This year, it's the Eastern Conference that could undergo a significant shift after Marcin Gortat was traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Washington Wizards. ESPN's Marc Stein first reported the news, and it's a doozy, as the Wiz Kids replace an injured big man with a quality 5 who could push them firmly into playoff contention.
But how high can they rise? Will they make the playoffs now? Are they postseason locks?
Have they—GASP—cracked the top five teams in the East, a group that previously seemed set in stone?
That's certainly a compelling storyline, but it's by no means the only one addressed here as we run through record projections for all 30 teams in the NBA.
I'll be starting with the Eastern Conference, going over each team from No. 15 through No. 1, then proceeding in similar fashion with the Western Conference.
So, you can see who I'm predicting to make the playoffs. Who do you have?
This is not dribbling a basketball. It's called traveling.
With any other team in the NBA, I feel like that would be immediately understood and remedied, but the Philadelphia 76ers are so bad this year that they're going to struggle with even the basic rules of the game.
How exactly is this team going to win double-digit games?
I just can't see it happening at this point, not unless Michael Carter-Williams suddenly looks far more comfortable than he did during the preseason and Thaddeus Young unexpectedly thrives in the No. 1 role.
The Sixers will need to catch another bottom feeder on an off night in order to emerge victoriously, and that's not going to happen with any semblance of frequency. There just isn't a lot of talent in place, and the team will be actively trying to avoid winning games without making its tanking strategy too blindingly obvious.
Why else do you think Nerlens Noel is already done for the season?
There's a lot to get excited about when discussing the Orlando Magic, and it should be enough for the Amway Center to be filled to about 95 percent of capacity for the average home game.
Fans just can't expect many wins.
Victor Oladipo enters the season as the heavy favorite for Rookie of the Year, and he's by no means the only fun, young talent on the squad. Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic and Maurice Harkless qualify there as well.
But no one on the Magic is truly established, and the few players with experience are declining or failing to break out. I'm talking to you, Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo.
Orlando's season will be filled with an interesting mix of excitement and ineptitude. Even if it emerges as an underrated League Pass team, it still won't be anywhere near the group of teams contending for playoff spots.
Avery Bradley and Vitor Faverani high-fiving each other. Your 2013-14 Boston Celtics, everyone!
That's obviously a bit of an over-exaggeration.
Rajon Rondo will eventually return, but we still have no idea when he'll make his season debut after tearing his ACL midway through the 2012-13 campaign. If he spits on the reasonable timetable and returns well before Christmas, then Boston will push 30 wins.
But we still have no clue what to expect.
In his stead, Jeff Green will be the go-to offensive player, and that's problematic for Beantown. While Green could push into All-Star contention as a second or third option, he's not made to carry the scoring load, especially with a point guard (Bradley) who shouldn't really be playing at the 1.
Boston is going to struggle tremendously at the whole trying to score points thing, and that will remain true even when Rondo returns to action. Although he's in the top-10 conversation as an individual, this roster isn't built to work with him running the show.
The Charlotte Bobcats aren't true bottom feeders anymore, although they're certainly going to be one of the worst teams in the NBA.
Acquiring Al Jefferson helps take loads of pressure of Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson, and his presence will allow the team to play—for the first time in a while—efficient basketball on the offensive end of the court. That will be especially true if either Michael Kidd-Gilchrist develops a jumper or Cody Zeller makes a seamless transition from Indiana to the NBA.
I'd bet on the latter happening, but there's also a chance both come true.
Defense is going to be the problem for the Bobcats, especially given the inevitable Zeller-Jefferson tandem in the frontcourt. But that's okay, because Charlotte is still trying to collect talented pieces rather than win games.
The Bobcats will fall behind the Boston Celtics in the standings if A) there's a major injury to one of their best players or B) Rajon Rondo returns sooner than expected. But for now, Charlotte actually has a more talented roster than Boston.
How's that for a sentence you never thought you'd read?
The Milwaukee Bucks must determine what direction they're going rather early on in the 2013-14 campaign.
