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The 2014-15 NBA season is upon us, and with the dawn of another new campaign come 30 teams charging toward championship glory.
Well, actually, a few clubs are lagging behind the rest. The pack is already miles past the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks.
And, as a matter of fact, there are another 20 squads that don't appear to have the stamina to survive until the crucial homestretch. The Washington Wizards, New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks are among the teams that can hope for a late surge but probably shouldn't expect one.
Divvying up the ranks even further, we've got a handful of flawed but able contenders—teams that could outpace the pack if absolutely everything breaks right. Think of the Golden State Warriors as emblems of that group.
And then there are the thoroughbreds. The title-hungry elite. The Chicago Bulls. The San Antonio Spurs. The Cleveland Cavaliers.
You can tell in October that they've got everything it takes to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June.
Wow. It's tricky to parse out the different strata of title contenders. Somebody should come up with odds for all of them so we can get a clearer picture of where each team stands.
With an assist from OddsShark.com, let's do that.
Ranking order is based on OddsShark's preseason odds and is not representative of the writer's opinion and analysis. All preseason statistics courtesy of RealGM.com unless otherwise indicated.
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2 of 32
Philadelphia 76ers: 500-1
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When you've got no shot (and no apparent desire) to win many games, let alone an NBA title, you've got to take solace in the small victories.
On Oct. 22, 13 of the league's 30 owners voted against a lottery reform plan that would have reduced the chances for teams with the very worst records to snag the very best picks. That decision was a bullet dodged for general manager Sam Hinkie's Sixers and an unexpected one.
According to John Finger of CSNPhilly.com, "lottery reform was viewed as a foregone conclusion" just a day before the vote that stunningly struck down the plan. The 76ers, of course, were among the most vehement opponents of the potential change, and it's hard to blame them.
Switching things up in midstream would have had an especially negative impact on their rebuilding plans.
Even though lottery reform will be revisited again, the Sixers earned a small reprieve.
Oh, and hey, Michael Carter-Williams, reigning Rookie of the Year and last season's lone beacon of hope, finally has a return date from his remarkably long recovery after shoulder surgery: Nov. 13, per Jeff Goodman of ESPN.com.
Nerlens Noel looks like a defensive menace in training. Joel Embiid is probably the best player in his draft class.
Life is filled with tiny miracles.
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Milwaukee Bucks: 300-1
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Long arms, longer odds.
Let's see if we can get the Milwaukee Bucks to adopt that as their slogan this year.
The Bucks, like the Sixers, are in the early phases of a rebuilding plan. As such, we should expect them to play the kids, be extra cautious with every injury and generally prioritize long-term concerns over this year's success.
Nonetheless, this team's frontcourt collection of condors will be fun to watch with wings spread.
Larry Sanders is only a year removed from being one of the league's most dominant interior defenders, John Henson is basically Brandan Wright without the checkered injury history (that's a compliment) and Giannis Antetokounmpo might usher in an era of positionless basketball.
Plus, No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker is a polished scorer who, for my money, is a virtual lock to succeed Carter-Williams as Rookie of the Year.
In sum, there are reasons to watch this team. And there might even be reasons to expect it to sniff a playoff spot.
The oddsmakers don't much care for Milwaukee, and a championship is out of the question. But you can safely bet on the Bucks being interesting this year.
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Minnesota Timberwolves: 300-1
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There are fresh starts and there are fresh starts.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are trying the latter, having sent away Kevin Love for a couple of No. 1 overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. This was not a minor pivot in the franchise's effort to build a winner; it was a tire-squealing 90-degree turn.
Notable holdovers Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic are probably best known to fans outside the Twin Cities, though Gorgui Dieng may be the most promising returner. Also still in place is Kevin Martin, mainly because the Wolves found no takers for a summertime trade.
Make no mistake, this season is about the developing the youngsters. Wiggins, Bennett, Dieng, rookie Zach LaVine and second-year guard Shabazz Muhammad won't get this team to the playoffs, but they'll form the foundation of a new era.
Minnesota doesn't attract stars, and we've now seen that it struggles to keep the ones it drafts. Ensuring this crop of talent actually amounts to something is absolutely critical.
It takes time to amount to something, hence the 300-1 odds.
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Utah Jazz: 300-1
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It feels like the Utah Jazz, now entering their fourth full season since the Deron Williams trade changed the roster's framework, should have taken the proverbial next step by now.
Derrick Favors should have morphed into an elite warden of the paint, Enes Kanter should have become a consistent starter and Gordon Hayward—he of the hefty four-year, $63 million contract—should be knocking on stardom's door. Instead, the improvements have been marginal, the progress fraught with setbacks.
Fortunately, another wave of talent is ready to overtake the one that showed up shortly after the Williams deal. Frenchman Rudy Gobert could become the next Roy Hibbert, and Dante Exum may be Utah's next superstar.
Or, both might struggle through the same fits and starts as Favors, Kanter and Hayward. You can never be sure.
One comforting certainty: Alec Burks is a bad man. And a second: Quin Snyder scares me.
If Tyrone Corbin was hindering progress, perhaps his dismissal will change things. New head coach Quin Snyder has shown some innovative touches during the preseason, and the Jazz are getting better looks. Though they're still shooting about 19 threes per game (right around the number they shot last year), they rank sixth among all preseason squads in long-distance accuracy with a cool 37.1 percent.
The second wave of the youth movement begins this season. There'll be no title talk, and even the playoffs are a pipe dream. But there's no shortage of potential.
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Sacramento Kings: 250-1
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The Sacramento Kings are tired of being a doormat in the West, and the organization's most powerful figures have been laying down strong rhetoric to that effect all offseason.
"This year, let's be clear, it is about wins and losses," owner Vivek Ranadive told Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee.
General Manager Pete D'Alessandro told Jones: "We’re not trying to be patient anymore, we’re not. We want to win more, we want to be more exciting."
Kudos to the Kings for aiming high, for trying to reward a loyal fanbase by changing the culture. But prioritizing wins with a roster that simply isn't cut out to collect many of them might be a mistake. It's dangerous to shift into short-term success mode too early; it can cut the legs out from a rebuilding process in a way that is sometimes unfixable.
Sacramento will start Darren Collison, Ben McLemore, Rudy Gay, Jason Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins, which sounds intriguing on paper.
But when you realize that the Kings' most frequently used five-man unit last year featured these same players with the departed Isaiah Thomas at point guard instead of Collison and that said unit managed a net rating of minus-5.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, it's hard to see where the belief that this team can win comes from.
Maybe it's the additions of Ramon Sessions, Omri Casspi and rookie Nik Stauskas. Maybe it's faith in Cousins' continued improvement.
This is all a long way of saying that even if the powers that be in Sacramento think this team has a shot to do anything, the cold reality of title odds at 250-1 is a far more accurate assessment.
Not this year, Kings.
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Boston Celtics: 200-1
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We're in for another rough Boston Celtics season, but there are reasons to believe things are headed in the right direction.
First, Rajon Rondo's broken hand has miraculously healed to the point that he's being discussed as an opening-night starter, says Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com.
So much for that six- to eight-week timetable.
Second, Boston will be a team that plays with an edge. Rondo is notoriously competitive, but the Celtics also feature gritty rookie Marcus Smart, dogged defender Avery Bradley and last year's flagrant foul leader, Jared Sullinger.
Those guys aren't just out there to mix it up either.
Bradley is a quality starter—especially if he sustains the improved perimeter shooting he flashed last year. And Sullinger has been a preseason monster, averaging 14.9 points and 10.9 rebounds on 52 percent shooting (including 50 percent from long distance).
In other words, there's a better than 200-1 chance this team will be watchable this year.
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Detroit Pistons: 200-1
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If you're looking for an Eastern Conference team that might make a significant leap up the standings, consider the Detroit Pistons.
Though Detroit returns the vast majority of a roster that won only 29 games a year ago (plus Jodie Meeks, D.J. Augustin and Caron Butler), Stan Van Gundy's arrival as commanding officer will add structure and discipline.
We know SVG wins wherever he goes and that he finds a way to succeed by matching playing style to personnel. If anybody can sort out the frontcourt mess and backcourt ineptitude in Detroit, it's him.
That's not to say there won't be significant hurdles, according to Zach Lowe of Grantland.com: "Stan Van Gundy is a top-five coach. This team will be frisky, but the Brandon Jennings–Josh Smith combination—even if they play fewer minutes together—has reached 'do not trust until you see them do good basketball things status.'"
Smith and Jennings are dangerous commodities indeed. Both can shoot their team out of games if not precisely managed. For the Pistons to make noise, Van Gundy will have to rein those two in while also getting more from the rest of the roster—Greg Monroe and man-child Andre Drummond in particular.
