During training camp, every NBA player can still have his eyes set on the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Even if preseason losses start piling up, the regular-season records are unblemished. All 30 teams start with a 0-0 record, tied for the No. 1 seed in their respective conference. But that doesn't mean that the odds are all even.
At this point, we have a strong idea of the roster makeups for teams in the Association. We know who's going to be good, and we know who's going to have their eyes fixed on Andrew Wiggins' freshman season at Kansas be bad.
However, keep in mind that title odds are different than record projections. Upside matters, as does the ability to withstand a brutal stretch of games when the postseason comes around.
For example, I'm giving my predicted No. 9 team in the Eastern Conference better title odds than my No. 6 team, even though I still stand by those records. They're just different concepts because potential improvement is all the more important here.
So who would you be putting your money on?
Are we sure this is an NBA squad?
I have to keep a trash can nearby whenever I force myself to look at the Philadelphia 76ers roster, just in case. From top to bottom, it's that ugly.
Forget about the Sixers competing for an NBA title. They'd have enough trouble winning a D-League title with a starting lineup of Michael Carter-Williams, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes.
Perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration, but Philly isn't going to have to try tanking. It wouldn't be able to do anything else. At least the Sixers are picking a great time to be historically awful, seeing as the 2014 NBA draft is unbelievably stacked.
Title Odds: 1,000-1
The Sacramento Kings have one great player (DeMarcus Cousins), but the rest of the roster is rather shoddy.
There are positional logjams across the board, and it's not like there are potential superstars competing for playing time. It's a deep collection of role players who all deserve minutes, even if none of them are ready to take on truly large responsibilities.
Even if Ben McLemore breaks out in a big way during his rookie season, Sacramento doesn't have the upside necessary to move any higher in this countdown of title odds. They'll finish with a record more impressive than this No. 29 spot would indicate, but that's different than having a good shot at a title.
The ceiling just isn't that high in Sac-Town.
Title Odds: 450-1
In terms of record, the Charlotte Bobcats are going to surprise a lot of people throughout the 2013-14 campaign. This is a squad that will consistently test the better teams in the Eastern Conference, even if it will fail to emerge victoriously more often than not.
Kemba Walker is emerging as a solid starting point guard. Gerald Henderson is underrated at the 2, and the frontcourt is undeniably strong, especially if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist blossoms and Cody Zeller contends for Rookie of the Year.
But still, it's about upside. And while the 'Cats have some long-term hope given the current makeup of the roster, it'll be awfully difficult to realize all the potential in just one season.
Climbing out of the basement is a process, and it has to be taken one step at a time. To the best of my knowledge, no one can jump up too many stairs at one time, and there are quite a few of them leading out of that basement.
Title Odds: 425-1
The Phoenix Suns are already in tank mode, but this is the first squad with some legitimate upside for the 2013-14 season.
What happens if Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic immediately click and start looking like one of the NBA's top backcourts? Could they somehow sneak into the playoffs?
Probably not, unless the rest of the Western Conference pulls a Minnesota Timberwolves and gets decimated by injuries, but there's at least a chance for something more than a putrid finish. And the early results look good, as the Suns watched the two guards combine for 38 points, five rebounds, nine assists, five steals and a block on 16-of-22 shooting in the Oct. 7 preseason opener against Maccabi Haifa.
Again, a title is nothing more than a ridiculous pipe dream, but there's at least immediate upside present in the desert.
Title Odds: 400-1
And now we take a big jump up in the odds.
The Utah Jazz aren't going to be true bottom-feeders this year. They'll lose a lot of games and get blown out more than a few times, but there are so many high-upside young guns that they'll surely exceed the expectations during the second half of the season.
Between Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Brandon Rush, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, someone is going to break out. Ideally, it'll be more than just one of the aforementioned players.
Utah still isn't even a true competitor for a playoff spot in the brutally tough Western Conference, but it could look like one after the All-Star break when the young guys have adjusted to their larger roles.
At the very least, the Jazz will be a fun team to watch on NBA League Pass.
Title Odds: 240-1
With a healthy Rajon Rondo for half the season and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett both in the lineup, the Boston Celtics managed to score 103.1 points per 100 possessions in 2012-13. According to Basketball-Reference, that left them with the No. 24 offensive rating in the league.
Now they've lost those top two scorers and don't know when Rondo will be back from his torn ACL.
And they're supposed to be competitive?
