The Golden State Warriors have won three of the past four championships. They still sought to improve their roster by signing four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins for the mid-level exception, a paltry $5.3 million by NBA standards.
It’s pretty clear who the best team in the Association is. If Cousins comes back strong from a torn Achilles, there’s little to nothing that will stop Golden State from hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy again.
With all that in mind, let’s power rank the other 29 teams in descending order after some reshuffling of rosters through the draft and the early stages of free agency.
Note: Free agency acquisitions and updated roster information courtesy of RosterResource.com unless otherwise indicated.
29. Atlanta Hawks
That draft-day swap of Luka Doncic for Trae Young may come back to haunt the Hawks for years to come. Young is undersized and is being compared to Stephen Curry, which is just a setup for failure. It’s dubious as to whether Young can carry Atlanta as its primary building block. He may not be much better than Dennis Schroder in any other way besides outside shooting. The roster is otherwise bereft of starting-caliber NBA players, so the Hawks will likely hope to “tank” and get another high draft pick in 2019.
28. Orlando Magic
A brutal roster, although re-signing Aaron Gordon to a four-year deal is a big win. Gordon is one of the few young talents the Magic have successfully developed in recent years. Rookie Mo Bamba is a freakish athlete, but he is one of six former top-10 overall draft picks on this roster, which hasn’t translated to much. Orlando is nowhere close to competing among the East’s better teams. Last year’s sixth overall pick, Jonathan Isaac, could’ve made an impact as a rookie but instead played in only 27 games for the Magic and was virtually invisible due to injuries. None of this bodes well for Orlando making significant progress anytime soon.
27. Brooklyn Nets
A nice mix of veterans (DeMarre Caroll, Jeremy Lin, Allen Crabbe) andyounger players headed by D’Angelo Russell, combined with a fiery coach in Kenny Atkinson, may allow the Nets to exceed expectations. However, a lack of overall athleticism and top-tier talent will continue to doom this team on the defensive end, and there’s not enough pace and hustle can do to compensate for that. Now that the Celtics’ robbery of a trade has finally run its course, Brooklyn can actually make a draft pick in the lottery next year to try to get back on track.
26. Memphis Grizzlies
Their two most talented, experienced perimeter players, Mike Conley Jr. and Chandler Parsons, can’t stay healthy, and All-Star big man Marc Gasol turns 34 in January, coming off a season where he shot 42 percent. Ouch. Tyreke Evans is gonzo, if his reported meetings with the Lakers, Thunder and, yup, the Warriors are any indication. At least No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. nailed eight three-pointers in his Summer League debut, showing he may be able to provide the scoring prowess Memphis desperately needs going forward. What’s great too is Jackson is 6’11”, so he could be an absolute matchup nightmare and a stark contrast to the gritty, slow former frontcourts the Grizzlies have had, headed by Gasol and Zach Randolph.
25. Sacramento Kings
General manager Vlade Divac said after the draft the Kings are a super team that is just young. Right. Okay. How about the franchise cornerstone you couldn’t build around, DeMarcus Cousins, who left for New Orleans and is now on the mother of all super teams, the Warriors? Yikes. Underrated as Buddy Hield might be—why he isn’t starting for this bunch is beyond comprehension—and gifted as No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley is, Sacramento’s roster continues to be a mess of odd personnel. There’s an over-abundance of athletic but unpolished big men: Bagley, Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein, Harry Giles—and Zach Randolph is still around, about to turn 37. Point guard De’Aaron Fox is decently promising and has electrifying athleticism, yet has a dubious supporting cast flanking him and sports an unreliable jump shot. No one ever really knows what the Kings are up to. They definitely aren’t a super team, though, Vlade.
24. Chicago Bulls
Tons of youth, which fits with coach Fred Hoiberg’s uptempo style. Kris Dunn is a great building block as one of the more dynamic, two-way young guards in the game. Lauri Markkanen is an excellent stretch 4 and made up for the loss of Nikola Mirotic via trade. There’s just not enough veteran experience to expect Chicago to make tons of headway. The only saving grace is the development of the first two players mentioned, Dunn and Markkanen, along with the fertile ground for a new team to emerge as a lower-tier playoff seed in the East thanks to LeBron James’ departure.
23. Cleveland Cavaliers
Speaking of The King, ‘Bron is gone. Again. Collin Sexton, wearing Kyrie Irving’s No. 2 jersey, is the next big hope. Rumor has it Kevin Love could be dealt, per The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd. Hope the lottery balls bounce your way again, Cleveland, because that’s where the Cavs are headed. They have zero cap space to make substantial additions to the roster, and have a collection of veterans who are past their prime. Unless Love sticks around and can be reinvigorated as the No. 1 option after playing third and second fiddle during his time in Cleveland, it’s hard to expect the Cavs to contend for a playoff berth.
22. New York Knicks
Mario Hezonja has gotten out of development hell in Orlando. While the Big Apple isn’t Tinseltown, Hezonja will have plenty of opportunity to shine in a massive market, which suits him best. He’s the type of fiery competitor and uber-confident scorer New York needs. Look for him to be one of the most underrated free-agent signings of the summer, inspired by a change of scenery on a prove-it deal. Beyond him, former Michigan tandem Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. reunite in the Knicks’ backcourt and should play well together. Rookie Kevin Knox is a tantalizing talent who can play the 3 or 4. Emmanuel Mudiay and Frank Ntilikina provide athleticism off the bench. The big question mark is Kristaps Porzingis coming off a torn ACL. If New York is in the playoff hunt deep enough in the season without him, he could make a grand return and boost the Knicks into the postseason conversation.
21. Charlotte Hornets
If Kemba Walker is still around amid trade rumors, Charlotte has at least a puncher’s chance at sneaking into the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. Hard to forecast anything more optimistic than that for the Hornets. Dwight Howard had a fine season for them but is no longer with the organization, signing with some of the Hornets’ chief competition in Washington, per The Athletic’s Jared Weiss. Nicolas Batum is a decent backcourt mate alongside Walker, but who else does Charlotte really have to strike fear into the opposition? It’s up to second-year guard Malik Monk to rapidly develop after an underwhelming rookie campaign. First-round pick Miles Bridges must also have a huge, immediate impact. Otherwise the Hornets won’t be stinging anyone in 2018-19.
20. Phoenix Suns
DeAndre Ayton and Devin Booker may not be Shaq-Kobe 2.0, but the former’s selection at first overall and the latter’s rapid development offer Phoenix fans genuine hope they haven’t had in a long time. Combine that with veteran wing Trevor Ariza bolting Houston for the desert, and suddenly the Suns’ starting five featuring Brandon Knight at point doesn’t look so bad. A second unit headlined by T.J. Warren, Tyson Chandler, rookie Mikal Bridges and Josh Jackson will provide a ton of energy, if Jackson doesn’t start. Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are X-factors who can space the floor with massive size, but one of them needs to step up this coming season.
19. Detroit Pistons
Hard to comprehend what the Pistons are doing. They have Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin, which is a great 1-2 punch up front and would work extremely well in the NBA, like, 10 to 15 years ago. Circumstances being what they are, though, Detroit doesn’t have a roster equipped to compete in the contemporary game. Barring Luke Kennard truly transforming into a special player and Reggie Jackson shooting with far more efficiency than his 42.6 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from three-point land from last year, this could be a long season for the Pistons.
18. Dallas Mavericks
Color me excited for the Luka Doncic era. He’s going to pair well alongside rising second-year point guard Dennis Smith Jr., and Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki will still be around to mentor them. Not to mention, Harrison Barnes has averaged over 19 points over his first two seasons in Dallas, and DeAndre Jordan’s recent arrival gives the Mavs a seasoned veteran with playoff experience and legitimate rebounder who can protect the rim. That’s a heck of a starting five, with Nowitzki coming off the bench along with Wesley Matthews and J.J. Barea. It won’t be enough to reach the postseason, but the Mavs are going to be better than they have been in a long time.
17. Los Angeles Clippers
Doc Rivers is a fine coach and just added one of his former Boston players, Avery Bradley, in free agency. Bradley and Patrick Beverley, if he can stay on the court, form one of the scrappiest, underrated and best defensive backcourts. Lou Williams provides plenty of scoring punch off the bench, and Marcin Gortat is at least a decent placeholder at center for the departed DeAndre Jordan. It will be up to Rivers to get his players to mesh, but even if that happens, the Clippers are on the outside looking in at the Western Conference playoff picture.
16. Miami Heat
Head coach Erik Spoelstra is proving capable of fielding a competitive team even without the likes of LeBron James or Chris Bosh to help him out. The Heat have a collection of players who’ve committed to Spoelstra’s defensive mentality. Well, except for Hassan Whiteside, a sometimes-dominant center whose role and future in Miami is among the biggest enigmas in the Association. Whiteside averaged 15.3 minutes in five postseason contests, so how the Heat navigate that strange situation will determine whether they can climb higher in the NBA hierarchy.
15. Indiana Pacers
If there were such consolation prizes for teams, Indiana would be the reigning “Most Improved” award winner. The Pacers lost in seven games in the opening round of the playoffs to Cleveland and saw Victor Oladipo emerge as one of the brightest young stars in basketball. Oladipo won’t sneak up on anyone this year, so he’ll need some help. Myles Turner may well provide it as one the most intriguing big men in basketball and figures to be more assertive and aggressive, which could be bad news for opposing teams. In the playoffs, Turner shot 61 percent overall and 46 percent from three, averaging 12.4 points and 5.1 rebounds.
14. Washington Wizards
Drama swirls around this team. The Wizards actually played rather well without point guard John Wall for an extended time last season. He’s an inefficient shooter but creates so many other plays it’s hard not to continue playing him whilst praying his jumper improves. Bradley Beal played all 82 games in 2017-18 after battling injuries so often to start his career, and he’s among the best shooting guards in the sport. Between that duo and Otto Porter Jr., Washington has a great three-headed monster on the outside. With veterans Dwight Howard and Jeff Green (per Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports) entering the fold to shore up the defense, expect the Wizards to find a way to climb up the standings from eighth in the East last season.
13. Toronto Raptors
Swept out of the playoffs for the second straight year by the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s back to the drawing board for the Raptors. They even fired Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, if that shows how much of an impact the loss to Cleveland had. However, LeBron James is no longer a Cavalier, so perhaps Toronto can live up to the hype as a No. 1 seed this coming season. Unlikely that the Raptors will ascend to such status again, though, considering how good Boston and Philadelphia are projected to be. Toronto would be fortunate to advance beyond the conference semifinals. This is kind of what happens when a modern NBA team is built around a 2-guard in DeMar DeRozan who hoists an average of 1.7 three-pointers per game and converts at just a 28.8 percent clip.
12. San Antonio Spurs
Coach Gregg Popovich commands respect, even if the Kawhi Leonard situation is a total fiasco that’s blowing up in the face of one of the most stable, winning franchises in all of sports. Popovich demands excellence of his players, no matter who is on the floor, and has been among the best for years at developing young talent. The big problem is San Antonio’s best player guaranteed to be on the squad in 2018-19, LaMarcus Aldridge, is a frontcourt player whose specialty is two-point jump shots in a league so predominantly predicated on perimeter prowess and long-range shooting. One big get in free agency was Marco Belinelli, who gives the Spurs another legitimate three-point marksman. How San Antonio fares next season largely depends on if Leonard plays—or on the haul the Spurs get in exchange for him.
11. Minnesota Timberwolves
So much depends on the health of Jimmy Butler. Reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau from their days in Chicago, when Butler was hurt last season, the Wolves fell apart and limped into the postseason. Minnesota hasn’t really improved, and Butler is reportedly fed up with star big man Karl-Anthony Towns, per the Chicago Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley—to the point Butler may leave the Twin Cities next summer. Andrew Wiggins isn’t really an alpha who can boost morale and lead despite his immense talent, so this squad seems doomed to implode any time now.
10. Milwaukee Bucks
This is partially a projection-based spot, because Giannis Antetokounmpo’s seemingly limitless ceiling will only rise as he improves his outside jumper. It almost doesn’t matter who’s around the Greek Freak—he’s that good, and the East’s third seed is up for grabs due to the aforementioned issues in Toronto and Washington. Depending on what Jabari Parker does as a restricted free agent and how healthy he can be, he could be the X-factor that determines what happens in Milwaukee, or elsewhere in the East if he goes to a new squad. Should Parker leave, the Bucks still have a dynamic point guard in Eric Bledsoe and swingman Khris Middleton, who can serve as a point-forward and create matchup problems with his playmaking and shooting abilities.
9. Portland Trail Blazers
No shortage of shooting between Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Now the Blazers have added Seth Curry on a two-year deal, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Curry quietly had a stellar season in Dallas in averaging 12.8 points per game. One problem, though: Portland got swept by New Orleans in the opening round of the playoffs and don’t have much depth to speak of. If either Lillard or McCollum are having an off night, the margin for error is extremely slim. The good news is the Blazers allowed the fifth-fewest points in the 2017-18 regular season, and as long as they retain restricted free agent Jusuf Nurkic, that strength shouldn’t suffer.
8. New Orleans Pelicans
Cousins to the Warriors is just rude. Rajon Rondo to the Lakers hurts too. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday were sensational in the playoffs. As long as those two can stay healthy, New Orleans is among the West’s best. Julius Randle recently joined the Pelicans through free agency to form an intriguing frontcourt collection with Davis and Nikola Mirotic. However, Davis and Holiday are known to be injury-prone, while Mirotic played in only 55 games last season after suffering facial fractures in a fight with ex-Chicago teammate Bobby Portis in practice. If these are New Orleans’ leaders entering the next season, that doesn’t bode well for their chances at ascending further in the West.
7. Denver Nuggets
This team features arguably the best, deepest young core in the Association. The Nuggets got a possible steal in Michael Porter Jr., whose medical red flags kept him out of the top few picks and allowed him to slide all the way to No. 14 overall. Denver successfully retained a triple-double threat at center Nikola Jokic, which was huge, and have a great supporting cast on the perimeter in Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Gary Harris. Versatile forward Trey Lyles has also shown marked improvement as a shooter since joining the Nuggets and is only 22 years old. This squad barely missed the playoffs last season and will be eager to take a big step forward in 2018-19.
6. Utah Jazz
Coach Quin Snyder’s scrappy bunch prides themselves on hard-nosed defense, constant motion offense and a relentless mentality. The Jazz almost feel like the Celtics of the West, which is an extremely high compliment. The only problem is they lack Boston’s star power and play in by far the more difficult conference. As good as they are, they’re barely in the upper half of the West. However, there’s something to be said for team chemistry, unity and buying into a program, which allowed Utah to surprise everyone this past season. Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio are among the best guard tandems in the league, while big man Rudy Gobert is an excellent defensive anchor. Before the Jazz ascend among the true NBA elite, though, they’ll need additional offensive firepower from somewhere.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James makes the Lakers an instant contender. Emphasis on the last word of the last sentence. “Contender” doesn’t mean “championship winner.” Nevertheless, L.A. made the move to acquire Rajon Rondo, a high-IQ floor general whose passing brilliance is among the few to rival James in that respect. Rondo can also play stout defense when he’s motivated, not to mention he’ll push young point guard Lonzo Ball to be at his best. The Lakers could use more shooters around the jumper-challenged Rondo, but they may have enough firepower in-house between Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and even Brandon Ingram, who shot three-pointers at a 39 percent clip on 105 attempts last season. Ingram is just 20 years old and his upside ought to be far more evident with James and Rondo on his squad—not to mention he’s bound to get more frequent, cleaner looks from beyond the arc and knock them down.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
The reason OKC is this high is because Paul George and Russell Westbrook have had one full season together. Their talent level and continuity count for something. Plus, if the Thunder get anything at all out of Carmelo Anthony after an abysmal 2017-18 campaign, they’ll be even better off. Andre Roberson’s injury-induced absence was a chief cause of Oklahoma City losing its last playoff series, too. Roberson is among the most versatile, stout wing defenders in the game, even though he doesn’t offer any help in terms of perimeter shooting. Adding Nerlens Noel to the frontcourt gives the Thunder some added athleticism and rotation flexibility as coach Billy Donovan tries to find the right combinations to challenge Houston and Golden State for a Finals berth.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons. Joel Embiid. Those two are sensational and probably could’ve beaten Boston in the playoffs if they were more experienced. J.J. Redick is returning on a one-year deal, and there’s little reason Philly can’t advance to the conference finals for a presumed shot at redemption against the Celtics. There’s also last year’s No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, who showed promise at the end of the regular season and would be a big boost if he can fully rediscover the shooting form that made him such a coveted NBA prospect.
2. Houston Rockets
Losing Trevor Ariza to the Suns hurts Houston defensively, but Chris Paul is officially back in the fold on a max deal. If Paul hadn’t gotten hurt toward the end of the postseason, the Rockets may well have won a championship—they had Golden State down 3-2 in the Western Conference finals. The star-crossed, injury-riddled CP3 saw rotten luck strike again, unfortunately. Reigning MVP James Harden and Paul are arguably the NBA’s best backcourt combo, which will definitely keep Houston in striking distance of the Warriors again. Heck, the Rockets earned the No. 1 seed last season. The big task now is to re-sign restricted free agent center Clint Capela, an integral part of Houston’s success who ranked second in blocked shots in 2017-18.
1. Boston Celtics
These guys pushed the James-led Cavaliers to seven games in the conference finals—and that was without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens is arguably the best in the game, and oversaw Hayward’s college development at Butler. That reunion officially lasted less than one contest last season before Hayward got injured and knocked out for the year. It will be fascinating to see what Hayward can do in Stevens’ system, alongside an excellent starting five of Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford. Then there’s Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes coming off the bench, provided Smart stays as a restricted free agent. There’s grit, depth, shooting and experience littered across this roster, which should catapult the Celtics to the NBA Finals, health permitting this time around.