Dwyane Wade & the Heat hope they are celebrating like this in June.
The 2010-11 NBA season promises to be quite predictable—if you believe the sports book in Vegas, that is.
Miami is listed as the odds on favorite to win the title at +175 and the Lakers aren't far behind at +300.
Other than those two, no other team has better 10-to-1 odds to walk home with the Larry O'Brien trophy.
So can't we just pretty much pencil in Miami and Los Angeles in the Finals and call it a day? Well, odds are (pun intended)...yes, we can.
But things don't always unfold the way we think the should.
Injuries happen (see: Kevin Garnett and Manu Ginobili in 2008, Isiah Thomas in 1988...hell, even Bill Russell in 1958); Midseason trades swing conferences that are up for grabs (like Rasheed Wallace with the Pistons in 2004), or lineups that are great on papers just don't mesh well together (something along the lines of the 2003-04 Lakers with Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Gary Payton, and Karl Malone).
Obviously, any of these factors could apply to this year's campaign—maybe Andrew Bynum just can't stay healthy and Pau Gasol goes down a few weeks before the playoffs and isn't 100 percent in the postseason.
Maybe the Bulls somehow swing a deal for Carmelo Anthony while hanging onto Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer.
Or maybe, in a half-court game, the Heat just can't generate enough offense to consistently score against teams with a significant interior presence, such as Boston, Orlando, or Los Angeles (not to say it will happen...just that it could happen).
So perhaps Miami and L.A. are destined to meet in the Finals, but the margin of error is small enough that if something disastrous happens, it opens the door for a handful of other teams.
Let's take a look at how each team would fare in a perfect world where all their stars properly aligned and how it would turn out if all hell broke loose.
Starting in alphabetical order.
Key Acquisitions: Jordan Crawford, Josh Powell
Key Departures: Joe Smith, Mario West
Best Case Scenario: 49-51 wins, No. 4 seed in East, advance to second round
The Hawks have won 100 games over the last two seasons and that nucleus remains in tact for the this season. They didn't have any substantial losses on the roster and added Jordan Crawford, a prolific scorer who can come in off the bench and take a little pressure off of Joe Johnson.
While one team they trailed in last year's standings (Cleveland) got significantly worse, the Heat, Bulls, and Bucks improved. All of a sudden, the number weak and less talented teams that the Hawks have feasted on recently has been reduced.
But Atlanta should maintain its advantage over teams like Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, Charlotte, Indiana, and Detroit. So take the bottom eight teams in the East (who the Hawks will play about 30-32 times) and give them 25-27 wins. Add another nine or 10 more for the 12-14 games against bottom tier teams in the West.
All of a sudden, they're sitting at 34-37 wins in the bank. They can play a little less than .500 basketball against the top teams of the league and still get to about 50 wins.
If injuries impact an aging team like the Celtics that just want to get healthy for the playoffs, then maybe the Hawks could slide into the four spot.
That said, they're not drawing a team like the Bobcats/Knicks/Nets/Sixers in the first round and they'd have to be pretty lucky to advance against the Bulls or Celtics. And peaking as the No. 4 team in the East isn't what you want when you're paying Johnson through 2015.
Worst Case Scenario: 45-47 wins, No. 6 seed in East, lose in first round
Because of the dramatic improvement of some Eastern teams, the Hawks (who didn't have much room for improvement this offseason other than re-signing Johnson) could feel the effect from last year's Orlando debacle.
If Mike Bibby can't develop any kind of consistently, it will put a lot of pressure on Jamal Crawford, who has made it clear that he either wants a contract extension or a trade. If they don't pony up the dough to Crawford, they don't have a consistent scoring guard to alleviate Johnson's responsibilities and risk falling further back into the pact.
But while the ceiling isn't that high for Atlanta, the basement isn't that low. They're going to be in No. 4 to No. 7 region—more than likely they'll be at No. 5 or No. 6.
The Hawks pretty much are what they are: a middle of the road playoff team that has an outside shot of getting to the second round, but certainly wouldn't advance any further.
Key Acquisitions: Avery Bradley, Jermaine O'Neal, Shaquille O'Neal, Delonte West
Key Departures: Rasheed Wallace, Tony Allen, Brian Scalabrine
Best Case Scenario: 56-58 wins, No. 2 seed in East, win NBA title
We could run down several great things that might unfold for the Celtics in the regular season, but they're all meaningless.
The best thing that could happen to Boston is simply be 100 percent healthy in the playoffs.
In the last three seasons, they haven't lost a playoff series with a healthy Rajon Rondo-Ray Allen-Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett-Kendrick Perkins starting five. Other than being a year older, is there anything that suggests this might change (you know, besides Miami)?
Off the bench, they have a chance for some real sparks. Nate Robinson and Glen Davis showed what kind of impact they could have last year against L.A.
The O'Neal brothers (Shaq and Jermaine) aren't anywhere near what they used to be, but all they have to do in the playoffs is accept their role as a 10-15 minute guys that come in, give Garnett and Perkins a breather, and impact the game on defense.
And Delonte West, even with all of his mental problems, is a strong backup shooting guard. A little less athletic than Tony Allen, but just as tenacious of a defender with a better mid-range game.
Bottom line: the best thing that could happen to Boston is to be healthy from April to June. If they are, they control their own destiny and they shouldn't be doubted until they actually fall.
Worst Case Scenario: 49-51 wins, No. 5 seed in East, advance to second round
This could be broken down on a player-by-player basis but much like how being healthy is most important to Boston's success, age finally catching up with them will be their worst nightmare.
Five of their top eight or nine rotation guys will be over 32 by the time the season starts (though doesn't it seem like Jermaine O'Neal is so much older)? Maybe they shouldn't expect to be completely healthy; when you rely on that many older players, the odds are that one of them will get hurt.
If it does, it opens the door (however slightly) for a team like Atlanta or Milwaukee to sneak in and steal homecourt advantage in the first round. That said, they probably couldn't take down the Celtics in a seven-game series.
They can live with one guy (outside of the big four) going down, but they don't have the depth or athleticism to keep up with Miami, Orlando, or Chicago if Allen, Garnett, or Pierce is injured.
Key Acquisitions: Shaun Livingston, Erick Dampier, Kwame Brown
Key Departures: Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Larry Hughes
Best Case Scenario: 42-44 wins, No. 7 seed in East, lose in first round
The Bobcats are an interesting team in the sense that they're another middle of the road team with far too many overpaid role players and no legitimate star.
They lost Raymond Felton in free agency and had no picks in this year's draft, so it's tough to see them getting much better than the No. 7 seed they were at last year.
Point guard is a real question mark, but D.J. Augustin was more than capable when he first debuted. He averaged 11.8 points and 3.5 assists as a rookie and had 10 games of 20-plus points, plus 34 games with at least two or more three pointers.
He really regressed last year but doesn't face much competition at the spot. He has several weapons around him that play their best with the ball in their hands (Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson being the most notable). So he can play off the ball, knock down some open three's, and penetrate the paint when defenses start rotating towards Jackson and Wallace.
Tyrus Thomas is in a similar role. He played well off the bench last season and is a favorite of coach Larry Brown. Everyone has been waiting for his breakout season and he could get a few more minutes after Tyson Chandler was traded.
