After a whirlwind summer (and fall!), it's useful to zoom out, breathe deep and take stock of where everyone stands heading into the new season.
Here is our next big preseason tradition: plopping all 30 teams into tiers. These are not power rankings, and the listed order within each tier doesn't matter.
TIER OF THEIR OWN: GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Umm ... Golden State Warriors
HOPING FOR AN ANKLE SPRAIN
Oklahoma City Thunder
San Antonio Spurs
All of these teams, save the Spurs, acquired future Hall of Famers. The Thunder likely snagged two! The upgrades give most of them flexibility to toggle between potent big lineups and even more potent smaller ones -- a must-have malleability against Golden State. And yet they all remain massive underdogs.
The Warriors, when healthy, are almost a perfect team. They do not have an exploitable weakness, and if you have one, they are uniquely constructed -- among all teams, ever -- to exploit it. It's unfair.
Oklahoma City's best lineups will feature at least one glaring minus on defense in Carmelo Anthony. Cleveland's might feature two -- Kevin Love and whichever traditional point guard Tyronn Lue has available. Some Thunder groups will feature both Anthony and Andre Roberson, an awful shooter the Warriors will ignore.
Against even normal 60-win teams, those blemishes wouldn't matter. Anthony would have a safe resting place on defense. The Thunder would find ways to make Roberson less useless on offense so that he can lock down on the other end.
But when Golden State goes small, with Draymond Green at center, who is Melo guarding? Hell, who is he guarding when the starters face off, and Steven Adams wrestles Zaza Pachulia? Love is already familiar with this dilemma, and handled it better than he has been given credit for in last season's NBA Finals. Starting him at center over Tristan Thompson gives him an easier hiding spot -- Pachulia -- until the Warriors downsize. No rule requires Golden State wait to do so.
It's easy to say both Love and Melo can hang one-on-one with Green and (when the Warriors bust out the Death Lineup) Andre Iguodala. But the Warriors don't play one-on-one. They use all five players as screen-setters and cutters. It is never as simple as helping off Iguodala and Green in the corners.
Against even normal 60-win teams, a bad defender could navigate all that whirring complexity. Melo is cool switching on to Danny Green after a pindown screen, or chasing Trevor Ariza around one. Losing a little ground isn't fatal.
The Warriors unleash three of the greatest shooters in the entire history of Earth as screen-setters and cutters. Losing an inch is fatal. Switch to survive, and two of those guys -- Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant -- roast mismatches.
Both the Cavs and Thunder have some history smothering the Warriors with length and bullying them on the glass. Both appear to have moved away from that template, and toward smaller, all-offense lineups geared toward keeping up with Golden State's scoring machine. The Thunder might be able to thread the needle; they still have Adams, a rude, pointy-elbowed instigator dangerous catching lobs in the pick-and-roll, and the Roberson/George pairing can envelope opposing wings.
But George and Anthony posted career-low offensive rebounding rates last season. Even in ultra-big lineups with George as the nominal 2-guard -- think Westbrook/George/Melo/Patrick Patterson/Adams -- the Thunder have likely punted an edge they once cherished.
The Cavs could aim for better offense-defense balance by reverting to the Love-Thompson pairing once Isaiah Thomas replaces Derrick Rose -- a shooting upgrade at point guard that might allow for a shooting downgrade up front. Thompson's grimy defense doesn't have quite as much value against opposing second units, anyway.
But that pairing flamed out in the Finals. Thompson was a disaster; on defense, the Warriors paid him no mind.
Oklahoma City could pivot the other way, and slide Patterson to center if Adams has trouble scampering around against Golden State's offense. That would blow the lane wide-open for Westbrook's rampaging drives, and allow the Thunder to use Roberson, the only non-shooter left, as a screen-and-dive guy -- an important tactic if the Warriors stash Curry on him. Anthony's bully-ball post game gives the Thunder access to Cleveland's old caveman plan: slow the game, hunt mismatches, and go to work.
