NBA Power Rankings as the 2017-18 Regular Season Begins

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 17, 2017

NBA Power Rankings as the 2017-18 Regular Season Begins

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    Somehow, possibly owing to a time warp that zapped us all the way through August and September in a blink, we're here: The dawn of the 2017-18 NBA regular season.

    We should not rule out the possibility that whatever cosmic force governs the universe really wanted to see how James Harden and Chris Paul would coexist, how salty the Kyrie Irving-LeBron James reunion would be, and if anybody stands a chance against the Golden State Warriors.

    Who could blame Him/Her/It?

    A truncated preseason meant fewer opportunities to be misled by half-speed execution, rotation tinkering and extended garbage time. So as we evaluate the present strength of all 30 NBA teams, most of what we have to go on comes from last year. We'll still be largely guessing at how all of the head-spinning player movement will change things.

    As always, we're building a hierarchy based on how good each NBA club is right now. Injuries matter, and we've priced in uncertainty surrounding team chemistry and possible fit issues—though, again, there's some speculation involved on that front.

    Rejoice! We made it. It's on.

30. Chicago Bulls

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    Lauri Markannen's 18-point night (on 7-of-12 shooting) in a 108-94 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 10 doesn't mean the Chicago Bulls won their trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    Chicago still got fleeced for Jimmy Butler. That's not changing.

    But that Markkanen flashed the smooth stroke and deft scoring touch of a possible (POSSIBLE!) quality stretch big man means the Bulls will open the season with something to show for the trade that sent Butler away. Zach LaVine's recovery from ACL surgery will keep him out of contact drills until at least late November, and Kris Dunn could miss the season's first couple of weeks after a nasty finger dislocation.

    Ryan Arcidiacono will get minutes at backup point guard, and the most important thing to know about him is that you will confuse him with Kirk Hinrich several times the next three months. Or maybe that'll just be me...

    In good news for the Bulls, they seem committed to shooting lots of threes. After ranking second-to-last with 22.3 deep shots per game last year, they heaved 34.2 per game during preseason play. That won't keep a team with one legitimate rotation player (Robin Lopez) out of the cellar, but it's something.

    The Bulls are bottoming out. It's the right call, but it won't be much fun.

29. Phoenix Suns

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    It obviously doesn't do much for their ranking here, but let's give the Phoenix Suns credit for avoiding half measures in their rebuild.

    Some teams in their position wouldn't have mailed in the final two months of last season. Thinking, perhaps, that having Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Devin Booker was sufficient, other clubs might have tried to avoid another lottery trip.

    Not so for the Suns, who tanked hard and now have Josh Jackson to show for it.

    "Josh Jackson pretty quietly averaging 15 + 5 on 48%FG, 6-12 3PT through 4 games. Strongest preseason of all the lottery forwards," B/R's Jonathan Wasserman tweeted after Jackson put up 22 points in 40 minutes on Oct. 11.

    Dragan Bender looked more assertive as a playmaker and shooter, and Booker, in what must have been a relief for Suns fans, returned to preseason action Oct. 13 after battling a sore knee that kept him out of an Oct. 11 game.

    Intriguing as their youth may be, the Suns aren't built to take the next step yet. Expect another dive toward the bottom of the standings; possible trades sending out Eric Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler or Jared Dudley; and another high lottery pick.

    Not every purported star draftee pans out, which is why it's smart to snag as many as possible. The Suns will get one more next June.

28. Indiana Pacers

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    Ahem...

    BOOOOOORRRIIIINNNNGGGGG!!!

    Sorry, but even if the Indiana Pacers aren't the worst team in the league, they're easily the least interesting.

    Myles Turner may well become a star, but his mix of stretch offense and rim protection isn't nearly enough to offset an otherwise snooze-inducing blandness. Victor Oladipo was Indy's big get in the Paul George trade, but he has yet to prove he can succeed as a team's primary wing option.

    Indiana should try to play fast to leverage Turner's skills, but head coach Nate McMillan actually slowed them down last year, dropping their pace from 10th to 18th in his first year at the helm. It's difficult to imagine this personnel group performing better than the league average on either offense or defense, as the Pacers were 15th on offense and 16th on defense last season with George.

    Because the Pacers have been ardent tank resistors forever, there's not even the possibility of a bottom-out season in which the kids (if they had any) would get a chance to take their lumps and grow. These guys are going to push their substandard talent and pray for 34 wins but will probably fall short in forgettable fashion.

    In conclusion, if the Pacers were a bagel, they'd be plain. If they were a paint color, they'd be taupe.

27. Atlanta Hawks

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    Now three years removed from a 60-win season, the Atlanta Hawks have embraced youth and inexpensive veterans, which prompted this not-so-subtly coded language from new general manager Travis Schlenk, per the Associated Press (via USA Today): "These are scrappy guys, these are competitive guys, these are prideful guys. Now, we're going to be young. Historically, teams that are young take it on the chin a little bit."

    It's going to be a long year for the Hawks, and they seem to know it.

    Rookie John Collins can dunk from anywhere, second-year wing Taurean Prince might be a three-and-D stud eventually, and Dennis Schroder could take a step forward in his second year as the team's starting point guard.

    Over at Nylon Calculus, Ian Levy highlighted the area in which Schroder must improve:

    "Among the 46 players who averaged at least 6.0 drives per game last season, Schroder ranked 29th in points scored per drive. His field goal percentage on drives was a respectable 50.4 percent — about the same as Mike Conley or Jimmy Butler — but his turnover percentage was high (36th of 46 players), and his free throw rate was relatively low (38th of 46)."

    Better perimeter shooters could entice Schroder to kick out a bit more, but it's also possible his straight-line attack mindset just doesn't leave room for good vision.

    Atlanta has a bit more talent than the three teams beneath it, but the biggest reason it ranks above those clubs is the certainty that, no matter how bad its record gets, head coach Mike Budenholzer will have it playing hard to the end.

26. Sacramento Kings

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    In a trend that feels on-brand for a Sacramento Kings team that should be tanking but signed three veterans over the summer, the preseason was marked by indecision.

    Or at least aggressive experimentation.

    Either way, the Kings, who started different five-man units in each of their preseason games, are still figuring things out.

    Rookie point guard De'Aaron Fox showed bursts of top-end NBA speed and athleticism but missed the final three exhibition contests with a sore back. New signee George Hill injured his groin in the Kings' second-to-last preseason game, and any injury for him bears close scrutiny. He played just 49 games a year ago while battling several maladies.

    Sacramento had a chance to gun for a top draft spot this season, to pocket more lottery tickets, to truly rebuild. But it didn't, and now Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and Hill will keep the Kings from being as bad as they could have been—and should have been. Sacramento doesn't own the rights to its 2019 first-rounder, and the lottery odds will get less favorable for the teams with the worst records after this season, which means the Kings may have blown their best chance at another cornerstone via the draft.

    Bogdan Bogdanovic is going to be fun, Buddy Hield should hit lots of open shots and maybe Skal Labissiere will make good on the late-season promise he showed last year. But this team has a toe on the mediocrity treadmill when it should be falling all over itself to fail—just for one more year.

    The most frustrating thing about the Kings is that they're not going to be as bad as they should be.

25. New York Knicks

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    If we assume Kristaps Porzingis has a breakout season, averaging, say, 24 points per game, improving his efficiency and making the All-Star team, where does that get the New York Knicks?

    It won't help the team's defense, which, for all the heat directed at Carmelo Anthony, Phil Jackson, the Triangle offense and a broadly dysfunctional environment created by shoddy ownership, is the main reason the Knicks have stunk for the last few seasons. New York has ranked between 18th and 28th on D every year since 2013-14.

    Thankfully, the Knicks weren't last in defense during the preseason...just worst among NBA teams. The Sydney Kings, Guangzhou Long-Lions, Shanghai Sharks and Haifa Maccabi Haifa were all worse

    A Porzingis surge also won't negate the fact that the Knicks are going to trot out several one-way options in their rotation while suffering from a dearth of playmaking and stopping power.

    Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr., Michael Beasley and rookie Frank Ntilikina will log significant minutes, so opponents are going to get their buckets (even if Ntilikina profiles as a fine defender down the line).

    Porzingis played just two preseason games (both losses to the Brooklyn Nets) because of a sore hip, and his health will remain the organization's top concern. Less of a priority: fielding a winning roster.

24. Brooklyn Nets

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    They've still got too many of the wrong guys, but the Nets' approach is the right one.

    Led by head coach Kenny Atkinson, Brooklyn wants to space the floor, play fast and shoot threes. Quietly, GM Sean Marks has secured the beginnings of a young core without the benefit of draft picks. Brooklyn exercised 2018-19 contract options on D'Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

    Jeremy Lin and Allen Crabbe give the Nets backcourt depth—assuming Russell excels in a spaced-out pick-and-roll system (which he should) and LeVert progresses as a useful combo guard during his second season. He shot 9-of-18 and scored 28 points combined in the two preseason games he played while recovering from an ankle injury.

