If the start of this NBA off-season has shown us anything, it’s that the split between the elite teams and the schedule-fillers is swelling. Actually, the NBA is on the verge of moving further from parity than at any time since the 1997/98 season, when four teams (Bulls, Jazz, Sonics and Lakers) won over 60 games and five teams won fewer than 20 (Warriors, Grizzlies, Clippers, Raptors and Nuggets, who won only 11).
There’s a lot more player movement we should expect in the coming weeks, or maybe not. In any case, it just seems like a perfect time to figure out where we stand before everyone starts getting waaaaayyyy too excited about mediocre players lighting it up in the Summer League. “Oooh, Marco Belinelli scored 32 points, he’s on the verge!!!”
We’ll win more than 60:
1. Los Angeles Lakers (NBA Champs): Signing Ron Artest was the perfect move, because it not only gives the Lakers someone to defend bigger SFs but it also, more importantly, keeps Phil Jackson from getting bored. The question remains: will Lamar Odom give L.A. the discount he promised, or will Mitch Kupchak have to pay Odom under the table in Zagnut bars and Lik-M-Aid Fun Dip?
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (Lost Conf. Finals): In a move that surprised no one, Shaq was brought in to play an aging Kareem Abdul-Jabaar to LeBron’s rising Magic Johnson. Couple problems — Kareem never clogged the lane, and the Cavs still lack perimeter scoring (unless LeBron’s jumper improves quite a bit this summer, which is possible). Could they get Shawn Marion to sign for the exception? Do they even want to?
3. Boston Celtics (Lost Conf. Semis): Replacing Big Baby and Leon Powe with Rasheed Wallace isn’t like the Lakers swapping Ariza for Artest, because Wallace is over a decade older than both players. And now Danny Ainge wants Grant Hill too? Why doesn’t he just trade for Jerry Stackhouse and Michael Finley while he’s at it? Regardless of what other senior citizens Ainge brings in, with Sheed and Kendrick Perkins on the same team the Celtics might set an NBA record for suspensions due to technical fouls in a season.
We could win 60 too, but we need a few breaks to go our way:
4. Denver Nuggets (Lost Conf. Finals): Great under-the-radar trade for Ty Lawson, especially with Chaunceyâ€™s mediocre showing in the Western Conference Finals. If the Nuggets don’t re-sign Linus Kleiza or the Birdman, wouldn’t each player sort of make sense for the Warriors in their own strange way? (OK, maybe not Chris Anderson with Ronny Turiaf around, but deep down you know what I mean). The way Carmelo shrunk as the Lakers series went on can’t make George Karl feel too confident, but the Nuggets are still the second-best team in the West.
5. San Antonio Spurs (Lost 1st Rnd): Trading for Richard Jefferson makes them more explosive and brings a nice “stat guy” presence if that’s what you’re into, but who’s going to play center for this team without Oberto or Thomas…actually, who’s going to play center even if those guys come back? Tim Duncan? This doesn’t seem to be the right time in Duncan’s career to make life harder for him. Love that they’re close to combining DeJuan Blair with Big Baby, though. If they sign Oliver Miller (he’s available!), they’ll need more than an Airbus for their charter jet, they’ll need an Air-semi! Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week.
6. Orlando Magic (Lost NBA Finals): Dwight Howard’s supporting cast was already too small — exchanging Hedo for Vince Carter makes them downright miniscule. Ryan Anderson’s decent, but can he improve enough from a surprisingly good rookie year to help Dwight Howard? Will they match the offer sheet Marcin Gortat signed with Dallas? Hard to imagine this team getting back to the Finals.
60 wins is a long shot for us, but you never know:
7. Dallas Mavericks (Lost Conf. Semis): At least they’re trying to stay in the conversation, although they really have no choice but to go for it after re-signing Jason Kidd for three more years. Too bad they’re the team going after Shawn Marion (instead of the next team on the list, who really should), even though they already have two other combo forwards with Dirk and Josh Howard around. Gortat’s a nice addition, but they’ll still lack interior scoring. Still, this will probably be Mark Cuban’s most talented bunch since the crew that got upset by the Warriors in 2007.
8. Portland Trailblazers (Lost 1st Rnd): I know this new version of the Blazers is all about character, but would it kill them to look at Marion? I know he doesn’t have that whole “crafty Euro” thing that Hedo brings to the table, but Marion sure looks like someone who (1): has a lot to prove and (2): doesn’t look near as likely to break down as Turkoglu. Plus, Marion would be cheaper and mesh better with LaMarcus Aldridge than Odom. Of course, they’ve moved past the team that defeated them in the playoffs without really doing anything, so Portland is already on the right track.
9. Houston Rockets (Lost Conf. Semis): They weren’t really that bad in the Lakers series after losing Yao Ming, they replaced Artest with Ariza (which will come in handy if they want to just keep McGrady let him score 27 ppg during his contract year) and they have a top-five coach and GM. They’ve built this team around Yao, though, and Yao may never come back. That’s got to hurt.
Alert, Alert — major quality drop-off approaching quickly!:
10. Utah Jazz (Lost 1st Rnd.): Who would have thought having Paul Millsap and Carlos Boozer on the same team would be such a burden? Hey Jazz fans, does a core of Millsap and Deron Williams excite you? If it does, congratulations — even in a dry state, you’ve found a way to become completely delusional!
11. Atlanta Hawks (Lost Conf. Semis): You can’t help but enjoy watching Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, but this is one short team. Al Horford’s listed at 6’10” (uh, right), and they might not even re-sign Zaza Pachulia. Nice job retaining Mike Bibby for 3 years and $18 million, though. Not a bad contract, and it means they won’t have to start Jamal Crawford.
12. Miami Heat (Lost 1st Rnd.): A lot of pressure on Michael Beasley this season. If he becomes the 20/10 guy many (including myself) thought he’d be coming out of college, the Heat just might be able to keep Dwyane Wade. If Beasley sleepwalks through next year and becomes the next Tim Thomas, Wade’s gone like Jermaine O’Neal’s cornrows.
13. New Orleans Hornets (Lost 1st Rnd.): Nice to see the Hornets give up in their playoff series against Denver the way management has given up on them. How weak was the 2009 draft? The Hornets, who have Chris Paul, selected Darren Collison with the 21st pick to practice against Paul and play 6 minutes per game, if he’s lucky.
We’re playoff caliber, but not by much:
14. Chicago Bulls (Lost 1st Rnd.): Letting Ben Gordon go means this team will be a low-scoring squad next year, but one of the best young defensive teams in the league. These guys have forwards for days, especially after drafting James Johnson and Taj Gibson. You get the feeling the Bulls are kind of in Knicks mode, waiting until 2010 to go for it. Will they throw a ton of talent Houston’s way in exchange for T-Mac’s expiring $20 million contract?
15. Detroit Pistons (Lost 1st Rnd.): Joe Dumars is doing an awful lot, but you think he’d want to get a center to replace Sheed. Looks like Dumars thinks the only way to attract fans in Detroit in these times are to stock your team full of gunners via free agency. A trade involving Rip Hamilton seems imminent.
We could be good, we could be awful:
16. Golden State Warriors (Lottery): I almost wonder if the Warriors could sneak past the Hornets into the playoffs, even though all my instincts tell me never to trust that anything will ever happen according to plan in Oakland. They’ll win 30 games at home and Don Nelson will probably behave a little better than he did last season (when he routinely took games off, announced or not). If the Warriors make it out of lower-Lottery hell, it will be because Anthony Randolph led them to the postseason, not so-called franchise pillars Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins.
17. Oklahoma City Thunder (Lottery): One more solid frontcourt player and they’d leapfrog the Warriors and Hornets, but it’s smart at this point for them to hoard their cap space. Is Jeff Green really big enough to be a power forward, though? He’s an extremely fun player to watch and tough as hell, but he’s shorter than Kevin Durant. What’s Durant’s ceiling next year, anyway? 30/8/4? 35/10/6?
18. Philadelphia 76ers (Lost 1st Rnd.): Doesn’t seem like they know what they’re doing. Are they keeping Andre Miller, or doing a sign-and-trade? They’re offering Samuel Dalembert to anybody with an internet connection. Elton Brand can be had for 50 cents on the dollar. The only thing they’ve done right since getting knocked out of the playoffs was let Jrue Holiday fall into their laps.
19. Charlotte Bobcats (Lottery): Meh. Gerald Wallace is cursed.
20. Toronto Raptors (Lottery): This team is becoming the colors of Benetton. Really, it’s like a Michael Jackson video. The Raptors will sell a lot of ugly jerseys in far corners of the globe, but there’s something squishably soft about this team. And not just because they have a player named Andrea.
Can’t we just hit fast-forward until it’s 2010?:
21. New York Knicks (Lottery): LeBronLeBronLeBronLeBronLeBronLeBronLeBronLeBron
22. New Jersey Nets (Lottery): LeBronLeBronLeBronLeBronLeBronLeBronLeBronLeBron
23. Indiana Pacers (Lottery): MikeMillerMikeMillerMikeMillerMikeMillerMikeMiller
Can’t we just hit fast-forward until money grows on trees?:
24. Phoenix Suns (Lottery): The Florida Marlins just looked at the Suns and said, “Damn, Robert Sarver dismantled that team fast.”
One last try, then we’re rebuilding…for real, this time:
25. Los Angeles Clippers (Lottery): A starting five of Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Al Thornton, Blake Griffin and Marcus Camby doesn’t sound half bad. And they got rid of Zach Randolph. Wait, am I convincing myself the Clippers won’t be offering Baron Davis to every team in the league for salary cap relief by December? No…No, I’m not.
26. Washington Wizards (Lottery): They really think the Gilbert/Caron/Antawn trio (which also doubles as a pretty awesome group of first names) is going to take them to the promised land, even though their center rotation will probably consist of Brenda Haywood and Channing Frye or Rasho Nesterovic. Um, no.
Are we picking John Wall, Derrick Favors or Ed Davis in 2010? Winning 20 games is hard:
27. Sacramento Kings (Lottery): A roster filled with the kind of guys that you can imagine blossoming in the right system, but you kind of know in the back of your head that probably won’t happen (Andres Nocioni, Francisco Garcia, Beno Udrih and Ike Diogu) to go along with Kevin Martin, Jason Thompson, Spencer Hawes and Tyreke Evans. There’s talent here, but Martin’s the best player. They’ll be very Warrior-like in their home/road splits.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves (Lottery): After an NFL-like six draft picks, the T-Wolves are still the team that chased Ricky Rubio and his increasingly insane-sounding parents back to Spain. If they’re smart they won’t rush Al Jefferson back from ACL surgery. You know they will, though.
29. Milwaukee Bucks (Lottery): They’ll be without Charlie Villanueva, Richard Jefferson and perhaps Ramon Sessions (who Adam Lauridsen made a good case for the Warriors to pursue), and they’re adding…Brandon Jennings. Michael Redd’s in a contract year, but he and Andrew Bogut are coming off season-ending injuries. You kind of have to throw your thizz face on when you think about the Bucks.
30. Memphis Grizzlies (Lottery): In a way they’re one of my favorite teams in the NBA. They visibly don’t care at all for 10-game stretches; they’re led by two guys who’ll spend their entire careers starring for bad teams (Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo); their talented Spanish rookie center played the entire second half of last season with the same “My brother got traded to the Lakers for me and a bunch of other people I’d never even heard of, and I’m really pissed” expression on his face. And on top of all that, they’ve added Zach Randolph. Enjoy the ping pong balls Chris Wallace. By the end of the year, you’ll have earned them.