What’s fascinating about this approaching NBA training camp is two teams expected to be championship contenders have had their offseason derailed by players seeking trades.
The Heat reached the NBA Finals last season, an improbable run that included a stunning series win over the favored Celtics, but have done nothing this summer but work on a way to acquire Damian Lillard. Meanwhile, key players Gabe Vincent and Max Strus left via free agency.
The 76ers have new coach Nick Nurse, formerly of Toronto, and are looking to take a positive step after blowing a 3-2 lead over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But their offseason has been stymied by the trade demand of James Harden, who said he wants to go to the Clippers.
We’ve seen an unengaged Harden before and the 76ers have no idea whether he would report to training camp or what type of shape he would be in. That affects the preseason NBA rankings. Neither the Heat nor the 76ers are in the Globe’s Top 10 because of these developments. But that could change in the coming weeks.
Here are our top 10 teams entering training camp:
1. Nuggets — It’s not that the Nuggets are the most talented team but they are the defending champions and deserve the top spot until someone else proves otherwise. Denver lost Bruce Brown and Jeff Green to free agency, but that will mean more minutes for Christian Braun and Peyton Watson. Jamal Murray is healthy after spending the first half of last season recovering from his ACL tear. And, of course, there’s Nikola Jokic, the NBA Finals MVP who is the most versatile player in the game but watched Joel Embiid steal his chance to win a third consecutive MVP award. The Nuggets will enter the season with the underdog mentality because no one expects them to return to the Finals.
2. Celtics — The Celtics enter camp with a lot of questions, such as will Kristaps Porzingis be healthy? Is Derrick White the answer at point guard? And can the club get better offensive production out of the combination of Robert Williams and Al Horford? But they have some of the league’s best talent and a motivated Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown after last season’s disappointing loss to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Joe Mazzulla also gets a full year to implement his system with a new staff. All of Ime Udoka’s staff is gone, but so are Marcus Smart and Grant Williams. If everything works out, the Celtics could reach the Finals for the second time in three years.
3. Lakers — The Lakers have no excuses. They have revamped their roster with Vincent, Taurean Prince, Jaxson Hayes, Christian Wood, and Cam Reddish to help LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Austin Reaves got a long-term extension and Rui Hachimura and Jarred Vanderbilt are also back. If Davis and James are healthy and the chemistry is right, the Lakers will be a contender. The West has a lot of strong teams but the Lakers could be the best, if health prevails. James, 38, is entering his 21st season and it will be interesting to see how much he plays in the regular season. There is a huge season for Davis, who may have to take the No. 1 mantle from James. But he also has to stay on the floor.
4. Suns — Phoenix gutted its bench to acquire Bradley Beal from the Wizards and form its own Big Three with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, along with Deandre Ayton. That quartet will be good enough to win a lot of games, but may not be good enough to win the West unless complementary pieces Damion Lee, Chimezie Metu, and Drew Eubanks provide support. First-year coach Frank Vogel coached the Lakers to the 2020 NBA title in the bubble but he’s also been fired three times. The Suns should be better defensively, but can they execute in key playoff games? Phoenix blew its chance to win the Finals in 2021 by losing four straight and lost the next season to the Mavericks in Game 7 of the Western semifinals with a no-show performance.
5. Grizzlies — With the addition of Smart, the Grizzlies have relief and support for Ja Morant, who will miss the first 25 games with a league-mandated suspension. Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke will be back from injury after missing the postseason. The club also allowed Dillon Brooks to leave via free agency and picked up Derrick Rose for backcourt support. The hope is Memphis learned from last year’s drubbing by the Lakers and are more mature and prepared to deal with the pressure of being a contender. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane need to be leaders with Morant missing nearly a third of the season.
