NBA Power Rankings: Judging Every NBA Team by Its Starting Lineup
For as much as NBA fans and pundits talk about the importance of depth to a team's success, it is hard to overlook the importance of a quality starting lineup. The five guys who have their names called during warm-ups are usually the most responsible for a team's success or failure.
Those five players will play the brunt of the minutes, do the lion's share of scoring and be asked to defend the opposing team's best players. Despite the grueling nature of an NBA season and the need for good reserves, there are plenty of reasons why a team puts so much thought and money into who they trot out every night.
These power rankings do not reflect the overall talent of a team. Sixth men, elite role players and valuable rotation pieces were not taken into consideration. Only the handful of starters on each ballclub were considered in compiling these rankings.
Without further ado, here are the power rankings for each NBA team based on their starting lineups.
Note: Each slide will open with a list of the starting lineups from positions 1 through 5 (PG - C). Lineups are projected upon the state of each team at the time of publishing and are certainly subject to change.
No. 30: Charlotte Bobcats
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Kemba Walker; Gerald Henderson; Michael-Kidd Gilchrist; Bismack Biyombo; Brendan Haywood
Make no mistake, the Charlotte Bobcats will be a better team next season than they were in 2011-2012, but that marginal improvement won't be enough to move them out of the power rankings cellar.
Kidd-Gilchrist will be thrust into a featured role immediately, but he is still developing as a player and will not be able to shoulder as much of the load on both ends as the team would like. He is a proven winner, great defender and team player, but it will take some time before he truly shines in the NBA.
Walker had a solid but unspectacular season last year, and he is not an elite scorer or playmaker from the point guard spot. He has a bright future, but being thrust into the starting role in his sophomore season is going to take some adjustment.
Gerald Henderson will likely be the team's best player; his two-way impact should not be undervalued, but he cannot lead the team to many wins.
Biyombo is still a project, and it remains to be seen if he can stick as a starting center in this league.
Next season won't be as historically bad as the last, but there will certainly be some growing pains as fans look forward to a high lottery pick in the 2013 draft.
No. 29: Houston Rockets
Jeremy Lin; Jeremy Lamb; Chandler Parsons; Royce White; Omer Asik (RFA)
To put it simply, this team is a mess. They lost Goran Dragic in free agency to the Phoenix Suns and then shipped disgruntled star Kyle Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for pennies on the dollar.
The Rockets stockpiled assets and draft picks in the hopes of making a play for Dwight Howard, but the All-Star big man is nowhere to be found.
Houston had an offer sheet agreement with Jeremy Lin, but even with the star point guard they still have some major holes to fill. Houston also has a deal in place with Omer Asik, according to ESPN's Marc Stein. Chicago could still match that, although it seems unlikely.
Lin is a talented player definitely, and he played well with Tyos Chandler and the Knicks' reserves, but even that squad was more talented than the starting lineup he will join in Houston. He will have to do not only the brunt of the facilitating and playmaking, but also be a main scorer.
Since he did not get along well with Kevin McHale last year, it is hard to believe that Kevin Martin will be starting over Jeremy Lamb. Lamb is a talented scorer with great range and an NBA-ready body, but he is not going to be putting up stellar numbers against much stingier defenses and can be too passive at times.
Chandler Parsons and Royce White are a solid pair of frontcourt players who can shoot from the perimeter but also rebound and play in the paint. White is an intriguing prospect because of his versatility and passing skills, but he is not a great athlete and will need some time to adjust to the NBA game.
Should the Bulls not match Asik's absurd $25.1 million, three-year offer sheet, he would give them a great rebounder and a legitimate seven-footer who can run the floor and protect the rim.
Their current starting lineup is solid enough to keep them out of the absolute bottom, but unless they make some big trades this summer, they won't be making much noise in 2012-2013.
No. 28: Cleveland Cavaliers
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Kyrie Irving; Dion Waiters; Alonzo Gee; Tristan Thompson; Anderson Varejao
The Cavaliers didn't have a stellar season in 2012-13, but they showed signs of becoming a decent team, particularly when star rookie Kyrie Irving was on the floor. However, after a questionable draft choice, the team will not be trotting out a particularly strong starting lineup.
Irving is easily the team's leader on the court; he played with a poise uncommon in one-and-done college stars. He shot the ball extremely well but was also able to break down a defense and make the proper play nearly every time. His defense was solid, but it was Irving's playmaking ability that earned him Rookie of the Year honors.
Gee was also a surprising success for Cleveland last year. He is an extremely physical player capable of lining up at both the 2 and 3. He is a decent shooter, but he excels at taking the ball to the basket and playing scrappy defense. Few guards are as strong or athletic as Gee, who will slide into the small forward spot for the Cavs.
Waiters, who the team selected fourth overall in this year's draft, was a bit of a baffling choice. The Cavs did not get Bradley Beal and opted for the second-best shooting guard available.
Waiters is capable of working with the ball in his hands and driving into the lane, but he is not a great scorer and averaged under 13 points per game last year. He will need some work before he can be a high-level contributor. Unfortunately for him, Cleveland will throw great expectations his way next season.
Thompson is an athletic 4 capable of playing aggressively in the post and altering shots. His offensive game is very raw, but he has an excellent motor. Varejao is the team's resident veteran and will provide them with rebounding and easy hustle baskets.
Cleveland is still a few pieces away from being a playoff team, and that is evident in their starting lineup.
No. 27: Detroit Pistons
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Brandon Knight; Rodney Stuckey; Tayshaun Prince; Greg Monroe; Andre Drummond
The Detroit Pistons have made positive strides after an extremely bleak period filled with fights and bad contracts, but the team is still a ways way from finishing their rebuilding period. However, the young talent on their roster provides plenty of promise for the future.
