Never in the existence of ESPN's fabled NBA Power Rankings Committee (of One), nor really at any point since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976-77, have two teams moved away from the rest of the league like today's Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.
You'll recall that the Boston Celtics, throughout their 1980s duopoly on championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, had to legitimately worry about the Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks most years in the East just to claim a spot in the NBA Finals.
The cold reality on this first Power Rankings Monday of October is that it's hard to dream up a scenario for the 2016-17 season that doesn't end with the Cavs and Warriors hooking up in the Finals for the third successive June. Yet it's also true that there is so much unpredictability bubbling from No. 3 on down that there will be plenty to discuss in this cyberspace when we convene here weekly with a new ladder.
There will be a fresh 1-to-30 order for the next 24 Mondays as we make our way through 82 games, relying on our trusty formula that weighs what's happening in the present against every team's big-picture outlook for the season ... while always allowing for a dash of subjective whim.
Profuse thanks as always to ESPN Stats & Information and the Elias Sports Bureau, with heavy data dishing from our colleague Micah Adams for so much of the background material that helps the committee arrange things.
Previous rankings: Training camp
Please stop to consider, before you write in the Warriors as 2017 champions, just how forcefully LeBron James lifted the Cleveland Curse in the last three games of the 2016 Finals. A mere four months later, Clevelanders will host an NBA ring ceremony and Game 1 of the World Series on the same night. If that sort of scenario is possible, so is a Cavs repeat, although they really need to address their backup point guard options now that the J.R. Smith saga has reached a happy conclusion.
The numbers going around about Golden State's Big Four and the damage they did in their preseason time together are frightening. My rules dictate that the defending champs are pretty much guaranteed the top spot in the first two editions of the rankings, as long as they avoid catastrophic early injury, but the Warriors' fear factor is no joke. Think about it: So many of those scary lineups with Draymond Green at center will now feature Kevin Durant in Harrison Barnes' place.
It is, without question, our favorite stat of the month heard here at Power Rankings headquarters. Courtesy of the aforementioned Adams: San Antonio is about to play its first season opener since Nov. 1, 1996 without Tim Duncan starting at power forward. That was back when Carl Herrera got the assignment. With any luck, we'll get a chance to ask Gregg Popovich if that's trivia knowledge he possesses at Pop's pregame press gathering before the small matter of Spurs at Warriors on opening night.
The Clippers, according to the NBA's annual survey of general managers, feature the league's best passer and No. 2 point guard (Chris Paul), its fourth-best power forward (Blake Griffin), its No. 1 center (DeAndre Jordan), its fourth-best pure shooter (J.J. Redick) and the most impactful bench player (Jamal Crawford). That's a lot of positives for a team that has to hear over and over how the franchise, after 38 seasons in California, still hasn't advanced past the second round.
Al Horford, amazingly, has only been on two 50-win teams to date in a nine-season career. You suspect it won't be an issue making that three in 2016-17 now that he's part of the Danny Ainge-Brad Stevens revolution in Boston. But the Celtics will be forced to lean on their well-chronicled depth earlier than they wanted to thanks to Marcus Smart's sudden ankle issue and Kelly Olynyk's ongoing recovery from shoulder surgery.
Our initial plan here was to wax poetic about how our excitement to visit Ontario for the NBA D-League Showcase in January was nearly on par with the treat of crossing the border last February to cover that unforgettable All-Star Weekend in T Dot. But then the Raps lost Jared Sullinger over the weekend at a position that probably needed fortifying even if the Sullinger gamble worked out well -- meaning Toronto's path back to the Eastern Conference finals just got a lot tougher.
Over the past two seasons, Russell Westbrook has averaged 30.5 points, 9.2 assists and 7.6 rebounds in 48 games played without Kevin Durant at his side. The only player in NBA history to put up that sort of stat line over the course of an entire season is Oscar Robertson, but who would dare suggest Angry Russ can't follow suit now that he'll have the opportunity? Friendly reminder: GQ (Westbrook) vs. Rolling Stone (KD), Take 1, is only 10 days away in Oakland.
The Pacers are a popular choice to spring some surprises in the East and, given the sudden uncertainty surrounding Reggie Jackson in Detroit, perhaps the new favorite in the race for home-court advantage in a conference looking for a solid No. 4 seed. How will Jeff Teague mesh alongside Monta Ellis? What's in store in Year 2 for Myles Turner? You figure all the questions will work themselves out if Paul George lives up to Paul George standards and thrusts himself into the MVP race.
