Tag Archives: 2013 forecast

You are here: Home / Archive
IND_George_Paul

NBA Eastern Conference Preseason Forecast Review

Not a lot in the NBA Eastern Conference has turned out the way it was expected as injuries have decimated many teams’ preseason hopes, but once one gets past some disappointing results, it has been an exciting ride that’s created opportunities for some fresh blood in this year’s playoffs.  Really, it’s all good outside of New York and Detroit.

NBA Eastern Conference

1. 40-12 Indiana Pacers – 49-32 last season, originally projected 55-27 (4th)

We said: The Pacers should have won more games last season and with the addition of Luis Scola and the return of Danny Granger they are better now.  However, the Pacers will probably play their best against the teams they respect and do just enough for a top 4 finish against everyone else.  Look out for these guys in the playoffs.

We see: The Pacers are a team on a mission and taking nights off is so last year.  This team has matured in their approach to the regular season.  Scola and Granger have made a big difference and Lance Stephenson is turning into a player that will be fought over in free agency this summer.  There is no guarantee they can hold on to first place in the East over the final 30 games, but it would be foolish to bet against them.  Barring injury, the Pacers should be the favorites to represent the East in this year’s NBA Finals.

2. 37-14 Miami HEAT – 66-16 last season, originally projected 60-22 (2nd)

We said:  The HEAT still have James, Wade and Bosh, so they remain favorites to return to the Eastern Conference Finals, however, they won’t lose any sleep about what position in the top four they end up at during the regular season.  That alone makes first place an unlikely result.

We see:  The HEAT still have the best player in the NBA, but sometimes that just isn’t enough during the long regular season and Wade has already missed 15 games.  Miami could still end up in first place, but that isn’t this team’s priority.  Getting to the Eastern Conference Finals remains the goal where, if everyone is healthy, James has the ability to steal any 7-game series from any other team in the NBA and there isn’t anyone in the East who can stop them from getting their chance.

3. 28-24 Toronto Raptors – 34-48 last season, originally projected 44-38 (7th)

We said: The Raptors have brought back the core of last season’s roster that played .500 ball after the Rudy Gay trade and have upgraded the Andrea Bargnani anchor that had been holding them back last year with three-point shooting specialist Steve Novak and the physical play of Tyler Hansbrough.

We see: The Raptors should be in seventh place with their record, but as the rest of conference has underperformed, they are enjoying a more lofty position.  Toronto didn’t get here the way we expected.  Rudy Gay was forced into a very uncomfortable power-point-forward role to determine if he could become a $19 million player – he couldn’t and was shipped off to Sacramento for a bench and the Raptors began living up to expectations.  With the Kings, Gay has proven he is still the effective scoring small forward that he always was and the Raptors could likely have met projections with him, but Toronto is a much better ‘team’ without him.  It will be a 4-way fight for third in the East the rest of the way.

4. 27-25 Chicago Bulls – 45-37 last season, originally projected 62-20 (1st)

We said: The Bulls operated at a first-place 62-win pace for two seasons behind Derrick Rose’s leadership.  The winning core of Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Carlos Boozer are back and this team is good enough to produce another 60-plus win season.

We see: Once Rose was lost for the season, the Bulls prospects of returning to relevance went with him.  Then Chicago did the logical move of trading away Luol Deng to get below the NBA’s luxury tax line and acquiring draft picks.  While Chicago is no longer a threat to Indiana or Miami, Head Coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t about to tank the season and his Bulls are a threat to everyone else proving – once again to all the doubters – that coaching really does matter!

Chicago is owed protected first round draft picks from Sacrament (top 12) and Charlotte (top 10), so they are winning even when they are losing.

5. 25-26 Atlanta Hawks – 44-38 last season, originally projected 41-41 (8th)

We said: The Atlanta Hawks have their payroll under control and they made a value signing with Paul Millsap.  However, it is hard to envision this team not being slightly worse than last year without their former leading scorer Josh Smith and their 10 point per game backup point guard Devin Harris.

We see: The Hawks were slightly better than expected before Al Horford was lost for the season and they are slightly worse without him.  Millsap was made a deserving All-Star, but the longer Atlanta plays without Horford, the more obvious the hole in the middle becomes.  They were 4 games above .500 at the end of December, but lost 5 games in a row in February including Chicago and Toronto back-to-back.  They might be able to hold onto eighth in the East as projected, but a .500 record at the end of the season seems unlikely.

6. 25-27 Washington Wizards – 29-53 last season, originally projected 36-46 (9th)

We said: The Wizards believe they can play .500 ball with this roster for an entire season if Wall stays healthy and maybe they can, but this season it will be starting center Emeka Okafor injured for an indeterminate amount of time.  Expect the Wizards to put player development ahead of making the playoffs this season.

We see: The Wizards sent a message when they traded Okafor and a first round draft pick to the Suns for center Marcin Gortat that they were going for a playoff spot and in the mess that the Eastern Conference has become, it could end up anywhere from third to eighth.  This team still has issues and may set an all-time NBA record for losing the most games in a season that would have put them above the .500-mark.  John Wall is having a career year and was made an All-Star and with all the injuries in the East this season, crossing the line from a projected ninth place team to a likely playoff spot isn’t much of a surprise.

7. 24-27 Brooklyn Nets – 49-33 last season, originally projected 58-24 (3rd)

We said: The Nets have the highest payroll in the NBA and will set a luxury tax record this season.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone if they ended up in first place in the East.

We see: A team that has been crushed by injuries and was 10-21 on December 31.  They have turned things around, but with Brook Lopez lost for the season and Deron Williams playing on suspect ankles, they can only do so much.  The Nets had two 5-game winning streaks in January to salvage their season, but both times it was their new rivals from Toronto that snapped the run, sending a message that the Nets are not the even best team in the Atlantic Division.  The Nets are 4 wins and 3 losses in February and that is a pretty good indication of what this team can do.

8. 23-30 Charlotte Bobcats – 21-61 last season, originally projected 28-54 (13th)

We said: A starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Al Jefferson still only averages 23-years-old and while there is plenty of firepower, it will be matched by mistakes at the other end.  This team is still under development, but the light at the end of the tunnel should no longer be assumed to be an oncoming train.

We see:  The Bobcats shouldn’t be in eighth spot, but they are ahead of schedule because of their top five standing in opponents’ points allowed.  They give themselves a chance to win games.  Jefferson is a 20 point 10 rebound load for the Bobcats in the post and Walker has developed into the clutch player everyone saw in college.  With the poor showings by the Pistons and Knicks, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this team make a move before the trade deadline in order to hold onto their playoff spot.

9. 22-30 Detroit Pistons – 29-53 last season, originally projected 44-38 (6th)

We said: The Pistons added talent and should make the playoffs.  Dumars landed free agent forward Josh Smith with a four year $54 million offer and completed a sign and trade deal to acquire Brandon Jennings from the Bucks at $24 million over three years.

We see: A team imploding.  Joe Dumars has fired his head coach, but since it was the talent he has put together that hasn’t gelled, maybe he should have fired himself.  From the day Dumars signed Smith, it seemed obvious he should have been cashing in on his young soon-to-be free agent power forward Greg Monroe to acquire an impact small forward, but we’re still waiting and nothing has happened.  Sure the Pistons still have the talent to be a postseason team, but if Dumars doesn’t fix this dysfunctional roster by the trade deadline, it looks like more disappointment and another trip to the lottery.  (Note: the Bobcats own the Pistons’ draft pick top 8 protected and must be licking their chops in anticipation.)

10. 20-32 New York Knicks – 54-28 last season, originally projected 48-34 (5th)

We said: The Knicks are old and have injury issues, but they won 54 games last season under Head Coach Mike Woodson facing many of the same problems.  Somehow Woodson kept this team on track during the regular season and he will probably do it again this year.

