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Updated 2013-14 NBA Power Rankings, Pre-Training Camp Edition

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2013

Updated 2013-14 NBA Power Rankings, Pre-Training Camp Edition

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    Are the Miami Heat still at the top of the heap? 

    Which teams are the leading contenders for the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes? 

    Should you expect the Los Angeles Lakers to make the playoffs? 

    Will the Brooklyn Nets or New York Knicks own The Big Apple in 2013-14? 

    Which team will emerge at the top of the jam-packed Western Conference? 

    For the answers to all of those questions and more, you'll have to check out these power rankings of all 30 teams in the NBA. This isn't about expectations. The future doesn't matter, so cap space next offseason is utterly irrelevant. 

    It's all about how these squads stack up heading into training camp, when we'll gain just a little more information about the composition of each roster. 

     

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference. 

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers are going to be bad. Like, really bad. 

    Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel may well be terrific pieces going forward, but they're each going to struggle during their rookie seasons. The point guard out of Syracuse has a lot of flaws and should be among the league leaders in turnovers as he learns on the job, and the center from Kentucky still has to recover from his torn ACL. 

    Beyond those two and Thaddeus Young, there's just not a lot to get excited about for the Sixers. 

    Take their wing rotation, for example. James Anderson and Evan Turner are literally the only players whose natural positions come on the wings, at least until Jason Richardson gets healthy. 

    This squad will be struggling throughout the 2013-14 campaign, and there's an outside chance that we could see a year with single-digit wins. 

29. Phoenix Suns

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    The Phoenix Suns are doing a wonderful job, but only if we're talking about tanking. 

    They've gotten rid of so many contributors during the offseason (Caron Butler, Luis Scola, Michael Beasley and Jared Dudley, in particular), and the remaining pieces aren't going to experience much success. Then again, getting rid of Beasley tempted me, as I wanted to subsequently move the Suns up about five spots. 

    That said, there are reasons for Phoenix fans to get excited about 2013-14. Not only will the Suns be strong contenders for Andrew Wiggins' services, but the desert residents are also going to throw out a promising and strange duo in the backcourt: Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. 

    Will the two point guards work together? Can Bledsoe really play shooting guard on a consistent basis? 

    We don't know, but Phoenix can afford to find out as the season progresses. The front office won't explicitly admit it, but wins are almost a bad thing. 

28. Utah Jazz

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    There's going to be a rather large gap between the Phoenix Suns and the rest of the Western Conference. Although the Utah Jazz are only one spot ahead of the Suns in the power rankings, there's a pretty big disparity. 

    After all, the Jazz have players waiting to break out at every single position, and they're still set up to have a great draft pick in the loaded 2014 NBA draft and a lot of cap space next offseason. 

    Trey Burke was the big draft acquisition this summer, and he should have a solid rookie season running the show in Salt Lake City. I continue to think of the Michigan product as a poor man's Chris Paul (once he develops, of course), and a poor summer league showing shouldn't be enough to change that opinion. 

    Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward could both be solid wing players, although you're correct if you're higher on the latter. 

    And as for the frontcourt, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are both overflowing with potential. They've each looked great on a per-minute basis, and the disappearance of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson will finally give them an opportunity to shine in a larger role. 

    Utah isn't going to compete for a playoff spot in an increasingly deep and top-heavy Western Conference (nope, those aren't mutually exclusive), but there will be plenty of bright spots during the upcoming season. 

27. Orlando Magic

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    The Orlando Magic are going to look a lot more competent than people expect. 

    That's what happens when you have solid players at most positions, boast the future Rookie of the Year and have a developing low-level stud on the roster. 

    That ROY would be Victor Oladipo, whose defensive contributions will make him an immediate factor for the Magic. There won't be a transition period as he makes the jump from Indiana to the NBA, and his offense has looked vastly improved over the last calendar year. 

    As for the developing stud, that would be Tobias Harris. 

    After joining Orlando during the middle of the 2012-13 season, the former Volunteer averaged 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 45.3 percent from the field with a 17.0 PER. Those are incredible numbers, especially for a player who turned 21 during the offseason. 

