Power Rankings: West makes power moves to increase conference imbalance
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates with fans after Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals between the Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif. The Warriors won 129-120 to win the NBA championship. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
On August 7, the big moves of the summer should be done. But both Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving want to be traded, so we remain on alert and ready to alter the projections of any teams involved in a major deal.
Maybe those deals don't come for a while, though. This year's rookies can't be dealt for the first 30 days after signing their first contract (Andrew Wiggins wasn't traded for Kevin Love until Aug. 23, 2014) and free agents who signed new deals aren't trade-eligible until Dec. 15. A delayed deal would make for some awkward moments at Media Day and in locker rooms over the first two months of the season, but the Knicks and Cavs obviously have to get the best deal available and neither team has much pressure to win games in October and November.
With no clear timeline for these possible deals, let's just go ahead and rank the league's 30 teams as they stand right now.
No matter what happens with Anthony and Irving, it's the Warriors and everybody else. The defending champs should be the biggest pre-season title favorite we've seen in a long time, and it's hard to imagine a non-injury scenario that has them losing four games in any playoff series next Spring.
But every team in the league has questions to answer and numbers to know with player movement having slowed to a crawl. Some teams will surprise, some will disappoint, and some will wish they were in the other conference.
With Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Millsap all moving from the East to the West, conference imbalance may be bigger than ever (the West has already had a better record in 17 of the 18 seasons). But their moves have created opportunities for a few teams in the East, where Gordon Hayward's arrival could signal the end of LeBron James' dominance.
High jumps of the summer: Minnesota (+17), Philadelphia (+8), Denver (+7)
Free falls of the summer: Atlanta (-15), Chicago (-14), Indiana (-11)
NBA.com's Power Rankings, released every Monday during the season, are just one man's opinion. If you have an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail or contact him via Twitter.
* * *
#1 Golden State Warriors
Key addition(s): So much luxury tax.
Key departure(s): 3-1 jokes
Key question: What could possibly get in their way?
With Kevin Durant taking less than 75 percent of the max salary for this season, the Warriors were able to bring back both Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston on more-than-respectable deals. That kind of financial sacrifice falls in line with those that the Warriors' stars have been making on the floor for the last three years and is a great sign if you're worried about "the disease of more" possibly setting in. Iguodala will turn 34 this season, but with Durant able to defend guys like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard pretty effectively, the Sixth Man Award runner-up is a little less important than he was a couple of years ago. And sure, why not add Nick Young for the heck of it?
#2 Houston Rockets
Key addition(s): Chris Paul, versatility
Key departure(s): Patrick Beverley
Key question: Does anyone want Ryan Anderson?
Carmelo Anthony would surely have a tough time defensively against the Warriors, but he'd surely be a big offensive upgrade over Anderson, who can't create nearly as well off the dribble, shot only a hair better than Anthony (42.7 percent vs. 42.6 percent) on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season (with a much better passer at point guard), and can't match up with the Warriors either. No matter what happens between now and Oct. 17, the Rockets have already done well with their post-trade moves to get defense and versatility off the bench, signing P.J. Tucker with the mid-level exception and Luc Mbah a Moute at the minimum. Paul and James Harden should work together pretty well and if any team is going to make the Warriors sweat, it's this one.
#3 San Antonio Spurs
Key addition(s): Rudy Gay
Key departure(s): Dewayne Dedmon, Jonathon Simmons
Key question: Can Kawhi Leonard develop into a great passer?
Leonard's offensive game has come a long way, but he can still get better, especially in regard to making plays for others. Among the 10 guys with a usage rate of 30 percent or higher last season, he had the third lowest assist rate, and he ranked 52nd in the league with just 60 total secondary assists. Though they played 1,904 minutes together in 67 games, Leonard assisted LaMarcus Aldridge only 47 times. The Spurs can't help but play great defense (they've ranked in the top five on that end of the floor in 18 of the last 23 seasons) and the offense can be better with more development from their MVP candidate.
