B/R NBA Expert Power Rankings: The Lakers Only Have One Problem

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IDecember 22, 2020

B/R NBA Expert Power Rankings: The Lakers Only Have One Problem

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    This NBA season is going to be a wild ride. Several teams have gotten better, and the addition of the play-in tournament will keep more teams competing down the stretch. 

    The rich got richer with the Los Angeles Lakers reloading, the L.A. Clippers adding an old Kawhi Leonard teammate and the Milwaukee Bucks celebrating the holidays a little early. The Brooklyn Nets will get a look at the team they waited a year to see. 

    This was the shortest offseason in league history coming off its longest season. Training camp was just a few days long and teams were limited to just a few preseason games. With no summer league and a shorter camp, rookies are most likely to feel the brunt of that. Continuity will be a very valuable commodity early in the season.

    Of course, there is the elephant in the room: How will the NBA navigate its season in a COVID-19 world and outside the bubble?

    After taking stock of everything and how some teams performed in the preseason, here are the power rankings.


    Editor's note: NBA championship odds for each team provided by FanDuel.

30. New York Knicks

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    A new front office, new coaching staff and a new crop of young talent make a recipe for entertaining but not necessarily one for winning. This is more of an evaluation season for the Knicks. RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox II and Dennis Smith Jr. are all young players who need to prove they fit into their long-term plans. 

    There are going to be a lot of growing pains, and it is going to push coach Tom Thibodeau to breaking points at times. But there is good news in Madison Square Garden: Obi Toppin is going to be a highlight machine with his modern big man offensive game and athleticism. He’ll definitely be in the running for Rookie of the Year. 

    The bad news is this team struggled to shoot the ball this preseason. The Knicks ranked 27th in three-point percentage at 30.3 percent over four games. If that trend continues, it will be difficult to win games with such poor shooting. But winning should not be the priority here.

    FanDuel Odds: +25000

29. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Cavaliers are in a similar position as the Knicks but further along in the process. They have questions that need to be fully answered this year. Can Collin Sexton and Darius Garland coexist? Last season the Cavs had a net rating of minus-10.8 points with the two of them on the court and a defensive rating of 117.3. If they can’t make it work, it might be time to start shopping one of them. 

    On the flip side, rookie Isaac Okoro looked good in preseason for the Cavs, averaging 11.3 points in 27.5 minutes. He will push Cedi Osman for minutes and looks ready to have an immediate impact.

    This team should not be measured by wins but by the growth of its young players.

    FanDuel Odds: +25000

28. Detroit Pistons

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    It was a wild offseason for the Detroit Pistons. They went on a massive spending spree mainly on frontcourt players, but it is not clear if they got much better. They let Christian Wood walk so they could surprise everyone with the signing of Denver’s Jerami Grant. The Pistons signed Grant to a three-year, $60 million deal—first-option money for a player who has never even been a second option. 

    What made Grant special in Denver was he got to play off Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Whether he can be productive on his own remains to be seen. There is also the possibility that Grant’s arrival may stunt the growth of second-year player Sekou Doumbouya. 

    Rookie point guard Killian Hayes has the keys to the car, but he shot the ball poorly in his four preseason games. There will be a lot of ups and downs with a rookie running the team.

    FanDuel Odds: +24000

27. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    This might prove to be low for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it is difficult to gauge what they plan to do over the season. It does not seem they are trying to compete after they traded so many players. Even Ricky Rubio, Danny Green and Kelly Oubre Jr. were shipped out before touching down in Oklahoma. Which also means if the right offer comes for George Hill or Al Horford, they could be on the move. 

    That said, they still have talent. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will show off all that he learned under Chris Paul’s tutelage, and defensive dynamo Luguentz Dort is back. Theo Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski are rookies to keep an eye on.

    The Thunder are kicking off their rebuild project, loaded with assets and what they hope is a young cornerstone to build around.

    FanDuel Odds: +13000

26. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Timberwolves won only 19 games last season, got only 35 games out of Karl-Anthony Towns, and got just one to see the tandem of him and D’Angelo Russell. The Wolves brought back Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez while trading for Ricky Rubio. All solid pieces, especially Rubio, who can take some ball-handling responsibilities off Russell and is another pick-and-roll partner for Towns. 

