NBA

Every NBA Roster's Strongest Position for 2014-15 Season

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 19, 2014

Every NBA Roster's Strongest Position for 2014-15 Season

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    A few free-agency dominoes still need to fall into place, but for the most part the NBA's offseason house cleaning is finished.

    For better or worse, teams have reshaped their rosters—some forcing their way into championship contention, others falling from the elite ranks and most doing something in between the two extremes.

    Now that each club has moved close to its 2014-15 form, it's possible to take a look at where every franchise is strongest. In a superstars league, it comes as no surprise that a lot of teams' best position on the floor just so happens to be filled by its best player.

    That is not, however, an unbreakable rule. Some teams find their greatest positional strength in depth, while others draw their strongest power from a collection of versatile players all capable of bringing their own skill to the same spot on the floor.

    Whether bolstered by star power or the power in numbers, this is where each NBA roster is strongest heading into the 2014-15 campaign.

Atlanta Hawks: Power Forward

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    Longtime Gregg Popovich assistant and current Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer understands the importance of versatile bigs. Luckily, the franchise also recognizes one of its coach's greatest gifts.

    The roster is overloaded with talented trees.

    Paul Millsap booked his first All-Star trip under Budenholzer's watch last season. Two-time All-Star Al Horford saw the majority of his minutes at center, but 18 percent of his career playing time has come at the 4, per Basketball-Reference.com. With Atlanta employing a pair of potential stretch 5s in Pero Antic and Mike Muscala, Horford could see some more action at the 4 going forward.

    Rookie Adreian Payne arrives with an NBA-ready skill set after spending the last four seasons with Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Reserve forward Mike Scott can score from anywhere, and rangy swingman DeMarre Carroll has the fire to defend the position in a small-ball setup.

    Budenholzer couldn't ask for a deeper group of power forwards, and these players couldn't find a coach better equipped to lead them inside the lines.

Boston Celtics: Point Guard

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    If 2014 lottery pick Marcus Smart can make a smooth transition to the NBA, the Boston Celtics could find themselves in the unenviable position of having the top two players on the roster share the same spot on the floor.

    Then again, that might be a good problem to have for this rebuilding club. If Smart is ready to play a substantial role, the Celtics could flip four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo for a small army of assets.

    The Celtics don't have to move either player. Neither shoots it particularly well, so playing them together will be challenging, but opposing clubs would have a hard time matching this duo's combo of athleticism and explosiveness.

    Boston also returns sophomore point guard Phil Pressey, who shot just 30.8 percent from the field last season but did finish 17th with 2.77 assists per turnover, via ESPN.com. Ideally, Avery Bradley would fill Brad Stevens' starting 2-guard spot, but the Texas product has logged 73 percent of his career minutes at point guard.

    That's a pretty impressive quantity-plus-quality collection for a team that won only 25 games in 2013-14.

Brooklyn Nets: Center

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    The Brooklyn Nets may not have planned on receiving a face-lift this summer, but Jason Kidd's awkward departure may have brought about a few welcome changes.

    For one, Kidd's exit coupled with that of Paul Pierce helped push the Nets out of the spotlight. For a club that spent so much of last season being skewered for its exorbitant payroll, an under-the-radar flight could be long overdue.

    The Nets also handed their coaching reins to Lionel Hollins, a proven commodity with a history of maximizing the effectiveness of post play. That could prove to be exactly what Brooklyn needs with Brook Lopez coming back from foot and ankle surgeries, Mason Plumlee turning heads with Team USA and Kevin Garnett possibly sticking around to make one last run.

    Between Lopez's offensive arsenal, Plumlee's athleticism and Garnett's defensive discipline, Hollins has a big body for any situation.

Charlotte Hornets: Shooting Guard

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    Much like last season, the Charlotte Hornets' success will be tied heavily to Al Jefferson's low-post play and Kemba Walker's leadership. But if Michael Jordan's team can make another leap in 2014-15, it will be thanks in large part to the play of Steve Clifford's off-guards.

    Former Indiana Pacer Lance Stephenson should be in line for the starting gig. The 23-year-old can help ease the burden on Walker with his ability to create offense (4.6 assists last season), and his three-point stroke (35.2 percent) should help create room for Jefferson to work near the basket.