If they're planning on contending for a playoff spot, they could actually get away with playing a veteran lineup of Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders. That would let them at least sniff the No. 8 seed, even if they'd ultimately fall short.
But that's a dumb decision, and I'm ultimately counting on general manager John Hammond sending a message that the young talents need to be thrown into the fire. I'm talking about Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Henson more than anyone else.
While Butler and Ilyasova are both quality players, neither possesses the same level of upside as the lanky youngsters I just mentioned.
Plus, should that mandate be passed down from the front office, we'd get to find out which is longer: the combined wingspan of an Antetokounmpo-Henson-Sanders frontcourt or the name appearing on the back of the Greek Freak's jersey.
The Toronto Raptors have to open the season in strong fashion.
Nine of the 14 games the team plays before we hit December are against teams that I have projected to make the playoffs, and it's absolutely imperative that Toronto stays at .500 through that stretch. If not, you can expect moves to be made.
New general manager Masai Ujiri has never had qualms about blowing up a roster, and he has minimal fingerprints on this one. He inherited most of the lineup, and that means no one is safe. Not even Rudy Gay.
If the Raptors get off to a strong start, they'll be allowed to stick together. But if they don't...
They're coming in at 39 wins because they will indeed begin the season with a .500 record or better by the time December rolls around. This squad has looked fantastic during the preseason, as everything is falling into place.
DeMar DeRozan and Gay are playing the most efficient basketball of their careers, and Jonas Valanciunas is proving that he's worth the hype. If that trio continues to look solid and Kyle Lowry stays healthy, the Raptors will truly contend for a playoff spot.
But that doesn't mean they'll get one.
The Detroit Pistons are a complete enigma.
A talented enigma, but an enigma nonetheless.
With Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, the team could potentially boast four of the top 50 players in the NBA. But that doesn't guarantee that they all work together nicely.
Unfortunately, the preseason hasn't shed any light on what will happen, as Brandon Jennings missed all but one game while he was dealing with wisdom teeth issues. I'll refrain from making jokes about the wisdom of his shot selection with the Milwaukee Bucks.
I have major questions about the team's ability to space the floor, but so far, J-Smoove has proved that none of them really matter. Following his game-winning three-pointer that somehow seemed to defy the laws of physics, Smith is shooting 40.6 percent from beyond the arc.
Now it's Monroe who is proving to be most problematic. He hasn't worked well with his two talented frontcourt members, shooting only 40 percent from the field and often looking uncomfortable.
The Pistons are going to have games in which they struggle mightily, but they also have enough pure talent that they could barely sneak into the playoffs. Still, this isn't the season to get excited about.
Future campaigns look even more promising for the Motor City.
Dennis Green would love the Atlanta Hawks.
Just as is the case every year, they are who we think they are: a mediocre squad capable of advancing to the playoffs in the Eastern Conference before quickly bowing out at the hands of an elite team. The Hawks may as well define the phrase "upper-level mediocrity."
Josh Smith is gone, but that won't matter much. Paul Millsap is capable of ensuring there isn't too much of a drop-off, and the rest of the team has only gotten deeper.
That said, the preseason has shown that Lou Williams is sorely needed, as the team has often struggled to create offense deep into the shot clock. If he takes too much time recovering from his torn ACL, the Hawks could very well fall back out of the postseason picture, although such a thing seems unlikely.
And even if Williams does pull a Derrick Rose and sit out once medically cleared, Dennis Schroder has shown enough signs that the backcourt will probably remain in working order. Probably.
Still, the pressure is on Jeff Teague to step up his game and become more of an offensive leader. Atlanta's upside rests almost completely on the shoulders of No. 0.
The Cleveland Cavaliers appear to be clicking even without Andrew Bynum suiting up.
Kyrie Irving is an absolute stud. There's no doubt about that, but he's primed to get even better now that he's passing with more confidence than ever before. The former No. 1 pick has always had good distributing skills, but his court vision is terrific, and—perhaps even more importantly—he's starting to trust his teammates.
But you already knew that Irving was one of the premier point guards in the NBA.
What really allows the Cavs to rise up the ranks in the Eastern Conference is the play of Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson.
