Here's a little secret about the NBA:
The goal is for teams (yes, even the Bucks) to win the NBA championship.
It's shocking, I know.
Now, how that gets accomplished seems to be a foggy formula. Some people think you just need to go sign the best players you can and throw them together to figure out how to work it out. Other people think you need to get strong by building through the draft to build your core. And then there is the whole concept of what market you're in and how you adjust that strength/weakness into building up your franchise.
We've seen many different strategies work over the years. The Heat went the free-agency route, while the Thunder have become contenders by just drafting intelligently and being patient with their own progress. We've seen the Lakers poach All-NBA talent from teams unable to build around their own star players.
We have no idea which teams will or won't put it together over the next five years (when the CBA will probably expire and we'll be given new tweaks to the current system). But what we can do is figure out which teams in this span have the potential to become true contenders for the NBA title and which ones have a roster that appears to be sputtering out.
Here are the teams with the best potential from 30 up to the top spot.
Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson are the two best players on this team currently.
With the Dwightmare finally over in Orlando, this franchise has reset for the third time in about 15 years. It reset when Shaq left for Los Angeles and when Tracy McGrady went to Houston. Now that Dwight has followed in the footsteps of Shaq once again, Orlando has to figure out how it's rebuilding.
Rob Hennigan will be "fighting" with Alex Martins as he tries to make this franchise relevant again. If Hennigan is able to use what he's learned from the R.C. Buford trickle down effect, the Magic could be back on track within a couple of years (assuming they have a little luck in the lottery). Unfortunately, the draft picks they acquired in Howard's deal won't really help them any time soon.
If the Magic decide to get out of Al Harrington's deal after this year, they'll only have real long-term money committed to Jameer (seriously, why would you re-sign him if you're starting over?), Glen Davis and Afflalo. They'd have roughly $30 million in cap space in 2014 and that's not even accounting for Nelson's non-fully guaranteed deal in the 2014-15 season.
Orlando might want to hit the AAU circuit and start scouting now. It's going to need as much good drafting as possible if it wants to get out of last place on this list.
There is some talent on this team, so I don't want it to come off like I think this is the second-worst team in basketball.
Goran Dragic is a nice piece to placate the fanbase while it moves on from the Steve Nash era. Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola will make up a solid frontline, and it allows Markieff Morris to develop without a lot of pressure to be good now. And you have solid role players like Jared Dudley and Channing Frye (sometimes) that can make this team just good enough to not bottom out in the West.
Then, you have two disappointing high lottery picks like Wes Johnson and Michael Beasley. These guys could potentially put it together. Wes seemed like he understood why he was so bad last year when I talked to him during Summer League. He talked about simplifying things on the court and not getting in his own head too much. It's possible he puts it together and becomes a decent role player for Phoenix.
Then there's Beasley. We all know he has all of the talent you'd ever want in a 3/4 tweener. People like to make excuses like he was playing out of position or coaches never gave him a chance.
That was never the case in Minnesota under two different coaches. Rambis gave him freedom on offense and didn't seem to care at the lack of defense. Rick Adelman showed him the right things to do, gave him various chances in different roles and saw that Beasley just didn't have what it takes.
Maybe he'll relate better to Alvin Gentry, but the real issue of this team does not have to do with whether Michael Beasley ever puts it together.
Owner Robert Sarver is a penny-pincher, and it leaves his front office very little wiggle room. Markieff Morris has to become very good. Beasley has to have his highly anticipated breakout season. Kendall Marshall has to develop into a point guard that pushes Dragic on the depth chart.
All of these things have to happen because Sarver will sabotage this franchise with continued frugality and poor direction if they don't. It's kind of his thing, and it's keeping this team from having potential.
Most fans of high-volume shooting backcourts with whatever "swag" are going to be furious that the Bucks are this low.
I understand why people want to believe this team has potential. It has Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis in the same backcourt, and the potential firepower from the guard positions can be immense. But you also have a couple of guys who take a lot of shots and don't do a ton for helping their team win.
While people knocked Jennings for his poor shot selection and atrocious field-goal percentage (under 40 percent his first two seasons while attempting nearly 15 shots per game), I held out hope that it was because of his personnel on the floor. He didn't really have a guy to pass to as a great offensive option.
Bogut's elbow was shredded and he was surrounded by guys that couldn't really score. When he got a scorer beside him, he'd take fewer and better shots, right?
In the months before the Bucks traded for Ellis last season, Jennings was attempting 17.1 shots per game. After they acquired Monta from Golden State, that number only fell 0.4 shot attempts per game to 16.7. He was barely shooting less even with a bona fide scorer next to him.
As for Ellis, he was having one of the best seasons of his career before the trade and then struggled quite a bit to acclimate himself to his new surroundings. In the past, it's been a big argument as to whether his style of play actually helps his team win.
But that's not really where this team falters. It's just poorly constructed.
The Bucks have a lot of awkward depth. They drafted John Henson, who looks like he could be one of the steals of the draft. Then, they re-signed Ersan Ilyasova for five years. They also still has Drew Gooden for three more years to battle for minutes with a guy they should be developing.
Is Scott Skiles up for distributing minutes to younger, better players over veterans?
And if not, will it let a really good young small forward like Tobias Harris just continue to toil on the bench behind Mike Dunleavy and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute?
The Bucks are going to have to give big money to Brandon Jennings to keep him (and if he can figure out how to use those around him better, they absolutely should), and that will take away the majority of their cap flexibility moving forward.
Are the front office and coaching staff prepared to build around the young guys and get their dynamic backcourt to play within the team concept? I'm not confident that the people at the helm can lead this team into figuring out how to contend.
