2015 NBA Power Rankings: Stacking Up All 30 Teams, Post-NBA Finals
There you have it, folks. The NBA's 69th season is in the books.
And wouldn't you know it? The Golden State Warriors, the team that won the first championship back in 1947—when the league was known as the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and the club called Philadelphia home—now has its very first Larry O'Brien Trophy to flaunt.
Golden State's six-game triumph over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals was the perfect cap on and encapsulation of the campaign as a whole. The Warriors were the best team from start to finish, dominating most of the competition and outlasting those game enough to hang around until the bitter end.
Now begins an offseason chock-full of draft-day deals, free-agent flurries and sloppy Summer League basketball. But before we delve completely into the annual three-month sabbatical from honest-to-goodness NBA hoops, let's rank all 30 teams one last time, based largely on how 2014-15 turned out for each but with a hint of what lies ahead.
30. Philadelphia 76ers
Two years into the Sam Hinkie era, the Philadelphia 76ers remain a ways away from bona fide respectability, though there are signs of progress.
Nerlens Noel looked like the second coming of Theo Ratliff (in a good way) toward the end of his rookie campaign. His emergence played a pivotal part in Philly's leap from 27th in defensive efficiency in 2013-14 to 13th in 2014-15, per NBA.com.
Noel's rebound from a season spent recovering from injury and working on his game should also lend hope to forlorn Sixers fans that Joel Embiid, the team's top pick from 2014, will make a similar splash in 2015-16.
Meanwhile, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey, the Sixers are working to bring Dario Saric, Philly's other big get from the 2014 draft, over from Turkey.
With the frontcourt of the future seemingly in place and former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams now in Milwaukee, the Sixers seem poised to spend the No. 3 pick in this year's draft on a point guard, assuming Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns land in the top two.
Whom Philly favors remains a mystery. Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell—regarded by many as the top guard in the 2015 draft—seems to be the logical choice, but per Pompey, he had to cancel his workout for the Sixers on account of illness. Russell could still audition for Philly, but not before Hinkie gets a good, long look at highly touted Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis.
However the offseason turns out in Philly, one thing is clear: The Sixers' stockpile of young talent will be rivaled only by the team's need for time and patience to mold its collection of prospects into a competitive team.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves
As far as rebuilds are concerned, the Minnesota Timberwolves are a step or two ahead of the Sixers, if only because their base of promising prospects is more substantial. Flip Saunders’ depth chart is already stacked with gifted guards (Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine), skilled wings (Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, Kevin Martin) and burly bigs (Nikola Pekovic, Gorgui Dieng, Anthony Bennett).
On the last count, the T-Wolves seem all but certain to add another top-tier talent. As Mark Heisler wrote for Forbes, Minnesota now has eyes for Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns: "Minnesota GM/coach Flip Saunders, who had been leaning toward [Jahlil] Okafor, is said to have turned pro-Towns after seeing him last week in Los Angeles."
Either way, the arrival of a stud at center could spell the end of the oft-injured Pekovic’s days in ‘Sota. More importantly, it’ll give Kevin Garnett another pupil to mentor, should he return for a 21st NBA season.
In all likelihood, Garnett won’t hang around the locker room long enough to see the T-Wolves become a winner again. But, per Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck, The Big Ticket may wind up watching the rest of that transformation from the owner’s box, as a stakeholder in the franchise that drafted him.
28. Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic remain a hodgepodge of seemingly mismatched talent, stuck cycling along the treadmill of mediocrity.
The backcourt of Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton has proven potent at times defensively but has its work cut out for it on the other end, especially as far as shooting is concerned. Nikola Vucevic has the makings of a solid cornerstone up front, courtesy of his deep offensive repertoire, but he lacks the lift and lateral quickness to effectively protect the paint.
The Magic aren’t short of amorphous wing-forward types and could pay a pretty penny to retain Tobias Harris, a restricted free agent who fits that mold. Whichever youngster Orlando adds at No. 5 in the 2015 draft—be it Duke’s Justise Winslow, Latvia’s Kristaps Porzingis, Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein or any one of a number of other potent prospects—might not find an easy niche to fill, either.
