It's time for our last big preseason tradition: plopping all 30 teams into tiers to snapshot their place in the league hierarchy at this precious moment when everyone is 0-0.
These are not strict power rankings, and the order within each bucket doesn't necessarily matter. At least a half-dozen teams could slide up or down a tier, or even across three; the gooey center of the NBA is unusually muddled.
Golden State Warriors
We've never seen an NBA Finals trilogy, but as things stand today, any other outcome would be shocking.
What LeBron did to Golden State last June should give pause to anyone anointing this four-headed super team. His performances while facing elimination in Games 5 and 6 -- a combined 82 points, 29 rebounds, 16 assists, and six aura-shattering blocks -- stand as the greatest back-to-back in Finals history. He imagined a way to beat this specific opponent, and then made it happen.
He dragged Stephen Curry through an obstacle course of pick-and-rolls until he cracked just enough room for something -- a thundering drive, those dripping soft lobs to Tristan Thompson, cross-court lasers to spot-up shooters. He hounded Draymond Green on defense, switched onto Curry, and vaporized the Curry-Green pick-and-roll that had been the launchpad to a thousand open 3-pointers.
By Game 5, the Cavaliers understood the enormity of the Golden State challenge -- how one half-second of miscommunication on defense could undo 20 seconds of excellence, and how severely the yappy, grinning Warriors would punish tiny errors. The Cavs had played hard before then, but they had not pushed themselves beyond that, and into the haze of total mental and physical exhaustion. They know now what it takes to beat this juggernaut. They know they can summon it, because they already did.
The Warriors, of course, underwent some minor renovations over the summer. Kevin Durant takes Harrison Barnes' place in the vaunted Death Lineup, erasing one of the two spots where opponents -- including Cleveland when Kevin Love played -- would hide their big men. If both Tristan Thompson and Love are on the floor against that group, one of them will guard Andre Iguodala. Who's the other one guarding?
Playing two traditional bigs against this lineup will be much harder than it was against Version 1.0. Good thing the Cavs cinched up their wing depth by adding Mike Dunleavy Jr. and ending their staring contest with J.R. Smith. Still: Keep an eye on Iman Shumpert. Several teams, including Minnesota, have inquired about his availability in the past few weeks and gotten the impression Cleveland is ready to talk, according to several league sources. The Cavs won't salary-dump Shump for nothing, but given their tax situation, cutting payroll by a few million promises exponential savings.
The Cavs need Shumpert, or at least the fully realized version of a player like him, to scamper and switch with Golden State's small lineups. Without him, they risk overtaxing Dunleavy, Richard Jefferson, and their extra bigs.
It's easy to suggest opponents defending the Death Lineup simply ignore Green and Iguodala - that any shot from one of them is a victory. But ignoring them means giving up wide-open driving lanes, and suddenly you're faced with a choice: concede a layup, or send help from Curry, Durant or Klay Thompson. You can't script a plan that helps only off Golden State's weaker players, and allows them only jumpers.
Durant gives them too many options -- new switchproof pick-and-roll combinations with Curry, and old-school "throw it to the third-best player in the NBA on the block" dump-ins when a hyperalert defense smothers Golden State's prettier stuff.
When it counts, the Warriors will play this super-small group even more than they did the original. It should be better on both ends, with an uptick in rim protection; Durant is 7-feet tall, and blocked more shots last season than Barnes has in his career. It is unclear how you even begin to defend it. The looks Golden State has generated out of it in the preseason have been almost laughable.
Yeah, they have some issues. Zaza Pachulia is learning the ropes, and the depth beyond the top seven is unproven. JaVale McGee ruins everything. There's a non-zero chance a vengeful Sam Presti is paying him to sabotage the Warriors. On some nights, Golden State will go cold from deep. Give Cleveland two of those nights in June, and they have a chance.
But Pachulia will catch on; we are only eight months from his achieving hero status for stabilizing the rag-tag Mavs. Someone on the bench will pop. And when the Warriors put their five best guys on the floor, they turn the game into a math problem almost no one can solve.
