1. Los Angeles Lakers - There is no doubt in my mind that they're the best team in the West, and not just that, but the best team in the NBA. They should have the best frontcourt in the West with Gasol and Bynum, and they'll have the best bench in the NBA. Odom off the bench gives them a hell of an option there, and I think Farmar is due to have a huge season. Look for him to be in the running for 6th Man and MIP come seasons end.
Did I mention they also have the best coach in the NBA, as well as the reigning MVP? This team is loaded in every sense of the word. They were good last year when Bynum was out, and with him back, they'll be even better. From top to bottom, they are quite easily the best team in the NBA.
2. New Orleans Hornets - I don't think they're a fluke. They have talent every which way. Paul and West are a great 1-2 punch, and a healthy Peja is as good as a 3rd option as you can get. They have one of the top centers in the NBA, and James Posey should give them a great boost off the bench. I also think Julian Wright could be due for a pretty big year as well. I don't see this team taking a step back at all this year. With Chris Paul in the drivers seat, they should be the 2nd best team in the West next season.
3. Utah Jazz - A team a lot of people sleep on. Williams and Boozer make a great tandem on the P&R and are a great 1-2 punch. They also have great depth and great talent around their two stars. Look for Ronnie Brewer to continue his emergence as well. The kid is a solid jump shot away from being an All Star.
They aren't without their issues though. Williams will be MIA for the first couple weeks of the regular season with a sprained ankle, which could really hurt them in the W/L column, and the Boozer contract issue. He's a FA after the season, so you know he's going to try and have a huge year, but that could easily become a distraction, and that's something they don't need. If they can get past the first couple weeks in solid shape and overlook the Boozer issue, this team could make a run for the Finals this year.
4. San Antonio Spurs - I will not be one to count them out. Ever. I don't care if Ginobli is hurt til January or so. They still have Tim Duncan. They still have Tony Parker. Aside from them, they have a very solid cast built around them. Gregg Popovich is going to have a rough couple months ahead of him, but if anyone can coach them through this, it's him. Oh, and they're still outstanding on defense, and that alone will help them win ball games.
5. Houston Rockets - I love the talent they have. Yao, McGrady and Artest is as good of a trio as you might find in the league. I also love what they could do on defense. Now that I have what I love about them addressed, lets talk negatives. Artest, McGrady and Yao have not played full seasons in a long time. They've all had their share of injuries, and if any of them get hurt for extended period of time, the Rockets could be in trouble.
That being said, I think it's inevitable that one of them will get hurt and miss 20 or so games. However, they're still too good to finish any lower than 5th. Well, unless they lose a couple of their key guys for an extended period of time...but we'll talk about that if that time comes. As it stands, they're looking to be a very good team, as long as they stay healthy.
6. Portland Trailblazers - I don't care how young they are. They're very good and very talented. They're also very well coached. They have an All Star in Brandon Roy and have a rookie phenom in Greg Oden. I also should mention how much I love the frontcourt. They have a fantastic high and low post combination in Aldridge and Oden, and they're both also solid rebounders and defenders. This team has talent in every which way and are deep beyond any stretch of the imagination.
I love what this team has built, and I think the only thing holding them back could be chemistry issues - trying to find minutes for all the talent they have. That being said, the have a great coach in Nate McMillan who will figure out the rotation, and if need be, they can trade away some of that talent to prevent those potential issues.
7. Dallas Mavericks - The window is now starting slam shut on the Mavs. They still have a solid team, but too many teams in the West have caught or surpassed them. Dirk, while he is good, isn't a franchise player, at least not anymore. The one thing that should keep this team in the playoffs is a change in coaching philosophy. Rick Carlisle is going to open things up in a big way. He's going to give the shooters more freedom and give Kidd more freedom, something that Johnson was notorious for NOT doing last year. While they still have the ability to finish in the top 4 of the West, I don't know if they're going to.
8. Phoenix Suns - A change in coaching philosophy will be good and bad for this team. Good in the aspect that they'll actually attempt to play some defense, bad in that it exposes the many weaknesses of this team. Amare and Nash will both be heavily exposed, and Shaq will probably continue to show his age. The only thing keeping them in the playoffs for me is how talented they are. I like the roster they have, especially if they're still allowed to get out and run, but the window is closing. If Porter tries to slow things down too much though, disaster could ensue and the Suns could miss the playoffs for the first time in the Steve Nash era.
9. Denver Nuggets - A bad defensive team just got worst. While many call Camby overrated on defense, his length and shot blocking made up for the mistakes of everyone else. While they should still finish above .500 with all the offensive talent this team has, I think their defense alone will prevent them from making the playoffs. If that's the case, look for Karl and AI to be on their way out.
10. Sacramento Kings - I love the talent (seems to be a recurring theme), but I still think they're a year away. Kevin Martin is going to have another huge year, and I fully expect Spencer Hawes to be the full time starter at some point...mainly because I think they'll be trading Miller to a contender. I think John Salmons can step in and be a very solid player on both ends of the court for them (again), and I love Donte Greene. Their bench should also be pretty solid as well - Hawes, Greene, Garcia, etc. Again though, as much as I like the talent, they're still a year or two away in my book.
11. Los Angeles Clippers - Brand screwed them, but it happens. The NBA is a business, so you have to expect things like that to happen. However, they did bring in Davis, who will provide entertainment at the least. What they will be lacking though is chemistry. Will Kaman and Camby survive together in the front court? Will Davis be able to coexist with his new teammates? It also doesn't help that their roster is kind of a random array of parts, something that, once again, won't help chemistry. Oh, and it doesn't help that their three best players are injury prone, and if any of them go down, that could spell the end of any playoff hopes.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves - This is another team loaded with talent. Jefferson, McCants, Foye, Love, Miller - all of them have the ability to be All Stars in this league. However, until they mature and are more consistent, the Timberwolves will continue to be on the outside looking in for the playoffs. Again though, the talent is absolutely there.
13. Memphis Grizzlies - These guys are basically the Timberwolves in a different city. They are loaded with young talent, but aren't quite ready to make a legitimate playoff push. Rudy Gay and OJ Mayo should provide plenty of scoring and entertainment for Memphis fans this year, and Marc Gasol is a very good prospect big man. Mike Conley also looks like he could be a star in this league given the time.
With all the talent thought, there are some black holes on the roster. Walker is useless and Darko and his huge contract needs to go. They also have an unnecessary commodity in Javaris Crittenton who needs a new home or could become a headache at some point. He needs playing time, and he's not going to get that in Memphis with Lowry and Conley ahead of him, and I think that could get to him at some point.
14. Golden State Warriors - Their best player is out for half the year. Their second best player jetted in free agency. They did bring in a big time scorer in Maggette...but again, their best player is out for half the year. This team still has the talent, but it's going to be relying on too many unproven commodities to really succeed this year. As much as I like Anthony Randolph, Marco Bellinelli, and Brandan Wright, there's no way this team can succeed if those guys have to play major minutes this year.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder - (<---That still looks weird) As good as Kevin Durant is, he alone can't stop the Thunder for competing for the worst record in the NBA. Aside from him, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook, this team doesn't have a lot. They have a void in the center spot and their best players are all too young to be ready to carry this team. The team does have plenty of young talent and draft picks to toy with though, so it's only a matter of time before they jump back in to basketball relevance, it just won't happen this year, regardless of how brilliant Durant is.