We’re only a few weeks out from the start of the 2016-2017 NBA regular season. The offseason has concluded, the lineups are set, and it’s time to see how your team will fare. There will be quite a few new faces gracing your television screen come playoff time, while some old standbys will be conspicuously absent.
As always with sports- anything can happen. Injuries can plague a star-studded team or a breakout player can carry an unexpected dark horse. There is a reason the games are played out in real life and not just on paper. That said let’s see which teams have the roster to take them all the way.
But before we do that, a moment of silence for those who made the playoffs in 2016 but will sadly fall short this season. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but if you’re a fan of one of the following teams, you should start working through the five stages of grief ASAP.
Eastern Conference: Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat
Western Conference: Dallas Mavericks
Now onto the teams that matter; the ones who fought to stay in contention and the newcomers who will claw their way past the has-beens for the final spots.
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16 Eastern Conference
8. Milwaukee Bucks
This has been a long time coming for the Bucks. The team that has bounced in and out of the playoffs the past few years will finally start seeing the fruition of their work. The Bucks have built a core group of young players with big potentials, and those budding potentials will be enough to land them in the last spot of the playoffs. The starting lineup features 4 players who are 25 years of age and younger, including legitimate star Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 21 year old will only improve on his 17 ppg and 8 rpg average from a season ago. Alongside him are former ROY Michael-Carter Williams and 2nd overall pick Jabari Parker, both of whom are still moving towards their potentials as well. These big bodies of the Milwaukee Bucks will also be matchup nightmares with 6’6’’ PG Carter-Williams, 6’8’’ SG Middleton and 6’11’’ SF Antetokounmpo. The Bucks will only barely squeeze in and get promptly knocked out in the playoffs, but the future for Milwaukee is bright.
15 New York Knicks
After a three year drought, the 2016-2017 NBA season will see the New York Knicks back in the playoffs. A series of splashy yet questionable offseason moves have put the Knicks back on the track of success. The biggest trade of the offseason landed former MVP Derrick Rose in the Big Apple and saw former DPOY Joakim Noah follow him there in free agency. While injuries have hampered both players’ careers and could do so again, a healthy Rose and Noah would do wonders for this team offensively and defensively. The free agent signing of Brandon Jennings will produce a spark off the bench for a team that has lacked both depth and reliable scoring for so long. Kristaps Porzingis, the 7’3’’ monster who placed 2nd in ROY voting last season is only going to be even better this year. With all of these pieces built around nine time All-Star Carmelo Anthony the Knicks enter this season with something to prove- and will.
14 Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks team that defeated the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs last season is no more. The other teams in the east have gotten better; the Hawks got worse. Four time All-Star Al Horford defected to the up-and-coming Celtics this offseason, taking with him the heart and soul of this Hawks team along with their post presence. Free agent signings Dwight Howard and Kris Humphries will mitigate the loss, but not completely fill the void left behind. Kyle Korver turned 35 years old this offseason, so Kent Bazemore will have to step up his pedestrian 11ppg average and become more of a factor on the offense. But Paul Millsap is still here after being named to three consecutive All-Star teams and will continue dominating. Dennis Schröder is also developing into a formidable point guard as well. This is still a good team that will make it to the playoffs and give a higher seed a run for their money. Unfortunately for the Atlanta Hawks, the teams around them simply got better.
13 Indiana Pacers
Paul George is one of the most dynamic, genuine two-way players in the league today excelling at both offense and defense. Unfortunately however he can’t do everything himself, and that’s where the additions Jeff Teague and Al Jefferson come in. The trade for Jeff Teague now creates a scoring backcourt tandem with Monta Ellis that was lackluster a season ago and should also create more opportunities for Paul George. The Pacers let perennial disappointment Roy HIbbert walk and brought in AL Jefferson as an upgrade. Despite Jefferson being on the wrong side of 30 and coming of an injury-hobbled year he should bounce back and be a solid contributor off the bench as 2nd-year-player Myles Turner takes over the post. New head coach Nate McMillan was brought up from the assistant ranks, so there will be plenty of scheme continuity to go along with the newfound intensity he’ll bring. The Pacers look to no longer be a one-man show, but will likely still be a first-round exit.
12 Chicago Bulls
No team made more moves this offseason than the Chicago Bulls, and maybe no team has benefitted more either. The blockbuster trade of the year sent former MVP Derrick Rose to the Knicks while bringing in Robin Lopez. Lopez is a much needed player after Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol left in free agency, and should pair nicely with firmly entrenched power forwards Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson. The signing of former all-star and NBA champion Dwayne Wade will provide the missing second scoring option the Bulls desperately need as Wade looks to propel this team back into the playoffs like he carried Miami last season. One of the more underrated free agency acquisitions this offseason was the Bulls signing another former all-star and NBA champion in Rajon Rondo. Rondo quietly put together a solid season last year with the Sacramento Kings averaging 11 points and 11 assists. His pass-first mentality and strong on-ball defense is a perfect fit for the scoring wings Jimmy Butler, Dwayne Wade, and Doug McDermott. A lot of the success for the Bulls will ride on the revitalization of Wade’s and Rondo’s careers, as well as if the team can fit second-year coach Fred Hoiberg’s strategy. It’s possible that the Bulls’ offseason moves are lateral ones, but I’m betting that they’re not.
