NBA tiers: Title contenders, playoff hopefuls and bad teams

Everyone loves power rankings! Before each season, I like to zoom way out and sort teams into buckets. It helps capture where every team fits within this distinct season, and along the years-long team-building continuum.

So here we go: Our ninth (!) annual Tiers of the NBA. The order within tiers does not matter!

Tier 1: Golden State Warriors

Yeah, these dudes, again.

Warriors have to try their hardest

Searching for the proper paperwork to move up one tier

Most projections favor Toronto over Boston. Toronto finished four games ahead of the Celtics last season, and doubled Boston's per-game scoring margin. They traded one top-25-ish player who shrinks in the playoffs for an MVP candidate who is, at worst, the seventh-best player in the league when healthy.

They trailed only Golden State and Houston in points per possession last season, and they should hum along once the new guys adapt to Nick Nurse's go-go system. They ranked fifth in points allowed per possession, and replaced a sieve with the greatest perimeter defender since prime Scottie Pippen. Almost every combination of four perimeter guys and one big man -- Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, Pascal Siakam or Greg Monroe -- would rank between solid and smothering on defense. Their postseason tormentor is gone.

Meanwhile, Boston looks shaky in preseason. Gordon Hayward admits he is behind reacclimating. People fret about Kyrie Irving's knee. The reinvention of last season's average offense may take longer than expected.

But these tiers are about May, not October. The infusion of Hayward and Irving, and the way that infusion transforms Boston's bench, should give the Celtics enough firepower to build a borderline top-five offense when the games matter.

Boston's offense cratered last season when both Horford and Irving were on the bench. Irving, of course, missed 22 regular-season games and the entire playoffs. Hayward was supposed to prop the offense up during those minutes; we know what happened to him. Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris missed 56 combined regular-season games.

Toronto, meanwhile, enjoyed pristine health. They have gotten a ton of mileage for years out of giving zero minutes to below-average players. Boston should enjoy that luxury this season. They don't even have to play Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis, or this year's versions of Abdel Nader and Shane Larkin in games they care to win.

Skeptics expect a regression on defense. Boston opponents hit only 36.2 percent of their wide-open 3-pointers, the lowest such figure in the league. Enemy teams recorded an effective field-goal mark on all 3s almost 2.5 percentage points lower than expected based on shot location and the proximity of defenders -- the league's largest gap by a huge margin, per tracking data from Second Spectrum.

But the Celtics do this every season. We have long since passed the point where anyone should chalk even half of it up to luck.

Boston has three A-minus-level stars in their primes: Irving, Hayward and Horford. Toronto has one such player, Kyle Lowry, and one A-plus superstar in Leonard. Unless Leonard reaches his 2016-17 level -- and maybe even if he does -- I'd take Boston's star veteran trio over Toronto's duo by a hair. Normally, the one true superstar wins this debate. But Boston's three are all so good, in complementary ways, that their combined value (barely) carries the day here.

Toronto is teeming in plus supporting guards and wings: Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright (capable of sliding across all three perimeter positions), Danny Green, OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, maybe even a reinvigorated Norm Powell. That depth compensates for a thin big man rotation that includes ground-bound behemoths -- Valanciunas and Monroe -- who will struggle in some matchups.

But take a gander at the five guards, wings, and tweeners surrounding Boston's three key vets: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Smart and Morris. Egads. Tatum and Brown are the best of the 11 supporting perimeter players on these two teams -- almost ready to be stars in their own right.

Insiders who would slide Toronto above Boston warn that we should not assume linear improvement for Tatum, or even that he can duplicate his insane rookie season. They may be right. Tatum probably isn't going to shoot 43 percent from deep again. But the guy is a stud, and Boston at full force has the goods to make his life easier on offense -- and withstand any temporary step back.

Tatum, Brown and Rozier have proven themselves on both ends under the brightest lights, against the team and player who reduced the Raptors into annual simpering surrender. (Smart's jumper remains a liability in some postseason games, but his balls-out intensity overcomes it in others.)

