1. L.A. Lakers
Key reserves: Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Adam Morrison
Ron Artest is kind of like T.O. in that there is usually a honeymoon period before he starts wreaking havoc. They are different in nature, though, because T.O.’s antics are usually of the sort of disrupting team chemistry and calling out teammates, whereas Artest is just batshit crazy and starts fights with fans, starves his dogs, etc. But on paper, especially considering he is joining a contending team, Artest figures to make it through the year OK. The Kobe-Ron relationship is littered with red flags, however. Bryant is notoriously hard on his teammates, and Ron might not have the mental wherewithal to handle any indictments of his play or work ethic. It is also unclear what Kobe really thought about Artest jumping in the shower with him, offering to come “help him win a title,” following a blowout loss in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals against Boston. What’s more, having landed in the City of Angels, Artest’s penchant for living the life of a rapper could prove to be an overwhelming distraction.
Trevor Ariza will be missed. Artest is certainly more intimidating to foes, but Ariza proved during last year’s playoffs that he was dependable and ready to knock down big shots. Artest’s consistency will be a key during this year’s playoffs. It is very possible that Jordan Farmar will replace Derek Fisher in the starting lineup by New Year’s, but then again, Phil Jackson may prefer Farmar’s burst coming off his bench. All in all, expect a dominating regular season performance by the Lakers and must-see TV come playoff time.
2. San Antonio
Antonio McDyess; Theo Ratliff/Matt Bonner
Tim Duncan; DeJuan Blair
Richard Jefferson; Michael Finley
Roger Mason, Jr.; Manu Ginobili
Tony Parker; George Hill
The age and health of the frontcourt are really the only concerns here. This team had already been running like clockwork for the past decade, and every piece they’ve added this offseason fits perfectly. Richard Jefferson is in an even better situation than he was playing with Jason Kidd and Vince Carter in New Jersey. On the fast break, he can keep up with Tony Parker (as well as anyone else can at least), but he will really shine in the half-court game, where the Spurs’ ball movement will open up lanes for him to drive and finish. Defenses often collapsed in the paint against those Nets teams he was a part of due to the lack of a legitimate post threat. Tim Duncan alleviates that problem in San Antonio.
Duncan, though he claims he has lost fifteen pounds and his knees are feeling a lot better, is certainly heading down that slippery slope where his body will abandon him more and more. Make no mistake, he’s still an elite player, but at 33, his health is far from guaranteed for the entire season. Antonio McDyess represents a drastic improvement over Matt Bonner at the center position, but both he and Theo Ratliff pack a laundry list of injuries on their résumés. Even rookie DeJuan Blair, while a legitimate NBA talent, famously fell to the second round of the draft because he lacks an ACL in either knee after multiple surgeries. If the Spurs manage to stay healthy, look for them to give the Lakers a run for their money for the Western Conference Crown.
Drew Gooden; Erick Dampier
Dirk Nowitzki; Tim Thomas
Shawn Marion; Quinton Ross/James Singleton
Josh Howard; Jason Terry
Jason Kidd; J.J. Barea
Marcin Gortat would have looked awfully nice starting at C for this squad, but don’t be fooled into thinking the Mavs aren’t a contender as it is. Those who think Shawn Marion is washed up should stay away from the betting lines when it comes to the Mavs. Playing in half-court offenses in Miami and Toronto (where PG Jose Calderon was injured a great deal), Marion was unable to showcase the abilities he had become known for while playing in the Suns’ “7-seconds-or-less” offense. Now reunited with his rookie season running-mate in Jason Kidd and opposite a healthy Josh Howard on the other wing, Marion is poised to unleash plenty of fireworks this season in Dallas.
Drew Gooden is far from great, but he provides the Mavs with great flexibility. When they need to go super-huge they can always turn to Erick Dampier, but Gooden is extremely mobile for a big man and should only elevate the fast break attack even more. New addition Quinton Ross should be able to slow down some of the league’s elite perimeter scorers. When you look at the rebounding on this team, all five starters are among the league leaders at their position. Even though the Mavs won’t be a great defensive team, this advantage on the boards will allow Dirk to play center at times, surrounded by Marion-Howard-Jason Terry-Kidd. No team in the league wants to defend that.
Greg Oden; Joel Przybilla
LaMarcus Aldridge; Juwan Howard
Nicolas Batum; Travis Outlaw/Martell Webster
Brandon Roy; Rudy Fernandez
Andre Miller; Steve Blake/Jerryd Bayless
Portland needed an upgrade at PG, but time will tell if Andre Miller was the right choice. Miller is not a dependable three-point shooter, and while he has been known to put up gaudy assist numbers, the flip side is that he requires the ball in his hands a lot to be effective. Portland’s primary scoring options, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, are not the type of players who rely on speed and therefore would benefit greatly from a floor general capable of hitting them with sick passes. In the half court, there isn’t that much that Miller is going to do that Roy can’t already do when he has the ball.
