I know, the season hasn’t even tipped off and it’s already down to just three teams? Unfortunately, yes. The NBA has never been known for parity, every year you can just about count on one hand the teams with a chance to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy. There’s a big market team or two, say Boston or Los Angeles, plus a handful of others that hit it big in the draft or trades and free agency, thus building their team a more natural way, like the 2011 Dallas Mavericks or 2015 Golden State Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs every year.
Or you could just have LeBron James. That was enough last season, with all due respect to Kyrie Irving’s breakout NBA Finals performance. Or you could have James and two other stars like pat Riley pulled off back in the summer of 2010, changing the landscape of the NBA which has only intensified six years later.
Welcome to the era of the Super Team, where Kevin Durant will leave an elite team with another bonafide superstar to join the team that sent him packing with his tail between his legs almost yesterday.
In the words of my new favorite player not named Dirk, Gordon or Devin (and old least favorite player) Russell Westbrook: “that’s cute.”
In June, it’s going to be one of three final results: LeBron’s Cavs repeating, Durant and Stephen Curry’s Warriors winning their second title in three years or the Spurs winning for the first time since way back in 2014. The immediate future dictates that there really won’t be a champion without LeBron, Curry or Kawhi Leonard aside from the magical 2011 Dallas Mavericks. Just the way the NBA is.
We know who’s going to win, but teams can still get better there are no laws against that. This isn’t the NFL. The NBA’s parity problem has left us with a foregone conclusion to the 2016-2017 season as obvious as a superhero movie. We know who's going to win, but it's about the journey. And the NBA journey is fun as hell.
15. Philadelphia 76ers (Last Year: 15)
“The Process” finally yielded some results in the form of top draft pick Ben Simmons. Along with the return of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric crossing the Atlantic, I could have been talked into removing them from the Eastern Conference cellar. Then Simmons fractured his foot in early October and it was another year of constant losing with a treat waiting for them in June. Simmons' foot fracture will heal, but things could also go the way of a former number one pick who never recovered from his foot injury. You may remember Greg Oden.
14. Brooklyn Nets (Last Year: 14)
The team that would have occupied the cellar had Ben Simmons stayed off the IR, the Nets continue to reel from Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King’s brutal tenure as Owner/GM. They could have shut it down early when the pick they traded for Gerald Wallace turned out to be Damian Lillard. But no. Their coup de grâce was three first round picks for a year of very old Kevin Garnett and a tiny bit longer of also very old Paul Pierce. Somewhere in between Wallace and Jason Terry, they traded another first round pick for Joe Johnson. Not until 2019 will they pick for themselves again. As for this season, we’re gonna get a big dose of Jeremy Lin, and i’m actually pretty excited for that, sans headband/hair gel.
13. New York Knicks (Last Year: 13)
Sometimes teams make moves that not even you would make in NBA 2K on your very worst day. You could fail a test, lose your girl, crash your car, have your wi-fi go out (because that’s equally bad as the others) and get mugged and come out better than the Knicks did this off-season. Derrick Rose is a headcase, but he’ll be a free agent. That one could work out in the end. But giving Joakim Noah --coming off a career-low 29 games played last season-- $73 million dollars over four years is ultimate cry emoji. Knicks fans have suffered so much, Phil Jackson was supposed to be better than this.
12. Milwaukee Bucks (Last Year: 12)
I don’t watch a lot of live college basketball. So when I do, I usually pick out a player who I enjoyed watching and say “okay, that’s my guy from here on out. In fact I discovered him.” A friend invited me to a Texas A&M game back in 2011 and I accepted, falling in love with some dude named Khris Middleton. Years later, he’s a baller. Unfortunately, he’s also injured and out for a significant amount of time with a bad hammy. Middleton, already-forgotten 2015 2nd overall pick Jabari Parker and #pointguard Giannis Antetokounmpo were supposed to form a “Big 3 Lite” in 2016-17. Sadly, that won’t happen this year and the Bucks didn’t really make a ton of changes outside of (expected) player development.
