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Bulls will face Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo as part of preseason schedule

With just about all of the major off-season roster shuffling completed, not much has changed among the haves and have-nots in the NBA.
Here’s a look at where the teams stand heading into the 2018-19 season.

1. Warriors— The two-time defending champs are the prohibitive favorite to make it four titles in five seasons. At some point during the 2018-19 campaign, they’ll add All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to a line-up that already includes four other All-Stars. We don’t know if Cousins will return to the form that had him averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists before an Achilles tendon injury last January, but the Warriors will gladly take whatever he can contribute when the playoffs begin in April. Free agent Jonas Jerebko and 1st round draft pick Jacob Evans will add quality depth to one of the league’s deepest rosters.

2. Celtics—  With the expected return of All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward from serious injuries, Boston is clearly the class of the East. Young wing players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown played beyond their years in the Celtics’ run to the Conference Finals and look like future stars. Add in veteran big man Al Horford and a deep bench, and Boston is positioned for a long run as a championship contender.

3. Raptors—  I could be wrong here, but with Raptors’ nemesis LeBron James out of the conference, GM Masai Ujiri’s bold move to trade for one guaranteed year of Kawhi Leonard’s services could get Toronto to the Finals. When healthy and motivated, Leonard is a top seven player in the league, and don’t forget the Raptors also got playoff-tested Danny Green in the deal with San Antonio. The Raptors had the NBA’s most productive bench unit last season, and all of those players return with the exception of young center Jakob Poertl, who was traded to the Spurs in the Leonard deal.

4. 76ers—  Philadelphia wasn’t able to lure LeBron or Paul George to join their star duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but the Sixers should be better next season with some valuable playoff experience under their belts. Reports out of Philly indicate that 2017 No. 1 overall draft pick Markelle Fultz is healthy and playing at a high level this summer. Plus, the Sixers traded for underrated veteran forward Wilson Chandler and drafted guards Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet to give Brett Brown even more options off the bench.

5. Rockets—  Maybe it’s just me, but I’m totally unimpressed by the Rockets’ off-season. Losing versatile, defensive minded forwards like Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute in favor of a rapidly declining Carmelo Anthony figures to make Houston weaker on both ends. Plus, Mike D’Antoni did not get along well with Anthony when he was head coach of the Knicks and it’s hard for me to believe the reunion will work out any better. It will be interesting to see if James Harden and Chris Paul can lead Houston anywhere near the 65 wins they recorded last season.

6. Oklahoma City—  Call it addition by subtraction. Losing the ball-stopping Anthony should make the Thunder offense much more efficient in 2018-19, and the high-scoring duo of Russell Westbrook and George should have more freedom and shot attempts. Plus, GM Sam Presti made an underrated move in getting speedy point guard Dennis Schroder from Atlanta in the Melo deal, giving OKC another weapon off the bench when Westbrook takes one of his infrequent rest breaks. Presti also picked up the well-traveled Nerlens Noel on a bargain deal to back up emerging center Steven Adams.

7. L.A. Lakers—  Anytime a team can add the best player on the planet, you’d have to say it was a successful off-season. LeBron James will bring so much to a young Lakers’ roster that quietly played some really good basketball down the stretch last season. Sure, the later moves to add all-time NBA space cadets like Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley caused a lot of head-scratching around the league, but putting LeBron in the line-up should get the Lakers to 50 wins, and you know Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka are planning to bring in Kawhi Leonard or another star next summer. 

8. Utah—  Another quality young roster out West with a future superstar in high scoring guard Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz paid to keep their own free agents, Derrick Favors and Dante Exum, and they figure to continue to improve under the direction of one of the league’s top young coaches in Quin Snyder. The West is loaded, but Utah seems to have figured out a style that can be successful against the powerhouse teams at the top.

9. Pacers—  Led by All-Star guard Victor Oladipo, Indiana came out of nowhere to finish as the No. 5 seed in the East last season, and the Pacers should be even better in 2018-19. Young center Myles Turner is poised for a breakout season, and the Pacers strengthened their bench with the free agent signings of Tyreke Evans, Kyle O’Quinn and former Bulls’ 1st round pick Doug McDermott. Rookie point guard Aaron Holiday gives head coach Nate McMillan another option in the backcourt.

