We have arrived at mid-July in the 2017 NBA off-season and with all of the big names off of the free agency board and only one real star caliber player on the trade market (or not apparently? Who knows), it is a good time to analyze the state of affairs of all 30 NBA teams and see where they anticipate to fall on the spectrum from championship favorite to top of the tank list.
You can see this as an off-season power ranking with a little more flare and substance. Let’s start with the champs…
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are on a level of their own in the NBA for 2017-18 and maybe more so than any other team in NBA history. There has never been a championship favorite as big in Vegas as the Warriors currently are for 2017-18. They improved upon maybe the greatest team in NBA history by bringing back valuable role players in Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston and becoming deeper, more dangerous offensively and more athletic with Jordan Bell, Nick Young and Omri Casspi.
San Antonio Spurs
Neither one of these franchises has had the best off-season at this point to say the least. The Cavaliers currently don’t have a general manager, lost out on the Paul George sweepstakes, are drowning in LeBron to Los Angeles rumors in 2018 as he remains detached from their off-season moves this summer and have almost no capability to become younger and more athletic, which they need badly to compete with the Warriors.
The Spurs had a real a chance to take a step toward reaching the Warriors level this off-season by acquiring a player like Chris Paul, Paul George or even George Hill, but instead essentially decided to stand pat except for the acquisition of a 30-year-old Rudy Gay off of an Achilles injury and letting their most athletic players in Johnathan Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon go.
Why are they still contenders? Because LeBron James is the best player in the world and Kyrie Irving is one of the five best scorers and Kawhi Leonard may be the 3rd best player in the world with the best coach in Gregg Popovich
Oklahoma City Thunder
These are all of the hot button teams that have made a major acquisition this off-season and are seen by many as title contenders at this point, but still need some seasoning and improvement to actually complete with the tier above in a prospective playoff series.
The Rockets now have two of the top eight players in the NBA which is a great recipe for a championship contender, but they both played point guard last season and are both very ball-dominant, that means a definite adjustment period. They have some good defenders in Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza, but they could struggle to stop the Warriors or Cavaliers.
The Celtics are much better offensively with Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum, but took a step back defensively with the loss of Avery Bradley. They will win 50 plus games in the east again, but would be a 4 or 5 seed in the west.
The Thunder have leaped into the psuedo contender tier with a trade for another superstar that could actually compliment Russell Westbrook well in Paul George. Add in the return of Andre Roberson, another shooter and role player in Patrick Patterson, and they may be the best fit to challenge the throne in the west.
Really Good…For the East
These two teams will forever be linked in their current iterations as two really good basketball teams with great back courts and the ability to win 50 games in the east and make an eastern conference finals, but not beat LeBron in his prime.
The Raptors have had a really good and overlooked off-season in my opinion. They kept their core of Lowry-DeRozan-Ibaka and re-signed Lowry and Ibaka for shorter three year deals to go all in for being a B+ NBA team. They will be competitive in the east for three more years which is way better than having more flexibility, but they are a team that doesn’t move the needle and won’t be bad enough to bottom out and completely start over. They need to flip Valanciunas for a better rim protector, but that ship has sailed.
The Wizards are all in on their trio of Wall, Beal and Porter (unless Wall bolts for LA next summer) and will still be a very good team with the potential to win a few playoff series in the east.
The West Mess….
Los Angeles Clippers
New Orleans Pelicans
Every single one of these teams could finish anywhere from No. 5 to No. 11 in the incredibly crowded and competitive western conference. All of them have made a concerted effort to improve in the past six months (Wolves, Nuggets, Pelicans) or stay relevant and stay a playoff-caliber team despite some rough breaks (Clippers, Jazz, Grizzlies).
Personally, if the Nuggets can acquire a legitimate starting point guard I think they are at the forefront of this tier of teams, but as it currently stands the T’Wolves or Jazz may be the class of these muddled group of B- NBA teams in the ever-competitive western conference.