If Drummond gives Van Gundy a passable Dwight Howard impersonation (circa 2009), this team will be in business. And by business, I mean somewhere at or slightly above .500.
Let's not get too crazy.
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Orlando Magic: 200-1
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Elfrid Payton is a sneaky Rookie of the Year candidate, Nikola Vucevic just inked a reasonably priced extension and the Orlando Magic's defense has allowed an exceptionally stingy 97.2 points per 100 possessions during preseason play, according to RealGM.com.
You can correctly cite the fact that the Magic have been such sound statistical stoppers because their preseason schedule included the hapless Sixers and Indiana Pacers, but know this: You're no fun at parties.
Also decidedly unfun: Victor Oladipo's being sidelined for a while with a nasty injury.
The team's official release relayed the buzz-killing news Oct. 23:
Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo will be out indefinitely after suffering a facial fracture in practice Thursday, General Manager Rob Hennigan announced today.
Oladipo, who was evaluated Thursday afternoon, will undergo a corrective surgical procedure on Saturday. He was injured after taking an inadvertent elbow during a practice drill.
Oladipo, last year's lottery pick and someone the Magic hoped would take a leap this year, was already battling a bad knee during the preseason. Neither he nor Orlando needed this.
Looks like Payton is going to get a chance to prove himself immediately. That's good.
Looks like Ben Gordon is in the mix to start at shooting guard. That's less good.
Hurry back, Victor.
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Atlanta Hawks: 100-1
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We make a big jump into 100-1 territory with the Atlanta Hawks—one I'm not afraid to say doesn't feel nearly big enough.
Before Al Horford went down with (another) torn pectoral last season, Mike Budenholzer's birds were 16-13, looking like the third-best team in the East. After losing its best player, Atlanta closed out the year with a 22-31 mark.
Of course, because the East was the East, the Hawks still made the playoffs.
This year, Horford is healthy and looking just fine in preseason play. Plus, Paul Millsap is playing for a contract, Jeff Teague remains among the league's least appreciated talents and Thabo Sefolosha is now in town to bring some stifling perimeter defense.
Nobody's saying the Hawks are a bunch of world-beaters, but they feel like postseason locks. And they might very well finish among the conference's top four.
At the very least, they'll jack a ton of threes (only the Houston Rockets attempted more in 2013-14) and take care of the ball (Atlanta's assist-to-turnover ratio was second best in the East). That's a recipe for success.
Don't sleep on the Hawks.
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Denver Nuggets: 100-1
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It doesn't really matter why head coach Brian Shaw is embracing a deep rotation for his Denver Nuggets—it could be because the roster lacks a clear top eight, or it might be a sign the Nugs will use line changes to double-down on fatigue-inducing pace at altitude like so many Denver squads before.
What matters is that it's a smart idea.
"There's going to be 10 guys at the start of the season, will be two at each position, that'll be in the main rotation," Shaw said, per Nate Timmons of DenverStiffs.com. "Barring foul trouble or blowouts, one way or another, that will determine if it gets deeper than that."
The postseason remains a lofty goal for this club, mainly because there are 10 teams that look scarier (and have better title odds) in the West. All that depth behind stars Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried might be enough to propel the Nuggets to a .500 record, but it would be a stunner if they finished the 2014-15 campaign in the conference's top eight.
Many hands make light work, though, and Denver is going to employ more hands than just about anybody this season. We'll see if sharing the load pays off in surprising fashion.
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New Orleans Pelicans: 100-1
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The New Orleans Pelicans finished 14 games under .500 last year, but the 2014-15 campaign should see them vault above the break-even mark.
That's a significant improvement, though it's as much a statement on the franchise's rotten luck a year ago as anything else. Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday missed huge portions of the season with back and knee injuries, respectively. Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon lost time as well.
Better fortune on the injury front, along with the huge addition of Omer Asik in the middle, should propel the Pelicans forward as they develop into a team worthy of Davis' presence. This season marks a critical developmental milestone for The Brow and the organization.
Though not yet a championship-caliber squad, the Pelicans must now move themselves into the postseason conversation:
Sean Highkin of ProBasketballTalk writes:
Whether they have enough to actually get there is a different discussion, and it’s hard to point to one team out of last year’s playoff crop that’s likely to fall out. But if Davis is as good as he’s going to be and everyone else stays relatively healthy, they’ve got a chance.
The Pelicans are building a skyscraper, and it would probably be wise to get in on the ground floor.
