Post-NBA Finals Power Rankings: Early 2016-17 Projections for All 30 Teams

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 21, 2016

Post-NBA Finals Power Rankings: Early 2016-17 Projections for All 30 Teams

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    Let the Cleveland Cavaliers bask in the afterglow of their first-ever NBA title. They deserve it.

    But the 2015-16 season has been over for, like, a minute, and that means we're overdue for some way-too-early—albeit totally needed—2016-17 power rankings.

    First, some ground rules.

    The Association's landscape will shift to some extent over the offseason. We are not in the business of forecasting the unimaginable (LeBron James signing with the Tune Squad). Instead, these rankings assume the most realistic outcomes to unresolved issues (Kevin Durant staying with Oklahoma City Thunder).

    Cap space, draft picks, possible departures and postseason endings will still play a part in shaping our basketball pyramid. But these results are more about where the most likely version of each team will stand relative to their peers next season.

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Ben Simmons couldn't fix the Philadelphia 76ers even if he robbed both Stephen Curry and LeBron James of their superpowers.

    Too many assumptions must be made to believe these Sixers can climb out of the NBA's bottom-most cellar. Logjams abound, they still don't have a worthy starting point guard and their offense has ranked dead last on the efficiency scale by a wide margin for the past three seasons.

    Winning the draft lottery helps, but if the Sixers act as expected, they'll be left with five high-end prospects who stand 6'10" or taller: Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric and Simmons. Only one of them (Saric) offers immediate floor spacing.

    Noel and Okafor are both on the chopping block, according to ESPN.com's Chad Ford and Marc Stein, and moving either one slightly loosens up this frontcourt deadlock. But the Sixers will remain the league's most incomplete project even if they address that imbalance.

    Philly's ability to almost effortlessly produce more than $50 million in cap space over the summer doesn't even change anything.

    Most of the Association will enjoy ample wiggle room, and the Sixers aren't a destination of choice. They will need to overpay for any improvements, however marginal or significant, assuming they plan to chase any upgrades at all.

29. Brooklyn Nets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Though poaching new general manager Sean Marks from the San Antonio Spurs can be portrayed as a step in the right direction, the Brooklyn Nets don't have the means to build off a 21-win campaign.

    Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Sean Kilpatrick, Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young are the extent of their core, and there are no nucleus-nudging additions on the horizon.

    Brooklyn doesn't control the rights to its own first-round selection until 2019 and won't have a top-30 pick during this year's prospect pageant unless it buys or trades for one. Marks can open more than $30 million in offseason spending power, but the list of high-impact free agents willing to eschew similar overtures from better teams to join a handcuffed rebuilding project is probably blank.

    The Nets, if anything, are more likely to tear down their current roster further.

    Both Lopez and Young have been told they'll be around next season, per Andy Vasquez of the Record, suggesting Brooklyn is perfectly content running on a treadmill for now. But maintaining the status quo isn't a win in this instance. 

    It's only a matter of time before the Nets start viewing their two best players as future-draft-pick bait.

28. Sacramento Kings

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    DeMarcus Cousins should appear in more than 65 games next season, so the Sacramento Kings have that going for them. But that's about all they have going for them.

    Sacramento's roster is painfully unimpressive, even after factoring in an inbound top-eight draft prospect. And new head coach Dave Joerger projects as an awkward sideline fit. He is a half-court-oriented defensive mind inheriting a bottom-10 turnstile that championed a fast and furious play style under his predecessor, George Karl.

    The Kings don't have a ton of cap space to bust through their sub-35-win ceiling, either. They can exceed $20 million in play money by cutting bait with Rajon Rondo, but the team doesn't have a surefire replacement behind him. Both Darren Collison and Seth Curry (restricted) are defensive downgrades, and this isn't the summer to shop for a point guard.

    Not that Sacramento is a free-agent hot spot anyway. Even incumbent players don't sound thrilled at the thought of staying put.

    "There were too many distractions on and off the court," Rondo said of his Kings experience on ESPN's The Jump. "The organization as a whole, I don't think was together completely. I think as a team you have to want the best for the next man beside you, and that wasn't the case with the Sacramento Kings."

    Maybe Karl's departure will spark a cultural revolution. But we've been here before, almost every summer since 2010, wondering if the Kings will get their act together in time for next season. The smart money is on them doing what they do best: trying to reinvent themselves and failing.

27. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Here is a list of things the Los Angeles Lakers will not do this summer:

    • Trade for Paul George (despite what The Ringer's Bill Simmons may have heard)
    • Sign both Kevin Durant and LeBron James
    • Sign even one of Durant or James
    • Deal for Jimmy Butler
    • Convince the Golden State Warriors to trade Stephen Curry into cap space

    Forgive me if I didn't cover all the bases. I'm a tad behind on the latest "This is why the Purple and Gold will return to championship contention in 2016-17" drivel.