11 Toronto Raptors
The main goal of the Raptor’s offseason wasn’t to get better, it was to just not get worse. While they succeeded in this goal of re-signing DeMar DeRozan, it shows by them slipping one spot in the standings. This is a solid team that only missed out on winning the number one seed by one game and they’ve kept the core of their roster intact. With arguably the best backcourt duo in the league of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combining for 44ppg, Toronto still has the firepower to make a run in the playoffs. The jury is out on the addition of Jared Sullinger in free agency, their biggest move this offseason. The 1yr/$6 million contract doesn’t show much confidence in Sullinger, but if they can properly utilize him Sullinger could end up a steal and a strong force off an otherwise lackluster bench. Toronto still has a legitimate shot at the East, but their players really need to shine in order to claim it.
10 Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics did not have a splashy off-season, but they didn’t need one to get markedly better and vie for the Eastern Conference title. Armed with a backcourt loaded with talent and a healthy rotation of forwards Boston addressed their biggest hole- a true big man. The Celtics felt like they could and should let Jared Sullinger walk after a down year, but the 24-year old still hasn’t reached his full potential and is a move the Celtics could regret going forward. That said, Al Horford was brought in during free agency and looks to fill Sullinger’s vacated spot in the lineup as the team’s rebounder and post defender, with the added bonus of better scoring and shot-blocking as well. His veteran presence should also not just help Boston reach the #2 seed, but make a deep playoff run instead of getting bounced in the first round like last season.
9 Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off one of the biggest comebacks in NBA history during the finals last year to win it all, and they look poised to do it again. The Cavaliers have held over their core roster from a season ago, the one notable addition being rangy veteran small forward Mike Dunleavy who’s 3-point prowess should help spread the floor. Otherwise, it’s the same crew; and why not? They’ve found a winning formula in having the best-player-in-the-world LeBron James (never a bad thing) teamed with a top-5 point-guard in Kyrie Irving and stud rebounder Tristan Thompson doing the dirty work. The only weakness, if you can call it that, is Kevin Love. Though Love is still a valuable player his production is just not matching the $21 Million salary he’s set to make this year. With a lot of cap room tied up in the new big three, Kevin Love’s contract is the main hurdle to the Cavaliers’ talent getting deeper. The result is the Cavaliers not making a lot of progress this offseason like other Eastern Conference teams, but it’s hard to go up when you’re already at the top.
8 Western Conference
8. Houston Rockets
The Rockets will once again be the 8th seed this year as the team flounders around perennial All-Star James Harden. Perhaps the single best move the Rockets made this offseason was letting Dwight Howard walk in free agency. Despite averaging a double-double, the chemistry and locker room for the Rockets was poor with Howard around. Replacing his stat line won’t be easy, but Clint Capela could be up to the task after managing to post 7ppg and 6rpg a season ago only playing 20 minutes a game. The biggest free agency acquisition for the Rockets is Eric Gordon who looks to play big minutes backing up both guard positions. As long as his finger injuries from last year don’t carry over, his scoring should keep the Rockets moving while Harden takes a break. Mike D’Antoni is the new head coach and is perfect for this team of wings that like the score quickly in transition, though players might need some time to get used to him. This offseason Houston essentially doubled-down on Harden’s ability to lead this team to a championship, but he’s only good enough to lead them to the playoffs.
7 Minnesota Timberwolves
Yes, you read that correctly. For the first time in over a decade the Minnesota Timberwolves will be back in the playoffs. This team has plenty of young talent, including back-to-back ROY winners Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The oldest player on their starting rotation is 26 years of age. This type of moldable, potential-laden talent plays right into the hands of Minnesota’s biggest and best offseason move- hiring head coach Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau is one of the best coaches and defensive minds in the league who should be able to get the absolute most out this squad. As a head coach he has led his teams to five consecutive playoff berths, and will continue to do so with the Timberwolves. Free agency brought in Jordan Hill and Cole Aldrich to shore up the frontcourt rotation with plenty of deep talent. The Timberwolves have made huge strides in recent years to get better, and now under the tutelage of Thibodeau they will be making playoff runs sooner rather than later.