Small forward Nicolas Batum showed off some serious potential last season, and reports are that he has looked great for the French National Team this summer. If he could emerge as a third or fourth option for the Blazers, his length could create major mismatches. One would have to think Greg Oden will only improve this season, and Portland has some other sleepers on its bench in Travis Outlaw, Rudy Fernandez, and Jerryd Bayless. Nate McMillan is a quality coach, and he will do whatever is necessary to get optimum performance out of this team.
Key reserves: Chris Andersen, Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Anthony Carter, Johan Petro, Renaldo Balkman, Malik Allen
The Nugs’ starting five is as potent as they come, but that bench looks awfully thin. Add in sub-par defense on the perimeter and Denver is going to have trouble sneaking up on teams again this year. Nenê Hilario, K-Mart, and the Birdman do provide an intimidating interior presence, but the smart money is on at least one of them going down at some point, which speaks again to the team’s lack of depth. Ty Lawson struggled to adjust to the speed of the NBA game in Summer League, so counting on him to provide scoring punch off the bench is a difficult proposition.
6. L.A. Clippers
Marcus Camby; Chris Kaman/DeAndre Jordan
Blake Griffin; Craig Smith
Al Thornton; Rasual Butler
Eric Gordon; Ricky Davis
Baron Davis; Sebastian Telfair
Say hello to your shocker special. The curse of the Clippers may rival that of the Chicago Cubs and the Madden video game, but just ask the Boston Red Sox: every curse has to end sometime. And Blake Griffin is an absolute guarantee not to be a bust. This guy resembles Amare Stoudemire at times and yet he’s built even more solidly. Baron Davis seems motivated to repair his image, and together with SG Eric Gordon he gives the Clippers one of the physically strongest backcourts in the league. Craig Smith, Rasual Butler, and Bassy Telfair may not be talented enough to be good NBA starters, but they are exactly the types of players a playoff team wants coming off its bench. Finally, the Clips are in a position to add another quality piece during the playoff push by trading one of their three quality centers.
Channing Frye; Robin Lopez
Amare Stoudemire; Louis Amundson
Grant Hill; Earl Clark
Jason Richardson; Jared Dudley/Alando Tucker
Steve Nash; Leandro Barbosa
The Suns really picked it up last year after Coach Terry Porter was dumped in favor of Alvin Gentry. Gentry reinstated the run and gun offense of the Mike D’Antoni glory years, and despite Shaq’s revival in the desert last season, his presence conflicted with the uptempo style. Even in spots where the Suns may lack talent, their roster is now well-suited to a hustle-at-all-times attitude. Louis Amundson, Earl Clark, and Robin Lopez should wear opponents down on a nightly basis while Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire revive the pick and roll. Channing Frye, with his ability to knock down the elbow jumper, will fit in well.
8. New Orleans
Emeka Okafor; Hilton Armstrong/Sean Marks
David West; Darius Songaila/Ike Diogu
Julian Wright; Peja Stojakovic
Morris Peterson; James Posey
Chris Paul; Darren Collison
Granted Tyson Chandler was on the sidelines due to injury half of last season, but Emeka Okafor’s game just does not mesh with Chris Paul’s as well as the alley-oop connection of the Paul-Chandler combo did. In Okafor and David West, the Hornets have two tough but undersized players protecting the rim. There is also concern on the wings. Julian Wright is one of the league’s biggest breakout candidates, but MoPete’s time as a starter in the Association has come and gone. New Orleans has put together a solid bench, but unfortunately Peja Stojakovic can’t shake his back problems to save his life.
Mehmet Okur; Kyrylo Fesenko/Kosta Koufos
Carlos Boozer; Paul Millsap
Ronnie Brewer; Andrei Kirilenko
C.J. Miles; Kyle Korver
Deron Williams; Ronnie Price/Eric Maynor
The Jazz have toyed with the idea of starting both Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap at the two forward spots, but despite their rebounding prowess, doing so would team those two with Mehmet Okur to form nothing short of a sieve on defense. So, the Jazz are torn between Boozer and Millsap at the 4, neither of the candidates to back up Okur at center seems up to the task, injuries are already piling up on the wings, and Deron Williams claims he has rested his ankle for months this off-season and yet it’s not 100% healed. The Jazz will still be a tough task on a nightly basis, but they don’t seem to be moving in the right direction.
10. Oklahoma City
Key reserves: Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, Shaun Livingston, Etan Thomas, B.J. Mullens
James Harden filled an obvious need for OKC, but to the Thunder’s chagrin the West playoff picture is just too tough to crack this season. Each member of the starting frontcourt could play down a position if needed, which explains the bench’s heavy emphasis on big men. The point guard play of the Thunder will be especially compelling this year, as Russell Westbrook truly exploded onto the scene last season and Shaun Livingston is excited about being as healthy as he has been since his devastating knee injury.
