2013-14 NBA Power Rankings, Summer Edition

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterAugust 16, 2013

2013-14 NBA Power Rankings, Summer Edition

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    If you're a hoops head—which I'd assume you are, since you're reading this right now—you're probably searching far and wide for anything resembling NBA basketball.

    You might find snippets of pros competing in the summer pro-ams like the Drew League in LA or the Goodman League in DC. You might be hotly anticipating EuroBasket 2013 in September for a glimpse at some of your favorite international stars. You might even be refreshing HoopsHype every five seconds with the hope that some news (ANY NEWS!) will break, thereby giving you something to ponder in the interim.

    But until training camps open in October, that's about all you've got to satiate your round-the-clock hunger for roundball.

    Well, that and another edition of our power rankings, updated since July to reflect the player movement that's taken place over the last few weeks. 

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    At long last, the Philadelphia 76ers have settled on their next head coach.

    Too bad for Brett Brown, though. Sure, it's great that the former San Antonio Spurs assistant and coach of the Australian national team has landed the top job with one of the NBA's more venerable franchises.

    But Brown's first foray into the head coaching ranks will be a trial by fire. His reputation as a preacher of fundamentals and a developer of talent figures to be tested in Philly, with a roster that's been strip-mined this summer by new GM Sam Hinkie.

    Piling up losses won't hurt Brown's standing with the Sixers, though. If anything, immediate failure appears to be an integral part of Philly's long-term plan.

    Landing another young star in the 2014 NBA draft to play alongside rookies Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams and (if they're not promptly shipped out) Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner would give the Sixers a strong nucleus to build around.

    For now, though, it's all about the race to the bottom in the City of Brotherly Love.

29. Boston Celtics

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    Speaking of teams dressing down for ping pong balls in the 2014 draft lottery, the Boston Celtics have set themselves up to stink in a big way this coming season.

    Their new coach (Brad Stevens) is younger than one of the stars (Kevin Garnett) they shipped to the Brooklyn Nets this summer, along with their franchise stalwart (Paul Pierce). Their best player (Rajon Rondo) is working his way back from a torn ACL and may well be dangled as trade bait before the campaign is through.

    In the meantime, the label of "Best Player in Boston" will bounce between Jeff Green, Avery Bradley and Kris Humphries.

    Indeed, folks in Beantown would do well to hold their noses in anticipation of the stench. But while "tanking" hasn't seemed to work well for the C's before, each of the team's previous attempts has yielded something good.

    Boston missed out on Tim Duncan in 1997 but was bad enough that year to snatch up Paul Pierce in 1998. In 2007, C's GM Danny Ainge used the fifth pick (Jeff Green) to acquire Ray Allen from the then-Seattle SuperSonics, thereby laying the foundation for Kevin Garnett's arrival.

    C's fans can only hope, then, that the next round of pain will yield plenty more gain.

28. Phoenix Suns

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    A new regime in the Valley of the Sun should have the Phoenix Suns back on track in the years to come. For now, though, losing will be the order of the day.

    At least until Michael Beasley has been purged from the roster.

    The 2013-14 season will be all about evaluation and discovery for new head coach Jeff Hornacek, general manager Ryan McDonough, and the rest of Phoenix's front office and coaching staff.

    Is Eric Bledsoe the point guard of the future? Can he play alongside Goran Dragic, or does one of them need to go? When is Alex Len returning from injury, and what can the Suns reasonably expect from the rookie once he does? How many Morris twins does it take to screw in a light bulb?

    These are (mostly) questions of key importance to the Suns, along with droves of others still to be pondered. And, boy, will there ever be time for pondering in between the losses and after the regular season is through...

27. Utah Jazz

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    You may or may not have noticed a bit of a trend developing here, what with the teams at the bottom of the power rankings all having spent their summers blowing up their rosters and going gung-ho after Andrew Wiggins.

    The Utah Jazz certainly belong in that category, albeit with a more concrete (and optimistic) outlook. Say what you will about the Jazz letting Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap walk for nothing, or about the team taking on the contracts of Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush as a means of both surpassing the NBA's salary floor and adding future draft picks to the mix.

    But the cupboard is still far from bare in Salt Lake City. A lineup of Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and rookie Trey Burke, while short on experience, will be long on talent and potential for the future. There may not be a star among those five, but each has the makings of an above-average role player on a perennial playoff contender sometime in the not-so-distant future.

