NBA Power Rankings: Evaluating Every Team as Regular Season Approaches

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NBA Power Rankings: Evaluating Every Team as Regular Season Approaches
(Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2012-13 NBA regular season is less than one week away from commencing. That may be hard to believe, but the long lay-off between the Finals and the season-opener is finally coming to a close.

As the season nears and rosters take shape, fans and analysts across the globe are all wondering one thing: which teams will truly contend? There's no clear-cut answer, but upon a deep examination of every roster, it's become clear who the true powers are.

Here's a full breakdown of how it's shaping up.

 

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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There really shouldn't be a question about this one.

The Philadelphia 76ers are the front-runners to finish the 2013 season with the worst record in the NBA. The Sixers made superb draft picks by adding point guard Michael Carter-Williams and center Nerlens Noel, but they traded their leader in points and assists: Jrue Holiday.

Noel may be a future star, but he's also in danger of missing the entire 2012-13 season.

30 wins would be a very strong result for this club.

The Sixers did rank No. 9 in scoring defense last season, but they were also No. 30 in scoring offense despite possessing one of the game's best playmakers: Holiday. This all adds up to a continued inability to put points on the board and a long season of disappointing losses.

It certainly doesn't help that head coach Brett Brown only believes that Philadelphia has six NBA-caliber players, per Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

 

29. Phoenix Suns

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The Phoenix Suns had a productive offseason, making moves that drastically improved the future of the franchise. The acquisitions of players such as Eric Bledsoe, Archie Goodwin and Alex Len provide extraordinary promise, but in the short-term, there will be growing pains.

After finishing at 25-57 in 2012-13, there isn't much reason to believe in an improvement in 2013-14.

Goran Dragic is a stud at point guard, and both Marcin Gortat and Gerald Green should improve upon their underwhelming 2012-13 campaigns. The issue for Phoenix is that there isn't a player on the roster who has proven capable of being a lead scorer.

This wouldn't be as much of an issue if Phoenix were an elite defensive club, but the Suns ranked No. 26 in scoring defense and No. 25 in opponent field goal percentage last season.

Bledsoe will help to improve the perimeter defense and Len knows how to protect the rim, but there won't be a significant upgrade in Jeff Hornacek's first year. Fortunately for Phoenix, that means it'll be in position to land one of the many star scorers in the 2014 NBA draft.

Unfortunately, it'll mean fans will need to be patient.

 

28. Utah Jazz

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The future is bright, but the present is cloudy in Utah.

The Utah Jazz were 43-39 in 2012-13, going 30-11 at home and 13-28 on the road. One year later, Utah has parted ways with power forward Paul Millsap, center Al Jefferson, point guard Mo Williams and shooting guard Randy Foye—four of its top five scorers.

Utah is entering the proverbial rebuilding process, but they certainly have a future worth marveling.

Utah has a four-man core in point guard Trey Burke, swingman Gordon Hayward, power forward Derrick Favors and center Enes Kanter. All four have All-Star upside, with Hayward already entering the Sixth Man of the Year award conversation.

Unfortunately, fans hoping to see instant results will have to wait.

Burke recently posted on his official Twitter account that he'll be sidelined due to injury until early November. Without their floor general, Utah will have trouble flashing its potential.

It'll be a rough season, but the upside is undeniable for the Jazz.

 

27. Milwaukee Bucks

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The Milwaukee Bucks made a commitment to the future by disbanding the star-studded backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. This comes after Milwaukee saw Ellis fall to a sub-43.5 percent field goal shooter after converting 46.5 percent in six-and-a-half seasons with the Golden State Warriors.

Now, the Bucks will move forward with a core of Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo and Larry Sanders.

Sanders became one of the game's most feared defenders in 2012-13, averaging 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 27.3 minutes per contest. Mayo, meanwhile, averaged 15.3 points, 4.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds on 40.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc with the Dallas Mavericks.

That low-high combination could lead the Bucks to a postseason berth, but there's too much uncertainty to project that level of success.

Larry Drew will create a high-quality defense and promote ball movement, but Knight has struggled while running point. There are valuable veterans in Caron Butler, Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova, Gary Neal and Zaza Pachulia, but until the Bucks see a true star emerge, there is reason for skepticism.

It wouldn't be surprising to see Milwaukee top 35 wins, but that rests entirely on the emergence of a star point guard.

