NBA preseason power rankings

By Jimmy Spencer

Here are some words to live by: never trust the NBA preseason. The compact schedule of tinkering and holding back gives only the slightest reflection of a team’s true ability.

The real preseason is the 82-game regular season that invites more than half the NBA into the postseason. With the season beginning Tuesday, here’s how the NBA stacks up entering Game No. 1.

Follow the NBA season through the lens of Jimmy Spencer on Twitter at @JimmySpencerNBA.

1 Heat

Place LeBron James on any of these top 16 teams and that team becomes a championship favorite. Last year’s title wasn’t easy, and the East is only getting tougher, but James paired with the chip-on-their-shoulder egos of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh reign king.

2 Pacers

The Pacers are positioned to make another run at the Heat, and it’s not just because the (eventual) return of again-injured shooter Danny Granger. Indiana revitalized its bench, and Paul George is only getting better. If Roy Hibbert mirrors his postseason, the Pacers could be headed to the finals.

3 Spurs

Robots don’t feel heartache. That’s why the machine-like Spurs should have no problem overcoming their finals letdown. At some point, San Antonio’s automated system will break down. Just don’t bet on it being this season. P.S. Marco Belinelli will be a postseason hero for the Spurs; you read it here first.

4 Thunder

Kevin Durant’s title window only gets smaller with each season. That’s not an entirely idiotic statement, even if he is just 25 years old. It’s easy to slip from, “he’s young and incredible” to “hey there, Carmelo.” With Russell Westbrook missing the first chunk of the season, Durant will learn to master sole leadership. That could be a good thing in the long run.

5 Clippers

The Clippers roster was just slightly upgraded after last year’s first-round exit. Doc Rivers is an improvement on the sidelines, but too much will still fall on Chris Paul to take over games as a scorer, and that’s not where he’s at his best. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will each need to take their game to the next level.

6 Nets

The Nets traded for an instant rivalry with LeBron’s Heat when Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce came aboard. The Nets should exceed last year’s 49 wins, but the combined 73-year-old legs of their new veterans won’t have enough juice to surpass the Heat or Pacers. At least that bench looks better, because they’re going to need it.

7 Bulls

No team added a more talented superstar this offseason than the Bulls. If Derrick Rose returns to his former MVP level, the Bulls should host a first-round playoff series. Like last season, they’ll be in the mix of East teams hoping to upset the Heat and, with Rose, they actually have a legitimate shot.

8 Rockets

Landing the offseason’s biggest prize has catapulted the Rockets into everyone’s favorite new power. But does Dwight Howard’s addition really make a huge difference? Sure, Houston makes the jump from a fringe playoff team to a likely mid-tier playoff team, but the Rockets still aren’t a true title contender. James Harden will need to take another monumental leap forward if that’s going to be the case.

9 Warriors

Andre Iguodala is the perfect fit to address the Warriors’ offseason needs: He’s a true slasher who can open up the wings, he can facilitate the offense to allow Stephen Curry to run off the ball, and he’s a defensive stopper. And while all that’s great, the Warriors’ real success will actually fall on whether Andrew Bogut stays healthy.

10 Grizzlies

The Grizzlies toughness is an absolute asset come playoff time. There’s only one problem: there’s still no slam-on-the-gas scorer. Memphis can’t expect an improved offense through the addition of untested head coach Dave Joerger and, uh, Mike Miller, can it?

11 Knicks

This just isn’t the right mix of talent in New York to overcome the growing crowd of powers in the East. The Knicks just don’t have a defensive motor in a conference top-heavy with defensive skill. Not even Carmelo Anthony can score enough to overcome 102 points allowed per game.

12 Timberwolves

Here’s where the real drop-off in the rankings begins. Betting on the Timberwolves to stay healthy is like assuming a Kardashian marriage will last. At some point, we have to stop being foolish. Still, if the combination of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic stay even relatively healthy, the Timberwolves are a playoff squad.

13 Trail Blazers

Though it wasn’t needle revving, Portland did have a quality offseason. Damian Lillard has superstar stuff, and the nucleus he forms with LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum has enough juice to push the West. Adding Robin “hey, at least I’m a center” Lopez and veteran depth with Mo Williams and Dorrell Wright helps.

14 Hawks

Two truths were revealed this summer: Paul Millsap has a bad agent, and Danny Ferry is starting to fix the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks’ good-enough blueprint remains for now, but Ferry has opened up future flexibility for something more than just a first-round peace out.