    The Wolves used the No. 1 overall pick in the draft on Anthony Edwards to help fill the void on the wing when they traded Andrew Wiggins. He has a lot of tools offensively that can help the Wolves and should be highlighted playing alongside a passer like Rubio. 

    However, if the Wolves are going to improve off their 19-win season, it has to start on the defensive end. Russell has been a net negative as a defender his whole career. Even though Towns has the skills of a good defender, the Wolves had a defensive rating last season of 115.4 when he was on the court. There is not much of a chance of them climbing the West if they do not improve on that side.

    FanDuel Odds: +12000

25. San Antonio Spurs

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    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    With their run of 20 straight playoff appearances over, it is time for the youth movement to begin in San Antonio. There is a lot of promising young talent with the Spurs in Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, Luka Samanic and Devin Vassell. Johnson stood out during the bubble, scoring 14.1 points while shooting 64.7 percent from three on 2.1 attempts a game. 

    Pairing the young talent with veterans like DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills will make the Spurs tough. DeRozan should continue his renaissance as playmaker; he led the Spurs in assists with 5.6 last season. Aldridge’s 6.3 three-point attempts this preseason is a sign that he’s more than willing to expand his range. 

    The Spurs will continue to play hard, but as they continue to develop, it will not result in a lot of wins. 

    FanDuel Odds: +13000

24. Charlotte Hornets

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Hornets made a big splash in free agency, signing Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $120 million deal. It is a clear sign that the Hornets are going for it. It does not help that Hayward broke a finger on his shooting hand in the preseason. So that is a bit of a downer, but there is something to be excited about: LaMelo Ball.

    Ball is bringing a Jason “White Chocolate” Williams flair to games with no-look, behind-the-back and alley-oop passes. In the annual NBA.com general manager survey, Ball is the favorite to win Rookie of the Year. With every highlight, there are going to be turnovers. But he is bringing some enthusiasm to the Hornets fanbase. 

    The additions of Hayward and Ball give Charlotte some optimism. They’ll team up with Terry Rozier, Devonte’ Graham, Miles Bridges and Cody Zeller as the Hornets try to make the play-in game this season.

    FanDuel Odds: +16000

23. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Early on last season, teams thought the Memphis Grizzlies were going to be an easy win. But that wasn’t the case behind Rookie of the Year Ja Morant. Opponents will not take last year’s darlings lightly. Under second-year head coach Taylor Jenkins, they will compete every night and be a League Pass-alert team. 

    Morant is a star in the making and is forcing big men across the league to make business decisions when he drives the lane. Dillon Brooks continued to improve and grow as a player. The addition of sharpshooter Desmond Bane should not be overlooked since the Grizzlies finished the season 23rd in three-point percentage.  

    Unfortunately, they will not start the season healthy with Jaren Jackson Jr. still recovering from a meniscus tear and Justise Winslow working his way back from a hip injury. That’ll add to the challenge of keeping the momentum they had going from last season. 

    FanDuel Odds: +10000

22. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    No team looked worse in the bubble than the New Orleans Pelicans. Zion Williamson missed a lot of time tending to a family matter and ended up a minus-58 in five games. Lonzo Ball, who had been shooting pretty well, struggled. By the end of the seeding games, the Pelicans looked like a team that did not want to be there. It was obvious that changes were going to be made.

    Team president David Griffin replaced head coach Alvin Gentry with Stan Van Gundy. He signed Brandon Ingram to a five-year rookie max extension. Then he turned Jrue Holiday into Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams and a bevy of future draft picks from the Milwaukee Bucks. 

    Despite the bubble experience, expectations are pretty high in the Big Easy. Williamson put in an impressive preseason performance on Friday night vs. the Bucks. He had 31 points and nine rebounds in 34 minutes. 

    There is plenty of hype surrounding the Pelicans, but the question is whether they can meet or exceed it.

21. Chicago Bulls

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bulls are another organization that made big changes with a new general manager and head coach. They should see an immediate uptick in the wins department after bringing in Billy Donovan for Jim Boylen. 

    The players on the court have not changed all that much, but things will be different. 

