There is no bottom, it seems.
There was so much money spent by so many NBA teams on so many, uh, unproven players in free agency this season that Twitter came unglued. The dollars spent on the Timofey Mozgovs and Chandler Parsons of the world seemed so outsized and inexplicable that NFL players took to social media to complain about those players’ lack of credentials.
The money flowed and flowed and chaos seemed to reign, stopped only by NBA nation’s Kevin Durant obsession. We all wanted to know if KD was staying in Oklahoma City (personal aside: his since-shuttered restaurant there was damned good, giving me a gastro-centric rooting interest) or going elsewhere.
His, though, was merely the biggest story of movement from team to team since the end of The Finals.
With so much TV money flooding the system, every team was compelled to spend as much of it as it could, leaving just about all of them dramatically different than they were just weeks ago.
This is where we, as ever, come in.
The annual rankings of all 30 teams is, again, just taking into account everything that teams have done since they last played a game, factoring in the Draft, free agency and trades.
Here’s what it is not:
• A predicted order of finish for next season.
I do not expect the Jazz, for example, to have a better record than the Cavs. We’re not talking about next year; we’re talking about this summer. Is your team better now than it was before? That’s all. (Some teams, though not all, have a Key Man or person listed in the rankings that is worth paying special attention to when assessing how productive their offseason was.)
• If your team is ranked in the top 10, it doesn’t mean I love your team.
• If your team is ranked in the bottom 10, it doesn’t mean I hate your team.
It’s an opinion that seeks to answer a question: is the team better now than at the end of last season? The ranking reflects the belief on whether, and how much, that is so. (I like certain guys in the Draft more than others, so if your team took them, I probably gave it more weight. Doesn’t mean I’m right.)
What plays into the rankings:
• This is art as much as science, weighing the impact both of the Draft and free agency, but also assessing whether teams got value in their free-agent signings. Overpaying the right player is as much a sin as signing the wrong player.
• New coaches, new GMs, new owners and new arenas are also significant factors in judging a team’s summer success. A good coach can coax some more wins out of a roster, and a new building can generate the kind of revenue necessary to let a team be aggressive in pursuing free agents and trades — if not this season, then in future seasons.
• Teams that are rebuilding obviously have different priorities than those making a championship push. That’s factored in. It’s why, even though I may like Oklahoma City’s trade for Victor Oladipo, losing Durant obviously carries more weight. And a team like the Warriors that commits to paying Durant after already paying so many of its core players gets more positive bounce. That luxury tax is a real thing. Owners like Joe Lacob and Peter Guber in Golden State, who pay the tax to remain competitive, should get credit.
• Continuity matters here as well. The most successful teams identify a core group of players and keep them together several seasons; teams that re-sign their own players (at reasonable amounts) get good marks. The explosion in the cap means everyone has to be more aggressive, and everyone has to spend; keeping your powder dry for another day doesn’t have as much cache as it used to.
Salary numbers, with a couple of exceptions, come from Basketball Insiders, whose Eric Pincus does the best job of anyone in the game of keeping track of all the moving financial parts, quickly and accurately.
Without further ado, here are my annual rankings for the Top 10 teams. You can find the rest of the rankings below …
The Top 10
Trail Blazers, Magic, Kings, Hawks, Hornets, Lakers, Mavericks, Rockets, Knicks, Pistons
Bulls, Clippers, Bucks, Thunder, Spurs, Wizards, Raptors, Pelicans, Heat, Nets
The Top 10
1. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
2015-16 RECORD: 73-9, lost NBA Finals
ADDED: F Kevin Durant (two years, $54.2 million); C Zaza Pachulia (one year, $2.8 million); F David West (one year, $980,000); C Damian Jones (first round, 30th pick overall); G Patrick McCaw (Draft rights acquired from Milwaukee); assistant coach Mike Brown
LOST: F Harrison Barnes (signed with Dallas); C Andrew Bogut (traded to Dallas); C Festus Ezeli (signed with Portland); G Brandon Rush (signed with Minnesota); assistant coach Luke Walton (became Lakers coach)
THE KEY MAN: G Klay Thompson. He is already on record as saying he’s not sacrificing (bleep) now that Durant is on board. One suspects there is context in Thompson’s statement that didn’t come through in the quote, but that is the only question that matters going forward: who will give up shots in this new alliance of Alpha Males? Someone will have to. Durant didn’t sign to be a decoy. And it’s hard to see Stephen Curry being the one to put down his sword voluntarily.
