Feel the power, everyone! FEEL THE POWER! THE 2013-14 NBA SEASON IS (ALMOST) HERE!
With all that power flowing through the autumn air, how could anyone resist putting together pre-regular-season power rankings?
Lining up the league end-to-end in late October may seem premature, but the preseason (which is way too long, by the way) has granted us more than a glimpse of what everyone has to offer.
And, really, if you've followed the goings-on of The Association since the end of last season, you'd have to have some idea as to who's better, who's best and who's not even close.
So, whether you've been tracking every transaction like an amateur GM or are just tuning into the hoops scene after a summer focused on baseball and vacation time, read on to find out how all 30 squads stack up on the eve of what should be the most exciting campaign in recent memory.
(Note: These rankings are based on how yours truly thinks each team will fare based on the current condition of its players. Hence, teams coping with significant injuries at the outset will likely see the impact of their absences reflected in the rankings.)
The Philadelphia 76ers' recent announcement that Nerlens Noel will probably miss the 2013-14 season in its entirety merely confirms what we've already long suspected, if not assumed.
That this team is going to stink, perhaps historically so.
I'm not saying you should expect the Sixers to break their own record for fewest wins over the course of a full season (nine, in 1972-73). After all, there are enough terrible teams on Philly's schedule to allow for at least 10 wins in the City of Brotherly Love.
Even so, it's bound to be a close call, especially if general manager Sam Hinkie continues his roster teardown by flipping Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young for rebuild-facilitating assets.
"Good" news: Eric Bledsoe is expected to sign an extension with the Phoenix Suns before the end of the month, per Andrew Gilstrap of Arizona Sports.
Not-so-good news: The Suns have yet to play a single meaningful game with Bledsoe in the lineup. His play during the preseason was uneven for the most part, though his line of 21-7-7 with two steals and a block in Phoenix's final tuneup was encouraging, to say the least.
Somewhat-good news: Bledsoe will have plenty of time to work out the kinks of being a starting point guard in the NBA. The Suns should be awful this season and next, especially after dumping what seems like half their roster on the Washington Wizards. That'll give the former Clippers super-sub ample opportunity to learn the ropes as both a basketball player and a leader.
That being said, there's at least one man in Phoenix who can't be too happy about all of this: Goran Dragic, whose job will likely be in jeopardy if Bledsoe pans out as planned.
For a team that's expected to tank for a top pick in the 2014 draft, the Utah Jazz sure are keeping busy.
First, the Jazz extended Derrick Favors for four years and $47 million. Then came word from ESPN's Marc Stein that Utah's looking to accomplish something similar with swingman Gordon Hayward.
Now, Gordon Monson of The Salt Lake Tribune is imploring the Jazz to trade for Jimmer Fredette, the former BYU standout who's currently buried on the Sacramento Kings' bench. Fredette would make for an interesting fit as a temporary fill-in for injured rookie Trey Burke and a sweet-shooting sixth man thereafter.
And if Jimmer still stinks, he'll "help" the Jazz move that much closer to scoring a blue-chip prospect in the next draft.
The Boston Celtics will have a hard time hanging around the NBA's cellar once Rajon Rondo returns. The All-Star point guard recently revealed via NBA.com's Marc D'Amico that he could be ready for contact in practice sooner than anyone originally anticipated.
That still leaves Rondo a ways away from playing in an actual NBA game. Until then, it'll be up to Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford (GULP!) to lead a team of rookies, misfits and spare parts for 48 minutes a night.
The Orlando Magic were surprisingly competitive at the outset of the 2012-13 season. They managed to stitch together an 11-12 record over their first 23 games, despite the glaring absence of Dwight Howard, before injuries predictably sent them hurtling into the "upper echelon" of the lottery.
They could get off to a decent start again this season, especially if Victor Oladipo parlays his strong preseason into a legitimate Rookie of the Year campaign. Steady growth from the likes of Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris would be a boon to those efforts as well.
