NBA Preseason 2015: Early Title Odds for All 30 Teams
Let the dreams of championships commence.
Players are now free to fantasize about adorning one of their fingers with a ring—whether it's the first of their career or just the latest in a pre-existing collection. Teams can dust off space on the mantle for the Larry O'Brien Trophy, hoping and praying that spot will be occupied next summer.
After all, everyone is undefeated right now. Even the lowliest bunches currently get to enjoy a bit of optimism while it's still possible, because, as the saying goes, anything can happen.
But realistically, anything won't happen.
Based on team strength and expected levels of upside, some organizations do emerge as the early favorites to follow up the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors as NBA champions. Others are bottom-feeders, doomed to fall below .500 during the early stages of the 2015-16 campaign and get more excited about the prospect of drafting Ben Simmons than making the playoffs.
Here's hoping your favorite team isn't in the latter category.
30. Philadelphia 76ers: 350-1
The Philadelphia 76ers may be trending in the right direction, but that doesn't mean they're anywhere close to competing for a playoff spot in the weak Eastern Conference, much less a berth in the NBA Finals. As of now, optimism for this team involves hoping it wins more than it loses during the first month of the 2015-16 campaign.
Without Joel Embiid or Dario Saric boosting the Sixers, they're going to war with too little star power. Jahlil Okafor could win Rookie of the Year while Nerlens Noel cements his second-half improvement from last year with a Most Improved Player selection, and they'd still struggle to remain truly competitive.
Point guard is particularly problematic. Philadelphia will be attempting to get by with either Tony Wroten (fresh off an ACL tear), Kendall Marshall (still in possession of some upside), Isaiah Canaan or Pierre Jackson, and that's hardly something to brag about.
This team is still firmly embroiled in the perpetual rebuild. And sadly, rebuilding and competing for a title are mutually exclusive concepts.
29. Denver Nuggets: 300-1
The Denver Nuggets probably won't finish last in the Western Conference, but the lack of an established star makes it rather difficult for them to have the upside necessary to compete for a title. Though overflowing with high-upside prospects would change that, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jusuf Nurkic and the others aren't quite enough to qualify as such.
With Ty Lawson gone to the Houston Rockets, who's the best player on this roster?
Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried are the obvious answers, especially with the former coming off a great post-All-Star break portion of his return from ACL problems and continuing to thrive at this summer's EuroBasket festivities. But the Italian forward won't be competing for a bid in the midseason classic anytime soon, and the same is true of the young up-and-comers Denver controls—Mudiay, Nurkic, Nikola Jokic and Joffrey Lauvergne.
With Mike Malone taking over as the head coach and attempting to find the proper balance between building a defensive identity and taking advantage of the Mile High City's altitude, this season will inevitably be about adjustments and growth.
Competing comes later.
28. Charlotte Hornets: 300-1
The Charlotte Hornets could be significantly better than many other bottom-feeders in the Eastern Conference, but they could also be much worse. While their competitors have plenty of known commodities on the roster—as well as a few upside plays—the former Bobcats are mired in uncertainty.
Can Kemba Walker become more than a high-volume point guard who shoots below 40 percent from the field? Can Nicolas Batum serve as the defensive stopper while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist spends six months on the sidelines, as first reported by Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski? Is Frank Kaminsky ready to make an immediate impact? Will having two porous big men playing major minutes mess with Steve Clifford's defensive schemes?
The Hornets were a popular pick to break out heading into the 2014-15 season, but the acquisition of Lance Stephenson backfired in a big way and doomed this team from the start. One year after winning 43 games and advancing to the first round of the playoffs, Charlotte regressed badly, finishing with only 33 victories.
Unless everything clicks, it's more than likely the Hornets finish right in between the two previous outcomes. And that's assuming they can even overcome the lengthy—potentially season-long—absence of MKG, coming off a season in which they were 12.2 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor.
27. Portland Trail Blazers: 250-1
LaMarcus Aldridge? Gone to the San Antonio Spurs. Wesley Matthews? Attempting to recover from his ruptured Achilles, and doing so in a Dallas Mavericks uniform.
Robin Lopez? Across the country and playing for the New York Knicks. Nicolas Batum? Traded to the Charlotte Hornets.