What the Magic can be confident about, though, is that they’ll have a strong-willed, highly organized coach, in Scott Skiles, to lead them forward.
“I'm not a micromanager,” Skiles told the Orlando Sentinel’s Josh Robbins. “The players will see that I'm delegating authority to my coaches to coach, and I think that's important as well: that they kind of understand we're all in this together. I think that's where all the accountability starts: that they see my own approach and they understand what I'm trying to get to.”
What he’s trying to get to is a place of greater on-court success. How he gets this team there remains to be seen.
27. New York Knicks
Phil Jackson and the rest of the New York Knicks’ big wigs have been plenty busy since their franchise-worst season met its merciful end in mid-April. The team’s drop, from second to fourth, in the annual draft lottery likely put Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor out of reach for New York, but that doesn’t mean the Knicks can’t or won’t get a prominent piece to pair with Carmelo Anthony over the long haul.
As Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix wrote:
The Knicks have been circling four players, according to league sources: Porzingis, former high school star Emmanuel Mudiay, Duke’s Justise Winslow and Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein. Mudiay and Winslow are more NBA-ready—a factor for a team built around 31-year-old Carmelo Anthony—while Porzingis, an offensively skilled stretch four who needs to fill out—has earned fans in the Knicks' front office.
Porzingis may require more patience in development than what the Knicks have time for. Aside from the anxiety of its forever-unsatisfied fans, the team has to consider which prospect is best equipped to help New York maximize the remainder of Anthony’s well-paid prime.
And that’s before the Knicks venture into free agency with max-level cap room in tow. New York could be in for a relatively quick escape from its recent misery, but doing so requires, first, that the Zen Master nails the summer of 2015 and, then, that Anthony regains his All-Star form following season-ending knee surgery.
26. Los Angeles Lakers
All signs point to Kobe Bryant retiring whenever his 2015-16 season comes to an end. "He has indicated to me that this is it," Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said during a recent appearance on SiriusXM NBA Radio (via ESPN’s Dave McMenamin).
If the past three campaigns are any indication, that conclusion could come well before Game No. 82. Bryant’s suffered season-ending injuries in each of the last three years, including a torn rotator cuff that put him out of commission this past January.
The Lakers certainly hope they can get a full season out of the Black Mamba in 2015-16, but his availability and effectiveness doesn’t figure to dictate what the front office does this summer. Chances are, Kupchak, Jim Buss and company would prefer to put together a team that can make something meaningful out of Bryant’s farewell tour, but there will be no dramatic sacrificing of the future in favor of the present.
Nor should there be. The Lakers will have a golden opportunity to bring in a franchise cornerstone up front, be it Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor, with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft.
"Bigs typically have been slower to develop, and you can argue why is that," Kupchak said (via Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding). "My theory is big players kind of get selected to play the game because they're big, and they're taught to play the game—and then they love the game. Whereas with other players, when they're four or five years old, they just picked up a ball and loved to play the game."
Per Ding, reading between the lines makes Okafor the obvious choice for L.A., but only if he’s still available after the Timberwolves make their pick. Whichever of the two teen titans winds up in purple and gold will have many a burden to bear—from spearheading a youth movement that currently includes Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle, to smoothing the team’s inevitable transition into a post-Kobe future to extending the Lakers’ historic lineage of great centers.
But first, he and the rest of the Lakers will have to dig this proud franchise out of its two-year ditch.
25. Charlotte Hornets
If you’re an unheralded, mid-market franchise like the Charlotte Hornets and wasting whole seasons to rebuild through the draft is no longer a viable option, there’s little choice but to bet big on flawed free agents.
Sometimes, those bets, like the one Charlotte put down on Al Jefferson in 2013, pay off. Sometimes, they don’t, as was the case when the Hornets gambled on Lance Stephenson last summer. Jefferson earned an All-NBA nod while leading Charlotte to a postseason berth during his first season in the Queen City. Stephenson, on the other hand, struggled through his initial campaign and is now a member of the Los Angeles Clippers as a result.