11. Miami Heat (Last Year: 3)
When putting together my projections, I had the Heat as high as the six seed and yes I’m aware of the Chris Bosh situation. Pat Riley is a genius and a forward thinker and I believe he wants this Heat team to stink. He knows how the game works, unlike most GM’s including my team’s. Well, my team’s owner. If you’re not a contender, you need to be rebuilding. With LeBron way gone and Dwyane Wade a little less gone and Chris Bosh needing to simply get regular life healthy, the Heat will be relying big time on new max player Hassan Whiteside and old max player Goran Dragic. I like both guys, but they can’t lead a team and Whiteside is a major candidate for total chaos. The Josh Richardson injury also sucks big time, but I like the Heat’s future with Riley. 11 might seem high for a team I’m projecting to tank, but I think Erik Spoelstra is too good of a coach and this team has so many nice pieces to be as bad as the Knicks or Nets.
10. Chicago Bulls (Last Year: 9)
The Knicks had a bad off-season (see #13). The Bulls had a confusing one. It wasn’t bad, but it was so so so confusing that it’s borderline bad. It really might be bad. Can you add two former All-Stars and the 2014 Rookie of the Year and have had a bad off-season? Well, they brought in two me-first guys who need the ball to start alongside their best player who is a me-first guy who needs the ball. Jimmy Butler can’t shoot, Dwyane Wade really can’t shoot, and Rajon Rondo has the accuracy of a Stormtrooper. This could get u-g-l-y, but I think there’s enough glue to keep this popsicle stand intact. Probably.
9. Orlando Magic (Last Year: 11)
Entering the off-season, the Magic had too many bigs and some great assets to work with. Elfrid Payton or Victor Oladipo would probably be traded for a swingman, but instead Oladipo was traded on Draft Night for Serge Ibaka. Which is okay. I really like the Ibaka-Nic Vucevic fit. But then they signed Bismack Biyombo and cluttered up everything. I applaud Orlando’s effort to trade their way into a more relevant position, but were all of the Front Office employees aware of one move before they made another? This isn’t like Portland’s big man jam because those guys know their role and aren’t making huge money. But these guys are, and that doesn’t even factor in forwards Jeff Green and Aaron Gordon, both who take up a lot of minutes at the four and the latter needs to play. However, I love me some Evan Fournier and Mario Hezonja and Frank Vogel is an absolutely terrific Coach. This team will be better, but the future direction of it is disturbingly unclear.
8. Washington Wizards (Last Year: 10)
I want the Wizards to be good because I really love John Wall. A great combination of human+athlete. The Wizards have had terrible luck with their draft picks since snagging Wall first overall in 2010. First rounders since have included Jan Vesely (6th overall, 2011), Chris Singleton (18th, 2011), Bradley Beal (3rd, 2012) and Otto Porter, Jr. (3rd, 2013). Singleton is out of the league and Vesely is off the map, but Beal and Porter are mainstays for the Wizards. Unfortunately, the mega-talented Beal is always hurt and Porter has yet to find any consistency as a pro. If both guys are great, or even just good, Wall can carry this team higher than 8th. If Beal stays healthy he can score 23+ PPG and the Wizards could be a factor for home court in the East.
7. Atlanta Hawks (Last Year: 4)
Atlanta got Mr. Consolation Prize in free agency, Dwight Howard --who not even the Mavericks wanted as three-year old sloppy seconds-- after Al Horford bolted for Boston. The club also traded Jeff Teague in a three-team deal to acquire a second first-round draft pick and free up the point guard spot for Dennis Schroder. Schroder can replace Teague, but there won’t be any replacing Horford, at least not with any pieces currently employed by Atlanta. Kyle Korver’s body is aging at an alarming rate which leaves a lot of pressure on Kent Bazemore, who the club did manage to re-sign. I believe in Coach Budenholzer to get this team to the playoffs without too much drama, but if things go south Paul Millsap (who has a player option for next season) could be traded at the deadline.
6. Indiana Pacers (Last Year: 7)
Speaking of coaches I absolutely love, this team fired one. I have no idea what was going on behind the scenes and I won’t pretend to like most journalists I admire, but Frank Vogel is a beautiful coach. But they fired him, for whatever reason. Anywhoozles, Paul George is really great and that power forward project is thankfully over. Indiana does a mighty fine job of finding pieces without many resources. I fancy myself a University of Texas fan, but I didn’t expect Myles Turner --picked 11th in 2015-- to be this good. The Pacers were busy on the phones during the Draft, trading for Jeff Teague in a three-team deal where they sent George Hill to Utah and also acquired Thaddeus Young from the Nets for the 20th overall pick. I really like both of these deals, and I like the Pacers to improve on a solid 2015-16.
