NBA Power Rankings: Which Teams Should Be Feared Most in 2012-13?

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIOctober 8, 2012

NBA Power Rankings: Which Teams Should Be Feared Most in 2012-13?

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    The 2012-13 NBA season is less than a month away, slated to begin on October 30. Some NBA teams are all but guaranteed a spot in the postseason via their talent level, while other squads look to rebuild. By that same token, a few NBA teams will be feared for their devastatingly high threat level.

    The following NBA power rankings will be guided by the teams’ performance last season, whether they added or subtracted key pieces and how healthy the team will be to start (and perhaps finish) the season.

    All 30 NBA teams will be identified using a color-coded threat level advisory similar to the Homeland Security Advisory System used by the United States government. Red will define the most threatening teams in the NBA for 2012-13, followed by orange, yellow, blue and green as the least feared.


    (Note: Using the Homeland Security Advisory System is not trying to make light of a very serious topic. It's simply a way to provide an interactive ranking system for readers that many are familiar with.)

30. Charlotte Bobcats

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    Seven wins and 59 losses: Those are the numbers that defined an abysmal basketball season in Charlotte a year ago. The team set the record for the lowest winning percentage in NBA history and had very few silver linings for fans to lean on.

    Even so, one of the few silver linings Bobcats fans will have throughout the 2012-13 season is rookie forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

    MKG was only able to play in one Summer League game due to injury, but he truly impressed in that one game. Kidd-Gilchrist scored 18 points, grabbed eight rebounds (three of which were offensive boards), dished out five assists and added four steals.

    One Summer League game is a small sample size, to say the least, but MKG didn’t clam up like other rookie prospects (Dion Waiters, Thomas Robinson and Darius Johnson-Odom, to name a few).

    John Hollinger, an NBA insider for ESPN, said during his Bobcats preview/profile that Kidd-Gilchrist has the potential to become a player similar to Shawn Marion. In other words, MKG could be a hyper-athletic defensive difference-maker who hustles on both ends of the court.

    The Bobcats' new head coach, Mike Dunlap, has a lot of work ahead of him. The Bobcats do have the upside of young talent, but they’re destined to be cellar-dwellers once again this season.


    Threat Level: Green

    (No team in the NBA will fear a game against the Bobcats for the foreseeable future.)

29. Orlando Magic

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    Everyone knew that the Dwight Howard saga in Orlando wasn’t going to end well, but it may have ended in a worst-case scenario.

    The Orlando Magic’s “haul” after the trade consists of Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Josh McRoberts, three protected first-round picks and two second-round picks. Not only is that quantity-over-quality bunch not going to improve the Magic’s future outlook, but according to multiple sources, Magic GM Rob Hennigan had better offers on the table.

    After the trade, ESPN’s John Hollinger tweeted that the Houston Rockets “clearly had a better offer.” The offer reportedly included a guaranteed lottery pick (something the Magic didn’t get in the four-team trade that sent D12 to Los Angeles).

    As if that isn’t gut-wrenching enough for Magic fans, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports tweeted that the Brooklyn Nets’ final trade offer in July included Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries (on a one-year contract), MarShon Brooks and four unprotected first-round picks.

    Andrew Nicholson is a dark-horse candidate to have a stellar rookie season, but with Jameer Nelson, Afflalo and Glen Davis leading the charge, the Magic certainly won’t be playoff-bound in the improved Eastern Conference.


    Threat Level: Green

    (No Dwight Howard, no problem. It's only a matter of time before Harkless and Nicholson get the bulk of the playing time.)

28. Houston Rockets

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    During this past offseason, the Houston Rockets put all of their eggs in the Dwight Howard basket and came up empty. Not only did they fail to land the league’s best center, but they also made some bizarre decisions in the meantime.

    For example, Houston decided to use the amnesty clause on Luis Scola, who was arguably the team’s best player. According to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, the move was an effort to free up more cap space to land Howard.

    Also, instead of re-signing Goran Dragic to be the team’s point guard of the future, Houston let Dragic return to his former team, the Phoenix Suns.

    Considering how well Dragic played at the end of last season (18.9 points and 7.7 assists per game in April), it’s odd that the Rockets instead decided to sign Jeremy Lin.

    Lin was a feel-good story last season during his stretch of Linsanity. He led the reeling New York Knicks to a seven-game win streak, but those positives were joined by some negatives.

