First, an explanation.
I'm ranking NBA teams based on how they will perform in the regular season, not in the playoffs. There is certainly a difference, as those who watched Bulls-Heat in 2011 or Cavs-Celtics in 2010 can attest. Certain depth-laden teams will win more regular season games than top-heavy squads that are better suited for the playoffs.
Just know that the regular season is different from the postseason. Also know that, between a massive James Harden trade and huge Los Angeles talent haul, we should be in for a fantastic 82 games.
At least the Bobcats will win more games than the Carolina Panthers. Or will they?
This is no hyperbole. After having one of the worst seasons in NBA history, the onus is on Charlotte to prove that it can be competitive.
Last season, the Bobcats finished with the second-worst point differential of any team since the NBA's inception. They weren't just bad; they were nothing more than a collection of guys who just happened to be wearing jerseys embossed with NBA logos.
This year's roster isn't much better, but it will feature the steadier point-guard stewardship of Ramon Sessions. Hope remains for Kemba Walker, while Bismack Biyombo was an offensively limited swat machine who showed flashes of potential.
All eyes, though, will be on No. 2 overall draft pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Good luck to the kid, and here's to hoping a lotto pick validates Michael Jordan's wisdom—for once.
Dwight Howard was traded, so Orlando naturally got a huge haul by which to replenish its roster in return. What's that? The best player they received was Arron Afflalo? Well, this is uncomfortable.
Not only did the Magic lose a superstar, they lost a superstar coach in Stan Van Gundy. Gone are his stingy defensive schemes and his three-point heavy offense.
Jacques Vaughn is a rookie head coach and his imprint remains to be seen. Orlando also parted ways with Ryan Anderson, a rare breed of big man that can shoot from distance and rebound.
It's hard to find above-average performers on this roster, as I'm not sure Glen Davis, Jameer Nelson or Hedo Turkoglu qualify. It's quite possible that Gustavo Ayon ends up being the best player on this team.
Good luck with that.
The Suns are another superstar-departed roster, but at least they have a nice piece in Goran Dragic. The 26-year-old slasher notched an impressive 18.0 player efficiency rating in last year's Rockets time-share with Kyle Lowry, and he'll have the full reins in Phoenix.
The Suns' cupboard is fairly sparse, but they still have Marcin Gortat, an underrated performer from last year. The assumption is that his play will decline without Steve Nash to help in the pick-and-roll, but it's possible that Gortat can flourish with new responsibility.
Luis Scola is a skilled, albeit aging power forward and a fine amnesty-wire addition. The rest of this situation is bleak—so bleak that Michael Beasley is expected to contribute.
The perpetually depressing Wizards have a superstar talent in Wall, but they haven't done much to develop his shot after two years in the league. Wall shot only 42 treys last season, of which he made three. It will be hard for the super-athletic point guard to open up space if he keeps shooting—or not shooting—like this.
Rookie Bradley Beal is a promising talent, especially because he's a fantastic rebounder for his position. At Florida, the shooting guard claimed a whopping 6.7 boards per contest. Even if he struggles with his shot, Beal should help the Wizards there.
DeMarcus Cousins will continue to validate League Pass subscriptions the world over, though the Kings won't win much. Cousins, to his credit, has appeared in shape this preseason.
His improvement could go a long way towards saving the Anaheim, er, Seattle, er, Sacramento Kings from laughing stock status. But even if "Boogie" does improve, this squad has a long way to go.
Tyreke Evans has been regressing ever since his rookie season, possibly due to injuries. It's also possible that this somewhat aimless franchise isn't very good at developing talent.
This team refuses to pass to itself, registering as second-to-last in overall assist rate (via ESPN). At least the Kings can take solace in how last year's Thunder were dead last.
Help them, Kyrie Irving—you're their only hope!
Actually, that's not quite true. Anderson Varejao is also a fine player, but it's Kyrie's superstar potential that returns some cachet to this LeBron-spurned market.
The last rookie point guard to be as good as Irving was Chris Paul. That's not bad company for a No. 1 pick who many questioned.
Tristan Thompson must take a leap forward for this franchise to sniff the playoffs. The 2011 No. 4 pick was somewhat of a disappointment in his first year. He rebounded and blocked shots, but was off the mark far too often around the rim.
Did you see Anthony Davis in the Hornets' preseason game against Miami? He was as breathtaking as one can be in such a meaningless scenario. This guy is going to be great.
It also helps that New Orleans has one of the game's best coaches in Monty Williams.
Now for the bad—and there's a lot of it. New Orleans has no point guard, unless you want to count Greivis Vasquez. In fact, they barely have anyone on the roster who can dribble up the floor and make a play.
Austin Rivers was supposed to help in that regard, but he sprained his ankle in the preseason and did not impress before the injury. Offense could be a serious problem for this team, even if Davis immediately improves the team's defense.
This looks like another trip back to the lottery, which might be the plan in this tank-happy league.
Step aside, Jeremy Lin! It was your team for a few minutes—now make way for James Harden.
The Rockets finally made some sense of their roster with a shocking blockbuster deal on Saturday. If Harden is as productive as his efficiency numbers say, Houston is more than right to make this trade and pay him the maximum.
He should play well off Lin and be able to sub in at point guard when Lin rests. Both Harden and Lin look to run the pick-and-roll with defensive ace Omer Asik, who's demonstrated some facility with the offensive tactic.
Houston is likely too young to make the playoffs, but the team isn't out of the hunt. For all the mockery of Lin and Asik as centerpieces, both were highly productive players in the minutes they received. If they can do it in starring roles alongside Harden, the Rockets could be sneaky good.
Andre Drummond could be the answer to every prayer and the source of all frustrations. The 19-year-old rookie created the most thrilling preseason highlights, but raised concerns by continuing to shoot free throws at the efficiency that most players would convert half-court shots.
Even if he's shooting free throws like Andris Biedrins, the kid needs to start. There's no sense in him backing up Jason Maxiell if Detroit isn't making the playoffs.
Develop the kids, foster chemistry between Drummond and emerging star Greg Monroe. The duo promises to be exciting, as Monroe is one of the few bigs who can throw alley-oop passes to a fellow big. It helps that Drummond can catch almost any lob, even if it's grazing the Jumbotron.
Expect lottery, but expect excitement. That's no small thing in Detroit.
Jonas Valanciunas is the man to complete Dwane Casey's defensive vision. Casey did the improbable last season, taking a defense that featured Andrea Bargnani and turning it into a top-12 unit. Men have been named Coach of the Year for less.
Now Casey has a long, tall, shot-blocker down low. It's a lot to put on Valanciunas, but he could be what vaults Toronto into the playoffs this year.
Toronto also added another defensive ace in Kyle Lowry, a point guard who will hopefully be more durable than predecessor Jose Calderon.
That being said, the Raptors were meek on offense last season and will struggle again on that end of the floor. They don't have much on the wings, unless Terrence Ross or Landry Fields shock us all.
Here's a guess at how it's going to work. Damian Lillard will put up impressive raw numbers with low efficiency and Blazer fans will hype him. Then, they will rabidly turn on him for not upping the efficiency next season.
Stereotypes of Blazer fans aside, Lillard should work a quality pick-and-roll with LaMarcus Aldridge. Lillard was the best in the college game at pick-and-roll sets, and Aldridge shoots an unblockable jumper off the pick-and-pop.
The concern, as always in Portland, is injuries. Until the Blazer training staff demonstrates an ability to keep starters upright, we should all be wary. I'll be braced for the worst every time Lillard, Batum or Aldridge falls to the ground this season.
They are ranked this high purely out of respect for Scott Skiles. Their frontcourt lacks talent, and I fully expect Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings to be a disaster of an eyesore on offense.
It was like Milwaukee watched the unworkable Stephen Curry-Ellis combo in Golden State and said, "Let's try that, but replace Curry with a smaller guy who can't shoot as well!"
On the bright side, Ersan Ilyasova had an incredible year rebounding and shooting last season. If this is at all sustainable, the Bucks could have a star on their hands.
There is also some defensive potential on this roster. Larry Sanders is an excellent shot-blocker and Ekpe Udoh is a fantastic overall defender. It would be nice if either could do anything offensively.
