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Time to end the speculation

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Oct 30 2009 3:26PM

It's been 134 days since we last watched a live NBA game that counted.

134 miserable days.

Since then we've watched a lot of games that didn't count and rewatched some that did. And finally, we've arrived at the start of the 2009-10 season.

Before the Celtics and Cavs tip things off from Cleveland on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT), it's time for one last evaluation of how the 30 teams in the league shape up. The rankings below are more about where the teams stand now than where we project them to be at the end of the season, but if you want predictions, we've got 'em.

Preseason games don't count, but they do matter. And what happens in October can be an indication of what's going to happen in the months ahead. So preseason performance -- not necessarily record, but how well a team played overall -- was a small factor as our mid-August rankings were rearranged.

Starting next week though, the rankings below get completely erased and we start from scratch. And if the Sacramento Kings start the season 3-0, you'll see them in the top five next Monday.

For now, the top five is who you expect it to be, and those five teams could be arranged in any of 120 ways. The Cavs, Celtics, Lakers, Magic and Spurs are head-and-shoulders above the 25 other teams and all have a real shot at a championship. It's just a matter of staying healthy and having the ball bounce your way come April.

• Offseason Rankings: Where they sit after summer

Astro Boy Team of the Preseason: Orlando (8-0)
Balloon Boy Team of the Preseason: New Orleans (2-6)

High jumps of the preseason: New York (+3), Philadelphia (+3), 5 teams (+2)
Free falls of the preseason: Toronto (-3), Washington (-3), 5 teams (-2)

Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
Off: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
Def: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
The league averages for the preseason were 99.1 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 100.5 points scored per 100 possessions.

NBA.com's Power Rankings are just one man's opinion and are released every Monday during the season. If you've got an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on twitter.

