NBA Power Rankings Post-Free Agency

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 19, 2019

NBA Power Rankings Post-Free Agency

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    OK, what just happened?

    That seismic shift you just felt on the NBA landscape? That was one of the wildest months in NBA history shaking up your favorite team; your parents' favorite team; your uncle's favorite team; heck, even the cat's favorite team.

    Even All-NBA teams weren't safe. Six of the 15 players selected for those honors will play in different cities next season.

    We've never seen turnover like this before.

    And what's left in the wake of the Toronto Raptors' first title, the toppling of the Golden State Warriors dynasty and a whirlwind free-agency period is a level of parity the NBA hasn't seen in years.

    According to FiveThirtyEight's statistical projection, two teams (the Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets) have a better-than-20-percent chance to win the title. The Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks are both over 10 percent. In total, nine teams have at least a 2 percent shot at winning it all. And Philly leads the way at just 28 percent.

    The same model gave the Warriors a 49 percent shot at the outset of 2018-19. It was 39 the year before.

    And that's just one way of looking at the new NBA. Take a stroll around the internet, and you'll find a number of different teams leading power rankings.

    There are various arguments for various orders. But here, the endeavor is more about the tiers. These teams are so close right now. And it's easier to lump them into groups than make definitive statements at each of 30 spots.

    They'll still be ranked that way. Because, of course, these are power rankings. Just expect loads of fluctuation this season. Things could change on a night-to-night basis. For fans of the league, that should be exciting.

The Tank Is Coming

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    30. Cleveland Cavaliers

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 21

    There is some intriguing talent in Cleveland right now.

    Collin Sexton's 40.2 three-point percentage exceeded expectations after he hit only 33.6 percent of his treys in college. Darius Garland projects as a good scorer alongside Sexton. Dylan Windler can shoot the lights out. Cedi Osman has some point forward potential. Kevin Love and Larry Nance are still around.

    Still, it feels like this team is a couple years away from competitiveness. FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO projection system predicts Sexton, Garland and Osman will post negative wins above replacement.

    If and when Love is traded to a winning team, those three will be expected to carry even more responsibility. 


    29. New York Knicks

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 23

    New York has one of the NBA's most underrated young prospects.

    In 2018-19, Mitchell Robinson posted a 5.7 box plus/minus. Michael Jordan, David Robinson and Chris Paul are the only rookies in NBA history who logged at least 1,000 minutes and posted higher box plus/minuses.

    His CARMELO projection for wins above replacement pegs him as a borderline top-50 player for 2019-20.

    The rest of the roster, though. Whoo-wee...

    Kevin Knox is coming off one of the worst rookie campaigns in NBA history. RJ Barrett will probably take some time to develop.

    And when the team whiffed on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, they added a mishmash of veterans, including four power forwards (Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson and Marcus Morris) who inspire little confidence for immediate success.


    28. Charlotte Hornets

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 26

    The Hornets didn't just let Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, their top two scorers last season, go for nothing. That would've been enough to earn poor marks for this free-agency period.

    But no, they then replaced them with Terry Rozier (for a shocking $56.7 million over three years) and...checks notes...Robert Franks?

    Rozier won't be a negative, but he also won't be worth $56.7 million. And veteran savvy from Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller may help eek out a few wins.

    But altogether, this looks like a mess. Perhaps Miles Bridges and Malik Monk will show enough to get fans excited about the future.


    27. Washington Wizards

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 32

    The Wizards may have had more turnover than people realize. Trevor Ariza, Jeff Green, Dwight Howard, Jabari Parker, Bobby Portis and Tomas Satoransky are gone (and that last one is big).

    In their place? The players from the Lakers' salary dump, Davis Bertans and rookie Rui Hachimura, among others.

    Bertans should help right away. He spaces the floor and isn't afraid to let it fly from just about anywhere. Hachimura is a question mark, but on a roster full of those, he'll be asked to contribute right away.

    And with John Wall still recovering from a ruptured Achilles, Bradley Beal will once again be called upon to fill a massive offensive role.

    If things go south in a hurry, would Washington consider moving its only player with real trade value?

    "For now," the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson tweeted, "Wizards have rejected all trade overtures on Beal, a potential 2021 free agent."

    If Michael Porter Jr. shows some things in Denver, would a package of him, Gary Harris, filler and picks get the Wizards to budge?

    If so, Washington could join a midseason race to the bottom of the standings.

Trending Up

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    26. Phoenix Suns

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 36

    Ricky Rubio's lack of shooting proved problematic alongside a ball-dominant wing in Donovan Mitchell. When Mitchell had the rock, defenders simply weren't concerned with helping out to Rubio, instead crowding the lane on drives.

    So, of course, the Suns saw fit to pair their own rising star with Rubio.

    As you can see, stats may be a little higher on the fit than yours truly. It's just hard not to envision the same spacing issues that plagued the Utah Jazz when Rubio played.

    That doesn't mean Phoenix didn't get better, though. Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges should be improved. Dario Saric is a nice fit next to Ayton.

    But going from 19 wins to 36 feels like too big a leap.


    25. Atlanta Hawks

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 28

    The Hawks will rely heavily on youth this season. They may not start games with it, but the all-youngster lineup of Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, De'Andre Hunter and John Collins should lead to some #LeaguePassAlerts.

    They'll have their growing pains, particularly on defense, but the more they go through this season, the better off they'll be down the road.

    The Young/Collins pick-and-roll alone makes this a team worth watching, even if they haven't quite figured out how to win at this level.


    24. Memphis Grizzlies

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 35

    Memphis is another team that's just loaded with young talent. And Brandon Clarke inexplicably falling all the way to No. 21 might give the Grizzlies the league's most intriguing young frontcourt.

    "Clarke plays with breathtaking bounce on both ends of the floor, and knows how to deploy it effectively and efficiently," SB Nation's Ricky O'Donnell wrote of the NBA Summer League MVP. "He thrives scoring around the basket as the dive man in the pick-and-roll and thinks a step ahead of everyone else defensively."

    Because of the presence of Jonas Valanciunas, we may not see a ton of Clarke alongside Jaren Jackson, Jr., but that's Memphis' future. And it's bright.

    Those two alongside Ja Morant and Kyle Anderson is an analytically tantalizing young core.


    23. Chicago Bulls

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 37

    The Bulls added a couple veterans in Satoransky and Thaddeus Young that almost bumped them to the next tier (spoiler alert: playoff contenders). And, in the East, Chicago finishing in the top eight wouldn't be shocking.

    Like the other teams on this slide, the most interesting players on the roster are young. Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White probably need another year or two of seasoning together.

    In the meantime, lineups with Satoransky, Young, Zach LaVine and Otto Porter Jr. will give opponents plenty of headaches.

Playoff Contenders, Part I

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    22. San Antonio Spurs

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 38

    The Spurs defied convention again last year, finishing 30th in the NBA in three-point attempts per game. And this summer, they traded one of their few floor spacers, Bertans, to the Wizards.

    With LaMarcus Aldridge a year older, is this the season the three-point-averse Spurs are finally caught? They haven't missed the postseason since 1997.


    21. Detroit Pistons

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 36

    Luka Doncic, Draymond Green, James Harden and Jason Kidd are the only players in NBA history who had individual campaigns in which they matched or exceeded Blake Griffin's 2018-19 rebounding percentage, assist percentage and three-point attempt rate.

    Sort that list by height, and Griffin has an advantage of at least three inches on everyone.

    On a roster so challenged for shooting everywhere else, Griffin will have to stay healthy and be about as brilliant to get Detroit back to the postseason.


    20. Oklahoma City Thunder

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 41

    "The Oklahoma City Thunder's discussions to move nine-time All-Star guard Chris Paul to a new destination are parked, and an increasing expectation exists that he will start the season with the team," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski wrote.

    If Paul plays out the 2019-20 campaign in OKC, this team could be feistier than some expect.

    Paul could be motivated to prove his value ahead of the trade deadline; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander showed loads of potential as a rookie last season; Andre Roberson is one of the league's best defenders when healthy; Danilo Gallinari is among the league's top offensive players; and Steven Adams brings a toughness few can match.