Knight was their lottery pick in 2011 and stepped in immediately as the team's starting point guard. He proved that he could score the ball consistently, and he had some nice moments as a facilitator as well.
Monroe had a brilliant season for Detroit, even playing out of position at center. He is an excellent scorer and rebounder who proved that he could be the team's best player and has All-Star potential. Monroe has been the Pistons' main bright spot over the past two seasons and should continue to improve in his junior campaign.
Drummond, the team's first-round pick this season, is extremely raw and will need some time before he can be counted on to produce consistently. He is a hyper-athletic center who can play great post defense, block shots as a help defender and run the floor very well. However, he lacks any semblance of an offensive game, and questions have arisen about his focus.
The Pistons have the building blocks for a great starting five, but it will take some time for them to reach their potential.
No. 26: New Orleans Hornets
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Greivis Vasquez; Eric Gordon; Al-Farouq Aminu; Ryan Anderson; Anthony Davis
I initially had New Orleans higher, but their curious decision to deal Jarrett Jack for nothing to Golden State dropped them a few positions. Vasquez had some solid moments last season, but it is a stretch to depend on him as a starting point.
Still, with two top-10 lottery picks in tow, the Hornets have a bright future ahead of them.
It is widely believed that the team will stop at nothing to bring back Eric Gordon. According to CBS Sports' Matt Moore, the Hornets still intend to match Gordon's max offer from Phoenix. Gordon is a major building block for the team, not to mention the team's main offensive option. He has also improved as a defender and shown flashes of being a true closer for New Orleans.
Davis, the team's first overall pick, is without a doubt their star of the future. He led college basketball in blocked shots last year and will bring an interior defensive presence to a team that just dealt Emeka Okafor. He has a great motor and excellent leaping ability, although he does need to improve his overall offensive game.
Anderson was brought in as part of a sign-and-trade deal for Gustavo Ayon this past week. Though he will not be able to feast on open looks in the manner he did playing with Dwight Howard, he is a gifted stretch 4 who can stroke the three and provide excellent offensive rebounding.
Anderson will create room on the floor for Davis to work, and he will open up driving lanes for Gordon, Vasquez and rookie Austin Rivers.
Aminu is a yeoman-like player who does the little things on the court to help his team win. He was a solid rotation player last season; with a hole at small forward, he should start out of necessity. Vasquez, meanwhile, has great size for a point guard and proved that he could run an offense, although he is far from a consistent shooter.
The Hornets will experience plenty of growing pains next season, but they will be a dangerous team in a couple years' time.
No. 25: Phoenix Suns
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Goran Dragic; Shannon Brown; Jared Dudley; Michael Beasley; Marcin Gortat
The Suns wasted no time in rebuilding their roster after Steve Nash officially left for Los Angeles, tabbing his former backup, Goran Dragic, to start at point guard, while talented headcase Michael Beasley will likely fill the role of power forward.
Still, this team is inexperienced, and without Nash's offensive wizardry, they are in for a rough year as they adjust to a new era of Phoenix basketball.
Dragic played very well down the stretch as Houston's starter. He was able to get to the rim off the dribble, step outside to hit the three and thrived as the Rockets' main playmaker. He was not a great defender, but he has good size and speed, as well as an excellent ability to see the floor.
Beasley, despite his personal and legal troubles, is still a tremendously gifted player. He can score in a variety of ways and play both the small forward and power forward spots, thanks to his perimeter shooting and size. He is not a great defender, but he is a great athlete who can push the ball in transition.
Gortat had a breakout season in Phoenix last year; he thrived as a gritty rebounder and was a surprising contributor on offense. However, some of that has to be attributed to Nash for the way he ran the pick-and-roll. Dragic is a good point guard, but it is unlikely he will get as much out of Gortat as Nash did.
Jared Dudley is a hard-working, young 3 who can stretch the floor with his shooting and play strong defense and is truly team-oriented. Shannon Brown, who should return to Phoenix as their starter, is a tremendous athlete with a solid jump shot who is capable of dynamic plays above the rim.
The Suns have talent on their roster, but without Nash they lack any real bite and will simply be another unimpressive young team in the Western Conference's bottom half.
No. 24: Sacramento Kings
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Isaiah Thomas; Marcus Thornton; Tyreke Evans; Thomas Robinson; DeMarcus Cousins
The Sacramento Kings have plenty of talent on their roster, but the team has thus far struggled mightily to succeed as a unit. They have quality players at every position (although Tyreke Evans as a 3 is preposterous) but will continue to struggle with poor decision-making for the foreseeable future.
Thomas was a revelation for the Kings last year as the final pick in the 2011 draft. Despite being well under six feet tall, his quickness allowed him to attack the basket off the dribble and blow by his opponent. He shot the three-ball decently, too, but his size made defending larger guards extremely difficult.
Cousins is one of the league's more mercurial players. He has all the talent and skill in the world, but that would fail to show through on the court too often. He is a great scorer on the block, has the strength to snare tough rebounds and is excellent in transition.
Thomas Robinson, the team's lottery pick, should be an immediate-impact player. He has an NBA-ready game thanks to his tremendous motor and doggedness on the court. He is an excellent scorer and rebounder, primarily because he simply outworks opponents.
Still, the Kings need to address Tyreke Evans' long-term future, and Thornton has proven to be a rather one-dimensional scorer.
Sacramento has plenty of nice young pieces, but their inability to play together keeps them near the bottom of these rankings.
No. 23: Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard; Wesley Matthews; Nicolas Batum; LaMarcus Aldridge; Meyers Leonard
Portland saw a promising season derailed due to underachieving guards and a lack of depth at center, so they made shoring up the 1 and 5 spots a major priority in the draft. Now the team has two rookies who could potentially be long-term starters, but they (particularly Leonard) are not ready yet to achieve at a high level in the NBA.