    The Nets' overall talent pool remains shallow, and they will again lose a great many games without the benefit of owning their own first-rounder. This'll be the last time, though, and once Brooklyn conveys its lottery position to the Cleveland Cavaliers in June, it'll be master of its own fate for the first time in years.

    "Trust the process" is already taken, but there's reason to have faith in the approach when it comes to the Nets.

23. Orlando Magic

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    Despite closing out the preseason with a loss, the Orlando Magic's prospects showed genuine signs of progress.

    They were 3-2 in exhibition play, and the Orlando Sentinel's Joshua Robbins highlighted three other key developments:

    "Gordon, fully healthy, made nine of his 21 tries from 3-point range during the preseason, a success rate of 42.9 percent. Free-agent signee Jonathon Simmons added energy to the mix. Bismack Biyombo, usually stone-handed, drained mid-range shots."

    Nice, right?

    So much of what made last year disappointing involved Gordon's struggles as a perimeter player, weak wing play and underwhelming production from Biyombo in the first year of a hefty new contract. If those three areas improve (and the Magic defend as though they're being coached by Frank Vogel, and not some imposter), there's an outside shot they make a run at a playoff spot in the scorched rubble that is the Eastern Conference.

    Remember, though: Orlando had the second-worst net rating in the league last year, which means its measly total of 29 wins might have overstated the team's quality. This is a squad starting from a lower baseline than you think.

22. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Lonzo Ball only got two preseason games to feel the speed and physicality of real NBA basketball, and though he showed flashes of touch, court sense and skill in averaging 6.5 points, 6.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds, he also had a visibly hard time with stronger, more aggressive defenders.

    He has questions to answer, and Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton acknowledged the sprained ankle that limited Ball's exhibition action puts the rookie in a tough spot. Walton highlighted, via Lance Pugmire of the Los Angeles Times:

    "His timing with the plays— the offense we’ve been putting in, defensive rotation reps (what it’s going to be like guarding point guards in this league). We've dedicated a lot of time to defense, and he hasn't been able to get those reps in. He's been able to see it, but you're not going to learn as well by watching as you are going through it."

    Kyle Kuzma continued to look like a legitimate rotation weapon, building on his strong summer-league showing but losing some of the perimeter accuracy that made his game especially tantalizing. He's done enough to carve out minutes up front, perhaps cutting into the roles of Larry Nance Jr. or even Julius Randle.

    There are reasons to believe the Lakers could score at a level above the league's average this season, especially if Brandon Ingram shapes up and the veteran duo of Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope benefit from Ball's playmaking. The problems will be on defense, where L.A. will struggle to avoid finishing among the league's bottom five teams.

    Taking all that into consideration, this ranking feels about right.

21. Dallas Mavericks

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    Dennis Smith Jr. scored in double figures in four of his last five preseason games and shot 47.4 percent from long range while, more importantly, showing hints of advanced playmaking skill to go along with his ungodly athletic burst.

    "In this league, I’ve got to attack first, and then make my reads from there," Smith told Mavs.com. "It’s tough for defenders to stay in front of me. If I can beat my man and make the defense collapse, I’m smart enough to make the right read out of that."

    Smith averaged 4.6 assists in only 20.6 minutes in the last five preseason games, and he made several next-level reads as a distributor.

    There should be some concern about the relentless pace pushing head coach Rick Carlisle wants when Smith is in the game, as it would seem to marginalize franchise mainstay Dirk Nowitzki, leaving him plodding behind the action.

    But if Smith builds on what he's shown so far, he could propel Dallas into a crowded and exceptionally competitive West playoff race. And if all he does is dunk a bunch, that'll be a fine consolation prize.

20. Detroit Pistons

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    Your faith in the Detroit Pistons shaking off a woefully disappointing 2016-17 depends on which preseason numbers you isolate as meaningful. And, yes, we all realize "meaningful preseason numbers" is basically an oxymoron.

    First, the negative: After ranking 24th in pace last year, Detroit posted the preseason's second-slowest pace figure among NBA teams (several international squads participated, and two were slower than the Pistons). That's partly a function of playing a conventional center like Andre Drummond, but also a symptom of Detroit's generally bland offense and slavish devotion to securing defensive rebounds. The Pistons set the all-time record for defensive rebound rate last year, according to ESPN's Zach Lowe.

    Playing fast isn't a sure path to better offense, but a little more oomph might energize point guard Reggie Jackson and get the most out of three wings (Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson and Tobias Harris) who can all get up and down the floor.

    More encouraging: Andre Drummond's 80 percent conversion rate from the foul line. The career 38.1 percent shooter from the stripe hit 16 of his 20 freebies—perhaps a small-sample anomaly, or maybe the result of a summer spent working on his stroke. Drummond also told reporters he's down 30 pounds from last year's weight and had surgery to repair a deviated septum.