#4 Boston Celtics
Key addition(s): Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris
Key departure(s): Avery Bradley, Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk
Key question: Can they rebound?
The Celtics got their other star and, though they still have more assets in hand, the pieces are in place for maybe the most serious challenge LeBron James has faced in the Eastern Conference in the last several years. The offense should be terrific, but in order to get back into the top 10 defensively, they'll need to be better than 27th in defensive rebounding percentage, having lost three of their top five guys - Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko and Johnson - in regard to defensive boards per 36 minutes, as well as their top rebounding guard (Bradley).
#5 Oklahoma City Thunder
Key addition(s): Paul George, Patrick Patterson
Key departure(s): Taj Gibson, Victor Oladipo
Key question: Is there any chance George will stay beyond this season?
George might complement Russell Westbrook better than you think. Last season, George had an effective field goal percentage of 60.1 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, a mark better than that of anybody who took at least 100 catch-and-shoot jumpers for the Thunder, who ranked 28th in catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage. With Westbrook dominating the ball (he had the highest usage rate in the 21 years for which we have usage rate and OKC ranked last in passes per possession), a guy who can shoot can provide a big boost for an offense that ranked 17th. More important may be George giving that offense a lift when Westbrook sits. The Thunder scored 10.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with the MVP on the bench than they did when he was on the floor.
#6 Cleveland Cavaliers
Key addition(s): Drama and angst.
Key departure(s): David Griffin, stability
Key question: What can they get for Kyrie Irving?
LeBron James' pending free agency should have been enough to worry about. But Irving's trade request has complicated things three months before the season starts. Maybe the Cavs just need James and a settled roster in April to get back to The Finals again or maybe this is the year that James' streak comes to an end. It's hard to see this team being focused enough to build the defensive habits they need to have come playoff time (and clearly lacked two months ago), but maybe an Irving trade can bring an upgrade or two on that end of the floor. James' teams have ranked in the top six offensively for nine straight years and (even without Irving) James, Kevin Love and some more shooters should be enough to make it 10 straight.
#7 Minnesota Timberwolves
Key addition(s): Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague
Key departure(s): Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine
Key question: Will Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins defend?
Tom Thibodeau still has some work to do to fill out the roster, but he's made the move - trading for Butler on Draft night - that puts the Wolves in position to end the second longest playoff drought in NBA history. Perimeter shooting is still an issue, but the Wolves' ceiling will be determined by the effort that Towns and Wiggins put in on defense. Butler's biggest task with his new team may be getting those guys to buy in on that end of the floor, where the Wolves are one of five teams that has ranked in the bottom 10 each of the last three seasons. They allowed 110.7 points per 100 possessions with the two No. 1 picks on the floor together last year.
#8 Washington Wizards
Key addition(s): Another max contract
Key departure(s): Bojan Bogdanovic
Key question: Can their bench be better?
The Wizards are returning 87 percent of last year's minutes, the highest rate in the league, which means that they're counting on Tim Frazier and Jodie Meeks to provide some sort of lift off the bench, which ranked 23rd in aggregate NetRtg (minus-3.4) in the regular season and 14th (minus-15.5) in the playoffs. The hope is that a healthier Ian Mahinmi and improvement from Kelly Oubre (who shot worse in his second season than he did as a rookie) will reduce the drop-off when the starters sit. With the matching of Otto Porter's max offer sheet and with John Wall's super-max extension coming down the line, there will be limited opportunities to make other upgrades, unless a Marcin Gortat trade presents itself.
#9 Toronto Raptors
Key addition(s): C.J. Miles
Key departure(s): Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll
Key question: Can the young guys step up?
Bench minutes have carried the Raptors to an average of 52 wins over the last three regular seasons. Patterson was the biggest key to those bench minutes and Joseph was critical too. Masai Ujiri had to sacrifice the strength of his team (its depth) in order to stay under the luxury-tax line while retaining a pair of starters (Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka) who have played a total of 284 minutes together. So the Raps will either need much better starts to games - the Raptors have been the league's seventh worst team, getting outscored by 4.6 points per 100 possessions, in the first six minutes of the first quarter over the last three years - or young guys (like Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam) to be productive in larger roles.