They made the playoffs last year and the No. 7 and No. 8 seed is up for grabs. Charlotte has the potential to sneak in but if they don't, their season shouldn't be looked on as a failure.
Developing guys like Augustin, Thomas, and Gerald Henderson will help the Bobcats in the long-term and that should the focal point of this season.
Worst-Case Scenario: 32-34 wins, no playoff appearance
The Bobcats are in the dreaded position of watching most of their competition get better in the offseason while they were forced to stand pat. You can see it in their offseason arrivals—their best move was the acquisition of Erick Dampier's expiring contract.
If the Knicks, Nets, and Sixers are all as improved as many people believe, they could easily leapfrog Charlotte, sending the Bobcats back down to the lower tier of the East. Having a team with a $74 million payroll finish at No. 10 or No. 11 in the conference would be...well, awful.
But not as awful as Michael Jordan deciding to give Kwame Brown a contract extension.
Key Acquisitions: Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer
Key Departures: Kirk Hinrich, Brad Miller, Flip Murray
Best Case Scenario: 54-56 wins, No. 3 seed in East, advance to conference finals
The Bulls are already going to be much improved over last year's team, which is scary because they showed a lot of potential in the postseason.
A top-four seed seems like a relative lock (again, barring injuries). They were the best rebounding team in the league last season and added Carlos Boozer to the front line.
Boozer also gives Derrick Rose another pick-and-roll option to go along with Joakim Noah; with the way Noah can clean up the offensive boards and Boozer can hit the mid-range jumper, it's not a crazy assumption to think that there will be a lot of pick-and-rolls in Chicago's arsenal.
They also added Kyle Korver, who led the league in three-point percentage last season; the Bulls were No. 28 as a team in that department.
They held on to Taj Gibson, a solid rebounder and defender off the bench, and James Johnson, who has the versatility to be a Trevor Ariza/Ron Artest type of defender.
The Celtics will be playing for the postseason, so it's not improbable that the Bulls have enough talent to finish with the No. 3 seed. But let's think a little bigger...
There's rampant speculation that Carmelo Anthony wants out of Denver; it seems more of a question of "when" rather than "if" right now. The Bulls could be players in the deal if 'Melo requests Chicago be one of the teams he wants to be traded to.
In a perfect world, the Bulls find a third party and work out a deal that sends Deng out of town and a slew of draft picks to Denver in exchange for Anthony.
Imagine a Rose-Korver-Anthony-Boozer-Noah starting five...yikes.
It's not very likely to happen. But if it did, the Bulls and Heat would be battling for Eastern Conference supremacy in the foreseeable future.
Worst Case Scenario: 48-50 wins, No. 4 seed in East, advance to second round
If they fell to the No. 4 seed, they'd likely draw Atlanta or Milwaukee in the second round.
Against the Hawks, they have a slight advantage inside (Boozer and Noah vs. Josh Smith and Al Horford), but more importantly, they'd dominate the point guard battle. And as we've seen in the postseason (most notably last year), dominant point guard play will almost always prevail—in the first round, at least.
The Bucks would be equally as intriguing from a player-by-player breakdown: Rose vs. Brandon Jennings (PG), Korver vs. John Salmons (SG), Deng vs. Corey Maggette (SF), Boozer vs. Drew Gooden (PF), and Noah vs. Andrew Bogut (C).
Is it really unthinkable that the Bulls could fall to one of these two? Yeah, probably.
Key Acquisitions: Ramon Sessions, Ryan Hollins, Joey Graham
Key Departures: LeBron James, Delonte West, Shaquille O'Neal
Best Case Scenario: 39-41 wins, No. 8 seed in East, lose in first round
Hmmm...best case scenario, best case scenario, best case scenario....
They make the playoffs! It's absolutely possible. But their margin of error is extremely small. They would have execute the following things perfectly:
Run, Run, Run
Byron Scott wants to push the tempo. He has said this before with Chris Paul and Jason Kidd as his point guards, only New Orleans and New Jersey weren't really known as teams that would force the tempo down your throat.
With this team, he won't have a choice: The Cavs have athletic players in Mo Williams, Ramon Sessions, Jamario Moon, J.J. Hickson, and Anderson Varejao.
The problem is, none of these guys can really create for themselves or others in the half-court. So if they're going to score, they have to get easy buckets in transition.
Play J.J. Hickson as Many Minutes as Possible
In the summer league, Hickson looked fantastic. Admittedly, it's the summer league—don't put too much stock in it. But the areas where he showed improvement were things that he could translate to success next year, like his mid-range jump shot, ability to create off the dribble, and activity underneath the basket.
In an up-tempo system, he could be a nightmare for the opposition to guard. Especially if he's playing along side Varejao, who can cover up his mistakes on defense and clean up missed shots on offense.
Get a Resurgence from Antawn Jamison
In five-and-a-half seasons with the Wizards, Jamison averaged 20.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Those numbers dipped to 15.8 and 7.7 with Cleveland, though he wasn't asked to do nearly as much and rarely had any plays drawn up for him.
He's played over 900 career games and is at the stage of his career where his numbers could drop considerably. But he still has the capacity to put up a 15-8 on 45 percent shooting...at worst.
He's a true professional and if he can accept the role of coming off the bench for a team fighting for a playoff spot at this stage of his career and contribute those kinds of numbers, it gives the Cavs an added dimension.
After the way they lost James, and the way the city has been kicked around by the Sports Gods for the last 46 years, the Cavs deserve a little karma, a little luck to go their way...right?
Worst Case Scenario: 23-25 wins, no playoff appearance
All hell breaks loose.
The Cavs start the season abysmally and almost immediately drop out of playoff contention. They have a fire sale and start slashing roster costs while acquiring as many expiring contracts and draft picks as they can.
They go into a tailspin and reel off three or four losing seasons in a row where they show no signs of competitiveness. The draft picks don't pan out and no viable free agent ever even considers Cleveland, even if the Cavs are offering a ludicrous contract, because of the depressing state of basketball in Ohio and the seemingly never-ending losing atmosphere.
As a result, basketball is effectively destroyed in Cleveland. They fade into mediocrity, go years without winning, and become the most depressing franchise in the NBA, far surpassing anything the Clippers will do once Donald Sterling is no longer the owner.
Yea, it could get bad for the Cavs. They have the personnel in the front office and enough assets to make sure it doesn't but there's always a chance that things go south in a hurry.
Key Acquisitions: Tyson Chandler, Dominique Jones
Key Departures: Erick Dampier
Best Case Scenario: 53-55 wins, No. 2 seed in West, advance to conference finals
In an offseason where several major contenders either overhauled their rosters or made significant changes, the Mavs (for once) were relatively quiet and kept the nucleus of a 55-win team together.
If you break it down by position, the Mavs look set. Roddy Beaubois can do what Jason Kidd can no longer do offensively, but Kidd has dramatically stepped up his three-point shooting in the last few years and provides tough defense.
Caron Butler is a strong isolation scorer, while Jason Terry stretches the defense out to the three-point line.
Shawn Marion is the type of defender that can match up well with several of the elite scorers in the West.
And you know what you're going to get from him.
Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood are strong rebounders, shot-blockers, and protect the rim on defense.
