By Matt Dollinger
October 21, 2013
LeBron James' Heat are favorites, but Chris Paul's Clippers are among the strong challengers.
Kin Cheung/AP
Preseason NBA Power Rankings
1 Miami Heat
Miami Heat (66-16 last year)
Rankings don't get much easier than this. Two-time defending champions. Best player on the planet. Same core. Two low-risk, high-potential projects (Greg Oden and Michael Beasley) who were drafted No. 1 or No. 2 in the last six years. The Heat are the team to beat.
2 San Antonio Spurs
After coming within seconds of a title in June, San Antonio is back with an almost identical roster for another run. The Spurs will need their veteran core to hold up, as well a big season from third-year forward Kawhi Leonard, to achieve a similar outcome.
3 Los Angeles Clippers
Doc Rivers made the right decision to bail on Beantown for the chance at a championship with the Clippers. It's clear Rivers already has banners on his mind, but will he be able to get Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to take their games to the next level? Rivers also has a bench as good as some teams' starters, giving him more than enough firepower to carry the Clippers to their first conference finals.
4 Indiana Pacers
It's Finals or bust for the Pacers, who took the Heat to a Game 7 in the conference finals last season and boast an improved roster. In addition to returning their strong starting five, they revamped their bench with the addition of Luis Scola and others. If Danny Granger clicks and the second unit jells, the Pacers will get another shot at the Heat.
5 Chicago Bulls
Chicago Bulls (45-37)
Adidas might want to tweak its shoe campaign to better fit its poster boy: "Derrick Rose is Everything." If Rose returns to form, the Bulls will be the most improved team in the league. If he suffers a setback or struggles with his confidence, Chicago's offense will keep it from contending. The Bulls have assembled the perfect roster around Rose; now they just need the centerpiece to stay on the floor.
6 Oklahoma City Thunder
With Russell Westbrook out, the Thunder won't be at full strength until December at the earliest, so we're leaving them out of the top five. Throw in Kevin Martin's departure, and Kevin Durant is being asked to carry a very heavy load. Luckily, the NBA's scoring champion in three of the past four years is more than up to the task. Prepare for an MVP run from Durant.
7 Houston Rockets
Will the duo of Dwight Howard and James Harden look as good on the hardwood as it does on paper? GM Daryl Morey has managed to corral two of the league's biggest stars in their prime, and now it's time to see what they can do. Howard should boost the Rockets' league-average defense from last season and create a little more space for the team's horde of shooters.
8 Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn Nets (49-33)
If the Nets had known they were going to get Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko this summer, maybe they would have brought in Jason Kidd as a backup point guard, not first-time coach. That said, give Brooklyn the early lead in the battle for New York. With five players who have been All-Stars in the starting lineup and another one coming off the bench in Kirilenko, the Nets have a shot to make the conference finals.
9 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors jumped from 24th to 13th in defensive efficiency last season and could move up again with the arrival of Andre Iguodala. Golden State will feel the losses of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, but Iguodala and more opportunities for Harrison Barnes should help fill the void. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson make up one of the most lethal backcourts in the league, but the Warriors need help from everyone to reach the conference finals.
10 Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies don't have to be a regular-season juggernaut for first-year coach Dave Joerger to be deemed a success. Instead, he's tasked with improving an offense (17th in points per possession last season) that made its biggest upgrade at backup shooting guard/small forward (Mike Miller). Look for Memphis to pick up the pace, but maintain its identity as a defensive stalwart.
11 New York Knicks
There's no better way to begin a season than by having your best player declare he's always wanted to be a free agent. Carmelo Anthony foreshadowing aside, the Knicks won't have J.R. Smith and possibly Amar'e Stoudemire at the start. That'll make the New York spotlight shine just a little bit brighter on Andrea Bargnani, who looks to bounce back from a disastrous falling out with Toronto. While the Knicks made moves this summer (welcome, Metta World Peace), they didn't improve as much as the other contenders in the East.
12 Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets lost more than they gained in the offseason. Without Andre Iguodala, Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer, the defense will likely slide despite the arrival of coach Brian Shaw, who was known for his defensive work as an assistant. Will the offense -- which will be without Danilo Gallinari for at least a month and will feature JaVale McGee more than ever -- be dynamic enough to make up the difference? The Nuggets could take this season's biggest step back.
13 Dallas Mavericks
Mark Cuban went out and got Dirk Nowitzki a new backcourt this summer, signing Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon. While it's an improvement over O.J. Mayo and a revolving door at point guard, it leaves the Mavs even more vulnerable defensively. Veterans Vince Carter and Shawn Marion will help boost Dallas, but barring a renaissance performance from Nowitzki, 35, and better-than-expected defensive results, the Mavs will be hard-pressed to advance in the playoffs.
14 Minnesota Timberwolves
The Wolves are dead-set on ending a nine-year playoff drought. Minnesota spent a combined $117 million in re-signing Nikola Pekovic and Chase Budinger and adding Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer. With Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio healthy and Martin in the fold, Minnesota should be able to improve an offense that finished 25th in points per possession last season.
15 Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta Hawks (44-38)
GM Danny Ferry let Josh Smith walk but replaced him with one of the offseason's best values in Paul Millsap (two years, $19 million). The Hawks have the potential to be a well-balanced playoff team, although one that likely tops out in the first round. That was likely their ceiling even if they had re-signed Smith, making the decision to let him go fiscally and competitively sound.
