1) LA CLIPPERS
Starting lineup: Chris Paul, JJ Redick, Jared Dudley, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan
Expected Rotation: Jamal Crawford (SG), Matt Barnes (SF), Darren Collison (PG), Ryan Hollins (C)
Coach: Doc Rivers
*I had to bump the Clippers this high because they're eight-strong: from Chris Paul all the way to Darren Collison. Crawford, Barnes and Collison are all capable NBA starters, and Crawford and Barnes are possible sixth man candidates, as both put up over 10 ppg off the bench last year. Also, Redick and Dudley address the Clippers' primary need--adequate floor spacing. Both can really shoot the long ball, but they're also underrated defenders--Dudley in particular can be a stopper, as he attempted to play in his Phoenix days, and Redick also brings the bonus of side foul drawing and good passing ability. They have runners (Hollins, Barnes, Griffin, Jordan, Paul, Collison) and half-court specialists (Paul, Redick, Dudley, Crawford, Barnes). This is also a team that isn't too injury prone. But what can bring this over the top is that Doc Rivers is their coach, and he's at top five coach and excellent at instilling accountability and a defensive culture within a team. The Clippers have playmaking, shooting, a good mix of youth and mid-youth veteran savvy, athleticism, depth, plus a good coach--it's hard not to like them--but one issue is their frontcourt defense. Griffin and Jordan were poor in the interior defensively, and Hollins is largely a stopgap. This could be a problem that might really be exploited in the playoffs, but there's a lot to like otherwise.
2) SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Starting lineup: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter
Expected Rotation: Manu Ginobili (SG), Marco Belinelli (SG), Matt Bonner (PF), Boris Diaw (C), Cory Joseph (PG)
Coach: Gregg Popovich
*The biggest issue with the Spurs is age in conjunction with the mileage of their players, and Duncan will be 37, Ginobili will be 36 and Parker will be 31 (but playing heavy minutes and entering the league young, he has more mileage than his age, and his game doesn't age too well). Considering this makes up the crux of the Spurs' minute allocation, the likelihood of all of them staying upright simultaneously is slim, and it's almost expected that Duncan and Parker might have some dropoff from their output last year. The Spurs have great rotation pieces in Green and Leonard, but it's questionable if they can take the next step, as aside from their big three they just have excellent three point shooting rotation pieces to play off the core players. Still, the Spurs sport an excellent defensive culture, as four of five members in their starting lineup are excellent defenders, with Green and Leonard even underrated in this area, and newcomer Belinelli fit into Chicago's tough defensive culture as well. But, the Spurs are easily best in the league in minutes management, and Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the league right now. With their veteran savvy, incredibly reliable defense, go-to guys surrounded by three point shooters, and experience, it's hard to bet against the Spurs. But with the top three related injury and age-related risks, they might go for a lesser seed this go-around.
Starting lineup: Jeremy Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Donatas Motiejunas, Dwight Howard
Expected Rotation: Omer Asik (C), Patrick Beverley (PG), Greg Smith (PF), Francisco Garcia (SG)
Coach: Kevin McHale
*The Rockets vault themselves up to the third spot because I think their Dwight rotation will play well--Harden's a bit overrated as a long baller in accuracy, but is clearly comfortable taking a ton of threes, and Parsons and Motiejunas will also act as long range specialists. Lin and Harden can also slash and dish, and Dwight of course brings the inside scoring. This team has a ton of athleticism (Lin, Harden, Parsons, Howard, Asik, Beverley and Smith are all athletic) and is incredibly young too--there's a few injury concerns with Lin and Howard, but Beverley and Asik are very good and waiting in the wings, so there's great insurance. This team, between Asik, Howard, and Smith, could lead the league in dunks next season. Defensively, Parsons is underrated in the wings, Beverley is very good at the point, and Howard and Asik are legitimate defensive types. Even their bench has more shooters in Garcia and Beverley. Really, it's tough to find a weakness here. One can even make arguments that they are #1 or #2, in terms of the synergistic possibilities with their lineups (which, due to their youth, might be even better than the Spurs and Clippers). I just don't think it's their time yet: I have a lot of concerns about the coach, Kevin McHale, who utilizes a run-and-gun philosophy that plays to his team's strengths but doesn't have the pedigree of a Doc Rivers. Also, the Clippers and Spurs, while older, have more veteran savvy players than the Rockets have--in other words, the Rockets might need more experience to take off. McHale also developed a reputation of faltering down the stretch in close games as well. But, talentwise, they're already here.
4) GOLDEN STATE
Starting lineup: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee, Andrew Bogut
Bench: Jermaine O'Neal (C), Draymond Green (SF), Harrison Barnes (SF), Marreese Speights (PF), Toney Douglas (PG)
Coach: Mark Jackson
*This is an incredibly tantalizing team, particularly with the starting lineup. All of the players' weaknesses are covered by the others in the starting lineup, and each player has their unique brand of strengths. Klay, David's and Stephen's poor defense? Covered by top notch defenders in Bogut and Iggy. Iggy's and Bogut's inability to shoot or score? Covered by the exquisite touch of Curry, Thompson and Lee. Curry and Klay being shoot first? Well, Iggy can play point forward and generate shots. Iggy in particular has always been underrated that way, but no one's realized it--he's able to plug up a lot of holes for defense-weak scorers, such as this Golden State team. Even the bench is good--they lost Jack and Landry, but on a talent-basis, have gotten better particularly on defense--Jermaine O'Neal and Draymond Green can really D up, and Toney Douglas does a good job contesting shots. Marreesse Speights has a nose for scoring off the bench. There's a lot of interesting offense/defense combinations with their lineups, and their coach, Mark Jackson, is a players' coach who is notorious for helping his teams overachieve, particularly on offense. The only real concern is that perhaps they're too green still--Iguodala, Bogut, Lee and coach Jackson haven't been through the "extensive playoff wars", so to speak--but the major issue here is injuries: Stephen Curry's 10 ankle rolls in the lockout reason are etched in NBA lore, and Bogut and Jermaine O'Neal are also incredibly injury prone. If Bogut and/or O'Neal fall down, this could drop them down quite a bit. But, on a talent basis, this is where they rank.
5) OKLAHOMA CITY
Starting lineup: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
Bench: Reggie Jackson (PG), Nick Collison (PF), Jeremy Lamb (SG), Steven Adams (C), Andre Roberson (SF)
Coach: Scott Brooks
*Yeah, I know the question everyone's asking...WHY this low for a team that should have been a top three Western Conference powerhouse for years to come? Well, for one thing: this is a two man offensive team, only guided by Westbrook and Durant, and...Westbrook just got injured this playoffs. We don't know how he'll return, but assuming he misses time, largely it's just Kevin Durant and some side scoring off of relatively or completely unproven near rookies like Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. This team, like San Antonio, has a really good defensive starting lineup--Sefolosha and Ibaka are legitimate top notch defenders, and Westbrook and Durant, for stars, are eerily close to that as well, and Perkins, while he's lost a ton, once had that rep as a bruising post defender too. Off the bench, Nick Collison, while he's lost some, brings good defense too. And don't underestimate Scott Brooks--he's now a veteran coach in the league--and he oversaw the ascendance of this team, so he has the chops. As mentioned, it goes back to overall offensive depth--look at that bench. The Thunder have done an excellent job amassing lottery picks, lotto type talent in the second round, and reclamation lottery picks--but all of them are unproven. Of Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Perry Jones, and Hasheem Thabeet, I wasn't too high on any of them, and frankly, all five of these players have limitations on offense, the last four of them being very severe. So, this team really looks quite a bit barren right now. Kind of like the Spurs, their defensive identity and great coaching, and having a superstar (Kevin Durant) is what's keeping this ranking afloat here.
Starting lineup: Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol
Bench: Kosta Koufos (C), Jerryd Bayless (PG), Ed Davis (PF), Quincy Pondexter (SF)
Coach: Dave Joerger
*Memphis has a very tight-knit defensive starting lineup, particularly in the backcourt with absolute stopper Tony Allen and fellow backcourt mate Mike Conley, who's also legit in contesting shots. Zach Randolph has really developed a ton defensively, and Marc Gasol was DPOY while Tayshaun Prince has a former defensive rep. Memphis also evened out the big men in their bench, now having a formidable backup combination of Ed Davis, who can really score, and Kosta Koufos, who brings rebounding brawn and side scoring. There aren't injury concerns either. Memphis's issue is it hasn't really addressed its two primary issues: three point shooting and playmaking at the guard positions. Memphis has has a lot of good mid-range shooters, but with Conley and Bayless passing at relatively average rates, the onus is on Marc Gasol to create offense at times. Also, Conley, Prince, Bayless and Pondexter don't space the floor well enough for Randolph and Gasol to work inside, as they only have slightly above average accuracy. This might cause the offense to bog down despite familiarity, and new coach Dave Joerger is a complete unknown and might have some growing pains as he mans the team. All in all, this is a tough and gritty defensive and rebounding team for sure, but enough limitations with the coach and offensive spacing that they're still here.
Starting lineup: Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee
Bench: Andre Miller (PG), JJ Hickson (PF), Evan Fournier (SF), Timofey Mozgov (C), Randy Foye (SG)
Coach: Brian Shaw
*Man, Denver. This team, as has been the case through most of the George Karl years, is still as deep as ever. Right when they lose Andre Iguodala and Kosta Koufos, they still have at least 10 serviceable players (I didn't even count Darrell Arthur, Anthony Randolph, and Jordan Hamilton, all of whom have their uses as well). There's a lot of interesting things about their starting lineup--this is a really athletic starting lineup. Then again, Denver is synonymous with "athlete", but Wilson Chandler, Faried and McGee should make them at least a top five dunking team, at least. Their bench can masquerade as a pseudo starting lineup as well. Their problems are four fold: there's not enough three point shooting, with the best bet being Gallo and Foye to some extent, but Chandler, Lawson and Fournier are merely decent at this. Also, interior defense: Faried and Hickson are excellent rebounders who are absolutely pathetic at defending the interior, and McGee is also sizzle over steak. Thirdly, it's questionable whether this team has a go-to guy: Gallinari is more of a very good second or third option rather than a first one, and Ty Lawson zones in and out of games too much to be one, whereas the others are all role players. Finally, their coach: Brian Shaw, along with the front office, is completely new at this, and while he's excellent at player development, he might go through growing pains. Really, only Andre Miller is the only savvy vet on this team. At the end, the Nuggets' youth, depth and athleticism is offset by their lack of floor spacing, go to guy, interior defense, and general experience. Tantalizing, but this is the Nuggets, part 70. We've seen it before.
Starting lineup: Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Samuel Dalembert...?
Bench: Vince Carter (SF), Brandan Wright (C), Wayne Ellington (SG), Devin Harris (PG), Jae Crowder (SF)
Coach: Rick Carlisle
*Dallas is still in the midst of several roster moves, but it seems likely they'll get Dalembert and Wright back, so I'm putting them here. The starting lineup skews old, but there's a little synergy here: Calderon and Nowitzki as shooters, Ellis as a shot creator/slasher, Marion as off-the-ball finisher, and Dalembert with some offense and as garbage finisher. There's definite concern this won't work, though: Calderon and Nowitzki don't take as many threes as one would like, and Ellis is notoriously inefficient and languishes in the mid-range firing up shots. Defensively, we have the same issues: Dalembert, Harris and Marion are somewhat slipping defensively, Dalembert in particular guarding shots poorly last year, and while Ellis was really good last year, it could be a fluke. It's important for the team to cover up Calderon's defense, but again, just like with offense, there's potential. And that's where coaching comes in: Rick Carlisle is easily a top five coach in the league, and he can optimize the collective well, as there are disparate parts that if they adapt to their niches can complement each other decently. The other advantage Dallas has is their bench, with Vince Carter really bringing excellent two-way punch off the bench last year, and Wright is an underrated shotblocker and offensive player while Ellington is another 3's and D type. They might go eight deep this year. Another problem spot for Dallas is that with the exception of Wright, this is an unathletic team with little post scoring, but more importantly, Dirk, their star player, missed a chunk of games last year. Typically height and shooting ability are the determinants for longevity, so it shouldn't affect him much, though. Overall, great coaching, some offensive/defensive linkups, a go-to guy, and a good bench is what makes them the 8th seed, to offset the potential mismatch in players, lack of athleticism and some injury proneness on Dirk's part.
