1. Boston Celtics
No surprise here. The defending champs are back and seemingly ready to take home another title. The loss of James Posey seems to me to be a major loss, with lesser players such as Tony Allen and Bill Walker having to attempt to fill the void, and I think it will effect the Celtics more than most people think. That being said, Pierce seems to be on a mission to prove he's an elite player and I will never doubt Kevin Garnett's desire to win. The Big Three has had another year together, Rondo has gotten another year of experience, and it seems as if you're looking at the Eastern conference champs here.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
Ah, the Sixers. The hyped team du jour because of a big, big free agent signing. But do they really deserve it? I'm not entirely sure. Brand has never been the healthiest, most consistent guy in the league, and they're running with a 32 year old point guard in Andre Miller, which surely doesn't seem to bode well for their health down the road. I think Thaddeus Young is ready to make a leap, and Iguodala has established himself as a very good, if not great player, but it feels like they're still missing somebody. They could really use a good scorer for crunch time, which Brand really hasn't proven he can do. Unless someone emerges during the season, look for a very good regular season, but a relatively short playoff stay for Philly.
3. Toronto Raptors
Another team that's gotten a lot of ink this preseason, mostly due to their draft day deal for Jermaine O'Neal. Count me among those who don't believe. O'Neal is an old power forward who is going down hill fast, and I just don't see him being able to bang in the post with fresher 4s and 5s. Don't get me wrong, I love Calderon getting the starting gig, and I think he'll do a lot with it, but I can't get behind the O'Neal gamble, as well as their shaky bench. Good, but not great.
4. New Jersey Nets
The Nets have done everything but put up billboards stamped with "LEBRON 2010" in the Brooklyn area, as this is gonna be a rebuilding year. Vinsanity probably isn't long for this team, given the quality of the team, and his propensity for taking it easy now that he has a fat contract with a bad team. Look for him to either be dealt midseason to a contender (Cleveland?) or to have a typical "I'm Vince Carter, I'm Gonna Miss 20 Games with Phantom Injuries and Barely Try for the Rest" kinda season until he is jettisoned in the offseason. Some of the young guys have promise, especially Lopez, Harris, and even Boone and Sean Williams, but another lottery is right where they're headed, and probably what they need most right now.
5. New York Knicks
Mike D'Antoni sweeps in to take control for the long suffering Knicks, but the magic he had in Phoenix won't follow. There are a precious few number of players on the roster who even come close to fitting his run and gun system, such as Wilson Chandler, David Lee and Danilo Gallinari, with even more who are the exact opposite of what he needs (here's looking at you Zach Robinson and Eddy Curry). Things are gonna be rough for a while, and much like their Jersey counterparts, this is a long journey, with the lottery being the next logical step.
1. Detroit Pistons
Joe Dumars has ignored the critics and decided to take one last shot with the Billups, Hamilton and Sheed group, for better or for worse. Some of the young guys they acquired have shown a lot, especially guard Rodney Stuckey and the high energy PF Jason Maxiell, but they're gonna have to take on a major load this year. Amir Johnson has been anointed as the starter at power forward, and his production will also have a large effect on the quality of their play. I wouldn't expect the excellent season they had last year, but with Rasheed Wallace in a contract year, I wouldn't rule one last throwback season out for this team. High playoff seed, and but it's a crapshoot after that.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
For once, LeBron James isn't the first name mentioned when people talk about the Cavaliers in the preseason. This year, Mo Williams, the dynamic point guard acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks, has been the subject of all the attention, with many asserting that Williams' new scoring and distributing ability combined with James' eventual leap to dominant status will push the Cavs over the edge. I'll believe it when I see it. They are still going to be starting both Zydrunas Ilguaskas and Ben Wallace, neither of whom have proved that they can score in the paint or run with a fast paced offense, and are going to be coached by Mike Brown, who has only ever loved defense, defense and defense in that order. Pavlovic and Gibson battled injuries all last year, and unless they're able to move Sczerbiak midseason, they are still one piece short. With this pick, I'm either gonna be really wrong, or really right, but I think they have another year or so to wait.
3. PacersHere's a pleasant surprise for ya. A lot of the old guard is gone now with the departure of O'Neal, and the new guard (Brandon Rush, Jarrett Jack) seems promising enough. Coach Jim O'Brien finally is starting to get the players he needs for his system, and if T.J. Ford can stay on the court for a little while (a tall order, I know) then he, Danny Granger and company could be a nice little "we'd be bad anywhere else, but this is the Eastern conference!" type team. Maybe no playoffs, but a decent step in the right direction.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
I'm not prepared to predict a great, even good season for the Bucks, but Scott Skiles is a good fit for a team needing a little bit of discipline, and the addition of Jefferson and Alexander makes them interesting at least. Ramon Sessions showed some nice abilities in garbage time last year, and Villaneuva and Bogut continue to be players with some decent potential. Depending on how the guys gel, this could be a surprisingly o.k. team.
