It probably feels like this every year, but there are so many questions to be answered going into this NBA season. They start at the top, with the Heat’s ability to withstand another grueling season after three straight trips to The Finals, and the Spurs’ ability to recover from the brutal blow of Games 6 and 7 in Miami.
But the questions continue all the way to the bottom, where teams may be playing for lottery combinations but still want to see what kind of building blocks they have already on the roster. And in the middle, we have several teams in each conference competing for the last few playoff spots.
So yeah, it’s great that we can finally get this season started on Tuesday. Before we get there, it’s time to rank ’em from 1-30.
All stats below are from the preseason. Some are signs of things to come, some are not.
April 15: Heat the clear No. 1 and pick to repeat
This time last year: Harden trade shakes up the top – James Harden got traded three days before the season started, making the Lakers the favorite to win the West. The Sixers and Brandon Roy each looked good in the preseason, and Andre Drummond was giving us a taste of things to come.
Hero Team of the Preseason: Chicago (8-0) — You expected Tom Thibodeau to take his foot off the gas?
Zero Team of the Preseason: Atlanta (1-6) — Apparently, Mike Budenholzer forgot to pack the Spurs’ defense when he left San Antonio.
High jumps of the summer: Detroit (+12), Portland (+9), Chicago (+8)
Free falls of the summer: Boston (-16), Denver (-8), Philadelphia (-8), Utah (-8)
Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank) – Click here
OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank) – Click here
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank) – Click here
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions (League Rank) – Click here
The league averaged 99.3 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 95.7 points scored per 100 possessions in the preseason.
NBA.com’s Power Rankings, released every Monday during the season, are just one man’s opinion. If you have an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail or contact him via twitter.
Pace: 96.2 (29), OffRtg: 98.3 (11), DefRtg: 97.2 (22), NetRtg: +1.2 (13)
There’s a good chance the Heat won’t shoot as well as they did last season (when they had the highest effective FG% in NBA history) and a good chance they won’t go 32-8 in games within five points in the last five minutes again. So Erik Spoelstra wants to see more focus on defense at the start of the season. This team ranked 21st defensively after six weeks last year and had to turns things up in December.
This week: vs. CHI, @ PHI, @ BKN, vs. WAS
|Last week: 1|
|2||San Antonio (3-4)
Pace: 101.3 (6), OffRtg: 98.3 (12), DefRtg: 101.4 (28), NetRtg: -3.1 (21)
A note for anyone who thinks that this is the year the Spurs fall off: Kawhi Leonard is just 22 years old. Leonard took on a little more offensive responsibility in the preseason and his continued development on that end could be what keeps the Spurs right where they were last year. And obviously, the way they lost should provide all the motivation they need to get back to The Finals.
This week: vs. MEM, @ LAL, @ POR
|Last week: 3|
Pace: 97.8 (22), OffRtg: 96.4 (15), DefRtg: 96.0 (19), NetRtg: +0.4 (15)
Having allowed fewer than 83 points per 100 possessions in their last three preseason games, the Pacers’ defense looks ready. And after some early struggles, Luis Scola shot 19-for-27 in those three games. Danny Granger’s calf injury (he’s been ruled out for the first three weeks of the season) puts a damper on some of the better-bench optimism of the summer.
This week: vs. ORL, @ NOH, vs. CLE
|Last week: 8|
|4||L.A. Clippers (5-3)
Pace: 98.9 (18), OffRtg: 98.7 (9), DefRtg: 95.2 (16), NetRtg: +3.4 (12)
The idea of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan being a strong defensive frontcourt is still the Clippers’ biggest question going into the season. But this team, with its pick-and-roll game and perimeter shooters, has the ability to rank first in offensive efficiency if it spaces the floor and moves the ball. The Clips had the second-highest assist rate (assisting on 68 percent of their field goals) in the preseason.
This week: @ LAL, vs. GSW, @ SAC
|Last week: 6|
Pace: 97.2 (25), OffRtg: 100.4 (6), DefRtg: 87.9 (1), NetRtg: +12.5 (2)
With a much-improved jumper and that same ‘ol explosiveness, Derrick Rose looked fantastic in the preseason. And now that Joakim Noah has declared himself “100 percent” ready for Tuesday’s opener in Miami, Bulls fans can breathe a sigh of relief. With little frontline depth, Chicago needs the man in the middle as much as it needs its point guard if it want to seriously challenge the Heat.