Now, Damian Lillard is the only incumbent starter, and he's joined by plenty of new faces with substantial limitations. Even if Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis suddenly spring to life as emerging NBA stars, it's hard to imagine this team having enough chemistry and upside to make any semblance of noise in the loaded Western Conference.
Having a top-flight point guard such as Lillard boosts their odds a bit, dragging them out of the basement. However, it's still far more likely that the Blazers end up adding the No. 1 pick of the next NBA draft to the 2016-17 roster.
It's rebuilding time in Rip City.
26. Brooklyn Nets: 250-1
Even if the three-man combination of Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez is enough to keep the Brooklyn Nets competitive on some nights, the utter lack of depth and the uncertain nature of the smaller positions will ultimately spell doom.
Assuming that Jarrett Jack and Bojan Bogdanovic claim the final two spots in the starting lineup, the Nets will be looking at a second unit composed of Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Thomas Robinson and Andrea Bargnani.
If you need to let out a shudder, now would be the appropriate time.
"Expectations for the Nets used to be about competing for championships," ESPN.com's Mike Mazzeo wrote. "But when asked what his expectations are for this year's group, [head coach Lionel] Hollins replied, 'To go out and be as good as you can be. Where that falls, we'll see when it comes to April.'"
Even if the Nets are as good as they can be, they're falling well short of a title. That much is already set in stone.
25. Los Angeles Lakers: 200-1
"It's wins and losses, but it's also what we’re learning, what we're grasping," Kobe Bryant said at media day when asked how he'd define a successful season for the Los Angeles Lakers, per ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes. "Health is a big one. Last [two] years, we've been decimated by injuries. Knock on wood, that's not a problem that we have to worry about."
Health and the learning process? That's typically not the ultimate focus for a team with a championship in its sights, and it speaks to Bryant's grudging acceptance that this isn't a title-caliber team. He might not say so in as many words, but it should already be clear the Lakers don't have the high hopes typically associated with this franchise.
And they shouldn't.
Though Bryant can still explode in the scoring column, especially while surrounded by a few other intriguing pieces, question marks abound.
D'Angelo Russell is adjusting to the NBA after a rough go at it during summer league. Julius Randle is attempting to bounce back from the broken tibia he suffered during the first game of his rookie year. Jordan Clarkson is trying to prove he wasn't merely the product of opportunity. Roy Hibbert is fighting for redemption in a new location.
Progress, not excellence, is all the Lakers can hope for.
24. Minnesota Timberwolves: 200-1
Rookies don't lead the charge when chasing after a title. In fact, they don't even serve as complementary players who spend a lot of time on the court.
It's been quite a long time since a first-year player suited up in at least 16 postseason games—the minimum required to win a championship—and logged more than 33 minutes per game. Long enough that I'll be rather impressed if you can guess who the last to do so was. Yes, that's a challenge, considering he's one of only three throughout all of NBA history.
If the Minnesota Timberwolves get over the hump, they'll do so with Karl-Anthony Towns serving as only the fourth player in NBA history to meet the aforementioned requirements. That's...unlikely.
With Ricky Rubio back in business and joining reigning Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, there's plenty of intriguing talent in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. That's especially true when you throw Shabazz Muhammad, Tyus Jones, Zach LaVine, Nemanja Bjelica and Gorgui Dieng into the mix.
But while the 'Wolves should be a League Pass favorite and a constantly improving bunch, they have light-years to go before getting their hands on the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
23. Phoenix Suns: 120-1
Without Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, the Phoenix Suns backcourt looks a lot different than it did with a three-headed point guard monster heading into the 2014-15 campaign. But different isn't necessarily bad, since both Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight are high-quality talents capable of playing the two backcourt spots.
The question marks come from everywhere between those and the center position, where Tyson Chandler and Alex Len should form a strong one-two punch.
Even though Markieff Morris backtracked on his desire to leave during Phoenix's media day festivities, the forward spots are up in the air. Unless Morris really does want to be a member of the Suns, and plays like it, power forward is problematic. And if T.J. Warren doesn't break out at small forward, the same is true at the 3.
Phoenix won't compete for one of the bottom spots in the Western Conference, but the lack of established talent and utter absence of continuity should also prevent it from actually going for one of the eight coveted playoff spots. Instead, the Suns are mired in mediocrity without much immediate upside.
