1. Boston Celtics
The ‘Big Three’ era in Boston officially ended as Ray Allen’s left for Miami this past summer. While the Celtics will miss Allen’s clutch 3-point shooting, they have gone a long way to filling the void by bringing in fellow sharpshooter Jason Terry. Boston’s best decision this offseason was to lock up defensive all-star Kevin Garnett to a three-year deal. ‘The Big Ticket’ will provide his usual snarl, and groom the Celtics’ future in Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger. Rajon Rondo, one of the best point guards in the league, is expected to take on a bigger offensive role. The Celtics also solidified their bench—a weakness last season—by acquiring shooting guard Courtney Lee in a trade. Expect a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals against Miami.
2. Brooklyn Nets
Pro sports are back in Brooklyn and the Nets are relevant once again. The superstar ownership tandem of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and Jay-Z has put forth its best effort in creating a competitive team that will immediately challenge for a playoff spot. Much to the delight of the crowd at the new Barclays Center, Jay-Z will be dropping some beats to the tune of Deron Williams and newly acquired Joe Johnson, who should make a strong duo in Brooklyn. The Nets were wise to give up their pursuit of Dwight Howard and all the accompanying drama. Brook Lopez should do an admirable job as starting centre at a fraction of the cost. The emergence of the Brooklyn version of the Nets has strengthened the Atlantic Division.
3. New York Knicks
The Knicks have long been New York’s team, but they might just lose their beloved title to the Nets. The truth is that GM Glen Grunwald has assembled a patchwork group that shows little promise. Knicks management seem to be experts in making bad decisions. Jeremy Lin might be an unpredictable talent, but replacing him with an old, oft-injured Jason Kidd is not the solution. Amar’e Stoudemire spends too much time on the injured reserve to be of any help to Carmelo Anthony. Even when the two are healthy, Melo prefers to create opportunities for himself, rather than rely on ball distribution. This team has too many question marks and chemistry issues to succeed.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Philly pulled off a gutsy move in shipping out Andre Iguodala in in exchange for the second-best centre in the NBA, Andrew Bynum. The biggest issue with Bynum is health. His knees have taken a major beating in his career and the big man is scheduled to miss the start of the season with more knee problems. Nevertheless, the 76ers had to take a chance, because Iggy never materialized into a true, team-carrying star. Now it’s up to coach Doug Collins to build on last season’s improbable run, which ended in a game seven Eastern Conference semifinal loss to the Celtics.
5. Toronto Raptors
Let’s make one thing clear: the Raptors won’t make the playoffs. In a division chock-full of stars and quality veteran players, Toronto will be hard-pressed to stay afloat 20 games into the season. This team is built with complementary players forced to shoulder the load of a star-less squad. Toronto’s unimpressive line-up of Andrea Bargnani, Landry Fields, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas is understandable given the team’s difficult task of luring free agents to play in Canada. A more realistic goal for the Raptors is to improve on last season’s miserable 23-43 record. This group of players must now learn to play together and blossom into a competitive team.
1. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers return this season with the same starting lineup of George Hill, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West, and Roy Hibbert that led them to a 42-24 record in 2011-2012. Combine them with a solid supporting cast, and Indiana may be able to make a deep run in the postseason. Moreover, Hibert’s continued development will be crucial for the Pacers this year. Although Indiana is not a flashy team, solid team play will place the Pacers atop the Central Division this season, especially with the Chicago Bulls missing Derrick Rose.
