NBA Power Rankings: Training Camp Edition

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistSeptember 17, 2012

NBA Power Rankings: Training Camp Edition

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    The wait is almost over.

    As the NBA's finest prepare to enter training camp, the reality of how each team's offseason will impact its immediate future is officially beginning to set in.

    This year there is no lockout to fall back on; the Association's franchises had ample time to improve their rosters this offseason and will now have the luxury of training camps to put together the pieces to their current puzzle.

    But which teams, even before meaningful action, are already intimidating, on their way toward league-wide dominance? Which organizations are a heartbeat—or rather training camp—away from nearing the completion of their puzzle? And which teams are a blank canvas, essentially gearing themselves up for a season laden with disappointment?

    The wait is, in fact, almost over, yet there's no need to wait any longer to see where each NBA team currently stands. 

30. Charlotte Bobcats

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    2011-12 Regular Season Record: 7-59

    2012-13 Season Opener: November 2 vs. Indiana Pacers

    To be fair, the Bobcats improved their roster quite a bit this offseason. To be even more fair, though, there really wasn't anywhere for Charlotte to go but up.

    Michael Kidd-Gilchrist may thrive from the get-go, but this is a roster that is completely dependent on its inexperienced players. Kidd-Gilchrist has no professional experience, and both Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker are only entering their sophomore campaigns.

    So, while the Bobcats can look at their roster and say it's in much better shape than last year, that's not saying much.

    And just as the Heat are the NBA champs until proved otherwise, the Bobcats remain at the bottom of the league's barrel until we're shown otherwise.

29. Houston Rockets

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 34-32

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 vs. Detroit Pistons

    Every season the goal in Houston is to clinch a playoff berth. Heading into training camp, though, it's clear this team should adjust its expectations.

    The Rockets are in flux; they decimated their roster over the offseason and have little to show for it besides a few promising prospects and a slew of uncertain performers.

    Who knows, though, maybe Jeremy Lin will emerge as a superstar. Maybe Omer Asik is headed for a breakout. Maybe Kevin Martin can lead a docket of essential no-names into the playoffs.

    Or maybe the Rockets are destined for exactly what their roster suggests—an extended stay in the NBA's basement.

28. Orlando Magic

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 37-29

    2012-13 Season Opener: November 2 vs. Denver Nuggets

    It may not seem like it, but for the Magic, it could be worse.

    Though Orlando failed to land any significant pieces in exchange for Dwight Howard, the roster is chock full of competent players.

    Jameer Nelson is no superstar, but he can get to the rim and is an adequate distributor. Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington are hardly heralded leaders, but they're both crafty scorers. And guys like J.J. Redick and Hedo Turkoglu should be able to hold it together offensively as well.

    That said, the Magic are a team without a leader, a closer or a pillar that they can even begin to build around. 

    And such a void is undoubtedly going to become prevalent as Orlando continues to rapidly descend within the NBA's hierarchy.

27. Detroit Pistons

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 25-41

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 vs. Houston Rockets

    The Pistons may have a future star in Andre Drummond, they may have a current All-Star in Greg Monroe and they may have a promising future ahead of them. But they most definitely don't have much to play for as they prepare for this season.

    Not only will Detroit be relying on a major project in Drummond to make an immediate impact, but the team's lack of depth is of major concern. 

    The Pistons' projected starting five has the potential to play fundamentally sound basketball, but their bench attack is underwhelming, and their excessive number of stretch forwards will make it difficult to establish a well-balanced rotation.

    Simply put, even if every athlete on Detroit's roster exceeds expectations, the Pistons will still find themselves near the bottom of the league's food chain. 

26. Sacramento Kings

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 22-44

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 at Chicago Bulls

    The Kings are going to be fun to watch this season, if not for any other reason than they're likely to disappoint in all areas of the game.

    DeMarcus Cousins, provided he keeps his head in check, is likely to develop into an All-Star, and the team has a budding young big man in Thomas Robinson, but the aura in Sacramento is far from encouraging.

    Not only are the Kings a mess on the perimeter, but fully expect the team to be hampered by Tyreke Evans trade rumors for a majority of the first half of the year.