    That would push Gerald Henderson back into the reserve role he's better equipped to handle. As an active, energetic defender off the pine, his offensive limitations—career 30.0 three-point percentage, 2.6 assists per 36 minutes, per Basketball-Reference.com—would be easier to manage.

    Offensively, explosive rookie P.J. Hairston should also factor into the rotation if he can put his off-court issues behind him.

Chicago Bulls: Power Forward

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    If fourth-year wing Jimmy Butler finds an offensive game to match his defensive tenacity this season, it's quite possible that the three top Chicago Bulls do not play the power forward position.

    Of course, Butler could make the leap, and this spot would still be Chicago's strongest. That's how deep this group now is with the offseason arrivals of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, along with the continued development of 2013-14 Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Taj Gibson.

    Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau now has a stable of 4s who can dominate regardless of what the game is calling for.

    It's hard to think of many craftier bigs than Gasol, and the 34-year-old just posted 17.4 points on 48.0 percent shooting in a perimeter-based system that couldn't have been a worse complement for his skills. Mirotic is a drool-worthy stretch 4 prospect and, as such, a tantalizing pick-and-pop partner for Derrick Rose. The 6'8" McDermott figures to see most of his minutes on the wing, but he's big enough to play spot duty at the 4 in today's NBA.

    As for Gibson, don't be surprised if he's one of the few players who takes on more minutes this season despite the added depth around him. He's a tremendously versatile defender, and his nonstop motor will make him hard to sit.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Power Forward

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    With a few formalities standing in the way of the Cleveland Cavaliers and their fantasy roster, the caveat that nothing is done until it's done needs to be said somewhere.

    However, this is a matter of when, not if, new coach David Blatt gets a video game group at his disposal. With LeBron James already on board, Kevin Love headed there shortly and Shawn Marion set to join the party, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein, the Cavs are about to unleash an absurd amount of talent from the 4 spot.

    James and Love were All-Star starters last season. Marion has participated in the midseason classic four different times. Tristan Thompson was the No. 4 overall pick in 2011, and he might have a hard time even being an afterthought if James and/or Marion start swiping power forward minutes.

    Once these moves become official, Cleveland will struggle to find teams that can match its top-heavy collection of talent. Nowhere will that abundance of riches be more obvious than at the 4.

Dallas Mavericks: Small Forward

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    For those who haven't been paying close enough attention, the Dallas Mavericks quietly had a spectacular summer. From Tyson Chandler's return and Chandler Parsons' arrival to the bargain signings of Jameer Nelson and Al-Farouq Aminu, the Mavs did everything they could to give Dirk Nowitzki at least a puncher's chance at winning a second ring.

    Somewhere along the way, they pieced together one of the deepest small forward rotations in the business.

    Parsons is the leading member of that group, and with his three-year, $46 million contract in hand, his minutes will reflect that status. Still, he's likely to also see time as a stretch 4, allowing Rick Carlisle to use his 3 spot for defense (Aminu), hustle (Jae Crowder), more shooting (Richard Jefferson) or Ricky Ledo and his untapped potential.

    If Parsons can prove that his stat sheet from last season—16.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists—was a steppingstone and not his ceiling, the Mavs could have both top-tier talent and depth at the 3.

Denver Nuggets: Point Guard

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    In late April, Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson tweeted that he was the most underrated player in the NBA "by far."

    Whether he is the most underrated is entirely subjective and certainly up for debate, but it's hard to find many people who oversell his skills. Maybe the Nuggets' 36-46 record is to be blamed, but I have a hunch most people didn't realize Lawson was one of four players—along with All-Stars Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and John Wall—to average at least 17.5 points, 8.5 assists and 1.5 steals last season, per Basketball-Reference.com.

    Lawson is a special talent, far closer to elite than average.

    But he's not the only reason the Nuggets are strong at this position. There's also 5'9" spark-plug scorer Nate Robinson, who tore his ACL in January and is already dunking again. Prolific scorer Erick Green, a 2013 second-round pick, signed with the team this summer after spending last season overseas.

    This core, like its leader, is probably a lot better than most people think.

Detroit Pistons: Center

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    This really highlights the source of and solution to Detroit Pistons head coach-president Stan Van Gundy's problems.

    The round-hole, square-peg roster left by his predecessor could take years to unscramble. The Pistons are playing a dangerous game with Greg Monroe, the second-best player on the team, but it's probably the right move since he's such a poor fit with some of the players around him.

