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NBA Summer Power Rankings: Free agency moves Lakers up

Aug 23, 2012, 11:00 AM EDT

Kobe Bryant Dwight Howard Getty Images

Summer NBA power rankings are about as meaningful and accurate as preseason college football rankings. At least the NBA isn’t silly enough to have something like this matter in determining a champion. That would be stupid.

The top and the bottom of the poll are what you’d expect, but the Lakers and Celtics moved up while the Magic have fallen hard. You probably expected that, too. (Teams are listed with their record from last season.)

1. Heat (46-20) When you are the defending NBA champions you get to start on top (unless someone were to dismantle the team, Mr. Cuban). Miami got better this summer — and it is not just adding Ray Allen. More important is that the Heat have figured out who they are now and what they want to do. They have their identity. They are more dangerous.

2. Lakers (41-25) I think spots two and three — the Lakers and Thunder — are a toss-up. I could go either way and who is better may very well be decided in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. But while there are questions about the Lakers — Steve Nash’s back, Dwight Howard’s back, Kobe Bryant’s knees, how all these stars mesh — on paper Howard and his defense are key and may make L.A. a little better than OKC. But they have to prove it now.

3. Thunder (47-19) While the Lakers have the potential, the Thunder are reality. We know OKC will come back a little better than they were last year, a little more experienced. And they already were very, very good. The Thunder have done this, they know how to do this, and they will be hungry. They are the bar the Lakers are shooting for, not the other way around.

4. Clippers (40-26) They will be better, because Blake Griffin will grow and improve, because Jamal Crawford is an upgrade over Mo Williams, and because I expect a bounce-back season from Lamar Odom. Besides, bad thumb or not Chris Paul is still the best pure point guard on the planet. But the level the Clippers reach in the playoffs will be determined by what kind of steps DeAndre Jordan makes.

5. Nuggets (38-28) I love the Andre Iguodala signing for them, I think he addresses their defensive needs on the perimeter and he fits what they do on offense. This is going to be a fun, fast team to watch. But the ultimate key will be the play of JaVale McGee for Denver and what George Karl can get out of him.

6. Celtics (39-27) Boston got better this summer — Jason Terry is an upgrade over Ray Allen, they will get Avery Bradley and Jeff Green back, and they figured out how well they play with Kevin Garnett at the five spot. It was a good offseason, Danny Ainge did himself proud. But they still need Miami to come back to them if Boston wants to make the finals. Also, they are not a regular season juggernaut.

7. Spurs (50-16) This is probably too low for them. We always tend to overlook the Spurs. Their stars will get a year older the question is can their young role players step up and help them out again? Probably.

8. Pacers (42-24) They should be better next season, mostly because they found their rotations and identity in the playoffs, with George Hill at the point. They could pass Boston for the No. 2 seed. Smart move to retain Roy Hibbert

9. Bulls (50-16) Derrick Rose is out for half the season (at least) and the Bulls have decimated their bench. And yet Tom Thibodeau will get them to defend like few others and that will win a lot of games. Regular season games. We’ll see come the playoffs.

10. Grizzlies (41-25) They lost O.J. Mayo but this is still a good team with real size up front (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph). They still need shooters and someone to really organize the offense besides Mike Conley.

11. Knicks (36-30) Knicks fans will be convinced this is too low, that they should be up with Boston as teams to challenge Miami. I’m not sold. They should be a solid defensive team again (thank you Tyson Chandler) but I need to see Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire figure out how to co-exist on the court before I see New York getting out of the first round.

12. Nets (22-44) Well, they got a team they can take into Brooklyn. Who cares if they have a lot of large, long-term contracts they will hate in a few years (Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez). This team will be fun to watch and will put up points, but it’s going to take years off Avery Johnson’s life as he tries to get them to defend.

13. 76ers (35-31) Andrew Bynum gives the Sixers a new direction and I like the moves they made — if the East’s powers are going small (Miami, Boston) then counter by going big. Start Bynum and Spencer Hawes. I think they will be a good defensive team but the offense is going to be a work in progress.