    Much depends on Drummond's energy level and commitment. And if he can hit enough foul shots to stay on the floor in the fourth quarter, the Pistons could make this initial ranking look low in a hurry.

19. New Orleans Pelicans

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    It's genuinely hard for Rajon Rondo's absence to hurt a team's chances of success. Other than a pair of strong playoff games for the Chicago Bulls last year, Rondo's presence has generally produced failure in recent years.

    But the New Orleans Pelicans were already so thin at the guard and wing spots, and still scrambling to replace Solomon Hill's minutes at the 3, that Rondo's sports hernia surgery actually constitutes a problem.

    It's entirely possible the 4-6 weeks he's slated to miss won't matter. Maybe moving Jrue Holiday back to the point and trusting E'Twaun Moore as the full-time 2 is the best way to go. But Holiday has never been a paragon of health, and Moore is best utilized as a bench weapon.

    Is Tony Allen going to soak up big minutes on the wing? Ian Clark?

    The most exciting thing about the Pels (outside of the bold commitment to keeping twin towers alive in a shrinking league), is the presence of assistant Chris Finch, largely credited for unlocking Nikola Jokic's potential with the Denver Nuggets last year.

    When personnel isn't a strength, strategy and organization have to be.

    All that said, the Pelicans do not profile as a playoff team—with or without Rondo.

18. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Joel Embiid needed two preseason games to remind us he's one of the most dominant forces in the NBA.

    And on Twitter.

    Seeing him shine in limited preseason action (because the Philadelphia 76ers will be cautious with his health until he retires) practically forces me to get carried away with his team's ceiling. His one-legged fallaways, foul-drawing physicality and unholy quickness for his size make it easy to forget that Embiid may not play more than 60 games this season—even if fully healthy.

    The Sixers will be judicious, and when he's getting his rest, the team is going to struggle.

    Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz are rookies. They're going to lose their way on defense and turn the ball over a ton. Both figure to play big minutes, though Fultz's full-on shooting-form crisis had to have been a factor in his loss of a starting role. Yes, JJ Redick and Robert Covington are terrific wings, but they're dependent on others for their shots. If Embiid's not sucking in the defense, and neither Fultz nor Simmons commands attention on the perimeter, Philly's best shooters may find looks hard to come by.

    When Embiid plays, everything changes. And the Sixers are guaranteed to be League Pass darlings while surely knocking off several high-quality opponents.

    But when you price in the inexperience and uncertainty surrounding Embiid's durability and his supporting cast, this is where Philly belongs.

17. Charlotte Hornets

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    Malik Monk doesn't need to save the Charlotte Hornets, but a hot start to his rookie season could help them survive Nicolas Batum's absence better than expected. 

    Monk led the Hornets in preseason scoring, and though he wasn't efficient (36.1 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from long range), he showcased the creativity and confidence that should make him at least a quality rotation player in the future.

    He shoots an easy ball from deep, has an array of in-between floaters and is comfortable navigating the pick-and-roll as a ball-handler. At a wispy 6'3", Monk will struggle guarding most 2s, but Batum's defense has quietly slipped in recent years. No great downgrade there.

    The Hornets are going to rebound everything, never turn it over and trust Kemba Walker to orchestrate a serviceable offense. If Dwight Howard gives them rim protection and doesn't gripe about touches, he'll help. But it's worth noting that Howard's time on the court resulted in the Hornets getting outscored in the preseason. Meanwhile, Cody Zeller, whose absence from the lineup last year coincided with a 3-17 record, continued doing winning things.

    Charlotte outscored opponents in his 115 preseason minutes.

16. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies won 43 games last year as Marc Gasol and Mike Conley each had the best offensive seasons of their careers.

    If head coach David Fizdale has more success implementing a modern, uptempo attack with plodders Tony Allen and Zach Randolph gone, and if he gets production from an hodge-podge roster in which the likes of Wayne Selden, Tyreke Evans and Mario Chalmers occupy key roles, perhaps the Grizz do enough to offset inevitable decline from their two best players.

    And decline from Gasol and Conley is inevitable.

    The former is 32; the latter 30. Career trajectories do not angle upward at those ages, and it's worth noting that Gasol was healthy enough to log 74 games last year. Conley played just 69, but he hasn't taken the floor for more than 73 games since 2012-13. The safe bet is on both Memphis stars missing time.

    Chandler Parsons is washed until he proves otherwise, and every single wing on the roster comes with questions.

    It's going to take luck, unforeseen role-player breakouts or both for the Grizz to match last year's win total. A small step back from last year's level (just above average) feels right.

15. Miami Heat

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    The Miami Heat have several options at small forward, but none fit quite as perfectly as Rodney McGruder would have. So with the second-year wing sidelined for 3-6 months with a stress fracture, according to Shams Charania of the Vertical, Miami must decide what to do at the position.

    The onus may be on Josh Richardson, newly paid on a four-year, $42 million contract, to prove his willowy frame can hold up to more minutes at small forward. Either that, or James Johnson (better at the 4...or even the 5) and Justise Winslow (who can't space the floor as a wing) will have to absorb McGruder's minutes.

    The guess here is that McGruder's injury will lead to more small ball and three-guard lineups by necessity. That may not be a bad thing, as all of Miami's wings—Tyler Johnson, Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington and Richardson—deserve minutes.

    The Heat have a ton of quality, rotation-level players on the roster. Barring huge years from Goran Dragic or Hassan Whiteside, what they lack is a true star.

    Head coach Erik Spolestra will have everyone playing hard, and few teams keep their players in better physical condition than Miami does. If Justise Winslow develops as an undersized playmaking big and Richardson takes a step forward, the Heat could play at a level closer to last year's 30-11 finish than their 11-30 start.

    Ultimately, they feel like a team that'll split the difference—which should be good enough for a playoff spot in the East.

14. Portland Trail Blazers

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    A full season of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic means we should probably adjust our expectations upward for the Portland Trail Blazers. That group produced a plus-11.3 net rating in 419 minutes last year, and Portland went 14-6 in the 20 games during which all three were healthy enough to play.

    Though the Blazers finished 41-41, their closing run following the Nurkic acquisition would seem to indicate they're ticketed for more success.

    At the same time, Portland isn't a lock for a playoff spot. We've got them as ninth in the West right now, and that's due mostly to some lingering questions.

    Will Nurkic, whose attitude and substandard effort contributed to his exit from the Denver Nuggets last year, bristle at the Blazers' decision not to give him an extension?

    Can Portland sustain the 103.7 defensive rating it posted wth Nurkic on the floor (especially if the big man doesn't play at the apex he hit a year ago)?

    Is there enough shooting on the wings without Allen Crabbe around?

    Should we expect improvement from two front-line guards—Lillard and McCollum—who, at 27 and 26, respectively, may have topped out already?

    McCollum's one-game suspension for leaving the bench during a preseason altercation might actually end up mattering in the final standings. Forty-one wins won't be enough to snatch the eighth spot again this year, so every game will count.

13. Los Angeles Clippers

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    The range of outcomes is far greater for the Los Angeles Clippers than it is for the Blazers.

    Depending on the health of Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari, the Clips could have one of the more multi-skilled and dynamic forward duos in the league...or one that combines for about 100 games and sinks the team.

    Griffin's facilitation and a possibly improved three-point shot were on display in the preseason, but his athleticism seemed to be even further diminished coming off toe surgery. It will be hard to trust his durability after having his last two seasons ended by surgeries. He's missed an average of nearly 28 games over the last three years.

    Still, in their first year without Chris Paul, perhaps the Clippers will play with a freedom and pace that was never possible under the thumb of a domineering (and dominant) point guard. Patrick Beverley will defend and shoot spot-up treys, Milos Teodosic will not defend but will fire the most mind-bending passes in the league, and DeAndre Jordan never misses a game.

    If everything breaks right and the Clips stay healthy, 50 wins aren't out of the question. Lose Griffin and Gallo for significant time, and this thing could combust spectacularly.

    Griffin's goal: "Make the playoffs. I don’t really see any other goal," he told Elliott Teaford of the Los Angeles Daily News. "Obviously, it's to win a championship. Every team starts out at the beginning of the year saying, 'We want to win a championship,' but you've got to have a goal of getting to the playoffs first."

    Cautiously, the wager here is something closer to the positive end of the spectrum. For now, we've got L.A. sneaking into the postseason ahead of the less volatile Blazers.

12. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Slotting the Milwaukee Bucks ahead of the Clippers is about valuing upside over downside.

    That's an odd angle of approach for the Bucks, who didn't meaningfully alter last year's roster.

    But the Bucks' key players are all either in their primes or just approaching them—led, of course, by Giannis Antetokounmpo and his limitless potential—while the Clips are essentially hoping their veterans avoid injury and dodge imminent decline. Los Angeles won nine more games and had a net rating four points better than the Bucks' last year, but losing Paul is massive. Banking on Griffin and Gallo's health has been a losing bet for the past half-decade or so.