Speaking of awkwardly constructed teams, let's talk about the Sacramento Kings.
Tyreke Evans might not be the franchise guy his rookie year flirted with, but it doesn't mean he still can't figure it out down the road. But regardless of whether he can get back on track, it looks like they have a franchise building block in DeMarcus Cousins.
Cousins is starting to figure out how to throw people around inside and dominate the boards. He's also a fantastic help defender. He led the league in charges drawn and blocked over a shot per game. He's still working out how to be an efficient scorer inside, but you can see he's more of a problem for opponents than he was for Paul Westphal.
And with guys like Marcus Thornton, Thomas Robinson, Isaiah Thomas and Jason Thompson, you can see a solid core being put around him. If Evans can figure out how to play without dominating the ball or they can trade him for more weapons, this Kings team could really turn out to be a nice young squad on the rise.
The problem, though, is they don't have a lot of direction. They have awkward depth on the wings and in the backcourt. They have a front office that seems to take one step back after sliding their feet forward. And then, they have one of the worst ownership groups we've seen in the past decade.
The Maloofs keep this team from having any real potential. They've bungled just about every business they've ever touched. They had to sell off a cash cow alcohol distributorship in New Mexico just to stay afloat in other ventures. They've helped destroy any value and allure the Palms Casino in Vegas might have once held.
And they've completely alienated a fantastic fanbase while trying to move anywhere that could be so lucrative that not even they can screw up that situation.
Unless the NBA can find a way to get the Maloofs to sell to an owner that knows how to run a business, this Kings franchise is going to be running in place for a long time.
Where do the Rockets go from here?
Daryl Morey has been masterfully acquiring assets while staying competitive for years. The thought has been he could land a superstar or two to fill in the voids of his solid core and then the Rockets would be back in contention for the title.
Unfortunately for Houston, Morey just hasn't been able to get his hands on those superstars.
He did acquire the polarizing Jeremy Lin, and while Kevin McHale's offense should help Lin keep the numbers that had everybody arguing last season, he's not a guy that will make this Rockets team contend. Around Lin are about 37 power forwards, a pouty Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. The Rockets really need two or three of their young guys to mesh with Lin and bring them back into the forefront of the Western Conference.
You might think that this team has a lot of potential since it has a lot of young guys with high upside. Unfortunately, I think this might be the problem. The Rockets have far too many question marks to be competitive with their current squad.
Omer Asik is a nice defensive center that can rebound. But can he ever give them anything on offense? Will Donatas Motiejunas develop alongside him? Can Royce White be consistent out of the high post? Is Lamb really good or Summer League good? Is Terrence Jones the 3/4 tweener everybody fears? Is that question both a positive and a negative?
The Rockets have young talent, but they still don't have a direction. They've been searching for one ever since Tracy McGrady's knees and back joined Yao Ming's feet in not being reliable building blocks. Morey seems to know how to keep a team competitive and versatile, but does he know how to make it a contender?
Until we see the Rockets finally make strides toward the top of their conference with Morey leading them, I have a hard time believing they have a lot of potential to contend during this CBA. I'm not pretending that Morey's job is easy either. He was given a team with two franchise guys, and those guys had their bodies fail them.
Morey has had to adjust his vision around those injuries. Ever since the franchise reset without McGrady and Yao, Morey has been able to flirt something fierce with every franchise guy at the club. We're still waiting for him to seal the deal, though.
There are a couple of things to love about this Detroit Pistons team moving forward.
Greg Monroe looks like he can be an All-Star big man one day. His scoring and passing in the halfcourt complement his incredible ability to rebound the ball. He's not a good defender right now, but he may be passable fairly soon.
His defense won't even be an issue if Andre Drummond can develop. Drummond is atrocious on offense, but he can rebound and defend. Putting him next to Monroe is the perfect complement and gives Detroit a HUGE frontcourt. If Drummond can learn anything on offense and not be hilarious at the free-throw line, you have to like where Detroit is headed.
The Pistons also have Rodney Stuckey, who had a really nice season last year despite battling injuries. Stuckey is probably more of a shooting guard than he is a point guard, but in this day of positions not totally mattering, you can just put him out there and make the other team figure out how to deal with the matchup issue.
The Pistons also have a lot of cap flexibility entering next summer. They got rid of Ben Gordon's deal for Corey Maggette's expiring contract.
Here's the problem, though: Joe Dumars is in charge of that cap space.
Dumars did a fantastic job constructing the 2004 title team that basically ruled the Eastern Conference from 2004-07. It's hard to say he's a bad decision-maker when we've seen him put together a great team before. But in this league, you seem to be only as good as your last mistake.
The last time Dumars had cap space, he signed Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon to big, awful contracts. Last offseason, he signed Tayshaun Prince and Jonas Jerebko to four-year deals, which is weird because they play the same position/role.
The Pistons have great building blocks inside, but will Joe Dumars properly use his cap space to surround them with the correct pieces?
Danny Ferry, where are you taking us?
I love what he's done in his brief time with the Hawks. He got out of Joe Johnson's contract and he traded Marvin Williams. Those two moves alone cleared $105 million in committed salary over the next four years. He's helped reset this franchise's direction while still retaining Al Horford, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague.
The Hawks are now more balanced and have the potential for a much better offense than we saw with the Iso Joe era of play on the court. If they can get Josh Smith to attack the basket more and settle for jumpers less, they have the potential to be a pretty big problem for playoff teams in the East.
But just how far does that go?
Atlanta isn't even close to contending for a title right now, and this isn't exactly an ownership group you can ever trust to do the right thing. Horford is locked up, Smith is heading into a contract year and a lot of people are expecting a breakout season for Jeff Teague.