6 Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies’ playoff window is still open, but injuries and old age are closing it fast. Both Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph remain to anchor the front court, but their minutes will be more limited this season to account for the mileage on their tires, especially Randolph who will now be coming off the bench as the sixth man. Chandler Parsons was a great addition this offseason to provide a scoring spark for what is otherwise a steady defensive team. However, Parsons had knee surgery nearly six months ago and is only now returning to limited practice and remains questionable for the season opener. The success of the Grizzlies will largely depend on the success of those three players and whether they can still bring it day in and day out. This team made the playoffs last season despite health concerns, and talented team-leader Mike Conley can carry this squad through some bumps. The Memphis Grizzlies are a deep, veteran team; it’s why they’ve made the playoffs for 6 seasons straight. But the core is fading away, and another first-round exit is likely in store for them.
5 Portland Trailblazers
The Portland Trailblazers made the playoffs last year despite losing three of their starting five to free agency thanks to the heroics of Damian Lillard. After posting a 25ppg-7apg-4rpg stat line last season the 26 year old hasn’t even reached his full potential yet, and should carry this team to another playoff berth. The Trailblazers brought back four players to help with continuity as the team rebuilds, including re-signing starter CJ McCollum and his 20ppg, who won most improved player. Free agency landed Evan Turner from the Celtics, who is an immediate upgrade at small forward, and Festus Ezeli from the Warriors who should provide quality minutes off the bench at center and bring some championship mentality to the team. Nothing was splashy for the Trailblazers’ offseason, but they’ve recovered quickly from the disastrous 2015 offseason and are rebuilding slowly from within. Being a championship contender again will take some time, but the backcourt duo of Lillard and McCollum should make the playoffs at least interesting.
4 Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder lost one of the top five basketball players in the world this offseason in Kevin Durant, but their saving grace is that they have yet another top five player still on their team. Russell Westbrook was a mere two rebounds a game from averaging a triple-double last season, and he will undoubtedly be back for more this year. Fortunately for Oklahoma City this isn’t the first time they’ve been without Durant. In 2015 Kevin Durant missed 55 games due to a foot injury, and the Thunder managed to still win 45 games and miss the playoffs on a tie-breaker. Given Westbrook’s improvement since then, making the playoffs this year shouldn’t be a problem. The Thunder have also gotten younger, trading away defensive stud Serge Ibaka for the dynamic 24 year old Victor Oladipo and the 11th pick in the 2016 draft Domantas Sabonis. Oklahoma also got Ersan Ilyasova in the trade to replace Ibaka, and although he won’t be able to replace the rim protection and rebounding Ilyasova’s outside scoring should open the floor for Westbrook and Oladipo in a way Ibaka never could. The dominance of Westbrook should see the Thunder back into the playoffs this year, but on his final contract year with plenty of reason to leave in free agency, it could be a while before any of us see the Thunder in the post-season again.
3 Los Angeles Clippers
It has been an arms race between the top two teams in the Western Conference, and as a result the Clippers have lost out. After swinging and missing on the Durant sweepstakes this offseason, the Clippers have done little to improve and will finish this season as the distant third-best team. Featuring the best front court in the league with duo Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan the Clippers have rim protection, rebounding, and high percentage scoring in spades. Add in the floor general Chris Paul who runs the offense with veteran savvy while posting 20 ppg and 10 apg, and you have a very good playoff team. Unfortunately, being very good in the Western Conference doesn’t get you very much anymore. The team has spent most of the offseason re-singing solid players but to bloated contracts in an attempt to stay relevant. The addition of Marreese Speights in free agency brings depth and a championship pedigree, but it’s to an area of least need. This squad has failed to live up to their expectations the past few seasons, and without a drastic change to the roster, the Clippers are primed for a second-round exit.
2 San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs just keep on rolling. Despite losing Tim Duncan, one of the greatest players ever, to retirement the Spurs seem to be no worse off. They already starting handing the reigns of the front court over to LaMarcus Aldridge last season, and signed multiple all-star and championship winner Pau Gasol to replace Duncan. Though Gasol is 36 years old and facing retirement soon himself, he’s perfect to shore up the center position in the meantime after posting 16 point, 11 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game last season. Signing free agent David Lee from the Warriors brings in the needed depth in the front court as well. San Antonio retains arguably the best two-way player in the league in Kawhi Leonard, and future hall of famers Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli. With this much talent under the best coach in the league Gregg Popovich, it’s clear why the Spurs will remain a legitimate championship contender.
1 Golden State Warriors
Who else did you expect to be here? The team that won an NBA record 73 wins will be back this year with a vengeance. The most talented team in the league held over their core players while signing prized free agent Kevin Durant. The big three of Curry/Thompson/Durant bring 80 points a game between them. There is too much talent for a lockdown defender or an off-day to hinder this team’s scoring ability. The loss of Andrew Bogut does hurt them, as their front court was already their weakest area and bringing in ZaZa Pachulia is not an upgrade. If anyone is to beat the Warriors this year, capitalizing in the post will likely be the way to do it. It’ll be easier said than done however, as the Warriors have found great success in going small and the addition of Durant means they can put 5 all-stars on the court at the same time. The 2016-2017 Golden State Warriors are a strong contender for best team ever in the history of the league, let alone for the championship.
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