    Sitting front and center in the midst of this chaos is 21-year-old budding bruiser Andre Drummond, too young to be a franchise face yet too rich with potential to be anything but. With freakishly large check marks in the size, speed and strength boxes, he is the reason Van Gundy subjected himself to such a large-scale cleanup project.

    Drummond is the only name currently sitting at the center spot on Detroit's depth chart. That won't stop the 5 spot from standing out as the Pistons' strongest on the floor, which points to both Drummond's massive ceiling and the number of question marks on the rest of this roster.

Golden State Warriors: Small Forward

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    The Golden State Warriors are one of the rare teams entertaining championship thoughts despite having only a single superstar on the roster. With that said, it's tough to not put this down as "Stephen Curry and Co.," but Shaun Livingston's toe surgery cast a cloud of uncertainty over Curry's only true understudy.

    It also opened the door to proper recognition for Steve Kerr's group of versatile forwards to get their proper due.

    Andre Iguodala, one of the biggest free-agent signings in franchise history, struggled to put up the individual numbers Dubs fans were hoping for his debut season (9.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists). Kerr is already looking to rescue Iguodala's production, saying during an appearance on KNBR that he wanted to get Iguodala out of the corner, because "that's where he gets lost a little bit," via Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group.

    Behind Iguodala, the Warriors have a rising two-way contributor in Draymond Green and a potential prize in Harrison Barnes. Green's offense needs work, but he's found a terrific niche as a hustler. For all the talk of Barnes' sophomore struggles, the former lottery pick is only 22 years old and should thrive in Kerr's free-flowing offense.

Houston Rockets: Shooting Guard

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    This had to be one of two positions, didn't it? After all, James Harden said he and Dwight Howard "are the cornerstones of the Rockets," via Joaquin Henson of The Philippine Star, while "the rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team."

    As poor as Harden's quote come off, that didn't change the fact he was telling the truth. Whatever success the Houston Rockets enjoy in 2014-15 will be mainly decided by the play of him and Howard.

    Howard is the superior two-way player, but Harden and the shooting guards get the nod here thanks to their quantity. Harden has his defensive drawbacks, but he's a tremendous scorer (25.4 a night last season) and sound setup man (6.1 assists).

    Joining Howard at the 2 is Troy Daniels, a sharpshooting 23-year-old who logged significant minutes for Houston in the postseason, and rookie Nick Johnson, who already looks like a draft-night steal.

Indiana Pacers: Power Forward

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    Roller-coaster rides are almost always a good time, but they can be extremely hazardous in professional sports. That's something the Indiana Pacers know all too well.

    From Roy Hibbert's disappearing act late last season to Born Ready's offseason departure to Paul George's unfortunate injury, the Pacers have had to weather a number of storms.

    Constants haven't been easy to find in the Circle City, but if one exists it might be bruising big man David West. The 33-year-old has been a rock, averaging 14.7 points on 49.1 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds over his three seasons with the Pacers.

    Indy's stoic, grizzled vet is backed up by the skillful Luis Scola and floor-stretching European import Damjan Rudez. Reserve center Lavoy Allen could see time at the 4, as could Chris Copeland or Solomon Hill in small-ball lineups.

Los Angeles Clippers: Power Forward

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    To settle on the Los Angeles Clippers' best position, one must settle on either depth or top-tier talent. They don't really have a position that offers both.

    Of course, that isn't a bad thing. The roster is built for L.A.'s stars to shine, and for the support pieces around them to fill in as needed. Judging by the 57 wins this team enjoyed last season, it's probably safe to call this formula a wise one.

    When so many different pieces fit tightly together, how does one decide which is most important? Well, the Clippers aren't elite if Blake Griffin and Chris Paul aren't doing elite things. And while it's hard to separate Griffin and Paul in terms of importance, it's much easier to see that Griffin has a better backup in Glen Davis than Paul does with Jordan Farmar.

    Throw in the possibility that the 25-year-old Griffin could still be getting better—along with the fact both Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley are capable of manning the spot in stretches—and it's hard to say the Clippers are stronger elsewhere than they are at the 4.

