Wednesday, October 31, 2012

10/31: NBA Opening Night, etc.

Greetings! I'm as shocked as you are to see a "daily"-type post in this space, but here we go...
  • The Heat are 1-0. Lebron led the way with 26 and 10, Dwyane Wade (29 points) and Ray Allen (19 points) picked up the scoring load, and Chris Bosh put up a customary 19/10 double-double as Miami beat Boston to begin their title defense. They basically did whatever they wanted to offensively (54% FG, 50% 3-point) and basically ran them out of the gym. Rondo had 20 points and 13 assists to lead Boston. 
  • The Lakers?... didn't have so much success. Dallas went on the road, without Dirk, and toppled LA 99-91 last night. The Mavs had 6 guys in double-figures (and nine players with 7+ points) led by 17 from Darren Collison. For me, the loss came down to LA's God-awful free throw shooting (12-31 as a team, 3-14 for Dwight alone) and their unwillingness to let Nash run the offense. It was comical how Mike Brown and company failed to get the ball in Nash's hands and the results were less than desirable as a result. Godspeed to them. 
  • In the 3rd (non-national TV) game, Kyrie Irving had 29 points to lead Cleveland to a 94-84 win over Washington. The best line of the night, however? Anderson Varejao, who scored just 9 points, but had a ridiculous twenty-three rebounds and also dropped 9 assists. Don't sleep on Cleveland.
  • The Braves picked up three different player options totally about $25 million yesterday. Brian McCann was the most high-profile one at $13 million, and he was really the only one with any question surrounding it. However, it seems like his surgery went well after the season and he's on track for a May return. The internal catcher option really isn't there at this point, and I like the pick-up for McCann. Pencil in Maholm and Hudson into the rotation for next year, and they'll be joined by Medlen, Minor, and either Hanson, Delgado or Teheran (as it stands today).
  • MLB released their Gold Glove awards last night. I won't break them all down, but Jason Heyward won his 1st award and it was well-deserved. There were some snubs as always (Michael Bourn, for one) but the most egregious one is Mike Trout. How does that guy not win a gold glove? Come on. 
What to watch for on Wednesday...
  • League Pass Free Preview! - The NBA gives us all a free week of league pass, so I'd suggest taking advantage. The best games tonight are: Nuggets @ Sixers (7:00) as a battle of playoff contenders, Rockets @ Pistons (7:00) as the debut of James Harden in Houston, Mavs @ Jazz (9:00) as the foray into my Jazz love affair, and Grizzlies @ Clippers (10:30) for the chance to see Chris Paul and Mike Conley. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

2012-2013 NBA Preview Part 3: Awards and Predictions

Greetings! After nearly 20,000 words (not a misprint) in the two conference previews, we've arrived at the final installment and my picks for the playoffs, awards, etc. Let's get it going!

  • Most Improved Player - Tristan Thompson, PF Cleveland Cavaliers - The worst-kept secret of the most improved player award is that it is directly tied to an opportunity increase, and is not really indicative of actual improvement. The thing about Thompson is that I believe he is actually going to improve AND have an opportunity increase. Last season, Thompson averaged 8 points and 7 rebounds a game with a PER of 13.37 in Cleveland as a 20 year old. This season? I'm calling my shot and saying he jumps up to 14 and 10 with a PER of between 17 and 18 and becomes the full-fledged running mate for Kyrie Irving. Boom.
  • 6th Man of the Year - Kevin Martin, SG Oklahoma City Thunder - We were on the verge of renaming this the Harden/Ginobili trophy... until now! In fairness, I would've picked Harden (as anyone should've) until Saturday night when he was dealt, but I'm sticking with OKC 2-guards and going with Martin. I wrote in the preview post that he was absolutely born to be a 6th man, and I meant it. I think Martin averages 17-18 points a game on a 50+ win team, and that's usually a good recipe for votes in this category.
  • Rookie of the Year - Anthony Davis, C/PF New Orleans Hornets - This is the only answer unless you're trying to get cute, and I won't do it. Davis should average in the neighborhood of 10 boards a game and 2 blocks a game while being an impact defender immediately. One of the easiest picks on the board.
  • Coach of the Year - Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat - This is really going to be in response to what he did in last year's playoffs, but if Miami rattles off 65+ wins this season and does so with Lebron at the power forward spot? Give it to "coach Spo".
  • Defensive Player of the Year - Dwight Howard, C Los Angeles Lakers - After a hiatus, Dwight returns to lead the league in blocks this season on the Lakers. He'll have plenty of chances when guys blow by Kobe and Nash, and Dwight is ready for the challenge. He's easily the best defensive player in the league, and he'll show it this season. If you want a sleeper? Go with Tony Allen.
  • MVP - Lebron James, SF Miami Heat - Easy formula. Best player in the world. Weight off his shoulders. Full 82-game season to show his mastery. Formulated role now as the power forward. I think Lebron goes for 29/9/8 this season and cements his dominance from the jump.

  1. Miami (65-17)
  2. Indiana (51-31)
  3. Boston (50-32)
  4. Brooklyn (49-33)
  5. Philadelphia (45-37)
  6. New York (44-38)
  7. Chicago (42-40)
  8. Atlanta (41-41)
  9. Cleveland (38-44)
  10. Milwaukee (36-46)
  11. Toronto (35-47)
  12. Washington (33-49)
  13. Detroit (25-57)
  14. Orlando (17-65)
  15. Charlotte (14-68)
The East is a bit of a mess this year. While I think the middle/mediocre portion of the East actually improved, it's tough to peg a 2nd elite team after Miami. I think Boston is unquestionably the 2nd-best team in the conference, but with their pension (and rightly so, mind you) to coast through the season to save Pierce and Garnett, I don't see more than 50 wins. From 2 through 8 in the East, I honestly don't see a big gap between any of the teams, and I've seen the Hawks picked as highly as #2 in some previews. Charlotte is the only team that would absolutely shock me to reach 30 wins, and the bottom of the conference should be wide-open as well.

  1. San Antonio (60-22)
  2. Los Angeles Lakers (57-25)
  3. Oklahoma City (54-28)
  4. Denver (53-29)
  5. Los Angeles Clippers (50-32)
  6. Utah (47-35)
  7. Memphis (46-36)
  8. Dallas (42-40)
  9. Minnesota (40-42)
  10. Golden State (40-42)
  11. Houston (35-47)
  12. Portland (34-48)
  13. Sacramento (31-51)
  14. Phoenix (26-56)
  15. New Orleans (24-58)
The West is more top-heavy than usual and the depth of contenders isn't there. I only see 4 teams with a legit chance to win the conference in the regular season and they are the top 4. Oklahoma City would've been my pick pre-Harden trade, but they settle at the 3 spot. The bottom of the West isn't as bad as Charlotte/Orlando, but New Orleans could bottom out in a big way if Eric Gordon misses a lot of time. There are a lot of injury questions in the middle (Dirk in Dallas, Love/Rubio in Minnesota, Randolph in Memphis, etc.) and the Houston pick is ambitious based on the acquisition of Harden, but there it is.

  • 1st Round - Miami over Atlanta, Chicago (with Rose) over Indiana, Boston over NY, Brooklyn over Philly, San Antonio over Dallas, LA over Memphis, OKC over Utah, Denver over LAC
  • Conference Semis - Miami over Brooklyn, Boston over Chicago, San Antonio over Denver, LA over OKC
  • Conference Finals - Miami over Boston in 7, San Antonio over LA in 7
  • Finals - Miami over San Antonio in 6
Enjoy it, everyone!

2012-2013 NBA Preview Part 2: Western Conference

Greetings! If you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1 which broke down the Eastern conference in about 1.2 million words. Here we go with the West....