THE SKINNY: How, exactly, do you plan on defending this bunch? Who do you leave alone to double … and how do you decide who to double? If you double the reigning two-time Kia MVP Curry, Thompson — he of the 41-point effort in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, on the road — could be wide open. If you double Curry and Thompson, Durant will be open. If you try to double Durant at his sweet spot near the top of the key, Curry or Thompson will be free on the wings, with room to attack — and All-Star Draymond Green will surely be available on the weakside or for lobs. Do you dare play zone? Against a team with the best shooting backcourt in history? One suspects coach Steve Kerr will make the offense as simple as possible — few sets, mainly depending on ball movement to find the inevitable wide open deadly shooter. But the team’s successful recruitment of Durant is only part of what was the league’s most successful offseason. Golden State found a solid starting center in Pachulia, who’ll set picks, grab rebounds and lighten the locker room, along with a no-nonsense vet in West. The bench will be different, but it shouldn’t be any less effective, with Livingston back for another season. And all this talk about Golden State being “villains” next season is nonsense. Fans love winners, and their love for Curry and Durant is already baked in. The Warriors will be the most popular road draw in the league, by a lot. Nobody on the roster is, at the moment, a defending champion. For next season at least, the Warriors should be a supremely motivated team from top to bottom.
2. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
2015-16 RECORD: 42-40, lost first round
ADDED: F Chandler Parsons (four years, $94.4 million); F James Ennis (two years, $6 million); G Troy Daniels (sign-and-trade deal with Charlotte); G Wade Baldwin IV (first round, 17th pick overall); F Deyonta Davis (Draft rights acquired from Boston); G Rade Zagoric (Draft rights acquired from Boston); hired coach David Fizdale
RETAINED: G Mike Conley (five years, $152 million)
THE KEY MEN: Dr. Robert Anderson, OrthoCarolina, and Dr. Drew Murphy, Campbell Clinic. They’re the medical duo that repaired Marc Gasol‘s right mid-foot fracture last February. Their skill will be central to the Grizzlies’ hopes of breaking into the top four in the west next season. Anderson started Stephen Curry on the road to stability when he operated on his ankle in 2011. He has also operated on the likes of former New York Yankees star Derek Jeter and former New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts running back Ahmad Bradshaw.
THE SKINNY: It’s understandable if you get stuck on the money — $246.7 million spent in, basically, one day, for two guys, Parsons and Conley. (By way of comparison, just five years ago, Josh Harris’ group bought the Philadelphia 76ers for $280 million.) Getting Parsons from Houston and keeping Conley from Dallas did not make the Grizzlies instant contenders. I can’t say with certainty that they’ll do better than their first-round exit last season. But I can say that putting out top dollar for one of the top free agents, and going all in to keep Conley, did more to change perceptions of the Grizzlies’ organization than any previous franchise successes. Despite being well-run in recent years — and especially since GM Chris Wallace was once again put in charge — Memphis has never been a free-agent destination. Parsons is really the first notable player to go there willingly, not via trade or the Draft. That matters. Not only will Parsons help on the floor, but he’s one of the best recruiters in the game. Hiring Fizdale was just as good. One of the best teachers around, Fizdale will insist on building championship habits, having learned the last few years in Miami at coach Erik Spoelstra’s side. He’s already establishing a symbiotic relationship with Conley, expanding the team’s old playbook and ways to give more to and demand more from his point guard. Assuming returns to health from Gasol and Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies’ starting five will be pretty potent. Baldwin was a solid pick in the first, and Davis could be an absolute steal (though Memphis did have to give up a 2019 first to get him and Zagoric); he was prominently mentioned as a potential late Lottery pick.
3. UTAH JAZZ
2015-16 RECORD: 40-42, did not make playoffs
ADDED: G Joe Johnson (two years, $22 million); F Boris Diaw (trade with San Antonio); G George Hill (trade with Indiana, Atlanta); F/C Joel Bolomboy (second round, 52nd pick overall); G Marcus Paige (Draft rights acquired from Brooklyn)
RETAINED: G Shelvin Mack (picked up 2016-17 guarantee)
THE KEY FAMILY: The Millers. The longtime owners of the franchise, starting with the patriarch, Larry Miller, who died in 2009, have some big decisions to make about the team’s future, and soon. Gail Miller, Larry Miller’s widow, is now the owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, which includes the Jazz. Her son, Greg, who was the Jazz’s CEO, stepped down last year, though he is still on the Board of Directors. (Brothers Steve and Bryan are also on the Board). Collectively, they’ll have to decide just how deep Utah wants to get into the waters of the NBA’s new salary structure. Utah is more than $12 million under the cap for next season, and could use that space as other teams around the league have done, renegotiating and extending its current players, like forward Derrick Favors. Or, the Jazz could use it to extend the newly acquired Hill, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Utah will also have to decide how much it’s willing to spend to keep its young core of Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward together. Hayward will likely be an unrestricted free agent next year if he opts out of his current four-year, $63 million deal, as many expect him to do. Larry Miller wasn’t cheap, but he often grew weary of Hall of Fame power forward Karl Malone’s constant gripes about his contract while playing in the 801. It’s a new day in the SLC, but is there a new attitude?
Top 10 Plays: Utah Jazz
Check out the Utah Jazz’s top 10 plays of the 2015-16 regular season.
THE SKINNY: I was figuratively beaten about the head and shoulders a couple of years ago by Jazz fans, who didn’t like me ranking their squad 29th out of 30 teams in offseason moves. As I tried to explain then: it wasn’t that Utah did anything wrong that summer — it just sat on its hands. You have to actually do something to be ranked high. This summer, Utah did, sending the 12th pick to Indiana for Hill, who will ultimately get a new deal with the Jazz to make him the point guard for a while, and ease the return of 2014 first-rounder Dante Exum, coming back after missing all of last season with an ACL tear suffered playing for the Australian national team. Johnson is 35, and his best days are behind him, but he could do for Utah what Paul Pierce did for the Wizards a couple of years ago — give the Jazz a legit end-of-game option, and give a young team someone who’s been in a whole bunch of playoff games. Diaw, whom the Spurs sacrificed to be able to sign Pau Gasol, will give coach Quin Snyder a point forward/center through which he can run his offense. Utah has a nice mix now of its own young veterans like Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, and old heads with stories to tell, meals to buy and damns not to give when a game gets close.
4. INDIANA PACERS
2015-16 RECORD: 45-37, lost in first round
ADDED: G Jeff Teague (acquired from Atlanta); F Thaddeus Young (acquired from Brooklyn); F/C Al Jefferson (three years, $30 million); G Aaron Brooks (one year, $2.7 million); F Jeremy Evans (acquired from Dallas); F/C Georges Niang (second round, 50th pick overall); hired coach Nate McMillan
LOST: G George Hill (traded to Utah); C Ian Mahinmi (signed with Washington); F Solomon Hill (signed with New Orleans); F/C Jordan Hill (signed with Minnesota); G Ty Lawson (renounced 2016-17 rights); fired coach Frank Vogel
THE SKINNY: He didn’t have a ton to work with this summer, but team president Larry Bird managed to turn a couple of Draft picks into a quality starting guard in Teague and a starting four in Young, allowing the Pacers to finally be able to play small and fast the way he wanted them to last season. Wing C.J. Miles lasted about a month at the four before the grind caught up with him. The 6-foot-9, 28-year-old Young has been doing it effectively since his early days in Philly. The Pacers’ new starting five — Teague, Monta Ellis, Olympian/All-Star Paul George at the three, Young at the four and the dynamic Myles Turner at center looks ridiculously athletic if they can all stay healthy. Jefferson is a VCR in a Netflix world, but he is still capable if you give him enough touches on the box, which I expect McMillan to do often. A second unit with Brooks, Miles and Jefferson should be more than capable of keeping the party going offensively. What we don’t know is what the Pacers will do or be at the other end, something Vogel excelled at maximizing in good times and bad.
5. BOSTON CELTICS
2015-16 RECORD: 48-34, lost in first round
ADDED: C Al Horford (four years, $113 million); F Gerald Green (one year, $1.4 million); F Jaylen Brown (first round, third pick overall); F/C Ante Zizic (first round, 23rd pick overall); G Demetrius Jackson (second round, 45th pick overall); F Ben Bentil (second round, 51st pick overall)
THE KEY MAN: Sean Sullivan, VP of Live Events. It is Sullivan who makes the only decision that matters in Boston, much more important than whether the Celtics will trade this pick or that, or whether Tom Brady will help woo Kevin Durant: it is Sullivan who decides when or if a Boston game at TD Garden will be enhanced by Gino Time. There is nothing that tops Gino Time. Nothing.
Horford Ready For New Transition
Al Horford of the Boston Celtics talks about transitioning to his new team.
THE SKINNY: The Celtics took a whack at Durant, and they came close (they believe). But if they didn’t land the biggest fish, they pulled in quite a whopper anyway with Horford, who turned down a chance to (maybe) play with KD in Oklahoma City for a sure thing in Boston with a young and improving squad. Horford brings all kinds of good things to Boston — offensive versatility, strong rebounding, playmaking, veteran leadership, and a welcome pressure valve for a team that still seems guard-heavy. (Still on the roster: Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jackson, R.J. Hunter, James Young. All but Thomas and Jackson were first-rounders. You can justify this by saying we’re in the small-ball era all you like; someone’s not going to play nearly as much as they want, and that rarely ends well.) But Danny Ainge now has one star player in tow with Horford, an All-Star guard in Isaiah Thomas and role players galore. Getting Horford makes up for, once again, not being able to turn multiple first-round picks into an established star. Ainge kept all three firsts and took California’s Brown, a precocious freshman talent, after the Philadelphia 76ers took Ben Simmons and the Los Angeles Lakers took Brandon Ingram. Boston’s depth means Brown won’t have to flash right away. Ainge just keeps making the roster a little better, year after year. As long as coach Brad Stevens keeps maximizing the talent and keeps making the playoffs, Ainge still has time to land Moby Dick.
6. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
2015-16 RECORD: 57-25, won NBA championship
RETAINED: F Richard Jefferson (three years, $7.6 million); G Mo Williams (opted in for 2016-17); G Jordan McRae (team picked up 2016-17 option); F James Jones; coach Tyronn Lue (five years, $35 million)
All Angles: James’ Block On Iguodala
With less than two minutes to go in a tied game seven of the NBA Finals LeBron James preserves the tie with a monster block of Andre Iguodala on the fast break. Check out all angles of LeBron’s monster NBA Finals moment.
THE SKINNY: We are assuming, as of this writing, that LeBron James will indeed re-sign (probably for one year, to keep a mega-contract next summer in play), and that J.R. Smith will probably re-sign. If so, all will be more than good for the defending champions, who will be the first Cleveland team playing downhill since 1964. With the title drought finally over, the Cavs should be able to relax and just play this season, not the last 52. Kyrie Irving‘s clutch shot won Game 7 of The Finals on the road, a championship that also rendered all questions about Kevin Love‘s future moot. Everyone can exhale. Nobody’s going anywhere. Getting Dunleavy for next to nothing was a coup. That’s all James needs: another sharpshooter who can play multiple positions. Lue’s battlefield promotion wasn’t without fits and starts, but he won the last game he coached last season, and that’s all that matters. He has James’ trust and respect, as does the rest of Cleveland’s staff. The Cavs have no real threat in the Eastern Conference and they’ll have plenty of chances the next few years, assuming their core stays healthy and hungry, to chase that Chicago Ghost that keeps James awake and alert.
7. PHOENIX SUNS
2015-16 RECORD: 23-59, did not make playoffs
ADDED: F Jared Dudley (three years, $30 million); G Leandro Barbosa (two years, $8 million); F Dragan Bender (first round, fourth pick overall); F Marquese Chriss (Draft rights acquired from Sacramento); G Tyler Ulis (second round, 34th overall)
RETAINED: G P.J. Tucker (guaranteed 2016-17 contract)
Rookie Highlights: Devin Booker
The Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker is a nominee for Kia Rookie of the Year.
THE SKINNY: The Suns hope they addressed their forward deficiencies through the Draft, taking fliers on two teenagers — the 18-year-old Bender, the Croatian wunderkind who played for Israeli power Maccabi Tel Aviv last season, and the 19-year-old Chriss, whose ridiculous athletic gifts were on sporadic display during his one season in college. A combined 13 feet, 11 inches, the two will surely struggle early, but should eventually step in with second-year guard Devin Booker, fourth-year center Alex Len and the Suns’ seemingly endless trove of point guards — which they added further to by taking Kentucky’s Ulis in the second round. At some point, GM Ryan McDonough will have to pare that group down via trade, but he now has some real pieces to put together to offer for an All-Star-level talent should one become available. In the interim, Phoenix brought back Dudley and Barbosa for second tours to provide some kind of veteran presence in the locker room along with Tyson Chandler and Tucker. Coach Earl Watson will be able to put his program in fully this season as the Suns continue to rebuild.
8. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
2015-16 RECORD: 29-53, did not make playoffs
ADDED: G Brandon Rush (one year, $3.5 million); C Cole Aldrich (three years, $21 million); F/C Jordan Hill (two years, $8 million); G Kris Dunn (first round, fifth pick overall); hired coach Tom Thibodeau
LOST: F Damjan Rudez (declined 2016-17 option); parted ways with interim coach Sam Mitchell
THE SKINNY: The Wolves struggled through a horrible season, beginning with the death of former coach Flip Saunders last fall. The only solace was the development of the team’s young players, starting with 2015 top overall pick and Kia Rookie of the Year winner Karl-Anthony Towns. Owner Glen Taylor wanted to goose things along, though, so he gave the keys to the whole submarine to Thibodeau, famously fired after five successful seasons in Chicago after he clashed time and time again with Bulls’ management. This time, Thibs hung out for a deal where he was management, getting complete control in Minnesota (with the help of new GM Scott Layden). His team has plenty of length and hops, and should be able to improve defensively under his tutelage. That will be aided with Dunn, an unrelenting pest on the ball who will push Ricky Rubio immediately for minutes and will, in all likelihood, replace him at the point, sooner or later. The Wolves got good value with Aldrich, who had a strong season off the bench last year for the Clippers, paying $7 million per year for a backup center while other teams spent up to $16 million per for similar players.
9. DENVER NUGGETS
2015-16 RECORD: 33-49, did not make playoffs
ADDED: G Jamal Murray (first round, seventh pick overall); F Juan Hernangomez (first round, 15th pick overall); F Malik Beasley (first round, 19th pick overall); F Petr Cornelie (second round, 53rd pick overall)
LOST: G D.J. Augustin (signed with Orlando)
Season Highlights: Nikola Jokic
Check out Nikola’s top moments from the 2015-16 season with the Denver Nuggets!
THE SKINNY: The Nuggets are seemingly always mentioned in trade rumors, so their makeup could well change before training camp if Denver moves a player like Danilo Gallinari or Kenneth Faried with one of its guards or future picks. The Nuggets tried to move up in the first round without success, but were able to address a need by taking Murray and his all-around game to plug in next to second-year point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. Then they got Hernangomez, who could play the four and the five in the NBA after playing center for his ACB League team, Estudiantes. Four picks later, they got Beasley, who flashed big time in his one college season at Florida State. All three should get playing time next season, which means there will be more inconsistency for coach Mike Malone to deal with nightly. But Denver is rapidly remaking the core of its team, with the three Draft picks, Mudiay, center Nikola Jokic, guards Will Barton and Gary Harris and power forward Jusuf Nurkic all 25 or younger. That will make a potential deal for one of the aforementioned vets more palatable.
10. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
2015-16 RECORD: 10-72, did not make playoffs
ADDED: F Dario Saric (five years, $15.5 million); G Jerryd Bayless (three years, $27 million); G Gerald Henderson (two years, $16 million); G Sergio Rodriguez (one year, $8 million); F Ben Simmons (first round, first pick overall); G/F Timothe Luwawu (first round, 24th pick overall)
RETAINED: F Hollis Thompson (picked up 2016-17 option)
THE KEY MAN: C Joel Embiid. After missing two years to get his problematic feet operated on, re-operated on and to drop a non-insignificant amount of weight, the third pick in the 2014 Draft is in shape, mended and ready to remind people what all the fuss during his one partial season at Kansas. Big men and bad feet have a bad track record, though. If the Sixers are lucky, Embiid will have a career arc similar to that of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, on the shelf for almost three of the first four seasons of his career, but who played another decade after numerous operations and averaged 66 games per season. The Embiid who displayed elite shot-blocking prowess and defensive quickness in college would take a year or two off of the Sixers’ remaining rebuild, and make it easier to stomach if Philly opts to move Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor.
Summer Highlights: Ben Simmons
Check out the Sixers rookie sensation, Ben Simmons, as he makes his presence felt in the Las Vegas Summer League!
THE SKINNY: It is slowly coming together for the Sixers. After drifting, talentless, for three years, Philly will have three potential impact players join all at once. Simmons showed more than enough in Vegas despite missing a few games of Summer League. As with all ballhandlers his size, his height will give him passing lanes that most point guards don’t possess, and make more people potential targets. He will be a solid option for coach Brett Brown on the block (where one suspects he’ll be utilized a lot until his jumper becomes more consistent and lengthy). He will have the ball in his hands plenty, but Philly brought in some reinforcements with Rodriguez, who played the last few seasons for Real Madrid and played four NBA seasons with five teams from 2006-10. Bayless, late of the Bucks, also adds a steady hand. At the least, Saric should be a strong rotation player off the bench as a rookie, though his minutes may be compromised if Philly comes to camp as swollen as it currently is on the frontline. Something ultimately has to give and someone ultimately is going to have to go. Brown can’t play Simmons, Noel, Okafor, Embiid and Saric at the four and five.
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