Los Angeles Lakers: Shooting Guard

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    Yes, the Los Angeles Lakers are collecting power forwards like essentials before a storm. And, yes, that collection features a two-time All-Star in Carlos Boozer, the No. 7 pick in this year's draft with Julius Randle, plus former lottery selections Jordan Hill (No. 8 in 2009) and Ed Davis (No. 13 in 2010).

    None of that changes the massive talent gap standing between a healthy Kobe Bryant and the other players on this roster.

    Whether Bryant is or will be healthy is anyone's guess. He was limited to just six games last season, sidelined first by a torn Achilles and later by a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee. He'll be 36 before the start of this, his 19th NBA season.

    Still, the Mamba has worked magic before, and he's only one season removed from staggering per-game averages of 27.3 points, 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds. If he even remotely approaches those numbers, he'll be the best player on this team.

    If his body breaks down, the Lakers could still get decent production from this spot with players like Xavier Henry, Nick Young and Jordan Clarkson all capable of playing it for prolonged stretches.

Memphis Grizzlies: Point Guard

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    It's hard to take a wrong turn with this pick. Even the small forward spot, a wart on last year's roster, could be greatly improved with the arrival of Vince Carter and return of Quincy Pondexter.

    Outside of that position, there isn't a great deal of separation between the starters. Zach Randolph is still a walking double-double, Marc Gasol is among the NBA's elite passing centers and Mike Conley never strays far from Ty Lawson on the criminally overlooked list.

    The 26-year-old Conley is undoubtedly more important to the franchise's future than Gasol (29) or Randolph (33), and any difference in the present is negligible. Conley and Gasol bring more in terms of two-way play, but Randolph has the best track record when it comes to creating and converting his own offense.

    What pushes point guard to the top of the list, though, is the combination of Conley and the players behind him. Nick Calathes had a strong rookie season (10.6 points and 6.4 assists per 36 minutes) before his run was derailed by a suspension for violating the league's anti-drug program. His absence opened the door for Beno Udrih to showcase his skills in the postseason (7.9 points on 46.7 percent shooting).

    With Conley leading the charge, the Memphis Grizzlies have one of the league's deepest pools of point guard talent.

Miami Heat: Power Forward

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    Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra might argue with this assessment. Not because of the players selected or those left off the list, but rather the fact that someone identified his positionless players by conventional designations.

    Then again, with four-time MVP LeBron James back in Cleveland, it remains to be seen how much the Miami Heat will stress positional versatility going forward.

    Luckily, the roster is equipped to field traditional or new-age lineups. And the power forward position should field a number of Spo's chameleons.

    Free-agent addition Josh McRoberts, whose arsenal includes both a steady three-point shot and a creative passing game, should be looking at the starting position. But nine-time All-Star Chris Bosh should see a number of minutes back at his old post, where offseason additions Luol Deng and Danny Granger could also be called upon to help spread the floor.

Milwaukee Bucks: Shooting Guard

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    Fresh off a dismal 15-win campaign, the Milwaukee Bucks might not fare much better under new coach Jason Kidd.

    They should, however, be an exciting team to watch, and no position holds more excitement than the 2.

    Sophomore wing Giannis Antetokounmpo can justify the cost of an NBA League Pass subscription on his own. Freakishly long—and, scary as this may sound, still growing—he's an electric talent who understands how to utilize his length on both ends of the floor.

    Already given a summer league audition at point guard, the Greek Freak should be deployed all over the floor. When he's not logging minutes at the 2, the Bucks can lean on scoring guards O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless to keep the offense afloat or veteran Carlos Delfino to stretch the floor.

    With a number of different shooting guards to throw at the opposition, the Bucks' perimeter players should keep teams on their toes.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Point Guard

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    Assuming the Minnesota Timberwolves pull the trigger on the Kevin Love trade, Flip Saunders' squad should be ready to run like never before. And that's saying quite a bit considering this team played at the fourth-fastest pace last season (99.82 possessions per 48 minutes), via NBA.com.

    Without Love's outlet passes to spark this offense, though, someone else will be needed to keep the pedal to the floor.

    The first part of that challenge falls on the shoulders of 23-year-old point guard Ricky Rubio. He's still looking for any type of consistency with his own shot (career 36.8 field-goal percentage), but he wrapped up the 2013-14 campaign with the NBA's fourth-highest assist average (8.6).

