Photo via Christian Petersen/Getty Images
With the NBA starting season less than a month away, it is time to start looking ahead to how the teams will fare this season. When ranking the teams, will my criteria be based on how I see them finishing in the regular season, or on how good they will be in the playoffs? The regular season is important, but my criteria was this: a team that is ahead of another team would beat that team in a playoff series. Thus, a team ranked third may be a better regular season team than the team ranked second, but in my eyes, the second-ranked team would win in a playoff series. I wanted to make that clear as being my criteria. Here are my preseason power rankings based on the teams as they are currently assembled.
30. New York Knicks (15th in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Elfrid Payton –– SG RJ Barrett— SF Julius Randle — PF Obi Toppin — C Mitchell Robinson — Notable Bench: G Austin Rivers, G Immanuel Quickley, F Kevin Knox, C Nerlens Noel
The Knicks will be the worst team in the league in my opinion. They have very little to like on this roster, though Obi Toppin has a decent shot at rookie of the year. They are young, their best player is probably not a top 50 player in the league, and they will once again be looking to the basketball gods for a favorable lottery spot, something that has eluded them recently despite their awful play.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder (15th in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG George Hill — SG Shai Gilgeous-Alexander –– SF Luguentz Dort — PF Darius Bazley — C Al Horford — Notable Bench: G Andre Roberson, G Hamidou Diallo, F Justin Jackson
The Thunder are the only team in the West that doesn’t have playoff aspirations this year. Their roster is pretty bad, save a budding Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and they don’t have much motivation. With every other team trying to compete, the Thunder may end up with the worst record in the entire league.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers (14th in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Collin Sexton –– SG Darius Garland — SF Isaac Okoro — PF Kevin Love — C Andre Drummond — Notable Bench: G Kevin Porter Jr., F Larry Nance Jr., F Cedi Osman, C JaVale McGee
Cleveland actually has a bit of an interesting roster, with a young backcourt and a veteran frontcourt. Because of the veteran presence, this team may actually find itself in some games this year, though they should really focus on developing their younger talent. I don’t think that both Drummond and Love will be on the team at the end of the year, and I don’t think that they will give enough to the team to put the near playoff contention.
27. Detroit Pistons (13th in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Killian Hayes –– SG Derrick Rose — SF Jerami Grant — PF Blake Griffin — C Mason Plumlee — Notable Bench: G Svi Mykhailiuk, G Delon Wright, F Sekou Doumbouya, C Jahlil Okafor
Detroit has gotten mocked for their confusing offseason. They overpaid for a lot of subpar players, and they made a few interesting draft selections. The Pistons are hopeful that Blake Griffin can have a healthy season, but ultimately, they will probably be looking to trade him throughout the season. This is a young team without much top-end veteran talent, and I see them finishing near the bottom of the East.
26. Chicago Bulls (12th in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Coby White –– SG Zach Lavine — SF Otto Porter Jr. — PF Lauri Markkanen — C Wendell Carter Jr. — Notable Bench: G Tomas Satoransky, G Garrett Temple, F Patrick Williams, F Thaddeus Young
This is a very young team that has been looking to make a leap for a while. They should find more success with a new coach, and a few years of experience for their young guys, but I still don’t think they have enough to compete with what some of the other Eastern Conference teams have. All the other teams in their vicinity made big moves this offseason, and though this should be a positive step forward for this team, I don’t think they will be in the playoff hunt.
25. San Antonio Spurs (14th in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG Dejounte Murray –– SG Lonnie Walker — SF DeMar DeRozan — PF LaMarcus Aldridge — C Jakob Poeltl — Notable Bench: G Devin Vassell, G Derrick White, F Rudy Gay, F Drew Eubanks
The Spurs are caught in a weird middle ground right now, with a couple veterans and a lot of very raw talent. With all the teams in the West trying to make the playoffs, it makes the most sense for this team to trade the veterans and try to develop some players. Whether that be Murray, Walker, or Vassell, they have players for the future, but they can’t compete well right now unless they stunt the growth of some of these guys. I think they finish at the bottom of the West, just above the Thunder.
24. Orlando Magic (11th in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Markelle Fultz–– SG Evan Fournier — SF Terrence Ross — PF Aaron Gordon — C Nikola Vucevic — Notable Bench: G Cole Anthony, G Michael Carter-Williams, F James Ennis, C Mo Bamba
The Magic haven’t changed, but everyone around them seems to be. Most teams in the league have been steadily getting better, or they have young talent that has been developing, while the Magic have made no acquisitions and they don’t have much young talent. They lost Jonathan Isaac for the season, and aside from Fultz and Anthony who are both wildcards, they have a veteran team that has proven to be mediocre. I don’t think the Magic sneak into the playoffs like the last few years. I think the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, and Washington Wizards have all done enough to pass them by.
