Tuesday, September 23, 2014

2014-15 Season Preview: Power Rankings

The 2014-15 power rankings debut as the precursor for a 30-team season preview!  Follow along on Twitter, @Kevin6CD for instant access to the team previews as they're published.  I'll be starting at the bottom with the Sixers and working my way up to the Spurs as the season draws near.  Team previews include statistical analysis of the team and individual players, breakdowns on each team's style of play and my best guess at their expectations for success.  Follow along and comment with your take on what you think is right, wrong and irrelevant!

#1: SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Not necessarily my pick to win a title, these are just power rankings.  It's hard to not put the returning champs at the top of the heap when they return everybody (save Patty Mills, who will miss most of the season with a shoulder injury).  There's no writing off this group until they show signs of aging.

#2: OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Kevin Durant had a career year last year, taking home his first MVP trophy.  He'll be joined again by the whole team's core with sharpshooter Anthony Morrow and 1st round pick Mitch McGary added into the equation.  More development from Steven Adams and less minutes for Kendrick Perkins could be a minor tweak with major benefits.

#3: CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
No big deal, they just added LeBron James and Kevin Love to Kyrie Irving.  How to play effective defense will take some time to figure out, and the question mark of how David Blatt's coaching will translate overseas is what keeps this mega-squad behind OKC and San Antonio.  If Anderson Varejao provides enough rim protection and the perimeter defense isn't paper thin, they become the title favorite.

#4: LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Chris Paul teamed with the Blake Griffin we saw last year is enough to keep any team in the running for a championship.  The signings of Spencer Hawes and Ekpe Udoh add much needed frontcourt depth.  However, the lack of reliable scoring from the SF position is an issue.  A season of nearly full health should see the Clips enter the postseason with their eyes on breaking through to the Finals.

#5: CHICAGO BULLS
Joakim Noah's banner year was enough to carry the Bulls last season, and he'll be joined by major reinforcements for the 2014-15 season.  Derrick Rose's return from a knee injury should be for real this time after he looked healthy in the FIBA World Cup.  Pau Gasol is a massive upgrade over Carlos Boozer and Nikola Mirotic adds what looks to be excellent depth.  McDermott, Dunleavy, Snell and Butler make for a solid, if unspectacular, wing group.

#6: DALLAS MAVERICKS
The Mavericks should have one of the deepest squads in the league after adding Chandler Parsons, Tyson Chandler and a whole lot of veteran depth players.  Dirk Nowitzki's style of play should allow him to remain productive for another few years.  PG play could determine how far the Mavs go, with the aging duo of Jameer Nelson and Raymond Felton manning the gate.

#7: GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Golden State chose to pass on the Kevin Love sweepstakes and hold on to Klay Thompson this offseason.  This means the Splash Brothers are intact again, and the only thing of any value the Warriors lost is Jermaine O'Neal.  Steph Curry is arguably the 2nd best PG in the league, but that won't mean anything if Golden State can't make it past the conference semifinals for the first time since 1976.

#8: PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge form a dynamic duo, but the Blazers' front office has done a good job building an excellent, well-rounded starting five.  Nic Batum and Wes Matthews are solid on the perimeter and Robin Lopez is the help LMA needs up front.  A lack of reliable depth is their downfall, and the defense could be better.

#9: HOUSTON ROCKETS
The Rockets had a strange off-season, letting Chandler Parsons walk to in-state rival Dallas and trading valuable post depth in Omer Asik to New Orleans for a 1st round pick.  While the Asik deal brought back good value, the Rockets now look thin up front.  All the more reason to lean on Harden and Howard.  Defense considered, the dip from Parsons to Ariza will be minor if Ariza can bring his hot hand from Washington to Houston.

#10: MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
The Grizzlies had one of the better low-key signings of the off-season with the addition of Vince Carter to a wing unit thin on efficient scorers.  Tayshaun Prince is a massive black hole at SF, but the Grizzlies solid  defensive system and reliable post options mask that.  Look for another competitive season, assuming no major injury problems.

