As has been the case in previous seasons, I open with my tiered power rankings. Please remember that these are based solely on projected regular season success. The concept is that teams could finish in any order within a tier bur I would be surprised if they finished outside of that tier, excluding major personnel changes. The order represents my estimation of the most likely finish within a tier though that can be splitting hairs in some cases.
Tier One – Higher Ground
Los Angeles Clippers: Despite carrying some notable flaws that could doom them in the playoffs, the Clippers have a clear window to take the No. 1 seed. They fixed their largest weakness by adding quality big man depth in Spencer Hawes and Ekpe Udoh and hopefully should have better luck in terms of guard health.
San Antonio Spurs: If Gregg Popovich wanted to run away with the No. 1 seed in the West it likely will be there for the taking. However, history has shown the Spurs care more about wins in the playoffs than the regular season so they take a place firmly in the top tier but not all the way at the top using this methodology. They are still the toughest out in the playoffs as long as Tim Duncan and Tony Parker play as well as they did last season.
That paragraph lifted straight from last season’s preview- another illustration of why the Spurs are the best-run sports franchise on the planet.
Tier Two – Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant’s injury moves the Thunder from Tier One to Tier Two because even keeping their heads above water will not be enough to catch the Spurs and Clippers. This feels like the year that continually cheapening out on depth by regularly avoiding the luxury tax burns OKC. I actually think this Thunder team as presently constructed and coached stands a better chance of getting knocked out in the first round than making the conference finals despite being a huge fan of Steven Adams.
Golden State Warriors: At full strength, Golden State is the most dangerous Western Conference team for the Spurs in a seven game series with quality defenders to spare and a legitimate superstar in Stephen Curry. The Warriors just have to be healthy for the playoffs and a lack of depth behind Curry and Andrew Bogut means an injury to either jeopardizes their chances of even making the postseason.
Houston Rockets: Their starting five might actually be better this season since Trevor Ariza makes more sense with the Harden / Howard core than Chandler Parsons. That said, sacrificing their depth by moving Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin dramatically increases the variance on their season as does the retention of Kevin McHale as head coach. The Rockets always seem to have someone new step up and my call for 2014-15 is rookie Clint Capela who produced well against high-level talent in Europe and could thrive in a small role this season.
Memphis Grizzlies: Memphis was one of the best teams in the entire league when healthy last season and added some compelling depth through the draft in the form of Jordan Adams and Jarnell Stokes. If either works out or Vince Carter can carry the Mike Miller torch for shocking durability the Grizzlies could be yet another squad no one wants to face in the playoffs.
Phoenix Suns: Last year’s biggest surprise has plenty of backslide risk but also improved their depth by stealing Isaiah Thomas and drafting possible contributor TJ Warren in the lottery. Losing Channing Frye hurts the driving lanes for Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe but the young team should improve enough to do even better than last season.
Dallas Mavericks: If we could turn injuries off for a season, Dallas would be both one of my favorite teams to watch and a shocking favorite to make some real noise in a stacked conference. Unfortunately, the Mavericks have no real recourse if any one of Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons or Tyson Chandler misses any real time. I always give Rick Carlisle teams a boost after ranking them on pure talent which puts them more firmly in the playoff picture.
Portland Trail Blazers: Portland’s starters only missed 13 games last season. COMBINED. While some teams could handle a regression to the mean in terms of injuries, the Blazers are so top-heavy that losing any member of their core would be devastating. They are another great team that has to pray they stay healthier than their competitors because they are in the post-season if that happens.
New Orleans Pelicans: Stop me if you have heard this before: a top-heavy team that needs their best players to stay healthy to make the playoffs. Anthony Davis sits on the cusp of superstardom and finally has a logical running mate in Omer Asik. The Pelicans will need a strong, full season from the underrated Jrue Holiday and likely one or two breakouts from their shaky bench to fight their way into the top eight.
Denver Nuggets: This Denver team works so well in this format because I could honestly buy them finishing anywhere from third to 11th in the West. They are the only team other than the Spurs in the entire NBA to have two good players at every position and their home-court advantage could give the Nuggets enough of a buffer to make the playoffs a reality. Kenneth Faried got the attention and money this summer but Ty Lawson will play the most important role on this year’s team.