    19. Sacramento Kings

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 33

    After a breakout sophomore campaign, De'Aaron Fox should be even better in his third season. Buddy Hield may have a little developing yet to do, as well. Plus, he's in a contract year.

    Throw in Bogdan Bogdanovic, Marvin Bagley III, Harry Giles, Harrison Barnes and newly signed Dewayne Dedmon and Cory Joseph, and it's tough to buy the drop-off forecast by FiveThirtyEight.


    18. Miami Heat

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 44

    Adding Jimmy Butler will help, but the gains may not overwhelm the losses. Josh Richardson, Hassan Whiteside and Dwyane Wade have all moved on. Those three finished second, fourth and sixth, respectively, among Heat players in 2018-19 wins over replacement player.

    Unless Miami can flip a few more depth pieces for another star, a huge jump in the standings shouldn't be expected.


    17. Minnesota Timberwolves

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 43

    Karl-Anthony Towns just wrapped up his rookie contract. And he finished it tied for 11th all-time in wins over replacement player through four seasons.

    Minnesota has a legitimate superstar. And he has the potential to carry an otherwise uninspiring roster with just a little help.

    Last season, when Towns was on the floor with Robert Covington, the Wolves were plus-3.5 points per 100 possessions (73rd percentile), according to Cleaning the Glass.

Playoff Contenders, Part II

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    16. Indiana Pacers

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 39

    Victor Oladipo will miss the start of the season. And losing Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young hurts. But Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner is an intriguing young(ish) lineup that can keep the team afloat until its star returns.


    15. Orlando Magic

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 42

    There was some hand-wringing online about the Magic more or less locking themselves into a borderline playoff contender this offseason.

    But Nikola Vucevic is still just 28, and he was better than you realize last season. And Orlando still has plenty of developing talent in Aaron Gordon (23), Jonathan Isaac (21) and Mohamed Bamba (21).

    Plus, there's the Markelle Fultz wild card. There's a reason he was the No. 1 pick just two years ago. If he can get anywhere near his projections coming out of college, Orlando can find another level.


    14. Dallas Mavericks

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 44

    Luka Doncic is projected to post 7.6 wins above replacement in 2019-20. Only 12 players are forecast to have more.

    If he gets there, Dallas has a real shot to get back to the playoffs.

    Tailoring a roster that fits him should help too. Kristaps Porzingis could be an ideal pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop complement to him.


    13. Brooklyn Nets

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 38

    The Nets would obviously be a little higher if Kevin Durant wasn't set to sit out most, if not all, of 2019-20 while recovering from a ruptured Achilles.

    Still, Brooklyn brings back much of a team that made the postseason last season, only with a slight upgrade from D'Angelo Russell to Kyrie Irving at point guard.

    The reason it's slight, though, is concerning. Kyrie Irving as the leader with a roster full of rising youngsters? Where have I heard this story before?


    12. New Orleans Pelicans

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 43

    How is it possible for a team that lost Anthony Davis to get better?

    Well, keeping Jrue Holiday and adding *takes a deep breath* Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Lonzo Ball, Derrick Favors, Josh Hart, Jaxson Hayes, Brandon Ingram, JJ Redick and Zion Williamson did the trick.

    Altogether, New Orleans lost a total of 12 projected wins above replacement. They more than made that up, though, adding 13.8.


    11. Portland Trail Blazers 

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 38

    The Blazers had the "Larry David GIF" of offseasons.

    New additions Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, Nassir Little, Anthony Tolliver and Hassan Whiteside are projected to post a combined 1.1 wins above replacement. Departees Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry, Maurice Harkless, Enes Kanter, Jake Layman, Meyers Leonard and Evan Turner are projected for 4.2.

    Plus, Jusuf Nurkic is going to miss the start of the season with an injury.

    But Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have been prematurely counted out before. And their presence alongside the new Blazers could lift them beyond expectations.