AIN'T NEVER GONNA GIVE UP
Los Angeles Clippers
If Blake Griffin can be the best player in the world for two weeks, the Clippers are the only Western Conference team with the explosiveness and precision to challenge Golden State in the playoffs. We saw this Griffin during the first round against San Antonio two years ago. He laid waste in the post, directed fast breaks, and emptied the tank on both ends over 41 minutes per game.
He'll have to switch across five positions, pressure ace 3-point shooters, rush back inside to control the glass, and then bully Golden State's only weak spot on the other end. DeAndre Jordan will have to do the same. Together, they have a vertical brutality the Warriors can't match.
The Clippers just haven't maintained integrity over enough full defensive possessions in all those demoralizing losses to Golden State. Jordan or Griffin will nail the first switch, trail their new guy for three seconds, and then botch Golden State's next screening action -- leaving a fatal pocket of airspace.
Over 19 games across the past three seasons, the Warriors have blitzed L.A. for about 109 points per 100 possessions on 40 percent shooting from deep.
You can't hit every dance step against the Warriors; they put you through too damned many. But the Clippers must hit more to overcome their structural disadvantages -- a hole at small forward, and a lack of size along the perimeter. Chris Paul isn't quite 6-0, and J.J. Redick's arms are short; they can do only so much when they switch onto Durant or Green. (The occasional Paul-Green battle on the block presents some tense, tangled violence, and the possibility of simultaneous groin shots.)
Hell, Klay Thompson is comfortable going right at, and over, Redick. Jamal Crawford may not be able to play real minutes in this matchup; the Warriors' offense bamboozles him. Austin Rivers could play more, including in three-guard lineups with Paul and Redick -- a setup in which Griffin may have to guard Durant straight-up against certain Golden State groups. They might need Wesley Johnson, and needing Wesley Johnson has never turned out well for anyone.
The Clippers are probably a guy short -- and maybe two. This group hasn't made it beyond the second round. Their collapse against Houston remains inexplicable, even two years later. But at full throttle, they are awesome, and Griffin has another level still in him.
BEST OF THE REST
San Antonio Spurs
It's cool if you want them in a higher tier. They posted a beefier scoring margin than the 73-win Warriors, after all. They'll win 55 games, and Kawhi Leonard has a realistic shot at the MVP-Defensive Player of the Year double dip. Just throwing a simple post entry pass around Leonard is like playing "Operation," complete with hand trembling from anxiety.
At least one or two of the younger bench guys will gain Gregg Popovich's full trust, allowing him to cut Pau Gasol's minutes against Golden State -- just as he did with another aging legend last season. They are ultra-long around the basket, and should remain a top-three defense. Gasol and Aldridge will drag both opposing big men 20 feet from the rim, rain long jumpers, and pick out cutters all over the floor.
They just feel light on the zip factor. Some of that is by design; they want to slow the pace, back you down on the block, and exploit the midrange area everyone ignores. They are tailor-made, in theory, to play tall-ball against the Warriors' smaller lineups.
But a lot of those post-ups will result in tough floaters and turnarounds; Green is an unmovable cinder block, and Durant is long enough to challenge everything. Contested midrange looks only get you so far against elite defenses. When that shot clock dwindles, you need a guy who can get buckets from nothing -- a high-flier with some off-the-bounce skills, a pick-and-roll ace, or some pogo-stick to cram lobs and put-back dunks. You need to survive for five or six minutes on transition points and free throws.
The Clippers have more of that volatility than the Spurs -- especially on nights when Tony Parker looks his age.
The clock is quietly ticking. Cheapo deals for Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas expire after next season. If Boston lands their big fish before then, they'll pay what it takes to keep them -- assuming at least one remains after the Great Theoretical Celtics Megatrade. If the C's can't find their match, they face a dilemma: Pay those guys something like $50 million combined annually and lock into a team that might top out at 50-ish wins, or deal one of them at next season's deadline -- if not before. Remember: Both are blocking younger lottery picks.
Lots can happen between now and February 2018. This Boston team could exceed expectations, or hover around 48 wins; the Celtics seem quietly confident they could push the Cavs this season if a few breaks fall their way. LeBron could finally age (ha, ha). The new collective bargaining deal will probably make it easier for players to sign contract extensions, a change that could pump up trade value for Thomas and Bradley even as their deals approach expiration; teams that nab them would have an easier time extending them on the spot.
If the Celtics conclude this season's team can't make real playoff noise, Bradley becomes a sneaky interesting trade piece even though Danny Ainge loves him. (Thomas is indispensable; Boston has no one else who can skitter into the teeth of enemy defenses.)
But Boston should make playoff noise. They had the scoring margin of a 50-win team last season. Al Horford reanimates every limb of an offense that suffocated amid cramped spacing. He's a better shooter than every other Boston big, save Kelly Olynyk, and by far the most well-rounded pick-and-roll option of the Brad Stevens era -- key for a team that ranked an ugly 27th in points per possession on plays their screeners finished with a shot, turnover, or drawn foul, per Synergy Sports.
Boston should also do better from deep than the dreadful 33.5 percent it hit last season. The Celtics nailed just 34 percent from the corners, fourth-worst in the league; Marcus Smart shot an unthinkable 20 percent on those short triples, and Bradley dipped to 33 percent -- an outlier for him.
Toss in a defense that should be among the three or four stingiest, and Boston starts in a dead heat with Toronto for the No. 2 seed.
There is a lot of hand-wringing over the departure of a center who can barely catch a basketball. Bismack Biyombo was great for the Raptors, and durable, but he also benefited from playing on hybrid reserve units with Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson -- Toronto's best traditional power forward.
Slide this season's backup center -- Jared Sullinger, Bebe Nogueira, one of the rookies -- into that same template, and the Raptors will do fine. Jonas Valanciunas is ready for more, anyway, and with DeMarre Carroll healthy, Toronto will finally explore some explosive lineups. The group of Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Carroll, Patterson, and Valanciunas, for instance, logged just 16 minutes all of last season.
Slide Carroll to power forward, and Toronto might discover switchy lineups that make up for shaky rim protection on the back line by preventing anyone from driving there in the first place. Norman "Norm" Powell could help unlock some of those groups.
Toronto might slip a hair on defense, and they'll feel Biyombo's absence on the boards now and then. But these guys have enough talent and shared corporate knowledge to coast by teams that spend the first 40 games getting to know each other. Love the Drakes.
ROCK SOLID PLAYOFF TEAMS
Indy traded some defense (and maybe some rebounding) to juice a moribund offense, but they didn't add enough shooting in the bargain to open space for all their slasher types. The roster may add up to exactly the sum of its parts.
And that's fine. The Pacers have enough talent to hit the No. 4 range even if the players don't complement each other in the magical way that lifts a team to a higher plane. They have Paul George, a surefire top-10 overall player. Paul George is a boss. Myles Turner will grow into his new last-line-of-defense responsibility faster than a typical 20-year-old. The fortified bench should hold steady after last season's version almost single-handedly blew Indy's first-round series against Toronto.
Portland Trail Blazers
There is a ton of skepticism around the league about Portland. The Blazers enjoyed near-perfect health last season, and slid into an unexpected power vacuum when Utah, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Houston imploded. They ranked an ugly 21st in points allowed per possession, and played above-.500 ball only during a sizzling midseason jaunt against mostly bad teams.
But watch the Blazers, and you see a mature team comfortable in its own skin -- and primed for the kind of organic improvement that comes when young teammates marinate together. They're well-versed in Terry Stotts' read-and-react offense, and they should come out of the gate a bit better on defense now that they're starting Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward. That lineup fouled at a low rate, crucial for the Blazers, who spent most of the season hacking the bejesus out of everyone. The smaller, switchier group is just better at keeping the ball in front of them.
