NBA Power Rankings 2016-17: How Draft and Free Agency Have Shaken Up the League

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 8, 2016

NBA Power Rankings 2016-17: How Draft and Free Agency Have Shaken Up the League

0 of 30

    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The NBA draft is exciting, and everyone loves the intrigue and optimism attached to rookies. But the biggest movers in this post-draft edition of Bleacher Report's power rankings didn't rise or fall based on the amateur talent they added.

    They did it by adding (or subtracting) professionals.

    Free agency reshaped the league this summer, pairing up MVPs, tearing down contenders and shaking up the hierarchy in both conferences.

    As usual, these power rankings are a measure of each team's present potency. First-year players can make marginal impacts, but even the best rarely move the needle in significant ways. Karl-Anthony Towns was the second coming of your deity of choice last year, and he didn't propel the Minnesota Timberwolves to dizzying heights—unless 29 wins gives you vertigo.

    Adding George Hill to a roster that probably would have made the playoffs last year if not for rampant injuries? Now that's how you climb a bunch of spots.

    We'll chronicle what each club did to change its fortunes and then set them in order.

30. Los Angeles Lakers

1 of 30

    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Not having Kobe Bryant around makes the Los Angeles Lakers better, and it'll be refreshing to see some of his vacated minutes on the wing going to No. 2 overall pick Brandon Ingram.

    There's plenty of potential in the Duke product's thin frame, but fulfilling it will take time...and calories.

    With new head coach Luke Walton taking over for Byron Scott, we should also expect a more open offensive attack, better ball movement and more three-point shots. The current roster is still poorly equipped to defend, but young players like Jordan Clarkson, D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and, of course, Ingram should benefit from the coaching changeScott wasn't into developing the kids.

    Free agency produced a mixed bag for the Lakers. Timofey Mozgov's four-year, $64 million deal may be the worst of the offseason, but retaining Clarkson for $50 million over four years eases the sting. Luol Deng won't be worth what he's making at the end of his four-year, $72 million contract, but he should inject some much-needed spacing as an undersized 4, and his influence in a young locker room will be valuable.

    Is it possible for the Lakers to be better than they were last year and still bring up the rear in our rankings?

    Turns out it is.

29. Brooklyn Nets

2 of 30

    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Brooklyn Nets added Jeremy Lin, Justin Hamilton and Trevor Booker to a core of...well, Brook Lopez.

    Thaddeus Young is gone, traded to the Indiana Pacers, per Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, for No. 20 pick Caris LeVert—a fine long-term move that eliminated one of the Nets' few short-term scoring options. It was the right decision for a team that owes (roughly) its next 27 first-round picks to the Boston Celtics, but it may not help Brooklyn get closer to a modest 30-win season.

    Lin will help stabilize the offense, and his annual salary of $12 million is reasonable in the NBA's new economy. But it's difficult to see a way for the Nets to be much better than a bottom-five defense. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has potential on that end, but that's about it.

28. Philadelphia 76ers

3 of 30

    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia 76ers should be significantly improved! Long live "The Process"!

    Top pick Ben Simmons is both an excellent passer and a willing one—to the point that, even if his facilitation regresses in the pros, he'll still stand out as one of the best ball-movers in the league. Here's Luke Knox of ESPN.com:

    Simmons averaged 7.5 assists per 100 possessions in college, a pretty hefty number. We broke down the assists per 100 possessions for all 74 qualifying NBA bigs (with a height of 6-foot-10 or taller) from this past season and compared their totals. Result: The vast majority are good for anywhere from one to four assists on average, and nothing more.

    The thing about passes, though, is that they have to wind up in the hands of a recipient who can do something with them—either keeping the offensive flow going or finding a way to score—for them to be worth anything.

    By signing Spaniard Sergio Rodriguez, who'll do plenty of ball-handling himself, Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson, the Sixers added three professional, battle-tested vets who should form a more functional offense.

    If Dario Saric stays true to his word and comes over from Europe, he'll help, too. Simmons should also have Joel Embiid around for a long-delayed rookie year, but it's impossible to know what that connection will yield, given Embiid's zero NBA minutes in two seasons. The rest of the Sixers roster remains unproven, but it's reasonable to expect better health and improvement from Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor.

    It's close, but the 76ers seem slightly more equipped to succeed than the Lakers and Nets.

27. Phoenix Suns

4 of 30

    Matt York/Associated Press

    The Phoenix Suns got a lot more intriguing after the draft, adding Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss to the frontcourt in an active lottery. Bender, a 7'1" Croatian, is still just 18, making his potential hard to gauge. But the ball-handling, passing eye and frame portend good things.

    Chriss is the result of a trade that landed the No. 8 pick. He's even more raw than Bender in many ways, but if you look past the poor rebounding rate and relatively low basketball IQ, Chriss' perimeter stroke and athleticism suggest major upside.

    Neither figures to contribute right away, but free-agent vets Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa will help address the Suns' short-term concerns. A healthy season from Eric Bledsoe would go a long way, too.

    Before anyone gets too excited, the Suns are still a 23-win team that got outscored by 7.6 points per 100 possessions last season, and they didn't make any major moves. On the plus side, they also didn't go around setting their cap space on fire.

    If Phoenix can stick to a plan for more than half a season or so, this group should pan out.

26. New Orleans Pelicans

5 of 30

    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson are gone, which means the New Orleans Pelicans are shorter on shooting than they were a year ago. They're also more durable and better on defense.

    For this to be more than a wash, New Orleans needs rookie Buddy Hield and additions E'Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway to capably handle rotation roles alongside Jrue Holiday in the backcourt. Hield's shooting should translate, and the two free-agent imports are sound stoppers.

    Free-agent signee Solomon Hill may be the real get here, as he could potentially become the versatile combo forward everyone covets. At four years and $52 million, he didn't come particularly cheap—especially for a player who only demonstrated three-point proficiency in a small postseason sample. Hill went 11-of-19 from deep during seven playoff games after never shooting better than 32.7 percent from three in any of his previous three seasons.

    He's a good defender, though, and could flourish in a regular rotation spot.

    If Anthony Davis and Holiday stay healthy, the Pelicans could push for at least 40 wins and maybe even threaten to secure a playoff spot. But after last year's disappointing performance, the Pelicans have lost the benefit of the doubt.

    Prove you're not a bottom-five outfit, Pels. We'd all love to see it.

25. Sacramento Kings

6 of 30

    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    The Kings started things off well, improbably getting a first-round pick (No. 22) from the Charlotte Hornets for Marco Belinelli. Aside from letting Rajon Rondo become someone else's problem, everything after that was slightly less great.

    Despite already having DeMarcus Cousins, Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein in the rotation, Sacramento spent two of its first three picks on more centers: Georgios Papagiannis and Skal Labissiere. Both have potential, but they fail to address the Kings' lack of ball-handling and shot creation.

    With Rondo gone and Seth Curry also allowed to leave, only Darren Collison remains to run the show. Garrett Temple is a fine veteran, but the Kings erred in giving him three years and $24 million at age 30—particularly when Curry could have been kept for less.

    Anthony Tolliver is a decent get for two years and $16 million, and his professionalism should help a locker room that has long felt amateur. Matt Barnes' age (36) makes his two-year deal questionable, but at only $12 million, perhaps it was worth it to bring a Sacramento product home.

    The Kings enter a pivotal season as they open their downtown arena and play for yet another new coach: Dave Joerger. Things need to go respectably this year, which may be why the front office loaded up on mid-tier vets (we haven't even mentioned Arron Afflalo yet).

    Unfortunately, it still feels like Sacramento isn't quite sure how to do this.

24. Denver Nuggets

7 of 30

    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Don't mistake a relatively quiet offseason for an ineffective one.

    The Denver Nuggets addressed a key weakness through the draft, avoided blowing cap space for no reason and even got themselves a few headlines by butting into the Dwyane Wade saga.

    "The Nuggets were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA last season, and [Jamal] Murray's outside shot immediately improves their perimeter game," wrote AJ Neuharth-Keusch and Michael Singer of USA Today. "He's an NBA-ready offensive player, no doubt, but questions persist about his athleticism and defense. Regardless, the Nuggets took the best talent available."

    The Kentucky combo guard will fit perfectly alongside Emmanuel Mudiay, and he could even see time at the 1 without Denver losing much playmaking—thanks to center Nikola Jokic's advanced facilitating skills.

    The Nugs are building slowly, so immediate results may not be forthcoming. But among the teams in this range of the rankings, their adherence to a solid, steady plan stands out.

23. New York Knicks

8 of 30

    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    The New York Knicks have picked Carmelo Anthony's timeline over Kristaps Porzingis'.

    The addition of veterans Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, Joakim Noah and Brandon Jennings made that clear. As does the decision to rescind Langston Galloway's qualifying offer, which allowed him to sign with the New Orleans Pelicans.

    Although it's hard to argue that this is the smartest, freshest course for a team that always seems to talk about the future and then immediately focus on the present, you can at least see the outline of a possible playoff entrant from this roster.

    Rose shot the ball much better after the All-Star break last season, Noah should still be able to help on defense, Lee is an underrated two-way wing, and Jennings is a terrific backup value for just $5 million on a one-year contract. With Lance Thomas back on a new four-year deal, the Knicks rotation features considerable talent.

    This is a fragile thing, of course, as Rose, Noah, Anthony and Jennings are all injury risks. And over the long term, paying significant cash to Noah feels like a mistake.

    For this year, though, the Knicks are improved.

22. Milwaukee Bucks

9 of 30

    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    A major reach in the draft for Thon Maker at No. 10 made it seem as if the Milwaukee Bucks would go bold all offseason, but their smart, understated free-agent dealings balanced out the draft-day gamble.

    Milwaukee signed Mirza Teletovic and Matthew Dellavedova to reasonable deals, and both should steady a young rotation this season. Teletovic's shooting will be of particular value for a roster that wasn't getting much from anyone other than Khris Middleton. Dellavedova could easily start at point guard on a reserve's salary.

    That step forward we all expected after the 2014-15 playoff campaign didn't show up last year, but based on what the Bucks have done so far this summer and the growth they can expect from Giannis Antetokounmpo, the leap could still arrive—just a year later than expected.

21. Orlando Magic

10 of 30

    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    The Orlando Magic were active this offseason, trading for Serge Ibaka on draft day and getting into the free-agent mix early and often.

    In addition to the swap that sent Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando also signed Jeff Green, Bismack Biyombo and D.J. Augustin. Retaining Evan Fournier became even more important with Oladipo gone, and the Magic did that via a five-year, $85 million deal.

    The Ibaka move feels shortsighted, as the big man could leave as a free agent in 2017. But it's easier to look past that when you envision the defensive dominance that could be possible with him and Biyombo up front for a Frank Vogel unit. Where that leaves Nikola Vucevic is anyone's guess, but there's plenty to like about that three-man rotation.

    Aaron Gordon, perhaps Orlando's brightest star, should be miffed about all the additional bigs, though. He seems destined to have the most value as a small power forward who can run, handle and shoot without giving up much on defense. But it has only gotten harder to find minutes for him at the 4 with Ibaka and Biyombo aboard.

    John Wooden's maxim about not mistaking activity for achievement feels appropriate for a team that made a lot of moves but might not have improved its position much—especially in the long term. 

20. Washington Wizards

11 of 30

    Allen Einstein/Getty Images

    Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post went in on the Washington Wizards' disappointing offseason:

    They failed big time. There’s no analyzing around it. You can't inspire a fan base to imagine Durant in your jersey and then settle for [Ian] Mahinmi, Andrew NicholsonJason Smith, Tomas Satoransky and Trey Burke without having to duck objects being thrown onto the stage. Reaction is a sibling of expectation. For years, the community had been conditioned to want more. Coming up short is maddening.