The if healthy" Golden State Warriors are hard to assess. If they don't get hurt, the Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Brandon Rush/Harrison Barnes, David Lee and Andrew Bogut starting five fits together wonderfully.
So, what's the catch? They're hurt already. Curry sprained his ankle in the preseason. It's a minor tweak, but unnerving since the injury keeps happening.
In addition, Bogut remains in a suit. He hasn't played a second for the Warriors yet, having had ankle surgery over the offseason. Golden State desperately needs him if they want to have any playoff hope. This is a horrendous defense without someone making up for all of Lee's defensive mistakes.
This offensive can't get to the rim, but Thompson, Rush and Curry will shoot the ball until the nets tear.
The Bulls would be justified in tanking, considering the situation. Much of their famed bench mob is gone. Derrick Rose remains sidelined, a full ACL-tear recovery possibly a year away. They're capped out money-wise, due to the mistake of a Carlos Boozer contract.
The only way to get dramatically better is to miss the playoffs and get a high draft pick. It's that, or pull off some trade wizardry, as the free agent window is closed by their cap situation.
Tom Thibodeau will have this team playing good defense, bench mob or no bench mob. The main problem is that they could be horrendous on offense.
On some nights, Nate Robinson will lead the Bulls in scoring. This is not a good thing.
Will Doug Collins relax a little and let Jrue Holiday play? The 76ers were so conservative, so turnover-averse, that it stymied their offense at times. When Holiday plays freely, he is ill-suited to the system.
Speaking of ill-suited for Collins, this Andrew Bynum situation has the feel of impending doom. The high-strung coach and rule-flouting big man seem like a match made in hell.
On the court, Bynum should make Philadelphia better. He adds shot-blocking and rim protection to compensate for the defense that Andre Iguodala provided, and he's a better offensive player.
The question is, can Bynum handle a superstar's responsibilities? Or rather, can his injury-prone body withstand it? So far, the results have not been encouraging, as Bynum has yet to play a minute in Philly.
Dirk Nowitzki is hurt, probably for at least a month. This is quite a blow for a short-on talent Dallas Mavericks team.
It's nice to pluck Elton Brand and Chris Kaman off the scrap heap, but these are marginal moves by a team that whiffed hard on luring Dwight Howard and Deron Williams to town.
Jason Terry is gone, leaving behind a thin backcourt. It's possible that Darren Collison or O.J. Mayo will step up and show a star's panache, but that's a generous usage of "possible."
This is a faded shell of what once was a title team. I believe the Mavs can still make the playoffs, with Rick Carlisle fouling off pitches during Nowitzki's time away. But it's far from an easy road ahead.
This Brooklyn roll-out would be a lot more fun if Brook Lopez was good at defense. Unfortunately, he isn't and the Nets aren't by extension.
They are, however, a stacked offensive team in the backcourt, led by Joe Johnson and Deron Williams. Neither has played with such a talented cast of characters in their careers, so both should excel from an efficiency standpoint.
With the always-physical Gerald Wallace and rebounding wizard Kris Humphries rounding out the starting five, the Nets could be the most improved team in the league.
Regardless of how you feel about Jeremy Lin, you have to admit that he was interesting. It's hard to get thrilled over Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton.
It is, however, easy to get thrilled over Tyson Chandler's defense and Carmelo Anthony's shift to power forward. Melo hasn't officially moved to the 4 spot, where he should play more since it's probably his real position.
Nobody knows what to do with Amare Stoudemire, the franchise centerpiece as recently as two seasons ago. He's lost some hops and his overall verve, and the Knicks are stuck with his massive contract that has three more seasons to run.
This unholy mix is good enough for a playoff spot, but probably not much more than that.
When is Ricky Rubio coming back? Sometime around the New Year if Minnesota is lucky . When is Kevin Love coming back? The Timberwolves hope it will be about a month. Those two factors are what prevents me from selling Minnesota as a sure playoff team.
The Wolves have a nice offense, due in large part to Love's odd combination of three-point shooting and offensive rebounding. His pick-and-roll work with Rubio was a revelation, which is one of the main reasons why Minnesota needs its starting point guard back sooner rather than later.