The Cavs are deeper than ever in wings, unlocking all sorts of small lineups. Jae Crowder is the best two-way wing LeBron has had in his second Cleveland stint. Dwyane Wade can captain the offense while LeBron rests, and flash back to their Heatles-era wink-wink chemistry when they share the floor. If Thomas flounders defending Golden State, Lue could ditch point guards and experiment with funky groups featuring four wings and one big man. (Thomas has fared surprisingly well against Golden State on both ends.)
Every permutation of Oklahoma City and Cleveland still shelters at least one one-way player. That is normal, even for champions! These teams are all awesome! Last season's Cavaliers were awesome -- one of the greatest offensive teams ever! Regular awesome probably won't be good enough against a Warriors team that should be even better after a year getting to know Durant.
At least the sieve in the Rockets' super-small, anti-Golden State units is their best offensive player -- James Harden. Houston has a deep, versatile roster that can shape-shift depending on the opponent. When the Warriors engage Death Lineup mode, Houston can slot two of P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute, Eric Gordon and Troy Williams around the Chris Paul/Harden/Trevor Ariza trio in ultra-small groups.
If Tucker and Mbah a Moute hit enough corner 3-pointers -- they shot 40 percent combined last season -- those lineups approach anti-Warriors optimization. But Golden State will still slough away from them to clog the lane, and recover in a flash to contest shots; Golden State holding opponents to 32.4 percent from deep, lowest in the league, wasn't complete luck. The Warriors are long, and they are ferocious, and they do not make mistakes.
Insert Ryan Anderson to juice Houston's shooting, and the Warriors will eat him alive on the other end. Three-guard setups with Paul, Harden and Gordon are a tad shrimpy.
These are problems for the NBA's first world. Ditto for figuring out how Harden and Paul, two of the league's cleverest pick-and-roll wizards, might toggle the controls without sinking into "your turn, my turn" stagnancy. They have enough IQ to pull it off, and to integrate Paul's midrange precision into an offense that has acted as if that section of floor contains quicksand. They cobbled a league-average defense last season, and should be better now.
A year ago, I shoved the Spurs out of this tier. They felt creaky after a lackluster offseason, with injury and depth concerns. Perhaps they would retreat gently into the 55-win range, observe Warriors-Cavs III from ringside, and reboot to fight another day.
Nope. They humiliated Golden State in the season opener, won 61 games, advanced to the conference finals, and played the Warriors to a hilt across four matchups until Zaza Pachulia stepped under Kawhi Leonard's foot. A fierce pride roils beneath San Antonio's staid public persona. They believed they could beat the Warriors last season. They will not accept Golden State's inevitability now.
The Spurs still sport the league's best defensive wing tandem. LaMarcus Aldridge, a shade in the conference finals, will look more like himself with Leonard and Tony Parker feeding him. San Antonio's size has occasionally troubled the Warriors, though Golden State's speed and 3-point shooting would win out over a long series.
When Gregg Popovich senses that tide turning, he can use Green, Leonard and Rudy Gay in the kind of rangy, small-ball lineup every Golden State opponent needs in its bag. Dejounte Murray and Davis Bertans are untapped.
And the Spurs always make you earn it. Popovich will find marginal edges and construct the proper schemes, and his players will execute them -- every damned time. If you think a B-plus defensive performance suffices, San Antonio will slice you up with ball movement and calculated shot selection.
The Spurs aren't sexy. They are a regular-season woodchipper that doesn't always have the fabled extra playoff gear. But their standard gear revs hotter than almost anyone can reach. Until proven otherwise, they belong here.
LeBron always belongs here. He just needs some luck, and likely a Golden State injury, to have a realistic shot at toppling the Warriors four times in seven tries.
This is Golden State's shot at real NBA immortality. The Warriors will likely enter the playoffs having capped the most dominant four-year regular-season run ever. Barring health issues or some league-shattering trade, finishing with two titles in four tries would count as a crushing disappointment. Winning three in four puts you among the gods.
History suggests they will face adversity. Repeating is hard. Only four teams have ever even made four consecutive Finals. Two were completely spent by the fourth trip.
But given Golden State's age and collective talent, their journey ahead doesn't look as arduous. The title is theirs to lose.
