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The sun is setting on another NBA offseason, and like always, we’re left to make sense of a brand-spanking-new championship pecking order.
Life hasn’t changed all that much relative to last year’s chain of command. Most of the usual suspects continue to populate the title-hopeful clique. LeBron James is no longer an NBA Finals formality, and his departure has torpedoed the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship candidacy. But this exercise is otherwise more about splitting already-spliced hairs.
And that’s OK. New isn’t always better. Plus, there has been some intraclass movement among the consensus elites.
As usual, these rankings will be determined by analyzing every angle of one simple but salient question: Which teams have the best shot at winning their respective conference and reaching the NBA Finals?
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Los Angeles Lakers
It should come as no surprise if LeBron James spearheads a 50-win season for the talented-yet-incomplete Lakers. They’ll be pesky if he spends the entire year in full GOAT mode rather than indulging maybe-next-year R&R.
But the West isn’t the East. He alone isn’t lugging Los Angeles’ inexperienced and oddball supporting cast to the NBA Finals. It will be a minor miracle if the Lakers finish with a top-four playoff seed and make it out of the second round.
Playing LeBron at the 5 with Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram and one of Michael Beasley, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma or Rajon Rondo around him has sneaky-elite potential.
Other than that, though, the Lakers appear to be one player away from being one player away from being a legitimate title contender.
Good things stand to happen now that Milwaukee is marrying Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ongoing ascent with a tactician like head coach Mike Budenholzer.
The Bucks will play smarter defense and run a more inventive, freewheeling offense. That alone should ensure their consideration on this matter. But there’s also more to ponder, as Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes wrote:
“Add to that the improved spacing afforded by signees Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, and it’s easy to imagine the Bucks getting even more out of Antetokounmpo and the rest of their capable bucket-getters. And if Milwaukee wants to give Antetokounmpo more time at the 5—which seems like a reasonable thing to do with a 6’11” human in today’s NBA—the defense could morph into a switch-everything boa constrictor.
“Squint, and you can see Milwaukee approaching top-five rankings in both offensive and defensive efficiency after checking in at seventh and 17th last year, respectively.”
Basically, the Bucks have a ceiling that could make this honorable mention look silly. But with all due respect to 1994’s The Santa Clause, sometimes seeing is actually believing. Milwaukee has to put its new toys and playing philosophy into effective practice before cutting the championship-contender line.
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Joel Embiid will think this is too low, but the No. 7 spot gives the Philadelphia 76ers—SPOILER INCOMING!—third place in the Eastern Conference.
He’ll think that’s too low as well.
Perhaps he ends up being right. The Sixers obliterated expectations last season by reaching 52 wins. Coming up empty-handed in free agency stings, but they’re not exactly worse off.
Pretty much all of their most important players have yet to enter their primes. Embiid and Dario Saric won’t celebrate their 25th birthdays until the end of the regular season. Ben Simmons is 22 and already poised to party-crash the top-10-player conversation. Getting anything from Markelle Fultz, 20, will be a boon for a bench that figures to encounter the more-than-occasional identity crisis.
This is where it gets difficult to reconcile the Sixers’ place among the league’s elite. Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova weren’t indispensable, but their departures are not inconsequential. Philly’s bench ranked 22nd in point differential per 100 possessions before the All-Star break, with a league-worst offensive rating. The second unit is again short on steadying forces—mainly reliable shooters and anyone comfortable creating looks off the bounce.
T.J. McConnell is good enough to alleviate some concern, but he needs help and spacing. Fultz looms large here. So do Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala—particularly with rookie Zhaire Smith recovering from surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his left foot.
Top-heavy dependence feels inevitable. And that suits the Sixers. Their starting five remains unchanged after profiling as the NBA’s best high-volume lineup, and the three-starters-plus-two-backups arrangements should continue to kill.
Philly was plus-9.1 points per 100 possessions last season when Saric, Simmons and Robert Covington played without Embiid and JJ Redick, according to Cleaning The Glass. Adding two of Chandler, Fultz, Muscala and Amir Johnson to that trio should extract maximum depth out from the Sixers’ roster.
Oh, and beyond that, no team is more equipped to pull off a blockbuster trade. That includes the Boston Celtics. The Sixers boast an ideal mix of prospects and salary filler, in addition to controlling all of their future first-round picks. Be ready for them to strike if and when another disgruntled star reaches the chopping block.
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The Utah Jazz have a case to crack the top five—and perhaps even the top three.
They led the league in point differential per 100 possessions after the All-Star break. They turned in top defensive marks for more than half the season. They went holy-moly bonkers whenever Jae Crowder or Thabo Sefolosha played power forward, per Cleaning The Glass. No team notched a better net rating or racked up more victories against the Golden State Warriors during the regular season.
Building upon last year’s 48-win effort feels like a forgone conclusion. Sefolosha, Dante Exum and Rudy Gobert should combine for fewer than 138 absences. Ricky Rubio probably won’t break down in the playoffs. Donovan Mitchell isn’t starting from scratch. This team is scary.
Even so, the Jazz look like they’re one player away from upending the championship food chain. They’ll surprise even the nerdiest hoops heads if Mitchell connects on more than 34.6 percent of his pull-up jumpers, but his advancement alone only doesn’t fill their shot-creation void.
Convincing Joe Ingles to bearhug a me-first agenda more frequently would help. Exum might provide off-the-dribble relief in time. Crowder got a little heat-check happy after being shipped out of Cleveland and could soak up a few more on-ball touches. Grayson Allen’s decision-making while on the move is interesting. Derrick Favors has some nifty post moves in the chamber.
Utah needs more than this potpourri of marginal maybes come playoff time. It won’t matter as much during the regular season. The Jazz have the depth and stylistic cachet to steal the West’s No. 2 seed from the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and any other team that contends for it. Seriously. But offenses that chuck a ton of threes will remain Kryptonite even if Utah dictates pace until Mitchell gets a partner in crime.
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You don’t have to feel good about the Thunder checking in at fifth on the championship-contender scale. I sure as hell don’t.
Ditching Carmelo Anthony lays the groundwork for a more manageable offensive hierarchy—sort of. The Thunder outscored opponents by 9.7 points per 100 possessions when Paul George and Russell Westbrook played without Melo, according to Cleaning The Glass. Their net rating dipped to 6.1 with all three in lineup.
Head coach Billy Donovan will be spared from a few late-game migraines without Anthony in the fold. He won’t be obligated to roll out anyone other than George and Westbrook during crunch time, which allows him to structure his lineups based on matchups and defensive versatility.
But the Thunder are not fully inoculated against roster imbalance. Dennis Schroder isn’t any less ball dominant than Anthony. He could bristle at watching close games unfold from the sidelines if he’s ineffective when playing next to Westbrook.
Spacing also continues to be an issue. George, Alex Abrines and maaaybe Patrick Patterson are Oklahoma City’s only above-average spot-up snipers. Some combination of Schroder, Westbrook, Jerami Grant, Terrance Ferguson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot will have to get more comfortable working off the ball for the offense to jell without a hitch. Something like a 30 percent clip on threes from Andre Roberson would be nice, too.
Still, the Thunder’s defense is enough to land them this high. Roberson’s return is monumental in this regard. Oklahoma City posted a defensive rating south of 95.6 (99th percentile) when he shared the court with George, per Cleaning The Glass.
Extra time without Anthony will help that duo pick up where they left off, and the Thunder should have an easier time gumming up offenses wire-to-wire with Nerlens Noel backing up Steven Adams. A healthier Patterson, who underwent knee surgery during the 2017 offseason, could also have a huge impact.
Sticking him at the 5 with Grant at the 4 unlocks switch-everything setups. Having Grant log more time at center does the same. And given that Oklahoma City was the lone Western Conference team to post one of the league’s 10 best net ratings against both the Warriors and Rockets, this defensive malleability means a whole lot.
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Maybe the Rockets aren’t getting enough love in this conversation. They’re coming off a league-best 65 wins, and they pushed the Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. James Harden is the reigning MVP, and the dynamic between him and Chris Paul no longer calls for surface-level doubt.
The losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute might be getting blown out of proportion. They were pivotal components of a switch-heavy scheme that placed sixth in points allowed per 100 possessions, but the Rockets only saw their defensive rating slide from 107.5 with both on the court to 108.4 when they shared the bench, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Carmelo Anthony’s arrival is commonly interpreted as subtraction by addition. Whereas James Ennis III should supplant a portion of what the Rockets lost in Ariza and Mbah a Moute, Anthony is the antithesis of both—ball-dominant, without a penchant for locking down primary ball-handlers and wings.
Houston doesn’t care.
“When you got two high-IQ guys who are unselfish and know the game of basketball, it’s easy,” Harden told the Players’ Tribune. “This year, coming off an MVP season, now you gotta add Carmelo Anthony. It’s going to be easy. The transition is easy.”
Harden has a fair point when it comes to the Rockets offense. Anthony’s fit beside him and Paul is more second nature than acquired taste. He shouldn’t have trouble spending time off the ball when he’s being set up with more wide-open threes than he enjoyed in Oklahoma City. And he at least appears open to maybe, possibly, potentially coming off the bench, per ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski and USA Today‘s Sam Amick.
Figuring out the defense and crunch-time lineups will be more of a chore. Can the Rockets cobble together league-average stopping power or better with both Anthony and Harden on the court? Will the issue vary by opponent? Would Anthony be open to not closing games against the Warriors so the Rockets can put their best defensive foot forward? Will all this end with PJ Tucker playing more 5, Melo getting ample time at the 4 and Clint Capela feeling the squeeze of Houston’s marquee-name medley?
Although the Rockets could wind up climbing this ladder by season’s end, they’ve turned over too much of last year’s model to be the presumptive No. 2 right now—especially when their path to the NBA Finals runs through the reigning champs.
