for now, think of them as the 2008-2009 Oklahoma City Thunder. They won't win many games, but you'll catch glimpses of their future.
No. 25: Detroit Pistons
For the first time since the Chauncey Billups trade, the Pistons actually have a tiny bit of hope for the future.
Here's the problem: In Andre Drummond's case, the future is a long way off. He's got the potential to be a very good player, but right now he's as good as useless. He and Greg Monroe are the foundation of a solid frontcourt, but for now they're going to learn how to play together.
There is a similar situation going on in the backcourt. Both Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Knight are combo guards masquerading as point guards. Both of them are talented, but neither has a defined role.
This is the problem in Detroit. Nobody really knows his role on the team. It's a bunch of jumbled talent thrown together in the hopes that it might someday work. It's the complete opposite of their 2004 championship team.
For now, expect the Pistons to slowly improve. They'll start slowly, but by the end of the season, they will be a respectable team. The future will look bright until Joe Dumars hands Corey Maggette a $60 million extension.
No. 24: Sacramento Kings
Can we somehow turn the Kings into a reality show?
Think about it: Between DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans and Terrance Williams, they lead the league in knucklehead factor (my new favorite analyst term, by the way). They have a Mormon in Jimmer Fredette and a 5'9'' point guard with the same name as a legend in Isaiah Thomas, not to mention that they're in the midst of a potential relocation.
What's not to like?
In all seriousness, this spot is really more of a hedge. They're either going to end up as one of the two or three worst teams in the league or they're going to sneak into the playoffs. There's absolutely no in-between.
The key is Cousins. If he grows up, he can be an All-Star. If he doesn't, then the Kings won't go anywhere.
The talent is all there. A Cousins-Thomas Robinson frontcourt duo has the potential to be special. Thomas was third on my (albeit fictional) rookie of the year ballot, and Evans is a great scorer. The key is maturity. Worst case scenario here is VH1 has a great new reality show.
No. 23: Golden State Warriors
Part of me really wanted to just lift a scouting report from 2009 and paste it in here. The story with the Warriors has been the same for what seems like decades. They're going to score a ton of points but play no defense and not win many games.
That's what's going to happen this year. Their offense is going to be awesome. Between Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Dorrell Wright, they have the best shooting in the league, and the David Lee-Andrew Bogut duo is going to take advantage of that by scoring plenty of easy buckets.
That doesn't change the fact that Bogut is the only person in that group that plays defense. You can't win this way. If Phoenix couldn't win with Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson, why are the Warriors going to win with this group?
The culture of this organization needs to be changed. Mark Jackson says he wants to do that, but there's only so much you can do without the right players. That's why Golden State remains the logical destination for Andre Iguodala, yet I'm 100 percent sure the Warriors aren't making a Barnes-for-Iggy swap any time soon.
Watch the Warriors on League Pass and bet the over on their games. Just don't expect them to make the playoffs. It isn't happening.
Side note: As someone as outspoken against tanking as anyone, I can't tell you how angry I was that the Warriors openly tanked during the second half of the season and were rewarded with Barnes falling right into their lap. Karma won't exactly be on Golden State's side.
No. 22: Washington Wizards
Before I get into what I think of the new-look Wizards on the court, I want to point out what a shortsighted and downright stupid move the trade for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza was.
As we've learned from OKC, San Antonio and really every successful small-market team, the way to build a contender without resources is by preserving cap space, drafting well and developing your team at the right place.
The Wizards are trying to skip steps and compete right away. Newsflash: You aren't winning anything with John Wall, Bradley Beal, Ariza, Okafor and Nene. Shocking, I know.
The Wizards took themselves out of the conversation for every major free agent next year because they felt the need to add a mediocre wing player and an overrated big man. A backcourt of Wall and Beal looks great for the future, but they've killed any flexibility they might have had by adding contracts that go beyond their window of Wall's rookie contract.
