NBA Power Rankings, Post-Dwight Howard Signing with Houston Rockets for 2013-14
It's alright, everyone. You're free to go about living your lives as you normally would've again. The "Dwightmare" is over; Howard informed the Lakers of his decision Friday evening.
For now, anyway. Dwight Howard's decision to sign with the Houston Rockets comes with all manner of implications for himself, his new team, and the other four that swung and missed in their respective attempts to land his signature and the considerable services that come with it.
With D12 out of the spotlight, the league can get back to dishing out contracts to free agents and dreaming up trades, particularly those involving other big men.
Howard's decision alone doesn't change all that much about the Association's hierarchy—not from when we laid it out after the 2013 draft, anyway—though there has been plenty of other player movement that, along with Howard's new deal, has shaken up the basketball landscape considerably.
30. Charlotte Bobcats
At long last, the Charlotte Bobcats have signed an honest-to-goodness NBA player!
Too bad it had to be Al Jefferson, and too bad it's going to cost them close to $14 million per year, according to ESPN's Marc Stein.
As solid as Big Al's numbers look on paper (17.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.1 blocks, 1.0 steals in 2012-13), the guy isn't exactly what anyone would call a winning player. He's a productive offensive player, but he doesn't do much to involve the rest of his teammates.
And let's not even start on how much of a minus he is defensively, especially in the pick-and-roll.
But he's an upper-middle-class free agent, of the sort that the Bobcats were going to have to overpay to get anyway. And if things don't work out, Jefferson could be gone by way of an opt-out after year two.
Charlotte's still a long, long way from the playoffs. If anything, the 'Cats will be firmly in the mix to land the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft for the third year running, with a ton of young talent due to be available in 2014.
At the very least, bringing Jefferson aboard allows the 'Cats to have their cake (pursue Andrew Wiggins) and eat it too (pretend like they're trying to win now).
29. Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers' decision to sell off Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first-round pick may seem strange at first glance, but it makes plenty of sense when considering from whence new general manager Sam Hinkie came (under the wing of Houston Rockets whiz kid Daryl Morey).
Like his teacher, Hinkie understands the importance of acquiring assets as part of a bigger plan to build a winning organization and prepare to strike when the opportunity to do so presents itself.
The Sixers weren't going to compete for a plum playoff spot with Holiday around and would've been hard-pressed to bottom out had they kept the All-Star guard around.
Philly's haul may not seem like much, until you consider that Noel was long predicted to be the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft and that the selection from the New Orleans Pelicans figures to land somewhere in the loaded lottery.
More importantly, the Sixers will be bad enough to make a run at Andrew Wiggins next summer.
28. Milwaukee Bucks
I'll admit, putting the Milwaukee Bucks this low on the totem pole is more a matter of wishful thinking than anything else.
Not because I have anything against the Bucks (which I don't), but because I'd rather see them start over with an earnest rebuild rather than continue to tread water on the fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff picture year after year after year.
Losing J.J. Redick and Monta Ellis should help in that regard. Bringing back Brandon Jennings and signing O.J. Mayo, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports says they might soon, won't.
At least there's some measure of hope in watching ping pong balls bounce to decide the draft order. The same can't be said of another first-round sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat.
27. Boston Celtics
If you hadn't noticed, the Boston Celtics are in full-on rebuilding mode. Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry are all gone, replaced by former Butler head coach Brad Stevens, a hodgepodge of salary-cap flotsam and draft picks and an eye-popping patch of scorched earth.
Rajon Rondo isn't out the door yet, but don't be surprised if the C's send him elsewhere after he's had a chance to demonstrate the strength of his surgically repaired knee. In the meantime, the Celtics figure to party like it's 1996-97 or 2006-07.
Beantown's been burned by such tactics before, losing out on Tim Duncan in 1997 and Kevin Durant 10 years later. But the 2014 crop would appear to be as long on superstar potential as any since the historic class of 2003.
