Some people like power rankings. I prefer tiers. It’s a big-picture method of capturing how good teams are today, and where they are in the NBA’s rise-and-fall cycle. It is an especially interesting exercise approaching the most wide-open season in recent memory. More teams than usual have claims to membership in the highest tiers. Boundaries are fluid.
As always, the listed order within each tier does not matter.
Tier 1: Top title contenders
• Some have eight teams here. Others cap it at the first four listed. Let’s split the difference.
• When healthy, the Clippers probably have the most complete postseason-ready roster. They are still one player away — either a ball handler or a big man — from being airtight on both ends, but no team is perfect anymore. The Kevin Durant-era Warriors created an impossible standard of star power and two-way balance. The 2017 and 2018 versions might well be the greatest teams ever built. Only injuries could defeat them.
Concerns about LA’s overall ballhandling might be overblown. The Clippers could build closing lineups around the quartet of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell. Leonard is arguably the league’s best player — a shoulder-checking isolation bully who has made just enough progress hitting the open man. George is overtaxed as a No. 1 option, perfect as second banana. Beverley is a little underrated as an off-the-bounce threat, and he’ll almost always catch the ball with a head start.
Is that enough against the league’s very best defenses? Who are the best defensive teams in the West? The Clippers don’t have to play themselves. Basketball gods forbid they acquire Andre Iguodala. Utah has been the conference’s stingiest team two years running, but with apologies to Royce O’Neale and Dante Exum, they don’t have wing defenders who unnerve Leonard and George.
Lou Williams, a walking shoulder fake who makes sweet, sweet pick-and-roll magic with Harrell, is LA’s ballhandling boost — provided he can survive on defense in high-stakes moments. He might be able to hide somewhere against Utah’s new closing lineup of Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert. Utah has more ammo with both Conley and Mitchell to break from its offense and hunt the opponent’s weakest link — as Mitchell did in all but ending Carmelo Anthony’s career during the 2018 playoffs. But with mean, long help defenders flanking Williams everywhere, I’m not sure Conley and Mitchell attacking him one-on-one will scare the Clippers. LeBron and James Harden are different stories.
If the Clippers have to yank Williams in favor of a superior defender — Maurice Harkless, JaMychal Green, Landry Shamet, someone yet to be acquired — they can still put a decent amount of scoring firepower on the floor.
Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images
• It’s fun teasing the Lakers for falling ass-backwards into LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and swinging wildly between schools of thought in building out their team. Last season: We don’t need shooting! We want playmaking! We paid no attention to the first 15 years of LeBron’s career! One year later: Turns out shooting is important!
Both James and Davis seem determined to play out of position, forcing the Lakers to shoehorn Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee into major roles. A year ago, Kyle Kuzma was a spot duty small-ball center. Now he’ll have to defend some shooting guards to get on the floor with James, Davis, and one member of the Lakers’ big man comedy duo. Weird.
But Kuzma chased wings last season with a grit that would surprise critics branding him an empty calories gunner. His 32% mark on wide-open catch-and-shoot 3s is alarming, but the bet here is that he rebounds to something closer to 38% — his hit rate as a rookie. When it matters, the Lakers will slide Davis to center, allowing Kuzma to play closer to his natural position. Some Davis-at-center lineups won’t include Kuzma at all. Remember: He is L.A.’s best (only?) realistic trade asset.
A more substantive problem: Rajon Rondo is the only perimeter player aside from LeBron who can, like, dribble multiple times in succession. LeBron’s best teams featured All-Star secondary ball handlers.
Defenses ignore Rondo. Opponents outscored the Lakers by 5.4 points per 100 possessions last season when LeBron and Rondo shared the floor. Their best lineups probably don’t feature Rondo. I don’t really care that he drained at least 35% from deep in three of the past four seasons. That is a blah mark considering how open he is, and he’ll never take and make enough to outweigh the damage he inflicts on spacing.
But Rondo’s relative lack of shooting isn’t as harmful in lineups featuring James, Davis, Danny Green, and one ambulatory perimeter guy with average 3-point accuracy. And when the Lakers excise Rondo, Davis can take on more of the playmaking burden from the post and elbows, and even by just dusting suckers one-on-one from the outside; Davis quietly averaged four dimes per game last season, by far a career high.
Green is rock solid. Alex Caruso can handle it some. He’s good — more than a meme. Someone from the Kentavious Caldwell-Pope/Avery Bradley/Quinn Cook pile will exceed expectations. (Bradley is getting all the camp buzz, but I’m more intrigued by KCP’s size and versatility on defense.) They’ll snag someone in the (rigged) buyout game.
That guy won’t be an elite ball handler. Every contender has minor flaws in a post-supervillain Warriors world. The Lakers have two of the league’s five best players — a symbiotic pick-and-roll combination — and competent shooting around them. Be afraid.
They will have to navigate the draining melodrama that follows LeBron. If things go badly, there will be passive-aggressive eye rolls and drooped shoulders. The Lakers volunteered for tension by hiring Jason Kidd as Frank Vogel’s No. 2. Like any classic LeBron team, the Lakers are a 2-3 start away from DEFCON 1 speculation. I’m tired already.
Bucks and Sixers
• The Bucks and Sixers get to frolic in the junior varsity conference. They still make for an ideal fit-versus-talent contrast, at least on offense. The Bucks make sense: Giannis and shooting. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are never going to mesh as neatly on offense as the NBA’s classic one-two punches.
And yet: I have pangs of anxiety about Milwaukee. Their best heavy-minutes lineup a year ago was Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez — i.e., three guards/wings, Giannis, and a sweet-shooting center. One of those guards plays for the Pacers now. Another self-destructed in the conference finals.
The new perimeter-oriented versions of those lineups have some combination of Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton, Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver, and George Hill soaking up the Brogdon minutes. Brown might get first crack as a starter. Milwaukee should be all-in investigating whether he and Connaughton can handle more postseason minutes. Will Mike Budenholzer go that route, or default to aging veterans?
The bigger versions shift the Brogdon minutes to Ersan Ilyasova and (hopefully) D.J. Wilson. I’m not sure I trust those groups against the best competition. Does either lineup type have enough juice to overcome another ill-timed Bledsoe slump?
Maybe. Antetokounmpo is that good. Those creaky veteran shooters will get easier looks playing next to him. If Antetokounmpo improves his standstill triple to the point that defenders have to (kinda) honor him up top, the league might not have an answer. Al Horford, Philly’s newest big, was an answer once, but Antetokounmpo solved him in last season’s second-round dismantling of Boston.
We all know the questions in Philly. Rarely does a true-blue contender enter a season with so much uncertainty about so many fundamental aspects of its team. But the Sixers’ size and talent are overwhelming. One of the rare defenders to trouble Embiid — Horford — is now on his team. Another, Marc Gasol, no longer plays for a contender.
Horford is a ballast against Philly’s vulnerability when Embiid sits. A stat that blows me away four-plus months later: The Sixers outscored Toronto by 90 points in 237 minutes with Embiid on the floor during the conference semifinals … and lost the remaining 99 non-Embiid minutes by 109 points. I mean … what? Yeah, that’s a small sample size. Whatever. A high-end playoff team losing one subset of minutes against one opponent by a Washington Generals margin is crazy — and indicative of an issue that has dogged Philly for years now.
The Sixers are going to be brutal to score against. We tend to focus fit-related discussions on offense, but defensive fit is a thing, too. Point guards torched Philly last season until Simmons took the job in the first round and erased D’Angelo Russell. Now the Sixers have Josh Richardson, a long-armed menace, funneling those guys toward Embiid.
If they have to trade for one more bench guy, they will. Something in my gut just likes this team. Now they need to get Embiid to peak in May and June.
