Dwight Howard's playing basketball, people are talking about the Spurs being old again, and Celtics fans are getting excited about one of the biggest draft busts of all time.
Yep, it sounds like it's just about time for the NBA to tip off.
In order to get a handle on the crazy goings-on of the past three weeks or so, there's nothing better than an old-fashioned power ranking to really figure out who is improving and who is looking a bit bleaker than before thanks to the past three weeks of preseason basketball.
It's been almost a month since I threw together a power ranking complete with offseason grades for each team, so it seems only logical to see which teams have done the best for the optimism (or lack thereof) surrounding their team after the majority of the preseason has gone by.
A broken hand, a knee surgery, an impressive run from a few backups and some outside concerns have moved things around. And while there's probably no surprise at the team perched at the top of the list, there are definitely a few surprises scattered throughout.
Surprise No. 1: The worst team last season is still the league's worst team. Okay, it's not that shocking, but there's a lot more optimism this year than there was at the beginning of last year's shortened season.
Charlotte is stoked to see Michael Kidd-Gilchrist come in and lead its team into the future, but there's also hope for improvement from Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker. Plus they've got new jerseys, so there's that.
Oh, and how can I forget the prospect of Byron Mullens shooting threes all season long. Enjoy, Bobcats fans.
It's hard to say just how far from grace the Magic will fall this season, but it only makes sense for the team to completely clean house and bottom out as soon as they possibly can.
For all intents and purposes, Orlando got an awful package for Dwight Howard, grabbing Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, some rookies, some lost causes, some cap relief and a few bad draft picks. The best thing they can do now is trade off the rest of their jetsam for more cap relief, more losses and perhaps a halfway-decent draft pick.
Who knows what, exactly, they could get for a package of Afflalo, Big Baby and Jameer Nelson, but maybe somebody is willing to part with a few picks.
Houston doesn't have a terrible team put together, but the team they have just doesn't work.
First of all, we've got to acknowledge that they're going to trade Kevin Martin at some point; I'd bet my house on it. Then we've got to look at the fact that their two big offseason acquisitions, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, fit together like peanut butter and frog meat.
Beyond that, you've got a team with all but three important players still on their rookie-scale contracts.
This team is just too young and too obviously ready to rebuild to make any kind of a splash in the always-competitive Western Conference.
Where the Rockets are on the downswing, Cleveland is on the other side of the pendulum, getting ready to take a ride upward.
They've added a few interesting players in the past few months, but there's nothing certain about the guys they added.
I can say that Tyler Zeller is going to gobble offensive rebounds like Jeff Foster once did, and C.J. Miles is going to jack up unwarranted threes, but there's not much more than that.
Dion Waiters is as mysterious a rookie as there has been in the past few seasons, Tristan Thompson still has a ways to go before he's a productive offensive player, and the Cavs in general just don't have the offensive or defensive weapons to make a playoff run as the team looks right now.
Detroit is looking like a team that could have some impressive improvement this season, or they could be just as stagnant as they were a season ago.
Charlie Villanueva is apparently in the best shape of his life (again), Andre Drummond looks like he might produce something halfway meaningful early on, and the team in general is built well enough to win games every once in a while.
On the whole, however, this team isn't nearly good enough to make a playoff run unless Greg Monroe makes a miraculous improvement and challenges the best centers in the Eastern Conference.
Sacramento remains a team without an identity, and if history has taught us anything, it's that teams with no identity don't exactly win championships.
After focusing on drafting forwards with one hand while slowly stocking up on semi-effective guards with the other, Sacramento finds itself with a guard logjam, only they're not jammed up with excellent guards.
Thomas Robinson might give them a scary-looking frontcourt, but the fact that Tyreke Evans continues to play without a definitive position and the team's depth is shaky at best has the Kings as a better candidate for a high lottery pick than a low playoff seed.
There's a chance that the Wizards will pick up some production on the offensive end from Bradley Beal to the point that they end up with a decent spot in the East, but it's still up in the air whether or not they'll be good enough to challenge for a low playoff spot.
What will most likely happen is that the Wizards will struggle at first with so much of their offensive production needing to come from John Wall and Beal, but they'll figure things out as they go along and end up putting together a solid season full of improvement.
I'd be willing to bet that they make the playoffs next season with a few additions, but they don't have the depth yet, and their team has too much to figure out to see the postseason just yet.
What can we realistically expect from the Portland Trail Blazers? Are they in a midlevel rebuilding year? Are they a fringe playoff team? Will they hit the floor and end up with a high lottery pick?
In short, yes.