If finding the next big thing requires gambling away the 2013-14 season to a roster whose youth is bested only by the baby face of Brad Stevens, then so be it.
26. Phoenix Suns
Slowly but surely, the Phoenix Suns are finally doing their own bit of asset stockpiling.
Alex Len and Archie Goodwin came aboard through the draft, and now Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler's expiring contracts will arrive in the Valley of the Sun after an intriguing three-way trade with the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks.
The Suns are still a long way off from a return to respectability, though. They'll have to figure out what to do about a stockpile of point guards that now includes Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Kendall Marshall while awaiting Len's recovery from a stress fracture in his foot.
Like so many teams in this sector of the league's hierarchy, the Suns don't expect to compete for a playoff spot. If anything, they've got their eyes firmly fixed on the upcoming Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes.
25. Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic know full well that they're going to stink for another couple years, which makes said stinking somewhat acceptable.
For the time being, at least.
There's a lot to like about some of the pieces general manager Rob Hennigan has assembled since dumping Dwight Howard on the Los Angeles Lakers, though. Arron Afflalo figures to provide the Magic with some solid, veteran leadership, unless Hennigan opts to flip him on the market, in which case, he should bring back more pieces in return.
Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless and Andrew Nicholson each showed promise as productive wing-forwards to fit into Jacque Vaughn's rotation. And Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, was probably the most surefire prospect of all, with plenty of high-end, "3 and D" potential.
For now, the Magic will simply have to bide their time and lose some games while their youngsters develop, the lottery balls stack up, and Hennigan keeps his eyes and ears open for the right moment to strike a franchise-changing deal.
24. Sacramento Kings
OK, so maybe the Sacramento Kings were a bit hasty in pulling their offer for Andre Iguodala, though, as Kelly Dwyer of Ball Don't Lie recently noted, their quick change of heart might've been for the best.
As solid a player as Iguodala is, he's not exactly worth the $56 million over four years, according to Adrian Wojnarowski, that the Kings had allegedly offered him. Not with his 30th birthday approaching, and certainly not on a team like Sacramento, which is in the midst of yet another rebuild after a change in ownership and management.
The same probably goes for Tyreke Evans, who appears to be on his way to New Orleans for four years and $44 million. Evans remains an intriguing talent, but had stagnated in Sacramento following his Rookie of the Year campaign.
Now, the Kings can focus their efforts on getting DeMarcus Cousins' head screwed on straight and making sure Ben McLemore doesn't lose his. The addition of Greivis Vasquez, a pass-first point guard, should help to smooth out some of the wrinkles in Sacramento's offense.
Once the defense comes around under Mike Malone, the Kings might finally be in postseason business again.
In two or three years, anyway.
23. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers appear to be slow-playing this year's free-agency period.
The Cavs have talked a big game about competing for a playoff spot in 2014, but that's not likely to happen without some major changes before the fall. Cleveland is set to return much of the group that ranked 19th in offensive efficiency and 27th on the defensive end last season.
Granted, the return of Mike Brown to the bench and a healthy Anderson Varejao to the lineup—along with the expected growth of youngsters like Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson—should put Cleveland in position to post its best record of the post-LeBron James era this coming season.
But the postseason still seems a bit of a reach for this bunch, even with Anthony Bennett expected to contribute from day one.
22. Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz appear to have decided which of their free-agent bigs they'd rather keep: neither.
Al Jefferson is headed to Charlotte, per ESPN's Marc Stein, and as hoops reporter David Aldridge subsequently tweeted, Utah's decision to stand on the receiving end of Golden State's salary dump has forced the Jazz to renounce their rights to Paul Millsap.
And thus, the race to the bottom for Andrew Wiggins begins anew, this time in Salt Lake City.
That said, the Jazz have some solid pieces to build around. Between a front line of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter and a backcourt of Gordon Hayward and rookie Trey Burke, the Jazz have the makings of a solid core around which residents of the Beehive State can rally.