TRYING TO MAKE THE EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS LESS OF A JOKE
The remade Celtics, with their collection of A-minus/B-plus max players, have a lot to prove before we bump them into the hallowed tier above. They were only a hair better than league average on defense last season, and they tossed away two ballhawks -- Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder -- in turning over 75 percent of their roster.
Rebounding will be an issue again, though Brad Stevens may deploy Aron Baynes as something of a utility glass-eating starter. Opponents shot just 33 percent from deep and 34 percent on corner 3s -- the second-lowest marks in the league. How much of that was luck? We'll see. Boston is stocked with huge wings; Gordon Hayward starts as the nominal shooting guard. If the team switches a ton, dial in on closeouts, and gang rebound, Boston will retain some of last season's peskiness.
They are also relying on young players and unproven long-range shooters -- a big deal for a team that jacked more triples than everyone but Houston and Cleveland. Opponents will dare Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum and svelte Marcus Smart, and Stevens will likely encourage them to let fly -- at least from the corners, where Brown quietly drilled 44 percent.
But most first- and second-year players are net negatives. Chemistry takes time. Boston may be a little schizophrenic between and within games. There will be extended stretches when it clicks -- when Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford ping the ball around, the cuts and handoffs are zippy, and open 3s find bottom.
There will be entire quarters that are clunky and clanky. If Boston disappoints, it will be tough for it to match salaries in any impact trade. The Celtics are saving their powder for You-Know-Who anyway.
The cocky, sometimes blasé Wiz should finally be stable enough to avoid their semiannual horrendous start and settle into the upper echelon of the NBA's junior varsity. They bring continuity, a killer starting five, and years of evidence that they are really good with Bradley Beal and John Wall on the floor.
The story is murkier when one of them rests, and Washington was famously a disaster when they sat together -- even with Markieff Morris propping up reserve units. Scott Brooks could stagger his stars more, and the Wiz are confident they've beefed up their bench with Jodie Meeks, Mike Scott, Tim Frazier, and a full season of Ian Mahinmi. The jury is, umm, out on that one.
The Wizards lazed through most of the season -- especially the end of it -- on defense. They dialed it up a little in the playoffs, but they should be better. They have not accomplished enough to be entitled. To reach the next level -- the level they are constantly yapping about -- they have to develop good habits now.
They may also be due some good luck: Wiz opponents shot 41.8 percent on open 3s, the highest mark in the league.
The league is a little down on the Drakes. Losing Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker and DeMarre Carroll leaves a void on the wing, and vaporizes some of Dwane Casey's nastiest small-ball lineups. Norman Powell and C.J. Miles -- a snug fit, always underappreciated -- could fill some of it by sliding up to power forward, but they can't sop up all those minutes. Tucker was Toronto's only legit wing stopper, and invigorated a blah defense after the trade deadline.
The options beyond Powell and Miles are unproven. The Serge Ibaka/Jonas Valanciunas tandem flamed out, though they barely played alongside Kyle Lowry until the postseason. Ibaka will have to play more center as he ages, and it's unclear if he can hold up on the glass there. Lowry is almost 32; any slight decline would imperil the Dinos.
But Ibaka is still good. This is Year 6 together for Lowry and DeRozan, and they know how to win regular-season games -- even if it doesn't look pretty. (They swear it will look prettier. It will be interesting to if see jacking 3s and passing more impacts Toronto's turnover and free throw rates. The Raps have gotten a ton of mileage out of extreme ball control and foul shots.)
They took a small step back in their pursuit of Cleveland (stop laughing), but given good health, Toronto should be no worse than fourth or fifth in the East.
THE MOST INTERESTING PART OF THE LEAGUE: THE WEST, 5-11
Holy hell, does it suck to be in the West. There are least seven teams competing for the last four playoff spots, and they are all solid! Good luck picking which four make it. Injuries will play a huge role.
I am weirdly confident in the Nuggets, despite their glut of power forwards and embarrassing defense -- second worst in the league last season. The first problem compounds the second. Denver will have to shoehorn the undersized (Will Barton) and oversized/slow (Juancho Hernangomez) into wing minutes behind Wilson Chandler. Teensy lineups featuring Barton, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray hemorrhaged points, per NBA.com.
