NBA Preview: A Comprehensive Look At All 30 Teams
The NBA season is right around the corner, as we're less than a week from Oct. 25, when the Cavaliers will get their rings and open the year against the Knicks. Then we'll settle in to watch 1,229 more games, plus the playoffs. Before that, though, we must reflect on what is behind us and look forward to what is ahead. Here, in a comprehensive preview, The Crossover will provide last season's results, this off-seasons big moves and predictions for each team's 2016–17.
Without further ado, here is The Crossover's preview for all 30 teams.
Reporting done by Ben Golliver, Rob Mahoney, Andrew Sharp and Rohan Nadkarni.
Philadelphia 76ers: Record last season: 10-72
Postseason results: None
Additions: Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson, Sergio Rodriguez, Timothe Luwawu, Shawn Long, James Webb III, Cat Barber, Elton Brand, Brandon Paul, Ben Simmons
Subtractions: Ish Smith, Isaiah Canaan, Christian Wood
Biggest move: Drafting Ben Simmons (and Joel Embiid being healthy)
Projected Finish: 14th in the Eastern Conference
Entertainment ranking: Ben Simmons’ preseason foot injury sent Philly’s watchability plummeting. Tantalizing center Joel Embiid can only pick up some of the slack because he’s stuck on a minutes limit. — Ben Golliver
Preseason Power Ranking: 29. Hope for Joel Embiid is the difference between last and almost-last. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 948. Joel Embiid finally arrived. The No. 3 pick of the 2014 draft suited up for the 76ers on Oct. 4, Embiid’s first basketball game in 948 days, since he was at Kansas. Not only did the 7-foot Embiid play, but he also played well, showing that his skills didn’t erode while he was sidelined with foot injuries. But just as Embiid came back, another young star exited in Philadelphia: Top pick Ben Simmons suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot and isn’t likely to see the court for several months.
As welcome as Embiid’s return is, it does create one problem: Even with Simmons out, Philadelphia has a glut of highly touted (and highly drafted) big men. Nerlens Noel, 22, is a defensive presence off the bench, but his lack of shooting should rule him out as a power forward. Jahlil Okafor, 21, is a poor defender but an elite low-post scorer, which might make him the most likely big man to be moved. And rookie Dario Šarić, 22, has shown the potential to be a solid stretch four.
Before making a move, the Sixers can allow coach Brett Brown to try different frontcourt combinations in what will no doubt be another losing season. But if the 22-year-old Embiid stays healthy—and continues to flash the talent that made him such an exciting prospect—they can call 2016–17 a qualified success. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: I think they want to start Jahlil Okafor at power forward and Nerlens Noel at center, but it’s not gonna work. Okafor has to have the block; he’s as good a low-post scorer as there is in the league, but his defense is a glaring flaw. Noel can’t shoot, so his [baskets] are going to come around the rim. It’s going to be a hard, hard match to make work. . . . Joel Embiid is such an unknown too. Everybody says he’s really good, but he’s had two foot injuries, and what’s to say he’s not going to have another one? I have to believe that in the first third of the season, they trade one of their three bigs. It will probably be Noel. He can defend but he’s really light in the ass—very thin. Maybe it’s to Boston for a wing player. Philadelphia is just so bad in the backcourt. . . . Another thing: If Dario Šarić is as good as they say he is as a stretch big, he’s gonna need minutes, too. . . . Obviously Ben Simmons is going to be a star once he recovers from his [right] foot injury. He’s got guard skills and his vision is incredible for his size [6' 10"]. He’s a great passer, not a very good shooter. He will guard the threes and will do a lot of three stuff, but I can see them playing him at point guard to hide his lack of scoring. . . . There are mostly stopgaps on the perimeter. Gerald Henderson improves their backcourt, but he’s not long-term. Jerryd Bayless will probably start but he’s not long-term. Sergio Rodriguez has never had much success in the NBA. T.J. McConnell, I don’t like at all. Nik Stauskas has done nothing since he came into the league.
Bottom line: Process this: The engaging Sixers are no longer the worst team in the league.
Milwaukee Bucks: Record last season: 33-49
Postseason results: None
Additions: Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova, Michael Beasley, Jason Terry, Malcolm Brogdon, Orlando Johnson, Thon Maker, J.J. O'Brien, Jaleel Roberts
Subtractions: O.J. Mayo, Greivis Vasquez, Steve Novak, Jerryd Bayless, Johnny O'Bryant, Damien Inglis
Biggest move: Trading for Matthew Dellavedova
Projected finish: 10th in the Eastern Conference
Entertainment ranking: 23. Look for the oft-hyped Giannis Antetokounmpo to make his first All-Star team this season. Unfortunately, his supporting cast doesn’t really accentuate his strengths, and losing Khris Middleton to injury only made it worse. — Ben Golliver
Preseason power ranking: 22. No Middleton stings, but there’s plenty of promise. This just doesn’t feel like the year everything works. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 18.9. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the talk of the NBA after the All-Star break. That’s when Jason Kidd moved him to point guard, where at 6' 11", he averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.9 blocks. (In September, he signed a four-year, $100 million contract.)
But if the Greek Freak is officially the team’s cornerstone, then 2014 No. 2 pick Jabari Parker showed he is a substantial building block. As he recovered from a left-ACL injury that cut his rookie season short, the 6' 8" forward also blossomed after the All-Star break: Parker lifted his average from 11.3 points to 18.9, giving Milwaukee a legitimate offensive threat on the wing.
Parker’s scoring spiked as his stroke became more reliable. As he continues to build his game out to the perimeter, he can become an übersmooth throwback scorer next to the Bucks’ futuristic point forward.
Milwaukee will struggle without the shooting of Khris Middleton, who is out until at least the All-Star break with a torn left hamstring. Making the playoffs will be tricky. Antetokounmpo will undoubtedly be a bright spot, and if Parker can grow alongside him, it won’t matter that the present is complicated. The future is bright. — Andrew Sharp
Scouting report: It is very unfortunate for them that Khris Middleton got hurt [out at least five months with a torn left hamstring]. I don’t know if he’s as good as some of the advanced metrics rate him, but what is clear is that the Bucks are terrible when he’s not on the floor—nowhere near a competent NBA team. . . . Hot take for you: Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to average, like, 19 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, and make the All-Star Game. And the team’s gonna stink. . . . The Michael Carter-Williams situation is obviously a disaster. He still can’t shoot; he needs the ball. In a lot of ways he is just a very poor man’s Giannis, this tall guy who wants to dribble. And when Giannis is your franchise player, uh, that’s not very -useful. . . . Jabari Parker can’t shoot threes, and neither can Giannis, and it’s really hard to play with more than two guys who can’t. So, if they’re gonna play Giannis and Jabari, they should use Mirza Teletovic as a de facto center, since he can shoot threes, and he’s kind of strong. . . . But it’ll be hard for them to do that lineup because they have, literally, $40 million per season tied up in [centers] Greg Monroe, Miles Plumlee and John Henson. Are you really going to sit all three of those guys? . . . [First-round pick] Thon Maker plays really hard, he’s pretty mobile, but he has very little feel for the game and poor strength. He can’t make shots at game speed yet. I hope they’re not expecting him to play. . . . It’s hard to figure out how the team makes sense as currently constructed. Jason Kidd’s had a lot of influence in personnel moves, and I don’t think that’s been a good thing.
Bottom line: A return to the playoffs is likely a year away. But what a fun year it will be.
Chicago Bulls: Record last season: 42-40
Postseason results: None
Additions: Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Robin Lopez, Isaiah Canaan, Denzel Valentine, Jerian Grant, Spencer Dinwiddie, Paul Zipser, J.J. Avila, Thomas Walkup, D. Smith-Rivera
Subtractions: Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Aaron Brooks, E'Twaun Moore, Derrick Rose, Justin Holiday, Jose Calderon, Mike Dunleavy, Cameron Bairstow
Biggest move: Signing Dwyane Wade
Projected finish: 11th in the Eastern Conference
Entertainment ranking: There’s a Jenga-like vibe to a foundation built on Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler. Cramped spacing, bouts of lackadaisical defense and an abundance of healthy egos should send this crashing down eventually. — Ben Golliver
Power ranking: 18. Chicago shouldn’t be fooling anyone into thinking that was a great off-season, but it was…different. Excuse me while I change my ringtone to the sound of cacophonous clanking rims. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 44.5%. They have bigger names than Nikola Mirotic. Dwyane Wade is a future Hall of Famer, Jimmy Butler is a perennial All-Star, and Rajon Rondo is one of the most perplexing NBA stars of the past decade. Throwing those three into the same backcourt mix may lead to wildly divergent results from night to night.
Will the stars work together? Can anyone shoot? Will second-year coach Fred Hoiberg have a breakdown by February? All relevant questions that have been asked since July in Chicago.
But for this year and beyond, the player who holds the key to those answers is the 6' 10" Mirotic, a third-year forward.
His shooting ability creates space on the floor, which the Bulls will badly need. The only uncertainty is the consistency with which he connects. After an uneven rookie year in which he made 31.6% of his three-pointers but showed promise, he was supposed to be a breakout star last season. Mirotic proceeded to shoot just 30.4% from deep in November and December. But in March and April, Mirotic improved his accuracy to 44.5%. It was like watching two different players. If Mirotic can be closer to that second version, it will help the offense breathe—and make the Bulls much scarier this winter than they looked this summer. — Andrew Sharp
Scouting report: I feel really bad for [second-year coach] Fred Hoiberg. He’s a great guy. He left Iowa State; he was the Mayor. And now he’s gotta coach this debacle. . . . Even when he was coaching in college, I didn’t get the sense that he was seeing the game at an elite level, reacting and adjusting the way that Brad Stevens or Rick Carlisle does. I’m not sure he has that skill. But I do think he’s got a good idea of how he wants to play and how to find an identity for his teams. . . . They’re not gonna be horrible, but their three key guys—-Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo and Jimmy Butler—prefer not to shoot off the catch. They like to dribble, they like to hold the ball, stop the ball. It’s going to be hard to coax ball movement. Once they start taking some L’s, I think they’re gonna bump heads a little bit. . . . Butler sees himself as a star. He wants the ball in iso, which is O.K. if he’s the go-to creator. But I do think a good coach would get him to consider catching the ball on the move more. Butler’s very effective at what he does, he still defends most nights, but he’s not a good fit with this team. . . . Rondo and Wade are very undisciplined defensively. They gamble a lot. They take shortcuts. . . . Nikola Mirotic is one saving grace. He takes some weird shots, but he can shoot, he can pass. They need him to play a lot of minutes alongside those other guys to give them enough space to operate. . . . Bobby Portis will be a good player, but he’s pretty lost right now. Arkansas plays really unstructured basketball, so he didn’t get a lot of understanding of NBA offensive or defensive concepts.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Record last season: 57-25
Postseason results: NBA Champions, defeated Warriors in NBA finals, 4-3.
Additions: Mike Dunleavy, Chris Andersen, Markel Brown, Kay Felder, DeAndre Liggins, Toney Douglas, Cory Jefferson, John Holland, Jonathan Holmes
Subtractions: Matthew Dellavedova, Timofey Mozgov, Sasha Kaun
Biggest move: Re-signing LeBron James
Projected finish: NBA Finals runner-up
Entertainment ranking: 2. 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 title. — Ben Golliver
Power ranking: 2. This is admittedly a slight, but think positive: thanks to Golden State, Cleveland has to be under less pressure for a title repeat than any team pretty much ever.
One number: 25.2. As long as the Cavs have LeBron James, the baseline expectation is that they reach the Finals. But it was Kyrie Irving who surprised the world against the Warriors last June. He outplayed Steph Curry for two weeks. He exploded for 41 points in Game 5 to help turn the Finals upside down. He finished off Game 7 with a pull-up three over Curry to win the title. All told, Irving scored 25.2 points per game in the playoffs. What if that was just the beginning?
James came back to Cleveland in the summer of 2014 for myriad reasons, but Irving’s presence was near the top of the list. At the time, Irving was 22 and an All-Star, but he had plenty of room to grow. At 24 he still does. Last spring was a level we’d never seen before from Irving—better shooting, perfectly picking his spots, bailing out Cleveland over and over again in the half-court.