The Bucks might have also set the record for fastest transition from feel-good up-and-comer to contender facing almost existential pressure. Every slump will be magnified until Antetokounmpo says he is signing the supermax. If Milwaukee makes the conference finals, the entire league will watch with one thought in mind: Now we get to see if they have enough around Giannis.
All the noise has to matter. For some teams, it takes a real toll.
It can also push teams into risky future-for-present trades. The Bucks aren’t exactly brimming with trade assets, but Jon Horst, their GM, proved last season in flipping four second-rounders for Nikola Mirotic that he will be bold.
• Small pet peeve: any assumption that time is propelling Donovan Mitchell on a path to soon becoming prime Dwyane Wade. Prime Dwyane Wade was a freaking monster. The collective memory of this is fading because Wade passed the baton early to LeBron and spent prior seasons toiling on mediocre teams-in-waiting for LeBron. Prime Wade had a claim to the “greatest active shooting guard” throne. He shot between 51% and 55% on 2s every season, dished six or seven dimes per game, lived at the line, and lurked as the greatest shot-blocking guard in history.
The gap between Mitchell and that player is enormous. Mitchell closed some of it with a post-All-Star surge before struggling from the field for the second straight postseason. Good news: The entire point of acquiring Mike Conley is that Mitchell has to close only a little more of the Wade gap for Utah to become a serious contender.
Mitchell has hit 40% of his career catch-and-shoot 3s. He should get more next to Conley. Quin Snyder will find new ways to get Mitchell the ball on the move. Mitchell should be able to reserve more energy for defense. If he fulfills his potential on that end, the Jazz are going to be nasty.
The other pole of the Mitchell discussion — the one emanating from analytics-heavy places — is that he just isn’t very good. Don’t buy that. He just turned 23. His efficiency hasn’t matched his Q factor, but he can do special things and has a certain ineffable quality — courage, guts, toughness — you need to win at the highest level. Maybe he’ll never be Prime Wade, or some analytics darling, but I’d bet on Mitchell improving in ways that matter.
With Conley and Bogdanovic aboard, Utah should not fall victim to the Twilight Zone shooting slumps that torpedoed them in recent playoff defeats. Bump up their shooting, and the Jazz could sniff the top five in points per possession. That two-way balance nudges them a hair above Houston and Denver.
The Jazz might face some size and rebounding issues splitting power forward minutes between Bogdanovic, O’Neale (don’t be shocked if he starts) and Jeff Green. They can dangle Exum to trawl for an extra big man if need be.
• Everyone wonders if swapping Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook makes the Rockets better or worse. My boring take: They are about the same — a really good team that probably isn’t going to win the title. The trio of Westbrook, James Harden and coach Mike D’Antoni is talented and creative enough to paper over Westbrook’s busted jumper, but only so much. You never know what the backup wings and bigs are giving you night to night. An injury to P.J. Tucker is death against LeBron and Leonard.
But the Rockets don’t get enough credit for being the only Western Conference team to compete at all with the Durant-era Warriors. Those Warriors are the only team to beat Houston — or really even trouble them — in the playoffs since the Rockets paired Paul and Harden. The Westbrook/Harden/Eric Gordon/Tucker/Clint Capela grouping should be a championship-level closing lineup.
Houston deserves to be grandfathered into the top tier. I am a little afraid of what hard-chargin’ Tilman Fertitta might pull in the event of a slow start. He could fire everyone and install himself as GM, coach, and head chef. He could also mandate the kind of nutty all-in trade (R.I.P. Nene contract) that fortifies the 2019-20 Rockets even if it hamstrings the team’s future.
Jamal Murray’s performance will have a lot to say about how high Denver can rise. AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesProve it
Look: I’m a Nikola Jokic true believer. He lumbered over everyone in his postseason debut. He might already be the best passing big man ever. (Fun thing that won’t happen: With Westbrook and Harden cannibalizing their individual assist totals, how cool would it be if Jokic made a run at leading the league in dimes? He tied for 13th last season with 7.3 per game; John Wall and Kyle Lowry tied for second, behind Westbrook, at 8.7 per game. Just saying.)