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Phoenix Suns: 100-1
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To win a ring, you have to make the playoffs first. And the Phoenix Suns know better than anybody how difficult that can be.
Forty-eight wins didn't get the job done last year, but the Suns, undaunted, will give the punishing Western Conference another crack in 2014-15. This time around, they'll have Isaiah Thomas rounding out a deadly three-guard rotation that—hopefully—will also include the newly paid Eric Bledsoe for a full season.
Goran Dragic was an elite performer last year, and he'll look to duplicate the most impressive individual offensive season we've seen in the post-Steve Nash Suns era.
Channing Frye's departure to the Orlando Magic will hamper Phoenix's spacing on offense, but the team that led the NBA in fast-break points a year ago may play with enough speed to make up for that loss.
The bad news is that the Suns may have yet another excellent season and still fall short of the playoffs. The good news is they've got enough cap flexibility to re-sign Dragic next summer and pursue a major free agent who could put them over the top.
This season will be too much fun to term a throwaway, but the truth is the Suns are a year away from really raising their profile.
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Brooklyn Nets: 66-1
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The Brooklyn Nets lost key figures from their bench and starting lineup this summer, as they watched Jason Kidd skip town for Milwaukee and Paul Pierce join the upstart Washington Wizards. Those losses will change Brooklyn's makeup significantly, but maybe not for the worse.
Lionel Hollins replaces Kidd, and his seven seasons of head coaching experience should mesh well with the Nets' veteran roster. At the same time, Beckley Mason, in a piece for ESPN.com, raised some interesting questions about the reputation Hollins built with the Memphis Grizzlies.
"Is what Tony Allen does really something you can coach?" he asked. "Is the way Marc Gasol moves 7'0" and 260 pounds to stymie a point guard something anyone can learn?"
We're about to find out.
We'll also find out whether rookie import Bojan Bogdanovic can replicate Pierce's production on the wing. And we'll soon see if Mason Plumlee's time with Team USA at the FIBA Basketball World Cup will lead to a big sophomore campaign
Brook Lopez must overcome yet another setback with his surgically repaired foot, and Kevin Garnett has to prove he's got enough juice left to contribute more than a handful of minutes per game. But with Joe Johnson and Deron Williams in the backcourt and Jarrett Jack replacing Shaun Livingston off the bench, Brooklyn remains a savvy squad with a fair amount of talent—even if most of it is nearing its expiration date.
The playoffs are a realistic goal for the Nets, and if the 30-year-old Williams can stay healthy alongside Lopez, a top-four seed isn't out of the question.
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Charlotte Hornets: 66-1
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Even if the rebranded (is it a rebranding if you're just going back to an old brand? How do brands work? Somebody get me a brand strategist on the phone) Charlotte Hornets aren't anything close to title contenders, they'll at least look good as they try to improve on the No. 7 seed they grabbed as the Bobcats last season.
The new duds are slick, and Lance Stephenson will infuse the club with tons of "no, no, no, YES!" razzle-dazzle. Not only that, but rookie big man Noah Vonleh is intriguing, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's jumper looks more like a shot than a contortionist routine gone horribly wrong.
There's reason to get fired up about these Hornets. You might even say there's a buzz in Charlotte. You wouldn't say that, of course, because that's about as hacky as it gets.
Suffice it to say the addition of Stephenson and more minutes for Kidd-Gilchrist could help the league's sixth-ranked defense get even better this year. If the offense around focal point Al Jefferson also improves (which it might with Kemba Walker heading into a contract year), the Bugs could certainly climb the playoff ladder.
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Indiana Pacers: 66-1
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This...this is going to get ugly.
Paul George is probably done for the year with a broken leg, and Stephenson is grazing in purpler pastures. Down their two best perimeter players on offense and defense, the Indiana Pacers are going to struggle in a big way.
Frank Vogel still has Roy Hibbert in the middle, and George Hill will continue to be one of the NBA's better defensive point guards. So getting stops should still be a strength for Indy, but scoring is going to be rough.
Remember, this team ranked 22nd in offensive efficiency last year. After the All-Star break, only the Sixers' scoring attack was less potent, per NBA.com. Taking away two of Indiana's three leading scorers is going to make it almost impossible to get buckets at anything better than a bottom-five rate.
Maybe Chris Copeland will stretch the floor with his shooting. Perhaps Hibbert will become a bigger threat on the block. David West might have one more big year in him.
But even if all three of those things come to pass, it's hard to say they'll make up for losing George and Stephenson.
And in what may be the most terrifying harbinger of an offensive catastrophe to come, Donald Sloan leads Indy in preseason points per game and will be the starter at point guard for up to three weeks while Hill's left knee mends.
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Los Angeles Lakers: 66-1
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We could spend this slide talking about Kobe Bryant's triumphant return from injury or Byron Scott's old-timey rejection of the three-point shot.
We could touch on the potential of rookie Julius Randle, the breakout possibilities for Ed Davis or the over/under on "and-1!" screams per game from Carlos Boozer (it's 6.5).
But no. No. It's far too soon for that. The grief is still too raw.
Steve Nash—two-time MVP, offensive maestro and good dude—is through, according to a report from B/R's Kevin Ding:
The latest and perhaps last setback of Steve Nash's disappointing tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers has come.
Nash has been ruled out for the 2014-15 NBA season due to recurring nerve damage in his back, according to league sources.
Even if we all saw this coming long ago, the stark reality that one of the game's most transformative trendsetters is finished doesn't hurt any less. This is a loss for the NBA—one mitigated only mildly by how much the league gained from Nash's offensive genius and entertaining style.
Truthfully, a healthy Nash wouldn't have made a real difference for the Los Angeles Lakers this year—not at age 40 and not for a team that has precisely zero above-average defensive players. L.A. was almost certainly a lottery team in the crowded West before he went down, and it'll remain one without him.
Bummer to the max.
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Memphis Grizzlies: 50-1
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We've reached the first team that could win a ring this year without completely shocking the populace: the Memphis Grizzlies.
Rest assured a championship for the Grizzlies, who barely made it into the postseason last year with a record of 50-32 (your 17th reminder the West is loaded), would be a surprise. Zach Randolph is 33, and Mike Miller, a key floor-spacing shooter in last year's underwhelming offense, followed LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Scoring, as always, will be an issue for the Grizz.
But this team is going to defend like crazy, especially with a slimmed-down Marc Gasol patrolling the middle ahead of his 2015 free agency. Toss in Tony Allen, the NBA's scariest perimeter stopper, and you've got the key components for a league-best defense.
Vince Carter remains a valuable wing defender who can run a pick-and-roll and hit the occasional three, and Mike Conley is a playoff-tested fighter who just keeps getting better.
And remember, we've seen this Grizzlies core knock off the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder in playoff series within the last four years. Nobody scares Memphis in the postseason.
If the Grizzlies can stay healthy and Gasol puts up a big year, they're a dark-horse contender.
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Miami Heat: 50-1
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Something seems different about the Miami Heat this year.
I've got it: Norris Cole's high-top fade is even more precisely squared off than it was last season.
Oh, also LeBron James isn't on the team anymore, which delivers a decent-sized blow to Miami's title hopes in 2014-15. After featuring as heavy favorites this time a year ago, the Heat are now relative long shots.
Filling in for the King, Miami has veterans Luol Deng, Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts—three offseason additions president Pat Riley would have preferred as James' sidekicks, not replacements.
Chris Bosh will be a featured part of the offense now, and he'll do his best to reprise the role of 20-10 dynamo he played with the Toronto Raptors. And Dwyane Wade will step back into the spotlight, hoping his body holds up under the stress of increased responsibility.
On paper, it feels like the Heat have enough talent to stick around as a playoff team. But if Wade misses another 28 games nursing his knees, those postseason dreams could vanish.
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New York Knicks: 50-1
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Whatever debate there was about Phil Jackson's ability to institute a culture change in New York is over. He did it and to a greater degree than anyone could have possibly foreseen.
J.R. Smith has seen the light.
"Trying to think about the rest of the team over myself or my scoring is something that I never really had to do before," Smith told ESPNNewYork.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. "I've always been in a situation to score, [now I'm] in position to take my time and let the game come and let my teammates succeed more than myself, I think that's the ultimate win."
Personal transformations in the preseason have a way of reversing themselves as the year progresses, but for now, it seems Jackson has performed magic.
Getting Smith to buy into the equal-opportunity tenets of the triangle offense is huge, and everything after that—figuring out how to coax defense out of a frontcourt rotation involving Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire, convincing James Dolan to keep kazoos out of the locker room—should be cake.
The Knicks aren't so far removed from a 54-win season in 2012-13. Jackson's influence alone should help them get closer to that total than the 37 wins they amassed last season.
Still, don't expect a championship chase—not until the bad contracts on the books slough off in 2015 and Carmelo Anthony gets some real help.
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Toronto Raptors: 50-1
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The Toronto Raptors opted to stand pat this season. But really, why would the Raps, a 48-win outfit, go fixing things that weren't broken?
Kyle Lowry got a market-rate contract of four years and $48 million, which assured the team's leader and pace-setter would return. Once the ink was dry on that deal, the Raps knew they could sit back and bank on internal growth from the likes of Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan, the latter having made his first All-Star Game last February.
Stable though the Raptors are, there's still some youthful intrigue on the roster. Virtual unknown Bruno Caboclo was Toronto's surprise first-round pick, and nobody's quite sure how good the 19-year-old Brazilian might become.
Lucas "Bebe" Nogueira, 22, joined the Raps via trade in June, and he's another potential-packed prospect. And though he's not close to being a major contributor on the floor, Nogueira is handling the adjustment to his new team in stride, according to Eric Koreen of the National Post: "Regardless, you get the sense that even if Nogueira was in the heart of Siberia without a drop of Russian in his repertoire, he would still be smiling, laughing and just generally being loud."
In sum, the Raptors did a nice job of maintaining a successful status quo while injecting just enough exciting potential to have some upside.
And no, I can't explain why their odds are as low as the Knicks'.
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Portland Trail Blazers: 40-1
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There are a couple of key differences between the Portland Trail Blazers and the just-covered Raptors, and very few of them offer support for Rip City's better odds.
The Blazers were thin last year, buttressing an elite starting five with next to nothing off the bench. Bringing in Chris Kaman and Steve Blake doesn't feel like a great remedy.
Of course, second-year guard C.J. McCollum should see his role increase this year, and he's got the combo-guard skills to make an impact. Head coach Terry Stotts seems to be leaning toward him as a sixth man; McCollum led all Blazers reserves in minutes per game during the preseason.
For all that, it's hard to grasp why Portland is viewed as a bigger title threat than Toronto. The Blazers' conference is tougher, their bench is still thinner and they finished the year at just 23-19 after a red-hot start. Portland is a good team, but it may not be much more than that.
It'll be up to Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and the rest of the starters to duplicate that fifth-ranked offensive rating. If they can't do that, suspect defense and an underwhelming bench may ultimately hit one of last year's biggest surprises with a painful dose of reality.
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Washington Wizards: 33-1
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Nobody will be happier to see the preseason end than the Washington Wizards; if it had gone on any longer, they'd have run out of healthy bodies entirely.
With Martell Webster already on the shelf following his third back operation in four seasons, the injuries just kept coming.
Bradley Beal fractured his wrist, Glen Rice Jr. rolled his ankle, Kris Humphries ripped open his arm on the rim (since when are those things sharp?), requiring surgery to mend the gash. Even John Wall was limited with knee tendinitis.
Somehow, the Wizards' oldest player managed to survive the exhibition slate unscathed. Paul Pierce, set to start at small forward for the Wiz, offered some veteran perspective on the parade to the trainer's table, per Jorge Castillo of The Washington Post: "It’s been tough. It’s been hard. We haven’t had a full squad most of the preseason. The key is understanding it’s a long season. The key is to get healthy."
If the collective swelling recedes and all the stitches hold, Washington can still make good on the lofty expectations it set last season. Forty-four wins got people believing in D.C., and now the Wizards face a world in which anything less than a top-four seed will constitute a disappointment.
Demands like that are as refreshing as they are daunting, especially for a franchise with so little success in its recent past. At 33-1, the Wiz aren't totally out of the championship picture, but they're still a notch below the East's elite.
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Dallas Mavericks: 20-1
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Here's a scary thought, via Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com: "You don’t get any better than Rick Carlisle offense, but Carlisle’s offense got a lot better this offseason."
Drink that one in.
Last season, Carlisle's Mavs tied for second in the league with an offensive rating of 109, decimal points behind the NBA-best Los Angeles Clippers, according to NBA.com. While the loss of ace sniper and steady facilitator Jose Calderon will sting, Dallas brought in Jameer Nelson to soften the blow. And Monta Ellis can absorb a few possessions as well, which won't be a bad thing for the Mavs' attack.
The major boost comes from Chandler Parsons, who'll slot in at small forward to absorb nearly all of the wing minutes Shawn Marion and Vince Carter shared. Tyson Chandler mans the middle of what should be an improved defense.