    Aw, come on. Mahinmi's not so bad, right?

    Brewer's point is well-taken, though. The Wizards' biggest move was maxing out their own shooting guard (with chronic leg problems), Bradley Beal. That's not ideal for a squad that needed a shove off the mediocrity treadmill.

    New head coach Scott Brooks might be an upgrade over Randy Wittman, but it's difficult to see him driving real improvement with a roster that looks familiar in most of the wrong ways.

19. Indiana Pacers

12 of 30

    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    The Indiana Pacers are committed to scoring the rock.

    Adding Al Jefferson and Thaddeus Young to the frontcourt makes that clear. So does the decision to swap out George Hill for Jeff Teague—although you could contend the only thing that move signaled was the Pacers' devaluation of defense.

    Hill is a better player than Teague—a superior shooter, a more versatile defender and a steadier decision-maker. But he's also a little older and not quite as dynamic of a scorer.

    Teague will make it harder for the Pacers to cover for Monta Ellis on defense. Hill could always guard the more dangerous backcourt option, but Teague lacks that versatility, and unless Lance Stephenson really does come back, there won't be a big, physical guard on the roster to replace it.

    With Myles Turner taking over for Mahinmi in the middle, this team should enjoy excellent spacing, and it has the potential to overwhelm opponents with athleticism and hot shooting. But this won't look anything like the gritty, defense-first Pacers clubs of past seasons.

    It seems like that's what team president Larry Bird was going for.

18. Chicago Bulls

13 of 30

    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Because of the sentiment attached and the drama that preceded it, Dwyane Wade's jump to the Chicago Bulls feels more significant than it is.

    Chicago is a revamped squad, having lost Noah and Rose while adding Robin Lopez, rookie Denzel Valentine and, of course, Rajon Rondo. Wade only adds to the overhaul.

    Change was necessary for a Bulls team that had grown stale, but this is a strange way to have gone about it—especially after general manager Gar Forman pledged to make the roster younger and more athletic, per Nick Friedell of ESPN.com. Chicago failed to add youth or bounce this summer, and the new mix creates a scary combination of age and busted jumpers.

    "Wade knows what a superteam looks like," Danny Chau of The Ringer explained. "What he's about to join is not one. He'll share the spotlight with Jimmy Butler, an emerging star whose best attributes are reminiscent of a young Wade, and a 30-year-old version of Rajon Rondo, whose career is at a crossroads."

    Spacing will be a disaster, defense will be a challenge, and chemistry could be a real issue—particularly with Butler standing to gain so much more prominence as the primary playmaker after the Rose trade...and then seeing the Bulls add two guys who have little value off the ball.

    Maybe this will work, but it's hard to see how. And it's harder to square the Bulls' current roster with Forman's talk of youth and athleticism.

17. Dallas Mavericks

14 of 30

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    The Dallas Mavericks didn't have a first-round pick in the draft and didn't land a star free agent.

    None of their top targets—led by Mike Conley and Hassan Whiteside—signed on, and it looks as if Dirk Nowitzki, who got a nice little two-year, $40 million deal for his trouble, will spend another couple of seasons struggling to make the playoffs.

    Helping him in that effort will be 40 percent of the Golden State Warriors' 2015-16 starting lineup.

    Harrison Barnes inked a four-year max deal, and Andrew Bogut came over in a trade that allowed the Dubs to clear enough space for Kevin Durant's contract. Bogut may helphe's still a good rim defender, and he can pass. But Barnes will likely struggle as Chandler Parsons' replacement because he's never shown much acumen for making plays or creating his own shot.

    Deron Williams and Seth Curry will do what they can to help, but it's safe to say Barnes will find life harder without Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson drawing all the attention.

    It's a positive that Dallas decided not to max out Parsons and his surgically repaired knees, but Barnes will surprise everyone if he proves to be more than a fifth option.