#11: PHOENIX SUNS
I'm assuming Eric Bledsoe is back here, although this off-season looks like a failure without a long-term deal for such an important piece.  The Isaiah Thomas signing softens the blow, if only a little bit.  They're still thin at C and will need to address it via the trade market or hope for development from Plumlee and/or Len.  They'll need some help from one of last year's playoff teams to slide in this year, but they're not exactly a longshot.

#12: CHARLOTTE HORNETS
The Hornets had a spectacular off-season with the additions of veterans Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams and solid draft picks of Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston.  All four players add to a core that only lost Josh McRoberts.  If Al Jefferson can stay healthy, I expect the Hornets to have home-court in the first round come April.  How far they can go beyond that may depend on smarter play from Kemba Walker and the emergence of a reliable option  beyond Stephenson on the wing.


#13: WASHINGTON WIZARDS
Paul Pierce and DeJuan Blair should replace Trevor Ariza and Trevor Booker nicely.  Factor in more growth by Wall and Beal and the Wizards just may expand on last year's 44-win season.  The backcourt is a bit thin, so they'll need Wall and Beal to stay healthy.


#14: ATLANTA HAWKS
Atlanta gets Al Horford back to complement a solid, deep squad.  Jeff Teague's career year propelled the Hawks into the playoffs without their star big man, with help from Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap.  Horford alone should boost a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense, and the Sefolosha and Bazemore signings add nice wing depth.
 
#15: TORONTO RAPTORS
A solid team remains just that after bringing back Kyle Lowry on a fair, reasonable deal.  Jonas Valanciunas is a reliable big, and DeMar DeRozan's season deserved more attention than it got.  The Raptors didn't make many upgrades in the off-season, but keeping Lowry should be enough to ensure another playoff berth.  Efficiency-wise, the Raps possessed the league's 9th-best offense and defense.

#16: MIAMI HEAT
Losing LeBron James isn't a good way to get ranked high in the power rankings.  Nonetheless, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng are still enough to win games night-in and night-out.  There isn't a lot of depth and the post defense is still bad.  Dwyane Wade is going to have to create for others with LeBron James gone and Mario Chalmers not being a true PG.

#17: DENVER NUGGETS
I'm still trying to figure out what the catch is in the Arron Afflalo trade.  They gave up more than Evan Fournier and Roy Devyn-Marble, right?  If Gallinari is back at full strength and Ty Lawson can replicate last season, then the Nuggets could challenge for a playoff spot.  On the other hand, the defense was a sieve last season and that doesn't appear likely to change.

#18: BROOKLYN NETS
The Nets were only able to scratch out the 6th best record in the Eastern Conference last season.  Brook Lopez's return is the only addition of value to the Nets roster, and they lost Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston and Andray Blatche.  Mason Plumlee looked good as a rookie, and Mirza Teletovic was solid, but the Nets can't succeed unless their "stars" play up to their pay grade.  Lionel Hollins should improve the league's 19th-best defense, but will it be enough?

#19: NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
The Pelicans got solid play from Tyreke Evans down the stretch and should be better just by getting Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson back from injury.  They overpaid in the trade for overpaid C Omer Asik, but on the court he should be a good fit next to Anthony Davis and Anderson at PF.  The Pelicans need to fix the league's 25th-ranked D.  Did I mention that Anthony Davis is good at basketball?

#20: DETROIT PISTONS
They made a small step in the right direction with the signings of Jodie Meeks and D.J. Augustin and the hiring of Stan Van Gundy.  However, the Greg Monroe cloud figures to hang over the Pistons all season unless a trade happens (odds seem long).  Stan Van Gundy is too smart to play Josh Smith at SF, so the team should be better at both ends of the floor.  Andre Drummond figures to improve on second year numbers of 13.5 PPG and the league's best rebounding rate (22.3%).