Realistically, it'll take years (two or three, perhaps) for the Jazz to jell. Another trip to the lottery seems likely for this group, unless they spring a significant surprise in free agency.
21. Toronto Raptors
The rumor mill would seem to suggest that Rudy Gay is on the block, though, to his credit, Gay recently reiterated his desire to see what he can do with the Toronto Raptors now that his vision has been corrected.
Chances are, new Raptors GM Masai Ujiri won't part ways with Gay until/unless someone comes calling with a decent offer—one better than the Charlie Villanueva-Rodney Stuckey pupu platter of expiring contracts that ESPN's Brian Windhorst reports is on the table from the Detroit Pistons.
On the bright side, Andrea Bargnani is, at long last, no longer a Raptor—or will be once the NBA's moratorium on transactions is lifted on July 10. And according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Julyan Stone has signed on to back up Kyle Lowry at the point.
Whatever that means.
There's still plenty of work to be done in T-Dot before the Raps are playoff ready, but Ujiri seems like the right man for the job and should have the team back on track toward the postseason with a few shrewd moves over the next couple years.
20. Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons seemed to be set at three spots heading into the offseason—with the trio of Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Brandon Knight. A wing like Rudy Gay and/or a point guard like Rajon Rondo would make a lot of sense.
But instead of searching for that elusive backcourt stud, Joe Dumars is stacking the front court with blue chip free agent Josh Smith, as was first reported by Yahoo Sports. Even when taking their recent free-agent failures into consideration, this one is baffling.
Redemption is still possible for Dumars, but he'll need to offer much more than just expiring contracts to extract Gay from the Raptors or Rondo from the Celtics.
One of these days, the Pistons will land another key player or two to get over the hump and back into the playoffs.
Just not this year.
19. Dallas Mavericks
Dwight Howard may be off the market, but that doesn't mean all is lost for the Dallas Mavericks.
They still have plenty of cap space, and they already locked up pass-first point guard Jose Calderon for four years, $29 million, according to ESPN.
The Mavs missed out on signing Paul Millsap, which may have been a blessing considering he plays the same position as Dirk Nowitzki. Andrew Bynum, another potential target, spent the entire 2012-13 season on the shelf.
Oh, and Dirk just turned 35, so there's that...
So much for that two-year plan, eh Mark Cuban?
18. New Orleans Pelicans
On paper, the new-look New Orleans Pelicans will be loaded with talent for their "inaugural" season in 2013-14. According to Sam Amick of USA Today, the Pelicans are set to acquire Tyreke Evans in a sign-and-trade that'll send Robin Lopez to Portland and Greivis Vasquez to Sacramento.
Such a swing leaves New Orleans with an intriguing central cast of Evans, Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and All-Star Jrue Holiday. But as good as that collection of names may look at first glance, it comes with a serious series of questions attached.
Will Tyreke ever build on his Rookie of the Year campaign from 2009-10, or is he doomed to further decline? Can Eric Gordon stay healthy? What about Anthony Davis' fitness, especially in light of his slight frame?
Will Davis' partnership with Ryan Anderson be anything better than a defensive liability (the then-Hornets surrendered 115 points per 100 possessions whenever those two shared the floor last season, per NBA.com)? Or will head coach Monty Williams turn to newly acquired rookie-to-be Jeff Withey to protect the rim?
And will Holiday, who was the second-most turnover-prone player in the league last season, take better care of the ball on the Bayou than he did in the City of Brotherly Love?
Until the Pelicans can answer these concerns in a constructive way, they'll probably have settle for being no more than a promising lottery team.
17. Atlanta Hawks
Kyle Korver's back! According to ESPN's Marc Stein, Korver will ink a new four-year, $24 million deal come July 10 to stay in the ATL. Better still, Paul Millsap agreed to a two-year, $19 million contract, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst.