We see: An old injury-riddled and injury-prone Knicks team that Woodson couldn’t work his magic on early in the season and has tuned-out and gave-up.  The Knicks do not function as a team.  It was a miracle Woodson was able to get 54 wins out of the Knicks last year, but apparently that miracle is not about to repeat itself.  They are still in range of a playoff spot, but no one seems to care.  (The Knicks do not have a 2014 first round draft pick – owed to the Nuggets and they owe their second round pick to the Rockets.)

11. 20-33 Cleveland Cavaliers – 24-58 last season, originally projected 34-48 (11th)

We said: The Cavaliers are a true wild card.  If Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving can stay/get healthy and play most of this season, then this roster can compete with the Knicks for fifth place and they should succeed.  However, those are massive ifs.  .  It is more important to continue the growth and development of Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller, Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev.

We see:  Not a lot has gone right in Cleveland this season.  The Bynum experiment was a huge failure although he was traded for Luol Deng so that was a better result than expected.  However, this team doesn’t defend or share the ball and is generally more dysfunctional than anticipated.  Like Detroit in some ways, the Cavaliers are less than the sum of their parts.  To compete now and/or in the future, this team needs a trade.  Hopefully interim general manager David Griffin has the authority to make some moves.

12. 19-35 Boston Celtics – 41-40 last season, originally projected 33-49 (12th)

We said: Boston didn’t have to let Head Coach Doc Rivers out of his contract and trade Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett if they were going to take steps to ensure a return to the playoffs this season.  However, the Big Three era in Boston was over.  Point guard Rajon Rondo will miss the start of the season and probably a lot more before his rehab is done.

We see: Rondo is back and the Celtics are 2-8 with him on the court, so far, everything is going according to plan.

13. 16-38 Orlando Magic – 20-62 last season, originally projected 25-57 (14th)

We said: The Magic have done an exceptionally good job of rebuilding out of the ashes of their Dwightmare.  Last season Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson showed they were part of the future and the second overall 2013 draft pick Victor Oladipo is a potential future All-Star guard.  However, the rebuilding isn’t done and another high draft pick in 2014 is definitely in the plans.

We see: We really like Oladipo.  Good job Magic!

14. 15-39 Philadelphia 76ers – 34-48 last season, originally projected 18-64 (15th)

We said: 76ers fans have a facebook page called Winless For Wiggins.  This roster is young, suspect and ideal for tanking.  Veteran Jason Richardson is unlikely to play this season after knee surgery.  The team dumped All-Star Andre Iguodala for nothing but wishing and hoping last summer and recently traded All-Star Jrue Holiday for the injured 2013 sixth overall draft pick Nerlens Noel.

We see: A team constructed to lose games that is right on schedule.  Michael Carter-Williams could win Rookie of the Year and the only thing they’ve done wrong is not move out Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and/or Spencer Hawes for more draft picks.

15. 9-43 Milwaukee Bucks – 38-44 last season, originally projected 36-46 (10th)

We said: Once again, this team is good enough to grab the eighth spot if the teams that are supposed to be better flounder and that situation is not all that hard to imagine.

We see: The Bucks didn’t do this on purpose, but once down, they’ve been riding the trip to the most ping pong balls with gusto.  At the break, Milwaukee has 7 players injured and can barely field a starting 5.  With 4 players out indefinitely, they can easily hold onto last place overall and no one is going to accuse them of tanking the season.  If the Bucks didn’t have unbelievably bad luck, they would have had no luck at all.  Only 1 player on their roster has played in all 52 games.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

Ujiri Leiweke web

Six Reasons The Raptors Make The Playoffs

Tim LeiwekeToronto fans have the right to be cynical about their team. The Raptors have missed the postseason for five years in a row and in what has become a theme in recent years, the players who were supposed to get the job done last year missed a significant number of games to injury – again. However, as new MLSE President and CEO Tim Leiweke explained on his introduction to Toronto, he inherited this situation, he didn’t create it. It is, however, his job to fix it.

Real change in any organization starts at the top and Leiweke didn’t waste any time putting his personal stamp on the team. The main reason the Raptors will make the playoffs this year goes all the way back to what Leiweke did before a single player move was made.

Ujiri basketball web1. President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri

Before the end of May, Leiweke reached out to the 2013 NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri and offered him a lucrative 5 year deal to run the Toronto Raptors. Where former Raptors President Bryan Colangelo was burned when All-Star Chris Bosh became a free agent, Ujiri had made his team better by trading All-Star Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks. Where Colangelo was hesitant go after All-Star Andre Iguodala who had just one year left on his contract, Ujiri made the move and last season, the Nuggets had the most wins since they joined the NBA in 1976.

Colangelo is a highly respected basketball icon and top-ranked administrator, but where Colangelo is hands-on and was noticeably involved in how his teams were coached, Ujiri has a different approach. Ujiri believes it’s his job to acquire players that fit with his coach and based on how Coach George Karl was allowed to use the talent provided, Ujiri doesn’t stick his nose in his coach’s job.

A new GM is hired for the long term, so the biggest reason to expect the Raptors to make the postseason this year is Ujiri’s decision to stick with Dwane Casey, Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan instead of blowing this roster up and starting over from scratch.

2. Head Coach Dwane Casey

To everyone’s surprise, Coach Casey got a group of offensive-minded players to defend in his first season with the Raptors and while there was some slippage defensively last year when Casey tried to generate more offense, that defense-first philosophy will be back front and center this season.

There was a lot of speculation about Casey’s future when Ujiri was hired, but Casey and Ujiri go way back and have seemed to be on the same page from day one. Where most of the coaching, scouting and executive staff has been replaced, Casey remains to provide some much needed continuity with the players.

Casey provides leadership and direction to this team as they wait to see if Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry or possibly Jonas Valanciunas will emerge to fill that role. In the meantime, Casey has the respect of the players and he has their buy-in to his philosophy and the roles assigned. Even the somewhat stubborn Lowry changed his approach to match what Casey was looking for over the course of last season.

3. Rudy Gay

Rudy Gay has been filling up the stats sheet since he was a rookie in 2006-2007 with Memphis. For the past 6 seasons, Gay has averaged 18-20 points, 5.5-6.5 rebounds, 1.9-2.7 assists, 0.7-1.1 blocks and 1.2-1.7 steals every year and except for last season when he was the subject of trade rumors that started in training camp, he has shot 45-47 percent from the field.

Gay got a maximum contract extension from the Grizzlies in 2010 because it reflected his production and the current complaints about his salary are simply ignoring the realities in the NBA, even if the new CBA may have temporarily tamped down expectations. However, the Paul George contract extension says that’s over already.

Now the number one option again, Gay has a chance to recreate his impressive 2010-2011 stats and as a player who could become a free agent at the end of this season, Gay has every incentive to accomplish that.

Gay impressed Casey with his summer workout routine and the corrective eye surgery (it’s about time) that will improve his court vision and view of the rim. If a young veteran that should score 20 points per game can have a breakout season, it’s Gay.

4. Kyle Lowry

Last year Kyle Lowry got off to as fast a start with Toronto as was humanly possible. In his first 3 games he averaged 23.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7 assists and 3.7 steals. He shot 57.5 percent from the field and 50 percent from deep. However, the Raptors went 1 win and 2 losses over that stretch and Lowry was playing with reckless abandon. That recklessness led to a bruised bone in his foot in his fourth game, a sore shoulder later on and those injuries eventually cost him his starting job to a more mature and reliable Jose Calderon.

This less than desirable start to his career in Toronto led to the inevitable speculation about problems between Lowry and Coach Casey, but it was Lowry that played a more controlled game in the second half of the season and his effectiveness improved because of it.