This week: @ MIA, vs. NYK, @ PHI
|Last week: 13|
Pace: 100.9 (7), OffRtg: 107.0 (1), DefRtg: 94.3 (10), NetRtg: +12.7 (1)
With a deadly pick-and-roll game, a commitment to space the floor and (now that he’s healthy) the best defensive anchor in the league, the Rockets are a tempting pick to come out of the West, especially if you believe that Daryl Morey will eventually swap Omer Asik for a power forward who can shoot and defend. Thirty-five percent of their preseason shots were threes, the highest rate in the league.
This week: vs. CHA, vs. DAL, @ UTA
|Last week: 11|
Pace: 99.5 (13), OffRtg: 98.8 (8), DefRtg: 89.5 (3), NetRtg: +9.3 (3)
The Nets are a lot like the Clippers in that their defense will determine if they’re really title contenders, but their offense could be really good. As talented as the other four starters are, Deron Williams is the key to that offense. So it was good to see him finally on the floor, even for just 10 minutes, in Brooklyn’s preseason finale, their second (meaningless) blowout win over the champs.
This week: @ CLE, vs. MIA, @ ORL
|Last week: 9|
Pace: 98.4 (19), OffRtg: 92.0 (23), DefRtg: 94.7 (12), NetRtg: -2.8 (20)
Tayshaun Prince’s illness allowed Mike Miller to get in some reps with the starters in the preseason, and Miller shot well (10-for-24 from 3-point range). Of course, only the Thunder (35 in seven games) hit fewer threes in the preseason than the Grizzlies did (39 in eight games), and Memphis was just awful offensively (145 total points) in its last two games. Same story, different season.
This week: @ SAS, vs. DET, @ DAL
|Last week: 5|
|9||Oklahoma City (4-3)
Pace: 97.0 (27), OffRtg: 98.5 (10), DefRtg: 94.2 (9), NetRtg: +4.3 (10)
Jeremy Lamb struggled in the preseason, but Steven Adams is another piece from the Harden trade who looks like he could contribute right away. As a strong offensive rebounder and finisher at the rim, Adams could give OKC a little bit of the offensive boost it needs with Kevin Martin (permanently) and Russell Westbrook (temporarily) not around. Kevin Durant’s still going to score a ton of points.
This week: @ UTA, @ MIN, vs. PHX
|Last week: 2|
|10||Golden State (3-4)
Pace: 102.9 (4), OffRtg: 90.2 (28), DefRtg: 89.9 (4), NetRtg: +0.3 (17)
The Warriors could be a much more fun version of last year’s Pacers, with one of the best starting lineups in the league and a bench that can’t protect a lead. Concerns about their depth are only exacerbated by Harrison Barnes’ foot injury, which kept him out of the last five preseason games. There’s no word yet on if he’ll be ready for Wednesday’s opener against the Lakers.
This week: vs. LAL, @ LAC, vs. SAC
|Last week: 10|
|11||New York (2-5)
Pace: 96.2 (28), OffRtg: 96.9 (13), DefRtg: 102.9 (30), NetRtg: -6.0 (25)
We shouldn’t look too much into preseason stats, but having both the worst defense and the lowest assist rate in the league is not a good sign for the Knicks. It’s probably going to take some time for Mike Woodson to find a couple of lineups that work well together, especially with J.R. Smith suspended for five games and withhow out-of-sync Andrea Bargnani looked in the preseason.
This week: vs. MIL, @ CHI, vs. MIN
|Last week: 7|
Pace: 99.0 (17), OffRtg: 103.3 (2), DefRtg: 97.1 (21), NetRtg: +6.2 (8)
Kevin Love is healthy and averaged 25.2 points and 11.6 rebounds per 36 minutes in the preseason. Ricky Rubio is now 19 months removed from ACL surgery and Kevin Martin gives them the shooting they desperately needed last season. Derrick Williams remains an X-factor, but the Wolves look to be the favorites to replace the Lakers (and maybe the Nuggets) in the West playoffs.
This week: vs. ORL, vs. OKC, @ NYK
|Last week: 18|
Pace: 97.6 (23), OffRtg: 95.5 (17), DefRtg: 95.0 (15), NetRtg: +0.4 (16)
The Pistons should be strong defensively and on the glass, but we’ll be tuning in to see how this offense is going to work with Greg Monroe at the elbow, Andre Drummond on the baseline and Josh Smith … where, exactly? Smith took 49 of his 69 preseason shots from outside the paint, a brutal ratio for a guy’s who’s a terrific finisher and a sketchy shooter. Every jumper is an adventure.
This week: vs. WAS, @ MEM, vs. BOS
|Last week: 25|
Pace: 100.7 (8), OffRtg: 94.2 (19), DefRtg: 90.4 (5), NetRtg: +3.8 (11)
Robin Lopez will help the Blazers’ defense and the bench should obviously be better with the additions of Mo Williams and Dorell Wright. But what could really help Portland compete for a playoff spot (and take some of the pressure off Lopez on both ends of the floor) is a decent leap from any two of their second-year bigs: Victor Claver, Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson.
This week: @ PHX, @ DEN, vs. SAS
|Last week: 23|
Pace: 98.2 (21), OffRtg: 92.7 (21), DefRtg: 94.8 (13), NetRtg: -2.1 (19)
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Monta Ellis took some crazy shots in the preseason. The Mavs will be one of the most compelling teams in the league with the offensive talent to knock off any opponent on a given night, but defense and frontline depth are big enough questions that you can’t guarantee this team will make it back to the postseason, even if Dirk Nowitzki stays healthy.
This week: vs. ATL, @ HOU, vs. MEM
|Last week: 16|
Pace: 99.9 (11), OffRtg: 87.6 (29), DefRtg: 97.3 (23), NetRtg: -9.6 (29)
Dennis Schroder’s game-winner against the Bobcats helped the Hawks avoid a winless preseason. Atlanta is somewhere in that 6-10 mix in the East, but difficult to pin down with a new forward combination, a new coach and questions about when Lou Williams will return to provide some punch off the bench. They had a similar feel last year with the departure of Joe Johnson.
This week: @ DAL, vs. TOR, @ LAL
|Last week: 14|
Pace: 103.2 (3), OffRtg: 87.6 (30), DefRtg: 94.4 (11), NetRtg: -6.8 (26)
Don’t be too upset if you missed most of the Nuggets’ preseason. It was downright ugly. It did, however, introduce us to the most fascinating frontline in basketball: Anthony Randolph, J.J. Hickson and JaVale McGee. Put those three on the floor together with Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson and you have an instant #LeaguePassAlert. Needless to say, this team is hard to forecast.
This week: @ SAC, vs. POR
|Last week: 4|
Pace: 99.3 (15), OffRtg: 93.2 (20), DefRtg: 92.5 (7), NetRtg: +0.6 (14)
We already knew this, but the Wizards made it clear that it’s a playoffs-or-bust season with Friday’s trade for Marcin Gortat. That puts coach Randy Wittman directly on the hot seat and we’ll see just how important Emeka Okafor was to last season’s eighth-ranked defense. Wednesday’s opener in Detroit gives us our first matchup of teams looking to grab one of the last few Eastern Conference playoff spots.
This week: @ DET, vs. PHI, @ MIA
|Last week: 19|
|19||New Orleans (7-1)
Pace: 99.1 (16), OffRtg: 101.6 (4), DefRtg: 95.7 (17), NetRtg: +5.9 (9)
The Pelicans’ strong preseason, led by some big numbers from Anthony Davis (26.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes), makes them all the more intriguing in that 7-12 range in the West. Greg Stiemsma is the starting center, but we’ll see a lot of the Davis-Ryan Anderson combo, so pick-and-roll defense against the West’s great point guards will be a big question.
This week: vs. IND, @ ORL, vs. CHA
|Last week: 26|
|20||L.A. Lakers (4-4)
Pace: 103.6 (2), OffRtg: 92.5 (22), DefRtg: 96.8 (20), NetRtg: -4.3 (23)
No matter when Kobe Bryant returns, the Lakers project to be a bottom-10 defensive team. The last bottom-10 defense to make the playoffs in the Western Conference was the 2006-07 Lakers, who had a 28-year-old Bryant averaging 41 minutes and 32 points a night for 77 games. He shouldn’t have to do as much work with this supporting cast, but he just might try to.
This week: vs. LAC, @ GSW, vs. SAS, vs. ATL
|Last week: 15|
Pace: 97.4 (24), OffRtg: 102.9 (3), DefRtg: 94.8 (14), NetRtg: +8.1 (4)
The Raptors’ starting lineup is pretty good. The Raptors’ bench is pretty bad. And the chances of both remaining that way through April are pretty slim, because at some point, GM Masai Ujiri is going to start taking this franchise in a new direction. Though this team could fight for a playoff spot as it stands and coach Dwane Casey deserves a chance to see what he can get of it, that direction might first be backward.
This week: vs. BOS, @ ATL, @ MIL
|Last week: 22|
Pace: 100.2 (9), OffRtg: 91.8 (24), DefRtg: 95.9 (18), NetRtg: -4.1 (22)
The Cavs made moves with a clear intent to get Kyrie Irving into the playoffs, but they still have a lot of questions, starting with the health of Andrew Bynum and Anderson Varejao. If at least one of the two is healthy, they can bring Anthony Bennett along slowly. But there’s still a hole at small forward, especially in terms of the perimeter shooting they need to complement Irving’s playmaking.