#10 LA Clippers
Key addition(s): Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic, Patrick Beverley
Key departure(s): Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute
Key question: Can Teodosic not hurt them too much defensively?
Blake Griffin can be a primary playmaker at times and the Paul trade gave the Clippers a better bench than they've had in the last several years (shout out to Jeff Green and Lance Stephenson). But Teodosic's passing can make a big difference if he's not so terrible defensively that he can't stay on the floor. They're well over the salary cap once again and have invested a lot of long-term money in two guys - Griffin and Danilo Gallinari - that have averaged 54 and 58 games played, respectively, over the last three seasons. But with more reasonable contracts than they've had in years past, they have more flexibility going forward.
#11 Denver Nuggets
Key addition(s): Paul Millsap
Key departure(s): Danilo Gallinari
Key question: How much of an impact can Millsap make defensively?
The four-time All-Star looks like an ideal fit next to Nikola Jokic, but defense will be more important than offense as the Nuggets try to end a four-year playoff drought. After the point in which Jokic became their full-time starting center (Dec. 15), the Nuggets had the league's best offense and its worst defense. Millsap's Hawks have ranked in the top five defensively each of the last two seasons, but improvement for his new team will have to start on the perimeter. The Nuggets forced just 11.9 turnovers per 100 possessions, the lowest rate in the league and the second lowest rate of the last 40 years. Furthermore, no team allowed its opponents to shoot better on what SportVU deemed to be contested 3-pointers. Emmanuel Mudiay seemingly has the tools to help on that end of the floor, but obviously needs to take a big step forward after losing his rotation spot in the second half of last season.
#12 Milwaukee Bucks
Key addition(s): Continuity
Key departure(s): Jason Terry's socks
Key question: Is Thon Maker the next big thing?
The Bucks are returning all seven guys who played at least 100 playoff minutes (only the Wizards are returning a greater percentage of their regular season minutes) and the most significant addition is No. 17 pick D.J. Wilson. So it's really all about internal development. Giannis Antetokounmpo clearly has another step to take, even after winning the Most Improved Player award, but Maker has the most room to grow and the potential to be a real impact player on both ends of the floor. He got the starting job in February as a way to just get him some floor time, but the move helped spark a 14-3 stretch that pushed the Bucks into the postseason, where he continued to earn more minutes. The Bucks' final starting lineup - Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Maker - outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions in its 223 minutes together (including playoffs), and was especially strong defensively.
#13 Utah Jazz
Key addition(s): Ricky Rubio
Key departure(s): Gordon Hayward, George Hill
Key question: Who's going to get buckets?
The Jazz have terrific depth and will surely have a top-three defense again. But they may never score 100 points this season, because they play slow and seemingly have no go-to guy beyond Joe Johnson for a few minutes a night. Their two highest usage rates in the clutch last season belonged to Hayward and Hill, and no one left on the roster ranked in the top 75 in unassisted buckets. They need two guys on the last year of their rookie deals to step up. Rodney Hood needs to get more aggressive to put some pressure on opposing defenses as the primary scorer, and Dante Exum (now two years past his torn ACL) just needs to give them something offensively.
#14 Miami Heat
Key addition(s): Kelly Olynyk's man bun, future payroll
Key departure(s): Willie Reed
Key question: Can they turn 41 games into 82?
In order to bring back the core that went 30-11 over the second half of the season, the Heat had to give more than $100 million to two guys - James Johnson and Dion Waiters - whose careers they turned around, sacrificing future flexibility. But they'll also get back Justise Winslow (who last played in 2016), making them the favorite to have the best defense in the Eastern Conference. The question is how sustainable their second-half offensive surge was. Olynyk should help on that end of the floor, but it seems doubtful that Wayne Ellington, Goran Dragic and Waiters will combine to shoot 42 percent from 3-point range, like they did over those final 41 games.