16 Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers bolstered their bench by adding Mo Williams, CJ McCollum, Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright, which should give their overworked starters relief. Bringing in Robin Lopez gives them a capable defensive center, too. This could be a make-or-break year in Portland for a lot of people, including LaMarcus Aldridge and coach Terry Stotts, but it helps that the Blazers have better talent.
17 Detroit Pistons
The Pistons floored the accelerator on their rebuilding efforts, adding Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings to the burgeoning duo of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Detroit has the size and defensive expertise to be a stout team, but will the Pistons be able to space the floor well enough or get enough perimeter shooting? A lift from Rodney Stuckey or rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would go a long way.
18 Washington Wizards
The Wizards were 24-25 with John Wall in the lineup last season, giving them hope that they'll reach the playoffs this year for the first time since 2008. Emeka Okafor's neck injury dampens those spirits slightly, but there's undeniable potential in the backcourt pairing of Wall and Bradley Beal. The Wizards could sneak into the playoffs if Okafor is the worst of their injury problems.
19 Los Angeles Lakers
The 2005-06 pairing of Steve Nash and Pau Gasol would have been a sight to behold. The 2013-14 version is pretty pedestrian. The Lakers' postseason hopes hinge on the speedy and effective return of one Kobe Bean Bryant. Anything less will leave Los Angeles with a season just as frustrating as the last one -- although it won't have Dwight Howard to blame this time. But don't worry, Nick Young's shot selection should give everyone enough to talk about.
20 New Orleans Pelicans
Tyreke Evans starts the season as the third wheel in the Pelicans' backcourt, giving way to Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday. Ball handling won't be an issue for New Orleans, but deciding who will be doing it might be. One player who won't have to compete for minutes is Anthony Davis, who looks to expand on a solid rookie season (13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game) and become more of an offensive threat. New Orleans' playoff hopes depend on how quickly its promising core blossoms.
21 Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers could fight for a playoff spot if Kyrie Irving stays healthy, but injuries loom too large to bet heavily on this team. Cleveland needs more than cameo performances from Andrew Bynum and Anderson Varejao to live up to its potential. With No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett joining Cleveland's young core, the future is bright -- it just might be a year or two away.
22 Utah Jazz
Utah Jazz (43-39)
The Jazz have finally cleared up their long-standing frontcourt logjam. With Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap gone, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter go from prospects to starters. Gordon Hayward becomes the focal point of the offense and Alec Burks gets a chance to show what he can do. With the potential to start five lottery picks (when Trey Burke is healthy), the Jazz are going to find out what their future looks like quickly.
23 Toronto Raptors
New GM Masai Ujiri was quiet during the offseason, dumping Andrea Bargnani and signing Tyler Hansbrough. But he could look to overhaul the roster if the Raptors struggle early, as Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay can become free agents next summer and coach Dwane Casey is in the last year of his contract.
24 Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks' backcourt got a makeover with the departures of Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and J.J. Redick and arrivals of Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo and Luke Ridnour. The cost-efficient swap likely won't make Milwaukee a better team, but it won't make them much worse either. Larry Drew can tinker with an array of intriguing prospects and steady veterans, but there might not be a combination that results in a playoff berth.
25 Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic (20-62)
A Magic sell-off is likely at some point, with veterans Jameer Nelson (two years, $16.6 million left on his deal, with $2 million guaranteed in final season), Arron Afflalo (three years, $22.5M) and Glen Davis (two years, $13M) taking up too much cap room and playing time to stick around. In the meantime, the Magic will hope for development from No. 2 pick Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless as the post-Dwight Howard rebuilding continues.
26 Boston Celtics
It's a safe bet that Boston's run of six straight playoff appearances will end, but it's tough to predict what this team will look like, with or without Rajon Rondo (no timetable for his return from ACL surgery). Brad Stevens will have his hands full trying to get the most out of a mishmash roster -- half youngsters, half placeholders -- but expect the Celtics to play hard and overachieve, much like his Butler teams. One other thing is for certain: Jordan Crawford is going to shoot. A lot.
27 Sacramento Kings
A new owner, GM and coach give the Kings a clean slate. They've decided to use it to build around DeMarcus Cousins, who will be happy to have a new contract, but won't be pleased with his team's record again. This will be a successful season if the Kings can just get on track after years of turmoil.
28 Charlotte Bobcats
Adding Al Jefferson helps the Bobcats take a step toward respectability, but Charlotte's success ultimately comes down to the evolution of its many lottery picks: Gerald Henderson (2009), Kemba Walker (2011), Bismack Biyombo (2011), Michael-Kidd Gilchrist (2012) and Cody Zeller (2013). Despite eight top-10 picks since 2004, the Bobcats have yet to draft an All-Star.
29 Phoenix Suns
Phoenix Suns (25-57)
The experiment of starting two point guards, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, will be fun to watch, but Phoenix will be at a talent disadvantage almost every night. The Suns are going about rebuilding the right way, but don't expect Jeff Hornacek to win much in his first season as coach.
30 Philadelphia 76ers
We're still not sold on a slogan -- "Riggin' for Wiggins" is the leader in the clubhouse -- but it's clear the Sixers have their sights set on the future, not 2013-14. Allen Iverson's retirement ceremony in the home opener will serve as a nice distraction to the clinical beating the Heat will administer that night, but not every one of the Sixers' losses will have a silver lining.

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