NBA Power Rankings: Stacking Up Each Team as 2016-17 Gets Started

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 14, 2016

NBA Power Rankings: Stacking Up Each Team as 2016-17 Gets Started

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    We're almost there. In less than two weeks, we'll have the genuine article: real NBA basketball games on which to judge the 30 teams we've been speculating about for months.

    Before that, we've got one last set of preseason power rankings to lay out.

    We'll note big risers and fallers since we last ranked. Despite the dearth of meaningful games since that post-free-agency list, we've had weeks of training camp, practices and some preseason action to inform the order. Just as important, we've had a chance to ruminate on some of the odd fits and key questions.

    In a few cases, a little more time to process the whole picture has resulted in movement. For some teams, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, devastating injuries have already cut the legs out from under promising futures.

    The ranking criteria remain simple: We're determining the NBA hierarchy as it exists in the moment, based off preseason performance, on-paper strengths and current injuries, roster choices, etc. We're living in the now, even as we look ahead eagerly to the start of the 2016-17 NBA season.

30. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 30

    One No. 30 ranking can feel different from another, and in the case of the Los Angeles Lakers, there's something more encouraging about bringing up the rear these days.

    Last year, L.A. was a tangled mess of crossed purposes and incongruent goals: Develop the youth, but prioritize Kobe Bryant's farewell tour. Expect growing pains, but get ready for Byron Scott's punitive emasculations.

    Things are just simpler now: The Lakers are rebuilding.

    Even if the presences of Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng don't quite square with the idea of starting over, having a pair of vets around for guidance isn't nearly as odd as an entire season of the Kobe circus.

    D'Angelo Russell will intermittently wow and infuriate, head coach Luke Walton will have his moments and rookie Brandon Ingram can work toward comfort off the bench. All of that will happen in an environment prepped and primed for a whole mess of losses. Lest we forget, L.A. owes a top-three-protected pick to the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2017 draft.

    The incentive to lose is significant.

    Failing is never fun, but at least the Lakers will do it with clear purpose this time.

29. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Rank: 28

    Philadelphia 76ers fans needed a prescription potent enough to numb the pain brought on by Ben Simmons' broken foot, and unbelievably, they got one.

    Joel Embiid is playing basketball against other basketball teams, and he's been the best analgesic imaginable.

    Dude is hitting threes, dunking, looking spry like Hakeem Olajuwon and buoying some nearly sunk spirits in the process. No, actually, not in the process…as The Process.

    That's what Embiid wants to be called, according to John Smallwood of the Philadelphia Daily News, which is—rough count—all varieties of awesome in the known universe. Embracing that nickname evinces self-awareness, a little bit of defiance and a willingness to lean into the pressure. Those are all good things.

    Embiid won't be ready to lead a team this year, and out of caution, he may not even be allowed to play major minutes. The Sixers will still be mostly bad.

    But Embiid offers hope at a time when they need it badly.

28. Brooklyn Nets

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 29

    The Simmons injury took the Sixers down a spot, though you could argue the impact of his absence won't be all that significant. Never forget: Most rookies produce below replacement level.

    Still, the Brooklyn Nets benefit by hopping up to 28th.

    The idea that Jeremy Lin will run the show under Kenny Atkinson, who was part of the New York Knicks coaching staff that unleashed Linsanity, is at least intriguing. Brook Lopez will score, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offers big-picture hope and there's no incentive to tank because the Nets don't have the rights to their first-rounder.

    That's not to say Brooklyn will be any good. But there's a loud chorus out there saying it'll be the worst team in the league.

    Bold prediction: Somebody (maybe two or three somebodies!) will win fewer games than Brooklyn this season.

27. Phoenix Suns

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 27

    Tracking high-fives may not lead the Phoenix Suns to the postseason (or the top half of the league, for that matter), but there are worse ideas for a team looking to build the kind of culture its many young players will need to flourish.

    Hand-slapping has been a factor in the success of past Suns squads. So it's worth a shot, right?

    Eric Bledsoe is healthy after missing 51 games with injury last year, and head coach Earl Watson likes the look of his best player. "I've seen a different person in Bled," Watson told reporters. "His spirit, his character, his transparency and just as a basketball player. He grew."

    Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Devin Booker give Phoenix one of the most exciting cores in the league (among those likely to peak sometime around 2021). Alex Len could take a step after showing flashes last year, and there are still some useful vets: Tyson Chandler, Brandon Knight and Jared Dudley.

    The Suns will absolutely be better than they were a year ago; Bledsoe's presence on the floor assures that. But Watson spent his interim tenure making some questionable strategic choices, so he's got a few things to prove in his first full season. Health is also an issue, and there will be growing pains with the kids.

    Phoenix will be fun in some spurts, face-palmingly bad in others, but generally much more watchable than it was in 2015-16.

26. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Rank: 22

    The full-court press hasn't found a foothold in the NBA for a reason.

    For a lot of reasons, actually.

    It's exhausting, opposing ball-handlers are too good to fluster and it tends to surrender easy buckets when broken. Implementing a press at any level above college, then, feels like something of a desperate tactic.

    But when you lose Khris Middleton for six months, sometimes you get desperate.

    "We're working on it in the preseason, but we're looking to see if that's something we can use, especially when we're talking about our length," Bucks head coach Jason Kidd said, per Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

    Kidd's right in that respect: The Bucks are crazy long.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker, John Henson, even Michael Carter-Williams—ranginess like that could make for a functional press. Maybe this will help, and maybe it won't. But it's encouraging that the Bucks are looking for alternative (if unconventional) paths forward, because losing Middletonthe team's best shooter and most irreplaceable playeris devastating.

    Milwaukee drops four spots without him.

25. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 26

    Giving up draft picks and adding vets at market (or worse) rates put the New Orleans Pelicans on the mediocrity treadmill, which was no place for a team with Anthony Davisa big-picture star worthy of building around deliberately if ever there was one.

    So the soft reset, marked by middling signings and an emphasis on youth, makes sense for the Pels. They didn't give up picks or overspend to keep a ho-hum core together.

    Unfortunately, the team that'll take the floor this season still won't make the most of Davis, who'll find himself doing more heavy lifting than he should, per Sean Deveney of Sporting News: "[Head coach Alvin] Gentry wanted to relieve some pressure from Davis. As it stands, the Pelicans will only be adding pressure on him to do pretty much everything offensively."

    Jrue Holiday is out indefinitely; Tyreke Evans may not return until December; both Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are gone; Solomon Hill can help, but he's hardly a creator.

    Davis, who took a step back defensively last season, must anchor the offense and captain affairs on the other end. Those are the kinds of things you can ask from superstars, but it's generally a good idea to give them at least a little help.

    Oh, and the injury parade has already started. Again.

24. Sacramento Kings

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    Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Rank: 25

    The Sacramento Kings added a handful of real NBA players this offseason, filling out a roster that had been undermanned and misdirected for many seasons.

    The result has been a newfound versatility. Even if many of the available playing styles and personnel groupings may not be ideal, at least they're there.

    As an example, the Kings have toyed with speedy two-point guard lineups this preseason, slotting Darren Collison alongside Ty Lawson. The kind of tempo that comes with a unit like that doesn't necessarily make sense since DeMarcus Cousins is so suited to a slower pace, but it illustrates the broader array of options available this year.

    Sacramento remains a bottom-10 club for now because it has yet to prove the roster and coaching changes will erase years of chaotic ownership and personnel turnover.

    The benefit of the doubt just isn't there, but this is a team that should be improved, with an outside shot at 40 wins and real respectability.

23. New York Knicks

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Rank: 23

    Just for a moment, put aside concerns about how the New York Knicks are building a roster around Kristaps Porzingis that makes no sense.

    Ideally, New York would be adding talent in Zinger's age range so the developmental curve could be a collective one. Instead, the Knicks have Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, who might lead to short-term success.

    Or…they might not.

    Per John Schuhmann of NBA.com: "Among 153 players who have taken at least 350 shots in the restricted area over the last two years, Rose (50.4 percent) and Noah (47.6 percent) rank 149th and 153rd in field-goal percentage there."

    With glaring ineffectiveness like that, it's difficult to be certain the big-name additions can make enough of a difference in the near term to offset the mistake of ignoring the more distant future.

    A playoff spot is possible in New York's absolute best-case scenario outcome this year, but it's tough to get excited about a ceiling like that when it postpones the real rebuild for another season.

