With Free-Agency essentially wrapped up and most of the player movement done for the summer, it feels like a natural time to take a good look at all of the new rosters and see how they stack up against one another. I'll be saving the best for last, so in this first of three "Power Ranking's" articles, I'll be starting with the teams ranked 30-21.
Some notes before I begin:
The "Full Scale Rebuild" Teams:
30. Washington Wizards:
I came into these Power Rankings thinking there was absolutely no way that any team could challenge the Hornets for the lowest spot. Well, low and behold, the Washington Wizards have not only challenged them, but they’ve taken that spot, and with relative ease.
Make no mistake about it, the Wizards have a top-15 NBA player in the league in Bradley Beal, and he’s probably the best player in this entire Power Rankings segment of teams 30-21. However, what the Wizards have around Bradley Beal is an absolute mess. They have no real GM, but rather an interim GM in Tommy Sheppard. They have what is probably the league’s worst and most immovable contract in John Wall, who is likely to miss the entire season while rehabbing a ruptured Achilles after already missing a large portion of last year. They have no exciting young talent outside of Thomas Bryant, Rui Hachimura and Troy Brown Jr, and to even call them exciting is probably being very generous. On top of that all, the only real way for them to gain the financial flexibility to move forward is probably to trade Bradley Beal who is currently the last remaining ray of hope for an organization otherwise stuck in no-mans land thanks to roster mismanagement and some bad luck.
To be blunt, this Wizards roster isn’t just bad, it’s scary bad. The starting lineup, whoever ends up in it, is essentially Bradley Beal with what would be most other team’s bench units, and the guys 3-10 on the roster after Beal and Bryant are all so similarly mediocre that it’s hard to know who those starters will even be. This is probably the worst roster on paper in the entire league.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers:
I was a bit confused on draft night when the Cavaliers decided to take Darius Garland with the 5th pick rather than a wing like Jarrett Culver considering they already have a point guard that they drafted last year in Collin Sexton. Whether Cleveland plays Garland and Sexton alongside each other or looks for a trade partner for Sexton, the choice was, much like past Cleveland draft selections *cough* Anthony Bennet *cough*, perplexing -- although I like Garland’s potential as a player much more than Sexton’s. Their other draft night addition, Kevin Porter Jr. from USC, was a nice value at the #30 pick.
While they didn’t make any big, noteworthy free agency acquisitions, they will have Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson fully healthy to begin the season after the two played 22 and 43 games respectively last year. The question is, how much does that really help them? In the 22 games that Love played last year, the Cavs were 7-15, and in the 9 games that both Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson played last year, they were 1-8. I expect that Love may find a new home by the trade deadline, and unless the haul for him brings in a guy who immediately impact winning, this is another roster that somehow can’t even top Charlotte.
28. Charlotte Hornets:
Would you believe me if I told you that the Hornets have only won one game without Kemba Walker since March 9th, 2015? That’s largely thanks to Kemba’s insane durability and him only having missed 6 games since then, but it speaks to this franchise’s total reliance on him over the years. And now? He’s gone to Boston.
The place that the Hornets find themselves in now can largely be blamed on their actions in the summer of 2016-2017, when the front office handed out astronomical contracts to Nicolas Batum (5 Years/$120M), Bismack Biyombo (4 Years/$72M), Marvin Williams (4 Years/$54M) and Michael Kidd Gilchrist (4 Years/$52M). The following summer, they went ahead and shelled out another 4 years, $56 million to Cody Zeller. After losing Kemba Walker because they didn’t have the financial flexibility to feel comfortable paying him the super-max, you would think they would have learned their lesson. Instead, even with a relatively new GM in Mitch Kupchak, the Hornets stuck with tradition this summer and massively overpaid for Terry Rozier with a 3 year deal worth $58 million -- a whopping $19 million per year. The six aforementioned players (Batum, Rozier, Biyombo, Williams, Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller) will be paid a combined $104.9 million this upcoming year-86.53% of the teams total salary cap space.