On the court, this team is decent. They'll play defense and will get scoring from their guards, but they aren't doing anything special. Their ceiling is a first-round playoff exit. It's a shame because this regime had the potential to do so much more.
Tier 6: Purgatory
Even though this isn't the lowest tier, it's by far the worst one to be in.
Purgatory is the stage an NBA team resides in when they're just good enough not to be doormats but just bad enough not be taken seriously as a contender. They have no way of improving because their draft picks aren't good enough to get a star, but as currently constructed, they won't come close to winning the championship.
If you're wondering why Joe Johnson is the picture here, it's because he's the poster boy for NBA purgatory. If Joe Johnson is your best player, your team is most likely in purgatory, whether it's here or in second-round purgatory (where Atlanta has been the past few years).
When you're in purgatory, your only goal should be to get out. In either direction. It doesn't matter how. This is the worst place an NBA team can be.
No. 21: Milwaukee Bucks
If Joe Johnson is the Michael Jordan of NBA purgatory, Monta Ellis is at least Larry Bird.
There is no better formula for winning 43 percent of your games than building around a player who makes 43 percent of their shots. I'm calling this the 43-percent rule.
Monta Ellis is a glorified instant-offense player. If he served Jason Terry's role in Dallas, he'd be seen as one of the most underrated players in the league, yet if Terry served Ellis' role the past few years, he'd get ripped apart by the media.
There is no excuse for this guy to take as many shots as he does, yet nobody seems to be able to rein him in. There's a reason he's only played in the playoffs once.
His backcourt mate is Brandon Jennings, yet another purgatory Hall of Famer and a perfect example of the 43-percent rule, except for the fact that he's a career 39-percent shooter.
You do the math: There's going to be a lot of fighting for shots and very little ball movement.
It's a shame because they have plenty of other guys I like. John Henson was one of my sleepers going into the draft, Ersan Illyasova won me my fantasy league and Scott Skiles is one of the few coaches in the league who can get almost anyone to play defense.
Monta Ellis just doesn't happen to fall under that "almost anyone" umbrella. The Bucks are going to win 36 games this year. Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings are going to take a lot of bad shots. And we're going to see the same thing next year. I know, I'm psychic.
No. 20: Atlanta Hawks
I'm convinced the following conversation took place last week:
Danny Ferry: Billy, I'm gonna need you to take Johnson's contract off of our hands. If you refuse, I'll release the pictures.
Billy King: Come on, Danny, be reasonable. How am I supposed to trade for Dwight Howard with that albatross of a contract on my books? Can't I just give you a top-six pick like I did for Portland?
Danny Ferry: Not my problem, just throw together a package that works under the cap. You have 24 hours.
That's the only explanation, right? I mean, short of blackmail, how could anyone be convinced to take on Joe Johnson's contract? I don't care if it got Deron Williams to stay (which I don't believe, by the way), paying Joe Johnson $89 million over the next four years is no way to build a championship team.
Kudos to Danny Ferry on that one. The hard part is over; now they just have to trade Josh Smith for draft picks and rebuild around Al Horford.
At the moment, though, there is no way that they're making the playoffs. Who's taking the last shot of a playoff game for them, Jeff Teague?
My expectation is that Smith will be gone by the start of the season. I have no idea where he'll go, but I don't think he ever wears an Atlanta uniform again. It just doesn't make sense on either side. They're rebuilding, and he wants out anyway.
The keys to this Hawks season will be the development of Jeff Teague and the recovery of Al Horford. If Teague starts to look like a viable starting point guard and Horford is back to normal, then I'd consider this year a win for the Hawks.
No. 19: Houston Rockets
The Rockets are a significantly worse team than they were last year, yet they're so deep that they won't feel much of the loss at all.
They lost two solid point guards in Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic, a solid role player in Chase Budinger and an above-average center in Sam Dalembert, with only three rookies to replace them.