    Expecting him to remain that dominant is a little foolhardy now that teams have more of a scouting report, and the Magic won't be as dependent on his well-rounded output, but Harris is here to stay as a solid young player. 

    Especially if Glen Davis can remain healthy, this team won't be nearly as bad as it was last year. 

26. Charlotte Bobcats

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    What? The Charlotte Bobcats aren't in the bottom four? How is this possible? 

    Don't worry; you aren't dreaming. You don't even have to pinch yourself. 

    The Bobcats just don't belong in the NBA's basement that much longer. They're on the stairs and moving up to the main level of the house after a solid offseason landed them two more quality frontcourt players. 

    Al Jefferson will make a big offensive impact for Charlotte, taking a lot of the scoring pressure off Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson. Cody Zeller is going to remain in the Rookie of the Year hunt throughout the season, especially if summer league was any indication of his future success. 

    Then you can factor in the expected growth of the young players. 

    Walker should continue to improve, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will find more success as well, especially if he developed any semblance of a jumper over the offseason. MKG's defense was off and on during his rookie season, as he thrived whenever he wasn't guarding spot-up shooters. 

    For the first time in a while, things aren't hopelessly bleak in Charlotte. 

25. Sacramento Kings

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    The Sacramento Kings are yet another team that appears to be on the rise. 

    DeMarcus Cousins is a franchise-caliber talent, especially if he can remain focused on defense and cut back on his turnovers. He has to work on establishing himself deeper in the post and then keeping his eyes peeled as he strives to make proper decisions. Still only 23 years old, Boogie has a lot of untapped potential. 

    The same can be said about Ben McLemore. 

    A rookie out of Kansas, McLemore has tremendous potential on both ends of the court. He has a shot reminiscent of a young Ray Allen and plenty of athleticism to boot. Kings fans should be thrilled that they'll get to root for the shooting guard as his career progresses. 

    This is a deep squad with plenty of quality players, but there just isn't enough star power (yet) to compete in a tough Western Conference. 

    At least there will still be basketball in Sac-Town. 

24. Boston Celtics

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    The Boston Celtics are in for a curious season, simply because we don't yet know exactly what to expect. 

    Jeff Green appears to be a remarkable talent, but he shouldn't be the No. 1 scoring option at this stage of his career. He started breaking out in 2012-13, and while that should continue on into 2013-14, he's not going to capably replace Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett

    Then there's Rajon Rondo, who will return from his torn ACL at some point during the early proceedings. He has to both recover from the injury and prove to all the doubters that he can run an offense without elite scoring talent surrounding him on the hardwood. 

    Even if Rondo does both—I expect he will—the C's are limited by a lack of talent. Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk are all promising talents, but none of them are good enough to push Boston back into postseason contention during Brad Stevens' first season as an NBA head coach. 

    Perhaps that's a good thing, though. A better pick in the stacked 2014 NBA draft will only aid the inevitable rebuilding process. 

23. Milwaukee Bucks

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    When did the Milwaukee Bucks actually get competent again? 

    They've had a weird offseason, but it resulted in yet another roster that remains, well, mediocre. 

    A starting five of Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders is good enough to win a handful of games, but not enough to advance to the playoffs in an increasingly deep Eastern Conference. The defensive potential of the lineup is solid, especially if John Henson plays major minutes, but scoring points is going to be a struggle. 

    That said, Milwaukee's mentality as a whole is flawed. 

    Mediocrity seems to be the goal, and their moves are making it rather difficult to ever earn anything more than a No. 8 seed in the playoffs. At some point, it's necessary to make a choice to be bad so that you can be good in the future. 

    It's a decision that general manager John Hammond isn't very good at making right now. 

22. Toronto Raptors

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    The Toronto Raptors mark the point in the power rankings where teams have a legitimate shot at making the postseason. 

    Rudy Gay played much better once he transitioned from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Raptors, and he'll have to keep that trend going in order for the Canadian representatives to achieve success. The small forward averaged 19.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game while shooting 42.5 percent from the field with his second team of the 2012-13 season. 

    And he's not the only talented player on the Toronto roster. 