The Nuggets are deep, steeled with fresh playoff experience, and they know who they are. You can’t point to any player other than maybe Malik Beasley who should (by the numbers) regress from last season. If you want to slide them up a tier, I won’t fight you.
They are still quite young. A combination of bricky opponent shooting — especially on a league-high number of corner 3s — and an insane record in close games suggests Denver punched a little above its weight. Its 7-7 playoff run (after some expert bracket manipulation) doesn’t exactly inspire. The Nuggets wheezed by a Spurs team that wasn’t very good, and lost Game 7 at home against a Portland team missing its starting center. The gap between their best and second-best players will remain pretty big unless Jamal Murray makes another leap this season (totally possible, but he’s still 22).
Denver compensates with enviable depth, but depth doesn’t matter as much in the postseason. I’ve been beating the “Bradley Beal to Denver” drum for almost a year, and if the Nuggets ever cashed in some of that depth for a star, watch out. Denver can still break into the next tier as is if Murray hits another level and Michael Porter Jr. proves as good as the buzz emanating from Denver camp.
Strongish playoff teams/The East stinks again
For the 872nd consecutive season, it’s nice to be in the East. You could argue any of Miami, Brooklyn and Orlando belong one tier down. Miami is weird and big, with potential shooting issues. Brooklyn is missing its best player and has something of a hole at power forward. There will be inevitable culture shock with three big personalities invading Brooklyn’s environment of plucky all-for-one overachievement.
The Magic have every power forward in the league, and cannot expect D.J. Augustin to duplicate what stands as a career scoring season by almost laughable margins. (Augustin shot 51% on 2s last season. His prior career mark: 43%.) Their backup point guards are Michael Carter-Williams and a dude who shot free throws like this 11 months ago.
It is smart to view any scorching late-season run — Orlando finished 21-9 and had the league’s top defense after Feb. 1 — with a little skepticism, since half the league stops trying around then. That run coincided with Khem Birch supplanting Mo Bamba, but Steve Clifford already announced Bamba has won the backup center job back. OK!
But all three should be safe in the East. Jimmy Butler is a top-15 player. Pair him with Erik Spoelstra and a decent supporting cast, and the Heat should end up with a top-eight defense and 45-plus wins. They have the contracts to swing a win-now trade.
Brooklyn has good guard and wing depth, and for all the rightful mocking of DeAndre Jordan’s mail-in job last season, he and Jarrett Allen should give the Nets 48 strong center minutes (assuming Jordan is, umm, reinvigorated).
Kyrie Irving’s know-it-all lecturing and ball dominance contributed to Boston’s haywire chemistry, and it’s tempting to anticipate Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert chafing at reduced roles. Kenny Atkinson can blunt tensions by staggering minutes; Dinwiddie already comes off the bench. D’Angelo Russell hoarded ballhandling duties to an even greater degree than Irving, so Brooklyn’s holdovers have some practice at sacrificing.
I trust Orlando’s continuity. There are no red flags indicating their defense was fool’s gold. Clifford builds an infrastructure that beats every bad team and steals some wins against superior ones: force midrangers, protect the glass, prevent fast breaks, don’t foul. I have faith in the Aaron Gordon midcareer leap.
(For much more on all four teams, listen to last week’s Lowe Post podcast with ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz.)
It’s been a while since Steph Curry and the Warriors were back in the pack. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via APBorderline playoff teams
• This is the biggest tier in the history of this column. If anything, it could be bigger.
• Let me scream this for the Spooky Mulder contingent in Toronto: The champs are only here — and not one tier up — due to the possibility they trade any or all of Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. That said, folks parroting Toronto’s record last season without Leonard as evidence that this will be easy are underestimating the challenge of filling 70-ish minutes on the wing that left with Leonard and Green.
The return of OG Anunoby helps. More of the Lowry-Fred VanVleet pairing absorbs some of those minutes, but Toronto has to be a little careful overextending that ultra-small look.
But this team is solid. I’m interested to see how the Pascal Siakam-Ibaka-Gasol supersized trio that helped in the Philly series might fare over more minutes.
• OK, so, the Warriors. I had no idea what to do with them. If Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are all healthy, Golden State is a Tier 1 contender. Deep in my soul, I think the Warriors would have won the Finals last season had Thompson been healthy all series — and maybe even if he had missed Game 3 (as happened) but remained intact after.
But Thompson is out until the All-Star break, and no one can be sure when he will be Peak Klay again.
They still have two elite players and an Eastern Conference injury-replacement All-Star, which is like 50% of a Western Conference All-Star, but still. Curry might be the league’s most powerful offensive force. He transforms lineups with four complete non-shooters into workable scoring outfits. He drags so many defenders so far from the basket that all those non-shooters have time to ping interior passes between them until Kevon Looney very slowly gathers the ball, bends his achy knees, and summons all his energy to jump two inches off the ground and slide the ball over the rim.
Russell will fit on offense. If you can shoot, you can fit next to Curry and Green. Russell can run the show when Curry sits, and he spent 2016-17 — with the Lakers, under Luke Walton — playing in a free-flowing system derived in part from Walton’s time with Golden State.
And yet. They are relying on so many guys who might not crack rotations on lottery teams. One guy who would — Willie Cauley-Stein — is already injured. Who is their fifth starter? Seriously, start listing names! Threading all those interior passes before the defense recovers from blitzing Curry requires high hoops IQ, and the Warriors suffered major interior passing brain drain.
Green faces a huge challenge propping up the defense. Their margin for injury to Curry and Green is close to zero. Their margin for easing into the season is close to zero. Green needed a late-season crash diet to get in shape for the playoffs. Now, the Warriors need the roaring, snarling, in-three-spots-at-once Green every minute he plays.
Are Curry and Green ready to give everything after five straight Finals and three years coasting through the regular season? I bet they are. These guys love the game. Green says he is in playoff shape. They are surely eager to prove what they can do without Durant. But to live that 82 times while hoping Alec Burks and Alfonzo McKinnie and Glenn Robinson III make open 3s is a slog.
Some projections have Golden State as a playoff lock, and even a 50-plus-win team. I can’t get there. Maybe I’m underestimating the talent and will of Curry and Green — and the possibility Russell keeps growing. But it’s hard to see Golden State winning more games than the Clippers, Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets or Rockets. That slides them into the No. 6 slot, and from there, one bad break has you fighting for your postseason life.
But if Thompson is healthy and they sneak in as a low seed? Whoa boy. Teams will spend the last two weeks of the season maneuvering — and maybe tanking — to avoid them.
• Yup, for the second straight year I’m doubting the Blazers. I’m a moron, obviously. They have a rock-solid culture, a great coach, and one of those scoring stars who pulls even bad teams — and this is far from a bad team — toward .500. I didn’t hate their offseason makeover, either. They lost size and defensive versatility effectively swapping Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless for Kent Bazemore and more Rodney Hood, but I can’t blame them after watching Aminu and Harkless brick wide-open 3s in the playoffs every season.
Hassan Whiteside in a contract year is as good a placeholder for Jusuf Nurkic as Portland was going to snare. Zach Collins is solid at both frontcourt positions, and the Blazers are confident Anfernee Simons is ready for major minutes. They have the means to make a win-now trade (or two) in February.
Their perimeter defense is a little squishy. I don’t trust Whiteside. Can he make enough quick-hitting reads when opponents double Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum? Whiteside is boasting about triple-doubles, but he averaged 1.2 dimes per game last season.
The Blazers are good. Their placement here is more about life in the West, especially because …
• I am a little higher on San Antonio and Dallas than most projection systems. Delon Wright and Seth Curry are nice complements to the Luka Doncic-Kristaps Porzingis centerpiece. Almost everyone on the roster is, really. Rival executives are skeptical about the Mavs’ depth, but Rick Carlisle always builds a functional misfit toys bench.
Wright and Dwight Powell seem like no-brainer starters. The last spot could go to a gunner — Curry or Tim Hardaway Jr. — or a low-usage 3-and-D facsimile like Justin Jackson or Dorian Finney-Smith. Three of those four will come off the bench, along with Jalen Brunson, Maxi Kleber, and maybe J.J. Barea. Carlisle can pull Powell early in quarters and use him as a backup center if Boban Marjanovic struggles. That’s a real rotation.
If Porzingis is healthy, the Mavs could sneak into the playoffs.
• The Spurs won 48 games last season (with a scoring margin akin to a 46-win team) despite: a slow start from DeMar DeRozan; Dejounte Murray tearing his ACL; Derrick White missing 15 games; an early-1990s shot profile; and Lonnie Walker IV, their first-round pick, spending most of the season in the G League. A sweet-shooting bench carried them, and it’s perhaps unreasonable to bank on that group — now with DeMarre Carroll in place of Davis Bertans — incinerating opponents again.
The Spurs also lit it up from midrange. Overall, they outperformed their expected effective field goal percentage — based on the location of each shot and the nearest defender — by 3.6 percentage points, the second-fattest figure in the league by a mile, per Second Spectrum. Perspective: Third place checked in at 1.3 percentage points, and No. 1 was the Warriors — an implausible shooting team. Some decline should be expected.
But if DeRozan is more comfortable in Year 2, maybe the Spurs will get some separation with DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge on the floor after playing those minutes about even last season. Trey Lyles is a worthy reclamation case. Their vaunted defense could snap back into place with Murray and White pairing up more.
Playing Murray, White and DeRozan together drops San Antonio’s 3-point shooting to dangerously low levels, but Gregg Popovich usually figures out enough answers to thorny rotation questions. The Spurs know how to win.
• There is a tendency to see Sacramento’s negative scoring margin — minus-92, 19th — and suggest the Kings were a little lucky to win 39 games. But exclude garbage time, and they played to their record, per Cleaning The Glass. They did not outshoot expectations or enjoy fortunate bricky opponent shooting to any major degree, per Second Spectrum. They were (mostly) real.
Now they face expectations for another mini-leap that might be premature — at least in this conference. They won’t catch opponents off-guard again with their turbo pace. They fueled that run-and-gun game with a gargantuan turnover differential that might be hard to replicate.
Integrating Marvin Bagley III as starting power forward comes with pain on defense and stirs uncomfortable ripple effects across a deep rotation. The Kings can make the playoffs, but they have to figure out some basic stuff. The West affords very little time to figure stuff out.
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• Perhaps no team has more to figure out than New Orleans. The Pelicans have 12 rotation-level players before Jahlil Okafor and Jaxson Hayes, and half of them have 3-point shooting track records ranging from spotty to “My Eyes! Ze goggles do nothing!” Playing even one non-shooter alongside both Zion Williamson and Derrick Favors strangles the half court.
Cramped spacing doesn’t matter as much in transition, and Alvin Gentry wants these guys running like hell. It will just take time to sort through all the possible lineup contortions — and land on the right offense-defense balance. There is a playoff team in here. Will they find it in time?
• We might have to name this tier after the Pistons.
• Jim Boylen is probably the biggest coaching wild card in the league. Will Chicago post up 100 times per game, or play fast, as the Bulls did late last season? No one knows! It might change week-to-week! Exciting!
Vegas has these guys around 33 wins. I am more (wait for it) bullish. With Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young, the Bulls have the talent and balance to hang in the East playoff non-race. The major concern beyond inexperience: precisely zero reliable wings behind Zach LaVine and Otto Porter Jr. Playing Satoransky as a backup wing mitigates that, but it also could mean more of Coby White, Kris Dunn, and Ryan Arcidiacono (quietly solid last season).