Tier Three – Pastime Paradise (or I Wish)
Minnesota Timberwolves: Fittingly, the dual coach/president Flip Saunders has created two different teams in one franchise: a surprisingly competitive batch of veterans including Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin alongside a full batch of pups including No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and the enigmatic Zach LaVine. That dichotomy could push Minnesota to the top of the bottom by logging enough wins before the kids take the reins once their playoff dreams turn back into a pumpkin.
Sacramento Kings: Pick protection is the biggest scourge on competitiveness in today’s NBA. The Kings owe a pick to the Bulls that carries top-10 protection or each of the next three seasons so they have a clear incentive to pump the brakes if they fall out of the playoff hunt. I fully expect pragmatism to win out for at least one more year so the team can add another Shooting Guard in the lottery. After all, what other reason could there be for replacing Isaiah Thomas with Darren Collison?
Utah Jazz: The Jazz will get substantially more minutes this season from compelling talent than the last few seasons. Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert make Utah a rare team that should expect 48 minutes of reliable rim protection while Gordon Hayward can shoulder less of the offensive load thanks to an improved perimeter rotation. Hopefully Quin Snyder can figure out if Enes Kanter works with their main pieces before he hits restricted free agency next summer.
Los Angeles Lakers: Even before the depressing news about Steve Nash’s injury it was hard to figure out how the Lakers would beat teams even with their full complement of players. The Lake Show has no discernible defensive ability outside of Ed Davis and a coach that apparently wants to take out the high-variance strategy (lots and lots of threes) that could lead to the Lakers snaking a few games. A lost season yields a top-five pick in an interesting 2015 Draft.
Tier One – Signed, Sealed, Delivered (or Overjoyed or Love’s in Need of Love Today)
Cleveland Cavaliers: Cleveland’s offseason has to be considered one of the best in league history. They added two of the ten best players in the league (arguably two of the top five) and gave up very little in terms of contributors to last season’s team. Kyrie Irving went from being the savior to his team’s third-best player and both he and Kevin Love should thrive offensively like LeBron’s teammates in Miami. I expect the Cavs to finish in the top five of offensive efficiency in league history at least one of the next two seasons with or without Ray Allen.
Tier Two – On the Sunny Side of the Street
Chicago Bulls: The Bulls got better by adding Pau Gasol and Doug McDermott but failed to improve their biggest weakness by failing to bring in anyone of substance at guard. Chicago has staked their entire season to Derrick Rose staying healthy and will be vulnerable even in the minutes he sits when healthy because neither Kirk Hinrich nor Aaron Brooks can competently fill the role. This Bulls team should be very fun to watch though and will go a long way towards showing Tom Thibodeau’s capability as an offensive coach.
Toronto Raptors: After a storybook regular season, Masai Ujiri brought the band back together by keeping Kyle Lowry in T-Dot. The Raptors are young enough to ride age-centric improvement to stay above the hard-charging young teams in the East and absolutely could make Chicago have to sweat to earn the second seed. Yet again, the development of Jonas Valanciunas will determine the ceiling for the Raptors even as the rest of the team improves.
Tier Three – Positivity
Washington Wizards: A short-term loss of Bradley Beal comes at exactly the wrong position because Washington has done a nice job augmenting their depth behind Wall, Gortat and Nene. Having a full season with Paul Pierce and Andre Miller could give the youngsters (especially Wall) the knowledge to overcome some of Randy Wittman’s subpar coaching.
Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks were a very good team last season when they had both Al Horford and Paul Millsap active. Improved depth from Thabo Sefolosha, Adreian Payne and Mike Muscala should make them more dangerous at full strength and better equipped to handle the injuries that come almost every season.
Detroit Pistons: Other than the Cavs, I would argue that Detroit made the biggest upgrade of any team by adding one of the best coaches in the league. Stan Van Gundy will be able to iron out the flaws on this roster while possessing the power to shed any pieces that do not make sense with Andre Drummond and whoever else SVG sees as a core player. I hope we get to see the first flashes from Spencer Dinwiddie, a special talent who fell in the draft due to injury.
Charlotte Hornets: After a shockingly successful season, the Hornets and Steve Clifford corrected their biggest weakness by bringing in Lance Stephenson. Born Ready fits in well because he can function as a secondary ballhandler and defensive force at a position where Charlotte got very little last year. Losing Josh McRoberts hurts but the combination of Cody Zeller, Marvin Williams and Noah Vonleh will do enough to make the Hornets a better team overall with Lance.