10. Pelicans—  Can New Orleans build on the strong finish that included a 1st round sweep of Portland in last season’s playoffs? Boogie Cousins is gone, but the Pelicans played their best basketball with ex-Bull Niko Mirotic in the starting line-up alongside All-NBA center Anthony Davis. New Orleans replaced Cousins by signing Julius Randle, who averaged 18 points and 9 rebounds in a starting role with the Lakers. The Pelicans will miss veteran point guard Rajon Rondo, who quietly had one of his most efficient seasons playing alongside Jrue Holiday, but they added a player who should help fill the void in former lottery pick Elfrid Payton.

11. Trail Blazers—  Portland finished 3rd in the West last season behind the high-scoring backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The Blazers were able to keep restricted free agent center Jusuf Nurkic and added more perimeter shooting with the free agent signings of Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas. It will be interesting to see if trade rumors start to heat up around Lillard and McCollum if Portland gets off to a slow start.

12. Timberwolves—  Things didn’t go exactly the way Tom Thibodeau planned after making the trade to acquire Jimmy Butler from the Bulls last summer. On the court, Butler did pretty much what the Timberwolves expected, but he missed about a month because of a knee injury and questioned the commitment of young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. This is another team that could look to make a major trade if the season starts poorly. 

13. Bucks—  After another 1st round flameout, the Bucks decided to make a coaching change, bringing in the highly-respected Mike Budenholzer, who worked wonders in Atlanta before the organization decided to go into rebuild mode. In Milwaukee, Budenholzer will try to design a more successful offense around one of the 10 best players in the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks drafted NCAA Tournament hero Donte DiVincenzo to add more shooting to the perimeter trio of Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Tony Snell, and they’ll be looking for bigger contributions from young bigs Thon Maker and D.J. Wilson. 

14. Spurs—  Never underestimate what Gregg Popovich and his staff can do with their roster. Leonard is gone, but he only played 9 games last season, and the Spurs still found a way to win 48 games in the regular season. San Antonio acquired high-scoring guard DeMar DeRozan in the Leonard deal, and he should fit in perfectly in the Spurs’ system alongside veterans LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. San Antonio is also building for the future, adding talented young point guard Dejounte Murray and intriguing shooting guard Lonnie Walker IV in the last three drafts.

15. Wizards—  The Dwight Howard nationwide tour of NBA cities continues with this season’s stop in the nation’s capital. Howard is talking about playing eight more years, but he might run out of potential new teams by then. Star point guard John Wall wasn’t happy with the production the Wizards got from last season’s starting center, Marcin Gortat, so it will be fascinating to see what he thinks of Howard’s carefree approach to his job. Still, with Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter providing the scoring, Washington should be a playoff team in the East.

16. Nuggets—  Denver missed out on the playoffs by virtue of an overtime loss to the Timberwolves on the final day of the regular season. Mike Malone has done a great job with a young roster that features backcourt scorers Jamal Murray and Gary Harris and one of the league’s most unknown stars in 23 year old center Nikola Jokic, who just signed a max contact extension. Denver is hoping for a bounce back season from free agent addition Isaiah Thomas, who averaged 29 points a game for Boston just two years ago, and the Nuggets also could get contributions down the road from top draft pick Michael Porter Jr., who recently had a second back surgery.

17. Heat—  Another team that makes the most of its talent just about every season under veteran head coach Erik Spoelstra. Heat President Pat Riley probably made a mistake by handing out huge contracts to the likes of James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Tyler Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Josh Richardson in recent years, so the Heat are going to be pretty much what they’ve been over the last two seasons, good enough to make the playoffs in a watered down conference, but not much else.

18. Pistons—  New coach Dwane Casey takes over the challenge of how to make this roster work after Stan Van Gundy was fired from his dual roles as head coach and director of basketball operations. Van Gundy rolled the dice with the mid-season deal that brought Blake Griffin over from the Clippers, but couldn’t get the Pistons to the playoffs last season. Still, with the return of a healthy Reggie Jackson, the frontcourt duo of Griffin and Andre Drummond could be enough for Detroit to eke out a playoff spot in 2018-19.

19. Cavaliers—  Now that Kevin Love has agreed to a four-year, $120 million contract extension, it looks like Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert has decided to put off a major rebuilding program following LeBron leaving his home state for the second time. GM Koby Altman had already started planning for the post-James era with the mid-season trades that brought in young prospects Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., and it looks like the Cavs have an exciting young point guard to run the show in their 1st round draft pick Collin Sexton.

20. Grizzlies—  Yes, the Grizzlies were awful last season, but star point guard Mike Conley missed almost the entire season and the injury epidemic affected just about every player on the roster. With Conley healthy again, and the addition of 6’11” shot blocker Jaren Jackson Jr. to team with Marc Gasol up front, Memphis should take a big step forward in the upcoming season, even though they’re not nearly good enough to crack the playoffs in the West. 

