The NBA offseason is sort of like Game of Thrones in the sense that there’s a ton going on at any given moment, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of who everyone is/where they are, and everything you root against usually ends up happening. Like the boring filler episodes, the 2014 offseason has become a bit stagnant. Yes, there are still a few players with decisions to make. But for now, we can look ahead to the season and start projecting these teams. These are some way-too-early power rankings, broken into groups.
LeBron James going to Cleveland certainly changed things dramatically in the East. The West will, again, be a dogfight. And then there’s the question of where the Celtics rank right now.
Group 1: Still tanking.
30. Philadelphia 76ers (19-63 last year)
On the whole, the Sixers had a positive draft and have had positive offseason overall. Philadelphia could see as many as five rookies play legit roles this season. Joel Embiid (#3) and Dario Saric (#12) were long-term, high risk picks that could prove genius down the road. Both were also good value selections at those respective spots. Getting KJ McDaniels in the 2nd round could prove to be a steal. He projects as a plus-defender on the wing immediately with a lot of offensive upside.
Philly hasn’t signed anybody yet, but is rumored to be a possible third team in a Kevin Love to Cleveland trade that would likely net them Dion Waiters. Nerlens Noel should be fun to watch this year, and projects as a dominant rim-protector moving forward. Think of a slightly taller Larry Sanders with a more eccentric hairstyle.
29. Utah Jazz (25-57)
Utah grabbed Dante Exum at #5 and appears to have gotten the steal of the first round with Rodney Hood at #27, who will play major minutes right away seeing as he’s already the best shooter on the team. Gordon Hayward probably wasn’t worth a max contract extension, but Utah was too talent-starved to just let their best player from last year walk. Besides, a 25% max extension (which is what players with 6 or less years in the league get) is only going to pay about $15.7 million next season and the cap is projected to skyrocket two years from now.
Group 2: Unquestionably bad teams that should at least make progress.
28. Orlando Magic (23-59)
Orlando has done a nice job stockpiling quality young players over the last couple of off-seasons. Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton, two of my favorite rookies, will join a core based around Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, and Nikola Vucevic. In fact, all of those guys except Gordon are likely to start. Dishing out money to Channing Frye and Ben Gordon in the middle of a rebuild is weird but at least both those guys can shoot.
Luke Ridnour was a nice veteran signing and getting Anthony Randolph from Chicago could payoff down the road. The Magic aren’t going to win a lot of games, but they’ll be a fun team to watch that could be pretty damn good defensively.
27. Boston Celtics (25-57)
Worry not, Celtics fans. The team is still going to struggle but they undeniably got better this offseason with the additions of Marcus Smart, James Young, Tyler Zeller, and Evan Turner. It’s unlikely any of those guys are going to turn the franchise around, but Ainge’s plan is still in place. The Celtics also have one thing that no other team ranked below 25 has, and that’s a proven superstar. Maybe you’re not the biggest fan of Rajon Rondo, but even as a pure trade asset he has more value than any other player from this group with the exception of (maybe) Jabari Parker.
It’s hard to project a win total for the Celtics. If Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens are really trying to win games, this team isn’t that far off from being the 8th best team the East (health-permitting). But it’s likely the team will throw more minutes at young guys like the did last year and be very cautious with even the most minor injuries. 30 wins should be expected, and 35 would be a sign of great progress.
26. Milwaukee Bucks (15-67)
Speaking of Jabari, his Milwaukee Bucks should be a fun team to watch. Larry Sanders’ return will be important. A wing duo of Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who played the point this summer with mixed results, could cause a lot of problems for opponents. Parker might end up being the best player in this draft and the Greek Freak actually grew an inch and half this offseason, he’s now 6′ 11″ with a 7′ 3″ wingspan. Getting Kendall Marshall from the Lakers won’t solve Milwaukee’s PG problems long-term but he’ll free up Brandon Knight to play more minutes at SG, his natural position.
Group 3: Not terrible, but playoffs are unlikely.
