Power Rankings: Champion Warriors, fortified Spurs lead preseason edition
All aboard the banana boat! Welcome back to another year of NBA Power Rankings. After being traded for Luke Ridnour this summer, I’m honored to be inheriting this space from SI.com's NBA editor Matt Dollinger, who is passing on the torch, seeking help for his League Pass addiction and returning to civilization cleanly-shaven for the first time in three years.
The objective of this column goes unchanged: we’re here to provide a subjective ranking of all 30 teams and figure out the league’s pecking order after each week of action. Quick disclaimer: before you scroll down and ask how team X could be ranked so high or low, just keep in mind that the preseason is far and away the most dubious time to try to do this neatly. And also remember, I hate your favorite team.
For example, try to decide exactly how many teams are better than the Blazers, who won 51 games last season but lost four starters this summer. Do Damian Lillard, Mason Plumlee and Meyers Leonard make Portland discernibly better than antique Kobe Bryant and the somewhat-improved 21-win Lakers? These are the types of questions we’re trying to answer before anyone has had time to throw a meaningful pass off Roy Hibbert’s hands. It’s tough.
In the past few months, a lot of players changed teams, a lot more money changed hands, and some pretty weird stuff entertained us in the meantime (Emojis! Hoverboards! The Sacramento Kings!) But when the games start, the results will start to speak the loudest. And then the real fun begins.
With all that in mind, here’s SI.com’s first set of 2015–16 NBA Power Rankings.
This is the only spot not currently open for debate. Essentially everyone is back from a team that won more games than anyone since the Mavericks in 2006–07 and more importantly, backed it up in the Finals. While it’s not likely the entire starting five misses just 25 regular-season games combined again, the Warriors have earned the right to start out on top. All the preseason chatter out of the Bay Area makes it sound like Golden State should have no problem motivating itself to repeat. Now comes the tough part.
The wooing of LaMarcus Aldridge has given a vintage car new tires, and it’s tough to find a basketball purist anywhere outside of Portland that’s not drooling over the possibilities. Time and again, the Spurs continue to prop their title window open, and we know better than to doubt, even with many key parts now visibly in decline.
While navigating the East’s waters should be far more complicated this season, it’s Cleveland’s domain until further notice, even with early injuries to Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert. The Cavs remain in a tier of their own within the conference, and the maturity gained from last year’s Finals trip means the meshing process should be behind them. Tristan Thompson's last-minute deal only adds to their momentum going into the season. Oh, and there’s LeBron.
One of last season’s revelations was the Rockets becoming contenders—and it sure happened fast, mostly thanks to a superstar leap from James Harden. They’ve now experienced the highs and lows seven-game series can bring, courtesy of the Clippers and Warriors, and should be here to stay. Harden reminded me in an off-season chat exactly how injured the Rockets were last season: They started their preferred lineup started just twice. If Dwight Howard and a legitimate supporting cast can stay healthy, Houston could be a Ty Lawson bounce-back year away from taking the next step.
Say what you want about the Clippers, but beyond surviving DeAndre Jordan’s summer blockbuster, this is a team that got almost improbably deeper, patching up what might have been its final gaping hole. There’s going through the fire, and then there’s going through it with Paul Pierce on your side. This is the most playoff-equipped roster the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin Clips have ever seen, though there’s still a lot of meshing to do. Once we know which versions of Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith are showing up to the party, we’ll have a better long-term prognosis.
We’ve finally reached Kevin Durant’s contract year, and by the time it's over you’ll probably be as sick of the related reports as he is. The pending salary cap jump puts the onus on the Thunder to win now, and for as many times as we’ve heard it, this season’s results will define the franchise’s next chapter. Durant returns from his foot issues to find a full-on nuclear Russell Westbrook and still-improving Serge Ibaka waiting for him. New coach Billy Donovan will need to get the most out of a strange mix of role players and untested youth.
Without Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes, I’m skeptical of this team’s chances to knock the Cavs out in the playoffs, even if fully healthy. But with Jimmy Butler’s stunning ascent and everybody back, I also hesitate to think Chicago will drop off much. Talk of issues between Butler and Derrick Rose is overblown: history suggests you need two dynamic stars to win a title, and the Bulls are one of just a handful of teams who meet that criteria. A return to form from Joakim Noah would help keep them in the conversation.
Losing two-way ace DeMarre Carroll hurts and there’s no way around it, but given the fiscally-driven decision between keeping Carroll or Paul Millsap, you do what Atlanta did every time. The system-first Hawks can prove the value of their approach if a deeper rotation provides adequate cover. Though they’re unlikely to win 60 games again, the biggest hazard to their watchability is those new neon jerseys.
Atlanta’s woes became Toronto’s gain, and reshuffling the deck with DeMarre Carroll in addition to Bismack Biyombo instantly improves the defense. A slimmed-down Kyle Lowry and contract-year DeMar DeRozan make for interesting variables. The Raptors will be pushed in a tougher East and still seek a higher level of consistency, but it’s very fair to expect more than a first-round four-and-out this time around.