5. Detroit Pistons (Last Year: 8)
Stan Van Gundy took over all things Pistons prior to the 2014 season and has made quick work in rectifying years of damage by Joe Dumars. The Pistons now have a seriously talented core of Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson. Acquiring Marcus Morris from the Suns last year was a stealthily fantastic move. Jackson will miss about a month with a knee injury, delaying the Pistons’ true nature, assuming they really are a team to be reckoned with. I believe they are.
4. Charlotte Hornets (Last Year: 6)
I always seem to tell myself the Hornets will be better than they are. Well, I’m doing it again. One of the best trades in the NBA the past couple years has been Charlotte’s acquisition of Nicolas Batum in 2015. Re-signing Batum was at the top of the off-season checklist and they were able to do so, despite most believing he would depart. Kemba Walker isn’t the most efficient player, but boy is he explosive. If he can be more of the former at the small sacrifice of the latter, he’ll be an All-Star contender. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is chomping at the bit to show his potential, missing the first chunk of last season with a shoulder injury. Part of my Charlotte portfolio is my belief in Frank Kaminsky to take a step and Cody Zeller to take another step. Steve Clifford gets the most out of what he has, exemplified by the career resurrection of Marvin Williams.
3. Boston Celtics (Last Year: 5)
Like Utah out West, everyone’s pick in East to make a big leap is Boston. The Celtics have had assets stuck in Boston traffic for years without a star player to anchor a young core. They now have Al Horford. But with Boston, it’s (still) about the guards. Isaiah Thomas is on the best contract in the league that isn’t Steph Curry’s, Avery Bradley has turned into a terrific two-way two player and then there’s Marcus Smart and/or Terry Rozier, one of whom is poised to break out, or at the very least step into a bigger role. Somewhere along the way, they will probably trade for another big man or even a small forward with a more offensive focus than Jae Crowder. But the present and the future is sparkling for Danny Ainge’s team.
2. Toronto Raptors (Last Year: 2)
Most have Boston supplanting Toronto as the Eastern Conference silver medal winner. However, I very much believe in establishing a winning culture and the Raptors have definitely done that. They re-signed DeMar DeRozan (who really only made sense as a Raptor) to keep their star backcourt of he and Kyle Lowry together. Playoff darling Bismack Biyombo got paid by somebody else, but the basketball gods are just begging Jonas Valanciunas to become one of the game’s premier bigs. They’ve already lost Jared Sullinger to injury and depth could be an issue, especially if Terrence Ross refuses to become basketball competent.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (Last Year: 1)
Finally achieving that NBA title, the Cavaliers will look to repeat for the first time in franchise history. The core is much the same with the addition of Mike Dunleavy and subtraction of Matthew Dellavedova. LeBron James is a year older. His basketball body is supposed to be as old as Yoda at this point, but Yoda was also jumping around fighting bad guys at 875 years old.
15. Sacramento Kings (Last Year: 10)
Rudy Gay’s “basketball hell” revelation wouldn’t be so funny if it weren’t so true. But it is. The 10 seed looks like improvement, but Sacramento won only 33 games in 15-16, four more than the year before. DeMarcus Cousins may not be as volatile as he was a few years ago, but Rudy Gay is already traded, Darren Collison is suspended eight games for a domestic violence incident, nobody liked their draft and this could get even worse. Hellish, if you will. Rudy will.
14. Los Angeles Lakers (Last Year: 15)
Just like Sacramento’s 2015-16 seed number is misleadingly positive, this 2016-17 Lakers projection isn’t as bad as I intend. The Lakers are finally free of Kobe Bryant. They're free, kids! With all due to respect to the future Hall-of-Famer, nobody was getting better with him around. The young, dynamic backcourt of D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson is reason enough to get excited. But Julius Randle and this summer’s second overall pick Brandon Ingram add to a very promising core that was surprisingly built through the draft. Sure, they tanked their way into keeping a top three protected pick (and will probably do it again), but they don’t make the rules. They do make the trades, though, but that’s not a problem the players can fix.