22. Miami Heat

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 16

    Leave it to Miami Heat president Pat Riley to admit his diminished expectations in one breath and then rail against the idea of conceding in the next.

    "We're rebuilding now," he said, per Ethan Skolnick of CBSSports.com. "We're not tweaking, like we did with the Big Three team. Or retooling, like we had to do right after LeBron [James] left. We're rebuilding, but we're rebuilding to win now."

    This is the jumbo shrimp of oxymoronic preseason proclamations. By definition, rebuilding isn't about winning now, but it's on-brand for Riley to warp team construction norms like this. To his credit, the Heat's young pieces are playoff-tested and may be ready to improve and seek short-term success better than most.

    Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson share advanced instincts and rarely looked like unseasoned talents last year. Hassan Whiteside as a leader is a scary thought, but maybe Goran Dragic has the veteran clout to keep him and the rest of the roster in line.

    Miami slips because it won't have Chris Boshan 11-time All-Star whose presence probably would have led to a playoff berth. The Heat can build and be respectable without him (like Riley suggests), but they won't threaten any of the Eastern Conference's top teams.

21. Orlando Magic

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 21

    There's a future scenario in which the Frank Vogel-led Orlando Magic ride one of the half-dozen best defenses to 43 wins and a playoff berth.

    It's just one of many possible futures, of course, but the offseason additions of Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo suggest the Magic are doing what they can to make it a reality. Already short on shot creation, losing Victor Oladipo in the Ibaka deal hurt, but there's something to be said for choosing a clear identity and committing.

    The Magic want to dominate on D.

    "Why not? I think so because we have players who can play defense and can be used a lot of different ways," Ibaka told John Denton of Magic.com. "We just have to work together to bring all of those talents together to be one of the NBA's best defensive teams."

    Aaron Gordon should be playing power forward, but he won't get to do much in a crowded frontcourt. That's mostly an offensive problem, though. On D, his length at the 3 (alongside Ibaka and Biyombo) creates a bramble of snaking arms.

    There will be nights when it is impossible to navigate the lane or throw a pass that isn't tipped against Orlando.

    The Magic will probably struggle to score, and all this defensive greatness remains theoretical. But there's a way forward here.

20. Denver Nuggets

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 24

    Two things can be equally true: Kenneth Faried can be rejuvenated and happy and productive, and the Denver Nuggets can be looking to move him.

    In the same way, a starting gig in the preseason can be as much an acknowledgement of Faried's hard work as it can be a trade showcase.

    "I'm going to have that energy, that excitement and that love for the game," Faried told Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post. "That's what I'm going to do every single night."

    The Nuggets have a glut of big men and two stretch-4 candidates in Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, a combination that makes Faried's outdated game hard to integrate. Energy and rebounding are always valuable, but the Nuggets probably don't want to utilize Faried's best skills in a starting (or, more importantly, a closing) role.

    Better to trust some combination of Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Gallinari and Chandler—particularly since the modern game prizes passing, defense and spacing from big men.

    Keeping Faried is a fine Plan B; he can contribute to a Nuggets team looking to chase a .500 record. But if there's a decent return out there—one that could bring back an asset with a clearer role—Denver's upside could be even higher.

19. Chicago Bulls

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 18

    The more you think about this Chicago Bulls roster, the trickier it gets to find an identity.

    Maybe having a defining characteristic is overrated, but think of it like this: How do the Bulls intend to win games? Will they do it on offense or defense?

    If they address the spacing concerns that come with a Rajon Rondo-Dwyane Wade backcourt by starting Nikola Mirotic at power forward (and using Doug McDermott in that role off the bench), how are they ever going to stop anyone?

    Rondo and Wade haven't been plus defenders for years, and Robin Lopez is a so-so rim protector inside. Jimmy Butler can't guard everyone.

    Maybe Taj Gibson should see more time at the 4. He competes on D. That's good, right? Except then your spacing's ruined again.

    Getting the mix right will be a huge challenge for head coach Fred Hoiberg, who has lots of talented options to choose from but none that fit perfectly. There may be no way to field a lineup that plays both ends well, which ties in to a broader issue with the Bulls: They may not be above average on either end of the court.

    That's how you wind up ranked 19th.

18. Washington Wizards

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    Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Rank: 20

    John Wall finally saw some preseason action, which is encouraging for the Washington Wizards' prospects.

    With Wall, they're capable of winning a playoff series or two. Without him, things tend to go sideways. According to NBA.com, taking Wall off the floor resulted in Washington's getting outscored by four points per 100 possessions last season.

    No other Wizard's off-court net rating was lower.

    Keeping Wall on the floor may be the hard part. Though he's back in game action now, he had two knee surgeries over the offseason, one of which was serious, as Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post reported in May: "The right knee procedure—known as an arthroscopic lavage—is considered routine and relatively minor, but the operation on the left knee would've sidelined Wall for months had he undergone it during the season."

    For now, we'll cautiously presume Wall's wheels hold up. That guess, combined with declining faith in the Bulls and Heat, helps move Washington up a couple of spots.

17. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Rank: 15

    Is this too high for the Minnesota Timberwolves? I dropped them two spots from last time.

    It's still too high, isn't it? Yeah, it's high.

    But look, we've got all season to come down from a summer spent thinking about Karl-Anthony Towns' becoming a superstar and Tom Thibodeau's producing a top-half defense immediately. Let's just enjoy this for now.

    Let's also appreciate Ricky Rubio a little bit. Schuhmann wrote for NBA.com:

    Rubio's presence on the floor has long had a positive impact on the Wolves' defensive numbers. Last season, his impact on the offense was clearer. Minnesota scored 112.3 points per 100 possessions in 904 minutes with Rubio on the floor with their young trio of [Zach] LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. But in the 286 minutes in which those three played without Rubio, they scored just 98.3 points per 100 possessions.

    Wiggins may not be ready for stardom like many expect, LaVine has to prove his second-half shooting is real, Towns must make the theoretical leap a reality, Thibodeau's magic has to take hold and plenty of other things need to happen for the Timberwolves to give us the playoff contender we so desperately want to see.

    It could happen, but this team is so young, and questions abound.

16. Dallas Mavericks

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Rank: 17

    Maybe it's just foolish reverence for the past, but there's something worth honoring about the Dallas Mavericks' time-tested ability to hold it together.

    Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes aren't perfect players, but they can help Dallas—especially on defense. Despite an unwillingness to hunt his own looks, Bogut could also juice the Mavs offense.

    "He's really an unusual playmaker at the center position on offense—a really amazing feel for the game," head coach Rick Carlisle told reporters.

    The bench is sketchy, but Carlisle always figures something out. Dirk Nowitzki may get slower every year until he's totally immobile, but he'll always be able to hit a shot.

    Disaster potential is real for the Mavs: Dirk could become virtually unplayable, injuries could crop up and the dearth of athleticism could pose a major problem.

    This is a team that could miss the playoffs.

    But if you're comparing the experience and know-how of the Mavericks against the potential of the Timberwolves, it's hard to make a case that the latter is the better team until we see definitive proof. The difference between spots No. 16 and 17 on this list is almost nil, but this is a nice way of showing Dallas a little respect.

15. Indiana Pacers

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 19

    The Indiana Pacers are up a full four spots from the last set of rankings, but that has as much to do with waning faith in the Bulls, Mavericks and Wizards as anything else.

    Indy's summer remains puzzling.

    Until evidence arises to the contrary (in the form of wins), it will continue to seem like the Pacers made lateral offseason moves. Jeff Teague in place of George Hill is a defense-for-offense exchange that will create issues when either Teague or Monta Ellis has to guard a bigger wing. Thaddeus Young can score inside, but Solomon Hill would have offered better spacing and more versatility.

    Ian Mahinmi is gone after a fantastic defensive season, and Myles Turner may not be ready to control the restricted area in his place.

    Paul George is great, and the outline of a high-scoring team is visible here. But as it stands now, Indiana looks like a seventh or eighth seed in the East, which isn't any better than last year.

14. Detroit Pistons

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    Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Rank: 13

    The one guy who just couldn't go down is down.

    The Detroit Pistons' Reggie Jackson will miss six to eight weeks after undergoing platelet-rich plasma injections in his left knee and right thumb.

    Straits aren't as dire as they would have been last year when Steve Blake was Jackson's backup, but the presence of Ish Smith merely takes this news from catastrophic to really, really bad.

    Jackson is a key creator, the pick-and-roll conductor in an offense designed to function around that basic set, even if he isn't great defensively or as a spacer.

    But he's a lot better than Smith.

    If Jackson comes back healthy and looks like the guy who averaged over 18 points and six assists per game last year, the Pistons could still push toward a 50-win ceiling. If he's sidelined longer or doesn't look like himself when he returns, Detroit may not better its total of 44 victories from 2015-16. The uncertainty costs the Pistons some ground here.

13. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    LLUIS GENE/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 14

    Bumped up by virtue of Detroit's slight slide, the Oklahoma City Thunder remain a team with major offensive question marks—which is a strange thing to say with Russell Westbrook in charge. (After a shaky preseason showing in Spain, let's not overlook the possibility of issues on the other end too.)

    Spacing is going to be a problem without Ibaka or Kevin Durant, though the Thunder could make up for a clogged lane and wayward perimeter shots by destroying everyone on the offensive glass. This is a remarkably athletic and physical group, and the Enes Kanter-Steven Adams combo proved its board-hoarding mettle in the playoffs.

    Anyway, Russ doesn't care.

    The physical tools are overwhelming: Led by Westbrook, Oladipo, Kanter, Adams and even Andre Roberson, there's enough skill and strength to overwhelm many opponents. Nearly as many foes will take advantage of a roster that lacks facilitation depth and shooting.

    That makes the upper middle of the pack a good spot for the Thunder.

12. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 9

    Chandler Parsons hasn't played a preseason minute for the Memphis Grizzlies, and the timetable for his return from yet another knee surgery remains uncertain.

    Geoff Calkins of the Commercial Appeal explains why this is no small problem: "Parsons is the three-point shooter who spreads the floor for everyone else. Parsons is the reason it makes sense to slide Zach Randolph to the second unit. Parsons is the secondary ball-handler who takes pressure off [Mike] Conley. Parsons is the stretch 4 when the Grizzlies want to go small."

    Marc Gasol and Conley have their own injury histories to worry about, and though they're the Grizzlies' best players, they might not be the most important.

    For the reasons Calkins suggests, Parsons probably is.

    When you combine the giant shrug that is his return date (not to mention the rust or athletic decline that might accompany it) on top of an aging core with loads of health questions, you've got a spectrum of possibilities ranging from 30 to 50 wins.

    Volatility like that warrants some caution. As a result, Memphis drops a bit.

11. Atlanta Hawks

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 8

    Dwight Howard changed teams this offseason, so he's talking about new beginnings, shifting narratives and wanting to be held accountable.

    This is what happens when Howard arrives at a new destination—the rote process of insisting he's ready to take things seriously. The other thing that also happens, eventually, every time he arrives at a new spot?

    He leaves on less than great terms.

    ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon leads off his Q&A of Howard as an Atlanta Hawk with this: "He doesn't think it's fair or accurate that many consider him a bad teammate and an underachieving goofball who doesn't care enough about his craft to fully take advantage of his immense physical gifts."

    Those immense physical gifts could help the Hawks defend and rebound better than they did with Al Horford in the middle. They could inject new elements into Atlanta's makeup. The goofball stuff—along with the perennial demand for post touches and an aversion to pick-and-roll basketball—could make this thing turn out another way.

    A worse way.

    The Hawks will definitely be different. They'd better pray Howard is too.

10. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 12

    Atlanta's questionable reliance on Howard is a factor in moving the Hawks behind the Portland Trail Blazers, but so is my gradual acceptance that while the Blazers have real questions, it's reasonable to believe they can duplicate what they did a year ago.

    First, the questions: Can Evan Turner really fit on a team defined by two guards who thrive with the ball? Can the defense hold up without much bulk or point-of-attack resistance from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum? Can McCollum sustain outlandish accuracy rates from the tough mid-range area?

    Hard to say, right?

    Portland must hope its certain assets—All-Star-level play from Lillard, Terry Stotts' offensive excellence and switchy wings Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless—outweigh the hazier elements of its makeup.

    Putting the Blazers in the top 10 is an indication there's more to trust than there is to doubt.

9. Houston Rockets

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 10

    There's room to disagree about the wisdom of the Houston Rockets' outscore-you-at-all-costs approach this season, but after some thought, I've decided it's endearing.

    There's a refreshing unabashedness to it—almost a "these go to 11" quality.

    If you have James Harden and you hire Mike D'Antoni, you're just fighting against the current of caring about defense. So by adding Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, the Rockets just embraced what they were. Maybe they won't lead the league in scoring, but it's almost impossible to imagine they'll finish outside the top five.

    It's also entirely reasonable to expect a bottom-10 defense, and the Rockets themselves have to know their success will depend almost entirely on putting up 120 points for every 115 they surrender.

    Most likely, that approach will set Houston's ceiling somewhere short of serious contention. But the Rockets project to be a little better and a lot more interesting than they were a year ago.

8. Charlotte Hornets

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    Danny Bollinger/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 11

    The Charlotte Hornets will be different.

    ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote: "Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams are coming off career seasons; Williams transformed almost out of nowhere into a 40 percent three-point shooter with some off-the-bounce juice. If any of the three decline, the Hornets could have some trouble squeezing out buckets."

    Betting on repeat career years is a sucker's game, but even if you price in offensive regression from those three, the Hornets might still be better than they were in 2015-16.

    Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's return and (to a much lesser extent) Roy Hibbert's arrival will help Charlotte define itself with defense.

    The Hornets ranked ninth in both offensive and defensive efficiency last season, per NBA.com, so a scoring slip to, say, 12th won't matter much if the D moves into the top five. That's a distinct possibility with MKG healthy and Hibbert's offering spot minutes of reliable rim protection—something Charlotte hasn't had in a long time.

    Think of the Hornets as the reverse Pacers; they swapped offense for defense in what feels like a personnel-move wash. The difference is Charlotte won 48 games last year, so its baseline is higher.

7. Toronto Raptors

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    Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Rank: 7

    If DeMarre Carroll looks more like the Atlanta version of himself (and he stays healthy for a full season), you could argue his contributions will offset the loss of Biyombo. Though Carroll won't defend the rim or rebound like the Toronto Raptors' former backup center, he can do other things (defend a few positions, hit open threes, move the ball) that might be worth just as much.

    In the same way, you can mitigate concerns about whether Kyle Lowry will duplicate the best season of his career by remembering he'll be extra motivated to do exactly that in a contract year. The same goes for the DeMar DeRozan-Norman Powell situation: The former may not perform like he did a year ago, but the latter has a chance to be much better as he steps into a bigger role.

    So, like the Hornets, the Raptors can achieve similar ends via different means.

    It's possible Lowry and DeRozan regress too much for that to happen, and there are real questions about the interior defense as long as Jonas Valanciunas is the anchor.

    But barring total disaster, it's hard to see a way for the Raptors to finish lower than fourth in the East; Another No. 2 seed and a win total in the 50s is very much in play.

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Rank: 6

    The Los Angeles Clippers won 53 games last year as Blake Griffin missed almost 60 percent of the season. Even if you think his physical tools will be diminished after yet another offseason surgery, and even if you're sure this is the year Chris Paul slips a little, it remains difficult to project a win total below 50.

    DeAndre Jordan is reliable, in his prime and coming off a strong Olympic performance. Alan Anderson is better than any small forward the Clippers used last year. Marreese Speights will take over at least five fourth quarters with delightful scoring outbursts. The rest of the supporting cast is roughly the same, though Cole Aldrich will be missed.

    Maybe it feels like damning with faint praise, but the Clippers are fine.

    Basically, you have to project worst-case results in the injury and age-related decline departments to keep them from ranking among the half-dozen best teams in the league.

    A championship may be unrealistic, but that's been true for most of L.A.'s run with Paul. We're in for another season of the Clippers' playing elite offense, defending well and winning a playoff series.

    Sorry if that bores you.

5. Boston Celtics

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    Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Rank: 5

    The Boston Celtics are a good foil for the Clippers.

    Their young roster is on an upward climb, whereas L.A.'s established vets are maintaining a sort of plateau. Instead of adding talent on the fringes, the Celtics grabbed a star in Horford.

    Putting Boston ahead of the Clips is about valuing potential and progress over an established high level of play. Maybe that's a dangerous way to go about this, but it's more fun.

    Instead of thinking about how a team can hold on, with the Celtics we're thinking about how a team can rise. CBSSports.com's James Herbert highlights one of the guys who could fuel that ascent:

    Turner's departure means that [Marcus] Smart has a chance to lead the second unit. Beyond being much stronger than the average guard, Smart is beloved in Boston for his competitiveness and fearless defense. This is a player who defended Kristaps Porzingis despite being almost a full foot shorter than him during a regular-season game, then drew the challenge of slowing down a red-hot Paul Millsap in the playoffs (and succeeded!).

    Boston is going to defend at a top-five rate, and Horford fills many of the gaps in its offense, creating a balance that could lead to a gaudy win total and a conference finals appearance.

4. Utah Jazz

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 4

    The contrarianism is natural: Think long enough about how great the Utah Jazz should be this season, see that same thinking everywhere you turn, and you start to question yourself.

    Maybe the Jazz can't stay healthy. Gordon Hayward's broken finger and Derrick Favors' knee soreness might be the first tumbling rocks in yet another avalanche of injuries.

    Maybe expecting 50-plus wins and home-court advantage in the first round is a bit much for a core that hasn't made the postseason yet. Maybe it'll be too hard to score with Rudy Gobert and Favors on the court together—even with George Hill running the show and Rodney Hood bombing away.

    Resist this urge, this temptation to overthink the obvious.

    Utah is stupidly talented, young in most places and experienced where it matters. Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson have done plenty of winning in their careers; they'll help guide the kids. The Jazz profile as one of the best defenses around as long as Gobert is on the floor, and the Hill-Dante Exum duo at point guard is miles better than what the Jazz got from that critical spot last year.

    Trust the numbers, your gut and your eyes. Utah is going to be good.

3. San Antonio Spurs

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 3

    Swapping out Tim Duncan for Pau Gasol has to impact the San Antonio Spurs defense, which was the league's best by 2.2 points per 100 possessions in 2015-16, per NBA.com.

    But the Spurs would have had the best defense in the league if we measured them only in the minutes Duncan sat, and Gasol figures to improve the offense a bit with his passing and mid-range shooting. So let's not equate Duncan's exit—major bummer that it is—with the end of the Spurs.

    If Tony Parker loses another step, Kawhi Leonard's offensive game regresses a bit and San Antonio's questionable depth becomes an issue...this is still a team fully capable of securing the second seed in the Western Conference.

    The culture is too strong, Leonard's stardom is too assured and the track record of success is too long to expect anything more than a slight decline.

    Don't be surprised if another 60-win season is in the offing.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Rank: 2

    The defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers will go as far as their iconic star forward can carry them, and let me tell you, Mike Dunleavy looks great, so…

    Yeah, this is about LeBron James.

    All reports are that he is breathing, walking upright and still employed by the Cavs. That makes them the second-best team in the league until proven otherwise.

    Plenty of people will clamor for Cleveland at No. 1—shouting something about a blown 3-1 lead by some other team—but the Cavs have to settle for second, even with the ring.

    With J.R. re-signed and the book closed on a long offseason of contractual updates, Boston will have a tougher time trying to get frisky enough to make things interesting in the East's regular-season race.

    Truly, the Cavs fear no one in their conference and probably aren't at all flustered by the idea of meeting our top-ranked team in a third consecutive Finals.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Previous Rank: 1

    Justifying the Golden State Warriors' spot here remains profoundly uncomplicated.

    Even if the Dubs had returned the exact same roster from last year, they would have warranted the top ranking. Finals collapse notwithstanding, the roster's relative youth compared to Cleveland's (the Cavs are the league's oldest team by average age) makes sustaining 2015-16 levels of performance likelier.

    Losing Barnes, Bogut, Speights and Festus Ezeli from the rotation has created the myth that the team's depth is a question mark. But the Warriors added Durant, David West and Zaza Pachulia to the rotation.

    Tell me again how many other NBA squads have three reserves as good as Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala and West. Meanwhile, second-rounder Patrick McCaw is drawing raves, so it's not a stretch to argue the Warriors may be deeper this year than last.

    But we're getting out into the weeds on this.

    Explaining the No. 1 spot is easy: Add Durant to a historically good team, and you're tops.

    No questions asked.

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