LeBron—who just finished his 11th season of at least 2,700 minutes—will need help as he navigates the next six months. And come June he’ll need another superhero to have a shot against the Golden State Death Star. Irving played that role for two months. Let’s see if he can do it for a whole season. — Andrew Sharp
Scouting report: Ty Lue did a nice job. He’ll be better this year than he was last year, when there were definitely growing pains. Ty’s always had a great ability to command the respect of his peers and his teammates, and now his players. LeBron James respects him. Kyrie Irving respects him. They have a lot of good players, and he got them to try on defense and to share the ball. ... Kevin Love is making it work in a difficult situation for him. They were probably going to trade him this summer, but then they won, and he played decently and had that great defensive stand on the key possession [in Game 7 of the Finals]. But Kevin was very unhappy last year; I expect he’ll be pretty unhappy this year. He’s still a very good player despite some -limitations. .. I see Kyrie continuing to be a brilliant offensive player. His defense is -really bad, and without Matthew Dellavedova [who signed with the Bucks] to push him, it might be even worse. His great ability is that he can create his own shot and score at the rim, pretty much at will. In a key situation, like in the -Finals, that’s really valuable. ... In the regular season, if LeBron’s resting or out, they’ll struggle a little. Kyrie does not make his teammates better the same way LeBron does. He doesn’t defend with enough effort. ... Who knows what’s going on with Iman Shumpert? He really struggled in the playoffs. And he just seems to have a lot of weird stuff going on, in -general. ... Nobody in the East can seriously threaten them when it matters. But I don’t see them being anywhere near the caliber of the Warriors.
Bottom line: It’s crazy to bet against the Warriors, but if the Cavs are clicking, betting against them isn’t much easier.
Boston Celtics: Record last season: 48-34
Postseason results: Lost to Hawks in first round, 4-2.
Additions: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Gerald Green, Demetrius Jackson, Ben Bentil, Marcus Georges-Hunt, Jalen Jones, Damion Lee
Subtractions: Jared Sullinger, Evan Turner
Biggest move: Signing Al Horford
Projected finish: Second in Eastern Conference
Entertainment ranking: 6. 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. — Ben Golliver
Power Ranking: 6. Al Horford may or may not get them over the top, but the Celtics are in their best all-around shape in years. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 34.6. They have a young, defensively tenacious team that seems tailor-made for the modern NBA. The only problem? They struggle to make shots. Boston hit just 34.6% of its catch-and-shoot threes last season, second-worst behind the hapless Lakers. Simply put, the Celtics have a bunch of three-and-D guys who haven’t quite grasped the three part yet.
The biggest improvements need to come from Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart. The 6' 6" Crowder shot 33.6% from deep, which means he’s close to becoming a reliable stretch option. He’s otherwise skilled on offense and so good defensively that a three-point stroke would likely make him an All-Star. Smart is arguably the team’s best defender behind Avery Bradley, but he shot a ghastly 25.3% from beyond the arc last year.
Bradley can serve as a model for his teammates. He’s increased his volume of outside shots in each of his six seasons and for the most part has maintained his efficiency, putting up a solid 36.0% career mark. If Crowder can be that accurate and Smart can surpass 30%, Boston could have an offense to match its top five defense. And that would put the defending champs on notice. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: Al Horford is a really, really big upgrade for them. He’s a little older  and has a few more miles on his legs, but he fits the way they want to play. He’ll improve their defense and he’s also an offensive threat—not so much in the post, but in the pick-and-roll. He’s a good 18-foot shooter, a playmaking center. They didn’t have that in Jared Sullinger [who is now with Toronto]. . . . I think Amir Johnson will start, but they have the option of moving Jae Crowder to the four and playing Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas together as a small team that’ll be really good defensively. That’s a great option. . . . Thomas has a great ability to get into the lane and use his body. He’s only about 5' 9", but he’s got long arms with big hands, big shoulders and he can really challenge the bigs. I’m always amazed at some of the stuff he can do when he takes it to the rim. And he’s a knock-down pull-up shooter. . . . If Smart improves his shooting he can be the player that everybody thinks he can be. That’s always going to be his Achilles’ heel. He’s strong, great size for a point guard, really can defend. If he comes out [playing] well, there are a lot of options they have with that loaded backcourt—I mean in the way they play and also in assets to make a trade with their high picks. . . . Crowder has to take another step. He’s a good player and can lock down threes but I’m not convinced that he is their small forward of the future. [Rookie] Jaylen Brown, maybe, will be. . . . Brown will play. He’s not a very good shooter, but because he’s good defensively and he can run and has good size [6' 7"], he’ll get minutes.
Bottom Line: Anything short of a conference finals berth would be a disappointment.
Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles Clippers: Record last season: 53-29
Postseason results: Lost to Trail Blazers in First Round, 4-2.
Additions: Raymond Felton, Marreese Speights, Brandon Bass, Alan Anderson, Xavier Munford, Dorell Wright, Diamond Stone, Brice Johnson
Subtractions: Jeff Green, Cole Aldrich, Jeff Ayres, Pablo Prigioni, Branden Dawson, C.J. Wilcox
Biggest move: Re-signing Jamal Crawford
Projected finish: 4. Third in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 3. 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. — Ben Golliver
Power ranking: 4. Maybe this is the last ride for the enigma formerly known as Lob City, and at this point, sky-high expectations are valid. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 36. There was a time not long ago when Blake Griffin dunked with such regularity that the nightly highlight shows would have run out of time showing his best aerial assaults. In 2011–12, for example, Griffin threw down nearly three times per game, and dunks accounted for more than 20% of his shot attempts.
Those days are over. The world’s most famous Kia hurdler had just 36 dunks last season in his 35 games. (Griffin missed time with multiple injuries and for a four-game suspension after punching a team employee.)
His dunk rate has actually declined for four straight seasons as his scoring opportunities have shifted to the perimeter. In ’15–16, nearly 46% of his shots were long twos; even a mid-range maestro such as LaMarcus Aldridge has never devoted so many attempts to such shots. Although Griffin’s move to the elbow has cut into his efficiency and shooting numbers, the Clippers have compensated by increasing his role as a distributor and taking advantage of the extra space around the basket for DeAndre Jordan. The real hope, though, is that the perimeter approach will lead to less wear and tear, making for a healthier Griffin in the postseason—where he’s never advanced past the second round. — Ben Golliver
Scouting report: The biggest question with them is always, Who are they in the playoffs? Something always goes wrong—they always crack when it matters. They’re hoping that other teams will fall apart so they can have their day, but that’s a tough strategy in the West. Good luck. . . . We’ve been spoiled by Chris Paul’s greatness during the regular season, but how much of it has transferred to [success in] the playoffs? That’s where he’s at right now in his career and where they’re at as a team. He’s getting passed by some of these younger point guards. I’d rather have Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard. . . . Even during the regular season spot-up shooters like J.J. Redick work so hard to get a shot off. Now it’s the playoffs, and you have extra time to scout their pet plays, better effort across the board defensively, and it’s even harder for Redick to make a big impact. . . . If you take his health questions out of the mix, Blake Griffin is the best power forward right now, just ahead of LaMar-cus Aldridge. He can shoot, he’s a playmaker, he can handle the ball and make decisions. But Griffin has barely played since last Christmas. . . . DeAndre Jordan can be a championship center because he’s so elite defensively. He keeps making incremental improvements offensively, and they tweaked the Hack-a-Shaq rule, which could help him. . . . Luc Mbah a Moute was a nice find. He gives some defensive balance to their first unit, and he doesn’t need shots. They’re one of the teams that can start two bigs. Playing Mbah a Moute with Jordan and Griffin gives them a lot of length and size.
Bottom Line: Stop us if you’ve heard this before: They’ll have a 50-win season and watch the Finals on TV.
Memphis Grizzlies: Record last season: 42-40
Postseason results: Lost to Spurs in First Round, 4-0.
Additions: Chandler Parsons, Wade Baldwin, James Ennis, Troy Daniels, Deyonta Davis, Tony Wroten, D.J. Stephens, Wayne Selden Jr., Troy Williams, Chris Crawford, Vince Hunter
Subtractions: Lance Stephenson, Chris Andersen, Matt Barnes, P.J. Hairston, Jordan Farmar, Bryce Cotton, Xavier Munford
Biggest move: Re-signing Mike Conley
Projected finish: Seventh in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 20. Although moving Zach Randolph to the bench is a good start, the Grizzlies don’t seem to have the personnel or the depth to pull off a long-delayed transition to small ball in one season. — Ben Golliver
Power ranking: 10. Assuming Marc Gasol’s full health, the Grizz have the experience and talent to stay afloat in the Western pack. Health, however, has not been kind to Memphis of late. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 28. How rampant were injuries in Memphis last season? The Grizzlies suited up 28 players, an NBA record—almost enough to fill two rosters. Simply put, the Grizz need good health above all this season.
The player whose well-being will be most important is Marc Gasol. The 7' 1", 255-pound center appeared in only 52 games in 2015–16 but still finished third on the team in total minutes, a sign of just how bad things were. Gasol is one of the best centers in the league when healthy, combining a feathery jumper with physical D on the block.
Under rookie coach David Fizdale, Gasol, a gifted passer, can also help facilitate a more modern offense. Fizdale, 42, is a disciple of Erik Spoelstra, who’s a staunch believer in spreading the floor. This year the Grizzlies—who ranked 27th in threes made—may finally have the roster to do just that. They acquired youngsters Troy Daniels (a career 43.0% shooter from three) and James Ennis (37.3%), but the real difference maker will be Chandler Parsons, who signed a four‑year, $94 million free-agent deal. Parsons, 27, can unlock all kinds of lineup flexibility for Fizdale—if his right-knee issues don’t act up. Needless to say, such concerns will be a recurring theme in Memphis. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: They have a new coach, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about David Fizdale as a person. Players love him, people that work with him love him. But nobody has told me that he’s a brilliant coach. . . . Their team is kind of a house of cards right now. They have some good players—obviously Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, they signed Chandler Parsons. So on paper they have a chance to be better than they were last year. But all three of those guys have significant injury histories. That could really blow up in their face. . . . If they get something 37 minutes a game, 80 games each—they’re in great shape. But they won’t. . . . They just don’t have much quality depth: Tony Allen, Vince Carter, Brandan Wright. They drafted Wade Baldwin, but he’s probably not ready to play. The biggest concern I had with him in the draft is that he can be sort of hard-headed and difficult. Not the easiest guy to coach, not super mature. That’s one big advantage the Grizz have with Fizdale there. Guys love playing for him and want to go to war for him. . . . JaMychal Green is secretly O.K., but their bench is a problem even if there are no injuries. . . . Zach Randolph is coming pretty close to the end at this point. For 20 minutes a game scoring on other teams’ bench units, he’s still effective. But against good players in extended minutes, Z-Bo just can’t do it. . . . It’s hard to know with Gasol and Conley. They could easily have another few great years, but they’re both coming off leg injuries that could either have them fall off in their level of play or miss more games.
Bottom Line: The talent is there for a run at 50 wins. But will it be on the floor often enough?
Atlanta Hawks: Record last season: 48-34
Postseason results: Lost to Cavs in second round, 4-0.
Additions: Dwight Howard, Jarrett Jack, Taurean Prince, DeAndre' Bembry, Malcolm Delaney, Matt Costello, Will Bynum, Ryan Kelly, Josh Magette
Subtractions: Al Horford, Kirk Hinrich, Lamar Patterson, Jeff Teague
Biggest move: Signing Dwight Howard
Projected finish: Sixth in the Eastern Conference
Entertainment ranking: 18. The loss of mainstays Al Horford and Jeff Teague could trigger an identity crisis. Dwight Howard brings name recognition, but his explosiveness and likeability have both withered badly since his Orlando peak. — Ben Golliver
Preseason power ranking: 11. We waited a while for Dennis Schröder unleashed, but nobody expected a side of Dwight Howard. With Paul Millsap set for free agency, it’s a pivotal transition year in Atlanta. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 6.1. Coach Mike Budenholzer has a strong aversion to low-post play. Atlanta had just 6.1 post-up possessions per game last season, fifth-fewest in the NBA. And many of those happened accidentally: Paul Millsap backing down an undersized opponent, or Al Horford putting up a hook shot off a deep catch. There were seldom any programmed post operations—the sort of offense that new center Dwight Howard has come to depend on.
Coaches who’ve failed to indulge Howard’s desire for paint touches have risked his becoming less engaged. That was especially true in Houston, where his field goal attempts dwindled in each of the last three seasons—down to 8.5 per game in 2015–16—and his effectiveness declined.
Style changes are inevitable for a team transitioning from Horford, who left for Boston, to Howard, 30, who signed a three-year, $75 million deal. But it’s hard to imagine that Budenholzer, who prefers to string multiple actions into a fluid offense, will compromise and feature Howard in the post. Still, it might be worth it for the Hawks to appease the big man with some rolls to the rim and dribble handoffs. Even with his back problems, a motivated Howard can be a vital interior defender, rebounder and finisher. — Rob Mahoney
Scouting report: "I can’t imagine Mike Budenholzer changing the way he plays. I love it—swinging the ball, pushing it, getting a lot of possessions, unselfishness. But Dwight Howard wants to plant himself in the post. He’s not a threat like Al Horford was from the perimeter, but he’s going to want touches. Horford and Paul Millsap were always facing the basket. Atlanta only on occasion threw the ball into the post. I don’t know how well it’s going to work. . . . What they gave up trading Jeff Teague is ball movement. Dennis Schroder is more of a pounder; the ball’s going to be in his hands and he’s going to be looking for his own. Teague was really good at pick-and-roll, spacing the floor, drive-and-kick. Last year they underachieved, so maybe they thought they needed to make changes. . . . Kyle Korver is 35. I see him probably taking another half-step back like he did last season. He played better with Teague, too. He will be spotting up somewhere and Schroder won’t find him. With Korver’s age, Tim Hardaway Jr. should have a chance to prove himself. . . . When I watched Kent Bazemore play, I fell in love with him. He’s improved his three-point shooting, he’s athletic and he’s really good defensively. I mean real good. He can lock you down with his length and quickness. . . . Tiago Splitter is a big body who can make an open shot, but he struggles to guard the quicker fives. Horford was really good at that—getting out to the pick-and-pops, rotations—and it’s where both Splitter and Howard will struggle. . . . When they have to go to the bench, it’s a weakness."
Bottom line: Significant changes to the starting lineup will force the Hawks to evolve—for better or worse.
Miami Heat: Record last season: 48-34
Postseason results: Lost to Raptors in the second round, 4-3.
Additions: Dion Waiters, Derrick Williams, Wayne Ellington, Willie Reed, James Johnson, Luke Babbitt, Rodney McGruder
Subtractions: Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Luol Deng, Gerald Green, Amar'e Stoudemire, Dorell Wright
Biggest move: Losing Dwyane Wade
Projected finish: 12th in Eastern Conference
Entertainment ranking: 18. The loss of mainstays Al Horford and Jeff Teague could trigger an identity crisis. Dwight Howard brings name recognition, but his explosiveness and likeability have both withered badly since his Orlando peak. — Ben Golliver
Preseason power ranking: 11. We waited a while for Dennis Schröder unleashed, but nobody expected a side of Dwight Howard. With Paul Millsap set for free agency, it’s a pivotal transition year in Atlanta. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 1. LeBron James returned home, Dwyane Wade left his adopted city, and Chris Bosh found himself effectively barred from the team he thought had become his. So ends the Big Three era in Miami—one of the glitziest intersections of talent in NBA history. Only one player from the Heat’s two title teams is likely to play for them this season: deep reserve Udonis Haslem.
Everything in the league changes; almost everyone moves on. Bosh’s departure, though, is particularly sad and cruel. Because of blood clots that have put the remainder of his career in serious jeopardy, Miami effectively cut ties with the 11-time All-Star big man. (He believes he can still play and says he intends to.) That this came so soon after Wade’s surprising exit for Chicago has thrust the Heat into a sudden transition. Their fate now precariously lies with Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow—none of whom is a particularly convincing franchise player.
Of that trio, the 27-year-old Whiteside is the most capable—and the most unpredictable. Relying on such a player is dangerous given how the roster has been stripped down—not only of its talent, but also its leadership and experience. — Rob Mahoney
Scouting report: "They got hit pretty hard with [the loss of] Chris Bosh [to blood clots] and Dwyane Wade [to the Bulls]. They do have, I think, one of the best coaches in Erik Spoelstra. He’ll keep them focused and playing really good defense. But can they score enough? I don’t think so. . . . Their two primary options are Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside. Talentwise, Dragic is as good as there is in the division. He’s got great size, he can shoot from the outside, he can take it to the rim. He’s got to have a breakout season for them to even be competitive. . . . A big part of Whiteside’s success has come from his attitude. He was looking for a contract. He got it and did all the right things. He’s pretty good with his back to the basket, and he’s just gonna keep getting better offensively. . . . I’m not real high on Justise Winslow. His only strength is taking it to the basket, and then transition. He’s not a good shooter at all. He lacks confidence, he lacks technique, he lacks a lot of things. . . . Their roster is so thin. Udonis Haslem is more of a cheerleader now. Derrick Williams—ehhh, I don’t really care. Josh McRoberts can spread the floor, make threes and he’s a smart player. But he’s a backup who’ll be pushed into Bosh’s role. . . . Unless they can run and get a lot of possessions, they won’t score very much. Dion Waiters can score. I think he’s just too inconsistent. . . . Josh Richardson was a great pickup. He can play the one or the two, he’s got size [6' 6"], he’s athletic. He and Tyler Johnson are two-way players. Both will be on the floor for them a lot."
Charlotte Hornets: Record last year: 48-34
Postseason results: Lost to Heat in the first round, 4-3.
Additions: Ramon Sessions, Roy Hibbert, Marco Belinelli, Brian Roberts, Christian Wood, Mike Tobey, Rasheed Sulaimon, Andrew Andrews, Treveon Graham, Perry Ellis
Subtractions: Troy Daniels, Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee, Al Jefferson, Tyler Hansbrough, Jorge Gutierrez
Biggest move: Signing Nicolas Batum
Projected Finish: Fifth in Eastern Conference
Entertainment ranking: 22. 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? — Ben Golliver
Preseason power ranking: 13. Steve Clifford appears to have built something sustainable, but the Hornets will demand a lot from a veteran core to scrape at 50 wins again. Do they have another gear? — Jeremy Woo
One Number: 3. Their biggest off-season moves weren’t acquisitions but retentions. Charlotte brought Nicolas Batum back on a five-year, $120 million contract to facilitate the offense. Marvin Williams, who was a revelation last year at power forward, signed a four-year deal worth $54.5 million.
But the price of holding on to the pair was high. The Hornets couldn’t afford to retain guards Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee, and—in a decision that was as much stylistic as financial—they let low-post scorer Al Jefferson sign with the Pacers. Each of those three key lost rotation players will largely be replaced by budget pickups (point guard Ramon Sessions and center Roy Hibbert) or internal reorganization (shooting guard Jeremy Lamb and center Spencer Hawes).
Charlotte will benefit from the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who played just seven games last season due to a shoulder injury. But Batum and Kemba Walker are already coming off career years; it’s unreasonable to expect them to do more with less talent around them. Following a season in which they improved by 15 wins, a touch of regression is likely. Charlotte simply doesn’t have the same resources, no matter how Steve Clifford might try to make ends meet. — Rob Mahoney
Scouting report: "I’m leaning toward the Hornets to win the division, but they actually took a half-step backward. [Departed free-agent guards] Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee had great years, and [departed free-agent center] Al Jefferson was a guy you could rely on to score. . . . Can Kemba Walker get much better? I don’t think he even needs to. If he consistently has the kind of year he had last year, they’ll be good. . . . Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is excellent defensively but really limited offensively. Steve Clifford has always emphasized defense and built his team around it. . . . A big part of it was that they changed the way they played. When Jefferson was playing with his butt on the post, they were throwing it in and cutting off. That’s not Kemba’s game. Kemba needs a high pick. Then they installed Cody Zeller. Walker had his best games when Zeller was on the floor and they were running pick-and-roll while spacing the floor. . . . Marvin Williams did what he was supposed to do: plant himself in the corner and make threes. He earned himself a nice contract. As long as he can find space, he’s gonna make shots. . . . Why are they bringing Marco Belinelli in? They must not be high on Jeremy Lamb. You see flashes with Lamb, then he disappears. It seems like he doesn’t have a strong motor, even though he has good skills. . . . As he gets stronger, Frank Kaminsky’s asset will be his shooting—being able to stretch the floor as a four. He’s not a center—he has small shoulders, he’s thin, he doesn’t have the strength. Once he starts making shots, he’ll be pretty good for them."
Bottom line: Big losses mean they won't stand out from the crowded pack in the middle of the East.
Utah Jazz: Record last season: 40-42
Postseason results: None
Additions: George Hill, Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw, Joel Bolomboy, Henry Sims
Subtractions: Trey Burke, Trevor Booker
Biggest move: Trading for George Hill
Projected finish: Sixth in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 11. Their stylistic nonconformity—big, imposing and intentionally slow—is welcome in a league filled with Wannabe Warriors. A strong summer spent adding experience and depth sets up a long-awaited playoff push.. — Ben Golliver
Preseason Power Ranking: 8. “Sleeper” is a familiar and easily applicable sports trope. Oftentimes, we all have the same sleeper, which renders that sleeper no longer a sleeper. That’s where we’re at with the 2016-17 Utah Jazz, who have parlayed good health, young talent and savvy veteran pickups into a glittery outlook and potential to be pleasantly fun.
We should all be here for this. The Jazz figured out how they like to win last season, mixing staunch defense with timely shooting and balanced scoring. In the process, Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert quietly blossomed into an enviable core. Every move the front office made seemed to push the right buttons. I cape for Boris Diaw like Boris capes for a frothy espresso. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 84,484. The Jazz added three accomplished veterans in Boris Diaw, George Hill and Joe Johnson. Together, they’ve played 84,484 minutes in their careers. Nobody on Utah’s roster ended last season with as many as 14,000.
The new vets will provide a boost to the Jazz’s callow—though enviably talented—young core of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert and Dante Exum. Hill gives them stability at point guard, allowing the 21-year-old Exum, who missed last season with a torn left ACL, to ease back into the rotation. A capable shooter with a long wingspan, Hill can be a role player on offense while seamlessly integrating himself into a swarming defense.
Johnson and Diaw give Utah flexibility in the frontcourt—not to mention loads of playoff experience. (The team has not been to the postseason since 2012.) Johnson can shoot from the outside and carry the offense for brief stretches. The crafty Diaw will help to match up with small-ball lineups on nights when Gobert is ineffective.
The Jazz enter the season with less hype than other young squads, but if Quin Snyder can find the right combinations with his deep roster, they’ll be a tough out every night. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: They don’t have a star, but they do have one of the deepest rosters in the league. I could easily see them hitting a dominant stretch and cracking 50 wins. . . . Everyone thinks of them as a big team with Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, but they have a bunch of stretch options now with Trey Lyles, Boris Diaw and even Joe Johnson. Their wings are all interchangeable too. . . . They struggled a lot in the clutch last season with Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood trying to do too much one-on-one. Now you plug in Johnson as a late option and Diaw as a playmaker and George Hill as a complementary shooter, and they’re much harder to guard . . . The Hayward and Hood pairing could be one of the best wing combos for a decade. I think Hood actually has a higher ceiling, and he’s among the young two guards who might push into the West All-Star conversation. He has size, ball skills, he can score and he makes good decisions. He’ll need to adjust to moving off the ball more this year. . . . Lyles is a candidate as a breakout player. He gets forgotten because they added all the vets, but he can shoot, he can guard all types of fours. . . . Utah is one of the few teams that can still really count on its traditional [big-man] pairing, because Gobert and Favors really pound you on the glass and they defend so well. They can control the pace, post you up, finish around the hoop and take away all your offense inside 10 feet. Gobert is almost a defense by himself. He’s the difference between them being O.K. and very good.
Bottom Line: Now even deeper, the Jazz will be one team no one in the West wants to see in the first round.
