Who is the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors? Just how heated will the competition be for playoff spots in the Western Conference, and are there eight playoff-caliber teams in the East?
To help answer these questions and more, here's an early look at 2017-18 NBA projections using ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM).
Last season, these projections correctly forecast that the Houston Rockets would have home-court advantage in the first round, the Denver Nuggets would challenge .500 and the New York Knicks would stay in the lottery. (They also missed on other teams, including the Milwaukee Bucks' playoff run and the Detroit Pistons' falling out of the postseason.)
As in past seasons, I've put together projected playing time based on a formula that estimates games missed by taking into account the number missed over the past three seasons (adjusted for any offseason injuries/suspensions) and my own guesses at how rotations will shake out.
Most veteran players are rated using the multiyear, predictive version of RPM, adjusted for the typical aging curve. Newcomers to the league and players who played too little for an RPM rating are rated using their projected offensive and defensive ratings from my SCHOENE projection system, which incorporates translated performance in the NCAA and professional leagues besides the NBA.
1. Golden State Warriors
Projected wins: 62.1
Despite being projected for four fewer wins than in last year's RPM projection -- which was the best on record and nearly matched their total of 67 wins -- Golden State is still projected seven games ahead of any other NBA team. The decline largely reflects projected aging by veterans Andre Iguodala and David West. Still, RPM backs up the notion that the Warriors are heavy favorites to win their third championship in four years.
2. Houston Rockets
Projected wins: 55.0
Although RPM was much higher on the Rockets than conventional wisdom, Houston still easily outperformed a 47-win projection. After adding Chris Paul, RPM now likes the Rockets as the greatest threat to Golden State. Remarkably, the additions of Paul and defensive-minded Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker mean Houston projects as slightly better defensively (fourth) than offensively (fifth). We'll see if that plays out as projected.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Projected wins: 52.6
Despite a head-scratching offseason, the Spurs still have the league's third-best RPM projection. San Antonio's defense -- projected to be second in the league -- should remain strong, and Patty Mills playing more minutes at point guard while Tony Parker rehabs his torn quadriceps should help offensively.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
Projected wins: 50.1
Statistical projections have been known to overrate the Timberwolves by betting on the come, including last season's seemingly conservative 37-win projection from RPM. (Minnesota won just 31 games, albeit with the point differential of a 38-win team.) With Jimmy Butler joining budding stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, this time feels different. RPM doesn't even project the Timberwolves to defend particularly well (20th in defensive rating); this projection is largely a testament to the league's second-best offensive projection.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
Projected wins: 49.5
The addition of Paul George, plus savvy bargain shopping for RPM favorite Patrick Patterson, lifts Oklahoma City into the mix for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. I think the Thunder's defense is underrated by RPM, which projects Oklahoma City to finish 16th, six spots lower than last season. Although the Thunder's second unit is likely to decline defensively, the starters should be better with George.
6. LA Clippers
Projected wins: 48.9
Surprise! RPM doesn't expect the Clippers to decline as much as you might think after they lost Paul to Houston. Gaining valuable replacements Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams as part of an impressive return for Paul helps, as does trading RPM liability Jamal Crawford. But ultimately the Clippers will be depending on both Blake Griffin (68 games) and Danilo Gallinari (70) to stay on the court as projected.
7. Denver Nuggets
Projected wins: 47.2
The Nuggets finished a game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth and final West playoff spot last season, and the addition of All-Star forward Paul Millsap -- plus budding star Nikola Jokic starting at center from day one -- makes Denver a favorite to reach the postseason this time around.
8. Utah Jazz
Projected wins: 44.7
After losing Gordon Hayward, the Jazz have gone further toward emphasizing defense. In addition to trading for RPM favorite Ricky Rubio and drafting promising perimeter defender Donovan Mitchell, Utah added defensive-minded reserves Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh. The result is a defense that RPM projects second in the league behind Golden State, with just enough offense to put the Jazz slightly ahead of other West playoff contenders.
9. New Orleans Pelicans
Projected wins: 44.2
One limitation of RPM projections is any adjustment for fit. That could hurt the Pelicans, who are playing several players away from their best positions. Jrue Holiday figures to play heavily at shooting guard with the addition of Rajon Rondo, while Solomon Hill will likely start at small forward instead of power forward because of the DeMarcus Cousins-Anthony Davis frontcourt duo.
10. Portland Trail Blazers
Projected wins: 43.8
This projection is for nearly three more wins than the 41 the Blazers actually had last season, but if things play out exactly as RPM forecasts (they won't), that wouldn't be enough to get Portland to the playoffs. Such is the challenge of the Western Conference this season, with at least 10 legitimate postseason contenders.
11. Dallas Mavericks
Projected wins: 34.6
Although owner Mark Cuban has described the Mavericks as rebuilding, there's enough talent on hand for Dallas to remain competitive in the West. Assuming the Mavericks re-sign restricted free agent Nerlens Noel -- included in these projections, as are other unsigned restricted free agents -- they will bring back the core of last season's team, adding rookie Dennis Smith Jr.
12. Memphis Grizzlies
Projected wins: 34.6
I'll forgive Grizzlies fans if they're dubious of RPM's pessimism. Memphis outperformed a 39-win projection last season to win 43 games and claim the seventh seed in the West. This year, with the competition more difficult, even beating this RPM projection might not be enough for a Grizzlies playoff run.
13. Los Angeles Lakers
Projected wins: 33.0
Baby steps for the Lakers, as they move back toward competitiveness after the worst four-year stretch in franchise history. With the additions of No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball, guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and center Brook Lopez, RPM projects the Lakers to improve nearly to league average on offense. They still look like one of the NBA's worst defenses (28th).
