After a surprisingly enjoyable 2011-12 season, even with the lockout-condensed schedule that forced players to claw their way through some of the most grueling basketball they've ever played, the 2012-13 NBA season has all the makings of a classic campaign.
The NBA just released the schedule for next season, and talk of how this coming year will play out has already begun. From the resurgence of several veteran teams like the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers to the growth of exciting young clubs like the L.A. Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder, and of course the title defense of the Miami Heat, this season of basketball is riddled with burning questions and compelling storylines.
Although there is still the potential for some major changes, particularly if the Dwight Howard saga finally is resolved, the bulk of offseason activity is over, and it appears as if most rosters are set for tipoff this October.
It may seem like Game 5 of the NBA Finals just happened yesterday, but it's never too early to take a look into the future. With that in mind, here are my predictions for how the coming NBA season will play out in the regular season and the playoffs, as well as who will be holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June.
15. Charlotte Bobcats
2011-12 Record: 7-59 (.106)
2012-13 Prediction: 17-65 (.207)
A 10-win improvement is pretty solid, but unfortunately the Charlotte Bobcats are still incredibly young and will need some time before they can claw their way into the top half of the Eastern Conference.
The team made some moves to improve its immediate future, bringing in Ramon Sessions, Brendan Haywood and Ben Gordon, but these players are not going to make a tremendous difference.
Haywood is a defensive-minded big man who is effective in a limited role, while Gordon can be an electric scorer at times, but they're not going to take this club too far. Even though Session's playmaking will help the team to a few more wins, it will be another rough year for the Bobcats.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should be able to make an immediate impact on both ends of the court, and Gerald Henderson, Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo will all be better, but this is still the beginning of a long rebuilding process for Charlotte.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers
2011-12 Record: 21-45 (.318)
2012-13 Prediction: 23-59 (.280)
Much like Charlotte, the Cleveland Cavaliers are in the midst of a rebuilding project. While they already have their franchise player in Kyrie Irving, they are still banking on a number of very young, inexperienced players to carry the team next season.
The loss of Antawn Jamison, a great veteran presence and scoring power forward, will certainly hurt. He was a nice second option behind Irving.
The team, somewhat surprisingly, drafted Dion Waiters fourth overall and then traded up with Dallas to grab Tyler Zeller. Both could be good rotation players in the future, and Waiters may have star potential, but it will take them some time to get acclimated to the NBA game.
The frontcourt of Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson is great defensively and on the glass but does not provide much scoring punch. Ultimately, the next season for Cleveland will be more about bringing in another high lottery pick than making a playoff push.
13. Detroit Pistons
2011-12 Record: 25-41 (.379)
2012-13 Prediction: 27-55 (.329)
It is going to be another tough season for the Detroit Pistons, but the team finally has a few pieces that it can build around long-term. Brandon Knight, Greg Monroe and ninth overall pick Andre Drummond are the new core for the Pistons.
The team will center its 2012-13 campaign on getting the three as much experience as possible.
Monroe has emerged as a dominant big man with his ability to score in the post, defend, rebound and make plays off the block. He is one of the league's top post passers and an incredibly skilled forward who will likely be the team's first option on offense.
Tayshaun Prince can still score and play solid perimeter defense, while Rodney Stuckey is an explosive combo guard with great range, but having Knight and Drummond learning on the job will cost the team some wins. This is for the greater good though, as this team could be quite formidable in a few seasons.
12. Toronto Raptors
2011-12 Record: 23-43 (.348)
2012-13 Prediction: 31-51 (.378)
The Toronto Raptors will have to mesh a number of young pieces together next season. This means their record could suffer. However, they actually have plenty of talent on their roster and just need some experience playing as a unit.
Rookies Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas will be counted on to produce at a high level from day one, with both potentially being starters by year's end. They each possess tremendous talent, Valanciunas as an inside threat and rebounder and Ross as a scorer and athletic defender, but they are young and will experience the typical freshman ups and downs.
New acquisitions Landry Fields and Kyle Lowry are strong defenders and talented backcourt players who will help the team win immediately, but this does make the backcourt rotation, which already features DeMar DeRozan and Jose Calderon, even more crowded.
Next season won't be stellar for the Raptors, but I believe they are a team to watch for in 2013-14.
11. Washington Wizards
2011-12 Record: 20-46 (.303)
2012-13 Prediction: 31-51 (.378)
After an extremely active offseason, both through trades and the draft, the Washington Wizards should actually be one of the league's most improved teams. They aren't postseason contenders yet, but for the first time in a long time the future is bright in D.C.
Bradley Beal is a perfect backcourt complement to John Wall. The two are excellent athletes, and Beal's three-point shooting should compliment Wall's driving ability.
Beal is great working off the ball and is a decent passer to boot. They are a bit undersized and need to work on defending the perimeter but should be an elite backcourt in a couple seasons.
The team brought in Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor to complement Nene in the frontcourt. This gives the team several experienced, talented defenders who can also contribute on offense. Nene has great hands around the basket, while Ariza is a solid slasher who can get to the rim.
These Wizards are going to be better next season, as the team's positive culture change will manifest itself not only in the locker room but on the court as well.
10. Orlando Magic
2011-12 Record: 37-29 (.561)
2012-13 Prediction: 37-45 (.451)
Easily the most difficult team to predict, the Orlando Magic's success next season hinges almost solely on what happens with Dwight Howard. Whether the team keeps the disgruntled center or ships him to Los Angeles, Houston, Brooklyn or some other mystery city will define not just the team's 2012-2013 season, but the future of the franchise for years to come.
Even if they keep Howard, he is still rehabbing from back surgery in Los Angeles and will likely need some time to get back into NBA shape. Look at how back problems hampered Amar'e Stoudemire, another big man whose game is predicated heavily on athleticism.
