In this edition of my early NBA Power Rankings, I have teams ranked 1-10. These teams include the last of the "2nd Tier Contenders" teams from my previous article ranking teams 11-20, as well as the "Championship Contenders". If you missed my rankings of teams 21-30, you can check those out here. My rankings of teams 11-20 can be found here.
Some notes before I begin:
10. Toronto Raptors:
2018-2019 Record: 58-24
Possible Starters: Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol
Bench: Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Patrick McCaw, Malcolm Miller
In many cases, these rankings aren’t a reflection of how I expect the standings to turn out during the regular season. For instance I have the Jazz ranked behind 5 other Western Conference teams but could easily see them finishing atop the Western Conference standings during regular season play because of a number of factors. For the Raptors however, their ranking on my list in relation to other Eastern Conference teams reflects where I would predict them to finish.
With Kyrie and his new Brooklyn team likely taking some time to figure out chemistry, and the Pacers likely having to wait half of the season or so for Oladipo to return, I like the Raptors’ chances of finishing in the top half of the playoff seeding in the East. The Raptors’ record of 17-4 in games that Kawhi Leonard missed last season is one reason to be confident in their continued success without him, but I also like the pieces they added over the summer to recover from losing him. While they aren’t flash names by any means, Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are both solid signings who may just need the right system and opportunity to flourish into more than what they have been thus far in their careers. Neither guy really has “star” potential, but both can and should be more than competent parts of the Raptors’ rotation.
Another thing the Raptors have going for them is that they will have Marc Gasol with them for a full season after he joined for the home stretch last year. It will be interesting to see how they configure their lineup as Serge Ibaka largely took on a bench role during the Raptors’ playoff run while Pascal Siakam played most of his minutes at the 4. There have been some rumblings that Nick Nurse may move Siakam down to the 3, so perhaps they will go really big with both Ibaka and Gasol sharing the paint. In either case, I like the continuity of the Raptors’ roster, and I think that gives them an edge over teams with similar levels of talent like Brooklyn and Indiana.
9. Boston Celtics:
2018-2019 Record: 49-33
Possible Starters: Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter
Bench: Brad Wanamaker, Marcus Smart, Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, Vincent Poirier, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford
People may call me a homer for placing the Celtics so high, but I really don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I even started with the Celtics back around #12 in my rankings and it wasn’t until I started writing up my reasoning for each team’s ranking that I realized I probably had them too low. We all know the guys that the Celtics lost last year -- Irving, Horford, Morris and Rozier -- and we all know who they brought in -- Walker, Kanter, Langford, Williams, Edwards, Poirier. On paper, the subtractions look like they outweigh the additions significantly, but on the court this may not necessarily be the case.
There is no question that the loss of Al Horford will be nearly impossible to replace. The Celtics have a host of big men that can all do one or two things really well, but none of them can do everything well like Al Horford could. The Celtics will likely have to throw out different big men based on what they need at the time (offense, defense, shooting, rebounding, etc.) rather than having one guy that can do all of those things at a high level.
On the other hand, the other guys should be replaced just fine. While Kemba Walker may only give them 85-90% of Kyrie’s production, his play style and leadership qualities should fit this young team far better than Kyrie. While Morris had a very solid season, he still reverted frequently back to his “iso-Mook” ways and killed the flow of the offense with questionable shot selection. He also seemed to simply lack the same positive energy and fire that helped push the team to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018, and that lack of enthusiasm was something that he made public multiple times throughout the season with quotes like “it hasn’t been fun in a long time here.” Morris wasn’t the only guy with negative energy and questionable shot selection as those two things define Terry Rozier’s season more perfectly than anything else could. Replacing Terry with two presumably ego-less backup guards in Brad Wanamaker and Carsen Edwards should be yet another case of “addition by subtraction” for Boston.
I see Jayson Tatum andJaylen Brown both taking the leaps we expected from them last year, and the fact that those two, Smart and some of the other core guys will be back next year gives me confidence that things like chemistry and play style won’t take as long to get figured out as they will for other teams. Not to mention, the three aforementioned guys and Kemba Walker will all be playing together in Team USA training camp and perhaps the World Cup, so they will have a headstart on things compared to other newly assembled rosters.
8. Golden State Warriors:
2018-2019 Record: 57-25
Possible Starters: Steph Curry, D’Angelo Russell, Damion Lee*, Draymond Green, Willie Cauley-Stein
Bench: Klay Thompson*, Kevon Looney, Alec Burks, Alfonzo McKinnie, Jacob Evans, Glenn Robinson II, Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall
Pending FA’s: Damion Lee, Jonas Jerebko, Andrew Bogut
*Klay Thompson is recovering from a torn ACL and may return any time between February and the Playoffs
If Klay Thompson were healthy, I wouldn’t dare put the Warriors lower than 5 in my rankings. Even with KD gone, you’ll never see me betting against the core of Steph, Klay, and Draymond. With Klay out until at least February, however, it wouldn’t shock me to see the Warriors end up in the back half of the Western Conference playoff seeding, somewhere around the 6th or 7th seed.
Things could always go differently, but I can very easily envision a world in which Steph plays like his unanimous-MVP-season self, Draymond stays in the shape he was in during these past playoffs, and the two of them alongside D-Lo are able to remind us all that we shouldn’t ever doubt them as long as that 73-9 season core is still around. There’s not a lot to say about Golden State because at this point we sort of know who they are, even when things are so up in the air for their future. Will they be as consistently good as the Warriors we’ve seen the last 5 years? No. Will they win as many games? Definitely not. But if and when a team at the top half of the Western Conference playoff seeding has to play them in early April, I guarantee you they’ll be kicking themselves for ending up matched up with them.
7. Utah Jazz:
2018-2019 Record: 50-32
Possible Starters: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gobert
Bench: Emmanuel Mudiay, Royce O’Neale, Ed Davis, Jeff Green, Dante Exum, Georges Niang, Tony Bradley
I really like Utah’s roster, and outside of Brooklyn and LAC, they probably had the best summer of any team. Not only did they add Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jeff Green and Ed Davis, but they were able to find a suitor in New Orleans to take Derrick Favors off of their hands as well.
The additions of Conley and Bogdanovic should help relieve the offensive load that Donovan Mitchell was forced to carry the last two years, and in turn, Mitchell should become a far more efficient player. Without having to worry about Derrick Favors’ playing time anymore, the Jazz can now space the floor more for Rudy Gobert who scored at a significantly higher clip without Favors on the floor last year than when they shared the court. The two big men were able to figure out a way to make it work for last season when they played together, but it was inevitable that Favors would have to be moved eventually to allow Gobert to play to his fullest potential and to put him in the best position to do so.
As I mentioned in the Raptors’ section, I think the Jazz have a legitimate shot to win the West during the regular season or at least finish in the top-2. I could easily see them winning 55 or so games, and their over/under total at Caesar’s Sportsbook in Vegas stands at 52.5, good for second in the conference behind Denver at 55. When it comes to the playoffs, however, I am going to have to see it to believe it and I have a hard time putting them ahead of the star-studded LA teams, Denver, or Houston who they have lost to in two straight playoffs now. Again, I think they are going to be REALLY good, but I am not going to get too high on them until I see things play out on the court.
6. Houston Rockets:
2018-2019 Record: 53-29
Possible Starters: Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, James Harden, PJ Tucker, Clint Capela
Bench: Austin Rivers, Gerald Green, Danuel House, Gary Clark, Deyonta Davis, Michael Frazier
Pending FA’s: Nene Hilario, Kenneth Faried, Iman Shumpert
After the blockbuster Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook trade, the Rockets still have a lot of the same problems as before. They have two guys that will have to learn to share the ball despite both being incredibly ball dominant players, and they have little to no depth off their bench. The only reason I’m not against the Westbrook trade is that the Rockets had sort of maxed out with the previous roster, and I don’t hate making a big swing to see if they can reach that next level rather than riding out the same team that was seemingly stuck in its tracks with nowhere to go but down.
I’m not really sure how you take two guys with the two highest usage percentages in a single season in NBA history and put them on the same team and make things work, but Houston has welcomed exactly that challenge. Maybe the fact that the Rockets’ “7 seconds or less” offense has gotten slower over the last few years with Harden’s isolation-heavy play style will be good for Russ. With his athleticism fading and his jump shot going with it, a change of pace could benefit him despite the fact that his explosion was always something that gave him a leg up over everyone else on the court. Maybe having guys like James Harden, PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon to kick the ball out to rather than guys like Terrance Ferguson and Andre Roberson will force defenses to pay attention to his surrounding pieces far more than in the past, unlocking more for him on offense. Or maybe this experiment will fail miserably. All we know now is that the previous roster was going nowhere, and while Morey is risking massive, long-term failure with this move, it may have been necessary for both the team’s success and appeasing James Harden.
5. Los Angeles Lakers:
2018-2019 Record: 37-45
Possible Starters: Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, LeBron James, Anthony Davis
Bench: Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, DeMarcus Cousins, Javale McGee, Jared Dudley, Alex Caruso
I had to convince myself to even place the Lakers this high. No, I am not being a Lakers hater. Rather, I am being a Lakers realist. This roster around LeBron and Anthony Davis isn’t just “Okay”. It’s flat out bad.
No matter how many Lakers fans try to use Avery Bradley’s 16-game stint in Memphis at the end of last year to tell us he’s serviceable or how much they want us to ignore Cousins’ routine defensive failures in Golden State, don’t let them fool you. Avery Bradley was so bad for the Clippers in his time there last season that it was celebrated when they finally got rid of him. A 16 game sample size of empty stats for a bottom-feeding Memphis team means nothing compared to how bad he was for the majority of the year in LA. When Demarcus Cousins was on the court during the regular season last year, the Warriors were +4.0 points per-100 possessions and while he was off of the court they were +6.9. During the playoffs, those per-100 possessions numbers went to -10.5 points when Cousins was on the court and +5.3 points when he was off.
At the point guard position, the Lakers have Rajon Rondo and Quinn Cook. During last season, the Lakers were 8.2 points worse than their opposition per-100 possessions when Rajon Rondo was on the court and 1.9 points better when he was off. When you hear Lakers fans talk about their offseason, one of the most frequent complaints is that Rondo was brought back at all. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t get much better behind him as Quinn Cook isn’t exactly the most exciting backup piece. During the regular season, the Warriors were -6.0 per-100 possessions when Cook was on the court, and +10.7 when he was off. In the playoffs, they were 13.4 points worse with Cook on the court and 7.2 points better when he was off. The excuse could be made that he was playing with a weak second unit, but then again, that’s exactly what he’ll be playing with this year with the Lakers.
I guess I sort of understand the Lakers waiting for Kawhi if they thought they had a chance, but it seems to me like the only people who thought the Lakers had a chance outside of Lakers Twitter and talking heads in the media was the Lakers themselves. The fact that they convinced themselves they had a real shot, and in turn let all of the mid-tier free agent talent sign elsewhere while they waited, is so Lakers it hurts. In the end, they were left filling out the roster with guys that fans have to brainwash themselves into thinking are decent. After watching the way the Warriors went down last season with a couple of injuries to their stars and zero depth behind them, I’d be very scared to be a Lakers fan. They still have the top-end talent in AD and Bron to justify a top-5 ranking, but one injury to one of those guys and things can spiral very, very quickly for this team just as they did last year. I thought from the beginning that the Lakers should have used their 32 million in cap space to spread around to multiple decent role players in free agency, but I should have known that chasing the big fish was too enticing for an organization like them to pass up.
4. Denver Nuggets:
2018-2019 Record: 54-28
Possible Starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
Bench: Will Barton, Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangomez, Michael Porter Jr.
Continuity and growth. Those two words are about all you need to know about why the Nuggets’ are so highly ranked on my list. Last season, the Nuggets were the youngest team in the NBA playoffs, and they made it to within minutes of a Western Conference Finals birth. This season, they return 12 players that make up 92% of last year’s minutes played, both the highest marks in the league as far as continuity numbers go. In addition to keeping their rotation firmly in place, they were able to add Jerami Grant in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, giving them another nice young piece to add to one of the better young cores in the league. Whether he starts or comes off of the bench, Grant should serve as a nice complementary piece to Nikola Jokic.
The other major move that the Nuggets made over the summer was extending Jamal Murray to a 5-year extension worth roughly $170 million. If Murray can take another small leap after shining at multiple times during the playoffs, and justify the money that he is receiving, that could be the difference between the Nuggets being a great regular season team and being legitimate title contenders.
Along with Murray, there’s a whole host of guys on the Nuggets roster that should be expected to make a jump over the next year or two. Guys like Monte Morris, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, and Malik Beasley should continue to improve, and needless to say the sky's the limit for Nikola Jokic who is already right there on the borderline of the MVP conversation. Entering last year’s playoffs, expectations were relatively low for Denver thanks to their inexperience despite spending most of the season atop the standings. This year, after experiencing two game sevens and having another year of growth together, that won;t be the expectation any longer. The Nuggets have a legitimate shot to be a force this year, and it wouldn’t shock me whatsoever to see them finish atop the Western Conference this year.
3. Philadelphia Sixers:
2018-2019 Record: 51-31
Possible starters: Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Joel Embiid
Bench: Mike Scott, James Ennis, Jonah Bolden, Zhaire Smith, Raul Neto, Kyle O’Quinn, Matisse Thybulle
I really, really like the Sixers’ lineup as much as it pains me to say it. With JJ Redick now in New Orleans, shooting will still be a problem for the Sixers and potentially even more so than before; but their defense should be good enough to minimize that problem in many cases. The Sixers’ starting lineup will undoubtedly be the longest and biggest lineup in the league, and they should suffocate teams on the defensive end, especially with a guy as intelligent on that end as Al Horford now in town to command the defense. On the offensive side of things, Horford will space the floor unlike any big man Embiid has ever played alongside, and Embiid will no longer have to worry about facing one of his most difficult matchups now that Horford is with him and not against him.
One big thing to watch for Philly is how their wings shoot the ball. During the 2017-2018 season, Tobias Harris shot 41.1% on 3-pointers, and that number jumped to 43.4% in 55 games this past season with the Clippers. When Harris got to Philadelphia, however, his 3-point percentage dropped to 32.6% on even more attempts per game. In the playoffs, his 3-point percentage remained below league average at 34.9%. If he doesn’t return at least somewhat close to his pre-Philly self from 3-point range, it may be time to start wondering what is in the water in Philly that causes all of their guys to forget how to shoot. The other guy to watch is Josh Richardson. In his first year in the league, Richardson shot 115 3-pointers and made them at a ridiculous 46% clip. However, in the three years since then, Richardson has attempted a total of 1023 3-pointers and shot just 35.8% on them, good for just above league average. Last season, Richardson shot a staggering 6.3 3-pointers per game, but only made 35.7% of them. The Sixers would likely take that percentage if he can duplicate it, but if he can get that number up closer to 38-39% it would do wonders for the Sixers’ offense.
I wanted to rank the Sixers higher than I have them, but eventually their depth problems prevented me from doing it. For years now, I have said time and time again that Philly’s second unit and their failure to address it will be their downfall, and they have yet to prove me wrong. When it comes playoff time and Joel Embiid is forced to play 40 minutes and Ben Simmons can’t come off the court despite wanting nothing to do with the ball in crunch time, they have nobody else to turn to to give those guys a break. It’s hard to say where this Sixers bench ranks among their benches of the last two years, but it certainly isn’t much better if at all. I’ve heard for two years now that the second unit isn’t an issue when the season starts because they will “add guys during buyout season” and yet this never seems to happen, or at least those guys they’ve added around the deadline haven’t been real contributors. I don’t want to hear about these hypothetical guys they are going to add just to see them add James Ennis and Jonathan Simmons-types again or trade depth for more star talent as they did last year. For them to reach their true ceiling, I think it’s going to take a move or two to sure up that depth, or one of the young guys like Zhaire or Matisse quickly becoming serious contributors.
2. Milwaukee Bucks:
2018-2019 Record: 60-22
Possible Starters: Eric Bledsoe, Wes Matthews, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
Bench: George Hill, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown, Ersan Ilyasova, Robin Lopez, Donte DiVincenzo, DJ Wilson
The Bucks’ 60 win season last year was no fluke, and not thanks to a weaker conference or any other factor that aided them. They were legitimately a dominant team in all aspects. From only losing back-to-back games once all season to beating their opponents by a league-high 8.9 points per game, the Bucks entered the playoffs as the most dominant regular season team since the 73 win Warriors. This is why it was so weird when all of a sudden they lost FOUR straight games to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
This year, the Bucks will be out for revenge, and it scares me what a motivated Giannis is going to do as he sets out to exact that revenge upon the league. The question is, how much better can he even become, and will it be enough to replace the loss of Malcolm Brogdon? There’s no question that the loss of Brogdon will be tough for the Bucks to get over, but with 11 players returning that make up 77% of last year’s minutes, I think the Bucks should be fine for the most part. Perhaps they regress back to something like 53-55 wins, but that is still a damn good mark to reach. Compared to the rest of the Eastern Conference below them, the Bucks’ roster changes were minor and there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll jump out to another quick start while those teams figure things out. The Sixers could very well become a legitimate threat to them come playoff time, but for now the Bucks are in a league of their own in the East.
1. Los Angeles Clippers:
2018-2019 Record: 48-34
Possible Starters: Patrick Beverly, Landry Shamet, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George*, Ivica Zubac
Bench: Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Maurice Harkless, Rodney McGruder, JaMychal Green, Jerome Robinson
*Paul George may miss some time at the start of the year due to a shoulder injury he is rehabbing.
The Clippers are the clear cut #1 in my rankings and there was little to no question about it. When the Clips gave the Warriors a hard time in the first round of last year’s playoffs, everyone sort of fell in love with them and especially their bench duo of Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. The one thing they lacked, however, was a true star player. Now, they have two of them and were able to bring them in while still keeping essentially the same core in place around them.
There’s hardly any holes in the Clippers’ roster. They probably have the best and most deep set of guys 1-10 in the entire league, and the mix of play styles is perfect. Their two stars can dominate on both ends of the floor and they have an abundance of defensive and offensive specialists to surround them. They can trot out a lineup with Beverley, Harkless, Leonard, George in it that teams won’t be able to score against, or they can throw Lou Williams, Shamet, Leonard, George and Harrell out there and outscore anybody. It really is the best of both worlds, and they have a fantastic coach in Doc Rivers to manage it all. The lethal combination of star talent at the top of the roster and competent depth throughout the rest of it sets the Clippers apart from pretty much every other team in the league.
Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images