Post All-Star game, Lowry averaged 10 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists and 1.4 steals. He took fewer chances and got fewer steals, but he played Casey’s style of defense and the team was better for it. Lowry didn’t shoot as well in the second half, but shooting is something that should bounce back fairly quickly with a fresh start this season.

Casey reported Lowry was in great shape, not surprising as Lowry will be a free agent after this season. This is a very proud individual that has an edge to his game and wants to succeed. There should be little doubt Lowry will have a career year.

Jonas Valanciunas by Robertas Dačkus with permission (2)5. Jonas Valanciunas

A lot will be expected from the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in March and NBA Summer League MVP Jonas Valanciunas. While many of the Raptors scoring plays will end up in the hands of Gay or DeMar DeRozan, Casey has stated his half court offense will run through his young center this season and there were plenty of examples of how that might work in Summer League.

Valanciunas has great hands and footwork around the basket to run an effective pick-and-roll or post-up and he has shown the court vision necessary to pass out of the double team to cutters or shooters. It’s a lot of responsibility for a 21-year-old, but Valanciunas looked like he was ready to take another step at the end of last season. In Summer League, it looked like he had spent a lot of time in the weight room.

Bargnani web6. Andrea Bargnani

Andrea Bargnani took an inordinate amount of fan abuse last season as he returned from a summer of not being to train properly as he rehabbed a calf injury and then suffered two separate elbow injuries that trashed the rest of his season. While it might not have been his fault, Bargnani became an anchor around the neck of the Raptors’ season punctuated by a 2-19 shooting performance against the Spurs on November 25. His problems, combined with the team’s other injuries, were almost totally to blame for the team’s 4-19 start.

In July, Ujiri managed to trade his anchor for a couple of draft picks, some badly needed salary cap space, two players to be waived later and the veteran three-point specialist Steve Novak. If Bargnani is healthy, he will help the Knicks, but there should be no doubt that Novak will give the Raptors more this season than Bargnani gave them last season. Casey had been stuck using Bargnani to spread the floor even though his big man was shooting just 30.9 percent from deep. Novak is a career 43.3 percent three-point shooter.

Where Novak gives Coach Casey the three-point specialist he had been requesting, Ujiri immediately used some of that salary cap space to sign free agent tough guy Tyler Hansbrough. Last year Casey was forced to use Bargnani to defend other skilled big men in the post as Valanciunas was a rookie and he didn’t have many options. This year Hansbrough provides a big strong physical force Casey can pair with Amir Johnson or this year’s bigger Valanciunas. The Raptors just got a lot tougher to push around.

Raptor MascotAre the Raptors better than last season?

After the acquisition of Gay, Toronto was a .500 club and that included a stretch where Gay’s effectiveness was impaired by a sore back. The current roster is deeper, tougher and has more three-point shooting last season.

Both Lowry and Gay should be expected to impress from day one and Valanciunas is ready to take another step. DeMar DeRozan is probably the third option in the starting lineup, but the 24-year-old shooting guard should be better than last year and he played well beside Gay last season. However, the most obvious improvement will likely come at the defensive end as Coach Casey implements his system in training camp with a group of players that are better suited to his style of play thanks to Ujiri.

This team should easily make the playoffs, but based on their past history, no one should be blamed for playing the show-me card.

Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report. You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors

Predicting the NBA East and West Standings

NBA Eastern Conference

1. Chicago Bulls – 45-37 last season, projected 62-20

The Bulls operated at a first-place 62-win pace for two seasons behind Derrick Rose’s leadership. The winning core of Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Carlos Boozer are back and this team is good enough to produce another 60-plus win season.

2. Miami HEAT – 66-16 last season, projected 60-22

The HEAT still have James, Wade and Bosh, so they remain favorites to return to the Eastern Conference Finals, however, they won’t lose any sleep about what position in the top four they end up at during the regular season. That alone makes first place an unlikely result.

3. Brooklyn Nets – 49-33 last season, projected 58-24

The Nets have the highest payroll in the NBA and will set a luxury tax record this season. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if they ended up in first place in the East.

4. Indiana Pacers – 49-32 last season, projected 55-27

The Pacers should have won more games last season and with the addition of Luis Scola and the return of Danny Granger they are better now. However, the Pacers will probably play their best against the teams they respect and do just enough for a top 4 finish against everyone else. Look out for these guys in the playoffs.

5. New York Knicks – 54-28 last season, projected 48-34

The Knicks are old and have injury issues, but they won 54 games last season under Head Coach Mike Woodson facing many of the same problems. Somehow Woodson kept this team on track during the regular season and he will probably do it again this year.

6. Detroit Pistons – 29-53 last season, projected 44-38

The Pistons added talent and should make the playoffs. Dumars landed free agent forward Josh Smith with a four year $54 million offer and completed a sign and trade deal to acquire Brandon Jennings from the Bucks at $24 million over three years.

7. Toronto Raptors – 34-48 last season, projected 44-38

The Raptors have brought back the core of last season’s roster that played .500 ball after the Rudy Gay trade and have upgraded the Andrea Bargnani anchor that had been holding them back last year with three-point shooting specialist Steve Novak and the physical play of Tyler Hansbrough.

8. Atlanta Hawks – 44-38 last season, projected 41-41

The Atlanta Hawks have their payroll under control and they made a value signing with Paul Millsap. However, it is hard to envision this team not being slightly worse than last year without their former leading scorer Josh Smith and their 10 point per game backup point guard Devin Harris.

9. Washington Wizards – 29-53 last season, projected 36-46

The Wizards believe they can play .500 ball with this roster for an entire season if Wall stays healthy and maybe they can, but this season, it will be starting center Emeka Okafor injured for an indeterminate amount of time. Expect the Wizards to put player development ahead of making the playoffs this season.

10. Milwaukee Bucks – 38-44 last season, projected 36-46

Once again, this team is good enough to grab the eighth spot if the teams that are supposed to be better flounder and that situation is not all that hard to imagine.

11. Cleveland Cavaliers – 24-58 last season, projected 34-48

The Cavaliers are a true wild card. If Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving can stay/get healthy and play most of this season, then this roster can compete with the Knicks for fifth place and they should succeed. However, those are massive ifs. It is more important to continue the growth and development of Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller, Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev.

12. Boston Celtics – 41-40 last season, projected 33-49

Boston didn’t have to let Head Coach Doc Rivers out of his contract and trade Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett if they were going to take steps to ensure a return to the playoffs this season. However, the Big Three era in Boston was over. Point guard Rajon Rondo will miss the start of the season and probably a lot more before his rehab is done.

13. Charlotte Bobcats – 21-61 last season, projected 28-54

A starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Al Jefferson still only averages 23-years-old and while there is plenty of firepower, it will be matched by mistakes at the other end. This team is still under development, but the light at the end of the tunnel should no longer be assumed to be an oncoming train.

14. Orlando Magic – 20-62 last season, projected 25-57

The Magic have done an exceptionally good job of rebuilding out of the ashes of their Dwightmare. Last season Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson showed they were part of the future and the second overall 2013 draft pick Victor Oladipo is a potential future All-Star guard. However, the rebuilding isn’t done and another high draft pick in 2014 is definitely in the plans.

15. Philadelphia 76ers – 34-48 last season, projected 18-64

76ers fans have a facebook page called Winless For Wiggins. This roster is young, suspect and ideal for tanking. Veteran Jason Richardson is unlikely to play this season after knee surgery. The team dumped All-Star Andre Iguodala for nothing but wishing and hoping last summer and recently traded All-Star Jrue Holiday for the injured 2013 sixth overall draft pick Nerlens Noel.

