NBA Power Rankings: Where Every Team Stands Before 2012-13 Season

Zach Harper@talkhoopsContributor IIISeptember 18, 2012

NBA Power Rankings: Where Every Team Stands Before 2012-13 Season

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    It's about that time again!

    We're two weeks away from the start of training camp. That means it's time to put together a power ranking of NBA teams.

    We don't have many absolutes at this point in time.

    We know what happened last season and we know the transactions that have been made to transform, tweak and supplement each roster. But what we don't know is how playing time will be doled out, where the rotations will fall and which teams will be ravaged by injuries.

    So many things that will boost up or tear down nearly every team can and will happen during the course of the season. For now, we can just guess where teams are in relation to the rest of the league, then make fun of how far off we were as we actually get some evidence to analyze.

    For my pre-preseason power rankings, I'm deciding to go off how well I think each team will play in the regular season. You'll probably see a lot of Western Conference teams ranked higher than Eastern Conference teams. Right off the bat, you'll see teams like the Bulls, Knicks and Nets (all have become fairly polarizing in terms of title hopes) ranked much higher than many would expect.

    I fully expect to underestimate a few teams and be pleasantly surprised by a few others.

    With that said, let the madness begin.

30. Orlando Magic

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    Orlando could actually be a decent team.

    We have no idea what kind of coach Jacque Vaughn will be. He could be a Doc Rivers-type who rallies the supposedly overwhelmed troops in his first season as a head coach, like Doc did for the 2000 Orlando Magic. Vaughn served for two years under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, so we know he learned from the best.

    But that doesn't mean he will be a good coach right away. 

    We do know the talent at his disposal. Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson are his two best players. That's the big red flag that made me put them at the bottom of these rankings. The Magic just don't have much upper-echelon talent.

    It's mainly a team full of role players. That's what happens when you force yourself into the rebuilding process the way owner Alex Martins has done with the Magic. They have to rebuild with high draft selections over the next few years.

    The best thing they could do for themselves this season is try to deal away those role players at the trade deadline, throw out a roster full of rookies, second-year players and D-League call-ups trying to make names for themselves, and then tank to ensure a top-4 pick in the 2013 NBA draft.

    Maybe Orlando will be able to rally with their veterans. We've seen teams put up a better fight than expected to because of pride. This team isn't devoid of good players.

    Afflalo is a starting-caliber shooting guard. Nelson is a capable point guard, Al Harrington and J.J. Redick are legitimate players on the wings. Glen "Big Baby'' Davis, Gustavo Ayon and Hedo Turkoglu are serviceable role players.

    But again, there is no direction on this team. Nobody can replace Dwight Howard right now, and it's highly unlikely Vaughn is as good a coach as Stan Van Gundy was for this organization.

    Good luck, Orlando. It should be a tough year. 

29. Charlotte Bobcats

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    I'm excited for the Charlotte Bobcats.

    They were historically inept last year, picked up a player to build around in the draft and hired a coach who is going to create chaos on the court and change the culture of Bobcats basketball.

    I talked to new coach Mike Dunlap after a Summer League game in Las Vegas about the idea of pressing in the NBA. He seemed to think it was a good way to get his team to be aggressive and thought it would work for them.

    I asked him why he thought it could be successful when it hasn't been consistently effective the few times it's been attempted in the NBA in the past 20 to 30 years. He seemed a bit perturbed by me pressing him (no word play intended) about the subject, but emphasized it was a tool for them to use.

    As a result, I think the Bobcats will try to create havoc by pressuring the ball for three-quarters of the court. But because NBA point guards are simply too adept at handling the ball, I still don't think it's a great strategy.

    Even if the press is destroyed 80 percent of the time, they're still probably going to force a lot of turnovers and be annoying to most of their opponents. That's really all you can ask of them.

    They have a couple of young players who should be exciting defensively. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is going to be a dominant defensive player before too long and Bismack Biyombo has the potential to make a significant defensive impact this season. Even Kemba Walker could thrive, pressuring ball-handlers in the backcourt.

