Believe it or not the NBA season is nearly upon us. After an offseason chock full of free-agent drama, it's time for teams to actually take to the court. With that in mind, we preview the league, giving an overview of what each team can expect this season. They break down into four categories: the elite, playoff contenders, on the rise and rebuilding. Let's start out West, where a "superteam" has formed and everyone will be looking to knock them off.
Golden State Warriors - 73-9 last season (1st in West)
Since squandering a 3-1 lead in the Finals, the Warriors went out and signed the free-agent prize of the year: Kevin Durant. However, to do so, they had to jettison key pieces from last year's roster, including center Andrew Bogut and small forward Harrison Barnes. Expectations are astronomical for this team, and it's clearly championship or bust.
The team, with Durant, is unquestionably more talented. But how will the stars will fit together once the season starts? We've seen this movie before (Miami, 2010-11), and we know how difficult it can be for superbly talented players to cohesively play together. That said, the Warriors, who move the ball better than any team in recent memory, seem likely to gel.
Being the "villains" will affect them at some point, but a squad this talented usually makes the NBA Finals at least.
Strength - Shooting - It has been this team's bread and butter, and they just replaced Harrison Barnes with a former MVP who's a better shooter. Barnes was a good defender, capable of playing multiple positions. Durant, as he showed in last year's Western Conference Finals, can be a game-changing force on defense. Like Barnes, he allows the Warriors to maintain that amorphous, position-less style of basketball they love.
Weakness - Center - Golden State is predominantly a small-ball team, with Draymond Green playing "center" alongside Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Durant and Andre Iguodala. However, they did still use Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli a combined 36 minutes per game on average last season. Now, their center position will be held down by the combination of ZaZa Pachulia (solid), Anderson Varejao (perpetually injured) and Javale McGee (umm... entertaining?). There's also less depth here due to the addition of Durant's contract.
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San Antonio Spurs - 67-15 last season (2nd in West)
Death. Taxes. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs winning 50+ games. Seriously, the Spurs have now won 50 or more games in 17 consecutive seasons and in 18 of the 19 seasons that Popovich has been head coach. This franchise is the model of consistency and they have most of the core group back from the team that won 67 games last season.
Tim Duncan retired, which leaves a big hole to fill at center. The Spurs signed Pau Gasol to try and do so. Gasol was an All-Star the last two years in Chicago and can certainly help on offense. But the front-court combination of him and LaMarcus Aldridge leaves questions on defense. One thing to watch is the team possibly trading Aldridge. Rumors have been swirling for a couple weeks now that he could be moved. If he is, I would expect them to get back a true center and move Pau to the four spot where he's a bit more of a natural fit on this team.
Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are both coming off down seasons. The team drafted guard Dejounte Murray out of Washington and he'll be expected to contribute along with steps forward from both Jonathan Simmons and Kyle Anderson. The Spurs have some questions to answer, but they'll win 50+ games again.
Strength - Gregg Popovich - The players change, the coach hasn't. Granted, this will be his first year without on-court leader Tim Duncan, but Pop is the best coach in the game. He will have this group ready to go come the season opener and will have guys like Parker and Ginobili rested come playoff time.
Weakness - Defense - Duncan's absence will be felt. He wasn't the same offensive player the last several years, but his defensive impact was unquestioned. The Spurs were the best defensive team in the league by Defensive Rating, allowing just 99.5 points per 100 possessions. Gasol is a fine player, but he's never been a particularly staunch defender. The defense will likely take a step back.
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Los Angeles Clippers - 53-29 last season (4th in West)
Another year, another go-round for the Clippers and Doc Rivers. They're basically the same team they were last year with the additions of Brandon Bass, Marreese Speights and rookie Brice Johnson. The rest of the cast -- Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, JJ Redick, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Paul Pierce, Austin Rivers and Luc Mbah a Moute -- are all back.
After an injury-riddled season, the Clippers are hoping first and foremost to stay healthy. Secondly, they're looking to actually contend at playoff time.
Strength - Continuity/better injury luck - Injuries are largely unpredictable. Last year, the Clippers were hit by a perfect storm that eventually forced an early playoff exit. This year, they should be healthier and enjoy some continuity with the team largely intact. Marreese Speights should help the second unit as a complimentary scorer to Jamal Crawford.
Weakness - Backup center - This remains an issue, even with Speights, who isn't exactly known for his defense. And outside of him, the only other option at the five spot is rookie Diamond Stone or going small with Brice Johnson/Brandon Bass.
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Portland Trailblazers - 44-38 last season (5th in West)
The Trailblazers surprised many last year, ripping off 44 wins en route to the 5-seed and a second-round playoff trip. A huge year from CJ McCollum to pair with Damian Lillard certainly helped, and the Blazers now appear to have one of the league's best young backcourts.
The Blazers also strengthened their bench by re-signing Allen Crabbe, signing free agent Evan Turner and bringing in Festus Ezeli from Golden State. They adapted well after losing Wes Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge prior to last season and look primed to be one of the Western Conference's playoff teams.
Strength - Offensive efficiency - The Blazers were 6th in offensive rating and 8th in effective field goal percentage last season using Lillard and McCollum in pick-and-roll games with their big men. Adding a depth scoring talent like Turner will help the bench unit.
Weakness - Defense - The Blazers were middle of the pack last year defensively as neither Lillard or McCollum rate as plus defenders and none of their big men really offer serious rim protection. They'll need to improve in a big way on this end of the floor to move up in the West.
Oklahoma City Thunder - 55-27 last season (3rd in West)
The Thunder are still a threat in the West, despite losing Durant. Russell Westbrook seems determined to prove that point, and an angry Russell Westbrook is breathtaking on the court. The "Big Three" of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka is now just Westbrook, but that doesn't mean the roster lacks talent.
The Thunder were proactive about Ibaka's pending free agency after this season, trading him to the Magic for Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova. Ilyasova offers solid shooting off the bench while Oladipo brings good perimeter defense, but is still developing his offensive game. A starting five of Westbrook, Oladipo, Andre Roberson, Enes Kanter, and Steven Adams could dominate defensively. But spacing will be an issue on offense with Roberson's inconsistency and Oladipo's work-in-progress shot.
There's talent enough here to make the playoffs. But the loss of Durant knocks them down a bit, even with Westbrook going scorched earth on the league.
Strength - Angry Westbrook - Seriously, it will be so much fun watching him try to destroy rims, collect every rebound and flex on the entire league every game. Also, Billy Donovan proved to be a very good coach in the playoffs, getting his team to within a game of the Finals.
Weakness - Shooting - There are some okay options off the bench, but most of their perimeter players are inconsistent shooters at best. It will be interesting to see how they space the floor and attack.
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Houston Rockets - 41-41 last season (8th in West)
The Rockets were a dysfunctional mess last season. Harden and Howard soured on each other, and the team seemed disinterested in playing together, particularly on defense. This year, Howard is gone, they added Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Nene in free agency. Mike D'Antoni has turned the keys to the offense over to Harden as the de facto point guard.
The offense should be fun, as Mike D'Antoni groups always are. But can he and new assistant Jeff Bzdelik get this group to care at the other end? A nonexistent defense won't get them anything beyond a playoff spot.
Strength - Team Chemistry/Offense - With Howard gone and D'Antoni at the helm, this unit will rely on Harden's playmaking ability and the shooters who surround him. Anderson and Gordon should help if they can stay healthy (though that's a big if).
Weakness - Center/Defense - The loss of Howard may ease the dysfunction, but the dropoff from him to new starting center Clint Capela is significant. Outside of Capela, 34-year-old Nene and rookie Chinanu Onuaku are their only options to play the five this year. That's not ideal. Harden, Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza can all play good defense. But will they?
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Memphis Grizzlies - 42-40 last season (7th in West)
The Grizzlies were decimated by injuries last season and made some significant changes this offseason. The team fired head coach Dave Joerger (now in Sacramento) and brought in David Fizdale (formerly of the Heat). Then, in free agency, they lavished Chandler Parsons with a big contract and handed Mike Conley the largest deal in NBA history.
Fizdale wants to play a more uptempo style than their traditional "Grit-N-Grind." Whether they can do it largely depends on the health of Parsons and the development of younger players like Jordan Adams, JaMychal Green, and rookie Wade Baldwin. A healthy Grizzlies should make the playoffs again and challenge for a top-four seed.
Strength - Defense - The Grizzlies have consistently been one of the best defensive teams in the league because of their playing style. Their numbers may drop a bit this year because of the move to the uptempo style of play. But this should still be a top-10 unit.
Weakness - Shooting - They brought in Parsons to fix the problem, and the young guys could help. But there are still some issues. Parsons is out indefinitely after offseason surgery. And who knows how the young guys will develop?
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Utah Jazz - 40-42 last season (9th in West)
The Jazz are one of multiple young, hungry teams competing for a playoff spot in the West. They've built this team slowly through the draft and look fully capable of snagging a playoff spot in this difficult conference.
There's no superstar on this team, but certainly potential All-Stars. Gordon Hayward has developed every year he's been in the league. Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are a dominant low post duo. Alec Burks has developed into a nice scorer on the wing.
Strength - Rebounding/Rim Protection - The Jazz finished 4th and 7th respectively in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage last season. As one of the league's better rim protectors, Gobert is a major deterrent in the paint for opponents. Favors is a solid rebounder at both ends. Adding a veteran like Boris Diaw should help these two continue to develop.
Weakness - Injuries/Chemistry - Burks and Hayward, both recovering from injuries, are expected to miss several weeks to start the year. That means Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles and veteran Joe Johnson will likely be holding down the wing spots. Also, can point guard Dante Exum, who missed last season with an ACL tear, bounce back?
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Dallas Mavericks - 42-40 last season (6th in West)
The Mavericks swing and miss on the big free agents year after year, but they never stop trying. This season, they did benefit from Kevin Durant's signing in Golden State though, scooping up ex-Warriors Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. Both should help Dirk with one more hopeful playoff run.
Point guard is the biggest hole in the starting five. Devin Harris and Deron Williams, two older guards, are still effective, though not dynamic enough for the main playmaker spot. Wes Matthews is a good shooter but isn't known for his playmaking abilities at the two-guard.
The Mavs are hoping for more from last year's first-round, pick Justin Anderson, as the team looks for the next young core piece to build around. It will be interesting how Barnes handles himself with a larger offensive role. He will be the number two guy, along with Wes Matthews, behind Dirk, whereas he was the 4th option at Golden State.
Strength - Coaching - Rick Carlisle is one of the league's better coaches, and he consistently gets the most out of his roster. This year's team is younger and more talented than last year's and should push opponents in the playoffs.
Weakness - Defense - The Mavs got some help for Dirk with Andrew Bogut, but Bogut's health is a huge question mark. Barnes has been a plus defender, but Dirk, Wes and both point guards are below-average on defense at this point in their careers.
On The Rise
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Minnesota Timberwolves - 29-53 last season (13th in West)
This team could be really fun this season. It's year two for Karl-Anthony Towns and year three for Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Add in rookie Kris Dunn, and let Tom Thibodeau run the entire operation. There's a good young foundation here for Thibs to build upon in his second head-coaching gig.
Thibs purportedly learned a lot in his year away from the game, so we'll see how he implements it with this roster. A jump to playoff contender in his first year is unrealistic. Topping 30 wins and showing improvement as the season wears on seems more likely.
Strength - Depth - This team has young star power mixed with solid veteran role players. Dunn and Tyus Jones at the point; Cole Aldrich, Gorgui Dieng, Jordan Hill, Adreian Payne and Nemanja Bjelica in the frontcourt and Rasual Butler, Brandon Rush and Shabazz Muhammad on the wings. With so much ability, the rotation will be interesting.
Weakness - Finding playing time for everyone/defense - How do you find playing time for all that young talent? The stars -- Towns, Wiggins, Lavine and Dunn -- will get plenty, but Muhammad, Dieng, Payne and Jones deserve minutes too.
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Denver Nuggets - 33-49 last season (11th in West)
The Nuggets are another young team that could take the next step this season. But playing time could also be an issue, with the logjam they have at most positions.
Mike Malone must find playing time for guards Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley and Will Barton. On the wing, he has Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. In the post, there's Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Juan Hernangomez, Darrell Arthur, Kenneth Faried, and Mike Miller.
Malone has a young, deep and talented roster on his hands, so there's a lot to figure out rotation-wise. Balancing between winning and getting guys minutes will be the trick. It will be interesting to see what he does.
Strength - Depth and rebounding - The depth we've explained. But this team, with the combination of Jokic, Nurkic, Arthur and Faried, was top 10 on both ends in rebounding percentage. That should continue.
Weakness - Shooting - As a team, they shot 33.8% from three last year, tied for 26th in the league. Adding Murray should help, but Mudiay (31.9%) and Harris (35.4%) need to develop more consistent outside shots to improve this area.
New Orleans Pelicans - 30-52 last season (12th in West)
The Pelicans are back to rebuilding, as the roster looks to be in a state of transition. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson are gone. Point guard Jrue Holiday is out indefinitely while helping his wife deal with brain surgery to remove a tumor, replaced by Solomon Hill and E'Twaun Moore. Tyreke Evans is also out until sometime in December after multiple knee surgeries this offseason.
The team did add sixth pick Buddy Hield, who should help space the floor around all-world talent Anthony Davis. Omer Asik is a solid rim protector, but doesn't bring much offensively, and Lance Stephenson hasn't been the same since leaving Indiana. The Pelicans will miss the playoffs again barring a superhuman effort from Davis.
Strength - Anthony Davis - Davis is a superstar, but he's battled injury throughout his young career. The Pelicans hope he stays healthy and takes the next step in his development, since he'll have to carry this roster at least until Holiday and Evans return.
Weakness - Surprisingly, defense - Despite two good rim protectors in Davis and Asik, they finished 27th in team defense last year. Any hope of making the playoffs would require a vast improvement. And with the guys they have missing to start the season, a jump seems doubtful.
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Phoenix Suns - 23-59 last season (14th in West)
The Suns jumped out to a terrible start last season, getting Jeff Hornacek fired in favor of Earl Watson. But they played better basketball down the stretch. This roster has some good veterans, but is still building for the future.
Eric Bledsoe (27), PJ Tucker (31), Jared Dudley (31) and Tyson Chandler (33) will all start, with young gun Devin Booker (20) likely to hold down the two spot. The Suns must also find time for this year's two first-round picks Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. It's a difficult balance between winning and gaining experience, with the Suns doing mostly the latter this season.
Strength - Shooting - Bledsoe (37.2%), Booker (34.3%) and Dudley (42%) should all be above league average this season, assuming that Booker continues to develop.
Weakness - Offensive efficiency - This team was 28th in offensive rating last year, 25th in effective field goal percentage and 30th in turnover percentage. The Suns will have to improve all of these to even sniff one of the final playoff spots.
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Sacramento Kings - 33-49 last season (10th in West)
The Kings have been a mess for quite awhile now, and this rebuild still seems a work in progress. Maybe new coach Dave Joerger can develop some chemistry with the team's temperamental star DeMarcus Cousins. Rudy Gay has made it known that he won't be back after this season. And approximately 11 big men are fighting for one starting spot alongside Cousins. So there are some question marks here.
The back court has two solid veterans in Darren Collison and Arron Afflalo, some solid youth in Ben McLemore and Malachi Richardson, and a former starter in the league in Ty Lawson. The front court is Cousins alongside some combination of: Kosta Koufos, Skal Labissiere, Georgios Papagiannis, Anthony Tolliver and Willie Cauley-Stein. Gay is a potential trade candidate, but Omri Casspi and Matt Barnes can step in if that happens.
With all that, this looks like another lottery year for the Kings, even as they open their new arena.
Strength - DeMarcus Cousins - Cousins is an All-Star talent, the kind that teams build around. (And that's what the Kings have been trying to do basically since drafting him.) An absolute force down low, he's averaging a double-double for his career.
Weakness - Chemistry/Identity - Another year, another roster turnover. Most of the starters are new to the team. Gay wants out. Cousins is an attitude case. Can't imagine why top free agents avoid Sacramento.
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Los Angeles Lakers - 17-65 last season (15th in West)
The Lakers will be much better than they were last year under Byron Scott. The Kobe farewell tour is done, and new coach Luke Walton is looking to develop the next generation of stars. D'Angelo Russell will be let off his extremely short leash. (He's averaged 18.2 points per game in the preseason.) Add in Jordan Clarkson, rookie Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle, and the Lakers have a nice young core.
Signing Luol Deng, the consummate pro, should help alleviate the pressure on Brandon Ingram to be the guy right away. They also gave a massive deal to Timofey Mozgov who the Cavs benched in the playoffs last season because he was getting killed on pick-and-roll defense. Nick "Swaggy P" Young is still here, so there's an entertainment factor outside of seeing the young guys develop too.
Strength - Luke Walton - Walton showed his coaching ability last year, leading the Warriors to a 44-3 record out of the gate while Steve Kerr recovered from back surgery. He'll be installing his system, which will take some time to learn. But there's no pressure to win right now.
Weakness - Defense - Last year's team ranked dead last in defensive rating allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions. That's horrendous. Even the 10-win 76ers were a full two points better in that category. For all the talk of what Walton can do for this offense, he'll need to improve this defense. The slow-footed Mozgov at center likely won't help matters.
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