Observer NBA writer Rick Bonnell ranks the NBA teams in each conference:
1. Miami Heat: This could be the last go-around for the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Big 3. The two-time champs are still the NBA’s best team because James is by far the best player. But Wade is breaking down physically. Can this group hold on for at least one more?
2. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are right there with the San Antonio Spurs as far as combining smart draft picks with surgical free-agent additions. When you have Paul George and Roy Hibbert, plus Raleigh’s David West at power forward, you’re solid. If oft-injured Danny Granger contributes, the Pacers are dangerous at any level of the playoffs.
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3. Chicago Bulls: Coach Tom Thibodeau is the best defensive strategist in the NBA, and he gets his players to buy into his vision. If point guard Derrick Rose stays healthy, then the rest – Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and versatile Taj Gibson – is a group well-suited to the half-court, hard-foul world of playoff basketball.
4. Brooklyn Nets: TV Land should televise the Nets games because this team is a tribute to oldies-but-goodies. How much do former Celtics Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have left? New coach Jason Kidd already indicates Garnett won’t play back-to-backs. GM Billy King has surrounded point guard Deron Williams with talent. We’ll see.
5. New York Knicks: Combustible group, huh? Carmelo Anthony is a “volume shooter.” High-priced Amare Stoudamire is Anthony Lite. J.R. Smith always will be a talent with a knack for finding trouble. The grown-ups are former Bobcats Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton.
6. Cleveland Cavaliers: My nominee for this season’s Golden State Warriors. I’m not saying the Cavaliers will pull off a first-round upset. I’m saying, much like the Warriors, this is the young team with so much collective talent they definitely should make the playoffs. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters can be a tremendous backcourt.
7. Detroit Pistons: The last two playoff spots in the East are wide open. The Pistons have frontcourt talent in Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and free agent Josh Smith. Smith is a knucklehead, but he fills a scoring summary. Can these guys stay out of their own way and let talent prevail?
8. Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal has that “it’’ quality that could make him a star. Point guard John Wall has a great handle, but his shooting anywhere but the rim is suspect. There’s a sense of urgency to make the playoffs this season, hence the trade of injured Emeka Okafor for Phoenix’s Marcin Gortat.
9. Milwaukee Bucks: Any one of five teams could slip into the last spot in the East. I like Ersan Ilyasova in a Moneyball way; a guy who can hit 3s and grab rebounds. Point guard Brandon Knight still has a lot to prove, and I think Monta Ellis’ departure is addition-by-subtraction.
10. Atlanta Hawks: They never got in the derby for hometown guy Dwight Howard after general manager Danny Ferry assembled cap room. Paul Millsap was a solid replacement for Josh Smith. Elton Brand, amnestied by Philadelphia, looks like he still can defend the post and block shots.
11. Charlotte Bobcats: New coach Steve Clifford is impressive. They’re already better organized defensively. Al Jefferson is maybe the first Bobcat who will consistently demand a double-team. Jeff Taylor, a second-round pick a year ago, could have a breakout season.
12. Toronto Raptors: This is a big-market team that hasn’t really functioned like Miami, New York or Chicago in the East. The Raptors tried the melting-pot strategy, filling the roster with international players. Makes some sense in Canada’s most cosmopolitan city but not as the exclusive route to fixing this roster.
13. Boston Celtics: The Celtics were once criticized for not breaking up the Big Three (Bird-McHale-Parish) for some compensation. Current general manager Danny Ainge took the opposite route, moving Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets and stopped paying Doc Rivers to coach a rebuild. But, as Charlotte knows, starting over is tricky business.
14. Orlando Magic: So Victor Oladipo is now a point guard because … the Magic says so. Oladipo is a ball of energy who should be an entertaining NBA rookie. But asking him to run an offense is a reach. Russell Westbrook pulled off that transition, but this is quite an experiment.
15. Philadelphia 76ers: I covered the worst team in NBA history two years ago. I’ve covered a number of bad NBA teams. This 76ers squad is bad in so many ways, particularly if rookie Nerlens Noel is shut down all season following knee surgery. If the spares are loafing in the preseason, what happens in Game 60?
1. San Antonio Spurs: Yes, I love Geezer Ball. They have the best coach in Gregg Popovich and two of the best 15 players in Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. Pop will retire to his vineyard the minute Duncan quits, but that’s OK. Right now they’re the NBA’s model franchise.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder: It’s a weird problem when you drafted so well you must triage success. The Thunder traded James Harden when he wouldn’t settle for anything less than a max contract. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are great pieces. It’s time to bring a championship home to OKC.
3. Los Angeles Clippers: Bizarro World, right? Well, no, the former worst-run franchise in the NBA has Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the best basketball coach in the world not nicknamed “Pop” or “K.” Doc Rivers didn’t move cross-country to finish second.
4. Houston Rockets: So the Rockets convinced Dwight Howard to escape the Lakers. Be careful what you wish for. Of course he’s the most athletic center in the NBA. He didn’t win a ring in Orlando, he didn’t win one in L.A. He’s a diva. He’s not alone in that regard, but divas must produce to keep being divas.
5. Golden State Warriors: That Davidson kid can play a little. Stephen Curry was named by NBA GMs the best pure shooter in the NBA. He has help in Klay Thompson, David Lee and Harrison Barnes. But the loss of Jarrett Jack could haunt them in the playoffs.
6. Denver Nuggets: So Brian Shaw gets his chance as a head coach. He was choosy about not going to a place where he’d lose right away. Flip side: George Karl was NBA coach of the year and was shown the door. That wasn’t all about on-court performance, but try matching what Karl did last season.
7. Memphis Grizzlies: Howard is clearly the most athletic NBA center. But might you not choose Indiana’s Roy Hibbert or Memphis’ Marc Gasol as the more reliable option? Gasol defends the post and offers offense, too. Not bad as a second-round pick.
8. Los Angeles Lakers: People are wondering whether Kobe Bryant will be the same after Achilles surgery. Legitimate question, but who is more internally motivated than Bryant? Pau Gasol might not be a dominant big man, but he’s a fine No. 2 option on this team.
9. New Orleans Pelicans: Monty Williams is a superior defensive coach. Not Thibs, but right in the discussion with Cleveland’s Mike Brown among others receiving votes. Power forward Anthony Davis, a former No. 1 pick, could still be really special.
10. Portland Trail Blazers: Anybody who beats out Anthony Davis for rookie of the year was a great pick. That’s point guard Damian Lillard, already a master at pick-and-roll styling. LaMarcus Aldridge is a huge talent, but his presence hasn’t yet translated into consistent winning.
11. Minnesota Timberwolves: Sustained success here hinges on keeping West Coast kid Kevin Love in ice-fishing country and developing Ricky Rubio into a John Stockton-type point guard. Love can probably live with the cold winters if they end in playoff appearances.
12. Dallas Mavericks: Bravo to Dirk Nowitzki for his loyalty. You can say he’s obligated to do that, based on how much money he’s making, but a lot of others with his status would force a trade to a contender. The Mavs aren’t very good and won’t be very soon.
13. Utah Jazz: Now-Bobcat Al Jefferson says he can’t imagine why the Jazz would have re-signed him, considering the potential of young big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. I see his point, but it will be a while until this franchise is ready to get back to being a small-market model.
14. Sacramento Kings: So the Kings chose to pay center DeMarcus Cousins big. There’s no disputing his talent, but the guy has a prickly personality that has turned off several teammates. Management will spend a lot of time crossing its fingers that Cousins’ personality evolves for the better.
15. Phoenix Suns: They dealt four veterans, including center Marcin Gortat, in return for Washington’s protected first-round pick and the injured Emeka Okafor. It’s possible Okafor (neck) will never play as a Sun before his contract expires in July.