    Factor in the lack of improvements made this offseason and the Maloofs' penchant for throwing a half-finished product on the floor, and you have a squad that will be lucky to breach the 25-win mark.

    One day the Kings will emerge from the NBA's doldrums, but that day is not today, nor is it tomorrow. In fact, the entire season, from training camp through to next spring, just isn't looking good. 

25. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 21-45

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 30 vs. Washington Wizards

    You want to believe the Cavaliers will contend for a playoff spot, you really do...but they won't.

    Kyrie Irving is already a star and a better leader than most give him credit for, but he's a star without a proven sidekick.

    Anderson Varejao should come back strong, but he's hardly the poster boy for consistency, or durability for that matter. Tristan Thompson showed some promise last season, but he's still a project, just as Tyler Zeller will prove to be as well.

    Speaking of projects, there's also Dion Waiters, the biggest reach of this past summer's NBA draft, to consider. He showed flashes of two-way brilliance at Syracuse last season, but he's wildly inconsistent himself.

    Don't think for a minute the absence of Antawn Jamison's instant offense won't severely hinder Cleveland's offensive attack either.

    Case and point, the Cavaliers are a team with one of the most promising building blocks in the league, yet have managed to diminish their potential courtesy of an immensely disappointing offseason.

24. Washington Wizards

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 20-46

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 at Cleveland Cavaliers

    The Wizards have the potential to surprise everyone, but they're also liable to implode.

    There's something about the prospect of John Wall driving-and-kicking out to Bradley Beal on the perimeter that cannot be overlooked, and there's also plenty of potential to be found in the low-post tandem of Nene and Emeka Okafor.

    That said, neither Nene nor Okafor is at the top of his game, and Beal, despite his resourcefulness, isn't guaranteed to make the type of impact that will help propel Wall and company into the postseason. And the rest of the the roster reads like a who's who of unanswered questions.

    So, while the Wizards are a deceptively deep team, their depth is shrouded in uncertainty and question marks; it takes both proven talent and consistent durability to make the jump to a playoff contender.

    And outside of Wall, the Wizards have neither.

23. Toronto Raptors

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 23-43

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 vs. Indiana Pacers

    The Raptors are ushering in a new era, which will actually mean very little for their immediate future.

    Though Toronto has a handful of potential stars in Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Lowry and even Terrence Ross, there's too much restructuring to be done to believe the team can make a playoff push now, even in a wide-open Eastern Conference.

    Not only are the Raptors tasked with the project that is Valanciunas—yes, he's a project—but they've got a logjam at point guard and a bevy of outside presences in general to sort through.

    Will this be the year Andrea Bargnani reaches his full potential? Can DeMar DeRozan make the jump from a volume scorer to a two-way star? Will new faces such as Lowry, Valanciunas and Landry Fields be integrated into Toronto's rotations seamlessly?

    Considering that's not even half of the questions facing the new-look Raptors, it's a safe bet to assume it will take all season for them to establish some kind of identity. 

    And it's an even safer bet to believe they'll find themselves outside the playoff picture once again.

22. Phoenix Suns

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    2011-12 Regular Season Record: 33-33

    2012-13 Season Opener: November 1 vs. Golden State Warriors

    Now is when we'll see what the Suns are truly made of.

    After handing Steve Nash over to the Lakers, Phoenix made a series of risky, yet embraceable moves, bringing in the likes of Goran Dragic, Michael Beasley and even Luis Scola. Selecting Kendall Marshall, the most talented playmaker in this year's draft, was also a step in the right direction.

    While both Dragic and Marshall are no Nash, they are two capable athletes who can have an impact on either side of the ball. 

    The biggest concern here, though, is how the Suns' returning cast members will fare. Will Marcin Gortat still be a gem without Nash to lead him off pick-and-rolls? Can Channing Frye be any kind of efficient without the aging penetrator setting him up nicely with some drive-and-kicks? And without Nash creating open looks, will Phoenix boast the likes of any consistent outside threats?

    It's going to be another season filled with obstacles and questions marks for the Suns. The only difference is, this time around, the light at the end of the tunnel isn't in the form of a potential playoff berth.