Sacramento Kings: Record last season: 33-49
Postseason results: None
Additions: Arron Afflalo, Ty Lawson, Matt Barnes, Garrett Temple, Anthony Tolliver, Malachi Richardson, Geogios Papagiannis, Jordan Farmar, Skal Labissiere, Isaiah Cousins, Lamar Patterson
Subtractions: Marco Belinelli, Rajon Rondo, Caron Butler, Seth Curry, Quincy Acy, Duje Dukan, James Anderson, Eric Moreland
Biggest move: Hiring head coach Dave Joerger
Projected finish: 14th in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 15. 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. — Ben Golliver
Power ranking: 25. The Kings proved this off-season that they are the best team in the NBA when it comes to being the Kings. Free Boogie. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 266. DeMarcus Cousins is tightening his grasp on two titles: the NBA’s most talented center and its most tortured. Since the two-time All-Star arrived in 2010–11, the Kings have missed the playoffs every season. The franchise’s .345 winning percentage during Cousins’s career ranks 28th, topping only the Timberwolves’ and Sixers’. During the last six seasons Cousins has appeared in 266 losses, the most by a player with a single team. (Four others have appeared in more defeats, but they’ve enjoyed at least one change in scenery.)
Cousins, meanwhile, has been stuck in Sacramento through an ugly ownership change and multiple front-office regimes. This season he will play for Dave Joerger, the sixth coach of his career, and with a cast of teammates that isn’t much better than last season’s 33-win outfit. Despite having Cousins to build around, the Kings have a hole at point guard, limited three-point shooting and an excess of homogeneous combo forwards. Given that GM Vlade Divac has used three first-round picks on centers in the last two drafts, perhaps the plan isn’t to build around their 26-year-old franchise big man, but to start preparing for what comes next. Is Cousins finally inching closer to an escape? — Ben Golliver
Scouting report: Dave Joerger might be their biggest free-agent addition. That’s good and bad. He’s a nice coach with a solid track record, but they really needed a big talent infusion. . . . I expect Joerger to play with two bigs like he did in Memphis, just because they have DeMarcus Cousins and so many other power forwards and centers. It will be hard for Joerger to play pace-and-space because their wings and guards are so poor. . . . Joerger will use Cousins like he used Marc Gasol in Memphis: Put him on the elbow and let him create. But you want to put him in the post too. He can get you points from everywhere. . . . Willie Cauley-Stein is not a perfect all-around player, but he brings length and tons of activity. Still, playing Cousins and Cauley-Stein together isn’t great because that puts two guys without true three-point range on the court. . . . If they want to win, they would be better off giving Rudy Gay minutes as a stretch four, but then they’re just burying the young guys. [Rookie] Skal Labissiere is probably the best four for them; you could see him developing into a good shooter down the road. . . . They won’t miss Rajon Rondo at all. Darren Collison might not be able to put up Rondo’s numbers, but he’ll have a much better impact on their team as a whole. Rondo had the ball in his hands way too much. . . . They have enough average or below-average defenders in their rotation that it’s hard to take them seriously. It’s hard to even pick out their best lineup of five defensive players. They’ll have to play a little bit slower or they could give up 118 points on any night.
Bottom line: The roster will be big. The win total will not.
New York Knicks
New York Knicks: Record last season: 32-50
Postseason results: None
Additions: Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, Joakim Noah, Brandon Jennings, Justin Holiday, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Marshall Plumlee, Maurice Ndour, J.P. Tokoto, Ron Baker, Chasson Randle
Subtractions: Langston Galloway, Arron Afflalo, Derrick Williams, Kevin Seraphin, Cleanthony Early, Tony Wroten, Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon, Jerian Grant
Biggest move: Trading for Derrick Rose
Projected finish: Ninth in the Eastern Conference
Entertainment rankings: 14. While there’s no rhyme or reason to the shaky roster Phil Jackson has assembled, Kristaps Porzingis is so fascinating and novel that he singlehandedly makes up for most of the missteps. — Ben Golliver
Preseason power rankings: 19. It’s hard to envision New York being worse, but there’s too many injury concerns and untested bench cogs to envision exactly what a better Knicks team will look like. Stay cautious here. — Jeremy Woo
One number: -4.27. By most measures, Derrick Rose was one of the worst players at his position last season. Rose’s –4.27 real plus-minus ranked 74th of 77 qualifying point guards (meaning that his play cost the Bulls 4.27 points per 100 possessions last year). He was especially bad at the defensive end, which is troubling for the Knicks, whose anchor—an aging, oft-injured Joakim Noah—will need all the help he can get.
Offensively, Rose was a detriment too, but he had an uptick in efficiency in the second half as he recovered from vision problems. If that emboldens him to gun more, New York—which will also put Carmelo Anthony in a fair number of isos—could be looking at a lot of empty possessions this season. All of which raises the question: Will Kristaps Porzingis get the ball enough?
The 7' 3" forward from Latvia was a revelation last season, stretching the floor, dunking, blocking shots and offering a real ray of hope at Madison Square Garden. But the Knicks are holding on to playoff pipe dreams instead of committing to a rebuild. How do Rose and Noah (and an aging Melo) help Porzingis? They don’t. At least Rose’s contract lasts only one more season; Noah is locked in for four years and $72 million. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: "If they stay healthy, they could win 48 or 50 games. That’s a big if. Carmelo Anthony has had knee issues. Joakim Noah has had injuries in the last couple of years. And with Derrick Rose, there’s always the possibility he’ll go down too. . . . Everyone talks about Noah and Rose, but Courtney Lee was a big pickup. He’s a lockdown defender and a better three-point shooter than people think. . . . [New coach] Jeff Hornacek was a good choice. New York isn’t an easy place to go. You’re strapped with what Phil Jackson wants to do. But Hornacek is his own person. He’ll play some triangle, but he’ll also do other things—spreading the floor, pick-and-roll, trying to create more possessions. It’s hard to win when you have only 80 or 90 possessions. The triangle is just too methodical . . . Kristaps Porzingis will eventually be one of the best players in the league. He can stretch the defense on pick-and-pops, which is hard to guard when you have a guy that’s 7' 3" and can shoot like he can shoot. . . . Rose is still as quick as John Wall, he can make everyone around him better and he’s not a bad perimeter shooter, but he needs to change the way he plays. He tries to challenge bigs, and as a result he gets knocked down and hurt. He needs to play a little smarter . . . Melo can flat-out score. He’ll take bad shots sometimes, but he can defend when he wants to, and he can rebound. He’s got help now. His priority should be winning—not scoring titles. . . . You might be able to squeeze out a decent eight-man rotation, but if guys get injured and others have to step up, then they really start to drop off."
Bottom line: This could have been the best team in the NBA—in 2010-11.
Los Angeles Lakers
Los Angeles Lakers: Record last season: 17-65
Postseason results: None
Additions: Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Brandon Ingram, Jose Calderon, Thomas Robinson, Yi Jianlian, Ivica Zubac
Subtractions: Kobe Bryant, Brandon Bass, Roy Hibbert, Ryan Kelly
Biggest move: Drafting Brandon Ingram (Losing Kobe?)
Projected finish: 15th in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 19. Kobe Bryant dubbed himself “Vino” because he aged like fine wine. His talented but inexperienced successors, D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram, are both under 21. Call them Sprite and Schweppes? — Ben Golliver
Power ranking: 28. Luke Walton, young talent and a bizarre crop of vets should make for a much more watchable season, but that’s the only comfortable assumption here. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 5.8. Lakers fans were understandably befuddled when GM Mitch Kupchak opened the free-agency period by signing Timofey Mozgov to a four-year, $64 million contract. Mozgov?!? Sure, the 7' 1" center had just won a championship with the Cavaliers, but he was barely a factor during the title run. After losing his starting job during an injury-plagued season, Mozgov averaged just 5.8 minutes in the postseason and didn’t even get on the court eight times.
Kupchak and first-time coach Luke Walton are hoping that Mozgov, 30, still has some quality basketball left in the tank. After finishing with the league’s worst defense, the Lakers wasted no time moving on from ponderous Roy Hibbert, whose clunky offensive game also made him a poor fit. While Mozgov isn’t necessarily the most agile center either, he’s a capable finisher in pick-and-rolls, and he has a knack for creating opportunities with off-ball cuts. He has even spent some time in the preseason honing a three-point stroke.
This new marriage is bound to face some tough moments, given the Lakers’ youth and lack of defensive talent, but Mozgov is excited to be back in his team’s plans. “[Walton] said I’m going to play a lot,” he told the L.A. Daily News. “I really like it.” — Ben Golliver
Scouting report: The best-case scenario is that D’Angelo Russell becomes a high-level starter, Brandon Ingram is in the Rookie of the Year mix, and they get a clear sense for how Julius Randle fits into their plans. And they still might not win 25 games. . . . They should change more than any other team, with Kobe Bryant retiring and [coach] Luke Walton taking over for Byron Scott. They’ll play fast, take more threes, run less isolation and have a lot more oppor-tunity for their young prospects, which is how they should have played last year. . . . Russell is their most important player. The style shift will work if he makes it work, and it will fail if he’s not quite ready. Give him a mulligan for last year because Bryant dominated everything. If Russell “gets it,” he’ll be a superstar. He’s ready for a breakout. . . . Ingram has off-the-charts talent, but it will take him a few years to be an impact guy. His lack of strength will hurt him, and he needs to tighten up his handle. I see him as a skilled all-around offensive player but not quite elite. . . . Randle has the biggest question marks. Is he a starter? A guy off the bench? A trade chip? Maybe Walton sees Randle as a Draymond Green type. He can handle the ball a little bit, but can he make the reads? I don’t think Randle has shown a clear skill set. He’s pretty easy to guard. He goes left over and over, and he goes to his spin move over and over. . . . Larry Nance Jr. could wind up being more important than Randle. He’s a more natural fit as a small five, he plays with great energy, and he’s an above-the-rim threat. Everything he does translates to winning.
Bottom Line: Coach Luke Walton won 73 games with the Dubs last year. It might take him three years to win that many here.
Orlando Magic: Record last season: 35-47
Postseason results: None
Additions: Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green, D.J. Augustin, Jodie Meeks, C.J. Wilcox, Stephen Zimmerman, Branden Dawson, Damjan Rudez, Nick Johnson, Cliff Alexander, Arinze Onuaku, Kevin Murphy
Subtractions: Victor Oladipo, Dewayne Dedmon, Brandon Jennings, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Smith, Devyn Marble, Shabazz Napier, Ersan Ilyasova, Domantas Sabonis
Biggest move: Trading away Victor Oladipo
Projected finish: 13th in the Eastern Conference
Entertainment ranking: 29. 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. — Ben Golliver
Power ranking: 20. Do you like defense? Because Frank Vogel, Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton do. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 72 [million]. A center, Nikola Vucevic, led Orlando in usage and scoring last season. So naturally the Magic made a $72 million investment in another center, Bismack Biyombo, who seems incapable of playing alongside him. Vucevic, 25, brings a varied scoring arsenal; Biyombo, 24, is an impressive rebounder and shot blocker whose scoring is negligible. But neither is comfortable defending on the perimeter, and the place Biyombo needs to be on offense—near the rim—is also where Vucevic is most effective.
New coach Frank Vogel will have to toggle between those two, which may not be the biggest frontcourt quandary presented by a muddled roster. The arrivals of Serge Ibaka from Oklahoma City and Jeff Green in free agency will leave little room for Aaron Gordon at power forward, forcing the athletic but offensively limited 21-year-old to play out of position at the three.
Just about any lineup Vogel could field would come up short in its spacing, defense or capacity to create. He at least has this option: Go for extended stretches with Biyombo and Ibaka, who can be twin pillars of a stout defense that might help the Magic finally claim some sort of lasting identity. — Rob Mahoney
Scouting report: I didn’t like the deal for Serge Ibaka. Trading [guard] Victor Oladipo [to the Thunder] for Ibaka is kind of a wash, but they also gave up the 12th pick, and they’re really only renting Ibaka. If he doesn’t have a great year, they’ll either overpay to keep him or just let him walk. . . . Some of the changes they made are a little frontcourt heavy even though they lack backcourt strength. How do you find minutes for all these guys: Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Jeff Green? . . . Gordon will probably have to play the three because of the logjam. He’s a great athlete and he’s gonna get a lot of buckets in transition. He’s strong and has great size to guard threes. But he lacks the shooting skill to space the floor. I like him more as a four. . . . When they need offense they’ll go with Vucevic; when they need defense and rebounding they’ll go with Biyombo. They paid Biyombo a lot of money, but he really has no offense at all. He came off that great playoff series where he was getting 20 rebounds a game and playing great defense. If he can repeat that kind of performance, he’ll maybe even win the starting position. Frank Vogel is more of a defensive coach. . . . You get scoring from Vucevic, though, and I don’t know how much of that they’ll get from other positions. . . . Elfrid Payton has been a real disappointment. I don’t think he has ever really improved. He’s obviously an up-tempo, penetrating guard, but he can’t shoot at all. . . . Mario Hezonja is really limited. Certainly he can give you spot-up shooting, but he’s slow defensively.
Bottom Line: Looks like the perpetually rebuilding franchise is in for another year of appraisal and deal-making.
Record last season: 42-40
Postseason results: Lost to Thunder in First Round, 4-1.
Additions: Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Seth Curry, Quincy Acy, Jonathan Gibson, Nicolas Brussino, A.J. Hammons, Dorian Finney-Smith, Kyle Collinsworth, Jameel Warney, Keith Hornsby, C.J. Williams
Subtractions: Chandler Parsons, Zaza Pachulia, Raymond Felton, David Lee, Charlie Villanueva, Jeremy Evans, JaVale McGee
Biggest move: Signing Harrison Barnes
Projected Finish: 10th in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 21. 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. — Ben Golliver
Power ranking: 17. The Mavs are scrapping onward and appear to have found Dirk Nowitzki more appropriate help. There’s a bankable floor here, but maybe not much of a ceiling. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 10.1. Despite having ample salary-cap space, Dallas has failed to reel in big-name free agents in recent years: Deron Williams, Dwight Howard DeAndre Jordan and Hassan Whiteside, just to name a few. In that sense Harrison Barnes is a significant departure from the trend—even if the Mavs’ big-ticket signing has averaged just 10.1 points in his four-year career and comes at the steep price of $94 million over four seasons.
It has been a long time since the Mavs have had a reliable perimeter creator to pair with Dirk Nowitzki, who, even with declining efficiency, has been the biggest factor in keeping their attack afloat. The hope is that Barnes, 24, can reduce the burden on the 38-year-old Nowitzki and become a swingman scorer who does more than simply shoot threes from the corner—which was largely his role with Golden State. While he has a versatile all-around game, it’s not clear whether he can handle more elevated responsibilities.
Working in Barnes’s favor is the eccentric genius of Rick Carlisle, who can coax points out of a shoebox and a gum wrapper. Barnes doesn’t have to become a 20-point scorer right away, but he needs to show strong signs that he can eventually if he’s going to become a key part of Dallas’s post-Dirk success. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: Rick Carlisle is one of the three or four best coaches in the league. He gets a ton out of that team every year. So I think they’ll definitely be around .500. . . . As long as Dirk Nowitzki is out there, that’s something. His ability to shoot and play pick-and-pop still gives them an advantage. . . . Harrison Barnes is a solid player. I’m sure he’ll put up better numbers than he did in Golden State, but if they’re expecting him to emerge as an All‑Star now that he’s getting more shots, I think they’re going to be a little bit -underwhelmed. . . . Andrew Bogut’s good, he’s just not going to play 82 games. He’ll probably play closer to 60, and in 15 of them he probably won’t be feeling great and will therefore give a lackluster effort. I don’t want to blame it on him, because his body’s messed up. But when his juices are flowing, he’s strong, he’s tough, he’s a great rim protector, very savvy on defense, and he can really pass. . . . Justin Anderson is gonna be good. I wonder how long a leash Carlisle will have with him. Rick prefers to play two smaller guards who are good pick-and-roll players, and that’s not Justin. If he does that, maybe Justin will get squeezed a little bit. I actually think he’s -almost as good a player as Barnes. Maybe not as good as a scorer, but definitely at rebounding and shot -blocking. . . . Deron Williams is O.K. He’s not what he once was, but Carlisle does really well creating opportunities for point guards. If you told someone five years ago that Marvin Williams would be a better NBA player than Deron -Williams, I don’t think they would have believed you.
Bottom Line: Good news: They won’t get bounced in the first round again. Bad news: Because they won’t make it there.
Brooklyn Nets: Record last season: 21-61
Postseason results: None
Additions: Jeremy Lin, Trevor Booker, Luis Scola, Justin Hamilton, Randy Foye, Greivis Vasquez, Caris LeVert, Anthony Bennett, Joe Harris, Chase Budinger, Isaiah Whitehead, Jorge Gutierrez, Beau Beech, Egidijus Mockevicius, Yogi Ferrell
Subtractions: Jarrett Jack, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington, Markel Brown, Donald Sloan, Thomas Robinson, Willie Reed, Henry Sims, Thaddeus Young
Biggest move: Signing Jeremy Lin
Projected Finish: 15th in Eastern Conference
Entertainment ranking: 30. Dead last by a mile for the second straight year. Would anyone notice if this anonymous cast moved back to New Jersey? Would Jersey even take them? — Ben Golliver
Preseason power ranking: 30. The Nets look more endearingly bad than ever. Area hipsters rejoice. — Jeremy Woo
One number: $124.8 million. They signed shooting guards Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe to offer sheets worth $124.8 million this summer. They ended up actually spending $0 on the pair after the Heat and the Blazers, respectively, matched the deals. This is the daunting task for the Nets’ new general manager, Sean Marks: He must rebuild a lottery-bound team with no lottery picks. (The Nets don’t control their top pick until 2019.) So he went the free-agent route, had to overbid for two unproven players—and still couldn’t reel them in.
Marks is paying for the mistakes of previous regimes, and he’s staring at perhaps the most difficult rebuild in NBA history. With Johnson and Crabbe, the Nets were looking to assemble a young, athletic team that could make some noise from the perimeter. Instead, Marks focused on bringing in veterans, including Jeremy Lin and Randy Foye, on small and sensible deals. Lin, who will start at point guard, had a solid season for the Hornets and showed improvement defensively.
Marks, 41, cut his teeth in the Spurs’ front office and is the right person to lead the long climb back to relevance. But he learned a hard lesson this summer: Money alone can’t begin to fix Brooklyn’s problems. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: "They’re years away from being competitive. No real, valuable draft picks until 2019. You’ve just gotta break it down, rebuild, and own it: We’re the worst team in the NBA. . . . Trevor Booker was a good pickup. He played well in Utah—good defender, good rebounder, not a bad scorer. . . . Jeremy Lin had a strong year for the Hornets. He’s basically going to keep the ship afloat if he can. He’s not a great point guard because he doesn’t have the ballhandlingskills. But he’s a good all-around player and a good fit for a bad team because he’ll be able to score and he can make them a little bit competitive. . . . Luis Scola is old. Chris McCullough—not a whole lot to work with. You’ll see an entirely different team when they do take that next step. . . . They’ve basically given everyone away, and I think Brook Lopez might be the next to go. He would be a good pickup for any team. He can flat-out pick-and-pop and make a shot, and he’s big enough to score inside. He’s capable of double doubles every night and can get you 30. He’s by far their best player. . . . Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a typical small, athletic forward who can run the floor. Wing defenders are so important in the game today. But I don’t know how well he shoots. . . . [New GM] Sean Marks has come in and made massive changes. I think Kenny Atkinson was a good choice as coach. He worked for Mike Budenholzer, and I think he’ll bring in that kind of a system—run up and down, defend, play small. He worked in New York under Mike D’Antoni and would certainly have learned offensive spacing from him."
Bottom line: The new regime inherits a tough job. How tough? These guys are worse than the Knicks.
Record last season: 33-49
Postseason results: None
Additions: Jamal Murray, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley, Nate Wolters, D.J. Kennedy, Robbie Hummel, Jarnell Stokes
Subtractions: D.J. Augustin, Joffrey Lauvergne
Biggest move: Drafting Jamal Murray
Projected finish: 13th in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 28. While overloaded with intriguing international prospects, the key veteran pieces don’t fit together and can’t seem to stay on the court. — Ben Golliver
Preseason Power Ranking: 26. Denver’s young players are extremely cool and interesting, but it’s unclear what the sum of the parts will eventually look like. The situation bears watching. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 38.3. In 2011 the Nuggets became the rare team to jettison a superstar—Carmelo Anthony—and still improve. Now, though, they might want to consider the opposite approach while hoping for the same result. Denver has some intriguing pieces on friendly contracts: Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler will make a relatively paltry $38.3 million and they’re the team’s top three earners. It may be time to package some players for a big name.
GM Tim Connelly flirted with a megatrade last season, inquiring about the Clippers’ Blake Griffin. In Gary Harris and Nikola Jokić, the Nuggets have promising young players who could take their games to the next level by playing alongside a franchise centerpiece. And a team looking to unload a max player—maybe the Clips look to rebuild? Maybe Kevin Love’s Finals honeymoon ends?—could do worse than picking up some affordable rotation players with high upsides.
Outside of its transactional potential, the Nuggets’ roster should take a step forward this season, especially if Emmanuel Mudiay continues his hot three-point shooting from the final six weeks of last season, when he averaged 16.5 points. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: If they’re going to make the playoffs, it’s because Emmanuel Mudiay makes a gigantic jump—a Most Improved Player type of jump. His development is the biggest factor in determining their direction. He is great at applying constant pressure, kind of like Goran Dragić , and he’ll generate offense with his defense, but he needs to improve as a shooter. . . . People don’t talk about Gary Harris because he doesn’t have a ton of flash. He is never going to be an All-Star, but he’s a 10-year starter. He complements Mudiay very well because of his shooting, and they can be interchangeable defensively. . . . Drafting Jamal Murray [out of Kentucky] gives them a really promising guard trio. Any two of those guys can play together; they have all the boxes checked, whether it’s playmaking, shooting, pick-and-rolls. . . . Will Barton always brings energy and finds ways to impact the game. He’s long and aggressive, with that herky-jerky game. He’s effective in his own way, and he’s fun to watch. . . . Denver has been stuck in a rut with both Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler suffering injuries. I think it’s time for them to move on from Chandler. He brings a lot of the same things as Gallinari, but Gallinari is better across the board. . . . I don’t see Kenneth Faried as a starter on a good team. His skill set is more like a small-ball five, but he’s not a good enough defender to make that work. . . . Nikola Jokić is a fantastic passer and playmaker for a big man. I love the people who compare him with the Gasol brothers. He has a great feel and a huge basketball IQ. I’d give him 82 starts and big minutes.
Bottom line: An improving roster won’t be enough to end Denver’s four-year playoff drought.
Indiana Pacers: Record last season: 45-37
Postseason results: Lost to Raptors in the first round, 4-3.
Additions: Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young, Al Jefferson, Aaron Brooks, Kevin Seraphin, Jeremy Evans, Georges Niang, Julyan Stone, Nick Zeisloft, Alex Poythress
Subtractions: Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill, Solomon Hill, Ty Lawson, George Hill
Biggest move: Trading for Jeff Teague
Projected finish: Seventh in the Eastern Conference
Entertainment ranking: 16. 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: Never mistake activity for achievement. — Ben Golliver
Power ranking: 11. Indiana’s new-look personnel portends a much faster offense, and another huge year from Paul George. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 16.3, 8.7. They’ve overhauled their roster to supercharge the offense, which ranked 17th in the league last year. Defense-first George Hill has been replaced by Jeff Teague to add shooting from the point guard spot. Rim protector Ian Mahinmi has turned into low-post scorer Al Jefferson, and Thaddeus Young will bring firepower from the wing. On the bench, defensive guru Frank Vogel is now coaching in Orlando, and Nate McMillan will be in charge of overseeing the offensive renaissance.
The unstated goal was to improve enough to persuade Paul George to stay in Indianapolis in two years, when he can opt out of his contract. Some homegrown talent should help too. In a limited role as a rookie last season, Myles Turner averaged 16.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per 36 minutes. Now Indiana will need his size and shot blocking to anchor the defense, giving the 6' 11" Turner a chance to turn into a full-fledged star.
