We’ve now reached that point in the off-season when the ink has dried on the major contracts and the picture for the ’05-’06 season is becoming a little clearer. While one or two moves may affect certain teams’ rankings by a place or so, what follows should hold for the beginning of next year, barring major injuries.
So, without further ado, I present to you my summer power rankings. For any comments, please use the box at the bottom of the page. If I’ve dogged your team and you wish to send me a death threat directly, my email address is CY.Ellis@hoopsvibe.com.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Led by a robot, coached by a basketball mastermind, and now with a cold-blooded killer (NVE) to hold them down in the clutch, the Spurs might not do it with the style that sells sneakers, but they’ll still do it better than any other team in the league. As one of the most consistent forces of the past twenty years, they only needed to keep the nucleus of their squad together to be in a position to put a hurting on the rest of the league. Having re-signed Big Shot Bob and lured Nick the Quick to town, they did more than that, all but guaranteeing another appearance in the finals.
2. Miami Heat
One word, one question: “Chemistry?” Having had the chance to personally question Shaq on this topic, I’m confident that the Heat will be happy next season, and if that’s the case, they’ll have a mighty good shot at the title. Just take a look at their starting lineup:
PG – Jason Williams
SG – Dwyane Wade
SF – James Posey/Antoine Walker
PF – Udonis Haslem/Antoine Walker
C – Shaquille O’Neal
If everybody stays sweet, who’s messing with that? Some suggest even the rock-solid Spurs could be tested by such a wealth of talent, and I’m finding it increasingly difficult to disagree.
3. Detroit Pistons
When you lose a coach, you don’t lose everything he has taught. Coach Larry may have bolted for the Big Apple, but the defensive mentality he instilled will remain, ensuring that Detroit can continue be considered the Murder Capital both on and off the court. Flip Saunders is more than capable as a replacement, and with a roster that largely resembles the championship-winning squad of two years ago, the blue-collar boys will be in the running for another title.
4. Indiana Pacers
When you say “Too high” on seeing the Pacers at four, some of you will be questioning my rankings, while others will be suggesting that I’m baked. Know this, though: I don’t take drugs and Indiana doesn’t take prisoners. Jermaine O’Neal will finally grow a heart and average the 25, 10 and 3 he flirted with last season, Stephen Jackson will channel his energies more productively, and Ron Artest will beat up on opponents like somebody threw a whole stack of cups at him. Consider also the addition of Sarunas “The Sniper” Jasikevicius (I forget his actual nickname – it may be “Saras”), and you have yourselves a legitimate power in the east.
5. Houston Rockets
As I was preparing these rankings, the Rockets went up and down more than Paris Hilton’s underwear. They have one of the most potent one-two punches in the league in Tracy and Yao, yet, to my mind, Mac and Ming don’t quite go together like mac and cheese just yet. Despite acquiring The Stro’ Show and keeping Deke and Jon Barry around, they’re still not selling most fans on the idea that they’re a top-five team. While I have given them this spot, it’s only because I think – and hope – that it’s simply a gut reaction of mine to feel that they don’t deserve it. If Yao continues to come along and T-Mac manages to steer this ship straight, there’ll be more than one franchise to worry about in Texas.
6. Phoenix Suns
I doubted Phoenix last year, hated on Steve Nash, clowned their coach, and I still have more questions than they could possibly answer. However, one thing is for damn sure: Amaré is a monster. With Steve Nash feeding the beast and the rest of the Purple Posse picking up the leftovers, the Suns will be able to recreate some of the magic that took them to sixty wins last year. While they’re more likely to finish with a half-century than another league-leading record, they won’t be the ruin some expect with Q and JJ wearing new uniforms.
7. Dallas Mavericks
Is anybody else tired of guessing when the Mavs are going to put their talent to use? If Cubes could only realise what’s necessary to make a strong team rather than simply a strong roster, Dirk Nowitzki would already have joined Steve Kerr and Mark Madsen as the least likely men on the planet to own platinum jewelry. As every year, I have no choice but to put them in the “Not Quite There” category.
8. Sacramento Kings
Until I actually see them play a game, the true ability of this team will be a mystery to me. Although they’ll continue to miss Chris Webber’s presence this coming season, the addition of Bonzi and ‘Reef should go some way to making up for his absence. If Peja can remember why he was once an MVP candidate, Sacto could have a dangerous team once again, particularly if Bibby can make a little more noise in the regular season.
9. Denver Nuggets
Another enigmatic franchise, the Nugs could replicate their success in the second half of last season, or they could crash and burn. A lot of their success depends on Carmelo’s maturity and Coach Karl’s ability to keep the big men content. With Latrell making the trip up to the Mile-High City, their shooting guard issues could be temporarily solved, although there’s always the chance Spree could replace those with problems of a different kind. We all know Denver has the chance to make waves in the west next year, but nobody will be particularly surprised if they struggle for a playoff spot again. The key phrase here is “Wait and see.”
10. New Jersey Nets
Another “in theory” team, the Nets will be wasting what they have if they slip much further than this next year. With one of the best fastbreak trios since Run-TMC, New Jersey will keep moving on up if they just keep moving. With McNasty now signed, they can breathe a little easier if Ason (sorry, Kidd, you still have no “J”) needs to sit out a few games.