2. Chicago Bulls
With Derrick Rose out with a torn ACL, Chicago is a completely different team from the one that’s finished atop the East the past two seasons. The Bulls will have to compensate for their lack of star power by trusting Head Coach Tom Thibodeau. It will also be crucial to see how well Kirk Hinrich will fill in for Rose, and whether or not Carlos Boozer can finally silence his doubters and live up to expectations. The Bulls seem like they will spiral downwards in the 2012-2013 season, though it wouldn’t be surprising if they finished first in the Central. It’s unlikely that Rose will be fully healthy this season, so the Bulls find it tough to advance past the first round of the playoffs.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
The major question for the Bucks as they enter the 2012-2013 season is whether or not the Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis can co-exist in the backcourt. Ersan Ilyasova will be key to the Bucks’ success if he can build on his surprising season last year. It will be important to trace whether Head Coach Scott Skiles can convince his team to buy into improving their defence, especially with defensive anchor Andrew Bogut gone. Despite their explosive backcourt, it appears that the Bucks will be doomed to ninth- or 10th-seed mediocrity once more.
4. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons have successfully rebooted their franchise. With a young core, consisting of Andre Drummond, Brandon Knight, and Greg Monroe, the Pistons will enter the season looking to reinvigorate the Palace of Auburn Hills. Monroe has improved in relative anonymity in Detroit, but his talent is very real and will be needed this season. The spotlight will also be on Drummond, the Pistons’ first round pick. He has both high bust potential and high star potential, but has looked good so far in the preseason. Expect the Pistons to contend for the eighth spot in the East or land just outside of the playoff bracket.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland is rebuilding in the right direction. 2011-2012 Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving’s continued excellence on the court will be the cornerstone of this franchise as it moves forward in the post-LeBron era. Irving’s ability to stay injury-free will also determine the Cavaliers’ fate this season. After being drafted fourth overall, Dion Waiters will be under much scrutiny. The Cavs are excited about Waiters and his ability to put the ball in the basket, so it will be interesting to see whether he lives up to the hype. Depending on Irving’s health and Waiters’ scoring ability, the Cavs may end up battling for the eighth seed in the East.
1. Miami Heat
Miami is by far the best team in this division, with talent and depth throughout their entire lineup. The ‘Big Three’ will continue to dominate this season, and the addition of veteran guard Ray Allen will only make the Heat an even tougher opponent for the rest of the teams in the Southeast division. One player to keep an eye on is Mario Chalmers. The 26-year-old had an impressive showing in the playoffs last year and will look to continue his success in the 2012-2013 season.
2. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks had a busy offseason, trading away Joe Johnson and bringing in Devin Harris. In the end, neither trade has really made them more of a threat to overtake the Heat for the division title. That said, the Hawks did address their issues at the point guard position, and by trading Johnson, they have freed up some cap space. Expect the Hawks to have no trouble making the playoffs, but unless they acquire a huge star via trade or free agency, they will be in the Heat’s shadow for the foreseeable future.
3. Washington Wizards
Third place in the Southeast is a toss up between the final three teams, but the Wizards seem to be the only one of those teams that is trending upwards. John Wall will continue to be a dominant force in the backcourt, and sophomore forward Jan Vesley will be looking to improve upon a solid rookie season. The real X-factor for the Wizards is 2012 first round pick Bradley Beal. He has been touted as a potential Rookie of the Year candidate, but it remains to be seen whether he can contribute enough to help the Wizards reach the postseason.
4. Orlando Magic
It was a tough summer for Magic fans and it’s only going to get worse. Orlando finally ended the year-long drama with star center Dwight Howard when they traded him for multiple first round picks and other assets. This season marks the beginning of what will likely be a long rebuilding effort to restore the franchise’s image. Truth be told, the only interesting thing to observe about the Magic is how long it takes the fans to call for the coach’s head. Fewer than 20 games seems a likely time frame.
5. Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats are a mess. After finishing with the worst winning percentage in NBA history last season, the Bobcats also managed to lose out in the draft lottery, and settle for the second pick. The franchise didn’t make any significant roster changes over the summer, so expect the same sort of miserable performance this year. There are two things to pay attention to here: will the Bobcats break their own record as the worst team in NBA history, and how long will it take before Michael Jordan comes out of retirement to help his own cause?
1. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers always seem to end up acquiring great players, and the addition of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash immediately make them title contenders. Howard is much more dynamic than Andrew Bynum, and Nash will help Kobe by controlling the ball and getting him open looks. The bench, however, remains an issue. Steve Blake and Chris Duhon figure to play a lot as Nash’s minutes will be reduced, but they will have no answer for some of the league’s top point guards. Like Miami, when it first assembled the ‘Big three’, the Lakers will take some time to gel. But when they do, look for them to be in the NBA Finals.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Year two of Lob City is about to get underway. The Clippers added a bunch of new players, and it will be hard to distribute the bench minutes between Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, and Lamar Odom. Even though L.A. seems like the perfect place for Odom, he appeared out of shape during training camp and struggled in the preseason. Interior defence continues to be a problem for the Clippers, as both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan struggled against quality big men last year. With Chris Paul running the point, the Clippers should be a playoff team, though they will struggle against the Lakers, Thunder, and Spurs.
3. Phoenix Suns
It will be hard to replace first-ballot Hall of Famer Steve Nash, but it was inevitable that he would leave Phoenix at some point. Nevertheless, the Suns have added a few good pieces to their roster: they stole the amnestied Luis Scola off the waiver wire, signed Goran Dragic, and traded for Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson. In addition, their first-round draft pick Kendall Marshall should be a serviceable backup to Dragic. Centre Marcin Gortat was a splendid surprise last year, averaging a double-double. If the new guys mesh together early and the team improves its defence, they could contend for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference.
4. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors will have a tough time making the playoffs this year. Instead, they should focus on the rehabilitation of their point guard Stephen Curry and centre Andrew Bogut. After trading Monta Ellis last season, Klay Thompson stepped up nicely, averaging 18 PPG as a starter. David Lee continues to play well offensively, but his defence is a liability. Rookie Harrison Barnes should be a productive scorer in the NBA, and will compete with Brandon Rush for a starting spot. If their roster remains healthy, the Warriors should be a decent team—but that’s a big ‘if.’
5. Sacramento Kings
Good news: the Kings are staying in Sacramento for the time being. Bad news: they’re not very good. Tyreke Evans, Demarcus Cousins, and Jimmer Ferdette each have their own question marks. Evans had a great rookie season, but has struggled since and could be traded this year. Cousins, on the other hand, improved dramatically last year, but still has some maturity issues. Jimmer was so bad in his rookie year that he may not even be in the league after his first contract expires. On the bright side, there is a lot of young talent on the roster with the backcourt tandem of Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Thornton. First-round draft pick Thomas Robinson should help the team. The present is pretty bleak for the Kings.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
OKC looked set to repeat a very impressive 2011-2012 campaign with another chance at winning the Larry O’Brien trophy. However, its hopes came crashing down when they traded their super-sub James Harden this past weekend. The Thunder are still arguably the best team in the Western Conference, but this move definitely hurts their chances against teams like the Lakers. Without Harden, the Thunder will struggle to generate their drive and kick offence. Jeremy Lamb—one of the players they received for Harden—is much too young to start. The move may turn out well in the future, but for this season, their chances have taken a severe hit.
2. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets got in on the Dwight Howard trade by acquiring Andre Iguodala, one of the premiere defensive shooting guards in the league. This team is a defensive powerhouse and perhaps one of best in the league. Kenneth Faried is entering his second year with a lot of promise, Ty Lawson is becoming one of the best point guards in the league, and Danilo Gallinari’s dynamic offensive game should come together this season. Pair them with Andre Miller and Iguodala, and this may be one of the best teams in basketball. The Nuggets are an exciting team and will probably be for years to come.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves
Between Ricky Rubio’s retro style and Kevin Love dominating the paint, the Timberwolves were a lot of fun to watch last season. Many analysts believed that Minny was poised to make the playoffs this year, until Love broke his hand a few weeks ago. He will be out for a few months and Rubio is also still recovering from his torn ACL and doesn’t expect to be back until January. Relying on Derrick Williams to replace Kevin Love is a toss up. Poaching Brandon Roy out of retirement could prove to pay big dividends, and Andrei Kirilenko should help a lot on defence. This team will be flat out scary when fully healthy, but for now with the present injury situation, the T-Wolves are in some trouble.