In the last three years, the Hornets have done a solid job in the draft unlike prior years. Miles Bridges, Malik Monk and PJ Washington could, and probably should, all become starter-level players in due time, and that’s not bad for guys picked at the back end of the lottery. For right now, however, the Hornets are left with a roster that’s down an All-NBA point guard in Kemba Walker and a 15-PPG scorer in Jeremy Lamb, and couldn’t even break 40 wins with them. Terry Rozier, who looked less than capable as a viable starting point guard for most of last year, will finally get his shot to prove he deserves a starting role, but I don’t have much faith at all in this roster topping 20-25 wins with him at the helm and these lackluster surrounding pieces.
27. Memphis Grizzlies:
With the last remaining players of the “Grit and Grind” Grizzlies era, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, heading out the door for Toronto and Utah, the Grizzlies are officially in full-on rebuild mode now. They have their young core set with Ja Morant, Josh Jackson, Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr; and a good mix of younger pros and older veterans to surround them with. There’s no telling how quickly new Head Coach Taylor Jenkins will throw all of the young guys into the starting lineup, but with nothing to lose and no real hopes of being competitive, that time should come sooner rather than later.
The Celtics own the Grizzlies pick next year, but it is top-6 protected. If they want to make sure that it goes to the Celtics this year rather than becoming an unprotected pick for the Celtics in 2021, they may throw a lineup out there with Tyus Jones and Jae Crowder in place of Morant and Josh Jackson to be as competitive as possible for the purposes of that pick.
The “No Easy Win” Teams: Teams that will play everyone tough but aren’t playoff contenders.
26. New York Knicks:
The Knicks are a tricky team to rank. Mitchell Robinson -- or, as I like to call him, Robert Williams with playing time -- is a nice young piece for their core. If you’re super-high on RJ Barrett, I understand that, though I myself am not necessarily. If you’re super-high on Kevin Knox, Alonzo Trier or Dennis Smith Jr on the other hand, well, you’re probably just super high.
All jokes aside, the Knicks actually have a pretty respectable roster this upcoming year. When they struck out in free agency, they added guys like Elfrid Payton, Julius Randle, Wayne Ellington, Bobby Portis and former Celtic Marcus Morris on varying lengths of deals that should give them flexibility to be free agency players during the next several summers. In the meantime, that collection of more experienced players should help them not only win a decent amount of games, but also aid them in their task of rebuilding a culture that can attract free agents.
When it comes to ranking them, however, I just can’t put them much further up. Where I have them, they are above 3 other Eastern Conference teams, which I think would be a nice step up for them from last year. They should be competitive and scrappy and have the potential to be vastly improved on the defensive end from last year, but they just don’t have enough to be put over teams above them like Detroit, Chicago, Miami and Atlanta. This year is just another year of waiting for Knicks fans as they eye the next free agency period and watch their young guys develop.
25. Chicago Bulls:
I have the Bulls over the Knicks largely because of how I perceive their young cores. Of all of the young players on both teams, Lauri Markannen is the best in my eyes. On top of that, I really loved what I saw from Wendell Carter before his injury last year. Add in Zach LaVine, Otto Porter and Kris Dunn and they have a starting lineup with exciting potential if everyone can stay healthy and live up to their potential. Unfortunately, staying healthy is easier said than done for those five guys as Zach Lavine’s 63 games played was the highest number for any of them last season.
After drafting Coby White, Chicago also made some nice additions in free agency this year, picking up Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky and Luke Kornet to fill out their bench, or in some cases, potentially plug into the starting lineup. They won’t make much noise this year, but they should be a competitive team like the Knicks that helps change the complexion of the Eastern Conference to a conference that has less roll-over, automatic-win games for the top teams than in years past. This year is all about development and growing chemistry for the Bulls.
The “Playoff Hunt” Teams: Teams in the playoff hunt for the last 1-2 seeds in each conference (“Playoff Hunt” teams 15-20 will be released later)
24. Detroit Pistons
I give Detroit the nod over the teams below them for a few reasons. One is that they have star power unlike the teams below them outside of Washington. The second reason is that, unlike Washington, they have help for their star, Blake Griffin, including Andre Drummond who may be a “star” in his own right depending on your definition of the word. The problem for Detroit, however, is that the help surrounding those two isn’t enough to vault them much higher up this list. Yes, they squeaked into the playoffs last year as the 8th seed, but they did so in a ridiculously top-heavy Eastern Conference. Next year, even the teams seeded 10-13 in the Eastern Conference will be far more competitive than they previously were, and the margin for error will be even slimmer than it was last year when the playoff race came down to the final days of the season.