Opponents feasted on Jokic at the rim. He has lost weight, and has the smart feet to put of up more of a fight. Paul Millsap has been one of the league's 10 or so best defenders over the past half-decade. Young guys pick up the nuances. For an awful defense, Denver bizarrely allowed the right sorts of shots; long 2-pointers comprised about 20 percent of opponent attempts, the highest such share in the league, per research from Ben Falk at Cleaning the Glass. They yielded relatively few 3s.
The architecture of a not-terrible defense is here. Being not terrible -- something like 22nd in points allowed per possession -- should be enough to bust their four-year playoff drought, provided they settle in as a top-five offense.
The point guard spot is a question mark, but Jokic effectively runs the offense. Murray meshes well flitting around him.
Most league insiders have the Wolves above this jumble. Some internal team projections around the league spit out 50 wins and a top-four seed.
Bet the under. The paper-thin Wolves start two traditional bigs and three so-so 3-point shooters who dominate the ball in Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague. Those three will diminish each other -- at least over the first stretch of the season. The Wolves will have to bash through walls of defenders in the paint.
It's fun to joke that the bench doesn't matter, since Tom Thibodeau will play the starters into the ground. Luckily, the foursome of Teague, Butler, Wiggins and Towns has been remarkably durable. But what if one of them misses 20 games? Can Karl-Anthony Towns give a crap on defense before we anoint him a top-10 player? Minnesota flopped to 27th in points allowed per possession in Thibodeau's first season. Swing the ball just once, and the Wolves fractured, conceding both the rim and the arc.
Butler should drag them toward league average. He can hound the best opposing wing, and kick Wiggins and Towns in the ass when they get lazy. Those two will improve with reps; Thibodeau will bellow until they do.
Butler became a well-rounded star on offense last season, and Towns has the potential to be the most versatile scoring big man ever -- and the second, after Dirk Nowitzki, to join the exalted 50-40-90 club. You don't want your monster big hanging around the perimeter too much, but Towns' willingness to float there -- and yield the interior to Butler and Wiggins -- will help Thibodeau mesh ill-fitting personnel.
The Wolves dangled Cole Aldrich and a second-round pick in search of veteran help, sources say, and they should experiment with Butler as a small-ball power forward. They will win a close game at some point.
They have too much talent to miss the playoffs for the (gulp) 14th straight year. But they will have to fight for it.
Scoring will be a struggle, even with Quin Snyder designing the league's most intricate, drawn-out set pieces. In an era of turbo-paced offenses, Utah preys on the attention span of millennial defenders: "Fine, score already. We just want the ball back!"
Teams are going to duck under every screen for Ricky Rubio, and strangle the lane when both Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are on the floor. The Jazz have scored well with the twin towers, but Hayward has almost always been there as a fail-safe. Utah finagled its way to 12th in points per possession last season; it's easy to see the Jazz falling toward 20th.
But they can run out at least 11 legit rotation players. They have enough tweener forward types to pull Favors early, shift into small-ball mode, and reinsert him for Gobert as their backup center.
Utah should suffocate opponents with a top-five defense. (Good luck generating a corner 3 against them.) Gobert barricades the rim with a sneering arrogance. He scares people. The Jazz are deep, and they play hard every night. Even vanilla teams can win a lot of regular-season games that way.
Los Angeles Clippers
Perhaps the toughest team in the league to peg, in part because of the health questions that always swirl around Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari. There is a 50-win team in here with Griffin as fulcrum, lording over the action from the center of the foul line as everyone orbits him. The four rotation guards are dangerous in different ways, and crafty enough on the pick-and-roll to draw double teams -- and free Griffin to slip into open space, where he is an expert playmaker.
The defense looks sound with Patrick Beverley and DeAndre Jordan bookending it. For all the talk about how helpless the Clippers were when Chris Paul rested -- and they were G League-level bad -- a huge chunk of those minutes came with both Griffin and Jordan also on the pine. The Clips actually outscored opponents by almost five points per 100 possessions in the 342 minutes Jordan and Griffin logged without Paul, per NBA.com.
They'll play faster, attack the rim more, and generate their usual bounty of foul shots. They are motivated to prove they can win without Paul.