    Despite being an electric scorer, J-Lin averaged five turnovers per game during his spectacular run in February. Five turnovers per game is a massive amount and something that needs to be monitored moving forward. In addition, Lin is coming off a season-ending knee injury. The underlying health factor may come into play during an 82-game stretch next season.

    The Rockets lost Dragic, Scola and Kyle Lowry this summer, so the infusion of rookies and youth will have to lead the charge.

    In the loaded Western Conference, a team as inexperienced as the Rockets will have a hard time winning games.


    Threat Level: Green

    (Jeremy Lin led a shoddy New York Knicks team to seven straight wins, so there's no denying he'll win some games for Houston next season. However, Lin is no longer in Mike D'Antoni's offensive system, and he's coming off a meniscus tear. Houston's rookies need to step up in a big way next season.)

27. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Kyrie Irving ran away with the Rookie of the Year award last season. He solidified his place as a blossoming NBA star, but the Cleveland Cavaliers still struggled as a team.

    The Cavs’ 21-45 record a season ago was tied with the New Orleans Hornets (who finished last in the Western Conference). Considering that Eric Gordon was sidelined for the majority of the season and the Hornets played in a tougher conference, 21 wins is a disappointment for the Cavaliers.

    Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller are two fresh faces, but the Cavaliers lost Antawn Jamison’s scoring output and will need to develop team chemistry moving forward.

    Irving is a huge bright spot for Cavs fans as they look toward the future. Cleveland should improve upon a lackluster 21-win season, but playoffs will still be out of reach for a young and inexperienced team.


    Threat Level: Green

    (Kyrie Irving's scoring prowess and Anderson Varejao's interior hustle could lead to some big wins. However, in the grand scheme of the regular season, the Cavaliers are not a threat to playoff teams. Look for Cleveland to integrate the rookies as much as possible.)

26. Detroit Pistons

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    Last season, the Detroit Pistons ranked 26th in blocks per game, 27th in points per game, 28th in rebounds per game and 28th in assists per game.

    That’s a lot of categories in which Detroit was ranked near the bottom of the league, and that’s not something that gets fixed overnight (or in this case, in one season).

    The only new additions of note this season are Corey Maggette (who was acquired in a trade with the Charlotte Bobcats) and Andre Drummond (acquired via the 2012 NBA draft). Drummond has been pegged by many pundits as having the most bust potential in this year’s draft. Jason Quick of The Oregonian alluded to the fact that Drummond could pan out as the next Dwight Howard or the next Kwame Brown.

    Drummond is a raw basketball talent, but he’s still extremely young with time to put all the pieces together. Will he put it all together this season? That’s highly unlikely given how much he still has to learn.

    Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight should both continue to grow for Detroit’s incredibly young core, but increasing expectations this season aren't realistic.


    Threat Level: Green

    (The Monroe/Drummond interior duo is sure to excite Pistons fans, but they're both still learning the game, which won't translate to many wins.)

25. Sacramento Kings

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    The Sacramento Kings scored points in bunches a season ago, 98.8 points per game to be exact. That number was good enough for sixth in the NBA.

    The Kings were impressive scoring the ball, but their defense a season ago was putrid.

    The Kings allowed 104.4 points per game last season, which was the worst total in the NBA. In the end, scoring 98.8 points per game on average means very little when you can’t stop anyone from scoring.

    Sacramento suffers from having too many similar players on the roster. With Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, Aaron Brooks, Jimmer Fredette, Isaiah Thomas, Francisco Garcia and John Salmons, the Kings have seven guards. Many of these players aren’t passers (evident by Sacramento ranking 26th in the NBA in assists per game last season). And, to add insult to injury, none of these guards has a reputation of being a solid defender.

    Thomas Robinson, Sacramento’s 2012 first-round pick, should help bolster the frontcourt. However, the Kings’ backcourt is such a logjam at the moment, they’d benefit from making a trade to free up some space.

    Some NBA teams make a habit of playing seven players total in their rotation. The Kings, on the other hand, have seven players they need to satisfy in their backcourt alone. Playing Evans at small forward isn’t a logical long-term fix, so the Kings have a lot of problems to sort out moving forward.

    For the Kings to improve next season, they need a bounce-back year from Evans and another stellar campaign from DeMarcus Cousins.