TEAM (AUG. 17) REC. BREAKDOWN
1 L.A. Lakers (1) 6-2 Pace: 102.1 (6), Off: 102.3 (8), Def: 99.5 (13)
Ten of our 12 experts picked L.A. to win the West, but only five think they'll repeat as champs. Andrew Bynum's preseason numbers are certainly encouraging, but will he continue to be a focus? The team's best lineup should have Odom and Gasol on the floor.
2 Cleveland (2) 4-4 Pace: 94.0 (29), Off: 102.0 (11), Def: 99.2 (12)
With Delonte West out, Anthony Parker is looking like as important an acquisition as Shaquille O'Neal. After Tuesday's opener against the Celtics, the Cavs have a soft (but busy) schedule, which gives them time to get Shaq up to speed and West back in the fold.
3 Orlando (3) 8-0 Pace: 97.9 (17), Off: 112.0 (1), Def: 93.9 (3)
Stan Van Gundy hasn't been satisfied with his team's defense, but it's hard to find complaint with Orlando's offense in the preseason; They shot 49 percent from the field and 42 percent from three. Like the Cavs, the Magic have a pretty light early schedule.
4 Boston (5) 6-2 Pace: 97.1 (23), Off: 100.8 (16), Def: 92.9 (2)
The Celtics want to be the best defensive team ever. If they're healthy, they might pull it off and separate themselves from the Cavs and Magic. Marquis Daniels' ability to handle the point is key, as the second unit will be stronger with Eddie House at the two.
5 San Antonio (4) 4-3 Pace: 97.9 (19), Off: 104.1 (6), Def: 100.4 (15)
We know that the Spurs will give the Lakers their toughest challenge in the West come April, but Gregg Popovich won't put the pedal to the metal in the regular season. This writer has San Antonio in the Finals, but they'll have to do t as a 2 or 3 seed.
6 Portland (8) 4-4 Pace: 95.6 (27), Off: 102.0 (10), Def: 101.3 (18)
Starting Steve Blake over Andre Miller definitely makes sense basketball-wise, because Brandon Roy needs the ball in his hands. Miller's saying the right things so far, but you have to be concerned about his attitude if he's not finishing games either.
7 Denver (7) 4-4 Pace: 105.6 (2), Off: 101.0 (13), Def: 97.0 (7)
The Nuggets must get better to stay near the top of the West. With Carmelo Anthony's shooting taking a big dip, they were seventh offensively and eighth defensively last year, so there is room for improvement. Much will depend on new starter J.R. Smith.
8 Dallas (6) 5-2 Pace: 98.4 (16), Off: 103.4 (7), Def: 100.5 (16)
The Mavs are still waiting on Josh Howard, and with Shawn Marion missing much of the preseason, Dallas might need some time to get rolling. They were able to improve defensively as the month went on, and Dirk Nowitzki (55 percent shooting) looks ready.
9 Utah (10) 6-2 Pace: 95.8 (26), Off: 107.1 (2), Def: 99.2 (11)
The Carlos Boozer mess may hurt the Jazz, but this is a team that won 48 games last year, despite losing more than 100 games from their top seven guys. Only Boston and Orlando were better (in point differential) in the preseason.
10 Atlanta (12) 5-2 Pace: 95.9 (25), Off: 105.5 (3), Def: 103.3 (25)
The Hawks were sharp offensively in the preseason, but not so much on the other end of the floor. And it's their defense that must improve off of last year if they're going to take another step forward. Their early schedule is brutal, so expect a slow start.
TEAM (AUG. 17) REC. BREAKDOWN
11 Washington (9) 4-4 Pace: 98.9 (14), Off: 97.8 (21), Def: 102.6 (24)
Antawn Jamison is expected to miss about 10 games with his injured shoulder, but of greater concern might be the way the Wiz played in their last few games of the preseason. They didn't look ready for the games to count, especially on the defensive end.
12 Chicago (14) 6-2 Pace: 97.4 (20), Off: 97.9 (20), Def: 94.3 (5)
Not only does Derrick Rose have a year of experience under his belt, but so does Vinny Del Negro. And that can make a difference. The Bulls have a solid rotation, but lacked an identity last year. They'll be back in the postseason if they play smarter.
13 Phoenix (15) 4-4 Pace: 105.3 (3), Off: 102.2 (9), Def: 101.6 (22)
The Suns are looking to improve defensively, but they've got to be able to finish off possessions. They were the worst rebounding team in the preseason, getting outrebounded by almost nine boards per game. With Robin Lopez out, they're thin up front.
14 New Orleans (11) 2-6 Pace: 97.3 (22), Off: 95.8 (28), Def: 106.1 (30)
Chris Paul didn't get hurt (though he missed the last two games with the flu), so the Hornets' preseason wasn't a total disaster. But Emeka Okafor didn't play at all, the rotation is still unsettled, and they can't afford to fall behind early in the West.
15 Philadelphia (18) 5-3 Pace: 101.4 (7), Off: 96.5 (25), Def: 94.0 (4)
Eddie Jordan's Princeton offense and Jason Kapono should (eventually) help the Sixers in the half court, but they were at their best in the preseason when they were applying pressure defensively, forcing turnovers and getting out on the break.
16 Toronto (13) 2-6 Pace: 99.8 (10), Off: 95.6 (29), Def: 101.5 (21)
Shooting is supposedly their strength, but the Raps ranked last in the league, shooting 24 percent from three in the preseason. Add in 19 turnovers per game and you've got some ugly basketball, which had to be expected given all the changes they made.
17 Detroit (17) 4-4 Pace: 97.4 (21), Off: 101.3 (12), Def: 105.5 (28)
With a weird mix of old, young, talented wings and untalented bigs, the Pistons are another team that's hard to project. But if they don't figure out how to defend, we know they're no better than the seventh or eighth seed in the East. They start with a light week.
18 Houston (16) 4-4 Pace: 101.2 (8), Off: 101.0 (14), Def: 98.5 (10)
How many games can a squad comprised entirely of pretty good role players win? Unless Tracy McGrady travels back five years in time, we're going to find out. Expect the Rockets to beat the teams they should and struggle against those with more talent.
19 L.A. Clippers (21) 6-2 Pace: 98.6 (15), Off: 104.6 (4), Def: 100.6 (17)
Baron Davis looks to be motivated and in great shape. With a new, strong bench, things were looking pretty good for the Clippers ... and then Blake Griffin injured his left knee in the preseason finale on Friday. He's questionable for Tuesday.
20 Miami (19) 2-5 Pace: 93.3 (30), Off: 97.4 (22), Def: 97.1 (8)
Tweet of the Week, from @dwadeofficial: (Go to the gym and get some shots up)RT @mister6clutch: I need suggestions to do with my free time right now folks. Wats up? That's leadership ... or perhaps an MVP candidate who'd like more help this season.
TEAM (AUG. 17) REC. BREAKDOWN
21 Oklahoma City (20) 2-5 Pace: 95.2 (28), Off: 96.4 (26), Def: 105.1 (27)
Kevin Durant averaged 20.9 points in just 29.1 minutes per game in the preseason, shooting 51, 46 and 91 percent from the field, 3-point range and the line respectively. For the record, the Thunder were better with him on the floor (-5) than on the bench (-54).
22 Charlotte (22) 2-6 Pace: 97.9 (18), Off: 96.7 (24), Def: 100.3 (14)
When your best hope for an offensive boost comes from the 12th pick in a bad draft and your best perimeter defender tears a ligament in his wrist in the preseason, you've got a tough season ahead. The Bobcats won't be terrible, but their games will be ugly.
23 Golden State (24) 4-4 Pace: 103.7 (5), Off: 104.5 (5), Def: 101.4 (20)
On one hand, you have to be excited about watching Stephen Curry, Anthony Morrow and Anthony Randolph learn how to play in this league. On the other hand, you have to wish they were on some other team, so they could learn how to behave as well.
24 Indiana (23) 3-4 Pace: 108.2 (1), Off: 98.8 (18), Def: 102.5 (23)
For the second straight year, the Pacers begin the season without Mike Dunleavy. Now that Marquis Daniels and Jarrett Jack are busy making other Eastern Conference teams better, they have to hope for big leaps from sophomores Roy Hibbert and Brandon Rush.
25 New York (28) 5-2 Pace: 103.7 (4), Off: 94.1 (30), Def: 92.4 (1)
Three games against N.J. and another against Maccabi Tel Aviv skewed the numbers, but No. 1 defensive team in the preseason? The Knicks? Mike D'Antoni's Knicks? They won't be that good when the games count, but any defensive improvement will help.
26 New Jersey (26) 1-6 Pace: 100.0 (9), Off: 95.9 (27), Def: 96.3 (6)
The Nets looked awful during stretches this month and they lost to the Knicks three times. But Devin Harris played just 58 minutes, they were competitive each game and their young wings are fun to watch when they get out and run. Stay patient, New Jersey.
27 Milwaukee (25) 3-5 Pace: 99.1 (13), Off: 96.9 (23), Def: 97.3 (9)
The good news is that Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut (who combined to play just 69 games last season) are healthy and the Bucks will defend pretty well for Scott Skiles. The bad news it that they'll need to wait for Brandon Jennings to get experienced.
28 Memphis (29) 3-5 Pace: 99.1 (12), Off: 98.4 (19), Def: 101.4 (19)
If putting Allen Iverson, Zach Randolph and O.J. Mayo on the floor together with just one ball wasn't enough, the Grizzlies may have disgruntled Rudy Gay by not offering him an extension. Is it called a chemistry "experiment" if we know it's going to go wrong?
29 Minnesota (27) 3-5 Pace: 99.7 (11), Off: 101.0 (15), Def: 105.6 (29)
The Timberwolves weren't going to be very good even if they were healthy, but Kevin Love's broken hand was the most devastating injury of the preseason. And with Al Jefferson nursing a sore Achilles, it's going to be an ugly start to the Kahn/Rambis era.
30 Sacramento (30) 2-5 Pace: 96.6 (24), Off: 100.7 (17), Def: 104.4 (26)
With Rookie of the Year candidate Tyreke Evans and a healthy Kevin Martin in the backcourt, the Kings will have more entertainment value than they did last season, for sure. More wins? Maybe a few.
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