    Look, the Lakers might be better next year. Kobe Bryant is filming Ghostbusters promos instead of scaring away prospective free agents. If all goes according to plan, Los Angeles will add a top-two pick to a foundation of Jordan Clarkson (restricted) and D'Angelo Russell (rumor-mill patsy, per ESPN's Chad Ford). That's good enough for, like, at least 18 wins.

    General manager Mitch Kupchak can also conjure two max-contract slots ahead of free agency without much work. And the Lakers, for all their warts, are a more attractive landing spot than the Kings—which, let's face it, is pretty much the dream.

    Still, newly hired head coach Luke Walton isn't a miracle-worker. The Lakers roster is stadium-streaker bare and teeming with inexperience. If they win the offseason, invalidating this projection, it'll be because they maxed out fringe stars like DeMar DeRozan and Hassan Whiteside.

    Either way, they won't be chasing championships, or even a top-six playoff berth, anytime soon. Fans would do well to embrace the basement.

26. Phoenix Suns

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    A healthy Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker and Brandon Knight will make for a fun team. This is not to be confused with a good team.

    Injuries to Bledsoe and Knight limited the trio to just 43 minutes of action together this past season, all of which came prior to the new year, long before the Phoenix Suns realized what they had in Booker. Any case for stark improvement begins and ends with them.

    Mix in three first-round picks, whatever T.J. Warren is and a minimum of $15 million in cap space, and the Suns have the look and feel of an unfinished product on the rise—bold and italic emphasis on unfinished.

    Constructing a top-12 offense around Bledsoe, Booker and Knight shouldn't be a problem. But good luck deploying an above-average defense. Phoenix doesn't have any plus defenders at the 4, and its paint prevention is too reliant on a creaky Tyson Chandler.

    Above all else, there is too much uncertainty to consider. Will the Suns keep all of their draft picks? Will big-time free agents ever do more than flirt with signing in Phoenix? Does Kevin Love look good in purple? Might the Suns decide to deal one or both of Bledsoe and Knight if, as expected, they fall out of playoff contention?

    When all of these unresolved issues are combined with a relatively young infrastructure, it's tough to picture Phoenix leaving bottom-five status in the rearview mirror.

25. New York Knicks

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    Some good news, New York Knicks fans: Basketball as it was meant to be played post-2010 is coming to the Big Apple.

    As ESPN.com's Ian Begley wrote of new head coach Jeff Hornacek's vision for Kristaps Porzingis:

    Hornacek expressed excitement about the prospect of coaching both Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony. He says that he’d like to use Porzingis on the perimeter and the interior, based on his matchup. He envisions Porzingis posting up smaller defenders, which the rookie may face when teams utilize smaller lineups.

    Against bigger defenders, he sees Porzingis shooting more frequently from the perimeter and playing on some high pick-and-rolls to take the bigger defender out of the paint and also take advantage of Porzingis’ versatility.

    This image of Carmelo Anthony and Porzingis running high pick-and-rolls together is enough for the average, hope-starved Knicks apologist to start thinking about the 2017 playoffs. But New York needs an infusion of talent just as much as it does a fresh offensive approach.

    Point guard remains a position of dire need. Anthony is the lone player on the roster who can attack the rim, collapse defenses and finish plays on the move with any semblance of consistency. A floor-general rotation of Jose Calderon, Jerian Grant and Tony Wroten Jr., with some Langston Galloway (restricted) sprinkled in, won't get far.

    That's why the Knicks turned their attentions to...Derrick Rose, according to Begley. Their interest is most definitely a reflection of the suboptimal point guard market in this year's free-agent class. But it's also a reminder of how much work the team has before it.

    Until they surround their frontcourt trio of Anthony, Robin Lopez and Porzingis with high-end backcourt contributors, they're doomed to flirt with complete irrelevance. And the longer this obscurity persists, the more likely it is Anthony waives his no-trade clause and consigns New York to a full-tilt reset.

24. New Orleans Pelicans

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    We should be higher on the New Orleans Pelicans' immediate future.

    Anthony Davis just wrapped an "off" year in which he joined Shaquille O'Neal as only the second player to twice clear 24 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game before his 23rd birthday. It should be all dandelions and daisies and decadent desserts for the Pelicans in 2016-17.

    Except it's not.

    Yes, a top-six draft pick will help ease the pain of 2015-16's slopfest. But Omer Asik has four years and roughly $43.8 million left on his deal, and New Orleans won't open up too much cap space after presumably parting ways with Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. That'll make it tough to flesh out the rest of the roster while accounting for any key departures.

    Barring an unanticipated salary dump (Asik, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, etc.) or unlikely blockbuster acquisition, the Pelicans must hope a slightly altered version of their 30-win squad results in a substantial leap.

    Even with Davis in tow, that's not a good place to be.