Lillard was drafted sixth overall and is being groomed as the team's lead guard. He is an excellent scorer, has great range and is capable of finishing through contact at the rim and contorting himself to draw fouls. In addition, he is a strong passer who is unselfish and willing to set up his teammates. Still, he will have to adjust to a much higher talent level than he faced at Weber State.
Aldridge is the team's resident superstar and will be the reason the team has any success this year. He is a great scorer with his back to the basket and has a reliable 18- to 20-foot jumper to boot. He puts in a solid effort on defense and can make his presence felt on the boards. Aldridge is coming off an All-Star season and is a legitimate 20-and-10 threat any given night.
The team has announced that they will match any offers for Batum, including Minnesota's four-year deal worth up to $50 million. He is a great perimeter defender, and thanks to his long arms and lateral quickness, he can guard the 2 and 3 well. He is a reliable three-point shooter, can get to the rim and is even a shot-blocking threat.
Leonard is an unnaturally athletic center, but despite his strong motor he is still a work in progress who will be thrust into a bigger role than he's ready for. Matthews is a gifted defender who can fill it up from three, but he does not have a particularly high ceiling.
The Blazers have their five-man core in place, but the team is not ready to be a threat in the Western Conference this season.
No. 22: Milwaukee Bucks
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Brandon Jennings; Monta Ellis; Luc Richard Mbah a Moute; Ersan Ilyasova; Samuel Dalembert
The Milwaukee Bucks had a decent 2011-12 season, nearly making the playoffs and ultimately finishing in ninth place in the conference. Now they are looking to build on the backcourt tandem of Jennings and Ellis, two talented scorers who work best as combo guards.
Jennings had a great season last year, improving as a scorer to the point where he could carry Milwaukee's offense pretty consistently. He is able to push the ball up the court and break defenses down off the dribble. He is not the most efficient scorer, but he can put up points in a hurry and also make some jaw-dropping passes from time to time.
Ellis is a very similar player, albeit with a better jumper. He too can play some point guard, get to the rim and hit outside shots. He also needs to work on his shot selection and put up a more consistent effort, but few players can manufacture points like him.
Ilyasova had a breakout campaign last year, so the team will re-sign him, according to NBA.com's David Aldridge. He is a multi-faceted player capable of defending multiple positions thanks to his length and strength. He is a terrific rebounder and can not only score in the post but also shoot the three-ball with staggering efficiency.
Mbah a Moute is a terrific defender capable of guarding forwards and guards alike due to his lateral quickness and ability to seal off driving lanes. Dalembert was acquired prior to the draft and gives the Bucks a true center who can block shots, rebound and run the floor.
The Bucks are a decent but unspectacular team who will likely spend another season vying for a low playoff seed on the strength of their starting five.
No. 21: Orlando Magic
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Jameer Nelson; Jason Richardson; Hedo Turkoglu; Glen Davis; Dwight Howard
The Orlando Magic have had an offseason for the ages due to Dwight Howard's never-ending trade saga and plenty of roster flux. With Ryan Anderson now headed to New Orleans, the team has lost their second-best player and is in a major rut.
Howard is currently on the roster, but that may not be the case when the season finally begins. Still, he is the league's best center for a reason. He can simply overpower his opponents offensively and is capable of blocking shots anywhere on the court.
Davis was signed last summer and struggled during the regular season, but he played well with Howard out in the playoffs. He is capable of shooting mid-range jump shots and is a solid defender who is always willing to sacrifice his body. Davis will step into the 4 spot by default and should play well alongside Howard.
Nelson just re-signed with Orlando, according to CBS' Matt Moore, and is still a decent starting point guard. He can attack off the dribble and is capable of draining his share of shots from behind the three-point line. Though he is declining in terms of on-court abilities, Nelson will have to play well for the Magic to have any success next season.
Both Richardson and Turkoglu are past their prime and now spend most of their time jacking up threes. Richardson is good for the occasional big dunk, while Turkoglu can have his moments excelling as a point-forward.
As long as they have Dwight Howard, Orlando is a decent team, but next season will easily be the most trying since Shaq's departure some 16 years ago.
No. 20: Dallas Mavericks
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Darren Collison; Vince Carter; Shawn Marion; Dirk Nowitzki; Chris Kaman
Things haven't exactly gone according to plan for Dallas since hoisting their 2011 championship banner. The team let several key free agents (Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, Jason Terry, etc.) walk in an effort to bring in a superstar, but that did not happen.
Now, Dallas is bereft of talent (outside of Nowitzki) and trying desperately to retool on the fly.
Nowitzki once again will have to carry the team offensively. He did not have a great season last year, showing up out of shape and being briefly shut down for conditioning reasons. However, he is still one of the best power forwards in the league because of his floor-spacing ability and knack for getting to the free-throw line.
Marion will be charged with shutting down the opposing team's best perimeter scorer, but he will also have to shoulder more of the scoring load. He has an unorthodox but effective offensive game and is versatile enough to guard multiple positions.
The team recently came to terms with veteran Chris Kaman, according to ESPN's Marc Stein. The former All-Star will provide them with a strong rebounding and scoring presence. He should play well alongside Nowitzki and form what is easily the league's best all-German frontcourt.
Carter is a shell of his former self and no longer a dominant athlete, but he can still hit threes and occasionally catch fire from the floor.
The team just made a trade for former Pacers point guard Darren Collison, according to Mike Scotto of RealGM.com, giving them some backcourt stability. Collison is capable of both scoring and passing well, particularly once he gets into the lane. However, he struggled down the stretch last season and was ultimately benched for George Hill.
Dallas had a rough post-title season, and with an even worse starting lineup, expect another trying year for the Mavs.
No. 19: Washington Wizards
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John Wall; Bradley Beal; Trevor Ariza; Nene; Emeka Okafor
Once considered asylum for the league's most boneheaded players, the Wizards made wholesale changes by dealing JaVale McGee and Nick Young and bringing in high-character players Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor over the past six months.
Washington has finally surrounded John Wall with a quality team, and while they aren't going to be great next year, they should not be taken lightly.
Wall is the centerpiece of everything the Wizards are doing. He has shown that he could be an All-Star in the future, thanks to his athleticism and talent on the court. Few guards play above the rim the way that Wall does, and his creativity around the rim and drive-and-dish skills make him a true franchise point guard.
Beal was the team's first-round pick (No. 3 overall) and should slide immediately into the starting 2-guard role. Beal is a marksman from behind the arc but also can score off the dribble. He is a decent defender and is excellent at moving without the ball and running around screens. Beal should make a great complement to Wall in the backcourt.
The team brought Nene in at last year's trade deadline, and he will be a key cog next season. He is a very athletic 4 who runs the floor well, and he showed some nice chemistry with Wall in the pick-and-roll. He has great hands around the basket and can even occasionally hit perimeter shots.
Ariza and Okafor were brought to the team as defensive-minded veterans who can help change the culture of the team and improve their overall defense. Ariza can hold down the perimeter with his quickness and knack for reading passing lanes, but he is also capable of slashing to the hoop. Okafor protects the paint and the basket despite being an undersized 5.
Washington is still in the midst of developing their roster, but they have a much-improved starting lineup that is filled with not only quality locker room players, but on-court contributors as well.
No. 18: Atlanta Hawks
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Jeff Teague; Louis Williams; John Jenkins; Josh Smith; Al Horford
The Hawks made some major roster moves this offseason, dealing franchise guard Joe Johnson and starting small forward Marvin Williams in an effort to clear cap space and commit to their young core of Jeff Teague, Josh Smith and Al Horford. Though the team has a glaring hole at small forward, they have plenty of talent elsewhere.
Teague just finished his first season as Atlanta's starting point guard, and he showed he could be the kind of lead guard that the Hawks need. He is capable of looking for his own shot and making the proper pass. He plays very well in transition and proved to be a great defender on the ball.
Horford missed most of last season with a pectoral injury, but his quickness and shooting ability create major mismatches at center. He needs to be more aggressive with the ball, but he has a nice set of post moves and is a very capable rebounder. He will need to play extremely well for Atlanta next season, but the two-time All-Star can do just that.
Smith stepped up in a major way last season, averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists while helping the team overcome Horford's injury. He is an outstanding athlete who can play above the rim blocking shots, throwing down transition dunks and grabbing tough rebounds.
Lou Williams was just signed by Atlanta and should slide into the 2 spot until they find a better option. He is a great scorer who can create his own shot, but he lacks size and consistent defensive effort.
Jenkins, the Hawks' first-round draft pick, will play some 3 out of necessity. His three-point shooting should create space on the floor for his teammates to work.
Atlanta could very well be a playoff team next season. They have plenty of talent on their roster—all they need is a true starter at small forward.
No. 17: Toronto Raptors
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Kyle Lowry; Terrence Ross; DeMar DeRozan; Andrea Bargnani; Jonas Valanciunas
The Toronto Raptors may have made a risky draft choice with Washington scorer Terrence Ross, but the team is one of several very promising young teams that will be depending on their starting unit to produce at a high level next season.
The team just made their trade for Lowry official, and he will be an immediate contributor for the club. He is a gritty point guard who plays excellent perimeter defense and can rebound well for his size. Offensively, Lowry is capable of attacking the rim and making plays with the ball in his hands. He has improved with each year in the league and should thrive under Dwane Casey in Toronto.
Valanciunas, who was selected fifth overall in 2011 but opted to continue playing internationally for another season, is the X-factor for this squad. He has been billed as an aggressive seven-footer who relishes physical contact and will give them a strong presence in the paint alongside Bargnani.
DeRozan will need to slide over to small forward to make room for Ross, but he has the size to make the adjustment. DeRozan is a tremendous athlete who can push the ball in transition and cut to the basket to create scoring opportunities. He is still young with tremendous upside and will need to take on a leadership role for this club, but he is capable of doing so.
Bargnani is by no means a good rebounder, but he is a phenomenal scorer thanks to his shooting ability. He can draw opposing bigs out on the perimeter and should be more effective playing the 4 instead of the 5. Ross was a bit of a reach as the No. 8 pick, but he is a versatile scorer who has excellent range.
With such a young team, there is no guarantee of success, but Toronto has the talent to make a serious leap next season.
No. 16: Chicago Bulls
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Kirk Hinrich (until Derrick Rose is healthy); Rip Hamilton; Luol Deng; Carlos Boozer; Joakim Noah
Chicago has a talented roster, but the team can't be considered a top-tier squad without the former MVP. They will still contend for the postseason, but they are nowhere near title contention.
The signing of Kirk Hinrich should provide some stability at point guard, but the team needs a dynamic playmaker, which Hinrich no longer is. He is still a capable shooter and quality perimeter defender who will make a great addition once Rose is healthy, but depending on him as a lead guard will not get Chicago too far.
A healthy Hamilton, who can handle the ball in a point guard role if necessary, can help the team tremendously. He gives them a second playmaking guard who can work with the ball or run off picks to create an open shot, and he is a better two-way player than any shooting guard on their roster.