#15 Charlotte Hornets
Key addition(s): Dwight Howard, Malik Monk
Key departure(s): Miles Plumlee's contract
Key question: Will Frank Kaminsky get better?
Kaminsky was the Hornets' third leading scorer last season, but didn't score his 11.7 points per game very efficiently. He actually took a step backward in regard to both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage from his rookie season, ranking 158th in the latter among the 174 players who took at least 500 shots from the field. The addition of Howard probably takes some minutes away from Kaminsky (with Cody Zeller playing more minutes at the four), but the Hornets still need the former No. 9 pick to take a step forward in his third season. If he does, they have a pretty versatile frontline and the ability to effectively space the floor around either Howard or Zeller. Improvement can also come with better defense with the game on the line. The Hornets had a better point differential than three East teams that made the playoffs, but were 22-29 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, with the league's second worst clutch defense (124.5 points allowed per 100 possessions).
#16 New Orleans Pelicans
Key addition(s): Rajon Rondo?
Key departure(s): N/A
Key question: Can Davis and Cousins make it work over a full season?
After a rough first few weeks, the post-break Pelicans outscored their opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions with Davis and Cousins on the floor together over a seven-game stretch before they were both shut down for the season. Seven games is just seven games, six of them were at home, and the numbers are skewed by a plus-29 against Memphis on March 21. But those seven games featured more of Jrue Holiday at the two than the previous stretch, which is maybe why the Pels are taking a chance on Rondo. With Cousins a free agent next summer, there's pressure to take a big step forward, but doing so in a stacked Western Conference will require everything working out right.
#17 Portland Trail Blazers
Key addition(s): Cash considerations
Key departure(s): Allen Crabbe
Key question: Can Jusuf Nurkic recreate his post-trade magic?
The Blazers were handcuffed by a bloated payroll this summer, but are another team hoping that they can build on a small sample size near the end of last season. They went 14-5 with Nurkic as their starting center before he suffered a leg fracture, with the league's No. 3 offense over that stretch. With Crabbe gone, they're depending more on Evan Turner, who (maybe not coincidentally) was 10th on the team in total minutes over those 19 games. Even if the starting lineup with Nurkic works as well as it did last season, bench minutes remain a key. The Blazers outscored their opponents by 3.7 points per 100 possessions in 1,807 minutes with both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum on the floor together, but were outscored by 3.6 in 1,874 minutes with one of the two off the floor.
#18 Memphis Grizzlies
Key addition(s): Former Kings
Key departure(s): Grit and Grind
Key question: Does Chandler Parsons have anything left?
Parsons was pretty awful (shooting 34 percent in 34 games) in the first seasons of his contract. With three years and $72 million left on the deal, the Grizzlies desperately need more from him as they transition out of the Grit-and-Grind era, because Tyreke Evans and Ben McLemore aren't exactly reliable reserves. As long as Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are healthy, the Grizzlies will be a tough out. They outscored their opponents by 2.7 points per 100 possessions with one or both on the floor last season. But to make a seventh straight trip to the playoffs in a tougher Western Conference, they need a third guy to help carry the load.
#19 Detroit Pistons
Key addition(s): Avery Bradley, More Boban
Key departure(s): Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aron Baynes, A Morris twin
Key question: Was Reggie Jackson's drop-off about health?
The Pistons are one of the East teams that could move up in the standings just by (mostly) standing pat. But standing pat meant keeping the pair of Jackson and Andre Drummond, who were pretty awful together last season. Detroit was outscored by 8.3 points per 100 possessions with both on the floor (with numbers that would have ranked 28th both offensively and defensively) and outscored their opponents by 8.1 with both on the bench. If Jackson's knee pain was the main issue last season, if he's healthy this season, and if he can play like he did at the end of the '15-16 season, the Pistons will be better.
#20 Philadelphia 76ers
Key addition(s): Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, J.J. Redick
Key departure(s): The process
Key question: Is Brett Brown a good coach?