15) New Orleans Hornets
  • Starting Lineup - Anthony Davis (C), Ryan Anderson (PF), Al-Farouq Aminu (SF), Eric Gordon (SG), Greivis Vasquez (PG)
  • Bench - Robin Lopez (C)*, Jason Smith (PF/C)*, Lance Thomas (PF), Hakim Warrick (SF/PF)*, Darius Miller (SF), Xavier Henry (SG)*, Roger Mason Jr. (SG), Austin Rivers (SG/PG)*
  • Overview - Let me say the positive things first. I am very high on Anthony Davis. He's going to make a defensive impact from the jump and his offensive game is more advanced than most people give him credit for. He's able to handle the ball like a guard, he can make a mid-range jumper already and has a nose for the ball around the rim. Plus, he'll rebound. Also, Eric Gordon is an elite talent when he's out there. Okay, now that we're done with that, let's harp on the negative! Here are Eric Gordon's totals in games played in his four seasons: 78 (awesome), 62, 56, 9. I believe this is a trend, and not a good one. If you could guarantee me even 60 games from Gordon, then I'd raise the Hornets up a spot or two, but because you can't, here they are. They don't have a point guard of any note on the entire roster as Vasquez is so slow that he can't defend a soul, and Rivers has never been and never will be a point guard even if he succeeds in the league. They overpaid for both Gordon and Anderson, and while both are good players, Gordon has the injuries, and Anderson has the "Dwight" factor that leads many (me included) to believe that he can't repeat his 2011-12 production level without Dwight and that floor spacing. On the bright side for Anderson, Anthony Davis may be that kind of player in the near future. The bench isn't horrible in the front-court with legit rotation guys like Lopez and Warrick, but the backcourt depth is woeful with Henry as the only "piece" and aforementioned point guard conundrum. The future could be bright with Davis and Gordon, but this isn't the year. 
  • X-Factor - Gordon's health is the real one, but since we've spent the overview on that, I'll go with Rivers. Can he really play the point? I'm dead set against this, but they've spent a lottery pick on him to play that spot next to Gordon, and he's definitely a player from a skill standpoint, so we'll see.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Gordon doesn't play 50 games. Anthony Davis finishes in the top 5 in the league in blocks. Ryan Anderson leads the league in 3's attempted again this year, but his percentage drops from 39.3% last year to around 35% this year. 
  • Projected Record - 24-58
14) Phoenix Suns
  • Starting Lineup - Marcin Gortat (C), Luis Scola (PF), Michael Beasley (SF), Wes Johnson (SG), Goran Dragic (PG)
  • Bench - Jermaine O'Neal (C), Channing Frye (PF/C)*, Markieff Morris (PF)*, Jared Dudley (SF)*, PJ Tucker (SF), Shannon Brown (SG)*, Sebastian Telfair (PG), Kendall Marshall (PG)
  • Overview - This is a team with a bunch of half-decent players and no one that I'd even put in the top 40-50 in the league. I'm actually really high on both Gortat and Scola. Gortat averaged 15 and 10 last year playing with Nash and put up a 21 PER on the season. Scola has never posted a PER less than 15 in his entire career and is at worst above-average at the 4 spot. Pretty good right? Right, but the real issue is on the wing. Beasley is a ball-murderer (the exponent of ball-stopper) who does nothing else but "score" inefficiently, Wes Johnson has been a mssive disappointment, and the best wing on the roster (Dudley) is definitely more of a role player than anything else. The huge burder on this team lies with Dragic. The former Nash backup is now the Nash successor, and they'll need his 16-point/7-assist line that he put up in the 2nd half of last year to be legitimate. Phoenix won't be awful, but there's just not a lot of firepower that scares you, and the defense could be pretty bad with Scola/Beasley/Dragic all out there.
  • X-Factor - Gortat. Is he really this guy? Most people would attribute playing with Nash to giving Gortat the booming numbers from last year, but if Dragic is really Nash-lite, can he sustain it? If he's a double-double guy and can protect the rim, Phoenix will be competitive. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Michael Beasley averages 20 points a game... and no one will enjoy it. Dragic averages 18/8. Kendall Marshall won't guard a single person all season.
  • Projected Record - 26-56
13) Sacramento Kings
  • Starting Lineup - Demarcus Cousins (C), Jason Thompson (PF), Tyreke Evans (SF), Marcus Thornton (SG), Isaiah Thomas (PG)
  • Bench - Chuck Hayes (C)*, Thomas Robinson (PF)*, James Johnson (SF/PF)*, John Salmons (SF/SG)*, Travis Outlaw (SF), Tyler Honeycutt (SF), Francisco Garcia (SG/SF), Aaron Brooks (PG)*, Jimmer Fredette (PG)
  • Overview - Oh, the Kings. On paper, the talent alone should carry them to a better record than this projection would indicate, but again, these are the kings. The best two players on the roster are Demarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans, and both of them have.... issues? Yes, issues. Cousins is a known malcontent who almost single-handedly got Paul Westphal fired last season. That said, he's an absolute monster as a player. Cousins averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds a game last season as a 21-year-old and the numbers were even better after Westphal departed. He led all centers in the league in scoring per 40 minutes, and was 7th in the entire league in rebound rate. He's still a low-percentage shooter (which is baffling, really) but if he can keep his head on straight, he's a beast. Evans is an even more interesting case. After a rookie year that saw him average 20/6/5, his production has decreased each of the last 2 seasons. Last season, Evans numbers (16.6 PER, 45% shooting) were actually reasonable, but the big question surrounding him is the most effective role for him going forward. He's clearly not a #1 option, but his awkward skill-set (ball-dominator, bad shooter, great in 1-on-1 scenarios) is troubling for coaches to deploy. Even with all of the negatives on Tyreke (his demeanor is bad too FYI), I still think he's being undervalued at the moment. He's still a mega-talented player, and while a change of scenery could be the only thing that lets him break out, I wouldn't rule out him having a big year in a contract year for Sacto. Elsewhere for the Kings, I absolutely love Thomas Robinson. The rookie lottery pick from Kansas is a long-time man-crush of mine and that will continue in the pros. There are very few guys I've ever seen play as hard as Robinson did at Kansas and it showed. His rebounding numbers were insane in college, and rebounding is one of the easiest things to project in the league. Add that in with his elite athleticism, NBA body, and that great motor, and he has a very high floor as the player. The Kings also brought back Jason Thompson. He had his best season ever last year (54% FG, PER of 16.41) and with Cousins and Robinson, that's a pretty stout frontline. The perimeter is the bigger problem area for the Kings. Outside of Evans, the #1 option is Marcus Thornton. I firmly believe that Thornton should be a 6th-man/spark plug guy because his only NBA skill is his ability to score. He's averaged 21 points per 40 minutes for his career, and because of that, there's a place for him, but I don't think he's a starting shooting guard. The point guard spot is up in the air. Isaiah Thomas had a surprisingly awesome rookie year, as he averaged 12 and 4 with a PER of 17.68 after being a late 2nd-round pick. There is some skepticism about his ability to sustain this level because of size question (he's listed at 5'9) and the fact that he's much more of a scorer than distributor (think Nate Robinson). I actually like Thomas, but I'm not sure he's a starter. Behind him, they went and got Aaron Brooks. Yes, another score-first, undersized point guard, except this one has a longer track record of being exactly that, and he's coming off of a year in China. Oh, did I mention that the Kings used the #10 pick in the draft in 2011 on Jimmer Fredette!? Jimmer wasn't a complete disaster as a rookie, but the fears about him were realized. He has exactly one NBA skill (shooting) and he has markedly awful on the defensive end. We knew these things! Anyway, Fredette's only real role in the NBA (that I can see) is as a bench marksman coming in to get threes on a team that can hide him defensively. This isn't that team. The rest of the bench is spotty with Francisco Garcia, John Salmons, and James Johnson as solid vets that are in line for minutes on the wing, and with Chuck Hayes (and his incredible post defense) behind the 3 guys discussed up front. 
  • X-Factor - Evans. It has to be, right? I think we actually know what Cousins is at this point, but I honestly have no idea what Tyreke is capable of in a contract year, and that's the biggest x-factor as to whether this team is a playoff contender. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Cousins averages 20 and 10. Jimmer Fredette gets bench splinters. James Johnson performs the best out of the Garcia/Salmons/Johnson trio. Jason Thompson gets traded mid-season. 
  • Projected Record - 31-51
12) Portland Trail Blazers
  • Starting Lineup - Lamarcus Aldridge (C), JJ Hickson (PF), Nic Batum (SF), Wesley Matthews (SG), Damian Lillard (PG)
  • Bench - Meyers Leonard (C)*, Joel Freeland (C), Jared Jeffries (PF)*, Victor Claver (SF), Luke Babbitt (SF), Will Barton (SF), Sasha Pavlovic (SG), Elliot Williams (SG), Nolan Smith (PG/SG)*, Ronnie Price (PG)
  • Overview - Positives first, simply so I don't get grilled by that die-hard Portland fanbase. I think Portland is going with Aldridge at center... and I love that move. He's an elite player in this league, and at 6'11, he certainly has the size to play center in today's league. After averaging 22 and 8 last season even in a trainwreck season for the team, he did play a significant amount of minutes at center and that should continue. One more great note about Aldridge is that he shot 51% from the field and 81% from the line last season while still being a very good defender (low block total not withstanding), and that's a combination that you're really not going to find. The starting wing spots are the other strength of this team. Nic Batum got a huge extension after seeing his production jump up in his 4th season. The volume of money in the deal is certainly a "projection" of what Batum could be, but after giving Portland a PER over 17 with stat-stuffing numbers across the board, Batum is worth almost that much money with no more improvement. At only 23 years old as we enter his 5th season, Batum brings elite length and athleticism to the wing spot, and he can run, shoot, and finish at the rim. The shooting guard spot is occupied by Wes Matthews, who is a personal favorite of mine. He's never going to be an big-time player in the league, but he can shoot threes (40% combined over the last 2 seasons), is a very good defender, and has a really low 8% turnover rate. There are also some weaknesses to his game in that he's a pretty terrible finisher at the rim (just 49.5% last season), and he doesn't have elite athleticism. Nonetheless, you can certainly get by with Matthews as your starting shooting guard. The rest of the roster? Meh. Damian Lillard has been handed the reins as the starting point guard after being drafted in the lottery out of Weber State. There's been some significant buzz about Lillard in the preseason, with even some rookie of the year projections, but I'd have to imagine that's almost entirely opportunity-based as projecting a 22-year-old guard from Weber State could be an adventure. That said, I really like what I've seen (admittedly a small amount) from Lillard. He's got nice range on the jumper, seems to be able to run a team, and scores in an efficient way. I think he's more of a shoot-first guy than anything else, but that actually may help the Blazers as they are starved for scoring outside of Aldridge. I'm high on him, but with skepticism. After that, the questions start screaming at you. The battle to start alongside Aldridge is between JJ Hickson, rookie Meyers Leonard, and Jared Jeffries... groan. Hickson is the incumbent and we kind of know what he is. He scores at the rim well, and he's a very good rebounder, but that's the end of the strengths category. He's kind of a mess defensively, and relies on his average-ish jump shot too much. Leonard is a high-upside draft pick that is a guy who no one thinks is ready to play right now, and Jeffries is a nice veteran who's a big-time defender but does nothing else particularly well and isn't a guy you want playing big minutes. Pretty weak frontcourt, eh? Well, you haven't seen the backups at the wing spots yet. Ladies and gentlemen... Victor Claver, Luke Babbitt, Will Barton, Sasha Pavlovic, and Elliot Williams. That's the list! Really! There's exactly one guy (Pavlovic) who's ever been a rotation guy in the league, and he's played 8 years in the league with exactly one year of a PER over 10. It's ugly, folks. And behind Lillard at the point? Nolan Smith and Ronnie Price. In short, neither of those guys inspire confidence. If the Blazers only had to rely on their best 5 players, they'd be a decent club, with the astounding lack of quality depth, I can't give the Blazers a legit chance at a playoff spot. 
  • X-Factor - Lillard. If he's Kyrie Irving lite in his rookie year? This projection is low, but if he's a typical/bad rookie, this projection is high. Simple as that.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Batum makes another leap and averages 17-18 points a game. Aldridge repeats a 22/8 type of line. Lillard makes 1st-team all-rookie. Elliot Williams plays 25 minutes a night. 
  • Projected Record - 34-48
11) Houston Rockets
  • Starting Lineup - Omer Asik (C), Patrick Patterson (PF), Chandler Parsons (SF), James Harden (SG), Jeremy Lin (PG)
  • Bench - Donatas Motiejunas (C)*, Cole Aldrich (C), Greg Smith (C), Marcus Morris (PF)*, Royce White (SF/PF)*, Terrence Jones (SF/PF)*, Lazar Hayward (SF), Carlos Delfino (SG)*, Daequan Cook (SG)*, Toney Douglas (SG/PG)*, Shaun Livington (PG/SG)
  • Overview - Well, I had an entire Houston preview written... and then James Harden arrived. First of all, I absolutely love this deal for Houston simply because they've finally acquired a reasonable #1 option after all of this time. Kevin Martin was moving on anyway, and while Jeremy Lamb and two #1 picks isn't a small price, the value that Harden can and will bring is certainly worth the risk. I'm an unabashed Harden believer going back to when he was at Arizona State, and while I don't think he's a legitimate #1 on a title team, he's one of the best 30 players in the NBA in my opinion, and that's something that Houston was sorely lacking. His new backcourt mate, former Knicks guard Jeremy Lin, provides even more interesting discussion. Was last year a fluke? Will Kevin McHale allow him the freedom to run the pick-and-roll that allowed him to breakout last year? Will the Harden acquisition help or hurt Lin? All questions we have no idea about, to be honest, but I'm intrigued, and I like Jeremy Lin's skillset. Up front, the Rockets are still a bit of a mess. They signed Omer Asik to a big deal in the off-season and while that deal spawned some "huh?" looks from the non-diehard NBA fans, Asik is an elite defender at the center position and those don't grow on trees. He'll need to at least modestly improve on his offensive game to justify the contract, but the defense is extremely valuable. Outside of him? I have no idea who even plays. I'd have to assume Patrick Patterson gets some run after 23 minutes a game a year ago, but he's a jack-of-all-trades type of forward and he'll need to rebound better than his ghastly 7.7 per 40 minutes last year. Other than Patterson, Houston has Motiejunas, Cole Aldrich, and Marcus Morris up front. All 3 guys have really nice pedigrees, but none have done anything in the league, and for Houston to be successful, they'll need production from at least one of them. On the wing (other than Harden), it's another collection of guys we don't know much about. Chandler Parsons is the incumbent at the small forward spot, and he averaged 10 points a game last season. Parsons is versatile, has great size (6'9), and is really skilled so I actually like his game, but he still needs to add strength and improve his awful (55%) free throw shooting. Behind him are two rookies in the person of Royce White and Terrence Jones. Both are combo forwards. Both were very, very good college players. White would've gone 10 spots higher in the draft if not for diagnosed anxiety issues that scared teams off, but he's a powerful, ball-handling forward with pretty big upside if he can stay on the court. Jones is a tweaner, but I think he sticks at power forward in the league. He's got 3-point range and he's skilled with the ball in his hands, but there are motor questions to say the least. When he wanted to play at Kentucky? He dominated, but he also disappeared a lot. The perimeter depth behind Harden and Lin is questionable. Carlos Delfino and Daequan Cook are fringe-like shooting guards who can both excel offensively, but I'm not sure how much you want to play them. Behind Lin, you have Shaun Livingston (who I love, but only irrationally) and Toney Douglas battling for minutes. Livingston is the more versatile choice and the better offensive option, while Douglas is a lockdown defender who shot 32% from the field last season. That's not a misprint. Yikes. I really like some of the parts in Houston, but anything more than 35 wins would be a result of a breakout from Lin and/or some big-time production from the rookie forwards. I don't think you can bank on either one. 
  • X-Factor - Lin. The deep, dark secret of Lin's breakout in New York is that everything was set up for him to do whatever he wanted. I doubt Kevin McHale will give him that kind of freedom. That said, Lin did have a 20 PER and average 15 and 6 in just 27 minutes a game. That's pretty impressive stuff, and even if he's just a 14/6 type of guy, he's worth that money. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - James Harden isn't a mega-star as the #1 option, but he's the best player the Rockets have had since T-Mac and Yao were alive. Jeremy Lin is solid, but unspectacular. Omer Asik gets defensive POY votes and deserves them. Royce White emerges as the best forward on the roster even in the middle of all of the off-court issue.
  • Projected Record 35-47
t9) Golden State Warriors
  • Starting Lineup - Andrew Bogut (C), David Lee (PF), Harrison Barnes (SF), Klay Thompson (SG), Stephen Curry (PG)* - Injured
  • Bench - Andris Biedrins (C)*, Festus Ezeli (C), Carl Landry (PF)*, Jeremy Tyler (PF/C), Draymond Green (PF/SF), Richard Jefferson (SF)*, Brandon Rush (SG/SF)*, Jarrett Jack (PG)*, Charles Jenkins (PG)