But something feels rickety, even beyond health anxiety. The Clips are thin on true wings. They will lean on three-guard lineups, and bigger groups with tweeners -- including Gallinari in the starting group -- contorting themselves into wings to accommodate Griffin and Jordan. Their defense slipped horribly last season after an airtight first 20 games.
It seems unlikely that Clippers find that 50-win ceiling. If they finish closer to their floor, they'll end up in the lottery. That could bring seismic change
The Grizzlies exchanged Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter -- quietly a member of their most productive lineups -- for Ben McLemore, Tyreke Evans, Mario Chalmers (coming off an Achilles tear) and some young dudes who won't play. Wayne Selden and James Ennis are the likely wing starters by default. They may come out ahead on secondary playmaking; Selden has shown surprising two-way promise. But a lot of youngish guys have to develop -- fast. They hope the exchange includes getting a healthy Chandler Parsons to replace last season's unplayable tin man; with Randolph gone, Memphis needs Parsons at least as a backup power forward. But at this point, you have to assume the worst.
Gasol is almost 33, Conley is coming off a career year, and the Grizz have allowed a frightening number of opponent 3-point attempts for two seasons running. What happens if more of them go in? What happens if Memphis doesn't break math and win a preposterous number of toss-up games for the zillionth straight season? The Grizzlies have rebuffed all calls about Gasol and Conley; does that change if they sink fast?
But they pull that close-game magic every season. It is in their basketball DNA. They will be rock solid on defense. Gasol and Conley wring something out of every half-court trip, and David Fizdale will have these guys busting it.
On paper, they are a lottery team. I am picking them to miss the playoffs.
Now go watch them magic up 43 wins.
New Orleans Pelicans
I've detailed their structural limitations -- mostly a potentially crippling lack of shooting around the beasts. DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis need to play outside-in for this to work, and they have the craft to do it -- the shooting, passing and off-the-bounce oomph. They push off misses, and even combine to form the league's biggest, meanest pick-and-roll combination.
It's just hard to maximize two star bigs that way. They won't grab as many offensive rebounds, or slice to the rim as often. On some possessions, one will chill around the 3-point arc. Cousins is a threat there; Davis isn't yet.
Slotting more shooters -- Ian Clark, E'Twaun Moore -- around them might compromise the defense. New Orleans will have little choice if Rajon Rondo misses extended time with a sports hernia. Darius Miller looms as a wild card in striking a two-way balance. It all seems a little too complicated -- like too much has to go right.
Memphis made a slower, less rangy version of this work for years, albeit in an NBA only midway through its metamorphosis into a 3-point fantasyland. Those Randolph-Gasol Grizzlies won with defense. New Orleans was solid on that end last season, and downright stingy with both behemoths on the floor.
Maintain that, and they should least hover around .500. That makes them a long shot to survive this demolition derby.
Portland Trail Blazers
For a team steeped in continuity, Portland faces a lot of questions -- including who rounds out the starting five next to Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. With Allen Crabbe and his odious contract in Brooklyn, the Blazers have no choice but to use a ton of lineups, including the starting group, featuring three unreliable 3-point shooters.
Those groups are antiques. Scoring can be tough, even if the other two guys are among the most lethal pull-up artists alive.
Portland hopes to compensate by tightening a defense that sunk to 21st in points allowed per possession last season. They were much stiffer after acquiring Nurkic. They cut their foul rate dramatically, a trend that might be sustainable. Nurkic prefers to hang back against the pick-and-roll, allowing the rest of the Blazers to stick closer to shooters. Fewer rotations mean fewer reaches, bumps, and free enemy points.
Opponents also drilled 41.8 percent of open 3s, the third-highest such mark in the league. That number was somehow even bigger in 2015-16. Something beyond luck is going on, but Portland is due a little good fortune.
The Blazers are optimistic that Evan Turner, Lillard, and McCollum have worked out the kinks after an awkward start together. Lineups with all three outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions after mid-January, per NBA.com. Turner can handle, turning Lillard and McCollum into spot-up weapons, and all three can catch-and-go through tiny creases. Cramped spacing doesn't do as much damage to teams with three playmakers who slither through those corridors in rapid-fire drive-and-kick sequences.
