Now that the dust has settled on the flurry of offseason moves, which are the NBA’s top five teams? Our 5-on-5 panel weighs in.
1. Who is the best team heading into the 2015-16 season?
Bradford Doolittle, ESPN Insider: Los Angeles Clippers Jerseys. Not only did DeAndre Jordan‘s flip-flop help the Clippers avert disaster, it set L.A. up for a string of moves that should make them the best team in franchise history. And, no, that’s not damning with faint praise. L.A.’s starting lineup last season was one of the five best units in the league and upgraded from Matt Barnes to Paul Pierce at the 3. The Clippers were break even in 2014-15 without their best five on the floor, but now have weapons galore such as Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith for the bench, as well as good role players in Cole Aldrich and Pablo Prigioni. While this is a potentially combustible mix, I figure it will give Doc Rivers the chance to remind us just how good of a coach he is.
Arash Markazi, ESPN.com: Cleveland Cavaliers Jerseys. The Cavs pushed the Warriors to Game 6 of the NBA Finals without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and will begin the season with both players healthy and joining LeBron James Jerseys. It’s not like those are new additions because they each played 75 games last season, but if the Cavs’ Big Three stays healthy this postseason, they’re the team to beat.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com: Golden State Warriors Jerseys. It’s hard to pick against a team that last season won the third-most games in the 3-point era. They haven’t lost anyone in the rotation, and their Big 3 (Curry, Thompson, Green) are all on the front end of their primes. This team’s biggest flaw, by far, is that it plays in the Western Conference.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Warriors. They finished last season as the best team in the league — by a sizeable margin — and didn’t lose anything of much value from their rotation during free agency and the offseason. Yes, a couple of teams appear to have closed some of the gap on paper, but not enough to overtake Golden State’s rightful place as the top team as they launch their quest to repeat. The biggest threat to the Warriors might be the complacency from a championship hangover. But I’d bet Riley Curry — and her dad — won’t let that happen.
Royce Young, ESPN.com: Warriors. The defending champions have done nothing to take any kind of a step back this summer. Another offseason of improvement for Stephen Curry Jerseys, Klay Thompson Jerseys and Draymond Green, and another year to build on Steve Kerr’s slick spacing system. Until proven otherwise, they’re the NBA’s top dog, and rightfully so.
2. Who is the second-best team heading into the 2015-16 season?
Doolittle: Warriors. I figure last season was the apex of what this version of the Warriors can be, and they didn’t make any substantive changes. In this case, the status quo is more than fine. The San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and Clippers will be breathing down Golden State’s proverbial neck, but they were so much better than everyone else last season, how can you not see them as one of the best two teams around?
Markazi: Warriors. Yes, the Spurs and Clippers had great offseasons, but last time I checked, the core of the NBA champions and winners of 67 games in the ultra-competitive Western Conference is returning intact. Until otherwise noted, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala Jerseys, Andrew Bogut and the rest of the Warriors are the team to beat in the West.
Strauss: Rockets. They have an identity and have done much to build around their strengths. Ty Lawson Jerseys makes sense for a squad that wants to push the pace and sling 3-pointers. Rookie Montrezl Harrell fits nicely as someone who excels at beating the opposing defense down the floor. Houston might not be the most mature team out there, but they compensate with athleticism and a defined plan of attack.
Wallace: Spurs. The Spurs may have been the second-best team in the league last season, only to have a first-round playoff exit to show for their troubles after losing a remarkable seven-game series to the Clippers. No ready-made NBA title contender has ever reloaded better than the Spurs, who landed free agency’s top prize in LaMarcus Aldridge Jerseys and got veteran former All-Star David West Jerseys to take a massive pay cut to bolster the frontcourt. Oh, and everyone else is back, too, by the way. Find a weakness. I dare you.
Young: Cavaliers. LeBron was always up front about Year 1 back in Cleveland being a challenge. Turns out that just meant losing in six games to a historically good champion. Good health is what the Cavs need most, and with the growing pains behind them, they’re in a position to run away with the top seed in the East.
3. Who is the third-best team heading into the 2015-16 season?
Doolittle: Spurs. I’m not sure that the Spurs are really that much better now than they were at the close of the season, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a prime contender again. Getting Aldridge is huge for the long term. Yet — this may be sacrilege to suggest to the good people of central Texas — his addition may be only a marginal upgrade in the short term. As it was, the Spurs were a top-7 offense last season. Let’s say Aldridge helps boost that a couple of slots, which isn’t a given since he has to adapt to a different style of offense and play next to Tim Duncan Jerseys. Does his defense harm their No. 4 defense? And there were some mild downgrades elsewhere on the roster. These are nitpicks, as I’m still ranking them third. I just don’t see San Antonio as the clear-cut favorites I suspect others might.
Markazi: Spurs. If the Spurs didn’t have to play a grueling seven-game series with the Clippers in the first round last season, there’s a good chance they would have played the Warriors in the conference finals. After going to back-to-back Finals and winning it all in 2014, it wasn’t surprising for the Spurs to have a letdown in 2015. After all, despite winning five titles since 1999, they have never repeated. What is surprising is they were able to add Aldridge and West in the offseason to a team that returns Duncan, Tony Parker Jerseys, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobli and Danny Green. In other words, the Spurs are back. Again.
Strauss: Spurs. What an offseason for San Antonio, as all went according to plan. Emerging superstar Kawhi Leonard is locked in, Danny Green comes back at an immense discount and they landed the most coveted free agent in LaMarcus Aldridge. Why aren’t they top two? Because it should take some time for Aldridge to figure out his role. He tends to shoot from the same spots Tim Duncan does, for instance.