    Yet again, Dallas is right in the middle. Knowing head coach Rick Carlisle, though, he'll make this group competitive, even if that's disappointingly different than being a contender.

16. Miami Heat

15 of 30

    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Who had Chris Bosh as "most likely to be the last remaining member of the Miami Heat's Big Three"?

    Put your hands down. You're all lying.

    Bosh is all that's left of that 2010 triumvirate, and his uncertain health situation could mean he's only a symbolic remnant. Blood clot issues in each of the last two seasons could prompt a medical retirement, though neither Bosh nor the Heat have made it clear how likely that is.

    With Wade now gone and Bosh's future unclear, Miami is skewing younger.

    Justise Winslow will take on a bigger role, and Whiteside is now effectively the franchise cornerstone. With Joe Johnson and Luol Deng also departing in free agency, Josh Richardson and Goran Dragic (who doesn't quite fit with a youth movement) will see their responsibilities expand.

    If you want to be cold about it, the Heat dodged a bullet in not retaining Wade at the two-year, $40 million rate it offered. At 34, Wade was a net on-court negative last season. There's little reason to expect a reversal on that front going forward.

    It's terrifying to pin hopes for success on someone as historically unreliable as Whiteside, but if things go right, Miami could still be a playoff team.

15. Minnesota Timberwolves

16 of 30

    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Timberwolves' Kool-Aid, garnished by new head coach Tom Thibodeau with razor wire and high-grit sandpaper, is surprisingly delicious.

    Drink up.

    Karl-Anthony Towns should vault into the league's elite this season, and Andrew Wiggins could see his game reach another level with Thibs calling the shots. Toss in expected growth from Zach LaVine and what should be an exciting Kris Dunn experience, and you've got nothing but upside wherever you look.

    More on Towns from Kyle Wagner and Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight.com because dreaming about his potential is fun:

    It means our model thinks he'll be worth 50.2 wins above replacement over [the next six seasons], which would have ranked seventh in the league in 2015-16, wedged between Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. That's an alarmingly good projection, considering he'll be entering his second season and presumably has not reached his potential — the other players who project anywhere near that range are all established stars whose six-year outlook includes only their prime seasons and the gradual decline from that peak.

    The Wolves also added Cole Aldrich and Brandon Rush in free agency, two veterans who should bolster the frontcourt and provide much-needed three-point shooting, respectively.

    Minnesota won 29 games last season. From here, it's hard to see how they fail to add at least another dozen victories to that total.

14. Oklahoma City Thunder

17 of 30

    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    If a drop this precipitous feels harsh (the Oklahoma City Thunder consistently ranked in the top four throughout last season), consider this: A 55-win team lost one of the three best players in the league and its most versatile frontcourt defender.

    It doesn't matter how many triple-doubles Russell Westbrook logs, OKC is going to slip without KD and Ibaka.

    Based on this ranking, the Thunder slot in at eighth in the Western Conference. Though progress from Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Oladipo and Andre Roberson could mitigate the losses of Durant and Ibaka, expecting anything more than a fifth or sixth seed (in an absolute best-case scenario) feels foolish.

    Sabonis is promising, and Ilyasova can shoot. But you just can't lose Durant without taking a hit. If things go badly and OKC moves Westbrook during the season, we could be looking at a bottom-10 team.

13. Detroit Pistons

18 of 30

    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Henry Ellenson only shot 28 percent from three-point range at Marquette last year, but he profiles as a floor-stretcher who, if all else fails, can at least score around the basket. He may never be a star, but getting him at No. 18 was a great value, per Jeremy Woo of Sports Illustrated:

    Able to score on the block, put it on the deck and hit an open jumper, Ellenson was No. 6 on my Big Board and is one of the most offensively skilled bigs in the class. The Pistons need shooters around Andre Drummond, and Ellenson—also a good rebounder—seems tailor-made for what Stan Van Gundy likes to do. This was a no-brainer choice.