NBA Western Conference

1. Los Angeles Clippers – 56-26 last season, projected 62-20

The Clippers are better than last season. 28-year-old Jared Dudley is an excellent replacement for Caron Butler. J.J. Redick is a big upgrade over Willie Green. Plus, five of the Clippers top six scorers from last season are back, so this team has continuity. Then there is Doc Rivers.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder – 60-22 last season, projected 58-24

The Thunder are contenders to reach the Western Conference Finals for the third time in four years. This team is still deep and talented and has assets to trade if the young players Steve Adams and Jeremy Lamb are not quite ready for prime time in backup roles. Any slippage from last season will be slight.

3. San Antonio Spurs – 58-24 last season, projected 54-28

One day Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are going to pack it in after long and successful NBA careers. Unfortunately for their Western Conference rivals, that time hasn’t arrived just yet.

4. Houston Rockets – 45-37 last season, projected 54-28

The Rockets joined the list of serious contenders to advance to the Western Conference Finals when they won the Dwight Howard sweepstakes. Two bona fide big-time All-Stars has been the formula to contend in the NBA and combination of Harden and Howard is as legit as it comes.

5. Golden State Warriors – 47-35 last season, projected 51-31

The Warriors defense just took a huge step forward with this summer’s acquisition of Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut looks like he will be ready to start the season and re-create his big defensive presence from last season’s playoff run. The only obvious risk in Golden State is how well Stephen Curry’s ankles hold up.

6. Memphis Grizzlies – 56-26 last season, projected 48-34

There isn’t anything more frustrating in professional sports than watching a well-built successful franchise knock itself down a peg in order to save money. The Grizzlies still have a good roster, however and if it wasn’t for handing the heading coaching job to Hollins’ assistant Dave Joerger, it might be easier to believe this would still be a 50-win team.

7. Denver Nuggets – 57-25 last season, projected 44-38

The Denver Nuggets lost the 2013 NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri to the Raptors. They fired the 2013 NBA Coach of Year George Karl. Free agent Andre Iguodala joined the Warriors and free agent Corey Brewer opted for the Timberwolves. Danilo Gallinari is still rehabbing a partially torn ACL. This team is deep or no one would be talking about the playoffs.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves -31-51 last season, 42-40 projected

This is a roster bouncing back from injuries to Ricky Rubio, Chase Budinger, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, but Minnesota didn’t wait for their best players to get healthy, this summer they picked up free agents Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin. Nine years in the lottery should come to an end if this team can stay healthy.

9. Dallas Mavericks – 41-41 last season, projected 40-42 projected

Dallas has a collection of talent for the second year in a row that screams .500-team. While this group could sneak into the playoffs if other teams stumble, the only truly redeeming feature of this roster is less than $30 million is guaranteed after this season.

10. Portland Trail Blazers – 33-49 last season, projected 37-45

The Trail Blazers are too good to be bad and need to find minutes for their young players whether that results in wins or not. This season should have a slightly better record than last year, but winning is probably going to take a back seat to player development.

11. New Orleans Pelicans – 27-55 last season, projected 36-46

New Orleans projected starting unit of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson has an average age 23-years-old. This team’s best players are young, developing and a long ways from their projected prime and that is not usually the formula for a playoff appearance.

12. Sacramento Kings – 28-54 last season, projected 32-50

The Kings made some nice additions this summer. However, center DeMarcus Cousins is the player that could move this team from the lottery to playoff contender and everyone is waiting for him to grow up and do it. While that is probably not a fair expectation this season, if Cousins finds his maturity and Ben McLemore is as good a rookie as his natural gifts suggest, this might be the last season the Kings can be left out of the playoff conversation for a while.

13. Los Angeles Lakers – 45-37 last season, projected 29-53

Videos of Bryant running on an anti-gravity treadmill only serve as a stark reminder that last year’s savior is not going to be there on opening night against the Clippers. Unfortunately, Bryant’s Achilles tendon rehab program isn’t the only question mark on the Lakers’ season.

14. Utah Jazz -43-39 last season, projected 26-56

When the Jazz let Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams and Randy Foye leave, took back a boat load of salaries no one wanted for 5 future draft picks, and added two 2013 first round draft picks to this season’s roster, the message was clear. The Jazz were tired of mediocrity and the rebuild was on.

15. Phoenix Suns – 25-57 last season, projected 20-62

The Suns didn’t win a lot of games last season and based on the moves they made this summer, that number is going to drop. The Suns have some nice young assets on this roster and a few veterans that should be moved before the trade deadline.

Ranking The Worst Teams In The NBA

As NBA teams rush towards the start of training camp in about two weeks, certain teams have already made it obvious that ping pong balls in the Draft Lottery will be more important than wins.  Other teams may not be ready to admit it, but it seems fairly obvious they will be joining the battle for the best possible draft pick next June as well.  After all, this may be the most impressive draft class since LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade went in the top five back in 2003.

Our top five teams in the East are the Bulls, HEAT, Nets, Pacers and Knicks and our top five in the West are the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, Rockets and Warriors.   Our playoff hopefuls of Pistons, Raptors, Hawks, Wizards, Bucks and Cavaliers in the East and Grizzlies, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Mavericks, Trail Blazers and Pelicans in the West are going to fight it out for the last three playoff spots in their respective conferences and no one in these groups should be expected to obviously tank the season until after their record says this isn’t going to be their year.

Some of the lottery bound teams have just too much talent to reach the bottom while others have been taking steps to ensure they’ll have a chance to compete for dead last.  However, it is organizations that decide to tank and even on really bad teams, the players still want to win.  There are no guarantees that a team’s best laid plans will work in either direction.

 

Too Good To Reach The Bottom

8. Boston Celtics – 41-40 last season, projected 33-49

Boston didn’t have to let Head Coach Doc Rivers out of his contract and trade Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett if they were going to take steps to ensure a return to the playoffs this season.  The Nets believe Pierce and Garnett make their team a contender and the Nets are right.  However, the Big Three era in Boston was over.  Point guard Rajon Rondo will miss the start of the season and probably a lot more before his rehab is done.  This team will likely be relying on rookie point guard Phil Pressey and a rookie center Kelly Olynyk.  There is little value to the Celtics in watching Boston’s veterans get minutes ahead of Jordan Crawford or MarShon Brooks.  It shouldn’t even surprise anyone if rookie Brazilian big man Vitor Faverani gets minutes ahead of Kris Humphries.

Boston is rebuilding and they have done nothing to hide that fact.  Their new rookie Head Coach Brad Stevens received a long term deal so he wouldn’t have the pressure of trying to win straight away.  The organization has collected six first round draft picks to use or trade over the next three years.  No one should expect the Celtics to be rebuilding for long, but they are rebuilding this season.

The Celtics have too much talent to reach for the bottom, but they can ensure themselves of a top 8 draft pick in June without overt tanking and that is a strategy this organization will be comfortable with.

7. Sacramento Kings – 28-54 last season, projected 32-50

The Kings made some nice additions this summer.  Rookie shooting guard Ben McLemore is an uber-athlete with amazing hops, long reach and three-point shooting range.  Greivis Vasquez is a big point guard with decent scoring ability and a willingness to pass the ball.  Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is a solid defender at either forward spot.  However, these positive changes are not going to change anyone’s opinion about the Kings this season.

Center DeMarcus Cousins is the player that could move this team from the lottery to playoff contender and everyone is waiting for him to grow up and do it.  While that is probably not a fair expectation this season, if Cousins finds his maturity and McLemore is as good a rookie as his natural gifts suggest, this might be the last season the Kings can be left out of the playoff conversation for a while.

