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Ranking the best teams in the NBA 2014-15 - The Top Six

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Who are the top six teams in the NBA? The teams that realistically have a shot at being in the NBA Finals?

Edited by Tiffany Villigan

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Golden State Warriors

Rank Team Highest Rank Lowest Rank Average Rank
6 6 11 7.3

Offseason:

The Warriors have had a very interesting offseason while not doing much at all. They were in the heat of it all in the Kevin Love sweepstakes, which might have cost them Klay Thompson were it to have come together. The biggest move GSW made was in replacing head coach Mark Jackson with first-time head coach Steve Kerr. Shawn Livingston has also been added to the team to give them a few more options in matchups on both ends of the floor.

Non-starters to keep your eyes on:

Draymond Green is well positioned to have a great season. He's only scratched his offensive potential, and has a lot of room to grow on defense as well. He should be able to find space and open looks in Steve Kerr's new offense that will focus more on moving the ball.

Harrison Barnes should also benefit from Steve Kerr -- both his offensive schemes and from his direct tutelage. Barnes could be a great spark for the Warriors on offense, and could potentially reduce the mileage on Andre Iguodala if he can handle an expanded role.

The hope:

The hope is that Steve Kerr quickly hits his stride and that the team meshes and moves forward all on the same page. Ideally with Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala doing on the defensive end what Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have been doing on the offensive end the last couple of seasons -- being game changers. GSW has already shown the ability to be one of the better defenses in the league, but if they could hit that with greater consistency, they'll be a very tough out. Shooting has its ups and downs, but defense can show up every day.

Why they won't win it all:

Because this team is built like an old British sports car: great sex appeal, but you never know when a part of it will fail or break. This team is beautiful to watch. They have big names who can hit big shots and they're always just a few shots away from being back in any game. But you have Steph Curry's ankles. Andrew Bogut's...well...everything. Andre Iguodala makes the team better, but his productivity and efficiency continue to fall off. In 3 of the last 4 seasons, Iguodala has missed 15+ games. David Lee historically has missed games as well. Add to that the burden of a new coach implementing all new systems with parts regularly missing, and you have a team primed to potentially take a small step back rather than forward. The good news is they are moving in the right direction. The bad news is they won't get there this year.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Rank Team Highest Rank Lowest Rank Average Rank
5 2 7 4.4

Offseason:

The offseason was going just as you want it to -- quietly (well, save for a bizarre first-round draft selection). That is, until news came in that All-Universe and former Seattle Supersonic Kevin Durant has broken a bone in his foot that will require surgery and will keep him out of the lineup for 8+ weeks. Makes a guy wonder if all those miles KD put on last year carrying this team have finally caught up with him. Heal quickly, KD. The other thing of note is that Russell Westbrook should be back to 100% entering this season. As a team, the Thunder did little in the offseason to address their bench needs, so Westbrook will need to be at his best to keep things moving forward until Durant returns.

Non-starters to keep your eyes on:

Steven Adams began to show some promise last year and realistically should supplant Kendrick Perkins as the primary center for the Thunder. Perkins had a PER of 6.32 last season, so one can only conclude he's blackmailing Scott Brooks to keep his position. Seriously though, both Adams and rookie addition Mitch McGary should get some nice run this year at Perkins' expense.

Reggie Jackson might not hit a bunch of homeruns, but he is poised to be relied upon to fill some of the scoring gap left by Kevin Durant sitting out due to injury. Each season, Jackson's 3P% has gone up, making him an increasingly valuable asset on offense. The combination of Jackson and Westbrook is likely to get a lot of run early in the season, so it will be interesting to see how they handle matchups with bigger players.

The hope:

The hope has to be that Kevin Durant can heal quickly and fully and not experience any lingering impact from his foot or conditioning lost in the interim. With Durant out, the hope is further that someone steps up and bridges the gap -- perhaps Anthony Morrow or Jeremy Lamb or some combination thereof.

Why they won't win it all:

Because James Harden plays for Houston. While that is only part of the problem, it is emblematic of ongoing issues in OKC. Decisions to save dollars that are costing the team a shot at title runs in the prime of Kevin Durant's career. OKC enters the season with their projected shooting guard as Andre Roberson (This is where you say "WHO?"), and at small forward Lance Thomas.  The two of them have 321 career points (Roberson is a rookie) to their names.  Kevin Durant has had 2-week stretches with nearly that many points. This team fell short last year, and did nothing in the offseason to improve their roster, so to expect an improvement seems unlikely, and in fact, I fully expect them to drop back a bit. I thought that before the Durant injury, and now I'm sure of it.

Add to this the unimaginative offensive sets and subsequent stagnation under coach Scott Brooks' system, and you have a recipe for solid performance, but not enough to get to that next level. I'm not the first to say it, but OKC's window of opportunity to reach the finals may have already closed in the Kevin Durant era.