I'm not sure we can say that yet for Toronto's guys. Their vaunted bench didn't trample second units in the playoffs the way it did in the regular season; patsy bench units cease to exist in the playoffs. Anunoby was ready, but he's only in Year 2, and more of a fifth-option type on offense until he shows otherwise. (He might. I love that kid.) Siakam's jumper is an unknown. Green is 31. Miles requires hiding places on defense that some playoff opponents don't provide. Serge Ibaka quaked when things got hard. Toronto needs him even more now, and perhaps mostly as a center. (The combination of Ibaka and Siakam was dynamite last season in limited minutes.)

Toronto may well finish No. 1 in the Eastern Conference. If Leonard roars again and multiple kiddos make leaps, they could end up with a playoff roster at least as strong as Boston's. (One overlooked possibility: What if Leonard is even better than we remember? In the 2017 playoffs, he dished almost five dimes per game and flashed improved drive-and-kick feel. What if he has more of that in him?) Given their postseason pratfalls -- and Leonard's lost season -- I just need to see it first.

As for Houston, what I wrote after free agency applies now: Beware burying this team, and lamenting the closure of its championship window. If that window is closed, it is mostly because Golden State is among the greatest dynasties in league history -- perhaps literally the greatest basketball team ever built -- and not because Trevor Ariza and a gimpy Luc Mbah a Moute play for new teams.

Those guys mattered in building the switch-everything defense that confused the Warriors in the conference finals. (The Warriors were complicit, but the Rockets never got enough credit for having the talent, fight and strategy to stagger them. The Rockets lost, but a really good team needs to stagger a great rival -- even a dynasty -- for only a half-dozen or so quarters to give itself a chance in a seven-game series. Houston did it.)

James Harden and Chris Paul will turn James Ennis into Ariza on offense. Ariza's defense has slipped a bit over the past two seasons; Ennis might be able to replicate enough of it. Even a small downgrade would hamper them against the Warriors.

After Ennis, it gets shakier. Carmelo Anthony can soak up those minutes against most opponents, but not the one with which Houston is obsessed. A wave of anxiety rose from my chest at the thought of typing the names Brandon Knight, Gerald Green and Michael Carter-Williams (looking spry in preseason!). Marquese Chriss conjures something more pernicious than anxiety.

But to upend the Warriors, the Rockets were always going to have to overextend their highest-ceiling lineups. That means more of Eric Gordon with Paul and Harden, and as much of Clint Capela as his stamina allows. If Daryl Morey thinks they have even a 5 percent shot, they are a lock to pick up one meaningful contributor via trade or the buyout market.

This is still the second-best team in the Western Conference, and maybe in the league.

Rock solid playoff teams, tier 1

• This tier is for teams who at their absolute peak could give Toronto, Boston and Houston at least a token run. Philadelphia could do much more. Some fans will protest their inclusion here. They have two superstars with near-term aspirations of becoming top-10 two-way players. If Joel Embiid isn't there already, he's very close. Milwaukee and Denver sport only one legitimate star, and Denver's (Nikola Jokic) is a minus on defense.

But unease about Philly has been gnawing at my gut all summer. The net downgrade in shooting -- from Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova to (effectively) Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala -- is part of it, but only a small part.

In busting up the league's best starting five from last season to promote Markelle Fultz, Philly is sacrificing some short-term success -- and some continuity and comfort -- to try to construct the best version of itself for May, June, and the 2020s. It is a risk. It is also a forward-thinking play.

Without a traditional point guard, Philly ran the fewest pick-and-rolls in the league last season by a mile. They generated offense in other ways: Ben Simmons fast-break rampages; Embiid post-ups; elaborate sets in which J.J. Redick and Belinelli -- and sometimes both -- pinballed between screens. For the season, only Charlotte launched fewer corner 3s -- shots that are among the ideal end products of a high screen.