NBA TV Playoff Series Bound…
The Heat swung for the fences with Gordon Hayward this summer and were gearing up for a Blake Griffin pursuit, but when they were unable to land Hayward they decided to go all in and re-up with a team that went 31-10 the second half of last season. They are hoping to regain that magic and have a contending team in the east, I think they are more of a solid 43 to 48 win team.
The Bucks hopped back into the playoff fray last year with the Greek Freek becoming one of the 10 to 15 best players in the entire NBA and great performances from young guys like Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. With a recovering Jabari Parker they may not be ready to jump to the top four in the east, but with the Greek Freak it is not off the table.
Capped out in Mediocrity…
These teams are exactly in the position you don’t want to be in the NBA. Stuck in the middle with no flexibility to move up or down. These three teams could have three of the top 10 payrolls in the NBA this season and will have little to show for it.
The Blazers and Hornets overreacted to an over-performance in the 2015-16 seasons and paid big dollars to maintain their teams because of it, and the Pistons took a chance on a few players like Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris and some mid-level free agency signing and are paying (literally and figuratively) for their mistakes.
The Mavericks are really hard to group in anyone of these tiers, they are not good enough to make or seriously compete for a playoff spot in the west, they are not capped out in mediocrity, they have pretty clean books moving forward and are clearly building for the future while enjoying Dirk’s swan song so they are not lost in the wilderness, they aren’t tanking and they aren’t flushed with young talent. They are kind of just Dirking around.
Trusting the Process…
Los Angeles Lakers
These are two franchises who have lived at the top of the lottery for years now and their patience (and some lottery luck) has put them in a position in many people minds to be back in the thick of the leagues upper or mid tier within a year or two with their cap flexibility and young talent. The 76ers have their super trio to build around for the future in Embiid, Simmons and Fultz, and the Lakers have a potentially transcendent point guard in Lonzo Ball, a star in the making in Brandon Ingram and all of the cap and appeal to be the top free agency destination in 2018.
Lost in the Wildnerness…
New York Knicks
This is almost as bad as being capped out in mediocrity, but definitely more perplexing. There are always teams every year that can’t seem to decide if they want to try and be competitive or embrace the tank and tear down their roster to rebuild through the draft. The Knicks have seemingly been stuck in this space almost without an intermission for the past 15 years. Until they trade Carmelo Anthony and stop paying guys like Tim Hardaway Jr. $18 million per season, they won’t find their way.
When the Pacers came to terms with Paul George’s desire to leave Indiana, they should have gone full force into acquiring draft picks and cheap young players to spark a complete rebuild. Instead they acquired Victor Oladipo, who is now making $21 million per season, and paid money to middle of the road veterans like Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic to be a C team in the east.
The Magic are a mess. They are front court heavy and have little in the way of long-term potential and talent outside of Aaron Gordon. They are realistically not good enough to compete for a playoff spot in the east and not quite bad enough to land a top 3 pick.
Fresh in the Tank…
These two teams have been trying to stay competitive in the eastern conference the past two seasons and maintain their relevancy with the threat and possibility of a rebuild hovering right above them. That changed this summer when the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler and the Hawks traded Dwight Howard and let Paul Millsap walk in free agency.
They have both just checked into the tank hotel and are meandering through the lobby checking out their surrounding and assessing the pool and continental breakfast situation while getting the key to their room. Both will be higher in the lottery than they have been in quite some time in 2018.
Building for 2020…
We have reached our final destination on the NBA hierarchy of 2017-18. This is most definitely the worst landing spot to be in on the hierarchy (see: lost in the wilderness and capped out in mediocrity), but it is the one that requires the most patience with fans. Everybody from the top to the bottom of these organizations and their fans know that they are not built to win very many games in 2017-18, rather they are trying to build something that can be special in a few years with some savvy decisions and lottery luck. The Suns have their obscenely young core of Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, the Kings have DeAaron Fox, Budd Hield and a fresh start after the Boogie haze. The Nets are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with a capable general manager in Sean Marks.