If the Nurkic Fever lasts, the Blazers are better than the team that was outscored by 43 points last season. That still might not be good enough in the West. Egads.
THE BACK OF THE EAST RACE
I might have PTSD from all those times the Bucks were bad when they were supposed to be good, and good when they were supposed to be bad.
Continuity helps, and their starting lineup with Malcolm Brogdon, Thon Maker, Khris Middleton and Tony Snell -- and without Jabari Parker -- blitzed opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions once Jason Kidd landed on it.
But, man, are they thin until Parker comes back -- likely in February at the earliest, per league sources. Their top three reserves are Matthew Dellavedova, Mirza Teletovic and Greg Monroe. Teletovic spent time out of the rotation last season, and lineups pairing Dellavedova and Brogdon -- a necessity given the short bench -- were a disaster. Monroe might be the single most important bench player in the league.
Opponents have figured out to pass over and around Milwaukee's frenzied trapping defense. Only four teams allowed more shots in the restricted area; only seven gave up more 3s.
Giannis Antetokounmpo solves a lot of problems, and if he takes another mini-leap, the Bucks could exceed expectations. Parker's eventual return will beef up their depth, and give Milwaukee a little more data on how all the pieces fit; Parker and Middleton logged just six minutes together last season. Parker has defended so far with a poisonous combination of cluelessness and hyperactivity. It was not surprising that Milwaukee fared better without him.
Extension talks for Parker will likely go to the Oct. 16 wire, and any deal would nudge the Bucks close to next season's tax. They have discussed dumping John Henson and Teletovic, but teams are squeezing hard, sources say.
Barring disaster, Milwaukee is a playoff lock. Put the Bucks in a higher tier at your own risk.
The East is so pathetic, Charlotte should survive Nicolas Batum missing eight weeks -- about 20 games. If the timetable extends into the 12-week range, they might be in trouble.
Before Batum's injury, a lot of insiders argued Charlotte deserved a promotion out of this tier. They outscored opponents last season, killed it when healthy, and gakked away a crazy number of close games. I've seen internal team projection systems predicting Charlotte would win 48-plus games, and snag a top-four seed.
Eh. The Hornets were always falling here. Batum's injury stabs at their softest spots: a thin bench, and an unreliable cadre of guards behind Kemba Walker. Batum effectively serves as the backup point guard, and Charlotte cratered in the minutes he played without Walker, per NBA.com. Walker is the only Hornet who can create something from nothing as the shot clock ticks away.
Things are dire without Batum; an obsessive win-now franchise is suddenly reliant on Michael Carter-Williams, Jeremy Lamb, Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon. Expect the Hornets to trawl the veteran free-agent bargain bin.
Their defense should improve. Charlotte slipped to 14th in points allowed per possession, unthinkable for a Steve Clifford team, and conceded more 3s than anyone. Expect a more conservative scheme, where help defenders don't creep so far into the paint.
The Hornets are solid. They were a playoff lock before Batum's injury, and should still ease in if he returns on time. They dutifully execute Clifford's schemes. They just don't have the dynamism or upside of the teams above them.
The Heat are closer to the relentless perpetual motion machine that finished 30-11 than the sad-sack 11-30 outfit that was ready to pull the ol' tankeroo in January. They won't win 75 percent of their games, and probably not even 60 percent, but they're going to be a problem.
There are questions, of course. The starting lineup will be light on 3-point shooting, assuming Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters and James Johnson can't repeat career seasons. Reintegrating Justise Winslow's busted jumper will be a challenge, though he fits nicely as a backup power forward alongside Kelly Olynyk.
But Miami goes 10-deep in proven rotation guys before you even count Bam Adebayo and Jordan Mickey. Erik Spoelstra will have them well-prepared, and leverage the math; only two teams allowed fewer corner 3s last season. That isn't an accident. Miami's conditioning is different than everyone else's. Depth, coaching and effort win a lot of regular-season games.