11. Golden State
Andris Biedrins; Ronny Turiaf
Anthony Randolph; Brandan Wright
Kelenna Azuibuike; Corey Maggette
Stephen Jackson; Anthony Morrow
Monta Ellis; Stephen Curry/C.J. Watson
Ohhh, Nellie! Monta Ellis should be ready to go after taking the summer to rest his surgically repaired ankle, but problems loom in Golden State. Stephen Jackson did not back off his demand for a trade during today’s media day. Stephen Curry has an all-world jumper, but I don’t think he has the athleticism to make it as anything more than a kick-out shooter in the NBA. Corey Maggette doesn’t have to worry about Jamal Crawford criticizing his shoot-always mentality this season, but unfortunately for the other Warriors that most likely means he won’t change his ways either. One saving grace for this squad is the über-athletic frontcourt duo of Andris Biedrins and Anthony Randolph. For a run-first team, Don Nelson couldn’t ask for any better specimens in that department.
Marc Gasol; Hasheem Thabeet/Hamed Haddadi
Zach Randolph; Darrell Arthur
Rudy Gay; Sam Young/Jerry Stackhouse
O.J. Mayo; Allen Iverson
Mike Conley; Marcus Williams
Sorry, Memphis, more dollars spent does not always equal more wins. Budding star Rudy Gay seemed to regress slightly last year, and many people attributed that development to the arrival of the ballhogging O.J. Mayo. Best way to right the ship? Obviously, your first move is to add two more ballhogging veterans. When the ball is in Zach Randolph’s or Allen Iverson’s hands, without a doubt, any defender is going to have his hands full. But the Grizzlies’ roster moves this summer have done nothing to achieve more ball movement to put all of their talented players in positions for easy scores. Mike Conley is going to have his hands full trying to keep everyone happy.
Kevin Love; Ryan Hollins
Al Jefferson; Brian Cardinal/Mark Blount
Ryan Gomes; Sasha Pavlovic
Corey Brewer; Wayne Ellington
Ramon Sessions; Jonny Flynn
Even though Mike Miller was gung-ho about refusing to shoot the ball last season, his presence on the perimeter noticeably opened up space for the Wolves inside. Subtract Randy Foye as well, and Minnesota appears to have lost what little punch it did have. Ramon Sessions is a great penetrator, but his jumpshot is suspect and Corey Brewer’s can be embarrassing at times. Al Jefferson is a beast – there’s no doubt about that – but teams will double him more than ever this season. The Wolves can only hope that their two rookies Jonny Flynn and Wayne Ellington are ready to play.
Luis Scola; David Andersen
Carl Landry; Chuck Hayes
Trevor Ariza; Chase Budinger
Shane Battier; Rashad McCants
Aaron Brooks; Kyle Lowry
Tracy McGrady isn’t even on the depth chart above as it appears unlikely he will play before December. Even if/when he does come back, will T-Mac be ready to carry this motley crew on his shoulders? Rarely have we seen a team lose its entire “Big 3” (Yao Ming, Ron Artest, McGrady) so quickly, but the Rockets made a savvy pickup to build around in Trevor Ariza. Remember, this is a guy who was nearly on LeBron’s level in high school, and last year with the Lakers he finally found his groove. As for him leading the Rockets anywhere pretty much by himself this year? Well, no, he’s not quite King James.
Spencer Hawes; Cedric Simmons
Jason Thompson; Sean May
Francisco Garcia; Andres Nocioni
Kevin Martin; Desmond Mason/Donte Greene
Tyreke Evans; Beno Udrih/Sergio Rodriguez
Tyreke Evans is listed as the starter at PG in spite of the fact that Beno Udrih is still the official starter. As soon as the Kings’ season gets away from them, Evans will be given every chance to start developing as the team’s leader. Evans is physical and has good size, but his ability to make quick decisions as a point man at the NBA level is a major question mark. Spencer Hawes is very skilled, but he often fails to make the slightest impact in the paint over the course of a game. Kevin Martin started showing signs of frustration last season, and with the Kings nowhere close to contending, he is a candidate to be moved before the trade deadline in exchange for a bounty of potential.
Eastern Conference 1st Round: (1) Cleveland def. (8) Charlotte, (2) Boston def. (7) Atlanta, (3) Washington def. (6) Toronto, (4) Orlando def. (5) Miami
Western Conference 1st Round: (1) Lakers def. (8) New Orleans, (2) San Antonio def. (7) Phoenix, (3) Dallas def. (6) L.A. Clippers, (5) Denver def. (4) Portland
Eastern Conference Semis: (1) Cleveland def. (4) Orlando, (2) Boston def. (3) Washington
Western Conference Semis: (1) Lakers def. (5) Denver, (3) Dallas def. (2) San Antonio
Eastern Conference Finals: (1) Cleveland def. (2) Boston
Western Conference Finals: (1) Lakers def. (3) Dallas
NBA Finals: (1) Lakers def. (1) Cleveland