Hi everybody! Did you miss me? I missed you ❤
Programming note for this season: I will be publishing the Power Rankings weekly on Sunday night/Monday morning. My Power Rankings are usually more about the opening than they are a team-by-team breakdown, there are far smarter people doing this far better than I could ever imagine. In addition, I am planning on doing a weekly NBA podcast on Tuesday nights (no particular reason, it just fits in my current schedule) that will sort of be an “NBA Week in Review” where I can talk about topics that I find most interesting that I haven’t or am unable to properly explore in written format. You can subscribe to that podcast here. In addition, you can find my work at the fantastic Silver Screen and Roll and follow me on Twitter @DamanR. Thank you as always for your support, never hesitate to reach out to me for either criticism, feedback, requests, etc – the only thing I ever want to accomplish is to be better today than I was yesterday.
Vacation over, let’s go, onto this season!
The biggest news this offseason was clear: the Lakers signing Timofey Mozgov. Ok, just kidding. Kevin Durant’s addition to the Warriors shifted the balance of power further into Oakland and created possibly the greatest assembly of talent we have ever witnessed. What is scary about this particular superteam is specifically how well Durant fits into what they’re doing. The adjustment period that is expected when a superstar is newly acquired usually takes a quarter to a half of a season and sometimes even longer – with this team? They are making the rest of the league look silly in the preseason.
The key difference: Kevin Durant chose to join them, play their style, and fit in their system. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green pushed for him to join them personally – if there was any hesitation on their part Durant would still be in Oklahoma City. The Warriors are coming off a heartbreaking loss and will be anything but complacent on their pursuit of another championship.
Now, as the CBA is closing on being renegotiated, there was much talk about how the Warriors superteam assembly should cause severe rule changes to avoid this in the future. That’s nonsense. The set of circumstances that let this happen are largely unable to be re-produced. To recap:
-Steph Curry signs a deal well under market value
-Kevin Durant’s OKC Thunder team improbably blows a 3-1 lead with Game 6 under control until Klay Thompson had a historically great shooting performance to pull it out
-The 73 win Warriors become the first team to blow a 3-1 lead themselves in the NBA Finals – the first time this has ever happened.
-There is an unprecedented salary cap spike due to a rich new TV deal that gives every team in the league cap space, even teams as good as the Warriors
Let’s just pat the Warriors on the back for creating a culture that’s so attractive that superstars risk their reputation to join it. Let’s pat the Warriors on the back for being forward thinking and their front office aggressive enough to make this happen. That’s not to say all things are great, of course. The competitive balance of the league is skewed in ways we haven’t seen since the 80’s Celtics and Lakers. The Warriors will be favored in an estimated 81 games this year (@ Cleveland being the lone game I project they won’t). The NBA Finals will be between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, barring injury or freak circumstance. Truth be told, the Warriors could probably withstand injury AND freak circumstance.
Does this mean that this season is a waste for every other team? Every other contender? Is it a waste for NBA fans to get invested? Not at all. In the first power rankings of the season, I give my projected record for each team and for teams other than the Warriors and Cavaliers, I explain what the team looks to accomplish and/or what fans should look forward to, despite a title possibly being out of grasp.
Note: Records are my projections for the season
- Golden State Warriors (68-14): Win the championship. The burden of a super team (cue eye roll gif) is that if you don’t win it all – you’ve accomplished nothing. 73 wins is an awesome achievement, but it was entirely invalidated and tainted because the Warriors were unable to close the deal last year. How do the Patriots feel about going 16-0? The Warriors went 16-0 before the season even started with the Durant signing, now it’s on them to win it all.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (56-26): Defend your title. The Block, The Stop, and The Shot will forever live in Cleveland sports history and this Cavs team will be remembered as the first team ever to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals. At this point, they’re playing with house money – if they repeat, they’re even more legendary. If they don’t? They were just victim to a team that stacked the deck, the league is rigged, and honestly they might not accept the results right away.
- Los Angeles Clippers (57-25): Keep fighting. This is the hardest one. The Clippers have assembled the team that every season has many saying “this is their year” and rightfully so. They have elite players at point guard, power forward and center, and JJ Redick is the perfect fit alongside the rest of their starting lineup. Why shouldn’t this team be able to contend with the Warriors? But beyond that, it’s easy to forget just how far they’ve come. They went from an organization that was owned by a despicable human being who didn’t invest in his team to Steve Ballmer, have front office stability for the first time in franchise history, and they have turned the corner on being the laughingstock of the NBA. This team should be ashamed about it’s “lack of success”? Nah.