  • Overview - I'll say this first. If Andrew Bogut and Steph Curry play 70+ games a piece, the Warriors are making the playoffs. The question is: how likely is that? 10%? 20% maybe? We'll start up front with Bogut, who was acquired in the Monta Ellis trade last season. He is an elite, elite, elite defensive center who ranks among the league leaders in blocks every year, and is a great rebounder. His offensive game has been lacking since he had that freak elbow injury in 2010, but the real concern for Bogut is health. He's only playing a full season once in his entire career, and he's already hurt with an ankle injury that has him questionable for the season opener. Next to him is David Lee, who, on paper, is the perfect counterpart to someone like Bogut. Lee is a pretty awesome offensive player. He's got range on his jumper, handles the ball well, scores around the rim and can pass. He's even a great rebounder. And then... you look at his defense. He's absolutely ghastly on that end of the court, but when you pair him with a healthy Bogut, that could be a potent offense/defense combo. Please don't forget that Lee averaged 20 and 9 last season. That's nothing to sneeze at. On the wing, the Warriors are young, but have tremendous upside. Harrison Barnes was the next "all-everything" recruit to UNC, and played well with Carolina, but has seen his star fall a bit since then. That said, he's still very talented, his a refined offensive game, and could be a very good defender with his strength at the 3. I think he's the epitome of a guy who will be a better pro than college player. Next to him is Klay Thompson, who is this year's darling of the media that everyone thinks is a breakout player... and I agree! After the all-star break last season, he averaged 17 points a game and shot 40% from three in 31 minutes a game. He's not a great athlete at all which limits him defensively, but he's a big-time shooter and can create his own shot efficiently. I'm a fan. The point guard spot should be a strength because Steph Curry is a special player when he's on the court. He's a savant offensively, averaging 18 points and 6 assists a game for his career with elite percentages and ridiculous jump shooting range. He doesn't get into the paint easily because of lack of strength, but his court vision is outstanding and because his shooting is absurd, it opens up the court for him. Defensively? He was shockingly decent last year from what I saw. He's never going to be a good defender because of his athletic limitations, but he's long for a point guard, and the Warriors were better defensively with him on the court than without. The issue is the previously discussed injuries. Curry's ankles are always an issue, and he only played 26 games last season. Let's hope he can stay on the court. The bench is shockingly solid going into the season. Andris Biedrins is a proven NBA center, and while his offensive game is an abomination (seems to be lack of confidence), he's a good rebounder and defender. His foul shooting woes are well-documented, but the issue is that he seems to have morphed his game entirely to avoid going to the line, and he's a worse player for it. Carl Landry and Richard Jefferson wouldn't be a great starting forward tandem, but when they are your backups? That's pretty darn outstanding. And as if that weren't strong enough, the backcourt combo of Jarrett Jack (who I love as a backup and insurance policy) and Brandon Rush are pretty good too. The strength of the team is depth, but don't mistake this for taking away the importance of Bogut and Curry staying on the court. If everything goes well, this could be a 45-win team, but because I can't predict health with any credibility, they land here.
  • X-Factor - Besides health (discussed above), I'd go with Harrison Barnes. I'm pretty high on him, but he'll be asked for a lot, especially on the defensive end, and that's a tall order as a rookie.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Bogut plays 65+ games and is a D-POY candidate. Curry battles ankle issues all year. Klay Thompson averages 18 a game. David Lee leads the league in hilariously bad defensive plays. 
  • Projected Record - 40-42
t9) Minnesota T-Wolves
  • Starting Lineup - Nikola Pekovic (C), Kevin Love (PF)* - Injured, Andrei Kirilenko (SF), Brandon Roy (SG), Ricky Rubio (PG)* - Injured
  • Bench - Greg Stiemsma (C)*, Derrick Williams (PF/SF)*, Dante Cunningham (PF), Chase Budinger (SF/SG)*, Alexey Shved (SG)*, Malcolm Lee (SG), Luke Ridnour (PG)*, JJ Barea (PG/SG)
  • Overview - This ranking is too high. I know it is. And yet, here they stand. I have an affinity for Kevin Love and a love for Ricky Rubio. Come on! Love is a top-10 player in the league at this point, and while he's injured for the start of the season, it appears that it isn't an injury that will limit him going forward. His numbers last year were absurd. 26 points, 13 rebounds, 37% from three, 82% from the line, and a PER of over 25. That's ridiculous! I can't emphasize his prowess enough, but if there was a weakness, it's defensively. He actually improved a lot last year, mostly due to a bump in conditioning and quickness, but he'll never be a rim-protector and he simply can't jump. That said, if he's league-average defensively, that's a win. Rubio is also banged up and injured (are you sensing why I said this ranking is high?) but he's an offensive wizard when he's out there, and I was stunned by how outstanding he is defensively. He's one of the best passers in the league already, and while he can't shoot at all yet (37% on twos, 34% on threes), the way he sees the floor is amazing. Defensively, he's so long for a point guard that he's good on 2-guards, and he has really quick feet. Minnesota was over 7 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Rubio on the court, and he's vastly underrated on that end. Elsewhere, Nik Pekovic was awesome last season. Would you believe me if I told you that he averaged 14 points, 7 rebounds, and posted a 21 PER last season? Did you notice? He scores well around the rim, but his prowess keys off the fact that he has amazing brute strength. Pekovic isn't a big-time rim protector but he does move his feet defensively, and he can rebound. I like him. Andrei Kirilenko and Brandon Roy are teaming up to form the most unlikely wing duo in recent memory. AK47 was brought back from European exile and all reports are that he has reinvested in the game in his time away. Let's not forget that this was a guy who posted 20+ PER in 4 straight years in Utah, was a 5x5 candidate every night, and he is an elite defender. For as "bad" as he was in last year in Utah, he was top-10 among small forwards in PER, and his defensive metrics were still good. He's a very, very good basketball player, and his versatility should help them in the early weeks without Love. Brandon Roy was virtually retired before signing in Minnesota, but the T-Wolves gave him the mid-level as a flier. Roy is only 28(!) years old still and while his knee problems have permanently zapped his athleticism and burst, he could still be an effective player if they allow him to play. At any rate, it's a pure flier, but the upside is warranted. The bench could be a strength as well. Greg Stiemsma was brought in to back up Pekovic, and he was surprisingly effective in Boston last season as a high-energy guy who rebounds and blocks shots. Derrick Williams is the primary backup at both forward spots, and while he's miscast as a 3 in my opinion, the presence of Love really makes him shift there. Chase Budinger is a nice pick-up on the wing coming off a season where he averaged 10 points a game in just 22 minutes, and they also brought in Shved from Europe as a potential contributor. Luke Ridnour is an awesome backup PG, and JJ Barea will see extended minutes while Rubio is out. The depth is there. If Love and Rubio were healthy from the beginning, I think this team would be getting home-court-like buzz, but if they battle for the playoffs and both guys are healthy and productive post all-star break, that's encouraging.
  • X-Factor - Roy. Because Budinger is behind him, the risk isn't too great, but he does hold the key that could take Minnesota to another level. If he's even 80% of Portland Roy, that's huge.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Love averages 13+ rebounds again. Kirilenko gets all-defensive-team buzz. Roy plays 60 games of productive basketball. Pekovic repeats last year's performance over a full season. Derrick Williams gets traded. 
  • Projected Record - 40-42
8) Dallas Mavericks
  • Starting Lineup - Chris Kaman (C), Dirk Nowitzki (PF)* - Injured, Shawn Marion (SF), OJ Mayo (SG), Darren Collison (PG)
  • Bench - Bernard James (C), Eddy Curry (C), Elton Brand (PF/C)*, Brandan Wright (PF), Vince Carter (SF)*, Jae Crowder (SF), Dahntay Jones (SG)*, Dominique Jones (SG), Rodrique Beaubois (PG)*, Jared Cunningham (PG)
  • Overview - Disclaimer first. Dirk has to play the majority of the year for this ranking to make any sense. He's out for the beginning of the season with a knee issue, but he's already riding a bike and I'm encouraged by his recovery. On the court, Dirk was still tremendous last season, averaging 22 points a night even with his minutes at a career-low. His defensive IQ has improved over the years to off-set a drop in athleticism, but this is still not a strength of his game (to be kind). Outside of Dirk, depth is the main strength for Dallas. Elton Brand was brought in, and if he's your 6th man, that's absolutely outstanding. He's not the same player as he was earlier in his career, but he still averaged 11 and 7 with a PER over 18 last season. Chris Kaman is a key cog in this year's Mavs season, and he's a solid player. You can write in 13 points and 8 boards for Kaman, and while he's not a defensive presence, he's still an average center at worst. On the wing, Shawn Marion, OJ Mayo, and Vince Carter are splitting the minutes 3 ways. Marion is the guy you can count on among those 3 and he'll give you 10 or 11 points, 8 rebounds, play good defense, and he doesn't hurt you anywhere on the court. It's a great insurance policy to have for the other two guys. I'm actually very high on OJ Mayo as he finally gets a change of scenery. This is a career 15-point-a-game scorer who could be a defensive presence in certain situations. He's too small to guard the Kobe Bryants of the world and not quite quick enough to stay with Ty Lawson or someone of that ilk, but he's one of the best matchups for guys like Westbrook and Rose, because he's physical and just quick enough to stay in front. He's a good ball-handler as well, and I think Dallas should use him to create offense at times. Vince Carter is Vince Carter. He's brittle at 35 years, and no one enjoys watching him play. At the same time, he can still shoot, is an underrated passer, and even defends well when he wants to. He can be a valuable piece, but not someone you want to rely on. The guy with the biggest pressure on this team? I'd say Darren Collison. He's the undisputed guy at the point, and when Deron Williams balked at coming back home, Collison became a crucial get. I've always been high on him because of his on-ball defense, but Collison's offense leaves a lot to be desired. He's probably a league-average player at this point, and shouldn't be counted on for much more. The rest of the bench includes Brandan Wright (who actually had a good year last year), Dahntay Jones, Eddy Curry and Rodrique Beaubois. Delonte West easily would've been the best player other than Brand on the bench, but he's a documented head-case who was suspended twice this preseason before being waived on Monday. Beaubois has shown flashes but never done anything. Eddy Curry is enormous and can't be relied on. Dahntay Jones is an all-defense, no-offense vet... on a team that needs offense and not defense. Cheers! 
  • X-Factor - Other than Nowitzki's health, I think it's Mayo. Can he be a #2 option? They're going to need 15-17 points a night out of him at a minimum, and I think he can give them that, but will it be efficient? The scenery change should do good things, and I think he's a guy that may thrive with more responsibility to shoulder.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Dirk plays 70 games. Mayo averages 17-18 points a game. Vince Carter finally falls the rest of the way off of the cliff. Elton Brand averages a double-double until Dirk returns. 
  • Projected Record - 42-40
7) Memphis Grizzlies
  • Starting Lineup - Marc Gasol (C), Zach Randolph (PF), Rudy Gay (SF), Tony Allen (SG), Mike Conley (PG)
  • Bench - Hamed Haddadi (C), Marreese Speights (PF/C)*, Darrell Arthur (PF)*, Quincy Pondexter (SF)*, Wayne Ellington (SG), Josh Selby (SG), Jerryd Bayless (SG/PG)*, Tony Wroten (PG/SG)*
  • Overview - You're probably shocked to see the Grizz this low, and I'm probably the only one who feels this way. Here we go! Marc Gasol has emerged as an elite center in this league and is the best player on this team at this point. He averaged 15 and 9 last year to go along with 1.9 blocks, and he's an outstanding team defender. He'll never be a great leaper or athlete, but his positioning is tremendous and he changes shots on that end. At age 27, this is his prime and I'd expect nothing worse than a repeat of last year's great campaign. Next to him, Zach Randolph took a step back last season. He battled knee trouble all year, and his averages fell to 12 points and 8 boards a game. He's probably still better than that if he's healthy but at age 31 and with a lot of miles, I don't think he's "Z-BO!" anymore and without him dominating, this isn't the same team that made that great playoff run a couple years ago. Rudy Gay is an enigma to me... still. He had the "best" year of his career last year, averaging 19 points and 6 rebounds with a PER near 18, but did he wow you? At age 26, I don't think the "peak" for Gay is really coming and this is kind of what he is. He doesn't generate efficient offense, because he relies on his average jump shot too much, and he doesn't play elite defense (like his athleticism would suggest) because he doesn't position himself well, and he's lazy at times. In fact, Memphis was over 6 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with him on the court last season, and that's a flaming indictment. I'm not trying to say that Gay is a bad player, because that would be ludicrous, but he isn't making a leap, and he is what he is as a 18-point/7-rebound guy. I do enjoy this backcourt a lot. Tony Allen is one of the best defenders in the entire league, and he's the best on-ball 2-guard in the NBA. His offense came back to Earth after a crazy 2010-11, but he was still solid enough (10 points, 80% free throw shooting) to justify his big-time minutes as the defensive stopper. At the point, Mike Conley is one of my favorite players in the league. He's improved every season, averaged 13 and 7 last season as the 4th option, and he's great at the rim. In addition, he's an awesome on-ball defender (teaming with Allen, my goodness) and shot 37% on threes last year. He's never going to be elite, but he's great at taking care of the ball, plays good D, makes threes, and isn't bad at anything. Very solid. The bench has long been a weakness of Memphis, but this year, it may be solid. Darrell Arthur (back from injury) and Marreese Speights team up to provide some decent help to Z-Bo and Gasol. In addition, Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless provided some wing depth and flexibility with good defense from Pondexter and explosive scoring from Bayless. The issue, for me, is the backup point guard spot, as I don't trust Josh Selby at all, and Tony Wroten is a rookie "upside" guy who no one is sure can play the point in the NBA. Fortunately, Mike Conley has played 82, 80, 81 and 62 (lockout-shortened) games in the last 4 seasons. I like this team, but just not as much as everyone else does. 
  • X-Factor - Randolph. If he's the guy from the 2010-11 season, this projection is laughably low, but if he doesn't come back after a down 2011-12, Memphis isn't the same team.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Marc Gasol is the 2nd-team All-NBA center (yes, I'm talking to you, Andrew Bynum). Tony Allen comes in top-3 in D-POY voting. The Grizz miss OJ Mayo.
  • Projected Record - 46-36
6) Utah Jazz
  • Starting Lineup - Al Jefferson (C), Paul Millsap (PF), Marvin Williams (SF), Gordon Hayward (SG), Mo Williams (PG)
  • Bench - Enes Kanter (C)*, Derrick Favors (PF/C)*, DeMarre Carroll (SF), Jeremy Evans (SF/PF), Randy Foye (SG)*, Alec Burks (SG), Raja Bell (SG), Jamaal Tinsley (PG)*, Earl Watson (PG)
  • Overview - Here's my limb for the season in the West. I'm all-in on Utah. The depth of their quality size is absolutely unmatched in the league right now. Al Jefferson is a monster and he's posted a 19+ PER each of the last 5 seasons. In 2012, he put up a 19 point, 10 rebound, 1.7 block per game stat line, and is a very valuable asset. The only knock on Big Al is his defense, but after last year where he posted his best advanced metrics of his career on that end of the court, he may not be the huge liability that he used to be. Next to him, Paul Millsap is another stat-stuffing beast. He had the best year of his career last season (17 points, 9 boards, 21.8 PER) and is in the middle of his prime at age 27. He's a great rebounder for his size and actually led the entire league in steals per 40 minutes in the frontcourt. He has great hands and instincts, and is a high-energy complement to Jefferson's slower, more laid back style. The primary backup at both spots is former #2 overall pick Derrick Favors. Favors took a big step in year two as he bumped his per-40 minute averages up to 17 and 12, and established himself as an absolute defensive force. The defensive prowess is a nice shake-up behind Jefferson and that's a great fit, but Favors' offensive game is what is lacking. It is pretty tough to put up a 17 PER while being an outright bad offensive player, but Favors did it. He shot less than 30% outside of the basket area, and still doesn't have a go-to move to get buckets. At any rate, at only 21 years old and in year three, I'd expect yet another jump in production. Notice how we haven't even MENTIONED last year's #3 overall pick, Enes Kanter. He's the 4th big on this team, and was very solid as a rookie last year. First, I'd question the logic in taking Kanter in that spot with the other 3 bigs around, but if we get past that, Kanter had per-40 minute averages of 14 and 12 last season as a 19-year-old. That's insane. He's a very, very good rebounder and has a big, NBA body to bang with under the glass. The downside to Kanter is that while he has a decent shooting touch, he rarely utilizes it, and because he's not a good finisher at this stage, he needs to use the mid-range jumper more. Now that we've established their insane depth up front... the wing backcourt/wing spots aren't so special. Marvin Williams moves over from Atlanta, and while I consider myself to be a Marvin expert (lol), he's a guy who doesn't inspire too much awe and excitement. I've always thought Marvin was given a raw deal when it came to expectation vs. production and the numbers bear that out. He's never posted a PER less than 13 as a full-time starter, and that number has even risen to around 16 in a couple of seasons (including last year). After back surgery, he moved more fluidly, and that allowed for his highest rebound rate since his rookie season, while simultaneously posting a ridiculously low/good turnover rate of 6.1. Marvin is also an above-average defender with great length, and this allows him to be an effective player overall. He won't wow you but he's unquestionably an upgrade over the pu pu platter that Utah has trotted out in the past. At the 2-guard spot, I thoroughly enjoy Gordon Hayward. He's on virtually every "breakout" list for this season that I've seen, and I'm on board. I'd expect 13-15 points a night with efficient shooting numbers, and a solid assist rate for a wing. He's a nice player. Mo Williams arrives to be the starting point guard, and while that's worrisome (because he isn't a natural 1), Mo's been a nice player for his entire career and he'll score effectively enough to warrant the minutes. He's an exceptional free throw shooter, and even defends at an average level, but is another guy who's expectations (the former #2 option next to Lebron doesn't help) got out of control. The bench (other than Favors and Kanter) is interesting. Alec Burks (former 1st-round pick) and Randy Foye will get the majority of the wing minutes, and along with Jeremy Evans, that's going to be a point of emphasis here. Can they steal effective minutes? Jamaal Tinsley was pretty bad at times last year, and he and Earl Watson are "competing" for backup point guard minutes unless they elect to try Randy Foye there. That's a weakness. Overall, I think the brute force of Utah in a now-undersized league can carry them to regular season success, and the play of Marvin/Hayward will surprise some people.
  • X-Factor - Favors. If he makes an additional leap, they're going to be hard-pressed to keep him on the bench. He adds a unique defensive impact that Jefferson and Millsap can't match, and they may need a rim protector like that at some point.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Hayward gets most improved player consideration. Mo Williams averages 15+ points a night. Al Jefferson averages 20 and 10... again.
  • Projected Record - 47-35
5) Los Angeles Clippers