6. Warriors — The old gang is back after Jordan Poole was traded to the Wizards for 38-year-old Chris Paul. Paul is likely to start, giving the Warriors a small lineup with few offensive weaknesses. The hope is Draymond Green and Klay Thompson return back to form as they approach their mid-30s. Golden State also needs Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga to make bigger impacts. And a sneaky signing was swingman Dario Saric, who should fit into the system. The aging Warriors aren’t favorites in the West, but they’re good enough to win it all if healthy and productive.
7. Bucks — There’s a level of uncertainty in Milwaukee because the Bucks didn’t significantly add to their roster while Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to hint about his future and a potential breakup with the Bucks. Still, Milwaukee has talent with Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, and a healthy Khris Middleton. Brook Lopez was brought back, along with veterans Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton. The question is whether first-year coach Adrian Griffin can help the franchise avoid its underachieving past. Last year’s first-round loss to Miami exposed a lack of adjustments from previous coach Mike Budenholzer. Griffin could take time implementing his style, but the Bucks are so experienced his adjustment shouldn’t take long.
8. Cavaliers — Last year’s playoff loss was a disappointment because, with the center duo of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, Cleveland believed it could defend and rebound against any club. The Knicks proved them wrong. Cleveland countered by adding shooting in Georges Niang and Strus. Donovan Mitchell will have to take more of a leadership role. But Cleveland is good enough defensively and now have the shooting to compete in the Eastern Conference. Tristan Thompson is back, primarily as a mentor to Allen and Mobley.
9. Clippers — Any team with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George should be a contender, but the problem is they’re rarely healthy at the same time. The Clippers may have one final run with that duo before they hit free agency. Russell Westbrook is back on a contract extension, and addition Kenyon Martin Jr. should see a more expanded role than in Houston. There is a lot on the line for the Clippers. They need to win. They’re moving into their own arena in Inglewood, Calif., next season and they have to make long-term decisions on Leonard and George. With the coaching of Tyronn Lue and quality talent, the Clippers could make a run. But, like always, it will depend on health and availability.
10. Knicks — Last year’s run to the Eastern Conference semifinals provided hope, although the Knicks lost to the Heat in six games. The question is can New York take the next step with Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle, and RJ Barrett as their primary core? Brunson made a big splash in his first season in New York, while Randle endured his usual ups and downs. The Knicks have been expecting Barrett, the former third overall pick, to play like an All-Star for a few years now but he may be comfortable as the third option. The addition of Donte DiVincenzo should help bench depth, while the development of Immanuel Quickley will be critical to the Knicks’ long-term success.
IN NO RUSH TO JUDGE
Silver taking his time with Porter
Commissioner Adam Silver said the NBA will take a wait-and-see approach on the case of Kevin Porter Jr., the Rockets guard accused of domestic assault of his girlfriend, Kysre Gondrezick, in New York. Porter is out on bail and is due back in court Oct. 16.
The Rockets have been trying to trade Porter, whose contract is not guaranteed after next season. There is serious question as to whether he’ll play in the NBA again.
“The allegations here are horrific,” Silver said. “No question about it. But I don’t know anything more, of course, about the actual facts, other than reading those allegations. We have a domestic violence policy that was collectively bargained with the Players Association. Again, when I say bargained, I mean, not a contentious issue. They certainly feel as strongly as we do about the issue.”
The NBA will probably suspend Porter regardless of if the charges are dropped because of his history. Charlotte’s Miles Bridges sat out all of last season and is suspended for the first 10 games this season after pleading no contest to domestic assault of his then-girlfriend during a 2022 incident in Los Angeles.
“Every case, though, also depends on its unique facts,” Silver said. “I think here when we’re not in season, there’s a little bit more of an opportunity to absorb what’s happening before we act. I think if it were a case where we were in the middle of a season, we might be compelled to do something faster. So while ultimately we’re required to be deferential to law enforcement when there’s an investigation . . . I think this has given us the opportunity, because we’re not in season, training camps haven’t opened yet, to take a little bit of time here to better understand the situation.