21. New Orleans Hornets

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 21-45

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 vs. San Antonio Spurs

    New Orleans is a much improved team from last season, but will still fall short of contending for a playoff spot.

    Anthony Davis is a near-lock to develop into a superstar, and Eric Gordon is seemingly right there with him. The acquisition of Ryan Anderson and selection of Austin Rivers are yet two more reasons for the Hornets to be content, borderline excited, about the direction they're headed in.

    But the fact remains that this new direction will not reach its destination, or even take shape, overnight; New Orleans must be afforded a grace period in which growing pains are to be expected.

    So, despite pulling the trigger on a plethora of moves that greatly enhanced the potential of the roster, the Hornets are once again likely to be found near the bottom of the league standings.

    That said, with a promising roster and plenty of cap space to work with moving forward, New Orleans can take solace in knowing this won't be a long-lasting reality, that in the end, it will all come together.

    Just not right now.

20. Portland Trail Blazers

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 28-38

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 at Los Angeles Lakers

    In the blink of an eye, the Blazers went from title contenders to a lottery entity, and it's going to be a long climb back to the former.

    Rookies Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard will be asked to assume prominent roles from Day 1, and while this will ultimately help Portland regain its composure in the long run, the present-day outlook isn't anything special.

    LaMarcus Aldridge remains one of the most underrated bigs in the game, and Nicolas Batum may even decide to earn most of his lucrative contract, but much of the Blazers' two-way potential rests in the hands of two unproven neophytes.

    Factor in an unimpressive bench and the reality they'll be thrown right into the ultra-competitive fray that is the Western Conference, and the Blazers can approach training camp and the regular season as "cautiously optimistic" at best.

19. Golden State Warriors

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 23-43

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 at Phoenix Suns

    At long last, the Warriors finally seem to have a roster that suggests they can contend for a playoff spot.

    Now, if only said roster wasn't a perpetual injury risk, Golden State would be in business.

    Together, Andrew Bogut and David Lee form quite the low-post tandem. However, Bogut has never been known for his durability, and should he miss any significant time, the Warriors will find themselves easy to exploit down low, even with the addition of Carl Landry.

    The same goes for the Dubs on the perimeter. Stephen Curry is savvy in his own right, but reoccurring ankle issues have plagued him since the day he stepped foot in the NBA—no pun intended. And while both Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack provide some insurance at the 1 and 2 slots, any absence on Curry's part will be more than detrimental.

    To make matters more complicated, Golden State is anything but shored up at the small forward position. Richard Jefferson is a shell, of the shell, of his former self, and no one is quite sure how seamless a transition Harrison Barnes will make into the pros.

    For the Warriors, it all comes down to rotational cohesion; if they can develop continuity, a playoff berth will be within their grasp.

    One quick glance at the number of odds and ends and players who pose health risks, though, and it's easy to see that Golden State is bound to fall short of its ultimate goal yet again.

18. Milwaukee Bucks

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 31-35

    2012-13 Season Opener: November 2 at Boston Celtics

    It's extremely difficult to gauge the full potential of the Bucks as they near the start of training camp.

    On the one hand, Milwaukee has two of the craftiest scorers in the game in Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. On the other, though, depth is clearly an issue for a team laden with scorers, but not defensive presences.

    Ersan Ilyasova is a versatile athlete who can make a significant impact on both ends of the floor, but outside of him, the Bucks lack the necessary number of two-way presences to make a legitimate playoff push; one-dimensional players are currently running rampant in Milwaukee.

    Though the Bucks undoubtedly possess enough talent to make a splash in the wide-open East, they simply don't have the depth, or experience, to finish strong when it counts most.

    So, while we may see Milwaukee post 40 wins this season, it's likely they begin to fade down the stretch yet again. 

    Because as interesting and versatile as the Bucks roster is, they simply don't have what it takes to keep their heads at or above .500 long enough to be considered a legitimate playoff team.

17. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 26-40

    2012-13 Season Opener: November 2 vs. Sacramento Kings

    It's great that the Timberwolves have become a relevant entity again, but despite the team's optimism surrounding this season, a playoff berth is simply not in the cards.

    As talented a roster as Minnesota has assembled, the team's rotation is built like a house of cards.

    Ricky Rubio is as resourceful of a facilitator as there is in the NBA, but will he have the same prolific impact he did last season once he returns from his torn ACL? Because as much of a game-changer as Kevin Love is, Minnesota is hardly a worthy opponent, let alone a playoff-caliber team, without Rubio.

    And yet, even if Rubio instantly returns to his usual self, the Timberwolves aren't out of the woods. Andrei Kirilenko and Brandon Roy are former All-Stars, but the key word there is "former," as both players are more than a year removed from NBA action. If either athlete fails to make a strong comeback, Minnesota's ability to remain competitive becomes seriously damaged.

    Yes, this is a team that is much better than the on-court product we saw two years ago, or even last year—on paper.

    But as teams like the Blazers, Knicks and even Warriors showed us only last season, that means very little, if anything.

    Make no mistake, the Timberwolves will eventually return to the postseason. Just not this year.

16. Utah Jazz

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    2011-12 Regular Season Record: 36-30

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 vs. Dallas Mavericks

    Feel free to continue to underestimate the Jazz, but I know better by now.

    Utah didn't make any overly drastic changes to its roster this offseason, but the subtle adjustments it made all but ensured a return to the postseason.

    While Mo Williams isn't the most efficient or purest of floor generals, he's a more explosive scorer and has the potential to be a better playmaker than Devin Harris. And though Marvin Williams was anything but happy in Atlanta, the Jazz are anything but packed with stretch forwards, meaning he's poised to assume a role he can embrace.

    If that's not enough, there's always the incredibly deep low-post quartet Utah still boasts. The likes of Derrick Favors, Al Jefferson, Enes Kanter and Paul Milsap aren't likely to remain intact past this season, but there's no time like the present.

    Both Jefferson and Millsap are stars in their own right, and we should fully expect to see much more production out of Kanter and Favors this season.

    The roster may not look pretty on paper, but make no mistake, the Jazz are deep enough to get the job done this season.

15. Atlanta Hawks

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 40-26

    2012-13 Season Opener: November 2 vs. Houston Rockets

    Atlanta didn't get better or worse this offseason, just different—in a good way.

    The Hawks shed a mountain of future payroll by shipping out Joe Johnson and signing Lou Williams in his stead, leaving them with plenty of money to re-sign Josh Smith and make a play for any other top-tier free agents available next summer.

    That said, the Hawks' greatest problem over the past five years has been distinguishing themselves from the rest of the East, and that's still a problem. Smith and Al Horford inject some excitement into the team and their fanbase, but Atlanta, at its core, is still just a fundamentally sound team headed for an early postseason exit.

    And you know what, this year, that's okay, because the Hawks seemingly have a plan in place to change that.

    But until next summer, when the Hawks can completely revamp their roster, patience must be preached, because right now, this team will find it tough to compete for more than a low-level playoff seed.

14. Chicago Bulls

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 50-16

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 vs. Sacramento Kings

    Chicago is on the verge of an incredibly difficult season.

    Not only will the Bulls be forced to carry on without Derrick Rose while he's on the mend, but upon his return, they will be forced to endure a tough period of acclimation as the point guard attempts to regain his explosiveness.

    While the team went 18-9 without Rose last season, this year is different. This time around, the Bulls know Rose isn't on the verge of saving them, and it will become harder to persevere when there's no definitive light at the end of the tunnel.

    And this goes beyond the postseason meltdown against the Sixers. Truth be told, the Bulls were coping with much more than Rose's injury then, which didn't help their cause.

    The problem is nothing has changed. Carlos Boozer has yet to prove he can recapture his old swagger, both Luol Deng and Joakim Noah are beat up and Chicago has anything but a proven point guard core to hold down the fort while Rose heals.

    But in spite of all that, heading into training camp, it's still clear the Bulls are deep enough to ultimately clinch a playoff berth. Just don't expect them to go anywhere special with it once they do.