It worked anyway -- until the Sixers ran into a fast, switchy Celtics defense. Brett Brown eventually benched Robert Covington and replaced him with T.J. McConnell to juice Philly's ball-handling.

That is the promise of Fultz. Philly posted a solid scoring margin with Simmons, Embiid and McConnell on the floor -- the best proxy we have for a Fultz/Simmons/Embiid trio. Fultz is giant for his position, and a hungry defender. Philly is going to strangle opposing offenses; it has the potential to top the league in points allowed per possession -- especially if it stops hacking the bejesus out of everyone.

Young teams generally kick their foul addictions. On offense, the Sixers coughed up the ball more than anyone. There is low-hanging fruit for improvement.

But I'm worried the Sixers have more to sort through than most top-tier teams. Fultz and Simmons are two of the league's most unusual players; no one knows what will happen to Fultz once the real games start. It will take time figuring out how to fit them together, and around a post-up beast. Philly's radical minutes staggering will help; Brown figures to pull one of Fultz and Simmons early, and have that guy lead second units. They can always pivot back to the old starting five. Brown has floated the possibility of doing so in second halves.

• The Bucks have a much simpler mandate: slot shooting around Giannis Antetokounmpo, and let him decimate stretched-out defenses. That's easy. That makes sense from Game 1.

• Keep an eye on Oklahoma City early. The Thunder remain light on outside shooting. Without Andre Roberson, they are thin on reliable rotation players. Without Roberson, they can't snap into screaming spasms of defensive frenzy that change games in a blur. But as long as Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams are healthy, the apex Thunder will be a pain. This season should be smoother than last season's bizarre up-and-down campaign.

• Utah with Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert on the floor before Jan. 24: 90 points per 100 possessions, 106 points allowed. Utah with that same trio on the floor after Jan. 24: 113 points per 100 possessions, 95 allowed.

I wonder if any heavy-minutes trio has ever experienced a midseason turnaround -- in either direction -- so severe.

Utah went 29-6 to close the regular season, with the league's stingiest defense in that span by a margin so absurd, you have to run the numbers again and again to make sure it's not an error.

I'm just not sure you can draw a line from there to a 55-win season. As with Tatum, the normal rate of sophomore improvement may not apply to Donovan Mitchell given how spectacular he was in Year 1 -- and the increased attention he will receive from opposing defenses. The league watched Houston short-circuit Utah's offense by switching everything. Expect more teams to try it.

But Mitchell showed in the playoffs he is ready for kitchen sink defense. Gobert played with a bouncier, more confident dynamism on offense upon his midseason return. Rubio's genius passing lifted him. Rubio's jumper will slump again, but he understands now how to operate in Utah's system -- how it produces cleaner looks for him. That system functions through individual slumps.

When Favors is healthy, the double-big look with Gobert has a chance on offense. If it sputters, Utah might be deeper in wings than any team -- providing plenty of small-ball options.

Even if that 29-6 stretch exaggerated this team's ceiling, it is still damn good.

• I will be in the minority with Denver here. Pointing out that the Nuggets managed 46 wins with Paul Millsap out half the season will draw a loud "So what?" from San Antonio fans who can recite Leonard's minutes total.

Denver ranked 23rd in points allowed per possession. Bad defense travels, too; the Nuggets won two more road games than the Kings.

But the way Denver finished the season resonated. The Nuggets came together. They played for each other. Jokic finally looked comfortable asserting himself as both scorer and distributor. He accepted the burden of (offensive) superstardom.

He has to do more on defense. He has the smarts to at least be in the right place at the right time, if he gets in better shape. Gary Harris and Jamal Murray should improve organically. Will Barton's size issues at small forward are survivable in most matchups. If prime Millsap still exists, the Nuggets are getting a borderline All-Defense-level player -- someone who barks orders and plugs holes.

In 414 minutes with Murray, Harris, Millsap and Jokic on the floor, Denver allowed just 102.5 points per 100 possessions -- equivalent to a top-5 overall defense. The Nuggets may be due some good fortune. Opponents shot 41 percent on wide-open 3s, the highest mark in the league, per tracking data. That wasn't just bad luck. A disproportionate number of those came from the corners -- shots that represent systematic failure. Denver is on a multi-season streak watching opponents feast from deep. They are the anti-Celtics. Their bench is a little rickety.

But opponents shot well from everywhere, including on midrange shots. Denver coaxed a surprisingly high number of those. The have the skeleton of a semi-functional defense. With more Millsap, effort, and experience, those opposing shooting marks should come down. If the Nuggets climb toward league average on defense, they have a shot to host a first-round series.

The hiccups of integrating Millsap into their pass-and-cut symphony are in the rearview mirror. Continuity is very useful in racking up early regular-season wins.

Rock solid playoff teams, tier II

*Team does not currently exist

• There is a divergence of thought on Indiana among league insiders: The Pacers are either a fluke primed for regression, or a lion rising to challenge for the No. 2 seed in the East. Neither feels right.

Indiana is good. They are not going away. They are deeper and more versatile. Myles Turner plateauing in Year 3 doesn't mean he is a finished product. He's in shape, and spent the summer working on defensive footwork. A mini-leap should follow. Tyreke Evans is now officially a good 3-point shooter -- remarkable considering where he was four years ago. If he's willing to attack immediately off the catch instead of lazing into a languid between-the-legs dribble dance-off, he's a snug fit next to Victor Oladipo -- the second-side shooter and slasher Indiana lacked last season.

Bet against Oladipo replicating last season at your own risk. It's not as if he put up some nutty 50-40-90 shooting line. That dude wants it.

• I slotted the Lakers into the playoffs even before the Butler fiasco ensnared the Timberwolves. They should be a lock given events in Minnesota, and the impact of Dejounte Murray's bummer of in injury. (Six weeks ago, the playoff race in the West looked impenetrable for Memphis and the LA Clippers. We are one injury or internal drama in Portland, New Orleans or San Antonio away from the door cracking open.)

Concerns about the Lakers' shooting are overblown, provided Luke Walton juggles his rotations the right way. Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Josh Hart all hit better than league average from deep last season. Kuzma barely cracked that barrier, but his percentage should tick upward trading hoggy off-the-bounce looks for LeBron's spoon-feeding. Ingram is more unpredictable. He warmed from a bricky 29 percent as a rookie to 39 percent last season, on about half as many attempts. Can he approach 39 percent over higher volume? I'd bet on Ingram cracking league average again.

Even Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo hit an almost acceptable mark on open, spot-up 3s -- the sort defenses will give them.

The defense is worth fretting about. Hart wrestling with big men on switches in preseason bodes well for the Lakers building some super-small lineups with backbone. I'm just not sure it's possible to construct any conference in which eight teams finish ahead of LeBron's team -- provided, of course, LeBron stays healthy.

• I really wanted to shove the Wiz down into the "borderline" tier. I'm like a jilted spouse given John Wall's conditioning, health and effort; he has to regain my trust! Tensions are always simmering in D.C. I remain stunned at how many folks consider Dwight Howard a no-brainer upgrade over the ornery and calcifying Marcin Gortat.

The optimism seems based almost entirely on the fact that Howard can jump higher. That should help on the glass -- a weak spot. I'm not sure it helps the broader defense. Howard is as immobile as Gortat, capable only of planting himself at the edge of the paint and praying ball-handlers miss wide-open midrangers -- if they don't zip around him.

That sort of defense has superficial appeal. Howard protects the paint. Once a game, he swats a shot 10 rows out of bounds. That looks cool! It's also stupid! Even on forgettable Charlotte and Atlanta teams -- admit it, you have no memory of Howard playing either place -- opponents got to the rim less often with Howard on the floor, and settled for more midrangers, per NBA.com.

And yet: Their defenses were bad regardless. Leaden paint protection isn't as effective now as it was 10 years ago. Ball-handlers are too good in open space to provide them a runway.