Both should factor heavily into the discussion for Most Improved Player, and Thompson is my preseason pick to take home the award. Switching away from a left-handed shooting stroke has worked wonders for the young big man, and he's been efficient from the field without being too much of a liability at the charity stripe.
The Cavaliers are an exciting team with unchecked potential, and their spot in the playoffs could gain "lock" status if Bynum starts to make an impact.
Injuries were already taking a toll on this lineup.
Emeka Okafor was potentially out for the season, and at the very least, he wouldn't have been returning until well after the calendars flip over to 2014. Chris Singleton could miss up to two months after fracturing a metatarsal in his left foot. Otto Porter has dealt with hip injuries that have kept him out of the training camp and preseason action.
The last injury is a big deal, as Porter's status as an NBA-ready rookie is under fire. It's hard enough to make the jump from college to the pros, much less after missing all of the time you're supposed to spend getting ready and building a rapport with your team.
But the first malady is no longer a worry.
According to ESPN's Marc Stein, the Wizards have traded Okafor to the Phoenix Suns—along with a first-round draft pick—for Marcin Gortat. All of a sudden, the Wizards seem like playoff locks with enough upside that they could move into one of the top-five seeds in the Eastern Conference.
A starting lineup of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter/Martell Webster/Trevor Ariza, Nene and Gortat is one of the better ones in the NBA, especially if Wall and Beal both break out to the extent most expect them to. Gortat gives them everything that they were missing in Okafor's stead, as he's a steady pick-and-roll player with rim-protecting skills that verge on elite.
The Wizards were a League Pass special before the out-of-nowhere deal. Now they're both that and a team close to true contention.
The 2013-14 New York Knicks are better than the 2012-13 version once J.R. Smith has returned and they're at full strength. Don't just compare their projected record to last year's 54-28 mark in a vacuum.
The five-win decline is the result of Smith's absence at the beginning of the year putting the team in a hole and the improvement shown by the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Derrick Rose makes the Chicago Bulls elite. The Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers both got markedly better over the offseason. And more importantly, a number of bottom-feeding teams improved dramatically and are now capable of stealing a game or two away from this slightly sub-elite squad.
So again, don't look at records in a vacuum.
The biggest question for New York this season is a simple one: If everything goes right, are the Knicks capable of winning a championship?
The answer is either a "no" or a hesitant "yes," as the team is utterly reliant on Carmelo Anthony for offense, and even the greatest scorers in NBA history are prone to shooting slumps in the playoffs.
Unless Iman Shumpert breaks out in a big way and everyone stays healthy, it's tough to envision the Knicks taking down one of the truly elite teams in the East over the course of a seven-game series then doing so again in the next round. Plus, we're one Tyson Chandler injury away from disaster.
The Brooklyn Nets are not last year's Los Angeles Lakers.
While they do have many new pieces in place, they actually mesh together, and everyone is aware of his role on the court. Plus, Jason Kidd's status as a first-year head coach shouldn't be much of a concern, as Lawrence Frank will help him along while the former point guard serves as somewhat of a figurehead and media spokesperson.
The most pressing concern for Brooklyn is the health of Deron Williams. And even that has been slightly alleviated by the play of Shaun Livingston and Tyshawn Taylor during the preseason. Unless D-Will is out for an extended period of time, the Nets have enough talent that they'll be just fine.
And how exactly are teams going to defend them?
Williams is a dynamic offensive player, and Joe Johnson can still score whenever the ball is in his hands. Paul Pierce is a tremendous offensive force, even as he ages. Kevin Garnett's mid-range jumper is one of the purest shots in basketball, and Brook Lopez is an offensive stud at center.
Add in Andrei Kirilenko as the sixth man, and there's no reason to doubt Brooklyn's ascent into the realm of true title contenders.
Even though he could potentially be the worst member of the starting lineup once Danny Granger returns to the court and forms a potent wing duo with Paul George, George Hill embodies the mentality of the Indiana Pacers.
He's an underrated point guard with a gritty mentality and a willingness to settle down on the defensive end of the court and win the game by holding the other team to a ridiculously low point total.