 

26. Orlando Magic

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Quietly but surely, the Orlando Magic made one of the best trades of the entire 2012-13 regular season. Tobias Harris went from a player that was rotting on Milwaukee's bench to a rising star who invigorated an upside-filled Orlando roster.

The Magic still have to make some improvements to be a playoff team, but they'll be fun to watch this season.

Harris averaged 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.4 blocks and 0.9 steals after the All-Star Break. Maurice Harkless put up 13.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks in that same time-frame, and Nikola Vucevic posted 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds for the season.

Now, Orlando adds Victor Oladipo and hopes to receive a full season of good health from Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo.

Orlando is still a year-or-two away from being a postseason-caliber team, but Oladipo is the defensive menace with offensive-upside that every team desires. He was my top prospect in the 2013 draft, and if developed in the proper manner, will be an All-Star.

These are exciting times for a young Magic franchise.

 

25. Sacramento Kings

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The Sacramento Kings have a legitimate star at center with DeMarcus Cousins. Sacramento also has two very high-quality point guards in Isaiah Thomas and Greivis Vasquez, as well as two potent scorers with Ben McLemore and Marcus Thornton.

There just isn't enough experience or depth on this roster for Sacramento to shine in 2013-14.

Cousins can dominate out of the post, attack off of the bounce or shoot the mid-range jump shot, and with a top five facilitator in Vasquez, he should score with more efficiency. It won't hurt to have McLemore and Thornton providing supporting fire as jump shooters and slashers.

The word potential simply outweighs the early promise in this scenario.

New head coach Mike Malone is the perfect man for the job, and in a few seasons, the Kings will show the world why they hired him. In 2013-14, however, Sacramento will be a team that should view a 35-win season as a success.

There's loads of potential in Sacramento, but one strong offseason doesn't offset the horrendous mistakes of the past half-decade.

 

24. Charlotte Bobcats

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Many harp on Al Jefferson's deficiencies on the defensive end of the floor, but there are important facts that analysts love to overlook. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Jefferson is one of four qualified players with cumulative averages of at least 18.0 points and 10.0 rebounds from 2006-07 to 2012-13.

Blake Griffin also achieved said feat, but he didn't start posting those numbers until 2010-11.

More importantly, Jefferson led the Utah Jazz to two winning seasons in the three years he was there. That's quite impressive considering he and Paul Millsap played with one of the league's most lackluster perimeters, with Devin Harris, Earl Watson and Mo Williams running point.

If you think that this Bobcats team is any worse than the Utah teams that surrounded Millsap and Jefferson in 2011-12 and 2012-13, you're wrong.

The keys for Charlotte will be trusting Cody Zeller to fill the "Millsap role," and Kemba Walker to continue developing into a star at point guard. After watching Walker average 17.7 points, 5.7 assists and 2.0 steals in 2012-13, there's reason to believe he'll succeed.

As for Charlotte's lack of shooters, don't think too hard about it. Jefferson led Utah to above-.500 records with team rankings of 23rd and 28th in three-point field goals made per game.

It's hard to believe, but .500 isn't entirely out of the question in a poor Eastern Conference.

 

23. Cleveland Cavaliers

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are a very popular choice to make the playoffs in 2013-14. There's good reason, as Kyrie Irving has developed into a genuine star, the roster is laced with young-and-promising players and Andrew Bynum's arrival all but guarantees a postseason berth in the traditionally weak East.

Until Bynum plays in a regular season game, however, I'm not buying into the hype.

Bynum missed the entire 2012-13 regular season, and missed at least 28 games in 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2010-11. He's elite when healthy, but there's no guaranteeing that Bynum will be himself when takes the floor.

You know, when he finally does.

Other than Bynum, this is a title team—just not this year.

Irving is rapidly approaching superstar status, Dion Waiters is an offensive menace and Tristan Thompson may be the most underrated player in the NBA. Anthony Bennett isn't the sure-thing that many have labeled him as, but there's no denying his upside.

At this point, however, the Cavaliers are all about that one word: upside. A 24-win 2012-13 season displays that.

 

22. New Orleans Pelicans

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The New Orleans Pelicans will be a postseason contender in 2012-13, and the dramatically improved perimeter isn't the only reason why. The Pelicans have added valuable depth, and during the upcoming season, will be in position to top 40 wins.

It all comes down to how quickly New Orleans' new stars can gel.

The Pelicans enter this season with a starting lineup that includes All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Anthony Davis. At sixth man, Ryan Anderson was the 2012 Most Improved Player of the Year and continues to shoot the lights out from distance.

The evaluation could stop right there and tell you that New Orleans will be a fun team to watch, if nothing else.

Alongside Davis is the shot-blocking combination of Greg Stiemsma and Jeff Withey, which provides evidence that New Orleans is dedicated to smothering defense. With sharpshooter Anthony Morrow joining a ready-to-improve Austin Rivers at the reserve guard spots, the Pelicans are a team to watch.

Keep an eye on Al-Farouq Aminu to go from a rebounding a defensive weapon to an all-around force in 2013-14.

 

21. Minnesota Timberwolves 

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The Minnesota Timberwolves are a team that should be viewed as a postseason contender. Assuming the team can stay healthy, there's more depth and quality on this roster than the T-Wolves have possessed in any other season under Rick Adelman.

Injuries are the primary reason Minnesota can't crack the Top 16.

The T-Wolves have a star-caliber combination with power forward Kevin Love and point guard Ricky Rubio. With sharpshooting shooting guard Kevin Martin and center Nikola Pekovic helping to further establish the offense, Minnesota could be a dangerous team.

The key will be developing a defensive identity with an offensive-minded team.

Players such as Corey Brewer, Gorgui Dieng and Ronny Turiaf should help in that regard, but the T-Wolves will live-and-die by their ability to score. With guards J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved helping to provide pace, Adelman's third season could be successful.

Until the T-Wolves can stay healthy, however, it's difficult to imagine a jump from 31 wins to the playoffs.

 

20. Portland Trail Blazers

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In 2012-13, the Portland Trail Blazers started the season at 33-36, behind one of the best starting lineups in the NBA. Due to a lack of depth, however, the impact of injuries was maximized and fatigue set in en route to a 13-game losing streak to close out the year.

In 2013-14, Portland has added some very valuable depth.

According to HoopsStats.com, the Trail Blazers were dead last in the NBA at 18.5 bench points per game—5.6 lower than the No. 29 team. One year later, Portland has added Allen Crabbe, Thomas Robinson, Earl Watson, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright as reserves.

Paired with Will Barton, Meyers Leonard, Robin Lopez and the currently-injured C.J. McCollum, Portland has made all of the right decisions.

With a starting lineup that includes Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland can play with anyone. The key will be to establish the second unit early and give the starters more time to rest.

In 2012-13, Matthews was the only one of the returning starters to average less than 37.7 minutes per contest. He was at 34.8.

 

19. Toronto Raptors

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The Toronto Raptors haven't added a superstar or drafted a name-value rookie, which is a major reason they're flying under-the-radar. What Toronto has done is develop its personnel into defensive-minded players that will play any opponent close.

In 2012-13, Toronto went 17-16 during its final 33 games to prove that progression.

The starting lineup consists of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and the heralded Jonas Valanciunas. Rising star Terrence Ross has extraordinary upside as a scorer, which he flashed during his rookie season, and Toronto added a crop of players who buy into a gritty mentality.

Tyler Hansbrough and Steve Novak aren't stars, but both play with an edge, and Novak is the sharpshooter that Toronto has desperately needed.

The key for Toronto will be receiving quality minutes from the injury-plagued Landry Fields, who missed 31 games last season. If he's able to complement the strong starting lineup, the Raptors could have the depth necessary to reach the postseason.

The bottom-half of the Eastern Conference is a blur, but if any team has the roster to make a splash, it's Toronto.

 

18. Boston Celtics

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The Boston Celtics have been labeled as a team approaching a rebuilding season after trading Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry. This is an interesting response from an NBA community that has spent the past year stating that the trio was either too old to win or not athletic enough to run with Rajon Rondo.

Boston may not be a title contender, but it's certainly a postseason contender when Rondo is healthy.

Rondo's return date from knee surgery will determine the season trajectory, but once he's in the lineup, Boston will be dangerous. He's one of the best players in the NBA, and every time the postseason comes around, the world acknowledges him as a Top 10 player.

Short-term memory is a funny thing.

Jeff Green averaged 17.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.1 blocks and 0.8 steals on 43.9 percent shooting after the All-Star Break. If he's able to step up and produce in that manner in 2013-14, he and Rondo will be strong enough to lead this charge.

From there, it's all about Boston staying healthy.

 

17. Washington Wizards

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In John Wall's 33-game absence in 2012-13, the Washington Wizards were 5-28. In the 49 games in which Wall was healthy, the Wizards went 24-25.

Wall is a star, and Washington is a postseason-caliber team.

Washington finished the 2012-13 regular season with rankings of No. 8 in scoring defense, No. 5 in opponent field goal percentage and No. 9 in opponent three-point field goal percentage. Washington returns virtually the same core, with the exceptions being additions of strong defenders.

Rookies Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. should both help to bolster an already elite defense.

The key for Washington will come on offense, where Wall is a superstar-in-the-making and Bradley Beal is a lights-out shooter. Both Nene Hilario and Emeka Okafor are defensive forces, but the Wizards need a player to emerge as a low-post scorer.

As long as Wall stays healthy, the Wizards will reach the playoffs.

 

16. Detroit Pistons

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If any team has the right to claim it's the most underrated in the NBA, it'd have to be the Detroit Pistons. Despite acquiring two borderline All-Stars, the Pistons aren't a unanimous choice to reach the postseason in 2013-14.

Spoiler alert: Detroit will make it.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, the recently-acquired Josh Smith was the only player to average at least 17.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.5 blocks per game in 2012-13. Joining Smith as a new acquisition is Brandon Jennings, who averaged 17.5 points and 6.5 assists last season.

We haven't even touched on what's already in place.

Greg Monroe averaged 16.0 points and 9.6 per contest in 2012-13, while Andre Drummond tallied 11.1 points and 8.2 rebounds in 25.7 minutes after the All-Star Break. With Jennings serving as a game-changing playmaker, Detroit has enough firepower in the starting lineup to make the playoffs.

The only question at this point is if Detroit will have the necessary depth.

 

15. Los Angeles Lakers

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The Los Angeles Lakers are entering a season of complete uncertainty and disarray. Kobe Bryant is recovering from surgery on a torn Achilles tendon, both Pau Gasol and Steve Nash were plagued by injuries in 2012-13, and L.A. lacks any form of a defensive identity.

All in all, the Lakers could bust just as easily as they could boom.

Gasol registered three triple-doubles during his final seven games, and averaged 17.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists during the month of April. For those who believe that to be a statistical anomaly, Gasol averaged 17.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists as recently as 2011-12.

In the end, nothing that Gasol and Nash do will matter if Bryant doesn't make a strong enough recovery.

Kobe led all shooting guards in scoring, rebounds and assists in 2012-13, unquestionably remaining atop his position. When it comes to recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, specifically at the age of 35, it'd be naive to ignore the potential impact.

L.A. will go as far as Bryant takes it. What else is new?

 

14. Dallas Mavericks

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In 2012-13, the Dallas Mavericks missed the playoffs for the first time since 1999-2000. For all that's been made about the Mavs' lackluster season, however, it's been thoroughly overlooked that the return of Dirk Nowitzki led to Dallas going from 13-23 to 41-41.

In 2013-14, Dallas has made quite a number of improvements.

The Mavericks boast a startling lineup that consists of Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Shawn Marion and Dirk Nowitzki. Calderon has a career mark of 7.2 assists per game, Ellis tallied 21.8 points on 46.5 percent shooting from 2006-07 to 2010-11 and both Marion and Dalembert can make serious impact on defense.

The Mavericks will be a team to watch in 2013-14.

If Ellis can score as he did with the Warriors and Dirk Nowitzki can continue shooting the lights out, Dallas will be a potent team. Calderon is one of the game's top offensive point guards, facilitating in a variety of manners and shooting the lights out, and Marion is still an elite defender.

Dallas is a veteran team, and in 2013-14, there's every reason to believe in their status as a postseason team.

 

13. Atlanta Hawks

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The Atlanta Hawks have made dramatic changes, but in the end, this is still a postseason team we're talking about. Al Horford is one of the Top 25 players in the world, Paul Millsap is the perfect complement at power forward and Jeff Teague continues to improve running point.

Best of all, four-time NBA champion Mike Budenholzer is going from San Antonio Spurs assistant coach to Hawks head coach.

The core of Horford, Millsap and Teague is strong enough to put Atlanta in the ballpark of 40 wins. Fortunately for those three, general manager Danny Ferry did a masterful job of surrounding his stars with the proper role players to become something of a postseason lock.

Kyle Korver leads the sharpshooters, Elton Brand stars along the second unit, DeMarre Carroll is a legitimate defensive stopper and Lou Williams is absolutely lethal when healthy.

The players to watch will be second-year shooting guard John Jenkins and rookie point guard Dennis Schroder. Jenkins shot 38.4 percent from beyond the arc in 2012-13, while Schroder has received comparisons to Rajon Rondo.

Schroder has a long way, and I mean a long way, before he even enters Rondo's realm, but if he can be a high-quality backup point guard in 2013-14, Atlanta could make some noise.

 

12. Denver Nuggets

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The Denver Nuggets were 57-25 in 2012-13, going 38-3 at home and 19-22 on the road. That imbalance didn't stop Denver from finishing at No. 3 in the Western Conference, but ultimately, it was yet another first-round exit for George Karl.

Now, the Nuggets will give Brian Shaw a long-awaited head coaching opportunity.

Ty Lawson is a genuine star at point guard, but I'm unsold on the Nuggets being able to duplicate their 2012-13 success. The Nuggets were bad on the road, and with Danilo Gallinari injured and Andre Iguodala departed, an already poor defense looks like it's getting worse.

The true question is, how far has JaVale McGee come from a fundamental perspective?

Lawson, Kenneth Faried, J.J. Hickson and Wilson Chandler offer a dynamic group that should be able to lead the Nuggets to a postseason berth. With Nate Robinson and Andre Miller helping to run point, the Nuggets are in position to make noise.

Unfortunately, this is a team that routinely falls apart during the postseason, and that's a history that cannot be overlooked.

 

11. Memphis Grizzlies

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The Memphis Grizzlies were a pleasant surprise in 2012-13, reaching the Western Conference Finals with smothering defense. Since the best season in franchise history, the Grizzlies have parted ways with head coach Lionel Hollins and have essentially done nothing to improve the NBA's No. 27 scoring offense.

With the No. 1 scoring defense, however, the Grizzlies are still a team to watch in the Western Conference.

It's all about defense for Memphis, as the low-high balance it possesses is unparalleled. Mike Conley and Tony Allen are both All-Defensive Team guards, Tayshaun Prince is a versatile weapon at small forward and center Marc Gasol is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

The question is, can 32-year-old Zach Randolph remain a dominant interior scorer?

That will be the key for Memphis, as it truly doesn't have a go-to scorer outside of Randolph. Gasol and Conley are capable, but both look to facilitate before they score.

First-year head coach David Joerger has a long season ahead of him, as every team in the NBA will be preparing for this Memphis defense.

 

10. Golden State Warriors

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The Golden State Warriors made a loud statement during the 2012-13 season, reaching the Western Conference semifinals. Stephen Curry reached superstar status, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson made tremendous improvements and Golden State's interior was powerful.

The Warriors now add former All-Star Andre Iguodala to the mix.

The losses of Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry and assistant coach Mike Malone all hurt Golden State in a significant manner. Jack was the Warriors' clutch hero on more than one occasion, Landry was a needed interior force and Malone always seemed to be drawing up a brilliant play to get his scorers easy looks.

Fortunately, head coach Mark Jackson still has plenty of talent to work with.

Curry and Thompson make for what is, arguably, the best three-point shooting tandem in NBA history, while Barnes and Iguodala are explosive athletes who have the ability to make critical plays. Andrew Bogut is a defensive weapon center, and David Lee led the NBA with 56 double-doubles.

The Warriors are lethal.

 

9. Brooklyn Nets

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The Brooklyn Nets have added two of the greatest players in NBA history—albeit in their waning years—to an already borderline-elite core. That alone should intrigue you about what Brooklyn could achieve in 2013-14.

Unfortunately for the Nets, it's impossible to rank them any higher than this with Jason Kidd entering his first career season as a head coach.

No one will question Kidd's leadership ability, but making the transition to head coach is another topic entirely. Some of the greatest point guards in NBA history have failed as coaches, and until we see the opposite transpire in Brooklyn, there's no reason to be anything but skeptical.

Fortunately for Kidd, he has a roster that's loaded with talent.

Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez make for one of the best starting lineups in the NBA. It doesn't hurt to have a bench that includes Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry.

Until we see it work out on the court, however, Kidd's inexperience at head coach presents an undeniable question mark.

 

8. New York Knicks

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The New York Knicks may lack youth and explosiveness, but they've certainly made up for it with interior depth. New York's power forward and center spots are now filled by the likes of Andrea Bargnani, Tyson Chandler, Kenyon Martin and Amar'e Stoudemire.

The key questions are, can the Knicks stay healthy and will they be able to hit the three-ball with efficiency?

Chris Copeland, 42.1 percent, and Steve Novak, 42.5 percent, were the Knicks' most consistent three-point shooters in 2012-13, but both are with new clubs. New York led the NBA in both three-point field goals made and attempted last season, which displays how damaging those losses could be.

New York will now trust Carmelo Anthony, Bargnani, rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith to drain the three-ball on a consistent basis—an uncomfortable dependency.

The key for the Knicks will be to improve upon their putrid ranking of No. 30 in assists per game from a year ago. This stems from the isolation-style basketball that Anthony and Smith played, which simply will not win an NBA championship.

New York has a high number of point guards, and it's time it moves the ball as well as it should.

 

7. Houston Rockets

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In 2012-13, the Houston Rockets went 45-37 with a roster that didn't come together until weeks before the start of the regular season. From 2007 to 2011, Dwight Howard led the Orlando Magic to four consecutive 50-plus win seasons.

In 2012-13, Orlando went 20-62 in its first season without Howard. Not much else changed.

That's all you need to know to buy into the theory that the Rockets will be one of the NBA's top title contenders. James Harden has entered superstar territory after a monster 2012-13 campaign, and one year later, he'll actually have an interior worth talking about.

With all due respect to Omer Asik, it's phenomenal that Houston was able to win 45 games when its top interior scorer had hands of stone.

Howard's impact will be on defense, which leads some to criticize the way he played with the Los Angeles Lakers. Here's what the Lakers don't want you to know: L.A. allowed 97.8 points per 48 minutes with Howard on the floor and 107.2 per 48 when he was on the bench, per NBA.com.

That's a 9.4 point-per-48-minutes difference, and that's why Houston will make the leap in 2013-14.

 

6. Chicago Bulls

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Without the presence of Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls are a force in the Eastern Conference. With a world-class defense, a Top 5 head coach and a revamped second unit, Chicago has enough to take any team to the limit—including their bitter rival Miami Heat.

With Rose, Chicago now has the closer it needs to become an NBA championship contender.

The Bulls have a starting lineup with four All-Stars in Rose, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. At shooting guard, Jimmy Butler has made tremendous strides, becoming a lock-down defender and shooting 47.5 percent from beyond the arc after the All-Star Break.

The key for Chicago will be Rose's health and Butler's continued development into an all-around contributor.

Chicago returns strong reserves in Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich and Marquis Teague and now adds sharpshooters Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell. Dunleavy will be the key player, as he shot 42.8 percent from beyond the arc in 2012-13 and 43.8 percent during the playoffs.

Rose's level of play will determine whether or not Chicago contends for an NBA championship, but the Bulls are a true force with or without him.

 

5. Oklahoma City Thunder

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have the second-best player in the world, Kevin Durant and a Top 10 force in Russell Westbrook. OKC also has the league's premier rim protector in Serge Ibaka, and defensive menaces in Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha.

As far as proven commodities, however, that's literally it.

Neither Perkins nor Sefolosha will provide much help on offense, and Ibaka has been exposed as a player who is limited to mid-range jump shooting. He could make strides, and both Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb could emerge as strong scorers, but that's all speculation.

What we know is that Durant and Westbrook are the only players on the roster who can consistently create their own shot. That's bad news with Westbrook still sidelined by a knee injury.

A damaging blow, to say the least.

It's senseless to bet against Kevin Durant, but this is going to be a long season for Oklahoma City.

As the Western Conference continues to get stronger, the Thunder seem to have taken a few steps back. Lamb is being trusted to perform at the level of Kevin Martin, and Jackson is being turned to for Westbrook's production.

Both of those expectations are surprising, and it all leads to one question: why has it taken this long for OKC to realize it needs a low-post scoring threat to take the pressure off of Durant?

I'm giving Durant the benefit of the doubt at No. 5, but I do it with skepticism.

 

4. Indiana Pacers

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Call me old-fashioned, but I firmly believe the team that reaches the Eastern Conference Finals and improves during the offseason should be viewed as a Top 5 team. That's the case for the Indiana, which returns its core from 2012-13 and makes dramatic upgrades across the board.

That's not anywhere near hyperbole.

It all starts with Danny Granger, who was the team's best scorer and perimeter defender until missing all but five games in 2012-13. Granger will be healthy for the 2013-14 campaign and will bring back his career averages of 18.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists on 38.4 percent shooting from distance.

From there, it's all about improving a horrendous bench.

Seeing as the Pacers lacked household-name-value in their starting lineup in 2012-13, it's stunning to note that the second unit ranked amongst the worst in the NBA. Per HoopsStats.com, Indiana's bench was 29th in scoring, 30th in field goal percentage and 29th in defensive efficiency.

Not only has Indiana added Solomon Hill, Luis Scola and C.J. Watson, but either Granger or Lance Stephenson will join the second unit. Good luck stopping George Hill, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert when they actually have support from the bench.

It's scary how much better Indiana will be in 2013-14 than it was in 2012-13.

 

3. Los Angeles Clippers

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In 2012-13, the only thing holding the Los Angeles Clippers back from being a true title contender was the crippling absence of a half-court offense. L.A. ranked among the league's best on defense and also scored at a high rate but struggled to produce when games slowed down.

The Clippers decided to address that need by hiring a head coach who specializes in limiting the fast break, and adding a crop of offensive-minded players who thrive in the half-court.

The key to L.A. being ranked No. 3 is Doc Rivers, who has three Conference Finals appearances since 2008. Rivers is known for leading elite defenses, which shouldn't be too much of an issue for a Clippers squad that was No. 4 in points allowed per game in 2012-13.

More importantly, Rivers took an athletically-inept Boston Celtics squad to the promise land by promoting ball movement and maximizing the strengths of players in a motion offense.

As for the players, L.A. added the likes of Reggie Bullock, Darren Collison, Jared Dudley, Antawn Jamison, Byron Mullens and J.J. Redick. Bullock, Dudley and Redick are all extremely efficient shooters, while Jamison and Mullens are capable interior scorers who can step out for a jumper.

The Clippers may have shot relatively well from three in 2012-13, but one year later, there are genuine sharpshooters in a Rivers offense. We haven't even touched on the presence of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford and DeAndre Jordan.

For what it's worth, L.A. is my pick to win the Western Conference.

 

2. San Antonio Spurs

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The San Antonio Spurs return virtually the same team that won 58 regular season games and came within a Ray Allen buzzer-beater of winning the 2013 NBA championship. The loss of Gary Neal hurts, but the addition of Marco Belinelli should offset the damage.

All in all, this is the same Spurs team that we've come to respect on a yearly basis.

During the 2013 NBA playoffs, Tony Parker proved that he's one of the best players in the league, and anyone who argues against that didn't watch the postseason. Tim Duncan is still going strong, and the Spurs clearly believe in Tiago Splitter's future.

The major question for San Antonio is how long can Duncan, 37, and Manu Ginobili, 36, play each night?

Questions aside, this is still the same Spurs team that led the league in assists per game in 2012-13, preaching ball movement in a Euro-style motion offense. The selflessness that San Antonio displays masks the deficiencies of specific players and thus creates a perennial power.

Until father time actually catches up with San Antonio, it'd be foolish to bet against them.

 

1. Miami Heat

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The Miami Heat are the two-time defending NBA champions. LeBron James is on the roster, as are Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, and the Heat have added significant pieces to a bench that continues to grow stronger.

Why would any other team be ranked No. 1?

The Heat are led by the best player in the world, LeBron, and a pair of superstars, Bosh and Wade, who continue to redeem themselves during the postseason. That trio is still the best in the league, and until Miami is dethroned, it will remain the best overall team.

Three consecutive finals appearances and two titles trump any argument that detractors may attempt to use.

Miami's bench is what the world will be watching, as picks Michael Beasley and Greg Oden search for a rebound season. Both have the talent necessary to achieve said goal, and if they're able to, Miami will be close to unstoppable.

Power rankings may be subjective, but anyone who puts a team above Miami at this juncture is wrong.

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