Portland is all of that and then some. Its lineup is so dependent on rookie production, but if LaMarcus Aldridge continues to play at an all-star level, J.J. Hickson produces at center and Nicolas Batum plays up to his contract, then there's no real way of predicting what they can do.
The Blazers could end up fighting around the ninth or 10th spot in the West or, with too little production from the rookies, they could end up with a shot at a top pick in next year's draft.
I'll tell you one thing with confidence: They're not going to win a title.
I really can't wait to see the Suns play this season, and I wouldn't even be surprised if they grab the 10th, ninth or even eighth spot in the West, but it's an outside shot at the very best.
They've got a bit of continuity coming in from last year's holdovers, plus they've got Goran Dragic and Luis Scola, so that's definitely going to help them.
The only questions are whether or not they'll be able to keep Michael Beasley from shooting 18 times a game and if Marcin Gortat will have the same impact without running the pick-and-roll with Steve Nash all day long.
Phoenix will be a fun team to watch, but it'll be frustrating more often than it'll be brilliant.
The Toronto Raptors could end up being the Eastern Conference's most improved team, but for now we're going to set the hype machine at a brisk pace.
With Jonas Valanciunas looking like he could end up being productive in his rookie season, Andrea Bargnani should get comfortable at power forward and have his eye on his best season yet.
Beyond that, they have a pretty decent bench and a guy still looking to break out as more than just a dunker in DeMar DeRozan.
They may not make the playoffs, but it looks like they could be playing meaningful basketball games around the All-Star break.
The New Orleans Hornets surprisingly weren't a horrendous basketball team last season. They had a nice core of players who were able to step up in Eric Gordon's absence to the tune of 21 wins.
Shuffle the lineup around a bit to add a healthy Gordon, Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Robin Lopez and Austin Rivers, and you've got yourself a team that is going to be quite a bit better than they were last season.
Hell, I'm ready to jump on the bandwagon now so it doesn't get too crowded before they make the playoffs in the 2013-14 season.
There's going to be at least one open playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with the Orlando Magic plummeting to the bottom of the league, and the Milwaukee Bucks have a pretty decent shot at taking it.
With Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings getting hot randomly throughout the season, the Bucks could have enough offensive firepower combined with a decent defense to get them hovering around .500 when the season nears its home stretch.
What's going to be interesting is that both Ellis and Jennings are in contract years. Will they try to play more efficiently, or will they both just try to rack up as many points as they possibly can? As a basketball fan with no rooting interest in the Bucks, I'm hoping for the latter.
A few weeks ago, I would have said the Timberwolves are almost certainly going to the playoffs this season. Now I'm not so sure.
The injury to Ricky Rubio was something they could get over. He's a great point guard, but they can fill in and stay afloat long enough to make up for a possible bad start.
However, now that knuckle push-ups have derailed the first month of the season for Kevin Love, it's looking bleak for Minnesota. A Western Conference team just doesn't have the wiggle room to miss two of its best players for that long.
Who knows, though; maybe Nikola Pekovic and Brandon Roy will take over the team and keep them from having a rocky start.
My gut says I'm dropping Dallas too low because of Dirk Nowitzki's arthroscopic knee surgery, and maybe he will be back in just three short weeks, but any time we talk about knee surgery for a 34-year-old power forward, I get nervous.
Does Dallas have the scoring power to fill its new void? Are the Mavs going to have some sort of leadership from one of the other guys on the court, or will they basically just go out and play some pickup ball?
There are just too many unanswered questions for there to be any confidence that this team can recover quickly enough to make the playoffs, but we'll see.
With the Timberwolves and Mavericks down, that means somebody has to rise up a bit to fill in their spot. That team has to be the Golden State Warriors.
It's a crazy thought that injuries could actually help the Warriors this season, but now that two of the league's premier forwards are on the sidelines, Golden State has a chance to take some early wins and put them away for later this season.
Of course, if we're talking about injuries and the Warriors, we have to acknowledge the shaky ankles of Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut, especially since the former has already reaggravated his.
Initially, Utah was the likely team to fall out of the playoffs. It made a huge jump from 2011 to 2012 to sneak into the eighth spot, and a slip in the other direction wouldn't have been too shocking.
However, injuries—and perhaps a little bit of a change of my mind—have got me thinking otherwise.
Sure, there's a chance that Utah trades away either Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap, but they have someone to ably step up in each of those holes if they do make a change. Plus, it's hard to imagine them giving up on a playoff run if they're in the mix.
They've got a clearer path to the playoffs; all they have to do is not step on the cracks.
