On October 12th, I lambasted the owners and players of the National Basketball Association for their inability to strike a compromise on a labour deal that would put an end to the prolonged NBA lockout. After making sporadic progress over the next six weeks, the two sides finally managed to reach a tentative agreement on November 26th, which was ratified by the players’ union on December 8th. Although the reputations of NBA commissioner David Stern and NBPA executive director Billy Hunter have been tarnished beyond repair and the first quarter of the season was wiped away because of the ego, incompetence and stubbornness of the owners and players, the NBA is finally set to resume play. An abbreviated season will begin on Christmas Day, with teams slated to play 66 games in a span of 120 days.
Rather than harp on the laughable negotiating tactics employed by the owners and players any longer, we can finally discuss actual professional basketball. Here are OLM’s NBA preseason power rankings, presented in reverse order, with all 30 NBA teams separated into tiers based on their projected performance. The rankings shouldn’t be taken as an indicator of the team’s exact finish in the standings, but an estimate of their chances of winning the NBA championship. (For nearly every team, that would be zero chance.)
Part One of this piece will present teams 30 through 17, while Part Two will present the projected playoff teams.
Lottery Teams (teams virtually guaranteed to finish at the bottom of the standings)
30. Toronto Raptors
Not even defensive maestro Dwane Casey will be able to save the Raptors from themselves this season. Led by a point guard in rapid decline (Jose Calderon) and a 7-footer that can’t rebound or play defense (Andrea Bargnani), Toronto’s rotation boasts several players that wouldn’t see the court on contending teams (Jerryd Bayless, James Johnson, Linus Kleiza and Amir Johnson, to name four). With 2011 first-rounder Jonas Valanciunas stuck in Lithuania until 2012-13, shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and power forward Ed Davis are the only promising youngsters on the roster. GM Bryan Colangelo’s offseason activity (most notably, the signings of Rasual Butler, Anthony Carter, Gary Forbes, Aaron Gray and Canadian basketball legend Jamaal Magloire) has Toronto primed to tank this shortened season, select a burgeoning superstar from the 2012 draft class and continue the rebuild from there.
29. Charlotte Bobcats
There is literally nothing redeeming about Charlotte’s current roster. Their best player is Corey Maggette, a 32-year old small forward who’s been a sixth man for the past three years. A 48-year old Michael Jordan would be an upgrade at shooting guard over Gerald Henderson and Matt Carroll. The loss of Kwame Brown has decimated their frontcourt, a sentence that, on its own, should be enough to contract this sorry excuse for a franchise.
28. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons have been reduced to a shadow of their 2004 championship team, though their core is a tad more promising than Charlotte’s. Emerging pivot Greg Monroe should continue to impress in his second pro season, and though Ben Gordon has endured two straight disappointing seasons in Detroit, he’s a proven scorer and still only 28 years old. The Pistons should earn their highest draft pick since 2003, when they used the 2nd overall selection on the immortal Darko Milicic.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers
Year 2 post-LBJ will see the Cavs show slight improvement in the win-percentage column, with top picks Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson expected to log major minutes by the end of the season. The long road back to contention will begin in earnest with the addition of another top prospect in June 2012.
26. New Jersey Nets
Beyond Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, the roster is frighteningly thin. Their playoff chances in 2011-12 are eerily similar to owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s odds in the Russian presidential election, though the rumoured addition of Dwight Howard via trade could change the Nets’ fortunes dramatically.
25. New Orleans Hornets
Had commissioner David Stern not vetoed a three-team trade that would have sent disgruntled Hornets point guard Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers (and Pau Gasol to Houston), New Orleans could have opened the 2011-12 season with a starting lineup of Goran Dragic, Kevin Martin, Trevor Ariza, Luis Scola and Emeka Okafor, with Lamar Odom and Carl Landry coming off the bench. Even after trading their franchise player and losing his sidekick (power forward David West) in free agency, the Hornets would have boasted a playoff-calibre lineup while gutting two Western Conference rivals in the process.
Alas, Stern shot the deal down, citing “basketball reasons” and the wishes of the NBA’s other 29 owners. (The league has taken charge of the Hornets until a new owner can be found.) Stern’s massive conflict of interest aside, New Orleans was allowed to flip Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers for a package centred on shooting guard Eric Gordon. Gordon exploded offensively in 2010-11, his third NBA season, but hasn’t been his team’s first option since his time at the University of Indiana. The downgrade from Scola and Odom to Chris Kaman and Al-Farouq Aminu is significant, and the Jarrett Jack-Terrico White point guard combination leaves much to be desired. The Hornets are younger, as per Stern’s wishes, but are hardly better positioned to win in the short- or long-term.