    Early in preseason, there was a clear emphasis on spacing the floor offensively. Wendell Carter Jr., who averaged 0.7 three-point attempts last season, averaged four this preseason. He made only one, but he’s being encouraged to take them. Coby White looks like he might be ready to take a leap in his development, making plays off drive-and-kick situations to set up Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine.

    Coaching might have held the Bulls back the past few seasons, and they’ll have a chance to show their promise this year.

    FanDuel Odds: +13000

20. Sacramento Kings

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Before the season was suspended, the Sacramento Kings were beginning to find their groove. They were 10-6 in their games in February and March and looked like they might make a run at the eighth seed. 

    Unfortunately, they weren’t able to sustain that run in the bubble, where they went 3-5. 

    The Kings had to make a tough decision in the offseason when it came time to match Bogdan Bogdanovic’s offer from the Atlanta Hawks or let him walk. In the end, they decided to go with the latter. This decision should make Buddy Hield happier now that he is starting again and is made easier with the drafting of Tyrese Haliburton from Iowa State.

    The rookie is already showing flashes of being NBA-ready in the preseason. In just 21.4 minutes per game over four contests, Haliburton averaged 3.3 assists to 1.3 turnovers and shot 42.9 percent from three on 1.8 attempts.  

    De’Aaron Fox should continue to thrive as a speedster, and their offense should play at a faster tempo with Alvin Gentry in the fold as Luke Walton’s lead assistant coach.

    The Kings will be a team to keep an eye on in the play-in game race.

    FanDuel Odds: +13000

19. Orlando Magic

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Very little has changed in Orlando, and that may not be a good thing. The Magic return the same core powered by Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier. 

    You can expect the Magic to defend; that is a hallmark of Steve Clifford teams. Markelle Fultz also showed some flashes last season, and they are going to need him to continue to find his old game, as creating offense has always been a challenge for this team. 

    If the Magic struggle early on, it will not be a surprise if they begin to shop Gordon, who might be in need of a change of scenery. 

    In seasons past, they benefited from some of the teams below them not improving, but this season, staying the same has put them behind the eight ball as a few of the teams behind them improved. 

    FanDuel Odds: +12000

18. Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The outlook for the Golden State Warriors changed drastically right before the NBA draft with the Klay Thompson Achilles injury. They went from being a team able to contend to wondering whether they could be a playoff team. 

    The way the team is set up, Stephen Curry will have to go nuclear like he did in the 2015-16 season. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Andrew Wiggins are nice players, but neither is the complementary star Thompson has been. There are definitely going to be amazing nights when Curry explodes, but how frequently he can do it will be key for the Warriors’ success.

    The other worrying issue is that their defense may not be able to pick up the slack. Losing Thompson was just as big a blow defensively as it was offensively. Draymond Green, who did not play in the preseason, will help on that end, but their defense on the perimeter will be a work in progress.

    Rookie big man James Wiseman also did not play in the preseason, but he has some promise on both ends. It is hard to quantify how much, just because he only played three games in college.

17. Houston Rockets

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    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    To say the first few weeks of the Stephen Silas era have been anything other than chaotic would be an understatement. James Harden went AWOL at the start of camp. P.J. Tucker is unhappy with his contract. There will be constant Harden trade rumors that will pop off until he either publicly rescinds his trade request or they trade him.

    Even with all that chaos, the Rockets looked pretty good in the preseason. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins looked good coming back from injuries. Eric Gordon has looked like he’s ready for a bounce-back year. It was just one game, but Christian Wood fit right in with the new core. Harden did not miss a beat in his two preseason games, shooting 41.7 percent from three. Silas’ offensive system is more of an open style with more ball and player movement. 

    If—and this is a rather large IF—the Rockets can reel Harden’s commitment back to the team, they could be really interesting. If not, the Rockets will implode before lifting off.

16. Washington Wizards

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    Rob Carr/Associated Press

    It is playoffs or bust for the Washington Wizards. They are trying to prove to Bradley Beal he can have success in D.C. That was a big motivator for the John Wall-Russell Westbrook trade. There are a lot of interesting pieces on this roster. Rui Hachimura turned in a solid rookie campaign. Thomas Bryant solidified his spot as the starting center. Davis Bertans re-signed this offseason to keep firing off the bench. Now add rookie Deni Avdija into the mix, and there is a lot of talent up and down this roster.