    But this team will struggle offensively. I think Kidd-Gilchrist will be a much better offensive player than expected. But the rest of the team will be pretty abysmal. Byron Mullens mistakenly thinks he's Dirk Nowitzki, and the rest of the team ranked at the bottom of the league in most offensive categories last season.

    It's going to continue to be ugly for the Bobcats, but they have a chance to get things moving in the right direction. They'll still be bad, but the historically bad performances will be a thing of the past.

28. Phoenix Suns

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    With a solid frontcourt and Alvin Gentry as head coach, the Suns are probably a 30-win team.

    But without Steve Nash and without Houston coach Kevin McHale's point guard-benefiting system to boost Goran Dragic's numbers, will this team be able to close out games on a consistent basis? It's unlikely they're going to blow out a lot of teams, so it's not crazy to presume they'll be in a bunch of tight games.

    Last year, Michael Beasley was abysmal in clutch situations (final five minutes, score within five points), shooting 20 percent from the field. Luis Scola was respectable at 40.9 percent. And even Marcin Gortat fell to 36.8 percent from the field in the clutch.

    But there was one player who was an absolute killer in the clutch. That was Dragic. The Suns' "newest" point guard, who decided to come back to the desert, shot an incredible 60 percent from the field in clutch situations last season. That's after previously being a career 23-percent shooter in the clutch.

    There's no denying that Dragic is a better and more confident player than he was during his first stint in Phoenix, but did he become so clutch in just one extended offseason before last year?

    It's quite possible he did, but I'm going to have him prove it to us again before I actually believe it. Truth be told, he's probably somewhere in the middle. It would be shocking if he was still the 23-percent shooter we saw in limited chances when he was in Phoenix. It would also be shocking if he kept up the 60 percent-type clip we saw with the Rockets.

    Phoenix will need him to be a playmaker all game long, which we saw from him during the final 30 games last season when he went on a two-month run of incredible play. He has to be the leader if Beasley doesn't take the leap everybody is begging him to take.

    But can you really win consistently with Dragic as your best player? I'm hesitant to believe you can.

27. Sacramento Kings

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    This is another team that confuses me.

    The Kings have a lot of talent. I just don't know if any of it fits together.

    DeMarcus Cousins is a potential franchise big man. He has the ability to dominate the boards, is an excellent help defender and can score at an impressive clip for a guy entering his third season. Sure, he had attitude problems under Paul Westphal, but those all seemed to disappear once a coach he respects took over.

    Thomas Robinson is the latest lottery pick to be thrust into the Sacramento melting pot. His athleticism is immense, he can rebound and attack the rim, and he seems to be a natural leader. He had a rough time in the NBA Summer League, but that doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things.

    Tyreke Evans is a ball-dominant lead guard, but the Kings plan to move him to the wing, where they hope he will learn how to play off the ball and become a scoring force. But his jumper continues to be a work in progress, and there is a big question about whether he can contribute without the ball in his hands a majority of the time.

    Marcus Thornton is an incredible scorer who will also need the ball in his hands. He can hit from all over the court, but does he fit in with Evans on the wing? Will he play enough defense?

    Isaiah Thomas came into the league as the NBA's Mr. Irrelevant last season and ended up as a starter. He was able to put up nice stats. But is capable of leading a team to a winning record as the starting point guard?

    This is your core for the Kings. They have guys like Jason Thompson to help round out the big-man rotation. That's a positive.

    They have John Salmons, Travis Outlaw, Aaron Brooks and Jimmer Fredette to round out the perimeter attack. That's not a positive.

    Can Keith Smart continue to tinker with the rotation and roles of his players to get them closer to being a winning team? The Kings are probably a year away from that.

26. Houston Rockets

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    This is a confusing roster. 

