Post by Alex Flum
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have made the playoffs the past five seasons, yet they have no rings to show for it. If they want Kevin Durant to stick around after his contract expires in 2016, it would be best for them to win a championship. The Thunder added a shooter that can hopefully provide something close to what James Harden did before he was traded away. They still have a solid frontcourt rotation of Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams. They also have a healthy Russell Westbrook. The Thunder appear primed to once again contend for a championship.
2. San Antonio Spurs
We were all dazzled by the amazing championship performance Greg Popovich’s Spurs displayed. This offseason, the Spurs didn’t fix what wasn’t broken. This season’s roster is almost identical to last season’s. They drafted Kyle Anderson out of UCLA who can play almost any position on the court. It remains to be seen if Tim Duncan can continue to play his best basketball, but he’s silenced critics every year, I have a feeling he’ll be good still this season. Finally, Kawhi Leonard broke out as the finals MVP and should become the star of this team alongside Tony Parker. The Spurs should have another shot a championship.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
Now that Kevin Love has been traded to this team, they’re even scarier. I think trading Wiggins is a mistake but that is another story. Lebron is back in town and the Cavaliers are certainly the story of the offseason. The Cavaliers now led by Lebron should be in for a strong season and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. A Kyrie Irving breakout could elevate them to NBA champions.
4. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have pieced together one of the most underratedly talented teams I have seen in a while. The lone question mark is Derrick Rose’s bill of health. If Rose returns to his pre-injuries self the Bulls will no doubt be the ones hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of this season. What many keep forgetting is that defense always the key to a strong sports team. Do the Cavs have defense?
5. Portland Trail Blazers
Last season I correctly predicted that the Blazers would burst out onto the scene and contend in the West. This season, they will take another step forward and contend for the top spot. The Blazers are the real deal. Damian Lillard is a top three if not top two point guard in the NBA, Lamarcus Aldridge is a dominating presence in the paint, while the rest of the team provides strong support. The next player to breakout? CJ McCollum. He was sidelined for the early part of last season with an injury and it slowed his development, but I think he can crack his way into the starting lineup by the end of this season and provide offensive firepower. The Blazers have a legitimate chance at making it to the finals this season.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
It seems that the Clippers have finally rid of their owner and are ready to shift their focus on to the court. The Clippers addressed their big man depth problem by adding Spencer Hawes, he should be able to provide relief late in games when Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan foul out. They also whisked assistant coach Sam Cassell away from the Wizards, he will help the team tremendously. With Paul still in his prime, and Griffin well into his prime already, the Clippers could have a real shot at the title this year.
7. Golden State Warriors
I was not a big fan of the move to fire Mark Jackson, but I liked their rebound hire of Steve Kerr. The Warriors won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Steph Curry is the best shooter in the NBA, if not in the history of the NBA, while they still have their nucleus of Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut. They also boast Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green coming off the bench. The Warriors could be a real threat come playoff time. I do have trouble seeing them competing for a title though.
8. Washington Wizards
Last year was a liberating season for the Wizards franchise and their fans (me). After six years of atrocious playofless basketball the Wizards returned to the big stage and advanced to the second round. The team meshed well, while John Wall burst out onto the scene. This offseason the Wizards added NBA veteran Paul Pierce after the departure of Trevor Ariza to Houston. Pierce will fit into a good mix of veterans and young developing stars, he will also play a major role in mentoring former third overall pick Otto Porter. Look for the Wizards to return to the playoffs again this year.
9. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors were the surprise of the NBA last season, hushing all their critics and finishing third in a weak eastern conference. The Raptors return an almost identical roster from last season. They added Louis Williams to bolster the bench, which I think was a great move. With familiarity and a playoff appearance under their belt, there is no reason to believe this Raptors team won’t return to the playoffs this season.
10. Miami Heat
They lost Lebron. Well, what can you do, he wanted to go home. Pat Riley did an excellent job of putting together a backup plan. The Heat vastly overpaid Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but they managed to keep them around. They brought in Jameer Nelson, Luol Deng, Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts; all strong signings. The Heat won’t be the same superpower they have been the past four years, but they will play some good basketball.
11. Charlotte Hornets
The Bobcats, who were once the laughing stock of the NBA, have now transformed into the Hornets, who are now a formidable playoff contender in the eastern conference. They signed Lance Stephenson to start in the backcourt next to Kemba Walker. Stephenson does have character concerns, but Michael Jordan should be able to get him in line. They also drafted Noah Vonleh, a supreme prospect who should be able to contribute off the bench immediately.
12. Phoenix Suns
The Suns surprised everyone last season by posting 48 wins and nearly making the playoffs. The addition of Isaiah Thomas gives them a triumvirate of guards in him, Eric Bledsoe (assuming he signs) and Goran Dragic. They still lack a strong big man since they traded Marcin Gortat to the Wizards but Morris and Plumlee are fine for now and they will continue to develop Alex Len. The Suns should take the step up from last year and make the playoffs.
13. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are one of the most underrated teams in the West. Marc Gasol has often times been overshadowed by his brother and overlooked as one of the better big men in this league. Tony Allen is a phenomenal perimeter defender. Mike Conley, one of the most underrated players in the NBA, could be this year’s surprise player. Bold prediction: Mike Conley will be an all-star and the Grizzlies will play a team close in the first round.
14. Houston Rockets
Poor Houston, this team has just been stuck in mediocre land for years. They managed to finish fourth in the conference last year but I think they will take a step back. The additions of Trevor Ariza is solid, but they lost Jeremy Lin, they lost Chandler Parsons and they whiffed on every major free agent they targeted. The Rockets did nothing to improve their team and in a tough conference like the West, if your team makes no strides in the offseason you may fall.
15. Dallas Mavericks
I know that some people have picked the Mavericks to get the fourth/fifth seed or even contend for a title, but I just don’t see that happen. I don’t believe in Chandler Parsons and Dirk Nowitzki’s is clearly in decline. They are good enough to win 45 games, but that may not be good enough to make the playoffs. It could be an underachieving year in Dallas for the Mavs.
16. Denver Nuggets
This is probably the last team in the West that would make the playoffs in the East. Kenneth Faried is a budding star in this league and getting Arron Afflalo back for his second stint in Denver was big. Ty Lawson can run the floor and should be a key piece for this team. They also boast a solid amount of depth. They’ll compete for one of the final playoff spots for sure, but in a tough conference when it comes to the last month they will be on the outside looking in.
17. New York Knicks
Somehow, Phil Jackson managed to get Carmelo Anthony to return to this team. Chicago, Dallas and Houston all would have given Carmelo a better chance of winning a ring. The Knicks aren’t exactly talentless. Tim Hardaway Jr. is a rising sharp shooter, Iman Shumpert is a defensive maniac, they acquired Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert from Dallas and they still have Amar’e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith. The Knicks aren’t exactly a contender for the championship, or even the conference finals, but they should make the playoffs.
18. Brooklyn Nets
The best thing that happened to the Nets this offseason was trading head coach Jason Kidd to the Bucks. Out went an unqualified, inexperienced, simply bad coach and in came Lionel Hollins, a qualified, experienced wise coach, who should not have been fired by the Grizzlies a year ago. Hollins is a perfect fit for this team, he’ll be able to coach up a team that shouldn’t necessarily be a playoff team into the playoffs. Brook Lopez, a top five center, will be back from injury which should be a big boost for this team.
19. New Orleans Pelicans
Think this year’s Timberwolves. The Pelicans have all the pieces and the star in Anthony Davis to be flashy this year but miss out on the playoffs. Davis resembles Kevin Love’s situations early in his career as he has the potential to rise to elite status and he will need a year of competitive basketball to help him take another step towards that. Best case scenario is 40 wins for this team.
20. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons are a team that has a lot of talented players that don’t exactly mesh so well together. I’m going to assume that Greg Monroe resigns with Detroit. With Monroe back, they have an excellent frontcourt of Josh Smith, Monroe and Andre Drummond who has a chance to become one of the premier defensive centers in the league. If Monroe for some reason doesn’t return, this team could plummet to somewhere between 12-15 place in the conference. The Pistons have a shot at the playoffs but it won’t be anything close to easy.
21. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks will take a step back this season, despite the fact that Al Horford will be back healthy. I just simply can’t see a team on which Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll start are a lock in the playoffs. The Hawks could surprise some people and make it, but I don’t think they will in the end. They will at least compete for the seventh and eighth seed.
22. Boston Celtics
The Celtics enter this season with an average front court and a logjam of talent in the backcourt. This will most certainly be the end of the Rondo era as the Marcus Smart one is ushered in. They’ll probably struggle early and trade Jeff Green away by the deadline. With a high draft pick next year and another shot at free agency, the Celtics will have a lot of optimism going into the 2015-16 season.
23. Orlando Magic
I really like the young talent on this team. They won’t rise into the playoffs this season, but they will definitely be competing for a spot in the following year. I think that Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon both have a chance to compete for rookie of the year. It should be a fun season in Orlando.
24. Los Angeles Lakers
I want to say that this team is going to make its way back into the playoffs this year but that simply isn’t going to happen. Grandpa Kobe Bryant is not nearly the same he used to be, Julius Randle hasn’t played a second of professional basketball, while Nick “Swaggy P” Young, has much as I love him is, always was and always will be a role player. Jordan Hill and Jeremy Lin should both have solid seasons, but this team is clearly waiting for free agency in the coming years. If they were in the East we’d be discussing them as a contender for the last two spots, but they’re in the West.
25. Indiana Pacers
The Paul George injury may hit team USA hard, but it is a major setback for the Pacers, especially since they just lost Lance Stephenson in free agency. Rodney Stuckey, Evan Turner and Chris Copeland will fill in on the wings but they just simply won’t do the same job. Roy Hibbert’s career has clearly flopped and David West may begin to decline. It will take a miracle for the Pacers to make the playoffs in the upcoming season.
26. Utah Jazz
The Jazz have stockpiled a phenomenal group of youngsters and should be a major threat in the west two or three years from now. They drafted Dante Exum and Rodney Hood who will both be their key pieces in the future. They matched Gordon Hayward’s contract to keep him and they still have Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Rudy Gobert. They also added Trevor Booker to the mix of frontcourt depth. The Jazz won’t be anything special this year, but they have a bright future.
27. Minnesota Timberwolves
Head coach, President of Basketball Operations and part-owner has a done a tremendous job building for the future this offseason. He knew Kevin Love was never going to resign with the Timberwolves and traded him for a future star in Andrew Wiggins and a future first round pick. They also acquired a stretch four in Thaddeus Young through the deal. The Timberwolves will become Andrew Wiggins’ team and that is the way it should be.
28. Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks drafted Jabari Parker, one of the most NBA ready players in the draft with the second pick. Parker will dazzle fans in his rookie season. The Bucks have plenty of young talent but not nearly enough to compete. They remind me a lot of the Wizards from the first couple years of John Wall’s career. I think that with a good coach this team could develop their young talent, but hiring Jason Kidd was a terrible decision. Kidd is not qualified, not ready and certainly not the right person to be the head coach of any team at the moment.
29. Sacramento Kings
I don’t understand this team at all. It’s 100% shooters and DeMarcus Cousins clearly doesn’t want to be there. Unfortunately for them, he was injured during Team USA’s practice this week. They also lost Isaiah Thomas, their brightest spot from last season in a sign-and-trade with Phoenix. The Kings are a mess and they are not improving any time soon.
30. Philadelphia 76ers
I’m not sure if the Philadelphia 76ers are done tanking yet, but they certainly have a bright future. Their nucleus of youngsters Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid now is solid. Thaddeus Young is a strong stretch four and K.J. McDaniels is a rookie who will contribute immediately defensively. I don’t the Sixers are anywhere close to playoff contention as of now, but they will be in the not so distant future.