    More importantly, these guys will have the opportunity to grow together—and, hopefully, to congeal into a strong supporting cast surrounding a yet-to-be-determined superstar gleaned from the 2014 draft.

26. Orlando Magic

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    Victor Oladipo is already getting talked up as a prime candidate for Rookie of the Year honors, but one quick glance at the Orlando Magic's current roster would suggest otherwise. Unless the Magic find takers for some of their incumbent veterans, Oladipo, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft, could find himself stuck behind Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo while in search of playing time.

    Not that the Magic must move either of their starting guards or that there won't be other spots to watch as far as competition is concerned. Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless and Andrew Nicholson all figure to battle for minutes at the 3 and the 4. Each displayed plenty of promise down the stretch in 2012-13 and could wind up as a key building block in Orlando's future.

    But, as with any sorting-out process, the means to that end will require quite a bit of pain in the immediate term, especially as it pertains to Jacque Vaughn's embryonic coaching record.

25. Charlotte Bobcats

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    As Grantland's Zach Lowe recently detailed, the Charlotte Bobcats' signing of Al Jefferson might've been more about fan optics than about actual winning.

    There's no doubt that Big Al, with his skilled post game and ability to shoot out to the mid-range, will boost a Bobcats offense that hasn't ranked above 24th in efficiency even once during the franchise's brief history.

    On the flip side, Jefferson is a horrendous defender, particularly in the pick-and-roll. In that way, he'll fit in perfectly in the Queen City, where the 'Cats have ranked dead last in defense in each of the last two seasons.

    But while spending (up to) $40.5 million over (potentially) three years on a defensive sieve and offensive black hole like Jefferson may not seem prudent, it makes a ton of sense given the 'Cats' current circumstances. The only way a struggling team like Charlotte is ever going to lure a free agent of any repute to its quarters is through overpayment.

    For the 'Cats' sake, the commitment isn't a long one—only two years, if Jefferson doesn't exercise the third-year player option—and adding Jefferson doesn't necessarily take the team out of the mix for a top-five pick in a loaded draft. 

24. Sacramento Kings

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    Step by agonizing step, the Sacramento Kings are working their way back toward respectability. New ownership, a new front office, a new coaching staff and (soon enough) a new arena all portend good things for the Kings and their long-suffering fans. So, too, do the additions of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Greivis Vasquez and precocious rookie Ben McLemore.

    In truth, though, Sacramento's fortunes—at least over the next half-decade or so—ride heavily on the oft-slumped shoulders of DeMarcus Cousins.

    Hypothetically speaking, the changes to the atmosphere and support system in California's capital should do wonders for Cousins, who's thus far come up through arguably the NBA's most toxic environment.

    But the ghosts of DeMarcus' recent past may be too close at hand in Sacramento, especially if he doesn't get his act together on the defensive end. The task at hand for Mike Malone, Pete D'Alessandro and the rest of the Kings' decision-makers will be to figure out where and how Cousins fits into the long-term plan.

    And if he doesn't, into whose plan he does fit.

23. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Don't everyone get excited all at once about the Milwaukee Bucks...

    A backcourt of OJ Mayo and Luke Ridnour may do little to inspire confidence in Brew City, though there is some hope for the future, however hard you have to look.

    Brandon Knight could be a gem in the right role (i.e. off the ball). Ersan Ilyasova performed much better after Scott Skiles skipped town last season and has the talent to be a solid shooter on the wing, in addition to his current duties as the NBA's resident James Franco doppelganger.

    Larry Sanders, John Henson and Ekpe Udoh all sport tantalizing potential as rebounding/shot-blocking/dunking giants.

    Nobody knows what rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo (I had to check the spelling at least 13 times) brings to the table, but that's part of the fun, right?

    That is, whatever fun can be gleaned from watching another Bucks team hover between 30 and 40 wins, as if perpetually trapped in basketball purgatory. But hey, at least Brandon Jennings won't be around to pine for greener pastures anymore.

22. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Count me among those who are highly skeptical (if not downright doubtful) about Andrew Bynum's future fitness.

    A healthy Bynum would, in theory, vault the Cleveland Cavaliers into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

    But fitness and work ethic are two things that have rarely been associated with 'Drew. Health also happens to be a significant concern for Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters, each of whom suffered an injury of some sort last season.