14. Timberwolves (26-40) I think they are a playoff team in the West this year. Sure, the seven seed that gets the Lakers or Thunder in the first round, but it’s a start. I think they make a big move up, Kevin Love will be better and adding guys like Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko and Chase Budinger gives Rick Adelman good depth to work with. They will miss Ricky Rubio for the first half of the season. How Roy plays could move them higher.

15. Jazz (36-30) This is a solid NBA team with good size up front — Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors and Paul Millsap. They will not be anybody’s pushovers, but in a deep West even good teams have to fight for a playoff spot.

16. Mavericks (36-29) They could make the playoffs if O.J. Mayo gets his groove back, Elton Brand stays healthy and productive, Chris Kaman has a career year… exactly. Well, they still have Dirk Nowitzki. And this is a placeholder roster as they keep cap space for next summer.

17. Hawks (40-26) Joe Johnson and the iso-Joe offense is gone to Brooklyn, but if that means more up-tempo offense, if it means more Jeff Teague/Josh Smith pick-and-roll it could be a good thing. I just don’t think they are as consistent, I think they are closer to a .500 side.

18. Bucks (31-35) The question isn’t will the Brandon Jennings/Monta Ellis backcourt score a lot, they will. And they will be entertaining. But who are they going to be able to stop? Defense is key in Milwaukee.

19. Warriors (23-43) On paper it’s a nice roster, but it needs Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut to be healthy and productive like their old selves for it to work. I’m just not convinced they get that for the 70+ games they need from both of them.

20. Blazers (28-38) They have a couple quality young pieces — LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum — and Damian Lillard is my guy for Rookie of the Year (Anthony Davis probably wins but he is too obvious). But it’s a rebuilding process and it will take some time.

21. Wizards (17-46) Where you rank them says what you think about John Wall and his ability to make the leap to elite point guard. Yes, they added Nene and Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor (all should help the defense), but this team is all about how Wall gets the offense going.

22. Raptors (23-43) They are a good dark-horse playoff team in the East, mostly because Kyle Lowry could help generate offense, and they have scorers like DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani. But what they really need is rookie Jonas Valanciunas to look a lot better than he did in the Olympics.

23. Pistons (25-41) I like their young core — Brandon Knight, Rodney Stuckey and Greg Monroe (who should have gotten a USA Select Team invite). And if rookie Andre Drummond comes along, they could finish up these rankings. There are reasons for hope.

24. Kings (22-44) They have an interesting frontcourt with DeMarcus Cousins and rookie Thomas Robinson. But this season in Sacramento is the “what do we really have with Tyreke Evans?” season. Well, that and when do the Maloofs do something else stupid.

25. Cavaliers (21-45) We all love Kyrie Irving. People outside of Cleveland are less sold on Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson. And is this the year Anderson Varejao gets traded?

26. Magic (37-29) The post Dwight Howard rebuilding begins, but the roster having Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson may keep the Magic from sucking as much as the front office hopes (they want high draft picks).

27. Hornets (21-45) They have a young core to watch — Anthony Davis in the paint, Eric Gordon at the two, Ryan Anderson as a stretch four, Austin Rivers at the point — and Monty Williams will get them to play defense. It’s a rebuilding process, it’s going to take time. But they will be much better in March than they will be in November.

28. Rockets (34-32) They have Jeremy Lin and Kevin Martin. But I like what they did this summer even without getting Dwight Howard — don’t be middle of the pack, that’s just a rut you stay in. Be bad, get a high draft pick, and have trade flexibility. The Rockets have all that. They are ready for a good rebuild.

29. Suns (33-33) The post Steve Nash era rebuilding starts this year with the Suns being bad and getting a high draft pick. We’ll watch how Kendall Marshall pans out and we’ll watch Michael Beasley take a lot of shots. A lot of shots.

30. Bobcats (7-59) They are going to be better than last year. Thing is, they were the worst team in NBA history last year so even if they are better they could still be the worst team in the league.

  1. miamatt - Aug 23, 2012 at 11:19 AM

    Denver looks a bit too high (talk about boom or bust with Javale) and Boston a smidge too low (I’d put ’em 4-5), but the view from the top is mighty fine.

    Can’t wait to see how it all shakes out. I got my Pepto Bismol ready!!!

    • unxpexted1 - Aug 23, 2012 at 11:26 AM

      I was thinking the same thing, I’m a lakers fan but I think Boston should be at 4 or at LEAST 5. People are showing them any love…..again.

      • unxpexted1 - Aug 23, 2012 at 11:40 AM

        aren’t*….dont want the grammar po po on here to get me.

      • borderline1988 - Aug 23, 2012 at 12:17 PM

        I think Boston should be lower.

        You may have an argument regarding Denver vs Boston, but there’s no way Boston is better than San Antonio. I would argue that the Pacers are better as well.

        Jason Terry is a bit over-rated for this team, b/c his defense is just excruciatingly bad. It will drive Doc Rivers nuts (remember, Doc started Bradley over Allen whose defense is at least decent…what’s he going to think about Terry vs Bradley?), and I’ll bet you that Terry will only be playing 15 minutes a game by season end.

        Also, Hornets are way too low here. Eric Gordon is the best player on any team in the last 10 spots, and they added 2 dynamic rookies and the best stretch 4 in the game. I’d put them at #20.

        Otherwise, I’d agree with everything else.

      • unxpexted1 - Aug 23, 2012 at 12:30 PM

        I see what you mean with Boston, but i think his offensive punch alongside jeff green will make up for a lot. Boston has also been a horrible rebounding team and the addition of their big men will help them in that category too. They look more well rounded than they have been in awhile.

      • passerby23 - Aug 23, 2012 at 4:18 PM

        @ borderline

        Not sure I agree with “there’s no way Boston is better than San Antonio.” For starters, Boston’s bench got a significant upgrade. Scoring – which was a lingering problem – got a great boost with Terry, Lee, and Green. They have greater depth upfront. I agree that Terry’s defense is not spectacular, but he knows how to play great team defense. Besides that, I think his defense can be masked by other great defenders, i.e. Rondo, Lee, Bradley. I’m not saying they WILL finish ahead of San Antonio, but to suggest there’s no way they’re ahead of them is kinda silly. I’m not sure what San Antonio has done to improve. Their big 3 is another year older (and injury prone), plus a 34 year old Stephen Jackson. They clearly ran out of gas against OKC in the playoffs. What has changed?

        I agree, Hornets could be better and I’m not sold that the Magic aren’t better than the second worst team in the league.

  2. cantonbound13 - Aug 23, 2012 at 11:22 AM

    Why so much love for Brooklyn? Adding an aging Joe Johnson really makes them that much better?

    • unxpexted1 - Aug 23, 2012 at 11:34 AM

      umm…..yes… does. have Joe Johnson as a number 2 is a heck of a option. They have a solid starting five with decent bench pieces. They could be ranked higher.

      • borderline1988 - Aug 23, 2012 at 12:37 PM

        Not just adding Johnson, but the fact that Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, and Wallace are all healthy and playing at the same time. I don’t see which team you would put ahead of them:

        76ers: I have serious doubts about them. Iguadala is more valuable than people think; whereas conversely, Bynum as the focal point of an offense will be less valuable than people think. They will be a disappointment. Bynum is obviously a fantastic return for Iguadala, but he won’t make much of a difference in terms of improving the team in the standings.

        Mavs: This is an old, slow team. Nowitzki will keep them competitive, but they’ll have a tough time beating better teams, and espcially faster ones.

        Minnesota: Injury risks all over the place. They need all their pieces healthy if they want to make a serious playoff run, but I just don’t see that happening. And I doubt Brandon Roy will do anything but shoot, or take one dribble and shoot. He had to retire b/c doctors told him he’d never walk again if he continued to play – how can you come back from that and seriously compete with some of the world’s best athletes (especially at his position)?

      • cantonbound13 - Aug 23, 2012 at 6:46 PM

        Brook Lopez? The 7 footer that can’t rebound?

  3. unxpexted1 - Aug 23, 2012 at 11:31 AM

    I think Philly could have a top 10 record in the league this year too. They are pretty deep with role players. I would put them higher.

    I also think memphis will take a step back, they need to get rid of rudy gay and so they can be a low post first till then. Until then, first round exits.

  4. raidmagic - Aug 23, 2012 at 11:56 AM

    Holy crap the Nets are about 10 spots to high

  5. illcomm - Aug 23, 2012 at 11:59 AM

    I still can’t understand why people think the nets r better than the sixers.

    • pglive21 - Aug 23, 2012 at 2:12 PM

      Because Williams and Johnson are better than anyone on the Sixers roster, Bynum included.

      • thesixersbench - Aug 23, 2012 at 3:37 PM

        Where did you get access to a time machine and did Joe Johnson refuse to enter unless he pulled the lever himself?

        Amusing comment. Made me chuckle. Everyone knows overpaid 2-guards nearing the end of their prime are far more valuable pieces than a 24-year old center coming off a career year.

      • pglive21 - Aug 23, 2012 at 3:57 PM

        So Bynum has had one really good (and healthy) year out of seven in the league and that means he’s better than the guy who’s been the 3rd best shooting guard in the league for the past 5 years? Gimme a break. Johnson is absolutely overpaid but salary has no bearing on my comment. He struggle some as the top option but will be far more suited to the #2 role in Brooklyn. Whereas Philly just lost their best defensive player and their best scorer and replaced him a very injury prone (if promising) center. Not to mention that Jrue Holiday couldn’t throw an entry pass for his life and Bynum isn’t a very good pick and roll player. Do I need to go on? Philly will be fighting for a playoff spot in the 6-8 range, just like last year.

    • passerby23 - Aug 23, 2012 at 4:23 PM

      Even respectable players around a top 5 point guard is a pretty decent roster. Throw in a healthy Lopez and Humphries, a better bench, Gerald Wallace, and even a Joe Johnson on the downside of his career makes them better than the Sixers, in my opinion. I just see Philly having a lot of problems trying to score and I’m not sold that Bynum is going to flourish being the #1 scoring option. Is he a leader? Can he carry a franchise? Does he have the work ethic? Is he mature enough? I don’t know the answers to those questions. Outside shooting will be spotty.

      I have the Nets at #5 and Sixers at #6.

  6. phx1311 - Aug 23, 2012 at 12:07 PM

    whats with the doom and gloom for my suns. i like the team we have and cant wait to watch them in action.

  7. imthedudedude - Aug 23, 2012 at 12:10 PM

    Um, I’m sorry does that say suns second to last? First off, K Marshall won’t even be starting, that’s Gorans job. And we signed Beasley to score, so he better shoot it up a lot. Next, the suns will not be any worse than they were last year. .500 team with chance to make playoffs with a run. Imagine Goran, Beasley, Morris, Gortat, and J. ONeal. Or go small and play Marshall, Goran, W Johnson, frye, Scola. There’s plenty of mismatches the suns will create this year. It’s a summer ranking and nobody knows exactly how this team with mesh, but second to last, c’mon now!

  8. reggietfromda623 - Aug 23, 2012 at 12:45 PM

    Kurt you’re full of it having the suns so low

  9. dubitodd123 - Aug 23, 2012 at 2:01 PM

    Go wolves!!!!

  10. bishopbengals - Aug 23, 2012 at 2:33 PM

    lol at Joe Johnson being better than Bynum. What sort of drugs are you on?

  11. timb12 - Aug 23, 2012 at 2:39 PM

    Are the Rockets really that bad? I know they’re not going to make the playoffs, but they’re not THAT bad.

  12. jjordannba - Aug 23, 2012 at 4:49 PM

    It will be Thunder-Lakers WCF, and Celtics-Heat ECF. It’s inevitable that they both make their way back to the conference for another round of the biggest rivalry of the last 2 years. We all know in the end these are the 2 matchups the NBA wants and that are going to happen.

  13. fanz928 - Aug 23, 2012 at 5:57 PM

    Jason Terry is a upgrade of ray Allen?? U kidding?

    • guyaneserj - Aug 27, 2012 at 8:51 AM

      I find that amusing too fanz928. It’s a well known fact that he doesn’t play better D than Ray Allen, and he sure as ain’t no Ray Allen when it comes to consistently draining 3’s ESPECIALLY now that RA has moved 2 da Heat…even if RA hadn’t moved 2 da Heat, he’s still a much better shooter, than JT.. so I’m kinda bemused as 2 how he’s a upgrade?

  14. ambitoos - Aug 23, 2012 at 6:23 PM

    Being a Laker fan we know we have a heck’ve team. The best we’ve had in years. The question is do we have a heck’ve coach. I wasn’t impressed with last year.

  15. mojosmagic - Aug 23, 2012 at 6:33 PM

    The Sixers and Spurs are to low and Denver, Knicks, and Nets are to high.

  16. lakerluver - Aug 23, 2012 at 7:03 PM

    I agree, Terry is an upgrade over Allen.

    • guyaneserj - Aug 27, 2012 at 8:52 AM

      Why do u say that lakeluver? Seriously, plz break it down for me!

  17. EvanZ - Aug 23, 2012 at 10:11 PM

    Does Golden State come with an option to buy later? They’re getting buried in these polls because of the health questions, but if those questions are answered, aren’t they much better than some teams ahead of them?

  18. mat9844 - Aug 24, 2012 at 12:08 AM

    Happy to see the Clippers in 4th place; not too far from first place, but far enough to give us something to shoot for… gonna be a great year!

    • passerby23 - Aug 24, 2012 at 11:36 AM

      I’m not sold on the Clips being that high. They were convincingly swept by the Spurs. Have they bridged the gap that much? They’ll have Odom, Billups, Hill, and Crawford, but that also just made them a lot older. Griffin has suffered two serious knee injuries already in his young career, and what will they get out of Deandre Jordan? I’m starting to think they are a 5 seed again, but behind the Lakers, Thunder, Spurs, and Nuggets.

  19. BigBeachBall - Aug 24, 2012 at 2:09 AM

    clippers higher than the spurs? that’s funny.

    • passerby23 - Aug 24, 2012 at 11:42 AM

      I know the thinking is the Clippers will have another year to gel, plus adding Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford, and Lamar Odom, and the return of Billups. They have a year of playoff experience under their belt. Thus, they improved while the Spurs stayed basically the same. Therefore, advantage Clippers, right?

      I say Odom is another bust and on the downside of his career. I say they’ve gotten good veteran players, but are now older. I say Crawford is too sporadic to be relied upon as a consistent performer in the playoffs. I say Billups won’t hold up the whole season and Deandre Jordan marginally improves. Meanwhile, the Spurs roll out the same team who swept them a year ago. I think Denver beats either one of these teams.

      Boston has to be the favorite to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, while it would be a tremendous upset if the Clippers reach the Western Conference Finals and might be lucky to get out of the first round.

  20. alexjm3449 - Aug 24, 2012 at 3:41 PM

    T’Wolves baby, WE COMIN!!!!!

  21. william9152012 - Aug 24, 2012 at 4:52 PM

    My 76ers are going to surprise teams this yr, id rank them as the most complete, & balanced team in the east besides Indy & Boston !!!
    I have Philly barely winning the Atlantic & homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs !

  22. dkno24 - Aug 25, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    Denver, Memphis, and Indiana are scary…
    Don’t sleep!

  23. jimsjam33 - Aug 27, 2012 at 12:50 AM

    Clippers number 4 . Let the season begin Baby ! DeAndre you must grow up now talent wise . You are the key .

  24. rorye13 - Aug 27, 2012 at 11:41 PM

    i think everyone already pointed out the obvious nets way to high sixers to low. celtics and spurs will b good again thanks to a deep bench and great coaching. lakers and thunder will b extremely fun to watch play each other im looking forward to that. but im really excited to see the atlantic division. looks like another heat celtics eastern conference finals. lakers thunder western conference finals. heat vs thunder/lakers. but redo the list give the nets the 15 spot if u want to b generous. move the sixers to top 10. and move nuggets down along with the clippers. they r both top 10 not 4 and 5

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