  • Starting Lineup - DeAndre Jordan (C), Blake Griffin (PF), Caron Butler (SF), Chauncey Billups (SG), Chris Paul (PG)
  • Bench - Ronny Turiaf (C)*, Ryan Hollins (C), Lamar Odom (PF)*, Trey Thompkins (PF), Grant Hill (SF)*, Matt Barnes (SF)*, Travis Leslie (SG/SF), Jamal Crawford (SG/PG)*, Willie Green (SG), Eric Bledsoe (PG)*
  • Overview - So. Many. Players. That's the theme of the season for the Clippers to me. I don't really grasp the rationale of how Butler/Odom/Hill/Barnes are all needed and what they plan to do in the backcourt with Billups/Crawford/Bledsoe. At any rate, Chris Paul is the best point guard on the planet and if anyone can implement all of these guys, it's him. Paul posted a ludicrous PER of 27.09 last season (2nd in the league to Lebron) and averaged 20 points and 9 assists a game with 48/37/86 percentages. He's an absolute monster and there's not a lot else I need to say about that. Blake Griffin is his running mate, and there's a lot more analysis here. First, Blake did make a marked improvement from year one to year two. His scoring rate and rebounding rate actually lowered (just wait), but his shooting percentages increased exponentially as his usage rate decreased and his turnover rate decreased. In short, he's more efficient now. Oh, and he's still an unbelievable athletic specimen with power and explosiveness. That's the good part. The bad part? He still doesn't defend really at all, and there's no excuse for that with his physical gifts. Additionally, he's so bad at the free throw line that his true shooting percentage can't climb over 55%, and that's ridiculous for a guy who can finish how he does. He still takes too many jump shots for my liking at the current moment, but I can understand him attempting to adjust gradually to what will become declining athleticism at some point. He was better in year two on jumpers, and that's encouraging. Blake is a tremendous player, but the frustration is that he should be much more. The supporting cast is... interesting. Deandre Jordan got paid, and people expected a big leap from him that never really came. He did have the best statistical season of his career (hello Chris Paul!), but he can't handle the ball at all, he can't shoot at all, and his free throw exploits are well-documented. LAC couldn't play him in crunch time last year, and that may repeat itself. Behind him, they are going with Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins, and while I'm a Turiaf fan, it's not ideal to have him as the primary backup center on a Western playoff team. The wing is where it gets fun. Lamar Odom fell off the planet last year (9.26 PER?!?) in Dallas, but the move to LA, where he loves to be, can only help him. Caron Butler is another year older is in steady decline at 31 years old, and while he's a decent player, you don't want him as your primary small forward option. Grant Hill was brought in to provide support and defense, but do you really want to rely on Grant while he's away from the Phoenix training staff at age 40? I love him, and I always have, but that's a risk. In the backcourt, it's a battle between Chauncey Billups, Jamal Crawford, and Eric Bledsoe for minutes. All 3 guys are not point guards, all 3 guys can't really defend 2-guards (Bledsoe plays D but is undersized), and all 3 guys need the ball in their hands... except the ball needs to be in Chris Paul's hands at all times. Great job, Clippers front office! Way to assemble a supporting cast! At any rate, I think Crawford is probably (gasp), the best fit to play with Paul because he's the best scorer, but my money says that Billups plays in crunch time. 
  • X-Factor - Jordan. There's nothing of value behind DeAndre Jordan and last year's support (Reggie Evans) is gone. They need Jordan to be on the court and effective.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Blake averages 20 and 10 again, but leaves you wanting more. Grant Hill is the best small forward on the team... but only plays 50-ish games. Lamar Odom is out of the rotation by Christmas and never returns.
  • Projected Record - 50-32
4) Denver Nuggets
  • Starting Lineup - JaVale McGee (C), Kenneth Faried (PF), Danilo Gallinari (SF), Andre Iguodala (SG), Ty Lawson (PG)
  • Bench - Kosta Koufos (C)*, Timofey Mozgov (C), Anthony Randolph (PF), Wilson Chandler (SF)*, Jordan Hamilton (SF), Quincy Miller (SF), Corey Brewer (SG/SF)*, Andre Miller (PG/SG)*, Evan Fournier (SG), Julyan Stone (PG)
  • Overview - Everyone is all-in on Denver, and with good reason. They are legitimately deep with talented players, have a new, impact-type player in Iguodala, and most people expect guys like Kenneth Faried to make a leap. First, the front-court is pretty solid. JaVale McGee isn't a guy I'd ever call "solid" individually simply because of the loose cannon persona that he has. That said, he averaged 11 points, 8 boards, and 2 blocks a game with a PER of 20 in only 25 minutes a night. If you bump that up to 30-35 minutes, that's in the neighborhood of 16/10/3 and that's an elite center in today's league. McGee isn't somebody I'd ever want to trust, but there's no doubting his talent and ability. Next to him is 2nd-year beast power forward Kenneth Faried. After leading the country in rebounding multiple times in college, Faried averaged 14 rebounds per 40 minutes as a rookie and had a ludicrous 22 PER as a 21 year old in the Western Conference. I absolutely love him, and while there's a ceiling on any "star" potential, I think he averages 10+ boards a game this year even if minutes tick up just a touch, and his energy could have a positive impact on McGee. Behind them, Koufos played the best ball of his career last season, going for nice scoring/rebounding rates in limited minutes, and showing off a nice touch around the rim. He's a very nice backup center, and when teamed with Mozgov as the 3rd option, that's pretty deep. In the other forward spot is Danilo Gallinari, who is one of the best shooters in the league. There was a ton of buzz when he was on the Knicks, and after moving to Denver in the Carmelo deal, there's been steady improvement on Gallinari, but he certainly isn't a star. He averaged 15 and 5 last season and that's about what I'd expect this year. Wilson Chandler is the back-up swingman and should be a pretty good 6th/7th men in the league as a potent scorer off the bench. In the backcourt, Ty Lawson returns after his breakout season in 2012 where he went off for 16 points, 7 assists, and 1.3 steals a game with great shooting percentages. Behind him? Oh, just Andre Miller, who I still think is a top-20 point guard in the league, and is a fantastic steadying influence. The big-time addition is Andre Iguodala, who is playing out-of-position at the 2-guard spot, should provide elite wing defense, the ability to score at a decent rate, and should help hide Gallinari's defense. Sounds like a lot of praise, right? Well, the downside of Denver contains a couple of things. First, there is no "star" on this team. The NBA, moreso than any other league, is star-driven, and there isn't a single top-20 guy on this roster. We've seen "depth" and "talent" teams do well in the league in recent years, but the only one that was a real title contender was the 2004 Pistons, and they were elite defensively. Secondly, as mentioned above, JaVale McGee is prominently involved here, and that should scare anyone. Third, there isn't a single traditional 2-guard on this roster, which shouldn't be a huge problem given Iguodala's defensive prowess, but other than him, Corey Brewer is it. Good luck. I like Denver and they should be a unanimous "league pass" team to tune into, but I think the ceiling is 55 wins and a 3-4 seed. 
  • X-Factor - It's gotta be McGee for the reasons addressed above, but if I had to pick another one, it's Gallinari. He's really the only shooter on the wing because that's not a strength of Iguodala or Chandler, so if he's not healthy, people will pack in the defense in the half-court. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Kenneth Faried averages 11+ rebounds a night. Andre Miller-to-JaVale McGee will produce the most ridiculous alley-oop of the season. 
  • Projected Record - 53-29
3) Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Starting Lineup - Kendrick Perkins (C), Serge Ibaka (PF), Kevin Durant (SF), Thabo Sefolosha (SG), Russell Westbrook (PG)
  • Bench - Hasheem Thabeet (C), Nick Collison (PF/C)*, Perry Jones (PF/SF), Jeremy Lamb (SF/SG)*, Kevin Martin (SG)*, Eric Maynor (PG)*, Reggie Jackson (PG/SG)*
  • Overview - The defending Western Conference champs were set to return virtually in tact with a couple of minor tweaks... until Saturday night, when Sam Presti dealt James Harden and company to the Rockets (which also singlehandedly made me re-write 2 different team previews!). We'll tackle the Harden deal in a second, but I want to point out one thing in reference to any reports of the Thunder's demise. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are exceptionally good at basketball. In this era of overreaction theater, I've seen things like "are the Thunder a fringe playoff team?!?" and "Can the Thunder survive without Harden!?"... I'm here to tell you that both of those statements are crazy. First, Kevin Durant is either the 2nd or 3rd best player in the world (depending on how you feel about Dwight Howard) and that hasn't changed. He's a lock to be top-3 in the league in scoring, he's going to average 8 boards a game, he's going to shoot on around a 48/40/85 level (which is absurd), and he's only 24 years old. In the case of Westbrook, pencil in 24/5/5 with improving defense, and even more freedom to run the show on the perimeter. Basically, the drop-off can only go so far when these guys are around. That brings us back to Harden, and while I absolutely love his game (see the preview for Houston above), his departure isn't going to murder this team at all. I'll disclose that, originally, I had the Thunder in the #1 spot in this preview and, as you can see, they are now third. There is a negative connotation to the trade for this season. But let's breathe, people! Coming back in the Harden trade, OKC acquired Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb (along with 2 first-rounders) and both guys are interesting to discuss. Kevin Martin was honestly born to be a sixth man in the NBA in my opinion. He's a career 18-point-a-game scorer who does little else in the way of offense, but is a reasonable defender, and could serve perfectly in a spark plug role off the bench. Lamb was a 1st-rounder in this year's draft and while he tends to coast from what I've seen, he has the tools to be elite defensively if he wanted to be. I actually like his game quite a bit, and that's a nice asset going forward. The biggest changes from Harden to Martin are defensively and with ball-handling responsibilities. Harden basically morphed into OKC's creator at times, and even with Westbrook on the floor, Harden had the ball in his hands a ton so that he could deploy his unique and effective skills. The pressure of that role shifts to Westbrook, and in addition to that, the roles of Eric Maynor and/or Reggie Jackson as backup PG's become magnified since Martin isn't going to be able to take on that creator role. Can't wait to see what transpires. The front-court is unchanged for OKC other than the inclusion of Cole Aldrich in the Harden deal. Serge Ibaka is still insanely raw, but the guy led the league in blocks, and he's shown himself able to knock down mid-range jump shots. Kendrick Perkins is violently overpaid, but you won't find many better post defenders, and he's still a valuable piece despite the contract. Behind them is Nick Collison, a role player extraordinaire that I love watching play. He's a great pick-and-roll defender, can score a little bit when necessary, and rebounds the ball with vigor. I'm a fan. What does it all mean for OKC? The big two carry them to 45+ wins virtually by themselves, and with the fact that a) Kevin Martin is actually pretty good, b) Ibaka has another year under his belt and c) Eric Maynor can handle some additional responsibility, I'm giving them 54 wins and the 3-seed. Discuss.
  • X-Factor - Ibaka. Do we really know what he is? He played 27 minutes a game last season, couldn't crack the court on the Spanish national team, and has never averaged double-figure points. He did average a ludicrous 3.7 blocks last season (in just those 27 minutes by the way) and provide a solid rebound rate, but OKC can make another leap if Ibaka proves himself a more consistent offensive player and can stay on the floor for more minutes. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Durant goes 50-40-90 in the percentages. The Harden deal is lamented for killing their season (and rightfully so), but Kevin Martin actually plays well, and Jeremy Lamb shows himself to be a legitimate asset going forward. Ibaka leads the league in blocks with 4+ per game. 
  • Projected Record 54-28
2) Los Angeles Lakers
  • Starting Lineup - Dwight Howard (C), Pau Gasol (PF), Metta World Peace (SF), Kobe Bryant (SG), Steve Nash (PG)
  • Bench - Jordan Hill (C/PF)*, Antawn Jamison (PF)*, Earl Clark (PF), Devin Ebanks (SF), Jodie Meeks (SG)*, Andrew Goudelock (SG), Steve Blake (PG)*, Darius Morris (PG/SG), Chris Duhon (PG)
  • Overview - Well, we are absolutely not short of material here. Dwight Howard made an absolute mockery of the free-agent/trade process that landed him in LA, but that's not worth covering here so let's stay on court. With that said, Dwight Howard is a top-3 player in the NBA and unquestionably the best big man on the planet. He's an elite defender, an elite rebounder, probably the best athlete at center in the world, and the PERFECT guy to play on the back-end to cover up for Nash and Kobe's "Ole!" perimeter defense. Basically, they robbed a bank when they get him for the price of Bynum, McRoberts, and 2 bad picks. It's a coup. The other major acquisition was the sign-and-trade that brought in Steve Nash for a couple of #1's. Nash isn't quite the guy that was the MVP from an athletic standpoint, but his numbers in 2011-12 were unbelievably good and he's an offensive savant. 13 points, 11 assists, 49% FG, 91% FT, 60% true shooting and a PER over 20. He's absolutely tremendous, and while he can't guard anybody, he provides the ball-handler/distributor/shooter that this team desperately needed at the point. Oh, did I mention that LA still has Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant? Pau is an unquestioned top-20 player in the league that suddenly has the pressure taken off of him, and you can pencil him in for 16-18 points, 9-10 boards, and a PER north of 20. Kobe isn't KOBE (capital letters) anymore at age 34, but he's still an elite offensive player by any measure, suddenly has a better offensive cast to shoulder some of the burden, and won't murder you on defense despite the drastic dip in his on-ball skills in recent years. The 5th member of the starting lineup, Metta World Peace aka Ron Artest, has seen his production steadily decline each of the last few seasons, but with zero offensive responsibility and Nash to create open looks for him, that helps on that end, and he is still a very good one-on-one defender and an X-factor to matchups with Durant and/or Lebron. If this entire preview was based on starting lineups, the Lakers would be the best team in the NBA and a 70-win contender... alas, it's not. The bench is flat-out bad. Antawn Jamison was brought in as the 6th man, and while that sounds awesome, he's coming off the worst year of his career and at age 36, it isn't going to get better. In addition, his defense is legendarily bad at this point and they'll need to hide him next to Howard as much as possible. Outside of that, the best bench guys are Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks. Eesh. I actually like Blake and he's a fine backup, but with Meeks at 6'4 (if that), they are very short-handed on the wing defensively and don't really have a legitimate backup for Artest. Jordan Hill, Earl Clark, and Devin Ebanks all figure to get some real minutes, and that should scare any Lakers fan, especially considering the age of the corps guys (mainly Kobe and Nash). With zero injuries to the Big Four, the bench may not murder them, but it's pretty hard to expect 75+ games from Kobe and Nash and it's ugly in a hurry.
  • X-Factor - Cohesion. Most, if not all, teams in this preview have a "breakout" candidate that could make or break their season. For the Lakers, they don't need that guy because they have 4 legitimate all-stars. That said, Dwight Howard is banged up and missed a lot of training camp, Kobe has never played with a point guard like Nash, and they'll all need time to gain trust. I actually assume the Lakers will be my "favorite" in the West by the time the playoffs hit, but if there's any snags, they won't have homecourt and that will matter. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Dwight Howard will play 80 games, average 18/15/3, and win the defensive POY award. Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant will have the "worst" statistical seasons in the last 10 years. One of the "Big Four" will miss at least 20 games and the bench will torpedo them a bit after a blistering start. 
  • Projected Record - 57-25
1) San Antonio Spurs
  • Starting Lineup - Boris Diaw (C/PF), Tim Duncan (PF/C), Kawhi Leonard (SF), Danny Green (SG), Tony Parker (PG)
  • Bench - Tiago Splitter (C)*, DeJuan Blair (PF/C)*, Matt Bonner (PF), Stephen Jackson (SF)*, Gary Neal (SG), Manu Ginobili (SG)*, Nando de Colo (SG), Patty Mills (PG)*, Cory Joseph (PG)
  • Overview - My 15-year love affair with the Tim Duncan-led Spurs continues. They return the exact same team that had the best record in the West last year with the only change being Nando de Colo instead of James Anderson. Not too inspiring, but consider these things: 1) Ginobili played only 34 games last year, 2) Boris Diaw is there for the full season was actually (gasp) interested and is an upgrade over Matt Bonner, and 3) Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, and Danny Green are all young guys who one could reasonably improvement from. Tim Duncan is Tim Duncan and while he's not the same athlete and he's not as dominant as he used to be, he had a PER of nearly 23 last season, still scores at a great rate (22 points per 40 minutes), and is one of smartest players on Earth. I love him. Tony Parker is in his prime and had the best year of his career in 2011-12. I would expect a similar performance this year, and if San Antonio can get a near-full season from Ginobili, they have one of the top-5 backcourts in the league. Green and Leonard form a young, defensive-minded wing combo, and with a guy like Stephen Jackson off the bench and Ginobili, that's really nice. The only real question mark is who gets the minutes behind Tony Parker, but San Antonio could easily use Ginobili as the backup point guard, and I actually like Patty Mills a lot. In short, with reasonable injury luck, there's no way the Spurs don't win 50 games, and they could easily be the best team in the West.
  • X-Factor - Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter in a tie. Leonard was tremendous last year as a rookie mid-1st round pick. Basketball diehards (like myself) absolutely love him for his elite defensive abilities, and while his numbers don't jump out at you, he still managed to post a PER near 17 as a 20 year old rookie. If he progresses a bit offensively, we could be looking at a real stand-out on the wing for San Antonio and their best wing defender since Bruce Bowen left. Splitter is a bit of an enigma, a guy with huge draft pedigree that stayed in Brazil forever and is actually 27 years old. That said, his PER last season was over 20 (!) and while he only played 19 minutes a night for the season, he averaged 10 points, 5 rebounds and nearly a block per game. Defensively, he's not stellar, but if he posts the same sort of per-minute numbers this year in an increased role? Big things on the way. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Leonard makes the 1st-team All-defense team. Ginobili plays 60+ games. Boris Diaw makes everyone forget the "Fat Boris Diaw" era in Charlotte. 
  • Projected Record - 60-22