    Not to mention rookie Anthony Bennett, who had to sit out the Summer League while recovering from shoulder surgery.

    Without a clean bill of health, it's tough to project the Cavs as a playoff team, even though their raw talent suggests otherwise.

21. Los Angeles Lakers

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    As with the Cavs, there are just too many questions dogging the Los Angeles Lakers right now to give them a positive prognosis. Heck, if Kurt Rambis, of all people, can't pinpoint what the expectations are for this team, then how could anyone else?

    The 2013-14 season will be all about "ifs" for the Lakers. If Kobe Bryant comes back strong from a torn Achilles and if Pau Gasol rediscovers his old self and if Steve Nash ages more gracefully and if the new guys contribute meaningfully, then the campaign could be a fun one.

    And if not...well, you remember what happened to the Purple and Gold in 2004-05, right?

20. Toronto Raptors

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    Believe it or not, the ceiling for the Toronto Raptors is rather high for 2013-14. Between Rudy Gay's corrective eye surgery, DeMar DeRozan's youth (he just turned 24), the departure of Andrea Bargnani, and the development of Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross in Year 2, the Raps could be onto something exciting by season's end.

    That is, unless the pieces don't actually fit and new GM Masai Ujiri decides to pull Toronto's current edifice apart.

    At the very least, the Raps have the requisite youth and athleticism to get out and run, score a boatload of points, and make basketball north of the border fun to watch again. And if it doesn't work out, there's always the pursuit of Toronto native Andrew Wiggins as a fallback.

19. New Orleans Pelicans

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    If the New Orleans Pelicans were a candy, they'd be a Now and Later.

    Which is to say, they have the potential improve now on the way to winning big later. Each member of their new perimeter posse (Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans) is under the age of 25, with the talent and versatility to trade off duties as head coach Monty Williams sees fit. For now, they will likely serve as the foundation for what the Pelicans accomplish from the get-go in 2013-14.

    The really fun part will come later, when Anthony Davis finally comes into his own. Davis managed to fly under the radar during his injury-riddled rookie season, but he has flashed some jaw-dropping potential whilst on the hardwood, including during the recent Team USA minicamp

    As The Brow goes, so goes the franchise. If all goes according to plan, Gordon, Holiday and Evans will simply be along for the ride.

18. Detroit Pistons

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    The more I think about the Detroit Pistons, the more I warm to their potential as a team.

    In all honesty, I wasn't the biggest fan of the acquisitions of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, at least as far as "fit" was concerned. Smith's excellent close to the basket, but he would be challenged for space down low by Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond and has long drawn groans for his penchant for jacking up long jumpers.

    As for Jennings, he developed a reputation for taking ill-advised shots and carrying a general attitude of displeasure during his days with the Milwaukee Bucks.

    But Smith is the sort of player whose flaws cause us to overlook the myriad qualities he brings to the table, particularly as a versatile defender and athletic attacker in transition. Likewise, the Bucks' need for someone to handle the scoring load fell (fairly or unfairly) on Jennings' shoulders, often obscuring his talents as a distributor, particularly in the pick-and-roll.

    The fit may still be far from perfect, but the talent is there for the Pistons to snap their four-year playoff drought.

17. Dallas Mavericks

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    As for the other half of Milwaukee's old backcourt—as opposed to the backwash at the end of an Old Milwaukee—I'm also coming around to the idea of Monta Ellis and the Dallas Mavericks.

    Okay, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks. Got it.

    Defense figures to be hard to come by in Big D. Ellis and Jose Calderon have long been poor defenders, be it on account of a lack of size and effort (Ellis) or an absence of quickness and athleticism (Calderon).

    On the plus side, the Mavs should be a fun team to watch. They have the potential to score in bunches, with Dirk running pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop with his new teammates 'til the cows come home.

    Still, Dallas more closely resembles a jumble of defensively challenged parts than a truly talented whole, though the roster at Rick Carlisle's disposal should be enough to sneak the Mavs back to the fringes of the Western Conference playoff race.

16. Portland Trail Blazers

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    All's quiet on the "LaMarcus Aldridge wants out" front right now for the Portland Trail Blazers. As GM Neil Olshey recently told Craig Birnbach of KATU (via Ben Golliver of Blazer's Edge), "If [Aldridge requesting a trade] was the case, we'd be dealing with it. It's not. He's happy."