I mean, sure. It's the East. The capped-out Pistons couldn't solve the structural problems that ruined what was supposed to be a rising team. They are Team Funhouse Mirror: they play offense the way Stan Van Gundy forces his opponents to play offense -- tons of midrange jumpers, zippo shots at the rim, and the 3-point volume of a Sam Mitchell team stuck in 2005.
They haven't had enough shooting or intuitive passers to manufacture better looks. Avery Bradley is an upgrade over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but he's still more of one-dribble-pull-up guy than a drive-and-kick penetrator. No one is going to respect Stanley Johnson and Tobias Harris from deep -- assuming Van Gundy sticks with that starting forward combo.
The bench is a minor concern, and this just feels like a roster with a hard 45-win-ish ceiling.
This is really about Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. If they bounce back, the Pistons probably return to the playoffs. If they stink again, this team is going to look very different a year from now.
Here's how attainable the eighth seed in the East is: About two weeks ago, the entire Sixers team invited Charles Barkley to dinner at Brett Brown's house. Barkley addressed the players, and told them that as a Sixers alum, he would be rooting for them, according to sources who were there. How nice! Barkley followed up by declaring he would mock them every Thursday on TNT if they missed the playoffs. Everyone roared.
The eighth spot will likely come down to Detroit and Philly. We're all rooting for the Sixers, right? They are much more fun. Ben Simmons is so fast in transition, it's almost jarring given his size. Simmons is a freaking beast. He hasn't played one game, and it's already clear he's an elite passer.
If Philly makes the playoffs, it will mean that Joel Embiid played a healthy number of games -- at least 50, and probably more. When Embiid plays, the Sixers are good. They outscored opponents with Embiid on the floor last season, when nobodies were playing minutes that will now go to Simmons, J.J. Redick, Markelle Fultz and Jerryd Bayless. (Scoff at Bayless, but he's going to close a lot of games.)
Philly is almost deep! There will be a legitimate battle royale (with cheese) for minutes between Justin Anderson, Furkan Korkmaz and Sauce Castillo! Even Jahlil Okafor looks spry, pumping his trade value before the Sixers dump him to Chicago or Phoenix.
Simmons' versatility opens up so many weird lineup combinations. Want to go super big? Trot out Bayless (or Fultz), Robert "Bob" Covington, Simmons, Dario Saric and Embiid. Simmons alone is going to instill matchup panic. He will likely guard power forwards so Covington can envelope wings, but opponents won't want their power forwards stuck on him.
Still: This team isn't ready to hit .500 without a lot of Embiid. If he doesn't play enough, they fall short. It will take time for Fultz, Simmons and Embiid to learn how to split creative duties.
The schedule doesn't help. Teams play 10 of their conference rivals four times apiece, and face the remaining four just three times. Philly's three-timers: Chicago, Indiana, Orlando and Atlanta. Oh, come on! That probably knocks the Sixers playoff chances down a percentage point or two.
The triple matchups rotate along a five-year matrix set years ahead. The NBA couldn't have tweaked it this once, just for fun?
Let's get crazy.
There is no reason to be optimistic about the Magic. They ranked 29th in points per possession, and 24th in points allowed. Lineups with Aaron Gordon at power forward, his appropriate position and the one he will mercifully play this season, fared poorly. Continuity doesn't mean much when you bring back mediocre players who don't fit.
But it means something. Look: One of these sorry ass teams is going to randomly win 38 games and butt into the playoff walkathon. Frank Vogel spent a year discovering what doesn't work. Dig deeper, and a lot of the lineups that failed with Gordon at power forward involved Jeff Green and other nonentities who aren't here anymore.
Orlando has a bunch of decent players either entering their primes, or in the thick of them -- including Elfrid Payton and an interesting three-man wing rotation of Evan Fournier, Jonathon Simmons and Terrence Ross. Someone might pop. Maybe several guys make mini-pops -- common at their ages -- that combust into something greater.
The structural problems haven't gone away. Nikola Vucevic can't anchor a defense, and Bismack Biyombo is an anchor that sinks any offense. Spacing will be cramped with Gordon, Payton, and Simmons on the floor -- and, really, with any two of them.
But there is talent here. Vogel can coach. If this team can't win 35 games in this conference, just blow the whole damned thing up. If the new front office pivots in that direction at midseason, shove the Magic into bottom tier.
