By RICK SOLEM
2. Cleveland Caveliers
They have no center, no rim protector. Anderson Varejao is a great fit for what Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving will be chucking at the basket (combined 44% FGs last season). And he can shoot well enough from 15 to give LeBron James room in the lane to drive or post up. But, Varejao will be injured. And Tristan Thompson isn't the answer when he goes down. And Brendan Haywood certainly isn't. Shawn Marion is a great fit for this team, but after that, they're thin. Irving, also, hasn't been the most healthy in his career. Nobody likes Dion Waiters, except James, and that's all you need to know. The key is how Irving plays PG - selfish or a distributor.
1. Chicago Bulls
This team won 48 games while trying to tank last year. They lost Rose 10 games in, traded Deng soon after and it backfired to a degree. They got better, thanks to Joakim Noah playing point-center. Rose is back, Pau Gasol was added, along with rookie Doug McDermott, who hasn’t shown anything yet. Jimmy Butler should have a breakout campaign (in a contract year). They can afford to lose Gasol or Noah – who are prone to injury – with Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic backing them up. They’ve proved they can lose Rose and win. Now they have to prove they can win with Rose, who needs the ball in his hands – which takes it out of Noah’s and Gasol’s hands. If they’re smart, that doesn’t happen. Rose can play the slasher without the ball.
By RICK SOLEM
15. L.A. Lakers
There’s Kobe Bryant and nobody else. Not even Nick Young is ready for the start of the season, and “Swaggy P,” is arguably their second-best player. That’s how bad this roster is. Jordan Hill at center? Carlos Boozer. Everyone seems to be putting L.A. in the playoff hunt, but I don’t know why. Bryant, if healthy, will be fine. But even he can’t carry this roster of misfit toys.
14. Sacramento Kings
Rudy Gay and Demarcus Cousins are riding high after winning a gold medal. But after those two, this roster is horrible. They let Isiah Thomas walk for journeyman Darren Collison. Ramon Sessions backs him up. Sophomore Ben McLemore didn’t pan out last season, so they bail on him for another first-round pick at SG, Nik Staukas? And he didn’t impress in preseason, either. What is Sacramento doing?
13. Utah Jazz
This team is a year away from being solid. Even now, the roster isn’t awful. Derrick Favors will make a leap this season. Gordon Hayward is solid at SF. Enes Kanter, despite given the green light to shoot 3s this year, is formidable at C. PG Trey Burke should improve, as should SG Alec Burks. Rookie Dante Exum already looks like a bust, however.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves
They don’t know if they’re coming or going. They lost a Top-5 player in the NBA but filled out the roster. Instead, they should have dumped the rest of their vets (SG Kevin Martin and C Nikola Pekovic) to get the young players in the lineup. They missed that opportunity with Cleveland. Instead, they traded Miami’s first-round pick for Thaddeus Young, which keeps Anthony Bennett from seeing minutes – though perhaps Young shows him a thing or two. And Pekovic keeps Gorgui Dieng off the court. Dieng, over his final 18 games, averaged 12 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 1.1 steals and 1.5 assists. Regardless, Ricky Rubio will distribute and Andrew Wiggins should have some sweet dunks – and hopefully not so many 3-point attempts.
11. Phoenix Suns
The surprise team in the NBA last year won’t be this season. They signed Thomas from Sacramento, which is insurance for when Eric Bledsoe – also re-signed – and Goran Dragic go down. The Morris-twins are vastly overrated. Miles Plumlee is OK at center, filling in for 3-point shooting Channing Frye (gone to Orlando). This roster, however, isn’t making the playoffs in the West.
10. Denver Nuggets
Kenneth Faried was impressive this summer, but that wasn’t against NBA players. He still will be solid, but an undersized PF. The C position is decent with Timofey Mozfgov and solidified if JaVale McGee is healthy. They sewed the wound at SG with Arron Afflalo, who will fit in nicely with PG Ty Lawson and, if Danilo Gallinari is back to his old self, this team could make a push for the playoffs.
9. Memphis Grizzlies
It’s the same thing every year, the Marc Gasol-Zach Randolph show. Mike Conley sets everything up for those two bigs, but this year, there’s nothing else. Tony Allen, Courtney Lee and Vince Carter are the backcourt compliments for a team that needs outside shooting. They don’t have it. This is the year, Memphis falls.
8. Portland Trailblazers
Seven years in the league, LaMarcus Aldridge finally had his coming out party in helping his team beat Houston in the first round of the playoffs (thanking teammate Damian Lillard to some extent).
He had 89 points in the first two games of that series and averaged 29.8. He put up points in the five-game series against San Antonio, but shot just 42 percent. I think Portland lost some of its team mojo after Aldridge’s two games to open the playoffs. If Portland plays team ball, they’ll be solid, but if Aldridge is shooting baseline fade-aways from 15 feet out, while everyone watches, they won’t even make the playoffs.
7. Dallas Mavericks
This was the only team to challenge San Antonio in the playoffs last year – going to a seventh game. And it’s been in the postseason every year but once since 2000.
No reason to count them out now. Dirk Nowitzki is still one of the best PFs ever. They added Chandler Parsons, Tyson Chandler and the two-headed monster at PG, Jameer Nelson/Raymond Felton. Losing Vince Carter and Shawn Marion hurts in the experience department, but its hard to see those two maintaining production so late in their careers. It’s hard to see that from most of this roster, too. Al-Farouq Amino may be a great sneaky add to solidify depth at SF and doing the dirty work.
6. New Orleans Pelicans
They’re all healthy. Now if they could only realize the best player in the NBA could be on its roster. C Anthony Davis may be a year or two away from up-ending LeBron James (and Kevin Durant) as the league’s best but he has it in him. The MVP could be his right now, however. Right now, if Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans realize to win, it’s about him, not their shots. Davis averaged the most shots a game last season (15), but the wanna-be-big three each put up 13 a game. If the team plays unselfishly, they’ll be the surprise of the NBA.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
Without Kevin Durant in the lineup the last two seasons, Oklahoma City is … 1-1 (a win over the lowly Celtics last year and a loss to the Bucks two seasons ago). Durant’s fractured foot will be re-evaluated in late November. Until then, it’s the Russell Westbrook show. OKC was 24-9 last season without Westbrook. Without Durant, Westbrook may shoot 50 times a game. Sound ridiculous? Look at the roster. Serge Ibaka is a nice compliment to the Big 2. After that, holy hell. Reggie Jackson is up and coming, but doesn’t do anything really well. Steven Adams? Andre Roberson? Kendrick Perkins still plays in the NBA, and he’s still on OKC. Sebastian Telfair is on this roster for crying out loud. Even the "big" off-season acquisition of Anthony Morrow is injured. Westbrook is going to shoot 50 times at a 34-percent clip and OKC is going to be sub-.500 when Durant finally does come back.
4. Houston Rockets
This team got better by losing Chandler Parsons, if that’s possible. His replacement, Trevor Ariza, isn’t a better basketball player by any means, but he fits well. He plays better defense and is a deadly spot up shooter – exactly what Houston needs. Not because Dwight Howard commands a double-team with his awful post game, but because James Harden will drive and kick to open 3-point shooters. It’s also rumored Harden may play defense this season, but he could also save that for the playoffs. It’s hard to put this team fourth, but the teams below them (above here) either don’t have the firepower, experience, defense or superstar to make a move.
3. L.A. Clippers
Chris Paul has yet to get this team to the Western Finals. The last two seasons, he hasn’t missed playoff games, but he’s been hobbled. This team makes a deep run if Paul is 100 percent. Blake Griffin could be the MVP this season the way he’s become a distributor as much as a flashy dunker. DeAndre Jordan and Griffin work so well offensively, too. They are still thin. Matt Barnes isn’t a starting SF, but he is on the Clips. Jamal Crawford gets a lot of hype coming in and chucking with the second unit, but he shot 42 percent last year. That’s not good. Paul, Griffin and Jordan are that good, however. The rest of the roster just needs not screw it up.
2. Golden State Warriors
It was probably a mistake to not trade Klay Thompson and David Lee for Kevin Love, but, then again, why mess with what works? Basketball is a team sport and there’s something to be said about keeping a team together. Every player does something great for this team. Thompson and Steph Curry compliment each other so well on offense and defense. Andre Iguodala takes on the load as a ballhandler, defender, distributor when those two do not. David Lee and Andrew Bogut do the same on the inside. Lee, the scorer rebounder, and Bogut doing the dirty work and distributing at center. The problem: health. Lee has missed playoff games the last two seasons. Bogut is always in the trainers’ room. And G.S. was 10-8 without Iggy last year. A healthy G.S. will be one of the best “teams” in the NBA.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Nothing has changed here, except Patty Mills will miss 3-4 months. Coach Gregg Popovich knows how to experiment with lineups and maintain minutes to keep his team of veterans healthy. Everything should fall into place. The older players are still wise and the younger ones get wiser on a team that plays so well together. This, however, may be the year SanAn sacrifices the best record in the NBA (its had it the last two seasons) for rest heading into the playoffs, though it's hard to sacrifice anything in the West.