If they want to get aggressive and pursue trade possibilities, they have $27 million of expiring contracts (Chandler, Butler, DeShawn Stevenson). They're only real competition (at this moment) for the division title is San Antonio, but they'll be trying to keep Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan fresh for the playoffs, so winning in the regular season won't be a top priority.
There's a lot to like about the Mavericks, and they definitely have can remain a top-four team in the West. Plus, they do match up well with the Lakers: two different point guards, a three-man defensive rotation (Butler, Marion, DeShawn Stevenson) to throw at Kobe, a 7'0"-footer to guard Gasol, and quality depth (the Mavs can go eight or nine deep easily).
Would the unimaginable be possible?
Worst Case Scenario: 49-51 wins, No. 5 seed in West, lose in first round
Much like Boston and San Antonio, the Mavericks' window to win a title is rapidly closing. Dirk and Kidd are well in their 30s and, other than Beaubois, there is little youth that can spark the team off the bench.
But they're still a playoff team. They still have a leg up on Phoenix and Denver and even though teams like the Thunder, Jazz, and maybe even the Rockets are on the up-and-up, it doesn't seem probable that Dallas could drop below a four or five-seed.
However, they have an $85 million payroll for this year and $56 million committed for 2011-12. If they make a lucrative deal during the season to make one final title push and come up short, all of a sudden they are stuck with some bad contracts and aging players.
It'd be a double-whammy: falling short of a championship once again and crippling themselves financially for the future.
Key Acquisitions: Al Harrington, Shelden Williams
Key Departures: Joey Graham, Johan Petro
Best Case Scenario: 48-50 wins, No. 5 seed in West, lose in first round
The best thing that could happen to the Nuggets is hanging onto Carmelo until the season starts. They get off to a fast start (something like 10-2 or 12-3) and 'Melo starts to ease up on the "trade me now" demands.
Kenyon Martin and Chris Anderson return to full strength and give the team some much needed flexibility, athleticism, and rebounding needed at power forward.
All of a sudden, the Nuggets are riding high, lead the Northwest division heading in to the All-Star break, and Anthony decides to sign the three-year extension and give it one more go in Denver.
This all happens in a perfect world.
Denver showed last year that while they have tremendous talent, they still were far from the team that made the conference finals in 2009. They added Al Harrington, but isn't he just the equivalent of J.R. Smith at power forward?
If they drew the Lakers, Thunder, Mavericks, or Jazz in the first round, even with a Chauncey Billups-Smith-Anthony-Martin/Harrington-Nene nucleus, could they win in a seven-game series? It doesn't seem likely.
Worst Case Scenario: 33-35 wins, no playoff appearance
All that said, it still seems more of a matter of "when" than "if" 'Melo will be shipped out. The Nuggets will demand a lot in return, but if the deadline approaches and an unhappy Anthony is still on board, the pressure will be on to get something in return.
As we saw in Toronto last year, if your star player wants out (or acts accordingly), you can't just let him walk into the offseason.
Denver could also try to package Billups in any potential deal with Anthony to acquire more young players or draft picks. Doing that would drop them to around a 30-win team and keep them out of playoff conversation in the near future.
Key Acquisitions: Greg Monroe, Tracy McGrady, Terrico White
Key Departures: Kwame Brown
Best Case Scenario: 36-38 wins, no playoff appearance
Out of any Eastern Conference team that missed the playoffs last year, the Pistons had the most amount of talent—on paper, at least.
The problem? They couldn't stay healthy.
Rip Hamilton played just 46 games.
Tayshaun Prince missed 33 games.
Ben Gordon missed 20 more, while Ben Wallace and Rodney Stuckey sat out a combined 22 more contests.
At swingman, they should be set: Hamilton, Prince, and Gordon are more than enough to compete with any guard/forward combo in the East and if they get anything from Tracy McGrady, even better.
They don't have much depth in the middle—even with Greg Monroe, there are no pure one-on-one scorers at power forward or center (other than Charlie Villanueva).
Detroit could keep this group in-tact for one more year and make a push at the No. 8 seed, but why? If they can get something substantial in return for Prince's expiring contract or find a suitor for the remaining two years of Hamilton's deal, don't they have to do it?
Worst Case Scenario: 27-29 wins, no playoff appearance
If the Pistons start the season slow, they have to blow up the current core.
However, the problem lies in the contracts of Gordon and Villanueva. No disrespect to those two, but a successful team doesn't pay $18 million for two players that came off the bench in their previous season.
Because they're guaranteed deals through 2013, it's going to be near impossible to convince another team to take on such lucrative contracts, meaning the Pistons will be stuck with these two and little room left to add more pieces (in 2013, they're already committed to $41 million in salary).
With several long-term contracts and seemingly no direction for the franchise, Detroit could be in no man's land for the next few years.
Key Acquisitions: David Lee, Ekpe Udoh, Dorell Wright, Dan Gadzuric, Charlie Bell, Janerro Pargo
Key Departures: Corey Maggette, Anthony Randolph, Anthony Morrow, Kelenna Azubuike, Raja Bell (DNP for GS last season), Anthony Tolliver, C.J. Watson
Best Case Scenario: 36-38 wins, no playoff appearance
Can anyone make any sort of guarantee about the 2010-11 Warriors?
The only one that comes to mind: they should be entertaining to watch.
They're going to play up-tempo and definitely have the personnel to succeed. Curry and Ellis, however defensively-challenged they might be, are two of the most dynamic scorers in the league.
David Lee has played in a similar system in New York for the last few years and thrived.
Ekpe Udoh and Andris Biedrins are virtually one in the same—tall, athletic shot-blockers that will clean up the glass. Udoh is probably a more complete defender and can at least give Golden State some sort of presence in the middle.
The Oracle is a tough place for opponents to play and the Warriors are bound to catch a few teams off guard. If they went 23-18 at home, they'd only have to win one out of every three road games to get to 36-38 wins.
But in the competitive Western Conference, it's still probably not enough to make the playoffs.
Worst Case Scenario: 25-27 wins, no playoff appearance
Golden State could have assembled one of the worst defensive teams in recent memory.
Curry and Ellis are far too undersized to keep up with the elite West guards and David Lee is the king of the matador defense.
It's not like Corey Maggette was the best one-on-one defender in the league—far from it. But at least he provided some sort of physical presence.
Right now, the Warriors have zero enforcers anywhere on the court.
Udoh could fill that role, but in all honesty he seems like a new version of Anthony Randolph—a talented rebounder, shot-blocker, and defender. But Don Nelson kept Randolph in the doghouse until he was eventually traded and has been notorious for not getting along with rookies, so be cautious if you're expecting a monster year with loads of playing time from Udoh.
Speaking of Nelson, his direction and philosophy isn't one the Warriors should consider for the next five to 10 years. This will be his last year at the helm, but it seems odd that the coach and management are most likely on different pages yet are coexisting for one more season.
So until the Warriors lay out their gameplan for the future, the wayward direction they're currently on might not lead to the best results this year.
Key Acquisitions: Patrick Patterson, Brad Miller, Courtney Lee
Key Departures: Trevor Ariza
Best Case Scenario: 50-52 wins, No. 4 seed in West, advance to second round
That's right, the Rockets as the fourth best team in the West.