And if GM Rob Hennigan can turn some of his veterans (i.e. Arron Afflalo, Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis) into draft picks, young players and expiring contracts, even better.
Truth be told, though, the Magic would probably prefer to see this season end with a top-three pick than with, say, a ninth- or 10th-place finish in the East, if they can help it.
I know it's only the preseason, but the Charlotte Bobcats might be significantly better than anyone thinks will be the case. They didn't allow an opponent to score 100 points in any of their tuneups, with only the Cleveland Cavaliers cracking the 90-point plateau.
Who knows? Maybe new head coach Steve Clifford will get the 'Cats back to playing the caliber of defense that they were when Larry Brown led them to the playoffs in 2010. Maybe Al Jefferson will be worth the $41 million investment, if only because he's a competent offensive option, the likes of which the 'Cats have lacked for their entire existence. Maybe the time and sweat that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist poured into shooting jumpers over the summer with legendary marksman Mark Price will pay off with a superb sophomore season.
Even then, Michael Jordan's motley crew would need to catch quite a few breaks to avoid ending their tenure as the Bobcats—they're due to reclaim the Hornets' moniker in 2014-15—with another trip to the lottery.
Speaking of new beginnings, the Sacramento Kings have to be ecstatic, don't they? They're still in California's capital, thanks to the efforts of Mayor (and former NBA All-Star) Kevin Johnson, new owner Vivek Ranadive and, of course, the team's legion of loyal, tortured fans.
Now comes the hard part: clearing out the toxic marsh into which the franchise had dissolved to make way for a bright, new future.
That'll be the biggest task of 2013-14 for new GM Pete D'Alessandro and rookie head coach Mike Malone. The onus is on them to identify who should stay, who should go and who the team should pursue in the future.
So far, they've done well to extend DeMarcus Cousins through the 2017-18 season. If the new regime can find some way to get through to Boogie, he could be just the sort of superstar building block this team needs to extricate itself from the quagmire of failure that the Maloofs left behind.
In time, anyway. This upcoming campaign will be a painful-but-necessary transition for a franchise that's thirsted so long for positive change.
Don't worry, Los Angeles Lakers fans. This year's team shouldn't have too much trouble scoring, with or without Kobe Bryant. A new slew of shot-happy athletes on the wings and the pairing of Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman down low all but assures them of as much.
Then again, the Lakers will have a tough time running Mike D'Antoni's spread pick-and-roll system to its proper design if Steve Nash isn't healthy.
More importantly, this squad is going to struggle defensively, regardless of who's fit and who isn't. They're a bit short on size and rebounding and lost their two best individual defenders (Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace) over the course of a troublesome summer.
At the very least, Kobe's recovery from a torn Achilles will keep the campaign interesting, even if/when the losses start to mount.
The Toronto Raptors could swing either way this season, as far as progress is concerned.
On the one hand, they could come out of the gate strong, with a clear-eyed Rudy Gay leading an exciting roster full of young athletes like DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and second-year studs Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. On the other hand, they could sputter from the get-go, giving GM Masai Ujiri cause enough to shop Gay, Lowry, DeRozan and Amir Johnson to catalyze a full-fledged franchise makeover.
Either way, the Raptors will be a team worth tracking, if only because the course of their season will be so unpredictable.
(Unless you're a long-suffering Toronto sports fan, in which case another bad season by the Raps will be precisely what you expected.)
It wasn't all that long ago that I had high hopes for the latest edition of the Washington Wizards. They finished the 2012-13 season strong once John Wall returned from his knee injury and were even better when Bradley Beal joined Wall in the lineup.
But Wall has struggled during the preseason, shooting under 40 percent from the field so far.
The Wizards, though, have already moved to ensure that Emeka Okafor's herniated disk won't be the straw that breaks this camel's back. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Okafor and a protected 2014 first-rounder are on their way to the Phoenix Suns, with Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown, Kendall Marshall and Malcolm Lee headed back to D.C.