Chicago Bulls

Rank Team Highest Rank Lowest Rank Average Rank
4 1 5 3.7

Offseason:

The Bulls have had one of the more interesting and arguably best offseasons in the NBA. First is the healing and pending return of former NBA MVP Derrick Rose. Pre-season play (including Team USA) has shown that Rose is back playing near the level he was at when he was first injured two seasons ago. That alone is a difference maker kind of offseason. Rose himself has admitted he's not completely back yet (timing is still off, and they're being cautious with his minutes and contact still), but those components will come with time.

Add to that the swap of Carlos Boozer for Pau Gasol. Gasol makes the Bulls bigger and brings a better offensive game, particularly a better ability to pass from the post. And it goes without saying that Gasol is better on defense than anything Carlos Boozer thought he was playing last season. And perhaps the greatest benefit of adding Gasol is the luxury to sit Joakim Noah for stretches to keep him fresh and to keep his body in good shape.  Don't underestimate the importance that adding Gasol made for this team -- it's a big deal.

Non-starters to keep your eyes on:

Taj Gibson is the one who suffers the most from the addition of Pau Gasol. It will cut into his quality playing time as coach Tom Thibodeau sorts that all out. Gibson is a high-energy guy, so it remains to be seen what impact that will have on his overall game and his ability to keep his head in the game. Gasol is in his 13th year in the league, and I think if patient, Gibson still has an important and likely increasing roll on this team as the season progresses.

The other guy to watch is Doug McDermott. Most know Dougie McBuckets for his offensive firepower from his days at Creighton University.  How quickly McDermott adjusts to the pace of the NBA, and particularly to Thib's defensive rotations, will dictate how much playing time he'll receive as a rookie. Opportunity abounds for him if/when he gets all of that to click. His 3-point shooting and size will give him ample opportunity to stretch defenses and open up passing lanes and scoring opportunities for teammates when this all comes together for him.

The hope:

The hope has to be nothing short of a championship run. The Bulls have the pieces to make it happen. They are committed to defense, have good coaching and leadership, have multiple options on offense, depth, and that good old veteran experience that always seems to come into play in the postseason. The other (obvious) additional hope is that Derrick Rose stays healthy for the full season, and that they can play well enough that they can afford to rest him and the other veteran players across the season so there is something left in the tank for a finals run.

Why they won't win it all:

Increasingly (despite our rankings) I am finding it difficult to make a compelling argument here unless Derrick Rose is not healthy. If Rose's body fails him again, though, this team won't have enough to push past the likes of Cleveland or even Washington. The other aspect that could kill this is the grind of Tom Thibodeau's system. Pau has at times been labeled as soft (both physically as well as emotionally); will he withstand the intensity in Chicago? He survived Kobe's stares, so one would hope so, but it is an experiment at this point. The team added depth in a lot of places this offseason, but can/will Thibs find ways to utilize it for maximum effect?

Los Angeles Clippers

Rank Team Highest Rank Lowest Rank Average Rank
3 2 4 2.8

Offseason:

New ownership would be the obvious first choice as the biggest impact made during this offseason. Steve Ballmer brings new life and excitement, and is the perfect "reset button" from the mess surrounding Donald Sterling's racist behavior last year. Ballmer is a "Win now" kind of guy, and he bought a team poised to do just that.

Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar were also great additions to an already well stocked bench for the Clippers. Hawes brings size and offense that can help reduce minutes for both DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffith. Hawes also brings an ability to close out games in that he shot 78% from the charity stripe last season. Add to that he shot 41.6% from 3-point range and he brings an interesting mix of matchup challenges for teams across the West. Farmar should capably back up Chris Paul, and is likely an improvement over Darren Collison in the Clippers system. This should allow coach Doc Rivers to rest CP3 more than a handful of minutes each game.

Non-starters to keep your eyes on:

Jamal Crawford continues to be the Clippers superstar reserve. Crawford can hit a big shot, and can score in bunches. If he and Spencer Hawes can develop some chemistry, the Clippers bench could quickly become a lot of fun to watch.

Spencer Hawes should have an impact that is greater than just what his stats will show. Being able to spell both Jordan and Griffin is huge, as is limiting how much time Glen Davis sees the floor. Hawes is an upgrade over Davis in every category I can think of.

The hope:

The hope is that everyone stays healthy, and with a few different bounces of the ball from last season, this team lands in the NBA Finals. That is a very realistic expectation for this bunch. They have more offensive firepower than they can realistically utilize at any given time. They have a steadily improving defense led by one of the best defensive PG and backed up by a pair of very capable shot blockers. The pieces are all here.

Why they won't win it all:

Coming out of the West is brutal, and the Clippers have yet to show they can step up to that next level. Doc has been there before, but much of the rest of the team is still learning about what it takes to play championship-level ball in the playoffs. With a team like the Spurs that you are almost guaranteed to have to go through to reach the Finals, you have a tough path to get there. The Clippers have what it takes; the question is can they put it all together and hold it together to get there? Doc's abilities (or failings) will be front and center this season.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Rank Team Highest Rank Lowest Rank Average Rank
2 1 4 2.4

Offseason:

This was the offseason that dreams are made of. Seriously, last spring NOBODY in Cleveland saw it going down like this. Nobody. Cleveland's offseason was assured to be remarkable, beginning with having amazingly won the NBA lottery for the first draft slot once again. To keep this segment reasonably short, allow me to list in order the amazing/significant things that happened in Cleveland this offseason:

1.  May 12:  Fired Mike Brown.  The coaching carousel in Cleveland has been a mess.

2.  May 12:  Promoted my "twin brother" David Griffin to General Manager.  Seriously, we look a lot alike.

3.  June 20:  Named David Blatt head coach and signed him to a 3-year contract.  Stability.

4.  July 1:  Kyrie Irving agreees to a five-year contract extension (signed July 10th).

5.  July 11:  Win the LeBron James sweepstakes.

6.  July 24:  Sign Andrew Wiggins.

7.  August 19:  Larry Drew becomes assistant coach.

8.  August 23: Win the Kevin Love sweepstakes, though lose Andrew Wiggins in the process.

9.  September 9:  Shawn Marion joins team on one-year contract.

And remember, those are just the highlights.

Non-starters to keep your eyes on:

Who are we kidding here? Does anyone care about who doesn't start for the Cavs?

But with that said, the continued development of Tristan Thompson will be something to keep your eye on. I fully expect there to be times when the Cavs go "small" without a traditional center on the floor, where you might see both Thompson and Love getting run together. Because of their vastly different offensive positions (despite both playing Power Forward), this could work well in limited stretches under coach David Blatt's system. With LeBron, Love and Thompson on the floor together, they still aren't particularly "small."

The other thing to watch for is shooting from the bench. Can Mike Miller and/or James Jones step in and score some buckets when needed? Just how much does Shawn Marion still have to contribute? Can anyone on the bench play defense?

The hope:

Holding the Larry O'Brien trophy and warm embraces between Dan Gilbert and LeBron James. And that LeBron doesn't kill Dion Waiters. Seriously though, as constructed, anything short of the NBA finals will be a disappointment for most Cleveland fans.

Why they won't win it all:

Defense, and specifically against competent big men like the Chicago Bulls have, in a seven-game series. The fact that there are a lot of moving parts from this offseason that all have to come together is an important consideration as well. While Blatt is an exceptional coach by all accounts, he is still an unproven rookie NBA coach. And can owner Dan Gilbert step back and keep his hands off of it all? There is a ton of potential here, but quality teams can overcome quality talent.

San Antonio Spurs

Rank Team Highest Rank Lowest Rank Average Rank
1 1 4 1.9

Offseason:

The biggest news in the offseason for the Spurs was the signing of one of South Dakota's finest -- Becky Hammon as the first female full-time assistant coach in the NBA. She's an incredible player, and will make a fantastic coach. Kudos to the Spurs for seeing that and breaking the mold to make that happen.

Other things of note were extensions signed by Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich, Patty Mills, and Tony Parker to make yet another run at a title together.

Non-starters to keep your eyes on:

On this Spurs team, you can competently say that you need to watch nearly everyone on the bench. Coach Pop is the master at utilizing his bench to its full capability, and who gets that run can vary from night to night, depending completely on the matchups that Pop wants to see.

Of those poised to have a significant impact off of the bench, Boris Diaw stands at the front of the line. Diaw doesn't blow you away with any stat, yet he plays an incredibly important role in keeping the order on both ends of the court for the Spurs.

Marco Belinelli is another player to watch as he slowly supplants Manu Ginobili in the Spurs system. With a full season under his belt, I expect to see Belinelli's value and usage rise. He shoots over 40% from 3-point range, and against second teams should find plenty of open looks in rhythm.

Patty Mills is not slated to return until January, so Cory Joseph will have to step in to lighten the load on Tony Parker for a lengthy stretch to begin the season. When Mills returns, look for Pop to slowly work him back into minutes so that he is reaching his peak for a playoff run.

The hope:

The hope is a repeat of last season -- NBA champions! The ideal is that the team stays relatively healthy, manages to find ways and times to rest players, but still finishes at the top of the standings in a very tough Western Conference for favorable matchups throughout the playoffs.

Why they won't win it all:

To be a champion, you have to beat the champion. The Spurs are accustomed to wearing the bull's eye from being champions, so that weight is less for them than for many other teams in a similar situation. If anything holds them back, though, it is going to be age/injuries on this team. The team is the epitome of veteran wisdom and confidence. They are battle-hardened and ready for another run. But will their bodies hold out? Can they keep up with the up-and-coming teams in the West? Can they continue to be fluid in style and create ever-changing matchup nightmares for Coach Pop to exploit? While this very well may be the final Finals run, I believe they have what it takes to make one more run at it.

Final note:

The above rankings are from the cumulative wisdom of our staff of writers and a few other well respected voices from SBN NBA related blogs. Despite the collective wisdom of the group, I'm inclined to predict an NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Chicago Bulls.