NBA Predictions 2012-13: Projecting End-of-Year Standings for Each Conference

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 7, 2012

NBA Predictions 2012-13: Projecting End-of-Year Standings for Each Conference

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    If the beginning of the 2012-13 NBA season has taught us anything, it has been one simple lesson: expect the unexpected.

    Who expected that the reigning Western Conference champions (Oklahoma City) would trade away a vital piece (James Harden) less than a week before the season started? And who had that piece becoming the first player to score 80-plus points (82 to be exact) in the first two games of the season since Michael Jordan in 1986-87?

    On second thought, maybe this has actually been a lot of what we have seen before.

    Danny Granger and Eric Gordon are both sidelined indefinitely with knee injuries. Stephen Jackson has two technical fouls in three games. A superteam (in this case, the Los Angeles Lakers) has stumbled out of the opening gate, and its coach (Mike Brown) has already drawn the ire of his fanbase.

    Perhaps the lessons taught by this young NBA season are two-fold.

    For starters, it's far too early to draw any major conclusions. Teams have outperformed and underperformed their talent level in terms of wins and losses, but 82 games is often a long enough time for order to be restored.

    And secondly, we've been taught the value of investing a piece of our lives into the NBA's regular season. These are the greatest athletes competing with one another in the world's greatest game, and the resulting drama (both old and new) is better than anything Hollywood could imagine.

Western Conference Outsiders

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    While the Eastern Conference continues to bolster its front end, the Western Conference still enjoys the better depth.

    Simply put, there will be some talented teams out West that fail to secure a playoff berth.

    15. Sacramento Kings: Sacramento has assembled some nice pieces along the way, but this roster still lacks the veterans to bring this team together and make these pieces fit.

    Tyreke Evans leads this group with a paltry 3.3 assists. Keith Smart's top two point guards (Isaiah Thomas and Aaron Brooks) have averaged 2.8 assists and 4.0 turnovers during the club's 1-3 start.

    14. Phoenix Suns: A talent drop-off was expected following the summer departures of Steve Nash and Grant Hill. But this team has looked close to bottoming out just three games into the season.

    Amnesty claim Luis Scola leads the league's seventh-worst offenses (92.5).

    Coach Alvin Gentry's team has limped to a 1-3 start, registering the third-worst scoring differential (-11.25) along the way.

    13. New Orleans Hornets: Monty Williams' squad looks like they're missing their most talented offensive player (Eric Gordon, sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury) as they are averaging the fifth-fewest points in the NBA (90.67). But thanks to the league's third-stingiest defense (89.0), the Hornets sit at 2-1.

    The future is bright in the Big Easy, but it's still at least a year away from affecting their conference positioning.

    12. Houston Rockets: James Harden made quite the debut and led his new team to consecutive road wins to open the season.

    But as exciting as Harden's play has been, he'll need a lot more from his teammates to keep his club competitive.

    11. Utah Jazz: This Jazz season may come down more to worries about the makeup of the roster and less to their conference standings. 

    Utah mainstays Al Jefferson and Paul Milsap are both set to become free agents following the season, and both are potentially blocking the development of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.

    The additions of the Williamses (Mo and Marvin) and Randy Foye will help them compete, but will not be enough to punch their postseason ticket.

    10. Golden State Warriors: The Warriors' summer mantra was simply stay healthy, but this never entered their areas of concern.

    Still, Mark Jackson's team has shown signs of improvement. The Warriors are nearly plus-three in rebounding differential (11th in the NBA) and have allowed just 98.25 points per game (16th).

    But in the deep Western Conference, the Warriors will fall short in the talent department.

    9. Minnesota Timberwolves: The Timberwolves may not have made headline-worthy acquisitions over the summer, but basketball junkies took note.

    With names like Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko added to the fold, Minnesota emerged as an intriguing League Pass option.

    Ultimately, though, the early season absences of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio will leave them with too great of a deficit to make up.

Western Conference Contenders

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    The conference may be experiencing more questions than usual regarding its top teams, but there are still championship contenders here.

    Most of these faces are familiar, but there are a few newcomers.

    8. Portland Trail Blazers: If there was any doubt that Damian Lillard was a serious threat for rookie of the year, consider it gone. Through four games, the sixth overall pick has averaged 19.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and a blistering 94.7 percent success rate from the charity stripe.

    Lillard's emergence has given first-year coach Terry Stotts a nice inside-outside complement for LaMarcus Aldridge.

    If Stotts can find steady contributions from Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, the Trail Blazers might wake up a little sooner than more trendy sleeper picks.

    7. Dallas Mavericks: Dallas GM Donnie Nelson may have quietly had one of the most productive offseasons of any of his peers.

    O.J. Mayo has shown flashes of the efficient scoring that made him the third pick in 2008.

    If Chris Kaman and Elton Brand can continue to anchor Rick Carlisle's frontline until Dirk Nowtizki returns, the Mavericks could put themselves in position to be a tough first-round out come playoff time.

    6. Denver Nuggets: The offseason acquisition of Andre Iguodala put the Nuggets near the forefront of basketball discussions.

    But the talk reached an unsustainable level (ESPN the Magazine picked them to win the West in their NBA preview).

    George Karl's roster has both talent and depth, but lacks a superstar who can consistently close out games.

    5. Memphis Grizzlies: O.J. Mayo's departure has removed the biggest scoring punch from coach Lionel Hollins' second unit.

    A quick once-over of the club's reserves offers little insight into who may fill that role as the season progresses.

    Still, the Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol frontcourt remains one of the league's elite. And Mike Conley and Rudy Gay continue to improve their overall games.

    4. Los Angeles Lakers: Yes, the Lakers are 1-3. And yes, they do have real issues to solve on their second unit.

    But anyone who thought that L.A. could enter the season with some overnight chemistry was just plain wrong.

    There is more than enough season left for the Lakers to find their grove and skyrocket up the conference standings.

    3. Oklahoma City Thunder: The writing was on the wall. There was simply no way the Thunder could afford to keep their core four together (Harden, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka).

    Whether Harden was the right choice to move is almost irrelevant.

    While Kevin Martin has the talent to largely replace Harden's numbers, his addition coming so close to the start of the regular season left Scott Brooks with some difficult questions to answer and a small window of time to answer them.

    2. Los Angeles Clippers: Speaking of depth, Vinny Del Negro's roster has enough to rival the Spurs'.

    And that's without Grant Hill or Chauncey Billups playing a single minute so far.

    While Hill's return timetable is still unclear, Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times reports that Billups could return around Thanksgiving.

    1. San Antonio Spurs: As long as Gregg Popovich is on their sideline, the Spurs will be playoff contenders.

    And as long as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are donning the black and silver, they'll be near the top of the conference standings.

    But the Spurs' depth allows them to keep the pressure on for all 48 minutes and should bring them another No. 1 seed.

Eastern Conference Outsiders

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    There are a few intriguing teams on the playoff bubble in the East, but these same teams could not sniff a playoff spot out West.

    Still, the conference should provide for an interesting playoff race.

    15. Charlotte Bobcats: A season-opening 90-89 win over the Pacers was a welcome sight for a fanbase who saw just seven wins in 2011-12.

    Unfortunately, wins could come few and far between again for this rebuilding club.

    The additions of proven NBA veterans Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions and Brendan Haywood should at least help the Bobcats improve marginally at the least.

    14. Orlando Magic: Sans Dwight Howard (and Stan Van Gundy), the Magic raced out to a 2-0 start with wins over the Suns and Nuggets.

    But rookie coach Jacque Vaughn's relative success will be short-lived.

    Orlando is in the infant stages of a massive rebuilding project, and its record will likely reflect that.

    13. Washington Wizards: The Wizards enjoyed a brief run as a popular sleeper choice, but injuries to John Wall (knee) and Nene (foot) may have already curtailed those playoff hopes.

    Kevin Seraphin's unheralded return helps, but there are too many NBA retreads (Jannero Pargo, Earl Barron, A.J. Price) for this team to compete.

    Expect Washington to enter the sleeper talk next summer, though, as they will return nearly their entire roster in 2013-14.

    12. Detroit Pistons: Detroit's goals for this season are pretty simple: stay healthy and develop their young talent.

    With over $20 million set to come off the books over the 2013 summer (according to HoopsHype salaries), president of basketball operations Joe Dumars needs to use this season to determine who his franchise cornerstones are.

    Greg Monroe is a no-doubter, but the jury may still be out on Brandon Knight's long-term projects at the point guard spot.

    11. Cleveland Cavaliers: Dion Waiters has already displayed the ability to both start and play alongside Kyrie Irving, which is great news for Cleveland fans.

    Byron Scott still needs to find some pieces to fit around his young, talented backcourt, but he has some intriguing players on his roster.

    If either Alonzo Gee (37.8 field-goal percentage), Tristan Thompson (36.0) or C.J. Miles (27.6) can find some consistency, he could become the third scorer this team desperately needs.

    10. Toronto Raptors: The Raptors need to find a way to spark their rookie center Jonas Valanciunas (6.0 points on 33.0 percent shooting) to realize their postseason dreams.

    Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan won't be overlooked for too long as they form a solid NBA backcourt.

    But Andrea Bargnani needs to perform at an All-Star level for this franchise to take the next step.

    9. Milwaukee Bucks: The Monta Ellis-Brandon Jennings backcourt may not enjoy the shelf life that the Ellis-Stephen Curry pairing did, particularly if the Bucks find themselves on the outside looking in when the trade deadline comes around.

    Both Ellis and Jennings could become free agents at season's end, and the Bucks can ill afford to watch one (or both) walk.

    Milwaukee has the talent to compete for a low-end playoff berth, but Scott Skiles will have his work cut out for him trying to make his ball-dominant duo work.

Eastern Conference Contenders

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    While the East may be lacking for depth, it's certainly not hurting for talent at the top.

    There are possibly as many as seven teams with at least outside hopes of competing for a championship.

    That is, if they are able to get through South Beach.

    8. Atlanta Hawks: Josh Smith and Al Horford give coach Larry Drew plenty of lineup possibilities given their versatility.

    Spark plug Louis Williams has done his best (20.5 points through two games) to fill the scoring void vacated by Joe Johnson, while Jeff Teague has continued to evolve as a play-making point guard.

    Between DeShawn Stevenson, Ivan Johnson and Zaza Pachulia, this team has the requisite toughness to be a tough out in its opening-round matchup.

    7. Chicago Bulls: While Derrick Rose's return still lacks a concrete timetable, the simple fact that he will return at some point this season keeps Chicago in the playoff picture.

    Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have led the charge for Tom Thibodeau's club, but Carlos Boozer may be the key to holding this all together.

    Boozer's no a longer a 20/10 player, but even if he can approach the 17.5/9.6 line he averaged in his Bulls' debut season in 2010-11, that might be enough.

    6. Philadelphia 76ers: Coach Doug Collins' squad had an injury-assisted (Derrick Rose) trip to the second round of the postseason, but with the arrival of Andrew Bynum they have legitimate thoughts of at least matching that performance.

    But this is also a roster in flux.

    Point guard Jrue Holiday and forward Thaddeus Young seem best fit to play an-up-down game, but how this team fares when the pace slows for Bynum will determine its conference positioning.

    5. Brooklyn Nets: As the attention shifts away from the return of professional sports to Brooklyn and on to the Barclays Center hardwood, the excitement level should remain.

    Why? Because the Nets are putting forth a strong product for the rabid fanbase.

    Deron Williams and Joe Johnson may constitute the NBA's backcourt and are talented enough to keep Avery Johnson's team in the conference's upper echelon. But the play of Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez will determine just how far up the standings they can climb.

    4. Indiana Pacers: Basketball pundits predicted this season to be the transition of this franchise to young stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert.

    With Danny Granger reportedly out for three months with a knee injury (via Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star), that transition needs to happen sooner than later.

    But even without Granger, this is a talented playoff roster.

    3. Boston Celtics: Despite maintaining four-fifths of their 2011-12 starting lineup, the Celtics underwent a massive personnel change over the summer.

    So Boston fans should anticipate a stumble out of the starting gate as the new players search to identify their roles and develop some chemistry.

    Even still, this veteran-laden roster should handle these changes quicker than most, and it now has the depth to give aging stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce some needed rest over the 82-game season.

    2. New York Knicks: Carmelo Anthony could make a serious push for the scoring title, but it's Mike Woodson's prolific perimeter attack that could earn the Knicks home-court advantage for at least the first two rounds of the postseason.

    Raymond Felton should continue to improve as a playmaker under the direction of veterans Jason Kidd and (international veteran) Pablo Prigioni.

    Ultimately, their successes will be tied to how well they adapt to the eventual return of Amar'e Stoudemire, but that's a challenge that most NBA franchises would welcome.

    1. Miami Heat: Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis have (predictably) emerged as perfect complements to Erik Spoelstra's talented trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

    The spacing created in Spoelstra's positionless system is almost unfair given the talent level of the players who take advantage of that spacing.

    And don't expect James to be pestered with questions about his lack of closing ability if he looks for Allen late in games.