The 2016-2017 NBA regular season kicks off tonight, and for many fans a single question will loom large over their potential viewing experience, "Why should I care about the NBA this year? Everyone knows the Warriors are just going to steamroll everyone for eight months and end competitive basketball as we know it." That is a fair question, frankly, and not to spoil the rest of the article, but the chances are good that in June we will look back on this season as primarily a long coronation for the Warriors. However, it is that very struggle against the inevitable that will make this season so fascinating. As other teams try to emulate the Warriors or prepare to attempt to counter them, we as fans should be in for a fun ride and some high quality basketball. I have attempted to quantify just how fun a ride it will be for each team by breaking the league into tiers. We'll start with the teams whose ride will be… somewhat less fun.
Just Bad, and No Hope in Sight
30. Brooklyn Nets
The part of the 76ers from the last few years will be played this year by the Brooklyn Nets, and that part will be Worst Team in the NBA by a Wide Margin. Unfortunately for Brooklyn fans who at this point number one Russion billionaire and about a quarter of Jay-Z on nights when he has nothing better to do, they do not get their first draft pick this year. No matter what. The Celtics have it. You might think that they'll be better because they won't be trying to tank, but they won't have to. Even if their best player, Brook Lopez, does make it all the way through the season, their second best player is Jeremy Lin. It will not be a good year for Brooklyn.
29. Phoenix Suns
Even though they're paired with the Nets, the Suns won't be nearly as bad (that is, they will occasionally look like a professional basketball team). They will be bad though and probably the worst team in the Western Conference by a fair bit. Eric Bledsoe will be exciting and they might be able to win a few games that they shouldn't since Earl Watson appears to have made a good start as a first time head coach. But between Tyson Chandler's health and their lack of really quality players outside the point guard position, the Suns should be very happy that unlike the Nets, they actually have their first round pick still.
Playing for the Future
28. Philadelphia 76ers
The injury bug has already bitten what had promised to be a suddenly intriguing Philadelphia team pretty hard, somewhat dampening expectations and enthusiasm for the team. It turns out Philly just can’t have nice things. With number one draft pick Ben Simmons out until January and Nerlens Noel poised to miss the first month and a half as well, the Sixers will likely start out slow. But as the season progresses and other teams flag or take injuries of their own, they could be quietly intriguing if they can play at full strength for any length of time.
27. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers will be intriguing this year if for no other reason than to gauge how badly learning pro basketball from too-old-too-selfish Kobe Bryant and Mr. "3-Pointers Are a Fad" Byron Scott damaged the Lakers' core of the future. I suspect that Julius Randle and D'Angelo Russell will be just fine, but it may take a season and some counselling for them to get used to playing real basketball again. In the meantime, their supporting cast is... eclectic let's say. So everyone else in the NBA should enjoy getting to beat up on the Lakers this season while quietly hoping they win enough to stay away from the top of the lottery.
26. Orlando Magic
The Magic are confusing. Elfrid Payton, Elfrid Payton’s hair-stack, and Evan Fournier seem like a decent trio in the back court, and Serge Ibaka might return to form if given a highlighted role in the offense. But I doubt that's going to happen, and the Magic trading for him is a win-now move for a team that really ought to be stockpiling young players like the one they traded away to get him. In any case, there are simply going to be nights when the Magic don't score much, and while Serge helps with defense, he can't be your entire defense. Of the teams in this tier, the Magic feel the most like they are spinning their wheels, even given their semi-exciting young backcourt.
25. Miami Heat
Chris Bosh's injury and questions about his long-term health have thrown the Heat's post-Lebron blueprint out the window, as evidenced by Pat Riley making Dwyane Wade an offer he had to refuse. They have Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow already, so they are fast-tracked into the rebuilding process, and I suspect that the Heat will be active during the season seeking a trade for Goran Dragic. In the meantime though, that trio of players could potentially really blossom with the last of the Heattles cleared away by injury and contract disputes. The Heat will be interesting to watch just to see what moves Pat Riley makes now that he wants to prove to everyone that he's still the baddest mob boss in the league before he retires.
Experiments in Madness
24. Sacramento Kings
Dave Joerger is a good coach. And the Kings might very well look more like a professional basketball team in more games this year now that they've added a couple of solid veterans to the roster. But their depth chart still looks to me like it is split between Demarcus Cousins and guys who will make Demarcus Cousins want to play somewhere else. Unless they come out of the gates winning at a steady clip, look for Cousins to make noise about wanting a trade by the time January rolls around, and look for the Kings' disaster of a front office to have already done something disastrous. The Kings just can't catch a break, and I see no breaks coming their way this season.
23. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls saw the way successful teams have built their rosters around the three-point line the last eight years or so and thought to themselves, "Well when everyone else zigs, you're supposed to zag; what if NO ONE on our team could shoot threes?" And then they went out and got Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. Jimmy Butler is now by far the best three point shooter in their starting five and he has vacillated wildly between being a 38% shooter behind the arc, and a 28% shooter the last four years. With Rondo seemingly having lost a step and Dwyane Wade in desperate need of the Six Million Dollar Man treatment, I don't see how they're going to do well enough on defense to bail out what promises to be an anemic offense.
Sampler Plate of Fun and Mediocrity
22. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets could have a sneaky fun team between the pairing of -ic's they have in the front court (Nurkic and Jokic to be precise) and Emmanuel Mudiay, the Nuggets could turn into the next darling team of NBA nerds... a couple of seasons from now. This year there are just too many legitimately scary teams in the West for the Nuggets to make much noise in the win column. But they might give some good teams all they can handle more often than you would expect.
21. Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee will once again be a fun team to watch that doesn't win very much. Their starting point guard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is 6'11" and made of limbs. The shortest player they start is 6'7". Their length and athleticism alone will carry them to a few extra wins. But I don't think they have the talent or the experience yet for Jason Kidd to mold this into a .500 team. They might improve a few wins over their record last year but they will almost certainly miss the playoffs.
If They Could Stay Healthy...
20. Memphis Grizzlies
Tony Allen, Vince Carter (!), Marc Gasol, Chandler Parsons, Brandan Wright, and several others are already listed on the injury report for Memphis, and the season hasn't even gotten started yet. On paper, this is a pretty deep team with skill and promise, but in practice they have to have that depth just to be able to still field a team in January when half of the roster is listed as day-to-day and the other half is out for three weeks. The Grizzlies are older, more injury-prone, and slower than they were last year, and presumably worse on defense for the 50-ish games they'll get out of Chandler Parsons. Healthy, they would be a playoff team. But there is almost no chance they're going to stay healthy.
19. New Orleans Pelicans
Same story here. Basketball fans have to hope that Anthony Davis can stay healthy, because when he's on the court, he's a joy to watch. But even if he does stay healthy, the Pelicans are already starting out behind the eight ball with both Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday out for weeks and possibly longer. Hopefully we'll get to see Buddy Hield and Davis play together more often than not this season, but the supporting cast is too fragile and too spotty for the Pelicans to really compete in a once-again loaded West.
Second Tier East Teams
18. Charlotte Hornets
The second tier of the Eastern Conference is kind of a mess. A fun mess to be sure, but a real mess, and that starts with the Hornets. They still have Michael Kidd-Gilchrest and Kemba Walker, who are lots of fun, but they lost Al Jefferson and didn't add much. Further, at this point Nicolas Batum doesn't seem capable of taking the leap most people expected him to take in the last few years, and while Cody Zeller is a solid center, he doesn't exactly make up an inspiring frontcourt with Marvin Williams either. I expect Kemba to take another step forward again this season and begin asserting himself more as the leader of the team, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Hornets were the odd man out in the hunt for the playoffs.
17. New York Knicks
The national media seems to love the Knicks, and for the life of me, I cannot figure out why. Granted, for the first time in over a decade they have a real starting five (on paper) and they even have a couple of professional basketball players they can bring off the bench. But I don't believe for a second that Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are going to make it through the whole season unscathed, and I don't believe for a second that they will even come close to returning to 2011 form. Add to that Phil Jackson's slavish devotion to the triangle offense which the rest of the league incorporated and then moved beyond in the last decade and a half, and I have a hard time seeing how the Knicks will do better than scraping their way into a low playoff seed and losing in the first round.
16. Washington Wizards
John Wall and Bradley Beal are both very good. Unfortunately, the Wizards seem to be incapable of upgrading any other position on the floor. By generally standing still in the off-season, I expect that the Wizards will have shown themselves to be taking a step back. If they could trade Marcin Gortat during the season to upgrade or at least get faster at center, I think they could be better and more entertaining to watch, but I can't imagine what team would want a rusty Polish Hammer at this point in his career.
15. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks will take a step back this year, no question. Yet I think they will still win their division. The chemistry and efficiency they've shown the last couple of years will be gone, but between Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap, and whatever Dwight and Kyle Korver have left in the tank, the Hawks are talented enough that they should be a solid mid-range playoff team in the East. It will be interesting to see how they fit the pieces together and change their style to fit the new personnel, but if you're a Hawks fan, this year might be a little frustrating after the last two seasons of gorgeous basketball. But hey, at least they’ll have Dwight and his snakes.
14. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers quietly built a really fun team that, if it gels, could be a very tough out in the playoffs for anyone in the East. They have a quality starting five that should be at least pretty good on both ends of the floor as well as some interesting bench guys that make for a fairly deep team. This should be a much faster-paced and dynamic Pacers team than we've become accustomed to over the last few years. It may take the team a couple of months to hit their stride, and there's always a danger when you have Monta Ellis on your team that he will take over to the detriment of his betters on the team (read: Paul George), and I think that firing Frank Vogel was foolish. But this should be a pretty good team and a really fun team to watch on just about any given night.