The Pacers aren't a glamorous basketball team, but they're a deadly one. Just like Hill.
And now that they've upgraded the bench in a big way—bringing back Granger allows either him or Lance Stephenson to function as the sixth man, and C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland and Luis Scola were all solid offseason additions—there won't be as many leads that slip away when the starters need a breather.
The Pacers are the first of the three teams in the Eastern Conference that could realistically earn the No. 1 seed. It won't happen, but it's by no means outside the realm of possibilities.
This Derrick Rose guy is pretty good.
Throughout the preseason, the dynamic point guard has looked no worse for the wear. He's attacking the basket like his life depends on it, picking apart defenses with a brutalizing crossover and that insane athleticism while actually hitting jumpers.
That last part is the best news of all. Rose has drilled over half the three-pointers he's attempted during the preseason, and it appears as though he used his rehab time to add to his already impressive game.
Preseason records don't actually matter, but it's telling that Rose has looked this good while steering Chicago to the league's only undefeated mark.
With him in the fold, Chicago ascends back up near the top of the Eastern Conference and should be able to push past the 60-win barrier. Plus, the defensive potential of this team is through the roof of the United Center.
Not only is Tom Thibodeau arguably the best defensive coach in basketball, but I have no clue how anyone is going to score on a five-man unit comprised of Rose, Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah.
The Miami Heat are still the top dogs in the Eastern Conference until proven otherwise.
There are only two ways that they could lose their stranglehold on conference supremacy: a major injury to LeBron James or a self-inflicted losing streak.
So, what do I mean by the latter?
The Heat know that unlike last year, they'll have to face two title-contending squads in the Eastern Conference playoffs before advancing to the NBA Finals. Maintaining health and fresh legs for all key players is of paramount importance, and that trumps the desire to earn the best record in the East.
If Erik Spoelstra is content with the progress Miami has shown, he could get complacent and start handing out a few DNPs to LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Without them in the lineup, Miami isn't going to be nearly as successful and could slip back behind one or two teams in the final standings.
Again, this would be self-inflicted.
The Heat are still the best team in the NBA, and that only becomes more true if someone like Michael Beasley or Greg Oden bucks the odds and becomes a quality rotation member. Believe it or not, that's possible, and Beasley has looked pretty solid throughout the preseason.
Before trading Marcin Gortat to the Washington Wizards, per ESPN's Marc Stein, the Phoenix Suns weren't going to be as bad as many thought.
After that move, they're quite clearly the least talented team in the Western Conference. That conference is loaded with quality squads from top to bottom, meaning that the Suns will have to rely on inter-conference matchups to win games.
The frontcourt is going to be atrocious, especially if Alex Len doesn't stay healthy. Is Viacheslav Kravtsov actually going to start games this year? That's not exactly a sentence I expected to type this year.
The positives are all about Eric Bledsoe and the future, which is a topic for another day.
The dynamic point guard who earned the "Mini LeBron" nickname during his tenure with the Los Angeles Clippers will be handed a starting role for the first time. If the preseason is any indication, he won't struggle on either end of the court.
Bledsoe has emerged as more than a pesky defender who relies on his athleticism to make an offensive impact; he's blossomed into a quality distributor who can create some offense for himself as well, and he already seems comfortable lining up next to Goran Dragic.
The Utah Jazz are going to be in some trouble during the 2013-14 campaign.
There's upside galore, with potential studs at each and every position, but not everyone is going to break out at one time. And if anyone does, he won't be a difference-maker until late in the season, long after the Jazz have committed to the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes.
Right now, there aren't many positive signs.
Trey Burke will be starting his rookie season behind the eight ball, missing part of the offseason and the beginning of the games that matter as he recovers from a broken finger. And as thin as the Jazz are at point guard, that's awfully problematic.
But the more disconcerting development is that while Derrick Favors looks like a breakout candidate thanks to his continued excellence on the glass, Gordon Hayward hasn't shown that he can be the No. 1 scoring option. And who else is capable of filling that role?
I'll save you time: no one.