    The Wolves have a pair of veterans behind Rubio in J.J. Barea and Mo Williams, along with athletic rookie Zach LaVine. Dubbed a "poor-man's Russell Westbrook" by Bleacher Report's Daniel O'Brien, the high-flying UCLA product could create a terrorizing backcourt tandem with likely newcomer Andrew Wiggins.

    Minnesota's most talented position might be the 5 with Nikola Pekovic and Gorgui Dieng each presenting matchup problems for opponents, but those players' effectiveness will hinge on the play of the Wolves' floor generals.

New Orleans Pelicans: Power Forward

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    If basketball fans could fast-forward through the 2014-15 NBA season, the first thing they check might be the numbers that New Orleans Pelicans budding big man Anthony Davis posts. He went for 20.8 points, 10.0 boards and 2.8 blocks last time around, and while those numbers might be a career year for most, they only hint at the single-browed superstar's true potential.

    "It's not crazy to call the 21-year-old one of the most exciting players to watch in the NBA," wrote Bleacher Report's Joseph Zucker. "You don't see too many guys nearing 7 feet tall physically able to do the things he can do."

    Noticeably bigger than the last time he donned a Pellies uni, Davis' game could be expanding even quicker than his body. He has spent the offseason "working on adding the corner 3-point shot, more post moves and a pull-up jumper off the dribble," according to Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune.

    The reason for tabbing this specific position as New Orleans' finest starts and stops with Davis. Yet, the big man rotation extends well beyond him. Sharpshooter Ryan Anderson can add a new dimension to this offense if he recovers from the neck injury that cost him all but 22 games last season, while rookie Patric Young boasts both a great motor and sculpted frame.

New York Knicks: Small Forward

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    New York Knicks scoring machine Carmelo Anthony took the opposite offseason route from Davis. While the latter looked to bulk up his body, the former shed pounds to prepare for life back on the perimeter.

    Anthony spent at least 62 percent of his minutes at the 4 over the last seasons, per Basketball-Reference.com, and the move afforded him the top two player efficiency ratings of his career: 24.8 in 2012-13, 24.4 last season. With the triangle offense favored by head coach Derek Fisher and team president Phil Jackson, though, Anthony has worked to re-establish himself back at small forward.

    "He wants to be as athletic as he was when he was a rookie," a source close to Anthony told Marc Berman of the New York Post. "Plus he wants to be a facilitator in the triangle and speed will help that."

    The scoring champion in 2012-13, Anthony can put points on the board from anywhere on the floor. Regardless of his position, he should get ample touches out on the wing, underneath the basket and isolating in the high post.

    When Anthony vacates the 3, Fisher can call upon rookie Cleanthony Early or veteran newcomer Travis Outlaw to fill the void. J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. could all factor into the small forward rotation as well.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Power Forward

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder have the reigning MVP in Kevin Durant, yet his small forward spot isn't the strongest on the team?

    Well, no, actually. Not when Durant spent 25 percent of his floor time at the 4 last season, per Basketball-Reference, and not with the amount of weapons coach Scott Brooks can use at the position.

    With as much, or possibly more, length than opposing 4s and more quickness they can handle, Durant could see even more minutes at the position next season. Of course, Brooks can also call upon Serge Ibaka and his per-game averages of 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds to man that post.

    When both Durant and Ibaka are sitting—or playing other positions—the Thunder can go with glue guy Nick Collison, the athletically freakish Perry Jones III, stretch shooter Grant Jerrett or even rugged rookie Mitch McGary.

    The Thunder have options at the 4, and since two of them are Durant and Ibaka, it's hard to go with any other position here.

Orlando Magic: Point Guard

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    The Orlando Magic are building something, but figuring out exactly what that is isn't easy. Some of it's young (Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo and Maurice Harkless), some of it's old (Ben Gordon, Luke Ridnour, Channing Frye and Willie Green) and not much of it figures to dramatically turn around a team that lost nearly 72 percent of its games last season.

    All of that said, most of what Orlando has is athletic. And that's a major plus to the point guards tasked with figuring this roster puzzle out.

    Oladipo is more of a combo guard than a natural point, but his talent base runs deep enough that Orlando has to find him minutes wherever they're available. That probably equates to another season spent shuffling between the two positions.

