- After a summer of upheaval, the NBA will look drastically different in 2017-18. How will it all play out? From 1 to 15, The Crossover predicts every team's conference finish for the upcoming season.
A summer to remember is in the books and the games count for real come Tuesday. Here’s how The Crossover projects the Western Conference and Eastern Conference standings, from 1 to 15, for the upcoming 2017-18 NBA season. Also, be sure to check out our staff-wide Finals predictions for the upcoming season.
Without further ado, here's how we think every team will finish in its conference for the 2017-18 season.
Western Conference Projections
1. Warriors: Congratulations to the Warriors for being so incredible for so long that the “70 wins is in play!” hype machine didn’t even bother to start up this fall. The only intriguing debate left about Golden State is whether Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry is a more deserving MVP candidate if voters revert to the traditional “The MVP should be about winning” line of thinking.
2. Rockets: Viewing Houston through the “two stars, one ball” lens is foolish. Think of Chris Paul not as competition for James Harden but as a prized pledge into the Mike D’Antoni Fraternity. The Harden/Paul Rockets should challenge the Warriors for the league’s most efficient offense and they have a great shot at reaching the West finals thanks to an improved crop of wing defenders.
3. Spurs: Every year, analysts make the mistake of sizing up San Antonio’s individual pieces in search of flaws. Some of this season’s concerns include: Tony Parker’s health, Pau Gasol’s age, LaMarcus Aldridge’s happiness and Jonathon Simmons’s departure. But the Spurs’ whole is always significantly greater than the sum of their parts thanks to Gregg Popovich’s ability to field a disciplined, exacting attack and a disciplined, smothering defense. Kawhi Leonard helps too.
4. Thunder: Easily the NBA’s leader in chips on shoulders. Russell Westbrook must prove he can share center stage for a winner, Paul George must prove he’s all in after griping his way out of Indiana amid rumors of L.A. interest, Carmelo Anthony must prove he’s still a star-level difference-maker, and Billy Donovan must prove he’s not the guy that Kevin Durant’s Twitter account says he is. Even if the three stars gel, Oklahoma City needs much more from its shaky supporting cast to be taken seriously.
5. Blazers: Continuity could prove to be a crucial advantage for Portland, who had the quietest summer of any 2017 West playoff team following a nice post-deadline push. Terry Stotts will continue to lean heavily on scoring guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but the Blazers’ fortunes will be determined by Jusuf Nurkic’s ability to recapture and sustain his X-factor form.
6. Jazz: Usually when an All-Star like Gordon Hayward departs, everyone asks, “What will they look like?” No need to bother with that question in Utah, where Rudy Gobert will lead a deliberate, defense-first approach. The Jazz are for masochists only: Their offense is bound to suffer through really, really rough stretches while their formidable, long defense should consistently strangle the opposition.
7. Timberwolves: Another year of progress from Karl-Anthony Towns coupled with the arrivals of Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague should be enough to help Minnesota snap a postseason drought that dates to 2004. Tom Thibodeau should have his hands full this year, striking the right balance between Butler and Andrew Wiggins, coaxing better defense out of Towns, and conjuring up an acceptable amount of spacing and shooting.
8. Clippers: Honestly, who knows? Losing a stabilizing All-Star like Chris Paul makes for an inevitable backslide, but there’s no way to predict how well L.A. will respond once seemingly inevitable health issues pop up for Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley. While the bench looks deeper on paper than in recent years, LA’s depth issues could resurface in a hurry once the injuries start hitting.
9. Nuggets: There’s clear positive momentum for the Nuggets: Nikola Jokic is an undeniable rising star, Paul Millsap is the franchise’s first big-name off-season get in years, and Gary Harris is officially locked in for the long haul. Look under the hood, though, and Denver is still lacking at multiple positions, most obviously point guard. A midseason trade could be the boost they need to end a four-year playoff drought.