    The Rockets have too many power forwards, a point guard who a lot of people think is overrated and overpaid, a center who can only play one side of the floor, a couple of unorthodox scorers at shooting guard and a coach who is just crazy enough to make them a competitive team.

    There are certain parts of this roster I like. I like the Omer Asik pickup. Even if he's just a defender and rebounder, he's a huge upgrade and necessary component. I also like Donatas Motiejunas as a big man to learn under Kevin McHale. He has the potential to develop into a solid role player.

    Of the power forwards, Royce White seems like a lock to be a productive player. I don't expect him to throw up 20-and-10 seasons every year, but his passing, rebounding and intelligence should make him, at worst, one of the league's best role players. I'm not sold on Terrence Jones and would play Chandler Parsons over him, but Jones could develop into another solid player.

    Jeremy Lamb has a lot of sloppiness to eliminate from his offensive game, but the instincts and the skills are there. They just need to be fine-tuned. The problem is that he has Kevin Martin ahead of him. Martin is a better player now, but he's also known to be quite moody when things aren't going his way.

    Will he be fine with Jeremy Lin dominating the ball like we saw him do in New York? The last time Martin played with a ball-dominant lead guard, he was in Sacramento and pouted his way out of town. Actually, if he does that, it could open up playing time for the young guys.

    In McHale's system, I think Lin will be a good player and able to put up numbers. It might not be the numbers we saw from him during his ridiculous stretch with the Knicks last year, but they'll justify the contract he received.

    The trick is molding all of these parts together and turning them into a competitive team. McHale is an excellent motivator and a guy who knows how to put his players in positions to succeed. But competing in the West with such a young roster will be a chore.

25. Detroit Pistons

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    Much like the Sacramento Kings, there is talent on this roster, including several lottery picks, but I'm not quite sure how it all fits together.

    Greg Monroe was a stud in his second year and showed he has the potential to be an All-Star. To pair him with a young complementary big man like Andre Drummond this year could be the start of a good frontcourt.

    Monroe isn't a great defender, but Drummond can make up for that. Drummond isn't a great offensive player, but Monroe can carry that load and even set up Drummond for easy buckets with his passing ability. Both can rebound the ball quite well. And there's room for both guys to get a lot better.

    Then there's the mess on the wings. It will be less crowded in the backcourt this season with Ben Gordon gone, but the Pistons will have to find a way to get by with a small backcourt. Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Knight are here to stay for now, so they have to find a way to co-exist. 

    If this team can get rid of Tayshaun Prince and open up minutes for Jonas Jerebko while refusing to play Austin Daye and Charlie Villanueva, it will be a step in the right direction.

    They also have to limit how much influence Corey Maggette has on the offense. They should keep him and his expiring contract on the bench and maybe try to pawn him off on a desperate team that thinks it's a wing scorer from contending.

    Now it's up to Lawrence Frank to pull it all together. That actually seems to be a theme with the bottom teams of these rankings.

    There's a mismatch of talent and a lot of confusion on these rosters, and it's up to the veteran coaches to pull it all together. Frank has been successful before in shaping a roster and maximizing what's on the court. But getting it done with this Detroit team might be pretty tough.

    There are still some locker room distractions and headaches off the court. But on the court, the Pistons need consistency on offense to close out games. 

24. New Orleans Hornets

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    I want to rank this team higher, but I'm struggling to find teams the Hornets could leapfrog to get there.

    I'm impressed with the job Monty Williams did last season. How he got 21 wins out of such a terrible roster is astounding. The Hornets lost point guard Jarrett Jack this offseason and will ask Greivis Vasquez to take the reins. But they've also added a ton of talent.

    Anthony Davis is the big star. He'll make them better defensively right away, and they already ended last season 15th in the NBA in points allowed. He's going to block shots and rebound. He's going to be in the way when teams want to attack the basket. Even if he can't give them consistent offensive production, they'll still be much improved by his presence on defense.