    Even if they get both of those things, however, the Kings' chances of being playoff-bound are slim.


    Threat Level: Green

    (Sure the Kings can score the ball. However, their inability to play solid defense won't scare away the NBA's elite teams.)

24. New Orleans Hornets

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    Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Austin Rivers, Robin Lopez—the New Orleans Hornets are poised to have an exciting basketball team next season led by their youth.

    Gauging a team like New Orleans is difficult, though, because it is so different from a season ago. Last season, the Hornets ranked eighth in the NBA in points allowed. The team surrendered just 93.4 points per game. New Orleans was defensively sound, but two big reasons for that were Trevor Ariza (career 0.98 steals per turnovers) and Emeka Okafor (career 1.8 blocks per game), who were traded to the Washington Wizards.

    Ideally, Davis and Lopez can step in as Okafor’s replacement in the post, but losing Ariza hurts the Hornets’ perimeter defense.

    Everything depends upon the play of Davis and Rivers as rookies and the health of injury-prone guys like Gordon and Lopez.

    If nothing else, we’ll learn just how valuable Okafor and Ariza are defensively to an NBA team.


    Threat Level: Blue

    (The Hornets fit the criteria of a young and inexperienced team, but the star power of Gordon on offense and the potential of Davis on defense bump up their threat level by one stage.)

23. Washington Wizards

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    The Washington Wizards may be flying under the radar to start the season, but that shouldn’t overshadow their impressive offseason gains.

    The Wizards added Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and Bradley Beal to solidify their starting lineup alongside John Wall and Nene. Adding two players from the New Orleans Hornets’ eighth-ranked defense should help immensely. Perhaps more importantly, though, the Wizards now have options at the small forward position after a disappointing campaign from Jan Vesely.

    The new additions will be under the microscope for the Wizards, but the engine that will make this team run is John Wall.

    The former No. 1 overall pick has put up decent numbers through his first two seasons. His career 8.2 assists per game places him among the best distributors in the NBA. However, Wall averaged 3.9 turnovers per game a season ago. This could be attributed to Wall having too much responsibility in the offense, but that’s a number he needs to cut down.

    Wall doesn’t necessarily need to live up to the hype of being a former No. 1 overall pick, but more will be expected from Wall and the Wizards with an improved supporting cast.


    Threat Level: Blue

    (The Wizards chances of making the playoffs aren’t high, but they have enough pieces in place to make some noise this year. They have a good balance of offense and defense, but the question mark is whether this team can gel together on the court.)

22. Portland Trail Blazers

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    The Portland Trail Blazers had a legitimate chance of making the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference before tanking in April. The Trail Blazers lost their final seven games of the regular season and finished 10 games under .500.

    Although their record last season hints that the Trail Blazers are poised for another bad year, the collection of hyped rookies could have something to say about that.

    Damian Lillard, the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft, will replace Raymond Felton as the Trail Blazers' floor general. Meyers Leonard will aim to solidify a volatile center position in Portland, and Will Barton will be out to prove that his slender frame won’t change his effectiveness.

    LaMarcus Aldridge is undoubtedly the star that makes this team run. If he and Lillard can develop solid chemistry, they could surprise the Western Conference with a playoff berth.


    Threat Level: Blue

    (Damian Lillard has a chance to overtake Anthony Davis as the favorite to win Rookie of the Year this season. However, the Trail Blazers are coming off a rough season and transitioning to a slew of new players, so they may get bullied in the West.)

21. Toronto Raptors

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    The Toronto Raptors ranked 28th in the NBA in points per game last season. Management needed to bring in scoring options to assist the offense, and it did so with a variety of new faces.

    Although the Raptors were unable to land Steve Nash this summer, the team did add Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, Landry Fields and Jonas Valanciunas. Andrea Bargnani has developed into a solid No. 1 scoring option for Toronto over the years, and now that he has some help, the Raptors may be able to make some noise in the Eastern Conference.

    One key area where Toronto can rise above the rest is at point guard. Despite injury troubles, Lowry has developed into one of the league’s best young point guards and his new teammate is no slouch. Jose Calderon was the NBA’s fourth-best distributor from a statistical standpoint last season, averaging 8.8 assists per game.

    Having two above-average point guards on the roster worked extremely well for the Denver Nuggets last season (with Ty Lawson and Andre Miller). Logically speaking, the Raptors will never be at a disadvantage at the point guard spot because they have two of the league’s best floor generals.