The team foolishly let Ryan Anderson, last year's Most Improved Player, go in a sign-and-trade that netted only Gustavo Ayon from New Orleans. The team extended an aging Jameer Nelson and is still counting on Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu to be high-level contributors.
With the least talent they have had in years, a new coach and an overall environment so thick with tension you could cut it with a knife, I just can't project the Magic to make the postseason.
9. Milwaukee Bucks
2011-12 Record: 31-35 (.470)
2012-13 Prediction: 38-44 (.463)
The Milwaukee Bucks made some improvements this offseason, trading for center Samuel Dalembert and drafting UNC defensive standout John Henson, but ultimately the team will find itself in the all-too-familiar position of barely missing the postseason.
The backcourt of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings has plenty of firepower but is too much of a defensive liability to truly succeed. Both guards are shoot-first players, and it is difficult to see them meshing fluidly, even with a training camp under their belts.
Ersan Ilyasova, who will be back with the team, and Ekpe Udoh are young, improving big men who can make an impact both on the defensive end and on the glass, but Milwaukee is still relatively weak at the center position.
This Bucks squad won't be terrible, but they will see their season come to a halt in April yet again.
15. Houston Rockets
2011-12 Record: 34-32 (.515)
2012-13 Prediction: 18-64 (.220)
Thirty years from now, NBA pundits will look at the 2012 Houston Rockets as the perfect example of how you blow up a team. By losing two starting-caliber point guards, a pair of decent centers and a quality power forward, Houston has effectively ensured itself a slot in the Western Conference's basement.
The team does have Jeremy Lin, but while Lin may be able to win the team a handful of games with his driving ability and pick-and-roll excellence, this team boasts almost no experience, and Lin's durability is obviously a concern.
The team's three first-round draft picks—Jeremy Lamb, Terrence Jones and Royce White—will be leaned on heavily to produce in their inaugural campaign, which will yield mixed results. The Rockets have positioned themselves well for the long run, but this is going to be a brutal season for Houston fans.
14. New Orleans Hornets
2011-12 Record: 21-45 (.318)
2012-13 Prediction: 26-56 (.317)
After drafting Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers first and 10th respectively in last year's lottery, retaining Eric Gordon and signing stretch-4 Ryan Anderson, New Orleans has a bright future, but it will take some time for its pieces to gel.
Davis may be an immediate impact player on defense, but his offense will take some time to catch up. He will likely start from day one and is certainly a Rookie of the Year candidate, but he will have his hands full being the team's frontcourt anchor.
Because the team dealt Jarrett Jack, it will rely on Greivis Vasquez and Austin Rivers for point guard play. Vasquez had some bright moments but is a poor shooter, and Rivers has plenty of upside but is by no means a natural lead guard.
The Hornets are going to be a playoff team in a couple seasons, but next year will be about developing their young players, not winning games.
13. Sacramento Kings
2011-12 Record: 22-44 (.333)
2012-13 Record: 31-51 (.402)
At some point, this Sacramento team, with all its talent, has to start showing some improvement. The team drafted Kansas standout Thomas Robinson fifth overall and has a slew of young players waiting to break out but has yet to show any significant growth over the past few years.
Isaiah Thomas was a bright spot in the Kings backcourt as both a playmaker and a shooter. He brought the squad stability at point guard and used his quickness to attack the basket. Marcus Thornton is a pure scorer with great range who should complement Thomas well despite his mediocre defense.
The team still needs to figure out what to do with Tyreke Evans. It can start by not lining him up at the 3.
DeMarcus Cousins has to mature, but Sacramento has enough quality players that it should finally begin to put the pieces together next year.
12. Portland Trail Blazers
2011-12 Record: 28-38 (.424)
2011-12 Prediction: 32-50 (.390)
Portland got off to a blazing start last season, briefly sitting atop the Western Conference, but poor guard play ultimately cost the team a shot at the postseason, and it opted to go into rebuilding mode.
Now, armed with summer league co-MVP Damian Lillard at point guard and high-upside center Meyers Leonard, as well as the re-signed Nicolas Batum, Portland goes into next season knowing it is on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.
The Blazers still have LaMarcus Aldridge, an All-Star and top-five power forward, but he alone cannot carry the team. Depending on Lillard, who will likely start from day one, could yield success down the road, but he will be going against a brutally tough crop of Western Conference point guards.
If the team shows great chemistry and Leonard can make an instant impact, this squad could overachieve, but expect another down season for the Blazers before they have a resurgence.
11. Phoenix Suns
2011-12 Record: 33-33 (.500)
2012-13 Prediction: 36-46 (.439)
The Phoenix front office did an admirable job picking up the pieces once Steve Nash departed, but this team will still struggle next season without one of the league's best playmakers.
Phoenix tabbed Goran Dragic to be Nash's replacement after he showed he could excel as a starter in Houston. Talented but troubled Michael Beasley was brought in to be a scoring threat, and savvy veteran Luis Scola will provide tough scoring and rebounding out of the post.
Marcin Gortat should regress a bit playing with Dragic instead of Nash but will still be a pick-and-roll threat and gritty rebounder. The team does have a hole at shooting guard, where time will be split between Shannon Brown and Jared Dudley.
Phoenix won't make the postseason, but considering it lost two all-time greats in Grant Hill and Steve Nash, finishing 10 games below .500 is not as bad as it could potentially be.
10. Golden State Warriors
2011-12 Record: 23-43 (.348)
2012-13 Prediction: 37-45 (.451)
The Golden State Warriors had as positive an offseason as any team, stealing Harrison Barnes with the seventh overall pick and then snagging Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green later in the draft. They also dealt the underachieving Dorell Wright and brought in a great backup point guard in Jarrett Jack.
The real problem with this Warriors team is that they are banking on the health of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry, which is not all that wise. Neither player is particularly durable and will likely miss at least some portion of the season.