23. Charlotte Hornets (10th in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Terry Rozier –– SG Devonte Graham — SF LaMelo Ball — PF Gordon Hayward — C Cody Zeller — Notable Bench: G Grant Riller, G Malik Monk, F PJ Washington, F Miles Bridges
Charlotte has a very interesting team. They have pretty good shooting, a rookie that could become a star, and a veteran in Gordon Hayward that has something to prove. I like their coach a lot, and though they will struggle defensively, this team is definitely on track to improve. I think that they will be in the playoff hunt this year, with a deep team that are all developing and on the rise.
22. Memphis Grizzlies (13th in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG Ja Morant –– SG Dillon Brooks — SF Brandon Clarke — PF Jaren Jackson Jr. — C Jonas Valanciunas — Notable Bench: G Desmond Bane, G Grayson Allen, G Kyle Anderson, G De’Anthony Melton, F Justice Winslow
This seems low for a team that most think is on the rise. I think this will be a season for the Grizzlies like the Kings had last year. They were a pleasant surprise, then they took a small step back. This team is still very young, and they are caught in a tough conference. A lot of their success last year came because of a relatively easy schedule, and I think they take a small step back this year. They still have guys that are developing, and the team seems to be on track to become a playoff team soon, but I don’t think that this will be their year.
21. Minnesota Timberwolves (12th in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG DeAngelo Russell –– SG Malik Beasley — SF Anthony Edwards — PF Juancho Hernangomez — C Karl-Anthony Towns — Notable Bench: G Ricky Rubio, G Jarrett Culver, G Josh Okogie
Last season, the Timberwolves finished 14th in the West. 12th isn’t a huge step forward, but it is when you look at the teams around them. They have a super talented roster, with Russell and Towns about to enter their primes. The Timberwolves should be on the verge of making that playoff leap, and I actually really like them this year, but defensively, I just don’t think they have enough to sneak into the playoff picture in the West this season.
20. Sacramento Kings (11th in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG DeAaron Fox –– SG Buddy Hield — SF Harrison Barnes — PF Marvin Bagley — C Hassan Whiteside — Notable Bench: G Tyrese Haliburton, G Cory Joseph, F Jabari Parker, F Nemanja Bjelica, C Richaun Holmes
The Kings took a bit of a step back last season, but they were playing pretty well by the end of the year. Of this tier in the West, I think the Kings will have the best season. They have had some continuity over the last few seasons, and they have an identity that can translate to success in the league. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kings find themselves in the playoff hunt this season, but ultimately, looking at the teams just ahead of them, I think they fall just short of the postseason.
19. Atlanta Hawks (9th in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Trae Young –– SG Bogdan Bogdanovic — SF Danilo Gallinari — PF John Collins — C Clint Capela — Notable Bench: G Rajon Rondo, G Kevin Huerter, F DeAndre Hunter, F Cam Reddish
The Hawks have a lot of pressure to make the playoffs this season, and they made moves in the offseason in pursuit of this. Bogdanovic is a good player, Gallinari is still a good player, and they still haven’t had Capela play a game for them since they traded for him last season. Despite all these additions, I think they fall just one spot short of the playoffs, losing in the play in game. They will have a promising season, with Young remaining as an offensive force, but this team is pretty young and new. They will need to establish roles and chemistry, and I see them having a better second half of the season for these reasons.
18. New Orleans Pelicans (10th in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG Lonzo Ball –– SG JJ Redick — SF Brandon Ingram — PF Zion Williamson — C Steven Adams — Notable Bench: G Kira Lewis, G Eric Bledsoe, F Nicolo Melli, C Jaxson Hayes
The Pelicans are another team on the rise, and I think that people were a couple years ahead by picking them to make the playoffs last season. The Steven Adams addition is interesting for them, but I don’t know how well he will fit around Zion Williamson. I think the Pelicans will wrestle with who their best player is this season, and I think that will hurt them. They need to decide whether Zion or Brandon Ingram is the focal point of the team. I think that Zion is the obvious answer, but I think that Ingram probably feels as though it should be him, which will cause conflict. That struggle, along with the lack of defense on this team, will lead to them falling just short of the postseason. They are still on the rise, and this will probably be the last year of the Zion experience that the Pelicans miss the playoffs.