Considering his track record and reputation, though, I wouldn't be surprised if this was exactly how GM Daryl Morey wants it. He didn't have the necessary assets to entice Orlando into a Dwight Howard trade, so once getting a top-10 pick came off of the table, he decided to create his own assets.
He took three high-risk, high-reward players in the draft. Jeremy Lamb has top-five talent, so does Royce White if he gets over his fear of flying, and Terrance Jones is going to at least be a solid role player.
Between those three and past draft picks like Chandler Parsons, Marcus Morris, Patrick Patterson and Donatas Motiejunas, Morey probably figures that he has at least one gem.
The problem with that move and the reason why it's going to hurt the Rockets on the court is that there aren't enough minutes to go around. Trying to develop seven players only results in none of them getting the time they need.
The Rockets need to decide what their priorities are. If they're going all in on Dwight Howard, they need to move some of their young guys for real assets now, but if they want to win, they'll have to find a new point guard in free agency and get a couple of veterans.
My guess is that they don't give up on Dwight Howard until he has actually been traded. That means Houston is probably going to miss the playoffs this year. Watch for them to really use their young guys, and hopefully one of them turns into the star they've been looking for.
No. 18: Portland Trail Blazers
If Portland can steal Roy Hibbert from Indiana, they'll be poised to replace the Hawks the go-to second-round purgatory team. Between LaMarcus Aldridge, Hibbert and Nicolas Batum, they'd have plenty of almost-stars but no real stars.
Unfortunately, I'm expecting Indiana to match any offers to Hibbert, so at the moment, Portland is on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
LaMarcus Aldridge is the only major player on this team that has actually proven anything. Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard are among the more unproven rookies in the draft. Lillard played for Weber State, and Leonard didn't exactly put up huge numbers at Illinois.
Nicolas Batum is a statistical darling (which explains his eight-figure offers so far), but it doesn't change the fact that teams like him more for his potential than his actual production. $10 million per year is too much for the next Shane Battier. He's a good guy to have on your team, but he's going to be overpaid.
If Batum, Lillard and Meyers become the players they can be, Portland will be ready to make some noise. Unfortunately for the Blazers, that's going to take at least a few years. For now, the Blazers are going to be on the outside looking in.
Tier 5: Borderline Playoff Teams
These are the teams that are right on the playoff bubble. They'll be competing for a spot until the very end and are prime candidates to get swept by Miami or Oklahoma City in Round 1.
No. 17: Dallas Mavericks
I'm fully aware that this Dallas team isn't currently complete, and I know that they missed out on Deron Williams and Steve Nash, but I refuse to believe that any team with Dirk Nowitzki could fall out of the playoff hunt. He's too good, and Dallas is too smart of an organization. It just won't happen.
Now it's just a matter of picking up the pieces. There are players out there who can help the Mavs; they just have to find them. Remember, in 2010 they went out and stole Tyson Chandler for free while everyone else was busy chasing the big fish, and they were rewarded with a championship.
Ramon Sessions seems to be their current target at point guard. Plenty of shooting guards are available to replace Jason Terry, such as J.R. Smith, OJ.. Mayo and Courtney Lee. They are also trying to get Elton Brand through the amnesty waiver process.
That would leave the Mavericks with a starting five of Sessions, Mayo, Shawn Marion, Dirk and Brendan Haywood, with Elton Brand and Rodrigue Beaubois as their chief reserves. Is that team going to win a championship? No, but they'll compete for a playoff spot.
For this year's Mavs, that's enough. Their plan has always been to lure a star to Dallas, and if it didn't happen in 2012, they were always going to chase one in 2013.
My guess is that Dallas is gearing up for a run at Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. I don't think they'll get either of those guys, but that's their plan. 2013 is their true year to rebuild the roster. This is going to be yet another year of the waiting game.
No. 16: Minnesota Timberwolves
My personal favorite League Pass team is ready to make the playoffs for the first time since Kevin Garnett left. The Minnesota Timberwolves are back.
Ricky Rubio was born to play point guard in the NBA. He's one of the best pure passers I've ever seen as a rookie. Watching him run pick-and-rolls with Kevin Love was a glimpse into a very bright future for the Wolves.
Speaking of Kevin Love, he's the best power forward in the league and a top-10 player in the league. Like Rubio, he's also a world-class passer for his position.
Putting two passers like that together on one team is usually a recipe for success. It makes everyone on the team better. Rubio and Love will work wonders for Derrick Williams, Nikola Pekovic and Brandon Roy.
Speaking of Roy, if he's somehow healthy, Minnesota struck gold. It's very hard for small-market teams to sign stars in free agency, which is why I love the risk.
If you're a fan of good passing and team basketball, watch the Wolves. Think of them like the 2009-2010 Thunder. They're going to make the playoffs and lose to a true contender, but you'll know you haven't seen the last of them. No more Thunder comparisons, I promise.
No. 15: Utah Jazz
There isn't a more boring playoff team in the NBA than the Jazz. They methodically pound the ball down low to Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors. That's their offense, and while it's effective, it isn't exactly entertaining.
Sooner or later, though, Utah is going to have to address their logjam upfront. Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter need time to develop, but Jefferson and Millsap are great interior scorers right now. Utah has to make a decision: try to win now or try to win later.
The smart basketball decision is to trade Jefferson and Millsap now and rebuild. Kanter and Favors are both top-three picks with great potential; they aren't going to get better off of the bench.
Millsap and Jefferson could both bring in hefty trade packages. Utah has other young pieces like Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks, but as currently constructed, they have no chance to win a title. What is the benefit of keeping this group together?
Just to give you another taste of my psychic abilities, here's how the Jazz season is going to go down. They'll go .500, they'll make the playoffs as a low seed, and they'll get beaten by a top seed in four games. That's what happens when you refuse to decide between the present and future.
No. 14: Orlando Magic
There's no way to rate Orlando as currently built. They won't end the season with Dwight Howard, but the rumors come in so quickly that there's no way of knowing what's really going on.
Thing is, I'm not sure Orlando has any idea what they're doing. There is no reason a Howard-for-Andrew Bynum trade doesn't make sense. Reports are that Bynum doesn't want to sign an extension with Orlando, but there's no way he's turning down an extra $25 million to bolt.
If Orlando wanted Bynum, I think it would have happened by now. I think Orlando is holding out for a package that isn't there. The Clippers aren't giving up Blake Griffin, the Knicks aren't giving up Carmelo and Tyson Chandler, and there's no mystery team with a young star ready to give up.
I don't know what Orlando's endgame is here, but they can't let this drama continue. Whether it's to Los Angeles or another team, they need to trade him as soon as possible. This season will end in disappointment if they let Howard ruin it with his immaturity and selfishness.
Tier 4: Secure Playoff Teams
These are the teams that are going to make the playoffs and have an outside chance of upsetting a top team but probably aren't going to win the championship.
No. 13: Philadelphia 76ers
I'm going to address Memphis' end of this later on, but why hasn't a Rudy Gay for Andre Iguodala trade happened yet?
Philly needs a go-to scorer. That's not Iguodala. He's best served focusing on his defense and being a third or fourth scorer, but on the 76ers, he's forced to take most of the crunch time shots.
Gay solves that problem. He'd set a formal hierarchy for the 76ers. Gay would be first, Evan Turner would be second and Louis Williams (if he returns) will be third.
In the meantime, we know exactly what Philly is. Under Doug Collins they'll play disciplined defense and won't score many points.
And that's fine, if they don't intend to get better. Gay does the things they need without sacrificing much in terms of the team's strengths. They'll still play defense, but their offense will be better.
For now, though, I'd like to question their decision to use the amnesty clause on Elton Brand. He's an expiring contract, and signing Nick Young seems like a lateral move if they want to bring back Louis Williams. It seems like a waste.
No. 12: Brooklyn Nets
Rejoice in Brooklyn, Deron Williams is back! The new arena won't be opened by Brook Lopez!
In all seriousness, Billy King has finally been vindicated for his trade-deadline gamble. They traded for Deron Williams, and he re-signed. Congratulations, Billy, your batting average is finally approaching the Mendoza Line.
The new Nets are ready to at least be moderately competitive. Deron Williams is an alpha dog, Joe Johnson is a sidekick and they have a solid supporting cast with Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks and Brook Lopez (assuming he returns).
Moderately competitive isn't good enough for Mikhail Prokhorov, which is why we keep hearing about Dwight Howard.
I want to point something out to Nets fans now because I'm getting sick of all of the talk: Dwight Howard isn't coming to Brooklyn. The Nets have no leverage now that they don't have cap space. They're offering around the fifth best package of the interested teams, and plenty of teams out there are happy to rent him.
Orlando isn't caving on a terrible offer when there are plenty of others out there.
Get used to your slightly-above-average roster, Nets fans, because this is the team you're moving forward with. Luckily for them, this team is solid. They'll make the playoffs and might even make it to Round 2. Considering where they've been, they're headed towards the right place.
No. 11: Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets are primed for a breakout season. They're loaded with young talent.
Kenneth Faried has my favorite nickname in the NBA (the Manimal), Ty Lawson has shown signs of greatness and Danilo Gallinari was a borderline All-Star last year.
The Nuggets are also deep with supporting players like Arron Afflalo, Andre Miller, Chris Andersen and king of the knuckleheads Javale McGee.
So if there's so much to like on the roster, why are they at No. 11? Well, there are two reasons.
The first issue is defense. In layman's terms, they don't play it. Last year they gave up 101.24 points per game, good for 29th in the league. You can't win without playing defense.
The second problem is their ceiling. As good as some of their players are, none of them are superstars. None of them are even particularly close. You don't win championships with nine very good players; you win them with three great ones.
Until Lawson or Gallinari proves to me that they're stars, the Nuggets are firmly entrenched in this spot. They'll make the playoffs and compete for a round or two, but they'll eventually lose.
Tier 3: Borderline Contenders
These are the teams that are close. They'll be competitive, and they might even go on a playoff run, but they're still a move or two away from really being in the title hunt.
No. 10: New York Knicks
As a Knicks fan, I can't express in words how happy I am to see them in the top 10 of any power rankings, even if I'm the one writing them. We're finally headed in the right direction!
In terms of talent, the Knicks can play with anyone, including Miami. Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire are legitimate superstars, Tyson Chandler is the defensive player of the year, and Linsanity appears to be headed back to New York.
The supporting cast is at least passable. Jason Kidd is going to mentor Jeremy Lin, Iman Shumpert is going to be the perimeter stopper when he recovers from injury, Steve Novak is the shooter, and even if Marcus Camby passes on a New York reunion, Jared Jeffries can fill the role of defensive big man off of the bench.
The issue here is fit. This team has three alpha dogs. Carmelo and Stoudemire have been for their whole careers, and while Jeremy Lin only had a taste of the spotlight last year, the team did so well that he's not likely to defer.
The key is finding out how the pieces fit together. First of all, I don't care about Stoudemire's price tag; he should be coming off of the bench. The Knicks were better with Carmelo at the power forward spot, and even if they figure out how to work together they should have separate time on the court so they can each run the offense separately.
That doesn't include the Lin factor. He's at his best running pick-and-rolls with Chandler and Stoudemire, but it remains to be seen how much of that he'll be able to do if Carmelo plans on sticking to his isolation game.
There is no more waiting in New York. This is our team. The Knicks are going forward with this core, and for the first time in over a decade, it seems like this team might actually give us a reason to watch.
No. 9: Indiana Pacers
Two things for you to consider before writing off Indiana as a fluke last year:
The Pacers came closer to beating the Heat than Oklahoma City did. They won in Miami the same amount of times Boston did. They legitimately seemed to get under Miami's skin.