Still, with a sharpshooter in Klay Thompson, who thrived as a starter, and a consistent power forward in David Lee, this club should show some significant strides next season.
The Warriors are still a year away from the playoffs, but for the first time in years I think Golden State fans should be excited about the future of this franchise.
9. Utah Jazz
2011-12 Record: 36-30 (.545)
2012-13 Prediction: 41-41 (.500)
The victim of an incredibly tough Western Conference, Utah should have a solid season but ultimately wind up missing the postseason. It overachieved last year, but with tougher competition the team will come back to Earth.
The Jazz brought in Marvin Williams, Mo Williams and Randy Foye, which should give them more firepower on the perimeter but hurt them defensively. Mo Williams and Foye are an upgrade over Devin Harris and Raja Bell, but it will not be enough to propel the Jazz back to the playoffs.
The team needs to sort out its crowded frontcourt rotation, ideally by dealing one of its big men for a dynamic guard. Until they do, it will hurt the development of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
Obviously Utah has a shot at making the playoffs with its current roster, but I don't think the Jazz improved enough in the offseason to consider them a postseason lock.
2011-12 Record: 40-26 (.606)
2012-13 Prediction: 42-40 (.512)
While it was certainly a smart fiscal move, losing Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams is going to hurt the Atlanta Hawks this season. New general manager Danny Ferry knew that treading water was not the right move for the franchise. By dealing a perennial All-Star and a decent starter, he knew the team was going to regress in the immediate future.
Still, the Hawks do have the talent to make the postseason yet again, albeit this time in a lower seed than usual. Jeff Teague had a solid first year as a starter, and the young point guard should continue to improve his play both as a scorer and a facilitator. He's a good on-ball defender and excellent at attacking off the dribble, he but needs to improve his half-court playmaking and his jumper.
Josh Smith and Al Horford present a fearsome and incredibly athletic frontcourt. Smith is coming off a breakout year where he averaged 18.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 blocks per game. Smith will likely become the team's first option on offense thanks to his versatility and ability to attack the basket.
Horford missed the brunt of the season with a pectoral injury but is still a two-time All-Star that can play out of the post, hit mid-range jumpers and run the floor well.
New additions Kyle Korver, Lou Williams and Devin Harris give the team some nice depth and perimeter scoring.
Atlanta has managed to position itself well for the future and 2013's highly touted free-agent class, but in the process it has dropped down a tier in the Eastern Conference.
2011-12 Record: 50-16 (.758)
2012-13 Prediction: 43-39 (.524)
Losing Derrick Rose for the majority of the season certainly hurts Chicago, but after an injury-plagued campaign last year, it is far from unfamiliar territory. What will hamper the team, though, is its loss of much of the key depth that carried it through the 2011-12 season.
Obviously, Rose's ACL tear kills the team's title chances. He's an electric scorer, tremendous athlete and gifted facilitator who has improved his defense and perimeter shooting. One of the league's top point guards, Rose's ability to attack the basket and take a high-percentage shot, make a kick-out pass or draw a foul was essential to the Bulls offense.
On top of that, the team will have to move on without Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson, John Lucas III, Kyle Korver and Omer Asik. The former "bench mob" standouts all played their roles with the team very well but were let go by the club for various reasons.
However, the team did make an effort to bring in capable replacements. Defensive-minded combo guard Kirk Hinrich, a former Bull, will likely slide into the starting point guard role until Rose is healthy. Though he struggled in Atlanta, Hinrich is a solid shooter and a very capable playmaker.
The team still has Luol Deng, the quintessential "glue guy" who can move without the ball, hit the three and play airtight perimeter defense. Energetic, athletic big men Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson can protect the rim and force opponents to play on the perimeter.
Chicago will struggle at times this season, but Tom Thibodeau's excellent coaching and the squad's suffocating team defense should be enough to secure a postseason berth.
2011-12 Record: 35-31 (.530)
2012-13 Prediction: 44-38 (.537)
The Philadelphia 76ers had an extremely active offseason, amnestying Elton Brand and parting ways with Lou Williams, while bringing in Dorell Wright, Nick Young and Kwame Brown through free agency. Now the team will look to build off a surprising postseason run that saw them bow out in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Philadelphia lost one of its veteran leaders in Brand but has Thaddeus Young, an athletic 4-man capable of playing out of the post, to step up and replace him. The team will also still count on the all-around excellence of Andre Iguodala, who can initiate the offense as a point forward and lock down multiple positions defensively to lead the club.
The Sixers are one of the league's most athletic teams, and that will be key to their success on both ends of the court. Because they can speed up a game, they are excellent at playing pressure defense, forcing turnovers and looking to score in transition. Their team defense last season was among the best in the NBA.
In addition, Evan Turner is coming off a breakout postseason where he averaged 11.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, and Jrue Holiday is still improving as a starting point guard and should have another strong year.
Rookies Arnett Moultrie and Maurice Harkless both fit the team's identity perfectly as athletic, defensive-minded players who can both score—Harkless by slashing and Moultrie out of the post. They should be able to help the team win immediately.
This 76ers squad won't jump out to the hot start they had last season, where their chemistry and roster familiarity gave them a leg up on many teams, but they will be in the playoff picture all season long and finish respectably in the No. 6 slot.
2011-12 Record: 22-44 (.333)
2012-13 Prediction: 48-34 (.585)
The Brooklyn Nets made sure this summer that they would not just be an also-ran once they moved across the river to New York. Not only did the team re-sign Deron Williams to a five-year, $98 million deal, but by bringing in Joe Johnson and retaining Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries, the team has positioned itself as a legitimate playoff contender for years to come.
Williams, coming off a season where he carried an anemic Nets team and averaged 21 points, 3.3 boards and 8.7 assists per game, will join with Johnson to form one of the league's most dynamic backcourts. Both players can handle the ball and score in isolation, and they are both talented passers.