Brad Stevens and Co. might give the illusion that this team is trying to sneak into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, but it's not like he'd ever admit tanking is the route du jour.
Boston has veteran presences that will keep it competitive in some games, and a healthy Rondo is as dangerous as it gets at point guard. But there's still just not enough talent for the C's to sniff a playoff berth during the second half of the season, even if they get off to a strong start.
Title Odds: 220-1
It doesn't matter how many shots Larry Sanders blocks during the 2013-14 season. His rejections won't change the fact that the Milwaukee Bucks are ultimately doomed to be mediocre.
It seems as though general manager John Hammond is insistent on ensuring that his team remains moderately competitive for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. They aren't true playoff contenders, and they aren't bad enough to earn a top lottery pick either.
But the problem is the ceiling of the team.
Even if the Bucks go with a young lineup featuring Brandon Knight, Sanders and John Henson, they still don't have enough upside to earn any better title odds. That could change if Giannis Antetokounmpo changes my mind and proves that he's ready to play quality minutes from year one, but that seems unlikely at best.
Title Odds: 215-1
The Orlando Magic have some potential.
Bear with me here as we enter into an extreme best-case scenario.
Let's say that Victor Oladipo plays well enough that he can win Rookie of the Year. He, Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo form a nice three-headed backcourt monster. Maurice Harkless continues breaking out, as does Nikola Vucevic. Tobias Harris proves that the end of last season was no fluke.
All of a sudden, you're looking at a dangerous team.
General manager Rob Hennigan has done a nice job accumulating a lot of talent, but it all has to come together now. Chances are, it won't, and the Magic will finish the season with a worse record than both the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics. Hell, they may finish behind the Charlotte Bobcats as well.
But at least there's immediate hope in the Amway Center.
Title Odds: 200-1
Kobe Bryant is the reason that the Los Angeles Lakers get odds this favorable. Given the talent level of the rest of the roster, they shouldn't even be this good.
The Lakers are counting on Pau Gasol and Steve Nash to carry the Purple and Gold until Kobe is ready to take over. And even then, they'll be asking a 35-year-old shooting guard returning from a ruptured Achilles to lift a rather heavy burden while supporting a lackluster supporting cast.
This is going to be a down year in Tinseltown, but there's always a chance Kobe defies the odds one more time. Would anyone be truly shocked if the Mamba somehow got his team into the playoffs and then went on an MVP-caliber run for a few weeks?
It's unlikely, but it's not impossible.
Title Odds: 150-1
It's all about this trio, assuming that the Emeka Okafor-Nene frontcourt duo can regain health and then remain on the court.
But the combo of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter? Yikes. Eastern Conference opponents are going to be frightened by them for a long time.
That said, it appears as though Porter has missed the memo. At some point, he's going to have to start donning a shooting sleeve on his right arm so that he can fit in with his talented backcourt teammates.
In 2013-14, expect big things from Wall in particular. He should challenge a 20-10 season now that he's fully healthy, has an improved jumper and gets to work with teammates who are even better at scoring. As long as Beal is spacing out the defense, Wall is going to assault the rim on a regular basis.
Washington is chasing a playoff spot for the first time in a while, and anything can happen once it makes it there.
Title Odds: 120-1
It's hard to bet against Dirk Nowitzki.
But the Dallas Mavericks are sure making it hard to bet on him as well. Surrounding the aging 7-footer with another porous backcourt that features a conscienceless gunner isn't generally a recipe for success.
And while it's not inconceivable that a healthy Dirk could keep the Mavs in playoff contention and then carry his team to an upset or two during the postseason, that's still far more unlikely than it was in 2011. And that title was enough of a surprise.
Dallas' roster is an amalgamation of one-way players and declining veterans, the result of yet another offseason failure to secure the services of a star player. Eventually Mark Cuban is going to have to make a recruiting pitch that works or change the strategy that he utilizes when building his team.
This one isn't working anymore.
Title Odds: 115-1
I hesitate to call the Atlanta Hawks locks for the playoffs, but they're pretty darn close to reaching that status. Even though Josh Smith left for the Detroit Pistons, the Hawks got marginally better by replacing him and Zaza Pachulia with Paul Millsap and Elton Brand, then adding depth across the board.
Atlanta is a safe bet to make the playoffs, but beyond that, it's rather foolish to have many expectations.
The Hawks are playing to remain competitive in the present and then improve in the future once the young players develop and Lucas Nogueira stops playing overseas. But they don't have much of a chance to actually win a title in 2013-14.