    Meanwhile, Khris Middleton is fully healthy after losing much of last season to a hamstring injury. He's among the most underrated two-way wings in the league. Throw in a step forward from Thon Maker, sustained shooting from Tony Snell and added comfort for Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, and this team can get better. If the Bucks can stay in the mix until Jabari Parker returns from his torn ACL, estimated to be sometime in February, they'll be potent.

    If it'd scrap the trapping scheme that yields too many threes and layups, Milwaukee could juice its defensive rating by at least a point or two. Somebody needs to get in head coach Jason Kidd's ear and tell him the league has figured out how to solve his team's preferred approach.

    Ultimately, if the Clips and Bucks are roughly equals (as they are here, separated by one spot), Milwaukee's upward trajectory wins the tiebreaker against the Clips' tenuous effort to avoid post-Paul collapse.

11. Utah Jazz

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    It shouldn't be a hot take to say Rudy Gobert is a better player than Gordon Hayward, which is why it also shouldn't be controversial to say Hayward's departure will not kill the Utah Jazz.

    When Hayward sat last year, Utah still outscored its opponents. Gobert's absence from the floor resulted in a minus-2.9 net rating.

    There's immense value in dynamic wing scoring and underrated defense, both of which Hayward provided as Utah's offensive hub a season ago. But Gobert's defensive impact is game-changing; his contributions as the anchor on that end are harder to replace.

    Good thing the Jazz don't have to. Prepare for The Season of Gobert.

    If Rodney Hood, Alec Burks and Derrick Favors stay healthy, they compensate for Hayward's absence. All three were either unavailable or ineffective for long stretches of last season. Favors, in particular, seems to have been forgotten by casual fans. He's a force inside on both ends when his knees and back cooperate. At 26, why rule out a bounce-back year?

    If rookie Donovan Mitchell's promising preseason carries over, Utah's wing spots will still be a strength without Hayward.

    Ricky Rubio could easily outproduce George Hill's contributions last season, considering Hill played just 49 games. A noted ballhawk, Rubio should also induce turnovers in a way Hill never did. His perimeter pestering combined with Gobert's fearsome work inside could lead the Jazz to a No.1 defensive ranking this season.

    Don't bury this team. Scoring may be an issue, but a defense like this demands recognition.

10. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Two of the Minnesota Timberwolves' three preseason games came against the Golden State Warriors, so we can't get too bent out of shape over their 106.5 defensive rating, which ranked 28th among NBA teams in exhibition play.

    Even with so many questions about offensive spacing from the 3-4-5 starting trio of Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins and Taj Gibson, the defensive end is still where the Wolves' season hinges. If Butler and Gibson transfuse the urgency and attention to detail necessary to play how head coach Tom Thibodeau wants, maybe Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns buy in. Neither seemed interested last year.

    When players with physical tools like theirs don't make the effort to defend, it's hard to avoid making it a referendum on their interest in winning. Then again, both were in their age-21 seasons. With that youth comes hope for change.

    Minnesota is a trendy pick to push for 50 wins and a top-four seed in the West.

    An underappreciated lack of wing depth and unproven defense are big obstacles, but the expectations are otherwise well-founded. Nonetheless, the reason Minnesota ranks this low has more to do with another breakout squad in the West.

    Finally, congrats to the Wolves on maxing out Wiggins, a player whose ceiling feels like "DeMar DeRozan with way worse footwork." Let it be noted we made it all the way to the No. 10 spot before resorting to naked sarcasm.

9. Toronto Raptors

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    The Toronto Raptors appear to be serious about their offensive reinvention.

    After years defined by isolation attacks, low assist rates and stagnant stretches (especially in the postseason), they're committing to a drive-and-kick attack. In their final preseason contest, they fired up 48 threes and registered 31 assists. Both totals topped season-highs from 2016-17.

    Only the Houston Rockets averaged more three-point attempts during preseason play.

    "If they present themselves, we've got to take them," head coach Dwane Casey told reporters after his team chucked up all those triples. "We have to make them if we're going to go with the new millennium, new NBA. We've just got to work on making them (and) that will come, I promise you."

    Major changes like these are uncommon for teams with cores as established and familiar as Toronto's. But it was clear the Raps needed to tweak their style, and it'll be fascinating to see the results as the season gets rolling.

    Kyle Lowry is still an All-NBA-level point guard who has to stay healthy, DeRozan worked all summer to extend his range and C.J. Miles pairs nicely with Norman Powell to give the Raptors matchup options on the wing.