It’s only fitting, then, that the team’s owner, Michael Jordan, also happens to be a gambling man. Fortunately for Jordan and his team, though, there won’t be too many major wagers to make this summer. Jefferson has already hinted that he’ll opt into the final year of his deal, per Sporting News’ Sean Deveney, and the Hornets will be able now to surround him with more shooting (Spencer Hawes) and attitude (Matt Barnes).
Charlotte’s biggest decision of the summer may come down to how best to spend the No. 9 pick in the 2015 draft. A power forward, a three-point marksman or (preferably) someone who fills both roles would make the most sense for the Hornets, especially if they plan to feature the shooting-challenged duo of Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the perimeter for the foreseeable future.
24. Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets have a new coach (Mike Malone) and a new executive (Pete D’Alessandro) in place, but those moves may be just the start of a summer overhaul. Malone, for one, seems a curious coaching fit with a roster and a team that’s better suited to playing uptempo basketball—and that struggled mightily while slowing things down under Brian Shaw.
Then again, rumors of the Nuggets shopping everyone in the organization but the owner have been floating around the basketball ether for months. According to ESPN’s Chad Ford, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried are but the biggest names that could be on the block in the Mile High City.
Changes of such sweeping magnitude don’t usually beget immediate success, unless the one pushing said change happens to be LeBron James. In the Nuggets’ case, another summer shakeup figures to bleed into a third straight subpar season, though if Denver does it right, it could set the stage for another Rocky Mountain renaissance.
23. Sacramento Kings
Meanwhile, up in Sacramento, it’s business as usual for the Kings. The front office remains unsettled, with Pete D’Alessandro, the team’s first general manager under owner Vivek Ranadive, fleeing back to Denver while Vlade Divac assumes more power in California’s capital.
“The idea was to make sure our front office is stable,” Divac told NBA.com’s David Aldridge. “Now we can focus on how to make the team.”
Also business as usual: the Kings’ return to the draft lottery at No. 6, courtesy of the team’s ninth straight losing season. Sacramento’s 29-53 finish couldn’t keep DeMarcus Cousins—who averaged 24.1 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.2 combined blocks and steals in 2014-15—from claiming both All-Star and All-NBA honors.
How the Kings fare on draft day could have everything to do with their Boogie-centric fortunes going forward. According to ESPN’s Ryen Russillo, Cousins is pulling for the Kings to pick up fellow Kentucky product Willie Cauley-Stein with its first-round selection, in part to free DeMarcus from manning center at all times.
Such a selection would make sense for the team as a whole, too. The Kings could use Cauley-Stein’s ability to protect the paint, and with so many squads going small nowadays, Sacramento could succeed by going against the grain and punishing opponents with superior size and strength on the interior.
22. Phoenix Suns
The winds of change are already whipping around the Phoenix Suns, and for good reason. After shocking the NBA by nearly making the playoffs in 2014, the Suns fell victim to injuries, internal discord and midseason roster rearrangement in 2015—and fell back into the lottery as a result.
A 39-43 record sealed Phoenix’s fifth straight campaign without a postseason berth, tying a franchise record. It may have also sealed the fate of Lon Babby, who will be transitioning into an advisory role after serving as the team’s president of basketball operations throughout the current playoff drought.
Babby’s head won’t exactly be rolling, but others might if the Suns don’t wind up among the West’s top eight next spring. General manager Ryan McDonough, once a wunderkind among his peers, may have lost some of his luster after casting his lot with a stock of point guards that was disbanded by February. The same could go for Jeff Hornacek, though the Suns’ head coach could beat his own path out of Arizona so long as the top job at Iowa State, Hornacek’s alma mater, remains vacant.
"It would always be fun to go back there and coach, but Ryan (McDonough) and I came here for a purpose," he said (via Arizona Sports’ Craig Grialou). "We think we've got a good, young crew that we can build with. Obviously, we'll work on getting some more veteran guys in here to help them. But, we got a job to do here and that's our plan."
21. Detroit Pistons
By swapping out Caron Butler and Shawne Williams for Ersan Ilyasova, Stan Van Gundy moved his Detroit Pistons one huge step closer to parroting his old Orlando Magic teams—in more ways than one.