Playoff Near-Locks

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    10. Toronto Raptors

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 45

    Plenty have rightfully pointed to Toronto's success during Kawhi Leonard's "load management" games last season. The Raptors were plus-4.1 points per 100 possession (77th percentile) when he was off the floor, per Cleaning the Glass.

    But they didn't just lose Leonard. He's the headliner, of course, but the perennially underrated Danny Green (71st all-time in career box plus/minus) is a big loss, too.

    When both those wings were off the floor, Toronto was minus-2.5 points per 100 possessions (39th percentile).

    It'll take another mighty leap from Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam to come close to making up for those two being gone.

    9. Boston Celtics

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 46

    Al Horford is a bigger loss for the Celtics than Kyrie Irving.

    Enes Kanter is a lot further from Horford's level than Kemba Walker is from Irving's. And the lack of defense and playmaking at the 5 will hurt Boston.

    Still, Gordon Hayward is now two full seasons removed from breaking his leg. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will be returned to the roles they enjoyed in 2018's run to the Eastern Conference Finals. And Marcus Smart will continue to provide the intangibles for which he's come to be known.

    Without the chemistry issues that plagued the Celtics last season, there's reason to believe they might improve in 2019-20.

Fringe Title Contenders

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    8. Golden State Warriors

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 50

    After the last few years, it's strange to see the Warriors as anything but presumptive favorites. But with Durant gone and Klay Thompson out with a torn ACL, that's where we are.

    A return of 2016 Stephen Curry could keep the Warriors in title contention, though. That remains the greatest individual offensive season ever, according to offensive box plus/minus.

    And oddsmakers who have Curry behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo for 2020 MVP odds seem to think he could be in for another big season.

    If he and D'Angelo Russell can shoot the Warriors into enough wins to stay in the hunt till Klay Thompson returns, Golden State could be a sleeping giant by the postseason.


    7. Utah Jazz

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 50

    The loss of Derrick Favors may be a bigger deal than some realize, but Utah addressed every major need it had this offseason.

    Rubio and his lack of shooting have been replaced by Mike Conley. The Jazz can now play full-time small ball with Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O'Neale and Jeff Green at the 4. And Ed Davis can ably handle the backup 5 minutes Favors played.

    Defenses won't be able to load up on Donovan Mitchell the way they did during his first two seasons. The extra space should lead to a bit more efficiency, one of the only knocks against the rising star.

    It doesn't hurt to have the back-to-back reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert, either.


    6. Houston Rockets

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 58

    As Rockets general manager Daryl Morey wrote on Instagram, "Why not?"

    The drastic move to trade Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook has understandably been analyzed from all angles.

    In the wake of Golden State's demise, it would've been easy for Houston to stand pat this summer. The Rockets were the one team to really push the Warriors before Durant and Thompson went down with injuries. They did it in 2018 and 2019. Both times, they had Paul.

    And while Westbrook is nowhere near the shooter Paul is, and he dominates the ball at a Harden-like level, the move does turn the clock back four years. It also makes Houston bigger and more athletic. And it accomplished all that without having to sacrifice Clint Capela or Eric Gordon.

    This wasn't a "Morey-ball" trade. At least not in the way we're used to. And the last move that eschewed efficiency, the Carmelo Anthony signing last summer, flat-out flopped.

    But even if the fit isn't perfect, Houston now has one of the most productive duos in the league. Harden and Westbrook are eighth and ninth, respectively, in career box plus/minus.


    5. Denver Nuggets

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 51

    Speaking of the career box plus/minus leaderboard, if we drop the minutes qualifier down to 5,000, Nikola Jokic is third all-time. LeBron James and Michael Jordan are the only players ahead of him.

    Jokic's ridiculous and unique combination of scoring, efficiency, passing, rebounding and steals have made him one of the league's best players for years. Thanks to his 2019 postseason debut, the masses are just now noticing.

    He had, by far, the best box plus/minus in the playoffs this year, averaging a whopping 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 1.6 threes, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks in 14 games.

    Oh, and he's 24 years old.

    As his young teammates like Jamal Murray and Gary Harris continue to develop alongside him, Denver should not only have an MVP candidate, but it should also be seen as a title contender.