22. Orlando Magic: 120-1
Will the Orlando Magic have enough spacing to make the proverbial leap in the NBA's weaker half?
If Victor Oladipo continues knocking down outside jumpers and Elfrid Payton veers away from the Rajon Rondo school of nonshooting point guard development, there's a chance they actually could. After all, this team is brimming with unrealized potential, and simultaneous strides from all involved could make the Magic into one of the season's biggest surprises.
Of course, the chances of Oladipo, Payton, Aaron Gordon, Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic and Mario Hezonja all moving in the right direction without even the tiniest misstep is still rather minimal. Given the youth of the nucleus, two steps forward and one back is the much more likely course of the rebuild, even if general manager Rob Hennigan has done a great job acquiring young talent.
First, the Magic must develop an identity. Then, making the playoff push is a realistic possibility.
Only after those two boxes have been checked can they begin thinking about a championship.
21. Sacramento Kings: 110-1
With George Karl pacing the sidelines and big personalities such as DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay in the locker room, there's always a chance the Sacramento Kings go volcanic and are forced to start over from scratch. The offseason was filled with plenty of dysfunction, even if the front office still managed to acquire an impressive amount of talent.
And that's where the optimism comes into play.
As much as the Kings deserve some ire and laughter for the way they handled certain situations during the offseason, this is a potent roster. Rondo, for all the trouble he endured with the Dallas Mavericks, can still be a quality defender and distributor when he puts his mind to it, and the other major additions—Marco Belinelli and Willie Cauley-Stein, above all else—do fill in some weaknesses.
Plus, DeMarcus Cousins is a bona fide superstar capable of single-handedly winning games. That alone pushes them up a bit in the standings, even if there's palpable risk of combustion present in Sac-Town.
20. New York Knicks: 100-1
It's not a particularly good sign that the sentence "They actually roster a bunch of legitimate players!" is meant to be a massive compliment. But such is the case for the New York Knicks, who improved substantially this offseason simply by signing a number of veterans who actually belong in the rotations of competent NBA squads.
Arron Afflalo should settle in as a nice two-way wing who can line up at either the 2 or the 3. Robin Lopez is a tremendously underrated center who should bring a (hopefully contagious) defensive mentality to Madison Square Garden. Players such as Kyle O'Quinn and Derrick Williams could contribute to lesser extents.
And that's saying nothing of New York's two first-round picks. Jerian Grant should overtake Jose Calderon as the starting point guard rather early on, and Kristaps Porzingis' lanky 7-foot frame is bubbling over with potential.
The combination isn't going to result in a team capable of challenging for supremacy in the Eastern Conference, but the playoffs no longer represent a pipe dream for the Knicks. They're still a ways off, but at least there's legitimate reason for hope in the Big Apple.
19. Detroit Pistons: 100-1
Now in his second year operating as both the head coach and general manager of the Detroit Pistons, Stan Van Gundy has managed to build a roster that's more tailored to his style.
He's imitating the Orlando Magic teams that he experienced so much success with a few years back—the ones that surrounded Dwight Howard with floor-spacers galore and became the prototype one-in, four-out system.
In the Motor City, Andre Drummond is the new Dwight Howard. Around him, the Pistons have Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova in the presumptive starting five, a group bolstered by the presences of Brandon Jennings, Jodie Meeks, Stanley Johnson and others off the pine.
That combination obviously isn't nearly on the same level as the Orlando one from Van Gundy's glory days. But it's another step in the right direction for a Detroit organization that is trying to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009, when they were swept out by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
18. Dallas Mavericks: 80-1
On paper, the Dallas Mavericks look like a collection of big-name players.
Deron Williams has All-Star appearances to his credit. Wesley Matthews emerged as one of the league's best three-and-D contributors while he was with the Portland Trail Blazers. Chandler Parsons served as a versatile stud with the Houston Rockets. Dirk Nowitzki is a future Hall of Famer. We'll ignore the center position.
But each of the four aforementioned names is far from a sure thing. Let's run through them one more time.
Williams hasn't played like an All-Star in years and the Brooklyn Nets flat-out waived him. Matthews is coming off a ruptured Achilles—a notoriously difficult injury to recover from, especially for a player who will be 29 at the start of the season. No one knows when Parsons will be healthy or why he's stopped developing. Nowitzki is clearly declining as Father Time catches up to him. Again, we'll ignore the center position.