17. Washington Wizards (8th in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Russell Westbrook –– SG Bradley Beal — SF Deni Avdija — PF Rui Hachimura — C Thomas Bryant — Notable Bench: G Troy Brown Jr., F Davis Bertans, F Mo Wagner
The Wizards have got to be a playoff team this year. Westbrook made the playoffs in the West a few years ago with way less help than he’ll have here in Washington. Bradley Beal is legitimately a top-15 player in the league, Avdija is an NBA-ready rookie who projects as a good defender, and the rest of this young team should only be better. They have a lot of offense and not a lot of defense, but that should be enough to make the playoffs in the East. I am struggling to peg where they will finish in the standings; my guess would be somewhere between sixth and eighth. Despite this, I think they are the eighth best playoff team in the East, due to the limitations of Westbrook in the playoffs. I was already really high on this team, and though Westbrook raises their ceiling for the regular season, he completely tanks their playoff aspirations. The best thing about the Westbrook trade is expediting Beal wanting out of Washington, something a lot of teams should be closely monitoring.
16. Phoenix Suns (9th in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG Chris Paul –– SG Devin Booker — SF Mikal Bridges — PF Dario Saric — C DeAndre Ayton — Notable Bench: G Cameron Johnson, F Jalen Smith, F Jae Crowder
This team has one of the most interesting big threes in the league in Paul, Booker, and Ayton. They clearly got better in the offseason, but will it be enough to make the playoffs? I actually think that this team will have a top-eight regular season record in the West, but I am ranking them here at nine because I think they have the ninth most potent playoff team. It is hard to say whether or not they will make the playoffs, given the play-in game, so this was the hardest spot to put any team in. I could honestly see this team finishing as high as sixth in the standings, but also finishing ninth and missing the playoffs. This all may be cleared up if the Houston Rockets trade James Harden, but until then, I think I have this team slated in the right place.
15. Indiana Pacers (7th in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Malcolm Brogdon –– SG Victor Oladipo — SF TJ Warren — PF Domantas Sabonis — C Myles Turner — Notable Bench: G Aaron Holiday, G Justin Holiday, G Jeremy Lamb, F Doug McDermott
The Pacers were one of my favorite teams going into last season, and now they have the exact same roster, just healthier. They seem to have a few disgruntled players in Oladipo and Turner, but this team is still really good. They don’t have a top-end star, but they do have a lot of really good players. They should definitely hang on to their playoff spot in the East, but I don’t think they are in the top tier of the East. In fact, I think they are near the bottom of the second tier in the conference, despite really liking their roster.
14. Houston Rockets (8th in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG John Wall –– SG James Harden — SF Eric Gordon — PF Christian Wood — C DeMarcus Cousins — Notable Bench: G Danuel House, G Ben McLemore, G Sterling Brown, F PJ Tucker
As this team is currently constituted, I think they have to make the playoffs. Harden is too good to miss the postseason, regardless of the team around him. However, I think it is very likely that Houston doesn’t finish the season with Harden, thus I think it is very likely that this team just misses the playoffs. Based on the current roster, I have them eighth in the West. If they trade Harden, they could easily fall to 11th or 12th, depending on what they get in return. I like a lot of the pieces on the roster, including John Wall, so they won’t slide precipitously, but without Harden, they probably don’t make the postseason.
13. Toronto Raptors (6th in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Kyle Lowry –– SG Fred VanVleet — SF OG Anunoby — PF Pascal Siakam — C Aron Baynes — Notable Bench: G Norman Powell, G Terence Davis, C Chris Boucher
I think that the Raptors will take a bit of a step back this year. Unlike a couple other teams ahead of them in the East that stepped back due to other teams ascending, I think this team will just be worse. They lost both of their centers, though they replaced them decently with Aron Baynes. Lowry is getting older and VanVleet may take a step back, as some players do after getting big contracts. I think this team has some developing talent, but I just don’t think they have enough to remain in the upper echelons of this much-improved Eastern Conference.
12. Utah Jazz (7th in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG Mike Conley –– SG Donavan Mitchell — SF Joe Ingles — PF Bojan Bogdanovic — C Rudy Gobert — Notable Bench: G Jordan Clarkson, F Derrick Favors, F Royce O’Neale
The Jazz are a really good team. They almost beat the Denver Nuggets in the playoffs last season, and that team ended up being one of the last four standing in the whole league. However, I just don’t buy into this team. Conley took a huge step back last year, Mitchell is a somewhat inefficient star, and Gobert can be played off the court in certain playoff matchups. I actually think it is likely that this team will finish ahead of the 11th ranked team in the standings, but I don’t think they have playoff potential as high. I think they will comfortably make the playoffs, then lose handily in the first round of the playoffs.
11. Golden State Warriors (6th in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG Steph Curry –– SG Andrew Wiggins — SF Kelly Oubre — PF Draymond Green — C James Wiseman — Notable Bench: G Jordan Poole, F Eric Paschall, F Marquese Chriss
This team is so hard to place. If they hadn’t lost Klay Thompson to injury, I would probably have this team top five and feel really good about their chances to win the title. However, as they are currently constructed, they aren’t that much better than last season, where they were the worst team in the league. They don’t have great depth, Wiseman is going to have to grow up quickly to keep this team afloat with Oubre and Wiggins needing to find their role on this team. I could see them finishing anywhere from ninth to fourth in the West, but I put them this high because in the playoffs, this team is extremely dangerous. Any team with three-time champion Steph Curry has to get that respect. While I think there is a decent chance that this team finishes ninth in the standings, I have to put them up here for their playoff potential.
10. Portland Trailblazers (5th in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG Damian Lillard –– SG CJ McCollum — SF Robert Covington — PF Zach Collins — C Jusuf Nurkic — Notable Bench: G Anfernee Simons, G Gary Trent Jr., F Nassir Little, F Carmelo Anthony
People are really high on what the Trailblazers accomplished this offseason, but I think it’s a little overblown. I think this team finished eighth last season due to injuries, and with a relatively healthy season, they should gain some ground in the West. I think that they are the fifth best team in the conference, and they should have a pretty good season, with a tough matchup in a first-round playoff series. Damian Lillard will not win MVP, and the Blazers will not be a top three seed in the playoffs, everyone needs to calm down a bit. All they did was add Robert Covington.
9. Boston Celtics (5th in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Kemba Walker –– SG Marcus Smart — SF Jaylen Brown — PF Jayson Tatum — C Tristan Thompson — Notable Bench: G Aron Nesmith, C Daniel Theis, C Robert Williams
The Celtics didn’t necessarily get worse this offseason, but I think they were certainly passed up by some other teams. They lost Gordon Hayward, who gave them playoff depth, and Kemba Walker seems to be struggling with nagging injuries. I still think that this is a very good team, but I think that they are the fifth best team in the East. All their guys should get marginally better, but I think it will take Tatum becoming a top five player in the league to get this team back to the Eastern Conference Finals. I don’t think he is ready for that ascension yet.
8. Miami Heat (4th in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Goran Dragic –– SG Tyler Herro — SF Jimmy Butler — PF Kelly Olynyk — C Bam Adebayo — Notable Bench: G Duncan Robinson, G Kendrick Nunn, C Meyers Leonard
This may seem a bit disrespectful to put the Heat this low coming off a Finals appearance, but I just think there are better teams. I think Miami benefitted from the bubble environment, but this is still a relatively young team without a top-10 player. They are victims to the fact that a lot of teams at the top of the East have gotten better. I still like this team, and I still think they will be very good, but I don’t think they have much of a chance to repeat the success of last season. I believe they will earn home court advantage and win a round in the playoffs if they dodge the Nets, but I don’t think they are real contenders this season.
7. Dallas Mavericks (4th in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG Jalen Brunson –– SG Josh Richardson — SF Luka Doncic — PF Kristaps Porzingis — C Dwight Powell — Notable Bench: G Trey Burke, G Tyrell Terry, F Dorian Finney-Smith, F Maxi Kleber
The Mavericks strike an interesting balance, as I believe that they are built to be a really good regular season team, but also project to be a tough out in the playoffs because of the star power of Luka and Porzingis. I think they end up as the fourth seed in the West, while also winning a playoff series before falling to the Lakers. Porzingis is probably going to miss some time at the beginning of the year, but the Mavericks have a deep roster with a good mix of offense and defense. I am really high on this team this year, though they are not quite ready to be considered title contenders just yet.
6. Milwaukee Bucks (3rd in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Jrue Holiday –– SG Donte DiVincenzo — SF Khris Middleton — PF Giannis Antetokounmpo — C Brook Lopez — Notable Bench: G Pat Connaughton, G DJ Augustin, F Torrey Craig, F Bobby Portis
The Bucks are a safe bet to have the best record in the league, just as they have done the last two seasons. They have basically swapped Jrue Holiday for Eric Bledsoe, which should be an upgrade, especially in the playoffs. With this team, it is all about whether or not they can overcome hurdles in the postseason, but for now, and for the regular season, they will definitely perform like a top team. I would have them number one if this list were all about the regular season, but that is not my only criteria for these rankings. This team has shown it is a 60-win team, but they won’t be able to change any minds until the playoffs. In my mind, this also ends the top tier of teams that I do not believe have a legitimate shot at the title.