That will still be a challenge for Portland in reserve lineups unless Stotts really shrinks the rotation; Meyers Leonard, Festus Ezeli, and Ed Davis are all basically centers, and the Blazers will have trouble chasing smaller opponents when any two of them play together.
Cut the hacks, and Portland has the foundation of sturdy defense. They entice a ton of midrangers, and shut off both the restricted area and those juicy corner 3s. Opponents shot a preposterous 42.5 percent on the few wide-open 3s they managed, per tracking data provided to ESPN.com, and if sheer randomness pushes that number down, the Blazers could at least hit league-average on defense.
The only question that matters -- and one that got a little more pressing with the news from our Calvin Watkins that Patrick Beverley may need knee surgery: Just how bad is Houston's defense going to be?
There is a lot of evidence that an elite defense is a slightly more powerful predictor of championship contention than an elite offense, and the same may be true on the downside. Only seven teams that fell into the bottom five in points allowed per possession made the playoffs over the past 20 seasons, according to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information. Those teams ranked about third on average in offensive efficiency.
The prognosis gets better if you are merely not terrible; a full 32 teams, about 1.5 per season season, squeaked into the playoffs with bottom-10 defenses. Meanwhile, a bunch more -- 42 -- got in despite bottom-10 offenses over that same 20-year stretch.
Houston is going to score the hell out of the ball. If they stay healthy and trudge closer to 20th in overall defense, they should win enough games -- something in the high-40s -- to secure a spot. That's not easy for any team featuring Ryan Anderson, an unhidable saboteur, and it definitely won't be easy if Houston gets the comatose version of James Harden and Eric Gordon. Some of these guys have scary injury histories.
But Harden is in shape, and the Rockets have enough solid defenders -- including two centers -- to achieve some minimum level of competence. Having perhaps the second-best offense in the league will help; it's easier to set your defense and get stops after a bucket -- or even better, a free throw.
Oklahoma City Thunder
It isn't going to be pretty. The Thunder are poor on shooting, and they just don't have the personnel to whip the ball around in artful passing sequences that build to an orgasmic crescendo. Their offense post-Durant is a straight-ahead battering ram heading toward walls of defenders.
And on a lot of nights, they will run right through those freaking walls. You think Russell Westbrook is worried about those three defenders waiting at the dotted line? When he misses at the rim, the league's best offensive rebounding team is ready to pounce.
The Thunder no longer have the luxury of taking nights off on defense, but they have the goods to play into late April.
BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT PLAYOFF TEAMS
Detroit was ensconced in the "solid playoff" tier before Reggie Jackson's knee problems ahead of a packed early schedule. Analytics gurus at other teams have mocked my freaking out about Jackson missing perhaps a quarter of the season; they project the injury might cost Detroit just one or two wins.
They're probably right. But the Jackson-Andre Drummond spread pick-and-roll literally is Detroit's offense. They can try to mimic it with Ish Smith, but his jumper is busted; defenders will duck 10 feet under Drummond's picks to cut off Smith's roadrunner drives.
Stan Van Gundy has antidotes; Drummond will set two or three screens in a row so that Smith can play hide-and-seek, and set some picks below the foul line -- so Smith is already in range for his delightfully loopy floater. Smart defenses with their feet set will navigate all that on a lot of possessions, and stall out Detroit's offense. Help defenders will flood the paint from every direction until Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, and Tobias Harris prove consistent from deep.
Van Gundy has talked about diversifying in Jackson's absence, and both Morris and Harris can soak up some creative duties. Drummond has honed his righty hook and passing chops to the point that throwing it to him on the block isn't an awful option. The bench should be better than last season's sinkhole.
The margin for error is small without Jackson. Drummond is still learning to protect the paint, and Detroit's defense suffered after it slid Harris into a small-ish starting lineup.
But roster continuity and Van Gundy are a powerful combination. The young guys will improve, and Van Gundy will have them dialed in each night.