    Detroit also signed Jon Leuer and Ish Smith, who'll be upgrades over departed rotation pieces Anthony Tolliver and Steve Blake. Boban Marjanovic is enormous and dominated garbage time with the San Antonio Spurs last year, but it remains to be seen if he can play meaningful minutes.

    The Pistons will pay $21 million over three years to find out.

    They'll pay much more than that for Andre Drummond's max deal, but they seem to know what they've got there. A 44-win playoff team last year, Detroit is a bit deeper and more talented now. A fourth or fifth seed in the East is in play.

12. Portland Trail Blazers

19 of 30

    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    The Portland Trail Blazers must decide whether to match Allen Crabbe's four-year, $75 million offer sheet from the Brooklyn Nets, per Wojnarowski. However, they're going to land Festus Ezeli (on a two-year, $15 million pact, also per Wojnarowski) as their much-needed rim-protector. Securing those two can improve the optics of a somewhat disappointing offseason.

    ESPN.com's Amin Elhassan isn't impressed with the one early move Portland did execute:

    I have a hard time understanding the Evan Turner signing by Portland. It's not just the money (although the idea that anyone paid him $70 million is pretty staggering), but I also don't see the basketball fit for him alongside Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. He's a ball-dominant wing who is an atrocious spacer. For Portland's roster, I'd rather have a Marvin Williams or Jared Dudley, both of whom signed for considerably less.

    With Gerald Henderson gone, Maurice Harkless dangling and a playoff series win to live up to, the Blazers are in a tricky spot. Gunning for immediate improvement (and overpaying for it) isn't a great idea for an organization that still has some real rebuilding to do.

    Still, depending on what happens the rest of the way with Crabbe and Ezeli, the Blazers could find themselves cracking the top 10.

11. Charlotte Hornets

20 of 30

    Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

    Retaining Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams was critical in offsetting the departures of Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson and Courtney Lee. A one-year deal for Roy Hibbert also represents a solid value.

    Taking all that together, the Charlotte Hornets are still probably a bit worse than they were when the season concluded. If Ramon Sessions, who signed a two-year contract for $12.5 million, can match Lin's production from last year, that evaluation could change. Even better, a healthy season from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and improvements from Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller could push the Hornets to a level above the one they reached in 2015-16.

    The takeaway here is that Charlotte has a wide range of outcomes in front of it.

    Fifty wins isn't out of the question, but neither is a lottery trip if it turns out Kemba Walker, Batum and Williams can't sustain their career-best levels.

    Stay tuned on this one.

10. Houston Rockets

21 of 30

    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    First, this could go so, so wrong.

    But maybe it won't.

    Adding Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon theoretically works, injecting a ton of shooting and offensive punch into a Mike D'Antoni system that should bring out the best in every scorer on the roster. Getting Nene for just $2.9 million to back up Clint Capela makes sense, too.

    Removing Dwight Howard from a situation that was festering could improve the chemistry enough to add three or four wins by itself.

    The Rockets won 41 games with a fractured team, a coaching change and an effort level that ranged from inconsistent to nonexistent. Isn't it fair to see the potential for a much better future here?

    If D'Antoni gets buy-in effort from James Harden and this group somehow avoids being one of the absolute worst defenses in the league, there's a chance we see a version of the Rockets that looks much more like the conference finalists of 2015 than the first-round washout of last year.

9. Memphis Grizzlies

22 of 30

    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    This little section of the rankings illustrates the extreme stratification this offseason has created.

    As it stands now, there's one overwhelming favorite, two other title contenders and, below them, a mishmash of flawed but promising clubs fighting for a shot to move up. This group, which includes the previously featured Hornets and Rockets, is also home to the Memphis Grizzlies.

    Keeping Mike Conley on one max contract and adding Chandler Parsons on another gives Memphis a chance at one of the better offenses it's had in years. If Marc Gasol is healthy, he could produce another season or two of elite production before his decline picks up momentum.

    Rookie Wade Baldwin IV should contribute immediately in the backcourt, and fellow first-year player Deyonta Davis adds shot-blocking to a frontcourt that needs some above-the-rim help.