5. Denver Nuggets (3rd in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG Jamal Murray –– SG Gary Harris — SF Will Barton — PF Michael Porter Jr. — C Nikola Jokic — Notable Bench: G RJ Hampton, G Monte Morris, F JaMychal Green, C Bol Bol
The Nuggets have been all about continuity and developing draft picks over the last five years, and it is really working out for them. They have a championship window now that probably extends for the next three years at least. With last year’s breakthrough, they showed that they are almost good enough to win a title. For them to make the leap, it comes down to a third star. Will that star be Bradley Beal in a trade? For right now, the Nuggets need to dedicate the regular season to figuring out if they already have that star in Michael Porter Jr. The Nuggets have shown they have the pieces to be a top regular season team, and if they need to take a slight step back from that to let Porter Jr. develop, that should be their priority. If he can bloom into a star this season, the Nuggets have as good a chance as anyone to win the title, assuming the playoff production they have gotten from Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic holds up.
4. Brooklyn Nets (2nd in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Kyrie Irving –– SG Spencer Dinwiddie — SF Caris Levert — PF Kevin Durant — C Jarrett Allen — Notable Bench: G Joe Harris, G Bruce Brown, F Jeff Green, C DeAndre Jordan
This team is a huge wildcard this year, considering the injury Kevin Durant is recovering from and the ever-perplexing Kyrie Irving. When you look at their roster, it is very impressive. They have a great mix of homegrown talent with two superstars, but they need to figure out the chemistry. Ultimately, if Kevin Durant is the player he was a couple years ago, this is the best team in the league in my opinion. However, the history of guys his size coming back from Achilles injuries tells us that he won’t be that guy. That reason, as well as the newness of the team, I have them ranked fourth, with the Philadelphia 76ers a slightly better bet to come out of the East this season. I don’t know where they will finish in the regular season standings, with their range being from fifth to second, but they should bring it come playoff time.
3. Philadelphia 76ers (1st in the East)
Starting Lineup: PG Tyrese Maxey –– SG Seth Curry — SF Ben Simmons — PF Tobias Harris — C Joel Embiid — Notable Bench: G Shake Milton, G Danny Green, F Furkan Korkmaz, C Dwight Howard
Having the 76ers this high may surprise a lot of people. They didn’t make that many changes to the roster, just adding Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, and Danny Green while losing Al Horford. However, I think that the talent has always been there with this team, it has been shortcomings in coaching and surrounding pieces that have held them back. They also lost Ben Simmons for the playoffs, which obviously hurt them. But now, they have at least an average coach in Doc Rivers, a front office that finally got shooters to surround Simmons and Embiid, and a healthy team that seems motivated to do more. This ranking doesn’t even take into account that James Harden could potentially be on his way for Simmons or Embiid, which would only solidify this ranking. Ultimately, I think Philly will finish top-three in the East during the regular season, but that they are the most dangerous playoff team in their conference.
2. Los Angeles Clippers (2nd in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG Patrick Beverley –– SG Paul George — SF Kawhi Leonard — PF Serge Ibaka — C Ivica Zubac — Notable Bench: G Reggie Jackson, G Luke Kennard, G Lou Williams, F Marcus Morris
The Clippers didn’t make many changes to their roster after a disappointing flame out in the playoffs last season. They swapped Harrell for Serge Ibaka, who will probably serve them better in the playoffs. The Clippers will probably not have a top-three regular season record, but in the playoffs, they are as dangerous as anyone. People have overcorrected on them based on a disappointing playoff run, but the bubble exposed certain chemistry flaws. They have now had a full season together as a team, and I expect them to live up to the expectations everyone had for them last season.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (1st in the West)
Starting Lineup: PG Dennis Schroder –– SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — SF LeBron James — PF Anthony Davis — C Marc Gasol — Notable Bench: G Alex Caruso, G Wesley Matthews, F Kyle Kuzma, C Montrezl Harrell
The defending champions somehow got even better in the offseason. All the questions surrounding this team last year was about their depth, and they added Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, and Marc Gasol to the team, all of whom should play a big role with the team this season. The Lakers have high expectations heading into the season as LeBron James eyes his fifth ring. They finished last season as the best team in the league, and they enter this season as the best team, with an even larger gap between them and the rest of the league.