10. PHOENIX SUNS
Last year, everything went wrong in Phoenix. Just injury after injury. And still, they hung around and almost made the playoffs. This year, things should be different. I’m in on the Suns this year. Westbrook at stretches last year looked like the best player to ever even sniff a basketball, and I like him to continue in beast mode this season with a healthy KD back and making him even better. Partnering him with Knight and IT gives Phoenix perhaps the best backcourt in Real Deal. Davis, Gibson, Kelly and especially Johnson give the Suns a pretty good frontcourt, too, albeit lacking in starpower. Stuckey is a terrific guy to have on your bench. And Langston Galloway continues to be a thing. I still believe Phoenix needs one more star – preferably a big – to push them over the top, but right now I feel good about their chances to be a lot better this year. You can’t count on luck – good or bad – two years in a row.
9.LOS ANGELES LAKERS
I might be overrating the Lakers here at 9, given how many question marks there are around this team, but I think this will be Kevin Durant’s career year. He’s motivated to win a title as OKC’s window closes. He’s eager to re-establish himself after a lost season. And he’s in a contract year gearing up to sign the biggest free agency deal ever. If all goes well, he will be the best player in fantasy outside of Anthony Davis. The squad surrounding him is more iffy. Dirk looked like an absolute geezer in the playoffs and I wonder how long he can realistically stay on the court for a Mavs team that looks pretty bad. Tony Parker has looked awful of late – his speed, which was one of the main components of his game, is fading fast. McLemore, Green and Hill could go one of two ways – either flourish in a new role/system or regress to league average or worse. On the other hand, the bench is a deep one with Kaman, Belinelli, Larkin and Cole all capable players. I especially like Belinelli this year and I think he’s the guard to own out of Sacramento. Meyers Leonard in a pick and pop with Damian Lillard will be exceptional, so that’s another bright spot. The Lakers are in for a better year than last just because of Durant actually playing this time, but it might be too late with Parker and Nowitzki falling off a cliff. Los Angeles might have to make a big move to stay in the hunt.
8. DALLAS MAVERICKS
Dallas paid big for Nerlens Noel and Rodney Hood – perhaps too big. Both are cheap, young and very talented, but the Mavs have now tied up so much of an investment of their future in bringing these two players in that they NEED them to contribute. I love Nerlens this year (A double-double with 2 blocks, 2 steals maybe?) and Hood will break out this season, but the price of admission on this attraction may have been too much. This is not to say that Dallas will be totally screwed if those two don’t pan out, because the rest of this team is still quite good. I think this will be the year that Derrick Rose alters his game so that he can actually stay on the court – this is Chicago’s last shot at making the finals with this group, so there’s incentive for him to stick around this year. Ellis will thrive in Indiana’s new offense and has a great chance to score 20+ per game. I like Hibbert to have a mini-bounceback year in Byron Scott’s old-school (read: stale) system, and O’Quinn may finally get a chance to prove himself. Crowder got way overrated this offseason and Jokic is still a mystery, but I’m more optimistic about him. The bench is young and intriguing, but I hesitate to say any of them are reliable. The Mavs made a lot of moves this offseason in an attempt to win now. This team is good, but is it actually good enough to win now?
7. UTAH JAZZ
I’m pretty high on this Jazz team. This is the year that I’m all in on them as the best team in the Northwest and I think their success will be highly sustainable. This will be the year that Gordon Hayward finally gets recognized as an All-Star and his all-around game will be a boon for his fantasy status as he grows into his role as the undisputed leader and best player in Utah. Derrick Favors was an absolute monster to close out last season and I expect much more of the same, especially because I think Gobert is getting way too much hype. George Hill continues to be an underrated fantasy player (is it because of his boring name or because he got traded for Kawhi Leonard?). Gallo will have an enormous year as the best offensive player by a mile in Denver. Ryan Anderson will be better than last year because he can’t possibly be worse. And I told you guys Humphries will be better than Nene this year! The depth is a problem for now, but it will be less so when Shumpert and Ajinca come back and Bjelica gets his butt up from the minors. Utah will be a division winner this year and maybe even a dark horse title contender.
6. ORLANDO MAGIC
Any team whose fate is in the hands of Kobe Bryant is a team that’s hard to peg down, but there are two things that make me feel okay ranking the Magic this high: 1. Just look how well they did last year, and 2. There are a lot of other really good players not named Bryant. I have my concerns about Gasol just given his age, but I actually think he’ll be fine. He’s a good fit in the Hoiberg offense, even if it means less usage. Word is it’ll be Mirotic starting alongside him instead of Gibson or Noah, and that’s very good for Orlando since it means he’ll still be able to grab as many boards as he wants. Monroe will be the offensive cornerstone in Milwaukee, so he should only get better. Oladipo just keeps getting better and better and Vucevic is an automatic double double machine. The bench is filled with cheap, dependable vets. But Nene is trash – Humphries is the PF to own from Washington and his lazy attitude and inconsistent play might see him fall out of Wittman’s favor for good. His massive salary is a big prohibitor in a potential trade and it could unfortunately bog down this team. Even despite that handicap, Orlando fields a very good and fairly deep roster. They should be a top team in the East once again.
5. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
It always kind of bugs me how little I have to write about this team, but it’s so solid and not much has changed. Gasol, Conley and Bledsoe will all continue to do their thang in leading this squad, and DeMarre Carroll will thrive as one of only a few competent players in Toronto. Having Ellington, Sullinger and Shelvin Mack in the starting lineup scares me a bit, but this team is still top-heavy enough to just make the top 5 just a hair above Orlando. I do fear that the Grizzlies will fall off unless they can make some adjustments to improve the bottom of the roster, either through free agency or a trade, but I wouldn’t bet against them.
4. ATLANTA HAWKS
I have the Hawks just beating out Orlando for the division crown, although their offseason was a massive disappointment. With shaky depth (actually, zero depth), the Hawks waited until basically the last minute to bring in some bench players (actually, one bench player) – and it cost them the team’s two best young players, including Nikola Mirotic, who is one of the best values in the league at minimum salary. Still, despite all that, the Hawks have the best starting eight in the league, top to bottom, and it’s not particularly close. I just worry a lot about injuries. Howard, Horford, Ilyasova and Rondo all have troubling injury histories. This team could derail fast if injuries start to pile up. Luckily, the Hawks have two first round picks for next fall, which are very tradeable assets should they need to use them in that way. Atlanta could have pushed for no. 1 overall and mounted a real title chase this season, but I wonder if they missed the train.
3. CHICAGO BULLS
I remember earlier in the offseason when I was praising Chicago for having such a cheap young roster. So affordable! I said. So sustainable! Well, that all went out the window in a hurry when the Bulls spent their life’s savings on Hassan Whiteside and Jordan Clarkson, making them the first and third richest players in Real Deal. That Kobe contract doesn’t look half bad now (just kidding, it still does). I have my questions about Whiteside – is he even good, for instance – but I do like Clarkson and think he’ll have the best season in the Lakers backcourt. Do I like him for $27 million a year? No. But I do like him. Even if you take those two guys out – and I think you very well could – this Bulls team is still very deep and very good. They’re my odds-on favorite to make it out of the East this year. Wiggins, Rubio, Harris, Parsons, Len and Gordon are all terrific young talents that will all be contributing right away. Combine that with a bench made up of Stephenson, Asik, Goodwin, McBob and Livingston, and you’re talking about the best bench in the league, no question. I think those two signings were a huge mistake, but the one thing that prevents it from being a total catastrophe is the fact that the rest of the roster is so young and so cheap. Chicago just didn’t need to throw down that kind of cash. It prohibits flexibility in the future and I doubt either will be the deciding factor in pushing them over the top. Still, I really like this Bulls team and expect them to be the best team in the East.
2. HOUSTON ROCKETS
At first, I thought Houston and Memphis would be neck-and-neck this year, but the more I think on it, the more I like the Rockets to once again win the toughest division in Real Deal with relative ease in the Battle of the Dueling Pedros. This team is deeper and has more top-quality talent than any other team in the West. The Rockets begin and end with James Harden, and I think he will have another MVP-type season. Houston is the team I think will have the best regular season in the NBA and that bodes well for Harden as a fantasy player. Surround him with useful guys like Barnes, Noah, Williams, Diaw, Ezeli and Chalmers – plus Mo Williams and Timo Mozgov at the minimum salary (!!!) – and you’ve got yourself a winner here. Anything Wes Matthews can give is a bonus. Houston is set up for success again this season.
1. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
The Dubs are comfortably the best team in this league. Granted, the team was dealt an amazing starting hand of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson at discount deals. Still, though, the roster constructed around them was impressive. Golden State elected to go young from the get-go, and it looks like it will start paying off right about now. Middleton, KCP and Plumlee all figure to have bigger roles this year, and Myles Turner is looking like he could come strong out of the gate. Brook Lopez was a good pickup in the summer and the bench is made up of a bunch of decent and reliable players. Everything about this team just screams “trending up” to me. They’re my pick to win it all.