    Which makes sense, given the extent to which the Blazers have improved their roster this offseason.

    Between Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and CJ McCollum, Portland now has the makings of no worse than a passable bench. Robin Lopez and Meyers Leonard will be left to duke it out for minutes at center in a strong starting five that already features Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard.

    The losing of the last two seasons has likely been a source of frustration for Aldridge, who, at 27, may feel that the All-Star-caliber prime of his career is going to waste in Rip City. But the upgrades Olshey has made to the roster should suffice in putting the Blazers back in the playoff picture out West.

    And, in turn, satiate Aldridge's thirst for competitive basketball.

15. Washington Wizards

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    Health will be paramount to the Washington Wizards' pursuit of their first playoff berth of the post-Gilbert Arenas era. John Wall, Bradley Beal and Nene each suffered through a significant injury last season, with Wall's and Nene's dogging them from the jump.

    Those three should be fit in time for the 2013-14 campaign. That bodes well for the Wizards' hopes. According to NBA.com, Washington outscored the opposition by 79 points in the 224 minutes those three shared on the floor last season.

    Then again, similar stories could be told about nearly every three-man unit of which Wall was a part. In truth, the fate of the franchise is riding on Wall's fitness and rise to superstardom.

    Which, inevitably, brings us back to where we started: with health as the biggest on-court concern in DC.

14. Denver Nuggets

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    It's tempting to think that this Denver Nuggets group peaked last season. Andre Iguodala, George Karl and Masai Ujiri are all gone; Danilo Gallinari's working his way back from a torn ACL; and JaVale McGee will probably be the starting center in the Mile High City. As a result, the Nuggets appear bound to take a step back in 2013-14.

    But that doesn't mean they need slide into oblivion entirely.

    Ty Lawson's on the rise, as are Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried. Evan Fournier flashed some intriguing potential as a rookie last season. Denver will still sport one of the NBA's deepest benches, with Nate Robinson and Darrell Arthur joining Andre Miller among the reserves. And who knows? Maybe JaVale McGee will finally put two and two together with some consistency.

    A drop from the third spot in the West is clearly coming for the Nuggets, but they needn't brace themselves for a total collapse.

    Not yet, anyway.

13. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    At long last, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio will (or should) be together again. That's great news for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are counting on their two young stars to end the franchise's decade-long playoff drought.

    Defense could be a big issue for this bunch, given the lack of athleticism among some of the team's chief constituents. But with Love and Nikola Pekovic on the inside, Chase Budinger and Kevin Martin knocking down outside shots, Derrick Williams and Corey Brewer attacking the rim, and Rubio and Alexey Shved running the show up top, the T-Wolves have the potential to be a scoring machine.

    Especially with the proper guidance from offensive guru Rick Adelman.

12. Atlanta Hawks

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    There will be no tanking for the Atlanta Hawks.

    Not yet, anyway, and certainly not unless/until Al Horford either leaves of his own free will or is traded. The additions of Paul Millsap and Elton Brand, coupled with the returns of Kyle Korver (via free agency) and Lou Williams (from injury), ensure that the Hawks will have the necessary ingredients to extend their playoff streak to a seventh year.

    And not without upside, either. The backcourt quadrant of Jeff Teague, John Jenkins, Jared Cunningham and Dennis Schroeder figures to be the source of whatever improvement Atlanta achieves as it looks to hold steady in the ever-deepening Eastern Conference.

11. New York Knicks

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    Maybe it's the summer heat or the lack of basketball on TV, but I'm ready to put a positive spin on the New York Knicks' offseason.

    You know what you're going to get from Carmelo Anthony, who, as the reigning scoring champion, ranks as one of the top five players in the NBA. You probably know what you're going to get from Tyson Chandler, a defensive dynamo (when healthy), and Raymond Felton, a bowling ball of a point guard (when healthy).

    If Felton falters, the Knicks can always call upon Pablo Prigioni and Beno Udrih to step in at the point. Metta World Peace and Kenyon Martin bring the mean streak, Andrea Bargnani is (arguably) a better version of Steve Novak, and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. has the makings of the next Iman Shumpert, who might come into his own in Year 3.