This week: vs. BKN, @ CHA, @ IND
|Last week: 27|
Pace: 99.3 (14), OffRtg: 100.7 (5), DefRtg: 94.1 (8), NetRtg: +6.6 (7)
With Greivis Vasquez now running the show, the Kings’ offense (which was pretty good in the second half of last season) could be really fun if DeMarcus Cousins stays in the paint and allows other guys, including the improved Patrick Patterson, to spread the floor. And since Mike Malone is a defensive coach, the Kings have a chance to take a decent step forward this season.
This week: vs. DEN, vs. LAC, @ GSW
|Last week: 24|
Pace: 98.2 (20), OffRtg: 91.7 (25), DefRtg: 98.7 (25), NetRtg: -7.0 (27)
The Bucks could be better defensively without Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, but putting O.J. Mayo and Caron Butler on the perimeter is not a clear upgrade. A bigger question is how they’re going to score without a ballhandler who can compromise a defense or any bigs that can do more than catch and finish. The development of Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to be worth watching.
This week: @ NYK, @ BOS, vs. TOR
|Last week: 20|
Pace: 100.1 (10), OffRtg: 91.5 (26), DefRtg: 98.7 (26), NetRtg: -7.2 (28)
Of all the teams that went young this summer, Utah has the biggest group of pieces that will be given the opportunity to step up into a bigger role. So, though Trey Burke’s injury was a major disappointment, there are still a lot of guys to keep an eye on in the first month of the season. Gordon Hayward’s offense and Derrick Favors’ defense will be worth tuning in for on League Pass late at night.
This week: vs. OKC, @ PHX, vs. HOU
|Last week: 17|
Pace: 94.8 (30), OffRtg: 95.1 (18), DefRtg: 88.0 (2), NetRtg: +7.1 (6)
Steve Clifford came to Charlotte with a defensive reputation and the Bobcats played some pretty good defense this month. And they got better on both ends of the floor as the preseason went on, even though Al Jefferson was lost after the first two games. He’s still pretty raw offensively, but Bismack Biyombo averaged 13.3 rebounds per 36 minutes. Jefferson expects to be back for the opener.
This week: @ HOU, vs. CLE, @ NOH
|Last week: 29|
Pace: 99.8 (12), OffRtg: 96.2 (16), DefRtg: 102.2 (29), NetRtg: -6.0 (24)
Occasional spacing issues aside, Victor Oladipo looks like the real deal, averaging 19.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists per 36 minutes in the preseason. He’s going to have his growing pains with playing point guard, but that move should help him in the Rookie of the Year race, because the ball is going to be in his hands. Four of the last five ROY winners have been point guards.
This week: @ IND, @ MIN, vs. NOH, vs. BKN
|Last week: 30|
Pace: 97.2 (26), OffRtg: 96.8 (14), DefRtg: 97.9 (24), NetRtg: -1.1 (18)
Phil Pressey was the Celtics’ best playmaker in the preseason, Vitor Faverani showed the around-the-basket skills to be a decent big man in this league, and Kelly Olynyk carried over some of his Summer League success. But there weren’t many positives in Boston beyond subtle signs of promise from some rookies. They start the season with three teams that will jump them in the East standings.
This week: @ TOR, vs. MIL, @ DET
|Last week: 12|
Pace: 107.0 (1), OffRtg: 90.3 (27), DefRtg: 101.4 (27), NetRtg: -11.1 (30)
Surprise! The Sixers had the worst point differential in the preseason, even though one of their games was against a non-NBA team. What’s interesting is that they played at a ridiculously fast pace, pushing the ball at every opportunity. They’re here (and not at No. 30), because they have Thaddeus Young (who gets to shoot 3-pointers again!). But if he gets traded, maybe that 9-73 record is within reach.
This week: vs. MIA, @ WAS, vs. CHI
|Last week: 21|
Pace: 102.2 (5), OffRtg: 98.9 (7), DefRtg: 91.3 (6), NetRtg: +7.6 (5)
A few days ago, the Suns at least had a Dragic/Gortat pick-and-roll to work with. But now that Marcin Gortat has been sent to Washington, it’s unclear how this team is going to win games. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe are a fun pair of guards and it will be interesting to see how the young bigs develop, but this is the new worst roster in basketball. Jeff Hornacek has his work cut out for him.
This week: vs. POR, vs. UTA, @ OKC
|Last week: 28|