Starting lineup: Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez
Bench: Dorell Wright (SF), CJ McCollum (SG), Meyers Leonard (C), Thomas Robinson (PF), Earl Watson (PG)
Coach: Terry Stotts
*This is an incredibly robust team, with Aldridge as a go-to guy, although without a real PG he's become progressively jumper happy over the years. But Batum used last year to really break out: he finally became the top notch defender he was billed to be, became a three point bombing specialist and also a legitimate point forward to alleviate shot-happy Lillard of playmaking duties. Aldridge in addition to Batum serves as an excellent defender, and new addition Lopez can contest shots decently as well. On offense, Matthews, Lillard and Batum all do a fine job of spacing the floor, as will as newcomers Wright and McCollum. There's scoring to go around this team, for sure. And the bench is decent, made up of two three point geared scorers and two hustle players. Injuries don't appear to be a problem either. The issues are three fold however: Playmaking is an issue: Lillard and McCollum are heavily inclined scorers, and that leads virtually all the playmaking duties to Batum. As mentioned, as a jumpshooting team, players might just want their numbers, and this can bog down the offense. In addition, rebounding might be a concern losing Hickson and replacing him with Lopez, and thirdly, Terry Stotts appears to be an average coach, more offensive-inclined than most coaches. Overall, this team has a clear cut trio of Lillard-Batum-Aldridge, with defense and jumpshooting in that package, and an improved scoring/hustling minded bench, but this is a very little passing/jumpshooting team with an average coach. Not to mention, I'm not too high on Leonard, McCollum and Robinson in general as NBA prospects, and Matthews has become an awful defender, so that dampens my expectations a bit. Together with the average coach, I'm more sold on what Carlisle can do with a legitimately deep bench at the end, but it's a little close.
Starting lineup: Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic
Bench: JJ Barea (PG), Chase Budinger (SF), Derrick Williams (PF), Alexey Shved (SG), Dante Cunningham (PF), Shabazz Muhammad (SF)
Coach: Rick Adelman
*Minnesota has a deep bench and supposedly tantalizing cornerstone types in Love and Rubio, but it's really being undermined for a ton of reasons, namely how injury prone their major core are. Rubio's missed 50 games in two seasons, and Love missed a huge chunk of this season. Pekovic missed 20 games this season. And Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger also have injury histories. If their young players are missing games, it only gets worse when they are older. The second issue: lack of athleticism, which might tie in with their lack of defense. Only Corey Brewer and Derrick Williams really strike as athletic among their roster, but the problem is that both are nondescript defenders. But the defense is a huge issue: their "cornerstones", Rubio and Love, are very poor defenders, and Martin and Pekovic are notoriously pretty awful. This means that their backcourt AND frontcourt defense are horrid. Thirdly: this team strikes as mostly a jumpshooting team, as only Pekovic really takes shots around the basket. Rubio can't finish at the rim, Love has been in "love" with his jumper lately, etc. There's depth, shooting and Rick Adelman is a good coach, but the injury proneness, lack of athleticism, complete lack of defense, and lack of interior scoring are ALL severe issues, and that's more than enough to knock Minny out of the playoff race.