The Hawks were a long shot to lure Dwight Howard to his hometown from the jump, and now they face a future without perennial borderline All-Star Josh Smith.
Granted, in this day and age of the NBA, bottoming out isn't necessarily a bad thing. Losing affords teams the opportunity to build through the draft and develop young talent.
Except in this case, Atlanta isn't exactly in a position to do that. Al Horford's coming off arguably his best year as a pro (17.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists), and at 27, he is in the midst of his prime. There's no sense in wasting his talents while the Hawks stumble through basketball squalor.
With the signing of Millsap, the Hawks are making it clear that they are looking to contend in 2013-14, but they will need more than that to make much noise in the Eastern Conference.
16. Los Angeles Lakers
And now begins the long, slow, painful process of rebuil...
I'm just kidding. Yeah, the Los Angeles Lakers are going to stink for a year now that Dwight Howard's gone.
Kobe Bryant probably won't be back in action until January or so and won't be himself for a while after. Pau Gasol's old, Steve Nash is even older and the Lakers are so strapped for cap space that Mitch Kupchak is (probably) out scouring the nearest junkyard for hidden gems already.
But never fear, Lakers fans. The summer of 2014 is coming. L.A. is set to have its cleanest books in years—just in time for LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to all (potentially) test the market.
Not that those guys will, or that restricted free agents like Paul George and John Wall won't, have inked extensions by then.
In any case, don't expect the Lakers to be down for too long. The powers that be in basketball always find a way to bring the Purple and Gold back from the dead.
Just ask Pau.
15. Portland Trail Blazers
Is LaMarcus Aldridge staying, or is he going?
The answer to that one question will dictate whether or not the Portland Trail Blazers slip back into the playoffs not just next year, but for years beyond that.
For now, Aldridge appears to be staying put. The addition of Robin Lopez as a filler at center may not be an enticement for LaMarcus in itself, though Lopez should be a solid replacement in the middle for J.J. Hickson.
The rest of the core is already set, with Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard. The addition of C.J. McCollum in the 2013 NBA draft could also be a coup off PDX's putrid bench.
That may not be quite enough to boost the Blazers back into the playoffs, but it should get them into the proverbial conversation, at the very least.
14. Washington Wizards
Re-signing Martell Webster for four years and $22 million may not seem like a big deal—or a good one, for that matter.
But if the 26-year-old swingman plays (and shoots) as well for the Washington Wizards going forward as he did in 2012-13, then there may be playoff basketball in D.C. in 2014 for the first time since Gilbert Arenas last brandished a firearm in the locker room.
According to NBA.com, the Wizards outscored the opposition by a whopping 18.7 points per 100 possessions whenever Webster shared the floor with John Wall and Bradley Beal this past season.
To be fair, those numbers were derived from a relatively small sample (i.e. 303 minutes over the course of 24 games). Still, the success of that trio is tough to ignore, especially for a franchise as in need of a season of progress as are the Wizards.
With those three intact, Nene and Emeka Okafor up front, and rookie Otto Porter Jr. coming off the bench, Washington may yet have the makings of a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves
I understand that the Minnesota Timberwolves have been desperate for a competent shooting guard for some time now, but four years and $30 million dollars for Kevin Martin is insane.
You're going to drop that kind of money on a 30-year-old who doesn't get to the free-throw line, hardly (if ever) creates for others and ranks among the very worst defenders in the entire NBA?
At least the guy can still shoot, which should be a boon for the T-Wolves' spacing in Rick Adelman's offense, as should the return of Chase Budinger on a three-year, $16 million deal.
But Andrei Kirilenko's already opted out, and keeping Nikola Pekovic will cost Minny a pretty penny, assuming the Blazers throw a massive offer sheet at him.
A healthy core of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio is a fantastic start, but they'll need some hard-nosed role players around them to make this thing work.