Ferry could continue to acquire assets for the Hawks and put them in a position to land any big name free agent over the next two summers with the huge cap space he's carved out for them team. But then what do they do?
Is this ownership group committed to spending properly and being patient with a process to get them into title contention? Or will it once again thirst for playoff revenue and be happy running on a treadmill for the next few years, like it did for the last few years?
I'm not fully convinced that the Hawks are headed in the right direction, even if Danny Ferry appears to know what he's doing. It's hard to trust the Hawks to do the right thing when they've never really done it before.
Donald Sterling still owns this team, and he's never displayed a reason to believe he'll be someone that cares about having a winner.
Some guys won't mind playing for him because a job is a job. You don't have to like your bosses.
But there are other players who know the stories and have friends (like Baron Davis) who have gone through the embarrassment of working for Sterling.
Sterling is everything that is evil on the NBA level, and he alone can ruin the splendor that is Paul alley-oops to Griffin. It wouldn't shock me if Griffin continued to suffer under some sort of mythical Clipper curse. It wouldn't shock me if Paul got out of town this coming offseason when he's an unrestricted free agent.
It wouldn't shock me if Sterling tried to burn down the Staples Center to collect insurance money and then use it to light his cigars.
You can believe in Sterling if you want to, but every time his teams have a glimmer of hope, he finds a way to extinguish it.
Call me insane, but I like what the Bobcats have done over the last couple of years.
Yes, they were the worst team in NBA history last year, but that's kind of what they needed to be. The best way to rebuild if you're a small market is to rid yourself of any long-term commitments with salary, get a high draft pick and pick the right guy with that pick.
This is exactly what Charlotte has done the last couple years.
The only long-term money the Bobcats have on non-rookie deals is with Ben Gordon (two years, $25.6 million) and Tyrus Thomas (three years, $26 million). And they can still amnesty Tyrus Thomas by betting Michael Jordan that he doesn't have the onions to do such a thing.
Jordan was never regarded as a great executive by any means, but he did manage to bring Rich Cho on board to run this team. Cho is a brilliant guy that lots of people in the NBA seem to respect. He's extremely forward thinking and isn't afraid to use both old-school and new-school ways of evaluating talent he might want to acquire.
The Bobcats grabbed Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on draft night, and they couldn't have restarted their franchise with a better guy. MKG is going to set the tone of this team moving forward. As he develops his offensive game and terrorizes with his defensive intensity, Charlotte will slowly build its way up. The Bobcats will still be bad over the next couple of years, but Cho's vision could turn those lottery picks into the perfect pieces to put around MKG and into this organization.
Even when it made the playoffs, this Charlotte franchise has never been relevant in its short existence. It's gone through bumbling directions and front offices that didn't really know what they were doing long-term. It won't have this problem anymore.
I'm not sure that Mike Dunlap is the coach to move the Bobcats into contention some day, but his desire to unleash hell on opponents defensively could end up changing the Charlotte culture from a losing franchise to a team that doesn't fear any opponent.
I love where this team is headed. It could only go up from last season, and it seems like it finally knows how to climb.
And it begins.
We've been waiting to see if Jonas Valanciunas can be the real deal in the NBA for a couple of years, and now he'll finally be here. Now, the Toronto Raptors can finally get their rebuilding process to shift to a higher gear.
When Chris Bosh left two years ago, the Raptors needed to acquire another big man and change the culture of this franchise. They brought in Dwane Casey to coach a squad that would use his defensive genius and turn the Raptors back into a team that is feared around the league.
Jonas Valanciunas may not be the offensive weapon Raptors fans saw Chris Bosh be, but he couldn't fit Casey's vision of shutting down opponents any better. His rebounding and shot-blocking are going to be assets right away. He's quick from the weak side and a heck of an athlete to go get shots. He hedges on pick-and-rolls like a 10-year veteran.
Putting him around guys like Ed Davis (great defensive instincts) and Kyle Lowry (one of the best defensive point guards in the league) could instantly turn the 14th-best defense from last year into a top-10 defense. Add in young scorers like DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross, and Toronto might have something here.
It still needs a star on offense. Andrea Bargnani showed a lot of improvement before his injuries last season, but he's probably not in the long-term plans of leading this team back to the playoffs. DeRozan and Ross could become those guys, but that seems a little far-fetched.
So it's up to the Toronto front office to find a way to bring an offensive star to the Raptors to complement the core they have now. The Raptors have been able to do it in the draft twice in the last 14 years (Vince Carter and Chris Bosh), but can they do it with a trade or cap space?
I like where this team is headed.
I'm a huge fan of LaMarcus Aldridge. He's proven he can be a franchise guy for Portland with his play the last two years. He can score inside and outside. There aren't many players that can guard him one-on-one, and that creates gigantic mismatch problems.
I also think Nicolas Batum can be a fantastic weapon on offense. He wasn't allowed to do a whole lot under Nate McMillan. Batum didn't do a lot to earn the trust he wanted on offense, but I still think he's versatile enough to be a decent third or fourth scorer.
And then there's Portland's pair of rookies. Meyers Leonard is an athletic big man that has a bit of an attitude. In fact, you'll probably hate him if you're not a Blazers fan because he carries himself in the same way that Blake Griffin does. He should be able to slide next to Aldridge and provide a really good PF-C combination.
Damian Lillard could be a really special point guard in a few years. He can get to the basket with relative ease, and his body control is out of this world. No matter what angle he attacks the basket from, he has a very Kyrie Irving-esque ability to adjust his momentum at the rim and get off clean looks inside.