After an offseason full of answers, Brooklyn is starting to face a handful of questions.
Over the summer, we learned whether or not Deron Williams was going to stay in Brooklyn, if their center was going to end up being Dwight Howard or Brook Lopez and who they would bring in to fill out the rest of their roster.
And the list of questions continues to build quicker than we can obtain answers. Which Deron Williams will we get this season? How will they make up for the weak frontcourt defense? Will they get any production outside of MarShon Brooks from their bench? Will Joe Johnson be worth the money?
Until we see them play at regular speed and get their feet off the ground in the regular season, it's just too early to really say much about this team beyond the fact that they look pretty good on paper.
There's one thing that seems obvious going into the season: The Bulls are going to miss Derrick Rose.
They should have Rose back by the time teams are getting ready for the final stretch to the playoffs, so he'll be playing meaningful regular-season games should his recovery stay on track.
What I'm not convinced about, however, is that the Bulls will be as good without Rose this season as they were last season, when they won two-thirds of the games played without him in the lineup.
Chicago should be able to stay afloat long enough to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, but there's a question of how good it'll be after a rehabbed Rose comes back.
While I was down on the Atlanta Hawks a few weeks ago, I think I've reevaluated my stance.
Atlanta lost Joe Johnson, but how good was he for the Hawks team as they're currently constructed? He was a scorer first, something they can easily replace by giving Josh Smith a few more touches (though that sounds a bit frightening); a shooter second, which can be replaced by the myriad good shooters they picked up in the offseason; and a decent defender third, something that DeShawn Stevenson can do for them.
Combine a full-strength Al Horford with Josh Smith on a contract year and some new blood coming in the form of Lou Williams and Devin Harris along with the handful of players they got in return for Johnson, and you could have a surprisingly good basketball team.
The New York Knicks just got news that Amar'e Stoudemire has a ruptured cyst in his left knee, also known as the most-expected injury news of the offseason.
What does that mean for the Knicks? Maybe good things.
New York is now forced to tinker with a lineup that begs to be tinkered with, probably starting Carmelo Anthony at power forward and running a smaller yet still defensively sound lineup.
Sure, they'll miss Stoudemire as another scoring threat, but what they'll gain is comfort in experimentation, which is one of the main things this Knicks team needs if they want to win. Plus, if they play well in the few weeks that Amar'e will miss, then maybe they'll be brave enough to tell their nine-figure man with nine-dollar knees to come off the bench for a while.
I'm not entirely convinced that the experiment the Philadelphia 76ers are running is going to work out for the best, but at the very least they're a top-eight team in the Eastern Conference.
What concerns me is the defense that Philly hung their hats on last season, which was dependent on the perimeter defense of Andre Iguodala and the anchoring of Elton Brand, both of whom are gone.
Andrew Bynum isn't the post defender that Brand is, even though he's nearly a decade younger, and Evan Turner can't come close to replacing Iggy, but this team now has a go-to weapon in the post, something that can't be valued highly enough.
If they can figure out a way to make the defense half as good as it was last season, then the offense should fill in the gaps.
The Memphis Grizzlies are along a strange path to what they and their fans hope will be a successful season.
They have two dominant scorers who play very different games and who both need the ball in their hands to score, but they can't seem to figure out which one to feature over the other. It's gotten to the point where it might be better to ask one to swallow his pride and lead their bench mob.
At the very least, this team is going to win 50 games and be a top-six team in the Western Conference. The only question lies in how they put their team together for the postseason.
With a starting five of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, they have one of the best defensive fronts in the league and and the weapons on offense to keep them in games, which is pretty much the recipe for fringe contention.
There seems to be a lot of room for error when predicting what the Indiana Pacers are capable of this season.
It's easy to look at their young players and predict improvement, but there's no way of know just how much they'll improve. What they have is two extremely talented young players to lead them into the future in Paul George and Roy Hibbert, plus a good young point guard, a solid forward and an aging pseudostar.
Indiana has a good enough offense and a good enough defense to be able to legitimately compete with any team in the East. The only problem is that it needs both to show up on the same day if they want to beat the elite guys.
This is definitely a team to watch, as the Pacers have an outside shot at making the Eastern Conference finals and a legitimate chance to take down one of the top seeds should they meet in the playoffs.
Outside of Los Angeles, you won't find a more exciting or intriguing basketball team than the Denver Nuggets.
What the Nuggets have is basically the same team as last season—which pushed the Lakers to the in the postseason with a high-powered offense—only they added an elite defender in Andre Iguodala and have a full season of Wilson Chandler to look forward to.