Betting against Dirk Nowitzki and the only warlock NBA coach makes you queasy, but it's hard to see how this team cracks .500. Lineups with Nowitzki at center can't defend; Rick Carlisle will have to swallow hard and consider starting Nerlens Noel, and giving the Harrison Barnes-Nowitzki-Noel trio extended run.
Smaller lineups with Barnes and Noel up front -- and no Dirk -- were outscored in limited minutes last season, and the Mavs don't have the right sort of depth to make them fly; the bench consists mostly of giants, little guys, and Dorian Finney-Smith. Seth Curry's absence is a sneaky big blow.
Dennis Smith looks like a future stud, but those who expect rookie point guards to lift a team end up disappointed.
The most interesting subplot might be whether Dallas soothes Noel, or sniffs out trades he might approve.
Give me the Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein we saw after the All-Star break, and a ton of all the new kids -- and make sure that 2018 pick lands as high as possible before you yack away the 2019 one thanks to the most incomprehensible trade of the last decade!
This all about the development of the college team within the NBA team: Can Dragan Bender show something, and get real time as a stretch center? How good is Josh Jackson already? Does Marquese Chriss realize the object of defense? Can he hone his 3-point shot? Does the ball look bigger in Tyler Ulis' hands than it has in any player's since Muggsy Bogues?
The Suns will surely listen if and when suitors call for Eric Bledsoe. They've explored the possibility of moving off Jared Dudley and Tyson Chandler, sources say, though they likely feel no urgency to dump them; Phoenix remains just under the salary floor.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers will be fun, but let's not pretend they are playing for anything but a July coup. The on-court product almost doesn't matter beyond Lonzo Ball's acclimation and how various high-salaried players help or hurt their trade value. That includes Julius Randle, locked in an interesting battle for power forward minutes with Larry Nance Jr., and future MVP Kyle Kuzma.
We might be one injury in Charlotte, Philly or Detroit from one of these teams accidentally making the playoffs. Just fold the conference into the G League at that point.
We went deep on the spunky Nets after they acquired D'Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe. I never bought the buzz that they might challenge for the eighth seed. The frontcourt is light on shooting without Brook Lopez fluttering up set-shot 3s, and there is just sooooo much youth across the roster. They are a better version of the super-tanky Sixers of 2014-2016: a fast-paced, efficient shot selection machine waiting for players talented enough to actually make some shots.
If enough things break right, they could bring Cleveland's nightmare to life and outpace every team in this tier. Step one: A revived DeMarre Carroll supplants Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as the starting power forward, and brings much-needed spacing.
It got eclipsed by the John Wall supernova, but Dennis Schroder showed out in his first postseason run as Atlanta's starter. That's a good sign, right? But if Schroder is your best player by a wide margin, you are not designed to win a lot of games.
The young wings are very intriguing. John Collins FOMO is already spreading among teams who picked late in the lottery and beyond. The Hawks have a nice collection of competent bench big men. Too bad they have to start two of them.
New York Knicks
A few projection systems are surprisingly bullish on the Kazoos. They have enough average-ish players to sniff 35 wins if everything goes right -- and if they can find an effective way to play five centers at once. Kristaps Porzingis will form powerful offensive combinations with both Enes Kanter and Willy Hernangomez.
Still: Thirty-five wins feels way high. New York will hit potholes just initiating the offense; Porzingis may not be quite ready for that, and the saddest group of point guards outside Chicago no longer has Carmelo Anthony as a crutch.
Also: They will not stop anyone.
No one will remember any of it in two years if Porzingis is a superstar, Frank Ntilkina looks good, and they nail a pick toward the top of this draft.
The Pacers have five competent starters (even if at least two would be backups on good teams), a top-five backup point guard in Cory Joseph, a nice reserve wing (Glenn Robinson III), and whatever Al Jefferson and Lance Stephenson are in 2017. They should win around 30 games. Yippee.
This is the last season before the league tweaks the lottery rules so that the worst teams have a lower chance at snagging the best picks. Now is the time to aim lower!
The Bulls sure as hell are aiming lower!