The Mavericks have so much pedigree here that it's impossible to overlook them. But they're still fighting an uphill battle, and doing so with a terrifying lack of depth behind those expected starters, all of whom cary major question marks into the season.
17. Boston Celtics: 75-1
So begins a conglomerate of Eastern Conference teams who benefit in the title odds from playing in the NBA's weaker half.
The Boston Celtics aren't truly a team capable of winning a championship, but they're masquerading as such because there's a strong possibility they can advance to the playoffs. And once they're at that stage of the season, anything can happen—especially with Brad Stevens calling the shots and inspiring his hordes of guards and bigs.
But the problem with the C's is simple.
It's generally impossible to win without a superstar, and Boston doesn't have one. Though Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger, Amir Johnson and others are all promising—some with more enduring upside than others—it's highly unlikely this team boasts so much as a single All-Star. Holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy without representation in the midseason festivities is just about unfathomable.
16. Washington Wizards: 60-1
Not only do the Washington Wizards have one superstar in John Wall, but if Bradley Beal finally makes the leap, they could have two playing together in the backcourt.
That said, it's tough to bet on the Florida product making such massive progress in just a single offseason after injury-created stagnation early in his career. His reputation is currently stronger than his production, after all.
However, even if Beal doesn't earn celestial status quite yet, he can still team up with Wall to create one of the NBA's better guard combinations. Granted, it's the latter doing most of the heavy lifting, given his burgeoning status as one of the league's truly elite 1s.
The bigger questions exist in the frontcourt, where Otto Porter, Jared Dudley and Kelly Oubre will need to replace Paul Pierce in seamless fashion. Additionally, the aging bigs—Marcin Gortat and Nene—must rebound from their late-season struggles and live up to their contracts if the Wizards are going to make any noise in the playoffs.
Washington is the first team you could hypothetically bet on without simply wasting your money. But that still doesn't make this squad a good investment in the title race.
15. Toronto Raptors: 60-1
Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and virtually every other member of the Toronto Raptors core are still in place. But now DeMarre Carroll is coming to town after a breakout season with the Atlanta Hawks, hoping to help propel the Canadian representatives to the next level.
Even though Carroll thrived as a go-to scorer during Atlanta's run to the Eastern Conference Finals, it's defense where he'll be able to help the most. Toronto allowed 107.7 points per 100 possessions during the 2014-15 campaign, placing them ahead of only the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Obviously, that has to change if the Raptors will serve as a true contender, even in the weak East.
Having DeRozan healthy for a full season should provide a boost, as should further development around the painted area from Valanciunas. But Carroll is coming off a year in which he allowed opposing 3s to post a player efficiency rating of just 13.2, per 82games.com, and that gives him the opportunity to aid the point-preventing unit most significantly.
Plus, the Raptors, only one year removed from posting the fourth-best offensive rating in the Association, will still be a fine-tuned scoring machine.
14. Milwaukee Bucks: 50-1
The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves in the same territory as the Boston Celtics, seeing as there's no true star you can point to on the current roster. But unlike the C's, this squad has plenty of contributors with enormous upside (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Michael Carter-Williams), as well as two fringe All-Stars (Khris Middleton and Greg Monroe).
Additionally, the Bucks have an identity.
Under head coach Jason Kidd, this team has put together a swarming defense filled with lanky wingspans and players who are capable of switching on virtually every pick. Monroe doesn't fit in perfectly after signing a big deal during the offseason, but that's a sacrifice Milwaukee was willing to make, given the need for a go-to scorer in the post.
As Charles F. Gardner explained for the Journal Sentinel, the Bucks can't help but be excited about their ability to shore up weaknesses and build upon pre-existing strengths:
The Bucks ranked 15th in the league in paint points last season, averaging 42.5 per game (Memphis led the NBA at 46.6). But that number figures to go up with Monroe in the lineup. Milwaukee averaged just 6.6 three-pointers made per game and scored 20.3% of its points on threes, numbers the team hopes to improve as well.Monroe and fourth-year center John Henson worked out together in Miami during the summer and could form an imposing tandem in certain lineups. Henson said it's no easy task to guard Monroe in practice.
13. Indiana Pacers: 40-1
This is all about Paul George.