As his playing time increases (he averaged just 22.8 minutes in 2015–16), Turner will also be able to show more of his low-post and midrange games. If he blossoms, the 20-year-old can raise the team’s ceiling this season—and, if he’s good enough to be a running mate for George, make an even bigger impact down the line. — Andrew Sharp
Scouting report: Almost everyone I’ve talked to thinks they’re going to be better because, on paper, they’ve added a lot of names and offensive talent. Jeff Teague is the obvious one, but there’s also Al Jefferson and Thaddeus Young. . . . People don’t think George Hill [now with the Jazz] was good, but he’s a stud defender. Teague is nowhere near as good. They’re gonna miss Hill. And Jefferson is nowhere near as good defensively as Ian Mahinmi [who’s with the Wizards], so they’re going to miss Mahinmi too. . . . The other thing is, they lost [coach] Frank Vogel [to Orlando]. They kept Dan Burke, the assistant who was in charge of the defense, but Vogel was the guy holding people accountable. . . . Paul George is a top 10 player. He’s a great defender when he wants to be, but he conserves energy at times on that end. He’s never had a coach who held him accountable for the shots he takes. That could improve in a better-ball-movement, up-tempo offense. . . . If George is your No. 1 playmaker and Monta Ellis thinks he’s No. 2, where does Teague fit in? If he’s just spotting up, how effective is he? There will be stretches when George and Ellis are off the floor where Teague’s playmaking really helps them. But I think he probably gives up more defensively than he adds offensively. . . . Myles Turner is still a little ways away from being as good as people think he is. He’s a very good midrange shooter, he’ll make turnarounds from the post, and he’ll throw in the occasional three. He’s a very good rim protector. He’ll struggle a bit in pick-and-roll defense, but he’s got a bright future.
Bottom line: Indy is a playoff team but will need luck with Turner and heroics from George to make the progress real.
Detroit Pistons: Record last season: 44-38
Postseason results: Lost to Cavs in the first round, 4-0.
Additions: Ish Smith, Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic, Ray McCallum, Henry Ellenson, Michael Gbinije, Nikola Jovanovich, Trey Freeman
Subtractions: Anthony Tolliver, Spencer Dinwiddie, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks
Biggest move: Re-signing (extending) Andre Drummond. (Signing Ish Smith became important once Reggie Jackson got hurt)
Projected finish: Fourth in the Eastern Conference
Entertainment ranking: Stan Van Gundy’s reshaped roster plays smart, effective ball. Although Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson snapped a long playoff drought last year, they just lack the thrill factor. — Ben Golliver
Power ranking: 16. Reggie Jackson begins the year dinged up, which docks Detroit a few spots. Improved depth offers some sleeper upside. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 35.5. The Pistons have a promising young nucleus—their top six players have an average age of 23.8—and with another year under Stan Van Gundy, they should be even better than last year’s 44-win team. But they also face two big questions.
The first concerns point guard. Reggie Jackson could miss up to two months with tendinitis in his left knee, leaving Detroit to count on above-average backup Ish Smith, 28, to run its spread pick-and-roll. Van Gundy’s smoke and mirrors can make decent players look twice as dangerous, but this will put his sorcery to the test.
The second question centers on the middle. Early last season Andre Drummond looked like a young Moses Malone, putting up 20-rebound games and throwing down thundering alley-oops. By year’s end, though, he tailed off. He wasn’t always engaged on defense. And Drummond was often too big a liability to even keep on the court, because his free throw percentage of 35.5% was the worst in NBA history.
When he met the media in July to announce his five-year, $130 million extension, the 23-year-old said he’d “found something that works.” The Pistons hope so: Drummond is their best player, but he’ll have to be more dependable for them to be able to hang with the East’s elite. — Andrew Sharp
Scouting report: They will be better for a few reasons. They’ve got better depth. They have Tobias Harris for the full season. They improved at stretch four with Jon Leuer and at backup point guard with Ish Smith. All their players are young enough that they should all get slightly -better—and in the case of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson, more than slightly better. . . . They have a bunch of decent shooters, but they need some of them to be closer to 40% than 35% from three. Especially KCP, but also Johnson, Harris and Marcus Morris. They really need that to give them spacing for the Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls. . . . That said, they’re pretty versatile defensively with that group. KCP is terrific. If this is the year he starts making more shots, that would help them a ton. . . . Drummond has sort of flatlined. There’s a real risk that he’s going to get his head messed up with the free throw stuff, like [Andris] Biedrins. He’s starting to hot-potato the ball a bit when he gets it. . . . Defensively I think Drummond’s a little overrated. He’ll have blocks, but he’s mostly average, and he struggles in some pick-and-roll situations. It’ll be interesting to see whether Stan Van Gundy can make him better, because he helped Dwight [Howard] a lot on that end in Orlando. Drummond doesn’t have Dwight’s talent, but he’s only 23. . . . I’d be interested to see them experiment with some more creative lineups. Like if they played Johnson, Harris and Morris at the three/four/five and those three just switched everything. That would be hard for teams to guard when Drummond’s out of the game.
Bottom line: They have the pieces to get out of the first round for the first time since 2008.
New Orleans Pelicans
New Orleans Pelicans: Record last season: 30-52
Postseason results: None
Additions: Langston Galloway, E’Twaun Moore, Solomon Hill, Terrence Jones, Buddy Hield, Lance Stephenson, Robert Sacre, Cheick Diallo, Shawn Dawson
Subtractions: Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Norris Cole, Jordan Hamilton, Kendrick Perkins, James Ennis, Luke Babbitt, Toney Douglas
Biggest move: Drafting Buddy Hield
Projected Finish: 11th in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 13. After another season-ending injury and a number of notable free-agency defections around him, Anthony Davis has somehow become the NBA’s most under-discussed superstar. Don’t forget about The Brow! — Ben Golliver
Power ranking: 24. Off-season tinkering aside, they’re perpetually an Anthony Davis injury from irrelevance. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 489. Of the eight players who took at least 100 three-pointers for the Pelicans last season, only two are with them to start the season: Anthony Davis and Dante Cunningham. Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, their most prolific shooters, are gone. (When Jrue Holiday will return is unclear.)
Those six absent players combined to make 489 threes, or 69.7% of the team’s total. New forward Lance Stephenson hit 38.5% of his treys in 2015–16—but only 17.1% the season before. Terrence Jones isn’t realistically a stretch four. Only Langston Galloway is serviceable from deep—but he’s awful from everywhere else. So the Pels’ shooting hopes rest on their first-round pick from Oklahoma, Buddy Hield.
They shouldn’t have so much trouble scoring with a game-wrecker like Anthony Davis, whose overall play suffered last year from the increased load he shouldered on defense. The departures of Anderson and Gordon will help at that end. But unless Gentry can figure out how to space the floor for his best player, New Orleans will be hard-pressed to improve last year’s 18th-ranked offense. Davis—who entered last season 3 of 27 from three but then knocked down 35 of 108—shouldn’t have to carry the burden from the perimeter, too. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: Alvin Gentry and the offense can bounce back to a degree. Last year they had to play so many guys that aren’t even close to NBA-caliber offensive players. That said, I wonder if they’ll be good enough defensively, because Alvin’s going to put lineups out there based on offense. . . . They have Jrue Holiday, but he’s going to miss some time because his wife [retired U.S. soccer player Lauren] has a [brain tumor]. So Tim Frazier’s their starting point guard. I love Timmy; he’ll play O.K. But it’s not ideal when your starting point guard is a backup. . . . At the two, Tyreke Evans. Tyreke is solid. If they can find enough other guys who can shoot to put out there with him, he could be decent anchoring the second unit. . . . Buddy Hield can shoot, but I don’t think he’s going to be all that good an NBA player. Hield is a very good spot-up shooter; he’s a decent shooter off some movement. He’s not a great guy sprinting off a pindown for a catch-and-shoot three off elevation. But if they expect him to create for people, or be really hard to guard, or impact the game defensively, I don’t see that coming. . . . They signed [small forward] Solomon Hill, and he’s an O.K. player. He’s sort of a poor man’s Jae Crowder, but with kind of a bad attitude. . . . They signed Lance Stephenson also, so he’s in this weird two-three mix. Lance is like Evans in a lot of ways. If I’m them, I’m a little worried about what I’m concocting there. . . . Anthony Davis doesn’t look like he’s in shape a lot of times, and then he’s hurt a lot. But he can’t play any worse than last year.
Bottom Line: After a huge step back, they will inch toward the playoffs—but likely fall short.
Toronto Raptors: Record last season: 56-26
Postseason results: Lost to Cavs in Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2
Additions: Jared Sullinger, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanFleet, Jarrod Uthoff, Drew Crawford, Brady Heslip, Yanick Moreira, E.J. Singler
Subtractions: Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola, James Johnson, Jason Thompson
Biggest move: Re-signing DeMar DeRozan
Projected finish: Third in the Eastern Conference.
Entertainment ranking: 10. Kyle Lowry and company compensate for a lack of polish with charming perseverance. How well Canada’s Team manages the loss of Bismack Biyombo will determine whether they repeat their run to the East finals. — Ben Golliver
Power Ranking: 5. Toronto has earned some benefit of the doubt, especially in the East, and now faces one of those tricky “Prove It” years. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 39.3. They have probably been surpassed by Boston in the Atlantic Division, but the Raptors will still be contenders to reach the Eastern finals. That will only happen, though, if Toronto gets improved play from its stars during the playoffs. In 31 postseason games, DeMar DeRozan has shot 39.3%. That’s simply not good enough, especially from a player who signed a five-year, $139 million deal in July. Still, his accuracy is better than that of his backcourtmate, Kyle Lowry, who is a 38.3% shooter in 44 playoff games.
Teams can too often make Toronto’s offense disappear, exploiting DeRozan’s lack of range—he made just four threes last postseason—and tightening their grip on Lowry in the paint. To reach the conference finals last year the Raptors needed 14 games to advance past the seventh-seeded Pacers and injury-laden Heat.
Improved play from Jonas Valanciunas would help, particularly if he commands more attention in the post. The addition of Jared Sullinger also gives coach Dwane Casey the opportunity to try out some spacier lineups.
Lowry and DeRozan can succeed on a big stage—they both won Olympic gold over the summer. If they want a shot at any NBA hardware, they’ll have to step up when it matters most. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: They probably should have lost to the Pacers in the first round last year, and they almost lost to the Heat in the second round. Both were seven-game series. They weren’t the best when it came to the playoffs. . . . Losing [center] Bismack Biyombo [to the Magic] will hurt them a little bit, but the addition of Jared Sullinger, alongside Patrick Patterson, allows them to spread the floor and be better offensively. . . . DeMar DeRozan had a great year and a terrible postseason. It was almost like all season they run sets for him to catch and shoot, then in the playoffs he’s trying to go one-on-one. He’s a good player, but when you don’t shoot well, you’re limited. He lost his confidence too. . . . Kyle Lowry can make big shots. He can shoot the three; he can run a team. I would put him in the second tier of point guards. . . . It’ll help a great deal to have DeMarre Carroll healthy. He makes the most sense for them at the three. Good defender, average shooter but gives them the capability to play small. . . . Jonas Valanciunas will be a big part of what they do. Each year he gets a little better and last year I thought he was playing really, really well before he got hurt. He’s a low-post threat who can step out to 12 feet. He’s so strong and he’s got good hands. . . . When they picked up Cory Joseph last summer, I knew they would use him and Lowry together a lot. When it was crunch time or when they were protecting its lead, they went to that backcourt quite a bit. It was strong. . . . I don’t trust Terrence Ross as much as I do Norman Powell. When Ross doesn’t shoot well, he doesn’t really help you.
Bottom Line: A solid core is in place, but the Raptors failed to make a substantial improvement.
Houston Rockets: Record last season: 41-41
Postseason results: Lost to Warriors in First Round, 4-1.
Additions: Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Tyler Ennis, Nene, Pablo Prigioni, P.J. Hairston, Bobby Brown, Gary Payton II, Kyle Wiltjer, Isaiah Taylor
Subtractions: Dwight Howard, Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones, Jason Terry, Andrew Goudelock
Biggest move: Re-signing James Harden
Projected Finish: Eighth in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 7. Last season’s biggest disappointment could be in for a swift turnaround. New coach Mike D’Antoni touts a well-oiled, high-octane vision and has pledged to further empower a refocused James Harden. Defense remains optional. — Ben Golliver
Power Ranking: 15. Philosophically, Mike D’Antoni and James Harden are a perfect match. Bank on offensive fireworks, maybe not much else. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 8.1. Houston scored 8.1 fewer points per 100 possessions without James Harden on the court last season. Some drop-off is expected when a star sits, but the burden placed on Harden by the Rockets is one of the heaviest in the league. Over the last two years no one has logged more minutes than Harden, who’s expected to carry the attack as a scorer and playmaker every second he’s on the court.