Can you win a championship with Al Horford as your best player? Maybe if you surround him with other similar talents, but not given the current makeup of this roster.
Title Odds: 110-1
Can the Minnesota Timberwolves stay healthy?
The early indications point toward no after Chase Budinger went down with a knee injury before he even saw any live action, but we have to hope that karma exists for this beleaguered franchise.
If they can avoid that pesky little injury imp, the 'Wolves have enough talent to both make the playoffs and pull off a first-round upset. And from there, anything can happen.
Kevin Love is a top-10 player in this league when he's at the top of his game, and Ricky Rubio is one of the up-and-coming point guards who makes everything happen on offense. Throw in a little Nikola Pekovic, some Kevin Martin, a bit of Corey Brewer and the rest of this squad, and you have a potent lineup.
Minnesota is tough to bet on because of its recent bad luck, but it's still a very talented roster filled with unrealized potential.
Title Odds: 100-1
While I have the Toronto Raptors finishing behind both the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards in terms of record, they have a great deal more upside than either of the other two playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference.
Rudy Gay is poised to have the best season of his career, especially after adding muscle and fixing his vision during the offseason. The small forward dominated the Boston Celtics during his preseason opener on Oct. 7 by recording 17 points, two rebounds, one assist and two steals on 7-of-11 shooting, and it could function as a sneak preview of the regular season.
After all, he did that much damage in just 23 minutes.
But Gay alone isn't enough to push the Raptors to the brink of odds that have just two digits before the dash. The upside of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas does the trick there.
Valanciunas in particular is going to have a big year as he competes for the coveted Most Improved Player award.
Title Odds: 100-1
In my win-loss predictions, I had the Detroit Pistons going 38-44 to finish No. 9 in the Eastern Conference. I stand by that, but I also recognize just how much upside this team possesses, which is why it's leapfrogging the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards.
If Josh Smith, Andre Drummond, Brandon Jennings and Greg Monroe mesh together from the season opener, this is a dangerous team. Not many teams have that type of quartet that can all line up at different positions on the court.
It all hinges on Smoove.
If he can adjust to playing the 3 and thrive in that role, Detroit will exceed my expectations by a rather significant margin. This team has the potential to finish as high as No. 6 in the East and then make a bit of playoff noise, even if it seems unlikely it can solve the inevitable chemistry and floor-spacing issues that quickly.
Title Odds: 85-1
Losing C.J. McCollum indefinitely to a broken fifth metatarsal hurts the Portland Trail Blazers rather significantly, but it doesn't completely kill their chances.
Going into the offseason, Rip City had two needs: a defensive center and some depth. It found both by trading for Robin Lopez and adding talent at just about every position.
There will be less pressure on both Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, which should allow each of them to compete for an All-Star spot throughout the first half of the season. I'm expecting big things from the point guard in particular.
But let's not forget about the rest of the roster. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews are both great two-way players who will look even better now that they can afford to rest without Portland giving up too much of the lead the starters will have inevitably earned.
Portland isn't getting talked about much, but that will change after a hot start to the 2013-14 campaign.
Title Odds: 80-1
There's a team from each conference with 75-1 odds, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are the representatives from the weaker Eastern Conference, which is why they're listed first. Both of the franchises in question are enigmas.
Cleveland absolutely has the talent and upside necessary to earn a playoff spot and then knock off a true contender, but there are just so many questions.
Will the Cavs get anything from Andrew Bynum? Is Anthony Bennett ready to compete in the NBA? Will Tristan Thompson keep developing? Can Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving stay healthy? Is Dion Waiters more first-half Waiters or second-half Waiters from 2012-13?
We have no idea, which is why the Cavs have as big a gap between the floor and ceiling as any team in the Association.
At least we know that Irving will be remarkably entertaining whenever he's wearing that yellow jersey.
Title Odds: 75-1
Just like the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East, the New Orleans Pelicans are the Western Conference squad that could go in any number of directions.
If the three-headed backcourt monster formed by Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon flops, the former Hornets will struggle to stay afloat against the difficult schedule they face in 2013-14. But if those three mesh together and Evans accepts his spot in the lineup, there's so much talent in the bayou.
Of course, we can't forget about Anthony Davis.
The No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA draft, Davis was quite efficient whenever he played as a rookie, but injuries and defensive struggles limited his effectiveness. He should look a lot better as a second-year player, and his growth will ultimately determine how far the Pelicans go.