    DeMar DeRozan should continue improving while Kyle Lowry does his thing at point guard. And if Jonas Valanciunas develops into an elite center even faster than expected, then the Raptors will exceed expectations. 

    Once Masai Ujiri works his magic on the roster—and he will at some point during the 2013-14 campaign—the future will be even brighter for Toronto. 

21. Detroit Pistons

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    The Detroit Pistons added a lot of talent to the roster by acquiring Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith over the summer, but now it's a question of how everything will fit together. 

    I'm thrilled about the future of this team, especially as Andre Drummond continues to grow into an elite center and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope asserts himself as a legitimate "three and D" stud. It also helps that there's going to be plenty of cap space next offseason once Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey hit the open market. 

    However, the present still doesn't look great. 

    The Pistons come in as the No. 9 team in the Eastern Conference, and they absolutely have a shot to make the playoffs. But that will only be true if Smoove and Jennings can corral their instincts to loft up attempts with reckless abandon. 

    Spacing is going to be an issue, especially if Greg Monroe, Smith and Drummond all play at the same time. Head coach Maurice Cheeks is going to have his work cut out for him as he strives to find a system that sustains success. 

20. Portland Trail Blazers

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    While I have the Portland Trail Blazers as the No. 12 team in the Western Conference, they're part of a giant clump that includes the next three teams ranked above them. 

    Going into the offseason, the Blazers had two primary goals. They needed to find a defensive center who could take pressure off LaMarcus Aldridge, and they had to upgrade the second unit rather significantly. Only the Indiana Pacers had a worse bench during the 2012-13 season. 

    Well, consider both goals accomplished. 

    Robin Lopez was the prize received for helping facilitate the Tyreke Evans sign-and-trade, and he's one of the more underrated pick-and-roll defenders in basketball. Additionally, Rip City added C.J. McCollum, Dorell Wright, Mo Williams and Thomas Robinson in an effort to shore up the second unit. 

    Portland did get a good bit better, but there still isn't enough established (and non-declining) talent off the bench to keep up with the other playoff contenders out West. 

19. Dallas Mavericks

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    The Dallas Mavericks offense is going to look fantastic during the 2013-14 season. 

    Dirk Nowitzki isn't ready to decline quite yet, Monta Ellis will continue putting up points in bunches, Shawn Marion will do all the little things, and Jose Calderon is the perfect man to distribute the ball among all of them. 

    However, the defense is going to look...well, let's just say that it will make other offenses look fantastic as well. 

    According to Basketball-Reference, the Mavericks allowed 106.5 points per 100 possessions last year, good for 19th in the league. Now the defense is going to be even worse, and the Calderon-Ellis backcourt combo is just ridiculously porous. 

    It's hard for a team that struggles mightily on one end to make the postseason, and Dallas will be left constantly searching for ways to prevent points more effectively before eventually turning to the free-agency pool for help next offseason.

    Again.  

18. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Don't worry, Kobe Bryant. You're not the No. 12 team in the Western Conference. 

    Barely. 

    The Los Angeles Lakers might have dreams of another postseason appearance while still maintaining their spot in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes, but the playoffs really aren't anything more than a pipe dream. There just aren't enough quality players on the roster, and we don't yet know how strong Kobe will be as he recovers from his Achilles injury. 

    L.A. struggled to make the postseason with Dwight Howard in town, and now there's been a downgrade to Chris Kaman. Steve Nash, Kobe and Pau Gasol still form a solid core, but Nick Young, Kaman and Jordan Hill as the other primary contributors isn't really going to cut it. 

    The Purple and Gold will remain competitive, but they don't have the roster necessary to truly stick around in the playoff picture past the All-Star break. 

17. Washington Wizards

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    The Washington Wizards are the first team here that will actually make the playoffs. You can chalk it up to the superiority of the Western Conference that they aren't in the top 16, though. 

    Led by John Wall, this Wizards squad is going to be quite potent. The Kentucky product recently inked a five-year deal worth $80 million, and it's now up to him to prove that he can live up to that type of cash. Given the offensive upgrades around him, a season in which he averages 20 points and 10 assists per game isn't out of the question. 