    Unfortunately, I still can't find a way to rationalize Amar'e Stoudemire's continued presence. Nor can I figure out why the Knicks paid J.R. Smith as much as they did when they knew he was bound for major knee surgery.

    At least I tried...right?

10. Golden State Warriors

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    The Golden State Warriors' placement here isn't so much a slight as it is an acknowledgement of just how deep the NBA's pool of potential contenders will be in 2013-14. The Spurs, the Thunder, the Rockets, the Clippers and the Grizzlies all have the makings of solid conference title contenders.

    But none of those five sports the wild-card potential that's so integral to the Dubs' identity.

    The sweet shooting of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes makes Golden State a threat to knock out any team on any given night, so long as they all get hot.

    And where the Warriors once seemed destined to weaken, with the departures of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, they've now found a source of strength. Toney Douglas and Marreese Speights should be able to replace, say 70 to 80 percent of what Jack and Landry brought to the table, with Andre Iguodala more than making up for the rest.

    Moreover, Iggy brings a healthy dose of athleticism and versatility to a team that relies (relied?) so heavily on three-point shooting. In essence, he, along with David Lee and Andrew Bogut, should serve as a sort of "safety net" for Golden State's prospects should the team's corps of shooters go cold.

    That, in itself, could be enough to ensure that the Warriors' next playoff run outlasts that of the typical Cinderella.

9. Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets sport the requisite talent to be one of the NBA's elite teams in 2014. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will fill out a formidable starting five next to Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko bring plenty of versatility and experience to the team's reserves.

    But question marks abound with this bunch, so much so that they needn't be ranked any higher than fourth in the Eastern Conference at this point.

    How healthy will KG be by the time the playoffs roll around? Will his presence be enough to bolster what, last season, was a middling defense? How will Pierce handle such a traumatic shift in environs at this stage in his career? Can Brooklyn's three biggest holdovers avoid injury? 

    Oh, and can Jason Kidd handle coaching the most expensive roster in league history (luxury tax included) in his first season since retiring as a player?

    Until we have some answers, the Nets will have to bide their time in the muddled middle.

8. Houston Rockets

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    As upbeat as I've tried to be, I can't help but wonder about Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets.

    On the one hand, it's great that Howard's already hard at work on his low-post game with Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin McHale. On the other hand, it's troubling that Howard, at the age of 27 and entering his 10th NBA season, could still be described as "very raw" (via Jason Friedman of Rockets.com).

    Then again, that label would apply to about 99.999 percent of big men next to Olajuwon and McHale, two of the best and most skilled offensive giants in the history of basketball. The more Dwight can soak up during his sessions with them, the better.

    And the better McHale can mold a philosophy on both ends of the floor that caters to (a healthy) Howard's prodigious talents, the quicker the Rockets will rise into the class of legitimate title contenders.

7. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Somehow, the negativity has become more than just a nagging sensation.

    Or maybe that's just how I feel about the Los Angeles Clippers. Don't get me wrong: I love the latent potential still to be tapped between Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and I'm a big fan of the trade that brought JJ Redick and Jared Dudley to LA. The potential for the Clippers to run up the score with their own spread pick-and-roll approach, helmed by Doc Rivers, is tantalizing, to say the least.

    But the Clips are still far too thin up front, with Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens the only relief for Griffin and DeAndre Jordan at present. There's also reason for concern about LA's ability to force turnovers and get out on the break, now that Eric Bledsoe, arguably the team's most tenacious individual defender, is in Phoenix.

    Expectations are at an all-time high for the Clips after winning 56 games and claiming their first-ever Pacific Division title. Right now, though, it's tough to envision them emerging from a crowded Western Conference, much less ending the Lakers' claim as the only title-bearing basketball franchise in town.

6. Chicago Bulls

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    Here's what we know about the Chicago Bulls: They're going to play great defense, they're going to play their butts off, and they're going to play a physical brand of basketball, with Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler leading the way.

    Here's what we don't know about them: how close to his old self Derrick Rose really is. He should be healthy after what will have been a year-and-a-half away. If he's anything like he was pre-injury, the Bulls will be a pain for the Miami Heat in the East.

    Because Rose will (finally) have a solid backcourt partner in Jimmy Butler. Because Kirk Hinrich will be playing 15-to-20 minutes off the bench, rather than getting stretched as a starter. Because Mike Dunleavy can still shoot and Carlos Boozer, despite all the calls for him to go, can still score.