The Sacramento Kings aren't good examples of Gestalt psychology. That branch of the field operates under the maxim that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and it's just not true in Sac-Town.
While the Kings have a number of great pieces in place, they just don't work together, and the product is actually less than it should be.
DeMarcus Cousins is a tremendous talent when he sets his mind to it (something he's consistently done this offseason even after inking a long-term deal). Ben McLemore should factor into the Rookie of the Year conversation. Greivis Vasquez is one of the better distributors in basketball.
And yet, it doesn't all come together.
The Kings have no on-court chemistry, and they're struggling with logjams at just about every position. There will be constant lineup changes and internal disputes throughout the 2013-14 season.
Eventually, Sacramento will get things turned around, and new head coach Mike Malone should prove to be a good influence on the team. However, "eventually" isn't here yet.
Too much has to go right for the Los Angeles Lakers to find themselves in true postseason contention.
Kobe Bryant must return rather early on in the proceedings and immediately look like he's at 100 percent. That isn't easy to do when coming of an Achilles injury, and while the Mamba hasn't officially been ruled out for the season opener against the Los Angeles Clippers, we don't actually have any idea when he'll return to the court.
But that's by no means the only question mark.
Can Steve Nash be an effective point guard at 39 years old?
He's looked ineffective throughout the preseason—when he's even played—and it's not like he's coming off a stellar campaign. The end is in sight for Nash, and he may not be capable of handling everything that Mike D'Antoni throws in his general direction.
On top of that, the Lakers are counting on breakouts from a lackluster supporting cast. Nick Young might suddenly learn how to pass, Xavier Henry might continue lighting up the scoreboard like he did during a select few preseason games and someone else could step up.
But would you bet on any of these things happening?
The odds just aren't in the Lakers' favor. Not even close. And believe it or not, historical prowess doesn't help in the present.
As Bubbles said in The Wire, there's a "thin line 'tween heaven and here."
In this case, "heaven" is a playoff berth in the brutally difficult Western Conference, and "here" is the No. 11 spot, firmly in the middle of the lottery teams.
That thin line runs from the No. 11 team to the No. 6 squad in the conference, and it spans only five games. Seriously, that's all that separates the Portland Trail Blazers from earning the sixth-best record in the conference. There are that many quality teams hovering right in the middle of the pack.
We've also reached the point in the standings where I wish every team could make the playoffs. Rip City deserves to have more than 82 games to wow fans, but 11 teams can't make the playoffs. Three of the 11 organizations have to be on the outside, looking in.
Portland had a fantastic offseason, acquiring a strong defensive center (Robin Lopez) and a lot of depth (C.J. McCollum, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson and Mo Williams). But the second unit—while not as weak as it was last year—still isn't a strength, and that will ultimately be the team's downfall.
Still, it wouldn't be at all shocking for the Blazers to receive a few lucky bounces, exceed the expectations and sneak into the postseason. At this point in the rankings, any team could do exactly that.
Kevin Love has somehow developed a reputation as a statistical monster who can't lead a team to the postseason.
First of all, that's not true.
You have to look at extenuating circumstances, and it's not like he's had a roster capable of making the playoffs to work with. At least not one capable and healthy.
Secondly, it's stupid.
Team success should not be used as the sole factor for determining individual greatness, and it's awfully difficult for one star to carry a middling team past the regular season.
Unfortunately, he won't shake that reputation in 2013-14, as the Western Conference is just too strong, especially since the injury bug has already hit this squad by knocking Chase Budinger out of the lineup for an undisclosed/undetermined period of time.
Unless Ricky Rubio suddenly becomes a bona fide star, shooting a high percentage and becoming more than a gambler on the defensive end, the 'Wolves are doomed to fall just shy of the playoffs once more. A breakout from Derrick Williams could help as well, but betting on that seems foolish at this point.
The Dallas Mavericks are an interesting bunch.
While we can safely expect Dirk Nowitzki to continue playing like a superstar, let's not overrate the impact that he has on the Mavs. Last year, Dallas went 28-25 and outscored opponents by 0.3 points per 100 possessions when he had returned from injury and was on the court, according to Basketball-Reference.
