Miami Heat lead the way as season nears
By Britt Robson
October 21, 2010
Welcome to SI.com's first NBA Power Rankings of the 2010-11 season.
I don't want to discourage debate about my ordering of teams -- intelligent arguments are a joyful pursuit for fans and pundits alike -- but first let me explain my admittedly subjective criteria so you know what to criticize. To make the rankings as dynamic and time-sensitive as possible each week, I'll order teams based on their current circumstance, not on how I feel they'd perform weeks from now or what they did weeks ago.
For example, the two-time defending champion Lakers sit only third on this list and the reigning Eastern Conference champion Celtics are only fourth in part because of concerns about how they'll fare without Andrew Bynum and Kendrick Perkins, respectively. Last year's two finalists start off behind top-ranked Miami, which offers a rare blend of stardom and teamwork (the Heat's new Big Three showed the latter on the 2008 Olympic team), and could have Dwyane Wade back for the season opener; and healthy Orlando, which has demolished its seven preseason opponents and is hungry after deep runs in the last two postseasons failed to result in a championship.
In any case, while it's human nature to just look at the number beside the team, I hope these rankings become of interest as much for my observations as for where your favorite team lands on the list.
Check back Tuesday, Nov. 2 for the first regular-season edition of the Power Rankings. (Note: All preseason statistics are through Oct. 20.)
NBA Preseason Power Rankings
Rivals have to hope for injuries, dissension or some other bad juju, because the Heat have three of the league's top 10 scorers from last season -- LeBron James ranked second, Wade fifth and Chris Bosh ninth, with Wade's 47.6 percent from the field the least accurate of the bunch -- and two of the top 10 in assists (LeBron sixth and Wade 10th). Defensively, LeBron and Wade can both be shutdown beasts. As for size underneath, Bosh isn't exactly chopped liver. Elsewhere, Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, the Mario Chalmers/Carlos Arroyo point guard tandem and Mike Miller are at least average glue. The Heat were awaiting word on the severity of the thumb injury Miller sustained in practice Wednesday.
Dwight Howard's improvement remains the Magic's supposed ace in the hole every offseason until he peaks in another two or three years. Workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon, a genius at low-post footwork, sounded promising, but, as Shaquille O'Neal will tell you, anyone who clanks free throws like Howard needs a tremendous sidekick to step forward when the game is on the line. It's an issue Orlando won't solve by changing Rashard Lewis' forward position, as it has experimented with in the preseason, and the options alongside Howard -- Lewis, Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson -- aren't likely to make the Magic anything more than a fabulous regular-season team, especially considering how those three play defense.
Los Angeles Lakers
It wouldn't surprise me if the Lakers emulated last year's Celtics and sandbagged much of the regular season to be in top shape for the playoffs; in fact, with Andrew Bynum's delaying knee surgery to attend the World Cup this summer (he is expected to be sidelined until at least late November), they've already started. The acquisitions of Matt Barnes and Steve Blake deserve a standing ovation, and with an auctioned ring on his résumé, a less-stressed Ron Artest could really flourish. But winning a third consecutive title requires a healthy Kobe Bryant and Bynum, and pacing yourself toward a championship is easier said than done.
As one who underestimated the Celtics most of last season, I remain addicted to pessimism. A big man who can't defend the pick-and-roll is like a point guard who can't shoot -- he'll be repeatedly exposed until adjustments are made -- and that is the fate of Shaq. Jermaine O'Neal is an upgrade over out-of-shape Rasheed Wallace on defense, but can't come close to the contributions Perkins, who is projected to miss at least half the season after knee surgery. On the bright side, free-agent signee Delonte West is a shrewd investment to ease the load on the amazing, still-improving Rajon Rondo.
Last year's playoff loss to San Antonio (Dallas' third first-round exit in four years) has many sleeping on the Mavs. But size matters, and with the addition of Tyson Chandler and a full season from deadline pickup Brendan Haywood, Dallas has more mobile rim protectors than the departed Erick Dampier to team with stretch power forward Dirk Nowitzki. On the wings, coach Rick Carlisle can turn a potential negative -- a surplus of offensive talent, egos and contract considerations (Caron Butler is in the final year of his deal and Jason Terry has a minutes clause that affects his guaranteed money for 2011-12, for example) -- into positive motivation by rewarding defensive performance.