Pushing the Bulls to six games in the first round was a statement, and the Bucks are due for an uptick in wins thanks to the brilliance of coach Jason Kidd (which still sounds weird), the addition of Greg Monroe, and the return of Jabari Parker. That duo adds much-needed offensive punch to one of the league’s scariest defensive units and gives the Bucks a chance at a top-four seed. Still, keep in mind the key players are all under 25. There will be some growing pains.
A strong showing out of the gate will rocket Miami up this list pretty quickly: there’s a lot of talent and experience to like here, at least on paper. The Heat can hope for sustained stardom from Hassan Whiteside and an easy return for Chris Bosh, but the starting five has never played together. There’s star power, but Miami needs useful years from everyone to maximize the on-court returns. A return to the playoffs is in order regardless, and with their collective age, there should be a sense of urgency, too.
After closing out last season on a high note, the Jazz have become a trendy pick this season. They flipped Enes Kanter at the deadline and unleashed a stifling defense anchored by rising star Rudy Gobert, which puts them squarely in the conversation for a playoff spot. With a thin backcourt further diluted by the loss of Dante Exum, a lot has to go right: they’ll need a lift from Alec Burks and/or Trey Burke.
The youthful Celtics ended the season on a tear and got an early taste of the playoffs: even getting swept by the Cavs should pay dividends. Amir Johnson and David Lee were sneaky-good frontcourt acquisitions and should help immediately. Still, Boston lacks a true star and it’s anyone’s guess how they will distribute playing time. Finding the right combinations early on will keep them in the mix.
If you buy the idea of the small-ball Pacers, then they’re a playoff team. I’m still not so sure. They’re so thin up front that Paul George at power forward actually makes sense right now, but they sorely need him in his old rhythm, and this experiment could slow that process. On the bright side, George Hill remains underrated and Jordan Hill could prove to be a nice discounted pickup. If Monta Ellis meshes with an already guard-driven team, there’s upside here.
No team turned its tail midseason more than Phoenix after the Goran Dragic trade forced them to re-think their short-term plan. They’re back in eight-seed limbo with the addition of Tyson Chandler, although things could get ugly if the defense doesn’t click and they struggle to establish an identity. A disgruntled Markieff Morris doesn’t help in either of those categories.
With an ensemble cast of stars at all levels of the organization combined with a lack of obvious directive, logic or chemistry, this could go so many different ways. Still, when you toss out all of the distracting headlines, this is a team that significantly improved its roster. This could be chaos more beautiful than a Vlade Divac bounce pass, with tons of personality and the talent to surprise, or everything could just fall apart immediately. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
There’s no way they can be that bad again, right? Carmelo Anthony returns (for now), Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo will help, and the heavy roster turnover should help shake away some of the bad juju. In a nutshell, New York won’t have to run a D-League team out there again. I’m Team Kristaps, but he’ll require patience. Unfortunately, there’s not much else going for them at present.
This could be frustrating. Brooklyn shed a lot of cap space, a net positive (see what I did there?), but will trot out another mix-and-match group of veterans with little semblance of a long-term plan. Though their top three scorers are back, a return to the playoffs looks tough given the number of question marks on the roster. Gambling on Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce feels like ancient history, but the draft assets the Nets sacrificed in the process will continue to haunt the franchise.
Expect Scott Skiles to whip this team into shape on defense, and if it goes smoothly, you’re looking at a group that could really surprise. It’s fair to expect improvements from Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton, two gifted slashers and spotty shooters who will determine the course of the next few seasons. Though this might not be the year it all coalesces, the Magic deserve your attention.
Rookie of the Year hopeful Emmanuel Mudiay gives the Nuggets their best chance at a star since Carmelo Anthony left, and he’ll be thrown into the fire in what will likely be a transitional year for this team under new coach Mike Malone. Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari are all solid, but could be hot trade targets come midseason barring an unexpectedly strong start. Things are trending up in Denver, just temper your short-term expectations.
Part of me wanted Kobe Bryant to retire for the whole “actually shot-his-own-arm-off” thing, but alas. Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell provide hope for the future. Still, this is a team that needs to adopt a forward-thinking identity, and L.A. muddled things by adding Lou Williams to an already-crowded backcourt and acquiring Roy Hibbert, two win–now type moves. It will be harder to buy shots here than Hollywood club-hopping with Chandler Parsons.
The Blazers took the biggest plunge from last year’s final set of rankings, falling all the way from No. 8, with LaMarcus Aldridge headlining four departed starters. Expect big numbers, if not efficient percentages, from Damian Lillard. C.J. McCollum could also pick up some of the load, but this is no longer a playoff team in the crowded West. Hat tip to GM Neil Olshey for getting creative and finding several new pieces. Still, there’s no easy fix for what was lost.
T-Wolves fans should be excited about this collection of young talent, but don’t expect miracles. This season is about figuring out what they’ve got and how it fits. Expect Andrew Wiggins to keep improving, a lot of fun highlights from Zach LaVine and Karl-Anthony Towns, and a firm indicator of the franchise’s direction after 82 games.