6. Los Angeles Lakers – 45-37 last season, projected 29-53

The Lakers only made the playoffs last season on a herculean effort from Kobe Bryant to drag a talented dysfunctional team kicking and screaming out of the lottery where their play suggested they deserved to be.  Videos of Bryant running on an anti-gravity treadmill in August only serve as a stark reminder that last year’s savior is not going to be there on opening night October 29th against the Clippers.  Unfortunately, Bryant’s Achilles tendon rehab program isn’t the only question mark on the Lakers’ season.

Pau Gasol is still in Spain rehabbing his knees after having surgery and stem cell injections in May and another big concern is the surgically-repaired plantar fascia tear in his right foot from last season.  Maybe Gasol will be fully recovered for the start of the year and maybe he can get through this season without missing too many games, but at 33-years-old, seeing will be believing.  One could choose to ignore that the 39-year-old Steve Nash has been nursing a bad back for years, but at the end of July, the point guard was still dealing with nerve issues resulting from last season’s fibula fracture.  How well Nash can perform this season is anyone’s guess.

Dwight Howard is gone and for all the complaints, he still led the NBA in rebounding last season and was second on the Lakers in scoring.  Metta World Peace was amnestied and the Lakers best defensive player after Howard was also fifth in scoring.  One would be hard pressed to say any of the off season additions have made the Lakers a better team than last year.

If Bryant comes back early and plays like he did at the end of last season and Gasol and Nash are healthy enough to perform at a high level, then this team will be in the playoffs.  It would take a lot of nerve or purple and gold colored glasses to predict that was going to be the case.

5. Charlotte Bobcats – 21-61 last season, projected 28-54

It was a surprise when the Bobcats signed free agent center Al Jefferson to a 3-year $40.5 million deal, after two seasons of beyond bad, targeting dead last in the NBA had become expected.  This team will at least be more fun to watch this season.

A starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Al Jefferson only averages 23-years-old and while there is plenty of firepower, it will be matched by mistakes at the other end.  This team is still under development, but with the veteran Jefferson to anchor center and put up a few more points, the development process should become a lot more positive and the light at the end of the tunnel will no longer be assumed to be an oncoming train.

The Battle For Last

4. Utah Jazz -43-39 last season, projected 26-56

When the Jazz let Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams and Randy Foye leave, took back a boat load of salaries no one wanted for 5 future draft picks, and added two 2013 first round draft picks to this season’s roster, the message was clear.  The Jazz were tired of mediocrity and the rebuild was on.

It was time to see what Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks could do in starting roles and if the rookie Trey Burke could be this team’s point guard of the future, but everything the Jazz did this summer was about the future and wins are going to be tough to come by.

Even if this implausibly young starting lineup exceeds all expectations, this team has almost no depth and will suffer immeasurably if any starter is missing games, but developing this core and adding another top draft pick next season is absolutely the right way to go.

3. Orlando Magic – 20-62 last season, projected 25-57

The Magic have done an exceptionally good job of rebuilding out of the ashes of their Dwightmare.  Just Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson remain from the team that went to the 2009 NBA Finals and 2010 Eastern Conference Finals with Dwight Howard and neither player’s contract is guaranteed past this season.

Last season Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson showed they were part of the future and the second overall 2013 draft pick Victor Oladipo is a potential future All-Star guard.  The rebuilding isn’t done and another high draft pick in 2014 is definitely in the plans, but the Magic are on the right path.  They just might have trouble winning the race to bottom with the young talent they have already collected, but maybe not?

2. Phoenix Suns – 25-57 last season, projected 20-62

The Suns didn’t win a lot of games last season and based on the moves they made this summer, that number is going to drop.  The Suns traded veteran wing Jared Dudley for Eric Bledsoe and flipped Caron Butler for a pair of young prospects from the Bucks.  Luis Scola was traded for Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a protected 2014 first round draft pick.  Then the team ended the Michael Beasley experiment.

While Bledsoe is a great asset to pick up, the Suns already have a starting point guard in Goran Dragic and this series of moves alone should help the team compete for dead last.  The clincher was replacing 12-year veteran head coach Alvin Gentry with the rookie Jeff Hornacek.  The coaching move was not unexpected and Hornacek could prove to be the right choice, but as a rookie coach in a tough situation, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect him to add any wins to the record this season.  The Suns gave Hornacek a 4-year deal in recognition of the work ahead.

The Suns have some nice young assets on this roster and a few valuable veterans that could be moved before the trade deadline.  New Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough should be busy this season.

1.  Philadelphia 76ers – 34-48 last season, projected 18-64

76ers fans have a facebook page called Winless For Wiggins that references the team’s 1972-1973 season where the 76ers lost 20 games in a row and won a total of just 9.  It is hard not to believe that the goal in Philadephia this season is very different.

 

Of course no team can go winless for an entire season, but the Bobcats did keep their win total to 7 games two years ago, even though that was taking tanking to an unnecessary extreme.  Last place is achievable with double-digit victories.

Veteran Head Coach Doug Collins got this team to overachieve for two of his three seasons in Philadelphia, but he has been replaced by rookie Head Coach Brett Brown who received a 4-year deal.  Everyone knows this rebuild is going to take time.

This roster is young, suspect and ideal for tanking.  Veteran Jason Richardson is unlikely to play this season after knee surgery.  The team dumped All-Star Andre Iguodala for nothing but wishing and hoping last summer and traded All-Star Jrue Holiday for the injured 2013 sixth overall draft pick Nerlens Noel.  The 19-year-old Noel is considered to be a future building block player, but the emphasis on the word future can’t be strong enough.

Rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams will be leading this team that still features Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and a cast of suspects.  However, this cast couldn’t hold their season together with Collins coaching and Holiday running the show.  An almost Winless For Wiggins season might just be in the cards.

Risks and Obstacles

The race to the bottom is not an easy one to win.  Your own players are not going to cooperate.  However, by stripping out key players and coaches and then emphasizing the rookies and developing young players, it is possible to make a strong push for last overall.  With all the talent available in the 2014 NBA Draft, a lot of teams will have ping pong balls on the brain around All-Star weekend and this year’s race has the potential to get pretty ugly in the second half.

Who do you think finishes in the bottom 3 in the NBA?  Which one of these teams out tanks the others to win the most ping pong balls?  Can any of these teams be a playoff contender this season?  Let us know in the comments below.

Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre.  A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.  You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors

Ranking The NBA Western Conference Playoff Hopefuls

When ranking the NBA Western Conference, it is hard not to notice that coaching may have become the biggest determinate of change. The Clippers would still have doubters if Doc Rivers wasn’t running the show. It would be hard to not at least consider the Grizzlies a Western Conference Finals threat if Lionel Hollins was still there and how does an organization part with George Karl after he wins Coach of the Year?

After our top five of the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, Rockets and Warriors, there are the weakened Grizzlies and Nuggets franchises that should be able to stay in the playoff picture followed by group of hopefuls where a debate should rage about the virtue of being a one-and-done playoff team in the eighth spot versus tanking for a better draft pick in June.

Too Good To Fail?

6. Memphis Grizzlies – 56-26 last season, projected 48-34

There isn’t anything more frustrating in professional sports than watching a well-built successful franchise knock itself down a peg in order to save money. 33-year-old Tayshaun Prince is an acceptable fill-in for Rudy Gay, but he is on the downside of his career and simply can’t provide the offense Gay did for 6.5 seasons in Memphis. The Grizzlies traded Gay to save money and they moved a plethora of lesser but solid players for the same reason.

The Grizzlies still have a good roster, however and if it wasn’t for handing the heading coaching job to Hollins’ assistant Dave Joerger, it might be easier to believe this would still be a 50-win team. Memphis is going to find out just how much an experienced and successful head coach contributes to a team’s record. It isn’t likely they are going to like the answer.