They have scoring (Aaron Brooks, Kevin Martin), defense (Shane Battier, Jared Jeffries), size (Brad Miller, Yao Ming), young guys that could have breakout seasons (Jordan Hill, Patrick Patterson), and quality role players (Courtney Lee, Luis Scola)—all of which are essential for a playoff run.
But here's how they can get over the top: trading for Carmelo Anthony.
They have an abundance of expiring contracts (Battier, Jeffries, Hayes, Yao), talent (Brooks, Hill, Patterson, Chase Budinger, Jermaine Taylor), and draft picks (New York's 2012 No. 1, and second-rounders from the Clippers and Grizzlies).
Credit this potential deal to the NBA Trade Machine Picasso (Bill Simmons): 'Melo, J.R. Smith, and Billups to Houston for Brooks, Martin, Hill, Battier, Jeffries, New York's 2012 No. 1 pick, and $3 million. Denver winds up saving $21 million.
Which team would say no? Remember, the Rockets were one of three teams that Anthony reportedly would consider signing an extension with if he was traded midseason.
Houston would wind up boasting a starting five of Billups, Lee, Anthony, Scola (have you seen him in the World Championships? He's been amazing), and Yao with Smith, Patterson, Taylor, Budinger, Miller, and Chuck Hayes coming off the bench.
Wouldn't that have to be a top-four team in the West?
Worst Case Scenario: 45-47 wins, No. 8 seed in West, lose in first round
If they don't make any significant moves, the Rockets would still have to be considered playoff contenders because of their depth and versatility.
Darryl Morey has done a terrific job stockpiling Houston with a perfect mix of talent and future draft picks. Even if things don't pan out this year, they will long-term.
Most teams like that can't make that claim.
Key Acquisitions: Darren Collison, Paul George, James Posey, Lance Stephenson
Key Departures: Troy Murphy, Luther Head, Earl Watson
Best Case Scenario: 37-39 wins, No. 8 seed in East, lose in first round
The Pacers looked like they were in disarray last season, but still somehow wound up winning 32 games and finishing at the No. 10 spot in the East.
With the Cavs and Raptors looking at down years, is it that improbable for the Pacers to sneak into that final playoff slot?
Acquiring Darren Collison was a great move. His strengths include setting people up for open shots (great news for Danny Granger, who has had to create most of his offense himself) and taking care of the ball (a 5.7-2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio last season).
The Pacers finished tied at No. 23 last year in team turnovers and were No. 22 in assist-to-turnover ratio, so they could definitely use an upgrade in that department.
Paul George can slide in at small forward and give the Pacers some decent size at the 2 and 3 spot (along with Granger), and Lance Stephenson (insert domestic violence joke here) was one of the more impressive players in the summer league and looks to be one of the steals of the second round (a la Marcus Thornton in 2009).
While they're weak inside, it probably won't be costly enough to keep them from the playoffs if they get the type of production that Roy Hibbert is capable of. Plus, they have expiring contracts of Mike Dunleavy, Jeff Foster, and T.J. Ford (who declined a $5 million buyout last month).
Worst Case Scenario: 30-32 wins, no playoff appearance
Collison could find a change of scenery to not be that pleasant, especially when he doesn't have a nice security blanket like Chris Paul playing in front of him. Plus, several guards typically have a "sophomore slump" and added pressure could set him back just a tad.
Another problem? Granger and George essentially play the same position, though they'll probably try different lineups with both of them on the floor. The Pacers explored the possibility of dealing Granger near the draft, and if a team comes along with a Godfather-type offer, it could be in Indiana's best interest (long-term) to part with their best player.
Finally, their interior players consist of Foster, Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough, Solomon Jones, and Josh McRoberts—not exactly anything to write home about. They'll definitely struggle against better teams with size inside (i.e. Chicago, Boston, Orlando, L.A., San Antonio, Dallas, etc.).
Key Acquisitions: Al-Farouq Aminu, Randy Foye, Ryan Gomes, Eric Bledsoe, Willie Warren
Key Departures: Steve Blake, Drew Gooden, Travis Outlaw
Best Case Scenario: 45-47 wins, No. 8 seed in West, lose in first round
I know what you're thinking—the Clippers in the playoffs?!? Hear me out.
Injuries decimated any chance L.A. had last year—the most devastating one came in October when it was announced No. 1 pick Blake Griffin would miss six weeks with a broken kneecap (he eventually missed the entire season).
Players missed games here and there and they never really recovered.
There's reason for cautious optimism here, however. Griffin will finally be able to get a chance to showcase his talents (and will complement Chris Kaman's game well).
Eric Gordon is a legitimate scoring option on the perimeter—he's highlighting his game on the national stage right now at the World Championships. If he gets a few plays drawn up for him here and there, he's a 20 point per game scorer that can finally break 40 percent from the three-point line.
They also did a nice job finding some decent backup guards (Foye and Bledsoe) and a raw but potentially explosive forward (Aminu) that they can take time to properly develop without having to throw him into the mix on a losing team.
Los Angeles Clippers? Playoffs? Say it with me Clips fans:
Yes we can!
Worst Case Scenario: 33-35 wins, no playoff appearance
It's the Clippers.
There's a whole laundry list of things that could go wrong and keep them stuck in mediocrity among the bottom tier Western Conference teams.
Key Acquisitions: Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Devin Ebanks
Key Departures: Jordan Farmar
Best Case Scenario: 58-60 wins, No. 1 seed in West, win NBA title
The two-time defending champs quietly had an efficient offseason, finding a backup point guard who is much more adept at running a set offense (Blake) and two potential lockdown defenders (Barnes, Ebanks).
The Lakers have shown their merit over the past few years so there's no need to run down the checklist.
Instead, let's just fast forward to June and imagine them hooking up with Miami in the Finals.
Miami has nobody that can handle Pau Gasol. Bosh is far too undersized (plus he's not that skilled on defense) and no Heat fan wants to see Juwan Howard, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, or Joel Anthony give it a try.
And we haven't even talked about what kind of impact a healthy Andrew Bynum could have—another 7'0" presence to fill the paint, collect rebounds, and protect the rim from the relentless attack of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
They can rotate fresh bodies (Ron Artest and Barnes) on James in an attempt to neutralize him, and all of a sudden it comes down to Wade vs. Kobe: Bryant will be playing with just a bit more determination to solidify his place in history next to M.J.
Los Angeles has the pedigree, attitude, and swagger to knock the Heat off.
Not to get all cliche on you, but they're the champs and until someone beats them, they should be looked at as the favorites.
Worst Case Scenario: 54-56 wins, No. 2 seed in West, advance to conference finals
A quietly aging roster (Fisher is 36, Bryant is 32, Artest will be 31 in November, and Gasol is 30) means that if the Lakers are faced with injury problems, they'll more than likely err on the side of caution and make sure everyone is healthy for the players.
If that happens, one team has the moxie, youth, and depth to sneak in and steal the No. 1 seed away from L.A. (read on to find out who). But the regular season is meaningless in the eyes of a veteran team like the Lakers.
While there isn't one standout team in the West that poses as the biggest threat to L.A.'s path to the Finals, there are a few that could pose potential problems (Mavs, Thunder, Spurs, and maybe a Rockets team with Carmelo).