    The Wizards are a good landing spot for Westbrook. They have another star in Beal to team him up with, they have players who can spread the floor and, maybe most importantly, they have his former coach, Scott Brooks, running the show. It could be an opportunity for the synergy to strike quickly. They still have to figure out how they intend to defend, which was a big problem for them, finishing 29th in defensive rating last year.

    Several NBA teams will be keeping an eye on how things are going with Washington this season. If they look to be out of the playoff race, Tommy Sheppard will get a lot of phone calls about Beal’s availability.

    FanDuel Odds: +10000

15. Atlanta Hawks

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last season the Atlanta Hawks struggled defensively, and any time Trae Young was not on the court the offense came to a screeching halt. This offseason they looked to address all of their issues with several additions. Now it will be on Lloyd Pierce to put it together. On paper this should be a playoff team, but a lot of work will have to be done. 

    This is a big season for Young, who was a human highlight last season, and this year he has several new weapons to make it work. He has a good roller in Clint Capela and bigs who can spread the floor in John Collins and Danilo Gallinari. On the wings, Cam Reddish came on strong after the All-Star break last season, and De’Andre Hunter shot a healthy 42.9 percent from three on 5.3 attempts this preseason. Finally, the addition of Bogdan Bogdanovic can take the ball-handling burden off Young’s hands and let him work off screens. 

    Young has to do his part on the defensive end, though. The Hawks had a defensive rating of 116.1 when he was on the court and 107.9 when he was off. That is a trend that has to end. He is not going to be a lockdown defender, but the team’s defensive net rating can’t drop that much.  

    Stakes are high for the Hawks. Like for the Wizards, it is playoffs or bust.

    FanDuel Odds: +10000

14. Indiana Pacers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    New head coach Nate Bjorkgren is already making an immediate impact on the Indiana Pacers’ style of play. Last season under Nate McMillan they were last in three-point attempts with 28 a game. Under Bjorkgren in preseason, the Pacers averaged 42 three-point attempts. He was brought in to change the way they play, and this is a starting point. 

    The big key for the Pacers this season is finding synergy between star guard Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon. Last season with Oladipo coming back from his knee injury, he never found his flow. Getting Oladipo back to his All-Star level and working well with Brogdon would be bigger than any free-agent signing they could have brought in. 

    The East has gotten better, but if the Pacers adapt quickly to Bjorkgren’s new system, they can maintain their status as a tough out every year. It will be a little more difficult at the start of the season as T.J. Warren, who blew up in the bubble, is sidelined with plantar fasciitis.

    FanDuel Odds: +10000

13. Phoenix Suns

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    After years of toil, it appears the Phoenix Suns have a legitimate chance to make the postseason. General manager James Jones has surrounded Devin Booker with not just top-level talent, but also experienced veterans. A lot of attention has gone to the acquisition of Chris Paul—and rightfully so—but Jae Crowder is a valuable pickup. He’ll strengthen their bench.

    Booker is one of the league’s young stars, and he has every reason to continue to shine this year. The more interesting storyline will be the jump that Deandre Ayton is poised to make. Playing with Paul in the pick-and-roll will help to raise his game on both ends of the court. 

    If Ayton does indeed take the leap, the Suns can make it into the playoffs through the play-in tournament. 

12. Toronto Raptors

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Last season the Toronto Raptors had to regroup after losing both Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. They not only regrouped but thrived, finishing second in the East. This season they hope to do the same but without Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka

    If the Raptors are going to overachieve again in a stronger East conference, they will have to be much more productive in their half-court offense. It was a weakness last season that got exposed in their playoff series against the Boston Celtics. 

    The Raptors are hoping Pascal Siakam can rebound from a poor playoff performance. He averaged 17.0 points while shooting 39.6 percent from the field and 18.9 percent from three. He’ll have to improve his half-court offensive repertoire beyond his spin move into the lane. 

    One thing to watch for is OG Anunoby’s run at the Most Improved Player award. Coming into his fourth season in the NBA, he is poised to explode onto the scene.

11. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    This is the most promising Portland Trail Blazers team Damian Lillard has had since LaMarcus Aldridge was on the squad. They are deeper than they’ve ever been and have the capability to play many different styles. With their depth and versatility they can play small ball or go big with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins (once he returns).

    With more defensive firepower coming from Gary Trent Jr., Robert Covington and Nurkic, the Blazers can abandon their conservative style of defense and get more aggressive. That will allow them to create more turnovers and get in transition, which will help take pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. 

    The Blazers can play on both ends of the court, and if everything comes together properly, they will be a force in the deep West.

10. Dallas Mavericks

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Luka Doncic took his game to an MVP level last season while shooting just 31.6 percent from three. Once he gets his three-point percentage to the level he’s capable of, he’ll become nearly unstoppable. The expectations are high not just for Doncic, who was GMs’ second-most picked player for MVP this year. 

    Getting Dwight Powell back should help lessen the blow of Kristaps Porzingis starting the season on the bench as he recovers from his meniscus tear. The acquisition of Josh Richardson will go a long way to help their perimeter defense and has the ability to take some ball-handling off the hands of Doncic. 

    In the end, though, this team is going to go only as far Doncic can take it. He surprised everyone last season taking the leap.

9. Utah Jazz

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    On Sunday, the Utah Jazz agreed to a five-year, $205 million extension with defensive anchor Rudy Gobert. With Donovan Mitchell inking a max rookie extension this offseason, the Jazz have locked down their two cornerstone pieces for a long time.

    Utah is one of the few teams that will walk right into this season with continuity. Its big free-agent acquisition was a former Jazz player, Derrick Favors. Even though Mike Conley struggled early in last season, he started to figure things out in the second half. He has a good chance of being a bounce-back player this year. 

    It appears coach Quin Snyder is going to let the long ball fly this season. Last season the Jazz averaged 35.2 threes a game. In the preseason that number went up to 44.0.

8. Boston Celtics

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    It was a really rough preseason for the Boston Celtics. They were already thin at the wing spot with Gordon Hayward’s departure, and then the injury bug bit. Kemba Walker will miss the start of the season recovering from a procedure on his knee. Romeo Langford, who was expected to have a larger role, will be out a few months with wrist surgery. New big man Tristan Thompson missed most of training camp with a strained hamstring, only recently returning to practice. This is not the way the Celtics wanted to start the season.

    This puts more pressure on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to become playmakers, a skill neither has mastered yet. It leaves Brad Stevens to have to lean more on rookies Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith. 

    It is just preseason, but it is worrying that the Celtics shot just 22.6 percent from three in the preseason. That ineptitude won’t last, but depth issues will hover over this team all year. 

    Once fully healthy, the Celtics will rise in the rankings. But starting the year with so many injuries and not looking cohesive in their preseason games has them beginning a bit lower.

7. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Every year the Philadelphia 76ers start out with a lot of promise that never comes to fruition. Once again, they have renewed promise after coming to agreements with coach Doc Rivers and GM Daryl Morey. This season the roster does make more sense and has fewer holes top-to-bottom. The Sixers chose fit over talent this season, and they should see it pay off. 

    It starts with their best two players, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. If they play to their full capabilities, the Sixers will be tough to beat. Few teams have a big man who can slow down Embiid in the post. Simmons is a Swiss Army knife and has the ability to defend every position on the floor so well he could win Defensive Player of the Year this season. 

    One thing that can derail this team is the rumor mill. The moment Morey joined the Sixers, the James Harden rumors popped up. Until Harden is moved, there will always be rumors of whether the Sixers are interested and will they include Simmons in any package.

6. Brooklyn Nets

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    This is the team everyone has been waiting for since the 2019 offseason. Kevin Durant is coming off a torn Achilles, Kyrie Irving only played 20 games due to a shoulder injury, and they hired first-time head coach Steve Nash to oversee everything. This is a grab-a-bucket-of-popcorn team and enjoy.

    Durant looked great in the preseason. He is still able to get his shot off at will, and his first step is still explosive. He averaged 20 points in the two preseason games he played. Kyrie Irving also looked good in his preseason games, pushing the ball up the floor and keeping their pace high. 