Toss in a jumper that appears to be assassin-worthy, and you're looking at a guy that could easily be a 20-points-per-game scorer very quickly into his NBA career.
Once again, I have a problem with the ownership of a team. We can talk about competitive balance with the salary cap rules and how certain market sizes have advantages over others, but I always come back to who owns the team.
Paul Allen has shown a little bit of insanity during his Portland tenure. He is willing to spend money and has no problem losing cash if it means putting his team in a situation to win games. But he also is unruly when it comes to the front office running his team. The Blazers have had roughly 320 GMs in the last 18 months—suffice to say there isn't any stability with this team's management.
If he can curb his dictator mentality and just trust someone to run the show, he'll be the perfect owner for a team that has the potential to get very good in a short amount of time.
I feel dumb putting the Pacers this low, but I'm a little worried they peaked last season.
That's not to say they can't stay around being a top-three team in the East for the next few years, bullying teams with their incredible defensive efforts. Frank Vogel has turned them into tough defenders that don't fear anybody. They have great athleticism and length to stifle nearly any offense that doesn't feature LeBron James.
But where do they go from here? David West is a free agent after this year, and they won't have much cap flexibility to sign a player of his caliber if he leaves. Once Danny Granger's deal is up in 2015, Paul George will be eligible for a contract extension.
Indiana tied up nearly $100 million in Roy Hibbert and George Hill this offseason without being able to improve on this team's roster. It needs someone to develop into a big-time scorer if Danny Granger can't return to being the weapon he was years ago.
There's nothing wrong with how the Pacers as constructed now if you're happy with them being one of the best teams in the East, but one that can't really challenge for the Eastern Conference crown. Yes, they were two games away from upsetting the Miami Heat in the second round, but that was because Chris Bosh was hurt.
The Pacers are a defensive monster that struggles to score consistently enough to be contenders. They don't have a lot of wiggle room with the roster moving forward.
You can't really be a contender if you're just hoping the stars of your opponents get hurt during the playoffs, right?
This team could be a couple of spots lower or it could end up being 10 spots higher. It all really depends on how much Andrew Bynum is able to do with this team.
I've highlighted before just what he can do offensively and how Philadelphia might be able to maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. It's quite possible that Bynum will thrive in Philly as the No. 1 guy and keep it moving in the right direction.
But there are a lot of questions with the rest of this roster. Can you really play Spencer Hawes and Andrew Bynum together defensively?
Is Jrue Holiday a legitimate floor general that can constantly be a problem for the defense to match up against, or is he a guy who looks good on paper and leaves you wanting more on the hardwood?
Is Evan Turner going to justify his selection ahead of guys like Derrick Favors and DeMarcus Cousins? Can he grow into a role that Andre Iguodala just vacated? Will Turner finally have the freedom on the court to do what made him special in college?
Is Thaddeus Young going to be able to thrive as well with Andre Iguodala gone? If Doug Collins is set on Hawes being a starting PF, will Young ever be allowed to be the stretch-4 that would drive opposing lineups crazy?
Where does the backcourt scoring for this team come without Lou Williams there? Is Jason Richardson still good enough to matter offensively? Will Nick Young be a positive addition to this team? Can anybody in the backcourt be an efficient weapon?
And just where does Doug Collins sit with this roster? He's a very good coach, but he's also a guy that wears thin on his players over time. Are they over his motivational ways this season, or can he still pull them together and make them believe in what he's preaching over and over and over and over and over again?
A lot of these questions can be answered by Bynum drawing enough focus from the defense to give his teammates freedom to operate.
Tim Duncan is old. Manu Ginobili is old. Tony Parker will be old soon. And Gregg Popovich may decide to hang it all up when Duncan says his goodbyes.
There isn't a lot of long-term clarity with the San Antonio Spurs, and it means they probably shouldn't even be this high when discussing who can contend for the title over the next five years. But then again, we've been trying to write this team off for five years now, and all it's done in that span is win 68.7 percent of its regular season games and go 26-26 in the playoffs.
San Antonio finds ways to reinvent itself whenever it needs to stay relevant in the burgeoning Western Conference. A lot of that starts at the top of the organization. Peter Holt is a great owner that allows the front office to execute whatever patient plan it has cooked up.
R.C. Buford and company craft a plan to keep their current stars surrounded with depth and talent that can be had at a fair price. They grab guys off the scrap heap and hand them over to Gregg Popovich.
Popovich then breaks these guys down and explains to them what their particular sets of skills happen to be. He sells them on believing in those skills, forgetting about everything else, and then crafts a scheme to accentuate each player's positives while trying to abolish the negatives.
Everybody who comes through those doors buys into the system because it's been working for over a decade. Rinse, lather, repeat.
I'm not sure where this team is headed once it moves on from the Duncan era, but I know that this organization has built up enough clout over the past 15 years for me to trust that it'll figure out the transition quickly and successfully. It's a bit of blind faith on my part, but I'm not willing to write it off just quite yet.
Every time I do it, I have to reach for the eraser anyway.
He's really a fantastic point guard, and he gets knocked for being thrust into a chaotic and dysfunctional situation. All of the dysfunction has now been jettisoned, though. JaVale McGee is going to be a good player in this league, but he needed a change of scenery and better coach to bring it out of him. Andray Blatche has been amnestied and is long gone from poisoning the culture around this team.
Nick Young and his garish shot selection have also been traded off, and the team has brought in good veterans and an exciting young backcourt mate to surround John Wall with an exciting team to be a part of.
With Nene and Emeka Okafor making up a veteran frontcourt, the Wizards should be able to provide enough stability on both ends of the floor to let Wall relax a little bit. They can now figure out if Jan Vesely or Chris Singleton are able to grow into the small forward position and be consistent contributors. There is also really solid depth with young big men like Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin.
