Monday October 24th, 2016

Well, it’s that time again. Welcome to The Crossover’s NBA Power Rankings, a weekly exercise in hashing out some type of hierarchy among the league's 30 teams. It’s been a long summer full of meetings in the Hamptons, unsent text messages, hurt feelings and shirtless championship romps. And though not all of those things apply to all of us in the basketball community, we can all take solace in the NBA’s return.

These are not playoff predictions, or an attempt to project order of finish—you can pick up our magazine for that. Instead, think of this as a way to gauge both success and long-term outlook, mixed with current circumstance. 

Anyway, the column comes with a bit of a new look this season. We’ll dive in with three noteworthy teams each week, eventually getting to everyone, of course, and offer a better sense of the biggest league-wide stories. In favor of staying topical, there will be less time spent on random factoids and lengthy intros.

And in the spirit of that last sentence, let's dive in.


Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

30. Brooklyn Nets

Last season: 21–61, missed playoffs
Final Ranking: 29

The Nets look more endearingly bad than ever. Area hipsters rejoice.

29. Philadelphia 76ers

Last season: 10–72, missed playoffs
Final Ranking: 30

Hope for Joel Embiid is the difference between last and almost-last.

28. Los Angeles Lakers

Last season: 17–65, missed playoffs
Final 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.

27. Phoenix Suns

Last season: 23–59, missed playoffs
Final Ranking: 26

Devin Booker has everyone’s attention, and this team is trending upward again. In our imaginations, at least, for now.

26. Sacramento Kings

Last season: 33–49, missed playoffs
Final 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.

25. Denver Nuggets

Last season: 33–49, missed playoffs
Final Ranking: 23

Denver’s young players are way better than you think, but it’s unclear what the sum of the parts will eventually look like. The situation bears watching.

24. New Orleans Pelicans

Last season: 30–52, missed playoffs
Final Ranking: 27

Off-season tinkering aside, they’re perpetually an Anthony Davis injury from irrelevance.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

23. Miami Heat

Last season: 48–34, lost in second round
Final Ranking: 9

Although this organization never seems to fall too far for too long, an off-season of massive change led to the Heat’s precipitous drop into the bottom third. Dwyane Wade is gone, and effectively, so is Chris Bosh, leaving Udonis Haslem as the fitting final vestige of the Big Three era. It’s a transition year for Miami, and although Pat Riley is surely thinking several steps ahead, the future of a franchise that’s long been a post-season mainstay is much foggier to the viewing public.

The Heat may come with more pre-season question marks than any other team in the league (beginning with Hassan Whiteside as this team’s enigmatic tentpole). He’s gifted but still a head-scratcher, and even if he can handle the exterior pressure and volume touches befitting of his mega-contract, it doesn’t guarantee to translate into wins. Justise Winslow is likely the future here, but not without a jump shot. There’s Dion Waiters, who might provide some unintentional comedy, and there’s Goran Dragic, who’s already part of trade rumors—and logically at that.

Those recent Dragic murmurs involved the Kings and Rudy Gay, and hey—if these were Stealth Tank Rankings, Miami would have been in my top five. Along those lines, it’s hard to even hate on that trade idea, although it’s always easy to dig on the occasionally passive, often frustrating Gay. With the cupboard running thin outside of Winslow, Whiteside and the promising Josh Richardson, Dragic is the Heat’s most liquid asset of any real value, and as he approaches the wrong side of 30, the sell-high strategy seems almost foregone. Side note: Foregone could totally be a third Dragic brother.

So in short, Miami’s prognosis looks glum, and bet your life Pat Riley is fully aware. A slow start could lead to big changes, and could also be exactly what the Heat needs long-term.

22. Milwaukee Bucks

Last season: 33–49, missed playoffs
Final Ranking: 22

No Middleton stings, but there’s still promise—this just doesn’t feel like the year everything works out perfectly.

21. Washington Wizards

Last season: 41–41, missed playoffs
Final Ranking: 20

Ian Mahinmi’s already hurt, John Wall and Brad Beal are passively feuding, and Scott Brooks has lots of work to do.

20. Orlando Magic

Last season: 35–47, missed playoffs
Final Ranking: 21

Do you like defense? Because Frank Vogel, Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton do.

19. New York Knicks

Last season: 32–50, missed playoffs
Final Ranking: 24

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.

18. Chicago Bulls

Last season: 42–40, missed playoffs
Final Ranking: 18

Chicago shouldn’t be fooling anyone into thinking that was a great off-season, but it was…different. I just changed my ringtone to the sound of cacophonous clanking rims.