But can you imagine a starting five of Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Ryan Anderson and Davis? It's a scary one if everything works out for the best.
Title Odds: 75-1
The Denver Nuggets may have lost Masai Ujiri, George Karl, Andre Iguodala, Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer, but the team is still pretty strong.
It just all depends on the improvement of the young guns now. And I'm looking at Ty Lawson in particular. Take a gander at how he fared before and after the 2013 All-Star break, courtesy of Basketball-Reference:
|Pre All-Star Break||15.8||2.6||7.1||44.5|
|Post All-Star Break||18.8||3.0||6.4||50.4|
The Nuggets need that second version to show up throughout the year, especially now that Iggy isn't there to take on some of the ball-handling responsibilities. If he can do that while Danilo Gallinari rehabs his torn ACL and JaVale McGee adjusts to the starting job, then Denver will look like a dangerous team once more.
There's reason for concern in the Mile High City, but perhaps the lack of expectations will prove to be a positive.
Title Odds: 50-1
It's all about defense for the Memphis Grizzlies, who didn't lose any crucial pieces of the puzzle that got them pretty far in 2012-13.
And yes, that's the whole starting lineup.
But the question remains: Did the Grizz upgrade enough on offense? They struggled to score points in the half-court set without Rudy Gay, and adding Jamaal Franklin and Mike Miller might not be enough to remedy that immediately.
Memphis figures to be one of those teams that appears elite throughout the regular season but doesn't have enough in the tank come playoff time. It is the last of the contenders that doesn't really get to qualify as a "true contender."
And yes, there's enough parity this year that we have 10 true contenders.
Title Odds: 40-1
The Houston Rockets don't have much time to establish chemistry.
A bright spotlight will be on this team as soon as the regular season begins, and it won't be turned off until Dwight Howard has won a title.
Between D12 and James Harden, Houston has two of the 10 best players in basketball, but there are still questions about the supporting cast. Can Chandler Parsons blossom into a championship-caliber third wheel? How will the Rockets solve the issues at point guard and power forward?
It's hard for a team with a major new piece to compete for a title in year one. Just ask the Miami Heat (2010-11) or the Los Angeles Lakers (2012-13) if you're looking for a recent example.
And while the early returns have been phenomenal, especially the 7-of-11 performance at the charity stripe by Dwight Howard in his preseason opener against the New Orleans Pelicans, the level of competition is going to get bumped up pretty soon.
Title Odds: 30-1
The Golden State Warriors are in the same boat as the Houston Rockets. And you can expect these two teams to remain joined at the hip throughout the 2013-14 campaign.
They exceed the expectations last year, both making the playoffs and then remaining competitive after the 82nd game of the season. But they were each a piece away from truly competing for a championship, so they added a potential All-Star during the offseason.
Andre Iguodala will make a big impact for the Dubs, but can he establish enough chemistry with his teammates right off the bat? Can Harrison Barnes or Klay Thompson accept a role as the sixth man?
Golden State is deeper than Houston, though it doesn't boast as much top-10 talent. Both squads seem like locks to advance into the postseason, but it remains to be seen how they'll fare against the more difficult slate of competition.
Title Odds: 30-1
The New York Knicks have a true superstar playing at the peak of his basketball career, and that almost automatically makes them true contenders. Carmelo Anthony hasn't won a title since joining the Association, but he's more than capable of carrying his team into the promised land.
It's just all about surrounding him with the right pieces, and the Knicks may finally have done that.
But that requires a lot of things going right.
Iman Shumpert must experience the breakout that so many fans are expecting. Andrea Bargnani has to be competent. The frontcourt needs to stay healthy.
This squad, if everything comes together perfectly, is capable of challenging the Miami Heat for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. However, perfection is often rather difficult to attain.
Title Odds: 25-1
The Los Angeles Clippers are still my pick to finish with the top record in the Western Conference, but that doesn't mean they have the best title odds from that portion of the NBA. In fact, they have the third-best odds out West thanks to a roster that isn't yet built for postseason contention.
Right now, the lack of frontcourt defense is looking like it could be a fatal flaw.
L.A. will inevitably have to go through a dominant big man during the playoffs, whether it's Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan, Serge Ibaka, Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki or someone else entirely.
And who's going to guard him? Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Ryan Hollins, Antawn Jamison or Byron Mullens?
With Blake and CP3 on the roster, the Clippers have enough offensive firepower to beat anyone, but they must shore up the defense before the postseason rolls around. Some guy named Doc Rivers might help with that.
Title Odds: 24-1
The Brooklyn Nets have as much talent as anyone in the NBA.
I have no idea how opposing defenses will handle the combination of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez, especially because everyone seems to mesh together perfectly. This isn't just a super collection of talent, but rather a super collection of cohesive pieces.
That said, it's not without question marks.
This Nets squad is ancient, even if Jason Kidd has made the transition from old NBA player to remarkably young head coach. Members of the starting five could break down at any point, and then the depth will be tested. And if D-Will gets hurt, Shaun Livingston isn't a championship-caliber backup.
Brooklyn is for real. But that's only during the regular season.
We don't know about the playoffs quite yet.
Title Odds: 20-1
It's all about Derrick Rose.
The dynamic point guard brings so much to the Chicago Bulls lineup, and the team is no longer going to struggle to score points on any given night. Between Rose's return, Jimmy Butler's improvement and the presence of Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, there's no fear of stagnating.
Chicago finished with the No. 1 seed when Rose was healthy in 2011-12, and it'll be looking to do the same thing in 2013-14. But there are still question marks about whether the former MVP can manage to regain his old form.
If he can, 8-1 odds will seem rather low. If he can't, Chicago will still be competitive but won't be able to sniff the true upper tier in the Eastern Conference.
No pressure, D-Rose.
Title Odds: 9-1
The Indiana Pacers pushed the Miami Heat to the brink of elimination during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, and now they'll be hoping for an even better result in 2013-14.
This team only got better, after all.
Paul George is going to keep improving, and he's rejoined by every member of last year's starting lineup. Plus Danny Granger will be returning to health, and the acquisitions of C.J. Watson, Luis Scola and Chris Copeland only add more depth to Indiana's arsenal.
Last year, it was the backups who were the downfall. Only the Portland Trail Blazers had an inferior bench, and that came back to bite the Pacers as the season progressed and the players got increasingly tired.
That won't be the case anymore.
Title Odds: 8-1
Baseball is the sport with all of the unwritten rules, but the NBA still has one: Don't bet against the San Antonio Spurs.
Even though Tim Duncan is old enough that he might answer interview questions about playing discus with Julius Caesar this year, the Spurs will be competitive. After all, The Big Fundamental doesn't believe in the ill effects of Father Time, and he's still joined by Tony Parker.
Manu Ginobili won't be the same player in 2013-14, but any decline will be remedied by the improvement of Kawhi Leonard, who used the 2013 NBA Finals to prove that he's the next big stud at small forward.
And, of course, Gregg Popovich is still roaming the sidelines.
San Antonio isn't going to earn a No. 1 seed this year, especially if Pop rests his aging players even more frequently, but you and I both know that the Spurs will be one of the prohibitive favorites when the playoffs roll around.
Title Odds: 7-1
You don't need to worry about Russell Westbrook.
Although he'll be missing games at the start of the regular season to allow his knee to heal from late offseason surgery, the dynamic point guard has always been the picture of health. And it's not like he experienced a structural setback or anything.
Westbrook will be ready to go by the time the postseason rolls around, and Kevin Durant will be as well. The NBA's best scorer (even though Carmelo Anthony won the scoring title last year) is only getting better and becoming more of an all-around player.
With the two of them suiting up, OKC has more talent than any other squad in the Western Conference. Especially if Reggie Jackson and/or Jeremy Lamb break out and help replace the void left when Kevin Martin departed for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Title Odds: 6-1
Until the Miami Heat struggle, they're going to be the prohibitive title favorites.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are all returning to the lineup, and Mike Miller is the only 2012-13 contributor who won't be back in South Beach for the 2013-14 campaign. There's no reason to expect a slippage here.
And don't point to Wade's knees.
Not only did he avoid a decline last year (his role shifted, that's all), but the last time he had offseason OssaTron shock therapy, he rebounded to have the best season of his career.
What's truly terrifying for the rest of the league is that the Heat have more potential for greatness than ever before. Just imagine if either Michael Beasley or Greg Oden becomes a quality contributor. Better yet, what if both of them become viable starters?
Could anyone beat a five-man closing lineup of Wade, James, Beasley, Bosh and Oden? Could they challenge the 72-win mark and then make good on Moses Malone's "Fo', Fo', Fo'" goal?
The sky would truly be the limit.
Title Odds: 3-1