And with Bradley Beal sliding into the shooting guard slot, Wall now has someone he can trust as a dynamic scoring option. Wall won't have to force shots at the end of the shot clock from spots he isn't comfortable shooting from. Wall gets to run a team with actual options at the end of plays.
The Wizards are potentially a playoff team even as early as this coming season. The plan seems to be to put Wall into a winning environment and see if that boosts his ability. We saw what Wall did when he was surrounded by mayhem. He put up nice numbers, gave us some highlights and seemed to have his soul crushed with countless losses.
Now that he'll be on a potential winner, we may see a side of him that we thought we saw in high school. He may explode next year and thrive in the new culture in Washington.
I'm worried about Randy Wittman being the guy that guides this ship, but we could quickly have a situation like we see with the Clippers. Wall might end up being the Chris Paul to Wittman's Vinny Del Negro.
There's a lot of potential if that happens.
The Mavericks have one of the best owners in sports, and it makes me believe they'll find their way when Dirk Nowitzki decides to hang it up.
I don't want to doubt Dirk right now, but if we see a steady decline in the next couple years, it wouldn't really shock me. He's one of the old guys now, and eventually, those guys end up giving way to the next generation.
When this happens, the Mavericks will need to figure out their new direction. A couple of years ago, Cuban hinted at the idea that if you don't believe you can contend for the title, then you should probably blow it all up and start over. I'm not sure he'd do that to Dirk while he's still playing at a high level.
In the meantime, he's trying to bring in other stars to Dallas to extend Dirk's run. He tried to bring in Deron Williams this summer and it didn't work out. Presumably, he'll try to add Dwight Howard to the organization next summer. If that doesn't work, it's hard to see where the Mavericks go next.
Maybe they will have to blow it all up in the next couple years and start over. Maybe they'll have to get really bad to find a new core to build around. And if that's about to happen right before a new CBA is hashed out and agreed upon, it's possible the Mavericks will try to keep roster flexibility right before the CBA to ensure they capitalize on the new tweaks.
If these things happen, the Mavs could be pretty bad in a couple of years. It might make putting them halfway into these rankings look really stupid.
Or maybe they'll end up wooing Dwight Howard to Texas. Maybe they'll end up having a new star to build around and a new direction to send their organization. There are a lot of maybes with the Mavericks right now as they transition from a championship team into the next phase of their team's history.
Luckily, they have the right man to direct this organization.
Much like the Indiana Pacers, I'm not sure this is the right slot for the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies are one of the top teams in the West and their advantages inside make you wonder if they can just punish their way through the West and into the NBA Finals some time soon. They have one of the deepest teams in the league, and with a healthy Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay, we may see an offensive attack that is just too strong for teams to stop.
They also do a great job of creating chaos on the perimeter and force opposing backcourts into turning the ball over. They control the boards and have Tony Allen to lock down almost any offensive threat you may feel you have an advantage with.
But does this team have much more room to go? It looks like they can go far with a healthy lineup, but I'm not sure if it's enough to get past a healthy Spurs team, the Thunder, or the newly reconstructed Lakers.
With Michael Heisley looking to sell this team, we also don't know exactly what direction they might be headed. Is there too much committed salary for a new owner to feel comfortable paying? Is there enough financial flexibility to alter this team or add to it?
Has this team peaked already and we're just hoping it can find a final push that really isn't there?
The Memphis Grizzlies are a well-constructed team and have made the Pau Gasol trade look a lot more even over the last couple years. But there doesn't seem to be definite long-term plans with this team. They could be another treadmill team that runs in place with the current roster.
They're not in a bad place to be stuck necessarily, if you're comfortable with them just being really good and hoping for injuries to opponents to allow this team to move forward.
I realize this ranking might just be me sipping the Kool-Aid here.
I'm not positive that Anthony Davis is a franchise guy that will end up being one of the best players in the league for a long time. But I also don't think there's a very high likelihood that he'll bust out and be a disappointment. Even if he's just a defensive presence for this team to build around, that's something that many teams in this league are desperately trying to find.
Throw in all of the wonderment that accompanies his "reluctant" teammate Eric Gordon and the potential some see in Austin Rivers, and you've got yourself a really dynamic core to build around. They also have Monty Williams directing everything on the court and the new ownership of Tom Benson to provide the necessary management and direction a rebuilding team requires.
Those key components give Hornets fans a lot of hope that the potential of this team is legitimate and attainable to reach.
But there are a couple of problems. There isn't a real point guard on this roster. Austin Rivers probably isn't going to be a point guard in this league, and that means he plays the same position as Gordon. Then there's Gordon who has missed a considerable amount of games over the last three years (he's missed 103 games).
If Rivers can even just be a great sixth man for this team and Gordon can be healthy enough to play, this team is in great shape moving forward. But if neither of those things happen, is Anthony Davis still enough to eventually make them contenders?
Even with his signature move of blocking a shot on one end, grabbing the ball and then stretching his arms the length of the court for a three-point dunk at the other basket without having to take a step, I'm not so sure the Hornets can survive missing out on Gordon and Rivers.
But instead of worrying about that, I'd like to just pour myself another glass of Kool-Aid.
Kyrie Irving is so good that I probably have this team too high on the rankings here.
Yeah, we only saw him for a rookie season, and it wasn't even a full season, but Irving showed us enough to see that he's a legitimate force in the NBA. He scores like a 10-year veteran. His body control around the basket seems like it's CGI'd onto our TV screens. He can run a team decently well (hard to truly tell because he didn't have much help), and his defense looks like it can be worked into something that is more than passable.
