Sam Smith's 2013-14 NBA power rankings

With another season about to start, Sam Smith of says that no fewer than eight and perhaps 10 teams have legitimate chances to win an NBA title. He separates the haves from the have nots with his power rankings for each conference.

The NBA season opens Tuesday, and the NBA has a way of trying to make its own symbolic statement. Or at least the Bulls would like to think so. The feature opener is the two-time champion Miami Heat with their ring ceremony hosting the Bulls. Their biggest challengers?

The Bulls would like to think so with the return of Derrick Rose.

Rose’s comeback, which has been bordering on the incredible in preseason, has been one of the major storylines in what could be one of the most compelling NBA seasons in the last decade.

No fewer than eight and perhaps 10 teams have legitimate—and not just on paper or in their dreams—chances to win an NBA title. Of course, Miami remains a strong favorite and should be even with the way the Spurs were perhaps as close as any team ever last season and not winning. But the Heat is going for a fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance since joining forces, thus making it difficult to dispute their self proclaimed dynasty claim.

But there are more claimants than usual this season, namely the Bulls, Pacers and Nets in the Eastern Conference and the Thunder, Clippers, Rockets and Spurs in the Western Conference. And some will makes cases for the Warriors, Grizzlies and Knicks, though not many.

Which will make the NBA in some respects a model of the U.S. economy with a record number of haves and have nots. That’s because of a 2014 draft class with players like Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart and Australian Dante Exum who could be players to build around. So there’s as well a near record number of teams pretty much having given up on the season, including Philadelphia, Phoenix, Boston, Utah and Charlotte.

There are also a substantial number of stories to be considered other than the recovery of Rose. There’s also the recoveries of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Andrew Bynum and Rajon Rondo.

And Kobe Bryant. How will Bryant return at his age from a devastating Achilles injury and when? I’m guessing Christmas Day when the Lakers host the Heat. That’s Kobe.

There’s Boston’s stars off to Brooklyn, Dwight Howard’s landing in Houston and whether they will have a problem, Doc Rivers’ impact with the Clippers, the Knicks’ never ending quest for relevancy and who next to compare LeBron James with as he seeks his third consecutive MVP award and fifth in the last six years.

But for now this is about the regular season, which we know includes many games and many uncertainties. The playoffs, as everyone likes to say, is a new season. So for this season that soon begins, here’s a look at how it may inspire for some and unravel for others:

Eastern Conference

1. Bulls. Record last season: 45-37. Lost in second round of playoffs to Heat. Key additions: Derrick Rose, Mike Dunleavy.

This is the regular season. This has nothing to do with championships, though the Bulls got one with an 8-0 preseason. Though the last time they did that in a full season in 1992 they did win a title, but didn’t have the conference’s best record. Rose is back after a 45-37 season without him and looks as good as ever. Health is said to be a concern, but it is for everyone. So forget it. If LeBron or Durant or Chris Paul is hurt, forget those teams. The Bulls have All-Stars in Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, a further invigorated and slimmer Carlos Boozer and a core that’s been together, if not always on the court, almost four years. Though Noah and Kirk Hinrich were out injured in preseason, both have practiced this past weekend and appear ready to go for Tuesday’s anticipated opener in Miami. They sense it’s a sort of now or never time.

2. Pacers. Record last season 49-32. Won Central Division. Lost to Heat in conference finals. Key additions: Danny Granger, Luis Scola, C.J. Watson.

They’re the new hot pick to upset the Heat after taking them to a seventh game last season after coach Frank Vogel was lured into matching Miami’s smaller lineup and LeBron James won Game 1 with a layup with Roy Hibbert watching. Perhaps not ironically, the same thing happened in Game 6 when the Spurs benched Tim Duncan late and Miami got key rebounds to save their title. Even with Gregg Popovich. The Pacers get Danny Granger back from knee issues, but his health doesn’t seem as good as Rose’s. But they did a big job improving their bench with Luis Scola and C.J. Watson and are one of the league’s tougher teams.

3. Heat. Record last season: 66-16. Won second straight NBA title. Key additions: Greg Oden, Michael Beasley.

I put them there, third in the regular season, more with the belief they’ll coast a bit more having proven themselves. But truly great ones aren’t coasters and LeBron is a great one. So he may not. Plus, perhaps rumors of Dwyane Wade’s demise have been exaggerated. The formerly high flying guard seems back in the air with much better movement and explosion than last season. If he’s still that Wade it makes everyone else only contenders. Though you still assume they won’t push quite as hard as their 27-game win streak did seem to take something out of them last season. They’ll also be working in Greg Oden and Michael Beasley, and if they fit it may be tough to prevent that third straight. Going to avoid writing three-peat as much as possible with Pat Riley having the rights to the name. Ooops.

4. Nets. Record last season: 49-33. Lost to Bulls in first round. Key additions: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko, Jason Terry.

Nyet? Ok, that’s an old one. But I still have my doubts Andrei Kirilenko believed it was worth $7 million less to live in Brooklyn. They’re the great experiment with coach Jason Kidd likely not a great one for a penal fine system as he opens the season suspended for a drunk driving arrest. There’s Deron Williams having chased out his last three coaches basically as Williams’ late season indifference hardly helped P.J. Carlesimo’s case. Williams said it was his ankle. But now they’ve got an ancient, at least in sports terms, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. How well and how long they play is the question. But you won’t want to see them in the playoffs with a deep bench that includes Jason Terry, Reggie Evans, Andray Blatche, Shaun Livingston and Kirilenko.

5. Knicks. Record last season: 54-28. Won Atlantic Division. Lost to Pacers in second round. Key additions: Andrea Bargnani, Ron Artest.

Basically because I can’t think of anyone else. They probably have one of the poorest defensive front lines ever with Carmelo Anthony, Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire. Tyson Chandler is going on Halloween as a turnstile. They’ll get J.R. Smith back when he finishes his latest suspension and he says he’s a starter now. Adding Ron Artest and Kenyon Martin to the mix should provide considerable stability.

6. Cavaliers: Record last season: 24-58. Missed playoffs. Key additions: Andrew Bynum, Anthony Bennett, Jarrett Jack.

Am I also being conned by the hope of Andrew Bynum, as the NBA has been for the last several years? Perhaps, but it’s difficult to feel confident about anyone in these next half dozen slots. You probably could make a case for the Cavs, Pistons, Wizards, Raptors, Bucks and Hawks. Or not. So you go with the team with the best player, and that’s the Cavs’ Kyrie Irving. They’ve been picking up draft picks for a few years, though not necessarily in great drafts. Which only gets you close. Can Bynum be an All Star center again? Can he bowl? The Cavs will face those questions with a roster of good but not exceptional supporting talent. But Irving can be great. He’s just never been able to play a full season. Even in college.

7. Wizards. Record last season: 29-53. Missed playoffs. Key additions: Marcin Gortat, Al Harrington, Otto Porter.

It’s not what you’d call a final piece, especially when your hope is to make the playoffs. But the trade last week for Marcin Gortat for basically the injured Emeka Okafor should be enough to nose them ahead. It seems management’s fate is hanging with a playoff spot. Nene breaks down, and they needed support for him. Though John Wall gets the headlines, Bradley Beal could be their best player since I still don’t see Wall beating anyone even in pop-a-shot. It’s a potentially impressive backcourt the way Beasley shoots. And Wall should run himself into enough points. They’ve got yet another first rounder in Otto Porter this time hurt and uncertain how he fits. Better to get rid of the picks. Seven or bust.

8. Pistons. Record last season: 29-53. Missed playoffs. Key additions: Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Chauncey Billups.

They’ve got the intriguing front court with free agent Josh Smith supporting Andrei Drummond and Greg Monroe. But Smith won a preseason game last week with a three. Uh oh. He may think he should shoot them. He’s really not a small forward, so questions remain whether they’ll trade Monroe and, if so, for what. Brandon Jennings missed the preseason after oral surgery, but should provide a boost in their other big move. Unclear if the oral surgery involved trying to keep him quiet more. Though there could be more deals to come with Rodney Stuckey likely to draw some interest.

9. Bucks: Record last season: 38-44. Lost to Miami in first round. Key additions: Caron Butler, O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, Carlos Delfino.

They’re sort of like the first day of a fantasy draft with a bunch of guys who don’t match. But some nice names in O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler and Brandon Knight. Someone does need to tell coach Larry Drew to scrap that iso offense as he doesn’t have Joe Johnson anymore. They’re small up front and will need John Henson to give them something, but again they’ll be on the edge of the playoffs and a first round sweep.

10. Raptors. Record last season: 34-48. Missed playoffs. Key additions: Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin.

They’ve got enough to be a playoff team, except you keep hearing they may want to trade most of them, namely Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan. They’ve got big dreams and promises with new management, but a small roster. They seem for now to be building around Jonas Valanciunas. Though having Tyler Hansbrough and Aaron Gray on your roster certainly takes the ballet out of basketball.

11.Hawks. Record last season: 44-38. Lost to Pacers in first round. Key additions: Paul Millsap, Elton Brand.

Many seem to have them as a playoff team, though it seems more on habit as they’ve been there. Yes, Al Horford is an All-Star. But what’s he doing there? Paul Millsap is OK, but he’s a 6-5 power forward without range. Didn’t he come off the bench for bad teams in Utah? There’s a buzz about rookie point guard Dennis Schroeder, though they re-upped point guard Jeff Teague. They got the guy who sat next to Gregg Popovich to coach. But it’s still just the guy to the left. It is one of my favorite teams with Kyle Korver and Elton Brand, two of the best people to ever come through the Bulls organization. So I hope they’re better than I think.

12. Celtics. Record last season: 41-40. Key additions: Gerald Wallace, Kelly Olynyk, Kris Humphries.

This is the “I hope I’m not this high in the standings” group from management. They’re all trying to get the top pick and Wiggins, or one of the top three, each of whom is expected to be a star. But the Celtics have Rondo when he decides to return from ACL surgery. I doubt they’re rushing him. But this is the start over they didn’t do with McHale, Parish and Bird as they traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Ray Allen had left the season before and Bird, McHale and Parish still were not coming through that door. They’ve got some holdovers from some good teams like Jeff Green and Avery Bradley and Gerald Wallace from the Nets, who has to be wondering what he’s doing there and perhaps the only guy with fond memories of the Bobcats in comparison.

13.Orlando. Record last season: 20-62. Missed playoffs. Key additions: Victor Oladipo, Jason Maxiell.

They’re inching their way up with draft picks, which goes by inches unless you get LeBron or Rose. They’ve made good moves by comparison, but there are no stars to be found. Rookie Victor Oladipo looks good and center Nikola Vucevic from the 76ers seems a steal. They’ve got some pieces they still can move, like Arron Afflalo, while they figure out if Maurice Harless, Tobias Harris and Andrew Nicholson can add much.

14. Bobcats. Record last season: 21-61. Missed playoffs. Key additions. Al Jefferson, Cody Zeller.

Hey, we’re not last! They’ve got another new coach, but who’s keeping count. Or even knows who it is. They did add a real guy in Al Jefferson, but mostly have guys out of position with Kemba Walker a point guard and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist shooting the ball.

15. 76ers. Record last season: 34-48. Missed playoffs. Key additions: Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams.

The worst ever story will be with them until they get to the 10th win, though Charlotte had the worst percentage in the labor deal year. It’s all about expiring contracts, though no one should tell them no one comes to Philadelphia. Of course, no one goes to Atlanta, either, and they have to go somewhere. They don’t have big men, though they don’t have small men. Rookie Nerlens Noel appears to be taking the season off, like the team.

Western Conference

1. Clippers. Record last season: 56-26. Won Pacific Division. Lost to Grizzlies in first round. Key additions: Doc Rivers, Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick, Darren Collison.

This would be the first time anyone has asked whether someone can beat the Clippers. Perhaps, but that’s the West now. And the Clippers aren’t bad. The won 56 games last season, which seemed less with a first round out. Vinny Del Negro said all the same things Doc Rivers will, but they’ll listen to Doc. They’ve got an MVP-type guy in Chris Paul, big guys who’ll pay attention now in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the latter the latest Rivers project. And as baseball’s Earl Weaver would say, they’ve got deep depth with a bunch of shooters. Maybe too many as they could look to move Jamal Crawford for more size.

2. Rockets. Record last season: 45-37. Lost to Thunder in first round. Key addition: Dwight Howard.

Really, as soon as they trade Omer Asik. It’s inevitable and they know it. Their problem is everyone knows it. But their bigger problem is Dwight Howard is already starting to pout about having to play with Asik, and you don’t want a pouting Dwight, as the Lakers and Magic know. But if they can swing a shooter or maybe a point guard better than Patrick Beverley or Jeremy Lin they’ve got a chance. Howard really has never played, at least healthy, with anyone like James Harden.

3. Thunder. Record last season: 60-22. Won Northwest Division. Lost to Grizzlies in second round. Key addition: Steven Adams.

Perhaps slower getting into the season without Russell Westbrook, and we know there’s no hurrying guys back from knee injuries. So we’ll see how Kevin Durant carries this load. And it’s a bit of a load as Serge Ibaka hasn’t proven worth being the guy worthy of sacrificing Harden for. I shouldn’t end with a preposition and they shouldn’t have ended without Harden. They’re trying all kinds of shooter and prospects, but they’ll need a healthy Westbrook.

4. Spurs. Record last season: 58-24. Won Southwest Division. Lost to Heat in Finals. Key addition: Marco Belinelli.

They’re really not that old with Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli and Danny Green. But they like the jokes, so we’ll go along. They’ve let everyone know it’s all about the post season and they don’t care who knows. Which is why they’re never on national TV. Not because they’re boring. But because no one ever knows if they’ll bring their starters to play. But it’s worked for them, and they should have won them a championship last season. So you won’t hear any second guessing. Tim Duncan someday will begin to decline. But it doesn’t seem like at least now in this decade.

5. New Orleans. Record last season: 27-55. Missed playoffs. Key additions: Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Greg Stiemsma.

This is supposed to be Memphis or Golden State, but I’m not a big fan of their moves. I don’t believe they care, though. I do like the scoring potential the Pelicans have put together with Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans. They’ll be tough to double with Anthony Davis. Now they just have to make that trade for Asik. It seems obvious. Anyway, I love the name. Reminds me of ABA days. And Monty Williams is one of the better young coaches with a defensive strength.

6. Warriors. Record last season: 47-35. Lost to Spurs in second round. Key additions. Andre Iguodala, Jermaine O’Neal, Marresee Speights.

I think they’ll miss Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, the latter now hurt in Sacramento. We’ll see about Andre Iguodala. They’re big on his point forward potential. But have they seen him shoot? I’d defend the guards and take my chances. I assume they felt they had to extend Andrew Bogut because he is a free agent, but I’d want to make that guy more than anyone prove he can play through a season. Or a month.

7. Timberwolves. Record last season: 31-51. Missed playoffs. Key additions: Kevin Martin, Ronny Turiaf, Shabazz Muhammad.

They’ve gotten Kevin Love back with a presumably healthy by now Ricky Rubio and added Kevin Martin. And Nikola Pekovic will run you down. They’re not talking title, but with coach Rick Adelman the playoffs seem reasonable for this most unlucky of teams with injuries. They’ve also got some guys like Derrick Williams, who don’t seem to fit, but are better than your bench guys.

8. Lakers. Record last season: 45-37. Lost to Spurs in first round. Key additions: Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson.

I’m not sure they want to make the playoffs, but Kobe will come back and hear of nothing less. Maybe not until December, but Dominique Wilkins averaged almost 20 after Achilles at a late age. And he’s no Kobe. They still have Pau Gasol, whom I wouldn’t be surprised to see traded in his last season, and Steve Nash for the half game or so he can play. But they’ve added a few reserve guys who can score and Chris Kaman. It will be all about who’s coming next, but not to Kobe.

9. Nuggets. Record last season: 57-25. Lost to Warriors in first round. Key additions: Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye.

Tough for good guy Brian Shaw replacing a coach who won 57 games and coach of the year, George Karl. The story will be it’s about winning in the playoffs and not the regular season. But you have to get there and they may not. They’ll get Danilo Gallinari back from ACL surgery at some point along with Wilson Chandler and could find themselves moving up. Plus, their altitude running game is an edge. But they’ll mostly be around the edges this season.

10. Trail Blazers. Record last season: 33-49. Missed playoffs. Key additions: Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, C.J. McCollum.

Perhaps another season saying they should be a playoff team, which may finally push LaMarcus Aldridge out. But probably not at least until trade deadline or more likely after the season. They’ve got some real talent in Damian Lillard with Nicholas Batum. But if they think Robin Lopez is the answer to their decades long center problems, they better get used to seeing someone move like Greg Oden after surgery.

11. Grizzlies. Record last season: 56-26. Lost to Spurs in conference finals. Key additions: Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos.

They’re finishing up messing up a good thing. They moved out coach Lionel Hollins after dumping most of their shooters. Now they’re making a core around Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, which basically is going to send Zach Randolph into a funk. And he’s not a guy who does well there. They’re still without enough shooting, but they’ll probably tell you otherwise on their stat charts.

12.Mavericks. Record last season: 41-41. Missed playoffs. Key additions: Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Devin Harris.

Mark Cuban continues to shop at the Goodwill shop of the NBA. Continually being rejected by the richest free agents, the Mavs keep picking up second hand bargain pieces, the latest Monta Ellis and Samuel Dalembert. They sort of sound like players, but it’s an odd mix again with Shawn Marion and Vince Carter. Dirk has obviously decided one is enough and life is good. I really can’t quarrel with a lifestyle decision.

13. Kings: Record last season: 28-54. Missed playoffs. Key additions: Greivis Vasquez, Ben McLemore, Luc Mbah a Moute.

They’ve got a lot of guys; the question is what they’ll do with them. Or their latest coach. Maybe you can make something out of DeMarcus Cousins, but you need a veteran coach and they keep going with tryouts. Carl Landry being hurt was a big loss for locker room stability and there’s a bunch of guys who’ll fight over shots. Cousins should enjoy that.

14. Jazz: Record last season: 43-39. Missed playoffs. Key additions: John Lucas, Trey Burke, Richard Jefferson.

The West has only two teams giving up on the season for the greatest draft ever. But if you don’t have a top four pick you may be out of luck. Anyway, it was the way to go, if a season late hanging onto Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap for some reason all last season. Enes Kanter could be a top big man along with Derrick Favors. But not yet.

15. Suns. Record last season: 25-57. Missed playoffs. Key additions: Draft picks, Eric Bledsoe, Emeka Okafor, Channing Frye.

Never has this franchise had goals so low. Still my favorite story remains when they lost the coin clip back then that determined the No. 1 draft pick and Milwaukee took Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and they got Neal Walk. It was done by phone and gm Jerry Colangelo was stricken listening on the phone when they lost the flip. Coach Johnny Kerr, the great former Bulls coach, executive and announcer and original league ironman, sitting next to Colangelo quipped, “Hey, Jerry. Maybe they’ll take Walk.” That is now the last laugh the Suns will have this season. They’ve got four first rounders, but likely one lottery pick. It will be a while before everyone needs to scout Phoenix again. Bad for the NBA in winter.


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