5. Chicago Bulls
A rookie point guard+a rookie head coach+athletic project type players (Noah, Thomas)+ no clear style of play= wait a few years to buy those playoff tickets Windy City fans.
1. Orlando Magic
An unspectacular team, but definitely a solid one. Howard is a beast, and Lewis and Turkoglu are some pretty good guys, but Nelson at point guard really holds them back. I think they'll win the division by playing solid defense, a Van Gundy trademark, but have a relatively quick playoff exit. Hmm just like last year.
2. Washington Wizards
Blech. No Arenas until December after giving him a giant deal is a tough one to take, although they really should have seen it coming. Daniels is a decent fill in, and providing they can stay on the court, Butler and Jamison are both good guys, but there is still no one on the team that can play any defense. I really like Nick Young, however, and I think Blatche and even Songaila will be able to contribute. They'll do well mostly due to the lack of competitiveness in the conference and in the division, but I'm gonna predict they'll lose in the first round to the Cavs, if only because that just seems to be what they do.
3. Miami Heat
Well, you can say this for Miami- their top three ranks as among the best in the league. However, it's the other 13 that are the problem. The Wade, Marion and Beasley trio will surely be a dynamic threat, but it's the Chris Quinn/Marcus Banks/Mario Chalmers point guard mush and the Mark Blount/Jamaal Magloire/ Bill Russell signed off the street/a cardboard cut out of Kareem Abdul Jabar center group that concerns me. Maybe they'll deal Marion for some guys to fill those positions, or maybe they'll just stick with what they've got and get kinda sorta close to the playoffs. Who knows, maybe they'll just give the starting center job to the cardboard cut out. I hear he's got a wicked sky hook.
4. Atlanta Hawks
After the Hawks took the Celtics to seven games in the playoffs, people started buzzing about Atlanta's young talent guided by the steady veteran hand of Mike Bibby. But then Josh Childress left, increasing Marvin Williams' role. And then people realized that once Bibby, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford get off the court, you're looking at the Zaza Pachulia, Ronald Murray, Speedy Claxton and Maurice Evans power combo. And shortly after that, people stopped predicting them to make the playoffs. Not lottery bound necessarily, but I wouldn't be buying playoff tickets either.
5. Charlotte Bobcats
Double blech. A few good parts (Jason Richardson, Gerald Wallace) but not much else. Larry Brown seems to have landed himself another hopeless coaching situation, but this time in North Carolina, instead of bustling New York city. There's no way this situation could turn ugly!
1. Los Angeles Lakers
A very legitimate title contending team. Losers of last year's Finals, but returning the reigning MVP, the excellent Pau Gasol and one of the best developing young centers in Andrew Bynum. They're deep at almost every position and are poised for a run to the Finals. However, I have some concerns. How will Bynum and Gasol play together? Will Odom accept his role off the bench and play effectively in the playoffs? Is Kobe going to be as dominant as last year after recurring pinkie problems after a grueling summer Olympic schedule? It all remains to be seen, but this team surely has to be considered the prohibitive conference favorites heading into the year.
2. Phoenix Suns
Sad days in the desert. No more D'Antoni, and a little too much Shaq. By year's end the Suns medical staff may have to wheel O'Neal and Nash onto the court for the games. Stoudemire is looking like he'll be a beast, but owner Robert Sarver has been selling the team's draft picks for far too long, and beyond rookie Robin Lopez, who seems to have promise, there just isn't enough young talent to sustain the team. Fringe playoff contenders at best, dropping out of the party altogether at worst.
3. ClippersWell, they tried to put together the Brand-Baron Davis one-two punch in the offseason, but when Brand turned his back on them, they had to resort to Plan B. So, they traded for Marcus Camby and signed Ricky Davis. Not quite as appetizing,eh? Eric Gordon looks as if he could be a good guy down the road, and Al Thornton and Chris Kaman have both begun to develop, but aside from Camby, I doubt that any player on the team has even heard the term "defense", which is a very bad thing in the Western conference. They could possibly be in the mix for the seventh or eighth seed, but probably not much else.
Kind of a sneaky little team here. Kevin Martin may be the best young scorer in the league, and Beno Udrih, John Salmons and Francisco Garcia have all proven to be decent, if not remarkable, players, and young guys like Spencer Hawes and Donte Green could provide the team with a little spark. I'm not suggesting they're going to even be sniffing the playoffs, but maybe after a few more high draft picks, they could be pretty interesting.
With no clear starting point guard until Monta Ellis returns in December, the Warriors are gonna be in trouble. Nellieball doesn't really function without someone running the show effectively, and as soon as things start to go downhill, I seriously doubt that guys like Steven Jackson and Corey Maggette are going to hold things together. I think they're going to be a disappointment, with another, higher lottery pick surely being in their future.
Southwest Division:1. New Orleans Hornets
Now here's a team that is going places. Chris Paul is going to be one of the best NBA players ever, and is certainly a contender for MVP this year, an award that he arguably could have taken home last year. David West and Tyson Chandler have become dominant low post and rebounding studs, and swingmen such as Peja Stojakovic and the newly acquired James Posey provide the team with even more weapons for Paul to utilize. If Julian Wright continues to develop into a playmaker for when Paul takes a seat, then there really aren't too many negatives about this Hornets team. I could see them going head to head with the Lakers for the conference title this year, and even coming out on top. Watch out for this team come June.
2. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are the next team to step up to play Ron Artest Roulette, with a shot at the title on the line. Suprisingly though, he isn't the problem I see with the team. I actually think Artest is a perfect fit for coach Rick Adelman's style of play. However, Yao Ming, the star center,could really throw a wrench in the works. He's a little too slow to run with the small lineup they would hope to put on the floor, and is coming off yet another injury shortened season. If he continues his trend of missing at least half the season, then the Rockets will be fine, and their aggressive defensive minded unit should be among the best in the West. If he somehow manages to stick around, things could get messy. Who knew Rockets fans would be hoping for another season ending injury for Yao? In any case, at worst they're a high playoff seed, and at best they're title contenders. Only time will tell which.
3. Dallas Mavericks
Contrary to what many in the media would have you believe, all is not lost in Big D. Rick Carlisle comes in as a less controlling Avery Johnson type coach, preaching solid defense that fuels an up tempo offense. Another year with Jason Kidd can only help Dirk and company, and the reacquistion of Desgana Diop and the pickup of athletic swingman Gerald Green promise to give the team an added spark. While age is quickly becoming a concern for Kidd, Terry and even Nowitzki, the team has several good young players, such as Josh Howard, Brandon Bass, Antoine Wright and the aforementioned Green, as well as the ability to potentially put together a midseason deal for another star to put them over the edge. This may be one of the last seasons the Mavericks have to piece together a title run with this group, and I wouldn't count on them taking it sitting down.
4. San Antonio Spurs
Now, I know their pattern is to win it all every other year, but I wouldn't count the pattern continuing. Ginobli's ankle problems have been well publicized, and while Duncan is still a great player, he can't carry the team on his shoulders anymore. Parker is there, and while his 20 a game is great, there's just nothing else coming from outside the big three. Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley just aren't the same, and you know that all you're getting from Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas is defense and rebounding. They didn't really add anyone significant in the offseason, and unless rookie George Hill really puts things together, I just don't see where the offense is going to come from with Ginobli out. Now, I know Greg Poppovich will work his magic, and they'll make a late season run once every one comes back, but I don't see them having enough to go far in the playoffs.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
In a couple years, watch out for the Grizzlies. Rudy Gay is developing into a monster, O.J. Mayo will be a great player, and then you have Mike Conley, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol, Darrell Arthur and Kyle Lowry. All of these guys are young and talented, and could either become a valuable part of the team, or be traded for others. However, we aren't there yet. There's a logjam at point guard and Darko Milicic as the starting center really holds them back. Check back in a few years, and there's gonna be something awful special down in Memphis.
1. Utah Jazz:Deron Williams' ankle injury has dominated the discussion of the Jazz, but only because it has become boring to discuss his excellence along with power forward Carlos Boozer. An extremely technically sound team under Jerry Sloan, with some excellent complimentary players in Kirilenko, Okur, Millsap, Brewer and Korver. If the West wasn't so loaded right now they surely would have won a title already, and they are surely going to give it a good chase this year.
2. Portland Trail Blazers
EVERYONE is talking about the Blazers, and with good reason. We finally get to see former number one overall draft pick Greg Oden, as well as international sensation Rudy Fernandez. The Blazers have a remarkable core in Oden, Aldridge, Roy and Outlaw. Then there is the supporting case of Jerryd Bayless, Channing Frye, and Martell Webster. It's almost a little unfair. A lot depends on how Oden develops, but as long as Roy continues to improve, and Fernandez and Bayless can start to contribute, the Blazers will be playoff bound.
3. Denver Nuggets
For how qucikly Portland is rising, that's how quickly Denver is dwindling. They still have Iverson and Anthony, but not much else beyond those two and J.R. Smith. They lost Camby, their best defender, and will now depend more than ever on their offense to carry them. It should win them some games, but most likely not enough to get to the playoffs.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
Starting to become a little frisky. After coming away with an absolute steal in the Kevin Love/Mike Miller for O.J. Mayo deal, the Wolves could be dangerous down the road. However, as nice as the Love, Jefferson and Miller combo may be, I don't think that Foye is ready to be the scoring swingman they need. Just give it a little while.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are barely sure of their name and uniform colors at this point, let alone how they hope to put people in the seats in their new city. Durant and Green will continue to develop, along with newcomer Westbrook, but there are rough times ahead for them, and one can only hope they take it as a learning experience.
Well, that about raps it up. All we can do now is wait and see, and talk about how horribly wrong some of our predictions were. Bring on the season!