2014-15 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week Edition

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterOctober 27, 2014

2014-15 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week Edition

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    USA TODAY Sports

    We're done here, folks.

    Done with stragglers and D-Leaguers. Done with stars sitting out fourth quarters, regardless of the score. Done with half-empty arenas in even the NBA's most loyal locales. 

    We're done with the preseason, which means that honest-to-goodness basketball has only just begun.

    Or will soon, anyway. The 2014-15 regular season tips off on Tuesday with the San Antonio Spurs beginning their title defense against the Dallas Mavericks, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard meeting for the first time as foes (at least since hating one another as Los Angeles Lakers teammates) and the Orlando Magic and New Orleans Pelicans squaring off in the opening night's annual "Lost on League Pass" game.

    To get you up to speed on where the Association stands after a busy offseason and forgettable exhibition schedule, let's kick back into gear with a fresh set of power rankings. Here's the previous edition, in case this week's is too fresh for you...or something.

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Bleacher Report

    Good news will be hard to come by for the Philadelphia 76ers this season, so they can thank their lucky stars they're getting some before another gruesome campaign has begun.

    According to ESPN's Jeff Goodman, the Sixers expect Michael Carter-Williams to be back in action by mid-November. The reigning Rookie of the Year has been on the shelf since May, when he underwent surgery on his right shoulder.

    Less thrilling: The Sixers could soon be bringing Marquis Teague to Philly, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Neither of these developments will save the Sixers from stumbling back into the NBA's basement, but the less room there is on the roster for bona fide D-Leaguers, the better off Philly's fortunate fans figure to be.

    However incrementally.

29. Boston Celtics

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    With all the hubbub over the part Philly played in nearly spurring the NBA to overhaul the draft lottery, it's easy to forget that the Boston Celtics have been engaged in a substantial roster teardown of their own.

    Granted, the C's haven't simply replaced all of their NBA-caliber players with nobodies like the Sixers have. Rajon Rondo's still wearing green. So are Jeff Green and Brandon Bass. Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and rookies Marcus Smart and James Young all look like legitimate building blocks for Boston.

    And, well, Evan Turner plays for the C's instead of the Sixers now.

    This may all be encouraging over the long haul, but might not mean much for the Celtics' hopes of success in the interim. Rondo, in particular, could miss the start of the season with a hand injury, and he could find himself on the trading block once he's had a chance to strut his stuff upon return.

    It's a good thing, then, that C's fans seem comfortable with general manager Danny Ainge taking the approach he has. Otherwise, the misery that's soon to continue in Beantown might be met not with hope and optimism but rather with skepticism and scorn.

28. Utah Jazz

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    The Utah Jazz have to like what they saw from their young core this preseason. Derrick Favors was a rebounding fiend, Alec Burks got to the free-throw line at will, Trey Burke scored the ball and cut down on his turnovers, Gordon Hayward did his jack-of-all-trades thing and Enes Kanter actually hit some threes.

    Exhibition results, though, are best taken with a grain of salt.

    Not that the Jazz aren't poised to surprise some people. Remember, their new head coach, Quin Snyder, is well-respected around the NBA and may prove to be a significant upgrade over Tyrone Corbin. That switch alone could be enough to unlock a greater measure of the potential endemic to this young roster.

    Utah could surprise some people this season, but without anything resembling veteran leadership on Snyder's depth chart, this team will almost certainly endure more than its fair share of growing pains in the interim.

27. Orlando Magic

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    The injury bug is already having its way with Victor Oladipo. As if missing the preseason with a sprained MCL wasn't bad enough, the second-year swingman will be out indefinitely after suffering a facial fracture in practice, per The Orlando Sentinel's Josh Robbins.

    "It’s tough to see that for anybody, especially someone that’s close to me and on my team," teammate Maurice Harkless told The Sentinel. "I mean, it sucks. He just can’t catch a break, you know? But he’s a tough guy. I’m sure he’ll be fine, and once he gets back, he’ll be better than ever."