“One thing I learned over many years of working on these cases is not to assume anything here and not just rely on headlines, but to try to truly understand what’s happening here as a combination of what law enforcement has learned and direct interviews. We’re still now in the process of gathering information.”
Silver said the NBA and the Rockets will collectively decide whether Porter can report to training camp or what role, if any, he’ll play in the organization.
Victories will take different forms
Like it or not, the in-season tournament will be a staple for the coming years. Only an abject failure would encourage commissioner Adam Silver to rethink the idea.
The NBA is going to put all of its power into making sure the tournament draws interest, is popular with the players, and creates engaging matchups.
“I think it is a multi-season issue,” Silver said. “To the extent we’re looking to create a new tradition here, as the saying goes, new traditions aren’t created overnight. So I think it will need to build over time.
“Having said that, there are objective measures we’ll be able to look at in its first season. One, certainly attendance, versus those regular-season games, maybe what it might have been versus typical games at that same time in the season. Obviously television ratings, social media interest, coverage. Those are all things that we look at.”
The hope is the players take this tournament seriously from the beginning, viewing it as another means of winning a championship on a lower level. Player engagement is critical.
“I think then something that will be a little less tangible is a sense of the energy on the floor,” Silver said. “I think for all of us who follow the league, if you watch 30 seconds of a game you can tell the difference, for the most part, between playoff games and regular-season games. They’re played with a different sense of intensity. I think here, if we’re seeing early indications of success, you’re going to see something a little bit ratcheted-up intensity than you see during a typical regular-season game. I think that will be a sign of success here.”
The NBA and its broadcast partner will be fascinated by the ratings of the tournament, especially when the championship game lands Dec. 9, the night of the Heisman Trophy announcement and a day before a full lineup of NFL games. Will the common sports fan have interest in apparently meaningful December basketball?
“I think ultimately it will be the fans, the coverage, which will be telling us whether this is working or not,” Silver said. “But ultimately the decision will be multiyear. I’ll just add: I think as most new things we’ve tried in this league, that we iterate as we go. My sense is we’re very happy where it stands right now — pool play, knockout round, et cetera, in terms of the format. I’m sure we’re going to learn a lot once it starts. So I wouldn’t be surprised if, when we go through it, we make a decision to make a few changes along the way.”
While Damian Lillard and James Harden are both waiting for trades, there appears to be more traction on the Lillard front. Lillard has asked for a trade to the Heat while the Trail Blazers and general manager Joe Cronin have not been impressed with what Miami has had to offer. The Heat are not relinquishing All-Star center Bam Adebayo and instead have offered Tyler Herro as the central part of the package. That’s not good enough for Portland and both sides have tried to lure a third team into the deal. The Hornets, who would love to add Herro to their backcourt, have emerged as a candidate but a deal is far from being consummated. The Blazers do not want a meager package for Lillard that will hinder their rebuild. They have seen too many teams receive unsatisfactory packages for unhappy star players, clipping the organization’s development for years. So Portland will be patient and the issue could spill into training camp. Lillard is expected to report to camp if he still a member of the franchise. The Heat put all of their offseason moves on hold waiting for a Lillard deal. The most significant move made was signing backup center Thomas Bryant from the Nuggets . . . The Celtics were expected to wait until deep into training camp to fill their third two-way roster spot, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sign former Kings second-round pick Neemias Queta, an All-G League first-team player and first-team all-defense with Stockton last season. Queta signed a standard NBA contract with the Kings in August but was released when the team signed JaVale McGee to be a backup center. Queta, 24, became the first Portuguese player to score a point in an NBA game during his rookie season with Sacramento. He will enter camp competing with Luke Kornet for minutes at the third center spot. Because Queta is on a two-way deal, he can play as many as 50 regular-season games without being on the 15-man roster. Kornet is playing on a nonguaranteed deal, meaning the Celtics have the option of releasing him with no repercussions until January. Third center becomes an important position with the injury history of Robert Williams and with Al Horford entering his 17th season and the Celtics expected to limit his minutes.