Ilyasova (37 percent from three for his career) fits the mold of a “stretch 4” that Van Gundy’s been eager to fill since he first set foot in the Motor City. It just so happens, too, that one of Ilyasova’s countrymen, Hedo Turkoglu, took on a similar role under Van Gundy when he guided the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009.
“I mentioned to Coach, (Turkoglu) called me and we talked about how he said the way we played in Orlando (under Van Gundy), the way you play and the way he liked to play with Coach and he shared a little bit,” Ilyasova said (via the Pistons’ Keith Langlois). “The great year he had when he reached the Finals, he said you probably would fit in for sure and I’m really glad I talked to him about it.”
The Pistons, too, will be glad to have him, especially if (or when) Greg Monroe bolts via free agency this summer. If nothing else, Monroe’s likely departure will proffer the Pistons with even more financial flexibility, which they’ll need if they’re to bring back Reggie Jackson, a restricted free agent, and extend Andre Drummond, the presumptive foundation of the franchise.
Detroit is still a long way from becoming an NBA powerhouse again, but with Ilyasova in tow and the No. 8 pick to spend (presumably on a wing), the future is finally taking shape in a positive way for the Pistons.
20. Miami Heat
Recent reports have pointed to Dwyane Wade being less than pleased with the Miami Heat. The Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson was the first to reveal the discord between Wade and the Heat. Long story short: Wade wants to opt out of his contract this summer and re-up with Miami on a longer, more lucrative deal, but the Heat are hesitant to meet Dwyane’s demands, with hefty raises for Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside on the horizon.
Apparently, that disagreement has Wade somewhat disillusioned with the franchise for which he’s won three championships. Per the Miami Herald, “A friend has described Wade as upset with the Heat’s position and that he wants to feel like a priority.”
Wade would be hard-pressed to find more money or adulation elsewhere, given his annual injury concerns. But as Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick wrote, the Heat can’t afford to lose Wade, and not just because he’s still a phenomenal player when healthy:
The Heat must fully realize that for all they've done right—so much more than all the other organizations in the market, so much more than many competitors in their sport—they'll never be forgiven by fans if it's perceived that, in any way, they did their signature player wrong.
They must understand that by losing him, they lose not only cache, but credibility as a team that has built its brand on sacrifice, loyalty, continuity and phrases like "Heat Lifer."
Fortunately for both parties, there’s still plenty of time to ensure that Wade remains a “Heat Lifer.” Even if Wade opts out, Miami will be able to go over the salary cap to keep him if need be.
19. Indiana Pacers
Among the myriad reasons you can tell the NBA’s small-ball revolution is here to stay: The Indiana Pacers, one of the league’s last bastions of smashmouth basketball, appear to be getting on board.
Larry Bird hinted at big changes in Naptown during the team’s exit interviews at season’s end, in reference to questions about whether Roy Hibbert, a potential free agent, would be back.
"I was talking to Coach earlier; we'd like to play a little faster tempo," Bird said at the time (via the Indianapolis Star’s Candace Buckner). "And that means we've got to run a little faster, maybe at times play a little smaller. We just got into it, so I don't know what style, but we'd like to change it a little bit. … But I would like to score more points, and to do that, you've got to run."
That could mean less time for the lead-footed Hibbert and considerably more for Paul George at a heretofore unfamiliar spot.
“I'm working on making that change and being prepared to play some forward this year," George said (via the Indianapolis Star’s Dana Hunsinger Benbow). "I understand what Larry (Bird) wants as far as playing the faster pace. I mean, I'm for it. That's the way the league is going nowadays."
The Pacers could move another decisive step in that direction on draft day. According to Buckner, Indy has eyes for Frank Kaminsky—the skilled 7'0" center out of Wisconsin—and the feeling appears to be mutual.
18. Toronto Raptors
If the Raptors’ sorry first-round sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards was any indication, the coming summer could be a busy one for basketball in Toronto. GM Masai Ujiri held off on making any monumental trades during the season, but he should have a better sense now of his team’s limitations and needs.
Retaining Lou Williams, the league’s latest Sixth Man of the Year, and filling the starting forward spots figure to be among Ujiri’s top priorities; he needn’t worry too much about the backcourt, with All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan already entrenched.