12. Denver Nuggets
The Sacramento Kings' somewhat head-scratching decision to pull their $56 million offer to Andre Iguodala off the table, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, would've been music to the ears of the Denver Nuggets, if not for Iggy's decision in joining the Golden State Warriors.
The departures of George Karl and Masai Ujiri from the sideline and the front office, respectively, will sting for a while, at least until Brian Shaw and Tim Connelly settle into their respective posts. The absence of Danilo Gallinari, on account of a torn ACL, to start the season won't help matters either.
But this Nuggets squad will still be loaded with likable talent, even if Andre Miller winds up on the chopping block.
So long as Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler keep improving and expanding their respective games—and the Nuggets keep running opponents out of the Pepsi Center—there will be plenty of reason for cheer in the Mile High City.
11. Golden State Warriors
There's no shame in losing the Dwight Howard sweepstakes for the Golden State Warriors. Few thought the cap-strapped Warriors had a shot to begin with, but that didn't stop them from forcing Howard to think twice about whether he actually wanted to leave California.
That newfound, free-agent cachet will come in handy next summer, when the Dubs are set to slough off Andrew Bogut's contract, and, as a result, re-enter the market in search of some impact signings.
In the meantime, Golden State did well to fend off temporary regress by dumping Brandon Rush, Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson on the Utah Jazz to clear cap space for Andre Iguodala.
Adding a veteran of Iggy's versatile talents to a core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes should allow the Dubs to keep pace (and then some) in the ever-more-competitive Western Conference.
It's especially true if the frontcourt duo of Bogut and David Lee can stay healthy together for any significant period of time, with Lee potentially taking Carl Landry's spot on the bench as an expensive sixth man.
The rest of the reserves will be a bit thin, with Draymond Green, Festus Ezeli, rookie Nemanja Nedovic and even designated cheerleader Kent Bazemore getting looks. On the whole, the Warriors may yet have the pieces in place to build on this year's surprising playoff run.
10. New York Knicks
Let me get this straight: The New York Knicks lose one old guy (Jason Kidd) to their cross-bridge rival as a coach, another (Marcus Camby) in a trade and perhaps another (Kenyon Martin) via free agency, and their solution is to replace at least one of those fogies with Elton Brand (per Jared Zwerling of ESPN New York)?
In all fairness, Brand, at 34, is younger than any of those other three and younger than sophomore-to-be Pablo Prigioni, who's due to return on a three-year deal. Meanwhile, Chris Copeland already left town, signing a two-year deal with the Pacers, via Zwerling.
J.R. Smith will be sticking around for another four years at approximately $24.5 million, but there's no telling how the reigning Sixth Man of the Year will react to having long-term financial security. Will the 27-year-old continue to raise his game, or will he shoot even more now that his future is safe?
The Knicks had better hope for the former, lest they let Carmelo Anthony slip away next summer, when he can opt out of his current contract and pursue employment elsewhere (L.A., perhaps?).
That is, unless Andrea Bargnani's arrival can do its part convince 'Melo to stick around.
My pre-emptive con-Dolan-ces, Knicks fans.
9. Brooklyn Nets
There's a lot to like about the new-look Brooklyn Nets—on paper, anyway. A blockbuster trade with the Boston Celtics has filled in the gaping holes in the Nets' starting lineup with two surefire Hall of Famers (Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce) and bolstered the bench with a former Sixth Man of the Year (Jason Terry).
But let's not anoint the Nets the next big threat to the Heat in the East just yet.
The three from Beantown will all be over the age of 36 by the time the 2013-14 season tips off, with the wear and tear of major minutes played over long careers rendering each a significant injury risk and requiring that new head coach Jason Kidd carefully manage their playing time.
Joe Johnson, at the age of 32, isn't exactly a spring chick either and just registered his worst statistical season in a decade.
Beyond that, Brooklyn's reserves are still thin, and its defense, coming off a subpar performance in 2012-13, will have a hard time improving unless KG plays more than he reasonably should.