    As is typical of teams in this section, though, Memphis is fraught with risk.

    Parsons has had two knee surgeries in the last 18 months, Gasol's foot injury may prevent him from ever being the same, and Conley has had more than his share of bumps in recent years. The window for this team is now, and it's not out of the question to imagine Memphis winning 55 games and advancing to at least the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.

    But only if everything breaks right.

8. Atlanta Hawks

23 of 30

    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    How can you not love Kent Bazemore, who took out a full-page ad in the Atlanta Journal Constitution to thank Atlanta Hawks fans for their support?

    "First and foremost, I want to thank you for taking me in two years ago and helping shape me into the man I am today," Bazemore wrote. "This city, the people, the fans, the Hawks organization and my teammates have made this HOME for me. All of the support and love that I've received has been surreal."

    That's normally the kind of thing you'd see in a let-them-down-easy farewell letter. In this case, it was Bazemore thanking the fans of the team he'd continue playing for. His four-year, $70 million contract assures that.

    What's not assured is Atlanta's future as a top-tier team in the East.

    Dwight Howard replaces Al Horford, which will change the frontcourt dynamic significantly. If Howard has another defensive renaissance in him and he's content to attack on the pick-and-roll instead of from the post, the Hawks could come together nicely. In addition, there's a chance Dennis Schroder thrives as the full-time starting point guard with Teague out of the picture.

    Rookies Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry could fill roles right away. Better shooting from Kyle Korver is possible after a down year, Paul Millsap is still the league's most underrated star, and Malcolm Delaney, signed on the cheap to play behind Schroder, was one of the best players in Europe last year.

    Atlanta looks different, but it might be every bit as good as it was a year ago.

7. Toronto Raptors

24 of 30

    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Losing Biyombo hurts, but the Toronto Raptors should be able to swap in first-rounder Jakob Poeltl as Jonas Valanciunas' new backup without losing too much. Yes, Biyombo's rim protection will be missed, but it was never going to make sense to pay significant money for a reserve.

    DeMar DeRozan is back on a fat new contract, Norman Powell showed some real promise in the playoffs, and maybe DeMarre Carroll will put together a healthier season than he did a year ago. If Valanciunas takes another step forward, this Raptors team could easily contend for a top-two spot in the East again.

    That's pretty much it for a team that didn't change much after the best year in franchise history, even if a power forward upgrade went largely unaddressed.

    In fact, the only thing preventing yet another conference finals visit may be out of Toronto's control: a rising power in the East that shakes up the top five in our rankings. More on that momentarily.

6. Los Angeles Clippers

25 of 30

    Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    Unless you think rookies Diamond Stone and Brice Johnson are going to contribute major minutes, the Los Angeles Clippers enter the 2016-17 season a little older and a little thinner than a year ago. Aldrich and Green are gone from the rotation, leaving a void up front.

    They're also more expensive, too, with Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers both getting significant raises.

    Still, as long as Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan are around, the Clips are a threat to secure a top-four seed. As has been the case for the last three years or so, they're also a key injury to a real contender away from barging into the conference finals conversation.

    Realistically, L.A. is bringing back the same group that broke down and fell short a year ago. This figures to be a fine regular-season team, but it's probably not one we can count on to do serious postseason damage.

    Everyone ahead of them looks younger, deeper, more dangerous or all of the above.

5. Boston Celtics

26 of 30

    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The Boston Celtics look like the second-best team in the East after adding Horford and No. 3 overall pick Jaylen Brown to a versatile, defensive-minded, well-coached core.

    Here's Brian Robb from Boston.com: "The Celtics were a top-10 offense last season without him and his versatility should help them jump a couple spots in those rankings next year. While Horford's numbers won’t make him look like an All-Star, he’s easily the most talented big man that [Brad] Stevens has had to work with in Boston."

    With the Hawks, Raptors and Hornets mostly treading water, there's a real opportunity now for Boston to establish itself as the truest threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers' conference control.