    Most of the offense will be coming from the backcourt in 2013-14. Between Wall and Bradley Beal, the points are going to be racked up in bunches, especially as Beal's three-point stroke keeps coming around. 

    Rookie small forward Otto Porter is also going to help push this young team over the top. He's an NBA-ready player with the ability to contribute on both ends of the court. His lankiness and instincts will help provide a nice jolt of defense, in particular. 

    After a few seasons of pure futility, there's reason for celebration in the nation's capital. 

16. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers are one of the most intriguing teams in the NBA, and they also offer more opportunity for fluctuation in the power rankings than any other squad. 

    In a best-case world, everyone stays healthy, and that includes Andrew Bynum. The low-risk, high-reward signing of the offseason resumes his career with the Cavs and begins looking like an elite center once more, and that extra boost on both ends of the court helps make Cleveland a lock for the postseason. 

    However, the Cavs are a brittle bunch. 

    Kyrie Irving's career has been plagued by injury, and it's not like Bynum and Anderson Varejao are guaranteed to stay healthy. If those three go down, then even the offseason acquisitions of Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and Anthony Bennett, as well as the expected improvements of Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, won't be enough to save Cleveland's playoff hopes. 

    By the end of the season, the Irving-led Cavs could very well make this ranking look awful. But there's no telling which direction they'll move. 

15. New Orleans Pelicans

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    I might be more excited about the New Orleans Pelicans than most, but that's only because I believe quite strongly in the development of two of their players. Interestingly enough, both are incumbents, so I'm only going to mention the acquisitions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans in passing. 

    First is Anthony Davis. 

    The Unibrow had an efficient and underrated rookie season—when he was healthy—and he's shown so many signs of a looming breakout. After the All-Star break, he was noticeably better on defense while averaging 15.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. He also shot 52 percent from the field. 

    There's a lot of development left for Davis, but this is the year that he catches up to Damian Lillard in the race to become the best player from the 2012 draft class. 

    Secondly, there's Eric Gordon. 

    Gordon's career slowed down both because he didn't want to be in the bayou and because his knees were diminishing his ability to remain effective. The latter should be at least partially resolved after a full offseason of rest, and the former will be helped now that he's playing on a more competitive team that prominently features his former AAU teammates. 

    New Orleans won't make the playoffs right after changing its nickname to the Pelicans, but it won't be far off either. 

14. Atlanta Hawks

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    The Atlanta Hawks may have lost Josh Smith, but the team still improved over the offseason. 

    Paul Millsap isn't that much worse than Smoove, and he'll actually remain consistent throughout his first year in a new uniform. Millsap doesn't bring as much athleticism and defensive excellence to the table, but he doesn't steal anything off it either (cough, bad Smith jumpers, cough). 

    The gap between the two is also closed by the frontcourt depth, as general manager Danny Ferry brought in Elton Brand, Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon to play quality minutes off the pine. 

    However, it's the backcourt that provides the keys for a slight improvement. 

    Lou Williams is recovering from a torn ACL and will be back to scoring points as soon as he's healthy enough to step onto the court. He and Dennis Schroeder, an NBA-ready rookie out of Germany, will both make a major difference while coming off the bench for Jeff Teague and John Jenkins. 

    With quality players and backups at every position, don't be surprised when the Hawks continue to remain mainstays in the Eastern Conference postseason picture. 

13. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves almost have to stay healthy in 2013-14 after an injury-ravaged 2012-13 campaign kept them from reaching the playoffs. 

    On one hand, the gambler's fallacy indicates that betting on complete health would be stupid. Just because the Wolves had bad luck with injuries in 2012-13 doesn't mean that they'll have better-than-average luck during the ensuing season. 

    But on the other hand, karma dictates that Minnesota gets a chance to remain free of the injury imp. 

    If healthy, Minnesota absolutely has the talent necessary to become a mid-level playoff team in the Western Conference. Kevin Love is the best player at his position, and Ricky Rubio is quickly developing into a standout point guard. As soon as he develops a jumper and learns not to gamble as often (on both ends of the court), he'll be elite. 