(And yes, if they were in the Eastern Conference, New Orleans could easily finish 10th. But they’re not.)
24. Sacramento Kings
While Sacramento guards Jimmer Fredette and Tyreke Evans may initially seem like polar opposites (one is a devout Mormon; the other served as the driver in a drive-by shooting while he was in high school), there are many similarities between the two. Neither is a true point guard, though both play the position. Neither is renowned for their work on the defensive end. Both are high-volume shooters who dominate the ball on offense. With resident malcontent DeMarcus Cousins pining for shots in the post, the Kings will be entertaining, to say the least.
Fringe Playoff Teams (teams that could conceivably challenge for a low playoff spot)
23. Washington Wizards
Jan Vesely and John Wall should combine to form the most dynamic alley-oop tandem this side of the Los Angeles Clippers, while JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche will continue to delight fans with their Julius Erving impersonations and relentless pursuit of triple-doubles. The Wizards may sometimes play stupid, uninspired basketball, but at least they have Wall.
22. Phoenix Suns
The Suns return much of last year’s mediocre lineup that finished 40-42, with former Lakers backup guard Shannon Brown and journeyman Sebastian Telfair the only offseason additions of note. The gross incompetence of owner Robert Sarver not only threatened the entire NBA season, but has also squandered Steve Nash’s prime years and successfully derailed the Seven Seconds or Less Suns.
(Note: This low ranking may be partially based on my desire to see Nash dealt to or sign in the offseason with the New York Knicks. Imagine a Nash-Amare Stoudemire-Mike D’Antoni reunion, with Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler (the league’s second-best defensive centre) thrown in for good measure. He could compete for his first NBA title in basketball’s biggest market, which doubles as his offseason home, and film the much-anticipated sequel to his Step Brothers collaboration with the recently signed Baron Davis. There’s really no potential downside here. Let the #freenash movement resume.)
21. Golden State Warriors
Despite an offseason of extensive turnover, the status quo will continue to reign in Oakland. The Stephen Curry-Monta Ellis-David Lee nucleus will put up a prolific amount of points while conceding even more on the defensive end. If his track record as an ESPN analyst is any indication, the addition of Mark Jackson as head coach will do little to spur the Warriors from their perennial 12th-place finish.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves
This may be a giant reach for a team that managed to outlast Cleveland and secure 30th place in the NBA last season. There’s really nowhere to go in Minnesota but up, however, and the introduction of Rick Adelman as head coach should ensure that some measure of forward progress will be achieved. Ricky Rubio and JJ Barea will stabilize the point guard position, rookie Derrick Williams will provide explosiveness at multiple positions and Kevin Love will continue to monger rebounds and refine his offensive game. If all goes right, they’ll finish on the outskirts of the playoffs.
19. Utah Jazz
The Jazz possess a potentially devastating frontcourt, with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson slated to start, promising youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter providing support off the bench and Mehmet Okur slated to return from an Achilles injury. Utah’s playoff hopes are contingent upon point guard Devin Harris returning to All-Star form, the Jazz’s continued maturation on defense and GM Kevin O’Connor parlaying one of his bigs (likely Okur and his expiring contract) into immediate help elsewhere in the lineup.
18. Houston Rockets
After being gypped out of acquiring Pau Gasol and losing out on Marc Gasol, Nene and Tyson Chandler in free agency, Houston enters the season without any frontcourt replacements for the departed Yao Ming, Brad Miller and Chuck Hayes. The players the Rockets do have (particularly the ever-underrated Kevin Martin and Luis Scola) should be enough to keep them out of the depths of the Western Conference, but their playoff aspirations will ride on the itchy trigger finger of GM Daryl Morey.
17. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks followed their breakout 2009-10 campaign by crashing back to earth in 2010-11, winning just 35 games as their top four scorers all missed significant time due to injury. Two of those players, swingmen John Salmons and Corey Maggette, are gone, replaced by Stephen Jackson and Mike Dunleavy Jr. The success of the Bucks will depend on the health and effectiveness of the other two, third-year guard Brandon Jennings and emerging centre Andrew Bogut. If they can replicate their output from two years ago, the Bucks will challenge for a 7- or 8-seed.