In addition to excellent hustle guys in Wallace and Humphries, this team has some nice depth with point guard C.J. Watson, Spanish League star Mirza Teletovic and shooting guard MarShon Brooks, who should thrive as a sixth man, all coming off the bench.
What hurts this team is its defense, as Wallace is really the only quality defender on the roster. The team has a high-octane offense with Williams, Johnson and Lopez providing the firepower, but it remains to be seen if it can come up with crucial stops in tight games. Williams and Johnson are mediocre defenders, while Lopez is easy to push around on the block.
The players may take some time to mesh given the complete roster makeover, but Billy King and the Nets front office have succeeded in bringing an exciting product to Brooklyn and have made the Nets-Knicks rivalry one to watch in the NBA for the first time in years.
2011-12 Record: 36-30 (.545)
2012-13 Prediction: 50-32 (.610)
The departure of Jeremy Lin will hurt New York both in terms of marketing appeal and offensive production, but this team still has the talent on both ends of the court to contend with the best teams in the Eastern Conference and cement the Knicks as a legitimate contender.
Gone are Jeremy Lin and Landry Fields, but the team was able to bring back three-point shooter extraordinaire Steve Novak while signing perimeter defender Ronnie Brewer and veteran center Marcus Camby for cheap.
Raymond Felton, who was acquired in a sign-and-trade with Portland, will be tabbed to replace Lin. Though he had a horrendous year for the Blazers, Felton is a good defender and solid pick-and-roll point guard and previously showed great chemistry with Amar'e Stoudemire.
What will help the team next season is its defense. Under Mike Woodson, the team went 18-6 last season and became one of the league's better defensive teams. Tyson Chandler, reigning Defensive Player of the Year, will be the anchor in the paint, but Jason Kidd, Brewer, Camby and Iman Shumpert, when he returns from an ACL tear, are all very capable defensive players.
Offensively, this team lives and dies with Carmelo Anthony, who will spend plenty of time with the ball in his hands. Last April, when Woodson was head coach, 'Melo was nothing short of dominant, scoring at will from the post, mid-range and beyond the arc. He averaged 29.8 points on 49.5 percent shooting from the field and 46 percent from the three-point line.
Health is a concern with this club. Chandler, Stoudemire and Anthony have all battled injuries during their careers. But if their core players can stay healthy, this Knicks team will finally live up to their potential and have a dominant regular season.
2011-12 Record: 42-24 (.636)
2012-13 Prediction: 52-30 (.634)
The Indiana Pacers retained two key free agents this summer, re-signing Roy Hibbert to a four-year, $58 million max deal while coming to terms with George Hill on a five-year, $40 million extension. While some have criticized these lucrative deals, both players have bright futures and are cornerstones of the Pacers' future.
The team dealt Darren Collison, who started at point guard most of last season, in order to bring in reserve center Ian Mahinmi and curiously drafted Duke's Miles Plumlee 26th overall, but it did not lose much depth, bringing in point guard D.J. Augustin and high-flying 2-guard Gerald Green.
Indiana is still one of the league's deepest teams and loves to play through its frontcourt of Hibbert and David West. The two are capable of playing out of the post and slowing a game down while protecting the rim and keeping opponents from attacking the basket.
Hibbert had a great year, averaging 12.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and two blocks per game last season. Those numbers should improve as he continues to develop his overall game.
The tandem of Paul George and Danny Granger provides the team with a great one-two punch on the wing. Both are athletic and can score from anywhere on the floor, with George's length, size and quickness making him a very good defender.
The only real negative for this Indiana team is that it lacks a clear alpha dog, which hurt it in the playoffs. Granger is a good scorer, averaging 18.7 points per game last season, but he is streaky, sometimes inefficient and cannot carry a team by himself.
The Pacers also struggled sometimes playing in quicker tempos with Hibbert on the floor, particularly against the Miami Heat. But that is not too big of a concern, as their size does provide a distinct advantage against most competition.
The Pacers have a solid, young nucleus and are in position to contend for the next few years thanks to their defensive intensity and unselfish play.
2011-12 Record: 39-27 (.591)
2012-13 Prediction: 54-28 (.659)
Now this is how you retool a roster around a veteran core. While murmurs of Danny Ainge ending the Big Three era swirled as the team underachieved during the regular season, the club's late-season surge and stellar postseason run solidified that Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo should be playing together until they can't play any more.
Ray Allen's departure obviously stung, but with Jason Terry and Courtney Lee coming in, it is more of an emotional blow than an on-court production blow. Both are very good three-point shooters, and while Terry can run the offense and play backup point guard, Lee is an excellent perimeter defender and a great athlete.
In addition, the team brought back Jeff Green, another athlete and multi-position player who can run the floor with Rondo. Brandon Bass, who is a great mid-range jump shooter and a solid defender who thrived alongside Garnett, also returns.
Rondo is coming off an assists title and a playoff run where he averaged 17.3 points, 6.7 boards, 11.9 assists and 2.4 steals per game. He has cemented himself as Boston's franchise player, and his excellence on both ends of the court will propel the Celts to another successful season.
Garnett was rejuvenated at the end of last year, averaging 19.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in the playoffs, and should once again line up at center for Boston. His quickness and ability to shoot from the perimeter make him a dangerous offensive threat, while his world-class defense allows him to guard both in the post and on the perimeter.
Add to that another great all-around player in Paul Pierce that can carry an offense and the return (eventually) of defensive stalwart Avery Bradley from shoulder surgery, and it's easy to see why many consider a Boston-Miami conference finals rematch all but a lock.
2011-12 Record: 46-20 (.697)
2012-13 Prediction: 61-21 (.744)
LeBron James is playing the best basketball of his career, Chris Bosh is thriving as a center and Dwyane Wade is still doing Dwyane Wade things. Now the team has managed to sign both Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis to help out off the bench.