Monday, October 29, 2012

2012-2013 NBA Preview Part 1: Eastern Conference

Greetings! I know, I know... I've been a bit absent in recent days, but as any faithful reader of mine would know, the NBA is cause for a comeback! I'm going to take a different approach this year, and simply go with a massive 3-part NBA preview instead of breaking down all 30 teams in separate posts. Let's kick it off with the East (in reverse order)...

Please note that every (*) denotes bench guys that should at least be in the rotation if not challenging for starter-type minutes.

Hold on to your hats...

15) Charlotte Bobcats
  • Starting Lineup - Brendan Haywood (C), Tyrus Thomas (PF), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (SF), Gerald Henderson (SG), Kemba Walker (PG)
  • Bench - Desagana Diop (C), Byron Mullens (C/PF)*, Bismack Biyombo (PF)*, Jeffery Taylor (SF), Ben Gordon (SG)*, Reggie Williams (SG/SF), Ramon Sessions (PG)*
  • Overview - On the bright side, they won't break their own "win" percentage record from last year. In the offseason, Charlotte shipped Corey Maggette and his mediocrity to Detroit for Ben Gordon in a deal that swapped 2 wretched contracts. Gordon's deal is worse (because it's longer), but they did get a 1st-rounder from Detroit. That's a plus, and Gordon is probably the better player right now. In the backcourt, Charlotte also brought in Ramon Sessions after letting DJ Augustin walk, and that leaves them with the Sessions/Kemba/Gordon backcourt that should be a disaster defensively, but at least could spur some offense. I actually like Gerald Henderson, and he'll need to be the solid player/defender that he's been the last 2 seasons to help out the trio. The other big acquisition this off-season was the selection of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at #2 in the draft. MKG was exactly the type of guy that Charlotte didn't have last year in that he works HARD, defends very well, and finishes well with athleticism. I don't think he has the typical "upside" of the #2 overall pick, but he'll be good/solid right away, and that's a potential culture-changer that they desperately need in Charlotte. Up front, it's pretty ugly. Brendan Haywood is actually underrated at this point (because everyone kills him) but he's really bad offensively, which takes away from his plus-defense. Tyrus Thomas is an all-time bust, and every Bobcats fan is nodding right now when I say that he "is what he is" at this point. Biyombo is an all-defense/high-athleticism guy who can't play offense at all at this point and is crazily raw. Mullens is the only front-court guy with any scoring ability, but he off-sets his great shooting with subpar defense and bad rebounding. Go 'Cats!
  • X-Factor - Biyombo. As mentioned above, I think we kind of know what to expect from Kidd-Gilchrist, but Biyombo (the 2011 lottery pick) is interesting. He averaged 6 rebounds and nearly 2 blocks a game in just 23 minutes last season, which lends you to think that he'll be a defensive force, and he will be in time. That said, the rebounding isn't great yet (at least not when you see the athleticism, wow) and his offensive game is... a project. He has really bad hands, no post moves, and he's an awful shooter. Sounds great, right? At any rate, he's very, very young (20 years old this year), and a little offensive polish could make him a real contributor this year. He's their best bet for a "breakout" guy. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Biyombo finishes top-5 in the league in blocks per game. No one on the Bobcats averages even 15 points a game. Kidd-Gilchrist leads the team in a PER as a rookie... with around a 15. Yikes.
  • Projected Record - 14-68
14) Orlando Magic
  • Starting Lineup - Nikola Vucevic (C), Glen Davis (PF), Hedo Turkoglu (SF), Arron Afflalo (SG), Jameer Nelson (PG)
  • Bench - Gustavo Ayon (PF/C)*, Al Harrington (PF/SF)*, Josh McRoberts (PF)*, Justin Harper (SF/PF), Andrew Nicholson (SF)*, Quentin Richardson (SF/SG)*, Mo Harkless (SF), JJ Redick (SG)*, Ishmael Smith (PG)*
  • Overview - Remember when Orlando was good? I can't emphasize the impact of Dwight Howard enough and he's not walking through that door. That loss would be enough in itself, but to also have Ryan Anderson depart, and openly choose to bring back Jameer Nelson? Godspeed, Orlando! On the bright side, they have a few guys that I enjoy. Arron Afflalo is the best player on the team, and while that's not an ideal role for him by any stretch, but are there really more than 7-8 shooting guards in the league that you'd rather have? His backup, JJ Redick, will be woefully underused on this team, and that's a shame as his efficiency continues to increase, and he should really be, if not a starter somewhere, a 6th man. Surrounding those 2 guys are a collection of mediocre/average veterans like Turkoglu, Harrington, Richardson, and Nelson, who could all be rotation guys on decent teams, but none of them are 3rd/4th options at this point, and that's what they're being asked to be. Glen Davis had a big-time statistical emergence after Dwight Howard went down last year, averaging 16 and 9 in April and 19 and 9 in their 5 playoff games. He's probably not capable of that over a full season, but with Anderson/Howard gone, he's their only frontcourt scorer and he'll need to get 15 a night. The bench is also interesting. Their best 4 bench guys outside of Redick are between 6'8 and 6'10, and all of them do similar things. We know Harrington will play, but will we see Andrew Nicholson (this year's 1st-rounder)? I really like Josh McRoberts, but they also brought in Gustavo Ayon? Lots of questions here, but one thing is clear, and it is that Orlando is in trouble for 2012-13. 
  • X-Factor - Vucevic. As the only 7-footer on the roster, he's going to be counted on to play significant minutes for the first time in his career. The issue with him, however, is that he likes to float on the perimeter, and despite posting a decent rebound rate (12 per 40 minutes). If he's a capable NBA center (the comparison I keep hearing is Spencer Hawes), then Orlando could be better than this, but if he struggles, there's no one behind him at the 5. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Redick finally gets traded and ends up in a good situation. Afflalo "struggles" as the #1 option, but still averages 15 a game. Glen Davis is the poster boy for this year's "good stats, bad team" list.
  • Projected Record - 17-65
13) Detroit Pistons
  • Starting Lineup - Greg Monroe (C), Jonas Jerebko (PF/SF), Tayshaun Prince (SF), Rodney Stuckey (SG), Brandon Knight (PG) 
  • Bench - Andre Drummond (C)*, Charlie Villanueva (PF)*, Jason Maxiell (PF), Corey Maggette (SF/PF)*, Austin Daye (SF), Kyle Singler (SF), Kim English (SG), Will Bynum (PG)
  • Overview - First, the positives. I really enjoy the work of Greg Monroe. He averaged 15 and 10 in his second season, while posting a gawdy PER of over 22. He's a great passer for a big, has a fundamentally sound post game, and scores efficiently. There's some question about his defensive D on the help side because he's not a great athlete and can't block shots, but he's on the verge of stardom and is already a semi-elite big man. After that? The questions begin. Rodney Stuckey had the best year of his career in 2011-12 as they finally moved him off the ball and realized he's a shooting guard. My long, national nightmare of blasting Stuckey should be over. It's been fun. Brandon Knight is a shoot-first point guard as well, and not the best fit with Stuckey, but I've been a fan of Knight's and he was better as a rookie (13 points, 4 assists per) than I thought he'd be. The forward situation is a mess. Corey Maggette and Tayshaun Prince are vets that are past their primes. However, both can still contribute as Maggette's ability to score and get to the line is valuable, and Prince is still a good, long defender. Villanueva is a contract casualty that's basically been buried in Detroit despite his admittedly potent skills. Jerebko is a wild card, and while it wouldn't surprise me at all if he's the best forward on the team, he seems injury prone and raw still. Did I mention that they also have Jason Maxiell, Kyle Singler (who I like, but come on), and the 180-pound Austin Daye? Hallelujah! One more achilles heel for Detroit is their lack of depth in the backcourt. Rookie Kim English and Will Bynum are the only backup "guards" on the roster, making it a fact that Detroit does not employ an actual point guard or really even a prototypical 2-guard with any NBA experience. That's an issue. A final note is on Andre Drummond. The rookie center has drawn Dwight Howard comparisons for his athleticism/frame, but he was awful at times at UConn and is a classic "potential" pick rather than taking into account how he's never actually played well anywhere. He could be an elite center in this league if EVERYTHING clicks, but for now, he's a bit player at best.
  • X-Factor - Knight. The only way I can see Detroit rising to a playoff threat this season is if Knight makes a leap and becomes a top-15 point guard in year two. I don't see it, but he's the most talented guy on the team not named "Monroe" or maybe "Stuckey", and the only guy with upside like that for this season. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Stuckey leads the team in scoring at over 18 a game. For the second straight year, no Detroit Piston averages 4 assists a game. Monroe leads all centers in steals, and has over 100 on the season.
  • Projected Record - 25-57
12) Washington Wizards
  • Starting Lineup - Nene (C), Emeka Okafor (PF), Trevor Ariza (SF), Bradley Beal (SG), John Wall (PG)* Injured
  • Bench - Kevin Seraphin (C), Trevor Booker (PF/C)*, Jan Vesely (SF/PF)*, Chris Singleton (SF), Cartier Martin (SG/SF), Jordan Crawford (SG)*, Martell Webster (SG), AJ Price (PG)*, Shelvin Mack (PG)
  • Overview - This is a team that has some directional issues. They mortgaged their future in the offseason by dealing Rashard Lewis and that huge expiring contract for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. In the immediate, this makes them a much, much better basketball team in 2012-13 then they would've been without the deal, but it screws up their cap room royally for next summer, and this team still has a fringe playoff-team ceiling. Congrats! At any rate, John Wall is the best player on the roster, but he'll miss the first month or so with a left knee injury. I'm not worried about Wall's knee long-term at all, and I actually this could be the year that he breaks out. He's the Josh Smith of guards in that he's good-to-great at virtually everything on a basketball EXCEPT for shooting jump shots... and yet, he shoots a ton of jump shots. Even with that, he still averaged 16/8/5 with 2 steals a game while being surrounded by that God-awful supporting cast last year. This year, with some consummate pros around him, should help ease things a bit. Nene returns after being acquired in the mid-season deal for McGee and while he's not the double-double guy that many think he is, he's very good when he's aggressive offensively and he's a very good defender. Okafor and Ariza both have faults (size/durability for Okafor, a bad jumper for Ariza) but both guys are plus-defenders and that should help out up front. The front-court is really pretty solid, but the backcourt is where questions arise. In the early games without Wall, the point guard situation is a disaster with AJ Price being below-average and Mack being a fringy combo guard. On the wing, Bradley Beal is a guy I really, really like as an offensive player and a shooter, but can he really be counted on for much as a young rookie coming off an average freshman year in college? Ariza won't add much in consistent scoring, and behind those two guys, you have Jordan Crawford, who is a human black hole. Jan Vesely has talent and a high pedigree as a lottery pick last year, but he's kind of a tweener and he's a pretty bad offensive player at times. The real issue with this team is offense, and it's just enough, combined with injury issues for Wall and Nene, to keep them out of the playoffs. 
  • X-Factor - Beal. There's a ton of pressure on Beal as the #3 pick in the draft to step in right away and be the offensive running mate that John Wall needs. He's capable of this from a talent standpoint, but it's a big stretch to go from a decent college season to a starting two-guard with expectations in the league. I think he really reminds me of a healthy Eric Gordon in the future, but I wouldn't expect that this year, at least not early in the season. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - John Wall finishes in the top-5 in assists per game. Nene and Okafor miss a combined 50+ games. Trevor Ariza shoots 200+ threes... and makes 30% of them. 
  • Projected Record - 33-49
11) Toronto Raptors
  • Starting Lineup - Jonas Valanciunas (C), Andrea Bargnani (PF), DeMar DeRozan (SF), Terrence Ross (SG), Kyle Lowry (PG)
  • Bench - Amir Johnson (PF/C)*, Ed Davis (PF/C)*, Quincy Acy (PF), Linas Kleiza (SF)*, Dominic McGuire (SF), Landry Fields (SG/SF)*, Jose Calderon (PG)*, John Lucas III (PG/SG)
  • Overview - This is a team that should be better. The talent infusion is marked from last year after finally getting Jonas Valanciunas into town and acquiring Kyle Lowry from Houston. Lowry is a personal favorite of mine, a ball-hawking defender who is capable of gawdy point/assist numbers as well. I love him. If Valanciunas is as good as advertised, this ranking is low, but forgive me for not fully believing the hype on a 20-year-old rookie from Lithuania who I've never seen. Andrea Bargnani is who he is at this point, and that is a 7-footer with a jokingly bad rebound rate who will score 18-20 a night, make 100 threes on the season, and can't defend anyone. He's a nice player, but he'll never live up to his #1 overall pick status. On the wing, the jury is out. I am pretty high on DeRozan. He averaged 16 a game last season, but if you remove a God-awful January that saw him fall in love with his jumper, it's more like 18 a game on 44% shooting. I'll take that, along with the fact that he has nice defensive make-up and athleticism. Terrence Ross was unquestionably a reach where they took him in the draft, but was always a favorite of mine at Washington, and I think he could be an NBA starter, albeit not right away. The bench is actually decent. Amir Johnson is famous for getting a God-awful mid-level exception contract, but he's a league-average guy who can really rebound. Ed Davis is a bust, but again, can be a contributor thanks to the fact that he's a great shot-blocker and a good rebounder. Both guys should supplement Bargnani in making up for what he can't do. On the perimeter, Kleiza, Fields, and Calderon is about as good of a bench trio as you'll find in the league. All 3 guys have been starter-level players in their careers, and Calderon, in particular, should see a spike in production as his minutes are limited and his defensive issues can be masked a bit more. In the end, Toronto could be a fringe playoff team if Valanciunas is good, but until he proves it, I can't take them there.
  • X-Factor - Since we discussed Valanciunas at length, I'll say DeRozan. If he's the guy from the 2nd half of last season that realizes his jump shot limitations and attacks the rim at will, he's a very, very valuable player who can lead them on the wing. If he jacks jumpers (badly), they're going to struggle. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Valanciunas gets bust talk early in the season, but adjusts and shows himself to be on the come down the stretch. Bargnani averages 18 and 5 (this isn't bold, I'm just saying). Lowry and Calderon combine for 15 assists a game. 
  • Projected Record - 35-47
10) Milwaukee Bucks
  • Starting Lineup - Samuel Dalembert (C), Ersan Ilyasova (PF), Tobias Harris (SF), Monta Ellis (SG), Brandon Jennings (PG)
  • Bench - Ekpe Udoh (C)*, Larry Sanders (PF)*, Drew Gooden (PF)*, John Henson (PF/SF), Mike Dunleavy (SF)*, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (SF/PF), Doron Lamb (SG)*, Beno Udrih (PG)*
  • Overview - This is a team I'm probably lower on than most people. I'll address my biggest concern first in that I firmly don't believe in the core backcourt of Ellis and Jennings. I don't think the two of them mesh well together at all and defensively, it's going to be a disaster. Offensively, neither guy averaged even 6 assists a game last year despite both guys dominating the ball on separate teams. In addition, Jennings has fallen into taking nearly 6 threes a game, and is a career 39% shooter from the field. That's Allen Iverson territory, and not in a good way. Defensively, Ellis playing the 2-guard spot is never an "easy" fit defensively because he's a ghastly defender at any rate, but pairing him with the very small Jennings (who actually isn't a disaster defensively) gives them no size against 2-guards and whoever they choose to put Ellis on will do whatever they want. Hilariously, I can't think of a worse fit for a Scott Skiles team than these two guys, and it's going to be tremendous theater. The bright spot, obviously, is that they can pretty much pencil in 38-40 points a game from their starting backcourt, and there aren't many teams that feature that kind of firepower. Elsewhere, I actually loved the Dalembert acquisition, as it allows them to move Gooden away from Center and Dalembert provides a big-time rebounder/defender in the middle to help out the bad perimeter defense. Udoh and Sanders also give solid depth up front and that's not a weakness that it has been. Ilyasova signed for $40 million and that's an overpayment in my estimation, but he was very good in 2011-12 and if he performs at that level, it's solid. The rest of the wing is pretty interesting. They've been starting Tobias Harris in preseason games and he may be getting the nod at the small forward spot. He's a guy I enjoyed in college, but the jury is out. Dunleavy and Mbah a Moute are veterans with defined skill sets as Dunleavy can score/shoot while Luc Richard can't get his shot at all but is an all-world defender. Beno Udrih as the 3rd guard would be solid, but again, he's SO bad defensively that that problem will persist from the starters. 
  • X-Factor - Other than the backcourt dynamic, I'd say it's Ilyasova. This guy averaged 14 and 9 last year with a PER over 20 including a crazy post-all star game run where he averaged 16 and 9 on 55% shooting. If this is the real thing and not just a contract push, this is probably low for Milwaukee, but they'll need him to produce like that going forward to be a playoff contender.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Milwaukee will lead the league in starting backcourt scoring... and layups allowed. Ilyasova takes a step back and averages 11 and 7. Monta Ellis and/or Brandon Jennings are in the middle of trade rumors by January. 
  • Projected Record - 36-46
9) Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Starting Lineup - Anderson Varajeo (C), Tristan Thompson (PF), Omri Casspi (SF), CJ Miles (SG), Kyrie Irving (PG)
  • Bench - Tyler Zeller (C)*, Jon Leuer (PF)*, Samardo Samuels (PF), Alonzo Gee (SF)*, Luke Walton (SF), Kelenna Azubuike (SF), Dion Waiters (SG)*, Daniel Gibson (SG), Donald Sloan (PG), Jeremy Pargo (PG) 