It is easy to sympathize with the financial realities of operating a small market franchise, but that isn’t going to help the Grizzlies win more games this season. The question in Memphis shouldn’t be if the team can stretch to win 50 games, but rather how far below 50 wins will they end up.

7. Denver Nuggets – 57-25 last season, projected 44-38

The Denver Nuggets were a franchise in disarray this summer. The 2013 NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri left town to join the Toronto Raptors. The 2013 NBA Coach of Year George Karl was fired. Free agent Andre Iguodala spurned Denver’s offer to join the Warriors and free agent Corey Brewer opted for the Timberwolves. Danilo Gallinari is still rehabbing a partially torn ACL and hopes to return sometime in December, but the Nuggets will be starting this season without 3 of their top 5 scorers from last year and a brand new rookie head coach.

Big changes in management also mean big changes in style. The Nuggets were built to facilitate the open court style of Karl and new Head coach Brian Shaw is known for the Lakers’ triangle offense he played in and was schooled in as a player and an assistant coach in Los Angeles. Perhaps this explains why last year’s starting center Kosta Koutos was traded and JaVale McGee will be given his chance to play more than the 18 minutes a game Karl thought he deserved.

There are a lot of unknowns in Denver this season, but Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried should be able to stave off disaster and keep the Nuggets from slipping too much until Gallinari returns to provide some offensive punch. The number of wins above .500 will largely depend on Shaw, but the Nuggets are still a playoff team this season.

The Fight For Eighth

8. Minnesota Timberwolves -31-51 last season, projected 42-40

This is a roster bouncing back from injuries to Ricky Rubio, Chase Budinger, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, but each of these players have shown enough to get everyone excited to see what they could do playing together for an entire season. Minnesota didn’t wait for their best players to get healthy, this summer they picked up free agents Brewer from the Nuggets and Kevin Martin from the Thunder. A team that has been suspect on the wing for some time just got stronger.

The Timberwolves have spent nine years in the lottery and have experienced more than their share of bad luck and questionable management decisions, however, they head into this season with something new, justifiable hope. Healthy and a little deeper than in the past, it is Minnesota’s turn at the postseason again.

9. Dallas Mavericks – 41-41 last season, projected 40-42

No one believes the past two summers are what Mavericks owner Mark Cuban envisioned when he blew up his 2010-2011 championship roster. Dallas has a collection of talent for the second year in a row that screams .500-team. While this group could sneak into the playoffs if other teams stumble, the only truly redeeming feature of this roster is the less than $30 million in players’ salaries guaranteed after this season.

Dallas has a group of veterans in Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis who will put on a show, but there is no reason to expect they will do any better than last year’s Mavericks. Cuban has put his franchise on hold for another season.

10. Portland Trail Blazers – 33-49 last season, projected 37-45

There is some optimism around Portland this summer. They did pick up some players who could help the team garner a few more wins than last year.

Mo Williams is a solid veteran backup point guard and should play additional minutes at shooting guard if the Trail Blazers don’t mind letting rookie C.J. McCollum languish on the bench. Robin Lopez will be the team’s best center and let LaMarcus Aldridge play at his natural power forward position. The question becomes, how many minutes does Meyers Leonard get to play this year and which of Lopez and Leonard is the team’s center of the future. Thomas Robinson is on his third team after just one season, if Portland believes the fifth overall draft pick of 2012 has a future in the league, they have to find at least 20 minutes a night for him.

The Trail Blazers are too good to be bad and need to find minutes for their young players whether that results in wins or not. This season should have a slightly better record than last year, but winning is probably going to take a back seat to player development.

11. New Orleans Pelicans – 27-55 last season, projected 36-46

New Orleans projected starting unit of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson has an average age 23-years-old. This team’s best players are young, developing and a long ways from their projected prime and that is not usually the formula for a playoff appearance.

A lot of people suggested the Pelicans were making a run at the 2014 postseason when they exchanged Nerlens Noel and a future protected first round draft pick for Holiday, but maybe New Orleans just wanted a 23-year-old All-Star and thought they got the better of the trade. It would be hard to argue with them.

The Pelicans have question marks with their depth and potentially bigger unknowns with a couple of their starters. Eric Gordon had surgery on his ankle again in May and after playing in just 51 games over the past two seasons in New Orleans, whether or not Gordon will be the offensive player he was with the Clippers is unknown. The Kings tried to move Evans from guard to small forward and it would be stretch to say the experiment was a success in Sacramento. There is no reason to assume Evans can play small forward at a high level in New Orleans either.

In New Orleans, questions should be looked upon more as opportunities. This team has acquired some good young talent and their future is ahead of them. The current starting unit may gel and produce earlier than expected or take time to develop and future moves may be required, either way, the Pelicans are on the right path.

Risks and Obstacles

Any team hoping to land one the last three playoff spots in their conference is going to have risks and issues to deal with, but with the Grizzlies and the Nuggets seemingly locked into two of those spots, the rest of this group is really in for a fight.

Dallas will be waiting to take the last playoff if other teams stumble or decide to tank for a better lottery pick. Both Portland and New Orleans are going to be developing young players and letting the chips fall where they may. The Timberwolves, however, have the talent and the motivation to grab that last playoff spot if only that dark cloud of bad luck hanging over this team can disperse for a season and they are due, Minnesota has been waiting a long time to watch postseason action again.

Who do you think takes 6, 7and 8 in the NBA Western Conference and makes the playoffs? Which one of these teams will be first to embrace tanking? Can any of these teams crack the top five in the West? Let us know in the comments below.

Be sure to check out our Ranking of the Top Five NBA Eastern Conference Teams and our Ranking of the NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Hopefuls.

Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report. You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors

 

Ranking The Top Five NBA Western Conference Teams

Ranking the top five NBA Western Conference teams just got a little harder than usual this season. The Lakers are not going to be in this group at the start of the season and it is worth noting that change all on its own. The Clippers are and don’t expect Lakers fans to be all that happy about it. However, there are more changes than just the rise of the Clippers and the fall of the Lakers. The top five in the West is under renovation.

Every team faces risks and even the best in the West can have their season disrupted by unforeseen circumstances, but these teams are pretty deep and unless they lose a key star player for a significant number of games, they should be able to hold onto solid playoff spot fairly easily.

The Top Five

1. Los Angeles Clippers – 56-26 last season, projected 62-20

The Clippers are better than last season. 28-year-old Jared Dudley is an excellent replacement for last season’s 33-year-old starting small forward Caron Butler, equivalent but younger. J.J. Redick is a big upgrade over the former starting shooting guard Willie Green. Plus, five of the Clippers top six scorers from last season are back, so this team has continuity.

However, the Clippers will win more games because they upgraded their head coach. Doc Rivers has the respect of everyone associated with the NBA. Concerns about being out-coached are gone and if top-flight coaching really does make a difference, adding 10 percent more wins to last season’s total shouldn’t even be a stretch. Look for the best team in Los Angeles to compete for the best record in the NBA again this season.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder – 60-22 last season, projected 58-24

The Thunder are contenders to reach the Western Conference Finals for the third time in four years, however, this season like last season, they are going to face some serious competition.

The team had question marks about their ability to dominate the West after losing James Harden to the Rockets and those questions were compounded by the loss of Kevin Martin to the Timberwolves this summer, however, they will still coast through the regular season fairly easily on the backs of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

This team is still deep and talented and has assets to trade if the young players Steve Adams and Jeremy Lamb are not quite ready for prime time in backup roles. Any slippage from last season will be slight.

3. San Antonio Spurs – 58-24 last season, projected 54-28

One day Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are going to pack it in after long and successful NBA careers. Unfortunately for their Western Conference rivals, that time hasn’t arrived just yet. Neither of these players are going to be better than last season, but this resilient Spurs team that looks a lot like last year’s NBA Finalist has to be the favorite to win their division once again. They are the team no one wants to meet in the playoffs.