25. Sacramento Kings (28-54)
Do anybody know what the Sacramento Kings are doing? They paid Darren Collison $16 million over three years but let Isaiah Thomas, a much better player, leave on an affordable 4 year/$27 million deal with Phoenix. I do like Nik Stauskas, but #8 overall may have been a reach. There were clearly teams that wanted Elfrid Payton and Noah Vonleh, why not trade 4 or 5 spots back? They still would’ve gotten Stauskas and they’d probably add another pick for the future. The Kings could realistically win as many as 35 games or win only 20. DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay will have to shoulder even more of the load since Thomas is gone.
24. Los Angeles Lakers (27-55)
The Lakers might’ve not landed Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James, but those hopes were never really realistic given the teams current cap standing and the fact that Kobe Bryant is still collecting paychecks. They did make some nice moves though. Jordan Hill was re-signed and should see a major minutes boost with Byron Scott as the coach as opposed to Mike D’Antoni. Ed Davis coming in on a 2-year/$4 million deal may very well be the best dollar-for-dollar signing of the offseason after LeBron. Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, and Xavier Henry were brought back as well.
The team was willing to take on the contract of Jeremy Lin and claim Carlos Boozer off waivers because there’s no long-term commitment to either guy. And I love both their draft picks, Julius Randle (#7) and Jordan Clarkson (#46). This Lakers roster is better than the one they had last season, despite losing Pau Gasol. If we see the Kobe of old, they could fight for the last playoff spot out West.
23. Denver Nuggets (36-46)
Denver would likely be a legit playoff team in the East but they haven’t really given Brian Shaw much to work with this offseason. Gary Harris might prove to be a steal at #19 overall and trading for Arron Afflalo should help the teams perimeter play. JaVale McGee and Danilo Gallinari need to stay healthy. The Nuggets have some nice pieces, both Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried are good young players on good contracts, but they’re a long-shot for the playoffs in the West.
22. Detroit Pistons (29-53)
Even if they come into the season with Josh Smith as their starting SF again, I still expect Detroit to be better. They added my sleeper of the draft in Spencer Dinwiddie at #38 overall and signed some decent players who can shoot in DJ Augustin, Caron Butler, and Jodie Meeks. 3-years/$19 million may have been a bot much for Meeks, however. We’re all still waiting to see what happens with Greg Monroe, but Stan Van Gundy appears confident he’ll be back in Detroit.
21. New York Knicks (37-45)
No matter how you put it, the offseason has to be considered a win for the Knicks for the sole reason that they retained Carmelo Anthony. Carmelo is a polarizing figure in the NBA, you can debate whether or not you want him as your top guy, but the Knicks really had no choice. If he left, they would immediately become the worst team in the league. They cleared some future space by sending Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to Dallas in a move that netted them Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington, Jose Calderon, and Samuel Dalembert. Dalembert and Calderon are likely to start for this team.
They also added a quality player through the draft (Cleanthony Early at #34) and another via free agency (Jason Smith on a 1 year deal worth $3.3 million). The story this year will be about Carmelo’s growth in the triangle offense, but once Amare Stoudemire is off the books (next year) the Knicks will of a sudden be in a position to bid with anyone on top free agents.
Group 4: NBA Purgatory
20. Atlanta Hawks (38-44)
Atlanta squeaked into the playoffs last year and that’s likely to happen again. They’ll benefit greatly if Al Horford can stay healthy. This is actually a roster built on good deals for good players (see: Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap) but for some reason no free agents want to go to Atlanta. They added a couple of wings in Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore, both plus-defenders, and went big in the draft with Adreian Payne and Walter Tavaras. Atlanta is the current definition of NBA purgatory. They’re likely too good to score a pick in the top half of the lottery, but they’re probably not good enough to win a playoff series.
19. Minnesotta Timberwolves (40-42)
With all the talk about how Kevin Love is likely leaving Minnesota sometime before the trade deadline, people are forgetting that this is a decent team that would surely be a playoff squad in the East. Obviously, if Love is traded the team is likely to fall close to 10 spots in these rankings. But until that happens, we have to assume they’ll have Love. Ricky Rubio, who wants a max extension, has begun to leave a sour taste in the mouths of Wolves fans as his weaknesses are greatly holding him back. It’s sort of funny to think that they chose two point guards back to back in the 2009 Draft and neither of them were named Stephen Curry.
Nikola Pekovic, probably the strongest player in the NBA, is still in the fold. They added two super-athletes through the draft in Zach LaVine and Glenn Robinson III. If they get a decent return on Love, the Wolves could be set up nicely moving forward.
18. Brooklyn Nets (44-38)
If Brook Lopez can stay healthy, which is possibly the most commonly used “if” in the NBA, Brooklyn could have the best center combination in the league thanks to the surprisingly effective play of Mason Plumlee last season. Even without Paul Pierce, they’re still likely a playoff team in the East.
But the contracts of Joe Johnson and Deron Williams don’t look any better now than they did a year ago, except for the fact that they’re a year closer to expiring. They lost Shaun Livingston, but managed to replace him with Jarrett Jack in a cap-shedding trade by Cleveland that also gave Brooklyn promising Euro-star Sergey Karasev. Jason Kidd sort of screwed this organization over, he should have a bodyguard check any mail he gets from Russia, but I think they made a nice coaching hire with the defensive-minded Lionel Hollins.
17. New Orleans Pelicans (34-48)
New Orleans may still be hurting a bit from over-paying Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon, but they have a ton of talent and are definitely a team to watch moving forward. Adding Omer Asik should only help speed up Anthony Davis‘ rise to elite player status as it will free him up to move a bit more on defense. Jimmer Fredette and Darius Miller could prove to be nice affordable signings. In the East, I’d be willing to go as far as saying the Pelicans would have a shot at a 5 or a 6 seed.
Group 5: On the rise.
16. Phoenix Suns (48-34)
The mess between RFA Eric Bledsoe, the best player still on the market, and Phoenix has gotten pretty ugly. But even if they don’t bring him back they should be able to again fight for a playoff spot thanks to the addition of Isaiah Thomas. Tyler Ennis was a strange selection given this teams plethora of PG’s, but I really like the TJ Warren pick. Warren could very well finish atop the leader boards in rookie scoring. Anthony Tolliver was signed to help with perimeter shooting, but that’s still an issue. So is pretty much everything with the teams front court.
The Suns will be a very fast-paced team again, especially if Bledsoe is retained, and are certainly a franchise on the rise thanks to the good work of their GM, and former Celtics front office man, Ryan McDonough.
15. Charlotte Hornets (43-39)
The team formerly known as the Bobcats will come into the season with legit playoff expectations for perhaps the first time in franchise history. They improved significantly through the draft with the selections of Noah Vonleh (a steal at #9) and knockdown shooter PJ Hairston (a steal at #26). Getting Lance Stephenson on a 3-year deal at $9 million per with a team option for the third year is a great signing. Marvin Williams at 2-years/$14 million was probably a bit over-paid but it’s certainly not one of the ugliest contracts this offseason.
Al Jefferson gives this team one of the best bigs in the East, and they continue to fill out the roster around him. Losing Josh McRoberts hurts, but his unique playmaking abilities should be replaced by those of Stephenson.
14. Toronto Raptors (48-34)
Kyle Lowry at 4-years/$48 million was a great re-signing by Toronto and 3-years/$16 million for Patrick Patterson is solid as well. They also added James Johnson for defensive purposes. The Raptors are one of the more exciting young teams in the league thanks to the continued growth of DeMar DeRozan (possibly the 3rd best SG in the NBA right now) and Terrence Ross. Drake, if he’s not rocking a Cavs jersey, should have a lot to cheer about this year.
Group 6: We’re still here, and we’re pretty damn good.
13. Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)
I’m off the belief that Portland may fall off a bit. They’re a very good team, but I don’t see them winning a playoff series in the West again. LeMarcus Aldridge, frankly, played a bit over his head at times last season. Signing Steve Blake and Chris Kaman should immediately help bolster a rotation that only had 7 reliable guys in the playoffs. The team is in great shape moving forward. I just think Dallas has jumped them, and I still like Houston and Golden State more.
12. Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)
Memphis just always seems to get by year after year despite their inability to score. A team-friendly extension for Zach Randolph was nice, while re-singing Beno Udrih (as a backup PG) and adding Vince Carter (for some much needed shooting) should help improve the offense. The team was surely moving on from Ed Davis, but I think they should’ve reconsidered given how cheap the Lakers got him for.
Jordan Adams was a strange selection at #22, they probably could’ve gotten an elite shooter, but I really like the Jarnell Stokes pick at #35. The Grizzlies are likely a playoff team again that will be a very tough out for one of the top dogs in the West.
11. Miami Heat (54-28)
Anytime you lose the best player of his generation, it hurts. But Pat Riley & co. should have no problem landing on their feet. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are back. Wade will look to prove the doubters wrong and show he still has some gas left in the tank. Bosh will look to revert to the dominant version of himself we saw in Toronto. A lot of their other moves (drafting Shabazz Napier, signing Danny Granger, signing Josh McRoberts) were made in order to help LeBron, but still could prove to be decent moves even without the King.
Luol Deng at 2-years/$20 million is a good signing. They also retained some of the usual gang in Chris Andersen, Mario Chalmers, and Udonis Haslem. Miami likely isn’t headed for their 5th straight finals appearance, but they should remain one of the 4 or 5 best teams in the conference.
Group 7: Could go to the conference finals, or could get swept in round 1.
10. Washington Wizards (44-38)
I don’t think replacing Trevor Ariza with Paul Pierce will hurts the ‘Zards. In fact, I believe Pierce is an upgrade. Ariza has only had two “good” seasons that have both coincidentally come in contract years. He shot 40.7% from deep last season, but is just 34.7% from there for his career. Marcin Gortat was a bit expensive at 5-years/$60 million, but the team couldn’t afford to lose him if they wanted to contend in the East this year.
They also signed two effective but unspectacular bigs, Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair, to cheap contracts. John Wall and Bradley Beal should continue to develop into possibly the best backcourt in the NBA, which in turn will make the team one of the best in the East by default.
9. Indiana Pacers (56-26)
Indiana’s only real loss was Lance Stephenson, so I wouldn’t expect them to fall back very much in the East as long as they still have Paul George, David West, and Roy Hibbert (who shouldn’t be judged solely on his play in the 2nd half of last season). They brought in CJ Miles and Rodney Stuckey to give them some help on the perimeter. Both are great fits. Miles (39.3% from deep) gives them much needed shooting while Stuckey is a combo guard who can defend and create.
George will likely have more responsibilities defensively with Stephenson in Charlotte, but that shouldn’t be a problem seeing as he’s one of the best defenders in the league.
8. Houston Rockets (54-28)
Losing Chandler Parsons to Dallas certainly hurts, and replacing him with Trevor Ariza probably isn’t going to work out perfectly. At least they cleared Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin from their books. Clint Capela (#25 overall pick) may not play in the NBA right away but many feel he is a Serge Ibaka-type talent. Troy Daniels, the D-League record holder for most 3′s in a season, was a nice re-signing.
Houston may have not taken the step forward that many were expecting (Bosh would’ve been a great fit) but they have two legitimate stars in James Harden and Dwight Howard. That alone keeps them in contention.
7. Dallas Mavericks (49-33)
Maybe ranking the Mavericks this high right now is a bit premature. But Dirk Nowitzki taking a very team friendly deal allowed them to steal Chandler Parsons from the Rockets. They also used some of their money to get Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler in a trade with the Knicks. Al-Farouq Aminu (for defense) and Rashard Lewis (for shooting) should prove to be nice signings as well. Dallas has taken an approach that says they feel they can contend with anybody in the West. I’m a believer.
6. Golden State Warriors (51-31)
Golden State is certainly still in the hunt for Kevin Love, but even without him, they’re one of the best teams in the West. We’ll see how Steve Kerr pans out as a coach, but adding Brandon Rush (again) and Shaun Livingston should certainly help spell Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (assuming he isn’t traded) in the backcourt. I’m not quite as high on Thompson as most. If he’s the guy that the Timberwolves want for Love, you have to trade him. We’ll see what happens.
Group 8: “I got to choose the East”
5. Chicago Bulls (48-34)
Yes, it all hinges on Derrick Rose’s knees. If Rose can return at even 80% of his MVP self, the Bulls are probably the best team in the East. Doug McDermott was a great selection who will thrive on this team thanks to his perimeter shooting and the systems ability to hide him on the weak side defensively. Signing Pau Gasol means the Bulls are likely to have the best frontcourt rotation in the East, and perhaps the entire NBA depending on how the bigs in Memphis and Los Angeles (Clippers) play. The Bulls also officially amnestied Carlos Boozer, which they should’ve done two years ago.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (33-49)
LeBron James could join any team in the league and make them a legitimate title contender overnight, and this Cleveland roster is certainly better than the one he took to the Finals. If they move Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, so be it, you have to get another top 10 player when you have the chance. But even without a major trade, these guys are still my early pick to win the East. Wiggins and LeBron could be this generations version of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the problems they’ll cause for opponents on defense and in transition.
Anthony Bennett appears to have already improved tremendously. Adding LeBron’s old running mates James Jones and Mike Miller, as well as signing Brendan Haywood, will help will out the bench. If Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao stick around, this team will be dominant on the boards. Kyrie Irving is going to be able to function as a pure shooter as well. With or without Love, the Cavs are set to make a run at their first title in franchise history.
Group 9: The Top Dogs
3. Los Angeles Clippers (57-25)
Let’s forget about a potential strike, Chris Paul refusing to play, or Doc Rivers refusing to coach. The Clippers already had perhaps the best top-to-bottom roster in the NBA and they improved. Jordan Farmar and Spencer Hawes were good signings that both fill needs. CJ Wilcox was a great value pick at #28, but they pretty much drafted the same player last year in Reggie Bullock.
It’ll be a shame if the Sterling Saga distracts from the Clips this year, because this should be a great team that is ready to cross the final frontier and compete for a championship. Chris Paul is the best point guard in the league. Blake Griffin has improved tremendously on both sides of the ball. DeAndre Jordan is a flat-out problem for opponents during the first 44 minutes of the games, and that’s exactly why they signed Hawes.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23)
OKC’s title window all of a sudden seems a little smaller due to some uncertainty surrounding Kevin Durant’s long-term future with the team. But for the next two years at least, they’ll be right in the hunt. Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are the best big 3 in the league. It’s shame that the latter two have struggled with injuries in the playoffs the last two seasons. Mitch McGary should immediately help this team inside, where they struggle mightily on both ends when Ibaka is off the floor.
Anthony Morrow is a nice addition who will help spread the floor. But the real story to watch will be the development, or lack thereof, from Jeremy Lamb. He’ll have to improve if this team wants to get by the Spurs. He has the athleticism and skill to become a great player on the perimeter.
1. San Antonio Spurs (62-20)
Maybe I’m boring. Or maybe I just acknowledge greatness. There’s absolutely no reason to rank the Spurs, who retained Patty Mills and Boris Diaw while bringing Matt Bonner back from the dead and adding Kyle Anderson through the draft, anywhere but #1. Maybe Tim Duncan’s knees will finally crumble. Maybe the rest of the league will figure out Greg Popovich’s sets. Maybe Kawhi Leonard isn’t quite as good as he was in the finals.
Maybe. Maybe the Spurs will fall off. But probably not.