  • Overview - This (optimistic) ranking is about one thing. Kyrie Irving. If you asked me for the list of point guards that I'd want to start a team with right now, the list would only include 3 guys before it got to Irving. Paul, Westbrook, Williams. That's it. Kyrie averaged 19 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds with a 47/40/87 slash line last year. Oh, and he had a PER of 21.49. AS A ROOKIE! The guy is a franchise building block, and he gets the benefit of the doubt from me. Surrounding him, it gets a bit more dicey. I love Varajeo and he averaged 11 points and 12 boards a game while he was actually healthy last year, but they'll need him for the full campaign this season as he anchors that back line as the only real veteran presence. The biggest issue for Cleveland? Lack of a #2 option. There are a couple of young options that could develop but there's some real projection to be done to get to them to that level. First, 2nd-year forward Tristan Thompson is coming off a rookie year where he only averaged 8 points and 7 boards with a 13.37 PER. On the bright side for Cavs fans, Thompson is multi-talented, and played better as the season went along, averaging over 9 points and 7 boards per game after the break at just 20 years old for most of the year. The down side? He was already playing significant minutes last year, so any big-time jump in production wouldn't coincide with an easy increase in minutes. Secondly, this year's lottery pick, guard Dion Waiters, is a pure scorer out of Syracuse that could infuse some life into the offense. He's gotten a ton of Dwayne Wade comparisons coming out as a super-athletic 6'4 two-guard that can attack the rim. With that said, he's a raw rookie and likely won't play starter's minutes this season. Third, they have another high pick in UNC's Tyler Zeller. He'll likely come off the bench all year behind Varajeo and Thompson, but is probably the most skilled offensive player of the three right away. The wing is a bit of a black hole for Cleveland. After Waiters, the perimeter is filled with journeymen and there's really no upside. Alonzo Gee and Omri Casspi are the likely guys at the 3 spot and while I actually think both guys can be rotation players in the league, neither is someone you want starting at the 3. The 2-guard spot is even more of a mess unless Waiters steps up, as CJ Miles and Daniel Gibson are both bench guys thrust into more prominent roles. As I said already, having Cleveland this high is mostly about Irving, and a little bit of a nod to Varajeo and Thompson. Here we go. 
  • X-Factor - Thompson. For this projection to work out, Irving just has to duplicate last year, but Thompson has to actually make a leap in production. The runner-up? Waiters, who could honestly be a 15-point-a-game guy if given the right opportunity.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Tristan Thompson wins the Most Improved Player award. Varajeo averages a double-double. Kyrie makes the jump to 21/7/5 and is a consensus top-15 player. No swingman (SF or SG) on the roster averages 10 points a game. 
  • Projected Record - 38-44
8) Atlanta Hawks
  • Starting Lineup - Al Horford (C), Josh Smith (SF), Kyle Korver (SF), Devin Harris (G), Jeff Teague (PG)
  • Bench - Zaza Pachulia (C)*, Johan Petro (C), Anthony Tolliver (PF), Ivan Johnson (PF)*, Mike Scott (PF), Deshawn Stevenson (SF)*, Anthony Morrow (SG)*, Lou Williams (SG/PG)*, John Jenkins (SG), 
  • Overview - First of all, I could do 5,000 on words on the Hawks but I won't do that here. Feel free to check out to see me and the other guys from the FanSided Network cover the Hawks in a very in-depth way this season (that's my one plug for the day). With that said, he's an overview. Al Horford and Josh Smith are good at basketball. If there's anything I actually know about the 2012-13 Hawks, it's that. Horford remains an elite option at center (I know, I know, he's not a center, blah blah blah) and Smith, in a contract year no less, stuffs box scores like very few in the league do. I could give you the dissertation on how important Al Horford is, how he's the best player on the team, and how his appearance in a full-season actually mitigates the loss of Joe Johnson after Horford missed all of last year. I could give you 1,000 words simply on Josh Smith's horrid shot selection and how if he stopped shooting long 2-point jump shots, he'd be a no-doubt all-star (notice I didn't even mention threes). The thing is: you know all of that, or at least I hope you do. The rest of the roster/rotation make-up is a bit uncertain. The 3rd best player on the team is Lou Williams, the former South Gwinnett HS product who's signed for the mid-level from Philly. The issue with Williams is that he's a combo guard who's probably better suited to come off of the bench (at least in the opinion of Larry Drew and Doug Collins). Williams is a very, very efficient scorer for a guard, and he'll probably be 2nd on the team in scoring behind Smith as long as LD plays him enough to give him that opportunity. After that, the 4th and 5th "best" players on team are the two point guards: Jeff Teague and Devin Harris. I've heard it argued about all off-season about who's better among the two (I'd take Harris), but in truth, it actually doesn't matter. The make-up of the Hawks backcourt from a basketball standpoint is pretty awful. Williams/Harris/Teague are all between 6'1 and 6'4, none can really guard opposing two guards, and none are true pass-first point guards in the distribution sense. Awesome! I'd expect all 3 to play 25+ minutes a night unless there's a move made in-season and the remaining minutes in the backcourt will go to Morrow with Jenkins likely on the bench, at least at the beginning of the year. The wing is pretty ugly. Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow are both one-dimensional guys. On the bright side, that dimension is absolutely lights-out shooting as both guys are top-10 shooters in the whole league. That said, they are both lacking defensively and ideally wouldn't be primary options on the wing. The other major wing option is Deshawn Stevenson, who is easily the best wing defender on the roster (mostly by default), but hasn't posted a PER over 10 (which is bad anyway) since 2007-2008 and actually performed at a hilariously bad 4.33 rating last season. He's not particularly good. The front-court depth is actually reasonable after Ivan Johnson accepted a qualifying offer and the Hawks were able to add Anthony Tolliver in free agency. Combine those reasonable backup options with Zaza Pachulia in the final year of his contract, and the front-court isn't bad behind Smith and Horford. Johan Petro and Mike Scott fill out the roster with bodies, but it'd be a bad sign if either one played major minutes. What does it all mean? This is supposed to be a transition year for the Hawks, but if you take a look at the actual roster make-up and realize that Horford and Smith are still around, this is a fringe playoff contender despite being in a full rebuild. That's kind of nice. I'm fully intrigued to see how Drew handles the Williams/Teague/Harris conundrum on the wing, but one thing is for sure, the Hawks won't be as bad as people would've thought when they jettisoned Joe Johnson.
  • X-Factor - It's always Josh Smith, isn't it? If I could have Josh Smith in a room for 5 minutes, all I would do with him is plead for him to stop shooing mid-to-long range 2-point jump shots. I wouldn't even MENTION his propensity to shoot the 3-ball. Why, you ask? Well, last season, Smith shot 68% at the rim, and didn't break 40% at any other location on the court. If he shoots 26% from 3 and takes less than 2 threes a game (like he did last season), I will live with that, but if he continues to shoot 35-ish% from 15+ feet and takes nearly SEVEN of them a game? That's a much bigger issue. For every 10 three point attempts at that percentage, he would generate 7.8 points. For every 10 two point attempts at that rate, that generates 7.0 points and he's taking MORE of those by almost 4x. It's an issue, and I'd hope, in a contract  year, that someone that he trusts would force that information into his head. Done and done. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Josh Smith shot 1.7 threes per game last season. This season, that number jumps above 2.0 and near 2.5. Devin Harris posts a higher PER than Jeff Teague. John Jenkins gets buried on the bench. Al Horford averages 17 points (career-high) and 10 rebounds (career-high) with a PER above 21 (career high).
  • Projected Record - 41-41
7) Chicago Bulls
  • Starting Lineup - Joakim Noah (C), Carlos Boozer (PF), Luol Deng (SF), Richard Hamilton (SG), Derrick Rose (PG)* - Injured
  • Bench - Nazr Mohammed (C)*, Taj Gibson (PF)*, Vlad Radmanovic (SF/PF), Jimmy Butler (SF), Marco Belinelli (SG)*, Nate Robinson (SG/PG), Kirk Hinrich (PG/SG)*, Marquis Teague (PG)*
  • Overview - It's one of the great debates of the NBA "preview" scene. What in the world do we do with the Bulls? If you were asleep from April until now, Derrick Rose blew out his knee in the playoffs and will enter this season on the shelf. There is debate on when he'll arrive, but I think it would be pretty optimistic to project him for more than 20-25 games played this season. If he's healthy? This is a top-3 contender in the East, but without him, their backcourt is pretty barren. We'll come back to that. In the front-court, Chicago is still pretty loaded. There aren't many teams that can match the trio of Noah/Boozer/Gibson and that's a plus. The Bulls will certainly miss Omer Asik after declining his offer sheet and allowing him to walk to Houston. Asik is an absolutely elite defensive center than anchored that second-team defense, but Nazr Mohammed isn't a bad player, and the Asik loss will only be a crushing blow if Noah can't stay on the court. I absolutely love Taj Gibson and think he should be somewhere where he's playing more, and in fact, there's an argument to be made that he's better than Carlos Boozer. Speaking of Boozer, he'll be relied upon for scoring while Rose is out, and maybe we'll see an uptick to more of his Utah numbers now that he's an unquestioned #1 or #2 option again. Luol Deng is one of the more versatile and multi-faceted players in the league and I love what he brings. He enters the season with concerns about his wrist that plagued him last season, and after posting a career-low PER last year with that wrist problem, that's warranted, but Deng is an elite wing defender, and they're going to also need him to score 15+ a night this year. The aforementioned backcourt is a bit unclear. Richard Hamilton is the penciled-in starter at the 2 but he had the worst year of his career after moving to Chi-Town last season. Hamilton is a unique offensive player who's mid-range game is his calling card and he loves to use screens and curls. The offense, with Rose, didn't match his talents, but maybe the injury to Rose, and the resulting move away from reliance on him, will help Hamilton get loose. Kirk Hinrich and rookie Marquis Teague will handle the point guard responsibilities until Rose returns. I love Hinrich irrationally, but there's no denying that he isn't the same caliber of player that he was when he was in Chicago last time. He'll have trouble guarding some opposing point guards, but can contribute still. Teague was a steal in my opinion at #29 but again, it's tough to pencil in a rookie, non-lottery guy into a prominent role running the show. The rest of the bench is kind of funny. Chicago's bench (and bench defense, specifically) was a calling card last season, but with Asik, Korver, Brewer, and Watson all gone, it's a new cast. I wouldn't suggest that Radmanovic, Belinelli and Robinson are defensive players at all, but they'll need something out of at least 2 of those guys. I hated the Belinelli and VladRad moves because they don't match the system, but Nate Robinson was actually (gasp) good last year in Golden State, and that's a nice spark plug. Jimmy Butler could be the X-factor of the bench as he's really the only guy on the wing behind Deng that can guard a soul, and with Deng's injury possibilities, we may see a lot of the young guy from Marquette. 
  • X-Factor - I've tried to avoid the "obvious" choices for this segment, but it's Rose. If Chicago can tread water for 50-60 games, an even 80% Rose could push them into the playoffs for the final 20-30 games. If he doesn't come back at all? I don't think they make the playoffs. It's as simple as that. My second choice would be Boozer for the reasons mentioned above, as they really need a 20-point scorer, and he's the only choice. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Boozer averages 19 and 10 with a PER over 20. Deng plays 75+ games despite the wrist injury. Taj Gibson finishes top-5 in the most improved player voting (despite being the same guy he was last year). Marco Belinelli is out of the league after this season, and never returns. 
  • Projected Record - 42-40
6) New York Knicks
  • Starting Lineup - Tyson Chandler (C), Amare Stoudemire (PF), Carmelo Anthony (SF), JR Smith (SG), Raymond Felton (PG)
  • Bench - Marcus Camby (C)*, Rasheed Wallace (C/PF), Kurt Thomas (PF)*, Steve Novak (SF)*, James White (SF), Ronnie Brewer (SG), Iman Shumpert (SG)*, Jason Kidd (PG)*, Pablo Prigioni (PG)
  • Overview - Well, the Knicks are old. Flat-out, no-holds-barred old. In fact, they are the oldest team in league history after signing Rasheed Wallace to a 1-year, minimum contract. I'd absolutely say that that is an issue simply because you can't trust health to hold up over 82 games with guys like Kidd, Camby, and Wallace, but is it the biggest issue? I say no. The biggest issue with this team is that the "best" 2 players (we'll get to that) are a TERRIBLE match for each other. Carmelo Anthony is a ball-stopping forward who is one of the best scorers in the league and an above-average rebounder, but provides little defensively and can't distribute the ball. Also, he's probably best suited in today's game to be playing significant minutes at the 4 spot. Amare is an offense-only guy who can't really play center, can't pass, and is the one of the worst defensive bigs in the entire league. In addition? This isn't the same Amare that we're thinking of with the Suns because the burst simply isn't there, and he posted his lowest PER of his career last season with a just slightly above-average 17.8. His scoring rate is down, his field goal percentage is down, he's an average rebounder and nothing more, and his turnover rate is more than DOUBLE his assist rate. Frankly, Amare isn't a guy I want playing significant minutes for me unless the rest of the team fits perfectly to him, and that's not the case here. Okay, enough of that... the backcourt is also a question mark. Ray Felton was abysmal in Portland last year (before and after he helped orchestrate the revolt on Nate McMillan), JR Smith is absolutely insane and despite being one of the most talented guys in the league (30-foot range, crazy athlete), has some of the worst shot selection imaginable, and isn't a guy you'd want as your starting 2-guard. Behind them, Jason Kidd is virtually washed up, although not a bad option for 20 minutes a night, Iman Shumpert was a nice surprise as a rookie but started picking up some JR Smith shot selection tendencies, and Ronnie Brewer is basically a defense-only player. I do like Steve Novak as a role player because he's so long and can flat-out shoot it, but the perimeter is pretty questionable. Tyson Chandler is back and ready to hold down the middle defensively. He's still vastly underrated nationally simply because people don't value defense as they should, but making up for Amare is a task unto itself. I loved the Camby pick-up as he can still go and get it when he's healthy, and Kurt Thomas is a perfect end-of-bench option as a defender/veteran. The Rasheed signing made me laugh, but (huge asterisk here), if he was actually in shape, I'd co-sign that move as a no-risk decision that could pay off. In the end, I don't think this team can stay healthy, and if even if they do, the backcourt deficiency and the Amare/Melo duo can only go so far. 
  • X-Factor - The Power Forward Conundrum. If you talked to any league "expert", I'd imagine about 90% of them would agree with this sentiment. Amare should come off the bench. Hear me out... Carmelo starts at the 4 next to Chandler, and Amare heads up the second unit. Mike Woodson (cut to a shot of Mike drawing up a play on his couch in the morning) can then use Amare as the unquestioned "go-to-guy" of the second unit, run the offense through him whenever Melo is off the court, and I think you'd get max value out of both guys. Do you then play Amare and Melo together in crunchtime? Maybe, but that's a match-up decision and there's a real argument to be made that the best lineup that NYK could trot out doesn't include Mr. Stoudemire. Discuss.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - JR Smith leads the league in 3-point attempts. Ray Felton is still washed-up and the Knicks are trotting out J-Kidd for 30+ minutes a game by January. Tyson Chandler will deserve to repeat as defensive player of the year but won't.
  • Projected Record - 44-38
5) Philadelphia 76ers
  • Starting Lineup - Andrew Bynum (C), Thaddeus Young (PF), Evan Turner (SF), Jason Richardson (SG), Jrue Holiday (PG)
  • Bench - Kwame Brown (C)*, Spencer Hawes (PF/C)*, Lavoy Allen (PF), Dorell Wright (SF), Nick Young (SG)*, Royal Ivey (PG), Maalik Wayns (PG)
  • Overview - The new-look Sixers are getting considerable buzz this year. My advice? Calm down a bit. The reason? I. do. not. trust. Andrew. Bynum. Maybe I'm in the minority, but I don't want my best player to be someone that a) has a documented injury history, weighs 290 pounds, AND has a current knee injury that has him taking injections, b) has played 66+ games exactly once in his career, and c) is a lunatic. Okay, so "c" is subjective, but there's evidence that Bynum is a bit of a crazy person on top of everything else, and that can't be ignored. If Bynum is the same guy as he was in LA (read: very good, and healthy), Philly will probably have home-court advantage in the East for at least a series, but I don't believe it. On the wing, Andre Iguodala was jettisoned in the summer and Lou Williams (he of the 20+ PER last season) left in free agency for Atlanta. This leaves an absolutely massive burder on Evan Turner. Turner took a modest step forward in 2012, increasing his averages and efficiency across the board from a subpar rookie season, but he'll need to be noticeably better to justify this ranking. I really, really like Thad Young, and he now has a clear path at the power forward position, which I believe is his better spot, especially in this smaller, faster league. The other "stud" is point guard Jrue Holiday, and although Holiday is just 22 years old, he's a vet at this point, and he'll be relied on big-time. The scoring load is really an issue on this current team, but Philly did at least go out and employ a few bench guys that can put the ball through the rim. Jason Richardson and Nick Young were both brought in and while Young can only score and nothing else, I think they'll get an angry Richardson with something to prove this season. The front-court depth is actually solid with both Kwame Brown (who really isn't as bad as everyone thinks he is) and Spencer Hawes providing size and in the case of Hawes, a nice skill set. This all comes down to Bynum, but if he's the guy that Philly thinks he is, they'll be looking to their supporting guys to step up.
  • X-Factor - Besides Bynum, I'll go with Turner. As the #2 pick in the draft AND with Iguodala being gone, the expectations for Turner are huge this season, and his pedigree would suggest that he can step up. However, I've never seen a star in Turner at all, and while he's a guy I'd like to have for his versatility, he's never going to be a guy who you'd want as your #2 or even #3 option offensively. There's an argument to be made for Thad Young too, as he's finally getting the exposure increase that some Philly fans have clamored for. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - No one outside of Bynum averages 15 points a game. Yes, fifteen. Bynum misses 30+ games. Jrue Holiday takes a mini-leap to the second-tier of point guards and averages a 14/8/5 with 2 steals a game.
  • Projected Record - 45-37