Even more exciting is the notion that Kosta Koufos, the guy who was once third on Denver's depth chart at center, could be good enough this season to start over JaVale McGee and Timofey Mozgov.
The Nuggets could run into the problem of having too many cooks in the kitchen, but what might be to their advantage is that they have a bunch of cooks who don't mind being overshadowed by the others, plus a legitimate chef on defense in Iggy.
The Los Angeles Clippers showed that they have a real shot at becoming a title contender in the next few seasons after taking down the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs last season, but it turned into quick disappointment once they met the Spurs in the second round.
Can the Clippers build on their momentum from last season, or will their new additions fall flat on their faces?
They had an offseason that was both high- and low-risk. Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford are risky additions coming off the worst seasons of their careers, but Grant Hill, Matt Barnes and Ronny Turiaf will do exactly what they were brought in to do.
The biggest problem they face is that they still are at least a half-step below where the Lakers, Spurs and Thunder are in the West, but they can get a bit closer depending on how their young dudes progress.
There's a lot to like about the new incarnation of the Boston Celtics, but there's a lot still in question, which keeps them below the Spurs for now in the preseason power rankings.
Where the Spurs have proven that age is just a number, Boston has yet to definitively show that it's not as affected by age as the ageless wonders in the West.
Plus, the Celtics still have a lot to prove in terms of whether or not Jeff Green is the player they traded for back in 2011 or just another once-athletic forward with injury issues. Then they're going to have to determine how to best utilize Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo.
On the flip side, Sully has produced well in preseason so far, plus they've got an upgrade over Ray Allen with Jason Terry and a good shooter in Courtney Lee.
Beyond that, we'll be looking to see whether or not Rajon Rondo makes the step up in the scoring department to really lead this team into the future.
Until the Spurs actually show signs of dropping out of the top four teams in the Western Conference, I'm going to stop pointing to age as a weakness. Are they a bit older? Sure. But it took a historic swing in momentum for the Thunder to overtake them in the West finals last season.
San Antonio remains the best-coached, best-mannered team in the NBA, and it's going to take a lot more than a few extra years to really slow it down.
What might be a real concern is the fact that the top of the conference has gone into an old-school habit of stocking up on big dudes—the Thunder boasting Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka while the Lakers have a few guys by the name of Howard and Gasol, the Clippers have DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, the Grizzlies have Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and the Nuggets have enough big dudes to run a lineup with Kenneth Faried at shooting guard if they're feeling insane.
It was the Spurs' Achilles' heel two seasons ago, and they still have a bit of a weakness in the post, so it'll be interesting to see what they do to fill that moving forward.
You just can't put the Lakers in the top two teams in the league until they've played a few weeks of regular-season basketball.
They had the best offseason of any team in the NBA, but the Thunder remains the Western Conference champions and the Heat the NBA champions.
Don't expect them to fall too far away from No. 3 all season long, as it seems like they'll either rise up into the top two or fall down to fifth or sixth at worst.
On Sunday (Oct. 21) we got our first little glimpse of the Lakers' starting five with Dwight Howard, and I'd be lying if I said I was unimpressed. It should be everything we expected and then a little more.
In the long run, it might be for the best that the Oklahoma City Thunder lost in the NBA Finals. Sure, it would have been sweet for them to take down the Heat and win a title on their first try, but now they're seasoned, they've tasted defeat, and they have motivation to avoid it at all costs in the future.
What they can say for themselves is that they have two of the 20 best players in the NBA, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year (who'll probably end up staying in Oklahoma City), a hot, young, athletic forward who is slowly developing an offensive game and a hard-nosed defensive center.
There's not much to dislike about the Thunder. They're young and talented, they all seem humble enough to play for their team rather than themselves, and they all seem to have one goal of winning a title. Don't be surprised if they do just that.
In my last set of power rankings, I described the situation the Heat are headed into this season by quoting the great Ric Flair. To keep that train rolling, I'll give you a look into what the rest of the league is feeling with one from Roddy Piper.
Just when you thought you know the answers, they change the question.
Miami isn't the same team it was last season. With LeBron James at power forward, disregarding positions altogether and totally embracing the position revolution that the Internet has been shouting about for four years now, Miami is going to be a hard team to deal with.
Then, to go even further, we've got news that LeBron is working on a sky hook, and a feisty Ray Allen is joining the team.
The Heat are a better team this year than they were last year, but as the reigning champions, there's also an enormous target on their backs.
All I'm sure of going into this season is that we're all going to have one hell of a good time.
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