The off-season wheeling-and-dealing is largely in the rear view, with teams now just sorting through the scrap pile to round out their rosters. The biggest names left are restricted free agents Brandon Jennings and Gerald Henderson, and they'll both probably (reluctantly) wind up back with their old teams. So what should we expect next year? Well, each conference figures to have a couple of new playoff entrants, but as has usually been the case throughout NBA history, there won't be much turnover in the playoff brackets and the list of contenders and pretenders shouldn't change too dramatically. Here's one man's view of the league's totem pole, from the weakest to the Heatest.
30. Philadelphia 76ers: They dumped a bunch of assets a year ago only for Andrew Bynum to never suit up for them and then sent their best player, Jrue Holiday to the Pelicans for a raw big man coming off an ACL in Nerlens Noel and a first-round pick the next season that figures to be somewhere between 10-20. The fellow they drafted with their first-round pick this season, Michael Carter-Williams out of Syracuse, will be fortunate to make a third of his shots this season if Summer League is any indicator. They lost two of their best long-range shooters in Dorell Wright and Nick Young and replaced them with... James Anderson? Their best player remaining is Thaddeus Young. If that doesn't scream "tanking" then I don't know what does. The Sixers will be hard pressed to win 15 games this year, and that's only if they actually try, which seems a rather dubious proposition.
29. Utah Jazz: A reader pointed out that they already have three young solid starters in Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward, but you have to look at the big picture. No team in the league would pick up the contracts of Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson if they were planning on being at all competitive. You don't draft someone like Trey Burke, a 20-year-old point, if you're planning on being competitive. These are moves made with an eye on 2015 and beyond. If not they would've at least tried to work out some sign-and-trades for free agents Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap instead of just losing them for nothing. My guess is that coach Tyrone Corbin has been given the directive to play the heck out of the kids and to let them take their lumps collectively, while at the same time being ultra conservative with all bumps and bruises, like Pop to the nth degree. True tanking though will probably involve a lot of the former Warriors duo down the stretch of games, just to ensure the proper amount of suckage.
28. Boston Celtics: Obviously for the Celtics to truly hit rock bottom Rajon Rondo has to play almost little or no role in the roster. The dilemma for Danny Ainge and Boston's front office is how to figure out the best way to do that with no bitterness or hurt feelings. To me, Rondo, like Holiday, is a guy that it doesn't make much sense to trade if he wants to be there. He's already proven to be a championship-level point, so it's not like you can upgrade from him much down the road, if ever. So step one is to find out if he's on board with new coach Brad Stevens, if they have compatible personalities (my guess is no) and if they can work together going forward. If they can, then step two is to convince Rondo to shut it down for most if not all of 2013-2014 for the good of acquiring the most ping-pong balls and drafting a fellow superduperstar in the next lottery. Rondo's a smart dude, he'll probably understand that's necessary to contend, but at the same time he's stubborn and has pride and why would he want to give up a year of his prime? The smart money, then, is for an amicable divorce in the form of a mid-season trade, which will only facilitate the tanking.
27. Milwaukee Bucks: Not only is my fellow countryman Ersan Ilyasova the best player on the Bucks, but it's not even close at the moment. New coach Larry Drew helped to make a push for his former point guard at Atlanta, restricted free agent Jeff Teague, but the Hawks matched and so far Milwaukee hasn't shown much inclination to re-sign their own incumbent RFA in Brandon Jennings. Monta Ellis has essentially been traded to Dallas for O.J. Mayo and spare parts like Carlos Delfino and Zaza Pachulia were signed for too much money to fill out the roster. The current point guard rotation is Luke Ridnour and Ish Smith. Draft pick Giannis Antetokounmpo, 18, will likely stay abroad for one more year if not two. It's unclear if the Bucks are out and out tanking, but man, will anyone be able to tell the difference? This roster stinks.
The Sad Thing Is That They're Trying
The Hornets' track record of miserable drafting doesn't seem like it's ever going to end. Bismack Biyombo is pretty much a bust, a guy who's a tick or two above average defensively but can't do anything with the ball. Kemba Walker is a functional starter, but his ceiling seems a notch or two below stardom, due to his size and athletic limitations. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist still has yet to reach even his 20th birthday, so it'd be unfair to judge him just yet, but supposedly his best asset coming out of college was his desire and non-stop motor, and I haven't seen that at all. I mean, look at how Kawhi Leonard did in the summer league his second season. He flat out dominated games to such an extent that the Spurs front office shelved him after two games. MKG, on the other hand, was his team's fourth leading scorer this summer league and took backseats to guys like Jeffrey Taylor and Jerome Dyson. Even more alarming, he's just not filling the box score in terms of rebounds, steals and blocks, the hustle plays, that you figured he would. At least Cody Zeller has come out of the gates well so far, so we'll see how he does, and Taylor has shown considerable improvement between year one and two as well, it seems. It's still up in the air whether Gerald Henderson will re-sign, but they signed Al Jefferson, a total defensive albatross for way too much money and owner Michael Jordan recently promoted his brother, Larry, to the team's Director of Player Personnel. Oy vey. Until further notice these guys are the new Clippers.
25. Sacramento Kings
No matter what permutation they come up with, the Kings will essentially be starting three guys between power forwards Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes, small forwards Travis Outlaw and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and point guards Greivis Vasquez and Isaiah Thomas that, ideally, would be reserves on a contender. First-round pick Ben McLemore will be battling for minutes with up-and-coming Marcus Thornton at shooting guard. The only guy they have approaching anywhere close to a "star" player is DeMarcus Cousins, who's petulant, uncoachable and completely disinterested in defense. You might be able to get away with a guy like that if he's surrounded by winners and good character guys, if he's playing for a veteran coach and if he's the fourth-most important player on the team. If he's your meal ticket though, you have a bad plan, and the Kings are in complete denial if they think it's ever going to change. It doesn't matter how much talent he has, he's poison. Trade him for whatever you can get and move the eff on.
24. Phoenix Suns
Another operation run to the ground by a skinflint owner, the Suns are a conglomerate of "C-" players going nowhere fast. You look at the roster and you just shake your head in disgust. Not only is it impossible to ever imagine anyone on that team ever making an All-Star Game, but really I'd want only three of them, guards Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe and center Marcin Gortat, on my team if I was a GM, and only then as reserves. At this point I'm even down on Luis Scola, a fantastic international player who at 33 is slipping even faster than his older and more-celebrated countryman Manu Ginobili. Scola has never come close to showing the motivation and commitment to the defensive half of the game necessary for him to truly matter, or it could just be that he never had the athletic ability or instincts to do so.
23. Toronto Raptors
Nobody pays them much mind, but the Raptors have quietly built a very solid defensive roster north of the border, and one that figures to get even better with Andrea Bargnani finally out of the picture. Granted, it was only a 343-minute sample, but the quintet of Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry was the fourth-best in the league in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions (note the first). Their problem, of course, is on the other end of the floor, where scoring consistently is going to prove to be a chore thanks to a point guard in Lowry who's not exactly Steve Nash in his court vision, inefficient shooters in Gay and DeRozan and really the lack of any true, identifiable star. Will Valanciunas ever develop into that? He could, but Johnson seems the more likely candidate. The dinosaurs have painted themselves into a corner on multiple fronts. Not only is their roster (and defensive foundation) too good for to get into the lottery penthouse, but they're cap tied with Gay's terrible contract and a couple other bad ones. The best thing that could happen for them is for the Knicks to utterly crash and burn, but that won't happen for a while yet.
Struggling teams with pieces to build on
22. Detroit Pistons
Between Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe's and Josh Smith, interior scoring does not figure to be scoring, and the addition of Smith should alleviate some of Monroe's problems with the pick-and-roll. They're going to desperately need someone out of the Kyle Singler-Kentavious Caldwell-Pope-Gigi Datome mix to break out and give them some spacing though. As bad as their wings are, the point guard situation looks equally dire. Brandon Knight is just a guy. The two most basic elements of basketball are shooting and passing, but they're going to appear completely foreign to the Pistons at times.
21. Orlando Magic
Admit it, you'd be pretty surprised if someone other than Victor Oladipo won the Rookie of the Year this season. Already, he looks like a stat stuffer, the player that Kidd-Gilchrist was supposed to be (to be fair, he's two years older). I'm super high on Nikola Vucevic and pretty hopeful on Andew Nicholson as well. I thought signing Jason Maxiell from the Pistons was a savvy pickup because he's someone who will push Nicholson to ratchet up his effort to earn minutes on the floor. It's also exciting to think what Tobias Harris could do with another athletic wing to take some attention off of him. In a way, these guys are going to be too good for their own good, they could benefit from one more high lottery pick to snag a point guard, but you don't want the young guys to get comfortable with losing either. I really see Orlando staying alive in the Eastern playoff race (such as it is) until the very end.
Yes, the observant among you may have figured out that I have the Wizards penciled in for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, almost entirely by default. They're basically the opposite of the Pistons in that they seem to have figured out the 1-2-3 spots in John Wall, Bradley Beal and some combination of Martell Webster and rookie Otto Porter Jr. but somewhat lacking in big men with guys like Emeka Okafor, Nene Hilario and Kevin Seraphin. In fact, they are probably dead last in the league at the four, and that's the deepest, easiest-to-fill position in the league. Still, in today's NBA it's more important to be able to shoot and score than to pound it inside, and I think if the backcourt stays healthy the Wizards will scrape by to 38 wins or so. They're heading in the right direction, for what its worth.
Getting full seasons out of Chase Budinger and free agent pickup Kevin Martin should help their shooting woes, and obviously the return of Kevin Love should make a difference, but their downfall in my eyes is that the closest player on the roster who you can label a "plus" on both ends of the floor would be Ricky Rubio, and he's a terrible shooter. Love, Nikola Pekovic, Budinger, Martin (ugh) and J.J. Barea are all offense/no defense types, whereas Corey Brewer, Dante Cunningham and Ronny Turiaf are the de facto "stoppers." Derrick Williams, meanwhile, looks to be crappy at both, which is unfortunate for a second overall pick. Rick Adelman is an underrated coach and maybe he can find just enough balance in his lineup combinations to drag these guys to the playoffs, but I don't see it. Hell, he should be the unanimous Coach of the Year winner if he does. (And good luck to Adelman for figuring out what to do with Shabazz Muhammad.)
Playoffs Maybe But Who Cares, All We're Thinking About is LeBron
Unlike the Sixers of a year ago, the Cavs are in the relatively enviable position of not needing Bynum to be their savior. If he can return to his form from a couple seasons ago, great. If he gets hurt again or is just a lesser player, they can still cobble together an effective enough inside game on both ends with first overall draft pick Anthony Bennett, Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller. Their main weapons will still be Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, but free agent acquisition Jarrett Jack will allow them to play with a dangerous (albeit undersized) three guard lineup to offset the fact that they're awfully thin at the three spot. I'm pretty sure I know which small forward they're going to target next summer to fill that hole though. As long as the Cavs stay healthy, I'm very comfortable picking them for the playoffs and Bynum reaching his 2011 form could shoot them right past the Hawks and Knicks and into the fifth seed.
The good news: The Lakers will have more of a bench last season than last year's threadbare unit. Nick Young, Wes Johnson and Jordan Farmar were all added to supplant the backcourt. Jordan Hill will be back healthy, as will, presumably, 39-year-old Steve Nash. Heck, there's even speculation that Kobe Bryant will defy all known medical wisdom and return to play if not the whole season than the lion's share of it. The bad news: Everything else. Mike D'Antoni has never been one to rely on a long bench, regardless of its depth. Also, a defense that was at times comically abysmal in transition and versus the pick-and-roll figures to get even worse without their two best defenders in Dwight Howard and the amnestied Metta World Peace. There isn't much front court depth either, beyond the third guy in Hill, and that's assuming that both Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman will be healthy from beginning to end, which seems awfully doubtful. The Lakers should trade Gasol for as much cap room and draft assets as they can get for him and tank hard, but Bryant's ego (and that of owner Jim Buss) will probably put the kibosh on that, to the benefit of the 29 other teams.
Fighting for the right to be cannon fodder for Duncan & Co.
16. New Orleans Pelicans
It's perfectly conceivable for the sky-poopers to make the postseason, but quite a few things have to break right for them. Anthony Davis has to take a considerable step forward in year two, particularly (and this was unforeseen) on defense. Eric Gordon has to prove he can be a happy camper and somehow co-exist with another black hole wing in Tyreke Evans. Point guard Jrue Holiday, brought over from Philly at great expense, has to mesh with his new teammates quickly. New Orleans doesn't have much on the bench, but their roster is versatile enough to play big or small, defensive or offensive. If they want the former, they can use bruisers Jason Smith or rookie Jeff Withey at center and employ a shutdown wing in Al-Farouq Aminu. If they want the latter, Davis can slide over to center as the lone big, Ryan Anderson can enter the fray as the stretch four and Evans can play the three. If they can get any production at all from Austin Rivers it might be enough to push them into the playoffs, but I don't have any faith in him.
15. Dallas Mavericks
Mark Cuban is incredibly arrogant, but I don't for a second believe that he's stupid enough to actually believe his comments to ESPNDallas.com that the Mavericks are "better off" without Howard, whom they pursued aggressively during the free agency period. Instead of Howard, they settled on Plan C (with Plan B Bynum also picking a different suitor) in the person of Samuel Dalembert. Their "splashy" acquisition was Monta Ellis, a proven loser at two other stops who is sure to drive coach Rick Carlisle mad with his soft, lazy, inattentive defense. Jose Calderon will generate some good looks for Ellis and co. on offense, but they just look like they're going to be a horrific defensive crew and I imagine Dirk Nowitzki has already grown regretful of signing that extension.
Ultimately I like the Blazers to survive the war of attrition in the West just because they'll go nine deep of guys who won't kill you on the floor and they've got more youth (and theoretically more energy and health) to survive the 82 game marathon. The undersized backcourt of Damian Lillard and rookie C.J. McCollum will have to figure out how to play together and will be pulverized in their own end, but unlike the Mavs they'll at least have some capable defenders behind them on the front line in LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum. The Blazers will throw wave after wave of athletes at opponents, looking to get out on the floor and finish and will to spread the floor with quite a bit of outside shooting too, with Batum and Dorell Wright. They'll have nights where they're gonna give up 125 and look putrid, but quite a few where they embarrass their opponents as well.
Next ... the dirty (baker's) dozen.