4) Brooklyn Nets
  • Starting Lineup - Brook Lopez (C), Kris Humphries (PF), Gerald Wallace (SF), Joe Johnson (SG), Deron Williams (PG)
  • Bench - Andray Blatche (C)*, Reggie Evans (PF), Josh Childress (SF), Mirza Teletovic (F), Marshon Brooks (SG)*, CJ Watson (PG)*
  • Overview - It's kind of jarring to see the Nets this high, huh? This is a pretty talented roster, and in the midst of all of the "who's better: Knicks or Nets?!" talk, I don't see it is as particularly close. The Nets have a complete starting five with no real weaknesses, and their bench signings weren't terrible either. I'm not in love with Brook Lopez and they vastly overpaid for him by any estimate, but it's not my money, and he's still an above average center even when he doesn't rebound. On the bright side, all Kris Humphries does is rebound, so that offsets Lopez's weakness a bit, and with Gerald Wallace as a ballhawk with nearly 7 boards a game for his career, that helps as well. I love the Joe Johnson/Deron Williams backcourt. There's no need in even discussing the contract because it doesn't matter from a basketball standpoint, but Joe Johnson is still a top-5 shooting guard in the league, and with the blessing of Williams to actually (gasp) create something for him, I think you'll get the best of Johnson this year. Speaking of Williams, there were once actual discussions (even if I never bought in) that he was better than Chris Paul. Chris Paul! That tells you how good Williams can be, and now with a quality roster around him, he'll return to Utah-type form and cause debates about who is the 2nd-best point guard in the league, at least. If there is one deficiency about Brooklyn, it is certainly defensively. The only two guys in the starting 5 that I would characterize as even average defensively are Wallace and Johnson, and neither of them is as good as they used to be on that end. The bench won't help too much with that either as Brooks and Blatche are glaring holes, and Evans/Childress aren't good enough to get on the court too much anyway. Still, this team is absolutely going to put up points, and I think it's one of the better rosters in the conference. 
  • X-Factor - Brook Lopez. After playing all 82 games in each of his first 3 seasons, Lopez crashed to just 5 games played last year. I don't think there is a significant concern about Lopez's durability, but you have to mention it after last year. The bigger issue? He HAS to rebound the ball. In his last full season (2010-11), he averaged 6.8 rebounds per 40 minutes. For reference, that was worse than such rebounding stalwarts as James Harden, Marquis Daniels, OJ Mayo, Stephen Curry, and Vince Carter. Take that for what you will. In addition, Lopez is a ghastly defender at times, and will need to at least be average for Brooklyn to be a real threat. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Joe Johnson posts his highest PER since at least 2009-10 (when he had a 19.3 rating). Deron Williams averages double-digit assists. Andray Blatche emerges as a reasonably decent bench guy under the direction of Avery Johnson and ends up playing 25 minutes a night with reasonable percentages, maybe even averaging double-digit points (this is the boldest prediction). 
  • Projected Record - 49-33