And don't forget, you need a little luck for your title run. In the playoffs last year, the Lakers had three games decided on an offensive rebound putback at the buzzer.
Against OKC in Game 6, Serge Ibaka missed the box out on Gasol, who grabbed a miss from Kobe Bryant and put it in to clinch the series.
Against Utah in Game Three, Kobe Bryant didn't box out Wes Matthews, but the latter's tip-in of a Deron Williams miss just rimmed out, allowing L.A. to take a commanding 3-0 series lead.
And against Phoenix (Game Five, tied at two games apiece), Jason Richardson couldn't keep a body on Artest, who grabbed a Bryant airball and hit a turnaround to win the game.
To some degree, you make your own luck as a team. But if any one of these bounces goes the other way, the Lakers postseason could have unfolded quite differently.
All it would take is one bad break at the most inopportune time to take dethrone the mighty Lakers.
Key Acquisitions: Tony Allen, Xavier Henry (still unsigned)
Key Departures: Ronnie Brewer
Best Case Scenario: 46-48 wins, No. 8 seed in West, lose in first round
Memphis' starting five was one of the most productive in the league last season (84.5 points per game, 82.4 percent of the team's overall scoring).
The problem was they couldn't find any consistent spark off the bench.
When they drafted Xavier Henry, it looked like he would be the heir-apparent to Rudy Gay, but the Grizz swept in and offered Gay an $80 million deal which he accepted.
The signing of Tony Allen also gives Memphis more versatility off the bench.
The Grizzlies started out on a similar pace to OKC last year but faded down the stretch, going 5-11 in their last 16 games. A little more depth should help rectify that problem and hitting the mid-40 mark in wins will make them competitive for that No. 8 playoff spot.
Worst Case Scenario: 41-43 wins, no playoff appearance
It's hard to see this team regressing too much when they have great talent at almost every position. At worst, they'll be a .500 team, so long as nothing dramatic happens in the Zach Randolph soap opera.
Randolph was one of the biggest surprises of the 2009-10 season, breaking out for 20.8 points and 11.7 rebounds (and saving countless amounts of fantasy teams in the process). But this offseason, he was connected in a drug-related arrest as a financier for dealers in Indianapolis.
It doesn't appear as if he'll be suspended but it's another step down a dangerous road. Without him, Memphis has no complement for one of the best kept secrets in the league (Marc Gasol).
It's pretty much the only way Memphis won't find themselves around 40-plus wins.
Key Acquisitions: LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Mike Miller, Eddie House, Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Key Departures: Rafer Alston, Michael Beasley, Daequan Cook, Quentin Richardson, Dorell Wright
Best Case Scenario: 73-75 wins, No. 1 seed in East, win NBA title
Put it this way: this team was built to dominate the regular season.
They have more talent, athleticism, versatility, passing, rebounding, ball-handling, and shooting skills than 90 percent of their competition. If they catch a team playing on the second night of a back-to-back, they'll run them off the floor.
Lower-tier teams won't stand a chance. Mid-level teams won't fare much better.
Seventy-plus wins might be a bit far-fetched, but it's worth discussing. If the Heat come out in "Eff You" mode and look to demoralize anything in their path, they most likely will do it.
Worst Case Scenario: 65-67 wins, No. 1 seed in East, advance to conference finals
Even if everything goes against them, they'll be a lock for 65 wins (barring major injuries).
But they do have two major (potential) weaknesses: point guard play and size inside.
The point guard play can easily be remedied: the Heat can play James at point guard, and finish off the lineup with Wade-Mike Miller-Chris Bosh-Z (or Anthony or Howard). Or they could slide Wade to PG and play Wade-Eddie House-Miller-James (at PF)-Bosh.
But they'll more than likely run into one (if not both) of the league's best young guards: Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose.
Or they just might come across someone with a lot of size and strength in the lane (like Dwight Howard in Orlando or the O'Neal's, Kevin Garnett, and Kendrick Perkins in Boston).
Quite simply, it would be an astronomical upset if the Heat didn't make the Finals. But Boston and Orlando have at least a chance to knock them off—and that's all you can ask for.
Key Acquisitions: Corey Maggette, Larry Sanders, Drew Gooden, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Earl Boykins
Key Departures: Luke Ridnour, Jerry Stackhouse, Kurt Thomas
Best Case Scenario: 48-50 wins, No. 5 seed in East, advance to second round
The best team no one is talking about.
They took Atlanta to seven games without Andrew Bogut, who says he'll be ready for the season opener. Bogut is already one of the top two or three centers in the East (who would have expected that two years ago?).
Expect progression from Brandon Jennings as he enters year two and develops a further understanding of Scott Skiles' offense.
And look at the list of acquisitions compared to departures—they added valuable pieces without giving up anything substantial.
Remember the position-by-position comparison with Chicago if they met in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 or No. 3 vs. No. 6 slot? It's fairly even, but the Bucks do have an advantage in terms of depth. They can bring in Larry Sanders, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Ersan Ilyasova, and Carlos Delfino at any point and really push the Bulls to the limit.
Oh, and they could add Michael Redd at the All-Star break or use his expiring contract to acquire another piece to the puzzle. Get ready to fear the deer.
Worst Case Scenario: 45-47 wins, No. 6 seed in East, lose in first round
In the East, there are the major contenders (Miami, Boston, Chicago, Orlando), the potential spoilers (Milwaukee, Atlanta), and the other nine teams. That's all the classification you need to know.
More than likely, Milwaukee and Atlanta will be fighting for the No. 5 spot and the chance to have a winnable first-round series. Much like how Atlanta's ceiling and basement weren't far apart, Milwaukee's is comparable.
But unlike Atlanta, they have room for improvement in the next couple of years.
Key Acquisitions: Wes Johnson, Michael Beasley, Martell Webster, Luke Ridnour, Kosta Koufos, Sebastian Telfair
Key Departures: Al Jefferson, Ramon Sessions, Ryan Gomes, Ryan Hollins
Best Case Scenario: 28-30 wins, no playoff appearance
(Searching for something...)
(...come on, say something...)
How about this: If the Wolves play hard every night, give the opposition a competitive, hard-fought game, get Kevin Love as many minutes as possible, and find a way to develop Wes Johnson and Michael Beasley, then the season should be considered a (relative) success.
Sorry Wolves fans. It's the best I could come up with.
Worst Case Scenario: 16-18 wins, no playoff appearance
Minnesota fans start to question why they didn't draft DeMarcus Cousins over Wes Johnson when they were planning on trading Al Jefferson and signing Martell Webster, grow increasingly bitter over the "Jonny Flynn ahead of Steph Curry" move, figure out that Darko Milicic and Nikola Pekovic probably aren't the answer in the middle, and are left waking up in the middle of the night screaming, "KAAAAAAAHHHHHHNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!!!!"
Key Acquisitions: Troy Murphy, Derrick Favors, Travis Outlaw, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, Damion James
Key Departures: Chris Douglas-Roberts, Courtney Lee
Best Case Scenario: 37-39 wins, No. 8 seed in East, lose in first round
Last year, the Nets were the greatest 12-win team in NBA history. This year, they've stockpiled and now should be considered a possible playoff contender.
New Jersey was No. 29 in the league in team three-point percentage (31.8 percent) last season, but added Troy Murphy (career 39.4 percent three-point shooter), Travis Outlaw (career 36.3 percent three-point shooter), and Anthony Morrow (career 46.0 percent three-point shooter) to remedy that ailment.
They got little production from the power forward spot, but Murphy is a double-digit rebounder and Derrick Favors is being groomed to take over the spot in a year or two.
And new coach Avery Johnson brought out the best in point guard Devin Harris when the two were together in Dallas in 2006. He'll have the Nets playing intense team defense and executing soundly on both ends of the floor, something they didn't exactly do last year.
Many people have lofty expectations for New Jersey this year and while they have the ceiling to make the playoffs, they probably won't. They're still just a year or two away.
Worst Case Scenario: 28-30 wins, no playoff appearance
Winning 28-30 games shouldn't be considered a worst case scenario—anytime a team increases its win total by about 150 percent it should be welcomed by the faithful.
The Nets didn't make a big splash in free agency this year and that's OK—they had plenty of cap space and even signing a big name probably wasn't going to make them immediate title contenders.
But they weren't exactly frivolous with their spending. Anthony Morrow got $12 million for three years.
Jordan Farmar received the same deal, just with different annual income.
Travis Outlaw got $28 million spread across four years.
And Johan Petro was inked to a three-year, $10 million deal.
Currently, the Nets are below the cap but not by much. The worst thing that can happen to them is that these signings don't pay off and they're straddled with some bad contracts while trying to lure in free agents next summer.
Key Acquisitions: Trevor Ariza, Craig Brackins, Quincy Pondexter, Marco Belinelli
Key Departures: Darren Collison, James Posey, Julian Wright
Best Case Scenario: 45-47 wins, no playoff appearance
The acquisition of Trevor Ariza gives New Orleans a probable starting five that looks like this: Chris Paul-Marcus Thornton-Ariza-David West-Emeka Okafor.
Certainly nothing to sneeze at, especially with some sharpshooters (Belinelli, Peja Stojakovic) coming off the bench.
A team with Chris Paul should never be counted out of any playoff race, even in the highly competitive West. His presence alone gives New Orleans a chance to make the postseason.
Worst Case Scenario: 25-27 wins, no playoff appearance
Here's what was so perplexing about the Ariza for Darren Collison swap:
The Hornets are looking to remain competitive in the future to further enhance their chances of keeping Paul, but while they got rid of James Posey's contract, the committed to Ariza through 2014 and gave up a potential goldmine in Collison.
It's quite a gamble.
Let's say the Hornets start slow, fall out of the playoff race relatively early, and the grumblings behind the scene from Paul grow louder. If he forces his way out, then New Orleans is left empty-handed with nothing at point guard. Plus, it's more than likely that David West finds a new home when he hits the free agent market next summer as well.
So they'd be stuck with no Paul, no Collison, no West, and all they'd get in return is the 70 cents on the dollar they move Paul for.
Now that's a disaster.
Key Acquisitions: Amar'e Stoudemire, Raymond Felton, Anthony Randolph, Kelenna Azubuike, Roger Mason
Key Departures: David Lee, Al Harrington, Eddie House, Tracy McGrady
Best Case Scenario: 42-44 wins, No. 7 seed in East, lose in first round
As stated earlier, there are three groups of teams in the East: the contenders (Miami, Boston, Orlando, Chicago), the potential spoilers (Milwaukee, Atlanta), and the rest.
Someone has to emerge as the best of the rest, so why not New York?
Raymond Felton hasn't excelled in the NBA yet, but he was at his best in college at North Carolina when he could push the tempo and control his team in the open court. He played mostly halfcourt sets in Charlotte, so this will be his first time with free reign on the offense.
Amar'e Stoudemire put up his most impressive numbers while playing for Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix (of course, he also had Steve Nash running the show).
And in the David Lee trade, they managed to bring in two sneaky, under-the-radar players in Anthony Randolph (possibly a superb fit for the Knicks if he can get consistent playing time) and Kelenna Azubuike, a dynamic scorer who thrived in a similar tempo at Golden State before suffering a season-ending injury early last season.
Add in Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler and the Knicks actually have a team worth watching—which means they're moving in the right direction.
Worst Case Scenario: 35-37 wins, no playoff appearance
Steve Nash has been known to inflate the numbers of those around him and Stoudemire could be a perfect example of that. He's not a pure one-on-one scorer—he's someone that will get his points off of offensive rebounds, open dunks and layups, and pick-and-pop jumpers.
And in the end, this team still isn't exactly what you'd call "defensively sound." They can outscore teams, but not everyone. They'll need to put forth some sort of defensive effort; otherwise, they'll once again be back in the lottery.
Key Acquisitions: Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, Morris Peterson
Key Departures: No significant departures
Best Case Scenario: 57-59 wins, No. 1 seed in West, advance to conference finals
That's right, the Oklahoma City Thunder as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
Stranger things have happened.
They're the only team that didn't lose anything major in the offseason.
They also added Cole Aldrich, a perfect role player for this team—someone who rebounds, defends, and converts missed shots into second-chance points.
Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, and James Harden are all a year older and more mature. Oh, and have I mentioned this guy Kevin Durant yet? He's supposed to be pretty good.
They won 50 games last season and will only keep improving. They have the type of chemistry that looks like it comes out of a movie. They're young, energetic, and have enough depth to run through the regular season.
I'm not guaranteeing this will happen, nor am I predicting it. But if the Lakers have a few injuries and the No. 1 seed is up for grabs, why can't the Thunder take it?
Worst Case Scenario: 50-52 wins, No. 4 seed in West, advance to second round
Even as the No. 1 seed, the furthest the Thunder can go is the Western Conference finals. And while it seems likely that they'll get their first playoff series win this year, they do have one gaping hole that could cost them:
The lack of a pure three-point shooter.
Obviously Durant is more than capable of filling that role. But he's such a versatile scorer that it's a waste sticking him at the three-point line. He's so much more effective when he's running off of screens, attacking off the dribble, pulling up baseline, backing defenders down from the top of the key, etc.
Westbrook isn't a true shooter and Jeff Green is too streaky to be relied upon in clutch situations. Daequan Cook and Mo Peterson are viable options, but they won't be playing in the final minutes of a close playoff game.
That leaves one man: James Harden.
Harden showed great strides in the summer league, but is he ready to fill that role? Can he consistently spread the floor and keep defenses honest?
If not, the Thunder won't have enough to knock off the Lakers. But they're close. Really, really close.
Key Acquisitions: Chris Duhon, Daniel Orton, Stanley Robinson, Quentin Richardson
Key Departures: Matt Barnes
Best Case Scenario: 60-62 wins, No. 2 seed in East, advance to NBA Finals
Remember when the Magic rolled through the first two rounds of the playoffs last year and everyone (OK, it was probably just me) thought they were the team to beat? Doesn't that seem like it was years ago?
Then they lost to Boston, the Heat made their "super team," the Bulls added Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver, and the Magic were lost in the shuffle.
They don't present the unconventional matchup problems that the '09 team that made the Finals did, but they do have the talent to make another deep run—they just need improved effort and play from almost everyone on the roster.