On offense, Gortat did his most important job well: screening for Wall and Bradley Beal. Finishing around the rim was a different story. Howard can dunk. But Howard also wants to post up, endlessly, and he is awful at it, and a half-dozen wasted possessions per game will undo whatever good Howard produces as a lob-catcher.

All that said, I couldn't slide the Wiz out of this tier. The teams below them in the East have hard, low ceilings. Even if literally everything goes right for Miami, Detroit, Charlotte, and the drek below them, how many games do they win? Forty-five? Maybe 47 for Miami? This is why people need to stop shouting about how Boston, Philly and Toronto show the East has caught up to the West. The gap isn't at the top.

Washington should talent their way to 43 or 44 even if they all hate each other. They have abandoned long 2-pointers in the preseason -- a fantastic and overdue adjustment.

Right on the borderline

• This is the largest tier in the history of my tiers.

• Status Quo Heat fell at first into the tier above this one. I have drunk deeply from #HeatCulture Kool-Aid. I believe in Erik Spoelstra, pads for practice, The Jungle, and body fat measurements. The Heat are deep, play hard and attempt the right sorts of shots.

But there is just not a lot of evidence these guys can eke much past 45 wins -- if at all. They scrounged 44 last season with a point differential barely above zero. They did that mostly without Dion Waiters, but he's still marooned on Waiters Island. There is untapped upside in Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo, and perhaps Josh Richardson. Their other mid-20s guys are who they are. The league has caught onto their revolving blur of handoffs and cuts -- a system designed to mask the absence of a star.

Sorting out an optimal rotation is a challenge -- a good problem, but also a problem. My favorite lineup from last season -- Richardson, Goran Dragic, Wayne "Green Light" Ellington, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk -- somehow logged only 74 minutes. The Olynyk/Hassan Whiteside combination bled points. The Adebayo/Olynyk duo fared well, and fits cleanly on both ends. How often can Miami get there without slicing minutes for Whiteside and James Johnson?

Lukewarm take: I'm not sure Dwyane Wade's return helps Miami, aside from his lob chemistry with Whiteside.

Regardless: This is a low-ceiling team. By definition, that means they are one setback from danger.

• Ditto for Charlotte and Detroit. Charlotte's shift to smaller, faster and more shooting-heavy lineups (hello, Miles Bridges!) is interesting; does it amp up the offense enough to compensate for a potential drop-off on the other end?

Detroit's season comes down to Reggie Jackson and the wing quartet of Luke Kennard, Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock and Glenn Robinson III. Andre Drummond shooting 3s is cute, but he and Blake Griffin are already approaching the outer boundaries of their games on offense. (Drummond's improved conditioning should make him a nimbler defender -- at least physically.) It is up to Detroit's perimeter guys to provide them with more spacing and playmaking help.

Those four wings should all be on the upswing, but is there an above-average starter among them? Can we trust Reggie Jackson?

• Yeah, the freaking Nets. Deez Nets. They face the same issue as Cleveland (see below) in lacking a proven generator of drive-and-kick offense. Kenny Atkinson's freewheeling system approximates in the collective what one such star can do. Spencer Dinwiddie filled the void at a starter-ish level until his shooting stroke vanished. D'Angelo Russell fell short of that.

But the wings can shoot, and they make the right decisions -- in a blink -- when the ball swings their way. They keep the machine moving. Caris LeVert is honing the ball-handling chops to serve for stints as lead playmaker. Ed Davis is a quality backup who can start if Jarrett Allen struggles.

The Nets make you earn it. They play hard. They are annoying. They are well coached beyond the obvious pace-and-3s foundation. Multiple rival coaches and scouts have mentioned to me unsolicited over the past year that Atkinson's staff whipped out targeted, unexpected wrinkles that threw their teams off -- the kind of game-specific adjustments teams don't anticipate amid regular-season doldrums.

Coaching, effort, and a modicum of talent can get you 35 wins in the East. Hell, the Nets would have gotten there last season if not for their absurd (awful) record in close games. If one guy pops, they can sniff this lame-o race.