13. Detroit Pistons
I'm giving the Pistons the edge over the Pacers just because they have a little more continuity coming into the season, but they too have changed for the better. Mostly what that means is Stan Van Gundy seems finally to have shaped the roster in a way that will fit his scheme. While they have less depth in my opinion than the Pacers do, their starting five is solid top-to-bottom, with clearly defined roles for every player. The Pistons seem to have a lower ceiling and higher floor than the Pacers do, and I would be surprised if they ended up anywhere other than fourth or fifth in the conference at the end of the season.
Second Tier West Teams
12. Dallas Mavericks
To be honest, the only reason the Mavs are in this tier is because of the respect I have for Rick Carlisle. The man is a genius, and if anyone can squeeze a good enough season out of this Mavs team to drag them into the playoffs, it's him. But Harrison Barnes hasn't looked very good for a while now, and while I think Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Dirk, and Andrew Bogut are an intriguing way to round out the starting five, that is an awfully slow team that is (and I know this is starting to sound repetitive) injury-prone. Plus Dirk is getting older, and even Thor and Tim Duncan were eventually wrestled to one knee by old age.
11. Utah Jazz
The Jazz are NBA nerd-dom's current heartthrob, and consequently they are projected to be quite high in a lot of this season’s previews. Don't get me wrong, I think they're all but a lock for the playoffs and will be a scary team for anyone (including the Warriors) to play on any given night during the regular season. But I don't think that George Hill is quite the upgrade at point guard that he's being made out to be, I have to wonder how much Joe Johnson has left in the tank, and Hayward is good but in order for the Jazz to truly compete with the elite of the West, he'll need to take another step forward, and it seems to me that he may have reached his potential already. I could be wrong, but the Jazz seem like a very fun team that will be a tougher out than they should be in the first round.
10. Portland Trailblazers
The Trailblazers, and specifically Damian Lilliard, keep proving me wrong. I underestimated how good he and CJ McCollum would be together last year and how little they would ultimately miss Lamarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews. I think they more or less hit their ceiling last season, but that's a pretty impressive ceiling considering their competition in the West. I may sound like a broken record, but whoever pulls them in the first round will have their hands full. The Blazers should be able to beat any team on a given night if Lilliard and McCollum get hot.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota is our first team that should be appointment viewing every night. There's a good chance that I am overestimating the leap the Wolves can take in a single season, but this team is athletic, highly skilled (albeit with a glaring shooting weakness at point guard), and is young and spry enough to implement Tom Thibodeau's insanely demanding schemes without breaking down physically. If they come together and implement their new coach's plans on defense and manage to run on offense, they could do some damage even to the top teams in the West. I do think that their youth will cost them a few games and I don't think they'll win their division title, but it's not outside the realm of possibility either. Now excuse me while I help myself to another glass of this delicious Kool-aid.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are must-watch TV this year regardless of how good they turn out to be. Win or lose, we already know from previous experience that Russell Westbrook only has one mode: zero-sum destruction. That is, he will destroy one of the two teams on the floor, and occasionally that means destroying his own team. A lot of pundits seem to doubt whether the Thunder will make the playoffs this year, and that's fair. Their back court is thin behind their starting five, and Andre Roberson will not exactly be filling the vast shoes Kevin Durant left to fill. However, I think that an offense run entirely through Westbrook with Enes Kanter and Steven Adams playing solid minutes together could be a real hassle for a lot of teams to defend. If Russell can keep from breaking himself with the way he plays, and if Victor Oladipo can shoot threes more efficiently and play good defense, I think the Thunder have a decent shot at winning their division.
7. Houston Rockets
It's nearly Halloween and the zombie-Nash-era-Suns live again! The Rockets have the pieces to score all the points on one end and give up all the points on the other end. With a young athletic center and a true stretch four, two occasionally reliable shooters on the wing, and James Harden at point guard, this team will be very hard to defend. For there to be any depth off the bench, several as-yet-unproven young players will need to step up, and the almost total lack of defense from Harden, Anderson, and Gordon will likely limit the Rockets’ possibilities in the playoffs. But barring injuries, they should comfortably be a playoff team, and hopefully will be more fun to watch this year than they have been the last few years. Barns will burn in Buffalo Bayou (and there’s my alliteration quota for sports writing filled).
First Tier Contenders
6. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are the Spurs are the Spurs. And while I would like nothing more than to doubt them on the basis of their quietly shocking lack of roster continuity coming into this season, the fact is that it would be foolish to doubt Popovich's ability to get a quality season and playoff run out of a roster that features Lamarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard. I do expect a drop off from last year though, and I suspect that Lamarcus Aldridge is one of those players, like Shaquille O'neal before him, who will never quite reach the full potential that we have glimpsed fleetingly in a couple of playoff series. The difference between him and Shaq of course is that Shaq could coast and still dominate the league. The Spurs will be very good and win their division again, but Aldridge will have to find a new gear if they want to seriously worry the Warriors.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
Oh the Clippers. I have them this high mainly because I'm looking primarily at the regular season here. But once again they won't make it out of the second round of the playoffs, and might not make it out of the first. Why? Either Chris Paul or Blake Griffin will get injured again, they still don't have a legit fifth starter (sorry, Mbah a Moute, but its true), and their only legitimate bench player is Austin Rivers. And while the coach's kid might be better than I expected, it's going to be hard to advance in the playoffs when your fifth, sixth, and seventh best guys are Luc Mbah a Moute, Austin Rivers, and the dried up shell of Jamaal Crawford. This is a team built for the regular season and, ultimately, for sadness.
4. Boston Celtics
Under normal circumstances, this Celtics team would top out at maybe the sixth seed. Al Horford is great and their back court is pretty good, but their power forward position is a problem, as is their depth. Or at least it would be, if Brad Stevens weren't the coach. I hate to buy into the hype, but Stevens short-circuited Boston's plan to tank the last couple of years by building a playoff team out of what was, and let’s be reasonable about this, garbage. Garbage from an upper middle class suburb maybe, but garbage nonetheless. Now that he actually has Al Horford and a few young players who have developed nicely, I buy that the Celtics will take a jump up in the Eastern Conference standings. I don't think they quite unseat the Raptors for the division title, but they do make the Raps sweat for it. There's a chance Boston plays some of the prettiest basketball in the league this year (except on the nights when their shots don't fall).
3. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors mostly stayed put in the off-season, and frankly that was a good call. There's a decent chance they could come away with the best record in the conference at the end of the season if the Cavs are a bit sluggish out of the gate. There's not a great chance of them making it to the finals, and even less chance of them winning in the finals if they did get there, but they have put themselves in a position to have a very good shot at the Eastern Conference Finals every year that they can keep their current core together. And that is not a bad existence for the Canadian basketball team if we’re being honest. Expect them to be a very good team that no one really talks about for most of the season even as they win their division and possibly the conference.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs very well could fall off a bit this year. Lebron has now played 94.5 games per year over the last 6 years since his team has been in the finals each of those years, and that doesn't count the National team games he has played during that span. He would be foolish not to try and rest some during the regular season, knowing that while the Cavs might lose a few games they wouldn't have otherwise, he needs to save himself for the playoffs. And the championship rings do not change the fact that the Cavs never did figure out what to do with Kevin Love, ostensibly their third best player. They are largely running back the same team they won the championship with, which means we can expect a good, perhaps inconsistent team that may lose a little ground in the win column but which will still be the favorite to go to the Finals barring catastrophe. It will be interesting to see if Tyronn Lue turns out to be a truly good coach, or if this season might make last year's Finals look like an aberration.
The Death Star
1. Golden State Warriors
There was a moment when I thought to myself, "Well, maybe the Warriors will be like the 2011 Heat: maybe they'll need a season to gel and work out the kinks, and that will open the door for someone to slay the dragon." What a foolish thought. Unlike the 2010-11 Heat, the 2016-17 Warriors are perfectly complementary to each other. It is a team of versatile and deadly offensive players who are tenacious and long on the defensive end. While individually Steph, KD, Klay, and Draymond will not be putting up the gaudy numbers they once did, there is every reason to think that they will put up absurdly efficient numbers and that the team will be not only unstoppable, but nigh impenetrable on defense as well. Their one weak spot, the thermal exhaust port if you will, is Draymond Green and the chemistry that such a team will require (some people will throw depth in there as a weakness, but all things considered, the Warriors are sufficiently deep no to have to worry about that very much). And it is entirely possible that some plucky Rebels will find a way against the odds to hit that weak spot until the Death Star explodes (there’s a Draymond Green ball-punching joke somewhere in there), but it would be foolish to pretend that this machine doesn't have the capability and the will driving it to destroy worlds.
While the Warriors are unquestionably the most likely team to win it all this year, I think that there are several teams even in the second tier who do possess the capabilities to play spoiler to quite possibly the scariest team of all time. Personally I find that sort of narrative--teams working to overcome impossible odds (for example the 2007 Warriors and the 2011 Mavs)--to be electrifying. I am looking forward to this season and what I expect will be some great basketball along the way. And I would remind all of my fellow basketball fans, casual and hardcore alike, of the old adage that the night is always darkest before the improbable and thrilling upset.