The bookmakers in Las Vegas aren't usually keen to cook up playoff odds for NBA teams, if only because more than half the frickin' league qualifies every year and the majority of those that make it do so in predictable fashion.
Even though there are plenty of teams out there that will inevitably wind up teetering between postseason play and yet another trip to the NBA draft lottery.
What's that? You think it's too early to talk about which 16 teams will be playing on past mid-April? You think we should wait until the preseason has passed and everyone's logged a few meaningful games?
Well, when has that stopped anyone from at least discussing what the Association will look like six months from now?
It'll be a while before the playoff picture comes into focus. While we're waiting, let's kill some time by setting postseason expectations for all 30 squads heading into opening week.
Nerlens Noel (probably) won't play this season, Evan Turner is (probably) on the trading block and rookie Michael Carter-Williams is (probably) going to start at point guard, despite his issues with shooting and ball security.
All of which points to an abysmal season for the Philadelphia 76ers, which is (probably) what new general manager Sam Hinkie and the rest of his front office are hoping for.
Thanks to the trade that sent Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans, the Sixers figure to wind up with two lottery picks in the loaded 2014 NBA draft.
Throw a healthy Noel into the mix, and Philly may well have a brand-new core of blue-chippers on hand for the start of the 2014-15 season.
As for 2013-14? Expect plenty of roster shuffling...and even more losing.
The Phoenix Suns' push to sign Eric Bledsoe to an extension before the end of October, as reported by Andrew Gilstrap of ArizonaSports.com, says more about what kind of player they think he'll be over the long haul than what they expect from him this season.
Which shouldn't be much, as is the case with most of the roster.
The cupboard was already rather bare in Phoenix last season, and it only grew dingier with the departures of Jared Dudley, Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson.
You know you've got a big problem on your hands when losing those guys equates to a major downgrade.
This season will be one of exploration for new head coach Jeff Hornacek. His job will be to see what exactly the Suns have on hand, all while allowing general manager Ryan McDonough to spin whatever assets he has now for future building blocks.
The Suns are going to stink, and they already know it.
The Utah Jazz may be down for now, but don't expect them to stay there for long.
The team already sports an intriguing young core, with Gordon Hayward scoring off the wing and Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter providing the muscle inside.
Trey Burke's recent finger surgery will deprive us of a chance to see how the Michigan product will fare at the pro level while also forcing the Jazz to throw a bunch of middling options (i.e. Jamaal Tinsley, John Lucas III, Alec Burks) into the starting point guard slot.
In all likelihood, then, the Jazz will post just their third losing record in the last 30 years. On the bright side, this year's pain should yield the pleasure of watching another young stud added to Utah's nucleus tomorrow.
There's plenty of sorting left to do for Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigan.
His squad could be competitive for a time, as it was at the start of last season, assuming Arron Afflalo, Jameer Nelson and Glen Davis all stay healthy.
Which is a big "IF," considering that those three combined to miss a whopping 92 games in 2012-13.
Either way, Jacque Vaughn will designate plenty of minutes to talented youngsters like Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson, Nikola Vucevic and rookie Victor Oladipo. That group might surprise some folks around the Association, even more so if Hennigan is able to flip the Magic's resident veterans for more complementary parts.
That being said, this is still clearly a lottery team, albeit one with plenty of spunk.
The 2013-14 season will be a happy one for the Sacramento Kings, but not because they're headed back to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Rather, the city itself will be celebrating the fact that its only major pro sports franchise wasn't uprooted on the way to Seattle. New ownership, a new front office and a new coaching staff portend the dawning of a new day in Sacramento.
First comes a season of figuring out who stays and who goes for the Kings. DeMarcus Cousins' extension should all but settle any further scuttle about him being on the outs. Now comes the hard part: grooming Boogie into a bona fide superstar and determining which of the Kings' incumbent players complement him best.
There's talent in California's capital, but not yet enough to pencil this team in anywhere near the postseason.
The Charlotte Bobcats have too far to climb to get in an edgewise word in the playoff conversation, but at least they'll be semi-watchable in this, their last season before taking on the Hornets moniker again.
You can thank Al Jefferson for that.
Sieve-like as he is on the defensive end, Big Al is a beast on the left block, with some serious 20-10 potential amidst Charlotte's productivity-deprived roster. Jefferson and Kemba Walker will get plenty of run as the focal combo of the 'Cats' offense.
And who knows? Maybe Ben Gordon won't clash with Steve Clifford like he did with Mike Dunlap. Maybe Gerald Henderson will justify the modest commitment the team made to him this summer. Maybe Bismack Biyombo and rookie Cody Zeller will emerge as more-than-useful players in the frontcourt.
And maybe, just maybe, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will shoot straighter and handle the ball more tightly.
Even if all of those "maybe's" turn to "yes's," the 'Cats will be a ways away from postseason play.
There's one reason, and only one, to think that the Boston Celtics might put a scare into Danny Ainge's "tanking" plans, and his name is Rajon Rondo.
As Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald reports, the All-Star point guard could be cleared for contact soon, which would seem to indicate that he won't be sitting out the entire 2012-13 season, a la Derrick Rose last year.
Moreover, the prospects of the Boston Celtics shopping Rondo may not be so strong after all.
Rondo and Brad Stevens have seemingly gone out of their way, at nearly every turn, to tell the world just how strong the bond between star player and rookie head coach is, contrary to popular belief.
Even if Rondo plays at a high level immediately upon his return, he'd be hard-pressed to drag the C's into the postseason. Doing so would require a breakout campaign from Jeff Green, strong contributions from rookies Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani, a healthy showing from Jared Sullinger and somewhat steady play from Jordan Crawford.
Assuming, of course, that Avery Bradley's attempt to play point guard in Rondo's absence doesn't submarine Boston's season first.
With a few fortunate breaks here and there, the Toronto Raptors could find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, when Chris Bosh was still knocking down elbow jumpers for them.
At the very least, the Raptors have the talent to make a run at the seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. A new-and-improved Rudy Gay, a healthy Kyle Lowry, a progressing DeMar DeRozan and a second-year Jonas Valanciunas constitute the nucleus of a squad that, according to Lowry (via Eric Koreen of the National Post), finally has an identity to call its own.
Don't be surprised, though, if this team gets blown up at some point. A southward turn in the standings could give new general manager Masai Ujiri ammunition to start shopping some of his pieces in earnest.
And boy, are there some pieces that could move.
Lowry's contract expires after this season. Amir Johnson's will be considered in the same light, since his 2014-15 salary isn't guaranteed. Gay has a player option for next season, which he may or may not pick up, depending on how he performs this fall and winter.
Even DeRozan, who's under contract through 2016-17, could find himself dangling if the price is right.
If only the commercial success of a team's "global ambassador" in any way correlated to playoff potential...
Perhaps no team's playoff hopes this season will hinge as much on as many key questions as will those of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Like, when will Kobe Bryant be back and at what capacity? Is Pau Gasol ready to resume his former glory at center? Will Steve Nash be anything close to 100 percent healthy this season? Is Chris Kaman a better fit for this club than Dwight Howard was? Can the likes of Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and Shawne Williams capitalize on their latent talent in LA?
And how soon before Kobe strangles Nick Young for hogging all of the facepalm-worthy shots that are usually reserved for the Black Mamba?
Oh, and can anyone get this motley crew to play defense?
At best, this team looks like the seventh or eighth seed in the deep Western Conference. At worst...well, Lakers fans can probably recall the 2004-05 season just fine.
The Lakers' last losing season yielded Andrew Bynum, who, as it happens, now holds the key to the end of the Cleveland Cavaliers' post-Decision playoff drought.
All indications are that Bynum is working diligently to get back on the court for the first time since the 2011-12 season.
An inside-out pairing of All-Stars, between Bynum and Kyrie Irving, could be foundation enough for a team that, with its own considerable upside (see: Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett), could push as high as fifth or sixth in the Eastern Conference.
But injuries have dogged nearly every key member of the Cavs, most notably Bynum and Irving. A clean bill of health from those guys would be a significant step forward for Cleveland.
So, too, would team-wide improvement on defense, courtesy of Mike Brown's return to the sideline at Quicken Loans Arena.
Is there any team out West with a more intriguing ceiling than the New Orleans Pelicans?
The talent is there for this team to leap into the postseason come spring. The addition of young studs like All-Star Jrue Holiday and former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans to a group that already includes Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and 2012 top pick Anthony Davis portends plenty of excitement for folks in the Crescent City.
On the flip side, it could take some time for head coach Monty Williams to figure out how to fit these pieces together. The injury histories of Gordon and Evans should be of some concern as well.
But the upside is bountiful with this bunch.
Austin Rivers can't possibly play worse than he did as a rookie (can he?), and—between Al-Farouq Aminu, Jason Smith, Greg Stiemsma and first-year pivot Jeff Withey—this team isn't short on size and energy.
If Davis plays in meaningful games the way he has during the preseason, most of those issues could melt away as the Pellies pile up wins.
It may seem strange to pin the Washington Wizards' playoff hopes on Emeka Okafor, but I liked their prospects a lot more before the former UConn standout went down with a neck injury in early October.
With Okafor out indefinitely, the Wizards will have to lean too heavily on the oft-injured Nene and the largely unproven Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely and rookie Otto Porter Jr. to pick up the slack in the frontcourt.
Not to mention what it means for the budding duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Those two will have to play like gangbusters from the get-go to keep Washington in the hunt—which isn't out of the question. Wall performed like an All-Star upon his return from a knee injury last season, and Beal has been setting nets ablaze in the preseason.
Don't discount the urgency with which the team's higher-ups will be operating, either. GM Ernie Grunfeld may well try to save his own skin with a win-now move, one that Ted Leonsis, as aggressive as just about any owner in the NBA, would probably approve.
For the second year in a row, the Atlanta Hawks look to be mired in the muddled middle of the NBA.
Not bad enough to land a top pick in the draft. Nowhere near the championship conversation. Just good enough to infiltrate the outskirts of the playoffs.
That'll probably be the case unless the Hawks opt for a complete reset, which would entail offering up Al Horford for a boatload of draft picks, young players and expiring contracts.
Danny Ferry figures to wait and see how the players take to first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer before he takes drastic action. If Budenholzer can make the most of what this team has on hand—which is plenty of perimeter shooting and some solid production in the paint—there may be no need for a complete overhaul.
Assuming, of course, that the organization is content to merely tread water, as it has for the last six seasons.
The Portland Trail Blazers came into the summer of 2013 with two glaring areas of need: bench production and defense. The Blazers ranked 26th in defensive efficiency last season, all the while sporting the lowest-scoring reserve unit in the NBA (per Hoopsstats.com).
GM Neil Olshey did well to address his team's lack of depth with the additions of Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright, Mo Williams, Earl Watson and rookies CJ McCollum (out with a foot injury) and Allen Crabbe.
The team's defense should take a significant step forward as well.
Damian Lillard struggled on that end as a rookie, as most young point guards tend to, but he has the speed and athleticism to be an all-around impact player. Nicolas Batum knows a thing or two about wreaking havoc with his long arms and gazelle-like strikes. And new arrival Robin Lopez, while not a rim protector, has been known to block a shot or two (he averaged 1.6 blocks per game last season) and is generally regarded as a stout post defender.
So long as LaMarcus Aldridge doesn't force his way out of Rip City, the Blazers have the makings of an exciting team on the cusp of the seventh or eighth seed in the Western Conference.
The basketball-blogosphere-nerd in me is pulling for the Detroit Pistons to be good enough to make the playoffs in 2014.
Realistically, though, it's tough to peg their chances at anything better than a coin flip.
At this point, we don't know if Andre Drummond is truly ready for major minutes, if Brandon Jennings can be a pass-first point guard, if Greg Monroe will be in the Motor City past the trade deadline, or if the Drummond-Monroe-Josh Smith front line will work.
But, man, wouldn't it be fun if all of this worked out? The combination of Jennings' passing and the sheer athleticism of Drummond and J-Smoove could give way to the Midwest's answer to Lob City. Throw in the corps of shooters GM Joe Dumars has assembled, and this could be the team that puts an end to the Pistons' recent run of putrid basketball.
For the last two years, the Minnesota Timberwolves have seen their fringe playoff hopes derailed by a hellacious litany of injuries.
This time around, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic are all healthy and ready to end the T-Wolves' decade-long postseason drought.
Of course, the team has already encountered its fair share of obstacles. Most notably, sweet-shooting swingman Chase Budinger is out indefinitely (again) after undergoing (another) operation on his left knee. That leaves Minny's starting small forward spot up for grabs.
Ideally, Derrick Williams, the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, would seize the opportunity to prove that he's not just another one of ex-GM David Kahn's many busts. So far, though, head coach Rick Adelman has rotated Dante Cunningham, Robbie Hummel, Corey Brewer and Williams through the position, without yet settling on a solution.
The T-Wolves can certainly survive with a small forward-by-committee, so long as Love, Rubio and Pek produce like the All-Star trio that they can and should be.
Major hat tip to Zach Lowe for recently pointing out just how rare it is for 55-win teams to miss the playoffs the following season. According to the Grantland scribe, only seven teams in the last 20 years have fallen into that dubious category—all of which suffered through significant injuries or roster turnover of some sort.
The summer of 2013 has set up the Denver Nuggets for a similar fall.
Their Coach (George Karl) and Executive of the Year (Masai Ujiri) are gone, replaced by a new regime with a new philosophy. Their best player (Andre Iguodala) skipped town to join the Golden State Warriors, who ousted the 57-win Nuggets from last year's playoffs.
But it won't all be doom and gloom in Denver this season. Wilson Chandler, when healthy, has shown himself capable of matching Gallo's production. The team sports some noteworthy depth, with Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur joining Andre Miller and second-year combo guard Evan Fournier on the bench.
Above all, Ty Lawson will have every opportunity to prove that he is worthy of All-Star consideration. Having a former point guard, Brian Shaw, as his head coach should be a boon to Lawson's confidence and his game.
Denver will fall off from last season's 57-win pace, but even if the Nuggets net, say, 10 fewer victories, they should be able to bring playoff basketball to the Mile High City.
Say what you will about the money the Dallas Mavericks spent on Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, but if Dirk Nowitzki's healthy, this team has as good a shot as any to snag one of the last two playoff spots in the Western Conference.
The Mavs finished with a .500 record last season, just four games out of the eighth spot in the West, but they were 28-25 whenever Dirk played.
That was with a revolving door at point guard that saw Darren Collison, Derek Fisher and Mike James soak up most of the starts. Calderon may be a defensive sieve, but he's an upgrade over those three nonetheless. Ellis' characteristic inefficiency remains a grave concern (his preseason has been rife with missed shots and turnovers), though his ceiling as a scorer outstrips that of the departed OJ Mayo.
The lack of size in the frontcourt, behind the long-armed Samuel Dalembert, should also have the Mavs worried. That being said, there are some pieces on this roster that could be moved before the deadline for a big man or two.
And, again, if Dirk's anything close to his old self, he's bankable for a bunch of crucial W's by his lonesome.
Like the Mavs, the Milwaukee Bucks have started to grow on me as a playoff team.
Ersan Ilyasova played up to his new contract (and then some) after Scott Skiles was ousted last season. He could be a perfect fit as a stretch 4 with Caron Butler's three-point stroke from the corners coming in handy on the wing.
The backcourt of OJ Mayo and Brandon Knight should play well together far better than the trigger-happy duo of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Mayo and Knight should have plenty of room to attack, what with shooters like Luke Ridnour, Carlos Delfino and Gary Neal dotting the arc.
More importantly, this team is stacked with long, lanky rim protectors, from the newly extended Larry Sanders to the slender sophomore John Henson to the sparsely used Ekpe Udoh.
Some in the sports world (subscription required) are pessimistic about the New York Knicks' chances of so much as sniffing their 54-win total from last season, and rightfully so.
J.R. Smith and Amar'e Stoudemire are still recovering from their respective surgeries, with Smith set to serve a five-game drug ban once he's deemed fit to return. Tyson Chandler slipped considerably from his Defensive Player of the Year form in 2011-12. He will have to work even harder to protect the Knicks' rim now that Andrea Bargnani is on board.
But count me among those who have a hard time believing that New York is going to struggle to crack the playoff field in the East. Carmelo Anthony's never been a part of a lottery team, much less one with a losing record. Don't expect him to break that string just yet, especially not after the phenomenal performance he posted for the Knicks in his most recent campaign.
With a healthy Shump and a Toronto-free Bargnani, the Knicks may yet turn out to be the surprise of the season.
Their solution? Sign former Grizz gunner Mike Miller, whom the Miami Heat cut because his frail body made him too unreliable to keep around.
That doesn't mean you won't find Memphis back in the playoffs in the spring. They did well to keep together the nucleus of a squad that advanced to the Western Conference Finals and may well again this season, depending on how the players adjust to having former assistant Dave Joerger in the chief's seat.
This team could be in the mix for yet another major in-season trade, depending on how things shake out over the first few months. Hypothetically speaking, if Ed Davis shines, now that he's out from under Lionel Hollins' yoke, and the Grizzlies' shooting woes continue to haunt them, you could conceivably see Memphis shop Z-Bo, a potential free agent next summer, for some help on the perimeter.
In any case, the Grit-N-Grind can all but bank on a franchise-record fourth straight postseason appearance.
Barring a total catastrophe, the Houston Rockets will be back in the playoffs this year. The question is, how far will they go?
The pieces are there for this team to make a run to the Western Conference Finals. Assuming his back is healthy, Dwight Howard should provide a much-needed dose of rim protection and paint patrolling to a defense that was patently average last season.
On the other end, his mere presence will pull defensive attention away from James Harden, who knows a thing or two about running the pick-and-roll (he was the fifth-most efficient pick-and-roll ball-handler in the league last season, per Synergy Sports) and attacking the basket (he led the NBA in free-throw attempts per game).
The efficacy of the Howard-Harden pairing aside, Houston's championship hopes will hinge on how Kevin McHale and GM Daryl Morey sort through the team's stockpile of point guards and power forwards. Jeremy Lin might soon find himself on the bench behind Patrick Beverley (and Isaiah Canaan), while Omer Asik, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas will have their opportunities to play next to Dwight up front.
The sooner those spots are settled, the better the Rockets' chances will be of contending.
It's now or never for the Brooklyn Nets.
Joe Johnson is getting old. Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry are already old. Paul Pierce will be a free agent after this season, at which point he may well choose to retire. Andrei Kirilenko can opt out of the cut-rate deal at which the Nets landed him once this campaign is through.
Trouble is, there's already a hitch in Brooklyn's giddyup.
Deron Williams injured his ankle prior to the start of training camp, and though he's reportedly feeling better now, per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, there remains a risk of re-aggravation, especially for someone who's had as many problems with it over the years as Williams has.
There's plenty of time between now and the start of the playoffs for D-Will to round into proper form. Until then, the onus will be on Brook Lopez to step up as Brooklyn's best on-court contributor and on Pierce and KG to provide the requisite leadership.
Lest they leave that to rookie head coach Jason Kidd.
Kidd and company won't have any easier of a time taking care of business in the future. The Nets will be more than capped out next summer without any valuable draft picks that can be moved. They probably won't have the financial flexibility to retool in a meaningful way until 2016.
The Los Angeles Clippers may love Doc Rivers, but how much will their new coach's inspiring speeches and platitudes matter to this team's pursuit of a championship once the players take to the court?
They'd better hope having a bona fide leader in that position will be enough to push Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to the next level. Those two will have to shoulder more responsibility than ever, especially on the defensive end, now that the Clippers' frontcourt "depth" consists of Ryan Hollins, Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison—none of whom would be mistaken for a stopper.
LA did well to parlay Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler into JJ Redick and Jared Dudley, smart players and dead-eye shooters both. But Darren Collison will be hard-pressed to replicate the unique blend of frenzied athleticism, tenacious defense and eye-popping playmaking that made Bledsoe the catalyst of the Clips' second unit last season.
That might mean more minutes for Chris Paul, who has some knee problems of his own to monitor. Make no mistake, though: This squad has the makings of the greatest the Clippers have ever fielded.
Which isn't saying much, considering how tortured this organization's history has been. They'll be just the second iteration in franchise history to crack the playoffs three years in a row (the Buffalo Braves did it during the mid-1970s).
And with a midseason move or two, they might be the first to advance to the conference finals...and then some.
If I had to pick one team to be a "dark horse" title contender this season, I'd have to go with the Golden State Warriors.
No other group in the NBA today brings to the table the brand of lightning-in-a-bottle streakiness that we so often see from successful squads come playoff time.
That streakiness (for better or worse) can be attributed to the sweet shooting of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The so-called "Splash Bros." almost single-handedly upended the Denver Nuggets in the first round of last year's playoffs and had the Warriors on track for a surprise spot in the Western Conference Finals.
That is, until Klay went cold and Curry turned his ankle against the San Antonio Spurs.
With a healthy David Lee and the athletic slashing of Andre Iguodala in tow, Golden State now has the versatility and depth to survive off nights from its shooting stars.
And if Andrew Bogut can avoid any major setbacks as the season progresses, the Dubs' D could be strong enough to balance out what's shaping up to be an elite offensive unit.
Don't worry about Jalen Rose's recent prediction, Oklahoma City Thunder fans.
In the meantime, those two should be able to push the Thunder right back toward the top of the Western Conference, assuming Westbrook's knee heals up properly after a second surgery.
The playoffs are practically a foregone conclusion for OKC. The bigger question is, does this team have enough to win a championship?
That'll depend largely on whether or not Serge Ibaka is ready to contribute at a borderline-All-Star level and on what the Thunder are able to squeeze out of young'ns like Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, Perry Jones III and Steven Adams.
The Thunder should be in the mix for a title if the rest of the roster catches up (somewhat) to the team's top two players. Otherwise, escaping the Western Conference may be too much to ask for OKC.
At which point, those rumblings of KD and Westbrook looking elsewhere could resurface.
You might wonder why the San Antonio Spurs stood pat this summer while so many of their Western Conference competitors were busy bolstering their teams for title contention.
Then again, you may remember that the Spurs should've and would've taken home the Larry O'Brien Trophy this past spring if not for some heroics from Ray Allen.
There remains some concern as to whether San Antonio can replicate those results this time around. Tim Duncan is old, Manu Ginobili is fragile and Tony Parker is coming off a taxing (and injury-plagued) summer leading France to its first EuroBasket crown.
Then again, Kawhi Leonard should be even better in Year 3, and the addition of Marco Belinelli makes for solid insurance against the time that Ginobili is likely to miss for health reasons.
And with the West as wide-open as it figures to be, why not bank on the defending conference champs to pile up another 50-plus wins as they have every year but one (the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season) since Duncan came on the scene?
What do you call a team that came agonizingly close to a shocking appearance in the NBA Finals and spent the summer shoring up its most glaring weakness (i.e. the lack of a competent bench)?
A playoff lock. Or, in this case, the Indiana Pacers.
This squad would've come into 2013-14 with a higher ceiling with or without the additions of Chris Copeland, Luis Scola and CJ Watson. Improvement from Roy Hibbert, Paul George and Lance Stephenson—along with the return of Danny Granger—all but assured the Pacers would get better.
But finally having some trustworthy reserves will be a nice perk for head coach Frank Vogel. So, too, will the experience of last year's deep playoff run and the motivation to reach higher and push harder that's likely to be derived from it.
If the Chicago Bulls could qualify for the playoffs and win a series without Derrick Rose, as they did last season, imagine what they can do with their superstar point guard back in the lineup.
Especially if he's healthier and stronger than he was prior to his devastating knee injury.
Rose has looked every bit like his old self this preseason and then some. The speed, quickness, strength, athleticism and aggression are all there, along with a smoother shooting stroke and a more frequent floater.
The rest of the Bulls' roster ain't too shabby, either. Chicago sports three other former All-Stars (Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng), along with a promising bruiser, in Taj Gibson, who's expected to take another step forward this season.
And if Jimmy Butler plays up to the potential he showed during the 2012-13 postseason, this Bulls squad could emerge as the biggest threat to steal Miami's throne.
Only twice in NBA history has the reigning champion failed to qualify for the playoffs: the 1969-70 Boston Celtics and the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls.
Both of those teams suffered from the departures of all-time greats. The C's collapsed to sixth in a seven-team Eastern Conference after Bill Russell and Sam Jones called it quits. The Bulls, on the other hand, were bitten by Michael Jordan's second retirement and Scottie Pippen's move to the Houston Rockets.
The Miami Heat should have no such concerns. Their team is still largely intact, with Mike Miller the only loss of any significance from last season's title-defending team. So long as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are healthy, the Heat should not only be as close to a playoff lock as statistically possible, but also the odds-on favorites to take home their third straight championship.
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