One caveat: If they are behind their projected pace by February, they might embrace the tank. That is not their preferred outcome. Their schedule is toughest down the stretch, meaning they may hang in the race until the trade deadline. But this front office is very aware they own their first-round pick for the first time since Danny Ainge fleeced their predecessors so badly, he may as well have swiped some office furniture. If the season breaks a certain way, they will want to boost their lottery chances.

• Kevin Arnovitz and I expounded on our concerns about San Antonio and New Orleans in our annual Five Most Confusing Teams podcast last week. Murray's midranger was looking so much smoother, I was contemplating bumping the Spurs up a tier before he tore his ACL. The Spurs are heavy on bigs, and poorly positioned to withstand an injury to any perimeter player -- let alone one who can slide to the wing. The playoff streak is in jeopardy.

• Please stop trumpeting Portland earning the No. 3 seed last season as proof they are immune to a lottery appearance. They finished two games ahead of the No. 8 seed before the Pelicans humiliated them. That sweep teetered the Blazers on the edge of organizational upheaval. It always makes me nervous when a team nears that precipice and turns back, confident it can stay the course. Once certain tensions come out in the open, it can be hard to forget they are there. Ed Davis provided veteran calm and on-court production; Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard face a tall order filling his minutes.

Still: This team has strong, stabilizing leadership on and off the court. They have a long track record of success with Maurice Harkless starting alongside their two star guards, Al-Farouq Aminu and a center. (Their current center, Jusuf Nurkic, is shooting 3s and talking about the All-Star Game. Encouraging!)

On defense, Portland runs everyone off the arc and relies on Nurkic to protect the rim. Opponents shot only 55 percent at the basket -- the lowest mark in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. Based on the location of each shot and nearby defenders, Portland opponents were expected to record an effective field-goal percentage of just 48.6 -- the lowest such theoretical mark in the league, per Second Spectrum. Opponents outshot that number in real life, but still: That is structurally sound defense.

The league adapted to Portland's flow offense, and now the Blazers are adapting in response. Terry Stotts has played Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum together exclusively in the preseason instead of staggering their minutes -- the blueprint over the past two-plus seasons -- and that appears to be the plan going forward.

That leaves Evan Turner as the primary ball-handler on bench units stocked with shooting -- Portland's best hope at maximizing him.

But I can't shake an uneasy pessimism about these guys. Those are big changes. We are going to learn a lot about them early. Their schedule before Jan. 1 is unforgiving. The condition of Harkless' knee could be a huge-swing variable. The schedule eases in 2019, setting Portland up for its annual midseason surge. Monitor their record with that in mind.

Door is cracking open, but West is still too good

• Ladies and gentlemen: Meet the protected-pick brigade! Memphis owes Boston a pick that is top-eight protected in 2019; top-six protected in 2020; and unprotected in 2021. Thanks, Jeff Green!

Mike Conley turns 31 on Thursday. Marc Gasol is 33, with an option to leave this summer. Memphis wants to send that pick this season. The damage gets worse the longer the obligation hangs over them.

Even if they are out of the playoff race, Memphis should chase every win to increase their chances of barfing away the No. 12 pick. And that's about where we should expect them, even with their franchise cornerstones back healthy. (Arnovitz and I addressed them at length in last week's Lowe Post.)

• Dallas could end up a fascinating test case of the league's new lottery odds. In theory, the revamped lottery should dissuade the Mavs from blatant stretch-run tankery to keep the top-five protected pick they owe the Hawks via the Luka Doncic deal. Example: The eighth-worst team now has a 26 percent chance of landing in the top five, up from 10 percent under the old rules. (The very worst teams have a corresponding higher chance of falling out of the top five.)

But when you care -- when you really, really care -- the difference between 26 percent and 44 percent (the chances of the fifth-worst team sticking in the top five) feels gargantuan.