11. Chicago Bulls
The Baby Bulls are babies no more, having stretched the series to six games against an upstart Washington squad. With Curry, Chandler, Deng, Nocioni, Flash Gordon and The Hinrich Manoeuvre all growing up right before our eyes, the team has a chance of making basketball a sport worth watching in Chi-Town once more.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves*
Mark my words: K.G. won’t let that crap happen again. With chemistry-killers Sammy and Spree picking up their cheques elsewhere, The Big Ticket, Wally, and new point guard Marko Jaric will have a clean slate with which to work. They might not challenge the big dogs this year, but they won’t play like Chihuahuas again either.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers
Newcomer Larry Hughes and old-timer Z will do their thing next year, but, as we all know, the franchise rests on the broad shoulders of one LeBron James. If the young fella can surpass expectations yet again, he should find himself in the postseason for the first time.
14. Washington Wizards
With the loss of Larry Hughes, Washington’s plans for world domination will have to be put on hold for a few more years. However, with Gilbert, Antawn, Antonio and Caron onboard, they have a young nucleus that could secure a playoff spot on the basis of talent and enthusiasm alone.
15. New York Knicks
The combination of Jamal Crawford, Stephon Marbury and Quentin Richardson might seem nuttier than squirrel poo to some people, but the league being what it is, the Knicks have what it takes to avoid total embarrassment. Factor in the arrival of Larry Brown, and New York has a team that looks downright average, which will be a marked improvement on the disaster that was last season.
16. Seattle Supersonics
I can’t tell you what it was that Ray did last year to take the Sonics as far as they went, but I can tell you this: he’ll need to do it again to keep them even in the middle of the pack. With Antonio Daniels and Jerome James roaming pastures new, this season could be disastrous if Jesus (Shuttlesworth) doesn’t manage to perform another miracle.
17. Philadelphia 76ers
A.I. and A.I. will keep the wheels turning, but it’s up to Webber and Dalembert to inject some extra fuel in the engine. If the former finds his feet in Philly and the latter can learn to channel his outrageous athleticism, the Sixers could see themselves in the second season once again.
18. Los Angeles Lakers
Loved, hated, enigmatic. These three words now apply equally to both Kobe Bryant and his team. While KB8 and Doctor Phil are two of the best on the planet at what they do, they’ll be running out alongside one of the sorriest-looking rosters in the league, populated by long-term projects, NBDL players and no-hopers. Unless Odom and McKie have monster seasons, the Lakers will be enjoying another long summer next year.
19. Memphis Grizzlies
A solid team that could have made something of itself, Memphis somehow slipped last year, and instead of trying to get back up, they traded away four of their seven top players. With a core of Battier, Gasol, Eddie Jones, Mike Miller and Bobby Jackson, they don’t have much hope of being better than “just alright”.
20. Los Angeles Clippers
They lost Bobby Simmons and Marko Jaric, but added Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley. Any attempt to establish whether or not that’s a good thing for the franchise would be based on guesswork, so I won’t try. Averaging out the probabilities, however, it seems likely that they’ll end up a few spots out of the playoffs, which is why I’ve left them here.
21. Boston Celtics
As mixed a blessing as he may be, the loss of ‘Toine will certainly hurt Beantown. With not much more than a disillusioned Paul Pierce, the unpredictable Ricky Davis, and an aging Gary Payton to run the show, the Celtics could be in trouble this year.
22. Golden State Warriors
Although very weak on paper outside of their explosive guard tandem, the Warriors earned this spot with their second-half surge last season. If they lose their momentum, however, they could slip a few spots. Either way, I don’t see them as a serious playoff contender.
23. Orlando Magic
Their horrible showing last year didn’t do justice to their talent, and this season they’ll look to play at a level somewhat closer to their abilities. With Keyon Dooling joining Stevie Franchise, Dwight Howard and a revitalized Grant Hill, the Magic won’t be as feeble as many predict.
24. Milwaukee Bucks
Even with Michael Redd, Bobby Simmons and two number one draft picks (don’t forget Joe Smith) on the roster, the Bucks will have to show a clear and maintained improvement on last season in order to convince fans that they’re anything more than a bottom-of-the-barrel team.
25. Utah Jazz
If Booz and AK47 have career seasons while Jerry Sloan scares the rest of the squad into performing, the Jazz could climb out of the cellar. However, as things stand with their roster, describing them as “so-so” could be considered complimentary.
26. Toronto Raptors
Chris Bosh may now be stronger, but unless he has both the physical and mental muscle to carry an entire franchise, the Raptors will be destined for mediocrity, or worse. Don’t be surprised to see them struggle to win twenty-five next season.
27. Portland Trailblazers
The talent is there, but, unfortunately, so are several “questionable characters”. Juan Dixon is a nice acquisition for the club, but he won’t do much to help them unless he can convince certain teammates of his to act properly.
28. Atlanta Hawks
Many have picked Atlanta to finish dead last, and with no serviceable point guard or centre on the roster, it’s not hard to see why. However, the talent they have through the middle three positions (Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Josh Childress and Al Harrington) should be enough to put them a little ahead of the worst of the worst.
29. Charlotte Bobcats
Having picked up UNC alumni Raymond Felton and Sean May in the draft, the ‘Cats have the pieces in place for a decent team. However, for the time being, they’ll have to grin and bear the losses that come with being an expansion franchise.
30. New Orleans Hornets
With Baron Davis back on the west coast, the Hornets are shorthanded at just about every position. Chris Paul and Jamaal Magloire might be the only players worth mentioning, and even they won’t be enough to save a team that will consider themselves to have overachieved if they lose only sixty games.
*The Timberwolves move ahead of the Bulls if they sign Michael Finley.
As previously stated, I’m always available via email or the comment box, so feel free to get at me with your thoughts. If you ask me a question directly, I promise to get back at you as soon as possible. Until tomorrow, take it easy.