10. Grizzlies: Tony Allen: Gone. Zach Randolph: Gone. Vince Carter: Gone. Chandler Parsons: Failed to play 20 minutes or make a three-pointer in his first four preseason appearances. Even if 30-somethings Mike Conley and Marc Gasol both turn in career years, this has the makings of an “End of an era” campaign in Memphis. That said, David Fizdale’s podium game is all the reason anyone needs to root for the Grizzlies’ eighth straight postseason appearance.
11. Pelicans: Giant red flag: New Orleans’s 2016-17 ended with a formal press release announcing that GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry wouldn’t be fired. Sweet, nothing to see there. The world is ready for everything the Anthony Davis/DeMarcus Cousins/Jrue Holiday triumvirate has to offer, but nothing could prepare even the most diehard basketball fan for the Pelicans’ atrocious bench.
12. Mavericks: When marveling over how rookie playmakers like Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball will transform the Sixers and Lakers, respectively, don’t forget about Dennis Smith Jr. After years of beautiful, efficient offenses, Dallas averaged a league-low 97.9 PPG last season. Smith arrives as perhaps the steal of the draft and a badly-needed jolt of youth and upside on a blah roster full of serviceable vets.
13. Lakers: The bleakest post-Kobe days are officially a thing of the past. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma all deliver when it comes to watchability, and this summer’s veteran newcomers (Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) are better fits than last summer’s additions (Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov). It’s not entirely clear who on this roster plans to play defense, but it’s not yet worth stressing over. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the Ball show.
14. Suns: Devin Booker, 20, is both the youngest player to score 60 or more points in a game and the youngest player to warrant the “Somebody find a way to save him from the team that drafted him!” chatter. Phoenix’s roster is filled with one mistake (Tyson Chandler) after another (Brandon Knight) after another (Alex Len) after another (Dragan Bender), and yet GM Ryan McDonough sat on his hands after 2016-17’s embarrassing and unsuccessful tank job. Relegate them to the G-League.
15. Kings: The post-Cousins era opens with a strange blend of veterans who aren’t very good (anymore) and prospects who aren’t very good (yet). Even if coach Dave Joerger leans heavily on his roster’s experienced pieces, like George Hill and Zach Randolph, there’s not enough talent here to make any noise. The sooner the youth movement begins around De’Aaron Fox, the better.
Eastern Conference Projections
1. Cavaliers: There are bound to be potholes and speed bumps given all the new faces (Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose) and new roles for familiar faces (Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith). But the East’s chase pack is full of teams with depth concerns, and LeBron James is still easily the conference’s transcendent talent. Unless Thomas never gets right physically, Cleveland should make its fourth straight Finals with ease.
2. Wizards: Impeccable health was a key driver for Washington last season, and Markieff Morris’s early injury could be a bad omen and a chemistry disruptor. When healthy, though, Washington’s well-fitting starting lineup is talented, athletic, and balanced. Scott Brooks coaxed career years from John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter last season, and all three have the potential for further growth in 2017-18.
3. Celtics: Boston clearly upgraded its top-level talent by landing centerpieces Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, but Isaiah Thomas was correct in saying this week that the Celtics “lost a lot of heart and soul.” Five of last year’s top seven most-used players are gone, and a young and inexperienced bench will test Brad Stevens’s remarkable ability to transform anonymous players into rotation mainstays.
4. Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo gave the Raptors all they could handle in the 2017 playoffs, and the darkhorse MVP candidate is back with a new layer of muscles on top of his previous ones. A full season of good health for Khris Middleton should provide a boost in the standings to a Milwaukee team that returns virtually everyone after a snoozer of a summer. Fifty wins and a trip to the second round are in play.
5. Raptors: While Masai Ujiri managed to keep his biggest pieces in place, lucrative new deals for Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka required serious cuts elsewhere. The summer departures of DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph, and P.J. Tucker will add up, as coach Dwane Casey must turn to a Baby Raps bench unit. Will dreams of a new offensive style come true or will Toronto’s lead guards revert to their ball-pounding bad habits at the first sign of trouble?