It's hard to picture a more dominant team next season than the Heat.
James, the reigning NBA Finals MVP, should pick up right where he left off next season. Likely spending much of his time at the power forward position, his strength and uncommon agility make him a matchup nightmare.
He's improved his post game and is less reliant on three-pointers than ever before. Just look at his stats from the playoffs: 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game on 50 percent shooting from the floor.
The supporting cast has improved tremendously, as Allen, Lewis, Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier are all very capable role players. Allen and Lewis will thrive off the open looks Wade and James create, while Haslem and Battier will play intense, physical defense and fill their roles on offense—open jump shots, rebounding—as well as ever.
All that being said, I'm not going to put them at 73-9 because they are not a perfect team. Wade's durability is a serious concern, and it is very possible he misses a stretch of games during the season. The team still has some size issues that can be exploited, and as with many championship contenders, it is quite possible they have a down stretch in the middle of the season as they wait for the playoffs to roll around.
Still, this Heat team should keep most of the momentum from their NBA Finals run going, take hold of the East's top seed early in the season and never relinquish it.
2011-12 Record: 36-30 (.545)
2012-13 Prediction: 43-39 (.524)
After putting all their eggs in the Deron Williams basket and watching him stay with Brooklyn, Dallas did an admirable job rebuilding on the fly. The team brought in Chris Kaman and O.J. Mayo through free agency, pulled off a trade for Darren Collison and snagged Elton Brand with an amnesty bid. Their roster has taken shape, and the Mavericks look to again creep into the postseason.
However, this team is far from a contender.
The departures of Jason Kidd and Jason Terry left the team scrambling for help in the backcourt. While Collison and Mayo are solid pieces, they are not going to push a team over the top. Collison averaged 10.3 points and 4.8 assists per game last season but was benched down the stretch for George Hill, and while Mayo is a good scorer, he is too often inefficient.
The club brought in Jae Crowder, Bernard James and Jared Cunningham through the draft, all of whom should see time on the floor. Crowder and James will have immediate roles on the defensive end, but none of them will be big impact players next year.
The team is still very reliant on veteran production with Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Kaman and Brand making up their frontcourt rotation. Nowitzki is coming off a fairly poor season where he averaged 21.6 points and 6.7 boards per game but shot just 45.7 percent from the field. He looked a step slow at times and will need to raise his level of play for this team to succeed.
Dallas has an excellent coach in Rick Carlisle that will maximize the ability of his players, and if Kaman and Brand are rejuvenated playing for a rabid Mavericks fanbase, they may exceed my expectations.
However, given the patchwork roster and lack of familiarity this team has, expect another low playoff seed and unceremonious end to their season.
2011-12 Record: 26-40 (.394)
2012-13 Prediction: 45-37 (.549)
It may have taken a while, but David Kahn and the Minnesota front office have finally built a playoff-caliber team around Kevin Love. After seeing last year's shot at a postseason berth disappear with Ricky Rubio's ACL injury, the Timberwolves were active this summer in improving their roster and look to be an emerging force in the Western Conference.
At the heart of the team is Love, who averaged a staggering 26 points, 13.3 rebounds and two assists per game while shooting 37.2 percent on threes. He's the league's best offensive big man and one of the best rebounders in the game to boot. He can play in the post, impact both the offensive and defensive glass and pose a threat on the perimeter.
The point guard tandem of Ricky Rubio, who averaged 10.6 points and 8.2 assists in his rookie season, and J.J. Barea, the perfect spark off the bench type of guard, should be enough to propel the team into the postseason. It may take Rubio some time to get back to form, but he has unbelievable court vision, exceeded expectations as an all-around player and ran a lethal high pick-and-roll with Love.
Add to that the bruising Nikola Pekovic at center, multifaceted veteran Andrei Kirilenko at the 3 and superb athlete Derrick Williams coming off the bench, and with a little experience this team could be a title contender.
Minnesota still needs experience and to work on team defense, but with Rick Adelman at the helm of the best Timberwolves team since Kevin Garnett was in town, this team is more than capable of making the playoffs.
It's safe to say Kevin Love may not be so frustrated with the team for long.
2011-12 Record: 38-28 (.576)
2012-13 Prediction: 50-32 (.610)
The Denver Nuggets had a quiet offseason, re-signing JaVale McGee and Andre Miller to multi-year deals, but that was exactly what the team wanted. The Nuggets have a strong, youthful core in place and simply need to get a few more playoff games under their belt before they emerge as title contenders.
Last season, lightning-quick Ty Lawson was the heart of the team. In his first full season as a starter, he averaged 16.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game while stroking 36.5 percent of his threes. He improved as a half-court playmaker and was still one of the most electrifying players in the league in transition. With Lawson alongside Arron Afflalo, a great defender and three-point shooter, Denver has its backcourt set for years.
The team has a pair of quality small forwards in Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler that can score, defend, pass and rebound well and should thrive in the Nuggets' uptempo system. Gallinari emerged as a potential first option on offense last season with his driving ability and three-point shooting.
JaVale McGee, who came over in a midseason trade, and rookie Kenneth Faried were absolute revelations for George Karl, particularly against the super-sized Lakers in the playoffs. Both will be starters next season and should provide Denver a gritty interior presence that it desperately needs.
These Nuggets are not a great defensive squad though, which will keep them from taking that next step. They excel at pushing the pace and playing in transition, but before they can host a playoff series, they need to improve their play on the defensive end of the court.
Still, no team in the conference has better chemistry, and with its well-rounded roster, Denver should be penciled in for a decent postseason seed.
2011-12 Record: 41-25 (.621)
2012-13 Record: 50-32 (.610)
The darling of the 2010-11 season, Memphis has cemented itself as a playoff team thanks to its defensive intensity and ability to force turnovers. Injuries have plagued the team over the past two seasons, but with a fully healthy roster, the Grizzlies are without a doubt a threat in the Western Conference.