    The Magic should hope that's the case. They spent a pretty penny this summer to bring in veteran sharpshooters (i.e. Channing Frye, Ben Gordon) and recently shelled out $54 million to keep Nikola Vucevic over the long haul, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears.

    If there's any silver lining to this latest cloud to park itself over central Florida, it's that the front office and coaching staff will no longer be tempted to play Oladipo at the point, as they did last season. Then again, with rookie Elfrid Payton in the mix, that probably wasn't going to be much of an issue anyway.

26. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Good news, Minnesota Timberwolves fans! Your team offers the most affordable family experience in the NBA, per the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal's Jim Hammerand.

    Of course, that's to be expected of a team that hasn't caught so much as a glimpse of playoff light since 2004, back when Kevin Garnett was the league's MVP.

    Garnett's long gone, and Kevin Love might as well be, too, now that he's with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Minnesota's hopes for a star-studded future now rest with Andrew Wiggins. The No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft should be good to go for the T-Wolves' season opener against the Memphis Grizzlies after battling some back issues in the preseason.

    Wiggins clearly has a ways to go before he can sniff his ceiling as a blue-chip prospect. But that's to be expected of just about any 19-year-old who's yet to play a minute of meaningful NBA basketball.

    And besides, the kid's already got the whole nickname thing figured out, with a little help from fellow "Bounce Brother" Zach LaVine.

25. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Wherever Kobe Bryant goes, lightning bolts are sure to follow. Now that he's back in action, the Los Angeles Lakers as a whole have to watch out for those strikes.

    Case in point: Henry Abbott's takedown of the Mamba for ESPN, wherein he seemingly blames Bryant for all of the Lakers' current woes. Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding took a moment to clear up some of the errors contained therein:

    The thrust of the article blaming Bryant for the demise of the Lakers is way out of scale, however, and the recaps of Ramon Sessions leaving and Paul George not coming are flat-out wrong. Sessions had hoped to return to the Lakers, but they went and got Steve Nash; George has patterned his career after Bryant and reveres him.

    Like always, there will be people coming after Bryant, both on and off the court. So far, he seems ready to fend them all off, if not counterattack. He averaged 26.7 points over his last three preseason games, showing off his signature bag of tricks throughout and brushing off criticism in both word and deed.

    "Stay focused on the bigger picture and things are never as bleak as they seem at the time," Bryant said, via ESPN's Jovan Buha. "I just kind of roll with it."

    And if Bryant can roll with the punches that are bound to fly in his direction during the regular season, the Lakers might just have something to hang their hat on in their attempt to stave off the unusual stench of mediocrity, one lent sadness by the announced absence of Steve Nash.

24. Milwaukee Bucks

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    If there's any team with the potential for a massive turnaround in 2014-15, it's the Milwaukee Bucks.

    Last season, the Bucks were plagued by (among other things and in no particular order) a change in ownership, suspect coaching on the part of Larry Drew and Larry Sanders' horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad year.

    Sanders is a bit nicked once again, but everything else in Brew Town seems to have calmed. Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry have settled into their respective thrones, with Jason Kidd now serving at their leisure as head coach. In Jabari Parker, the Bucks have themselves not only a Rookie of the Year favorite but also a player with the ability to serve as the fulcrum of a competent offense for years to come.

    There's still much to be decided in Milwaukee, particularly in the backcourt, where Giannis Antetokounmpo will be getting some run at the point. But this team, with its talent and a decided lack of drama, should be a solid bet to improve considerably on last season's 15-win total.

23. Sacramento Kings

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    The Sacramento Kings aren't exactly set at point guard. They let Isaiah Thomas, a restricted free agent, sign with the Phoenix Suns this past summer. In his stead, the Kings brought in the pairing of Darren Collison and Ramon Sessions, both of whom have been better suited to backup duty over the course of their respective NBA careers.

    It's no wonder, then, that another potential second-stringer—Jordan Crawford—wasn't exactly taken aback by Sacramento's free-agent overtures.

    "The Sacramento Kings wanted me, but I wasn’t comfortable accepting the backup role there," Crawford told Basketball Insiders' David Pick. "I’m a hard worker who loves the game, and I felt I had something more to offer than what they were looking for from me at the time."

    Not that Crawford would've been a good fit with the Kings anyway. They don't need their lead guards to dribble around and jack up tough shots but rather to defend their position and get the ball to DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay in their sweet spots on the other end. If Collison and Sessions can do that much, the Kings might just be able to emerge from their Maloof malaise sooner rather than later.

22. Detroit Pistons

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    Perimeter shooting became a point of emphasis for the Detroit Pistons as soon as Stan Van Gundy came in and signed a slew of three-point threats this summer. So far, the Pistons appear to be warming up to Van Gundy's floor-spreading approach just fine.

    Over their last four preseason games, the Pistons knocked down 40.7 percent of their three-point tries. That number is not only a huge improvement over last year's 32.1 percent mark (29th in the NBA), but also would've been the best in the entire league in 2013-14.

    Granted, Detroit's recent uptick in outside shooting comes with some glaring caveats. For one, anything coming out of exhibition play can only be taken so seriously, given the caliber of competition. And, since this percentage comes from just four of those meaningless contests, the sample is too small to be considered reliable.

    That being said, the Pistons should be encouraged by what they saw, especially since two of their best shooters (i.e. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jodie Meeks) didn't partake in that portion of the preseason because of injury. Hypothetically speaking, those two should bring even more stretchy potential to the Pistons' revamped offense.

21. Indiana Pacers

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    Paul George's devastating leg injury might've been enough on its own to endanger the Indiana Pacers' playoff hopes in 2015. But it's possible a miscommunication involving the Pacers and another key component of their recent success, Lance Stephenson, will be to blame.

    "I wanted to stay there, but they gave me a deadline where I had to choose," Stephenson told the Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner. "So there wasn't no time for me to make a decision. They gave me a deadline (before) how long it (was) going to take for them to go somewhere else.

    "I had to make a quick decision and me and my agent decided we would see what other teams (were) talking about."

    Such an aggressive approach clearly didn't pan out in the Pacers' favor. Stephenson declined the Pacers' initial offer (five years, $44 million), but wound up signing a shorter deal (three years, $27 million) in Charlotte. Had Indy been more patient with its approach, it's possible Stephenson would still be plying his trade in Naptown.

    Instead, he'll get to spread his wings with the Hornets while the Pacers scrap and scramble with the likes of C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey on the perimeter.

20. New York Knicks

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    Phil Jackson's never been one to shy away from sharing his thoughts on basketball. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Zen Master recently took time to break down the New York Knicks' roster, player by player, with longtime confidant Charley Rosen putting it all together for ESPN.

    Jackson's most enlightening revelation? That Andrea Bargnani doesn't belong beyond the three-point line:

    If Andrea Bargnani's initial season in New York was a disappointment, I believe he'll thrive in the triangle. The 3-point shot is a bit out of his range, but from 20 feet and in, Andrea is a deadly shooter. And those are the kinds of shots that the offense will generate for him.

    Under normal circumstances, it may only be a matter of time until panicked Knicks fans start lamenting all the long twos Bargnani's attempting. Fortunately for them, that'll probably have to wait, on account of the Italian's testy hamstrings.

19. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Could the pieces finally be falling into place for the New Orleans Pelicans? Their starting lineup of Anthony Davis, Omer Asik, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans (with Ryan Anderson coming off the bench) was in place for the team's final two preseason games, both of which resulted in wins over 2014 playoff teams (i.e. the Washington Wizards and the Dallas Mavericks).

    It's never a good idea to read too much into exhibition results, but these ones don't exactly come out of the blue. The Pelicans clearly have some considerable talent among their core. Their success going forward would seem merely a matter of health—something that was hard for them to come by in 2013-14 but may well be on their side this season.

18. Denver Nuggets

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    Like the Pelicans, the Denver Nuggets struggled with injuries throughout the 2013-14 campaign, to the point of falling into the lottery.

    The Nuggets, though, may not be out of the woods just yet. Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee and Nate Robinson are back, but Ty Lawson's still nursing a sore hamstring, per The Denver Post's Christopher Dempsey.

    That may not keep Lawson out of the season opener, but the point guard's had enough issues with his lower body in recent months, dating back to ankle problems over the summer, to make him one to watch at the outset of the 2014-15 campaign—and certainly not in the best way.

17. Brooklyn Nets

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    Brook Lopez still hasn't been cleared to play in the Brooklyn Nets' season opener, though according to the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy, Lionel Hollins is confident the center will be ready.

    The Nets needn't worry too much about Lopez, at least in the early going. The initial portion of their 2014-15 schedule isn't exactly a minefield, with a home date against the Kevin Durant-less Oklahoma City Thunder standing out as the biggest challenge until a mid-November road swing out West.

    That being said, Brooklyn should be concerned about Lopez's long-term outlook. After all, he's suffered serious foot injuries in two of the last three seasons and hasn't quite availed himself of those problems just yet. The Nets will be hard-pressed to hold steady without their All-Star center in an Eastern Conference that, though thin at the top, would appear to be wide around the middle of the playoff pack.

16. Miami Heat

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    Bleacher Report

    Red flags abound for the Miami Heat at the start of the 2014-15 season, and not just because LeBron James has moved on. Josh McRoberts—who was expected to fill a big role up front in Miami—didn't play a minute of preseason ball and is likely to miss the start of the regular season amid a slow recovery from toe surgery, per The South Florida Sun Sentinel's Shandel Richardson.

    Without McRoberts around to grease the offense, the Heat may have to lean more heavily on their underwhelming stock of points guards (i.e. Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers and Shabazz Napier) to make plays.

    Fortunately for the Heat, their All-Star core had a strong collective preseason. Dwyane Wade looked sharp, Chris Bosh upped his scoring back into the 20-point-per-game range and Luol Deng seemed comfortable on the wing.

    They'd be hard-pressed to measure up to Miami's previous Big Three but should still be good enough to keep the Heat in the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference.

15. Charlotte Hornets

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    For the Charlotte Hornets, signing Lance Stephenson may have had everything to do with establishing a solid hierarchy on the court, with plenty of quality among the upper rungs.

    "You need to have first-, second- and third-best players," Hornets coach Steve Clifford told SB Nation's Paul Flannery. "You need to be good at the top of your roster. You need to have guys you can play through with the game on the line, guys who can score."

    Clifford, though, was referring to the impact of Al Jefferson on Charlotte's turnaround. Indeed, he was, is and will continue to be the straw that stirs the Hornets' proverbial drink.

    As well he should be. Last season, Jefferson averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds on the way to garnering All-NBA third team honors.

    Stephenson may be the one to push Charlotte's ceiling beyond the first round of the playoffs, but the Hornets wouldn't be able to get off the floor were it not for the extraordinary efforts of Big Al in the low post. 

14. Washington Wizards

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    The Wizards' rise into the East's elite may have to wait. Bradley Beal's due to miss the start of the 2014-15 season with a wrist injury. The Wizards, though, must be pleased to see that he's already shed his cast and can only hope that he'll be back in action in short order.

    In the meantime, Washington will have to make due with Garrett Temple starting next to John Wall in the backcourt. And, for the opener against the Heat, the Wizards will be deprived of much of their depth up front, with Nene and DeJuan Blair both set to serve out suspensions for their roles in a preseason fracas with the Chicago Bulls.

13. Atlanta Hawks

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    Having Al Horford back in the fold should make all the difference for the Atlanta Hawks this season. They went 22-31 without him during the 2013-14 campaign, but managed to push the Pacers to seven games in the playoffs anyway.

    Horford, for his part, didn't exactly set the nets ablaze with his play in the preseason, though he did post double-digit scoring outputs during the Hawks' final three exhibition games. What's most important is that Horford was out there at all. A strong, healthy season from Horford may be all Atlanta needs to take that all-important next step during Year 2 under head coach (and interim general manager) Mike Budenholzer.

12. Phoenix Suns

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    With all the excitement surrounding the Phoenix Suns' three-headed point guard monster of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas, it's easy to forget that Gerald Green is still on this roster.

    You know, the same Gerald Green who averaged a career-best 15.8 points per game (17.4 points as a starter) while shooting 40 percent from three last season.

    Green did his best to remind the Suns of his value during the team's two-game preseason stint in L.A. Green piled up a total of 44 points, with seven three-point makes in 15 tries, at the expense of the Lakers and Clippers.

    If there's to be an odd man out in Phoenix, it's Green, in large part because his contract expires at the end of the season. Still, that doesn't mean Green can't be a productive part of a Suns squad that will need every ounce of outside shooting it can squeeze from its constituents now that Channing Frye is no longer in Arizona.

11. Toronto Raptors

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    Don't be surprised if the Toronto Raptors wind up significantly higher than this in due course. They not only brought back the core of a squad that was 20 games above .500 after the Rudy Gay trade, but also added Lou Williams, a scoring combo guard, and James Johnson, a jack-of-all-trades type, to the mix.

    You won't likely see much of the Brazilian rookie duo of Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira outside of crunch time, since this squad's rotation is pretty much set for contention in the Eastern Conference.

    But that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of room for improvement elsewhere. Terrence Ross, a 39.5 percent three-point shooter last season, is heading into Year 3. So, too, is Jonas Valanciunas, who has all the makings of a double-double machine down low, so long as he's able to finish effectively at the rim.

    All of that is small potatoes, though, when compared to the contributions of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. They may well constitute the NBA's best backcourt outside of the Bay Area, with Lowry looking to maintain his place as the East's best point guard amid challenges from John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo.

10. Dallas Mavericks

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    The latest edition of the NBA's annual general manager survey had some interesting things to say about the Dallas Mavericks. Rick Carlisle garnered plenty of praise, which is to be expected of someone who stands as one of but four active coaches—alongside Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Doc Rivers—with a championship on his resume.

    The real intrigue, though, came with regard to Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler. The former wasn't featured among the league's top five power forwards, with LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Kevin Love garnering those honors. And yet, front office folks still listed Nowitzki among the top four players who force opposing coaches to make the most adjustments.

    As for Chandler, he checked in as the most underrated offseason acquisition and collected fringe votes for his defensive prowess, both on the interior and overall.

    Not that the GM survey is in any way predictive of future success, though this particular questionnaire can only reinforce the notion that the Mavs are poised to improve on last year's 49-win finish.

    Or would be, anyway, if not for the brutality built into the Western Conference.

9. Portland Trail Blazers

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    The Portland Trail Blazers seem to be a popular pick among the basketball punditariat to make room for one of the West's rising clubs in the postseason, but it's tough to see why. It's not as though the Blazers have gotten demonstrably worse since their surprising campaign came to an end in the second round of the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs.

    The offense should be just as good as last year's top-five outfit, with Damian Lillard looking to improve in Year 3, LaMarcus Aldridge still performing at an All-Star Level and Chris Kaman and Steve Blake bringing some much-needed scoring punch to the league's least productive bench.

    For all the flack Portland got for its less-than-stellar defense, it's easy to overlook the fact that the Blazers were practically a top-10 team on that end during the second half of 2013-14. Of course, that improvement only came once Portland's winning pace cooled after a scorching start.

    There's little reason to think, then, that the Blazers, with their talent and continuity, won't be able to build on last year's leap and, perhaps, challenge the West's presumptive triumvirate (i.e. the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers) by season's end.

8. Houston Rockets

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    As much as the rest of the NBA may have snickered at the Houston Rockets for failing to land another star and losing so many important parts (i.e. Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik) in the process, it's possible that this year's edition will be better than its predecessor.

    On the defensive end, anyway. The Rockets ranked a respectable 12th in defensive efficiency in 2013-14, per NBA.com. That figure may well improve in the campaign to come, and frankly, it should.

    For one, Trevor Ariza, Parsons' replacement, qualifies as a defensive upgrade, thanks to his superior length and lateral quickness. Patrick Beverley is healthy and should find no shortage of motivation to play his best basketball yet with free agency on the horizon.

    "The contract year is big for everyone," Beverley told the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. "The biggest thing for me is to continue doing what I’ve been doing: playing defense, being aggressive and leading this team. Then I’ll let the dominoes fall wherever they fall."

    Most important of all, though, is Dwight Howard continuing to rediscover his pre-back-surgery form. As Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher wrote, Howard was nothing short of beastly against the Blazers in the playoffs:

    His performance last spring also suggests he's not done adding to his list of achievements. He led all postseason performers in blocked shots and rebounds per game while averaging 26 points and finishing second only to James in player efficiency rating. He dominated in a way that he hadn't since his back surgery nearly two-and-a-half years ago.

    The more Dwight can do to dominate on the defensive end, the closer the Rockets will be to translating GM Daryl Morey's front-office machinations into actual results on the court.

7. Memphis Grizzlies

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    If there's any bear that no opponent should dare poke out West, it's the Memphis Grizzlies.

    And not just because their mascot is, you know, a bear.

    Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are both healthy and ready to produce. So, too, is Mike Conley, whose quiet campaign to become one of the NBA's best point guards could grow considerably louder this season.

    The loss of Mike Miller will hurt, but only insofar as Quincy Pondexter and Vince Carter aren't able to replace the perimeter shooting Miller brought to the table.

    Remember, folks: The Grizzlies won 50 games with Gasol, Conley and Pondexter all missing significant time in 2013-14. With those three fit again, Memphis should be poised to push its "Grit-n-Grind" style to the next level. As SB Nation's Paul Flannery wrote:

    Few teams know themselves as well as Memphis, and the result is a strictly no-frills operation. The Grizzlies' appeal lies in the quirky personalities on their roster and the manic energy in their home crowd, less so than their style of play, which is as unassuming as it is unforgiving.

    All of which makes Memphis a unique—and uniquely difficult—opponent out West.

6. Golden State Warriors

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    Better ball movement under Steve Kerr may well be enough to propel the Golden State Warriors from plucky playoff team to bona fide title contender. Mark Jackson's old school, isolation-oriented offense left the Warriors, despite their abundance of shooting and skill, as a merely middle-of-the-pack outfit.

    The shift in philosophy from Jackson to Kerr precipitated an encouraging uptick in scoring and assists for the Warriors during the preseason. But there was one troubling trend that once again reared its ugly head: turnovers. 

    As in the 29 they racked up against the Denver Nuggets, or the 21 they gave away to the Houston Rockets or the 42 the Clippers picked up in two games at Golden State's expense.

    This isn't just some anomaly the Dubs can chalk up to the wonkiness of exhibitions, either. Golden State clocked in at 17th in turnover ratio last season, per NBA.com.

    It's all well and good that Kerr wants Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and company to create havoc through ball movement. But it does the Dubs no good if that chaos consistently backfires on them as the result of poor ball security.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    As if Kevin Durant's foot injury wasn't devastating enough in and of itself, the Oklahoma City Thunder will now have to cope without Anthony Morrow for the next 4-6 weeks on account of a sprained MCL.

    Until those two return, OKC will have to lean on a patchwork of players on the wings, with Reggie Jackson, Andre Roberson, Perry Jones III and Jeremy Lamb as the most obvious candidates to step in next.

    To be sure, Morrow's absence pales in importance to Durant's. The former was merely a sweet-shooting swingman who was expected to help stretch defenses that much more for the Thunder's superstars. As accurate as Morrow can be from three (45.1 percent in 2013-14), he's not exactly beyond replacement.

    The same clearly can't be said for Durant, whose all-around prowess as the NBA's reigning MVP will be sorely missed by both Thunder fans and basketball aficionados at large.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

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    You may not think the Los Angeles Clippers, with athletic bigs like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, would struggle to clean the glass. And yet, they were terrible in that department during the preseason. In fact, L.A. lost the rebounding battle in each of its exhibition games.

    The troubling part is this isn't a new thing for the Clippers. According to NBA.com, this squad ranked 26th in defensive rebounding last season.

    "We have proven that we’re not a good rebounding team," head coach Doc Rivers said during the preseason. "We have to be a great rebounding team, and we can be that. We have to be better at it, but that’s our No. 1 issue to me."

    It won't be L.A.'s only issue, not with concerns about the team's ability to cut off dribble penetration and find a consistent contributor at small forward lingering. But until they clean up their defensive woes, the Clippers should be able to subsist somewhat on the strength of their offense, which led the league in points per possession last season. 

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    There's a lot to like about this year's Cleveland Cavaliers, and it starts, of course, with their All-Star trio.

    LeBron James is still the best basketball player on Planet Earth, with his homecoming adding to his odds as the favorite to take home a fifth MVP trophy. Kevin Love's taken so much heat for putting up empty numbers on bad teams that folks seem to have forgotten what a tremendously skilled and versatile player he really is. You could even make a case that Love will wind up as James' best NBA teammate.

    Love, though, will have competition in that department from Kyrie Irving, who's racked up honors as All-Star Game MVP and FIBA World Cup MVP this year, in addition to signing a max extension.

    Those three are good enough, as both individual producers and team pillars, to plug in the Cavs as one of the two best teams in the East.

    But Cleveland has some serious questions to address before it can be considered the Beast of the East, much less a championship favorite. How will David Blatt adjust to coaching in the NBA? Can Anderson Varejao stay healthy? How are the Cavs going to protect the rim without a legitimate shot-blocker or any lockdown perimeter defenders beyond LeBron? 

    (No, a 36-year-old Shawn Marion doesn't count.)

    And then there's the not-so-small matter of the lack of postseason experience among some of Cleveland's key cogs, as Grantland's Zach Lowe noted:

    I was just having this conversation with a front-office guy the other day. Sometimes you get so deep in the weeds, you forget about the obvious stuff: Cleveland’s second- and third-best players have never been to the playoffs.

    That being said, the Cavs could find themselves on a serious roll at season's end, and should be a joy to watch until then.

2. Chicago Bulls

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    LeBron James is probably right about the Chicago Bulls, even in light of the Cavs' victory over their Central Division rivals during the preseason.

    "[The Bulls] are a team that's much better than us right now just off chemistry," James said before that game, via ESPN's Brian Windhorst. "They've been together for a while; we've got a long way to go."

    There's plenty of truth to James' remarks on both counts, but particularly as they pertain to Chicago. The Bulls have been together for a while. Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson have been party to each of Tom Thibodeau's four seasons on the job. Jimmy Butler joined them in 2011, Mike Dunleavy came aboard last season and Pau Gasol should slip comfortably into Carlos Boozer's old spot as the new old guy on the block.

    Unlike the Cavs, the Bulls needn't worry about coaching, experience or maturity. Health, though, is another story. There's no telling how long Rose's knees will hold up, though his quickness and agility during the preseason were encouraging nonetheless.

    The bigger concern may well rest with Noah, who's still working his way back from offseason knee surgery.

    That being said, barring another devastating round of sparring with the injury bug, the Bulls look like as good a bet to win it all as they have at any point since Michael Jordan last called the United Center home.

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    Bleacher Report

    What more is there to say about the San Antonio Spurs, really? They're bringing back 14 players from a team that led the NBA in wins during the regular season (62) and the playoffs (16).

    Which is to say, they were the champs—and convincingly so.

    Is it possible, though, that the Spurs peaked? Could their recent run of success, buoyed by brilliant play from their aging triad, be stymied by regression this season?

    That wouldn't be the biggest shock. According to FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine, only the Suns overachieved more than did the Spurs in 2013-14.

    Then again, it's tough to put much stock in statistical projections pertaining to the Spurs. This club has been, is and will likely continue to be a classic case of the whole being (much) greater than the sum of its parts, thanks largely to Gregg Popovich's brilliance as not just a coach but a manager of men.

    Tweet me your thoughts on this week's power rankings!

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