Not to mention, Irving was one of the best clutch players in the league as a rookie. If you can give him a team that stays in the game the first 47 minutes, you feel pretty confident that he'll help them pull out that final minute.
Having Irving being coached up by Byron Scott seems like a winning recipe moving forward. Scott has won before with two very good point guards, and there isn't much reason to think he won't win again with Irving.
The questions come with the other young guys on the team. Tristan Thompson showed flashes toward the end of last year that he might not be such a laughable selection over Jonas Valanciunas, but he also doesn't really have good hands or footwork that sells you on his potential.
And then there's the Dion Waiters pick from this season that could also end up being a disaster with Harrison Barnes and Terrence Ross still on the board at No. 4. Waiters was a polarizing pick, even within the Cleveland fanbase.
Is he 1) good enough to be a difference-maker in this league and 2) the type of player that will fit in with Irving handling the ball the majority of the time?
I guess we'll have to wait and see. But the Cavs still have a very good frontcourt with Anderson Varejao, rookie Tyler Zeller and the newly slimmed-down Samardo Samuels (who actually looks ready to contribute this season). They also don't have major salary commitments and great roster flexibility moving forward.
They just need to get their young guys to figure out how to get Kyrie to crunch time.
I love the direction of this Warriors team.
Sure, the owners got booed right after the Monta Ellis trade, but looking at where this team is now compared to a year ago, it's hard not to like what the Warriors have put together.
They traded away flash (Monta Ellis) for substance (Andrew Bogut). But now they need that substance to be healthy for a full season and beyond. In fact between Bogut and Stephen Curry, the injury concerns are as high for them as they are for any team in the league.
Curry's bad ankles seem to fail him just when he's started gaining enough momentum to go on a tear throughout the league. And with Andrew Bogut's various injuries over the year, most recently being his exploded elbow and broken ankle, there's plenty of reason to think he won't buck his history of hurt body parts and finally put together a full season (would be the first time since his rookie season).
But what if the Warriors are healthy this year and in the years to come?
Bogut is exactly the center you want to back up David Lee's defensive vanishings. Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson flanking Steph Curry as he carves up a defense with his scoring and passing could turn this team from the laughing stock of the league during the Nellie Ball days and into a formidable playoff opponent.
Adding health and a couple of role players to this roster could mean this team moves forward over the next couple years and becomes a powerhouse in the West.
If this team is healthy, every component seems to complement each other, and you can see a real vision of exactly why this team is constructed this way. It isn't the haphazard ways of past management that just threw talent pieces together and hoped for the best. There's a clear plan being put together here.
Let's just hope the training room is vacant the next few years.
Looking at the current construct of the Utah Jazz reminds me of the Houston Rockets from a couple of years ago.
This is a team that can compete for the playoffs while acquiring assets. It has a crowded frontcourt with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap holding things down while Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors try to develop. Adding Marvin Williams to the mix at small forward gives them a lot of versatility and options to run out there too.
The backcourt has Gordon Hayward (who is a lot better than most people realize) and Alec Burks developing with veterans like Mo Williams, Jamaal Tinsley, Earl Watson and Randy Foye to help direct things. There are a lot of tradable parts that can be moved on for a big-name player.
And while it has a ton of assets that make you feel great about the direction of this team, it still needs that big-name player.
It smartly got rid of Deron Williams before it became a Dwight Howard-Carmelo Anthony type of situation. In doing so, it acquired Favors, who could eventually develop into an All-Star caliber big man. But even if he develops, it still needs a guy that can dominate at times.
It doesn't currently have a player on this roster capable of doing that.
Now the Jazz have to figure out how to move some of these assets to position themselves to acquire a star player. A couple of years ago, people were praising the Houston Rockets for being in that same position. They were acquiring assets, fielding a competitive team and showing glimmers of hope everywhere.
Let's just hope the Jazz don't have the same bad luck in getting that star player to find his way to their team like Houston did.
The Nets have finally arrived in Brooklyn.
Not only did the Nets arrive in Brooklyn, but they made major moves over the past year or so to ensure they'd be a hit there right away.
They traded for Deron Williams and managed to re-sign him this summer. They acquired Gerald Wallace last season and then re-signed him this summer as well. They traded for Joe Johnson to form one of the best backcourts in the NBA with him and Deron. They also managed to keep Brook Lopez by re-signing him this summer.
This team is a playoff team, as currently constructed. And it really needs to be a playoff team the first year it's in Brooklyn. If they want to try to steal away Knicks fans and get people to hop onto their bandwagon, the Nets need to win and win right away. It's a great business strategy for jumping into a new market.
However, the basketball side of it probably suffered because of this necessity to hit the ground running. The Nets tried as hard as they possibly could to acquire Dwight Howard to make the biggest splash possible. Unfortunately, they weren't able to pull off the complicated deals that were on the table.
Instead, they decided to acquire $90 million in Joe Johnson and then give a four-year deal to Gerald Wallace. They followed that up by giving Brook Lopez a four-year max deal in hopes that Dwight Howard would still be on the trading block in January, leaving open the door to move Lopez for Howard in some way.
Instead, the Lakers pounced on getting Dwight, and now the Nets are left without any roster flexibility over the next four years. This means they're a playoff team, but they don't have much room for getting better. In fact, with Wallace and Johnson potentially getting much worse as they get older over these four years, the Nets could find themselves in a bad situation after the next three years.
Luckily for them, they'll be a hot destination for free agents in 2016. We just don't know if they can be good enough to contend before that summer.
Before March 9, there was so much momentum happening in Minnesota.