Wallace: Clippers. If the Clippers can ever get as much done during the season as they accomplish between them, they’d be champs by now. After undergoing a massive ownership change two summers ago, the franchise nearly lost its defensive foundation amid center DeAndre Jordan’s hokey-pokey moratorium dance with Dallas wholesale jerseys. Not only did Rivers and crew retain Jordan, they addressed weaknesses on the perimeter by luring future Hall of Famer Pierce, erratic but uber-athletic forward Smith and disgruntled but still-promising Stephenson. It’s truly title or bust now.
Young: Thunder. With Kevin Durant Jerseys expected to return to full health for next season, the Thunder will re-establish their rightful place among the NBA’s contending elite. But there’s a catch to that as well: Durant never played a second with the Thunder’s midseason additions last year — Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and D.J. Augustin — meaning he’s going to return to maybe the deepest Thunder roster he’s been on yet.
4. Who is the fourth-best team heading into the 2015-16 season?
Doolittle: Cavaliers. Assuming the Cavs bring back J.R. Smith Jerseys and Tristan Thompson, I do think they are better now than they figured to be with their end-of-season roster, the one before Irving and Love got hurt. Now that Love has signed on for the long term, I suspect he’ll be a happier and better-integrated player alongside Irving and James. The bench is deeper with Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson, and Anderson Varejao will be back to provide additional energy and rim protection. Cleveland remains the team to beat in the East.
Markazi: Clippers. Just when it looked like the Clippers would go back to being the Clippers again, they got Jordan to change his mind and come back and return to a roster that was in the process of being totally revamped. They finally got Pierce to be their starting small forward after striking out the past two years and added Stephenson, Smith, Wesley Johnson Jerseys, Aldrich and Prigioni to a suddenly stacked bench. The Clippers somehow improved on a team that last year finished tied for the second-best record in the West and third-best in the league.
Strauss: Cavaliers. LeBron’s squad is incredible when everyone is present. The question is whether you can rely on them to stay healthy. It’s difficult to just trust that’ll happen for a team that employs Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Iman Shumpert Jerseys. Speaking of Shumpert, there isn’t much perimeter defense in Cleveland beyond what he provides. Apart from those concerns, there’s a lot to like. The Cavs are as good as the East is bad.
Wallace: Cavaliers. James would get any team in the league into the top five of this discussion. No doubt about it. His historic performance in the Finals was enough to push the Warriors to six games despite the fact the Cavaliers were basically running on fumes, leaking oil and lacking two bona fide All-Stars as Love and Irving sat with injuries. Assuming the Cavs bring back Thompson and can avoid another massive postseason injury bug, there’s no reason LeBron won’t survive the East and get another shot to finally deliver that title to championship-deprived Cleveland.
Young: Spurs. The old get older, but the rich also got richer. Tim Duncan is back. Manu Ginobili is back. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are re-signed. LaMarcus Aldridge and David West are on board. And most importantly, Gregg Popovich is still directing the orchestra cheap nba jerseys.
5. Who is the fifth-best team heading into the 2015-16 season?
Doolittle: Miami Heat. This is very close between Miami, Houston and Oklahoma City. I’ll go with the Heat to highlight them as the prime challenger to the Cavs in the East. If healthy, Miami should be about a half-tier below the Cavs and a half-tier above the Atlanta Hawks Jerseys, Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Washington WIzards. We’ll get our first extended look at the Miami starting lineup that we envisioned when the Heat acquired Goran Dragic at the deadline, and it’s an impressive group. But despite a little cost-cutting of late, the bench should be much improved, and stable, with Gerald Green, Justise Winslow, Amar’e Stoudemire and a healthy Josh McRoberts. It looks like the Heat have enough talent to insulate themselves against further decline by Dwyane Wade Jerseys. But if he’s healthy and on par with past performance, look out.
Markazi: Thunder. Teams don’t normally go from the lottery to championship contenders unless they add LeBron in the offseason, but it feels like the Thunder are doing the next best thing in adding Kevin Durant, who missed all but 27 games last season with a fracture in his right foot. Russell Westbrook Jerseys also missed 15 games with a fracture in his right hand and Serge Ibaka missed 18 games with right knee issues. It was a disastrous season for the Thunder injury-wise and cost Scott Brooks his job. But if Oklahoma City can stay healthy, Billy Donovan’s first season as an NBA coach should be a successful one.
Strauss: Clippers. Reunited and it feels so, well, good enough for fringe title contention. I’d like to say they have depth now, but Doc Rivers has a curious habit of getting bench players who later underdeliver. If the bench support finally comes through, they’re an elite team this season.
Wallace: Grizzlies cheap jerseys. The only other team in the playoffs to make Golden State consistently break a sweat in a series was Memphis. And one could strongly argue that the Griz, before Mike Conley and Tony Allen broke down, presented the Warriors with more problems during their six-game series than the Cavaliers did in the Finals. Re-signing Marc Gasol Jerseys was the biggest piece of business the Grizzlies had to get done, and they accomplished it. But they’ll never take the next step unless Gasol finally gets the offensive flexibility, scoring help and 3-point shooting he’s been demanding.
Young: Clippers. For a minute there, or really three days, it looked like the Clippers were about to take a pretty good Western Conference nosedive. Then Jordan had a change of heart, and the Clippers are right back in the conversation. They’ll miss Barnes’ scrappy perimeter defense (who guards Durant?), but the additions of Pierce and Stephenson helps address their biggest issue last season — the bench.