With Zach Randolph missing much of the year with knee troubles, Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol carried the club. Gay averaged 19 points, 6.4 boards and 2.3 assists, while Gasol notched 14.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. The two played above-average defense, ran the floor well and were playmakers on the offensive end.
Memphis' perimeter defense was nothing short of outstanding. Mike Conley is excellent at forcing turnovers and pressuring the ball, while Tony Allen guarded multiple positions and used his hustle and relentlessness to make opponents work for every shot.
The difference next season is that Randolph should be healthy, and along with Darrell Arthur and Marreese Speights, he gives the Grizzlies a full complement of big men. Memphis can wear opponents out by slowing down the game and playing primarily out of the post.
The loss of O.J. Mayo will hurt, as he was a great scoring option off the bench that could play on and off the ball, but bringing in Jerryd Bayless, another score-first combo guard, should help to offset that.
The Grizzlies' defensive identity allows them to stay in games even when their shots aren't falling, and they have the offensive talent to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league.
2011-12 Record: 50-16 (.758)
2012-13 Prediction: 52-30 (.634)
Next season may be the year that San Antonio finally starts to regress, but it won't be by much. Its veteran core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can still get it done, and the team has not only one of the league's best benches but a brilliant coach that maximizes the potential of every player on his roster.
Parker is coming off an MVP-caliber season where he averaged 18.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists while shooting 48 percent from the field. He was the team's first option on offense and was brilliant both as a scorer attacking the paint and a facilitator playing in transition and the half court.
Duncan and Ginobili will continue to decline, and Ginobili's health is a concern after missing time the past two seasons, but both are still more than capable starters. Duncan is an elite defender and post player that can do a little bit of everything on the court. Ginobili's recklessness and creativity around the rim complement his handling and passing abilities perfectly.
In addition, young players like defensive stalwart Kawhi Leonard, athletic power forward Tiago Splitter and sharpshooting point guard Gary Neal will continue to improve and have become essential parts of the Spurs rotation. Leonard in particular should capitalize on a great playoff run, and his ability to play multiple positions is essential for San Antonio's success.
Still, this team is depending on a number of veterans, including Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw, in order to win. Gregg Popovich's belief in conserving players for the postseason may cost the team a few winnable regular-season games.
They may not have a brilliant regular season, but can you ever really count out the Spurs?
2011-12 Record: 40-26 (.606)
2012-13 Prediction: 53-29 (.646)
With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in tow and an improved bench, the sky is the limit for the Los Angeles Clippers. The team is looking to capitalize on its first second-round playoff appearance since 2006 and has the talent to make some serious noise out West.
Griffin is a dominant athlete and the human highlight reel for a new era of NBA fans, but Chris Paul is the heart and soul of this team. The All-NBA point guard averaged 19.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists for the Clippers last season while shooting 47.8 percent from the field, 37.1 percent from three and being their best perimeter defender and crunch-time scorer. He was a leader on the court and will continue to be the club's most important player.
Griffin should continue to improve his all-around game. He is not only a strong scorer and a nightly 20-10 player but also a good passer, and hopefully he will come back healthy from his knee injury that cost him an Olympic roster spot. Griffin needs to work on his defense, outside shooting and post moves, but that will come in time.
The team also retooled its bench, adding a number of veterans who will be key contributors next season. Lamar Odom is coming off a downright disastrous season where he averaged 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds, but back in his beloved L.A. he should be rejuvenated, and his ability to play multiple positions and work as a point forward will help keep the Clips offense running smoothly.
Grant Hill and Jamal Crawford will play important roles too, with Crawford being the first offensive option off the bench and Hill defending the perimeter and proving veteran experience.
Los Angeles will need Chauncey Billups to be healthy and DeAndre Jordan and Caron Butler to be consistent contributors on both ends, but a team this talented should absolutely not be trifled with.
2011-12 Record: 41-25 (.621)
2012-13 Prediction: 56-26 (.683)
Just when it seemed like the Los Angeles Lakers were no longer true contenders, the team shocked the world by pulling a sign-and-trade for Steve Nash and finally acquiring the dynamic point guard the team has never had in the Kobe Bryant era.
Now armed with a starting five that boasts Nash, Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, as well as an improved bench with Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill, these Lakers look to reclaim their place in the NBA's elite and claim yet another championship.
Bryant is coming off yet another brilliant season where he averaged 27.9 points, 5.4 boards and 4.6 assists. He will have to adjust to working more without the ball, but with his slashing and shooting ability that shouldn't take long at all. He's still one of the best two-way guards in the league, and with Nash drawing attention in the backcourt, he should be able to thrive on defenses paying him less attention.
Nash had himself quite a year as well, averaging 12.5 points and 10.7 assists while shooting 53.2 percent from the field and nearly leading a mediocre Phoenix team to the playoffs. He'll be able to run a deadly pick-and-roll with Bynum and Gasol and will be excellent at getting into the lane and making plays or spotting up on the perimeter.
Jamison, who averaged 17.2 points last year for the Cavs, provides a nice bench scoring punch. The tandem of Bynum and Gasol in the frontcourt is talented enough to simply overwhelm many opponents. Gasol was miscast as a stretch-4 last season but with Nash should see a renaissance, and Bynum, coming off a career year, will cement himself as the league's second-best center.
Age and athleticism are a question for this team, as Nash is 38, Jamison is 36 and Bryant is almost 34 with a ton of NBA mileage on his body, but they have enough talent on both ends of the court to offset that. Even though Nash is a poor defender, having two seven-footers clogging the paint will help him tremendously.
It will take a few games for Nash and Kobe to figure out how to thrive with each other, but once they do, this Laker team will be an absolute nightmare matchup.