The Wolves were quickly becoming the darlings of the league. Kevin Love was enjoying one of the best statistical seasons for a PF in a long time, Ricky Rubio was wowing us with his passing and defense and Nikola Pekovic was crushing anybody that was unlucky enough to have to defend him.
All of this was happening under the direction of Rick Adelman, who quickly came into the Target Center and showed this team that they didn't have to lose anymore. Then Ricky Rubio tore his ACL and the season completely fell apart for the Wolves.
Next thing you know, Kevin Love was giving veiled ultimatums in the media, the Wolves got into a ridiculous arm-wrestling match over Nicolas Batum's services and they acquired a team that has people more concerned with pigment and knee rehabilitation than with whether or not this team can become a new upstart in the West.
The Wolves' future certainly looks bright if Rubio can get healthy in the next year. They play an attractive brand of basketball with him on the court and were actually a top 15 defense before he went down.
Unfortunately, there's a considerable possibility he doesn't fully recover from his knee injury. If that's the case, the Wolves could be looking at a few disappointing seasons that lead to Adelman moving on and Kevin Love trying to get out of town once he can opt out of his deal in 2015 and team up with bigger stars.
On the optimistic side of this, Rubio can recover from his knee issue, Brandon Roy can provide a spark in the backcourt, Derrick Williams can figure out how to contribute and Kevin Love will learn to get over his dealings with David Kahn and decide to stay in town. If that happens, this team can grow together and try to become the new OKC Thunder.
Things are either about to get incredibly fun and hopeful in the Twin Cities, or they're going to go back to being the laughingstock of the league in a few years.
Here's another team whose window seems to be flirting with being shut. And yet the Boston Celtics have just retooled and reloaded their roster to put up another fight over the next season or two or three.
Yes, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are getting NBA old, and I don't think you can ask them to carry the load over the next two or three years on a nightly basis. But with the way Danny Ainge has reloaded this roster, these two veterans won't have to carry the load.
They'll still need KG barking out instructions on the defensive end and rebounding the ball. They'll still need Paul Pierce to score a lot of nights because he's still a very tough weapon to defend. But the Celtics now have Rajon Rondo's emergence over the last couple years paired with role players like Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley to provide a much needed spark that wasn't there.
Even with Ray Allen gone, this team is better than it was last year. It finally has depth, and I don't mean signing Ryan Hollins and pretending he adds something positive to your team. It can go to a 10-man rotation if it needs to with a competent backup at every position. It can disperse minutes to its veterans in a conservative fashion and save its legs for the playoffs.
If Jared Sullinger (probable) and Fab Melo (laughable) can give the Celtics any kind of production this season, it lengthens the duration in which Boston can contend with the Heat in the East over the next three years. After that, the Celtics should have enough depth and financial flexibility to surround Rondo with big named players for another era in Celtics history.
The concern is that KG and Pierce will fall off dramatically soon in their production/execution, and it will thin the depth too much to allow the Celtics to keep up with the top teams in the East. And while that's possible, it seems like we keep trying to shut the door on them and they keep shoving their foot in the way of letting it close.
I don't feel good about having the Knicks this high, but let me try to explain why they ended up here.
Do I think this Knicks team can win a title as constructed right now? Probably not.
The Tyson Chandler acquisition last year finally gave the Knicks some substance to go with their flash. They became a defensive powerhouse in the league (fifth in defensive rating) and figured out how to finish off games because of it. It allowed Amar'e Stoudemire to get through personal tragedies and Carmelo Anthony to get through poor shooting nights.
This team also road the Jeremy Lin wave. Whether you believe Lin is good or not, it injected life into this team that might not have been there otherwise. In doing so, it allowed it to believe it can get through the tough nights and still feel good about itself in the end. Giving a team like this confidence is how it figures out how to win.
It slowly added depth throughout the year with the emergence of Steve Novak and the signing of JR Smith. They got rid of Mike D'Antoni and gave control to a coach the Knicks seemed to respond a bit better to.
This offseason, it seems like Stoudemire has made an effort to try to add to his game, Melo is becoming a bit more focused on how to take over games (which he's lost a bit since he came to New York), and the team is trying to add depth to the roster.
Are Felton, Kidd and Prigioni going to be as good as what Jeremy Lin could offer them both on and off the court? I don't really know. But now the Knicks have trade pieces down the road if they need them. The deeper your team is, the more you can jettison parts in deals.
We can think they have nothing of value to offer teams to add pieces, but we often see just how little that matters. Big-market teams attract big-market names most years, and that alone is going to always keep the Knicks in the mix for acquiring guys.
They have enough to be one of the better teams in the East, and as their current guys' deals get closer to expiring, the Knicks become bigger and bigger players for making deals happen that net them the latest stars. Their ability to compete with a lot of teams now and their ability to attract stars down the road are why they ended up this high in the rankings.
I'm not asking you to agree with it necessarily. But that's just how it shook out. I'm fully prepared to be proven right/wrong on this.
I'm kind of surprised at myself for putting the Nuggets this high, but I like the direction in which their franchise is headed.
They handled the Carmelo Anthony situation brilliantly, finding a way to get maximum value out of trading one of the bigger stars in the league. The fallout of that trade has left them with an "us against the world" mentality, spearheaded by George Karl and his insistence that they don't need a star to compete.
While he's proven that they don't really need a star to compete with the rest of the league on a nightly basis, they do actually need a star if they want to contend for a title.
By acquiring Andre Iguodala in the Dwight Howard deal while only giving up Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington, the Nuggets not only got better on the court, but they also got more flexible in the salary cap structure. They have long-term commitments to Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee and Wilson Chandler. Everything else is short-term and cheap.