Deng will also have to step up to keep Chicago's string of successful seasons alive. He is already the heart of their defense, but he will have to take on more of an offensive role, playing some point-forward and working more on creating shots for himself and his teammates than just receiving the ball.
Noah remains his usual energetic self, providing great defense, rebounding and hustle every second he's on the floor, while Boozer is a quality scoring option who is a bully in the post. However, Boozer has struggled defensively and has been putting up less-than-stellar numbers recently.
Rose's importance cannot be understated. Chicago will be a good team next season, but until he suits up, they are far from great.
No. 15: Philadelphia 76ers
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Jrue Holiday; Evan Turner; Andre Iguodala; Thaddeus Young; Spencer Hawes
Philadelphia basketball has had a resurgence of sorts on the strength of their young, athletic core of wing players, and that should continue next season without veteran Elton Brand. Though their momentum petered out after a strong start last year, the Sixers' team defense and chemistry will win them their share of games.
Holiday is a talented young point guard who is capable of both swishing and dishing as needed. He has a great jump shot, but is also crafty enough to elude defenders and finish around the rim. He has improved as a defender and is capable of forcing turnovers and getting out on the break.
Turner broke out in last year's playoffs, as he finally showed the skills that got him drafted second overall in 2010. He is a strong, physical wingman who can rebound and attack the basket like larger players.
Thad Young will have some big shoes to fill as the starting power forward, but his athletic ability and solid mid-range game should help him rack up points. He has always been a hard worker and contributor on both ends of the court, and should slide in seamlessly at the 4.
Iguodala remains the team's best all-around player; he's an excellent defender capable of playing the point forward role and running the team's offense. They just traded for Dorell Wright, which may signal his departure, but if not, he will play a key role on both ends for the team next year. Hawes is a finesse center capable of racking up assists out of the post and stretching a defense with his shooting.
Doug Collins has firmly handed the reins of this team to their youth movement, and their talent should keep Philly in playoff contention next year.
No. 14: Utah Jazz
Mo Williams; Alec Burks; Gordon Hayward; Paul Millsap; Al Jefferson
Utah was one of last season's biggest overachievers, making the postseason in a year slated for "rebuilding." Though the team was swept by San Antonio, their young players gained valuable experience that should translate to an even more successful season.
Williams was acquired this offseason and should provide them with some stability at point guard. He is an excellent outside shooter, which should help a Jazz team that often couldn't hit a perimeter shot, but is also a capable facilitator and playmaker.
Williams can provide some bona fide playoff experience too, thanks to his time with the Cavaliers and Clippers.
After a disappointing rookie season, Hayward really came into his own last year. He proved he could play both the 2 and 3 and make an impact both scoring the basketball and playing solid defense. He can get to the rim and has shown a decent handle over the past two seasons in the league.
The X-factor for this team is Burks. A lottery pick in 2011, Burks will need to step up his game now that Raja Bell has left the club. Burks is not a great defender or outside shooter, but he is an excellent slasher who can put the ball in the basket by attacking from the wing. If he can improve his all-around game and thrive in a starting role, this team could be quite dangerous.
Established veterans Millsap and Jefferson should continue their solid production both offensively and on the glass. Jefferson is a legitimate 20-and-10 threat any given night, and Millsap is an undersized 4 who can score and play some solid defense.
Utah will be a good team next season, but if Mo Williams can mesh instantly with the team and their young starters hit the ground running, they have the potential to be great.
No. 13: Golden State Warriors
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Stephen Curry; Klay Thompson; Harrison Barnes; David Lee; Andrew Bogut
Health is the big question for this squad, because if both Steph Curry and Andrew Bogut can log 70-plus games next season, the Warriors will be a much tougher team than they were a year ago. The team also got a major steal with Harrison Barnes in the draft.
For the first time in eons, the Warriors have a very bright future.
It all begins with Curry, who struggled with ankle problems last season. When healthy, he is a lethal scorer with excellent range who needs just a microsecond to get off a quality shot. He has improved as a floor general and passer, showing flashes as a true point guard that Monta Ellis never did.
Thompson struggled at first in his rookie year, but once he moved into the starting lineup, the sweet-shooting guard showed new confidence and put up excellent numbers. Like Curry, he is a talented shooter, but he has the size to defend other 2-guards effectively and showed a nice all-around game beyond just dialing up treys.
Bogut's injury history is obviously a cause for concern, but if the big man can stay healthy he will provide the Dubs with the kind of interior defensive presence they have lacked for years. Bogut is a throwback center who loves to draw contact in the paint, block shots and play tough, physical basketball.
Barnes has an NBA-ready game that should allow him to score efficiently with his nice jumper and ability to get to the rim. Lee is still a very skilled double-double threat at power forward who can be a tough cover once he gets good post position.
They may not be a postseason team next year, but this is the best starting group Golden State has trotted out in ages.
No. 12: Denver Nuggets
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Ty Lawson; Arron Afflalo; Danilo Gallinari; Kenneth Faried; JaVale McGee (RFA)
Playing a truly team-oriented brand of basketball, the Denver Nuggets managed to overachieve last season, earn the Western Conference's sixth seed and take the L.A. Lakers to seven games. With another year of experience for their young core, Denver will look to build and make some more noise next year.
Lawson's blazing speed was a huge boost for the Nuggets backcourt. He could push the ball and attack the basket at will, running a one-man fast break. He improved as a facilitator, initiating the team's offense, and he should continue to grow under Andre Miller's tutelage.
Though he struggled with injuries, Gallinari had a strong year as well. He is capable of playing both forward spots, and his deadly outside shot opens up driving lanes for himself and his teammates. He showed an improved skill set, playing stretches with the ball in his hands and giving good effort on the defensive end, too.