    "At point guard you have to make sure everybody is in the right places and you have to try to get everybody involved," Oladipo said, per John Denton of OrlandoMagic.com. "But at shooting guard you just have to make the right plays and take the right shots. ... I’m capable of playing both positions.’’

    The jury is still out on his assessment—he averaged 13.8 points on 41.9 percent shooting and 4.1 assists against 3.2 turnovers—but his talent is apparent. With Payton and Ridnour around to help shoulder the load, Orlando's point guards will be the key to unraveling this mysterious roster.

Philadelphia 76ers: Center

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    The Philadelphia 76ers went 19-63 last season, and owner Joshua Harris dubbed the campaign "a huge success," via ESPN.com. Clearly their evaluation methods are a tad different than those used by the rest of this league.

    The rebuilding franchise isn't concerned with today or even tomorrow. Their focus is years down the road, at which point all of this losing hopefully adds up to an intriguing collection of talent.

    The fruits of this taxing task won't show up for a while, but already the Sixers have been rewarded for their patience in the frontcourt. Lottery picks Nerlens Noel (No. 6 overall in 2013) and Joel Embiid (No. 3 this summer) anchor Philly's group of potential-packed big men.

    Eventually, Noel will need to make room on the interior for Embiid. But considering the Kansas product could spend his entire rookie season recovering from a foot injury, Noel will have the chance to feel out his rebuilt shooting form.

    Until (if?) Embiid starts manning the middle, Henry Sims, Brandon Davies and Jarvis Varnado should serve as Noel's understudies.

Phoenix Suns: Point Guard

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    Eric Bledsoe's restricted free-agency saga has been one of the sadder tales of this offseason, but regardless of its outcome, the Phoenix Suns will still draw their strength from their deep point guard crop.

    Goran Dragic snared the Most Improved Player Award after posting personal bests in points (20.3), field-goal percentage (50.5), three-point percentage (40.8) and PER (21.4), via Basketball-Reference. Newcomer Isaiah Thomas, acquired in a sign-and-trade from the Sacramento Kings, actually matched Dragic's scoring average while converting 45.3 percent of his field goals.

    Considering the success coach Jeff Hornacek had with his two-point guard lineups of Bledsoe and Dragic—the Suns enjoyed a 23-win improvement last season—it's hard to imagine him struggling to make sense of two gifted scorers like Thomas and Dragic. If Bledsoe eventually rejoins the fold, this potent attack will present even more problems.

    During the draft, the Suns spent the second of their three first-round picks on Tyler Ennis, who Bleacher Report's Daniel O'Brien said possesses "point guard instincts and precision ball skills" to pilot an offense.

Portland Trail Blazers: Power Forward

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    Hoop heads may have already known that Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge was good, but I'm not sure anyone knew the 29-year-old was this good.

    From his career-high 23.2 points-per-game scoring average to his earth-shattering playoff performances (89 points over his first two postseason games), Aldridge spent his eighth NBA season dramatically rewriting his basketball story. The result was a full-fledged entry into the impossible-to-solve debate on who the NBA's best power forward really is.

    Aldridge isn't enough to pin Portland's strengths to the 4 spot, though. Not when it remains unclear whether he's even the face of the franchise.

    For that, the lens had to expand away from the sweet-shooting big man out to energetic reserve Thomas Robinson and spot-duty stretch 4s Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright. Taken as a whole, this group projects as the finest the Blazers have to offer.

Sacramento Kings: Center

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    The Sacramento Kings are another difficult team to figure out. Not only did the franchise invest top 10 picks in floor-spacing guard during each of the past two drafts (first Ben McLemore, then Nik Stauskas), it also let Isaiah Thomas walk on one of the summer's few budget contracts.

    If the Kings have done nothing else right, though, they have at least shown they guessed right on DeMarcus Cousins' future.

    The 24-year-old hasn't completely quieted his attitude concerns, but his play has finally spoken the loudest. He torched opposing interiors to the tune of 22.7 points and 11.7 rebounds last season, joining Aldridge and Love as the league's only 22-11 players last season.

    Sacramento has Cousins under contract through the 2017-18 campaign, and its already collecting on that investment. There isn't a ton of depth behind Boogie—rebounding specialist Reggie Evans and combo post man Jason Thompson figure to chew up the remaining minutes—but Cousins' talent alone made this an easy call.