15 Nuggets

It’s as if the Nuggets forgot they were playing and just simulated through the offseason. All momentum from last season’s franchise-high 57 wins was lost with the exits of George Karl, Masai Ujiri and Andre Iguodala. The successful up-and-down style of last year’s team won’t be replicated even with Nate Robinson’s heroics.

16 Cavaliers

It’s difficult to assume health with the Cavs, and the addition of a not-yet-cleared Andrew Bynum doesn’t really set a new tone. Still, if (and that’s an IF! with every punctuation possible) Bynum can return to old form and Kyrie Irving stays healthy, the Cavs can fight out east. Don’t sleep on Jarrett Jack’s ability to log heavy minutes as Irving’s backup, just as he did for Curry in Golden State.

17 Pistons

There was plenty written about the addition of second-tier superstar Josh Smtih, but the real reason Detroit has a shot to succeed falls within the combined 14 feet of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Those two create one of the best frontcourts in the East, but they will only succeed offensively if new addition Brandon Jennings ushers in the distribution era of his career.

18 Pelicans

The Pelicans take the award for “this might actually work” after an intriguing offseason. New Orleans added Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans to play alongside the franchise’s real hope, Anthony Davis. The moves were an attempt to accelerate the rebuilding process of a rebranded franchise. But don’t let a 7-1 preseason fool you, this group of talent still has to learn how to win, and even 35-38 wins would be a nice step.

19 Wizards

John Wall can’t do it all — even if Bradley Beal proves last year’s glimpses can be a season-long reality. But the addition of Marcin Gortat for Emeka Okafor could tip the Wizards from a nine seed into a first-round feast for LeBron James.

20 Mavericks

The Mavericks are the easiest team to miss on here in the rankings. It wouldn’t be a surprise to watch them push into a No. 7 seed, but at the same time it wouldn’t be a shock if they finished below .500. If Dirk Nowitzki can be the first superstar to ever rein in Monta Ellis, the Mavericks could close in on a 7th or 8th spot. But that’s not likely.

21 Lakers

Kobe Bryant is not a superhero. He won’t be enough to carry this weak Lakers roster into the postseason even if he returns healthy. Remember in 2004-05, when at 26, Bryant averaged 27.6 points and it still only meant 34 wins? This Lakers roster isn’t as bad as that one, but Bryant is also a decade older, and Steve Nash and Pau Gasol can’t help if they’re regularly sidelined.

22 Raptors

Dwane Casey recently said the total disrespect of critics should cause his Raptors to play with a chip on their shoulders. Apologies for not helping out here, but the Raptors — with Rudy Gay looking to reestablish his stardom and an improving core of talent around him — might not be all that bad. But here ya go, Dwane: Toronto still won’t make the playoffs.

23 Kings

Alert: the Kings are moving … in the right direction. With the Maloofs finally out of the way and the city enjoying the rebirth of its franchise, the Kings will eventually crawl back toward respectability. Bringing on Mike Malone and extending DeMarcus Cousins were good first steps, but the team still needs time to transition.

24 Bucks

The Bucks don’t take too much of a step back without Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. While the star power may be gone, expect Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders to further cement themselves as the future of the team.

25 Celtics

New coach Brad Stevens doesn’t have a clear starting lineup, and that is not because there’s too much starter talent to choose from. Rajon Rondo should at least provide some good quotes throughout the frustration.

26 Magic

Add rookie Victor Oladipo to the list of Orlando’s young talent that already includes Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless. Here’s the thing though, developing a new core of talent requires minutes, and that won’t leave much room for veteran moneybags Arron Afflalo, Glen Davis and Jameer Nelson. Expect movement.

27 Bobcats

Cherish these days, as the “Bobcats” will be no more after this season. Returning next year as the Charlotte Hornets, the front office can only hope that eventually one of these lottery picks will pan out. For now, at least Al Jefferson can mentor recent pick Cody Zeller.

28 Jazz

Sure, the Jazz cleared the bottleneck within the front court, but they did it by watching their two top talents, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, walk. Now, it’s time to let the youngsters learn with big minutes, and that’s not always pretty.

29 Suns

The Suns moved Marcin Gortat in the hopes of spoiling the 76ers’ little lottery party. Gaining Emeka Okafor, who could miss the entire first half, will help Phoenix’s goal as a bottom-dweller.

30 76ers

Will Philadelphia fans start booing if the 76ers happen to slip up and win a game here and there? Nerlens Noel will sit and the 76ers will inevitably push toward a league-worst record in the hopes of adding Andrew Wiggins.