    After winning 48 games a year ago, losing no free agents of consequence and adding one of the best two-way big men in the league, the Celtics have taken things up a notch.

4. Utah Jazz

27 of 30

    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

    This just feels right.

    When healthy last year—which we'll define as "having Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert on the floor together"—the Utah Jazz were awesome. That foursome only took the court in 45 games, but it posted a net rating of plus-5.0 points per 100 possessions, regardless of who the fifth body was.

    That would have been good enough to rank sixth in the league.

    Obviously, a team's net rating builds in all of its lineups. But with any luck (and Utah deserves some on the injury front), this year's Jazz squad should be able to get that group onto the court much more often. Better still, veterans George Hill, Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson will bolster the rotation with depth Utah hasn't had in years.

    Toss in the development of Trey Lyles, the return of Dante Exum and a hopefully healthy season from Alec Burks, and you've got a roster capable of demolishing last year's total of 40 wins.

    We've expected a Jazz breakout in each of the last two seasons.

    This is the year we get it.

3. San Antonio Spurs

28 of 30

    Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    The San Antonio Spurs have shuffled the deck a bit, adding Pau Gasol to replace the possibly retiring Tim Duncan while losing David West to the Warriors. But the Kawhi Leonard-LaMarcus Aldridge core remains, and both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will be back for another run.

    Expecting another 67 wins and an historically great defense is probably unrealistic, but with the Thunder collapsing and the Clippers likely to slip, the Spurs stand out as the Warriors' best in-conference competition.

    As exciting as Utah is, San Antonio's experience and top-end talent (Leonard is the best player on either team by a considerable margin) give it a distinct advantage.

    Point guard is an area of concern, though, as Parker is aging and Patty Mills is more of an off-the-ball option. Rookie Dejounte Murray is a project with potential, and the Spurs have to hope he isn't pressed into service too soon.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

29 of 30

    Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

    Win a title by toppling a unanimous MVP and a 73-win force of nature, and all you get is the No. 2 spot in a set of early-July power rankings?

    That's tough.

    But hey, the Cleveland Cavaliers did fine last year despite spending virtually every second of it (right up until Kyrie Irving hit that dagger triple to ice Game 7 of the Finals) as a runner-up. Maybe they'll do the same thing this year.

    Cleveland lost Dellavedova and Mozgov, and LeBron James continues to age (even if that was hard to believe in the Finals). If Irving keeps improving and Year 3 is the one in which Kevin Love finally fits in, that'll be more than enough to offset the losses of a couple of role players. 

    One other possible source of improvement arrives mostly by luck: Cleveland swooped in to grab Mike Dunleavy when the Bulls needed a taker for his salary. If Dunleavy's back holds up, his shooting, sound team defense and underrated passing could help.

    On balance, though, this is the same team that won it all last year. Too bad that's nowhere near enough to take the top spot.

1. Golden State Warriors

30 of 30

    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Remember all that talk last year about how we'd never seen anything like the Golden State Warriors? About how Stephen Curry was doing unprecedented things? About how the Warriors' shooting prowess and overall talent set them apart from all but the absolute best teams in league history?

    Take all that, multiply it by a million, add a former MVP in his prime who also happens to be a perfect positional and systematic fit, and you've got the new Warriors: a team with four All-NBA performers 28 or younger, the last three MVP awards, the most versatile defender in the league, perhaps the two best shooters ever and the most dangerous individual scorer in the league.

    It's dumb. It's ridiculous. It's overkill.

    And it's going to be incredible to watch.

    In addition to adding Kevin Durant, the Warriors retooled their frontcourt with Zaza Pachulia and David West.

    We're only dealing with the on-paper discussion right now because none of the teams in these rankings will play games for months. But on paper...man...there's never been a team this good.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Signing and agreement information from USA Today's NBA Free Agency Tracker.

slash iconYour sports. Delivered.

Enjoy our content? Join our newsletter to get the latest in sports news delivered straight to your inbox!