    The leadership the Raptors have at point guard will assist the growth and development of young players.


    Threat Level: Blue

    (The Raptors will improve from a season ago, but Valanciunas and Ross will truly have to step up if Toronto is going to strike fear in the hearts of worthy opponents.)

20. Atlanta Hawks

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    The Atlanta Hawks will be entering somewhat of a transition year following the moves made by new GM Danny Ferry.

    Miraculously, Ferry was able to dump the contracts of Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams onto the Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz, respectively.

    Johnson was paid a lot of money in Atlanta to be the team’s franchise centerpiece. However, the deepest into the playoffs Atlanta got with Johnson at the helm was the second round of the postseason.

    The Hawks needed a clean slate and got precisely that by dealing away Johnson and his gigantic contract.

    Now the pressure falls on the broad shoulders of Josh Smith. The hyper-athletic swingman will assume the role of franchise alpha dog as he enters the final year of his current contract.

    The Hawks will only go as far as Smith and Al Horford can carry them without Johnson to shoulder the load. Nevertheless, this season should be seen as a step in the right direction for Hawks fans from the perspective that they won't be shelling out nearly as many millions for shallow playoff runs.


    Threat Level: Blue

    (The Atlanta Hawks rarely, if ever, scared opponents back when they had Joe Johnson. The team made a habit of crumbling in the playoffs and never made it past the second round. The threat level now that the Hawks may miss the playoffs certainly isn't as high as it once was.)

19. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Although the Milwaukee Bucks managed to replace Andrew Bogut at the center position by trading for Sam Dalembert before the 2012 NBA draft, the Bucks still have some interesting quirks working against them.

    The most notable instance of this is the case of the dueling banjos in the Bucks' backcourt. Adding a scoring machine in the form of Monta Ellis was a win on paper for the Bucks considering they were able to trade Stephen Jackson’s contract and the injury-prone Bogut. However, adding Ellis to a backcourt that already sports Brandon Jennings, one of the best score-first point guards in the league, seems counterproductive.

    Milwaukee did go 12-9 with the Jennings/Ellis tandem down the stretch last season, so the addition wasn’t a complete failure. Nevertheless, the Golden State Warriors decided to part ways with one of the league’s most dynamic scorers because he didn’t fit from a chemistry standpoint with Stephen Curry.

    Both Jennings and Ellis are most productive when they’re dominating the ball and looking to score, so whether they can coexist in harmony moving forward is a big question mark.

    It doesn’t help that the Bucks, a team in the bottom third in the NBA in defense last season, have two scoring guards who struggle defensively (especially Ellis).

    The Bucks will score a lot of points (and Ersan Ilyasova is a key piece), but their defense and backcourt chemistry could be their downfall.


    Threat Level: Blue

    (Three games over .500 with the Jennings/Ellis tandem certainly isn’t enough to threaten other teams around the league. This is especially true in the revamped Eastern Conference, where the Raptors, Wizards and Nets have all improved.)

18. Phoenix Suns

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    The Phoenix Suns lost the face of the franchise and the team’s best player this summer when Steve Nash joined the Los Angeles Lakers. As a result, fans and analysts alike have been ranking the Suns in the NBA cellar. But will the Suns be irrelevant in 2012-13 even with all the savvy moves the organization made to counter Nash’s departure?

    The Suns found a way to reel in Goran Dragic (again) in free agency this summer. Dragic was always meant to be Nash’s successor before the franchise foolishly traded him with a first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for Aaron Brooks (who spent all of last season in China). Now he’s back to lead the charge and build off a stellar end to the season (18.9 points and 7.7 assists per game in April).

    The Suns may have lost mainstay Channing Frye for the season after he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart, according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. However, the Suns added Luis Scola this summer via amnesty auction and he can fill that unfortunate void.

    It’s easier to make jokes about Michael Beasley than it is to take him seriously, but he believes he’ll be an All-Star selection this season, according to Eric Freeman of Yahoo! Sports.

    The Suns don’t have a bona fide star on this team. What they do have, however, is a solid group of role players who could band together and win some games under Alvin Gentry’s watchful coaching eye. As with other teams listed in this range, Phoenix probably won’t be headed for the playoffs. If they couldn’t get there with Nash, the chances they make it without him seem slim.

    In spite of this, the Suns could be an under-the-radar team that raises some eyebrows this season.


    Threat Level: Blue

    (This Suns team won’t scare anyone around the league until they start winning some big games. Are they capable of doing so with Dragic, Beasley, Scola and Marcin Gortat leading the way? Well, at least there's a lot of potential there.)

17. Utah Jazz

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    It’s hard to imagine that the Utah Jazz will be able to build upon last season’s playoff experience: a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. Adding Mo Williams and Marvin Williams to the roster will help this team, but staying in the top eight in the Western Conference as other teams improve will be difficult.

    The Jazz’s biggest strength at the moment is their frontcourt depth (they ranked third in the NBA in rebounds per game a season ago).

    With Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, Utah is one of the most talented teams in the low post.

    However, the team’s depth may also be seen as a weakness because players with high ceilings don’t get a chance to shine.

    Jefferson and Millsap are both great players entering the final year of their contracts. But that duo is taking minutes away from Favors and Kanter, which is stunting their growth in the NBA. Management may face significant pressure to make a move this season to open up a spot for the young talent. If it chooses to do so, that may put an end to Utah's playoff aspirations.


    Threat Level: Blue

    (Everything fell into place for the Jazz to make the playoffs a season ago. The Trail Blazers tanked for a draft pick, Steve Nash could only carry the Suns so far, Ricky Rubio got hurt and Houston ran out of gas. The Jazz may be able to replicate their success, but they simply looked overmatched by the Spurs in Round 1. It may be time for a new team to snag that eight seed.)

16. Golden State Warriors

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    Even though first-year head coach Mark Jackson came to the Golden State Warriors preaching defense, according to an article by Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated, the Warriors didn’t play a lick of it a season ago.

    Under coach Jackson, Golden State gave up 101.2 points per game. Only the Sacramento Kings surrendered more points per game than the Warriors a season ago.

    Jackson can’t exactly be blamed for the Warriors' woeful defensive efforts because he simply didn’t have the personnel available to make his dream a reality. Even so, the fact that Jackson came to California preaching defense only to rank second to last in the NBA is laughable.

    What the Warriors are good at, however, is scoring. Golden State averaged 97.8 points per game last season, good enough for 12th overall in the NBA.

    With Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and even rookie Harrison Barnes, the Warriors are poised to put up huge offensive numbers.

    Andrew Bogut will act as the Warriors’ one ray of hope on the defensive end of the court given his shot-blocking prowess. However, for Bogut to make a meaningful impact, he’ll have to stay healthy. Avoiding injury has seemed impossible for Bogut throughout his career, so Warriors fans should start crossing their fingers now.

    If key Warriors (Curry and Bogut) can change what’s expected of them by staying healthy, this team could prove dangerous for opponents to face.


    Threat Level: Yellow

    (The Warriors won’t suddenly morph into a solid defensive team simply by adding Bogut to the roster. However, this team has a chance at becoming an offensive juggernaut that can beat teams simply by outscoring them.)

15. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves had a sneaky-good offseason. Through a plethora of under-the-radar signings and trades, the T-Wolves have transformed their roster with solid veterans and impressive depth.

    When you think of the Timberwolves, the first thought that comes to mind is Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. Those two run the show and excite fans with their unique talents. Love and Rubio are great players to be sure, but the list of pickups the Timberwolves added this summer is truly notable:

    • Andrei Kirilenko
    • Brandon Roy
    • Chase Budinger
    • Lou Amundson
    • Alexey Shved
    • Dante Cunningham
    • Greg Stiemsma

    That collection of additions has veteran talent, defense, shot-blocking, scoring, hustle and matchup problems all wrapped into one.

    On paper, Minnesota should be able to make the playoffs this season. But even if they fail to do so, Kevin Love doesn’t exactly have an excuse to complain about roster upgrades, as reported by Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports.


    Threat Level: Yellow

    (If the Timberwolves can claw their way to the postseason, they’ll be a team that higher seeds hope to avoid. With Love as the team’s alpha dog, Rubio’s fearless demeanor as the floor general and the group of veterans and role players ready to contribute, Minnesota appears poised for a first-round upset.)

14. Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers 2012-13 roster is not the same it was a year ago by a long shot. Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Elton Brand, Nikola Vucevic and Jodie Meeks are no longer in Philly. This isn’t the team that ranked third in the NBA last season allowing just 89.4 points per game and seventh in the NBA in rebounding with 43.2 rebounds per game.

    Nevertheless, Doug Collins got the entire Sixers roster to buy into his philosophy, which led to an impressive run for a gritty underdog.

    Now the 76ers have added Andrew Bynum. It’s no secret that Bynum’s attitude and maturity have come into question over the years, so whether he can fit in with a no-nonsense coach like Collins will be a barometer of this team’s success.

    Bynum has a chance to be the No. 1 alpha dog option with Philly this season. Will he embrace that role with another breakout season or regress under Coach Collins? Only time will tell.


    Threat Level: Yellow

    (Bynum can single-handedly win a game with his offensive prowess and (occasionally) his defensive shot-blocking abilities. If elite teams don’t have a way to stop Bynum, the 76ers should be able to put the hammer down.)

13. Dallas Mavericks

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    The Dallas Mavericks, like the Toronto Raptors, missed out on a free-agent superstar point guard when Deron Williams decided to re-sign with the Brooklyn Nets. As that situation unfolded, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry both signed elsewhere, leaving the Mavs in a sticky situation.

    The Mavs’ organization recovered quite nicely by adding Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison, but those are a lot of new pieces to integrate around Dirk Nowitzki.

    The Mavericks won’t exactly “wow” you on either side of the court, but they’re well coached and confident, which is often a recipe for success.

    There are a lot of new pieces that the coaching staff has to build a new product around, but Nowitzki is a champion and a proven winner. He’s one of the few players in the NBA with the skills to lead a team to the postseason regardless of the supporting cast.


    Threat Level: Yellow

    (On paper, the Mavericks are not a championship team. There are too many threats in the Western Conference more potent than Dallas. However, whenever a team has Nowitzki and a solid supporting cast, it's a danger to win some key games.)

12. Brooklyn Nets

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    Ushering in Brooklyn basketball in the brand-new Barclays Center will place a lot of pressure and scrutiny on the 2012-13 Brooklyn Nets. Even so, this team should be up to the task with a roster built for regular season success.

    Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez will all be healthy and prepared to start the 2012-13 season. From an individual perspective, these five guys have a lot to offer a basketball team.

    Last season, Williams ranked in the top 10 in the NBA in scoring, while Johnson ranked 18th. Wallace ranked in the top 15 in steals per game, Humphries ranked in the top five in rebounding and Brook Lopez scored 20.4 points per game in 2011 when he was healthy.

    There’s no way to know if all of these individual efforts will translate into an elite team at this juncture. However, Avery Johnson’s .583 winning percentage as a head coach in the NBA speaks for itself. The coach formerly known as “Little General” from his playing days with the San Antonio Spurs should be able to rally the troops to a playoff berth next season.


    Threat Level: Yellow

    (The Nets have a lot of talent, a lot of hype and a lot of critics. With that said, this team is poised to be vastly improved from the injury-riddled season they endured last year.)

11. New York Knicks

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    James Dolan and the New York Knicks shocked the NBA community when they decided not to re-sign Jeremy Lin. Instead, the point guard spot in New York next season will be handled by Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd (and perhaps Pablo Prigioni).

    The Knicks won’t be able to rely on a seven-game run of Linsanity saving their season this year, so hopefully the veteran point guards are up to the task.

    In addition to the three new additions at the point guard position, the Knicks added two 38-year-old veterans to their frontcourt. Both Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace (yes, you read that right) will be suiting up for the Knicks next season.

    Honestly speaking, the Knicks haven’t been feared in the league for a long, long time. Even with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Tyson Chandler, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, the Knicks are rarely taken seriously when fans talk of championship contenders.

    With that said, Anthony is one of the league’s most electric scorers. Through his exploits, the Knicks will hang tough in virtually any game. Unless the Knicks create some semblance of team chemistry under Mike Woodson, however, this team won’t even sniff the Larry O’Brien trophy.


    Threat Level: Yellow

    (If this Knicks team gets hot at the right time of year, they could cause problems for just about any team in the league. Unfortunately, Anthony and Stoudemire continue to prove just how incompatible they are on the court together. Until they prove otherwise, they’re labeled as a good, not great team.)

10. Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers are one of the youngest teams in the NBA. They only have one player over the age of 30 on the roster in David West. Danny Granger (29 years old), Paul George (22 years old) and Roy Hibbert (26 years old) are the leaders that make this team tick.

    But even the up-and-coming Pacers have experienced a fair deal of turnover in just one offseason. Darren Collison, Leandro Barbosa and Lou Amundson are gone. D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green and Ian Mahinmi are some of the new names set to replace them. Something that made the Pacers so impressive a season ago was their team chemistry under head coach Frank Vogel, so adding new faces to the roster will be an experiment of sorts.

    With Derrick Rose out due to injury for the Chicago Bulls, some pundits are ready to label the Pacers the favorites in the division. Someone who isn’t ready to do so, however, is Coach Vogel.

    According to a staff report by ESPN Chicago, Vogel is not prepared to sleep on the Bulls, a team that performed well during the regular season with Rose sidelined.

    Indiana will need more production from Hibbert and George Hill (who just received a hearty contract). But even if both players take the next step, the Pacers can’t compete with the Miami Heat in the East.


    Threat Level: Yellow

    (The Pacers hung tough with the Miami Heat in the playoffs last season, but the Heat were a man down with Chris Bosh injured and they still beat the Pacers in the series. Unless Hibbert shows significant improvement, the Pacers won't be a threat to the elite teams around the league.)

9. Chicago Bulls

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    The Chicago Bulls will start the 2012-13 season shorthanded, with Derrick Rose sidelined as he recovers from surgery following an ACL tear. Losing their star player and a former MVP will hurt, but the Bulls have shown that they’re up to the task of performing without their leader.

    During the regular season last year, the Bulls had an 18-9 record when Derrick Rose was sidelined. The supporting cast was able to step up in a big way when Rose was out, and it showed with a record well above .500.

    Instead of C.J. Watson and John Lucas III backing up Rose this season, the Bulls will rely upon a combination of Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson and Marquis Teague.

    It won’t be easy for the Bulls to stay afloat with Rose out, but head coach Tom Thibodeau is one of the best in the NBA, and he should be able to overcome the challenge.


    Threat Level: Orange

    (The Chicago Bulls were among the favorites to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy last season before Rose got hurt. Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and company will still be a threat with Rose out, but when the former MVP comes back, you can be sure he’ll be back with a vengeance.)

8. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies' success is built around their devastating frontcourt and their defensive prowess.

    Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay create one of the league’s most effective and dangerous frontcourt trios, while Mike Conley and Tony Allen are two of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders in the backcourt.

    The Grizzlies ranked fifth in the NBA last season, allowing just 93 points per game, but their stellar defensive play wasn’t enough to sneak past the first round of the postseason. Memphis fell in seven games to Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers.

    If the Grizzlies need to improve in any aspect of the game, it’s on offense. They simply didn’t score enough points against the Clippers in the playoffs, which ultimately led to their demise. It doesn’t help that the Grizzlies let O.J. Mayo leave via free agency. Even though Mayo struggled off the bench for Memphis, he was a proven scorer and a big part of the Grizzlies offense.


    Threat Level: Orange

    (Losing to the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs was a letdown for a team that got past the first round as an eight seed the season before. Nevertheless, the Grizzlies are still loaded with talent, especially in the frontcourt, and will look to make some noise in the playoffs.)

7. Denver Nuggets

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    George Karl’s Denver Nuggets do two things extremely well: They share the ball (ranked first in the NBA with 24 assists per game last season) and they score the ball (ranked first in the NBA with 104.1 points per game last season).

    The Nuggets needed to improve defensively to balance their great offense with a defense that wasn’t terrible. Denver added JaVale McGee’s 2.2 blocks per game to the roster via trade last season, and they added Andre Iguodala, arguably the league’s best perimeter defender, via trade this summer.

    The Nuggets nearly ousted the Los Angeles Lakers from the playoffs last season due to their team-oriented play and offensive potency, but fell just short. Now that the Nuggets have Iguodala and McGee on board for defensive purposes, this team is becoming a major threat in the Western Conference.


    Threat Level: Orange

    (The Nuggets were already a big threat in the West before they upgraded their roster. With Iguodala ready to shut down opposing stars, Denver has a chance to make a deep playoff run.)

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Blake Griffin has the endorsement deals and the athletic wow factor. The Clippers bolstered their depth by adding Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes. But the main reason why the Clippers are such a potent threat in the Western Conference is because of Chris Paul.

    CP3 is without question the NBA’s best point guard. His presence single-handedly morphed the Clips from laughingstock to championship contender.

    As long as Paul is around (as he enters the final year of his contract), the Clippers will be playoff bound. Unfortunately for Clippers fans, the Lakers had a tremendous offseason, matching the Clippers move for move (and then some).


    Threat Level: Orange

    (The Clippers are vastly improved from where they were just two seasons ago, but competing with the elite teams will be a big challenge even with an improved bench.)

5. Boston Celtics

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    As long as Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo are together and playing at a high level, the Boston Celtics will be a threat to win the NBA championship. Pierce and Garnett are two surefire Hall of Famers, and Rondo is well on his way.

    On a yearly basis, the Celtics are among the top teams in the Eastern Conference due to their stellar defensive play. Last season, Boston ranked second in the NBA in points allowed, giving up just 89.3 points per game.

    That number was certainly impressive, but oddly enough, the Celtics were the worst rebounding team in the NBA from a statistical standpoint last season. On average, the Celtics only grabbed 38.8 rebounds per contest. Part of that could be attributed to the defense limiting second shot attempts, but that doesn’t account for having the lowest rebounding total in the entire league.

    Adding Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, Fab Melo and Darko Milicic should help in the rebounding department, but it’s an important stat to watch as the Celts’ championship window draws to a close.


    Threat Level: Red

    (Although the Celtics are at risk of losing older players due to injury, their veteran leadership and championship pedigree shouldn’t be ignored.)

4. Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Los Angeles Lakers had one of the best summers the NBA has seen in a long time. Not only did Mitch Kupchak and company acquire Steve Nash and Dwight Howard via trade, but they also improved their league-worst bench from a season ago by adding Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison.

    Pairing the eclectic group of new faces alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol has reloaded the Lakers’ championship aspirations. After a 4-1 postseason beating at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers will be equipped with four superstars (all with postseason experience).

    Team chemistry will likely be an issue early in the season, but the Lakers' savvy veterans should be able to find a fair amount of harmony among each other.


    Threat Level: Red

    (Anytime Kobe Bryant is the alpha dog on your team, you’re a threat to win an NBA championship. Now that his teammates include Nash and Howard, the rest of the league needs to watch out.)

3. San Antonio Spurs

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    If you watched postseason basketball last season, you no doubt heard Reggie Miller at some point in the playoffs gushing that the San Antonio Spurs were “surgical” in their execution out on the court. Not to poke fun at Miller, because he’s right. The Spurs were clicking on all cylinders and looked positively unbeatable until the Oklahoma City Thunder figured them out.

    The Spurs won 50 games last season out of a possible 66. Considering that Manu Ginobili only played in 34 games due to injury and the Spurs didn't even have Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson for much of the season, winning 50 games is a remarkable amount.

    Every year fans and experts count out the Spurs and every year they prove people wrong.

    The Spurs are here to stay, whether they’re carried by Tim Duncan or Tony Parker.


    Threat Level: Red

    (The Spurs swept the Utah Jazz in four games, they swept the Los Angeles Clippers in four games and took a 2-0 lead on OKC before losing four straight. Gregg Popovich always gets the most out of his players and will continue to do so this season.)

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka are all 23 years old. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s young core is a dynasty in the making (if Harden ultimately decides to stay).

    The Thunder charged their way to the NBA finals last season before falling to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat. The season ended with disappointment as the Thunder came up just short of their goal, but another season of valuable experience could be what puts OKC’s core of youth over the top.


    Threat Level: Red

    (They’re athletic, quick, they score, they defend and they’re confident. Honestly, what’s not to like about the Thunder this season?)

1. Miami Heat

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    After eight seasons in the NBA without a title, LeBron James finally won his first championship trophy in his ninth season (his second season in Miami).

    James’ postseason performance will go down in the history books as one of the most impressive performances of all time. James averaged 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists throughout the playoffs. He carried the Miami Heat through adversity and injuries en route to his first championship ring.

    Now that the Heat have added Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis to improve their lack of depth, there’s reason to believe the Heat could rattle off championships for years to come.


    Threat Level: Red

    (The defending champions will be back in full force to defend their title. Every team in the NBA will be gunning for the big target on their back, but James finally understands what it takes to win on the highest stage, which is a dangerous scenario for 29 other teams.)