It starts with Dwight Howard. He needs to become more than a defensive presence—he must develop at least one go-to move that he can consistently score with, even against physical frontcourts like Boston. Doing so will force more double-teams and spread the floor for the rest of the team.
Rashard Lewis needs to, you know, actually show up for the playoffs (did you know he's the second highest paid player in the NBA this season?). Same goes with Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson.
Matt Barnes leaving opens the door for Mickael Pietrus to get more playing time. Pietrus is the same guy who frustrated LeBron in the '09 Eastern Conference finals and he's a streaky but effective three-point shooter.
But in the end, it all comes back to Howard, especially if the Magic wind up facing the Heat. The Heat have nobody that can come remotely close to guarding him.
If they have to double-team Howard, it really opens the door for shooters like J.J. Redick, Pietrus, Lewis, and Nelson. A halfcourt game with him dominating at both ends spells a lot of trouble for Miami.
Worst Case Scenario: 55-57 wins, No. 3 seed in East, advance to second round
The Magic are built to roll through the regular season—they're just more talented than a majority of the league. They almost assuredly won't be upset in the first round either.
But if Howard is getting into foul trouble and allowing himself to be guarded with one defender, then the Magic can't create enough in the halfcourt to beat Boston or Miami.
And since the odds are that they'll face one of these two in the second round, they'd be looking at a quick playoff exit.
Key Acquisitions: Evan Turner, Andres Nocioni, Spencer Hawes
Key Departures: Samuel Dalembert
Best Case Scenario: 37-39 wins, No. 8 seed in East
The door is open for the final two playoff spots in the East—can Philly be a team that ups their win total and sneaks in?
Signs point to...maybe. The Sixers will want to push the tempo and get their backcourt of Jrue Holiday-Evan Turner-Andre Iguodala as many easy looks in transition as possible.
In a halfcourt set, they don't have many shooters (outside of Jason Kapono) so they might find it difficult to consistently create offense. All three have solid mid-range games but they'll need one three-point threat to spread the floor and keep opposing defenses honest.
But few teams will have the athletic ability to keep up with the Sixers when they're pushing the ball up the court. If they get consistent play from Thaddeus Young and Elton Brand (a big if), it'll help create even more scoring opportunities in the secondary break.
Odds are that the top six teams in the East steal a lot of wins, so it's likely that a .500 or even sub-.500 team sneaks in as the No. 8 seed. Don't count out Philly just yet.
Worst Case Scenario: 31-33 wins, no playoff appearance
This one's pretty self-explanatory: the Sixers can't create anything in the halfcourt, continue to get up-and-down performances from Brand and Young, and remain stuck in mediocrity, as they have been for several years.
Key Acquisitions: Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick, Josh Childress
Key Departures: Amar'e Stoudemire, Leandro Barbosa
Best Case Scenario: 50-52 wins, No. 4 seed in West, advance to second round
If there's one thing that we've learned over the past two or three seasons, it's that you can't discount, discredit, or not believe in Steve Nash. As long as he can walk out on the floor, you have to take his team seriously.
Everyone will point at the loss of Amar'e Stoudemire as the primary reason the Suns will taper off this year. But the arrival of Hedo Turkoglu could adequately fill that gap. Let's break it down:
Both are poor one-on-one and help defenders. But it's not like Stoudemire was ever interested in banging bodies with the power forwards of the West, so this isn't a significant downgrade.
Amar'e was a decent pick-and-pop player, but only if teams left him open daring him to shoot. Turkoglu, on the other hand, will look to move outside to get his jump shot and can knock them down with a lot more consistency.
With Turkoglu, the Suns will more than likely have four guys on the floor that can hit the three.
Both are weak rebounders for their size. Even though Stoudemire was better at cleaning up the glass, he never regularly dominated inside.
At the same time, expect Robin Lopez to get more playing time since Turkoglu can stretch the floor so well, and Hakim Warrick can be a rebound/energy spark off the bench.
Not Amar'e's finest skill, while Turkoglu excels in that department. If Nash is ever in trouble, the Suns can always run a pick-and-roll with Turkoglu as the primary ball-handler.
This all depends on which Hedo shows up in Phoenix: the matchup nightmare he created in Orlando or the disinterested, out of shape one that played in Toronto. But on this team, you have to think Turkoglu will start to revert to his old form.
If he does, Phoenix is still a player in the West.
Worst Case Scenario: 43-45 wins, No. 8 seed in West, lose in first round
It seems like for the last three or four years, we question how much longer Steve Nash can be an elite, productive point guard. And every year, he still has it.
But one of these years, he's going to slip. Goran Dragic has shown promise but he's not ready to be thrust into Nash's role.
Once Nash begins to falter, Phoenix will take a step back. Suns fans can only hope it's not this year.
Key Acquisitions: Wesley Matthews, Luke Babbitt, Elliot Williams, Armon Johnson
Key Departures: Martell Webster, Juwan Howard, Rudy Fernandez (probable)
Best Case Scenario: 50-52 wins, No. 4 seed in West, advance to second round
So last year, the Blazers lost both of their starting centers, watched their coach suffer an injury, and saw their best player go down right before the playoffs, leaving them at about 70 percent.
Oh, and they still won 50 games and pushed the Suns to six games in the first round.
It's difficult to find realistic expectations for the Blazers because they seemingly haven't been healthy in years...at least since the Brandon Roy-Greg Oden-LaMarcus Aldridge trio was put together.
They lost Martell Webster and will probably lose Rudy Fernandez, but they can fill that void with athletic swingman Wes Matthews (even if they vastly overpaid for him). They added some nice pieces in the draft—Luke Babbitt is a strong scorer and Elliot Williams is a solid defender who should fit in well with Nate McMillan's style of play.
Other than the Lakers, the No. 2 through 7 seeds in the West should be highly competitive once again.
If healthy, there's nothing to suggest that the Blazers can't slide into the top four.
Worst Case Scenario: 47-49 wins, No. 7 seed in West, lose in first round
It's about the same as it has been the last few years: they start off well, suffer a few season-ending injuries, rally and have a successful regular season but ultimately fall because they're so short-handed.
Key Acquisitions: DeMarcus Cousins, Samuel Dalembert, Hassan Whiteside
Key Departures: Spencer Hawes, Andres Nocioni
Best Case Scenario: 39-41 wins, no playoff appearance
The Kings have followed the Thunder's small-market mold almost to a tee.
They found a potential superstar in last year's draft (Tyreke Evans) and quite possibly landed something similar this year (DeMarcus Cousins). Cousins is far from mature but many scouts touted him as having the most overall talent of any player in this draft class.
Now they have a solid nucleus to build around, quality role players like Omri Casspi and Donte Greene, and plenty of cap space for the future.
All that said, they probably don't have enough to make a playoff push this year—there are just too many talented teams out West. But many of those teams are aging, and once they hit the wall, the Kings will be primed to make the leap.
Worst Case Scenario: 33-35 wins, no playoff appearance
The Kings have enough talent and are on the up-and-up, so they won't regress any from last year's 25-win team. Even if they only win six or seven more games (and they should get more), they'll be at 31-32 victories and will continue heading in the right direction.
But long-term, they need to look out for Cousins. Make sure he doesn't develop any negative habits during games.