This team's offense is at risk, especially if Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams aren't ready for the start of the season. Zeller is a grunt guy you barely notice, but he's a turbo screening machine on and off the ball, and speed matters to a team without anyone who can just go and get buckets. Help defenders zip inside to bump Zeller rolling to the rim, and Charlotte flits through the little corridors that initial rotation pries open.
Those pathways hold oxygen for their side-to-side, drive-and-kick attack. Close them a beat earlier, and you can suffocate their offense. Roy Hibbert doesn't arrive in the lane as quickly as Zeller, or present the same threat level once he gets there.
As is, Charlotte generated the lowest share of corner 3s in the league last season; Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum handle the ball high on the wings, and they need Williams, the only other reliable long-range gunner among the starters, to set picks for them. The bench feels a little less reliable, and overstocked with big men. Opponents shot just 36 percent on wide-open 3s last season, the fourth-lowest mark in the league, and a variable that could flip the other way.
But every damn night, you can count on Steve Clifford team to clean the defensive glass, shut down the opposing transition game, avoid fouls, and force a ton of midrange jumpers. They basically start every game up 4-0.
I've written and talked a lot about these guys already. We know the questions, and Tiago Splitter is already injured. But Atlanta has top-level talent, and a coach, Mike Budenholzer, who maximizes his roster. One of the rookies will skip a grade at the Budenholzer University For Project Wings, and the Hawks are high on Malcolm Delaney as Dennis Schroder's backup.
My gut says one of these three misses the playoffs. I just can't decide which one, so for now, I have them all getting in.
PRIME CONTENDERS FOR NO. 8: WEST
I already predicted both these stalwarts would miss the playoffs. I don't feel great about myself.
New Orleans Pelicans
That leaves one spot for three teams that could all range between 35 and 43 wins. If we knew Jrue Holiday would return within, say, the first month of the season, the Pelicans would have a leg up. They have the player with the highest ceiling for this season -- yes, a hair ahead of Karl-Anthony Towns -- and an interesting group of wings to surround him in lineups big and small. If they disappoint again, Alvin Gentry's job could be in jeopardy.
The Wolves return a starting lineup that poured in 113.5 points per 100 possessions last season -- better than Golden State's league-best mark. That lineup was horrific defensively, but Tom Thibodeau will at least get them into the right spots on every possession. Being a year older will help everyone. The bench is shaky, especially on the wing, and it's unclear if Kris Dunn is ready to run an NBA offense.
Denver is young, deep, and healthy. All three of Danilo Gallinari, Nikola Jokic, and Jusuf Nurkic can initiate the offense, easing the burden on Emmanuel Mudiay. But Mudiay is still 20, with so much to learn, and the Jokic-Nurkic combo has to prove it can survive on defense.
Right now, I'd lean slightly toward Minnesota for the No. 8 spot, pending a definitive return date for Holiday.
PRIME CONTENDERS FOR NO. 8: EAST
My pick for the No. 8 seed before Khris Middleton's devastating hamstring tear. Milwaukee's bottom-10 offense didn't improve a lick after it moved Giannis Antetokounmpo to point forward, but it was onto something. The Bucks became uncomfortable to play against. They imposed awkwardness.
If Antetokounmpo defended a power forward and the Bucks got a stop, that poor sap was stuck guarding a combination of The Flash and Rubber Man running a pick-and-roll in semi-transition. Switch a little guy onto Antetokounmpo to snuff that emergency, and Greek Freak would bum-rush that dude onto the block for a limbsy post-up.
Milwaukee had zero spacing even with Middleton healthy, but they were smart slipping through the little crevices they could open:
Parker is a gifted, rampaging slasher. Antetokounmpo and Greg Monroe are slick high-post passers. (By the way: Milwaukee is already preparing for the possibility Monroe opts into his deal for 2017-18, league sources say.) The Bucks knew defenses would adjust to a steady diet of Antetokounmpo pick-and-rolls, so they mixed things up. Antetokounmpo would start some possessions in the corner or at the elbow, and sometimes act as the screener in the pick-and-roll -- an inversion that confused defenses.
He is comfortable driving from anywhere, even against defenders hanging 10 feet off of him, and long enough with those go-go-gadget arms to thread wraparound passes at weirdo angles. He can grab-and-go after rebounds, and the Bucks would be smart to let him loose in transition.
Antetokounmpo developed a nice lob chemistry with Miles Plumlee, and their defense -- a mess all season -- improved once Plumlee replaced Monroe in the starting lineup.
Milwaukee looked ripe for a bounceback. And then disaster struck Middleton, its best all-around player last season. Milwaukee needs two dangerous 3-point shooters around the Antetokounmpo/Parker/Plumlee trio, and it's harder for them to get there now without compromising other elements.
Tony Snell has untapped potential, but he's not in Middleton's universe as a 3-point bomber and secondary playmaker. (I was kind of excited to see how Michael Carter-Williams would fare as an offensive focal point when Antetokounmpo rested.) Parker is clueless away from the ball on defense, and the Bucks need a major renovation on that end now that the league has figured out Kidd's helter-skelter pressure scheme; only three teams allowed more wide-open 3s last season, per NBA.com, and opponents lived in the restricted area.
My backup pick for the No. 8 seed until news broke that Ian Mahinmi, Washington's prized free agent acquisition in the Busted Summer of #KDtoDC, had surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Ugh. Can something go right for these guys?
Fortunately, the Wizards are loaded with centers behind Marcin Gortat. John Wall is reaching peak speed after two knee surgeries, and the Wiz are confident they can keep Bradley Beal healthy by more carefully monitoring his minutes and off-day work.
Scott Brooks won't repeat Randy Wittman's mistake of rushing into a go-go, fast-breaking style for which a creaky roster was unprepared. Morale will improve. Some non-public SportVU numbers show Wiz opponents had the biggest positive gap between the field-goal percentage we'd expect given the quality of their shots, and their actual field-goal percentage -- i.e., that Washington suffered some bad luck.
The Wiz are scary thin on the wing, and Beal is 1-for-4 in making it through a season healthy. But Wall is a star when he's focused -- pick up the defense again, buddy! -- and the Wiz are damn good when Wall and Beal share the floor. They should win this sad slap-fight for the No. 8 seed, and if one of the teams above them here falls out, it would be a disaster for Washington to miss the playoffs again. Another lottery appearance could cost Ernie Grunfeld his job. He's not a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Don't let these guys whitewash the fact that they sold Fred Hoiberg's pace-and-space offense -- not Hoiberg's adaptability, but that particular system -- as the missing ingredient to nudge them one step further than Tom Thibodeau could. Just over a year later, they've provided Hoiberg the league's most hilarious collection of non-shooting ball-handlers.
Perhaps it is not quite as bad as it looks. Jimmy Butler shot 38 percent from deep in both 2012-13 and 2014-15. Dwyane Wade is an accomplished midrange gunner, though he shot below 40 percent on long 2-pointers in each of the past two seasons. Playing alongside LeBron made him an expert in cutting off-the-ball when defenders ignore him.
Chicago will stagger minutes so that Doug McDermott plays a ton with two of the Wade/Butler/Rajon Rondo trio. These guys have hoops IQ coming out of their ears, and every member of their five-deep frontcourt offers something a little different. Depth gets you through the 82-game slog when injuries and fatigue strike.
Scoring will be work with five defenders planting feet in the paint. Things will stall out if Rondo holds the ball on offense as long as he likes. Watching Rondo and Wade lollygag together in transition defense -- a lazy little tea party -- will drive Hoiberg nuts.
But the Bulls have talent and smarts to grind out 40 wins, and once you get there, you're a break or two from sneaking in.
Deez Nets have enough real NBA players to put up a passable fight most nights. They are optimistic Justin Hamilton is a real rotation guy, and even whispering about soothing Anthony Bennett's broken self-esteem. Jeremy Lin will put up numbers, and Brook Lopez showed a little more variety last season in his two-man game - including a nifty give-and-go chemistry with Shane Larkin. They will run, and jack lots of 3s. When they trot out the all-scoring wing combo of Bojan Bogdanovic and Sean Kilpatrick, they might almost look like a dangerous NBA offense.