    And, because Tom Thibodeau will be pushing them hard every step of the way.

5. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies haven't made any major moves this summer, unless anyone counts trading Darrell Arthur for Kosta Koufos, snagging Fab Melo from the Celtics, or signing Mike Miller and Nick Calathes as "major."

    Then again, it's not as though the Grizz needed to shake things up to any great extent. After all, they're coming off a franchise-defining season that ended with a trip to the Western Conference Finals. Granted, Russell Westbrook's injury paved the way for that run, and Memphis may still be well short of the perimeter shooting it needs of Mike Miller's as hobbled as he was last season in Miami.

    At worst, though, the Grizzlies are going to beat up their opponents on defense and pound it inside to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph on the offensive end.

    At best? We could be looking at another deep playoff push for the River City's resident team.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Kevin Durant and James Harden may miss playing with one another, but it's not as though they're all that worse off without each other. Harden now has Dwight Howard in tow, while Durant still counts Russell Westbrook, another one of the 10 best players in the NBA, as his sidekick.

    So long as Durant and Westbrook are healthy, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be a force to be reckoned with in the West.

    And if Serge Ibaka steps up his game as an offensive threat, Kendrick Perkins is anything close to replacement level at center, and someone (Jeremy Lamb? Ryan Gomes?) steps in as a reliable scorer off the bench, the Thunder could find themselves back in the NBA Finals after a one-year, injury-induced hiatus.

3. Indiana Pacers

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    There's been some chatter this summer about how maybe (just maybe) we're overrating the Indiana Pacers. Sure, they came oh-so-close to upsetting the Miami Heat on the way to their second NBA Finals appearance in franchise history, but winning 49 games during the regular season is hardly something the Pacers should write home about.

    Except, to take that view is to ignore how slowly Indy started the season. Roy Hibbert was coping with a wrist injury and Paul George struggled to find his rhythm early while taking on Danny Granger's duties as the team's primary scorer. As a result, the Pacers didn't top the .500 mark for good until mid-December.

    Combine that with their terrible bench, and it's not hard to figure out what held the Pacers back in 2012-13. There should be no concerns about Hibbert's health or George's readiness to play like an All-Star. Nor should the reserves cramp Indy's style, what with Granger coming back and Luis Scola, CJ Watson and Chris Copeland arriving in Naptown.

    All that stands between the Pacers and a historic season now is the extent of their own ambition.

    And, well, the Heat...but that was always going to be the case. 

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    Like the Grizzlies, the San Antonio Spurs caught a lucky break when Russell Westbrook went down in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. As a result, the Spurs would no longer have to wrestle with their arch nemeses (the Thunder) on the way to the finals.

    Not that San Antonio couldn't or wouldn't have advanced anyway. Rather, the odds of doing so improved dramatically when their eventual opponent proved to be the less dynamic, less athletic Grizzlies.

    The Spurs should be even better this coming season than they were in 2012-13. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green both flashed the sort of talent and potential during the postseason that should be on full blast from the jump this fall. The additions of Marco Belinelli and Jeff Pendergraph figure to further bolster an already strong bench.

    But, as has long the case in the Alamo City, the Spurs' fate will rest with the resident Big Three of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. The better they do at defying Father Time, the stronger the Spurs' odds of returning to the Finals will be.

1. Miami Heat

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    Without Greg Oden, the Miami Heat are heavily favored to extend their current run of championships to a three-peat. With him...well, they're still heavily favored.

    The Heat don't need Oden to go all the way again. They managed to outlast two teams of notable size this past spring on the way to a second straight title.

    But doing so was far from easy. The Pacers and the Spurs both pushed the Heat to Game 7s while powering through LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Chris Andersen and Shane Battier down low. Miami needed plenty of its own luck to survive each of those series as a result.

    That's where Oden comes in. If he's healthy enough to play, Oden gives the Heat a bona fide two-way big man who can match up against bulkier frontcourts for stretches. Even if Oden can only play 15 or 20 minutes per game, that'd still be 15 to 20 more minutes of quality play at center than Miami enjoyed before.

    And, with Dwyane Wade aging every spring and Bosh so often left to battle in the middle on his own, that precious playing time could be the difference between the persistence of a Heat dynasty and the end of a historic run in Miami.