14. Phoenix Suns
Projected wins: 30.3
The Suns are one of the two teams projected worse on defense than the Lakers. That might undersell the defensive contributions of rookie Josh Jackson. Still, Phoenix is firmly committed to developing its young talent rather than chasing 35 wins this season -- at least for now.
15. Sacramento Kings
Projected wins: 27.4
Despite adding veterans Vince Carter, George Hill and Zach Randolph as free agents, the Kings are projected as the league's second-worst offensive attack by RPM. Although this isn't part of the projection, few teams will have more incentive to improve their draft pick, as Sacramento won't have its first-rounder in 2019 due to trade.
1. Boston Celtics
Projected wins: 49.4
After they won 53 games to claim the top seed in the East last season, why aren't the Celtics projected to improve with the addition of Hayward? First, they outperformed their plus-2.6 point differential, which is more typical of a 48-win team. Boston also benefited from opponents shooting 33.2 percent from 3-point range, the league's second-lowest mark. Both categories tend to regress heavily to the mean, so the Celtics would have been in for a steeper decline had they not added Hayward. Still, given that Boston didn't have that same good fortune in the playoffs, the Celtics should be improved when it really counts.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Projected wins: 49.2
For now, Cleveland's projection includes Kyrie Irving. Nonetheless, the Cavaliers are projected to decline slightly from last season's 51 wins, in large part due to aging. Weighted by projected minutes played, Cleveland's roster is the oldest in the league, more than a half-year older on average than the second-place Warriors.
3. Washington Wizards
Projected wins: 47.5
The Wizards bring back largely the same roster -- they're fifth in the percentage of projected minutes played by returning players -- so it's no surprise that Washington is expected to finish in largely the same spot as last season, when it went 49-33.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
Projected wins: 46.9
After leaping from the lottery to 42 wins last season, the Bucks could be poised to take the next step in their development. Milwaukee has the youngest rotation of any projected playoff team; the Lakers and Suns are the teams with a lower average age weighted by projected minutes.
5. Charlotte Hornets
Projected wins: 44.1
The Hornets are primed to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Despite going 36-46 a year ago, Charlotte outscored opponents by 0.2 points per game, which typically would translate to a 41-41 record. The Hornets also went 3-17 in the 20 games starting center Cody Zeller missed. Adding Dwight Howard should help Charlotte deal with any Zeller absences this season.
6. Toronto Raptors
Projected wins: 43.4
Perhaps the most surprising projection in the league, the Raptors suffer because of the loss of Patterson. RPM rates him as a more valuable contributor while on the court than starting power forward Serge Ibaka. RPM projects Toronto to drop to 12th in both offense and defense after ranking in the top 10 in both categories last season.
7. Miami Heat
Projected wins: 42.3
Having re-signed James Johnson and Dion Waiters, the Heat return the bulk of the team that went 30-11 in the second half of last season. However, continuing to play at that level isn't realistic. Miami shot 39.0 percent from 3-point range over the final 41 games, and my SCHOENE projection system has that dropping to 34.4 percent this season. Additionally, Heat opponents made just 32.9 percent of their 3s in the final 22 games, which will likely regress to the mean.
8. Detroit Pistons
Projected wins: 35.1
There's a huge drop-off in RPM projections from the top seven teams in the East to the rest of the conference, which could keep several teams in the playoff mix. Detroit leads that pack despite being projected for two fewer wins than in 2016-17. Trading Marcus Morris for Avery Bradley and losing Caldwell-Pope in free agency have left the Pistons with less starting-caliber talent.
9. Philadelphia 76ers
Projected wins: 33.2
The Sixers would certainly be disappointed if they won just five more games than they did last season after adding the past two No. 1 overall picks (Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons) plus veterans Amir Johnson and JJ Redick. Both Fultz and Simmons project as below-average players as rookies, but I'll still take the over on 33 wins.
10. Orlando Magic
Projected wins: 32.2
RPM isn't optimistic about the Magic's chances of improving last season's disappointing defense, ranked 24th in the league on a per-possession basis. In fact, with newcomer Marreese Speights claiming regular minutes in the frontcourt, Orlando is projected to drop to 27th in defensive rating.
11. Indiana Pacers
Projected wins: 32.0
After trading George and losing Jeff Teague in free agency, the Pacers could struggle to score. RPM has them dropping from a league-average offense last season to 27th on a per-possession basis in 2017-18.
12. New York Knicks
Projected wins: 32.0
A weak point guard rotation figures to keep the Knicks from making the playoffs even in a weakened East. The best RPM projection for any of New York's point guards belongs to rookie Frank Ntilikina (minus-1.9 points per 100 possessions). Second-year guard Ron Baker is projected to be 2.1 points worse than league average per 100 possessions, while veteran Ramon Sessions is at minus-2.9.
13. Brooklyn Nets
Projected wins: 29.5
The additions of guard D'Angelo Russell and forward DeMarre Carroll (rated better than league average, despite the Nets' getting a first-round pick to take on his contract) figure to make Brooklyn more competitive next season. Still, the Nets have perhaps the NBA's worst big men, which will keep them in the lottery.
14. Chicago Bulls
Projected wins: 28.5
The bright side of the Butler trade is that Chicago could be well-positioned for a top draft pick. The Bulls are ahead of only the Knicks when it comes to point guard options, and newcomer Zach LaVine is projected by RPM to be worse than replacement level.
15. Atlanta Hawks
Projected wins: 27.0
RPM has long been low on the Hawks' talent, and that certainly hasn't changed with the departure of Millsap. Remarkably, Atlanta has just two players projected to be better than league average by RPM: likely starting big men Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova.