Post-lockout, Heat start out on top
Wait, wait, wait. Don't bother typing that e-mail about how pointless it is to do Power Rankings before free agents can be signed or post-lockout trades can be made.
We get it. And who knows how to rank the Denver Nuggets, L.A. Clippers or New Jersey Nets right now. Heck, team executives aren't even sure how to proceed at this point.
But you've got to excuse us for being a little giddy about finally being able to write about basketball again. No, not a little giddy. A whole lotta giddy.
So here is the first edition of the NBA.com Power Rankings for the 2011-12 season. These rankings are sure to change before the season starts on Christmas Day, but this is where we think things stand right now. And you're free to disagree, especially if you're from Dallas.
• This time last year: Spurs stay on top as Heat slide out of top 10 - We were a month into the season and the Spurs were 14-2. The Heat had hit rock-bottom at 9-8, but they were about to win 21 of their next 22 games. Shaquille O'Neal shot 20-for-23 and averaged 18 and 10 over the previous seven days. Xavier Henry was starting for the Grizzlies, LeBron James was about to make his return to Cleveland, and Russell Westbrook did this.
High jumps of the summer: Dallas (+7), Boston (+4), Indiana (+4), New Jersey (+4) Free falls of the summer: Denver (-11), Charlotte (-6), San Antonio (-5)
Pace: 93.2 (21), Off: 109.3 (3), Def: 100.7 (5)
The Heat's Finals failure might make them an even more fascinating story this year. No matter how dominant they are in the regular season or how easily they get through the Eastern Conference playoffs, they'll still have big questions to answer. They have the best talent in the league. They just have to play like it.
Pace: 93.4 (19), Off: 107.6 (8), Def: 102.3 (7)
It's standard procedure to start the defending champs at the top, but these champs have roster uncertainty, with Tyson Chandler's status being Question No. 1. You also can't escape the idea that their age will play a role in their ability to repeat. One thing's for sure: No one should ever doubt Dirk Nowitzki again.
Oklahoma City (55-27)|
Pace: 95.3 (13), Off: 108.6 (4), Def: 104.0 (13)
The Thunder look primed to take over the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference, but they'll need to improve defensively. Ron Adams isn't walking through that door, but a full season of Kendrick Perkins playing next to Serge Ibaka should do the trick. And they've always got James Harden's beard going for them.
Pace: 92.9 (22), Off: 105.5 (12), Def: 97.4 (1)
The Bulls had the best record in the league despite losing a combined 57 games from Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, and their MVP is only 23 years old. But they're still a big step behind the Heat and need an upgrade at the two. That will take some free agency magic or trading a young reserve big man.
L.A. Lakers (57-25)|
Pace: 93.4 (20), Off: 107.9 (7), Def: 101.3 (6)
At 32 years old and with a lot of talent around him, Kobe Bryant recorded the second highest usage rate of his career last season. So maybe it's time for a new offense to distribute the ball a little better. Mike Brown should certainly help a defense that got scorched by the Mavs in the conference semis.
Pace: 92.5 (23), Off: 104.0 (18), Def: 97.8 (2)
Unless they pull off a trade for Chris Paul, the key question for the Celtics is the status of restricted free agent Jeff Green. And if he stays, Green may be the most important player in green this season. He has the ability to keep the big three fresh and keep the score in the Celtics' favor when they go to the bench.
Pace: 94.5 (15), Off: 104.4 (16), Def: 102.5 (8)
After Rudy Gay was lost for the season, the Grizz were a top-10 team on both ends of the floor and then almost reached the conference finals. As long as they retain Marc Gasol, and as long as Gay doesn't mess things up (and it's being predicted here that he won't), this looks like a top-five team in the West.
San Antonio (61-21)|
Pace: 94.6 (14), Off: 109.4 (2), Def: 102.8 (11)
Do we look at the Spurs as the team that won 61 games last season, or the team that got bounced in the first round? Either way, Tim Duncan is now 35 and Manu Ginobili is 34. So Gregg Popovich will need continued progress from the younger players on his roster, especially Tiago Splitter.
Pace: 93.5 (18), Off: 105.7 (10), Def: 99.1 (3)
Maybe Dwight Howard is dreaming of a bigger market. And maybe the Magic laid an egg in the playoffs. But this is still one of four teams that ranked in the top 10 both offensively and defensively, and the numbers say they should have won seven additional games. So don't be surprised if they remain a contender.
New York (42-40)|
Pace: 98.1 (2), Off: 108.3 (5), Def: 106.9 (21)
If the Knicks are going to take the next step, they obviously have to improve defensively. But moving Amar'e Stoudemire to the four and bringing in a defensive center could hurt them on the other end of the floor. The defensive improvement really must start with Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony.
Pace: 90.5 (30), Off: 105.6 (11), Def: 104.2 (14)
The Blazers don't have cap space or any real holes in their rotation, but with free agency set to begin, it would still be nice if they had a general manager. Raymond Felton will give them more shooting, but the Blazers were already an elite offensive team (108.7) when Andre Miller was on the floor.
New Orleans (46-36)|
Pace: 90.9 (29), Off: 103.8 (19), Def: 102.5 (9)
Even if free agent David West returns to New Orleans, we don't know how effective he'll be just eight months after blowing out his knee. No matter what, Chris Paul needs more offense from his supporting cast, especially Trevor Ariza, whose shooting has gone down each of the last four years.
Pace: 97.2 (6), Off: 101.9 (22), Def: 103.4 (12)
The Pacers are a playoff team and a player in free agency. Frank Vogel has a full season to implement his system and Paul George has a full season to develop as a defensive stopper. A year ago, could you have seen the potential for so much positivity in Indiana? Be honest, now.
Pace: 91.6 (27), Off: 103.2 (21), Def: 104.6 (15)
The Hawks were easily the most confounding team of the 2010-11 season, and their numbers say their record was inflated. In order for them to remain in the East's top five, they'll need to figure out how Kirk Hinrich fits in. They were downright awful offensively after he arrived at the deadline.
Pace: 93.9 (16), Off: 104.0 (17), Def: 102.5 (10)
The Sixers were one of the league's most improved teams last season, but where do they go from here? They can improve offensively if they retain restricted free agent Thaddeus Young and if Evan Turner can become a creator. But they'll still need an interior presence on both ends of the floor.
Pace: 96.9 (7), Off: 108.0 (6), Def: 106.2 (18)
The Rockets need to fill some holes, but you could do a lot worse than starting a core three of Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin and Luis Scola. No one knows how Kevin McHale will do in his first full season on the bench, but it sure would be fun to hear him talk post moves with Scola, who knows how to up-and-under.
Pace: 97.9 (3), Off: 109.5 (1), Def: 104.8 (16)
It's anybody's guess as to who will be playing for the Nuggets this season, so read nothing into this ranking. With only seven guys under contract and a few of those making their way back from Europe, George Karl could open camp feeling like Norman Dale at Hickory High. "We want Jimmy!"
L.A. Clippers (32-50)|
Pace: 95.5 (11), Off: 101.8 (23), Def: 106.3 (19)
The Clippers are in the catbird seat. They've got Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon. They've got decent cap space this year and tons of it next year. And maybe best of all, they've got the Wolves' unprotected 2012 first-round pick! But this is the Clippers, of course, and you have to wonder how it will all fall apart.
Pace: 92.1 (x), Off: 99.0 (30), Def: 99.9 (4)
Stephen Jackson should give the Bucks a lift offensively, but Andrew Bogut is the biggest X-factor in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. If he's healthy, he's the second-best center in the league, but he clearly wasn't himself last season and the Bucks suffered as a result.
Pace: 96.8 (8), Off: 107.0 (9), Def: 107.4 (25)
The Suns finished six games short of the playoffs last season and don't really have any paths to improvement. So are they really going to hold on to Steve Nash all year and let him walk as a free agent next summer? It's time to move on and see what assets Nash can bring back in a deal.
Golden State (36-46)|
Pace: 97.4 (5), Off: 105.5 (13), Def: 107.6 (26)
Did anyone (outside of Oakland) notice that the Warriors improved by 10 wins last season? They can get even better if they use the amnesty clause on Andris Biedrins (owed $27 million over the next three seasons) and replace him with someone who isn't a major liability on both ends of the floor.
New Jersey (24-58)|
Pace: 92.4 (24), Off: 100.2 (27), Def: 107.0 (22)
Like the Nuggets, nobody knows at this point how good the Nets will be. They'll be getting a full season of Deron Williams, as well as a free agent or two with their cap space. And it's certainly within the realm of possibility that they head to Brooklyn next year with both Williams and Dwight Howard in tow.
Pace: 93.6 (17), Off: 104.9 (14), Def: 107.3 (24)
The Jazz have a ridiculously crowded frontcourt, so they must be talking trades. Mehmet Okur and Al Jefferson are obviously the most expendable, but Paul Millsap could seemingly bring back more young assets. Still, it would be tough to trade your best player, who's also a bargain at less than $8 million per year.
Pace: 97.8 (4), Off: 100.6 (26), Def: 106.3 (20)
The Kings should be better with a healthy Tyreke Evans, and for sure, they'll be a fascinating watch. Not only do they have The Jimmer, but DeMarcus Cousins and J.J. Hickson are sure to challenge the Wizards' combo of Blatche and McGee for the title of the NBA's Most Enigmatic Frontcourt.
Pace: 91.5 (28), Off: 104.6 (15), Def: 109.0 (28)
Lawrence Frank has got his work cut out for him in his second head coaching job. The Pistons have a strange mix of the old guard (Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace), the overpaid, summer-of-2009 guys (Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva) and young talent (Austin Daye, Brandon Knight, and Greg Monroe).
Pace: 96.5 (9), Off: 99.6 (28), Def: 107.2 (23)
Here's a leftover question from the 2010-11 season: Just how much was John Wall hindered by his injuries? If his jumper is improved, the point guard seems poised for a breakout season, but the Wizards won't take much of a step forward unless they greatly reduce their knucklehead factor.
Pace: 99.2 (1), Off: 101.1 (24), Def: 108.3 (27)
Let the Ricky Rubio era begin! With Rubio and fellow rookie Derrick Williams on board, as well as Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, and StatsCube favorite Anthony Tolliver, the Wolves just might be the League Pass team of the year. Whether or not they win many more games than they did last year is another question.
Pace: 95.4 (12), Off: 103.3 (20), Def: 110.0 (30)
Dwane Casey will keep the Raptors from being the league's worst defensive team for a third straight year, but Toronto will need more than a coaching change to escape the Atlantic Division basement. They do have to be pleased with the summer of No. 5 pick Jonas Valanciunas, who won't arrive until next fall.
Pace: 95.5 (10), Off: 99.5 (29), Def: 109.1 (29)
It's time to find out what Kyrie Irving can do. The No. 1 pick played exactly 11 games in college, so we don't know what the Cavs will be getting in his first season in the league. But we do know that he'll need a lot more help for Cleveland to really start moving forward.
Pace: 92.1 (26), Off: 100.8 (25), Def: 104.8 (17)
Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson are gone. Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo probably aren't ready. And for now, Tyrus Thomas and Corey Maggette are the Bobcats' best players. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, you're looking at the new worst team in the league.
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 94.6 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 104.5 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.