The other main reason? The Wolves need a defensive infusion, and Rubio was one of their few plus-defenders. Though Love and Nikola Pekovic try hard in the frontcourt, neither can effectively protect the rim.
Pekovic is one of a handful of Wolves who hail from the international ranks, as Minnesota returns Andrei Kirilenko and brings aboard Alexey Shved. AK-47 improved markedly upon returning to Europe and Shved is one of Europe's most exciting young players. Both are of immense League Pass interest this season.
The Jazz are comprised of two teams. First, there's the older, veteran squad, the one that Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap lead. Then, there's the younger team within a team, trying to burst out of Utah's belly like the creature from Alien.
We don't quite know when Utah will fully embrace the youth movement. Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter both come off the bench despite exhibiting real promise last season. Favors looks to be a defensive specimen and Kanter has the potential to become one of basketball's best rebounders.
At a certain point, both players might simply be better than the higher-paid veterans. The question is whether Utah is willing to shake things up after making the playoffs last season.
When you look beyond the center and power forward positions, you see even more talent. Gordon Hayward is coming into his own, and Alec Burks had a preseason to remember.
There's enough talent here to earn a playoff position, possibly even comfortably after injuries to Minnesota, Dallas and Golden State.
The city of Atlanta might not care for them, but the Hawks deserve your respect. They churn out quality season after quality season, and this year the product is actually fresh.
Joe Johnson is gone, but Lou Williams and Devin Harris should replace a lot of his scoring. More importantly, the great, underrated Al Horford returns.
Big Al is a nearly flawless frontcourt player who optimizes every skill he possesses. He's a savvy defender, a good rebounder and a silky smooth outside shooter.
Josh Smith stands in stylistic contrast as a supreme shot-blocker, perceptive passer and ill-advised-shot-taker. Smith took more long shots than I'm comfortable with last season, but Horford's return should quell that habit.
The Hawks are getting dismissed by some due to their Johnson giveaway. I'd urge you to give them a chance, as they have one of the best frontcourts in basketball.
This could be the last shot for one of the NBA's most lovable crews. The Grizzlies may have reached their ceiling in 2011, and it could be downhill from here. There is a thin margin of error for clubs that lack a true superstar.
On the bright side, Memphis has serious defensive talent between shooting guard Tony Allen and center Marc Gasol. On offense, the Grizzlies boast a big, low-post-loving frontcourt with Gasol and Zach Randolph leading the charge.
Should Memphis could get a jolt of improvement from 25-year-old Mike Conley, the ceiling for this squad looks like Western Conference Finals, at the very best.
The Pacers are either the new Hawks or the new Spurs. Few care about them, but they're a team of quiet quality. The main misconception from last year was that Indiana was built on depth, when in reality they're built on a well-balanced, quality starting unit.
Roy Hibbert is now getting paid and it'll be interesting to chart his late-blooming progress as a franchise center-piece. Paul George is the most intriguing talent on the team, though. The lengthy swingman has hops, a sweet shot and a deft handle—qualities that you'll rarely see combined.
For the Pacers to reach contender status, George must reach his ceiling. For now, here's merely very good. The same could be said for David West, George Hill, and really, the entire Indiana team.
This is a 50-win squad, and likely nothing more.
The Boston Celtics only have enough to make a run at a title if Rajon Rondo gets better. The good news? He's more than capable of doing just that.
Rondo's main flaw is his outside shot, a skill that's seen gradual improvement over the course of a career. If Rajon builds on the jumper he occasionally showed in these last playoffs, it could really jump-start his game.
As for the other Celtics, this is a deeper team than last year's. Though Ray Allen went to South Beach, he was replaced by Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa. I'm not sure why they have too so shooting guards, but Terry provides the bonus quality of being able to run the point in a pinch.
Jeff Green returns from his year off, and Jared Sullinger looks to be a rare rookie who can immediately contribute. Look for both to push Brandon Bass for minutes should Bass slip at all this season.
Kevin Garnett remains the team's defensive rock. Should an injury befall him, an unlikely title route becomes impossible.
After parting ways with GM Neil Olshey, L.A. spent the offseason nabbing uninspiring additions like Jamal Crawford and a newly hefty Lamar Odom.