Portland Trail Blazers
Brandon Roy's comments about needing the ball more -- with before-and-after references to Andre Miller's arrival included in case anyone didn't get the message -- were churlish. The Blazers need both playmakers to seriously challenge the Lakers, and for all his wonderful decisions when isolated in half-court sets, Roy has never won a playoff series. Of course, neither has the older Miller, whose first year in Portland provided him with the highest usage rate -- the percentage of team plays used by a player when he is on the court -- of his 12-year career. Roy's was the second highest of his four-year career. In Nate McMillan's ultraslow, deliberate offense, the pair can coexist.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The jump from 50 to, say, 58 wins will be tougher for the Thunder than last year's leap from 23 to 50. Anyone who saw the way Russell Westbrook penetrated at the FIBA World Championship knows he's a coverage-drawing complement to Kevin Durant. But with assistant coach Ron Adams' departure and the populace kneeling before their future greatness, will these still-impressionable kids continue to play the tenacious team defense that was the secret weapon of their breakout season?
San Antonio Spurs
The preseason yielded a foot injury to rookie Brazilian center Tiago Splitter and ongoing inconsistency from last year's disappointment, Richard Jefferson, two early bumps in the road if not foreboding trends. A healthy Splitter, an MVP in the well-regarded Spanish ACB League, is a priority if the Spurs intend to continue to limit Tim Duncan's playing time during the regular season (he averaged a career-low 31.3 minutes last season). Good news: First-round pick James Anderson already looks capable of shoring up the Spurs' outside shooting woes.
The acquisition of Al Jefferson is tantalizing because his low-post skills should square with coach Jerry Sloan's offensive philosophy, as long as Jefferson defers to the direction of Deron Williams. But Jefferson hasn't demonstrated he can be an adequate defender at either center or power forward (his more natural position), and until Mehmet Okur returns from Achilles tendon surgery (late December at the earliest), his only backup is foul-prone Kyrylo Fesenko. On the plus side, first-round pick Gordon Hayward shows signs of being able to replace Kyle Korver immediately.
If Denver somehow goes deep into the playoffs, coach George Karl -- who is back after missing the end of last season while being treated for neck and throat cancer -- should meet with producers of The Blind Side for rights to another feel-good movie. More likely, the Nuggets will be pressured into trading Carmelo Anthony (who, under current circumstances, will be hard-pressed to find a better supporting cast than the one he has in Denver) and then perhaps Chauncey Billups.
I share the conventional wisdom that the Hawks overpaid (in years even more than dollars) to re-sign Joe Johnson, limiting future flexibility on a team that seems to have peaked without fully engaging an indifferent fan base. That supposed ceiling should be insulting to an athletic front line -- Josh Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams -- whose average age is less than 25. With new coach Larry Drew moving away from isolations for Johnson on offense, they'll have ample opportunity to rebut the skepticism.
I expect the Bulls to move up this list as Carlos Boozer returns from a broken hand in another month or so. There is a lot to like: Boozer and center Joakim Noah have complementary skill sets; point guard Derrick Rose may be on the cusp of stardom; Luol Deng is a third offensive option who can put the dagger in at crunch time; and Tom Thibodeau, with his extensive experience as an assistant and reputation as a defensive guru, is no ordinary rookie coach. But they have plenty to prove -- and improve -- to join the Eastern elite.
Given the mandate for Yao Ming to play no more than 24 minutes per game, perpetually underrated coach Rick Adelman has the unenviable task of developing one style that complements Yao's singular presence and another one that compensates for his absence. Houston has the depth to make a go of it, but the enforced discontinuity makes it difficult to sustain advantageous matchups and maximize the sort of killer momentum that spells the difference in at least a handful of games each year. Is Yao worth this discombobulation? Will his fragile feet ultimately make his playing time a moot point?
New Orleans Hornets
New coach Monty Williams has been thinking outside the box in the preseason, giving a good look to 7-footer Jason Smith as an improvement over Aaron Gray in beefing up the smallish frontcourt of Emeka Okafor and David West, and favoring Marco Belinelli as the off-guard starter ahead of a struggling Marcus Thornton. All this is secondary to the question of whether the tenuous relationship between Chris Paul and the Hornets can be re-solidified, but the ability of Paul's teammates to embrace roles is part of the equation. One bad sign: Trevor Ariza, an ineffective gunner with Houston last year, has attempted more shots than Paul in the preseason.