Sure, the more important question is "How many games is Joel Embiid going to play?". Even with two No. 1 picks making their debuts this year, Embiid is the transcendent star that gives the Sixers a legit chance to make the playoffs if he's healthy. With him on the floor last season (and with far less talent than they'll have this year), the Sixers outscored their opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark which would have ranked second in the Eastern Conference. But health is a question for every team and after four years, we still really don't know what kind of coach Brett Brown is. Now that he has talent to work with, can he make the most of it?
#21 Dallas Mavericks
Key addition(s): Dennis Smith Jr.
Key departure(s): Nerlens Noel's leverage
Key question: Can Harrison Barnes be a more efficient leading man?
Among 45 players with a usage rate over 25 percent (in a minimum of 20 minutes per game over at least 40 games) last season, Barnes (54.1 percent) and Dirk Nowitzki (52.9 percent) ranked 33rd and 39th in true shooting percentage. Among 174 players who took at least 500 shots, they ranked fifth (Barnes - 62.6 percent) and sixth (Nowitzki - 62.2 percent) in the percentage of shots that came from between the restricted area and 3-point range. Not coincidentally, the Mavs had their worst offensive season (scoring 2.5 points per 100 possessions fewer than the league average) since they drafted Nowitzki in 1998. There's no turning Nowitzki's career arc around, but Barnes can certainly help the offense by getting to the basket more and turning some of those mid-range shots into 3-point attempts.
#22 Los Angeles Lakers
Key addition(s): Lonzo Ball, Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Key departure(s): D'Angelo Russell, Timofey Mozgov's contract
Key question: Does Brandon Ingram need the ball?
There should be enough touches to go around, but it will be interesting to see how Ball and Ingram develop together. Both guys are willing to share the ball, but at least one has to figure out how to flourish without it. Ingram could be Pippen-esque, but had an effective field goal percentage of 44.9 percent (the 13th worst mark among 172 players with at least 150 attempts) on catch-and-shoot jumpers last season. It would also be good if they didn't rank as a bottom-three defensive team for a fifth straight year, and maybe Caldwell-Pope and Lopez (who has ranked as a top rim protector) can help in that regard.
#23 Sacramento Kings
Key addition(s): George Hill, De'Aaron Fox, Former Grizzlies
Key departure(s): Almost the entire rotation
Key question: Can Fox play in a slow system?
No team is returning a lower percentage of last year's minutes than the Kings (only three guys who played at least 1,000 minutes for them are still on the roster), which is not a bad thing, though the high turnover probably won't result in an immediate end to their 11-year playoff drought. They took the league's biggest step backward in pace in Dave Joerger's first season and promise to play slow again with the veterans they've brought in. The question is how quickly Fox, a handful in the open-floor, can develop his half-court game. Fox (quick, gets to the rim) and Buddy Hield (top-10 3-point shooter after the break last season, doesn't get to the rim) should complement each other pretty well.
#24 New York Knicks
Key addition(s): Jeff Hornacek's freedom, Tim Hardaway Jr.
Key departure(s): The triangle
Key question: What can they get for Carmelo Anthony?
An Anthony trade seems inevitable, though easier said than done. The Knicks need help at all positions and on both ends of the floor. And right now, they're set to hand rookie Frank Ntilikina (Phil Jackson's pick) the keys to the offense, with the triangle gone and the pace likely to pick up now that Hornacek can run things his way. The Suns recorded almost as many fast break points in Hornacek's 2.6 seasons in Phoenix (3,726) as the Knicks have recorded over the last five (3,801).
#25 Brooklyn Nets
Key addition(s): D'Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll
Key departure(s): Brook Lopez
Key question: Can Russell take a significant step forward?