2011-12 Record: 47-19 (.712)
2012-13 Prediction: 62-20 (.756)
After a heartbreaking NBA Finals loss, I expect Oklahoma City to tear through the Western Conference and play its best possible basketball during the regular season. Often the team that loses in the finals will come out with renewed focus and passion, and that added motivation should propel this OKC squad to the best record in the league.
The team's "Big Three" of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are all still incredibly young and improving on both ends of the court. Coming off a season where he averaged 28 points, eight rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 49.6 percent en route to his third consecutive scoring title, Durant will be the team's unquestioned alpha dog and is considered by many an early MVP award favorite.
Westbrook is still improving as a decision-maker, but his athleticism and skill are too tremendous to ignore. He can get to the rim seemingly at will, has become a solid on-ball defender and has a decent mid-range jumper. He needs to work on his shot selection, but that's part of the maturation process. I expect to see Westbrook take a major step forward next season.
Harden, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year who averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 boards and 3.7 assists and shot 49.1 percent, will hopefully use the motivation from an unimpressive finals series to fuel his 2012-13 campaign. He is a versatile offensive player that can shoot, handle the ball and pass and is underrated defensively as well.
The team took flyers on Hasheem Thabeet through free agency and Perry Jones III in the draft, and if either of them, especially Jones, can give the Thunder some good production, this already deep team will be even tougher to beat.
Add to that a ferocious defensive tandem in Kendrick Perkins and shot-blocker extraordinaire Serge Ibaka, and the Thunder look to be a phenomenal team on both ends of the court.
This Oklahoma City team is a powerhouse and will only continue to get better over the next few seasons as it makes title run after title run.
No. 8 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 1 Miami Heat
Though I think Atlanta will manage to win one home game on the strength of Josh Smith and Al Horford, this should be a fairly easy series win for Miami. The Hawks have no answer for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade defensively, and the two should be able to carve up Atlanta with relative ease.
Miami's ability to play a pressure perimeter defense will hurt the Hawks' deep backcourt, while its offensive execution and versatility will prove too much for a mediocre Atlanta defense to withstand.
No. 7 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 2 Boston Celtics
Even by this point in the season Derrick Rose may not be back to full strength, and the Bulls' loss of depth will hurt them against a much-improved Celtics bench. Boston has the athletic talent to match up well with Chicago. This contest should be a gritty defensive struggle throughout.
Chicago's size will propel it to a pair of wins in the series, but the play of Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce as well as the defense of Avery Bradley on the perimeter and Kevin Garnett in the post will overpower this undermanned Bulls squad.
No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 3 Indiana Pacers
Ironically, this is a matchup where having Elton Brand would have helped the Sixers. Both teams have a number of young, super-athletic players, but ultimately Indiana's size and ability to control the glass will decide the series.
Philadelphia has no answer for Roy Hibbert, and while it will win enough games on the strength of its team defense and shooting to push the series to Game 7, the more talented, deeper Pacers will prevail in a dramatic final game.
No. 5 Brooklyn Nets vs. No. 4 New York Knicks
That's right—the New York Knicks should finally win a playoff series this year. In what will be a great, heated New York City battle, it will be the Knicks defense that wins them the series. Tyson Chandler will absolutely manhandle Brook Lopez, and Iman Shumpert will be able to lock down Joe Johnson and force him into low-percentage shots.
Deron Williams will propel Brooklyn to a couple wins, and Gerald Wallace should force Carmelo Anthony into a few rough shooting nights, but ultimately the Nets' inability to get stops when it counts will cause them to lose their first postseason series in Kings County.
No. 8 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder
In a repeat of last year's 2-7 opening matchup, Oklahoma City will again dominate Dallas in a sweep. The Mavericks do not have the talent to keep up with the Thunder, and their older frontcourt will be run out of the gym by Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook.
The Mavericks are not good enough defensively to stifle the high-octane Thunder offense, and they will not be able to put enough points on the board. Unless Dirk Nowitzki absolutely explodes in the series, it should be over as quickly as it started.
No. 7 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers
Minnesota will win one game in which Ricky Rubio kills Steve Nash with his passing and Kevin Love dominates the glass and the paint, but this veteran L.A. team will handle the Timberwolves thanks to their wealth of playmaking experience and the play of Kobe Bryant.
The Timberwolves' interior strength is canceled out by Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and Minnesota's defense is not good enough to protect against Nash's pick-and-roll or Kobe's isolation excellence. This is the first step for Minnesota, but it will be bittersweet as it is bested by the Lakers.
No. 6 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers
Obviously this is all speculation, but how great would a Nuggets-Clippers series be? The point guard battle between Ty Lawson and Andre Miller and Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups would be extremely exciting to watch, but ultimately the Clippers' passing and court vision would offset Lawson's speed and Miller's savvy.
This series would go the distance because of Denver's ability to play in transition and the frontcourt of JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried, but L.A.'s veteran players and the ability of Paul to rise to the occasion would propel it to a series win.
No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 4 San Antonio Spurs
Another potentially great series, but the lack of shooting on the Grizzlies' roster would be exposed by San Antonio. The Spurs have enough big men to pack the paint and force Memphis to beat them from the outside, and their lack of consistent shooters would ultimately be their undoing.
Still, watching the Grizzlies' scrappy defense versus the freewheeling Spurs offense would be an absolute treat for basketball junkies, while individual matchups like Kawhi Leonard vs. Rudy Gay and Tim Duncan vs. Zach Randolph would be highlights of the series.
No. 4 New York Knicks vs. No. 1 Miami Heat
If there was a question about whether the Knicks-Heat rivalry has been rekindled, that should be answered this year as the teams clash for the second straight postseason. The Knicks defense will give the Heat trouble, and 'Melo's versatile offensive game will be a lot to handle, but the matchups largely swing in Miami's favor.