4. Portland Trailblazers
Portland is still feeling the effects of Brandon Roy’s departure, but the Blazers are showing signs of recovery, and could rise to contender status very soon. Rookie point guard Damian Lillard is intriguing; critics were wary of his coming into the draft, as he did not play at an elite level of competition in college. Lillard will start right out of the gate, and if he turns out to be a gem, Portland is going to compete in this division. LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the best and most consistent power forwards in the league. Nicolas Batum is quickly turning into a potent small forward, and Wes Matthews will spread the court with his deadly three-point shooting ability. Don’t be surprised if Portland is in contention past the All-Star break.
5. Utah Jazz
Utah has looked toothless since former Head Coach Jerry Sloan stepped down, and a turnaround isn’t likely this season. Star center Al Jefferson consistently puts up good offensive numbers, but unfortunately for Utah, he simply cannot protect the rim. The Jazz have a bright spot in Derrick Favors, who has shown glimpses of becoming an elite player. If he takes the next step this year, Utah could surprise. He will be fighting for minutes on a nightly basis with other young big-man Enes Kanter, which may limit his production.
1. San Antonio Spurs
After leading the Western Conference with 50 wins last season, the San Antonio Spurs chose to preserve last year’s roster over the offseason. The veteran trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker return with Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard rounding out the Spurs core rotation. With Coach Gregg Popovich putting a focus on defence this season, there is little doubt that the Spurs will be one of the best teams in the conference. However, the San Antonio’s championship aspirations are questionable. The Western Conference is extremely deep, so the team will need someone to step-up come playoff time to win a title.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
This could be the last chance for the Grizzlies’ elite group of Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, and Marc Gasol to take Memphis deep into the postseason. The franchise currently sits $3 million over the salary cap, and a change of ownership is pending. All signs point to a complete restructuring of the team if the three cannot prove that they can lead a team past the first round of the playoffs. Over the offseason, the Grizzlies lost O.J. Mayo, but managed to sign former Raptor Jerryd Bayless to help the occasionally lacklustre offence. While a playoff berth is highly likely, the current scenario does little to promise a deep run in the playoffs.
3. Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks avoided any serious financial commitments over the offseason, but still managed to completely change their roster. After missing out on coveted All-Star point guard Deron Williams, the Mavericks managed to land free agents Chris Kaman, O.J. Mayo, and Darren Collision. While the Mavs have a number of interesting pieces, the success of the season again rests on the shoulders of Dirk Nowitzki. If the big man can recover from knee surgery and return to the court soon, the Mavs will have a serious shot of finishing in the top five in the conference. Without Dirk, however, the team will struggle to contend with the West’s best teams.
4. New Orleans Hornets
After another inactive offseason, it looks as though the Hornets have turned to their own roster in order to fill the void left by Chris Paul’s departure. Luckily for the Hornets, there is no shortage of options. Their core is made up of two borderline all-stars, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, alongside the 2012 number one draft pick Anthony Davis, and high scoring prospect Austin Rivers. As a young club, the team will need to endure some inevitable growing pains. How talents like Davis and Rivers react and learn from these challenges will ultimately determine whether this young group can surprise this season and become a major threat in the future.
5. Houston Rockets
After a botched attempt to secure Dwight Howard this offseason, the Houston Rockets have been left with a roster destined for failure. In an attempt to make room for Howard, the Rockets unloaded the majority of its roster and were left with a mismatched lineup filled with young, unproven players. The addition of James Harden will help, but he has yet to prove he can carry a team. The Rockets also managed to snag Jeremy Lin from the Knicks; and while Linsanity may fill seats, he isn’t likely to fill the win column. Expect the Rockets to take up residency in the basement of the Southwest.