It’s time for LaVine to prove he can contribute to winning basketball. This is a huge Year 3 for Lauri Markkanen.
• Indiana’s presence here might surprise. I’ll have more on them in future columns. Most of this is about Victor Oladipo’s availability and projected play upon returning.
Netherworld of the West
• I’d have the Thunder here even if I knew they would keep their team together at the trade deadline. They have a playoff-caliber starting lineup but almost no proven depth on the wing or at power forward.
Paul hasn’t played in more than 61 games since 2016. Danilo Gallinari cracked 65 last season for the first time since 2012-13. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is not an awesome fit hanging off the ball while Paul does his point god thing.
Throw in the likelihood that someone gets traded, and Oklahoma City lags behind the playoff race.
• Several projection systems — including Kevin Pelton’s at ESPN and the 538 forecast — treat the Wolves more kindly. They outscored opponents by about three points per 100 possessions with Karl-Anthony Towns and Robert Covington on the floor, and Covington is on track to start the season healthy.
They made a bunch of nice fringe moves: Shabazz Napier, Treveon Graham, Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh, Jordan Bell and Tyrone Wallace. Some of those contracts could be handy in two- and three-team trades; Minnesota figures to be active.
Towns is a god on offense, and having just one scorer so talented — a legitimate fulcrum — tends to push even blah teams toward .500. He has missed five games in four seasons. The wrenching, energy-sapping melodrama of the Jimmy Butler/Tom Thibodeau saga is behind them.
But the talent gap between Towns and the rest of the roster is huge. Everyone else is either untested or underwhelming. This group has almost zero record of competent defense. A bounce-back from Jeff Teague, or any bounce at all from Andrew Wiggins, would shift the trajectory, but it’s tough to bet on either doing enough to elevate Minnesota into the thick of the West playoff race.
Trae Young’s shooting, while sometimes spectacular, could feature a bit more accuracy. Jonathan Bachman/Getty ImagesThe rest
• The Knicks seem to think they have a 35-win team that might approach .500. Fine. It’s the East. Someone bad is sneaking into the potato sack race for No. 8. The bigs they added are all useful despite some positional overlap that isn’t super convenient for Mitchell Robinson (or those who want to see Kevin Knox play more power forward, which I could take or leave). Most of the big-big pairings are semi-workable.
Wayne Ellington adds needed shooting, especially with both Reggie Bullock and Damyean Dotson dealing with some nicks. Maybe FIBA Frankie Smokes is a thing?
The guard and wing play — the engine of most functional offenses — is just so uncertain. Julius Randle might be New York’s best shot creator, which is not on its face a bad thing. I just see a 27-30-win team, and most projection systems agree.
• The Hawks are getting some “pesky No. 8 seed” buzz. They went 23-30 after a 6-23 start. Trae Young found his swagger, even if he didn’t quite find his jumper; Young cracked 35% from deep in just a single month — February — but given the difficulty and distance of his attempts, his rookie arc was encouraging. John Collins is good. Alex Len had a sneaky solid season.
But I’m pumping the brakes. This team is so young. The veterans they added or brought back — Evan Turner, Jabari Parker, Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons, Vince Carter — don’t move the needle.
Playoff hype feels premature. Next season should be a different story.
• Phoenix should at least be competitive. Ricky Rubio is a big upgrade over … nothing. Deandre Ayton learned the basics — like, the most basic basics — of guarding the NBA pick-and-roll, and might become a normal below-average defender. The Suns have a passable wing rotation in Devin Booker (an All-Star very soon), Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges and Tyler Johnson. Dario Saric is an acceptable starter. Keep an eye on Cheick Diallo, who showed flashes last season in New Orleans.
The Suns will win more games in 2019-20. That doesn’t mean they maximized their resources to position themselves for 2021 and (way) beyond — the timeline they should care about.