17. Dallas Mavericks

Last season: 42–40, lost in first round
Final Ranking: 13

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.

16. Detroit Pistons

Last season: 44–38, lost in first round
Final Ranking: 12

Reggie Jackson begins the year dinged up, which docks Detroit a few spots. Improved depth offers some sleeper upside.

15. Houston Rockets 

Last season: 41–41, lost in first round
Final Ranking: 17

Philosophically, Mike D’Antoni and James Harden are a perfect match. Bank on offensive fireworks, maybe not a ton else. League Pass!

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

14. Minnesota Timberwolves

Last season: 29–53, missed playoffs
Final 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.

Minnesota has not been to the post-season in 12 years, and that quest begins and ends with Karl-Anthony Towns. He’s special, special enough that it’s tempting to prop his rookie numbers up and project them against the best big men ever. But this is still one of the league’s youngest teams, one that was No. 28 in defensive rating last season, and one without a ton of shooting to cover its mistakes on the other end.

Assume Towns progresses nicely, but not exponentially: it’ll still take the much-ballyhooed Andrew Wiggins star leap to get this team close to playoff territory, not to mention improvement from Zach LaVine and others and most likely a full season of good Ricky Rubio. Kris Dunn will have to play a lot, but he’s still a rookie point guard. These are exciting what-ifs, but still ifs aplenty.

The Wolves’ success will run separate from their entertainment value—they should be worth watching all season through the ups and downs. Maybe this team is the future of the league, and it’s tough to doubt Thibodeau in the long run, but stay calm. Healthy optimism and good vibes start the Wolves off in an optimistic place, but it’s probably good to temper expectations, just a little bit. Is that fair?

13. Charlotte Hornets

Last season: 48–34, lost in first round
Final Ranking: 10

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?

12. Indiana Pacers

Last season: 45–37, lost in first round
Final Ranking: 14

Indiana’s new-look personnel portends a much faster offense, and another huge year from Paul George.

11. Atlanta Hawks

Last season: 48–34, lost in second round
Final Ranking: 7

We waited a while for Dennis Schröder unleashed, but nobody expected a side helping of Dwight Howard. With Paul Millsap set for free agency, it’s a pivotal transition year in Atlanta.

NBA
Can the Grizz Evolve Beyond Grit and Grind?

10. Memphis Grizzlies

Last season: 42–40, lost in first round
Final Ranking: 15

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.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

Last season: 55–27, lost in West finals
Final Ranking: 4

Perpetually incensed Russell Westbrook will make for an amazing watch, but flying solo comes with turbulence. We won’t be able to look away.

Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

8. Utah Jazz

Last season: 40–42, missed playoffs
Final Ranking: 16

“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 the 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.

The Jazz are now the rare team that runs legitimately two-deep at every position, returning Alec Burks and Dante Exum from injury in the backcourt and adding Joe Johnson and Diaw up front. Exum, in particular, stirs the imagination following a nice preseason, and can reboot this initial phase of his career behind a steady point in George Hill. He’s explosive with good scoring instincts and returns to none of the fanfare of two years ago. It’s a cozy situation for a bounce-back year.

Basically, there are just a ton of great passers and fundamentally sound players here, and enough scoring to keep up. If the Hawks (where Quin Snyder was an assistant before this) and the Spurs have taught us nothing, that’s almost always a good recipe for consistency. Utah has the culture and players in place to jump comfortably into the West’s upper echelon. Feel good about it.

7. Portland Trail Blazers

Last season: 44–38, lost in West semis
Final Ranking: 11

How high can Damian Lillard take the Blazers? A deeper, more talented group is eager to find out.

6. Boston Celtics

Last season: 48–34, lost in first round
Final Ranking: 8
Al Horford may or may not get them over the top, but the Celtics are in their best all-around shape in years.

Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

5. Toronto Raptors

Last season: 56–26, lost in East finals
Final Ranking: 6

Toronto has earned some benefit of the doubt, especially in the East, and now faces one of those tricky “Prove It” years.

4. L.A. Clippers

Last season: 53–29, lost in first round
Final Ranking: 5

Maybe this is the last ride for the enigma formerly known as Lob City, and at this point, sky-high expectations are valid.

3. San Antonio Spurs

Last season: 67–15, lost in West semis
Final Ranking: 2

Things will look a bit different without Tim Duncan and others, but who wants to second-guess this organization? 

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

Last season: 57–25, won title
Final Ranking: 3

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.

1. Golden State Warriors

Last season: 73-9, lost in Finals
Final Ranking: 1

I really wanted to give the defending champs the benefit of the doubt, but…Kevin Durant.

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