Ty Lawson's extension is coming up this year, but they can afford to offer him a competitive market deal just by getting someone to trade for Wilson Chandler if they want to keep maximum flexibility.
Not only is this team full of a young and exciting core of players, but they should be able to keep their flexibility enough over the next year or two to still add another big-time player if needed. Gallinari is getting better each year, Lawson has learned how to run a team much better and McGee seems to be taking his career arc a lot more seriously this year.
This is a team on the brink of contending now and could possibly end up surging ahead with the addition of another guy in the next year.
George Karl has more than enough credit with this front office to keep instilling that mentality that they don't need anybody but themselves to win while they search for that one guy to put them over the top. They have the potential to be a real big problem for the rest of the league over the next five years.
Everything rests on the rehabilitation of Derrick Rose's knee.
If the Bulls are patient with it and don't let him try to come back too soon, they'll be in position to add pieces to Rose's team in the summer of 2014 when only Rose and Joakim Noah will be under long-term deals. They'll have the roster and cap flexibility to bring in another star next to Rose and allow him to not work himself to exhaustion by the time the playoffs are in full bloom (I swear that wasn't a flower pun).
But the patience they have with Rose's knee will be the difference between being able to get back to the level of contending they enjoyed before he went down and having a thorn in their side trying to regain being one of the best teams in the league (that was definitely an intentional flower pun).
Before the knee injury, the Bulls were an extremely dangerous team that was capable of slaying the Miami Heat. Once Rose's knee shredded, though, all hope of getting back to Chicago Bulls glory days was lost for the time being.
Luckily, they have a coach in Tom Thibodeau who will keep this team focused. They won't be allowed to feel sorry for themselves and they won't be allowed to take nights off. He'll keep them fighting and keep them concentrating on winning games.
By keeping them competitive, the Bulls will continue their winning culture and not allow themselves to fall into complacency. If they can keep this up, Rose's eventual return to being 100 percent (sometime in the 2013-14 season) will allow them to add one of the top stars in the league to a really good team.
It will bring them back to contention.
But they have to be patient. They can't let panic set in and wonder if the rest of the league is passing them by. As soon as he went down with his knee injury, the rest of the league pulled even with them or passed them by on some level.
They just have to remember that a healthy Rose is a guy who can close the gap and regain the advantage.
The hardest thing I had to decide was if I was going to put the Thunder ahead of or behind the Lakers.
I'm not sure I made the right decision, but the threat of them not being able to keep their core together with James Harden possibly going elsewhere does scare me enough to put them third.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook already have their money. Serge Ibaka just got an extremely reasonable extension (four years, $48 million) when there were probably a couple teams that would consider offering him the max.
Now we just have to wait and see what James Harden will do. Will he take a bit less money to stay with his guys, or will he look for bigger bank accounts and a more prominent role with another team?
If he ends up staying, the Thunder's roster is pretty much set for the next few years. They'll have very little ability to add to their depth chart unless they're nailing draft picks down at the end of the first round. And while there isn't anything wrong with keeping this squad together over the next few years, it means they have to stay healthy.
Losing flexibility with the luxury tax and adding any serious injury almost destroys a team's ability to recover from that situation. Luckily for the Thunder, none of these guys have a history of slowing down or getting hurt.
Now they just have to figure out how to adjust their games enough to take down everybody standing in their way. While they lost to the Heat in five games in the 2012 NBA Finals, the series was a lot closer than those five games might tell you. Games 2, 3 and 4 were close enough to go either way.
The Thunder won't let the title victory of the Miami Heat or the acquisitions of the Los Angeles Lakers deter them from feeling like they are championship-ready.
Here we go.
The Lakers have once again pulled off a fantastic offseason and added big-time stars to their roster. They traded draft picks and Andrew Bynum to bring in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. They now have potentially the most impossible offense to stop in the league.
Pick-and-roll with Steve Nash and either Dwight or Pau Gasol, with Kobe spotting up to slash or shoot on the strong side and the other big man diving to the basket from the weak side. Or you can have Kobe run it with Nash spotting up.
How do you stop that?
Yes, they have no bench and Kobe has a ton of mileage on his Kobedometer. Nash is even older than Kobe, and Pau is also nearing the tail end of his career.
So why have the Lakers so high and above the Thunder?
They just added arguably the second best player in the NBA in Howard, who will probably compete with this core for at least two years, and then after those two years, they're still going to be the Lakers. They're still going to know how to poach stars from the rest of the league when those players want a change of scenery.
This is what the Lakers do. They pull off deals that you don't think are fair or doable. Much like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the Lakers find a way to continue to evolve. They lose Shaq, then pick up Pau and win two titles.
Kobe gets old so they pick up Nash and Dwight.
Who do they pick up next?
They have the best player in the world.
They have still one of the best players in the world with Dwyane Wade. They've figured out how to use Chris Bosh. Their role players figured out how to step up. The Heat realized they could play small ball, wreak havoc on defense and pull out the toughest of victories.
The Miami Heat figuring out how to win a title with the entire world seemingly against them could open the floodgates on titles over the next few years. They aren't locks to repeat this year or win another one during the life of this CBA, but it's also pretty hard to think about betting against them.
They added Ray Allen to the mix this offseason and will presumably be in the mix to add veterans that want to chase another ring at a discount price over the next few years.
LeBron has just entered his prime and may actually get a bit better than he is now, which is a terrifying thought.
Until someone proves to be better than them on the court, right now, they seem to have the most potential to contend for titles year in and year out. They don't have the same competition at the top of the East that teams like the Thunder and Lakers have at the top of the West.
After all, they didn't get together to win just one title.
Not two, not three, not four...