That being said, the Nets are much better now than they were upon losing to the Bulls in a first-round Game 7. A 50-win season seems reasonable for this bunch, with a potential trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in the cards if things play out in their favor.
8. Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets still have quite a few rungs on the ladder to climb before they can be considered legitimate title contenders, but the addition of Dwight Howard should give them a significant boost in that regard.
There's no telling how close to his old self D12 will be after a season through which he suffered with back and shoulder problems. But if he's any more effective than he was down the stretch of the 2012-13 campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers, then the Rockets will be ticketed for an exciting season.
How exciting will depend as much on what Houston does from here on out as anything else.
Houston's going to need time to jell as a team before folks in Space City can reasonably expect their team to challenge the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies or Clippers atop the Western Conference. Those squads all sport experienced cores, while the Rockets have only just re-assembled theirs.
But if the pieces fall into place in time, Houston should have the requisite talent to make some serious noise come the spring of 2014.
7. Chicago Bulls
Rip Hamilton is gone, but the Chicago Bulls shouldn't be starved for shooting now that Mike Dunleavy Jr., who's had much greater success battling the injury bug than has Hamilton of late, has committed to the Windy City. Dunleavy hit a career-high 42.8 percent of his threes in a reserve role for the Milwaukee Bucks last season.
Having a marksman like Dunleavy Jr. around should open up a few more driving lanes for the recovered Derrick Rose and alleviate some of the spacing crunch through which Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer are so often forced to suffer.
Dunleavy's arrival is also rendered that much more important now that Marco Belinelli, the Bulls' resident marksman last season, has skipped town to join the San Antonio Spurs.
The return of Nazr Mohammed on a one-year, veteran's minimum pact doesn't move the needle much, but it does further fortify Chicago's frontcourt reserves.
The Bulls will have a tough time adding much more talent, with their payroll already exceeding $80 million and all. But so long as Rose and Luol Deng are healthy, and Tom Thibodeau is still screaming his lungs out from the sidelines, this squad should be a threat to the Miami Heat's supremacy in the Eastern Conference.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
Replace Vinny Del Negro with a competent head coach? Check (Thanks, Doc Rivers!).
Re-sign Chris Paul? Check (Thanks again, Doc Rivers!).
Upgrade on the wings? Check.
And thanks some more, Doc Rivers! The Los Angeles Clippers' new head coach/executive moved swiftly to fill spots at shooting guard and small forward by sending out prized prospect Eric Bledsoe and the expiring contract of Caron Butler in exchange for Jared Dudley and the signed-and-traded J.J. Redick.
Those two won't do much for the Clippers' perimeter defense, though they should justify their existence (and then some) by spreading the floor with their outside shooting.
That shouldn't be too much of a concern, though, now that Matt Barnes is back in the fold. All the Clips need now is a backup big or two (Ryan Hollins?), with some of the mid-level exception and veteran's minimum contracts at their disposal.
Considering how much success Rivers has had in luring players and the cast of characters already in place, the Clippers shouldn't have too much trouble attracting the necessary talent to join their nearly championship-caliber operation.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
Grit-and-grind will live to play another day now that the Memphis Grizzlies have retained Tony Allen's services. Not that giving $20 million over four years to a a 31-year-old swingman who can barely hit layups, much less shoot from the perimeter, is entirely a slam dunk.
But Allen's value to the Grizz extends far beyond the realm of the tangible. He's the heart and soul of this Memphis squad, one that'll need its core in place to weather what little storm the transition between Lionel Hollins and Dave Joerger figures to incur.
It certainly doesn't hurt that Allen is one of the best perimeter defenders on the planet. That aside, Memphis has already made some sneaky smart moves to solidify the roster surrounding Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley.
The Grizz swapped Darrell Arthur to the Denver Nuggets for Kosta Koufos on draft day, convinced Jerryd Bayless to opt into the final year of his contract, and signed sweet-shooting big man Jon Leuer to a three-year, $3 million deal.