Houston went all-out this summer to close that 8.1-point gap, hiring Mike D’Antoni—a coach known for making any lineup potent—and signing Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to reinforce its three-point-heavy bombardment. Gordon could be the key pickup, especially if he’s able to use more of his off-the-dribble skills than his catch-and-shoot game. A quintet of Anderson, Gordon, Harden, Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley would be the best shooting lineup outside Golden State, though it could probably only survive a handful of minutes outside NBA 2K.
Though the defense is certainly a work in progress—Anderson and Gordon don’t help in that regard—Houston will surely have a more balanced offense as it looks to return to the playoffs after a 15-win decline last year. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: I thought it was an interesting approach to the off-season to say, “All right, we’re going all in on offense. Screw defense.” I don’t know how much of that was [GM] Daryl [Morey] or the owner [Leslie Alexander]. There have been rumors that [new coach] Mike D’Antoni wasn’t -really Daryl’s call. But they hired D’Antoni, who’s a really good offensive coach, and they signed guys who can shoot. Finally, James Harden is going to have some legit shooting around him—he’s got Ryan Anderson, he’s got Eric Gordon. They’re gonna be awesome on offense. But they’re gonna be atrocious on defense. . . . Every time D’Antoni has been a head coach, he hasn’t really cared about defense. And as coaches get older, they lose the desire to fight those battles making players play D or get back in transition. If the head coach doesn’t care, assistants can scream and show film all they want, but you won’t get much buy-in. . . . In a couple of years, that [four-year, $80 million] deal for Anderson may not look very good, but they’ll be hard to guard with him this year. Teams could start guarding Anderson with a wing and then just switch when he screens for Harden. Some coaches would struggle with that, but D’Antoni is savvy enough to counter it. He just won’t use Ander-son as the screener as much, and use him to space the floor. . . . The big advantage Houston has is that Harden can really beat a switch. He’s one of the few guys in the league who has the whole offensive package. You’ve got to be careful if you’re switching onto him because he’s so good with the ball.
Bottom line: D’Antoni and Harden make them must-see. That won’t necessarily translate to wins.
San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs: Record last season: 67-15
Postseason results: Lost to Thunder in Second Round, 4-2.
Additions: Pau Gasol, David Lee, Dejounte Murray, Dewayne Dedmon, Joel Anthony, Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes, Ryan Arcidiacono, Patricio Garino, Nicolas Laprovittola
Subtractions: Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, David West, Matt Bonner, Kevin Martin, Andre Miller, Boban Marjanovic
Biggest move: Signing Pau Gasol (Losing Duncan?)
Projected finish: Second in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 9. 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 for the Spurs’ beautiful game. — Ben Golliver
Preseason Power Ranking: 3. Things will look a bit different without Tim Duncan and others, but who wants to second-guess this organization? — Jeremy Woo.
One Number: 819. Two of Gregg Popovich’s three most-used lineups last season included Tim Duncan. Though he was far from the high MVP-heights of his prime years—he averaged just 8.6 points per game—Duncan still provided willing ball movement and rock-solid back line defense. In their 819 minutes on the court, those Duncan-centric groups walloped their competition, with net ratings of 15.6 and 8.6.
So what will Popovich do with that time now that Duncan has retired? Free-agent pickup Pau Gasol figures to get most of it, and though he’s a capable scorer at 36, he’s nowhere near the defender Duncan was. Gasol will shoot more than Duncan, which could take opportunities away from LaMarcus Aldridge, who saw his field goal attempts per game decline by nearly 30% in his first season as a Spur. Popovich also lost two versatile frontcourt options with the departures of free agents David West and Boris Diaw.
The Spurs certainly still have elite talent in Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, and they can finish near the top of the West. But unless Pop can effectively minimize Duncan’s absence, they will lose the flexibility that made them a terror on both ends of the court for almost two decades. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting Report: Kawhi Leonard is great. So you have a top 10 player, arguably top five. They’ll be pretty successful as long as they have him. . . . Pau Gasol is probably the starting center. His pick-and-roll defense has been a disaster for years, but [coach Gregg Popovich] will get more out of him on that end than other teams did. That will be a challenge. Going from Tim Duncan’s pick-and-roll defense to Pau’s, that’ll hurt. . . . I wouldn’t be surprised if you see Dewayne Dedmon playing in key situations because he’s so much better defensively than Pau. . . . They signed David Lee. Yikes. Yikes. . . . Manu Ginóbili is still playing, and I still like him a lot. [But at 39] he just can’t do it anymore in the highest-intensity moments, against the best athletes. He doesn’t have enough left. . . . Tony Parker is an above-average starter in the regular season, but he can’t be the playmaker in the playoffs. . . . It’s clearly Kawhi’s team. They’re going to run a lot of stuff for him, and he’ll score a lot. Pick-and-rolls, isos, post-ups. LaMarcus Aldridge just needs to be the No. 2 guy and exploit bad matchups, make pick-and-pops and space them out with jump shots. It’s not unrealistic to think that Aldridge is past his prime now [at 31]. That said, his game will age well. As a jump-shooting- big with that height and that length, he’ll be fine. . . . They’ll be well-coached and well-managed, and Kawhi is great. But do I think they’re a championship team with Kawhi as their best player and LaMarcus as their second-best? Without someone else emerging, probably not. Definitely not when the Warriors have the best team of all time.
Bottom line: No Duncan, no problem. Pop’s 50-win streak will reach 18 seasons.
Phoenix Suns: Record last season: 23–59
Postseason results: None
Additions: Jared Dudley, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, Leandro Barbosa, Derrick Jones
Subtractions: Mirza Teletovic, Ronnie Price, Jon Leuer, Chase Budinger
Biggest move: Drafting Dragan Bender (and acquiring Chriss on draft night)
Projected finish: 12th in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 25. A badly needed housecleaning didn’t get Phoenix any closer to contention. At least the franchise’s focus has shifted back to developing its cache of high-upside youngsters, headlined by Devin Booker. — Ben Golliver
Preseason Power Ranking: 27. Devin Booker has everyone’s attention, and this team is trending upward again. In our imaginations, at least, for now. — Jeremy Woo.
One number: 96. Despite playing for three teams in five seasons and logging time both on and off the ball, Brandon Knight has really only known one role: starter. The 24-year-old Knight has started 96.0% of his games, but he will shift from being the Man to being the sixth man under coach Earl Watson.
The Suns traded for Knight in February 2015, viewing him as a long-term partner for explosive guard Eric Bledsoe. Last year rookie Devin Booker emerged as Phoenix’s most promising long-term asset when both Knight and Bledsoe missed time with injuries. While starting the three ex-Kentucky guards together was an option, Watson decided to spread out his playmakers by demoting Knight to the second unit. The move showcases Booker, a star in the making, and gives Phoenix a bigger look in its starting lineup. Meanwhile, staggering Bledsoe and Knight ensures that the young Suns always have a steady hand on the court while also ensuring that Knight, who is at his best with the ball in his hands, is actively involved in the offense rather than standing and watching.
Knight took the news in stride, publicly praising Watson’s honesty, and the coach returned the favor by hailing Knight’s sacrifice. Nevertheless, the trade rumor mill immediately kicked into gear. — Ben Golliver
Scouting report: This is a wait-and-see team as Earl Watson [who is beginning his first full season] gets his bearings. He has a bunch of pretty good guards who should help ease his transition. He’ll probably turn those guys loose, get up and down and see what happens. . . . They have two rosters in one: a roster of vets and a roster of all their recent draft picks. They’ll probably try to win out of the gate, and if something goes wrong, they’ll just shift to a youth movement. . . . Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe are their best backcourt pairing. I’d hang up the phone if anyone called to ask for Booker. He’s their top asset. He has a higher ceiling than guys like CJ McCollum and Bradley Beal. It’s really hard not to get excited about this kid. He’s 19, he’s shown a high-level makeup, he’s smooth on the ball, he’s very calm and has a great pace to his game. . . . [Lottery-pick forwards] Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss didn’t show enough in summer league. Bender was one of the biggest -disappointments—-turnovers, bad decisions, not hitting his shots. I wouldn’t have used a top five pick on Bender. He’s a totally different player from a guy like Kristaps Porzingis. Chriss isn’t going to be a player unless he can extend his range. You can see some athleticism and highlight plays, but he can go 10 possessions without making an impact. . . . They added Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa because their locker room was a mess. Those are two great chemistry guys. . . . Alex Len still hasn’t shown much progress. He’s 7'1" and shoots 42%. Come on. I don’t know what he does that’s helpful at all.
Bottom line: The guard-heavy team will run—right back into the lottery.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City Thunder: Record last season: 55-27
Postseason results: Lost to Warriors in Western Conference Finals, 4-3
Additions: Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, Domantas Sabonis, Ronnie Price, Joffrey Lauvergne, Chris Wright, Kaleb Tarczewski, Alex Caruso, Alex Abrines
Subtractions: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, Randy Foye, Nazr Mohammed
Biggest move: Losing Kevin Durant
Projected Finish: Fifth in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 5. 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. — Ben Golliver
Preseason Power Ranking: 10. Perpetually incensed Russell Westbrook will make for an amazing watch, but flying solo comes with turbulence. We won’t be able to look away. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 39.0. With Kevin Durant off the floor last season, Russell Westbrook’s usage rate was an astronomical 39.0. That would be the highest of all time if maintained for an entire season. And lest you think Westbrook can’t keep that up, he finished the 2014–15 season, when Durant played in only 27 games, at 38.3. (The Thunder won 45 games but missed the playoffs.)
Plain and simple, this season in Oklahoma City will be The Russ Show, and coach Billy Donovan needs to balance unleashing his best player with keeping the rest of the team involved. Letting Westbrook gun at full capacity would be a disservice to a roster that—ironically, in light of Durant’s departure—has finally filled out nicely.
Victor Oladipo is an intriguing backcourtmate for Westbrook, and he should be a better fit in OKC than he was on a cramped Magic roster. Steven Adams showed in the postseason that he’s on his way to becoming one of the better centers in the NBA. And Enes Kanter has always had the offensive chops to hang in Western Conference shootouts.
The Thunder will go only as far as Westbrook takes them, but the higher his usage rate creeps, the more OKC risks diminishing returns. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: Kevin Durant’s leaving ends their long reign as contenders. Even if Russell Westbrook is the MVP, it will be hard for them to crack the top four in the West because they’ll have a bottom 10 defense. . . . For years their whole M.O. has been two guys doing everything and the rest of the team playing off them. Now it’s going to be a much more collective approach. Westbrook won’t allow them to fall apart. . . . Sometimes people view Westbrook as just an athlete, but he is savvy beating guys off the dribble, and he understands that putting pressure on the rim can make a lot of good things happen. He’s probably the best rebounding guard in the league. If I had to pick one point guard in a vacuum, I’d take Westbrook over Curry, Paul and all the rest. . . . Pairing Westbrook and Victor Oladipo might not work. But if any backcourt could get by with two nonshooters, it’s this one, because their physical tools are off the charts. They’ll win games just through force of will. . . . I still don’t understand why they moved on from Serge Ibaka. Maybe he had reached his ceiling, but it’s a really good ceiling. Now, they’re taking a big step backward with Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis. . . . Ilyasova can stretch the floor, but he can’t guard most fours in the West for sustained minutes. No way. . . . Steven Adams will emerge as a big-time center this year. He’s not a one-on-one post scorer or a guy you force-feed, but he can steadily contribute offensively, he’s a big plus defensively, he’s a tone-setter and he’s fearless. His size really pops off the screen when you watch tape, and he moves well.
Bottom line: Last year’s heartbreaking loss in the West finals would be a dream scenario this year.