Miami Heat: Swapping LeBron James for Luol Deng may not seem like a gigantic drop-off but the problems stem from how integral King James was to Miami’s scheme on both ends. He drew the best defender on every opponent and ran the offense so the Heat could use a different kind of point guard. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade deserve all of their career accolades but losing their buffer makes Miami an easier cover and far more damaged by any injuries they suffer.
Brooklyn Nets: Basketball people have been talking about the importance of Brook Lopez’s health but Andrei Kirilenko will need to stay on the court too for the Nets to have a realistic shot at the playoffs. Even though I like Bojan Bogdanovic, he cannot fill Paul Pierce’s shoes so those responsibilities will need to fall to the established players on the squad. Lionel Hollins will make his imprint on this team but I am not sure how much of an intensity upgrade a team with Kevin Garnett really needs. On the plus side, Hollins’ experience with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol means we should have a much better idea of where Deron Williams and Brook Lopez are in their careers in April.
Tier Four – Ordinary Pain
New York Knicks: A team has a problem when their five best players all play the three smallest positions on the floor. Jose Calderon has been an underrated player in the league for years but the Knicks losing Tyson Chandler without replacing him means their rim protection will be functionally nil for a substantial portion of games. We saw with last year’s Pelicans that even Anthony Davis could not carry a defense with shaky perimeter defenders and no anchor. Carmelo should have another strong season but the Knicks’ roster does not make sense and they do not possess the resources to make their improvement in-season.
Indiana Pacers: Like the Spurs years ago, Indiana would be best served by punting this season to add a key piece through the draft. Losing Lance without replacing him kneecapped this season to begin with so even if Paul George returns before the end of the 2014-15 campaign there would not be much to gain in terms of playoff wins. I honestly do not know if Frank Vogel and Larry Bird are comfortable taking the full steps that would yield the best result from this season but even trying should produce plenty of losses with a horrendous offense in a stronger Eastern Conference.
Milwaukee Bucks: As crazy as it sounds, Milwaukee could make the playoffs as soon as this season. Larry Sanders needs to prove that last season was the aberration and the Jabari / Giannis forward combination should work on both ends eventually though this season should have some growing pains. The Bucks will not reach that ceiling because their guard rotation still needs a ton of work- Brandon Knight will have all kinds of problems running an offense but at least Jason Kidd should know what to do in terms of Knight’s extension after this season.
Orlando Magic: The Magic made a series of strange decisions this summer from dumping Arron Afflalo for Evan Fournier too early in the off-season to adding Channing Frye and Ben Gordon to an extremely young core. If Elfrid Payton can elevate the Magic offense early in his career, the team stands a much better chance of knowing what they have in a horde of physically gifted players on rookie contracts, many of whom hit free agency shockingly soon.
Boston Celtics: Another team that likely spends this season working towards future success. After paying Avery Bradley this summer, Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens must figure out the optimal roles for Jared Sullinger, Marcus Smart, James Young, Phil Pressey and Kelly Olynyk before they make big decisions with Rajon Rondo and next summer’s draft picks. If two or more of those guys break out it makes the rebuilding process substantially easier by narrowing the needs.
Tier Five – Ain’t That Asking For Trouble (or All Day Sucker)
Philadelphia 76ers: Even with the addition of Rookie of the Year candidate Nerlens Noel, the Sixers start this season with less available talent than last season because it took them months to trade away Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner. It should only take one more year for Philly to have their war chest and they should have a bright near future but the present looks awfully grim.
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James (with Chris Paul in second)
Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers
Rookie of the Year: Jabari Parker
Defensive Player of the Year: DeAndre Jordan
Sixth Man of the Year: Jamal Crawford
Most Improved Player: Jonas Valanciunas
Executive of the Year: David Griffin
Clippers over Mavericks in six
Spurs over Suns in five
Thunder over Grizzlies in seven
Warriors over Rockets in seven
Clippers over Warriors in seven
Spurs over Thunder in six
Western Conference Finals:
Spurs over Clippers in five
Cavs over Heat in five
Bulls over Hornets in five
Raptors over Pistons in six
Wizards over Hawks in seven
Cavs over Wizards in five
Bulls over Raptors in six
Eastern Conference Finals:
Cavs over Bulls in five
NBA Finals: Spurs over Cavs in seven
Finals MVP: Tim Duncan