The Heat will hound Felton and Kidd on the perimeter and key in on Anthony defensively. Though Ronnie Brewer can guard LeBron James decently, James will still be able to dominate on both ends of the court and be the anchor for Miami.
Miami's role players will make a major difference as Ray Allen, Mike Miller and Shane Battier's ability to drill open shots will help as New York's defense keys in on the Heat's stars.
No. 3 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 2 Boston Celtics
In what should be another great series, the play of Rajon Rondo and the depth of the Boston Celtics will ultimately be too much to contain for Indiana. George Hill and D.J. Augustin are far from great defenders, and Rondo will be able to blow by them and attack the basket or make a play for a teammate.
The Pacers have Hibbert, but Garnett will be able to defend him well, and the Celtics ultimately have more firepower than Indiana. The Pacers' size will win them a few games as they hit the glass and create easy scoring opportunities, but they won't be able to run as easily against this more athletic Boston squad.
Expect a good duel between Pierce and Granger, but the revamped Celtics should still find their way to the conference finals after a tough six games.
No. 4 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder
In a rematch of last season's heated conference finals, the Thunder will capitalize on their home-court advantage and the unstoppable scoring machine that is Durant and ride their superstar forward to a series win.
This series will feature some tremendous offensive basketball, as both teams love to push the pace, move the ball and create quality looks on offense. While the depth of the Spurs and the penetration of Parker will win them a pair of games, the Thunder simply have more talent on their roster. With San Antonio a year older, it will show against this hyper-athletic OKC team.
The Thunder's lack of frontcourt scoring will be a problem, but it will be offset by Westbrook and Harden's playmaking as the three Olympic teammates carry their team to another conference finals.
No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers
Let me say that I flip-flopped on this one more than Dwight Howard talking to Rob Hennigan, but in the end, L.A.'s experience and the two-way impact of Bynum and Gasol will give the Lakers the slightest of edges in a historic Los Angeles playoff slugfest.
Chris Paul will abuse Steve Nash, but the Lakers' ability to keep Blake Griffin out of the paint will make him less effective than usual, and DeAndre Jordan's inability to contribute offensively will really hurt a team that could use one more scorer.
Griffin is not a good enough defender to neutralize Gasol as a scorer and passer. The added punch of Antawn Jamison off the bench will give the Lakers an incredibly valuable second-unit scorer that they have lacked for years.
The Lakers have the best player on the court in Kobe Bryant, but if one or two of the Clippers veterans heat up, this series could easily go the other way.
No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 1 Miami Heat
Just like this past season, LeBron James will be the difference in yet another tremendous Boston-Miami playoff series. The Celtics' improved depth will carry them to a few wins, as they are capable of throwing different looks at Miami defensively. Rajon Rondo's ability to rise to the occasion will certainly help, but having the best player in the world is a bit of a trump card.
Pierce had trouble containing James in last season's conference finals, and with James' game more refined and Pierce a year older, that will continue to be a difficult matchup for Boston. Having a healthy Chris Bosh for an entire series will also help the Heat, who lacked a strong presence in the paint that could match up with Kevin Garnett.
Again, Allen and Battier will be huge difference-makers. Battier's ability to guard multiple positions will be huge for Miami, while Allen's ability to come off screens and nail timely shots gives the Heat offense a facet it lacked last season.
If Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee can shut down Dwyane Wade, this series could swing in the Celtics' favor, but with a better roster than it had in 2012, Miami should again emerge victorious in a pulse-pounding Game 7 in South Beach.
No. 2: Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder
For as improved as the Lakers are with Nash and Jamison, that does not help them against a team like the Thunder. L.A. is still one of the league's more unathletic teams and will struggle to stop OKC's deadly transition game.
World Peace struggled to contain Durant, who should continue to carve up the Lakers defense with his shooting and ability to drive the basketball. Westbrook will blow past Nash off the dribble and be a key for Oklahoma City in this series.
Harden and Thabo Sefolosha played Bryant well in the conference semifinals, making him work for his points, and that should be the case again, with Harden improving as an all-around player.
The Thunder's frontcourt was able to contain Bynum and Gasol while Ibaka provided a decent scoring punch with his ability to shoot from mid-range and finish at the rim.
Nash's pick-and-roll play and Kobe's sheer will to win should propel the Lake Show to a win in the series, but really this is about as poor of a matchup as Los Angeles could get.
Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Get used to this NBA Finals pairing, because I can guarantee this will not be the last time you see it. This year's Miami-OKC showdown should be much more hotly contested, with the Thunder taking advantage of their home-court advantage and pushing the series to Game 7, but the experience of the Heat will propel them to a title win in Oklahoma City.
The LeBron James-Kevin Durant matchup is still the key to the entire series, but until Durant gets stronger and improves defensively, James will be able to bully him in the post and attack him off the dribble.
Though Wade is beginning to decline and show the wear of a grueling NBA career, he is still a great defender who played well on both Harden and Westbrook last season. He will primarily be on Harden, and because Harden is not the best athlete, Wade will not be chasing him all around the court like he would Westbrook.
Mario Chalmers is not the offensive force Russell Westbrook is, but he is a quality shooter and defender who can force turnovers and make the proper pass. His play will be huge for the team, as he will primarily draw the assignment of guarding the Thunder's star point guard.
What will hurt the Thunder most is their lack of frontcourt scoring. Kendrick Perkins is the odd man out in this series, as his low-post defensive prowess is not needed here, and he is not nearly as effective playing a sped-up game as he is playing in the half court. Bosh and James together will simply be too much for Perkins and Ibaka to handle.
In the end, the Heat's ability to crank up their defensive pressure when it matters most will be the difference-maker and result in a Miami title repeat.
I fully believe Oklahoma City will win a title with the Durant-Westbrook core, but unfortunately, the Thunder are still not quite the all-around team that the Miami Heat are.