    The real question for this Nets squad is can they defend? Irving has never been a perimeter defender, Spencer Dinwiddie is not much of a defender, and Durant is coming off a big injury. As good as their offense is, their defense can be a real issue.

    The Nets are going to rack up a ton of regular-season wins with two top-10 NBA players and loads of offensive firepower. Their challenge will be on the defensive end, and that might not get exposed until the playoffs.

5. Miami Heat

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    There are some who question whether the Miami Heat’s run to the Finals was a bubble fluke or the real deal. This essentially will be the same team coming back minus Jae Crowder. They still have one of the best coaches in Erik Spoelstra, a star in Jimmy Butler, a young cornerstone in Bam Adebayo, as well as Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson.

    Things really took off for the Heat when they put Crowder at power forward in their starting lineup. This is where Maurice Harkless, who they signed this offseason, comes in. He is a capable defender of multiple positions and is just as streaky a shooter as Crowder. 

    There should be some caution in expecting too much from Herro. He made a big leap in the bubble, but there has not been enough time from Game 6 of the Finals to the start of the season for him to have added more to his game. The same can be applied to Adebayo and Robinson. 

    Fluke or not, this is a very tough team. They know who they are and how they want to play, and everyone understands their role. The Heat should be able to pick up right where they left off in the bubble.

4. Denver Nuggets

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Denver Nuggets in the bubble grew out of the “they are a fun team” to “they are a dangerous team.” Jamal Murray took a massive leap as a playmaker, which gives them another option to run offense through besides Nikola Jokic. As long as Jokic and Murray are healthy, they will be a top team in the West. They have a lot of returning pieces, so the system continuity is set.

    This season, all eyes will be on Michael Porter Jr. He played really well in the bubble, and with the loss of Jerami Grant, he will have to step up. Can he be successful as a third option in a lineup with Murray and Jokic? Will his defense improve enough that coach Mike Malone will keep him out there? His development throughout the season is going to be critical for their success. 

    If Porter can continue his growth from the bubble, the Nuggets can take another step forward as a contender.

3. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The whole state of Wisconsin let out a HUGE sigh of relief when Giannis Antetokounmpo signed the five-year supermax extension with the Milwaukee Bucks. With that no longer a concern, they can focus on getting to the Finals. 

    The addition of Jrue Holiday might just be all that they needed. He is a big upgrade over Eric Bledsoe on both ends of the court. Offensively, he gives them another option who can create his own shot, create for others and allow Antetokounmpo to play as a screener some. Holiday also adds defensive versatility with his ability to defend guards and wings. 

    Khris Middleton quietly had a great season last year, just missing the mark of being a 50/40/90 guy by three tenths of a point. They’ll need to have a rebound year from Brook Lopez, who shot just 31.4 percent from three. 

    In the playoffs, will Mike Budenholzer be more adaptable and change things up when something does not work? If the answer is “yes,” the Bucks could be in for a fun ride. If not, his seat might get much warmer.

2. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    It is understandable with how last season ended that people are down on the Los Angeles Clippers. But it seems the hate has gone a bit too far. They still have two of the best two-way wings in the NBA with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. They lost Montrezl Harrell in free agency, but it did not seem like they were all that interested in bringing him back. Serge Ibaka, who they signed in his place, is a much better fit for what the Clippers want to do. 

    Ibaka will help spread the floor as well as provide rim protection, two things Harrell didn’t bring. There is the added effect that his past relationship with Leonard in Toronto will help with their chemistry in the locker room.

    One thing to look for is how many games Leonard misses due to load management. They need as much time on the court together to get used to playing with each other.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers got younger and better this offseason. They added another option to run the offense through in big man Marc Gasol. They brought firepower off the bench in Montrezl Harrell and acquired another playmaker in Dennis Schroder to take some offensive responsibility off LeBron James’ plate.

    They’ve also locked up James and Anthony Davis for the next few years, so everything is looking up in Laker land. The biggest challenge this season for coach Frank Vogel will be figuring out the rotation with Talen Horton-Tucker’s rise in the preseason. This is a problem every coach would love to have: too much talent.

    The Lakers look like they’ll not only be the best team in the NBA but also doing so without putting too much stress on James and Davis.

    FanDuel Odds: +270