What Dallas has is fragile. It depends on the health and ongoing potency of Dirk Nowitzki, around whom an elite offense can still be built. That's a remarkable thing to say about a 36-year-old player, but Nowitzki is, himself, rather remarkable.
As long as he's able to stand upright, he'll be a defense-shredder from the high post. And the rest of the Mavs will play off him as Carlisle pulls the strings from the bench.
Doubt this group of battle-tested vets at your own risk.
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Golden State Warriors: 20-1
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If Klay Thompson ends up getting that big extension before the Oct. 31 deadline, he should consider giving a portion of it to new Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, whose opened-up offense has been generating nothing but quality looks for the shooting guard during the preseason.
Thompson can keep most of the cash; the vast majority of his improvement has to do with killer confidence and a perfect release. We can't credit Kerr for those things.
What's happening with Thompson is a symptom of a larger change in Golden State—one that is giving rise to the hope that last year's 51-win effort was just the beginning.
B/R's Howard Beck chronicled the issues with former head coach Mark Jackson's plan of attack: "The offense too often stalled and stagnated, resulting in muddled isolation plays and contested jumpers. There was little movement or dynamism, and little sense of cohesion."
Already one of the league's top defensive outfits (the Warriors ranked third in defensive efficiency last year), Kerr's club is moving the ball beautifully on offense. Andrew Bogut and David Lee, great passers both, are now hubs of the attack, and Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala et al. are feasting on cuts, flares and brush screens.
All this, and Kerr has only had a couple of months to install the basics of his admittedly complicated scheme.
If Golden State gets past the turnovers that hurt it last year and continued to crop up during the preseason, it is the team with the best shot to take one of the West's top three spots from the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Clippers or San Antonio Spurs.
If that happens, Thompson won't be alone in owing a debt to Kerr. Fans across the Bay Area will be right there with him.
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Houston Rockets: 20-1
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The Spurs used last season to show us how motivating a bitter defeat could be; they plowed through the league to win their fifth ring, avenging the devastating loss to the Heat in 2013.
On a smaller scale, perhaps that same narrative will play out for the Houston Rockets, who bowed out of the postseason against a Blazers club few expected would offer resistance.
The Rockets will hope to do more this season. Unfortunately, they'll have less to work with than they did a year ago. Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik are elsewhere, thinning a rotation that didn't have much depth to lose. And, of course, Parsons has changed his Texas address.
James Harden and Dwight Howard remain, and they'll be tested more rigorously than ever before.
If Trevor Ariza avoids the post-contract letdown so many expect and if Terrence Jones takes another step forward, Houston could be more dangerous than it was a year ago.
However, when measured against Dallas and Golden State, whose title chances are the same as Houston's—and whose rosters improved after decidedly more impressive playoff runs last year—the Rockets look like the team least likely to deliver on those 20-1 odds.
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Los Angeles Clippers: 8-1
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From here on in, it's all legit. No pretenders. No "if a few things go right" aspirants. No "maybe, just maybe" hopefuls.
Real, honest-to-goodness contenders only.
The Clippers, by virtue of being mentioned after that introduction, are one such contender.
Free of the shadow cast by Donald Sterling and imbued with the frightening enthusiasm and impossibly deep pockets of new owner Steve Ballmer, the Clips will look to lock up a top-three seed in the West again. This time, tough, they'll hope to advance to the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.
The bulk of the responsibility falls on the familiar shoulders of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, two players who could easily lead the Clips to yet another No. 1 finish in offensive efficiency. With Doc Rivers' leadership and (hopefully) another step from DeAndre Jordan, L.A. is in excellent position for yet another deep playoff run.
There are concerns, though.
The wing positions are weak behind J.J. Redick. Matt Barnes is slated to start at the 3, and at age 34 there should be real concerns that his 4.2 percent (yes, 4.2 percent) shooting from long range during the preseason is less a blip and more a sign his offensive game has fallen off a cliff.
Spencer Hawes was the team's big offseason get, and as valuable as he is as a passer and floor-spacer, he won't scare anybody on defense.
If the offense remains elite and Rivers can manage his frontcourt rotation wisely, the Clippers could be marginally better than they were a year ago. That might be enough for them to reach heights they've never reached before.
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Oklahoma City Thunder: 7-1
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An initially promising offseason ended with the Thunder looking as vulnerable as the top-tier Western Conference teams they were supposed to have an edge on.