6. Heat: With his “Big 3” gone, Pat Riley has assembled a “Medium 10” that should rack up regular-season wins before hitting a hard wall in the playoffs. Goran Dragic will need to repeat his career-year performance from 2016-17 and Dion Waiters will need to be at least 60% as good as Dion Waiters thinks he is for the Heat to truly scare the East’s elite teams.
7. Hornets: Owner Michael Jordan warned this week that the Superteam era has left the NBA with “one or two teams that are going to be great, and another 28 teams that are going to be garbage.” So, uh, welcome to the trash heap, Charlotte season ticketholders. The Hornets’ longstanding one-step forward, one-step backwards vibe continued in recent months: Dwight Howard’s summer arrival helped shore up a thin frontline, but then a long-term injury to Nicolas Batum robbed Charlotte of its secondary playmaker.
8. Pistons: Stan Van Gundy has stocked up on enough serviceable veterans that a return to form for Reggie Jackson should be enough to make Detroit the East’s most depressing and least threatening playoff team. Andre Drummond faces a make-or-break year as the league gets smaller, quicker and more versatile all around him.
9. Sixers: The NBA needs nothing more than Philadelphia, powered by sensational center Joel Embiid, to beat out Detroit for the No. 8 seed and a first-round date with Cleveland. Alas, Embiid’s track record of spotty availability and the Sixers’ overwhelming youth calls for caution. With or without Embiid, walking matchup nightmare Ben Simmons should be a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year.
10. Magic: If just four or five more East teams pursue teardown projects, Orlando will finally be sitting pretty as a playoff team. The Magic didn’t get much better this summer—adding Jonathon Simmons, rookie Jonathan Isaac and little else—but they should bump up a few notches in the standings due to attrition elsewhere in the conference. Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon are set up to take steps forward this season, and it will be fascinating how and when a new front office molds an underwhelming roster.
11. Pacers: The one-sided Paul George blockbuster and Jeff Teague’s departure have left the Pacers with mediocre-at-best starters at all five positions. Myles Turner’s development will be the key storyline for a franchise that spent the last three years retooling over and over until nothing but desperation remained. Unfortunately, Indiana is stuck being merely bad and boring rather than an utter travesty, making it hard to bank on a top-three draft pick. Larry Bird picked the right time to retire.
12. Hawks: While it’s hard to blame new GM Travis Schlenk for moving on from Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap, the Dennis Schroder Era got off to a less-than-ideal start when the mercurial point guard was arrested following a late-night altercation. Does Mike Budenholzer’s ability to squeeze overachieving lemonade out of lemons make him the worst possible tank commander? “Remember 2015? That was awesome.” — Every Hawks fan for the next six years.
13. Knicks: Removing obvious problems isn’t, in and of itself, a solution. Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose are all gone—which counts as progress for an organization that should be rebuilding—but Kristaps Porzingis can’t do this all by himself. As if putrid play wasn’t bad enough, Knicks fans must cope with the knowledge that short-sighted and ill-conceived quick fixes are sure to come thanks to impulsive owner James Dolan.
14. Nets: There’s an old scouting phrase: “Cap space never scored a point or grabbed a rebound.” Brooklyn will put that maxim to the test after acquiring Timofey Mozgov’s Contract, DeMarre Carroll’s Contract and Allen Crabbe’s Contract this summer. There’s enough intrigue—headlined by D’Angelo Russell—to keep diehards interested for a month or two, but not enough to truly sell hope.
15. Bulls: Only “Big Head” from HBO’s Silicon Valley can rival Gar Forman’s ability to screw up repeatedly and yet never face any repercussions for his decisions. The Bulls executive has unintentionally backed into a Sam Hinkie-like “Process” thanks to a terrible series of moves that culminated with the laughable Jimmy Butler trade. Watch Forman’s incompetence be rewarded, in true “Big Head” fashion, with the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.