San Antonio Spurs: Point Guard

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    The San Antonio Spurs don't waste roster spots. Mainstay coach Gregg Popovich does a masterful job at maximizing the effectiveness of his entire roster, and never was that more evident than during their banner-raising 2013-14 campaign.

    The Spurs won a league-best 62 games and posted the top efficiency ranking (plus-8.1 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com), despite keeping their entire roster under 30 minutes a night. They somehow both ensured themselves of having fresh legs for the second season and still dominated during the first one.

    Still, some position needs to hold the title as the team's best, so it makes sense to start with the head of the snake, Tony Parker. His underwhelming stat line (16.7 points, 5.7 assists) is a far greater reflection of Pop's preservation methods than any lack of production. Parker has a shrewd understanding of when to attack and when to look for his teammates, and his constant prodding of a defense creates scoring chances all around him.

    The Spurs are such a well-oiled machine you get the sense that any point guard could keep this offense humming. There might be some truth to that, but that shouldn't overlook the value of Patty Mills' shooting and Cory Joseph's tenacious defense.

    Everyone has a hand in San Antonio's success, but Parker's might have the biggest impact.

Toronto Raptors: Point Guard

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    The Toronto Raptors weren't always at their best with Kyle Lowry on the floor last season, but they were often at their worst whenever he sat.

    Three players had better on-court net ratings than Lowry's plus-4.6 points per 100 possessions mark, via NBA.com, but none brought this team down quicker when he exited the floor. The Raptors posted a plus-0.6 net rating without Lowry, easily the lowest on the team and well below their season-long plus-3.5 mark.

    "I don't pay players, I don't pay stats, I try to pay winners," Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri said, via Doug Smith of the Toronto Star. "And that's what you want to do."

    And that's what it seems Ujiri has done. The executive kept Lowry on a new four-year, $48 million deal this summer, rewarding him both for his individual brilliance (17.9 points, 7.4 assists) and the team's performance (48 wins, first playoff appearance since 2008).

    Lowry's value is tough to overstate, but Toronto actually has some promising pieces behind him. Greivis Vasquez returned after posting 15.9 points and 6.2 assists per 36 minutes in 61 games for the Raptors last season, while combo guard Lou Williams landed in Toronto during an offseason trade.

Utah Jazz: Power Forward

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    By season's end, this slide could look foolish. If Trey Burke finds his shooting touch and tantalizing prospect Dante Exum makes a smooth transition to the NBA, the Utah Jazz could have one of the league's top point guard tandems.

    Assuming those leaps don't happen or that larger ones take place in the frontcourt, though, this could still be an inside-out franchise.

    Former No. 3 pick Derrick Favors took another step in the right direction last season, tallying career highs in points (13.3), rebounds (8.7) and field-goal percentage (52.2). It was the 23-year-old's first taste of life as a full-time NBA starter, and he looked more than ready for all the minutes that came his way.

    Favors is the biggest draw at the 4, but Trevor Booker brings over insatiable energy and a relentlessness on the glass from the Washington Wizards. Former dunk contest champion Jeremy Evans showed signs of life last season (6.1 points, 4.7 rebounds), and Steve Novak, a career 43.2 percent shooter from distance, could provide a spark for a team that finished 25th in three-point shooting (34.4 percent).

Washington Wizards: Point Guard

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    If 36-year-old forward Paul Pierce still has some life in his legs, the Washington Wizards should be collecting contributions from every member of their starting five.

    But this team isn't gaining steam as an Eastern Conference contender without John Wall leading the charge.

    Wall demanded the Wizards do better last season, then backed up those pleas with a stellar performance of his own. His points (19.3), assists (8.8) and true shooting percentage (52.4) all climbed to new highs, helping the Wizards snap a five-year playoff drought with a 44-win effort.

    Wall, Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote, "is a brilliant ball-handler who creates havoc in transition and has a real knack for finding open shooters in the corner."

    The former top pick makes the players around him better, a trait shared by only the elites of the professional sports world.

    Veteran Andre Miller is a great change-of-pace option for head coach Randy Wittman, and combo guard Garrett Temple brings a defensive discipline to either backcourt spot. Sharpshooter Bradley Beal even logged 9 percent of his minutes at the 1, flashing the vision and selflessness to keep defenses guessing when he runs the pick-and-roll.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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