The Raptors could replace Amir Johnson, an unrestricted free agent, by promoting the more three-point-friendly Patrick Patterson, and they may well give Terrence Ross another shot at small forward.
In truth, Toronto might only need placeholders in some of those slots. According to the National Post’s Eric Koreen, the Raptors could carry a slew of promising youngsters—including Bruno Caboclo, Bebe Nogueira, Australian stash project DeAndre Daniels and whomever the team takes with its 2015 first-round draft pick—on the end of their bench, with the goal of grooming them for greater duty in the not-too-distant future.
17. Boston Celtics
Isaiah Thomas has been with the Boston Celtics for all of four months, but that hasn’t stopped him from taking an active interest in the franchise’s free-agent plans.
"There's two guys in the Western Conference that are pretty good that hopefully they can make it over (to the) East," Thomas said (via MassLive.com’s Jay King).
You don’t have to search far and wide to figure out to whom Thomas is referring. Just check his Twitter timeline, where you’ll find not-so-subtle references to Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, along with a nudge for Kevin Love.
Any one of those big names would be a worthy addition to a hodgepodge of a Celtics roster that, at this point, is desperate for titular talent, wherever and in whatever form it may be found.
Judging by the job Brad Stevens did to coax Boston into the playoffs, where the C’s were surprisingly competitive in a sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, this team could be well on its way to its next era of greatness with even one big fish from this summer’s market.
16. Brooklyn Nets
Despite some serious salary commitments and an apparent lack of attractive assets, the Brooklyn Nets might not be as stuck in the mud as you’d think.
For one, there’s no guarantee that their starting frontcourt will look the same come the fall of 2015. Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young can both become free agents in July. According to The Brooklyn Game’s Devin Kharpertian, the Nets want to retain Lopez but will have to wait and see what he wants to do, given his history of foot injuries and the impending flood of national TV money into the league’s coffers.
If Lopez leaves, Mason Plumlee may not be around to fill his shoes. Per the New York Daily News’ Stefan Bondy, Brooklyn is shopping Plumlee with the hope of moving up from the No. 29 spot in the 2015 NBA draft.
Aside from Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor, the Nets would be hard-pressed to find an incoming rookie who could replace Lopez’s value from the opening tip. All the more reason, then, for Brooklyn to pull out all the stops to keep Lopez, lest it go roughly into a long night devoid of quality draft picks and budding young stars.
15. Utah Jazz
Just because the Utah Jazz didn’t make the playoffs doesn’t mean they don’t deserve consideration among the NBA’s top half. Remember, the Jazz went 19-10 after the All-Star break, courtesy of a defensive revolution sparked by Enes Kanter’s departure—and Rudy Gobert’s rise into the starting lineup.
Gobert figures to be back alongside Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward, with Alec Burks returning from injury and Dante Exum learning the ropes after a rough rookie season. With so many good young players, Utah would seem keen to let its core develop, rather than jump-start the process with a big-time veteran addition.
Except, according to 1280 The Zone’s Spencer Checketts, the Jazz are hoping to bring Paul Millsap back to Salt Lake City—perhaps to add some savvy and experience to Utah’s youth movement.
14. Dallas Mavericks
Another year, another summer of turnover for the Dallas Mavericks.
At least, that appears to be the case at present. Rajon Rondo’s all but gone, Monta Ellis might seek more money elsewhere (per ESPN’s Tim McMahon) and Tyson Chandler could leave town as an unrestricted free agent.
That’s three-fifths of Dallas’ starting five that could be out the door—for the third year running, no less.
The Mavs can only ride the free-agent carousel for so long while Dirk Nowitzki still has some high-level basketball left in his aging legs. Unfortunately for Dallas, this offseason doesn’t figure to spell an end to that ride, not with so many players hoping to re-enter the market when the salary cap skyrockets in 2016 and 2017.
13. Portland Trail Blazers
Like the Mavericks, the Portland Trail Blazers may be nigh-on unrecognizable by the time the curtain goes up on 2015-16. LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews will all be unrestricted free agents on July 1.
Any departure could upset the chemistry the Blazers have carefully constructed under head coach Terry Stotts, but Aldridge’s would clearly hurt the most. After all, Aldridge is the only one of those three who’s ever been an All-Star or so much as sniffed an MVP race.
But while many in the basketball world assume that Aldridge will leave Rip City this summer, not everyone’s convinced. Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher, for one, thinks the odds could favor Aldridge’s return to Portland.
And Bucher has a point. In all likelihood, no team—not even the ones in Aldridge’s home state of Texas—can offer him the same combination of a starring role and a strong supporting cast that the Blazers have in their corner.
Not to mention all the extra money with which Portland can please its incumbent power forward.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder have the pieces in place to start next season much higher in these power rankings. A core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka—with a store of young talent filling out the rotation—should be enough to thrust the Thunder back into the thick of the championship conversation in year one of the Billy Donovan era.
That is, assuming Durant and Ibaka come back healthy. Both still have some work ahead of them before they’re ready to return to normalcy on the court.
In the meantime, Durant isn’t having any trouble finding further motivation to fuel his comeback. The latest source? The lack of attention he garnered during the Finals, while LeBron James and Stephen Curry soaked up the spotlight.
"It used to piss me off, but I love it now," Durant told ESPN’s Royce Young. "Just gotta show and prove. I don't deserve to be up there with them this year. Next year is a different story."
The Thunder certainly hope it will be, after slipping out of the playoffs and into the lottery for the first time since 2009.
11. Milwaukee Bucks
Big things are brewing in the world of the Milwaukee Bucks. The team’s logo and uniform redesign aside, the Bucks could make waves in free agency, due in part to the additional cap space freed up by Ersan Ilyasova’s ouster. Per ESPN’s Marc Stein:
League sources say the Bucks want a proven center in free agency if they can score one, and have pinpointed two kinds of former All-Stars -- Dallas' Tyson Chandler and Brooklyn's Brook Lopez -- as targets for the top of their wish list.
Either of those veteran centers would presumably please Giannis Antetokounmpo. As the Greek Freak wrote for EuroHoops.net:
I think we need a top class big man. We have Zaza Pachulia who really knows how to play basketball and John Henson who will keep getting better and better and some other big guys with potential. But we need an athletic, top class big man. Who will be able to finish plays, score and play effective defense. Who will have the skills to function as the rim protector and set good screens.
10. New Orleans Pelicans
Every great, young player deserves to be steered by a coach with the vision to maximize his tools and expand his horizons. The New Orleans Pelicans are betting that Alvin Gentry will be that sort of mentor for Anthony Davis, along with all of the other core constituents currently in the Crescent City.
Gentry’s bolstered his bona fides tremendously over the better part of the last decade. He helped Mike D’Antoni spark a basketball revolution in Phoenix, supercharged the Clippers offense under Doc Rivers and transformed Golden State’s once-stagnant attack into a beautiful storm of ball movement and perimeter shooting.
Gentry won’t be short of quality components in New Orleans. The Pelicans already sport a trio of skilled guards (i.e., Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans) and one of the NBA’s best shooting bigs (Ryan Anderson).
And then there’s Davis, an MVP-in-waiting, who’s already proven capable of otherworldly dominance on both ends of the floor. Here’s hoping Gentry figures out how to harness the full power of the Brow.
9. Washington Wizards
Paul Pierce performed at a princely pace during the Washington Wizards’ postseason push. After emerging from an end-of-season deep freeze, the future Hall of Famer averaged 14.6 points, nailed 52.4 percent of his threes and knocked down enough big shots to fill a highlight reel on YouTube.
Whether Pierce returns to D.C. for an encore is a hot topic of discussion, conjecture and debate around the basketball world. As the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg wrote:
Paul Pierce hasn’t said what he plans to do next season, and in fact has said virtually nothing publicly since his melancholy postgame remarks the night the Wizards’ season ended. David Aldridge reported that many around the league believe Pierce will opt out of the second year of his Washington deal to join his hometown Clippers. Randy Wittman said he’d be surprised if Pierce didn’t return to the Wizards. Others wondered whether Pierce could be mulling retirement.
Pierce recently weighed in himself, though mostly between the lines of what he actually said.
“We fell up short, but I really like our team, I really like the young budding stars,” Pierce said during an appearance on The Players Tribune show on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Sports Radio (via the Washington Post). “And we’re definitely disappointed, and would have gave Cleveland probably a better challenge than Atlanta, I think, but it was tough.”
Washington’s success next season isn’t exactly contingent on Pierce coming back. In truth, this team’s present and future rests in the healing hands of John Wall, with Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter Jr. providing support.
But none of those guys sports the signature swagger that Pierce brings to the table. At the very least, the Wizards would benefit from another year soaking up all they can of Pierce’s perpetual confidence.
8. Chicago Bulls
It’s darn near shameful how the Chicago Bulls sent Tom Thibodeau out the door, but there are far bigger concerns in the Windy City right now.
Chief among them is the future of Jimmy Butler in Illinois. According to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, Butler will seek a short-term deal as a restricted free agent—rather than sign a five-year offer with Chicago—to ensure that he can return to the market to partake in the impending deluge of national TV dollars.
With or without Butler, the Bulls will have to confront the challenges their current roster poses. Can Chicago continue to look to Derrick Rose as its leader? Will Joakim Noah recover from his own years of wear-and-tear under Thibs? How much longer can the aging Pau Gasol be expected to draw from the Fountain of Youth? And is there a reshuffling in store for the Bulls’ crowded frontcourt?
Chicago doesn’t have to answer all of those questions to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference, but the more the Bulls do, the greater their odds of title contention will become.
7. San Antonio Spurs
It’s been a long time since the San Antonio Spurs have been shrouded in as much uncertainty as they are right now.
Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili have yet to officially decide between prolonging their basketball careers and retiring from the NBA. Kawhi Leonard’s due for a huge payday in restricted free agency. Danny Green shouldn’t have any trouble finding beaucoup bucks as an unrestricted free agent.
And if the Spurs are counting on the likes of Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge taking their talents to the Alamo City, they may want to think again. Gasol seems like a lock to stay in Memphis, his adopted hometown, and according to Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher, “uncertainty of not knowing how much longer coach Gregg Popovich, Duncan and Ginobili plan to keep going might be reason enough for Aldridge to think twice about the Spurs.”
Still, the Spurs are the Spurs. Until someone drives a stake through their heart, they can’t be counted out completely—certainly not after giving a top-notch Los Angeles Clippers squad all it could handle in the first round of the playoffs.
6. Memphis Grizzlies
No offense to free-agent Kosta Koufos or Jeff Green and his $9.2 million player option, but Marc Gasol is the be-all and end-all of the Memphis Grizzlies’ summer. With him, the Grizzlies can contend in the West for the foreseeable future. Should Gasol leave the city he’s called home since his teenage years, Memphis would take a considerable tumble down the conference’s daunting hierarchy.
That being said, the Grizzlies should feel good about their chances of a future filled with Gasol. Here’s what he said of his impending free agency during an appearance on RAC1 radio in Spain (via EuroHoops.net’s Aris Barkas):
The reality for me at the moment is Memphis. I got there when I was 16 and I’m 30 years old. It’s important for me, personally and in sports terms. I’m in front of an important decision for the upcomming (sic) 4 or 5 years. I’ll take it quietly, without drama. There are many things to evaluate: personal goals, the ring… The city isn’t so important like it was in Pau’s case. My brother had other needs. People with sons knows how this works. I don’t have time to go to the opera, or to the theater. New York is nice but it was very cold during the All Star Game. San Antonio, L.A, Atlanta… there’s good things everywhere. I have a simple life: at home, the arena, the supermarket. Memphis is quiet. In Fort Yukon, Alaska, I would also be happy.
5. Atlanta Hawks
Are the Atlanta Hawks ready to settle in as a perennial power in the Eastern Conference? Or will their 60-win season prove to be the product of an overachieving squad and give way to regression?