It's a risky, win-now move for a GM (Ernie Grunfeld) and an owner (Ted Leonsis) who are under pressure to put together a team that does just that. Moreover, Washington's frontcourt rotation remains troublingly thin, with tons of pressure on Gortat and Nene to stay healthy and perform, lest head coach Randy Wittman turn to Kevin Seraphin and Jan Vesely for "relief."
But if the pieces fall into place, these Wizards could be good enough to ensure that the pick they gave up won't be worth much anyway.
Like the Wizards, the Cleveland Cavaliers have pinned their playoff hopes on an exciting, young point guard (Kyrie Irving) and a front line filled with oft-injured and/or developing bigs. There's enough talent on hand for the Cavs to sneak into the postseason as one of the bottom-three seeds in the East.
But unless Andrew Bynum is healthy and newcomers like Jarrett Jack and rookie Anthony Bennett make significant contributions to the cause, this team will look a lot like the one that won just 24 games last season.
At the very least, Mike Brown's return to Cleveland should portend a much-needed turnaround of a defense that collapsed into disrepair under Byron Scott. If Brown can do that much in year one, the Cavs should have enough scoring on the other end to climb another rung up the ladder in the Eastern Conference.
Not without Bynum, though. As with Philly last year, his knees hold the keys to Cleveland's postseason fate.
To all you NBA League Pass subscribers out there, keep an eye on the New Orleans Pelicans.
(And not just because you're curious to see what their new uniforms and home-court design look like.)
They're somewhat thin up front and come equipped with their fair share of injury concerns. But if this group stays healthy, basketball fans could be treated to a "repeat" of the leap taken by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009-10.
Eric Gordon's healthy and shooting well again. Ryan Anderson is always a threat to go off from distance. The additions of All-Star Jrue Holiday and former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans have made New Orleans' collection of young perimeter talent arguably the most intriguing of its kind in the NBA.
Most importantly, Anthony Davis has looked like an absolute beast in the preseason. If he's ready to take the next step toward superstardom after an injury-riddled rookie campaign, the Pellies just might celebrate their new nickname with a postseason appearance.
Perhaps I'm underrating just how important Josh Smith was to the Atlanta Hawks, but I have a hard time envisioning this team falling too far out of the playoff picture—unless GM Danny Ferry decides to strip mine the roster.
The interior tandem of Al Horford and Paul Millsap should give the Hawks one of the best starting frontcourts in basketball. Those two will have plenty of room to operate, assuming shooters like Kyle Korver, Lou Williams and John Jenkins stay sharp from the outside.
Jeff Teague figures to be newly invigorated by the four-year, $32 million deal he signed with Atlanta this summer. And if he's not, there's every reason to believe that German rookie Dennis Schroeder, who's had NBA insiders buzzing this preseason, could render Teague expendable at some point.
As usual, the Hawks won't blow anyone away, but with Mike Budenholzer at the helm, they should be competent enough to snag one of the last three playoff spots in the East.
I'd be more bullish on the Detroit Pistons' prospects this season if not for the rash of injuries with which they've already been struck. Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Jennings have each played in just one preseason game, while rookie Gigi Datome has yet to factor into any of the Pistons' tuneups.
That doesn't mean the Pistons won't be able to hold their own early on or that they won't improve over time. The front line of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith could be downright menacing, assuming new head coach Mo Cheeks has a handle on how best to juggle those guys without clogging up the court.
But these early setbacks to the Pistons' guards and wings don't bode well for this team's hopes of avoiding yet another slow start—even less so when you consider the pressure that'll fall on Will Bynum and a past-due Chauncey Billups to perform in the interim.
I'll say this much about the Milwaukee Bucks: They would appear to have the framework in place to build a playoff-caliber squad, with enough upside to think this team will improve over the long haul.
