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Owen’s Guide to All Things NBA: Preseason Power Rankings

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As the NBA season kicks off, reporter Owen Hewitt is here to guide you around the league and tell you about all the storylines you need to watch this season. These rankings were written on the night of the first games.

  1. Golden State Warriors – Golden State is at the top of the league, and it’s not even close. Coming off of two straight titles, and signing one of the most dominant centers in the league in DeMarcus Cousins, it’d be hard not to favor them for a three-peat. The key to success for this team is that they can’t get complacent. The only team that can beat the Warriors this season is themselves. We saw it last year, most notably when Houston pushed the Western Conference Finals to seven games. If they can stay awake at the wheel, it should be an easy third ring for Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant.
  2. Boston Celtics – The Celtics are coming off of a strong season, and are poised for another deep run into the playoffs, even with a very stagnant offseason. How good this Celtics squad is largely dependent on how good Gordon Hayward can be coming off of injury. If Hayward can return to his Utah form, then I’d pick them to run the table against the rest of the east and put up a fight against the Warriors. Even if Hayward comes back and isn’t the same player, I’d still pick them out of the East, as another year under Jayson Tatum’s belt should help elevate him to star numbers, picking up Hayward’s slack.
  3. Houston Rockets – The Rockets look to be the only team to truly challenge the Warriors for the Western Conference title. The backcourt of Chris Paul and James Harden is arguably the best in the NBA, and their roster is perfectly suited for Mike D’Antoni’s high scoring ‘seven or seconds or less’ offense. The squad was one of the best at spacing the floor last year, and I’d imagine that will continue into this year. Clint Capela is also developing into one of the best big men in the league, with a decent three-point shot, making him very difficult to guard. The Rockets should have high hopes for the season, and will put up a fight against Golden State in the playoffs.
  4. Philadelphia 76ers – The 76ers look like a strong contender to lead a significantly weaker Eastern Conference. The young trio of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and supposedly a healthy Markelle Fultz has not only future potential, but is also a strong win-now core. The Sixers also have one of the best supporting casts in the league, with young players like T.J. McConnell and Dario Saric, and veteran leaders like recently-acquired Wilson Chandler and J.J. Redick. If everyone can stay healthy, don’t be surprised to see this team in the Eastern Conference finals, or even getting the honor of being swept by the Warriors.
  5. Los Angeles Lakers – The Lakers are an enigma. Cover up LeBron on their roster and I’d tell you that they would be poised for a high lottery pick. However, I have the “Lake Show” up in the rankings because it would be a foolish decision to doubt The King. The transformative power that LeBron James has on a roster is unrivaled. He’s able to make his teammates better and motivate them to work hard, which is why I’d expect this team to make a move before the deadline to cash out some of the squad’s young talent for win-now players, especially if they start slow in a tough west.  
  6. Utah Jazz – Utah reminds me of the 2012-13 Grizzlies. No real superstar on the roster, but don’t be surprised if this squad finds themselves in the Western Conference Finals. This squad is criminally underrated. Rudy Gobert is the best defensive center in the league right now, Ricky Rubio is a fantastic veteran facilitator and Joe Ingles is both a lockdown defender and very quietly the cog in Utah’s offense that makes it all work. After all that there is the electrifying Donovan Mitchell, who is an explosive scorer and extremely creative around the rim and in the lane. This is a team that will prefer to grind out games with hard-nosed defense, but can also keep up with the high scoring teams if they need to. If they can keep the underdog mentality from last year, they should make a deep run into the playoffs.
  7. Oklahoma City Thunder – The Thunder wildly underperformed last year. I wouldn’t expect that to happen again. With Carmelo Anthony gone to the Rockets and no more rumors about Paul George going to Los Angeles after his four-year extension, the team chemistry overall should be vastly improved. Keeping the core of Westbrook, George and Adams should set this team up well, especially after adding some depth in the offseason in Dennis Schroder, an underrated playmaker. A starting five of Westbrook, Schroder, Roberson, Grant and Adams is good enough for a deep playoff run, but only if Westbrook can share the basketball. This team should also have something to prove now after their awful play in the series against Utah in the first round of the playoffs last year. This team is hungry, and if they can stay healthy I’d expect to see them in the second round or even the conference finals.
  8. Toronto Raptors – The Raptors confused me this offseason. Why on earth would you trade your all-time points leader and franchise cornerstone for a player who is in all likelihood going to be a one-year rental? Why fire the coach that took the team to the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference and won coach of the year? Despite these bone-headed moves for the future of the franchise, the Raptors are still in the three-team class of the East. Kawhi Leonard could plausibly put up MVP numbers, with Kyle Lowry facilitating the ball. Not to be looked over are the additions of Danny Green and Greg Monroe. This team will lose a playoff series it should win, probably to the Bucks in the first round.
  9. Milwaukee Bucks – The Bucks remind me of LeBron’s mid to late 2000’s Cavs. This team is the epitome of a one-man squad, that man being the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo (spelled it right on the first try, biggest life accomplishment to date). This team is poorly constructed at best, with the second scoring option being the wildly overpaid Khris Middleton. The team is also loaded with guards that can’t shoot, like Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova. That said, Giannis is so good that it won’t matter that this team needs to be carried by him, because he can do it. Giannis picks up the slack that his teammates carry behind incredibly effectively. Last year, he lead the team in points per game, rebounds and blocks, and was second in steals and assists. I think this could very well be an MVP year for Giannis, which should reflect well on their playoff hopes.
  10. Indiana Pacers – The Pacers were the biggest surprise of last year. Victor Oladipo finally got free of the ball hogging monster and reminded us all that he’s actually a pretty good basketball player, much like Tyreke Evans did in his time in Memphis. Now a backcourt that would have been a decent backup a few years ago is shaping up to look like one of the most dangerous in the league. Evans also has the veteran knowledge that the Pacers young core desperately needed last year. The Pacers can feasibly fight their way to first-round home court advantage in a weaker East, and could pose a serious challenge to a higher seed that they might run into in the Conference Semis.
  11. Portland Trail Blazers – The Trail Blazers are on what seems to be a downward trend, but as the roster stands right now, they’re still a Western Conference playoff team. The backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum has been very good over the past few years, but the Trail Blazers still lack any real presence in the middle of the court. Jusuf Nurkic is a good center, but often gets bullied in the paint by more prominent bigs than himself. Don’t be surprised if the Trail Blazers ship off McCollum for a real big man before the trade deadline, as a presence in the paint would help this squad immensely. They’ll likely find themselves in the five-to-eight seeds in the west and get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.
  12. New Orleans Pelicans – The Pelicans are more than a one-man team, having a great supporting cast for Anthony Davis, with players like Julius Randle, who was picked up in free agency, or Nikola Mirotic, who did a great job stepping in for the injured Demarcus Cousins late last year. However, this team relies on the strength of two players in particular. Jrue Holiday needs to have another strong year, and should start to come into his own and really have confidence running the floor for the squad. Anthony Davis will be the focal point of the team, and needs to contribute the MVP type numbers we’ve seen from him before. He should also start at center, regardless of whether or not he feels more comfortable at power forward. It has been clear to see Davis is much more effective when used as a center than anything else. With a big lineup, New Orleans is the most probable team to see an early playoff upset from.
  13. Miami Heat – The Heat are riding the momentum of an incredible second half of the season last year, and should only get better. That is unless the Dwayne Wade farewell tour happens to derail that. Everything about the Heat is very balanced. Their presumed starting five of Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Justise Winslow, James Johnson and Hassan Whiteside has a very nice mix of youth and experience, as well as being overall well rounded. If this team is going to win, they have to play as a unit, as they’re a team without a bonafide star. Miami could surprise a lot of people, and lock up a high-seeded playoff spot.
  14. Washington Wizards – The Wizards are the Eastern Conference equivalent of the Trail Blazers. A fantastic backcourt that’s never been able to get it done on their own, no centers that can really assert themselves in the paint, although this time instead of it being a young guy in Nurkic it’s an old guy in Howard, who has been having trouble keeping up with the influx of youth to the center position in the league, and no real promising youth prospects. This team is on a similar downward trend to that of the Trail Blazers, but they will almost certainly make the playoffs, as the East is so weak. In yet another similarity to the Trail Blazers, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team break up their star backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal via trade.
  15. Minnesota Timberwolves – The Timberwolves are a train wreck, and I can’t take my eyes off of it. On paper, this team would be one of the best in the league. With a dominant young center in Karl-Anthony Towns, another young star in Andrew Wiggins and an established cornerstone in Jimmy Butler, they should be poised for a deep playoff run. However, Jimmy Butler shaking things up with off-court drama means that this team might not even make it to the playoffs. The best Minnesota can hope for at this point is to trade Butler for something semi-decent and make a run for a six-to-eight seed. Butler has created one of the NBA’s most interesting storylines to date, and it’ll be very fascinating to see how the whole situations comes to a close.