Faried was a revelation as a rookie. The ultimate hustle player, Faried is not concerned with stats and was always willing to dive on the floor for loose balls or take a charge in the paint. His effort makes up for his lack of size.
Afflalo is a quality 2-guard capable of hitting shots and playing tight perimeter defense. His overall game has improved, and he is the player charged with shutting down the Kobe Bryant- and James Harden-type scorers in the conference.
McGee will likely return, thanks to his stellar playoffs, and his athleticism and defensive prowess are simply off the charts.
If Denver can keep this starting group intact, they will continue to be a playoff-caliber ballclub with a great, unselfish identity.
No. 11: Minnesota Timberwolves
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Ricky Rubio; Brandon Roy; Derrick Williams; Kevin Love; Nikola Pekovic
This ranking may seem high, but mark my words: If Rubio and Roy are healthy, then Minnesota has one of the league's scariest lineups. The team may well lose out on Nicolas Batum, but they have the talent present to make up for it and be a force in the Western Conference next season.
In a small sample size, Rubio proved to be everything fans anticipated and more. He is a pure point guard capable of running pick-and-rolls, collapsing defenses and finding the open man at any given time. Though he tore his ACL last year, his game is not predicated upon athleticism, so he should still be able to drop dimes and occasionally get to the rim.
Roy's first concern is health, but if he is anything like the Brandon Roy of old, this will look like a genius signing for the Timberwolves. Roy is a great scorer with a deadly mid-range game who can attack off the dribble, come off picks or post up if necessary. He can even play some backup point, thanks to his handles.
Love has cemented himself as one of the league's best power forwards with his all-around excellence. He is a relentless rebounder who always seems to carve out great position, and he can get points anywhere from the low block to the three-point line. We should expect another MVP-caliber season from the All-Star big.
Williams did not have a great rookie year after being drafted second overall, but he is still adjusting to playing on the wing, and his athleticism is a great asset. He played well with Rubio and can still knock down shots when they are available.
Pekovic is the perfect center for this team. He's true bruiser who can score, but he relishes physical play and dirty work.
Minnesota saw a promising season end in disappointment due to injury, but with one of the best starting lineups in basketball, the Timberwolves should be back in the postseason next spring.
No. 10: Indiana Pacers
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George Hill (RFA); Paul George; Danny Granger; David West; Roy Hibbert (RFA)
There was some doubt about Hibbert's future, but with Ken Berger of CBS reporting that Indiana will offer Hibbert the same four-year, $58 million deal the Blazers did, Indiana's young, talented core remains intact. They were one of the league's more surprising teams last year and will look to build upon a successful run in the postseason.
Hill played well in the playoffs, showing he could be a true starting point instead of just a combo guard off the bench. He can shoot the three with ease, but he also is a gifted passer who can get into the lane and create open looks for his teammates. His versatile offensive game should continue to show as he does most of the ball-handling for the Pacers next year.
George made significant strides in his sophomore season after an unexpected growth spurt last summer. He now creates a huge mismatch with his size and can back down opposing guards or simply shoot over them. His length and quickness make him a great perimeter defender.
Hibbert, the team's vastly-improved 7'2" center, gives Indiana a size advantage over nearly every team in the league. He has improved his post game and is capable of both altering shots and attacking the glass. His conditioning has improved, and the first-time All-Star finally figured out how to avoid foul trouble, enabling him to be featured more in the Pacers' offense.
Granger is a great scoring small forward with infinite range on his jump shot, while West can stretch out a defense with his 18-footer as well as play in the paint. Both are solid rebounders and will help to lead this young team next season.
Indiana is out to prove that they can contend for a title, and with the talent on their roster, another top-three finish in the Eastern Conference is certainly not out of the question.
No. 9: San Antonio Spurs
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Tony Parker; Danny Green; Kawhi Leonard; Boris Diaw; Tim Duncan
San Antonio might be a few spots higher if they were still starting Manu Ginobili, but even without the star 2-guard they have an extremely skilled, well-rounded five that can go toe-to-toe with almost anyone in the league.
Parker had an MVP-level year last season. He showed growth as a playmaker and became the team's leader out on the floor. No guard can finish in the paint as well as Parker, who absorbed contact and took a beating in order to either collapse the defense or find his own shot.
Leonard should look to make a substantial leap next year. The sophomore is an elite defender capable of guarding multiple positions, thanks to his length, strength and quickness. Though much concern existed about his offensive game coming out of college, Leonard proved that he could stroke the three and cut to the rim consistently.
Although Duncan is obviously in the twilight of his career, he is still a great shot-blocker and help defender whose slow, yet methodical offensive game is tough for opposing centers to handle. He is no longer a great athlete, but he still plays well on both ends and will continue to be a leader by example on the court.
Green will not receive a ton of minutes, but he is a floor-spacing shooter who is also capable of getting to the rim. Diaw, who joined the roster midway through last season, is a finesse big with great passing instincts and the ability to stretch a defense with his long-range shooting. The two should play nice complementary roles next year.
The Spurs adjusted their system in order to pry their championship window back open, and their starting group features the kind of talent to keep the run going another year.
No. 8: Brooklyn Nets
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Deron Williams; Joe Johnson; Gerald Wallace; Kris Humphries; Brook Lopez (RFA)
With Deron Williams in tow and the trade for perennial All-Star Joe Johnson done, the Brooklyn Nets have officially ushered in a new era of basketball with a bang. The team has experienced a serious influx of talent and is now not too far from contending for a championship.
Williams, who has a new five-year, $95 million deal to brag about, is the engine of this team. His passing ability is incredible, as he can run pick-and-rolls, drive and dish and play in transition better than almost anyone in the league. He has also proven that he can be a lead scorer. He is not a great defender, but his offensive wizardry more than makes up for that.
