Seth Ritsma's NBA Season Preview Rankings
Editor’s Note: Seth’s Preview was submitted to us October 3rd, but due to launch delays, we are just publishing it now.
1. Golden State Warriors
Is there even a point of me explaining why the Warriors are the best team in the league. Their back to back champions, have one of the greatest scorers of our generation in Kevin Durant, two of the best shooters in NBA history in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green who's been a top ten if not top five defender for the past four years. The only weakness the Warriors had was their lack of a quality centre, but they fixed that this off season by signing All Star DeMarcus Cousins to a one year deal. Cousins is still recovering from an achilles injury he suffered last year so he'll be out for the majority of this season, but the Warriors only need him for playoffs when they'll faced centres such as Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, and Anthony Davis. Actually, it won't even matter if Cousins comes back for the playoffs because the Warriors are so effective in the small ball lineup. Combine that with a bench of Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, this Warriors team (assuming they are all healthy) are once again nearly impossible to beat in a seven game series.
2. Houston Rockets
The Rockets got slightly worse this off season by losing two of their top wing defenders in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute but they're still the second best team in the west (at least for right now) because they have the best shooting guard in James Harden, Chris Paul when healthy is the second best point guard in the league, and a system that they thrive in. This is a team that was one Chris Paul hamstring away from making beating the Warriors. I know Andre Iguodala was injured during that series but it's hard to believe that the Rockets with a healthy Chris Paul and a Luc Mbah a Mbah without an injured shoulder that they don’t give them a run for their money. The Rockets have couple interesting players this year. They signed James Ennis and based on what I've seen from him I don't think people understand that going from Trevor Ariza to James Ennis is as big of a downfall as it looks. Ennis isn't as great of a three point shooter as Ariza but as for size, hustle, and defending he's the same if not better then Ariza. The signing of Carmelo Anthony will also be interesting to see how it plays out. Coach Mike D'Antoni and Anthony don't have a great history going back to when Anthony played on the Knicks and D'Antoni was the coach. The two didn't have a great relationship back then and got into arguments about playing style which ultimately caused D'Antoni to resign, but I think there's hope this year. Anthony came into this season saying he's okay with coming off the bench instead of last year when a reporter asked him about being a sixth man and he laughed and said it wasn’t an option. Anthony isn't a starter on a championship team. We know he's a liability on defence but on offence he's not nearly as efficient as he use to be but if you put him up against a team's bench players, you might have something decent to build off of. I also think having a guy like Chris Paul (who's a close friend of Anthony) can help as well. An under the radar move that I liked that the Rockets did was trading for Marquese Chriss. It seemed like Ryan Anderson was on the trade block ever since he signed that massive deal with the Rockets. They finally got rid of it and they might have a diamond in the rough with Chriss. Chriss was the formal 8th overall pick by the Kings in 2016 and is still only 21 years old. While Chriss was with the Suns they never had a great passer other then Elfrid Payton (who got traded last season). You pair Chriss up with Chris Paul and James Harden and I believe you could have a poor man's Clint Capela on offense. The Rockets finally have a solid backup centre now. Whenever Ryan Anderson was on the floor opposing team would take advantage of him being a huge liability on defence and score on him which forced him to spend most of the postseason on the bench. Chriss isn't an elite defender, but he's someone who can at least protect the rim for 15 minutes a night when Capela is on the bench. It will take him some time to adjust to the Rockets system but by the end of the year I think he could benefit them. I don’t care that much about the Rockets getting Brandon Knight just because he’s coming off an ACL injury, hasn’t played in a year, is an efficient scorer, and with Paul, Harden, and Gordon he’ll be out of the rotation almost every night. The biggest concern I have for the Rockets isn't right now, it's about their future. If they don't win in the next two years they could be in a bit of trouble financially. Through the next fours years the Rockets have 80%/85%/86%/90% invested in Paul, Harden, Capela. It's not bad to be paying Harden and Capela that kind of money because they'll still be in there primes by then but trying to get talent while paying Chris Paul over 40 million when he's in his late thirties won't be easy. Chris Paul is great but it seems like every year he's sustains an injury ether for a long time or at the worst time. I don't blame the Rockets for signing him because they didn't have much of a choice if they wanted to stay a contender, but it just makes it hard down the road to keep this team a contender. Usually a point guards production drops a lot at 33 years old or after. Hopefully that won’t happen with Paul.