13. Phoenix Suns (Last Year: 14)
Phoenix could win 35 games and be solid. They could also win 20 games and be dreadful. This team has talent but it’s stacked on top of each other. Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight can’t coexist. Devin Booker is a budding star but eliminates trying to start both Bledsoe and Knight. Along with Booker, I’m high on some of the Suns young talent, including T.J. Warren, Alex Len and rookies Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. (Another one of those guys was Archie Goodwin, but he surprisingly did not make the team and will surely be claimed off waivers in no time...probably by Philadelphia) The Suns have a glut of players like Bledsoe, Knight and Tyson Chandler who belong on contenders, which isn’t a terrible problem to have. Especially with the young talent they already posses and a top pick eventually coming from the Lakers, things could be worse.
12. New Orleans Pelicans (Last Year: 12)
If Anthony Davis stays healthy... If. If. If. If. As far as the best big men in the NBA go, it’s probably Davis when he’s right, even with fellow former Kentucky Wildcats Karl-Anthony Towns and DeMarcus Cousins around. Whether that’s true or not, it’s irrelevant. He’s still a complete stud, he’s also a completely huge risk. But if the basketball gods allow him to play 70 games, the Pelicans should project higher than this...if Jrue Holiday can stay healthy. Oh boy. At least they don’t have Eric Gordon to worry about anymore.
11. Denver Nuggets (Last Year: 11)
A probable casualty of this spot if AD were to stay healthy in N’Orleans. Denver is absolutely loaded with young, intriguing talent. Loaded. Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic and Jamal Murray just to name a few. Then you have your veterans, if you will. Will Barton, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari. These guys are all of great quality, but the Nuggets need somebody to emerge as as a number one. And they have a lot of options. If that happens, they’re going to be more than competitive every night, propelled by youth that they can use to simply outrun and outwork you. The only Nuggets over 29 are not rotation players: Mike Miller (36) and Jameer Nelson (34). Seven Nuggets are 22 or younger.
10. Houston Rockets (Last Year: 8)
I don’t like Houston and I loathe their new point guard. But this could be a perfect storm with better results. Or it could be worse. That’s what Mike D’Antoni does. The architect of the historic SSOL (Seven Seconds or Less) Suns offense, D’Antoni’s next project is with James Harden and the Rockets. They added Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon in the off-season, supplying further (and unneeded) proof that it’s going to be 100% offense, 0% defense this season. Losing Dwight Howard is a relief both on and off the court for the Rockets. Clint Capela is better anyway and the babysitting that Howard requires hasn’t been worth it in half a decade. The Rockets could be better or worse, it really all depends on their star player, because this team is built not only around him, but for him.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves (Last Year: 13)
I wrestled with this decision. The Timberwolves have followed the perfect blueprint the past several years, bottoming out and hitting on their top draft picks. They also traded Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins, which has worked out far more than anyone could have imagined thanks to Love’s staggering regression. (Got a ring, though!) Where Wiggins is a pending superstar, Karl-Anthony Towns is already a top ten player in the league. The young talent is oozing off of this team with more young studs in the making like Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Kris Dunn. Tom Thibodeau will take on a role akin to Stan Van Gundy’s in Detroit. This team will be a big jumper, but they won just 29 games last year so there is quite a lot of ground to pick up.
8. Dallas Mavericks (Last Year: 6)
Sigh. A lot of teams I’ve written about have a chance to be better than my slot, I don’t feel that Dallas does. I think their ceiling is eighth with their floor being potentially disastrous. If it weren’t for whatever magic Dirk Nowitzki has in his body and Rick Carlisle has in his mind, there would really be no way this team could make the playoffs. However, with a depleted roster due to free agents choosing against them time after time after time, they continue to not only make the playoffs, but last year finished 6th. While Chandler Parsons to Harrison Barnes would have seemed like an absolute downgrade seasons ago, Parsons was nothing but injury prone in his two years with the Mavs and Harrison Barnes finally has the free-for-all role he thinks he can succeed in. Whether he can or not will dictate not just this year for Dallas, but the next several.