23. Orlando Magic

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    If you believe the Orlando Magic will exceed—or even match—their 35-win showing from 2015-16, then you also believe they'll strike it big in free agency.

    Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic are a solid foundation, just not one that will be able to escape the bottom 10 of offensive efficiency under head coach Frank Vogel. And re-signing Evan Fournier (restricted) while adding a late-lottery selection won't do much, if anything, to bridge the gap between Orlando and the Eastern Conference's playoff bubble.

    Hence why general manager Rob Hennigan is hoping for a reasonably lucrative offseason, per the Orlando Sentinel's Josh Robbins:

    Hennigan added the Magic "will be as aggressive as any team in free agency."

    "We'll be ambitious," he added. "At the same time, though, we'll be very disciplined."

    Translation: If the Magic fail to lure their top free-agent targets, then the team won't spend outlandish sums of money out of desperation.

    This is a bizarre approach for a franchise that doesn't have an extensive history of poaching marquee names. The Magic are nevertheless fully committed to the grind; otherwise, they wouldn't have flipped Tobias Harris ahead of the trade deadline for what amounts to additional cap flexibility.

    So an all-or-nothing free-agency grab? What could possibly go wrong? (Everything. Ask the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 Lakers.)

22. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Once you move past the pomp and promise of point Giannis Antetokounmpo, it's difficult to get excited about the Milwaukee Bucks' 2016-17 prospects.

    For starters, they have toyed with our impulses before. They scraped together a shocking playoff bid in 2014-15, doubled down on their success last summer by signing Greg Monroe and then finished with the Eastern Conference's fourth-worst record.

    Fortunes won't turn in Milwaukee until the front office gets rid of Monroe. He changes the way head coach Jason Kidd and his staff devise defensive schemes, and his 15.3 points and 2.3 assists per game did little to elevate the Bucks' offensive ceiling.

    Even Antetokounmpo's full-time point guard duties come with reservations: He averaged 19.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.9 blocks on 51.4 percent shooting while filling in for Michael Carter-Williams, but his individual dominance didn't solve everything—or even anything.

    The Bucks barely escaped the bottom 10 of offensive efficiency during that time. All of their best players, with the exception of Khris Middleton, still lack dependable three-point strokes. And their cap situation is unremarkable, if helpless, unless they wave goodbye to O.J. Mayo, Miles Plumlee (restricted) and Greivis Vasquez.

    Make no mistake, there are still reasons to be optimistic about Milwaukee's future. The Antetokounmpo-Middleton-Jabari Parker tricycle should eventually be fine. But if we learned anything in 2015-16, it's that this group isn't close to being a polished threat.

21. Chicago Bulls

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    Why the lack of confidence in the Chicago Bulls?

    Jimmy Butler sounds like he's available, according to ESPN.com's Chad Ford and Marc Stein. Rose is most definitely available, per Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler. Pau Gasol (player option) and Joakim Noah are flight risks (either voluntarily or no).

    Oh, and the Bulls are coming off a season in which the offense hovered around the bottom five of points scored per 100 possessions. Their defense wasn't much better, gradually imploding on the efficiency scale between October and April:

    MonthOct.Nov.Dec.Jan.Feb.Mar.Apr.
    Def. Rtg.93.098.0100.1104.7107.8107.9109.8

    On the bright side, the Bulls will gain a ton of cap space if Gasol and Noah leave. But when the departures of pivotal, albeit aging, players are a primary silver lining, your team has problems.

    Chicago has more than most—the most damning of which is figuring out what to do with a roster that is barely good enough to compete for a low-seeded playoff berth.

20. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies might be fine if they re-sign Mike Conley. But that's a big if. 

    Conley, for one, is no lock to re-sign, according to Begley:

    Some members of the Grizzlies front office are growing a bit concerned about the possibility of Conley leaving in free agency, per a source with knowledge of the situation. Memphis, which plans on using a video featuring Grizzlies part-owner Justin Timberlake as part of its recruiting pitch, per a source, can offer Conley a five-year deal worth approximately $124 million. Other clubs can ink Conley to a max contract for four years worth approximately $92 million.

    Keeping Conley isn't the Grizzlies' sole concern, though. His return guarantees nothing. Memphis' core showed signs of cracking long before the team became a revolving door for roster placeholders.

    Conley, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph were a net minus in the 445 minutes they spent on the floor together. The Grizzlies cannot soldier on as-is, like they've done in years past, and expect to eclipse 50 victories.

    New head coach David Fizdale should bring more offensive flair to the sidelines, and the front office can summon max cap space without renouncing the rights to Conley. But the Grizzlies' way of winning is under siege, courtesy of an ever-evolving NBA that's leaving them behind.

19. Denver Nuggets

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    Inarguable fact: It's impossible to look at the Denver Nuggets' possible 2016-17 depth chart and not fall in love:

    PGSGSFPFC
    Emmanuel MudiayGary HarrisDanilo GallinariKenneth FariedNikola Jokic
    Jameer NelsonWill BartonWilson ChandlerDarrell Arthur (player option)Jusuf Nurkic
        Joffrey Lauvergne

    No spot in the rotation is home to an established star or refined veteran, but the Nuggets don't have any pressing needs—unless you consider consolidating their assets into All-Star contributors an urgent necessity.

    This is a team that can play almost any style. Big or small, fast or slow—whatever. Try telling yourself a lineup of Mudiay, Harris, Barton, Gallinari and Jokic won't run opposing defenses off the floor. 

    Add in three first-rounders and $20 million in cap space, along with a cleaner bill of health, and the Nuggets have the makings of a fringe playoff unit. Granted, they could fail to parlay assets and cap space into significant upgrades, in which chase they're almost assured of missing the spring dance.

    Wherever they end up, though, they're bound to look good getting there.

18. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    It's easy to see the Minnesota Timberwolves making a postseason push next season.

    Karl-Anthony Towns, the unanimous Rookie of the Year, is already a star; Andrew Wiggins is an automatic scorer off the bounce; Zach LaVine has paired his raw explosion with a clean catch-and-shoot game; Ricky Rubio still has eyes in the back—and on the sides—of his head; you should learn how to spell Nemanja Bjelica's name without a Google search; and coach/president/weekend Goodfella Tom Thibodeau instantly improves the integrity of Minnesota's bottom-five defense.

    It's almost unfair that the Timberwolves will add a top-five pick and $20-plus million in cap space to this party. They're like the Nuggets, only with (fictitious energy drink) Tantrum coursing through their veins. 

    The West's playoff ladder, however, isn't exactly open. And the Timberwolves, while promising on paper, are still tying their livelihood to three players—LaVine, Towns and Wiggins—who are under the age of 22.

    Thibodeau, meanwhile, is a wild card in this situation. He didn't have a knack for developing youngsters during his time in Chicago. His patience is forever in question. ESPN.com's Ford and Stein already have him dangling Minnesota's No. 5 pick in an effort to reunite with Jimmy Butler.

    This will be a learning experience for Thibodeau, just like it is for many of his Timberpups. The playoffs will probably be out of reach, but we should leave next season feeling like the end to Minnesota's postseason drought is nigh.

17. Indiana Pacers

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    After team president Larry Bird showed Vogel the door, it's fair to wonder if the Indiana Pacers, a borderline lottery team to begin with, will end up taking a few step backs in 2016-17.

    As SB Nation's Tom Ziller wrote:

    Sure, Bird's demands of Vogel to turn this defense-first roster into a fleet scoring machine are absurd. If you crack wise about [Kings owner] Vivek Ranadive for prioritizing aesthetics over effectiveness, sling some insults Larry Legend's way as well.

    Bird's centerpiece star, Paul Georgewasn't interested in playing power forward after trying it for a couple of weeks. Vogel did the best he could to implement small lineups with a fairly big roster (including Myles Turner, the team's next star, who was drafted by Bird).

    Stylistic shifts take time to implement. The Pacers won't morph into a high-octane, buckets-blitzing juggernaut overnight. They incorporated more speed into their arsenal this past season, finishing 10th in pace, but couldn't climb outside the bottom eight of overall efficiency.

    Indiana also doesn't yet have the personnel to actualize Bird's on-court vision. Monta Ellis isn't the ideal fit for a team looking for off-ball shooting, Solomon Hill is as good as gone in free agency and the Pacers must bid adieu to Ian Mahinmi, their understated defensive anchor, if they want to carve out max space.

    Even with Paul George as the headliner, a rebuild feels imminent. Myles Turner has to get extensive spin so he can test the stretch-center waters, and the Pacers need to find more combo wings for their offensive transition to reach completion.

16. Dallas Mavericks

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    If there's a good-faith pick in the bunch, it's this one.

    The Dallas Mavericks have plenty of hurdles to clear before solidifying their status as a projected playoff team. Dirk Nowitzki's contract situation (player option) isn't of concern (he's coming back).

    But Chandler Parsons (player option) will enter the max-contract discussion in this summer's cap climate, and Dallas' two most-used point guards, Raymond Felton and Deron Williams (player option), are set to hit the open market.

    Reinvesting in a 42-win team that's not on the younger side doesn't typically sit well. But this summer's free-agency pool isn't conducive to a full-fledged pivot, which doesn't leave the Mavericks much choice. They will eclipse $25 million in cap space if they turn Felton, David Lee and Zaza Pachulia loose, and the pressure to make something of Nowitzki's twilight still looms large.

    Parsons, for his part, has already started recruiting Dwight Howard (player option), according to ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. Dallas has struck out on all its blockbuster pursuits since 2012—including Howard in 2013—but continues to have the ear of household names, even if only temporarily (Hi, DeAndre Jordan).

    Beyond that, we just have to trust head coach Rick Carlisle's penchant for extracting the most possible production out of his point guards, whoever they are, and Nowitzki's timeless efficiency. The Mavericks are experts at piecing together playoff-bound stopgaps, and their offseason situation isn't grim enough to count on that changing.

15. Washington Wizards

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    This means exactly what you think it does: Despite hiring former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks to replace Randy Wittman, the Washington Wizards will not be bringing Kevin Durant home before next season. Sorry.

    If it's any consolation, though, their postseason hiatus should be short-lived. The Durant pipe dream is dead, but the Wizards remain perfectly positioned to make a splash in free agency.

    By renouncing the rights to every free agent not named Bradley Beal (restricted), Washington creates more than $25 million in breathing room. That's enough to land a meeting with any free agent who is taking meetings. From there, the Wizards' sales pitch writes itself.

    "Come play with a top-five point guard in John Wall! Beal has flamethrowers for hands and will be just 23! Otto Porter could maybe, quite possibly, if we're lucky, still turn into something! We think!"

    Upon handing out money to another star or, more preferably, multiple rotation players, Washington then goes over the cap to re-sign Beal. It's a near-infallible plan that can only be ruined by a lack of interest from outside talent.

    But in the event free agents aren't biting, the Wizards needn't fret. They still have one of the best backcourts in the NBA and posted a playoff-worthy net rating after the trade deadline. They'll be just fine—insofar as a low-level postseason berth is "just fine."

14. Houston Rockets

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    OK, so maybe there are two good-faith picks.

    The Houston Rockets do not deserve the benefit of the doubt after the season they just turned in. They went from making the Western Conference Finals in 2014-15 to absolutely imploding during the 2015-16 campaign.

    There are no ironclad signs the Rockets will come back from the dead next year either. Recently hired head coach Mike D'Antoni won't fix their bottom-10 defense, James Harden still needs another playmaker by his side and it would be an absolute shock if Dwight Howard returned to Houston.

    But Howard's presumed exit is part of the Rockets' offseason charm; his departure gives them around $30 million in cap space to burn. That number jumps past $40 million if restricted free agents Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas price themselves out of Houston.

    Superstar-obsessed general manager Daryl Morey is already salivating at the possibilities. "We're ready-made to add another star-level player," he told SiriusXM NBA Radio.

    The Rockets, naturally, have their sights set on Kevin Durant, according to Stein. Per Sporting News' Sean Deveney, they also have eyes for Al Horford. Those ambitions, plus plenty of flexibility, make them dangerous. 

    Failing a storied offseason, they still have a top-10 superstar in Harden playing for a coach who should help open up an isolation-heavy, albeit still potent, offensive attack.

13. Portland Trail Blazers

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    With a Cinderella 2015-16 crusade in the books, the Portland Trail Blazers must now balance their startling success against the rebuild they were supposed to undergo after last summer. That's no small task.

    The Blazers have to worry about suffering the same fate as the 2013-14 Suns and 2014-15 Bucks: A team hits the reset button, ostensibly gearing up for a protracted reconstruction, but explodes out of the gate way ahead of schedule. Seduced by this triumph, said team sinks inordinate amounts of time and money into preserving the present state, ultimately pigeonholing themselves to a roster that's more one-hit wonder than sustainable beacon.

    Restricted free agents Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless are due substantial raises, and C.J. McCollum will be extension-eligible. This happy-go-lucky situation could spiral out of control real quick. Or maybe not, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe explained back in March: 

    That worry is misplaced. [Neil] Olshey is a careful, patient GM who appears to operate with some degree of autonomy from ownership. He is not going to sign an expensive 33-year-old star to chase a mid-rung playoff seed next season. Olshey zooms in on targets that fit Lillard's age curve. He drafted Al-Farouq Aminu with the Clippers and lavished him with the first deal in free agency while everyone else chased stars.

    In other words, the Blazers won't funnel stacks of cash into a three-point guard rotation (Phoenix) and/or a big man who compromises their entire identity (Milwaukee). They have their undisputed star in Damian Lillard and can manufacture more than $20 million in cap space—before re-signing their restricted kiddies—by ditching Gerald Henderson (borderline hard), Chris Kaman (easy) and Brian Roberts (insert sad-face emoji).

    Given the deliberate circumstances under which these Blazers were formed, betting on them to at least tread water is a safe play.

12. Charlotte Hornets

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    Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford deserves all the credit in the world for reinventing his team's offense without compromising the defense. His troops closed 2015-16 top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, a feat reserved for the most elite squads.

    Mind you, this renaissance took place with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, one of the game's peskiest perimeter defenders, appearing in just seven games. His return next season should have the Hornets sitting pretty, their eyes fixated on a top-four playoff seed.

    But free agency could tear this group apart. Nicolas Batum, Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee, Jeremy Lin and Marvin Williams are all slated to investigate the open market, and there is no realistic scenario in which Charlotte retains all five.

    Batum, for the record, isn't going anywhere. The Hornets forfeited a top-10 prospect (Noah Vonleh) for him last summer. They don't do that for a player entering his contract year unless the plan is to re-sign him. Lee and Jefferson are far from locks to return, but the team does own their Bird rights. If they do leave, it's because the Hornets don't want to pay them.

    Lin and Williams are different stories. Charlotte doesn't have their full Bird rights. Their next contracts must be negotiated into cap space, which the Hornets won't have if they want to keep either Jefferson or Lee.

    Nevertheless, a core of Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker, who shot a career-best 37.1 percent from deep in 2015-16, can do some damage in the East. Assuming the Hornets hold on to one of their other primary free agents and don't abandon their new play style, an encore of last season should be in the cards.

11. Utah Jazz

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    Death, taxes and the Utah Jazz refusing to make any notable alterations to their (almost exclusively) homegrown core.

    The idea of an NBA team seemingly stuck in the middle choosing to remain idle isn't easy for many of us to grasp. The Jazz finished one game shy of a playoff berth and will have north of $22 million to spend in free agency. Why wouldn't they scour the open market with the goal of spending their way into a leap?

    Because they don't have to. 

    Each of the Jazz's four most-used lineups recorded net ratings better than most postseason squads. See for yourself:

    LineupNet RatingRank
    Favors - Gobert - Hayward - Hood - Neto7.23
    Favors - Gobert - Hayward - Hood - Mack9.4
    Favors - Hayward - Hood - Lyles - Neto10.3
    Gobert - Hayward - Hood - Lyles - Neto10.7

    Now that's just silly—especially when you consider the Jazz weren't at full strength for most of the season. Dante Exum (ACL) didn't even play, Alec Burks missed 51 games, Rudy Gobert amassed 21 absences and Trey Lyles wasn't fully unleashed until around December. 

    Utah, even left alone, should only get better next season.

10. Atlanta Hawks

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    Those who watched the Atlanta Hawks defense this season are not surprised to see them here, once again floating near the top of the Eastern Conference.

    It didn't matter that their 60-win magic from 2014-15 faded into a 48-victory slog. They owned the second-best defensive rating and paced the entire league in that department after the All-Star break. For a while, it looked like they might even be a tougher postseason out than the year before.

    That notion was blown to smithereens during a second-round sweep, but their swarming defensive sets remain a good regular-season springboard.

    This, of course, banks on the Hawks running it back next year, which they may not. They entertained blowing up the roster around the trade deadline, per ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz and Brian Windhorst, and have talked about a potential Nerlens Noel-for-Jeff Teague swap since the season ended, according to Shams Charania of The Vertical. 

    Kent Bazemore and Al Horford are both entering free agency, making Atlanta's next move that much harder to predict. Horford is 30 and in max-contract territory, while Bazemore (Early Bird rights) is due for a raise that will eat up all of the Hawks' cap flexibility.

    Staying on this treadmill of early playoff exits, then, is about to get costly—perhaps too costly. But the Hawks don't have any better options at their disposal. Retaining Bazemore and Horford at least allows them to milk their departures via trade should they ever opt for a teardown. In the meantime, they can continue vying for top-four status in the East.

9. Detroit Pistons

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    At first glance, this feels like an unattainable rise for the Detroit Pistons. They didn't rank top-10 in either offensive or defensive efficiency and limped their way into the playoffs with the net rating of a lottery team (-0.2).

    But coach-president Stan Van Gundy has them within striking distance of a transformation, a process accelerated by his pennies-on-the-dollar acquisition of Tobias Harris.

    Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Andre Drummond, Harris and Reggie Jackson outscored opponents by 4.4 points per 100 possessions when lining up together—the equivalent of the second-highest net rating in the Eastern Conference. It doesn't matter who their fifth wheel is; Detroit's nucleus is ready to compete now.

    All the Pistons need is a more consistent presence off the bench. Led by rookie Stanley Johnson, their second-unit contributors ranked in the bottom four of offensive and defensive efficiency, according to HoopsStats.com

    Fortunately for Detroit, Van Gundy has the cash to deepen his treasure chest. Drummond's restricted free-agent cap hold will sit under $8.2 million until he puts pen to paper on a new deal. That's more than $10 million short of what he'll actually be paid. So if Van Gundy renounces Steve Blake and Anthony Tolliver, then waives Joel Anthony, the Pistons will have north of $15 million to shell out in free agency.

    Tacking on that much flexibility to a starting five already on the cusp of upper-level playoff contention is enough to get the Pistons top-10 consideration.

8. Miami Heat

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    Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

    Part of you wants to write off the Miami Heat. Admit it.

    Dwyane Wade is 34. Chris Bosh's future has come under question in light of recurring blood clots. Goran Dragic didn't live up to the first season of his five-year, $90 million pact. Hassan Whiteside is speeding toward max(ish) money in free agency, likely forcing the Heat to choose between him and every other free agent not named Dwyane Wade.

    Miami's place among the East's contenders is anything but safe.

    And yet, the Heat are the squad that keeps on coming. They didn't fold when LeBron James left in 2014, and they're not about to start over now. Team president Pat Riley and his front office minions are cunning capologists: Squeezing Wade and Whiteside onto the books without jeopardizing future flexibility, while difficult to us mere mortals, won't be a problem for them.

    The Heat, more importantly, have unlocked a play style that doesn't demand the presence of both Bosh and Whiteside. The former's absence after the All-Star break compelled them to trot out smaller lineups. And they worked. Miami ranked sixth in offensive efficiency and eighth in defensive efficiency during that time.

    Losing one or both of Luol Deng and Joe Johnson does deplete the Heat's small-ball power forward ranks. But Justise Winslow, all of 20 years old, played some power forward in the postseason, and Bosh, if healthy, can space the floor enough to survive with Whiteside.

    Whatever happens this summer, the Heat shouldn't have much trouble picking up where the 2015-16 regular season left off.

7. Boston Celtics

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    All-Star point guard? Check.

    Should-have-been-an-All-Star wing (Jae Crowder)? Check.

    Soon-to-be perennial Coach of the Year contender? Check.

    Join the Thunder and Warriors as the only three teams to rank in the top 13 of offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and pace? Indeed.

    Three first-round draft picks? Affirmative. 

    Ability to drum up max-contract room in free agency? Yes. 

    Enough assets to trade for any star that becomes available? Yup.

    Destined to battle for the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed in 2016-17? Big. Fat. Check.

    These Boston Celtics are fun, fast, flexible and about to explode. Be sure to board their top-seven bandwagon before it leaves the station.

6. Toronto Raptors

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Two wins is all that separated the Toronto Raptors from an NBA Finals appearance, and what they have in place is sustainable. They've been building toward it for three years. There's no reason to divest our stock in them now.

    Bismack Biyombo's and DeMar DeRozan's forays into free agency bake a layer of uncertainty into the Raptors' offseason, but not enough to worry about them plummeting down the East's pecking order.

    Though Biyombo (non-Bird rights) will price himself out of Toronto unless the team offloads salary elsewhere, he won't be too difficult to replace. The Raptors have Jonas Valanciunas to jump center and can use the ninth pick in the draft to grab a pick-and-roll diver/shot-swatter/rebounder. If DeRozan walks, the combination of DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Norman Powell and Terrence Ross should be able to supplant most of his production.

    Not that the Raptors are resigned to these exits. General manager Masai Ujiri wants to retain both Biyombo and DeRozan, per Sportsnet's Eric Koreen. Even if that's unlikely, the preference to keep this band together implies next year's squad will mirror this past season's as much as possible.

    That's good news for Raptors fans. Their team fielded a top-five offense and was a heartbeat away from creeping into the top 10 of defensive efficiency. That's with Carroll missing 56 games. Just imagine what Toronto can do next season if it's fully healthy and still featuring an All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeRozan.

5. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Doc Rivers is a hypocrite. But only because he has to be.

    Here's what the Los Angeles Clippers coach and president said when talking with ESPN.com's Zach Lowe, then of Grantland, ahead of 2015-16: "We’re right on the borderline. I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work. We’re right at the edge. Oklahoma City is on the edge. Memphis, too. We just have to accept it."

    Ominous, right? Well, here's Rivers once again speaking with Lowe after his injury-ravaged Clippers were bounced from the first round: "I'm always gonna do what's good for the team. You don't ever do anything but that. But I feel like the best thing for the team right now is to keep them together. Can that change? Of course it can change. But I don't think it will."

    Can you blame him? This is one of those rare instances in which keeping together a perennial first- or second-round exit makes too much sense. This year in particular left much to be desired: Blake Griffin missed 47 games during the regular season, and then he and Chris Paul both suffered season-ending injuries in Game 4 of their first-round date with the Blazers.

    Selling off Griffin (or Paul) for a platter of prospects and role players doesn't necessarily portend improvement anyway. Los Angeles is already that good. Of the 99 four-man combinations to log at least 500 minutes in 2015-16, the quartet of Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Paul and J.J. Redick posted the sixth-best net rating, trailing only partnerships from Golden State and Oklahoma City. 

    The Clippers owe it to themselves to give this core another go.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    There is only one thing that could derail the Thunder's top-four standing: Kevin Durant bolting for greener pastures. Luckily for Oklahoma City, his return has never seemed more certain, if only because his most likely alternatives are no longer unequivocal upgrades.

