NBA power rankings: Can Celtics, Rockets threaten Warriors?

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SportsPulse: Jeff Zillgitt and Trysta Krick put their prediction hats on for some bold takes as the NBA season gets set to begin.
USA TODAY

At long last, the 2018-19 NBA season is here. The Golden State Warriors, once again, enter the season as massive favorites to take home the title. But there are a handful of teams a notch below who could give the NBA’s golden boys a run for their money. 

1. Golden State Warriors — Surprised? The back-to-back champs were already historically good, and they added arguably the best big man in the league for next to nothing. Yes, DeMarcus Cousins is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury, but there’s no need for the Warriors to try and speed up his recovery. When he does return, this might be the most talented starting five in NBA history.

2. Boston Celtics — Finally, it’s Boston’s time. Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving are healthy. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have another summer under their belts. LeBron James is out of the East. The Celtics, who were one win away from a trip to last year’s NBA Finals despite being without their two best players (Irving and Hayward), should make it out of the conference for the first time since 2010.

3. Houston Rockets — The Rockets, who were oh-so-close to taking down the Warriors in last year’s West finals, got worse this summer. Losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute may not sound like much, but they were two of Houston’s best defenders, and their absence creates a void Carmelo Anthony can’t, and won’t, fill. That said, Houston still enters the season as the second-best team in the West and as a legitimate title contender.

4. Toronto Raptors — So long, DeMar DeRozan. Hello, Kawhi Leonard. On paper, the Raptors replaced an All-Star with a superstar. But it’s not that simple. Leonard arrives with all sorts of baggage – most notably, of course, the fact that he played just nine games last season in what ended up being one of the more bizarre injury sagas in league history. If he can become the top-5 talent he once was, though, the Raptors will be a force.

5. Utah Jazz — Coming off a season in which they exceeded all expectations, the Jazz, who remained relatively quiet this summer, are poised to take another step forward. If reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert can stay healthy and Donovan Mitchell continues to develop into a full-blown star, a top-4 finish in the West is likely.

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6. Philadelphia 76ers — Years of rebuilding paid off last season for the Sixers, who advanced to the East semifinals behind the two-headed monster of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid – while another top-3 pick, Markelle Fultz, watched most of it from the sidelines. If Fultz regains the jumper – and the confidence – that made him the 2017 No. 1 overall pick, watch out. The Sixers have the talent to fight for a spot in the Finals.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder — A second consecutive first-round exit and Paul George’s impending free agency left things looking bleak in OKC. But then July 1 rolled around, George pledged his loyalty in the form of a four-year contract and, eventually, an unhappy and over-the-hill Carmelo Anthony was sent packing. All of a sudden, the Thunder look like contenders again.

8. Indiana Pacers — The Pacers enter the season in an extremely different place than they did last year: With expectations. This is essentially the same team that nearly knocked LeBron James out in the first round of the playoffs, but maybe even better. Big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are both poised for breakout seasons, and reigning Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo is still trending upward.

9. Denver Nuggets — Missing out on the playoffs thanks to a loss on the final night of the season left the Nuggets wanting more, and rightfully so. But don’t expect a similar result this year. What do you get when you combine Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, Will Barton and two high-upside additions like Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr.? One of the best teams in the West with 50-win potential.

10. San Antonio Spurs — With the Kawhi Leonard injury saga in the rearview, it’s time for the NBA’s model franchise to get back to business. They don’t exactly fit the bill of what the league covets nowadays, what with DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge being mid-range marvels. Still, we’re not about to count out the Spurs, even as injuries plague the backcourt.

11. Milwaukee Bucks — Is this the year it all comes together for the Bucks, who have underperformed the past few seasons despite the meteoric rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo? It sure looks like it. Bringing in former Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer was huge, and the hope is that he’ll get this group to tap into the potential that Jason Kidd couldn’t. Don’t sleep on Khris Middleton, either, who could very well earn All-Star honors this year. The Bucks should finish as a top-5 team in the East.

12. New Orleans Pelicans — Anthony Davis says he’s “the best player in the game,” and we don’t blame him. He’s not, of course, but he’s inching closer, and he alone makes the Pelicans playoff contenders. With Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle in the picture, too, the Pelicans could have one of the best big-3s in the league.

13. Portland Trail Blazers — Bleh. The Blazers will be good – better than the first-round sweep at the hands of New Orleans indicated – but that’s it. We know what to expect out of the backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and the addition of Seth Curry was solid. But they’ll miss Ed Davis, who left for Brooklyn in free agency. 

14. Los Angeles Lakers — The best basketball player on the planet is in town, and though it won’t be all sunshine and rainbows and championships in Laker Land, everything is trending in the right direction. The addition of James, Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley combined with the expected ascension of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma makes this team as intriguing as any. 

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*15. Minnesota Timberwolves — With the Jimmy Butler drama yet to reach a conclusion, it’s tough to truly gauge this T’Wolves team. Butler is expected to play in Minnesota’s season opener on Wednesday, but regardless of where the 4-time All-Star is on opening night, this is an unfortunate situation for a squad that just ended its 13-season playoff drought.

16. Washington Wizards — One of last season’s most disappointing teams, Washington needs to get it together, and fast. This is year No. 7 for John Wall and Bradley Beal as a duo, and while they’ve both become individual stars, they haven’t done much else. With Otto Porter poised to take another step forward and Dwight Howard, Austin Rivers and Jeff Green now in the fold, the problem in Washington isn’t the amount of talent on the roster.

17. Miami Heat — It’s a star-driven league and the Heat have no stars. Their ceiling, barring some sort of significant change? A trip to the postseason and a first-round exit, just like last year.

18. Detroit Pistons — Aside from Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond beginning their first full season together and the addition of reigning Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, there’s not a lot to be excited about in Detroit. Can Casey do what Stan Van Gundy did just once in his four seasons on the sidelines and steer these Pistons to the playoffs?

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19. Los Angeles Clippers — While the Clippers may be on the outside looking in for the second consecutive year, their sights are set on next summer. They may become a Western Conference power again sooner rather than later.

20. Charlotte Hornets — Kemba Walker says he wants to “create something special” in Charlotte, but he better not hold his breath. The Hornets are stuck in no man’s land, and with limited young players to build around, they could stay there for a while.

21. Dallas Mavericks — All things considered, a lineup featuring No. 3 overall pick Luka Doncic, Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes and DeAndre Jordan should be enough to get the Mavs well past last season’s win total of 24.

22. Memphis Grizzlies — The Grizzlies won’t be good, but they won’t be the trainwreck they were last season. Not only is Mike Conley back after playing just 12 games before season-ending heel surgery, but rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has arguably the highest ceiling of this year’s draft class and Kyle Anderson, who the Grizzlies signed in free agency, was an under-the-radar difference-maker last season in San Antonio.

23. Cleveland Cavaliers — Sure, Tristan Thompson, the Cavs are technically the reigning “four-time Eastern Conference champions.” But without LeBron James, they’re nothing more than lottery-bound. 

24. Chicago Bulls — The Bulls have to take a collective step forward this season, and that begins with individual steps forward for Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn. The rise of the two guards has been stalled by injuries, but if they can stay healthy, the Bulls may have a good thing brewing.

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25. Brooklyn Nets — This is the year for D’Angelo Russell to become a star. The 2015 draft’s No. 2 overall pick is still only 22, and he showed a lot of promise during his injury-plagued first season in Brooklyn. Things are looking up for the Nets.

26. New York Knicks — Can new coach David Fizdale end the decades of disgust for Knicks fans? No. Not this season, at least. What he can do, though, is steer the team in the right direction, and that’s a start. 

27. Orlando Magic — The good news? The Magic have a handful of young players to build around, like lottery picks Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba. The bad? They’re still deep in the rebuilding phase. Another year of losing is on the way.

28. Phoenix Suns — Sure, they’re destined for the lottery once again and don’t have a starting point guard. But this Suns team has a nice mixture of young talent and seasoned veterans. They won’t be as bad as they were last year, but they also won’t be “the most improved team in the league,” as since-fired general manager Ryan McDonough proclaimed.

29. Sacramento Kings — It’s 12 seasons and counting since the Kings last made the postseason (longest active streak in the league), and you can bet it’ll be 13 by the time April rolls around.

30. Atlanta Hawks — There’s a good chance the Hawks finish the season with the worst record in the East once again, and that’s OK. This season is about internal development and internal development only. It starts with No. 5 overall pick Trae Young, but don’t forget about young forwards John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Voters: USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt, AJ Neuharth-Keusch, Martin Rogers and Matt Eppers

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