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers most likely won't finish second in the stacked western conference simply because their a completely different team while the Rockets and Warriors can pick up right where they left off, but come playoff time the Lakers will be better than the Rockets. How I do my power rankings is based on how well I think a team will do in a seven game season. I think it's pointless to judge them on their regular season record because you have teams like the 2015 60 wins Atlanta Hawks and 2018 59 wins Toronto Raptors who get swept in the playoffs. There's lot of questions about the Lakers like how they don't have that much three point shooting and how a locker room with Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley, JaVale McGee, and Lance Stephenson could turn out bad, but all those questions don't matter as much because they have the best player in the game and maybe ever in LeBron James. If James took last years Cavaliers team to the finals I have no doubt that he can take this Lakers roster to the western conference finals. This Lakers team is going to be like the 2011 Miami Heat team. There going to struggle at first just like any team that goes from fighting for the first overall pick to a championship contender but they will eventually come together. What stands out about this team is they have vets that know how to win. You can say all you want about Rondo and Lance but at the end of the day they compete harder than anyone else, are willing to run through a brick wall for their teammates, and don't care who they play. I'm a die hard Raptors fan and every year they did great in the regular season but were a disappointment in the playoffs because the expectations got to high. They didn't have those tough veterans that played hard no matter what. For some people putting the Lakers this high might seem confusing but it's hard for me to believe that a team full of high basketball IQ players like Rondo, Lonzo Ball, and LeBron are going to struggle. They not only have a good group of vets but they have one of the best young cores in the league. Lonzo Ball came off a season averaging ten points, seven rebounds, and seven assists which has only been done by Oscar Roberson, Magic Johnson, and Ben Simmons. Josh Hart averaged eight points and shot nearly 40% from deep in his first year, Kyle Kuzma made the All-Rookie 1st Team and was the only rookie to ever have a minimum of 1,000 points, 400 rebounds and 130 made 3-pointers in a season and nearly all of Brandon Ingram's stats doubled this year compared to his rookie year. The two biggest questions I have for the Lakers is who is the starting centre and who is their second scoring option. JaVale Mcgee will most likely be there starting centre which isn't great but in today's league a true centre like McGee is only going to be playing around 15 minutes a game because teams go to small ball for the majority of the game. The second scoring option is going to be between Ingram and Kuzma. It's going to depend on how much Kuzma improved in the offseason (which by the reports and videos was a lot) and how aggressive Ingram is this year. The one thing I don’t want the Lakers young talent to is take a back seat. One of the problems with the Cavaliers last year is the players to often let LeBron do everything and when they had to get involved it was almost like a surprise and they couldn’t execute the simplest plays. Ball, Ingram, and Kuzma are very talented players and playing with LeBron shouldn’t make the second guess their ability.
4. Toronto Raptors
After four years of the Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan experiment the Raptors broke it up they finally have a superstar player in Kawhi Leonard that they've desperately needed and are right up there with the Celtics. Get a team like the Raptors that finished top seven in defence, fourth in offence, had the best bench in the league, averaged the fourth most three pointers per game and add a top three player and arguably the best defender in Kawhi Leonard, you've got something special. Don't get me wrong, DeRozan was a great player for the Raptors and did amazing things for the city but he wasn't "that guy" and when you not that guy when you need to be you get traded. Basketball is a business and at the end of the day you have to do what's best for your team. If the Raptors keep DeRozan they're not better than the 76ers and Celtics and they would most likely stay at the fourth or third seed in the east and never getting over the hump. Even if Kawhi leaves, the Raptors can rebuild and still have great young players in Fred Van Vleet, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, OG Anunoby. Kawhi leaving Toronto is far from guaranteed. The Raptors can offer Kawhi nearly 50 million more than any other team, the Raptors are already a top two if not the best team in the east, and he can be the number one option for the Raptors. I know L.A is great, but 50 million is 50 million and you’d have to really hate Toronto to turn down that money. We all thought Paul George was going to the Lakers but he turned down L.A to stay with Oklahoma City. He didn’t even give the Lakers and interview. Another reason I love the Raptors how they got Danny Green in the Kawhi Leonard trade. I talked about how the Raptors needed veterans that are going to go out and compete every night no matter who there facing (like LeBron James), Danny Green is exactly that guy. He's a tough defender, can shoot the three, and best of all he spent the past eight years under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio which is not only one of the best franchises in the NBA but in all of North American sports. This guy is a winner and that's what the Raptors need. I only have two questions for the Raptors: Will Kawhi be the same player he was in San Antonio and is Lowry okay with DeRozan being traded. I don't know if Kawhi was sitting out that long because he didn't want to be with the Spurs or if the injury was that serious. Lowry and DeRozan were very close friends so I figured that when he found out that the Raptors traded him that he would be disappointed but reports also came out saying he's been ignoring phone calls and texts for the general manager and president. Hopefully he comes to his senses and realizes that even though trading DeRozan sucks, they have a much better team now.