It's not like a full season of Dirk guarantees a winning record, especially when the rest of the roster has taken a step backward.
Monta Ellis could change that by cutting the three-ball out of his game and functioning as more of a rim-attacking and distributing combo guard, but it's not like the backcourt as a whole is suddenly going to play defense.
Add in age-related declines from Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and Samuel Dalembert, who can't be counted on to play more than 20 quality minutes per game at this stage of his career, and you're looking at a pretty lackluster supporting cast for the German 7-footer.
Monta and Dirk alone make Dallas a fun and exciting team capable of outgunning many opponents, but the lack of quality two-way players is going to make defense a disaster. It's commonly said that defense wins championships, but defense helps teams make it to the playoffs as well.
If you're looking for a bold prediction, here it is.
The New Orleans Pelicans, fresh off a season in which they won 27 games and were known as the Hornets, will sneak into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. And I'll take it one step further.
They'll also win at least two games during the first-round series before bowing out at the hands of the not-yet-announced No. 1 seed.
NOLA had a fantastic offseason, acquiring Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans to form one hell of a three-headed guard monster. Yeah, yeah. Technically they didn't acquire Gordon, but they may as well have.
Last year's Gordon wasn't the one you'll see in 2013-14. He's healthy and motivated, plus he's actually happy playing alongside some former AAU teammates and a much stronger roster.
But the guards won't be the biggest difference-makers this year.
That would be Anthony Davis, who has emerged as an absolute monster on both ends of the court during the preseason. The Unibrow is dunking with a vengeance, creating his own looks, cleaning up the glass and wreaking havoc on the defensive end, which all bodes well for his ability to contend for an All-Star spot and carry this team into the No. 8 spot.
How can you not believe in the Denver Nuggets after seeing this picture?
I generally try to pick live shots and avoid images from media day, but Ty Lawson is basically defining swag in this shot. That cool shrug while surrounded by bright colors and good-looking cheerleaders?
Lawson is winning life.
Now, will that continue in the regular season?
The Nuggets need for it to, as the diminutive point guard is the linchpin for the 2013-14 campaign. He must continue performing as he did in the second half of the 2012-13 season despite taking on more ball-handling responsibilities following the departure of Andre Iguodala.
In all likelihood, Denver will get off to a relatively slow start and fight its way back into the playoff picture once JaVale McGee improves under Brian Shaw and Danilo Gallinari returns from his torn ACL. If Gallo misses too much time, though, there isn't enough scoring on the roster for them to remain in one of the top eight spots.
The West is just too tough, and despite what some fans are trying to convince themselves of, the losses of George Karl, Iguodala, Corey Brewer and Kosta Koufos do matter.
The Memphis Grizzlies didn't get better during the offseason, which makes it tough for them to match last year's 56-26 record. While the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers all made big strides, the Grizz's big offseason additions were...Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos and Jamaal Franklin.
I still love the defensive potential of this roster, but the offense is frightening. And not in a good way.
There isn't going to be much floor-spacing unless someone in the starting lineup magically develops a three-point shot. Based on the preseason results, that ain't happening.
Last year, the Grizzlies hung with the San Antonio Spurs despite Zach Randolph forgetting how to shoot in the postseason, but that was also a good matchup for them. It'll be tougher if they play one of the teams that looks to play run-and-gun basketball, and they'll inevitably run into one during the playoffs.
Is Memphis a playoff team? Definitely.
Are the Grizzlies contenders? Not without a midseason move.
Stephen Curry is ready to show that the 2012-13 season was no fluke.
Not only will he be gunning for his own three-point record, but he'll be distributing the ball better than ever and playing adequate defense. With Andre Iguodala taking over some of the offensive responsibilities, Curry can actually afford to exert energy stopping other players, and having Andrew Bogut protecting the rim will only help.
There's a lot to like about the Dubs now that Iggy is in town.
Not only does he take pressure off Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and David Lee, but he also gives Mark Jackson plenty of positional flexibility. Now Golden State can use both small-ball and standard lineups depending on the matchup, with Iguodala switching between shooting guard and small forward.
Plus, let's not overlook the defensive potential of Thompson and Iguodala on the wings, especially with Bogut in the paint. The young shooting guard out of Washington State emerged as a quality point-stopper during the second half of the 2012-13 campaign, and that should be even more true now that he can focus on the weaker of the opposition's wing scorers.
It's become a common analysis that the Houston Rockets have two big problems with their roster. They don't have a good option at power forward, and point guard is a weakness.
Well, one of those is wrong.
Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley aren't elite options at the 1, but both of them are steady players who bring different skills to the table. They've also looked great throughout the preseason, and Kevin McHale can get the most out of them even while cycling them in and out of the starting five.
Power forward is the bigger concern, and Houston can't seriously hope to play both Dwight Howard and Omer Asik at the same time. Rockets fans would start bleeding out of their eyes if they witnessed the combined free-throw putridity, and the floor spacing would be nonexistent, cutting back on James Harden's effectiveness.
I'd still like to see Houston trade Asik for Ryan Anderson or another stretch 4, as that would push them even higher up in the Western Conference standings. But despite the unfilled hole at power forward, the combination of Howard, Harden, Chandler Parsons, the two point guards and a solid supporting cast of perimeter threats is enough to ensure that this team is an elite one.
Losing Russell Westbrook for the early portion of the season doesn't diminish the Oklahoma City Thunder's chances of winning a championship, but it does push them further back in the hunt for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
As good as Reggie Jackson has looked during the preseason, the Thunder are still going to be overly reliant on Kevin Durant.
Unless Serge Ibaka decides that he's suddenly going to become more than a finisher of putback opportunities and a pick-and-pop option. But at this point in the Congolese big man's career, that feels like a pipe dream straight out of "Waiting for Godot."
OKC is going to be an elite team as long as Durant is suiting up in a Thunder uniform, but last year's playoffs exposed them as a squad that can struggle without Westbrook in the lineup. It's saying something that the team can come close to 60 wins even with the dynamic floor general entering the season injured, but anything more is wishful thinking.
Now can we just hand the starting center job to Steven Adams already?
I'm not sure I'm in favor of Tim Duncan growing out his hair (unless it becomes an afro!), but it's not like that decision is keeping the San Antonio Spurs out of the top spot in the Western Conference.
They enter the season as the best team, although Gregg Popovich will ultimately keep them from earning the best record.
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, "What? Isn't Pop supposed to be one of the best coaches in basketball?"
He is the NBA's best coach, and that's exactly why the Spurs trail the No. 1 team by a single game. Popovich understands that having Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili fully rested for the inevitable deep playoff run is far more beneficial than earning the top seed, and he'll act accordingly.
Expect Duncan to earn multiple "DNP-Old"s during the 2013-14 campaign. Ginobili and Parker may have a few as well.
At the very least, the minutes of the stars will be limited once it's clear that a top-four postseason berth is wrapped up and the team has as much chemistry as possible. The Spurs don't play for regular-season glory.
They play for championships.
Doc Rivers is going to have quite the influence on a Los Angeles Clippers squad that often stagnated under the leadership of Vinny Del Negro.
He brings a newfound sense of creativity to half-court sets, and his defensive mind should allow him to remedy some of the problems LAC will inevitably have on that end of the court.
DeAndre Jordan has already looked vastly improved on defense while averaging 7.7 rebounds and what would be a career-high 10.8 points per game on 69.2 percent shooting from the field. Those are video-game numbers.
Additionally, the Clippers made a number of other offseason moves that make a deep squad even deeper.
J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Darren Collision, Reggie Bullock and Antawn Jamison should all have big impacts for this elite Western Conference bunch, especially if they're strategically used alongside Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
Not only does Los Angeles have the best point guard in basketball, but the roster has serious upside if everything clicks and the three-point shooting of the new additions opens things up on the interior for Blake to show off an expanded arsenal of post moves.
LAC still isn't built for sustained postseason success—not unless Rivers finds a way to eliminate the frontcourt woes on defense for good—but that doesn't come into play during a regular season that prioritizes depth more than the playoffs.