Lopez also told me he has ideas for a new Nets mascot after the mercy-killing of Brooklyn Knight, so the Nets have that going for them. Which is nice.
They just have too many unproven guys and soft defenders. They're going to be bad, and they know that. They want to establish a culture from the ground up, unearth one or two young rotation guys, and begin mapping out some kind of vision.
Determining Lopez's place in that vision will be a season-long challenge. In theory, they should trade him now; he's coming off a monster healthy season, and he has two years left on his contract -- happy things that might entice teams spooked by his past foot injuries. He's 28, so he won't be around when the Nets are relevant. Sean Marks, Brooklyn's new GM, has already shown in swapping Thad Young for the No. 20 pick that he will sell a little low on veterans to replenish Brooklyn's raided draft pick cupboard.
On the flip side, remove Lopez's $22 million salary for next season, and the Nets could enter free agency $50 million below the salary floor. Without much to sell beyond the city, will the Nets be able to spend on anyone better than Lopez?
Joel Embiid shoe-horning "the process" into every possible context might be my favorite subplot of the season. Bryan Colangelo wants the Hinkieites to move on, and there goes his franchise centerpiece parroting Sam Hinkie's pet phrase -- and even co-opting it as a nickname!
We all know what's going to happen: Philly will be less bad, net another high pick, trade one of Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor (probably Noel) for some future asset, and pray Embiid and Ben Simmons are healthy at the end of the season. Almost everything else is noise.
Cynical dot-connectors around the league wonder if Colangelo might look to install his own hand-picked coach after the season if Philly disappoints. I can't get there. Brett Brown is massively popular, and he deserves every chance to see this through after three years coaching a team constructed to lose. The team signed him to an extension just last season, and Colangelo would risk a backlash moving away from him anytime soon.
Los Angeles Lakers
It's such a relief to watch the Lakers for something other than the carnivalesque. If Timofey Mozgov provides anything as a dive-and-dunk guy, the Lakers have a chance to be decent -- and downright fun -- on offense. D'Angelo Russell keeps the ball on a string and defenders on his back, and he can jack 3s off the bounce. Julius Randle isn't a modern playmaking power forward, but he manufactures a different sort of spacing by facing up, torching suckers off the bounce, and drawing help near the rim.
Bump Randle or Larry Nance Jr. up to center in small-ball groups, and Luke Walton's Warriors-infused motion offense will sing. That's also a nice way to sneak Luol Deng and Brandon Ingram some time at power forward. If Nance hones his jumper, he may end up a better choice than Randle to start alongside L.A.'s ball-dominant guards.
The defense is going to be ugly. The Lakers again owe their pick to Philly if it comes below No. 3, and barring a major surprise, they'll be sweating on lottery night.
Phoenix sports perhaps the best pile of young talent and future picks outside Philly (ironic, since it flipped the league's most coveted traded pick to Philly in exchange for Brandon Knight), including Devin Booker, an untouchable with a preternaturally diverse offensive game. They also have Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, a six-year playoff drought, and an owner who has been vocal about his impatience to break that drought.
These guys don't appear willing to just let the kiddos play, and swallow the losses. That's fine; losing sucks, and there is value in veteran mentorship. Squint, and you can see the outlines of a feisty team: Eric Bledsoe is back, and he should help the league's most turnover-prone team value the ball. Surround a Bledsoe-Chandler pick-and-roll with some shooting (Booker, Dudley) and playmaking (T.J. Warren), and Phoenix could cause some stress. (They also plan to run more Portland- and Dallas-style flow offense, with bigs handling at the elbows and a ton of off-ball movement, to take some pressure off of Bledsoe.)
