Preseason rankings: Prepare for a Clippers-Cavs finals

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The preseason is behind us. The offseason — with its days spent waiting on LeBron, its stunning turns, its goofball trades and odd signings — is even further behind us. And the Heat-Spurs Finals of last June is buried even deeper in the memory bank.

Looking ahead, it’s clear the NBA is ready for a shakeup, ready to hear for the kind of sentence no responsible individual would have uttered for most of the decades in which basketball has been in existence. The league is ready for this: A Clippers-Cavaliers Finals.

That’s right. A Clippers-Cavaliers Finals. Consider it, think about it, mull it, hash it out.

The Cavaliers have the eighth-worst franchise record in NBA history, a winning percentage of .454. The Clippers are even worse — worst of all, in fact. Yes, the Clippers have the grip on franchise futility, a league-worst .382 winning percentage spread over 44 years.

Much has changed, though. In our season-opening rankings, stalwarts like the Lakers (26th) and Celtics (24th) are buried at the bottom. At the same time, some of the NBA’s true lightweights who are at the top:

1. Clippers

Projected record: 58-24

Projected Western Conference rank: 1st

In what should be a wild regular season for several NBA teams, the outlook here is for some blessed redemption for what might be the most historically downtrodden franchise in all of major American sports. The Blake Griffin-Chris Paul combo has yet to produce a postseason bounty, but that is primed to change.

2. Spurs

Projected record: 56-26

Projected Western Conference rank: 2nd

The defending champs are a lock to be a contender again, and will be considered the favorites in many corners. We’ll stick with the notion that age will eventually do some damage to Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and/or Tim Duncan — though that day has been slow to come and the emergence of forward Kawhi Leonard might offset it anyway.

3. Cavaliers

Projected record: 55-27

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 1st

LeBron James and Kevin Love are on board, as are Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and James Jones. The Cavs have the talent to compete with anyone, but the veterans will need time to develop chemistry and younger players — Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters especially — will need to establish themselves in the rotation. New coach David Blatt, who’s never been in the NBA, will be a wildcard.

4. Thunder

Projected record: 54-28

Projected Western Conference rank: 3rd

Losing Kevin Durant early in the year — possibly for the first month or six weeks — will hurt the overall record for OKC, but the Thunder remain a dangerous team once he returns. The pressure is on Russell Westbrook to lead in Durant’s absence, and coach Scott Brooks will be under the microscope once the postseason hits.

5. Warriors

Projected record: 53-29

Projected Western Conference rank: 4th

The Warriors have a deep roster and the best backcourt in the league — that’s a pretty good start. The question is whether new coach Steve Kerr, who has never coached in the league before, can run a system that takes advantage of the talent he has while also maintaining the tight locker-room connections that predecessor Mark Jackson had.

6. Bulls

Projected record: 52-30

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 2nd

No surprise, the bulk of the Bulls’ campaign comes down to the health of Derrick Rose. But there will be other factors, including the team’s depth on the wing, the play of Pau Gasol at power forward and the performance of rookies Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic.

7. Mavericks

Projected record: 52-30

Projected Western Conference rank:  5th

The Mavs were surprisingly good last season, and opted to completely shake up the roster in the summer — Tyson Chandler is back, along with Raymond Felton, while Jose Calderon and Sam Dalembert are gone. But the big question is whether Chandler Parsons can be the solid No. 2 option next to Dirk Nowitzki.

8. Suns

Projected record: 50-32

Projected Western Conference rank: 6th

Guard Eric Bledsoe is back to form a high-scoring, athletic backcourt with Goran Dragic, and new signee Isaiah Thomas will add to that mix. Getting forwards Markieff and Marcus Morris to continue their development, as well as Miles Plumlee and center Alex Len, is crucial to getting the Suns to the playoffs, though.

9. Raptors

Projected record: 49-33

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 3rd

After putting together a surprising run last year, the Raptors are in the tricky position of needing to show it was not a fluke. They should be able to do just that — they have developing youngsters (Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan), a key new player (Lou Williams) and easily the league’s worst division.

 

10. Blazers

Projected record: 48-34

Projected Western Conference rank: 7th

The Blazers were blessed with excellent health last season, as four of five starters played all 82 games. If that happens again, Portland should top 50 wins. But that’s unlikely, and for a roster lacking depth, a slight step backward seems logical.

11. Hornets

Projected record: 46-36

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 4th

The addition of Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams on the wing shores up some weak spots in the Charlotte rotation. If Stephenson can keep his head together and play like he did in the first half of last season, he figures to be a bargain on a team that needs a complement to big man Al Jefferson.

 

12. Wizards

Projected record: 45-37

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 5th

The Wizards have added veteran depth at just about every position, with Andre Miller, Paul Pierce, Kris Humphries and Drew Gooden in place. But ultimately, it is the young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal that will carry this team, and the early injury to Beal (fractured left wrist) hurts their continued growth.

13. Rockets

Projected record: 45-37

Projected Western Conference rank: 8th

The Rockets took their lumps this summer when they lost forward Chandler Parsons in free agency after trading away Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to clear cap space — the hope had been to lure Chris Bosh away from Miami. Bosh stayed put and the Rockets lost Parsons in the shuffle, but credit the Rockets with this: They took a crack at building a mega-team. It failed, though, and now they’re just a decent West team.

14. Nets

Projected record: 44-38

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 6th

There’s much less hype around this Nets team, yet they’ll probably be much as the same as they were last year. Point guard Deron Williams is in better shape, and if center Brook Lopez can hold up for a whole season, the Nets will easily be a playoff team in the East.