13. Philadelphia 76ers

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 35-31

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 vs. Denver Nuggets

    Andrew Bynum's presence in Philadelphia could change everything for the Sixers...or it could mean very little.

    Though Bynum has instantly become the East's best center, he's never been the unquestioned leader of an entire team before, nor has he ever been the first offensive option. While this is a role many assume Bynum will thrive in, he's going to need time to get acquainted to his new digs and responsibilities.

    And if that isn't enough, there's also the reality that Philadelphia's supporting cast is relatively unproved. Budding athletes like Evan Turner, Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young are talented, but are they ready to help lead a deep postseason charge? Better yet, is Bynum ready to lead one?

    There's no denying that Bynum adds an intriguing dynamic to an extremely versatile roster, but there's no guarantee this new-found pairing pays relative dividends; Bynum, just like the rest of Philadelphia's roster, still has plenty of maturing and refining to do.

    So, while the Sixers are a lock to make the playoffs, we'd be sorely mistaken to expect much more than that out of them.

12. Dallas Mavericks

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 36-30

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 30 at Los Angeles Lakers

    There's simply no stopping the Mavericks from remaining relevant.

    For the second straight summer, Dallas' roster was picked apart in free agency, and for the second straight summer, the Mavericks managed to save face.

    Both Jason Kidd and Jason Terry were key cogs in Mark Cuban's machine; the acquisitions of Elton Brand, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman and O.J. Mayo will be more than enough to offset the departures.

    I mean, that's a pretty talented supporting cast to surround the scoring machine that is Dirk Nowitzki with.

    Could Dallas use another playmaker? Sure. An additional superstar? Of course. But it's important to remember that the Mavericks went from a desolate roster to a relatively deep one at the drop of the dime.

    And while there aren't any championships to be won in Dallas right now, this team is far from in shambles, and is instead merely a player away from re-entering the league's top 10.

11. Indiana Pacers

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 42-24

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 at Toronto Raptors

    The Pacers are quickly becoming one of the NBA's most overrated teams. There, I said it.

    Though Indiana has a talented core in Roy Hibbert, Davis West, Danny Granger and even George Hill, this is not a team with championship potential. In fact, this is a team that has capitalized off a weak conference more than anything else.

    Simply put, the Pacers are too often placed upon a pedestal when in all actuality, they're not even a top-10 organization.

    Hibbert is an extremely talented center and a defensive workhorse, but he's far from the best in the East. He's more like the fourth or fifth most effective behemoth, behind Andrew Bynum, Al Horford, Greg Monroe and even Brook Lopez; much like the Pacers in general, he is overrated in some aspects himself. 

    Then there's the point guard situation to consider. Indiana, apparently, felt it pertinent to send Darren Collision, an above-average playmaker, packing and hand the facilitating duties over to a now overpaid George Hill, a combo guard with underwhelming offensive instincts.

    Factor in a bench that is much shallower than most realize and you have an unbalanced rotation without the necessary depth to offset the team's fundamental deficiencies.

    One that won't be contending for a title this season.

10. Brooklyn Nets

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 22-44

    2012-13 Season Opener: November 1 vs. New York Knicks

    Where Brooklyn at? Within the top 10, that's where.

    The Nets completely reversed their image this offseason. Heading into training camp, not only are they moving to a new city and into a new arena, but they're ushering in a new era entirely.

    Overnight, Brooklyn went from a bottom-feeding lottery team, to a potential championship contender. Subsequently, we must give credit where credit is due.

    Deron Williams is one of the best point guards in the league, and he is now being paired with a bounty of talented players that include Joe Johnson, Kris Humphries, Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace, among others. And that's depth he's never been surrounded by.

    Do injuries have the potential to derail the Nets' postseason aspirations? Of course, but that arguably holds true for any team.

    Because right now, as fragile as Brooklyn's current dynamic might seem, there's no more sidestepping the notion that this franchise is on the verge of returning to prominence.

9. New York Knicks

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 36-30

    2012-13 Season Opener: November 1 at Brooklyn Nets

    Things are looking up in New York. Kind of.

    I've been adamant about the Knicks having a disappointing offseason since they started dealing for aging veterans, and I maintain such a stance.