11) LA LAKERS
Starting lineup: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Pau Gasol, Chris Kaman
Bench: Jordan Hill (C), Jodie Meeks (SG), Steve Blake (PG), Jordan Farmar (PG), Wes Johnson (SF)
Coach: Mike D'Antoni
*The Lakers are down here largely because of Kobe's Achilles injury: only Dominique Wilkins have ever come back from that approximating something fairly close to his peak, so it's reasonable to expect missed games and production dropoff on both ends of the court, unfortunately. Also, Nash, Pau, Kaman, and Hill all have the injury tag on them, so that makes things a hundred times worse. Why they are actually 11th: I'm splitting the difference with Kobe, wagering he can still put up 16-17 points per game, and playing at least 50 games here, and Nash, Bryant and Gasol are some of the most savviest veterans in the league and can help the team win some games over the less experienced teams below. But the Lakers are just incredibly flawed on multiple fronts: this is a very mid-range happy jumpshooting team. In fact, the starting lineup alone is pretty up all mid-range bingers: Nash, Bryant, Young, Gasol and Kaman all relish the 10-20 foot mark, and that's the most inefficient shot of the game, unfortunately, so that will hurt their offense. Secondly, the DEFENSE. This might be abysmal. Bryant was slipping even before the Achilles tear, and now he might be very poor after that; Nash was a bottom ten PG defender, and Kaman and Hill are awful; both backcourt AND frontcourt defense in terms of personnel are likely to be issues, and unfortunately, the Lakers have a coach (D'Antoni) who actually coaches down on defense, so he might make it even worse. Thirdly, the Lakers did very little to address their three point shooting--largely, it's only Meeks, Blake and Farmar. The only positive I can come up with is that the Lakers are veteran savvy and can pass the ball, with Nash, Bryant and Gasol all being good at that front. But that's where it ends: with injury concerns in their top three (most of all with Kobe), horrid offensive mid-range happy personnel, complete lack of inside/outside defense, and a questionable coach overall, they're like Minnesota, only with more experience but less depth and arguably a less potent offense.
Starting lineup: Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter
Bench: Brandon Rush (SG), Marvin Williams (PF), John Lucas III (PG), Andris Biedrins (C), Richard Jefferson (SF), Jeremy Evans (SF)
Coach: Tyrone Corbin
*Utah's ranked this low for multiple reasons, such as their complete lack of a veteran presence on their roster (way too green: need experience), an overrated coach who is more offensive-minded than defensive minded, a shallow bench, but also because there's a belief that they're tanking after hemorrhaging all the veterans from their roster and elevating all their young talent to finally start in place of them. But the reason I still put them this high? There's something here with their young talent. They have good floor spacers in Burke and Hayward, excellent young defenders in Burks and Favors (really look out for Favors), and a good post scorer and defender in Kanter. Excellent athleticism by Burks, Hayward and Favors as well, and and a 3's/D candidate in the underrated Brandon Rush off the bench. The rest of their bench is very weak, however, and they might lack quite a bit of the passing (Burke might be too green as a passer, and Favors and Kanter have zero handles). So overall, problems with the bench, passing, lack of a veteran presence, a clear lack of a go-to guy, and a poor coach gets Utah ranked this low. But a very promising starting five here. The problem is, even if Utah's trying to tank, they have a clear structure teamwise, which is something the other teams below them don't really have...
13) NEW ORLEANS
Starting lineup: Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ryan Anderson, Anthony Davis
Bench: Tyreke Evans (SG), Jason Smith (PF), Greg Stiemsma (C), Austin Rivers (SG), Anthony Morrow (SG)
Coach: Monty Williams
*New Orleans has a very uneven roster--very little synergy in their roster, and on top of that, their core players are injury prone, they lack depth, and their coach hasn't really proven much so far. All that could add up to prime disappointment. In fact, it's doubtful they'd play their three-guard lineup of Holiday, Gordon and Evans together--none of them space the floor well enough. Holiday rarely takes threes, Gordon's become an incredibly overrated, and frankly average, long range shooter, and Tyreke Evans doesn't even have the range. All three of them need the ball in their hands to score. Gordon in particular is incredibly injury prone, and Evans has missed a few games and has an injury prone style of play. Secondly, where is the three point shooting to space the floor? Only Ryan Anderson can really do this, and they might have to bump up Morrow from hibernation to fill this role. Thirdly, frontcourt defense will also be a huge issue--Anderson is a flat out awful defender, Davis gets overpowered at the rim, but at least Stiemsma and Smith are good at contesting shots. Fourthly, there is also zero depth with awful rookie Austin Rivers and zero defense Brian Roberts likely having to play rotation minutes, and that's combined with Eric Gordon's awful defense. At the end, the lack of core synergy, their injury proneness, lack of floor spacing, lack of frontcourt defense, lack of depth and an unproven coach will likely prove their season to be a disappointment. A waste of money to get Holiday in particular.
Starting lineup: Isaiah Thomas, Greivis Vasquez, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Jason Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins
Bench: Carl Landry (PF), Marcus Thornton (SG), Ben McLemore (SG), Chuck Hayes (C), John Salmons (SF), Patrick Patterson (PF)
Coach: Mike Malone
*Sacramento is a team completely in disarray. So many players playing the same position, so much skillset duplication, so many spare parts. It's hard to even call this a team right now. The only real compliment I can give them is that they have a lot of depth, and they have a lot of players they can shoot mid-range jumpers. But that's about it. Actually, besides the duplication, another issue that stuck out was that despite being so young, this is a unathletic team. Thomas, Fredette and Vasquez have never dunked in their NBA careers, Salmons, Thornton, Hayes and Mbah a Moute are below the rim, Patterson doesn't relish inside play. That has to be very concerning. Getting back to the duplication, everyone's a gunner on this team except for Vasquez and Chuck Hayes, but more importantly, the guards aren't really able to get to the rim or shoot threes that effectively either. Cousins has been a beacon of inefficiency representing the NBA center. Overall, no passing, no rim attacking, no three point shooting--this team's a mess. Undersized PFs galore in Patterson, Landry, and Hayes as well. Perimeter defense, with Isaiah Thomas, Thornton, and to some extent Vasquez, needs a ton of work as well, but newcomers Mbah a Moute and McLemore should help. Also, their go-to guy is DeMarcus Cousins, who is perceived as having attitude problems. Finally, their coach is unproven. Overall, the offensive mess, possible lack of perimeter defense, lack of athleticism, putting their stakes on Cousins, and an unproven coach--there's a lot that can easily go wrong here, which is why they're ranked this low.
Starting lineup: Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Michael Beasley, Luis Scola, Marcin Gortat
Bench: PJ Tucker (SF), Marcus Morris (PF), Markieff Morris (C), Channing Frye (C), Caron Butler (SF), Shannon Brown (SG)
Coach: Jeff Hornacek
*This, like Sacramento, is another confusing team, but for different reasons: whereas Sacramento has skillsets in triplicate and undersized bigs, Phoenix's problem is that their starting lineup consists of veterans who have won games in the past and will put little effort trying to help a clearly losing team (ahem, Dragic, Scola, Gortat). In addition, Butler and Brown are likely dissatisfied and probably want out too. It's really hard to see how Phoenix will play this out--they seem directionless, and their best moves at this point are to trade those five. Secondly, besides Gortat, most of their big men are unathletic and prefer to camp out in the mid-range or three point line to fire away. Thirdly, Phoenix does have a bench, but none of them have real starting potential are just decent bench players, but at least they have a lot of those. Fourthly, Bledsoe is rightly the future, but he has enough limitations as a shooter and a passer to make him primarily just an energy guy, as well. Lastly, their coach, Jeff Hornacek, is completely new to this and there really isn't much praise for him as is typical for new coaches. Overall, their biggest problem is veteran discontent--way TOO many veterans, otherwise middling role players, soft jumpshooting bigs, a completely unproven coach--this has the recipe for disaster.