The only reason to project fewer wins than last season is the Spurs best players are getting older. Father-time catches up to everyone eventually.

4. Houston Rockets – 45-37 last season, projected 54-28

The Rockets have joined the list of serious contenders to advance to the Western Conference Finals because they won the Dwight Howard sweepstakes. Two bona fide big-time All-Star players has been the formula to contend in the NBA and the combination of Harden and Howard is as legit as it comes.

Last season Howard played with a bad back in bad situation and he still led the league in rebounding and was fifth in blocks. Assume Howard will arrive in Houston with something to prove.

Houston still has a situation to sort out with Omer Asik as last year’s starting center is not a power forward, but Asik is a very tradable asset, so this problem is not a bad problem to have.

5. Golden State Warriors – 47-35 last season, projected 51-31

No one is going to mistake the Golden State Warriors for a defensive juggernaut, but last season Head Coach Mark Jackson got a decidedly better effort on defense out of his offensive-minded players and the Warriors won 24 more games than the year before and got to the Western Conference Semi-Finals.

The Warriors defense just took a huge step forward with this summer’s acquisition of Andre Iguodala. Jackson will be able to pair Iguodala on the wing with either Harrison Barnes or Klay Thompson and give opposing offenses a look this team hasn’t been able to show for years.

Andrew Bogut looks like he will be ready to start the season and re-create his big defensive presence from last season’s playoff run and Jermaine O’Neal can help out defensively as long as Jackson doesn’t have to rely on him for big minutes.

The only obvious risk in Golden State is how well Stephen Curry’s ankles hold up and he only missed 4 regular season games last year.

Risks and Obstacles

The top five teams in the West are all deep enough to deal with reasonable injury risks and still compete for home court in the first round of the playoffs and aside from the Memphis Grizzlies, it would be a surprise if any of the other teams in the Western Conference were able to bump them into the sixth spot or lower. However, each team faces the real possibility that key players will miss games to known injury concerns and if this happens at the wrong time, their regular season standing will be affected.

Anyone in our top five could end up first in the West if the breaks go their way, however, pushing the Clippers and the Thunder out of the way is probably too big a hill to climb.

Who do you think will put forth the effort it takes to be first in the NBA Western Conference at the end of the season? Which one of these teams do you think gives up home court in the first round of the playoffs? Can any other team crack the top five in the West? Let us know in the comments below.

The muddled middle of teams competing for a playoff spot at 6, 7 and 8 will be available for discussion soon.

Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report. You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors

Ranking The NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Hopefuls

When ranking the NBA Eastern Conference, it is hard not to notice that the teams have already aligned themselves into distinct tiers. After Chicago, Miami, Brooklyn, Indiana and New York, there is a muddled middle of teams where the debate rages about the virtue of being a one-and-done playoff team in the 6, 7 or 8 spot versus tanking for a better draft pick in June.

Of course some of the teams in the muddled middle will be joining the obvious tankers that have already committed to the lottery. After all, this may be the best draft since LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade went in the top five back in 2003. Just don’t expect any of the teams in this tier to admit they aren’t interested in a playoff spot until after it has become obvious that tanking was the plan all along.

As usual, injuries, hidden agendas and plain old fashioned luck will impact the final standings, but it is hard to say it will matter all that much to the teams in the top three that will be playing them in April.

The Muddled Middle

6. Detroit Pistons – 29-53 last season, projected 44-38

Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars had a lot of salary cap space heading into the summer of 2013 and just like in 2009, he has signed a pair of well known and talented free agents in an attempt to revitalize his franchise’s faded fortunes. He is also replacing his head coach with Maurice Cheeks, however, Cheeks is the fifth head coach in seven seasons and coaching changes in Detroit have become almost not-newsworthy.

Dumars landed free agent forward Josh Smith with a four year $54 million offer and completed a sign and trade deal to acquire Brandon Jennings from the Bucks at $24 million over three years. The question is, did he make the Pistons better or did Dumars just add talent that may or may not fit with this roster? Jennings could turn out to be a much more expensive version of Brandon Knight and Cheeks will have his hands full managing minutes between Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Smith.

The Pistons should make the playoffs as they added the most talent of any team competing in this tier. It’s just hard not to believe that everything that could go wrong will go wrong as that has been the Pistons’ story since Dumars started rebuilding on the fly four years ago.

7. Toronto Raptors – 34-48 last season, projected 44-38

Aside from the Atlanta Hawks, the Raptors should be the team deemed most likely to have a .500 record or better in the muddled middle. There is no mystery with this team. The Raptors have brought back the core of last season’s roster that played .500 ball after the Rudy Gay trade and have upgraded the Andrea Bargnani anchor that had been holding them back last year with three-point shooting specialist Steve Novak and the physical play of Tyler Hansbrough.

The Raptors are counting on Gay having a big impact this season, Kyle Lowry to show up healthy and in shape and DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas to take another step in their development. If Head Coach Dwane Casey is allowed to play his main guys big minutes, the Raptors will push a Detroit team firing on all pistons for sixth place in the East. If this is another year where the Raptors choose to develop some of their young fringe players, breaking the .500 barrier could come into question.

8. Atlanta Hawks -44-38 last season, 41-41 projected

The Atlanta Hawks have their payroll under control and they made a value signing with Paul Millsap. However, it is hard to envision this team not being slightly worse than last year without their former leading scorer Josh Smith and their 10 point per game backup point guard Devin Harris.

The Hawks didn’t blow the team up to get better through the draft and this team shouldn’t be expecting big name free agents to be begging to play in Atlanta for less than market value contracts. So the plan isn’t all that clear in Atlanta, but if Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Lou Williams and Millsap stay reasonably healthy, they should be good enough to make the playoffs with a .500 record.

9. Washington Wizards – 29-53 last season, projected 36-46

After a 4-28 start while watching John Wall wait for the stress fracture or whatever his team wanted to call the problem with knee heal, the Wizards went 21-20 before finishing the season on a six game losing streak. Not surprisingly, the Wizards believe they can play .500 ball with this roster for an entire season if Wall stays healthy and maybe they can.

The Wizards inked Wall to a deserved maximum contract extension this summer. They are hoping that Nene van stay healthy, but that might be wishful thinking with his injury history. Bradley Beal was an elite rookie last year and Otto Porter should be an elite rookie this season, so the future is bright enough, but the Wizards will be much better served by playing their young talent more minutes and sacrificing a few wins in the process. This is a case of player development while hoping for the best when it comes to the playoffs is the right way to go.

10. Milwaukee Bucks – 38-44 last season, projected 36-46 projected

The Bucks are a small market team that doesn’t believe they can tank on purpose and hold onto their badly needed ticket revenue. It worked last season as they snuck into a playoff spot when both the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors failed to live up to expectations. Once again, this team is good enough to grab the eighth spot if the teams that are supposed to be better flounder and that situation is not all that hard to imagine.

Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal were great value pickups by the Bucks this summer. It’s possible this team will see little decline in production from their guards for a lot less money. Larry Sanders and John Henson are poised to become the mainstays in the Milwaukee front court for a long time and Caron Butler will give this team a badly needed veteran presence. The Bucks will be competitive every night and this team is deep enough to handle injuries or consider trading a player at almost any position if the right deal came along.

11. Cleveland Cavaliers – 24-58 last season, projected 34-48

The Cavaliers are a true wild card. If Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving can stay/get healthy and play most of this season, then this roster can compete with the Knicks for fifth place and they should succeed. However, those are massive ifs.

Bynum is officially a member of the all “show-me” team. No one should assume Bynum will ever play NBA basketball again until after they see him playing in a regular season game on an NBA court. Even the Cavaliers with salary cap space to waste wouldn’t guarantee Bynum’s deal past January 10. It was a reasonable gamble if you are made of money and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert almost is.