But any lineup featuring Booker, Warren, and Dudley will bleed points and rebounds, even with Bledsoe and Chandler bookending it. The bench is almost like a post-grad team of guys beefing up their college applications, though one of them, Marquesse Chriss, could start by the end of the season.
The Suns have to avoid doing something dumb to chase a short-term high.
THRASHING ABOVE THE DREK, REACHING FOR NO. 8
Tackled these guys at length over the summer. Frank Vogel will turn around a defense that has been porous since the Dwightmare, especially if he settles on some combination of Aaron Gordon, Serge Ibaka, and Bismack Biyombo in the frontcourt to protect late-game leads.
It's just unclear if an offense can function with defenders sagging off Elfrid Payton, Gordon, and two big men at the same time. Evan Fournier might be Orlando's best pick-and-roll guy, but where in the hell is he going dribble in that forest? It's hard to win when you launch few 3s and rank dead last -- two years running! -- in free-throw rate. It's fighting math, and over 82 games, math wins.
Still: They have the talent and coaching to hang around a sad playoff race. This is a big year for Payton. You don't lavish D.J. Augustin with a four-year, $29 million contract if you are convinced Payton is your future point guard. Scott Skiles wasn't.
New York Knicks
Teams with injury-risk starters and unproven reserves are just a bad bet in the regular-season. The Knicks spasmed through more roster turnover than almost anyone, and it will take time for them to figure out how they want to play -- how much triangle they want to use, how Carmelo Anthony and Joakim Noah will share the elbows, and the best way to mesh Derrick Rose's pick-and-roll speed with Melo's slicing triple-threat game.
Placing the Knicks here is really a vote of no-confidence in Rose. He just hasn't been good in years, even when healthy, and he needs the ball to be of any use. If Noah moves in and out of the lineup, the Knicks may struggle (again) to get stops. They ranked 18th in points allowed per possession last season, and that may overstate things; opponents shot just 35.4 percent on wide-open 3s, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com, tied with Dallas for the lowest such mark in the league.
A team that didn't take or make enough 3s last season lost its four most prolific bombers. Tyler Johnson should help if he gets more time off the ball. Luke Babbitt is the starting power forward on the Anthony Morrow Theoretical 3-Point Shooters Who Never Play. Josh Richardson scorched last season, but he's still recovering from knee issues.
These guys will play really hard. They blitzed the league after the All-Star break, and the core young guys - Richardson, Johnson, and Justise Winslow - fly around the court with the sort of snarling hunger that inspires everyone else to find their inner nasty. Expect a lot of Winslow at power forward, if only because the Heat don't have better options.
Goran Dragic produced like a borderline All-Star whenever Erik Spoelstra detached him from Wade, and Hassan Whiteside is a monster.
Miami just doesn't have shooting or reliable depth around them.
Every year, we look at the Kings' roster and talk ourselves into it: "You know, if it all comes together, they could win 40 or so games!" It doesn't appear to be coming together. In the past two months alone, Rudy Gay essentially told the team to get bent; the league suspended Darren Collison, Sacto's overmatched starting point guard, for eight games; Collison's backup, Ty Lawson, missed a flight back from Vegas; and Vivek Ranadive, the team's owner, blamed everyone else for every bad decision the Kings have made since he has been the boss.
Teams outplay their on-paper talent when everyone, from the owner down to the 15th guy, care about the same things. Dave Joerger showed he could get that kind of buy-in from a ravaged motley crew in Memphis last season, and he'll bring some basic organizing principles to a defense that didn't seem to have any. Slowing the pace will help DeMarcus Cousins settle into post position, and run more inside-out offense.
There is just too much turmoil swirling across the organization. Cousins has never been a unifying force that insulates the team from melodrama.
In simpler basketball terms, it's tough to win in the modern NBA with the type of collective guard play the Kings project to get from Collison, Lawson, Arron Afflalo and Ben "Get Me the Hell Out of Here" McLemore. Sacramento's roster tilts big, and that doesn't make a ton of sense when your franchise player -- the guy that has to play 35 minutes for you to win games -- is a center.