15. Heat

Projected record: 43-39

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 7th

The Heat didn’t completely crumble when LeBron James wrote he’d be taking his talents back to Northern Ohio. They shelled out an absurd contract for Chris Bosh, kept Dwyane Wade and signed contributors Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger. Miami is not a contender by any stretch of the imagination, but the Heat will be a playoff team for certain.

16. Grizzlies

Projected record: 42-40

Projected Western Conference rank: 9th

There are so many up-and-coming West teams that it’s hard to figure which groups will go down. The guess here is Memphis, which has an aging and stagnant roster. Memphis was still a very good team when healthy last year, but keeping them healthy might be difficult.

17. Pelicans

Projected record: 42-40

Projected Western Conference rank: 10th

It sure looks like the Pels are ready for a big season behind star big man Anthony Davis. Problem is, they still have a crowded backcourt situation, with Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans on hand. None particularly distinguished himself last season. The big hope, though, is that defense-and-rebounding center Omer Asik provides the perfect complement to Davis up front, and that will allow the guards time to sort themselves out.

18. Nuggets

Projected record: 41-41

Projected Western Conference rank: 11th

There’s a lot to look forward to in Denver, with Danilo Gallinari finally back from knee surgery, JaVale McGee returning from a stress fracture, Arron Afflalo back with the team and Kenneth Faried prepped for a breakout year. But the Nuggets roster is still slightly mismatched with the style of play that coach Brian Shaw wants, and the health of point guard Ty Lawson bears watching.

19. Hawks

Projected record: 41-41

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 8th

It was an offseason marked by controversy and bizarreness, and while it might seem Atlanta is primed for a tumble, they do get center Al Horford back. If Horford and forward Paul Millsap play a whole season together, the Hawks won’t be so bad.

20. Knicks

Projected record: 40-42

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 9th

The Derek Fisher-Phil Jackson era gets underway with a team that is still a long way from contending. This year will be all about figuring out which players belong with the team going forward, and which will shuffled out the door as the rebuilding begins in earnest next summer.

21. Pistons

Projected record: 39-43

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 10th

New coach and head honcho Stan Van Gundy has a plan, but this roster is still a long way from fulfilling it. Van Gundy will be active in trade circles as he seeks to find the right blend of perimeter players to go along with budding big man Andre Drummond.

22. Pacers

Projected record: 37-45

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 11th

The Pacers played hardball with Lance Stephenson, and he wound up bolting for Charlotte. That stung, but not nearly as much as the (likely) season-long loss of star forward Paul George to a broken leg. With David West’s health in question, too, the Pacers could be leaning heavily on guard George Hill and center Roy Hibbert, and that really sounds like a bad idea.

23. Kings

Projected record: 32-50

Projected Western Conference rank: 12th

Can the Kings finally break out of their eight-year playoff drought? Not likely. Sacramento will be better, and this could be the year that DeMarcus Cousins finally puts talent together with attitude and approach. Even if that happens, the West is just too much for this group, and the progress will continue to be incremental.

24. Celtics

Projected record: 30-52

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 12th

The target on 2015 remains — Boston will have cap space for free agency and has oodles of draft picks at the ready to facilitate trades. Ultimately, the team needs to see its youngsters develop and needs a resurgence of guard Rajon Rondo before it can push its way back to respectability next summer.

25. Timberwolves

Projected record: 28-54

Projected Western Conference rank: 13th

Kevin Love is gone, but the Wolves are in a nice position to rebuild quickly, adding No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, last year’s top pick (Anthony Bennett) as well as former Sixers forward Thaddeus Young. They’ll need some accelerated growth from point guard Ricky Rubio in order to break through.

26. Lakers

Projected record: 26-56

Projected Western Conference rank: 14th

So it apparently seemed like a good idea to pick up forward Carlos Boozer after drafting forward Julius Randle and re-signing forward Jordan Hill. Add Ed Davis — yet another middling forward — into the mix and you get a pretty good thumbnail sketch of where the Lakers roster is right now. Prepare for a lot of Kobe Bryant shots and an occasional throwback performance, but more important, prepare for a lot of losses.

27. Bucks

Projected record: 24-58

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 13th

Well, they’ll be fun. They might not be particularly good, but the Bucks will at least have two of the most intriguing young players in the game, 19-year-olds Giannis Antetokounmpo and No. 2 pick Jabari Parker. New coach Jason Kidd had better have a lot of patience.

28. Jazz

Projected record: 23-59

Projected Western Conference rank: 15th

New coach Quin Snyder takes over a team with Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward in place at the forward spots, and some interesting young talent around them — most notably first-round mystery man Dante Exum of Australia. They’re very young, and though the future may be bright, the near-term will be rough for Utah.

29. Magic

Projected record: 20-62

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 14th

Orlando got a blow when guard Victor Oladipo took a fracture to the face that will keep him out a month. The Magic have a pretty thin margin of error to begin with, so expect a slow start — one that could imperil coach Jacque Vaughn’s job security.

30. Sixers

Projected record: 16-66

Projected Eastern Conference rank: 15th

You can argue the merits of the Sixers’ approach to rebuilding, but make no mistake — they’re setting out to be bad again, and they’re going to get there. We’ll get the debut of Nerlens Noel and in the coming years we’ll see Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and whatever draft prizes the Sixers pluck next summer. In the meantime, there will be willful misery.

FOXSPORTS: 2014-15 awards