    The rest of the roster is strong as well, even if losing Andrei Kirilenko to the Brooklyn Nets hurt. As long as the team stays healthy—especially Love and Nikola Pekovic, since there aren't exactly capable backup centers in Minnesota—it will be in great shape. 

12. Denver Nuggets

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    The Denver Nuggets did not have a good offseason, but that's as much about the future as it is the present. Losing general manager Masai Ujiri doesn't impact these power rankings because the team is still using the roster that he helped build. 

    Losing Andre Iguodala, though, will hurt. A lot. 

    The keys for Denver now are all up to JaVale McGee and Ty Lawson

    Without Iggy, Lawson is going to be handling the ball even more than he's used to. The speedy floor general has to play like he did during the second half of the 2012-13 season, maintaining his efficiency as he plays with an even higher usage rate. That's a lot to ask, but this is the year Lawson needs to emerge as an elite floor general. 

    McGee worries me a little more. 

    While the 7-footer is a great athlete, a shot-blocking phenom and a tremendous alley-oop finisher, he's still an enigma. No one knows how he'll react to playing 30 minutes per game as the starting center for the Nuggets, and that includes both McGee and new head coach Brian Shaw. 

    If he's a consistent presence, the playoffs will be an easy goal for Denver to meet, especially with the home-court advantage provided by the Pepsi Center. 

11. New York Knicks

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    Can a team win a title with Carmelo Anthony at the center of everything? 

    That's a question that you'll hear quite often throughout the next calendar year. Personally, I believe the answer is a definitive "yes," but that won't be proven with the current makeup of the New York Knicks roster. 

    Right now, there just aren't enough scorers to take the load of 'Melo, and that prohibits him from playing enough defense to maximize his talent. There are a couple of things that could change that, though. 

    1. Iman Shumpert could break out in a big way. The flat-topped shooting guard is full of potential just itching to be realized, and he could become a two-way star. 
    2. Andrea Barganani could remember that he was drafted at No. 1 and start living up to those expectations. 
    3. Amar'e Stoudemire could remain healthy. 

    None of those seem particularly likely during the 2013-14 campaign. Shumpert's breakout will happen on the defensive end, but we're still at least two years away from seeing him become an offensive stud. As for Bargnani and Stoudemire, too much precedent points in the negative direction. 

    New York will be a great team. There's no doubt about that. But the Knicks fall just ever so shy of emerging as a truly elite squad. 

10. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies are the first team in the power rankings with a legitimate shot at actually winning the NBA title. That's right, there are 10 of those elite squads in the NBA, at least when we look at the landscape before a single game has been played. 

    The Grizzlies struggled with the San Antonio Spurs, but while they were blown out in terms of the final series results, a lot of the games could have been swung by a confident Zach Randolph

    Now the Grizz return all of their major pieces, and they've upgraded the outside shooting just a bit. Jamaal Franklin won't play a large role during his rookie season, but he's still a do-it-all swingman whom I believe is going to drastically outperform his draft spot. 

    Mike Miller, acquired after the Miami Heat amnestied him to save money, will be helpful as well, especially since Memphis is so defensively talented that it can afford to hide a sharpshooter on that end of the court. 

    That said, it's still all about the starting lineup. Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are all back and ready to terrorize opposing offenses while putting up points in grit-and-grind fashion. 

    As long as Gasol is anchoring the frontcourt, Memphis is going to be competitive. The Spanish center has gotten that good on the defensive end. 

9. Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets now boast an absolutely terrifying starting five. 

    Deron Williams is an elite point guard, and he played like it during the second half of the season. Averaging 22.9 points, 2.5 rebounds and 8.0 assists while shooting 48.1 percent from the field tends to make him look good. 

    The other returning starters are Brook Lopez (looking to build on his All-Star campaign by continuing to dominate on offense) and Joe Johnson (somehow the team's worst starter). Once you add in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, both of whom were acquired in a draft-day trade with the Boston Celtics, you're looking at a stellar group. 

    Depth isn't going to be an issue either, as the Nets boast Jason Terry, Andrei Kirilenko and Andray Blatche, among others, off the bench. 

    However, there are still two things holding them back. 