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The pull to stick the Raptors one spot higher, just behind a certain dynastic squad that won’t be named here, is ridiculously real.
A healthy Kawhi Leonard is the best player in the Eastern Conference, his stardom rivaled only by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s. It was but one lost season and a silent middle finger to the San Antonio Spurs ago that Leonard finished third on the MVP ladder. The year before that, in 2015-16, he placed second on the ballot, trailing the NBA’s only unanimous winner of the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, Stephen Curry.
Giving the Raptors this player fast-tracks them toward an NBA Finals cameo.
Leonard and the ever-underappreciated Kyle Lowry will contend for “Best Duo in the East” honors. OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright remain on the come-up. Greg Monroe is a solid replacement for Jakob Poeltl. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas are Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. Norman Powell might give Toronto something. CJ Miles is still a dead-eye shooter.
Don’t undersell the arrival of Danny Green, either. He’s no throw-in. Along with Anunoby, Leonard and Siakam, Green uniquely arms the Raptors to play a feisty switchable brand of defense that should help them challenge the Celtics, Jazz and Sixers for top marks in points allowed per 100 possessions.
Getting a feel for how the new-look Raptors’ most dangerous lineups will fare isn’t hard. According to Cleaning the Glass, last year’s team outscored opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions, with a defensive rating in the 96th percentile, whenever Anunoby played power forward and DeMar DeRozan was on the bench. Surrounding him with Green, Lowry, Leonard and the center of Toronto’s choosing should yield identical, if appreciably better, returns.
Unanswerable questions invariably prevent the Raptors from stealing second place—for now, anyway.
Leonard needs to show his right quad injury is nothing more than a setback of the past rather than a recurring or, worse, degenerative problem. Teams also respond differently to head coaching changes, and Dwane Casey’s successor, Nick Nurse, is something of a wild card as a first-timer.
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Putting the Celtics over the Raptors is a wee bit of a gamble.
Integrating Gordon Hayward into the rotation following a gruesome leg injury could fudge up some of the usage balance established between Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum. Like Toronto with Kawhi Leonard, Boston might need to schlepp through a feeling-out process of its own.
Terry Rozier’s postseason breakout adds an interesting layer to the equation. He paced the Celtics in pull-up jumper attempts during the playoffs. Fading into the background behind both Hayward and Irving may not be a thoughtless transition.
Brown and Tatum pose similar pecking-order warts, albeit on a lesser scale. They were both granted more freedom during Hayward’s regular-season absence and then following Irving’s knee surgery.
Remember: Team president Danny Ainge at first didn’t think Tatum would play enough to register on the Rookie of the Year radar. Enough of his possessions came off spot-ups (27.4 percent) and in transition (19.4 percent) for him to be viewed as a plug-and-play dream, but seamless role reversals are not a given for him or Brown.
Who’s to say we can even assume Hayward’s return to form? He fractured his tibia, dislocated his left ankle and missed all but five minutes of Boston’s season. Recapturing fringe All-NBA status is not a certainty. There should likewise be at least some concern for Irving’s recovery from left knee surgery.
It should be right about here that an alarm starts sounding between the ears, followed by a verbal warning from a conscience that shares Brad Stevens’ voice: Don’t overthink this.
Hayward missed basically the entire year, Irving didn’t appear in the playoffs, and the Celtics still pushed the LeBron James-led Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Getting two stars back is a gift, not a curse in disguise, and a scary one at that.
Striking balance among the veterans and developing kiddies could be an issue, but Stevens has a way of deftly juggling overlap. Last year’s featured-option reps should only facilitate the progress of Brown, Rozier and Tatum, rendering the Celtics that much deeper and, therefore, that much more terrifying.
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On the one hand, DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t change much about the Warriors’ product. They’ll be lucky if he takes the floor before 2019, per Woj, and recoveries from Achilles injuries always end in regression.
Something also needs to be said about the slippery slope Golden State will travel by asking Cousins to cede both touches and status to no fewer than four other players.
On the other hand, holy smokes the Warriors just took the heart of a back-to-back champion and added an All-NBA center as their, like, fifth-option insurance policy. Injuries, schminjuries. Cousins is still two years away from turning 30, he won’t need to mirror his usage with the New Orleans Pelicans, and his fit with Golden State is cleaner than advertised.
Face it: This entire experiment could end with Cousins pummeling opposing second units into submission for three or four months before taking over a playoff game or five as the Warriors march toward a perfect postseason record and third straight title.
On the third, alien hand protruding from the weak-side rib cage, Golden State doesn’t need another star—or quasi-star—to sleepwalk its way to another parade.
Almost every one of last year’s primary threats has been neutralized to some degree. LeBron James is with a Lakers team that remains at least one season away. The Rockets compromised their defensive pizzazz by losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute and adding Carmelo Anthony.
Other championship irritants will emerge, with both Boston and Toronto potentially registering as near-equals. But the Warriors’ hold over the rest of the league has arguably never been stronger—which, for a team that once won 73 games and then signed Kevin Durant, is saying something.