    If Serge Ibaka gets more minutes at center, Toronto could field a five-out lineup that puts the East's No. 2 seed in play. Let's wait and see if the preseason overhaul sticks before we get too carried away, though.

8. Washington Wizards

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    Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

    The Washington Wizards won't get a league-high 1,347 combined minutes from their starting five again, and they shouldn't want to.

    Leaning on starters like that is dangerous, and we saw John Wall run out of gas toward the end of Washington's playoff run last year. If this team wants to do more than fizzle out in May, it needs to scale back its first-unit minutes.

    That wasn't an option last year, as Washington's backups hemorrhaged leads. If the Wizards' starters hadn't been remarkably healthy, who knows what might have happened? The lottery would have been a possibility.

    Kelly Oubre will have to step in for Markieff Morris, who'll miss time to start the season following sports hernia surgery in September. A pivotal player, the third-year forward must not only hold the fort as a starter for a month or so but also stay focused enough to be a key contributor off the bench all season.

    Jodie Meeks and Tim Frazier, both new additions, give the Wizards capable backups at both guard spots. And if Ian Mahinmi provides anything at all behind Marcin Gortat, the frontcourt gets some badly needed depth.

    It's possible Washington's starters are less productive but that the team gets better as a whole. Remember, though, that the Wizards were lucky to win 49 games with a margin of victory good enough for just 46 victories, according to Basketball Reference's pythagorean wins formula.

    Ranking them ahead of the Raptors is a bet that Wall's prime continues as Lowry tails off a bit.

7. Denver Nuggets

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    Saddle up, partners! There's room aplenty aboard the Denver Nuggets bandwagon.

    Maybe you hopped on last year, when the Nugs posted the league's highest offensive rating after Dec. 15—a stat that coincided with Nikola Jokic's role expanding and Gary Harris' return from injury. If so, wise move; Denver is only going to get better.

    While everyone's fawning over the Wolves as the West's best up-and-comer, the Nuggets are the squad with a locked-in strength. Their offense is going to be fantastic. Jamal Murray will score from everywhere, Harris shot 42 percent from three last year and Jokic is the best big-man passer in the NBA. There is no way these guys rank outside the top five in offensive efficiency.

    For all of Minnesota's talent, we can't say that about it.

    With Paul Millsap aboard, one of the league's worst defenses can't help but improve. Relieved of the scoring and playmaking duties he shouldered in Atlanta, Millsap can devote his energy to doing the little things and inspiring change on D. Normally, you wouldn't pay $30 million a year for services like that, but Millsap's fit is so perfect that the money's worth it.

    If Denver merely gets itself out of the bottom third in defensive efficiency, its offense should be good enough for 50 wins. Nothing's promised, but it's hard not to be wildly optimistic about this group.

6. Boston Celtics

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    There's little question the Boston Celtics will score with Kyrie Irving and Hayward joining Al Horford in Brad Stevens' offense, but this team's performance on the other end could be an issue. And if the Celtics go small around Horford, a notoriously poor rebounder, they could get demolished on the glass.

    Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley are gone, which puts a lot of pressure on Marcus Smart to sustain defensive nastiness. Hayward is solid on D, and Irving can hardly be worse than Isaiah Thomas. But Boston figures to play rookie Jayson Tatum at the 4, and second-year wing Jaylen Brown is likely to start at shooting guard.

    There's a lot of rangy switchability in that unit, but first and second-year players tend to take their lumps. Brown has loads of potential on D, and perhaps Hayward can save Tatum from guarding most power forwards, but there's going to be a lot of smoke and mirrors involved if the Celtics finish above average defensively.

    Expect their No. 27 rebound rate to be nearly that low again.

    All that said, the Celts' star power and Stevens' strategic button-pushing make them a clear runner-up in the East.

5. San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    It's a testament to Kawhi Leonard's work ethic and the San Antonio Spurs' player development staff that you can reasonably debate whether Leonard is better on offense or defense.

    The two-time Defensive Player of the Year was one of only four players to average at least 25.5 points on 61 percent true shooting last season.

    Not up for discussion: Whether the Spurs are better or worse without their two-way superstar.

    And they will be without Leonard to start the season, according to head coach Gregg Popovich, who didn't offer reporters a timetable for his best player's return from a left quadriceps injury: "I don't gauge it," Popovich said. "He's still rehabbing and when he's ready, he'll be ready. I try not to qualify it."

    A prolonged absence would drop the Spurs out of the top five, and perhaps even the top 10. For now, institutional consistency, veteran savvy and Popovich's unyielding leadership are enough to preserve the significant gap between the steady Spurs and the Celtics. That could change if one or more of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili or Danny Green slip significantly.

    The Spurs must not expect Aldridge to be the one losing ground. He just signed a three-year, $72.3 million extension, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

    It's the same question every year, this time exacerbated by Leonard's health: Is this finally it for the Spurs as an elite team?

    Probably not, folks. Probably not.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    A standing ovation is in order for Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti, who:

    • Fleeced the Pacers for Paul George
    • Got Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks
    • Removed bad money (Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter) from the books
    • Added Patrick Patterson on one of the summer's best deals
    • Convinced Russell Westbrook to sign a max extension

    Quite a summer for Presti, and quite a year for a franchise presumed dead after Kevin Durant's exit in 2016.

    The version of the Thunder Presti built may be the best equipped group to match up with the Warriors, provided Westbrook and Anthony decide to defend once in a while. With Patterson capable of playing some undersized 5 and George useful as a defender against four positions (especially if the Dubs also play small, which they will) the Thunder can get switchy and versatile with the best of them.

    Can Westbrook scale back his stat-hunting, ball-dominating ways now that he's got his MVP?

    Can Anthony really thrive as a spot-up weapon who won't grind the offense to a halt whenever he touches the ball in the mid-post?

    There are plenty of questions, and even if the talent level is significantly greater than it was last year, OKC must still sort out everyone's fit. It's a good problem to have.

3. Houston Rockets

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Chris Paul and James Harden both shot it poorly during preseason play, but they averaged 19.3 assists between them and didn't look to have much of an issue sharing the ball. As a result, the Houston Rockets' offense profiles as one of the two or three best in the league.

    If Clint Capela takes a step forward and the Luc Mbah a Moute-P.J. Tucker tandem takes a few wing minutes per game from shoddier defenders, the Rockets could also finish near the top 10 in defensive efficiency. The intrigue really picks up if we see much of Tucker as a super small-ball center during the year; as an anti-Warriors tactic, that one's got some potential.

    Expect to see Houston push the limits of three-point volume again, perhaps breaking last season's all-time record of 3,306 triple tries. In addition to all those bombs, it'd behoove the Rockets to let Paul operate in the mid-range once in a while. He's deadly from the right elbow, and postseason opponents (namely the Spurs) exploited Houston's allergy to jumpers inside the arc.

    Even for a team this good at being extreme, a little moderation in the form of offensive diversity might help.

    Short of the top-ranked clubs in each conference, Houston is as good as it gets.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The Cleveland Cavaliers are always the hardest team to rank.

    LeBron James treats the regular season like a warmup, their defensive indifference doesn't necessarily signal how they'll perform when actually trying and whatever version of the team starts the playoffs doesn't much resemble the one that ends them.

    So do we judge the Cavs on what we know they'll be when it matters? Or do we dock them for only channeling their best selves for a couple of months every spring? I suppose the answer must be the former if they rank this high ahead of the season.

    Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose present spacing challenges to an offense that used to be based on surrounding James with four three-point shooters. It'll be fascinating to see this team's shot distribution, even with Kevin Love sliding over to start at center and, theoretically, compensating for a couple of guards who can't hit threes.

    Jae Crowder should provide some necessary defensive gumption.

    If Isaiah Thomas makes it back to full health, he'll fundamentally change the way Cleveland plays. But nobody's sure when he'll be back from his hip injury.

    Ultimately, James is still the best player in the world and the Cavs are (insert asterisks if you must) still the only team to beat our No. 1 squad in a playoff series. That's enough for second best.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    The Golden State Warriors beat their opponents by a league-high 12.1 points per 100 possessions last year despite Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson all hitting threes at rates below their career averages. For Curry, 41.1 percent was his lowest conversion rate ever.

    They lost a single playoff game en route to their second title in three years.

    They retained everyone who mattered while adding Omri Casspi, Nick Young and rookie Jordan Bell to the rotation, creating the "deepest team we'll probably ever have here," according to head coach Steve Kerr's assessment, per Anthony Slater of the Athletic.

    The league's best team (by a huge margin) got better—to the point where it now feels reasonable to predict they'll set the all-time record for offensive rating in a year where they could also lead the league in defensive efficiency.

    There's not a lot else to say, but Green usually comes up with something.

    Oh, look!

    Here's what he told Clay Skipper of GQ in response to Rockets GM Daryl Morey remarking earlier in the offseason that the Warriors weren't unbeatable: "It's pretty f--king sick to see how everybody is just in a f--king panic about what to do. You sit back and think, like, these motherf--kers, they know. That's the fun part about it: They know they don't stand a chance."

    He's not wrong.

                    

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

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