7. Memphis Grizzlies (Last Year: 7)
The Grizzlies limped to the finish line last year, but did make the Playoffs. Upon getting there, they couldn’t give the second seeded San Antonio Spurs a fight. They really ran out of players, losing the first two games to San Antonio by a combined 58 points. This season, they get Marc Gasol back from the disabled list and re-signed Mike Conley to the largest deal in NBA history (5 years, $153 million). They also signed Chandler Parsons to a max deal that division rival Dallas wouldn’t give him. Memphis has never spent this kind of money in their existence, and with the cap rising annually Conley’s deal won’t be the largest for long, but the Grizz have certainly stacked their chips on a core of Conley-Gasol-Parsons to take them to the next level. I don’t think that core is their answer and depth will be an issue for this team, especially if one of those three were to get hurt...again.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder (Last Year: 3)
A hard team to place after losing Kevin Durant in the biggest off-season move since LeBron James signed with Miami in 2010. Most think that Russell Westbrook will go into a Wolverine-like berserker rage and tear the league apart. I don’t disagree, but that’s not why OKC can still finish sixth in the tough Western Conference. Durant obviously can’t be replaced, but this team without the former MVP still has a lot of talent. A lot. Steven Adams has become one of the best big men in the game, and Enes Kanter backing him up or even starting alongside him with Ibaka gone is better than most teams can do. Victor Oladipo is a nice add but presents an interesting and potentially problematic perimeter dynamic with Westbrook. Though they suffered the biggest loss of any team, they still have a top five player and a good roster.
5. Utah Jazz (Last Year: 9)
Gordon Hayward’s finger injury is a bummer, but he’ll be back soon before long. Any time he misses hurts, though. Utah is absolutely stacked with (young) talent but G-Time was their go-to option. Who takes the last shot in the interim will be interesting to watch. Incumbents Rodney Hood and Alec Burks are options, so are newcomers Joe Johnson and George Hill. Dante Exum is finally healthy and everyone wants to see what he can do, and he won’t be forced into a big role to show out. Patience is a luxury Utah is afforded because they have an absurd amount of depth at guard. They could use another big down the line, especially if they’re as good as everyone is expecting. But what they have now is already one of the best frontcourts in the league with Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Trey Lyles off the bench and Boris Diaw in reserve.
4. Portland Trail Blazers (Last Year: 5)
Love this team. Not sure about shelling out every dollar they had in the near future's salary cap to make sure Allen Crabbe could stay and Evan Turner could come but Portland is set to be a top seed out West, potentially passing up the Clippers who they defeated in the first round last season. They have four more talented, young bigs than most teams have had in years. How the minutes are divided up between Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Festus Ezeli and Meyers Leonard is something I’m awfully curious to see. The Blazers are very experienced for a team without a player over 27 years old. The Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum 1-2 punch is one of the best in the league, but the size disadvantage presented by those two is something to keep an eye on, particularly on defense.
3. Los Angeles Clippers (Last Year: 4)
It seems everyone has legitimately forgotten about the Clippers. They were a first round exit last year but they lost their two good players to serious injuries. Still, with the teams above them getting even better every season and teams behind them also improving, the Clippers core has remained the same of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, shooters and veterans Doc Rivers finds at Valero. More of the same isn’t always bad and consistency is a great, underrated thing in sports but the Clippers haven’t done anything yet with what they have and the clock is ticking.
2. San Antonio Spurs (Last Year: 2)
What do you do when Tim Duncan can’t start anymore? You sign superstar LaMarcus Aldridge. What do you do when Tim Duncan can’t play anymore? You sign superstar Pau Gasol. That’s the life of the Spurs, who fittingly re-tinkered their dynasty on the fly. Just look at the transaction tree of Kawhi Leonard. The basketball gods notice these things! The Spurs are a machine, but they don’t have Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant.
1. Golden State Warriors (Last Year: 1)
This team does. But they don’t have Gregg Popovich. The best coach in NBA history can’t run his own plays, however, and Steve Kerr will often not have to call any. You saw what Scott Brooks did on isolations alone with Durant and Westbrook. The Warriors won 73 games last year, and they are going to be expected to win just as many, which would only be so frikkin’ ridiculous if they weren’t so frikkin’ loaded. Jokes on us. Time to ball.