There are actually three games on the Tuesday night schedule and the one generating roughly zero national buzz -- Jazz at Trail Blazers -- will see Portland, carrying all those high expectations, put its league record of 15 successive victorious home openers on the line. The Blazers haven't lost their first home game since the 2000-01 season, good for a streak that trumps that 14 home openers in a row won by the Celtics from 1979-80 through 1992-93 as the longest in NBA annals.
Few stories have fascinated us during this opening month of the season as much as the Wall Street Journal expose about noted coffee aficionado Boris "Borista" Diaw's efforts to make the joys of the espresso bean such a big part of Utah's daily routine. Yet we understand very well that the Jazz, with all that's expected from this group, want to know Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors are fully healthy before they're ready to start chuckling at the fun side of media coverage.
We tried to make it clear last month, albeit with the usual limited success, that the Grizz opened at No. 8 because we rated their offseason highly. Maintaining top-10 status is a different proposition entirely, since the re-signed Mike Conley, newcomer Chandler Parsons and, of course, Marc Gasol are all returning from serious injuries. For all the raves so far about David Fizdale, Gasol's recent ankle scare and the uber-jittery reaction to it is a good gauge of how tenuous things are in Graceland.
The Wolves' 12-season playoff drought is the NBA's longest. But Tom Thibodeau, remember, has never missed the postseason as a head coach, going 5-for-5 with the Bulls. The great defense Minnesota played in the preseason -- No. 2 overall in defensive efficiency after ranking 27th last season -- also did nothing to temper the expectations Thibs faces in Year 1, as evidenced by the highly optimistic projections coming from our Brian Windhorst on Sunday's #NBAInsiders Season Preview Special on ESPN Radio.
The future of Paul Millsap, who possesses the right to return to free agency come July, as well as the uncertain health of Tiago Splitter (hamstring) give the Hawks two more significant question marks to go with all the external skepticism about Dennis Schroder replacing Jeff Teague as Atlanta's first-choice point guard and Dwight Howard succeeding Al Horford as its primary big man. This is one of the league's most interesting teams (to us) because of all of the above.
It's really up to you. Do you focus on the fact that a Houston team that is routinely mocked for its lack of quality defenders just lost its most defensive-minded starter (Patrick Beverley) to knee surgery? Or are you moved more by the fact that the Mike D'Antoni-fueled Rockets -- trumping Golden State levels from last season -- just averaged 113.3 points per 100 possessions in the preseason? It's the latter if you listened to our pal Amin Elhassan on Sunday night's #NBAInsiders show.
With Reggie Jackson and that bout of recurring tendinitis in his left knee, it's not just the short-term consequences. It's the long-term concerns attached to his early season absence. Entering Season 2 of a five-year, $80 million deal, Jackson suddenly doesn't seem so expensive after the offseason we just witnessed and the riches Mike Conley scored. But that naturally depends on Jackson shaking this knee issue to resume his crucial pick-and-roll partnership with Andre Drummond.
The Mavs are trying their best to downplay the gravity of Harrison Barnes' preseason shooting slump after the $94 Million Man shot 26.7 percent from the field in the preseason, second-lowest among the 102 players who attempted at least 50 field goals in exhibition play. Of course, as Dallas just proved in 2015-16 by turning an 0-7 preseason into a platform for the West's No. 6 seed, what we see in October isn't always a meaningful prediction of the season ahead.
How good a job did Steve Clifford do last season? The Hornets were one of just five teams to place in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, joining this heady foursome: Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland and the L.A. Clippers. Surely even Clifford doesn't expect to pull that off again -- not after all the offense Charlotte lost in the offseason -- but he insists that the return of the versatile Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is like a marquee free-agent signing in itself. Let's see.
We were a bit harsh in the Training Camp Edition when we intimated that Fred Hoiberg is the Bulls' best shooter; good line, perhaps, but not really true with Doug McDermott on the roster. Shooting, though, remains a major concern when you hear, according to Elias, that NBA starting backcourts averaged 259 3-pointers made last season. Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo sank a combined 69 treys, with the number rising only to 84 when we add in newly acquired Michael Carter-Williams.
Scotty Brooks has come in and given his new team more freedom than it's accustomed to. How the Wizards handle it, mind you, remains to be seen. Unfortunately for Brooks, furthermore, concerns about durability -- inescapable when key cog Bradley Beal has played in more than 63 games just once in his first four pro seasons -- are already being raised because offseason signee Ian Mahinmi is out 4-6 weeks after needing knee surgery.