  16. Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets are another team in the west I see vying for a six-to-eight spot in the playoffs, but they’re also the team in the middle of the pack that has the brightest future. Nikola Jokic already has shown his fantastic court vision over the past few years, and has come a long way in terms of his scoring. If he can really develop his defense and learn to be more aggressive on the boards, he could easily be one of the best players in the league. Jamal Murray has also shown flashes of greatness as he starts to get more and more experience in the league. I expect him to have a real breakout season this year, and really assert himself as a part of both Denver’s future and present. And even though we’ll likely have to wait a while on seeing him play, Michael Porter Jr. also provides the Nuggets with a prospect with a high ceiling, but also a dangerously low floor. While the present may be mediocre at best for the Nuggets, the future looks incredibly bright.
  17. San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs’ playoff streak seems to be on its deathbed, but just like LeBron, I will never count Gregg Popovich out. They were finally able to get rid of the headache that was Kawhi Leonard, but in the process had to give up one of their best spot-up three-point shooters in Danny Green, and got back DeMar DeRozan, a solid shot creator, defender and a killer from the mid-range. This Spurs team is not going to be able to run much of a spaced offense, as they have few shooters left on their roster. They also lost two of their longest-tenured players this offseason in Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili, a major hit on franchise morale. In the best case scenario for this team, they make the seven seed in a very tightly contested bottom half of the top of the Western Conference. Worst case, they barely miss the playoffs and end up with a late lottery pick.
  18. Charlotte Hornets – The Hornets’ window of opportunity is closed. Kemba Walker should start putting his trade requests in now. Michael Jordan’s team will struggle this year, with an aging overpaid roster in a small market (sound familiar, Grizzlies fans?). Despite this, they’ll still make the playoffs, because they’re in the East and those last few playoff seeds will be for teams below .500. If the Hornets were smart, they’d embrace the youth movement before it hits them like a freight train. This year’s All-Star game is likely the last time we’ll see Kemba Walker being cheered for in Charlotte.
  19. Chicago Bulls – The Bulls are like the anti-Hornets, in the fact that their window is just now starting to open. Lauri Markkanen is starting to really develop as both a fantastic stretch four, as well as using his length to be a defensive menace. Kris Dunn in shaping up into a really solid finisher at the rim, and his court vision is gradually getting better. Wendell Carter Jr. is also many people’s sleeper pick for Rookie of the Year. Chicago should have plenty to look forward to, but this year may still be rough. It’d be possible for them to make the eight seed in a weak East, but I think in all likelihood they miss the playoffs by fewer than ten games.
  20. Dallas Mavericks – The Mavericks are one of the more interesting teams in the league. Luka Doncic would have been number one on my draft board if I was an NBA general manager, and he’s also my preseason pick to win Rookie of the Year. Doncic should be one of the rookies in this year’s draft class that has an immediate impact on their team, having already won the Euro League MVP. Doncic combines with the new signing DeAndre Jordan, which will be one of the most fascinating duos to watch in the league. Even with the excitement around new prospects, including last year’s first rounder Dennis Smith Jr., the Mavs are still lottery bound, although for the back of the lottery this time around.   
  21. Memphis Grizzlies – The Grizzlies are trying to be in win-now mode, which is a very interesting choice when you look at their roster. Sure, you get a healthy Mike Conley back, and with him a hopefully re-invigorated Marc Gasol, and a promising rookie big man in Jaren Jackson Jr., but that doesn’t mean now is the time to go sign a bunch of veterans that would usually be found riding the bench of a much more successful team. I’m not sure that the front office knows what the words “youth” and “rebuild” mean. Memphis will likely find themselves in the middle of the lottery, with a top eight protected pick. I can hear the Nets-style unintentional rebuild rolling down the tracks.
  22. Phoenix Suns – The Suns definitely understand what a rebuild is, but will still probably need two or three more years for everything to really come together. This season will be an interesting one for Devin Booker, as he has real teammates for the first time in a while. We’ll have to wait to see whether or not Booker turns into a Westbrook-ian monster that completely neutralizes all his teammates, or if he can get the most out of guys like rookie Deandre Ayton. Ayton and Booker should gel well, and will be a dangerous combo in a few years. For right now, this team is likely headed to the mid-lottery.