Right now, the Indiana Pacers likely aren't the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference, as their placement in this article would seem to indicate. Title odds aren't about where an organization will finish during the regular season; they instead focus on how possible it is for the squad to successfully navigate the postseason gauntlet.
And the Pacers have something few other teams in their half of the league can claim—a superstar capable of performing like one of the Association's top 10 players. If George fully recovers from the brutal leg fracture he suffered last summer and regains his pre-injury momentum, he's a two-way stud capable of single-handedly winning games on any given night, against any given opponent.
Of course, the route to that point will be filled with trial and error. The Pacers must figure out how long they want to pursue the experiment that involves George lining up at the 4, and they're attempting to change the entire identity of a franchise that has always seemed to lean toward the defensive end.
But if George regains his form and is joined by a slashing Monta Ellis, an insanely underrated George Hill and a version of Myles Turner who plays like anything but a rookie, the ceiling is quite high for this gold-and-blue-clad team.
12. Utah Jazz: 35-1
Overlook the Utah Jazz at your own peril.
Boasting plenty of roster continuity, this franchise is bringing back all of the key pieces (save an injured Dante Exum), and the vast majority of them are young enough that they're still drawing from the seemingly limitless well of untapped potential. Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward could all make some noise in the All-Star conversations, while Alec Burks and Rodney Hood should look quite strong on the wings.
Plus, we already saw a glimpse of what these Jazz can do.
During the second half of the 2014-15 campaign, Utah went 19-10 (a 54-win pace) while posting a ridiculous defensive rating of just 99. To put that in perspective, the Golden State Warriors were No. 1 on the season-long leaderboard, ceding 101.4 points per 100 possessions.
This shouldn't be too surprising. After all, no player who faced at least five shots per game at the rim was less porous than Gobert, according to NBA.com's SportVU databases.
11. New Orleans Pelicans: 35-1
Remember, betting against the New Orleans Pelicans is akin to betting against Anthony Davis.
You don't want to do that. Ever.
The unibrowed big man is coming off a historic season in which he challenged Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James and Michael Jordan for all-time single-season supremacy on the PER leaderboard. Now, he's adding even more muscle and is increasingly comfortable shooting from beyond the arc, which means he's going to make the NBA into his own personal plaything.
As if it wasn't already.
But the Pelicans are still about more than Davis, and the pieces surrounding him are only getting better. More importantly, they're healthy. We still haven't seen what the core of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Davis can do when everyone is able to step onto the court simultaneously for a prolonged stretch, and that offers the hope of plentiful untapped upside.
10. Memphis Grizzlies: 33-1
The Memphis Grizzlies are trying to run it back one more time, rostering nearly the exact same core that has continuously failed to get them through the Western Conference in previous years.
Maybe having Jeff Green for a full season will benefit this squad. Maybe Jordan Adams will break out and give the Grizz the floor-spacing presence they so desperately need off the bench. Maybe Jarnell Stokes, JaMychal Green and Brandan Wright can give the aged frontcourt a boost, keeping them incredibly fresh for the inevitable playoff efforts.
Nonetheless, this feels like a team that's rather easy to pinpoint right between 50 and 55 wins.
The floor is quite high, seeing as Memphis benefits quite a bit from extreme levels of roster continuity and the steady play of its veterans. But the ceiling is also a relatively low one, as there just aren't too many rotation members ready to improve by significant amounts and provide the team with unexpected boosts.
The Grizzlies aren't just who we think they are; they're who we know they are. And as of now, that means their title hopes are wholly dependent on other Western Conference contenders getting knocked out prematurely or suffering unfortunate injuries to key pieces.
9. Miami Heat: 30-1
The Miami Heat roster enough big-name players that they feel like one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. But even with a full season of Goran Dragic and a healthy Chris Bosh, they need to prove they can overcome the inconsistency of Hassan Whiteside, the inevitable absences of Dwyane Wade and the wear and tear Luol Deng is constantly fighting through after years of grinding away under Tom Thibodeau's supervision.
Right now, it's hard to look at this team objectively and remain convinced they're favorites for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Too much adjustment is needed, and too many question marks exist on the defensive end.
Until Whiteside develops into a wall in the paint, he's one of those players whose block totals are a bit misleading. According to 82games.com, he allowed an above-average PER to opposing centers during his breakout season, and the Heat actually gave up an additional 2.9 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. NBA.com's SportVU data shows that he let opponents shoot 46.5 percent at the rim, which is hardly an elite mark.
Optimism is understandably reigning supreme in South Beach right now. The return of Bosh, the addition of Justise Winslow and the star-studded starting lineup (on paper) all demand those kinds of feelings. Chances are, this will be a very competitive team that gets better as the year progresses.
But the Heat are far from perfect.
8. Chicago Bulls: 25-1
Even though Derrick Rose is out with a left orbital fracture, the Chicago Bulls have talent galore. And with new head coach Fred Hoiberg calling the shots, they could get creative enough to maximize the strengths of Rose, Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic and even Doug McDermott.
Hoiberg's offense gets everyone involved, asking for plenty of screens in all areas of the court. Given the plethora of scoring options whose talents were mitigated last season en route to a No. 11 finish on the offensive leaderboard, this is good news. If nothing else, it will allow for more depth on the wings.
But the Bulls still have some major concerns that prevent them from rising any higher in these standings.
The frontcourt is composed of big-name players in Noah and Gasol, but they're not exactly in the midst of their athletic primes. The former has dealt with plenty of injuries and declined rather significantly in 2014-15, while the latter isn't a perfect fit for the uptempo system Hoiberg is likely to bring with him from his collegiate days at Iowa State.
Beyond that, there's a glaring lack of depth in the backcourt, especially if Rose can't stay healthy. Having Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich serve as the primary backups isn't exactly a positive.
7. Atlanta Hawks: 20-1
Expecting the Atlanta Hawks to take a massive step in the wrong direction is a big mistake.
Losing DeMarre Carroll to the Toronto Raptors does hurt a team that admittedly overachieved during the first 60-win season in franchise history, but the vast majority of the key contributors are back. Once you throw in Tiago Splitter, Walter Tavares, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Justin Holiday, this team could feasibly be slightly more talented than the previous iteration, even if the ridiculous number of injuries and missed open shots during the playoffs left a sour taste at the end of the Eastern Conference Finals.
As of now, the Hawks should still be the favorites for the No. 2 seed in the East.
Mike Budenholzer's system will be even more familiar now that he has another year under his belt as a head coach. Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Al Horford all return after making the All-Star team.
And lest we forget, Atlanta actually finished the 2014-15 season ranked No. 6 in both offensive and defensive rating. The only other team to place that high on both ends of the court was the Golden State Warriors.
Carroll was the only major loss, and the Hawks' net rating was actually 0.5 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the bench. That admittedly speaks more about the depth and the strength of the system than Carroll's individual skills, but we'll still leave you to draw your own conclusions.
6. Houston Rockets: 13-1
The Houston Rockets seem to be flying under the radar as one of the true contenders in the Western Conference. It's a bit inexplicable, considering James Harden was a strong MVP candidate last year, Dwight Howard is still on the roster and Ty Lawson was a major acquisition during the offseason.
If Lawson and Harden can coexist, this team—which advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals last year—just gets even more dangerous. That's by no means a guarantee, considering the bearded 2-guard is most comfortable running the show and the new floor general has never been asked to spend much time playing off the ball.
But that possibility of immediate cohesion exists, and it has to be an exciting one for the Rockets.
Heading into the season, health serves as the only glaring weakness here. Dwight Howard hasn't exactly avoided injuries the last few years, and the power forward rotation is rather shaky. Terrence Jones suffered a number of maladies in 2014-15, while Donatas Motiejunas is recovering from back surgery.
If health issues fade into the background and this rotation is ready to go, it can compete with anyone.
5. Los Angeles Clippers: 12-1
The Los Angeles Clippers took some gambles this offseason, and the cumulative impact should only make them even stronger. And they're already strong enough, seeing as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will be rejoined by DeAndre Jordan after the ridiculous sequence that almost ended with the 7-footer jumping ship to the Dallas Mavericks.
Out went Matt Barnes and in came Paul Pierce. But perhaps even more pertinent are the additions of Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson and Pablo Prigioni, all of whom are flawed players who can nonetheless help provide some semblance of depth in the Staples Center.
The Clippers simply wore down last season, culminating in their inability to rebound after blowing a closeout game in the second round of the playoffs. Without any reliable backups outside of Jamal Crawford, they were far too reliant on the starting five. But imagine if everyone had been a bit more fresh, or if Paul had never injured his leg against the San Antonio Spurs.
That's the reality we're looking at in 2015-16, as one of the league's best three-man nuclei is bolstered by legitimate NBA rotation members off the pine for the first time in a while.
The Clippers may no longer be the sexy pick in the Western Conference, and parts of this roster feel a bit stale. That doesn't make them any less threatening.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder: 10-1
Kevin Durant is back, and he won't be playing nice as he seeks to reclaim his spot atop the NBA hierarchy after an injury-plagued 2014-15 campaign. When we last saw this forward take the court for a full season, he won the regular-season MVP award, and there's no reason to doubt his ability to wrestle that trophy away from Stephen Curry in 2015-16.
But Durant alone doesn't make the Thunder into true contenders.
Once more, he'll be playing alongside Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Enes Kanter and Steven Adams make for a nice offense-defense tandem at the center position, and there's depth across the board. This roster is loaded with upper-tier talent and capable backups, which should put less of a burden on Durant than he's shouldered in previous seasons.
Plus, Scott Brooks is out as the head coach, replaced by Billy Donovan. And with the former Florida clipboard-holder comes hope that there will be far less reliance on isolation plays and basic sets than there was in the last era.
OKC didn't make the playoffs last season, but unless that pesky injury imp decides to wreak havoc once more, they're a virtual lock this year. Now the Thunder can reasonably set their sights on a championship instead of just the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference they unsuccessfully chased during the last go-round.
3. San Antonio Spurs: 8-1
The San Antonio Spurs are just unfair.
Faced with the prospect of watching Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili retire this offseason, they might have finally declined after years of rubbing shoulders with the NBA's best. Instead, Duncan and Ginobili are back...and they re-signed Kawhi Leonard to a big deal...and they stole LaMarcus Aldridge away from all other suitors...and they managed to convince David West to opt out of his contract with the Indiana Pacers, throw away eight figures and sign a paltry deal in San Antonio.
So, yeah. Unfair.
Fortunately for the rest of the NBA, the Spurs will need some time to adjust. Aldridge's ball-dominant ways don't make him a perfect fit in the offense Gregg Popovich typically runs, though everyone involved is talented enough that it shouldn't be a problem.
San Antonio won't run away with the West and win 73 games, but this will inevitably be another typically excellent team.
2. Golden State Warriors: 6-1
It's worth noting how ridiculously good the Golden State Warriors were during their run to the franchise's first title in 40 years. Although many have spent the offseason trying to poke holes in their resume, pointing to curiosities like all the injured point guards they faced during the postseason, this team should get the accolades it deserves in due time.
After all, it was one of the most dominant teams ever. According to my TeamRtng+ metric, the Dubs were the eighth-best regular-season squad in NBA history, and they didn't fall far from that pace during the playoffs.
Now the Warriors are ready to pick up where they left off. There were no huge departures during the offseason, and the arrival of Jason Thompson could actually—gasp—make them even better.
Until someone proves otherwise, the team that continues rostering the Splash Brothers and plenty of other positive contributors remains the cream of the crop in the Association.
However, that still doesn't mean it has the best title odds.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: 5-1
If we were ranking teams by their sheer on-court abilities, the Cleveland Cavaliers could reasonably fit in anywhere from No. 2 to No. 6. There's a case to be made that five teams in the Western Conference are actually superior squads—the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets.
In fact, the case is only strengthened by the persisting absence of Tristan Thompson (still without a contract), and the injuries to Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert. The lack of depth in the frontcourt is particularly questionable, seeing as the Cavs are currently counting on Love, Timofey Mozgov, Anderson Varejao (coming off a ruptured Achilles) and Sasha Kaun.
But they still have LeBron James, so it's not like they're going anywhere. They're the clear-cut favorites in the East, even with all the aforementioned concerns, and they can afford to rest key players in Spursian fashion throughout the bulk of the regular season.
Whether they're No. 2 or No. 6, the key to their status as the team with the best odds is simple—they play in the league's weaker half. While the Warriors will have to navigate a Western Conference gauntlet that necessitates beating three strong teams just to reach the NBA Finals, the Cavs can basically sleepwalk until they're in the penultimate round.
That's quite a luxury, and it's enough to boost them ahead of some superior squads.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@fromal09.