Dallas has the outlines of an interesting team -- or at least a couple of interesting lineups. Depth remains a problem; the wing position beyond Doncic, Barnes and Wesley Matthews is barren, again. Moving off the ball in Year 2 could be the best thing to happen to Dennis Smith Jr.'s NBA career.

• The Clip Joint owes a lottery-protected pick to Boston. Thanks again (sorta), Jeff Green! (Seriously: The Celtics getting a first-round pick from Memphis for Jeff Green, and then 18 months later acquiring the first-rounder the Clippers sent the Grizzlies for Green, is one of my favorite current NBA things. Two teams thought Green was the missing piece, and Boston ended up with the forfeited picks from both. Incredible. Boston even received a first-round pick when it acquired Green for Kendrick Perkins in 2011!)

The Clippers have a dozen good players. That is enough to pound bad and injured teams -- and for the Clippers to withstand injuries, as they did haaaaannnnnging around last season's playoff race like Mike McD.

But most of their ball-handlers are score-first types who hunt from midrange. That can translate into an offense that adds up to less than the sum of its parts. The defense is iffy beyond two in-your-jersey guards recovering from injury -- Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley.

The Clips profile as an average-ish offense and slightly below-average defense. The brain trust surely includes folks who know the league is ripe for a proper tank job, and wish Steve Ballmer would greenlight one. They have veterans on easily tradable contracts in present-for-future deals. They have the best chance among this tier of pouncing on an injury in San Antonio, New Orleans, or Portland, but bet on LA keeping that pick.

• The Wolves are here as a courtesy. If they nab Richardson and Winslow for Butler, they could construct some intriguing small-ball lineups featuring Winslow or even Andrew Wiggins at power forward.


• The Cavs probably rank as the only surprise here. Some projections have them challenging for the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in the East. I can't get there. The single most important ingredient in constructing even a mediocre team is an engine who can break down defenses from the outside in. Usually, that person is a ball-handler. That guy is gone.

Kevin Love can work a facsimile from the elbows, and by leveraging the threat of his 3-pointer to unlock looks for teammates. Running like hell can compensate for the absence of an elite ball-handler, and the Cavs are urging almost everyone to push after rebounds.

But the guard and wing play projects as so underwhelming. Every big man, save for Love, needs someone else to do the heavy lifting. Cleveland bombed from deep with LeBron; the Cavs hit 42 percent of their wide-open open triples last season, tops in the league. Who is generating those looks now? Things get super ugly if Love misses significant time again.

These guys were a train wreck on defense last season. They should improve by accident, and by, you know, trying a little. But they aren't going to be good.

Cleveland is the last member of our protected-pick brigade; it owes Atlanta a top-10 protected pick that converts into two second-rounders if the Cavs don't send it in either 2019 or 2020 -- i.e. if they stink both of those seasons. The bet here is that by the trade deadline, the math surrounding that pick is a more pressing concern than Cleveland's playoff chances. Will Dan Gilbert, rabid for a post-LeBron playoff berth, let his front office ease off the gas?

• Phoenix has ambitions of a win total in the 30s -- a 10-plus-game leap from last season's 21-win tank fest. They added two veteran starters -- Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson. Still: Anything in the mid-30s is a huge ask in the West. Even just hitting 30 seems optimistic. On paper, who in the West is worse than Phoenix? Probably only the Kings. Given injury luck (good for Phoenix, bad for others), they could eke past Dallas or Memphis, but that's it.

They have a bunch of wings -- a good thing! -- but most are young, and have displayed very little aptitude at things like defense and shot selection and basic basketball judgment. Devin Booker is an exception -- he's a stud on offense -- and he's already hurt. They somehow still haven't acquired a veteran point guard. Igor Koskokov will coach the hell out of these guys, but they are just so far away -- especially on defense.

• There is a version of the Magic that wins 35 games. I'm not convinced we see it, or that the coaching staff lands upon it early enough. They are another obvious candidate for a tanky trade.

• The rest of these teams are bad, and I've talked about them in other places. Let's get started already.