Barring a surprise refusal to match an offer sheet for Roy Hibbert, the entire rotation will be back next year. Given the ages of Hibbert, Darren Collison, Paul George and George Hill, they're only going to get better.
The Pacers are for real. They play tough, physical basketball and aren't afraid to hit you with unprovoked smack talk. They are essentially a slightly worse version of the Boston Celtics.
Their problem is that they have nobody to take over at the end of games. Danny Granger has had five years to prove that he's that guy, and he's failed.
Paul George has to step up and take that role if Indiana wants to make the leap from spoiler to contender. He has all of the talent in the world; he just needs to harness it.
Another year together will only make these Pacers better. They're young and hungry and want to prove that you don't need superstars to win. At the very least, they'll give Miami all they can handle once again next year.
No. 8: Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have two superstars, an excellent defensive center, a former 6th man of the year and two really solid supporting scorers. So why aren't they contenders? Well I've got three reasons for you:
Vinny Del Negro is their coach. No further explanation needed.
They inexplicably re-signed Chauncey Billups. I know Chris Paul wanted him back, but he was absolutely terrible for them last year. He shot 36 percent from the field yet still took 11 shots per game. He's 35, coming off of major surgery and playing out of position, yet he's going to play big minutes for the Clippers. He is a liability at this point.
Chris Paul has refused to sign an extension, which means that ESPN won't leave him alone about his impending free agency and it will eventually distract the team.
Let's expand a bit more on that third point. It makes no sense for Chris Paul to leave the Clippers. They can pay him the most money, it's the second biggest market in the country and he'll have a chance to win there as soon as Donald Sterling wises up and replaces Del Negro with Phil Jackson.
Yet for reasons unbeknownst to me, Paul wants to explore free agency. Does he think the Knicks are magically going to come up with a trade package? Or that the Clippers will willingly deal with the Lakers? He's in a great situation right now, so what is he planning?
That's what really concerns me about this. Is Chris Paul fully invested in the Clippers? Or is he planning to leave next summer?
A team made up of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Caron Butler, Eric Bledsoe, Lamar Odom, Deandre Jordan, Jamal Crawford and Chauncey's corpse can absolutely contend with anyone in terms of talent. I just think the combination of Del Negro, Sterling and Paul's impending free agency will hurt them just enough to cost them any real shot they have.
Tier 2: The Contenders
Every team from this point on has a real chance to win the championship. The teams in the previous tier have an outside shot if everything breaks right for them, but teams seven through one will be in the thick of things until the end no matter what.
No. 7: Memphis Grizzlies
I've already berated Philly for not jumping on a Rudy Gay for Andre Iguodala swap, so let's do the same thing for Memphis.
The Grizzlies were better in 2011 without Gay. He hinders their ability to pound the ball inside to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. That's what Memphis does best, but Gay needs the ball in his hands to be effective. They essentially have to decide when he's on the floor if they want to run their offense through him or through Zbo.
Andre Iguodala, on the other hand, is perfect for that sort of offense. He's not a true creator; he's best suited to be a third option. He's also one of the five best perimeter defenders in basketball. So is Tony Allen, their current starter at shooting guard.
Every team in the NBA should be asking themselves right now, how can we beat Miami? They're the champs, so they're the team you'll have to unseat. The key to beating the Heat is perimeter defense and interior offense.
If Memphis made this trade, they would be the best in the league at both. They would literally be built to beat Miami. I'm astounded that they haven't realized this, and how effective it would be against fellow Western Conference contender Oklahoma City.
As long as Rudy Gay is on the Grizzlies, they're going to be held back. We saw in 2011 just how good this team can be when they're playing the right offense. Gay won't let them do that.
I consider the Grizzlies contenders in the hopes that they realize this and either force Gay to play their way or ship him out for Iguodala. In the meantime, they play good enough defense and have enough interior scoring to beat any team listed before them.
No. 6: Chicago Bulls
The old adage is defense wins championships. The Bulls play defense better than anyone. That means even if they don't have Derrick Rose for most of the season, they'll be good enough to keep pace with most of the Eastern Conference's playoff teams.
Remember, the Bulls have had the best regular season record each of the last two years. They have one of the four coaches in the NBA we know for sure is good (Tom Thibodeau, along with Greg Popovich, Doc Rivers and Rick Carlisle). All they need to do is score points, and they'll win games.
Rose is obviously the key. Honestly, if I were running the Bulls I wouldn't let him see the court at all this year. A torn ACL is a two-year recovery, and he's too important to risk getting hurt again.
The Bulls won't think that way, so Rose will play. Let's say Rose comes back in March and is 90 percent by the time the playoffs start. Remember, seeding doesn't matter (the No. 1 overall seed hasn't won the title since the '08 Celtics), so they just have to get into the playoffs.
If they can find another scorer without breaking up their nucleus, why couldn't they beat Miami or Boston? They've competed with them in the past. All they need is someone to take pressure off of Rose. If Rose can come back and play at least close to his 2011 MVP form, Chicago will be right in the thick of things.
Question his health all you want; just know that if Derrick Rose were healthy, the Bulls would be No. 2 on this list. One injury doesn't change how good this team is. They're true contenders even if they don't have Rose for 90 percent of the season.
No. 5: San Antonio Spurs
Raise your hand if you've counted the Spurs out at some point over the last five years. If your hand isn't up right now, you're a liar.
Well, you know what? They've always come back. At a certain point we have to accept that as long as Tim Duncan and Greg Popovich are there, they'll keep winning.
Tony Parker is still in his prime. Manu Ginobli's game doesn't rely enough on athleticism to make me believe he's headed for a steep drop, and Tim Duncan is Tim Duncan.
We also know that Popovich is going to find one player we've never heard of and turn him into a rotation player.
Remember, less than two months ago the Spurs had won 20 straight games and looked completely unstoppable. Just because they were stopped doesn't mean they've been killed.
They're bringing back the same exact team that looked like a lock to win the championship. If they run into Oklahoma City again, they'll have made the proper adjustments and will be ready for anything Scott Brooks throws at them.
Until Tim Duncan retires, San Antonio's window is open. I wouldn't bet on them against Oklahoma City, but I wouldn't bet against them against anyone. They're still the Spurs, and until that changes, they're a top-five team in these power rankings.
No. 4: Boston Celtics
Before you start burning Ray Allen's jersey, Celtics fans, listen to this. The Celtics are a much better team right now than they were in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
In exchange for losing Ray Allen, the Celtics are adding Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, Fab Melo, Jason Terry and potentially Courtney Lee to their team. Think about that swap. I'd trade Ray Allen for any three players on that list; the Celtics are getting six.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that losing Allen will help the Celtics. His shaky relationship with Rajon Rondo is well documented, but I want to talk about his relationship with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
How do you think they feel about him going to Miami? These are two of the most pathologically competitive people in all of sports. They've spent the past two years fighting and losing to Miami, but hating everything they stood for.
They supposedly took pleasure in berating LeBron for his lack of clutch chops and then had to watch him win a championship after beating them in a brutal seven-game series. I'm guessing that made them hate the Heat more than ever.
And then Ray Allen, the third member of their big three, ditched them to join the evil empire. How do you think those two felt about that? My guess is somewhere between betrayed and homicidal.
The Celtics suddenly have a whole new form of motivation. It's not going to be about beating LeBron anymore; it's going to be about beating Ray Allen.
This Celtics team is deeper than last year's. Jason Terry is a better player than Allen at this point anyway.
The Celtics are going to play Miami again. It is going to be a brutal series. I'm sure we'll see plenty of technicals. I'm not saying the Celtics will win, but I'm saying they're a better team now than they were last time and have a real shot of taking out the champs.
Tier 1: The Favorites
These are the three teams best positioned to win the title.
No. 3: Los Angeles Lakers
In the 2003-2004 season, the Phoenix Suns won 29 games. They added Steve Nash during the offseason and won 62 games the next season.
Now just imagine what he can do for a team like the Lakers.
The NBA's best passer is joining one of the greatest pure scorers of all time to go along with the league's best frontcourt duo. Their fourth best player is Pau Gasol. That's scary no matter who you are.
The key is going to be figuring out how to keep both Nash and Kobe Bryant happy. My guess is that Kobe relinquishes control of the team during the first three quarters and takes over in the fourth. At this point in his career, he can't afford to be petty. If he's going to win a sixth championship, he has to defer.
If anyone can get him to do it, it's Nash. He'll get Kobe easy shots without the need for lengthy isolations. Kobe has never played with a distributor like Nash, so while he may resist at first, he'll eventually embrace the fact that he doesn't have to carry the load every night.
The next step is going to be building the bench. Bringing back Jordan Hill is critical because they need youth. Next on the list is Grant Hill. If they can bring both of those guys in along with another veteran or two, they'll be set to compete for the title.
Oh, and one more thing, if the Lakers do trade Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard, it's over. For everyone. Barring an injury, they would win the championship. Nobody could stop Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol at the same time.
They're three completely unique superstars and another pseudo star who himself is one of a kind. Imagine if you swapped Dwyane Wade with Chris Paul and then added James Harden to the Heat and you'd get the idea. The Lakers with Dwight would be all but unbeatable.
Luckily for the league, Dwight inexplicably doesn't want to be a Laker. That's a story for another time. For now, know that Lakers are right there with the next two teams for the honor of being my title favorite.
No. 2: Oklahoma City Thunder
It happened to Jordan. It happened to Kobe. It happened to LeBron. Last year it happened to Kevin Durant.
Young guys simply don't win right away in the NBA. That's not how things work. Last year was a coming-of-age for Durant; he had to lose to win.
Even if Miami won the title, the Thunder are the best team in the NBA.
They have two legitimate superstars and two more guys that could get there. They're so talented that they could afford to use a first-round pick on someone with serious medical concerns just because they know if he flames out, it won't hurt them at all.
Unlike Miami, Oklahoma City's pieces actually fit together. All except for the one black sheep.
Russell Westbrook has to realize that he is not Kevin Durant. He shouldn't take 34 shots in a Finals game. There is no reason he should ever take more shots than Durant. As currently constructed, he is Oklahoma City's only weakness.
If Westbrook learns how to be a team player, the Thunder will win the championship. It's that simple. That's the missing piece.
Unfortunately, he has shown no signs of willingness to do that, whether it's his ego or he's simply not self-aware enough to realize it he is the one thing holding this team back.
Even with Westbrook's deficiencies, the Thunder are the league's best team and objectively probably should win the championship. So why aren't they ranked No. 1? Well...
No. 1: Miami Heat
Since I'm a hater, we're going to take a look at Miami's extensive list of flaws:
The only reason their coach still has a job is that his boss is too stubborn to admit he was wrong. Erik Spoelstra is among the league's worse head coaches. He can't settle on a rotation, and his players openly disagree with him.
I'm not so sure a healthy Dwyane Wade so readily defers as an injured Dwyane Wade did. We might be looking at yet another alpha-dog struggle in Miami.
Their key offseason addition was a 37-year-old coming off of major ankle surgery who is now exclusively a shooter.
Outside of their big three, the only role that their role players serve is making three-pointers. That's all they do.
Chris Bosh has settled into a nice role shooting jump shots and rebounding. He's getting paid a near maximum salary.
And you know what? Absolutely none of that matters because Miami has LeBron James, and no other team does. We rarely see anyone play at the level he did this spring, and as long as he has that in him, Miami will remain the favorite. Until someone solves the LeBron James puzzle, Miami will be nearly impossible to beat.
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