A lot of people want to see Varejao play an entire season. In each of the last two years it looked like Varejao might be the best power forward in the NBA until he got hurt. Varejao’s recent seasons were cut short by a knee injury, a torn leg muscle and a life threatening blood clot. While these shouldn’t be re-occurring injuries, they are very worrisome. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the Cavaliers cashed-in on a healthy Varejao for young or future assets even if Bynum isn’t ready to play.

Irving’s freshman college season was cut short by a structural foot problem that has been corrected with orthotics, but he missed 15 games as an NBA rookie and 23 games last season and the Cavaliers are simply not the same threat without him. Until a player shows he can handle the rigors of a full NBA season, their durability will remain in question.

The Cavaliers would like to make the playoffs. The Cavaliers would like to challenge for a top four spot in the standings and if everything goes just right, they can, but no one should be upset if things turn out differently. This team’s future is still ahead of them. It is more important to continue the growth and development of Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller, Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev. If the playoffs happen, they happen. If not, no one in Cleveland should be losing any sleep over it.

Risks and Obstacles

The teams in the muddled middle can’t assume anything heading into this season and the situation isn’t much different for those of us watching from the outside. A poor start or injury problems could move anyone one of these clubs from playoff hopefuls to joining “tank nation” full force and there will almost certainly be at least one hidden agenda that will not be obvious until after the season starts.

Anyone in the muddled middle could be a playoff team in the East if the breaks go their way, however, the teams that need the least amount of help are Detroit, Toronto and Atlanta, but even these teams have the potential to miss.

Who do you think takes 6, 7 and 8 in the NBA Eastern Conference and makes the playoffs? Which one of the teams in the muddled middle will be first to embrace tanking? Can any of these teams crack the top five in the East? Let us know in the comments below.

Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report. You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors

Ranking The Top Five NBA Eastern Conference Teams

When ranking the NBA Eastern Conference, it is hard not to notice that the teams have already aligned themselves into three distinct tiers. There are the top five teams that all expect to be in the Eastern Conference Finals. A muddled middle of teams where the debate rages about the virtue of being a one-and-done playoff team in the 6, 7 or 8 spot versus tanking for a better draft pick in June. Then there are the obvious tankers that have already committed to the lottery in what may be the best draft since LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade went in the top five back in 2003.

As usual, injuries, hidden agendas and plain old fashioned luck will impact the final standings and being first in the East during the regular season may not mean all that much in June.

The Top Five

1. Chicago Bulls – 45-37 last season, projected 62-20

The Bulls operated at a first-place 62-win pace for two seasons behind Derrick Rose’s leadership and managed to finish in fifth last season without him. The winning core of Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Carlos Boozer are together again, plus Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich return off the bench. Add to this the solid job the Bulls have done with the rest of their roster and they are good enough to produce another 60-plus win season.

The risks for Chicago are Rose may have lost a step, the possibility Deng still has issues from his spinal tap this summer and Noah’s issues with planter fasciitis. The other risk is the Bulls organization may move one or more of their key veterans to get out of the luxury tax this year or next. However, if everyone stays put and healthy for a reasonable number of games, the Bulls can take first-place in the East again this year. Perhaps more importantly, the Bulls will want to reclaim first place.

2. Miami HEAT – 66-16 last season, projected 60-22

The back-to-back NBA Champions won 66 games last season because of a 27 game win streak followed by an 8 game win streak that saw them close out the season on a 37 win 2 loss run. That isn’t likely to happen again. The HEAT found it hard to be consistent early in the season after winning a championship last year and that will be doubly hard this time around.

The HEAT still have James, Wade and Bosh, so they remain favorites to return to the Eastern Conference Finals, however, they won’t lose any sleep about what position in the top four they end up at during the regular season. That alone makes first place an unlikely result.

3. Brooklyn Nets – 49-33 last season, projected 58-24

The Nets have the highest payroll in the NBA and will set a luxury tax record this season. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if they ended up in first place in the East, but it should be more important to get Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez and Deron Williams to the end of the season healthy.

Pierce and Garnett are durable enough if Head Coach Jason Kidd can avoid wearing them down during the regular season. However, Lopez has been in a walking boot since having surgery on his right foot in June to have the screw in his surgically-repaired right foot replaced and Williams had three rounds of cortisone shots to deal with his ankle issues last year. Unfortunately, the pressure will be on the Nets all season to justify the huge investment in this roster, so these players may be pushed harder than they should be.

While Kidd would probably let his big guns get more rest during the regular season if this wasn’t his first year at the helm don’t expect the Nets to let any regular season games get away if they can win them. This team will fight for first place even if it costs them later on.

4. Indiana Pacers – 49-32 last season, projected 55-27

The Pacers should have won more games last season and with the addition of Luis Scola and the return of Danny Granger they are better now. This team’s issue was they took games off and ended up just 1 game above .500 against teams in the East outside of their own division and there was no excuse for that.

It is possible the improved bench pushes the Pacers to achieve up to their potential, however, it can be hard to change the personality of a team. The Pacers will probably play their best against the teams they respect and do just enough for a top 4 finish against everyone else. Look out for these guys in the playoffs though. They will not wear themselves out during the regular season.

5. New York Knicks – 54-28 last season, projected 48-34

The Knicks should be insulted by the projections being tossed around about the upcoming season. They should do better, but they have done most of the damage to expectations themselves.

J.R. Smith is recovering from knee surgery which will likely delay his return, but now he’s tacked on a 5-game suspension for a failed drug test.

Just assume Amar’e Stoudemire will miss half of the games this season due to his knees, back or something else and any disappointment will be mitigated. Last year, he missed more than half.

Andrea Bargnani is still suffering from pneumonia. It’s not his fault, but that fact isn’t going to help him to show up at training camp in shape or fix his jump shot.

Tyson Chandler has a history of injuries that he was able to play through but seriously impacted his performance and during his exit interview after the playoffs, he admitted his neck injury wasn’t fully healed. Chandler will give all he has, but if it’s less than you expected, he probably hurting somewhere again.

Metta World Peace had knee surgery at the end of last season. He is supposed to be fully recovered – did anyone mention he turns 34 in November?

The torn labrum in Carmelo Anthony’s shoulder has healed without surgery according to the league’s leading scorer. Let’s just take him at his word.

Pablo Prigioni is 36-years-old and skipped the FIBA Americas with Argentina, but that might be a good thing.

Raymond Felton said he lost 15 lbs this summer. Last summer he said he lost 20 lbs. Maybe Felton should just stop talking about his weight before he either fades away completely or convinces everyone he still has a weight problem.

There is no need to go on and the Knicks won 54 games last season under Head Coach Mike Woodson facing many of the same issues. Somehow Woodson kept this team winning games during the regular season and he will probably do it again this year.

Risks and Obstacles

The top five teams in the East are all deep enough to deal with reasonable injury risks and still compete for home court in the first round of the playoffs and it would be a surprise if any of the other teams in the Eastern Conference were able to bump them into the sixth spot or lower. However, each team faces the real possibility that key players will miss games to known injury concerns and if this happens at the wrong time, their regular season standing will be affected.

Anyone in our top five could end up first in the East if the breaks go their way, however, the two teams that are going to try the hardest will be Chicago and Brooklyn and Chicago has done this twice before recently.

Who do you think will put forth the effort it takes to be first in the NBA Eastern Conference at the end of the season? Which one of these teams do you think gives up home court in the first round of the playoffs? Can any other team crack the top five in the East? Let us know in the comments below.

The muddled middle of teams competing for a playoff spot at 6, 7 and 8 will be available for discussion soon.

Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report. You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors