Speaking of staying healthy…Kawhi Leonard and Paul George appear healthy heading into the season, and the ceiling of this team remains a title contender. Trading for James Harden likely diminishes that ceiling but raises the floor for the 10-50 games this year the Clippers will be without one or the other.
The New York Knicks impressively knocked around the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs last season, but they have some very real team construction issues this season. They have just two rotation forwards in RJ Barrett and Julius Randle and a hose of shooting guards that will be asked to play up as 3s and 4s. That may work, but it may also come back to bite them if Barrett or Randle miss time.
LeBron James is miraculously still a Top 10 player (if barely) and is also the oldest player in the league, a seemingly impossible pairing of facts. Anthony Davis was the best defensive player in the playoffs last year. The team around them makes sense, including Austin Reaves as the improbable third banana. They will have injuries and need rest during the regular season, but if they hit the playoffs healthy they are a legitimate title contender.
The Miami Heat finished last season with 44 wins but with the point differential of a 40-win team. They also finished last season in the NBA Finals after knocking off the top two seeds in the East. The answer for how good the Heat are is probably somewhere in the middle, so we land at 47 wins. They’ll probably pluck another player or two out of obscurity and be right back in the Conference Finals.
Joel Embiid won MVP last season but his running mate is trying desperately to jump ship. How the James Harden situation resolves will dictate if the Sixers are a team that can win a playoff series or not, but even with him they aren’t a true title contender. Tyrese Maxey is poised for a breakout, but the bench is as weak as it’s ever been.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of the teams most likely to take a step forward, especially among teams that made the playoffs last season. That’s not necessarily a major endorsement of their playoff chances, but rather that they will be a better regular-season team. Karl-Anthony Towns enters the year healthy, Rudy Gobert should be more comfortable in the system, Mike Conley is here from the start of the season, and both Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels are poised to take major steps forward.
The Memphis Grizzlies are the mirror image of a team like the Warriors or Lakers in that they profile to win a lot of regular season games thanks to a young and deep team but have fewer answers in the playoffs. Swapping Tyus Jones and Dillon Brooks for Marcus Smart is a bold move; will it help them find a way to get past the Currys and LeBrons in the West? The Ja Morant suspension to start the season shouldn’t depress their win total too much, but they need him on the straight and narrow moving forward.