    The Spurs? Durant's Thunder just beat them. The Warriors? Durant and crew almost unseated them, and the Cavaliers rendered them human in the NBA Finals. The Celtics? Perhaps, but they're a cut below Golden State and San Antonio. Plus, would Durant want to spend the next four years running into LeBron James every three seconds?

    Oklahoma City is home for Durant; He has Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook; Steven Adams went from specialist to two-way stud during the Western Conference Finals; Andre Roberson might have unearthed something resembling a three-point touch; Dion Waiters (restricted) has turned into a spot-up assassin.

    Most importantly, the Thunder are genuine championship contenders. They ranked third in net rating for 2015-16 and were one win away from successfully traversing the most difficult Finals path in NBA history.

    As long as Durant is in town, this team isn't going anywhere. Ibaka and Westbrook's free-agency jaunts will be an issue in 2017, but for now, the Thunder remain one of the league's few true powerhouses.

3. San Antonio Spurs

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    Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

    "The Spurs say they don’t know what [Tim] Duncan is going to do, but they are guessing he will walk away," wrote the San Antonio Express-NewsBuck Harvey. "And if they are right, they will miss him for many reasons other than his refusal to exchange insults on the basketball court."

    That is chilling to read. The thought of Duncan—and Manu Ginobili—calling it quits is unsettling. It's even more unnerving to admit San Antonio doesn't technically need them.

    To be certain, Duncan (rim protection) and Ginobili (crafty playmaking) can still help. But the Spurs do not rely on any one player to carry them, let alone a pair of ebbing veterans on the wrong side of 38. Consider that San Antonio outscored its opponents almost regardless of who was on or off the floor this season.

    It didn't matter if LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard or Duncan was on the bench, the Spurs were basically always a net plus.

    Think about that the next time you start doubting their place in the NBA's hierarchy. Most definitely think about how, despite their premature playoff exit, they still ended 2015-16 with the league's best net rating. Not the Cavaliers, Thunder or Warriors, but the Spurs.

    And with Aldridge and Leonard tied down for the long haul, there's nothing, including the ambiguous futures of Duncan and Ginobili, to suggest the Spurs can't do it all again in 2016-17.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Long after all the bubbly has been popped, but not before the high of winning an NBA title subsides, the Cavaliers will have some tough decisions to make.

    Can they afford to re-sign J.R. Smith (player option)? What about Matthew Dellavedova (restricted)? Do they bother paying Timofey Mozgov? Is it clear Kevin Love belongs in Cleveland?

    Does any of this matter?

    No, it doesn't matter what changes the Cavaliers roster undergoes over the offseason. They only need one player to stick around to stake their claim as the NBA's second-best team—the same player who willed them to a historic comeback against the Warriors, earning unanimous Finals MVP honors and all the legacy-related brownie points ever in the process: LeBron James.

    No, this is not hyperbole. It's just a fact, one James reiterated time and again. Just look at Cleveland's splits with and without him:

    CavaliersNet Rtg.Rank
    With LeBron (regular season)11.03
    Without LeBron (regular season)-5.427
    With LeBron (postseason)12.41
    Without LeBron (postseason)-5.810

    Through both the regular season and playoffs, James was the only player (minimum two appearances) whose absence left the Cavaliers a net negative. They outscored their opponents regardless of who was riding the pine, except when it came to him.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Squandering a 3-1 series lead in the Finals against the Cavaliers doesn't change everything for the Warriors. They may be short a ring, but looking ahead, they remain the NBA's best team. 

    Stephen Curry, the first-ever unanimous regular-season MVP, won't suddenly fall off the face of the Earth. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson still round out the league's best Big Three. Some variation of Golden State's Death Squad, perhaps the best lineup to ever grace the hardwood, will ride again.

    These Warriors, remember, did not win an Association-record 73 regular-season contests by accident. And it took a perfect storm of mistakes, injuries and LeBron James to derail their championship defense.

    If Green doesn't get suspended for Game 5, maybe there is no Game 6. If Andrew Bogut doesn't suffer a series-ending knee injury, or if Andre Iguodala isn't laboring through back issues in Games 6 and 7, perhaps Golden State would be clinging to the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

    In the end, things just didn't work out. Cleveland was the better team in the Finals, but Golden State figures to remain the best team overall—even if it loses Harrison Barnes and/or Festus Ezeli to restricted free agency or, much less likely, signs another star, such as Kevin Durant.

    Hell, these Warriors found the motivation to improve their record following a 67-win, championship-capturing 2014-15. The aftereffects of watching the Cavaliers cage a title that should have been theirs could be downright damning for the rest of the league.

    Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Bleacher Report's team-by-team salary-cap breakdown.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale. 

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