While I see no reason why the Clippers will do better than another second-round exit—particularly with Vinny Del Negro running the show—this team cannot be counted out completely. Chris Paul is the best point guard in basketball, and he fashioned a magnificent offense without the aid of frontcourt shooters.
Blake Griffin happens to be one of those non-shooters in the frontcourt, but he's improving. Despite all the criticism, Blake is nearing 40 percent on his long two-pointers, at which point the shot will be a legitimate threat to defenses.
Once teams are forced to close out on Griffin, he should have much success using his handle to beat defenders. For L.A.'s sake, this needs to happen sooner rather than later, as Paul could leave next season.
Why so low? Well, I'm of the radical opinion that James Harden matters quite a bit. Oklahoma City had the second-best offense in the NBA last season, and Harden was no small part of that.
The star sixth man was a free throw sponge and a deadly three-point shooter. Without his 66 percent true shooting percentage (a measure that incorporates free throws and threes), OKC will surely take a step back.
The good news is that the Thunder could improve defensively (they were ninth in the league last season), as young teams often do. Newly signed Serge Ibaka was No.1 in blocks last season and should continue making strides as a help defender.
Obviously, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook need to get better to compensate for some of what they lose in Harden. Kevin Martin should also help recoup some of the damage.
Some may believe that it's an overreaction to list OKC beneath the Nuggets. I would remind all of you that this list is tilted toward regular-season victories, and Denver has depth to burn.
Andre Iguodala should markedly improve a shaky defense without hurting last year's third-ranked offense. Quite the opposite actually, as Iggy's transition skills fit perfectly within Denver's fast-paced attack.
The Nuggets are a who's who of underrated weapons, including rebounding savant Kenneth Faried and super-slasher Ty Lawson.
While it's true that the Nuggets lack a superstar, Iguodala, Lawson, Danilo Gallinari and company are the perfect mold of a well-balanced team.
I'm inclined to slot them higher on account of such mundane details as starting four Hall of Famers, but again, these power rankings are tilted toward regular-season production and their bench is absolutely brutal.
When the Lakers can play Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol almost 40 minutes per night in the playoffs, the bench won't be that much of a concern. For now, the starters need rest, meaning that their backups will lose games.
Expect Dwight Howard to fix what was a 14th-ranked defense and expect Steve Nash to provide more from the point guard spot than Los Angeles has gotten since Magic Johnson. How he fits with Kobe Bryant remains to be seen, and I'm skeptical as to whether the play-making timeshare will work smoothly.
So long as Lakers trainer Gary Vitti can keep this core healthy, this obviously is a championship-contending team.
Oh, don't mind them, winners of the most regular-season games in 2011-2012 and winners of 20 straight until Oklahoma City upended the machine.
The Spurs were heralded as dominant a mere week before it all came undone. Now, in the ensuing overreaction, they have become ignored again, dismissed as we discuss the Lakers and Miami.
This is still an excellent regular-season team on account of depth and the emerging youth that flanks Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
Kawhi Leonard was a steal from the 2011 draft and should grow into more of a scorer. Tiago Splitter would start on most teams. And I would be remiss not to mention novel contributors like Stephen Jackson and Matt Bonner.
The Spurs run a beautiful, selfless, seamless offense. The triumph of execution is good enough to break defenses on most nights. It remains to be seen if this scheme can triumph in the playoffs with a core this old, however.
You were expecting? Miami took last year's NBA Finals in five games, and they reloaded by adding Ray Allen for their bench unit. Erik Spoelstra finally has some job security and he's using that capital to essentially redefine how the sport is played.
The Heat will be a running, leaping advertisement for position-less basketball, a bold new paradigm where teams seek to find value outside of the five-position formula. It might sound like empty corporate-speak, but Miami rode this versatile small ball to success last postseason.
Chris Bosh is now more center than power forward, a smart move as the league gets quicker. Miami may struggle to protect the rim at times, but it boasts a smothering collective perimeter defense in Dwyane Wade, Shane Battier, and of course, LeBron James.
Speaking of the reigning league and Finals MVP, James has made a fine transition to playing in the post. To augment his newly effective one-handed push shot, James is adding a skyhook this year. Even if the Heat fail to meet expectations, they will be a fun team to behold.