I like the additions of Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris for the Pistons a lot, I’m just not sure how they vault Detroit past being a 36-44 win team.
23. Atlanta Hawks:
I really like the young core that the Atlanta Hawks have built over the last several years and I so badly wanted to place them as many as 4-5 spots higher, but the competition is so fiercely close for these mid-tier teams that it was too hard to do so.
Trae Young flashed massive potential last year, John Collins has proved to be one of the steals of his draft class, and Kevin Huerter has shown promise as a catch and shoot wing. On top of that, the Hawks got two picks in the top-10 of this year’s drafts with which they selected De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, solidifying their young core as one of the brightest young cores in the league. Beyond that young core, they have solid role players like DeAndre Bembry, Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe.
I think that the Hawks can make a strong push for the 8th seed in the East, but I could see a world in which they need that star player to push them over the edge and don’t have a guy like Miami and Detroit do in Jimmy Butler and Blake Griffin. Will Trae Young become that guy as soon as his second year? I love his potential, but I doubt it. It’d be nice to see this young Hawks team get into the playoffs and get their young guys some experience with that, but if they don’t they can still have a successful season without being ashamed. They are probably another year of development away from when they should start expecting to make the playoffs, and that is just fine.
22. Miami Heat:
Things could change quickly for the Heat if they end up making a deal for Chris Paul, and I would probably move them up a couple spots in the event that they do, but for right now I have them all the way back at #23. Now, 23rd looks bad, but when you consider where my rankings put them amongst Eastern Conference teams, it’s not all that crazy. My rankings place them 9th in the Eastern Conference, where they finished last year before a seeding tiebreaker moved them to 10th. You might be wondering, how can they add Jimmy Butler and not move up at all?
Well, they also lost Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside, and the teams that finished ahead of them last year all either also got better, or kept their roster largely in place from last year aside from Charlotte. I think Jimmy is the type of guy whose play style and mindset requires him to be the #1 guy for a team, but I'm not quite sure he is the level of talent to be the #1 on a team that's any better than the 6-8 seed like his Chicago Bulls teams were.
21. Phoenix Suns:
This feels really weird to say but...I kind of like the Suns’ roster..? I think?
There’s not really any reason to believe in the Suns even though their roster hasn’t looked this good for the majority of the last decade. Last year, even with the number one pick, Deandre Ayton, alongside 4th year pro Devin Booker, they were still unable to top 20 wins. So maybe I’m foolish for placing them this high, and I guarantee you some people will call me just that.
This year, however, I just feel like it’s time to hold them to a higher standard. Booker is entering his 5th year in the league and is over two years removed from dropping 70 points. In the last two seasons since that, the Suns have won a total of 40 games. Think about the expectations people had for Jayson Tatum this past year because of a nice playoff run, and how much criticism he’s received for not living up to those expectations. Now imagine how scrutinized he’d be if he dropped 70 points in a game but could only lead his team to 40 wins combined the following two seasons.
We may expect less from Booker because he plays in a smaller market like Phoenix, because he’s in the tougher conference or because his surrounding talent is weaker, but it’s time to stop with the excuses. The Suns’ 8 man rotation of Rubio, Booker, Oubre, Saric, Ayton, Johnson, Kaminsky, Baynes is good enough that Booker, in his fifth year, no longer has an excuse that his surrounding talent isn’t good enough. They may not contend very closely for the 8th seed during a season in which 45-50 wins may be needed to earn it, but they damn sure shouldn’t be a bottom dweller again. I can’t say I expect this team to win at least 35 games, because, well, they’re the Suns, but I think that if they don’t we need to start having some dialogues about the young guys there, especially Booker.
Photo: Dan Zanine/USA Today Sports