5. Boston Celtics
This is a really tough decision to put the Celtics this low at five but there’s a lot to do with this roster. The two problems that the Celtics are going to face is getting Gordon Hayward playing like his normal form, which won’t be easy considering the awful injury he suffered and that he hasn’t play a game in a year, and finding a way to spread out the minutes. Looking at the Celtics at a talent perspective their a top two team in the league. You have Kyrie Irving who's a top five point guard, two of the best young upcoming players in Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum, All Star Gordon Hayward returning to the lineup, and one of the best passers and defenders for his position in Al Horford. The Celtics were one game away from going to the finals and they didn't have two of their best players. The problem is how they’re going to distribute their minutes. Last year guys like Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum all played huge roles in the regular season and especially in the playoffs. With Kyrie and Hayward back in the lineup those players are going to have to take a back sit which for some players can be extremely hard. Will they be okay with that is the big question we'll find out this season. With such a great head coach in Brad Stevens, even as a Raptors fan I doubt there will be any problems.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
Despite losing Kevin Durant to free agency, trading away James Harden, and having the Carmelo Anthony experiment fail, Sam Presti continues to be in championship mode. The Thunder's gamble of Paul George pays off and now they have a future of him and Russell Westbrook for at least the next four years. Not only do the Thunder have Paul George back but they have something they haven't had since 2012, a good bench. They traded away Carmelo Anthony who was a disaster in his first and only season with the Thunder and got Dennis Schroder. Schroder is still only 25 years old and came off his best season with the Hawks averaging 19 points and 6 assists. Yes, his efficiency wasn't great last year but what do you expect from a number one scoring option on one of the worst teams in the league. The Thunder also signed Nerlens Noel to a bargain two year four million dollar contract. Noel had a difficult season with the Mavericks last year to say the least. It all started before last season when Noel wanted a max contract but the Mavericks would only offer him four years 70 million. He refused then signed a qualifying offer so he could work for a max deal next summer. Instead of playing like a max deal player Noel's season included getting suspended, breaking his thumb, reports coming out about lack of work ethic, and getting lost in the rotation. Before playing for the Mavericks, Noel was one of the best defending centres in the league but was disaster season last year. I believe Noel is the same player he was with the Sixers and that he was just in a bad situation with Dallas. What's great about it now is the Thunder get a great backup centre on a cheap deal and Noel has a team where he can get consistent minutes. Now, the Thunder have a much more balanced team and they won't get destroyed every time their starters sit. I'm still curious to see who the Thunder will start at power forward. Starting Patrick Patterson would make sense because the Thunder need spacing for Russell Westbrook but Jerami Grant will probably get it because he's a better defender and Patterson hasn't looked the same since he got knee surgery last season. With all the improvements the Thunder had this off season there still needs to be a conversation about Russell Westbrook's playing style. As a talent standpoint, Westbrook is one of the best point guards we've ever seen but he doesn't play smart basketball. It starts with the rebounding. Westbrook, judging by his stats looks like an amazing rebounder when really he's a lazy defender. During Westbrook's MVP season he contested a league low 3.6 shots per game despite playing nearly 35 minutes a night. Instead of playing defense Westbrook was to focused on getting the rebound. I would understand if getting the rebound would result in something good in transition but the problem was almost a quarter of his transition possessions as the ball handler ended up as a turnover. The same can be said about his assists. Judging by his numbers Westbrook is one of the best distributors in the league but really most of his assists came from him giving the ball away with four seconds on the shot clock because he couldn't make anything happen. Midway through last season when the Thunder had a 37-29 record, they were 14-2 when Westbrook took 17 or less shots and when he shot 18 or more they were 22-35. That's a major problem that needs to be addressed.