That will depend largely on what happens to the Hawks roster this summer. Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll are both poised to cash in as free agents this summer, and Atlanta has only limited Bird rights with which to exceed the cap in re-signing them. Allow Grantland’s Zach Lowe to explain:
Millsap’s maximum salary will be about $18.9 million, meaning that if Millsap wants his max — or thinks he can get it from another team — the Hawks will have to dip into their cap room to pay him. If Atlanta goes over the cap, it can sign Millsap to a deal starting at only $16.6 million per season. And if they use $19 million in cap space on Millsap, they would not have enough left over to re-sign Carroll.
Should either depart, the Hawks may have an opportunity to lure a true star to Atlanta, where new ownership is just settling in. But if the Hawks keep the band together, they may need only better health, better luck and some internal growth from some of their younger constituents (i.e., Jeff Teague) to build on the franchise’s first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Apparently, the Los Angeles Clippers weren’t content with running back a squad that was good enough to win 56 games and take a 3-1 lead on the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals but not good enough to finish the job. Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes are out, and Lance Stephenson is in, courtesy of a mid-June trade with Charlotte.
As intriguing as this move may be on its own, it could be just the first domino to fall this summer in L.A. The Clippers’ current glut of guards and absence of wings and bigs (not to mention a lack of cap space) could spell the end of the line for one of the team’s backcourt fixtures.
All of this pales in importance, though, to DeAndre Jordan’s free agency. If the Clippers can’t convince Jordan to stay, they’d better hope they can engineer a sign-and-trade of some sort with his new squad. Otherwise, their days of contending out West could be numbered, even with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin still around.
3. Houston Rockets
If the Houston Rockets learned anything from their run to the Western Conference Finals, it’s that they could use another player capable of creating offense for himself and his teammates on a reliable basis. James Harden had himself a brilliant postseason (27.2 points, 7.5 assists), but he couldn’t carry the Rockets past the mighty Golden State Warriors all by his lonesome.
Unlike last summer, though, Houston won’t have quite the treasure trove to bring in a third star to install alongside Harden and Dwight Howard. The Rockets aren’t brimming with cap space, nor can they boast much in the way of high-value trade chips.
Then again, GM Daryl Morey has proven to be a smart and savvy operator, regardless of the hand he has. And if the Rockets get Donatas Motiejunas back healthy and re-sign Patrick Beverley and Josh Smith, they may not need any earth-shattering additions to remain among the West’s best, so long as Harden and Howard can handle the load.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
There's not an ounce of shame to be found in the Cleveland Cavaliers' loss to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals.
And even if there were, J.R. Smith probably took what was left of it with him on his PhunkeeDuck as he left the arena after Game 6.
In any case, to go from picking atop the NBA draft to winding up two wins shy of a title in a mere year is a tremendous accomplishment in itself for the Cavs. Even in defeat, LeBron James reasserted his dominion over the game of basketball, and he figures to have more help from healthier bodies (i.e., Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao) once year two of The Return gets underway.
That may be little more than cold comfort for the Cavs and the city of Cleveland now, but come June 2016, it could mean the end of a municipal championship drought that's well into its 52nd year.
1. Golden State Warriors
Rarely does the Larry O'Brien Trophy wind up in the hands of anyone but the NBA's best team.
The Golden State Warriors are no exception to that rule. They were truly the league's wire-to-wire champions, darn near leading the pack in defense and offense on the way to 67 wins and the franchise's first title in 40 years.
And to think, this could be just the beginning for this Golden State group. Stephen Curry is all of 27, and he may be hungry for a Finals MVP trophy to pair with his regular-season MVP honor. Klay Thompson, an All-Star who hardly played like it in these Finals, is still shy of his 26th birthday. Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, both due for new deals this summer, have their prime years well ahead of them. Andre Iguodala, the newest owner of a Bill Russell statuette, is under contract for two more seasons on de-escalating salaries.
Steve Kerr, meanwhile, conquered his profession in his first season as a head coach. He won't have Alvin Gentry by his side anymore, though the Warriors shouldn't have much trouble finding a capable replacement.
There will be some serious financial challenges and a stacked conference standing between Golden State and a surefire repeat. For now, though, the Warriors can celebrate their historic run and look forward to a vigorous title defense in 2015-16.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.