Johnson is a sharpshooting 2 with great size, and he should complement Williams well. As long as he does not try to run too many isolation plays, his ability to knock down open shots and handle the ball at times should be a great addition to this Brooklyn team.
Gerald Wallace has just signed a four-year, $40 million deal and will retain the role of primary perimeter defender. He thrived with the team in New Jersey after being dealt at the trade deadline, and his ability to play airtight defense and streak up and down the court is a major asset. He is always willing to sacrifice his body to make a play and showcased a solid outside shot last year.
The team has brought back Humphries, who is a very physical inside presence and a strong rebounder to have alongside Brook Lopez. He is willing to do the dirty work, play physical basketball and does not care about his own statistics.
Lopez's scoring ability and soft touch makes him a legitimate offensive threat, and his lack of rebounding prowess should be offset by Humphries' presence.
The Nets have made some serious upgrades and should be taking the leap from basement team to playoff contender next year.
No. 7: Boston Celtics
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The Boston Celtics are coming off of a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals, but they have retooled and are poised for another title run around Pierce, Rondo and Garnett. The team is a year older, but it still boasts more starting talent than the majority of the league.
Rondo has cemented himself as not just a top point guard, but an MVP candidate. He is a nightly triple-double threat who can do it all on the court and raises his level of play for big games. His unselfishness and passing ability offset his poor shooting. Few players are as lethal off the dribble as Rondo, and he can seemingly get to the basket at will.
Pierce is still a great perimeter scorer who always seems to get to his spots on the floor. He never seems rushed and is capable of getting to the rim or hitting outside shots. He has improved as a passer and defender with age and is still capable of shutting down the other team's best offensive player and playing a point forward role.
The real key for the team, though, is the return of Garnett. "The Big Ticket" was rejuvenated playing the center position, thanks to his quickness and ability to draw big men away from the basket with his outside shooting. He remains one of the best post defenders and rebounders around and will continue to be the player around which Boston builds their hard-nosed identity.
Last season, Bass proved he could defend well, rebound occasionally and, most importantly, hit mid-range jump shots consistently. He makes a nice frontcourt complement to Garnett and is a true team player.
Lee is a tough perimeter defender and a consistent shooter who can benefit off the open looks Rondo and Pierce create. He should be starting until Bradley is healthy enough to provide his usual stellar defense.
Boston's phenomenal team defense and star power will disprove critics saying the team is too old, and fans should expect another deep playoff run for the C's.
No. 6: New York Knicks
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Raymond Felton; Ronnie Brewer (until Iman Shumpert is healthy); Carmelo Anthony; Amar'e Stoudemire; Tyson Chandler
New York had a rough free agency run, losing star point guard Jeremy Lin, but with the acquisitions of Raymond Felton and Ronnie Brewer for relatively low cost, should still be an elite team next season.
Felton is coming off a dismal year as a Trail Blazer, but he played great basketball during his last stint in New York, running the pick-and-roll beautifully, hitting threes and attacking the lane. He showed great chemistry with Amar'e Stoudemire and should be in-shape and focused coming back to the Knicks.
Anthony is an elite scorer who can heat up at any time and is a nightmare assignment, thanks to his myriad of fakes and moves. He can bully his way to the basket or free-throw line while also hitting outside shots. His all-around game improved last season, as he looked better as a passer and defender than he has in recent years.
Though Stoudemire struggled with injuries last season, he is still one of the better power forwards in the NBA. His athleticism may be waning, but he is still quicker and stronger than many players at his position and can both hit jump shots and attack the basket. If he can regain his old form, the Knicks will be a tough team to beat.
Chandler and Shumpert are the team's heart and soul defensively. The former is an excellent rebounder and post defender who transformed the team's culture. Brewer will likely be the spot starter, and he is a gritty, multi-position defender who will fill Shump's role admirably. In addition, he's shown improved range on his jump shot and is a dynamic athlete.
The Knicks dealt with plenty of controversy last season, but they are poised for a much more successful run in 2012-2013.
No. 5: Memphis Grizzlies
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Mike Conley; Tony Allen; Rudy Gay; Zach Randolph; Marc Gasol
Though they suffered a disappointing first-round playoff loss to the L.A. Clippers, Memphis still boasts an incredibly deep roster, great defensive system and a well-rounded and talented starting five that should lead them to another strong season.
Conley has improved with each year in the league to become an above-average starting point guard. He is not a great shooter, but he can get to the rim and has improved as a facilitator both in the half-court offense and while running the break. Defensively, he can force turnovers and absolutely hound the opposing team's ball-handler.
Gay is still a tremendous athlete and scorer. He can run the break and finish at the rim for easy buckets, or he can pull up from anywhere on the court. He proved last season when Randolph missed time with a knee injury that he could carry the team, as he led them to the Western Conference's No. 4 seed in the playoffs.
Gasol's brilliant play over the past two seasons made "Pau or Marc?" a valid question. He has unnatural skill for a seven-footer: He can pass well out of the post and make plays, score with his back to the basket and even hit mid-range jump shots. He is also a strong defender, shot-blocker and rebounder.
Randolph remains a nightly 20-and-10 threat thanks to his craftiness, which offsets his blatant lack of athleticism. He may not get high off the floor, but Randolph has a bevy of post moves and can make multiple efforts for easy buckets.
Allen is one of the league's premier defenders and can cover guards and forwards thanks to his physicality and relentlessness.
The Grizzlies' front office has truly built a winner, and the talent that they put out before the opening tip is a major reason why.