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers will improve as much as Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz did this offseason. Despite having the cap space for a max player the only new addition to the team this year is Wilson Chandler, which wasn't a bad trade considering he's still a solid three point shooter and defender but it wasn't the move that makes the 76ers contenders. The 76ers also lost sharpshooters Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli to free agency which will hurt because they weren't a great three point shooting team to begin with. In my mock draft I had them picking Mikal Bridges because why wouldn't you pick a Philadelphia native who was one of the shooters and defenders in the draft. They picked him but ended up trading him away for Zhaire Smith who fractured his foot this year because let’s face it, at this point, what would be a 76ers rookie without having a season ending injury. There are two big questions I have for the 76ers. First, will Ben Simmons develop at least a decent jump shot and two can their bench keep them in games. Ben Simmons was great in the regular season don't get me wrong but when it comes to the playoffs, teams have weeks to go over matchups and gameplan for you. The Celtics knew Simmons wasn't a good shooter so they simply laid off of him the whole time and it got so bad that statistically the 76ers were not only better offensively with backup point guard T.J. McConnell but somehow better defensively as well. If the 76ers want to get to the next level it starts with Simmons expanding his game. I believe developing a shot won't be as big of a problem as people think. Ben Simmons is a a players who's been better then everyone else because he's 6'10", can handle the ball, and is a freak athlete. There's been no point in his career until now where he's had to add a jump shot to improve his game, so it's not like he's been struggling for years on his shooting. The other questioned I mentioned about the 76ers was their bench. Wilson Chandler is solid three and D player and Markelle Fultz is a young improving point guard but other those their bench isn't enough. I will admitted, I’ve really liked what I've seen from Fultz in his first couple preseason games. Even if he doesn't develop a consistent jump he'll be fine. The man is way to athletic and crafty to be a bust. Yes, this is a league that depends heavily on three point shooting and it would be great if he could get his shot back but there are so many other ways he impacts games other then scoring that people fail to recognize. He can get to the rim at will because of how fast he is and how well he works the pick and roll, is a great rebounder for his position, can create opportunities for his teammates, and is only going to get better. Worst case scenario, Fultz turns out to be a better defending D'Angelo Russell which isn't bad. Also, the jump shot looks a lot smoother then what I thought it would be based on the workout videos from him this summer.
8. Utah Jazz
After seeing the Jazz take down Oklahoma City in the first round last year, there an easy top ten team this year. What separate the Jazz from other team is they play together. Their a group of players that know their roles and excel in it. They have a young star in Donovan Mitchell, one of the best rim protectors and defenders in Rudy Gobert, a great coach and system that aims to get the ball moving as much as possible, and a roster full of underrated veteran players like Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio that want to win. Besides drafting Grayson Allen this team is almost the same as last year which is great because they'll pick up right where they left off last year while a lot of the other teams in the west might struggle for a bit because of their new rosters. If Mitchell takes an All Star player step this year you could be looking at the Jazz as one of the top tier teams in the west. The Jazz not only beat the Thunder in the first round but won one game vs the Rockets and kept the series competitive despite injuries to Ricky Rubio, Royce O'Neale, Derrick Favors, and Dante Exum.
