Now that most teams' rosters are pretty much set for the 2012-13 campaign, the time for NBA preseason predictions is upon us.
While it's easy to project the handful of teams that have a legitimate chance of taking home the Larry O'Brien Trophy next June, it's a bit harder to figure out what else will happen over the next 10 months.
There will be newly signed free agents who flourish with their new teams, while others will quickly realize they may have been better off staying with their former clubs. There will be players who take their games to the next level, as well as franchises that return to the postseason after several years of drought.
The game of basketball can be extremely hard to forecast, but with NBA training camps opening less than a month from now, here are 25 bold predictions as we head into the 2012-13 NBA season.
Minnesota's eight-year playoff drought will finally come to an end, as Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love will lead the Timberwolves to the postseason for the first time since 2004.
The talented duo won't be forced to carry the load alone, however. Nikola Pekovic is one of the best centers in the Western Conference, and he and Love may be one of the most underrated tandems in all of basketball.
Jack-of-all-trades small forward Andrei Kirilenko returns to the NBA after a one-year hiatus, and Russian shooting guard Alexey Shved joins the Timberwolves fresh off an impressive performance at the London Olympics.
This is the deepest and most talented team Minnesota has had since Kevin Garnett departed in the summer of 2007, and the 2012-13 season will mark the start of a new era of Timberwolves basketball.
Make no mistake: James Harden will get a max deal regardless of how he performs this season.
But after a disappointing NBA Finals (12.4 PPG, 37.5 percent from the field), the question of whether he deserves such a contract is now a legitimate one.
Given his past history, Harden's finals performance will prove to be nothing more than an outlier of sorts.
The 23-year-old shooting guard has made marked improvements each season, and once he shows that he's still remarkably efficient on the offensive end, the contract offers will come rolling in next summer.
Don't let Paul George's superhuman dunking ability fool you—he's one of the best young players in the NBA today.
While Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert get most of the headlines on the Indiana Pacers, George will emerge as the team's true go-to option by the end of the season.
At 6'8", he's a matchup problem for most opposing shooting guards, and George has a chance at becoming a perennial All-Star once he refines his mid-range game.
Thanks to his athleticism, he's already a solid defensive player. It won't take long for the rest of the league to sit up and pay attention to the Pacers' 22-year-old soon-to-be superstar.
LeBron James' 2011-12 campaign was nothing short of impressive, but when using the Player Efficiency Rating metric, it was only the third-best statistical season of his career—James had PERs in excess of 31 in both 2008-09 and 2009-10.
It's hard to imagine that a player who averaged 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game can get better, but that's exactly what many people believe will happen next season.
With the pressure of winning an NBA title finally off his back, the rest of the league should be in fear of what James could be in line to accomplish over the new few years.
Kyrie Irving was so impressive as a rookie that if the U.S. Olympic Team wasn't already set, the 20-year-old point guard would have made the trip to London this summer.
There will be plenty of chances at Olympic glory for Irving down the road, and once the second-year point guard recovers from his broken right hand, his play will leave no doubt as to whether or not he belongs on the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
Irving was stellar as a rookie (18.5 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.7 RPG), and it's clear he will be one of the best point guards in the NBA for at least the next decade.
Detroit Pistons center Greg Monroe made an excellent case for an All-Star berth last season, but he'll have to wait until next February for his debut in the NBA's midseason showcase.
In 2011-12, Monroe ranked 15th in the league in Player Efficiency, and the 6'11" star was one of the few bright spots on a Pistons team that won just 25 games last season.
With Dwight Howard now with the Los Angeles Lakers, there's a noticeable void at the starting center position for the Eastern Conference All-Star team. Monroe may be just the player to fill it.
The impending fourth-place finish for the New York Knicks won't be due to their lack of talent, but rather the fact every team in their division got significantly better this offseason.
The Boston Celtics are clearly the odds-on favorite to capture the Atlantic Division crown, but Brooklyn's addition of Joe Johnson will make the Nets much more formidable than they were last season.
The Philadelphia 76ers' addition of Andrew Bynum makes them a legitimate contender as well, while the players the Knicks brought in over the summer (Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Marcus Camby) won't do much to shift the balance of power in the Eastern Conference.
Something has to give.
Utah has four starting-quality big men on its front line, and all signs point to it dealing one of its two high-priced big men—center Al Jefferson or power forward Paul Millsap—before the trade deadline.
Both Jefferson and Millsap are in the last year of their respective deals and as such are valuable trade chips for teams looking to shed some cap space next summer.
Jefferson's $15 million salary for 2012-13 will make him harder to move than Millsap (who is scheduled to make $7.2 million this year), but one of them will be moved so Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter can finally get some meaningful playing time.
Much stock shouldn't be put in NBA summer league action, but it's hard to imagine Damian Lillard won't capture the Rookie of the Year award this season after a dominant performance in Vegas last July (26.5 PPG, 5.3 APG, 4.0 APG).
The 6'3" rookie showed he has all of the tools needed to effectively lead an NBA team, and with Portland looking for a No. 2 option to pair with All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, Lillard will have plenty of opportunity to excel in Portland this season.
Last year, the Charlotte Bobcats were simply a talent-starved franchise.
However, after drafting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the No. 2 overall pick and acquiring Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions and Brendan Haywood this summer, this year's version of the Bobcats is much deeper than the squad that went 7-59 in 2011-12.
With a full 82-game slate and a new head man on the bench (Mike Dunlap), expect a noticeable improvement down in Charlotte this season. That said, they're still a long way away from mediocrity.
As we've seen with the Miami Heat over the past two seasons, it often takes time for a team loaded with superstars to gel into a championship squad. However, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were able to take home the title in their first year together with the Boston Celtics, and the Lakers will do the same in 2012-13.
Not only do the Lakers have one of the best backcourts in the NBA, but their front line of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard is without peer. As long as the injury bug doesn't slow down either Howard or Kobe Bryant for an extended period of time, expect to see a championship parade in downtown L.A. next summer.
In a loaded Western Conference, the Houston Rockets simply can't compete with a starting lineup that has Omer Asik and Patrick Patterson on the front line.
Things don't get much better in the backcourt. Shooting guard Kevin Martin is more or less a one-dimensional player, and while point guard Jeremy Lin is talented, he's horribly miscast as a No. 2 option.
For what it's worth, the Rockets do have some great young talent on their bench (Jeremy Lamb, Terrence Jones, Royce White, Donatas Motiejunas). But with no consistent and proven scoring option, it'll be a long season in Houston as the team struggles to find its identity.
The Houston Rockets will be terrible next year, but point guard Jeremy Lin will still have a decent 2012-13 campaign, all things considered.
Lin isn't a No. 2 option by any means, but with only one proven scorer on the roster (shooting guard Kevin Martin), the burden will be on the third-year guard to supply a fair amount of offense next season.
The dire situation in Houston almost demands that Lin reaches his averages from last year (14.6 PPG, 6.2 APG), and as long as he cuts down on his turnovers (3.6 per game in 2011-12), he'll be one of the better point guards in the Western Conference next season.
While with the Philadelphia 76ers last season, Lou Williams became the first player to lead his team in scoring (14.9 PPG) without making a single start since Dell Curry accomplished the feat for the Charlotte Hornets in 1993-94.
Williams figures to notch at least a few starts with the Atlanta Hawks this year, but expect him to be just as prolific of a scorer as he has been over the past five seasons on the bench.
In fact, with Joe Johnson now in Brooklyn, look for Williams to edge out Josh Smith as the leading scorer on a Hawks team currently lacking a definitive No. 2 option.
Although none of their players are perennial All-Stars, the Golden State Warriors have put together a textbook lineup. Expect a marked improvement for a franchise that won 35 percent of its games in 2011-12.
Predicting success for the Warriors also means banking on the health of both point guard Stephen Curry and center Andrew Bogut—two players who suffer from chronic ankle issues. Yet if they can both log 75-plus games this year, Golden State should make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
If Jrue Holiday truly wants a max contract from the Philadelphia 76ers, he'll need to take his game to another level next season. That task should be much easier with Andrew Bynum now in the fold, so expect the 6'4" Holiday to emerge as one of the league's top 10 point guards next season.
Due to a lack of athleticism/talent among their big men, the Sixers have been overly reliant on their wing players on the offensive end. With Bynum drawing attention in the low post, Philadelphia can finally play more of an inside-out game, and Holiday would be the primary beneficiary of such a strategy.
Most of Holiday's stats took a noticeable hit last season, but with a new-look Sixers offense, the fourth-year guard will shine in 2012-13 as he leads his team deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Chicago Bulls small forward Jimmy Butler didn't get much chance to contribute last year, but with Derrick Rose recovering from a torn ACL, expect the second-year player to have a coming-out party of sorts in 2012-13.
Butler was a man on fire in the Vegas Summer League (20.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG), and he showed that, if needed, he's versatile enough to play either the 2 or 3 spot for the Bulls next season.
Regardless of where he gets his minutes next season, he'll be the MVP of Chicago's reserve unite and could possibly make a run at the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award. That would be a tremendous accomplishment for a player who averaged 2.6 points and 1.3 rebounds per game last season.
Among the 100-plus free-agent signings this year, fewer marriages between player and team made as much sense as the Dallas Mavericks' acquisition of O.J. Mayo.
Mayo is far too talented to bring off the bench, but he was never going to get the opportunity to start for a Memphis team that already has a ton of firepower in the starting lineup.
Dallas, meanwhile, was desperately looking for a scorer this offseason, and the 6'4" Mayo has the potential to average 18 points per game next year.
Mayo isn't a superstar by any means, but he has the talent that will ensure the Mavericks are still a contender in the Western Conference next season and beyond.
Alexey Shved's arrival in Minnesota will give the Timberwolves exactly what they've been lacking for years: a tall, versatile shooting guard who can fill it up from long range.
Shved and Ricky Rubio will be a joy to watch this season, and the two of them will give Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic plenty of room to operate in the low post.
Shved was one of the standouts of the 2012 London Olympics, and if he can bring that same sort of production to the Timberwolves, he'll be a lock for the All-Rookie Team next year.
The logic behind the Philadelphia 76ers choosing to start Spencer Hawes at power forward is simple. Among the team's big men, Hawes is both the best passer and best shooter. He should create space (and opportunity) for center Andrew Bynum to put in work on the low block.
That said, Hawes has never played the power forward position in his career, and he was so bad defensively last season (341st in points allowed, according to Synergy Sports) that he'll undoubtedly have a difficult time guarding faster players at the 4 position.
While the Hawes move makes sense on paper, it won't take much time for Sixers head coach Doug Collins to end his well-intentioned experiment.
Injuries were the main reason the Nets dropped two-thirds of their games last season. This year, with a healthy Brook Lopez and the addition of shooting guard Joe Johnson, the team should be much improved.
As a result, Avery Johnson will win his second NBA Coach of the Year Award.
Johnson first captured the honor in 2006 after he led the Dallas Mavericks to a 60-22 record. While this edition of the Brooklyn Nets isn't quite as talented as that group, All-Star point guard Deron Williams should lead the team to its first 45-plus-win season in seven years.
The NBA rarely turns its focus on the state of Minnesota, and therefore the exploits of Nikola Pekovic don't get as much credit as they should. However, that should all change with the Timberwolves poised to make a run at the playoffs this season.
The 6'11", 290-pound Pekovic was one of the most efficient players in the league last year; he's a physical presence who isn't afraid to mix it up in the low post.
In just his second NBA season, Pekovic averaged 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, and with a talented supporting cast around him, expect the Montenegrin center to finally receive some of the attention that he rightfully deserves.
The fact that Omer Asik is one of the league's best defensive players cannot be denied. But his offensive game is virtually nonexistent, and for that reason alone, it's hard to justify the three-year, $25.1 million contract the Houston Rockets signed him to this summer.
Of course, what makes the Asik contract absolutely unconscionable is the fact that the seven-foot center will be paid $15 million in the 2014-15 season. That's ridiculous money to pay someone who has a career scoring average of 2.9 points per game, and the Rockets' questionable decision will come back to bite the franchise in the very near future.
Jae Crowder isn't a "small forward" or a "power forward" per se. He's just a very good "basketball player" who will be the best second-round draft pick in the 2012 rookie class.
Few players in the league—rookie or veteran—have a motor on par with Crowder's. The 6'6" forward is constantly moving without the ball, setting screens and battling for position on a completely different level than everyone else on the court.
Second-round picks usually don't get much burn as first-year players, but Crowder's energy can't be denied. The former Marquette star will be rewarded with quality playing time during his rookie season.
Jason Terry made a strong argument for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award this past season, and he should excel in a reserve role once again for the Boston Celtics in 2012-13.
Former Celtics shooting guard Ray Allen chose to link up with the Miami Heat earlier this summer, but Boston merely went out and replaced him with the fourth-most prolific three-point specialist of all time.
Terry was a keystone of the Dallas Mavericks for the past eight seasons, so expect him to bring that same level of leadership and clutch play to a Celtics team looking to make one last run at an NBA title.