    Though this is a team that appears deep on paper, we've come to realize that means nothing. The more important factoid here is that Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, Marcus Camby and Tyson Chandler are all more than slightly injury-prone at this point. 

    There's also the relatively weak point guard tandem to consider. Jason Kidd is way past his prime and Raymond Felton may have wasted his.

    That said, the Knicks are in better shape than most; some franchises don't even have depth on paper to fall back on.

    And should this team manage to stay healthy, it's bench continue to produce and Anthony remain properly motivated, the Big Apple will have another title contender on its hands. 

8. Los Angeles Clippers

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 40-26

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 vs. Memphis Grizzlies

    The Clippers are built to make some noise this season, but they're hardly a top-five team.

    Though Chris Paul will undoubtedly continue to do what Chris Paul does—lead his team to the playoffs—the state of his teammates is not as sound.

    Not only is Blake Griffin coming off knee surgery, but Chauncey Billups might not even be ready for the start of the season. And while the Lamar Odom acquisition was great in so many ways, his production and ability to make any kind of positive impact is far from guaranteed.

    Then there's DeAndre Jordan to consider as well. He's an offensive non-factor who has become such a liability that his minutes are poised to be anything but meaningful. 

    Don't even get me started on the Jamal Crawford signing either. Even on the wrong side of 30, the combo guard can score, but he's hardly efficient, and Los Angeles invested three years too many in his services. Plus, he's actually a downgrade from the younger Mo Williams.

    And yet, despite their multitude of shortcomings, you have to believe the Clippers have enough firepower to make a splash out West.

    After all, Paul has led a less talented team to prominence before, so even amid his team's bouts with injury and two-way ineptitude, he should have no problem ensuring their return to a mid-end postseason seed.

7. Boston Celtics

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 39-27

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 30 vs. Miami Heat

    It's not easy being green, unless you're the Celtics.

    Boston was supposed to blow up its foundation after last season but instead opted to continue building on top of it.

    Ray Allen is history, but Jason Terry and Courtney Lee provide plenty of firepower and athleticism to offset his departure. And while Avery Bradley won't be fit for duty right away, he's already proven to be a capable starter, and his impending return will only strengthen the backcourt.

    Moving onto the frontcourt, though, there's no getting around how much deeper the Celtics are there as well. Kevin Garnett's return was key, as was Brandon Bass'. Paul Pierce still has plenty of gas left in the tank, and Jeff Green—lucrative contract and all—provides Boston with insurance at both the 3 and the 4.

    The Celtics also had a strong draft, snagging two players in Fab Melo and Jared Sullinger, who, given the right direction, should be able to make an immediate impact.

    All in all, Boston is a team you must keep you're eye on heading into training camp and beyond. Especially if you're the Heat.

6. Memphis Grizzlies

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 41-25

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 at Los Angeles Clippers

    Personally, I've never thought the addition of a backup point guard meant so much to a team's immediate future.

    The Grizzlies were obnoxiously deep to begin with, but Jerryd Bayless' presence really takes their two-way attack to the next level, even in O.J. Mayo's departure.

    Though Bayless still has to work on his distributing instincts, he's a passable playmaker who can score at will. He's also a strong perimeter defender who will have no difficulty keeping pace with the most elusive of point men when Mike Conley is on the bench.

    Memphis' biggest pitfall last season was the lack of structure within the second unit. Mayo was far too often the primary playmaker.

    Now, however, Bayless ensures there will be a legitimate point guard on the floor to run the show at any given point during the game.

    And when you have as many scorers who depend on precise entry and lead passes as the Grizzlies do in Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph, that means everything.

    Most notably, the difference between a deep playoff run and an early exit. 

5. Denver Nuggets

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 38-28

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 31 at Philadelphia 76ers

    I'm not backing down from this.

    The Nuggets would have been a much better team last season had they had the training camp they are about to experience now under their belts. A mid-season blockbuster trade didn't help their case either.

    And yet, Denver still managed grab a playoff spot and push a Lakers team to the brink before bowing out. While that's more than impressive, it's nothing compared to the offseason the Nuggets just had.