Kevin Durant's fractured foot was the biggest blow, but then Anthony Morrow sprained his MCL. Reggie Jackson rolled an ankle, and Jeremy Lamb's back flared up.
Injuries are part of every summertime and preseason slate, and they're bad news for everybody. But for OKC, a team in position to take advantage of the Clippers' minimal improvement and San Antonio's theoretical decline, the onrush of maladies was particularly ill-timed.
The Thunder's window is by no means closed. Fully healthy, they're a threat to knock off absolutely anyone. And if there are no lingering effects from the current laundry list of injuries (Durant's in particular), they might even be favorites in the conference by the time the postseason rolls around.
At the same time, playing at less than full strength could hurt Oklahoma City's playoff positioning. Heading into the dance as a No. 4 seed makes reaching the final round a whole lot harder. So Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and second-year breakout candidate Steven Adams must compensate for their missing teammates' production.
OKC still belongs on the contending pedestal, but its footing is shakier than expected.
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Chicago Bulls: 11-2
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A 4-4 preseason would normally raise questions about a team's fitness for title contention—especially when that team spent the exhibition schedule taxing its rotation players more heavily than most.
But the Chicago Bulls got exactly what they wanted out of the month of October: Derrick Rose looked like himself.
Sam Smith of Bulls.com said Rose "generally bordered between fabulous and spectacular in his preseason progression," and the former MVP closed things out with a flourish. In Rose's final two tuneups, he scored 57 points in 56 minutes. Over the entire preseason, he connected on 43 percent of his triples.
And don't worry: He looked as fast and reckless as he did three years ago.
Actually, it's probably fair to worry about the recklessness.
At any rate, Chicago struggled to adjust to new pieces in the rotation, which largely explains its underwhelming record. Tom Thibodeau is still experimenting with Gasol's role alongside Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. In addition, some shaky defense was to be expected with rookies Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott just getting familiar with Thibs' system.
Jimmy Butler's thumb injury marred an otherwise healthy preseason, but when the most significant setback merely renders a role player "day to day," according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls will take it.
With Rose healthy, the Bulls are very, very scary.
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San Antonio Spurs: 7-2
Darren Abate/Associated Press
Someday, the Spurs will be too old.
Someday, they'll succumb to injury.
Today is not that day, and Manu Ginobili smirks at you for thinking it might be.
Unconcerned with a year-older core and the fact that the Spurs have never repeated as champs, oddsmakers have bestowed the West's best odds upon Gregg Popovich and friends. And why not?
San Antonio looked fresh during the postseason, thanks largely to a maintenance plan that kept every single Spur under 30 minutes per game during the year. When younger, more athletic teams broke down, the well-rested Spurs hit their stride.
Expect them to take the same approach this year, if not an even more conservative one. The regular season is no longer a challenge for this bunch, and they proved last year that they could essentially give games away without hurting their postseason positioning.
Despite holding veterans out of back-to-back games all season, the Spurs won a league-high 62 contests.
If something goes awry, maybe they'll slip up and win 57 or 58 this year.
Until proved otherwise, San Antonio is the West's best.
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Cleveland Cavaliers: 5-2
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Who'd you expect?
LeBron James' Cavaliers may struggle to jell offensively, and they might not have the personnel to construct an elite defense at all. Neither of those issues stopped them from earning the NBA's best title odds—mainly because a long season will give new head coach David Blatt plenty of time to work out the kinks.
And if he can't figure everything out, he's still got the best player in the world on his team. That alone is enough to justify Cleveland's spot here.
There's reason to believe the Cavs will hit the ground running on offense, and not just because they have such an absurdly talented core. The truth is we've seen how potent these guys can be during preseason play.
James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Dion Waiters all attempted at least three triples per game during exhibition season, and all four connected on at least 41 percent of those shots. James, because he is not human, made exactly 50 percent.
You might think it impossible for all four of those players to sustain such a high collective percentage, but in an offense where double-teaming anyone—or even helping a smidgen too aggressively—results in wide-open chances for a another scoring dynamo, well...let's just say the potential for league-leading offense is there.
Irving was a preseason lightning bolt, using defenders' hesitation to leave their assignments to dart into the lane whenever he wanted. Drive-and-kick opportunities were endless, and they'll continue to be—unless the league allows opponents to use six players against Cleveland.
Actually, even then...
Injuries, the slog of an 82-game season and various other uncertainties mean there are no sure things in the NBA.
But the Cavs come close.