We took a longer look at the Heat's prospects as they begin life without Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Friday's Son of Weekend Dime and invite you to click there for more. We'll simply marvel here at this unique coincidence: Miami's last starting shooting guard entering a season not named Wade was Eddie Jones in 2002-03, just as Eddie Jones (in 1995-96) was the Lakers' starting shooting guard the last time L.A. entered a season without Kobe Bryant. #smallworld
The Knicks traded for Stephon Marbury in 2004, Steve Francis in 2006 and Chauncey Billups in 2011, yet none of those deals led to a triumphant playoff series. Will Derrick Rose -- who joins Willis Reed and Bob McAdoo on the short list of MVPs to call Madison Square Garden home -- fare better than the other high-profile point guards New York has traded for in the past 15 years? It would be an easier question to answer, obviously, if Rose hadn't missed so much of the October prep work.
The Magic were widely regarded as a team that's difficult to assess when we convened for the Training Camp Edition of the rankings on Sept. 23. And we frankly don't know much more than we did then. Can new coach Frank Vogel, who debuts Wednesday night at home in a Florida derby with Miami, get enough offense out of this group and hash out a workable rotation for all those big men? Skepticism abounds despite the high regard across the league for Vogel.
Only one player in NBA history who stands 6-foot-11 or taller has posted the numbers (19.4 PPG, 8.4 RPG and 7.0 APG) over an entire season that we saw from Giannis Antetokounmpo during his eight-game audition late last season as a point guard. That player was Wilt Chamberlain, who did it twice. The Bucks, though, had much loftier goals than merely getting The Greek Freak to the All-Star Game with more of that Wilt stuff. But those depend on filling their Khris Middleton void.
Sportswriter confession: Lots of us root for our favorites cities/restaurants/hotels if we root for anything. The Committee is sharing this because we recently made our first visit to Denver in (we think) seven years and were quickly reminded what a wonderful city the Nuggets play in ... made even better by that snazzy new train line from the airport straight into downtown. In other words: C'mon, Nuggets! Makes the necessary strides to earn us more trips to the Mile High. It's been too long!
Knowing that there's a vintage Tower Records sign hanging in the Kings' new Golden 1 Center is reason enough for the Committee to start plotting out its next trip to Sacramento. The basketball likewise promises to be more cohesive under Dave Joerger, who proved his resourcefulness last season with the injury-ravaged Grizzlies. But this group has a lot of proving to do before we're ready to co-sign on the Kings' hopes of returning to 40-win territory for the first time in (gulp) 11 seasons.
The Pelicans start the season without their two best perimeter players in Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. They also face an early home date with the Warriors, with memories of what Steph Curry did at The Blender on Halloween night last season still fresh: 28 points in the third quarter and 53 overall. How long Anthony Davis has to carry the Pels without Holiday and Evans, as well as Davis' own health, will determine whether New Orleans has any shot at joining the playoff hunt.
Something tells us Devin Booker won't soon forget his 20th birthday, since he'll be commemorating the milestone Sunday night in a home game against the mighty Warriors, fresh off hearing that NBA GMs are projecting him as the young player most likely to have a breakout season in 2016-17. Booker looks ready, too, judging by his preseason play, given that he just averaged 26.6 points per 36 minutes for those very young Suns in exhibition play.
How long has it been since the Lakers opened a season without Kobe Bryant? D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram weren't born yet. Julius Randle had yet to celebrate his first birthday. And new coach Luke Walton couldn't legally drive. When Walton, at 36, coaches those three against visiting Houston on Wednesday night, it'll mark the first time in Lakers history that they field three players 21 or younger in a season opener. In other words? Patience, Lakerland. More patience.
Ben Simmons is out indefinitely. Ditto for Nerlens Noel. So just hear us out: Don't focus on the fact Joel Embiid logged only 85 minutes in six preseason games. Just let long-suffering Sixers fans savor the delicious per-36-minute numbers Embiid amassed in that small sample size: 26.3 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes in his first real burst of NBA basketball. Russell Westbrook is the star attraction Wednesday night when OKC visits Philly. But Embiid ain't far off.
According to ESPN's heartless Basketball Power Index, Brooklyn is projected to go a lowly 23-59 and, perhaps worse yet, is favored in just four of its 82 games going into the season, which is the same minuscule number Philadelphia had to settle for when last season began. For the record, those four Nets "wins," all at home, are: Dec. 14 (54 percent vs. Lakers), Jan. 8 (55.5 percent vs. Philadelphia), March 23 (50.2 percent vs. Phoenix) and March 28 (55.5 percent vs. Philadelphia).