The Nets haven't signed a single free agent (other than training camp fodder), but have used their cap space to trade for four guys who may start (Russell, Crabbe, Carroll and Timofey Mozgov), losing one (Lopez). The small upgrades on the perimeter, as well as better health for Jeremy Lin, could more than make up for the loss of Lopez. Russell's lack of development last season, especially with him being freed from the Kobe Farewell Tour, was disappointing and the Lakers were downright awful when he shared the floor with Jordan Clarkson. The Nets' pace and floor spacing should help him, but Russell will need to get to the basket more. Among players who played in at least 40 games last season, he ranked 114th with just 4.7 drives per 36 minutes.
#26 Phoenix Suns
Key addition(s): Josh Jackson, trade rumors
Key departure(s): Any thoughts of trading Brandon Knight
Key question: Will there be better cohesion offensively?
The Suns have added another young piece with the No. 4 pick (Josh Jackson) and stepped away from the Paul Millsap bidding to stick with the youth plan. But the league's worst jump-shooting team - the Suns' effective field goal percentage from outside the paint of 43.9 percent ranked 30th - didn't get better in that regard (especially if Jared Dudley - toe surgery - isn't ready for the start of the season). The continued development of Devin Booker could take the offense toward league-average level, but only if there's better ball movement, so that 69 percent of the jump shots that Booker (64 percent) and Eric Bledsoe (77 percent) take aren't off the dribble again.
#27 Indiana Pacers
Key addition(s): Victor Oladipo, Cory Joseph
Key departure(s): Paul George, Jeff Teague, C.J. Miles
Key question: How good is Myles Turner?
Paul George is gone (in exchange for an underwhelming package) and all eyes are on now Turner's ability to be both a go-to guy on offense and an anchor on defense. He took a big step forward in regard to his efficiency last season, but will need to keep it there with an increase in usage rate and without George around to absorb some of the defense's attention. He did shoot slightly better with George off the floor, but the Pacers were still pretty terrible offensively (scoring at the rate of the league's third worst offense) in those minutes. Like George (35.3 percent of the time), Oladipo (34.9 percent) ranked in the top 10 in how likely he was to shoot when coming off a ball screen, but he (effective field goal percentage of 45.4 percent) didn't shoot nearly as well as George (56.0 percent) in those situations.
#28 Chicago Bulls
Key addition(s): Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn
Key departure(s): Jimmy Butler
Key question: How good or bad will their Draft-day trades look a few years from now?
It's not only about the Butler trade, with LaVine recovering from a torn ACL (and probably not back to 100 percent until he becomes a restricted free agent next summer), Dunn coming off a disappointing rookie season, and Lauri Markkanen maybe a reach at the No. 7 pick. It's also about the sale of the No. 38 pick to Golden State when the Bulls are supposed to be the team collecting assets. And you can the deadline deal with OKC into the mix, because who knows where Cameron Payne will be on the point guard depth chart come opening night.
#29 Orlando Magic
Key addition(s): Two guys named Jonathan (though one of them spells his name with a second 'o')
Key departure(s): The frustration of Jeff Green
Key question: Is Elfrid Payton a good point guard?
The Magic have ridiculous athleticism with Jonathan Isaac and Jonathon Simmons joining Aaron Gordon and Terrence Ross. They still lack shooting (only the Suns shot worse on catch-and-shoot jumpers last season), but they'll be fun to watch if Payton plays consistently like he did in March and April. With the team playing at a faster pace, Payton shot 50 percent and averaged 9.2 assists and the Magic scored 111 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor after March 6. If it wasn't just a 19-game sample size, it would be easier for the Magic to talk extension before he begins the final season of his rookie deal.
#30 Atlanta Hawks
Key addition(s): Low expectations
Key departure(s): Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard
Key question: Will they play for the future?
The Hawks could have five first round picks over the next two drafts, and the best of the five will likely be their own. Their 23-year-olds returning starters - Dennis Schroder and Taurean Prince - will continue to get plenty of playing time, but throwing No. 19 pick John Collins (who turns 20 next month) into the fire early (at the expense of a bunch of veteran bigs) could be an important long-term play. The good news is that they can't get much worse offensively than they were after the All-Star break last season (101.0 points scored per 100 possessions - last in the league).