    Age leads to injuries, and the years have already piled up for the main contributors. Pierce and Garnett are well into their 30's, and Terry, Kirilenko and Johnson aren't far behind. While depth isn't an issue, it would be if a major player went down. 

    Secondly, Jason Kidd is the head coach. While I wish him nothing but the best and fully expect him to become a great coach later in his career, he has absolutely no experience.

    He hasn't spent even a single game as an assistant coach. He doesn't have any experience coaching in high school or college. And now he's suddenly expected to be the man in charge of an NBA contender with an aging roster that needs to be carefully managed? 

    Yikes. Temper the expectations here. 

8. Houston Rockets

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    Even though they were going up against a short-handed Oklahoma City Thunder team and were ultimately eliminated in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, the Houston Rockets still looked like they were only a piece away from actually competing in the Western Conference. 

    I'd say that Dwight Howard counts as a piece. 

    Although the D12-Omer Asik pairing won't work, that still leaves the Turkish big man as a remarkably capable backup who could be used as a trade chip. I'd still love to see an Asik-for-Ryan Anderson swap happen, as that's a mutually beneficial deal that would push the Rockets even higher in the power rankings. 

    But right now, this Houston squad looks like an upgraded version of the Orlando Magic teams that featured Dwight in the middle. And remember, prime D12 was able to carry that team into the NBA Finals. 

    The Rockets are going to form ridiculously potent pick-and-roll duos with Dwight setting screens for Jeremy Lin and James Harden, and the defense will be improved as well with the big man holding down the fort. 

    Defense could still be a weakness—the Rockets ranked 16th last year by allowing 106.1 points per 100 possessions—but the offense will be good enough to trump it. 

7. Golden State Warriors

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    The Golden State Warriors' run through the playoffs was not fluky. This team is legitimately excellent, and it only got better after a great offseason of player movement. 

    Losing Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry will hurt, but the second unit will remain strong after adding Toney Douglas, Marreese Speights and a version of Jermaine O'Neal whose resurgence can be attributed to the Phoenix Suns' staff of trainers. 

    Also helping out the bench is Kent Bazemore, whose athleticism and scoring skills made him look like a potential breakout star during summer league. Typical summer league caveats apply, but it's abundantly clear Bazemore's skills extend beyond waving a towel. 

    Oh, and the Dubs got some guy named Andre Iguodala, which will effectively turn Harrison Barnes into one of the Association's top sixth men. Iggy's defense and offensive versatility will do wonders taking the ball-handling pressure off Stephen Curry

    Believe it or not, the swingman will actually make it easier for Curry to have an even more efficient season as he challenges his own three-point record. 

6. Chicago Bulls

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    In 2012-13, the Chicago Bulls went 45-37, finishing with the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference. And they did that without Derrick Rose

    Well, the former MVP is expected to be back at full strength after using a full offseason to recover from his torn ACL. And with him in the lineup, the Bulls are significantly more dangerous, hence the jump from No. 5 in the weaker conference to No. 6 in the whole NBA. 

    According to Basketball-Reference, Chicago scored 5.1 more points per 100 possessions when Rose played than when he sat during the 2011-12 campaign. His return, as well as the offensive improvement of Jimmy Butler, will do wonders for the Bulls' ability to score with the best of them. 

    That said, the perimeter shooting of this squad still isn't anything special. Butler needs to keep hitting triples like he did after the All-Star break—47.5 percent during the second half and 40 percent in the postseason—if that's going to change, and even then, it'll still be a weak aspect of the offense. 

    Chicago isn't a perfect team, but there's enough talent in the Windy City that Tom Thibodeau's squad will give that impression on some occasions. 

5. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder have to get better internally, and that's a scary thought. 

    Losing Kevin Martin is going to hurt. Maybe not defensively, but offensively it will be all the more important for Kevin Durant to remain the best scorer in the league, and then some. 

    So how are the Thunder going to replace K-Mart? There are two options. 

    1. Reggie Jackson and/or Jeremy Lamb can step up and replace his point-scoring contributions. Based on summer league, this isn't too unlikely. 
    2. Serge Ibaka can finally take the next step on offense. Based on the postseason, this is unlikely. 

    My money would be on both Jackson and Lamb emerging as viable offensive options, but that's still a little risky once OKC advances deep into the postseason. They just didn't do much to get better, and that's going to harm them in the brutal gauntlet that is the Western Conference. 

    Then again, Thunder fans can think of this spot in the rankings as No. 3C instead of No. 5. Oklahoma City and the next two teams in the rankings may well end up within one or two games of each other in the final conference standings. 

4. San Antonio Spurs

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    The San Antonio Spurs were one rebound/made free throw away from clinching an NBA title, and they're returning all of their major pieces, with the slight exception of Gary Neal. 

    But Neal is being replaced by Marco Belinelli, so let's just roll with "all of their major pieces." 

    As has seemed to be the case for the last decade or so, age is the biggest question mark. Is this the year that Father Time catches up to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili at some point other than their weekly poker nights? 

    Yes and no. 

    At this point, it's just established that Duncan is impervious to old age. The same can't be said about Manu, who looked like a shell of his creative self during the NBA Finals. 

    Fortunately for Gregg Popovich and Co., Tony Parker is still in the lineup, and Kawhi Leonard will make up for whatever decline Ginobili experiences. Everything is in place for another run that somehow catches everyone by surprise. 

3. Los Angeles Clippers

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    If you've been counting, this is the last of the Western Conference's 15 teams, which means that the Eastern Conference is claiming each of the two top spots. 

    Seems weird, huh? 

    However, the West is just too filled with parity at the top. The Los Angeles Clippers are primed to emerge as the top seed in the conference after a marvelous offseason saw them add Doc Rivers, Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick, Darren Collison, Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison, and yet I still don't have as much confidence in them as I do the No. 2 squad. 

    With all those aforementioned additions joining Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, there's no doubt that the Clippers are a strong team. Duh—or else they wouldn't be coming in at No. 3. 

    However, much like every other top team in the West, there's a fatal flaw. While the Spurs are old and the Thunder have a weak bench, the Clippers have no frontcourt defense. Blake and DeAndre Jordan aren't exactly great on the less glamorous end, and it's not like Mullens, Jamison or Ryan Hollins is going to pick up the slack off the bench. 

    That won't kill L.A. during the regular season, but it's going to pose problems in a series that features someone like Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol or Tim Duncan.

2. Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers legitimately tested the Miami Heat in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, and now they got better. 

    Much better. 

    Indiana's second unit was its biggest problem last season, and that's no longer a glaring weakness. The bench won't blow anyone away, but C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland and Lance Stephenson are going to ensure that both offense and defense remain present when the starters take a seat. 

    Wait. Lance Stephenson? Wasn't he a starter last year? 

    He was, and the past tense is useful here because the return of Danny Granger will push him back into the second unit. Granger and Paul George will end up starting at the wing positions, making a suffocating defensive starting five even more successful on the offensive end. 

    Indiana is doing everything possible to ensure that the Heat's roster endures plenty of sleepless nights. Between the bench upgrades and the improvement of Roy Hibbert, the Pacers are off to a fantastic start. 

1. Miami Heat

31 of 31

    As a rule of thumb, defending champions typically get the No. 1 spot in power rankings unless: A) they lose a game; B) they get significantly worse during the offseason; or C) one of the leading challengers upgrades by an amount you just can't ignore. 

    The Miami Heat obviously haven't lost a game. That wouldn't be possible since, well, no games have been played and even the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns are still undefeated. 

    They also didn't get significantly worse. In fact, they didn't even get a little bit worse, assuming that Greg Oden is able to provide even a tiny spark off the bench. Mike Miller was the only key contributor who left the team, and his production can be replaced by the other shooters who come off the bench. 

    So that leaves just one possibility. 

    Did any of the leading challengers upgrade enough to replace the Heat? It's close, but the Indiana Pacers and Los Angeles Clippers didn't do enough to blow away Miami, and that's what it would take for a change at the top to occur during the offseason. 

    LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Co. are by no means invincible as they prepare to kick off their three-peat campaign, but they're still at the top of the rankings. 

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