The trade sending Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan has altered the league’s hierarchy.
No longer will the MVP-caliber forward be thriving in the Western Conference, leaving San Antonio — which also sent Danny Green to Toronto — in a precarious spot. The Spurs cannot be considered a guaranteed playoff team anymore.
Meanwhile, Toronto makes a slight rise toward the pinnacle of the East, which is preparing for its first season without LeBron James in 15 years.
Though a couple of notable players still must be signed, these are the top 10 teams entering 2018-19.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
How long the current iteration of this Minnesota will last is unknown. Karl-Anthony Towns is the cornerstone after signing his max contract, but both Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins are frustrated with their current situation. As long as they’re all together, though, the Timberwolves are an obvious playoff threat. In 2017-18, Minnesota posted a 47-35 record and snapped a 14-year postseason drought. The finish would’ve been even better had Butler not missed five weeks due to injury. We expect the Wolves to overcome their personal issues and keep winning.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder
While re-signing Paul George wasn’t a surprise, it was eye-opening how quickly that transpired. Mere minutes after free agency opened, the veteran announced he would be staying in Oklahoma City. George keeps a superstar tandem together with Russell Westbrook, who singlehandedly could’ve propelled the Thunder to the playoffs. He’s done it before, after all. But it sure is preferable with PG13 alongside. OKC will have a slightly different look after parting ways with Carmelo Anthony, though the simple truth is that won’t affect the Thunder much.
8. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets wanted a meeting with LeBron James, but he didn’t give them a chance. Stunner, we know. Yet Denver shouldn’t be brokenhearted, because this roster is appealing both now and long term. Nikola Jokic signed a max extension, Will Barton re-upped for four years and Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are back. Denver effectively swapped Wilson Chandler for Michael Porter Jr., the 2018 first-round pick. The Nuggets missed the playoffs on the final day of the 2017-18 regular season, but the upheaval in the West has edged them slightly up the order.
7. Toronto Raptors
There are real, major risks involved with acquiring Leonard. At this time, all indications are he wants to join the Lakers next summer. By the beginning of next season, the Raptors could have failed to re-sign Leonard and Danny Green after trading DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 draft pick. But this gamble might pay off, especially because the Raptors were able to keep Kyle Lowry. Toronto enters the campaign as the No. 3 team in the East, and a successful year could convince Kawhi to ink a near-$190 million deal next offseason.
6. Los Angeles Lakers
We’ll start here: LeBron James makes the Lakers contenders. If you disagree with that statement, nothing we can possibly say will change it. Eight straight appearances in the NBA Finals should be enough evidence. That can also be true without suggesting Los Angeles is already the favorite in the stacked West. The other free-agent signings — including Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee — don’t inspire a whole lot of optimism. Yet whichever uniform “The King” is wearing, that team will always have a chance to thrive.
5. Utah Jazz
Everyone is back for Utah, which surprised much of the NBA world by finishing fifth in the Western Conference last season. Rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell became the breakout star of the campaign, and he’s suddenly the face of the franchise. Considering the Jazz also employ Rudy Gobert, the Defensive Player of the Year, that’s pretty special. Utah re-signed key pieces Derrick Favors and Dante Exum, also drafting Grayson Allen. Together with Joe Ingles, they’re an elite defensive roster with clear offensive upside. Mitchell’s progression will be most impactful.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia explored a trade for Leonard during the offseason, but the trade talks didn’t gain much traction. That’s no big problem, since the Sixers have a sturdy future built around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons anyway. “The Process” reached a new phase in 2017-18, as Philadelphia collected 52 wins and placed third in the East. Much of the roster remains intact, and Markelle Fultz should finally be healthy. Throw in the additions of Chandler and Zhaire Smith, and the Sixers will have a deeper bench to complement its superstars.
3. Houston Rockets
Chris Paul inked a max deal to remain alongside James Harden, the 2017-18 league MVP. With those two players propelling the Rockets, they’re a legitimate threat to overthrow Golden State and its established dynasty. But the offseason hasn’t been overwhelmingly kind to Houston. The stalemate in contract negotiations with Clint Capela is disappointing, and Trevor Ariza bolted for the Phoenix Suns. The Rockets might eventually sign Carmelo, but the only future transaction that could truly affect the roster is Capela winding up elsewhere.
2. Boston Celtics
The Celtics snatched Gordon Hayward last summer, but it’s basically like the forward is joining them for 2018-19. He played a total of five minutes in one game prior to the gruesome leg injury. Oh, and Boston was a single victory from reaching the NBA Finals. The only reason the Celtics didn’t make it — LeBron James — took his talents to the West Coast. Kyrie Irving will also be returning from injury, giving Boston a couple of All-Stars who weren’t available in the playoffs. If the C’s can keep frustrated free agent Marcus Smart, they’ll have enjoyed an ideal offseason.
1. Golden State Warriors
Nobody expects anyone else at the top. No other team should be listed at the top. Since Kevin Durant joined the Warriors in 2016, they’ve secured a championship in both seasons. Still, somehow, Golden State managed to get even better this July, stealing DeMarcus Cousins on the mid-level exception. The Dubs will have a lineup that sends out five All-Stars in KD, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Cousins. Don’t forget about Andre Iguodala, either. Golden State may have concerns on the bench again this season, but it’s a problem 29 other teams would love to have.