- San Antonio Spurs (54-28): Ride it out and renovate. Tim Duncan’s retirement signaled the official end of the glorious Popovich-Duncan era that started with a Championship in 1999. Manu Ginobili is set to play his last year, Tony Parker has entered the next phase of his career – the future of the Spurs is not in their hands any more. This year will sometimes feel just like the Good Ol’ Spurs, but on many nights the decrease in defensive ability and overall leadership of Timmy they simply won’t have that same magic. I look to see a transition taking place over the next 2 or 3 years where the team really becomes Kawhi’s, and this is the first year of this project.
- Boston Celtics (53-29): Take the next step. The Celtics are slowly approaching the “prove it to me now” stage of their rebuild. Danny Ainge has done a masterful job of accumulating assets and made a brilliant hire in Brad Stevens, but to me they look like a team that’s peaking prematurely – the ceiling for this team should be higher. Al Horford was a fantastic addition to the team, but they need to take a hard look at what they have and start cashing in on assets and find their franchise star to take their team to the level that befits their asset treasure chest. Also, stopping their strategy of “draft busts only” would be smart. (#Lakers #MitchKupchakGOAT)
- Toronto Raptors (50-32): Continue to establish Canada as a viable basketball and free agent market. Toronto’s regular season efforts have been impressive, and Masai Ujiri’s assembly of talent has placed Toronto in a position to sustainably compete for home court advantage in the East. The playoffs, however, are where this team struggles (despite making the Conference Finals this year).
- Portland Trail Blazers (45-37): Break into the second tier of West teams with the Spurs and Clippers while evaluating their asset sheet. They are still not there yet, but with another year of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as the leaders of the franchise, they should continue their upward ascendance. In addition, with the all the contracts signed this summer, it will be on the front office to determine how best to allocate their resources – the current configuration of talent does not fit the bill. Paying Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe an approximate $35 million annually doesn’t scream of fiscal responsibility and as the team continues to grow together, I anticipate roster moves that will also configure the team more efficiently.
- Utah Jazz (45-37): Validate the talent and hype. This team has come into multiple summers with the “they’re about to take a leap” narrative and while injuries can be blamed, this is the year that they have to come through. Even though this team is young and the assets have been very well managed, the clock is ticking for this core. Gordon Hayward can leave as a free agent, Derrick Favors is a year away and without either both staying or the front office swapping them for value – the Jazz can find themselves back to square one. While I don’t think the situation is as dire as I make it out to be, it feels that this is the year for Quin Snyder and co. to make some noise.
- Indiana Pacers (44-38): Make Larry Bird happy. If you’re going to fire Frank Vogel because you’re not happy with the playing style, fine. But make a more inspired hire than Nate McMillan! I think George Hill is severely underrated, and the Pacers downgraded at point guard with their acquisition of Jeff Teague. Myles Turner should have a breakout year, I am a believer in Thaddeus Young, and ultimately there’s enough talent for this team to hover in the range of having home court advantage in the first round, but other than that? Just keep Larry Bird happy.
- Houston Rockets (43-39): Cleanse the palette and have some fun. Last year was the year from hell, and no matter what buttons Daryl Morey tried to push, including firing Kevin McHale, and trying to unload Dwight Howard at the deadline – it just didn’t work. This team will be fun and will restore Houston’s reputation as a professional franchise and also Dwight’s departure will again put James Harden in his rightful spot as one of the league’s elite. Ultimately, I am not exactly inspired by the additions of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, but believe in Mike D’Antoni’s ability to get offensive production out of their players. Patrick Beverley’s absence will hurt greatly, especially on the defensive end, but that just means more James Harden at point guard!
- Detroit Pistons (42-40): Stay afloat and develop the talent. The Pistons are going to be without Reggie Jackson to start the season, already lacking shot creators, and will have a difficult time scoring the ball. The lack of firepower allows defenses to zero in on Andre Drummond, making his offensive weaknesses stand out even more. But they have a potential gem in Stanley Johnson who should be given every opportunity to grow and increasing Tobias Harris’ playmaking responsibilities may pay dividends down the road.
- Charlotte Hornets (42-40): Be ready to pounce. This is a team with a highly professional coach, a group of professional players, and a gritty style of play. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the best defenders in the league and his addition back into the lineup will improve the Hornets significantly. Stranger things have happened, and the Hornets will be ready to pounce if the East ends up weaker than projected and Cleveland looks vulnerable. This team won’t quit, will play hard, defend hard, and Kemba Walker has the ability to rise to the occasion.
- Memphis Grizzlies (42-40): Enjoy Grit and Grind as it enters it’s final stage. The Grit and Grind Grizzlies have been one the most enjoyable teams I’ve ever watched. Tony Allen’s craziness, Marc Gasol’s wizardry, Zach Randolph’s ZachRandolphness, Mike Conley’s steadiness all bring a smile to my face. With Zach Randolph going to the bench, the addition of Chandler Parsons (not as handsome as Luke Walton), and the hiring of David Fizdale, this Grizzlies team is slowly heading in a new direction – but on many nights they will remind us of their past.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (42-40): Crash the party. Karl-Anthony Towns is a once in a generation player, and with the hiring of Tom Thibodeau their rebuilding has been accelerated by at least 2 years.