Keep his head on straight and don't let him hang with the wrong crowd.
Have veterans like Carl Landry take him under their wing and teach him how to represent himself on and off the court.
Basically, Sacramento needs to find a glorified babysitter for him. Because if he starts to pick up bad habits, it could hinder his development, prevent him from fulfilling his talents, and set back the Kings' future.
Key Acquisitions: Tiago Splitter, James Anderson, Curtis Jerrells
Key Departures: Roger Mason
Best Case Scenario: 53-55 wins, No. 3 seed in West, win NBA title
No, you're not seeing things—the San Antonio Spurs are one of the two Western Conference teams with the best chance to win the championship.
Last year seemed like the Spurs' last hoorah, but they added enough pieces in the offseason to make one more push.
The addition of Tiago Splitter, along with Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair, will allow Gregg Popovich to monitor Tim Duncan's minutes around 28-32 per game in the regular season; this will keep him fresh come playoff time, where he can still give 35-38 productive minutes a night (especially with no back-to-backs).
George Hill's emergence as a point guard allows more rest for Tony Parker and James Anderson adds another three-point threat who can score in bunches.
But the regular season is virtually meaningless; it's basically a playoff tune-up for San Antonio.
They play defense, have a go-to scorer (Manu Ginobili), three-point shooters (Ginobili, Hill, Anderson), some low-post presence (Duncan, Splitter, McDyess), and a point guard that constantly puts pressure on the defense (Parker).
And finally, they're probably the biggest threat to the Lakers. Parker can get anywhere he wants against Derek Fisher, Ginobili's crafty scoring always gives L.A. trouble, and they have bodies inside to neutralize Gasol and Bynum.
Their window is rapidly closing, but it's still ajar.
Worst Case Scenario: 48-50 wins, No. 6 seed in West, lose in first round
While they have the potential to advance to the Western Conference finals, and even the NBA Finals, the Spurs could also see their playoff lives end before they even get started.
San Antonio is a methodical team that will dictate pace and tempo. If they draw a young, athletic team that gets up and down the floor quickly, it'll be difficult for them to keep up.
Key Acquisitions: Leandro Barbosa, Ed Davis, Julian Wright, Linas Kleiza, Solomon Alabi
Key Departures: Chris Bosh, Hedo Turkoglu, Marco Belinelli
Best Case Scenario: 30-32 wins, no playoff appearance
The Raptors might find life after Chris Bosh tough to handle at first.
They still have a decent amount of talent left, but it's more of a collection of scorers and athletes than it is an actual team.
Still, they can create matchup problems with a handful of teams. They have two quality point guards (Jose Calderon and Jarrett Jack), streaky guards that can get hot from the three-point line (Barbosa, DeMar DeRozan, Sonny Weems), and bigs that can stretch the floor (Kleiza, Andrea Bargnani).
While they might not be one of the most impressive defensive teams, they have enough firepower to outscore teams and maybe eke out a 30-plus win season.
Worst Case Scenario: 23-25 wins, no playoff appearance
It's nice to have two solid point guards, but not two that are overpaid. So the Jack/Calderon battle needs to be resolved.
The easiest way to do so is by trading one, but that won't be so easy. Calderon is owed $29.2 million for the next three seasons and Jack is making $15.6 million until 2013.
The elite teams don't need a point guard and the middle of the road/bottom-tier teams won't want to make that type of commitment. So the Raptors might just be stuck in this spot.
Because they'll be relying on a brand new lineup and some young players could be thrust into big roles, it may be a long season for Toronto fans. But don't feel alone—Cleveland fans share your misery as well.
Key Acquisitions: Al Jefferson, Gordon Hayward, Raja Bell
Key Departures: Carlos Boozer, Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver
Best Case Scenario: 53-55 wins, No. 3 seed in West, advance to conference finals
One of the most well-coached and disciplined teams in the league, the Jazz are poised to make yet another playoff run.
They didn't really lose anything in the Al Jefferson-Carlos Boozer swap, and Gordon Hayward is a cheaper replacement for Korver (plus he has the upside to be a more complete player).
Oh, and they might just have the best point guard in the league—everyone was quick to give that title to Deron Williams after he owned Chauncey Billups in the first round last season, but kind of forgot about him after Rajon Rondo's breakout performances against Cleveland and Orlando.
If he's ready to take over that throne again, Utah has a system in place that's worked for years—surround the stars (Williams, Jefferson) with quality players (Hayward, Bell, Mehmet Okur, Paul Millsap) that know their roles.
With the Mavs and Spurs getting a year older and Denver and Phoenix potentially taking a step backwards, it's not incomprehensible to see the Jazz in the Western Conference finals...as long as they don't run into the Lakers, that is.
Worst Case Scenario: 49-51 wins, No. 5 seed in West, advance to second round
The Jazz have finished at .500 or better in 10 of the past 11 seasons and there's nothing to suggest that trend won't continue.
Even if they don't lock up homecourt advantage for the first round, it'd take a team like Houston to acquire another big name (like Anthony or Granger) and the Spurs, Mavs, and Thunder all improving to keep Utah from being one of the West's final four.
Key Acquisitions: John Wall, Kirk Hinrich, Yi Jianlian, Trevor Booker
Key Departures: Randy Foye, Mike Miller
Best Case Scenario: 34-36 wins, no playoff appearance
In an ideal world:
John Wall becomes a stud this year. He steps in and blows people away with his quickness, baseline-to-baseline speed, court vision, and ball-handling.
He follows the Derrick Rose/Tyreke Evans mold and quickly becomes one of the best young point guards in the league. He also brings along JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche as well, getting them countless amounts of easy buckets and lay ups.
As for the whole team, it depends on whether or not you want to argue that success for the Wizards this year could be detrimental to them long-term.
A Gilbert Arenas-Wall backcourt is destined to be broken up. It should happen sooner rather than later.
Remember when the Blazers drafted Greg Oden at No. 1 and immediately shipped off Zach Randolph? Part of this deal had to be something along the lines of, "we don't want Randolph anywhere near this kid."
The same situation could arise here. The Wiz are best fit to get what they can in exchange for Arenas simply so Wall can play on a team where he knows he's the man. Ultimately, as funny as this sounds, Washington's best bet is to build around Wall and Blatche instead of Wall and Arenas.
But if the Wiz start out the season well, it's unlikely they'll look to shake things up.
In the end, they probably aren't going to make the playoffs.
They went into full rebuilding mode last year and it will take some time to be consistently competitive again. But a season where Wall, Blatche, and McGee all further enhance their skills and they turn Gilbert Arenas into something that can complement that current nucleus should be considered a success.
Worst Case Scenario: 26-28 wins, no playoff appearance
Things look bright for Washington's future. Even if they struggle this year, they'll have a high draft pick for 2011 and don't have much financial commitment for next year.
There are a few ways this could blow up, however. The first is that Arenas and Wall do not coexist at all, leading to both guys wanting to take over the team and rising tension in the locker room.
The second is that Wall suffers a Stephen Strasburg-esque injury. This type of thing seems to be common in the D.C. area.
Finally (and this is the scariest): Wall and Arenas actually do get along, leading to multiple nights out on the town and several card games hosted by Gilbert. That's pretty much exactly what you don't want to see happen.