Title Favorites

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    4. Los Angeles Lakers

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 50

    LeBron James and Anthony Davis might make up the best duo in the NBA. But, for the second year in a row, general manager Rob Pelinka struggled to assemble an inspiring supporting cast after landing a big name.

    The Washington Post's Ben Golliver explained in the wake of Leonard choosing the Clippers over the Lakers and Raptors:

    "It’s mind-boggling how quickly the Lakers’ fortunes turned. Early Friday night, James and Davis were yukking it up at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. Four hours later, Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka began re-signing Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee while also agreeing to poach Danny Green from the Raptors. That uninspiring returning group struggled with inconsistency and chemistry issues this past season, and the Lakers now appear overly dependent on their two superstars."

    You can't blame L.A. for waiting on Kawhi. Even if you have a small chance of landing him, you probably have to take it. And just like Green was an underrated loss for the Raptors, he's an underrated pickup for the Lakers. But those few days in limbo cost them.

    There will be questions about the fit with Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. They started to work well together toward the end of their shared time in New Orleans, but Boogie has since torn his Achilles and a quad.

    Extended minutes for Rondo will almost certainly hurt. He's projected to add minus-0.9 wins above replacement this season. Avery Bradley's forecast is worse.

    But even with all those issues, the Lakers still have LeBron and AD. That alone might be enough.

    He's past his peak, but LeBron is still the best teammate Davis has ever had. By a long shot. Their pick-and-roll should be devastating, particularly if Los Angeles is wise enough to play them extended minutes at the 4 and 5.


    3. Philadelphia 76ers

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 59

    The 76ers lost Jimmy Butler, but they may have gotten better in the process, pun intended.

    Neither Josh Richardson nor Al Horford is on Butler's level, but those two, Kyle O'Quinn, Raul Neto and a couple of rookies bolster Philly's depth.

    Last season, the Sixers were plus-7.5 points per 100 possessions when Joel Embiid was on the floor and minus-2.5 when he was off.

    Now, they can deploy Horford against reserves, even if he starts at the 4. It should be similar to Favors' role in Utah over the last couple of seasons. Horford can be a part of a huge starting five, come out early in the first and third quarters, and dominate backups when Embiid sits.

    Richardson, meanwhile, gives Philadelphia another strong defensive wing. In the theoretical Ben Simmons/Richardson/Tobias Harris/Horford/Embiid lineup, Harris is the lone potential weakness.

    But really, this team's title chances will be tied pretty tightly to Embiid. If he can live up to his reputation as a top-10 player (he was 22nd in box plus/minus this season) and, probably more importantly, stay healthy, Philly will have a shot.


    2. Milwaukee Bucks

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 54

    Losing Brogdon could prove significant. Mirotic was helpful last season, as well.

    But Milwaukee still has a 24-year-old MVP in Giannis who still hasn't really figured out how to shoot. He still has room to grow, which should terrify opponents.

    And he sounds pretty hungry.

    "After today, please don't call me MVP," Giannis said at a rally, per his team's Twitter account. "Until I win it again next year!"

    Improvements from Giannis, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton holding steady, and George Hill finding his 2019 playoff form for an entire season would make this team a very real contender.


    1. Los Angeles Clippers

    FiveThirtyEight's Projected Wins: 48

    Leonard and George going to the Clippers wasn't your typical superstar team-up.

    Think back over the last decade or so. The Heat had to strip their roster down to the bare bones to make room for LeBron and Chris Bosh. Ditto for LeBron's Lakers when they added Anthony Davis.

    The Clippers signing Kawhi and trading for PG feels closer to the Warriors landing Kevin Durant in 2016.

    It's not quite on that level. KD was joining a two-time MVP on a 73-win team. But Kawhi is a two-time Finals MVP, fresh off another title. George just finished third in MVP voting. And they're both going to a team that still has Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. Landry Shamet, Ivica Zubac and Maurice Harkless should all be helpful, too.

    The Clippers now has star power at the top. But it could be their depth that really makes them dangerous.


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