With the 2009-10 NBA season getting started tomorrow night, and tons of new faces in new places, it's time to predict which teams will finish where at regular season's end.
As always, the Western Conference is expected to be ultra-competitive, with up to 11 teams having somewhat legitimate aspirations of appearing in the postseason.
Let's run down who I think will finish in the top eight.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
While I don't think the Lakers did all that much to improve over the summer, they probably didn't really need to.
Ron Artest has the potential to be an upgrade over Trevor Ariza, but there's just as much potential for him to "go all Artest on them" and perhaps hinder the team's chemistry.
I think the Lakers' best offseason move was the decision to re-sign guard Shannon Brown.
Brown, a throw-in in the Vladimir Radmanovic trade last season, provided the Lakers with a great spark off the bench, especially throughout the playoffs.
I wouldn't be surprised if Brown shows enough this season to supplant Jordan Farmar as L.A.'s point guard of the future.
Barring any major injuries, the Lakers will pick up right where they left off last season.
2. San Antonio Spurs
Apparently the first-round loss at the hands of the Mavericks was enough to get GM RC Buford to do some wheeling-and-dealing this summer.
The Spurs, believe it or not, could be the NBA's most improved team this season after picking up Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, Theo Ratliff and DeJuan Blair during the offseason.
But the biggest change from last season to this one could be the return of Manu Ginobili.
Ginobili missed a huge chunk of last season with an ankle injury. It was clear how much San Antonio missed his perimeter-scoring presence.
Assuming they'll be able to stay relatively healthy, the Spurs are a team certainly capable of getting back into championship contention.
3. Denver Nuggets
I, for one, don't believe last year's Nuggets were a one-year-wonder.
While they certainly have a few volatile personalities, I think the taste of success last season along with solid veteran leaders should keep Denver focused on the ultimate goal.
The acquisition of Chauncey Billups last season was the best move any team made all year. His presence is one of the major reasons the Nuggets won't go away.
Carmelo Anthony is a bona fide superstar. His combination of size and strength makes him a near-impossible matchup for most small forwards.
The attitude and play of JR Smith, once again, will be a key to Denver's success.
If he can keep it together and harness all of his talent effectively, he's one of the most dangerous players in the league
He's a dead-eye shooter with the ability to take it to the rim, seemingly at will.
Last year's Nuggets proved that they were capable of big things and I expect them to continue that in 2009-10.
4. Dallas Mavericks
Much like their in-state rival, the Spurs, the Mavs were extremely active this summer.
While they didn't land prized center Marcin Gortat, Dallas was still able to re-sign Jason Kidd while picking up Shawn Marion and Drew Gooden, among others.
Dallas opened up some eyes in the playoffs last year when they defeated San Antonio. Mark Cuban clearly still wants to win a championship with Dirk Nowitzki as the team's centerpiece.
The 31-year-old Nowitzki had a stellar under-the-radar season last year, averaging 26 points and about eight rebounds per game for the Mavs.
Marion looked phenomenal in his preseason appearances with the Mavericks and their up-tempo style of play may be just what the doctor ordered for the Matrix to revive his career.
The addition of Gooden gives Dallas its first real post-scoring threat to pair with Dirk. He's another player that looked solid during the preseason.
Expectations are high once again for the Mavericks and I think they'll be right in the thick of things in the West.
5. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers have been hearing about how they're "the next big thing" for a while now and this will be an important year for them.
After their first taste of the playoffs last season (where they were defeated by Houston), how will Brandon Roy and company respond?
Much of Portland's success hinges on center Greg Oden.
Oden had a largely underwhelming "rookie" season last year, but has shown strong signs of promise so far in the preseason.
In seven preseason games, Oden averaged about 14 points, nine rebounds and almost two blocks in just 22 minutes per game.
If he can start looking like the force Portland expected him to be out of college, the Blazers will have one of the best young frontcourts in the league with Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Portland's signing of point guard Andre Miller over the summer raised a few questions and continues to do so.
Miller, 33, who signed a three-year, $21 million contract with Portland, has already complained about the notion of coming off the bench.
All potential issues aside, Portland clearly has plenty of firepower to make more noise in the Western Conference this season.
Brandon Roy is an MVP-type player and, if the Blazers can keep everything together, he's certainly capable of leading them exactly where they want to go.
6. Utah Jazz
The Jazz begin play with one of the more awkward storylines of the season: the Carlos Boozer fiasco.
If they keep him on board this year, they have plenty of talent to be a sleeper in the West.
If they trade him, depending on what they get for him of course, their formidability could take a hit.
Deron Williams is healthy and should help Utah avoid a slow start like the one they had last season.
Williams, who I believe to be the league's second-best point guard, has yet to make an All-Star team. I think that will change this year.
The Jazz should be able to run with the middle of the pack in the West.
7. New Orleans Hornets
New Orleans made one of the more surprising moves of the summer by adding the salary of center Emeka Okafor.
To get Okafor, the Hornets had to trade Tyson Chandler to Charlotte.
While the fan-favorite alley-oop play may have to be tossed out, Chris Paul and the Hornets should benefit from having Okafor on the block opposite David West.
Okafor has proven to be much more durable in recent years than Chandler and has much more of an offensive repertoire.
Paul put up staggering numbers last season, averaging 23 points, 11 assists and almost three steals per game.
Just 24 years old, Paul should continue to thrive and put up spectacular numbers.
While their record took a hit last season compared to 2007, I think the Hornets will benefit greatly from Okafor's presence down low and may actually finish higher than this.
8. Houston Rockets
Sorry, Suns fans.
I think the injury-depleted Rockets really will have what it takes to sneak into the playoffs.
While it's difficult to predict what their identity will be, this team has shown too much heart to just roll over and die when adversity is staring them in the face.
Without Yao at the end of the second-round series against the Lakers last season, the Rockets were still able to take two of the final four games. They were the only team to take the eventual champions to seven games.
Point guard Aaron Brooks now has full control of the team and is their most potent scoring threat.
While Trevor Ariza won't be the scorer that Ron Artest was, he definitely will fit in better with what Houston is trying to do.
Ariza's a tenacious defender. He's big and athletic enough to defend both guards and forwards.
Luis Scola will be the Rockets' primary low-post threat. He's shown in his two NBA seasons that he's capable of picking up some of the slack.
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