- OKC Thunder (40-42): The Russell Westbrook Experience. Having to lose a superstar, a Top 3 player at that, is beyond difficult for a franchise and fanbase. Recovering with Supernova Russ is not a bad consolation prize at all. While I remain skeptical about how successful this team will be in regards to wins and losses, especially with their complete lack of outside scoring, they will be competitive. This season will allow Sam Presti to evaluate their roster that is still quite deep and try to position the second phase of the franchise post Kevin Durant. Next summer will bring about Russell Westbrook trade rumors once again, but by then both Westbrook and Sam Presti will have a much better idea of where they stand and make an informed decision.
- Washington Wizards (41-41): Mend the fences. If there’s truly a rift in that locker room between Bradley Beal and John Wall, whether it’s due to financial jealousy or personality clash, it’ll have to be resolved. The franchise will only go as far as both Wall and Beal take them, and this is first and foremost what Scotty Brooks’ job will be. With the successful way Brooks navigated the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook dynamic, they should be in good hands. If Otto Porter progresses and Beal can stay healthy, they should be in the playoffs and give a non-Cavaliers team problems in the first round.
- New York Knicks (41-41): Defy expectations. I will say the exact same for the Chicago Bulls. The Knicks are a team of proud veterans in Carmelo Anthony, Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings, Courtney Lee and a dynamic young phenom in Kristaps Porzingis. Conventional wisdom says that Rose hasn’t been good in some time, Noah hasn’t been healthy, the team should feature Porzingis more, Phil Jackson’s triangle influence is unwise etc etc. But what can’t be discounted is that this is a group of players that has individually seen success and a player like Rose has a lot to prove – it is on them to defy the low expectations and I can’t wait to see it.
- Atlanta Hawks (40-42): Commit to the makeover. Al Horford and Jeff Teague departing with Dwight Howard and Dennis Schroder replacing them is understandable if the decision has been made that the previous Hawks era is coming to a close. Mike Budenholzer and co. should look to trade Paul Millsap, who has a player option for the next year, and any other veterans on expiring or close to expiring deals (like Kyle Korver) and truly commit to the next era of Hawks basketball. The core of players that were on par with the Warriors 2 years ago had it’s run and I look forward to seeing what the new team looks like. I’m also being diplomatic – this team will be OK for one year before Dwight Howard ruins them from the inside out.
- Miami Heat (40-42): Pick up the pieces. One of the higher profile divorces amongst many over the past few years – Dwyane Wade’s departure from Miami was by far the most shocking. Chris Bosh’s unfortunate health situation included, Miami’s Big 3 that was assembled only 6 years ago and resulted in 4 straight Finals appearances is now completely gone and the Heat are going to spend this year picking up what’s left and looking to rebuild their suddenly strange reputation around the league. Pat Riley has been criticized by LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade for various reasons – either publicly or between the lines – and the Heat need to recover quickly because their general MO has been to build through free agency. I personally will look forward to see Goran Dragic spread his wings again, he was one of my favorite players in Phoenix and with Wade gone he will be in prime position to have a mid-career renaissance.
- Chicago Bulls (37-45): Defy expectations. Like the Knicks, expectations remain low while their star power is high. The collection of Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo may even be prouder and more stubborn than the players in New York -but their fatal flaw is so clear, lack of outside shooting. Adding Michael Carter-Williams to this group is comical, but moving forward may provide some upside potential if things really fall apart. Unlike the Knicks, the Bulls won’t be as fun to watch – at least after the initial shock of Wade in Chicago wears off.
- Dallas Mavericks (36-46): Do it for Dirk. I’m dubious about their win/loss potential, they don’t have any young guys that will particularly blossom into stars – they are what we thought they were. A smart group of veterans that are all together to send Dirk out the right way – competing almost every night to maintain respectability and even looking very good some nights. The problem is that Rick Carlisle’s magic can last only so long, trusting players like Andrew Bogut, Deron Williams, and Wesley Matthews to stay healthy and perform at a high level is difficult. Harrison Barnes may be a historically bad contract, and Dirk Nowitzki can fall off a cliff any time. Why will I still watch? Because every ounce left of Dirk Nowitzki’s career is worth it, that’s why. Sneaky good acquisition: Seth Curry – I have a feeling that he’s going to surprise a lot of people.
- Denver Nuggets (36-46): The ‘Kic’s. I can’t get enough of Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic and watching them grow this year will continue to be fun, and should be their organizational priority. I’m a huge fan of Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler as two versatile veterans, and would not be surprised to see either or both be moved. Emmanuel Mudiay remains a big question mark to me, but will be interested to see if his shot has improved at all. This is a really fun group of players, Mike Malone is an extremely solid coach – this team may even push for the playoffs if things break right.
- Orlando Magic (35-47): Marvel at the athleticism. Playing Bismack Biyombo, Serge Ibaka, and Aaron Gordon at the same time might violate lots of NBA logic rules, but my goodness the athleticism amongst those three will be fun to watch. The organization continues to make weird moves like Jeff Green’s 1 year, $15 million deal – and really, why sign Biyombo to a long term deal exactly? Why trade for Ibaka when Aaron Gordon will most likely reach his ceiling as a long-term power forward? Who’s shooting on this team? Just Fournier? Because Elfrid Payton surely isn’t. And yet, I keep coming back to this – I just want to see all of their athletes disrupt opposing offenses and create fast break opportunities so we can see Aaron Gordon dunking on fools.
- Sacramento Kings (35-47): Become a professional organization. The hiring of Ken Catanella will go a long way to helping legitimize Vlade Divac and Vivek Ranadive. They have a long way to go, but with a new arena and hopefully stability with their head coaching position and front office can get out of the “new owner mania” and become a respectable team. DeMarcus Cousins will probably have to be moved at some point, unless the Kings can get a major haul for the 23 other centers on the roster. Their lack of point guard while Darren Collison serves his suspension will make the team hard to watch at times, here’s hoping that Joerger can keep that team together while it’s rough.
- Milwaukee Bucks (33-49): POINT GIANNIS! It really sucks that Khris Middleton is going to essentially miss the season because without him this offense really lacks the dynamism to push the Bucks into playoff contention. Regardless, they are headed in a good direction and with the trade of MCW to Chicago for Tony Snell, Greg Monroe is the only “misfit” still on the roster. Jabari Parker should have a true breakout season this year, Matthew Dellavedova is a perfect fit next to POINT GIANNIS and can hopefully shoot at a high enough clip on open 3 pointers that POINT GIANNIS will be able to generate for him. But really, I’m just watching for POINT GIANNIS!
- New Orleans Pelicans (32-50): Anthony Davis and…? The Pelicans ownership dysfunction doesn’t get enough national attention because New Orleans is not a big basketball market and has contributed to the odd management of the team’s roster. Buddy Hield has the confidence to succeed at the next level, the Jrue Holiday family situation is unfortunate and we are all hoping for a positive resolution, Omer Asik’s contract remains an atrocity and Tyreke Evans will unlikely be able to contribute at all this season. Yet, Anthony Davis on his own fully healthy is enough to keep the Pelicans respectable. They will have to turn this around soon, however, as the Brow can only stay patient for so long.
- Phoenix Suns (28-54): Develop and consolidate. Dragan Bender, Alex Len, and Devin Booker are intriguing young players surrounded by many veterans that either duplicate their role or conflict with it. Tyson Chandler’s contract may well be untradeable at this point unless he looks spry out of the gate, and either Eric Bledsoe or Brandon Knight should be traded. Watching for that alongside the development of the younger players will be interesting
- Los Angeles Lakers (27-55): Trust the Process and pray to the Lottery Gods. They have a coach, they have a young core – now it’s time to let them grow organically. Luke Walton’s handsomeness alone should be enough to watch every night. Other than that: D’Angelo Russell’s potential breakout, the continuing evaluation and evolution of Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr., Brandon Ingram’s slow and steady growth, and just the entire team coming together will be a joy to watch. This team will struggle defensively most nights, and many nights shots just won’t fall, but this team should compete every night AND potentially keep their Top-3 protected pick – a true Win/Win.
- Philadelphia 76ers (24-58): Develop and consolidate. Watching the fruits of Sam Hinkie’s plan begin to grow will be fascinating to watch. Joel Embiid, if healthy (please, Basketball Buddha) looks like the player I thought was the best prospect int the draft and will be appointment viewing on his own. Between Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, simply speaking – one of them has to go. The return on whichever gets moved may be underwhelming, but as a franchise they need to move forward. Ben Simmons’ injury is incredibly unfortunate because he was going to alleviate their lack of depth with playmakers and will hurt their overall growth as a team this year, but nonetheless this year should be the one where everybody can begin to see the upward trajectory.
- Brooklyn Nets (22-60): Establish a plan to restore a semblance of respectability and begin building the culture. The Nets offseason involved trying to overpay restricted free agents – and that makes sense! Trying to conjure up value on this roster with a historical dearth of assets is the most difficult job and Sean Marks will use every possible tool at his disposal to try to accomplish this. The hiring of Kenny Atkinson was a smart hire and together Marks and Atkinson, first timers, will be tasked to build this culture from the below-the-ground up which is especially difficult as they lose almost every night. Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez will statistically shine, even providing some entertainment – but their work has just begun.