9. San Antonio Spurs
It seems like the Spurs are underrated every single year. There not a contender but their the sixth or seventh best team in the west which is saying a lot. Last year the Spurs finished seventh in the west with 47 wins and were only three games back from the third seed Portland Trail Blazers. Kawhi Leonard who is a top three player in the league and one of the best two way players when healthy only played nine games with the Spurs and they still won 47 games. You now replace Leonard with DeMar DeRozan who most recently made the All NBA-Second Team and you can't tell me they win a bare minimum of 50 games, not to mention Jakob Poeltl is one of the more mobile and better defending centres in the game (coming from a Raptors fan who watched him all season). The only problem I could see for the Spurs is spacing. A lineup that contains Derozan and LaMarcus Aldridge as their scoring options could be a problem spacing wise because none of those players have reliable three point shots and rely mostly on mid range jumpers. DeRozan improved as a shooter last year but that's not saying much considering he shot 31% from deep. Bringing back Marco Belinelli for shooting was a good move but having him and Patty Mills as your only consistent shooters aren't enough. The player to that intrigues me the most on the Spurs isn't Aldridge or DeRozan, it's DeJounte Murray. If you look at everything other than DeJounte Murray's offensive game he's a top five point guard in the league. With his 6'5" height and seven foot wingspan it makes Murray one of the best defenders and rebounders for a point guard. In ESPN’s defensive real plus minus which calculates a player’s impact to there team’s defence in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions. In that statistic Murray ranked first out of all the point guards with a +3.31 rating. To put you in perspective of how much better of a defender he is compared to other point guards, Tyus Jones finished second and was 0.72 points behind Murray. It's not just the defense that stands out it's the rebounding. Murray ranks second in rebounding percentage among point guards at 14.8% with only MVP Russell Westbrook ranking higher. This number is impressive considering how high is defensive plus minus is because it shows that even though he's a great defender he's still able to get rebounds instead of leaving his assignment early to get the board. It's the efficiency that separates him for other players. Murray ranked top five in rebounds per game among guards despite averaging 13.8 less minutes then the four ahead of him. What makes me thinks he'll breakout is last year midway through the season he began to start over Tony Parker and his numbers went up immediately and he made his first NBA All Defensive Team. The only problem I have with Murray is how well his offensive game will develop. He's not a good shooter and having mid range shooters like LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, and now DeMar DeRozan is going to be even more difficult for him to go to the rim with limited spacing on the court. He's still only 21 years old so he has lots time to improve his shooting. With Danny Green and Tony Parker gone I expect big jump in his performance this year.
10. Washington Wizards
I'm pretty sure each year I've said this is the season were the Wizards break 50 wins and I'm going to say the same thing this year hoping that I'm right. If you look at the Wizards on paper you'd think their a top four team in the east. They have an All Star backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal, Dwight Howard came off his best season in three years and at 32 years old is still a top rebounder and defender for his position, and Otto Porter who hit more than 44% his three and shot over 50% from the floor while having to guard the opponents best wing player. The Wizards also added Austin Rivers and Jeff Green to their bench which ranked 21st last year. Rivers averaged 15 points, four assists, and shot nearly 38% from deep and Green played a solid role in the Cavaliers finals run most noticeably for his 19 points in Game 7 vs the Celtics where Kevin Love got injured. Guys like Kelly Oubre, Rivers, and Green aren’t starters but will thrive coming off the bench. The biggest problem for the Wizards isn't about the talent or play style, it's the chemistry and staying healthy. What causes the Wizards to fall off track every year is ether one of their top players gets injured or there's locker room problems. Last year there were problems between John Wall and Marcin Gortat because Gortat claimed that the Wizards were better off without Wall so they shipped Gortat off, but then they replaced him with Dwight Howard. Howard was an upgrade from Gortat but he's also had a long history of screwing up teams. From telling Stan Van Gundy he wants to be traded to having arguments with Kobe Bryant, Howard doesn’t have a great reputation. Even the last couple years with the Hawks and Hornets, reports came out saying that players were happy to see he traded away. If the Wizards put their egos away they can be a top four team in the east but if they can’t then this team goes down fast.
Just Missed the Cut
Denver Nuggets - They have all the young talent in the world and there an offensive juggernaut but they can't get a defensive stop to save their life. It also doesn't help that side of the floor by signing Isaiah Thomas. Michael Porter Jr potential is off the charts when he's healthy, but there are very few big man that recover well after back surgery. Just look at Dwight Howard's stats from Orlando and compare them to his days in L.A and Houston. It wasn't the system that made his performance drop, his back simply could not take the beating anymore.
Indiana Pacers - I like Myles Turner but for the past couple seasons we've been waiting for him to take that next All Star level step. Physically he more than capable of taking it, whether he does or doesn't is still up for debate
Portland Trail Blazers - As I've mentioned throughout my ranking I base them off of who I think right now would win a seven game series. It's hard for me to get over the breakdown the Trail Blazers had getting swept by the Pelicans in the first round. The Trail Blazers are built for the regular season not the postseason.
Milwaukee Bucks - Other then Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton this roster is fill with a bunch of players that ether don't fit well together or haven't developed enough (aka Thon Maker).
By Seth Ritsma (Northwestern Alumnus)