21. BULLS—  It’s hard to project what we should expect to see from an extremely young team that could wind up starting five players age 24 or younger. But make no mistake about it, the future is bright after John Paxson and Gar Forman were able to add Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Jabari Parker, Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison in the last two off-seasons. If it all comes together quickly, the Bulls could easily compete with the Heat, Pistons, Cavs and Hornets for one of the final playoff spots in the East. More likely, the Bulls should increase their win total by double digits and be able to identify which players will hold the most prominent roles on future playoff teams.

22. Hornets—  Another disappointing season cost head coach Steve Clifford and GM Rich Cho their jobs in Charlotte. Hard to see where the improvement will come on the existing roster, and the Hornets could lose All-Star point guard Kemba Walker in free agency next summer. 1st round draft pick Miles Bridges will add some athleticism to the frontcourt, but basically it looks like more of the same with underachieving lottery picks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller still in the rotation.

23. Mavericks—  Mercurial owner Mark Cuban finally got his man with DeAndre Jordan signing on as a free agent after backing out on a commitment to the Mavs several years ago. Jordan is still a quality big man who will tremendously upgrade the Mavericks’ defense, but there’s nowhere to hide 40 year old Dirk Nowitzki on that end of the court. The future Hall of Famer is getting ready to begin his 21st season in Dallas, and at times it’s painful watching him try to run up and down the court. The Mavs traded up to get international sensation Luka Doncic, and we should expect to see plenty of Doncic and explosive point guard Dennis Smith Jr. on highlight shows next season.

24. Clippers—  Lob City is no more in L.A. Jordan, Griffin and Paul are all gone, and Doc Rivers even agreed to let the front office trade his son Austin in the team’s on-going rebuild this summer. The Clips have some interesting pieces in forwards Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari, guards Lou Williams and Avery Bradley, and lottery picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson, but unless they hit it big in 2019 free agency, they figure to be L.A.’s “other” team for many years to come.

25. Suns—  Love the Suns’ draft this summer which brought in franchise center Deandre Ayton and versatile forward Mikal Bridges. The front office also locked up elite shooter Devin Booker with a max contract extension and brought in some veteran experience in forward Trevor Ariza. But this is still one of the league’s youngest rosters, and more growing pains lie ahead.

26. Knicks—  The Knicks took a big step in restoring their image by hiring David Fizdale as their new head coach. Fizdale has a lot of respect among players around the league from his days as an assistant coach in Miami and his brief run as the head coach in Memphis. The question is, can Fizdale show enough progress with next season’s team that could be without All-Star forward Kristaps Porzingis (ACL rehab) to entice a star player or two to join the Knicks in free agency next summer?

27. Magic—  Orlando’s front office didn’t waste any time in locking up restricted free agent forward Aaron Gordon with a four-year, $84 million contract on the opening day of free agency. The Magic also added 7-foot shot blocker Mo Bamba to join Gordon, Nik Vucevic and 2017 1st round pick Jonathan Isaac up front. Problem is the backcourt is woefully thin with ex-Bulls D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant competing for the starting point guard spot.

28. Kings—  Sacramento continues to stockpile young players, drafting explosive power forward Marvin Bagley III with the No. 2 overall pick in this summer’s draft after adding point guard De’Aaron Fox with the No. 5 pick in 2017. Sacramento also has recent 1st rounders Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles, Skal Labissiere and Ben McLemore on the roster. You would think that sooner or later all those high picks would lead to more wins, but the Kings are the classic example of how playing for draft position rarely works out in the NBA.

29. Nets—  In Brooklyn, it’s all about the summer of 2019 when the Nets are expected to have two max salary slots available and might be in the position to sign the All-Star duo of Butler and Irving, who’ve been talking about playing together for a few years. As for the upcoming season, not much to get excited about unless you like to watch mediocre veterans on expiring contracts. 

30. Hawks—  Atlanta’s home arena is one of the quietest in the league, so it makes sense the Hawks would reach for exciting but inefficient point guard Trae Young with their high lottery pick. The front office cleared the way for the former Oklahoma star by trading the team’s best player, Dennis Schroder to Oklahoma City. So look forward to plenty of 30 footers from Young in the upcoming season. The Hawks have a couple good young forwards in John Collins and Taurean Prince, but not much else except for the possibility of three 1st round picks next June.

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