Minnesota Timberwolves Record last season: 29-53
Postseason results: None
Additions: Kris Dunn, Jordan Hill, Cole Aldrich, Brandon Rush, John Lucas III, Toure’ Murray, Rasual Butler
Subtractions: Tayshaun Prince, Damjan Ruduez, Greg Smith
Biggest move: Drafting Kris Dunn
Projected Finish: Ninth in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 8. Karl-Anthony Towns is a unanimous pick as the NBA’s Next Big Thing, while Andrew Wiggins and rookie Kris Dunn are stellar running mates. Will Minny’s big breakthrough come this year or next? — Ben Golliver
Power ranking: 19. Everyone’s understandably hyped about the Timberpups. I’m equally giddy to watch Tom Thibodeau bellow his way through real growing pains with malleable, high-level talent. The excitement is legit, but perhaps running a bit unchecked this October: sure, nobody has Minnesota pegged to lose 50 games again, but making the playoffs in the West remains a tall task, and it’s unfair to hoist expectations on a team that’s still figuring itself out. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 38.9. In his second season with the Spurs, Tim Duncan averaged a combined 38.9 points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals per game—a high bar that Karl-Anthony Towns could reach this year. Towns’s cumulative average was 33.2 in 2015–16, when he ran away with the Rookie of the Year award. Towns’s game isn’t a facsimile of Duncan’s–certainly not on defense—but his potential is through the roof. Towns is a legitimate 7-footer who is light on his feet, with a natural athleticism most big men can only dream of. He can anchor the offense on the block, as a pick-and-roll partner with Kris Dunn, and with his developing outside shot.
Towns’s defensive growth will benefit from the arrival of coach Tom Thibodeau. (That’s true of his teammates as well. The T-Wolves were 28th in defensive rating. Only one of Thibs’s five Bulls squads was worse than sixth.)
With an embarrassment of lottery riches—the top three scorers last season were all 21 or younger—Minnesota has the potential to become the NBA’s next It team. But if the Timberwolves are going to end their 12-year playoff drought—let alone make a splash—Towns will have to more closely emulate Duncan as a two-way force.— Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: Tom Thibodeau has great taste in young talent and he found an organization that can benefit from his style and experience. I can’t wait to see their prospects transforming into high-level defenders. . . . Karl-Anthony Towns will be viewed as a top 10 player at the end of this season. I’ll take him over Anthony Davis right now. He’s the total package offensively. He can score without being selfish, you can move him all over the court, and he has a great touch for a big guy. . . . Andrew Wiggins has the raw talent and youth to be a breakout candidate, but I’m with the people who question whether he will ever really deliver on the hype. He needs to prove that he can contribute within the structure and not just be an open-court guy who gets by on his athleticism. . . . Kris Dunn is the best player in this draft; I would have taken him No. 1. You can see the tools and the makeup of an elite guard in this league. He has the personality, the tempo and the pace to his game, the play-to-play intensity. They have a talented group around him with an upward trajectory, so he won’t be asked to do too much. . . . That puts Ricky Rubio’s future into question. He is a very good player, but they’ll have trouble trading him for value because everyone knows they have Dunn. They don’t need to rush it: Rubio is an excellent defender, and he can help set the tone. . . . Zach LaVine doesn’t guard well enough to start. He should be a designated scorer and a spark plug off the bench. Thibodeau will either help turn him into a better defender and take his game to the next level, or neglect him because he still can’t stop anybody.
Bottom line: The team to watch in 2019–20 would do well to finish in the top eight this year.
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland Trail Blazers: Record last season: 44-38
Postseason results: Lost to Warriors in Second Round, 4-1
Additions: Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli, Shabazz Napier, Jake Layman, Greg Stiemsma, Grant Jerrett, Tim Quarterman
Subtractions: Gerald Henderson, Chris Kaman, Brian Roberts
Biggest move: Re-signing Alan Crabbe
Projected finish: Fourth in the Western Conference
Entertainment ranking: 4. 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. — Ben Golliver
Preseason Power Ranking: 7. How high can Damian Lillard take the Blazers? A deeper, more talented group is eager to find out. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 131.3. Compared with last season, when the team was one of the NBA’s most pleasant surprises, the Trail Blazers are paying 131.3% more in active contracts, according to Spotrac. Over the summer Portland loosened the purse strings to retain Allen Crabbe (four years, $75 million), Meyers Leonard (four years, $41 million) and Moe Harkless (four years, $40 million). The Blazers also signed Evan Turner to a four-year, $70 million deal. Those investments have pushed the active payroll, which was ranked 29th in the league last year, into the top five.
Will that money buy a title contender? That’s unclear. Retaining Crabbe and Harkless at least made sense in terms of continuity, but handing the hefty deal to Turner—who can’t really shoot—could haunt Portland for years to come. And don’t forget that CJ McCollum’s four-year, $106 million extension kicks in next season. That further locks the Trail Blazers into this core.
There are certainly reasons to be optimistic. McCollum and Damian Lillard have proved themselves capable of shooting Portland to unexpected wins. But both have plenty of room to improve defensively. For now, the Blazers are paying premium bucks and are still a legit two-way star from serious contention. — Rohan Nadkarni
Scouting report: They’ll be pretty similar to last year—a top seven offense and an average defense—and they’ll be in position to get home court in the first round. People who assume they will take a step back because they had some good luck in the playoffs last year are making a mistake. . . . They’ve got everything you want on offense: spacing, shot creators, unselfish guys. They are one of the few teams that can hang in a shootout with Golden State. After this summer their depth is better than people think. . . . This team starts and ends with Damian Lillard. I think he’s the best point guard in the league besides Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. He’s good enough to will a team into the playoffs and to make some noise. . . . CJ McCollum is one of the best ballhandlers in the league. He’s got a little Kyrie Irving in his game when it comes to his off-the-dribble moves. He can catch and shoot on threes, too, but he prefers to snipe and find his spots closer in, even though a lot of other guards have abandoned those midrange shots. . . . I don’t understand the Evan Turner move, because now he’s probably taking away possessions from either Lillard or McCollum. How they fit Turner in will be the biggest story line. . . . I would start Allen Crabbe over guys like Turner and Moe Harkless. His ability to space gets the most out of Lillard and McCollum. . . . I really liked how they started Al‑Farouq Aminu as a small-ball four down the stretch. That was easily their best lineup. He’s a defensive stopper who can shoot the three a little bit, although his form is terrible.
Bottom line: Until the D catches up with the O, Portland’s ceiling won’t get much higher.
Golden State Warriors
Golden State Warriors: Record last season: 73-9
Postseason results: Lost to Cavaliers in NBA Finals, 4-3.
Additions: Kevin Durant, Zaza Pachulia, David West, Patrick McCaw, Damian Jones, JaVale McGee, Elliot Williams, Phil Pressey, Cameron Jones
Subtractions: Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, Brandon Rush
Biggest move: Signing Kevin Durant
Projected Finish: NBA Finals champion
Entertainment ranking: 1. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry should pile up points more easily than any superstar duo since Shaq and Kobe. The 1987 Lakers’ record for offensive efficiency is in serious jeopardy. — Ben Golliver
Power Ranking: 1. Really wanted to give the defending champs the benefit of the doubt, but…Kevin Durant. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 115.6. The 1986–87 Lakers, directed so brilliantly by Magic Johnson, have stood as the gold standard for devastating offense. But the Showtime Lakers’ 115.6 offensive rating—a modern record—is in serious jeopardy thanks to Kevin Durant’s arrival in the Bay Area. Last season Steph Curry guided the Warriors to a franchise-best 114.5 offensive rating, the 12th highest in the three-point era.
Golden State’s rating should only climb in 2016–17 now that Curry has been paired with Durant to form the most potent duo since Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Warriors’ new supertandem has combined to win the last three MVP awards and five of the last seven scoring titles. Throw in Klay Thompson, and coach Steve Kerr has three legitimate 50/40/90 shooting candidates in his starting lineup.
Durant shouldn’t be overly concerned about getting his touches. Under Kerr, Golden State has led the league in assist rate for the last two seasons—while the ball-stopping Thunder never ranked higher than 15th during Durant’s nine seasons. “There’s a lot I need to learn,” Durant said this month. “I’m not as smart as I thought I was about the game. It’s played a different way here.” — Ben Golliver
Scouting report: No way they beat 73 wins. They’ll go through some growing pains in terms of figuring out the lineups and shot distribution. I could see them starting slow. They get one of the best players in Kevin Durant now, but they have to redefine everyone’s role. . . . Durant is more of a ball-stopper than Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, but I think Steve Kerr will make it a priority to use that as a strength by giving him a package of isolation plays. They have the luxury of using Durant as a hammer: If he gets a good matchup or if they’re coming out of timeouts, they can just force-feed him to put pressure on the defense. . . . I used to think Carmelo [Anthony] was the toughest one-on-one matchup, but Durant has taken that place. How do you guard him? Durant played high-level defense during the 2016 playoffs. He’s such a good offensive player that it still gets overlooked, but he has game-changing ability on defense. . . . They took a big step back at center. Andrew Bogut is an elite defender, and Festus Ezeli was proven. They will have to adjust their defensive scheme with Zaza Pachulia and Anderson Varejão. . . . They’ll miss Bogut more than anyone they lost. His injury in the Finals was one of the main reasons they fell apart. If he was a 10 on a 1-to-10 scale for rim protection, Zaza is a 3 or 4. But they can always close games with Draymond Green at the center, so it’s not the end of the world. . . . Green is a top 15 talent. He’s their best interior defender by a long shot now. But that small lineup is vulnerable on the glass, as both Cleveland and Oklahoma City showed.
Bottom line: Just a hunch: They won’t struggle to score points. A second title in three years looks inevitable.
Washington Wizards: Record last season: 41-41
Postseason results: None
Additions: Ian Mahinmi, Trey Burke, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Smith, Danuel House, Sheldon McClellan, Casper Ware
Subtractions: Ramon Sessions, Jared Dudley, Garrett Temple, Nenê, Drew Gooden, J.J. Hickson, Alan Anderson
Biggest move: Re-signing Bradley Beal
Projected Finish: Eighth in the Eastern Conference
Entertainment ranking: 17. 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. — Ben Golliver
Preseason Power Ranking: 21. Ian Mahinmi’s already hurt, John Wall and Brad Beal are passively feuding, and Scott Brooks has lots of work to do. — Jeremy Woo
One number: 27. So much of what they are and could be depends on Bradley Beal’s health. There is no more versatile scorer on the Wizards’ roster; Beal is a pick-and-roll creator, a natural shooter off curls, and a deadly spot-up option who’s the perfect complement to John Wall. Frequent injuries, however, have kept Beal from gaining much developmental traction. Last year Beal missed 27 games, the third time in his four seasons he’s sat out at least 19. Washington has suffered for it.
The hope entering this season is a familiar one: that Beal’s worst impediments are behind him, allowing the 23-year-old to take meaningful steps forward and push the Wizards—who were five games worse last year than in 2014–15—along with him. Beal’s getting right won’t fix all of the profound weirdness that loomed over the team last season (most notably the tension between Beal and Wall). It can, however, give Washington its best chance at playoff competence. The floor is better spaced with him on it. Wall’s work in piloting the offense is far easier with Beal involved. Just by doing what he does best, Beal anchors Washington’s backcourt and protects its shaky bench from overextension. — Rob Mahoney
Scouting report: They could have issues lingering from last season. It’s well-known that John Wall and Bradley Beal don’t always see eye to eye. That could create problems. . . . If Beal, Wall and Otto Porter are all playing together, you have one of the best one-two-three combinations in the East. . . . There’s nobody in the league faster from end line to end line than Wall. Nobody can get to the rim and finish like he can. But his lack of perimeter shooting has really held him back. And he’s looking to shoot a little more than he probably should. Sometimes he plays too fast, where he’s just running past everybody and it’s one-on-four. He’s got to learn to play more cerebrally. . . . A new start should be a good for Markieff Morris. He allows them to play small and space the floor, because you really can’t play Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi together. Morris fits in well with either of them. He’ll stretch the floor, he’ll be able to run. If he produces at the four and Porter elevates his game, they’ll be pretty good offensively. . . . Mahinmi’s known as a defensive player and a rebounder. He has the skills to go out and guard the pick-and-pop, which a lot of centers struggle to do. He doesn’t have great hands, and doesn’t have the touch Gortat has or the ability with his back to the basket. The combination of Gortat and Mahinmi, if they were one player, would be pretty good. . . . [New coach] Scott Brooks needs to do a lot of the same things he did in Oklahoma City: change the culture, implement a system. Brooks is a proven winner. Granted, he had good talent, but he did win with it.
Bottom Line: A capable roster with a winning coach makes the Wiz a compelling group in the East.