  23. New York Knicks – The Knicks should be in relatively good shape at this point, but they can never stay healthy. Porzingis always looks good, but I can never have full confidence in his durability. I also think he could stand to step up his defense beyond shot-blocking, and also develop his back to the basket post moves. The Knicks also have a solid supporting cast for the young star, in Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr., Ron Baker, Emmanuel Mudiay and the promising Frank Ntilikina, but there’s a general sense of doubt that the Knicks exude, and I can’t help but buy into that. They could maybe make an eight seed in the East, but I think they’ll likely end up in the middle of the lottery once again.
  24. Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks are in full rebuild mode. Atlanta has a very exciting young prospect in Trae Young, who will be an electrifying watch, as his range is the best in this year’s draft class, but he was also debatably the least NBA ready of the top five draft picks from this year. Young needs to learn to take better shots, and get better at finding open teammates, both of which things he has time to do on a Hawks team whose second best player is a toss-up between Alex Len and Vince Carter. This team’s going to lose a lot this year, and will certainly find themselves in the front to middle of the lottery.
  25. Orlando Magic – The Magic join Atlanta in being on the upswing of the rebuild, but still very close to the bottom. Mo Bamba’s development this year will be crucial to the acceleration of the rebuild. He’s already shown us his high basketball IQ and incredible shot blocking and overall defensive prowess, he needs to take this year and really work on developing his footwork in the post. Outside of Mo Bamba, things are looking bleak in Orlando. The only other players on the roster worth mentioning are Nikola Vucevic, who plays the same position as Bamba, so his minutes will likely get cut, Evan Fournier, who should serve fine for Bamba’s development but the Magic still desperately need a guard for the future, Jonathan Simmons, who showed great potential coming off the bench for the Spurs, but looked subpar at best coming off of injury last year and Aaron Gordon, who was productive for the Magic last year, but may struggle to keep up the same level of numbers as the focus of Orlando shifts to the development of Bamba. Orlando will need to weather yet another storm, with the light at the end of the tunnel being yet another draft pick.
  26. Detroit Pistons – The Pistons bet it all on the playoffs and lost. This team will likely be highly dysfunctional, with their marquee players being Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, two big men who desperately need a guard to be able to create shots for them. This isn’t inherently an issue, but it becomes an issue when you take into account that the best guard on this team is Reggie Jackson, who I’d compare to a young Tony Allen. Unless a serviceable floor general wanders his way into the team, the Pistons are on a collision course with the bottom of the league.
  27. Sacramento Kings – The Kings seem to be in a permanent state of rebuilding, largely due to awful drafting from their front office. They seemingly did better with their pick this year, picking up Marvin Bagley III, who has an incredibly high potential, and could serve as a cornerstone for Sacramento to build around. Another bright spot for the franchise comes in the form of Bogdan Bogdanovic, a pleasant surprise from the second round of last year’s draft. He had an exceptional year last year, and could very well be part of the Kings’ backcourt of the future. Despite these bright spots, this team still needs a few years, and will likely find themselves at the bottom of the pile for a couple of seasons.
  28. Cleveland Cavaliers – No LeBron. Enough said. Expanding on that, the Cavs’ best pieces currently are Kevin Love, who, to his credit, is much better leading a team then playing second or even third fiddle, Collin Sexton, who is a menace on the court due to his speed, but needs to learn to not settle for bad shots and Cedi Osman, who looked very good coming off of the bench in the later parts of last season, and will certainly find a bigger role on the team now that the rebuild is in full swing. Cleveland will probably end up in the top three of the lottery.
  29. Brooklyn Nets – The Nets are still going to be awful, but they’re finally in a year in which they own their first round pick, a bright side for a team that’s missed out on many top prospects because of bad trades. Outside of that, it’ll be interesting to see how D’Angelo Russell comes back after a 2017-18 season that was shortened due to injury. It will also be interesting to see if Spencer Dinwiddie can ride the wave of momentum he created for himself last year. Expect to hear Brooklyn’s name called early on draft night.
  30. Los Angeles Clippers – The Clippers have embraced the rebuild with open arms. After getting rid of their three biggest stars over the duration of the past two years, this roster is barren of talent. The front office has successfully revamped their roster with lots of youth, but not particularly talented youth. The most interesting storyline from the Clippers this year will be the development of first-rounder Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and how his offensive game progresses. The Clippers will likely wind up with a top-three pick, a trend that should continue for a few years barring a miracle, as their time as playoff staple in the West draws to a close and they return to the bottom of the NBA pile.
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