No. 4: Los Angeles Clippers
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Chris Paul; Jamal Crawford; Caron Butler; Blake Griffin; DeAndre Jordan
In their first season with both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Clippers became a factor in the Western Conference and won their first playoff series in years. With a year of experience under their belt, the team hopes to become true title contenders, and they boast the starting talent to do just that.
Paul is easily a top-three point guard in this league. He approaches the game with an intellect that few players have. He is never harried or bothered on the court, and he dictates the pace at will and knows when to facilitate or look for his own shot. He improves the play of his teammates every second he's on the floor.
Griffin, the human highlight reel, has put himself in the conversation for best power forwards in the league on the strength of his athleticism and motor. He plays above the rim with such ferocity that he racks up 20-and-10 games on will alone. He has shown that he can pass the rock and score out of the post at times. Another year of experience should work wonders for the two-time All-Star.
Crawford and Butler provide veteran experience—both are capable scorers who can create their own shot and step outside to hit threes. While Crawford has an excellent handle and is capable of playing backup point guard despite his historically poor shot selection, Butler is a gritty and physical defender who makes his man work for every shot.
Jordan is a superb athlete who runs the floor extremely well, swats shots and grabs tough rebounds with his length and leaping ability. He has no semblance of an offensive game, but he fills his role well.
Last season, Los Angeles went from being a laughingstock to a real threat, and this season will prove that it was in no way a fluke.
No. 3: Oklahoma City Thunder
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Russell Westbrook; Thabo Sefolosha; Kevin Durant; Serge Ibaka; Kendrick Perkins
Although they undeniably lose some points because James Harden comes off the bench, the Western Conference champion Thunder boast a pretty ferocious starting five.
Durant is the team's superstar leader and rightfully so. He is a deadly, versatile scorer who has proved to be an impossible cover with his length, ability to pull up from anywhere and uncanny handle for someone his size. His all-around game has made major strides, as Durant has become an above-average rebounder, defender and passer.
Durant needs to bulk up a bit and develop some more post moves, but there is no reason to think he won't lead this club to a championship in the future.
Westbrook is a star in his own right. He needs to work on his shot selection, but he is excellent at attacking the basket and a nightmare in transition. He can pass well and has improved his half-court facilitating, and he boasts elite athleticism and rebounding skills from the point guard position. He gambles too often on defense, but his quickness makes him an absolute nuisance on the ball.
Ibaka is a shot-blocking machine who plays terrific help defense and protects the rim as well as anyone. He has improved his perimeter shot and can finish well at the rim.
Sefolosha is the team's top-notch perimeter defender who handles the other team's best scorer and will also occasionally stroke the three.
Perkins is a great low-post defender, although his lack of athleticism sticks out with this lineup. He is a bit of an offensive liability.
The Thunder's depth is certainly important to their success, but the presence of Durant and Westbrook give them an unquestionably excellent starting five.
No. 2: Los Angeles Lakers
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Steve Nash; Kobe Bryant; Metta World Peace; Pau Gasol; Andrew Bynum
Now that Steve Nash is officially a Laker (according to ESPN), the team finally boasts an elite backcourt to complement the pair of dominant seven-footers they trot out every night.
During Bryant's lengthy tenure with Los Angeles, he has never played with a point guard that remotely nears Nash's pedigree or playmaking ability, and that should do wonders for the team.
Even at age 38, Nash, who just signed a three-year, $27 million deal, is one of the league's best facilitators. He excels in the pick-and-roll, has unparalleled court vision and is a knockdown shooter when he gets a glimpse at the basket. He will maximize the effectiveness of both Gasol and Bynum by getting them the ball in their best spots.
Kobe Bryant is still Kobe Bryant, and that means fans should expect another season of top-notch defense, gritty play, deadly scoring and the occasionally ill-fated attempt at hero ball. He has altered his offensive game to preserve his legs, but he is deadly off the dribble, on the catch and in the post.
Bynum and Gasol are a handful for almost any team, and with Bynum still improving and Gasol's polished skill set as effective as ever, they will continue to be a tough cover. Bynum is a great rebounder and interior scorer thanks to his strength and size, while Gasol's ability to pass, post up and hit outside shots makes him one of the game's more unique bigs.
World Peace is the odd man out, but his defense is still solid, and he can occasionally heat up from deep.
The Lakers have finally addressed their long-time need for a quality point guard, and even with their collective age, Los Angeles boasts a dream lineup that can pass, defend, score and rebound better than anyone.
No. 1: Miami Heat
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Whether or not they had won the 2012 NBA Finals, Miami would own the top spot on this list.
The team easily boasts the most talented tipoff group in the league because of James, Wade and Bosh. Depth is obviously a key issue for the club, but it is difficult to argue with the production of their top five.
James proved his critics (including myself) wrong by becoming the Heat's unquestioned leader and throttling the competition on his way to his first title. He is a killer two-way player who can play or defend at any spot on the court. He thrived as a 4 in the playoffs, and I would be surprised to see him move back to small forward to start the season.
Bosh, like James, thrived at a position with which he was previously uncomfortable. His quickness and ability to hit perimeter jumpers made him a serious matchup problem at center. Slower, loping big men were incapable of staying with Bosh, and though he was occasionally overpowered, he was a solid enough banger to offset the strength disadvantage.
Wade is a top-three shooting guard as long as he's healthy. He plays tight perimeter defense, is adept at slashing to the rim and is always willing to sacrifice his body. He took a back seat to LeBron last year, but he is still capable of taking over a game with his ability to get to the free-throw line and heat up in an instant.
Chalmers and Battier are no slouches, either. Both play great defense on multiple positions and can hit outside shots in clutch situations.
The Heat have put together a fearsome starting five that will be dismantling opponents from the moment their banner is raised in South Beach.