3) Boston Celtics
  • Starting Lineup - Kevin Garnett (C), Brandon Bass (PF), Paul Pierce (SF), Courtney Lee (SG), Rajon Rondo (PG)
  • Bench - Fab Melo (C), Jason Collins (C), Jared Sullinger (PF)*, Chris Wilcox (PF), Jeff Green* (SF/PF), Jason Terry (SG)*, Keyon Dooling (SG), Avery Bradley (SG/PG)*
  • Overview - Well, this is certainly an interesting roster. The usual suspects are back with the exception of Ray Allen, and on paper, this is a significantly deeper/better team than last year. First, Rondo has established himself as an elite point guard and is the best player on this team at this point, at least when referencing season-long production. I'd say they need a slight uptick from Rondo in point production, but I'd settle for improved free throw shooting and a reasonable efficiency number on his at-times hideous jump shot. Kevin Garnett is still an absolutely elite big man in this league when he's right health-wise, but he can't be expected to play at that level for 82 games at his current age/wear-and-tear and the same goes for Pierce on the wing. On the bright side? The depth situation this year is vastly improved. Boston brought in Jason Terry to replace Ray Allen, and I actually think Terry is a better player than Allen at this stage. He isn't the same spot-up guy, but he's better at creating his own shot which takes some pressure off of Pierce and Rondo as creators. In addition, Courtney Lee arrives to provide a good wing defender, and Avery Bradley established himself as an elite defender in his short time last season pre-injury. When he's back and healthy, they could be terrors on the perimeter with Bradley, Rondo, and Lee causing havoc. The biggest acquisition, however, wasn't an acquisition at all, in that Jeff Green has returned from his heart issue that sidelined him for 2011-12. Green became a pretty overrated commodity in his time in OKC (combined with his top-5 pick pedigree), but he's a GIANT upgrade from the pu pu platter that Boston trotted out off the bench last season. He's a very nice option as a backup at both forward spots, and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him playing crunch-time at power forward depending on the match-up. That said, the contact they gave him (4 years, 36 million) was an abject disaster, and I'm still trying to figure out what in the world Danny Ainge was thinking. And finally, I'm a big Jared Sullinger fan (despite his collegiate affiliation) and think that if his back holds up, he's a contributor right away. He'll never be a great athlete, but he's a very, very smart basketball player and he will rebound at this level. In short, I like the Celtics a lot, and if this was a projection of playoff positioning rather than a judgment of an 82-game schedule, they'd be higher.
  • X-Factor - Health/Age. I was tempted to go with Jeff Green here, but I'll take on the larger topic. Basically, if Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are healthy and ready to go in April/May, that's easily the biggest key. Doc has been adept at handling veterans and the increase in quality depth this year should only help that. They aren't winning anything unless KG and Pierce are close to 100% in the playoffs.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Jason Terry has a 3+ PER edge on Ray Allen. Rajon Rondo leads the league in assists again, except this time he also shoots 48+% from the field and at-or-near 70% from the line. 
  • Projected Record - 50-32
2) Indiana Pacers
  • Starting Lineup - Roy Hibbert (C), David West (PF), Danny Granger (SF), Paul George (SG), George Hill (PG)
  • Bench - Ian Mahinmi (C)*, Miles Plumlee (C), Tyler Hansborough (PF)*, Gerald Green (SF), Sam Young (SF), Lance Stephenson (SG), DJ Augustin (PG), Sundiata Gaines (PG)
  • Overview - I really, really don't like the Pacers being the 2nd best team in the conference, but there are reasons that they've settled here. First, they have youth combined with modest experience and there aren't the same injury/age concerns that teams like New York and Boston have. Secondly, we've now seen this group do it for a full season, and that was with a huge dip in production from their "best" player in Danny Granger. I thought they overpaid for George Hill at $8 million a year, but he's now firmly entrenched as the starter, and Augustin is a reasonable backup option. In the front-court, they went and got Mahinmi to give them some solid, though uninspiring play, and if you combine with with Hansborough, they are at least 4-deep in the front-court with solid quality. Wing depth was a huge issue for Indy in 2012, and the Sam Young/Gerald Green signings were an attempt to remedy that. I loved the Green move, as he was good in New Jersey last year, and still presents tons of upside as he is maturing and still only 26 years old. Hibbert got paid last year, and that's usually a concern, but on the court, I think you can pencil him in for 13 and 9 with 2 blocks a game, and that's pretty good in today's league (we'll take about the vast overpayment at another time). Granger and George provide great size and versatility on the wing, and that is a huge strength, especially with the current state of shooting guards in the league. 
  • X-Factor - Paul George. He made the modest leap to averaging 12 points and 6 boards a game in 30 minutes last season while boosting his PER to a solid 16.55 in his second campaign. George is still only 22 years old, and Pacer fans are penciling in another leap this season. If he can jump up another category and possibly even supplant Granger as the primary wing option, this team could be pretty scary. If he levels out and we find that the 2012 version is kind of who George is, this prediction is optimistic.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Paul George finishes 2013 with the highest PER on the Pacers after being 4th last year. Miles Plumlee turns into a more athletic Jeff Foster. DJ Augustin will make every die-hard Pacers fan google the details of the Collison/Mahinmi trade... and scream "WHY DID WE HAVE TRADE COLLISON FOR THE RIGHT TO OVERPAY MAHINMI?! WHYYYY!?"
  • Projected Record - 51-31
1) Miami Heat 
  • Starting Lineup - Chris Bosh (C), Lebron James (PF), Shane Battier (SF), Dwyane Wade (SG), Mario Chalmers (PG)
  • Bench - Joel Anthony (C)*, Udonis Haslem (PF)*, Rashard Lewis (SF/PF)*, Ray Allen (SG)*, Mike Miller (SG/SF), James Jones (SG), Norris Cole (PG)*
  • Overview - The defending champions are back and if anything, they are improved for 2012-2013. They have the best player in the world in Lebron James, and he's coming off one of the more dominant playoff performances since MJ left the league. In addition, the did a lot of the playoff lifting with a non-healthy Chris Bosh, and with him at 100% combined with Wade (who does actually have some injury concern), the big three is formidable. The biggest change (read: improvement) for the Heat this year is in an increase in quality depth. Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis have arrived to take minutes away from the nearly decrepit Mike Miller and the James Jones/Terrel Harris duo meaning that the Heat can legitimately go 11 deep without batting an eye. The size issue still remains to a point, but with the revelation of a Bosh/Lebron combo at the 4 and 5 spots that they rolled out in the playoffs, they simply run people out of the gym with athleticism while still being able to match most teams (LA, Memphis, etc. not withstanding) physically. 
  • X-Factor - Dwyane Wade's knee. No matter how fantastic Lebron was last year and continues to be, the Heat aren't the favorite unless Wade is at least near 100 percent. He had knee surgery over the summer and has been limited in training camp, and while it's too early to be concerned at all, this is a guy with a ton of miles on his tires who will turn 31 years old in January. Make no mistake, Wade is clearly the second fiddle these days, but he's still a darn good second fiddle. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Lebron averaged 27/8/6 with a PER of 30.8 last year. I think he eclipses most, if not all, of those numbers this year and I'm picturing a 29/9/6 type of a line with a shot at breaking 31 on the PER scale. Also, I think Ray Allen is done. Yes, you read that right. Does it mean he can't be a bench guy and help them? Absolutely not, but anybody expecting RAY ALLEN (capital letters) will be sorely disappointed, and I think you'll see numbers closer to his 2012 playoff numbers (40% shooting, 13 points per 40 minutes) than his regular season numbers from last year. 
  • Projected Record - 65-17