Those moves should be enough to sustain Memphis' spot among the top half of the Western Conference, with some other, minor maneuvers on the fringes yet to be made.
4. Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers have done well to fortify their bid for next year's Eastern Conference crown.
David West will return for three years and $36 million, C.J. Watson, Donald Sloan and Chris Copeland have assumed spots on the bench-end of Indy's guard rotation, and Tyler Hansbrough won't be back after having his initial qualifying offer rescinded.
It's not as though the Pacers need much more in order to build on their success from 2012-13. A healthy Danny Granger should suffice to keep Indy near the top of the heap in the East.
It's even more so realistic if Paul George and Lance Stephenson continue to improve and if Roy Hibbert isn't plagued by wrist problems to start the season.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
On the one hand, the Oklahoma City Thunder can't be too upset to see Kevin Martin depart for a fat, new contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Thunder had neither the resources nor the flippant regard for financial flexibility to keep around a defensive sieve who doesn't get to the free-throw line much anymore and is approaching the wrong side of 30.
On the other hand, how exactly does OKC plan to replace Martin's scoring off the bench? Give more minutes (and responsibility) to Reggie Jackson? Save some non-D-League minutes for Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III? Sign Carlos Delfino, Dorell Wright and/or Sebastian Telfair off the scrapheap?
Those options might suffice for squads with lesser expectations. But these are the Thunder we're talking about. They were the 2012 Western Conference champs, for Pete's sake!
That seems like eons ago, especially now that James Harden is on his way to captaining the NBA's next superteam in Houston. With Harden and KevMart gone, the Thunder will have to ruffle through the couch cushions just to find points from their reserves.
That makes last year's Harden trade look that much worse. Martin's departure leaves OKC with rookie center Steven Adams and a pair of future draft picks to show for a player who now ranks among the top 10 in the entire world.
Oh, and the Thunder are set to be capped out for at least the next two seasons.
So why have OKC ranked so highly? Because Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, that's why.
2. San Antonio Spurs
Tiago Splitter will be back at a reasonable rate of four years and $9 million per, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. So too will Manu Ginobili, who announced via Twitter that he'll be back in the Alamo City for another two years, and Boris Diaw, who opted into the final year of his contract.
Once the ink on those two contracts is dry, the San Antonio Spurs should still have some flexibility to add an impact player or two to their already robust roster, even after signing Marco Belinelli to a two-year, $5.6 million deal.
Not that the Spurs needs all that much more to succeed in 2013-14. They came agonizingly close to topping the Heat in the most recent finals, even with Tony Parker hobbled and Ginobili more or less ineffective for the majority of the series.
More careful minute management for the Spurs' Big Three, along with expanded roles for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, should suffice to keep San Antonio at or near the top of the Western Conference.
Adding lower-to-mid-tier free agents like Greg Oden, John Lucas III and Zaza Pachulia can only help to replenish the Spurs' strong bench, and, in turn, solidify another one last shot at a fifth title for Tim Duncan.
1. Miami Heat
Ray Allen is back in the fold, Chris Andersen is on his way, and Greg Oden and Sebastian Telfair could find spots in Miami as free agents—not that the latter two would move the needle much.
Oden hasn't played since Dec. 5, 2009. There's no telling how effective he'd be or how much he'd be able to play if he joined the Heat.
Telfair, on the other hand, played only sparingly for the Phoenix Suns and the Toronto Raptors last season. The Heat already have Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole at the point and run most of their offense through LeBron James and Dwyane Wade anyway. But having another ball-handler and playmaker off the bench couldn't hurt.
All that really matters, though, is that Miami's core is still intact.
So long as the Big Three of LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh are healthy and effective, and so long as the likes of Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Chalmers and Mike Miller are hitting shots and defending the perimeter, the Heat should and will be favorites to extend their historic run to a three-peat.
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