#21: NEW YORK KNICKS
Speaking of small steps, the Knicks made one too.  Jose Calderon is a bigger upgrade at PG than the downgrade that Samuel Dalembert is at C.  The Knicks are set up well to compete after this season when the massive contracts handed out to Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire come off the books.  In the meantime, 2014-15 could be another long year if the defense remains atrocious.


#22: INDIANA PACERS
It was bad enough that the Pacers lost Lance Stephenson.  It was devastating when they lost Paul George.  The defense is going to have to be the best in the league again, because their 22nd-ranked offense lost its best two players.  When your season hinges on Roy Hibbert and 34-year old David West, the outlook is bleak.  The good news?  They may get to pair a lottery pick with Paul George going forward.

#23: SACRAMENTO KINGS
The Kings continue to just do things.  They let Isaiah Thomas get away for nothing and drafted a SG in the lottery for the second year in a row.  The signings of Darren Collison and Ramon Sessions are nice, but do little to fix the glut at PF.  DeMarcus Cousins is good enough to keep this from being one of the worst teams in the league, a distinction they may otherwise have if Rudy Gay reverts to his Toronto self.

#24: BOSTON CELTICS
The Celtics are deep in the middle of a serious re-build, and things appear to be on track for the future.  Kelly Olynyk is looking to build on a solid rookie season, and they added two lotter-caliber talents via the draft.  The present, on the other hand, doesn't look so bright.    Dealing Rajon Rondo would seem to make some sense, unless they can find a solid co-star for him.  There's solid depth, but not enough substance to be competitive on a nightly basis.

#25: MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
The Wolves got a nice return in the deal that sent Kevin Love to Cleveland.  Andrew Wiggins has big-time potential, Thad Young can contribute right away and may be enticed to sign on for the long-run.  Hell, even Anthony Bennett may be salvageable.  Meanwhile, they need to lock up Rubio and figure out who they want to keep between Pekovic and Dieng.  There are worse ways to start life after Kevin Love.

#26: LOS ANGELES LAKERS
I love the Randle pick and the Ed Davis signing, but I don't like the Boozer pickup.  The Lakers don't have a realistic shot at the playoffs this year, no need to clog up the position in front of Randle.  Kobe will be back but there's no guarantee that he'll last the whole year.  Expect another down year unless Kobe and Steve Nash find a time machine.  Even then, they may be in over their heads.

#27: MILWAUKEE BUCKS
The Bucks have a nice, young core, but don't have enough complementary pieces.  Brandon Knight was solid in his first year in Milwaukee and Larry Sanders should bounce back if he can stay out of bar fights.  Ilyasova figures to be better too after a down shooting year.  If Jabari shows up big as a rookie, they may win an extra 10-15 games over last year's total.  Nonetheless, there are too many "ifs" in the equation.

#28: UTAH JAZZ
The Jazz need more from Trey Burke than what he showed last year.  He kept turnovers low, but didn't post good scoring efficiency or passing numbers.  The debut of Australian rookie Dante Exum will make this team fun to watch, and they did the right thing by matching a max offer for Gordon Hayward.  Enes Kanter needs to show up in a major way this season or he may start to lose minutes to the electric Rudy Gobert, who looked good in just about every summer event this year.  Not surprising that last year's young unit was the worst defense in the league; it may happen again this year.


#29: ORLANDO MAGIC
If you follow me on Twitter (@Kevin6CD) you already know that I think the Magic had a horrendous off-season.  I think they sold Afflalo for way too cheap, reached for Aaron Gordon at 4 and drafted a redundant (although ultra-talented) player at 10.  On top of all that they signed Ben Gordon for no apparent reason and gave a fairly sizeable, long contract to an aging Channing Frye.  Expect another long season, with lots of growing pains.  With Afflalo gone, they could win fewer than last year's 23 games.

#30: PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: SEASON PREVIEW
Should I really have to explain this one?  It may be fun to watch Nerlens Noel, although the last team he played for may have had more true NBA talent...

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