Robin Lopez, who has played just 1,600 regular-season minutes in his two seasons, is the Suns' only player of any merit who is most comfortable in the paint at both ends of the court. Phoenix will shoot a ton of three-pointers -- it added Hedo Turkoglu to six returning players who shot better than 39 percent from distance last season -- and get murdered on the boards. That's a boom-or-bust recipe further skewed by the loss of Amar'e Stoudemire. Coach Alvin Gentry did an outstanding job creating a gritty second unit and guiding Phoenix to the conference finals in 2009-10. Just a trip to the playoffs this season would be nearly as noteworthy.
Apportioning minutes based on performance more than reputation or salary is common sense but not necessarily common practice among coaches. Scott Skiles is an exception, which is why we might see new end-of-the-bench guys like Jon Brockman or pint-size point guard Earl Boykins step in and shine at some point this season. If the coach can motivate scorer Corey Maggette (out all preseason recovering from ankle surgery) and vagabond power forward Drew Gooden this way, and if center Andrew Bogut can come back from his gruesome fall last April, the Bucks could challenge Chicago for the top spot in the Central Division.
Los Angeles Clippers
Can new coach Vinny Del Negro get point guard Baron Davis to play in a manner that maximizes the young but considerable talent around him? The answer will determine whether the Clippers are in the hunt for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. A starting five of Davis, All-Star center Chris Kaman, FIBA World Championship sharpshooter Eric Gordon, 2009 No. 1 pick Blake Griffin and glue guy Ryan Gomes isn't too shabby, but easily dissoluble if Davis doesn't sacrifice his ego.
Center Marc Gasol and power forward Zach Randolph exceeded expectations and young swingmen Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo made progress, but the Grizzlies still couldn't crack .500 last season. The culprits were a woeful lack of depth and inadequate play from point guard Mike Conley, who is running out of time to justify being the fourth pick in the 2007 draft. Signing former Celtic Tony Allen helps address concerns about depth and perimeter defense, but unless Gay improves enough to justify his five-year, $80 million deal and players from the past two drafts -- especially center Hasheem Thabeet and swingmen Sam Young and Xavier Henry -- strengthen the bench, Memphis will have trouble making the playoffs.
Enough Elton Brand bashing for a minute. Yes, he's grossly overpaid and will never again reach his Clippers-era prime, but he's Bill Russell compared to his main backup, Marreese Speights, who never passes and is an atrocious defender. Last year's biggest problem, the bad-fit hire of coach Eddie Jordan, is gone, and Doug Collins has some intriguing pieces in point guard Jrue Holiday (who improved his field-goal percentage every month last season) and dynamic wings Andre Iguodala and rookie Evan Turner. Collins won't repeat Jordan's inattention to defense, but with the loss of rim protector Sam Dalembert, that end of the court will remain problematic.
The skill overlap between the two marquee small forwards, top player Danny Granger and top pick Paul George, shouldn't be a big concern; after all, the starting shooting guard next to Granger has been Mike Dunleavy, who is bigger and taller than the rookie from Fresno State. George eventually could start alongside Granger with the potential to score and defend better than Dunleavy. Meanwhile, one worrisome note: New starting point guard Darren Collison has nearly as many turnovers as assists in the preseason.
New York Knicks
By now we know it is Steve Nash, not coach Mike D'Antoni, who owns the patent on Phoenix's run-and-gun style. D'Antoni's Knicks ranked only ninth in pace and 15th in offensive efficiency last season, but if New York is going to make the playoffs with the likes of Amar'e Stoudemire, Anthony Randolph, Raymond Felton and Danilo Gallinari, those rankings will have to rise. Initially, at least, D'Antoni is hedging his bets by playing either Ronny Turiaf or Russian rookie Timofey Mozgov at center with Stoudemire at power forward and Randolph off the bench.
Do the Wizards want to keep Gilbert Arenas around as a distracter/disruptor or do they want to flush the $80 million they owe him over the next four years down the drain? Lying to his coach about a fake injury shows Arenas remains in a rut of dysfunction. Arenas' celebrated backcourt mate, John Wall, is a blue-chip prospect who can be mentored by Kirk Hinrich (as Hinrich did with Derrick Rose the past two seasons). The starting center-power forward combination of JaVale McGee and Andre Blatche is loaded with potential and unpredictability.
Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson are good enough to be worthy secondary players on a championship contender, but the Bobcats lack a top dog. A supposedly cash-strapped team throwing $40 million (for five years) at athletic underachiever Tyrus Thomas makes no sense, nor does expecting to return to the playoffs with Nazr Mohammed and D.J. Augustin counted on for starter's minutes at center and point guard, respectively. Perhaps former point guard sensation Shaun Livingston can overcome his latest knee injury and push Augustin into a platoon situation.
Count me among the believers in center DeMarcus Cousins' being a future All-Star. Hopefully that process is expedited instead of marred by Dalembert's groin injury, which makes Cousins an immediate starter. Tyreke Evans may never have the court vision of a pure point guard, but he needs to foster more ball movement. With Carl Landry, Omri Casspi and Jason Thompson added to Cousins and Evans, the Kings are rapidly developing a physical identity. Sooner or later, but probably later, they are going to be very good.
It would be a heartwarming story if the Cavs could overachieve and compete for a playoff spot after being rejected by LeBron and pitied and dismissed by most observers. Even if they can't sustain their 5-2 preseason record once the games count, 22-year-old forward J.J. Hickson is proving to be a steal with the 19th pick in the 2008 draft and 24-year-old point guard Ramon Sessions is stuffing the stat sheet the way he did two seasons ago in Milwaukee. Those storylines involving youngsters ultimately matter more than how proven players either in their prime (Anderson Varejao, Mo Williams) or past it (Antawn Jamison) fare this season.
Shooting guard Ben Gordon would be a prime candidate for Comeback Player of the Year if the league still had such an award. But Detroit has a surfeit of shooting guards and forwards and desperately needs a genuine playmaker at point guard and a viable inside defender who is younger and has more size than the 6-9, 36-year-old Ben Wallace. Such a poorly balanced roster would cause a general manager less esteemed than Joe Dumars to worry about his job.
New Jersey Nets
The Nets won't lose 70 games again, but the prospects of another implosion are higher than you might think. New coach Avery Johnson and new owner Mikhail Prokhorov are impatient, and yet patience will be required with New Jersey's top draft picks the past two years, Derrick Favors (2010) and Terrence Williams (2009), and with blending together mostly pedestrian rotation players from Indiana (Troy Murphy), Portland (Travis Outlaw), Golden State (Anthony Morrow) and the Lakers (Jordan Farmar) into Johnson's system alongside holdovers Brook Lopez and Devin Harris. Meanwhile, Prokhorov, who has talked of making the playoffs this season and winning a title within five years, is probably willing to blow it all up for a star, with visions of Carmelo dancing in his head.
Golden State Warriors
Addition by subtraction defines the departure of coach Don Nelson, who went from charismatic iconoclast to grumpy, incoherent tactician over the past few years. It will take time, but the Warriors could thrive and move up this list once new coach Keith Smart implements a logical system tailored to his players' strengths. For example, with Andris Biedrins healthy, David Lee and Louis Amundson (out six weeks after finger surgery) on board and Nelson not around to play the 6-6, 210-pound Reggie Williams at power forward, the Warriors won't be outrebounded by nearly 10 per game like they were last season. Stephen Curry and Lee could be a top pick-and-roll combo, and Curry and Monta Ellis both score in bunches. A prospective 50-loss team rarely offers such enjoyable components.
The Wolves have added athletic wing scorers (Michael Beasley, top pick Wes Johnson, former Blazer Martell Webster), a passing center (Darko Milicic, who played only 24 games with them last year as a midseason acquisition) and heady point guard (Luke Ridnour) to operate coach Kurt Rambis' triangle offense. But their biggest improvement will come from letting Kevin Love lead the team in minutes. Outside of wanting to improve their lottery chances, it made no sense last season that Love ranked fifth in minutes on a 15-win team while averaging 14 points, 11 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 28.6 minutes.
Is there a quality defender on the roster? Maybe undersized Reggie Evans or foul-prone Amir Johnson, who both happen to play power forward and, for all their grit, will be overwhelmed down low because Andrea Bargnani, a 7-footer who abhors contact in the paint, is the center. With his four-year, $20 million deal, forward Linas Kleiza -- a solid rotation player in Denver before spending last season in Europe -- will provide better value than Bargnani and point guard Jose Calderon, terrible defenders for whom the Raps paid premium prices. A long, cold season looms in Toronto.
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