The blueprint is simple: bother opponents on defense with rangy athletes (i.e. Larry Sanders, John Henson, Ekpe Udoh) and empower a stable of shooters (i.e. Ersan Ilyasova, O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler, Carlos Delfino, Gary Neal, Brandon Knight) to jack up threes as they see fit.
And in due time, develop Giannis Antetokounmpo into one of the league's most lovable young stars.
If Larry Drew can put all the pieces together, perhaps Milwaukee's plan to simply stay competitive will work out after all.
Brace yourselves, Denver Nuggets fans. The first month or so of the 2013-14 season is going to be rough.
The Nuggets are scheduled to play 13 of their first 21 games away from the (friendly) thin air of the Pepsi Center. All the while, they'll be adjusting to life with a new head coach (Brian Shaw) and a new GM (Tim Connelly) and without their best player (Andre Iguodala) and most prolific scorer (Danilo Gallinari) from last season.
For the most part, though, Denver's road-heavy schedule isn't riddled with tough teams. There's also more than enough talent and depth on hand for the Nuggets to weather the early storm and remain competitive in the Western Conference, especially if Ty Lawson takes another step forward in his development.
With all of these obstacles ahead of them, the Nuggets figure to fall off considerably from their 57-win pace from 2012-13. Then again, expectations were pretty low for this team after its 11-12 start last season...
That might not be the most exciting prediction, but it's spot-on considering what the Blazers are working with. They were surprisingly competitive for much of last season before injuries, bottom-five defense and an abysmal bench sapped this squad of its energy and hope down the stretch.
Don't expect the Blazers to succumb to any 13-game losing streaks this time around, though—as they did to close out 2012-13. The new combination of wily veterans (Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Earl Watson) and gifted youngsters (Thomas Robinson, rookies CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe) among the reserves should help the Blazers stay afloat if/when their starters succumb to injury and fatigue.
But this team's success will ultimately hinge on those very starters, as well it should. Good health from the trio of Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, along with a step forward (defensively) from Damian Lillard, could be enough to put Portland back in the postseason as the seventh or eighth seed out West.
It's time for Kevin Love to get back to logging ridiculous double-doubles every night. It's time for Ricky Rubio, now nearly 20 months removed from his knee injury, to complement his usual basketball wizardry with a pinch of perimeter shooting.
It's time for those two to spread the wealth to Minnesota's interior bangers (Nikola Pekovic, Gorgui Dieng), outside marksmen (Kevin Martin, J.J. Barea, Chase Budinger) and basket-attacking slashers (Derrick Williams, Alexey Shved, Corey Brewer, Shabazz Muhammad).
And it's time for the Timberwolves to put an end to their decade-long playoff drought once and for all.
Dirk Nowitzki missed the first two months of the 2012-13 season, didn't hit his stride until March and was forced to carry a team that burned through Darren Collison, Derek Fisher and Mike James at point guard.
Yet the Dallas Mavericks still managed to cobble together a 41-41 record and finish just four games shy of a playoff spot out West.
Dallas' complete and utter lack of size inside is of grave concern, and signing Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon as their starting backcourt all but condemns the Mavs to a year riddled with bottom-of-the-barrel defense. But this team is going to score in bunches, which should be enough to help Big D sneak back into the postseason picture in the Western Conference.
Believe it or not, things are looking up for the New York Knicks.
J.R. Smith, Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin are all getting healthy, just in time for the start of the regular season. Andrea Bargnani shot relatively well during the preseason, and Tyson Chandler, in the wake of an injury-riddled season in 2012-13, hasn't been restricted in his movements by any means.
All of which is to say that Carmelo Anthony's supporting cast looks ready to deliver another strong showing in New York. So long as Anthony can still score at an MVP level, and the defense looks more like it did in 2011-12 (when it ranked among the league's elite) than it did last year (when it was patently average), the Knicks might have another exciting campaign in store after all.
The Houston Rockets still have plenty of work to do before they can be considered a top-tier title contender. There are fierce competitions at point guard (between Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley) and power forward (between Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Omer Asik) to sort out, potential trades (involving Lin and Asik) to explore and a partnership between Dwight Howard and James Harden to strengthen.
That being said, the pieces are pretty much in place for this team to be a force of some reckoning in the Western Conference now and for years to come. If Howard's healthy, he, along with Harden, gives Houston two of the top 10-to-12 players in the NBA today.
The Rockets also have the shooters to successfully orchestrate a spread pick-and-roll offense around their two superstars. Houston will need Dwight (and Asik) to shore up the defense, but all things considered, this team could be a late bloomer in the chase for the Larry O'Brien Trophy come spring.
Don't be alarmed, folks. I'm not putting the Oklahoma City Thunder this low out of some misguided sense of disrespect for their championship chops. Once Russell Westbrook rounds into shape and someone emerges from the roster to be the team's next sixth man, the Thunder will be just fine.
For now, though, it might be irresponsible to rank OKC even as high as I have. As great a player as Kevin Durant is, he can't keep the Thunder among the league's elite all by his lonesome. The first month or so of the season will be rough for OKC, unless Serge Ibaka steps up as something more than just a souped-up role player.
The onus is on head coach Scott Brooks to make lemonade with the lemons (i.e. Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Reggie Jackson, Steve Adams) on his bench, and for KD to carry a massive chunk of the scoring load in the interim.
Once the supporting cast is sorted out and Westbrook is back at full strength, then we can talk about bumping the Thunder into the league's upper echelon.
The Brooklyn Nets must be thanking their lucky stars now that Deron Williams is healthy enough to play. His pre-training-camp ankle injury threatened to set back what already figures to be the tricky congealing of a "microwave" title contender.
As important as it is for Brook Lopez to continue to produce at an All-Star level, and as well as the Nets did to nab a slew of savvy veterans (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, Andrei Kirilenko) to fill the holes on their roster this summer, there's no way this project to pry open a one-year championship window would work without a hefty helping of spectacular play from D-Will at the point. Simply put, he has to be Brooklyn's best player for the Nets to have a shot at making team owner Mikhail Prokhorov look anything but foolhardy for predicting that they'd take home the title by 2015.
Because chances are this squad won't be anywhere near that good next season, assuming Pierce and KG both (flirt with) retire(ment) after this season. Even if they don't, the Nets won't have any sort of financial flexibility next summer with which to upgrade a roster that's likely to fall short of those lofty expectations.
Other than Tayshaun Prince's struggle with a stomach ailment, per Ronald Tillery of The Commercial Appeal (Memphis), the Memphis Grizzlies will enter the 2013-14 season with a clean bill of health and a roster that closely resembles that of this past spring's Western Conference finalist.
Which, on the one hand, is great, because it means that the Grizzlies kept a really good team intact. On the other hand, that Memphis squad got swept out of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs, due in large part to a debilitating deficit of perimeter shooting.
The Grizzlies' solution? Bringing back Mike Miller, who's been so riddled with injuries in recent years that he was cut this summer by the Miami Heat, despite his key contributions to that team's last two championship runs.
As a lifelong follower of the Los Angeles Lakers, I have no problem with the Los Angeles Clippers covering up the purple-and-gold banners with ones of their own. Staples Center is their home court, too, and they should treat it as such.
But truly owning the building will require much more from the Clippers than just some crafty redecoration. They'll have to make sure that the team they've assembled—which may well be the most talented this tortured franchise has ever seen—delivers on its championship-caliber promise.
Which, it turns out, could be a problem. Sure, it's great that Doc Rivers added sharpshooters like J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to open up the floor for the dynamic pick-and-roll pairing of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. But this team is dangerously thin up front, with only Ryan Hollins, Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison to step in if/when Griffin and DeAndre Jordan run into foul trouble or prove ineffective in crunch time.
This may be CP3's team, but the Clips won't so much as sniff a championship of their own unless their two young giants step up their respective games, particularly on the defensive end.
The pieces are falling into place for the Golden State Warriors to put together a historic season.
Andrew Bogut's as healthy as he's been in years, and he won't have to concern himself with earning a contract extension. Stephen Curry seems to be in good shape as well and will now have the support of Andre Iguodala on both ends to go along with his "Splash Bros" partnership next to Klay Thompson.
The key, once again, will be how hard and how well this team plays on the defensive end and on the glass for Mark Jackson. If Bogut's as fit as he seems to be, he'll make all the difference as a rim protector, paint patroller and rebound collector for the Warriors.
Golden State will need to catch fire come playoff time to best last spring's results, but there's no other team in the NBA as well equipped to do just that.
I'd rank the Chicago Bulls slightly higher if not health issues of Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich. According to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, Noah (groin) and Hinrich (concussion) could both be in the lineup for their season opener on Tuesday, but it's not a good sign that they're already dealing with injuries, however minor.
These developments, in addition to Jimmy Butler's recent three-game absence on account of a bruised left knee and Derrick Rose's year-and-a-half off after tearing his ACL, don't bode well for the Bulls, especially if Tom Thibodeau drives his players into the ground over the course of the season, as he's known to do.
But if this team's healthy come April and May, it'll be right in the mix to knock off the Miami Heat and charge toward its first championship since Michael Jordan last suited up for Chicago.
If Danny Granger were on just about any other team, losing him to yet another injury (this time involving his calf, per RealGM) would be a devastating blow.
But the Indiana Pacers are uniquely positioned to survive (if not thrive) in Granger's absence. They managed to win 49 games in 2012-13 despite the fact that Granger only played five times on account of a bum knee. They then pushed the Miami Heat to the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals while Granger watched from the sideline.
The bench that Granger's return was supposed to strengthen isn't so desperate for his production, now that Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland have come aboard. More importantly, the guys charged with replacing Granger in the starting lineup—Paul George and Lance Stephenson—won't be caught off-guard by the greater responsibility they'll have to bear.
So long as this team's core is healthy and intact, the Pacers will be primed to challenge the Miami Heat's supremacy in the East, with or without Granger's help.
The San Antonio Spurs find themselves ranked second in the NBA to start the season in part because most of their competitors are either banged up or replete with holes.
But mostly because the Spurs are going to be really, really, REALLY good for the umpteenth season running. They've returned nearly everyone from last year's shoulda-been championship team save for Gary Neal, who was replaced by the more versatile Marco Belinelli. The Italian swingman should be a solid insurance plan for Manu Ginobili, whose physical decomposition has become an annual cause for concern.
The more troubling ticking time bomb, though, could be Tony Parker. The Spurs will have to carefully monitor their All-Star point guard's minutes, lest they allow him to break down after spending the summer carrying France to its first EuroBasket title.
That being said, if Parker remains among the five-to-10 best players in the NBA and gets plenty of support from an age-defying Tim Duncan and an ever-improving Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio should have yet another 50-win season locked up, with a strong championship chase to follow.
No, Greg Oden's return to the NBA isn't the key to the Miami Heat's three-peat, contrary to what Charles Barkley believes. The Heat's fate still rests squarely on the shoulders of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
That's not to say, though, that Oden can't or won't have a significant impact on Miami's pursuit of history. His size, strength and skill on both ends of the floor will come in handy when the Heat find themselves going toe-to-toe against teams with big, bulky frontcourts (i.e. the Bulls, Pacers and Nets) in the postseason.
But Oden's contributions (or lack thereof) won't matter if the rest of the role players wear down after three long, grueling journeys to the NBA Finals; if Bosh doesn't get his groove back; or if Wade succumbs to his own mortality down the stretch once again.
And, of course, if LeBron doesn't take yet another step toward all-time greatness.
To be sure, he probably will...which is why nobody should count out the two-time defending champs.
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