    With Andre Iguodala now in the fold, Denver boasts the likes of a proven superstar, a presence they have lacked since the Carmelo Anthony trade. More importantly, though, the team has a star that complements its selfless dynamic perfectly, someone who will only enhance it, not an ego who will suppress it.

    And that's huge, just as the development of Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gaillinari, Ty Lawson and JaVale McGee will all prove to be.

    So, maintain a sense of skepticism all you want now, but that won't change the fact Denver will make it past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season.

4. San Antonio Spurs

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 50-16

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 1 at New Orleans Hornets

    The Spurs aren't done yet.

    Though San Antonio was barely able to keep pace with the Thunder during the playoffs and made no new additions to help prove the contrary this season, we still have every reason to believe the Spurs will come back strong.

    Gregg Popovich's team is far from the youngest, and it is hardly the most athletic, but efficiency is often the key to victory, and San Antonio has become the poster team for that over the years.

    Could Tony Parker and company take the floor this season and wind up being blown out of the water?

    Certainly, but it's not likely. The Spurs are simply too deep and too committed to find themselves battling among anyone but the very best.

    So, while San Antonio could have used an additional rim-protector, standing pat hasn't ruined their chances at contending for a title. 

    Because they were that good to begin with.

3. Los Angeles Lakers

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 41-25

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 30 vs. Dallas Mavericks

    Plenty of people are prepared to hand the NBA's throne over to the Lakers. I'm not one of them.

    As deep and talented as Los Angeles' roster appears to be, it is not without potential issues. Whenever multiple stars of this magnitude are paired together, cohesion is of the utmost importance and remains unsettlingly elusive until the powerhouse in question proves otherwise.

    Will Kobe Bryant be able to adjust to playing off the ball more? Can Steve Nash expand the offensive horizons of both Bryant and Dwight Howard? Is Howard's back going to hinder his explosiveness and ability to execute?

    And those are just a few of the questions facing the Lakers heading into training camp and beyond.

    That said, it's impossible to ignore the amount of talent Los Angeles has stockpiled. Even if Howard isn't ready for the start of the season, this is a team with options on both sides of the ball.

    And if the Lakers can find a way to play together, play off one another and remain relatively healthy, there isn't a team in the league that this franchise isn't built to beat.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 47-19

    2012-13 Season Opener: November 1 at San Antonio Spurs

    The Thunder are still the Western Conference's team to beat, Dwight Howard to the Lakers and all.

    Though Oklahoma City was manhandled by the Heat in last season's NBA Finals, it still possesses one of the deepest rosters in the league.

    What's most important to remember here as well is how young the Thunder actually are. Kevin Durant, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook are all 23 or under, and yet, this team is already fit for championship contention. That's intimidating.

    Oklahoma City runs one of the fastest moving, highest octane offenses in the league and possesses the necessary athleticism to keep pace with any opponent defensively.

    The key moving forward? Self-restraint and discipline. If the Thunder can limit the amount of turnovers they commit and risks they take on either end of the floor, there isn't a team in the Association who shouldn't fear their potential.

    Because even at their worst, the Thunder are good enough to beat any team on any given night.

    As for when they're at their best, though? Well, then they're simply unstoppable.

1. Miami Heat

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    2011-12 Regular-Season Record: 46-20

    2012-13 Season Opener: October 30 vs. Boston Celtics

    It's not always pretty, but the Heat get the job done.

    LeBron James and company tore through the NBA's best last season en route to a league title and are seemingly poised to do so yet again, courtesy of a constantly evolving roster and numerous understated additions.

    As good as Miami was last season, it was able to get better this summer. Both Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis will help stretch opposing defenses wafer thin, providing James and Dwyane Wade with even more opportunities to attack the basket and score some easy points.

    Chris Bosh's new-found appreciation for the center position is bad news for the rest of the league as well, as he's reportedly bulking up in anticipation of becoming even more of a formidable force at the 5.

    Factor in the presences of shooters like Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and even Mike Miller, and the potential of both Norris Cole and Udonis Haslem, and you have a team not only built to contend for a title, but to run away with it.

    For a second consecutive year.