Friday October 21st, 2016

​LeBron James and the Cavaliers beat the Warriors in a small-ball-heavy Finals that saw the teams taking turns running each other off the court. Even in defeat, the Dubs’ major philosophical contributions to the sport were reinforced. Basketball is simply prettier and more enjoyable when the pace is up, the ball is moving, playmakers have room to operate, positions are fluid and points pour in from beyond the arc. Golden State’s 2015 title produced a wave of copycats, and that trend will continue.

Here’s how the NBA shapes up in terms of entertainment value, from “top trending topic” to “cut the cord.” Criteria include projected success, style of play, firepower, age, health, coaching and personality.

1. Warriors The most awe-inspiring­ and diabolical lineup in memory replaced its weakest link with an ultra­efficient four-time scoring champion who is desperate to win his first title. Kevin Durant will help the Dubs rewrite the record books . . . again.

2. Cavaliers LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are scintillating in their own right. But the must-see factor is magnified by a made-for-Hollywood­ reality: Cleveland is the only thing standing between Golden State and the championship.

3. Clippers Don’t get too hung up on feelings of déjà vu. The “same old Clippers” still have superstar talent, superb inside-outside­ balance and high-level­ chemistry honed over hundreds of games together.

4. Trail Blazers A surprise season ended with an electrifying ­second-round series against the Warriors that had the feel of a sibling rivalry. The best part: Damian Lillard and his chippy cast want no part of the “little brother” label.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

5. Thunder Russell Westbrook will be asked to do more for his team than any other NBA player this season, and he couldn’t be happier about it. Buckle up and brace for delightful turbulence.

6. Celtics The East’s top competition for the Cavaliers has every base covered: Isaiah Thomas sparks a solid attack, Al Horford plugs in perfectly to an elite defense and Brad Stevens rounds it out with superior game management.

7. Rockets Last season’s biggest disappointment could be in for a swift turnaround. New coach Mike D’Antoni has pledged to further empower a refocused James Harden. Defense remains optional.

NBA
Russell Westbrook: 'I Was Never Going To Leave'

8. Timberwolves Karl-Anthony Towns is a unanimous pick as the NBA’s Next Big Thing, while Andrew Wiggins and rookie Kris Dunn serve as stellar running mates.

9. Spurs There’s no replacing Tim Duncan, but Gregg Popovich has had years to prep for a transition. Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge are strong pillars, and Pau Gasol’s passing makes him a natural fit.

10. Raptors Kyle Lowry & Co. compensate for a lack of polish with charming perseverance.

11. Jazz Their stylistic ­nonconformity— big, imposing and unapologetically slow—is welcome in a league filled with wannabe Warriors.

12. Bulls There’s a Jenga-like vibe to a foundation built on Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. Cramped spacing, bouts of lackadaisical D and a surplus of healthy egos should send this crashing down eventually.

13. Pelicans After another season-ending­ injury and a number of notable free-agency­ defections around him, Anthony Davis has become the NBA’s most under­discussed superstar. Don’t forget about the Brow!

14. Knicks While there’s no logic to the shaky roster Phil Jackson has assembled, Kristaps Porzingis is so fascinating and novel that he single-handedly­ makes up for most of the faults.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Sport

15. Kings Drama-loving­ rubberneckers rejoiced when owner Vivek Ranadive admitted that ex‑coach George Karl tried to trade DeMarcus Cousins for months. Without a quality floor general, there’s no telling when the chaos will end.

16. Pacers In search of more offense around Paul George, Larry Bird has changed his coach, point guard and much of his frontline. Remember the words of another famous Hoosier, John Wooden: Never mistake activity for achievement.

17. Wizards With fired coach Randy Wittman no longer around to blame, the pressure falls on star guards John Wall and Bradley Beal to pull the Wiz out of their frustrating inconsistency.

18. Hawks Dwight Howard brings name recognition, but his explosiveness and likability have both declined badly since his Orlando peak.

19. Lakers Kobe Bryant dubbed himself Vino because he aged like fine wine. His successors, D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram, are both under 21. Call them Sprite and Schweppes?

20. Grizzlies Memphis lacks the personnel or depth to pull off a long-delayed­ transition to small ball in one season.

NBA
Can the Grizz Evolve Beyond Grit and Grind?

21. Mavericks Like an aging rock star, Mark Cuban can’t escape the shadow of his 2011 title-winning­ smash hit. His latest album is blah, just like the last three or four, and not even Dirk Nowitzki can save it.

22. Hornets Kemba Walker’s career year, fueled by better spacing around him, keyed a much-improved­ offense. Will that progress continue after Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams cashed in this summer?

23. Bucks Look for the oft-hyped Gian­nis Antetokounmpo to make his first All-Star team. Unfortunately, his supporting cast doesn’t really accentuate his strengths.

24. Pistons Stan Van Gundy’s reshaped roster plays smart, effective ball. It just lacks the thrill factor.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

25. Suns At least the franchise’s focus has shifted back to developing its cache of high-upside­ youngsters, headlined by Devin Booker.

26. 76ers Ben Simmons’s preseason foot injury sent Philly’s watchability plummeting.

27. Heat A major off-season­ talent exodus is great only for Hassan Whiteside fantasy owners. Time to tank?

28. Nuggets While overloaded with intriguing international prospects, the key veteran pieces don’t fit together.

29. Magic New coach Frank Vogel summed it up bluntly to ESPN.com: “We might have to win games 68–65.” Skip their mucky slugfests unless you love interior defense.

30. Nets Dead last by a mile for the second straight year. Would anyone notice if this cast moved back to New Jersey? Would New Jersey even take them?

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.