    Say what you want about Austin Rivers, but there is plenty of talent to mold there. The challenge will be getting him to be a competent combo guard in the NBA.  He's not so devoid of ability that it's an impossible task. But he's never come off as an NBA-level point guard, and they have Eric Gordon returning as the shooting guard.

    If Gordon can be healthy, that's when this team will shine. Gordon is that good offensively. He can turn the Hornets into a much better unit than the 24th-best offense we saw last season. He can lead the charge and make plays. He can be the 20-point scorer that the defense has to contain, opening up scoring chances for his teammates.

    New Orleans also brought in Ryan Anderson to spread the floor and make teams pay on the perimeter.

    And if Al-Farouq Aminu and Hakim Warrick can give the team anything...okay, let's not get crazy here.

    There are still holes on this roster, but there were holes last season and the Hornets still gave better teams fits. Now that they've added so much talent for Williams to use, I'm excited to see them inch their way back closer to the playoffs.

23. Milwaukee Bucks

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    I want to like this team.

    I haven't been a Monta Ellis guy since the "We Believe" Warriors broke up and he got his own prime- time show. People still swear that show was great and underappreciated, but to me it looked like a failed sitcom with a laugh track that haunted my senses.

    But I'm still a fan of a lot of guys on this team.

    Tobias Harris could be a breakout second-year player if given minutes over Mike Dunleavy and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. He could team up with John Henson and Ersan Ilyasova to give the Bucks one of the more unorthodox but surprisingly effective frontcourts.

    Henson might end up being a guy that makes us wonder how he fell so far in the draft. He's going to be good on both ends of the floor, as long as he's given minutes over Drew Gooden, Samuel Dalembert and Larry Sanders.

    There's also Ekpe Udoh, who consistently finds a way to make a positive impact. He's an exceptional defender and capable of changing the way teams attack his teammates in the halfcourt. But will he get time over Dalembert?

    Then there's Brandon Jennings. As hard as I can be on Jennings, I do think he's capable of being an incredible point guard. He's a solid defender who can get around screens and contest plays, something not a lot of point guards can do. He's also a fantastic manager within the halfcourt who just needs his teammates to get open.

    When he stops falling in love with his bad jumper and starts figuring out how to finish at the rim, I think he'll be an All-Star.

    What I don't trust about the Bucks is Scott Skiles. I don't trust him to give minutes to the young guys. I think he'll go with veterans because he trusts them. If he does that, I think he'll mostly lose this team. It won't have the young players injecting life into its bland attack.

    I think he'll coach to save his job, as opposed to building something he can use if he earns another contract. By playing the younger guys and developing a more dynamic attack, he could earn that next deal in Milwaukee.

    He's also known to wear on his players over time, and he's been with the Bucks for a long while.

    It's probably time they start tuning him out.

22. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    I'm fully prepared for Kyrie Irving to make this ranking look a little foolish.

    To state the obvious, he's really good. The way he performed in close games last year made me all tingly inside. I also love the Cavs getting back Anderson Varejao to be the anchor of the defense. He's an underrated playmaker in the halfcourt, with his ability to finish inside, extend offensive possessions on the boards and make good passes.

    I think the C.J. Miles pickup is good insurance in case Dion Waiters turns out to be a waste of a fourth pick. Miles is a decent enough scorer to provide a threat on the wings, and that means Waiters doesn't have to feel pressure to produce right away.

    The frontcourt is deep, with Tristan Thompson heading into his second year, the pickup of Jon Leuer, the drafting of Tyler Zeller and the slimming down of Samardo Samuels. It won't be a frontcourt that gives you consistent scoring, but defensively and on the boards, it should be good enough to hang with the bigger teams in the league.

    But what kind of depth do the Cavs have on the perimeter? If Irving goes down, they have Donald Sloan and Jeremy Pargo to run the show. I'm also having a hard time figuring out who is the best small forward: Kelenna Azubuike or Alonzo Gee?

    These two questions made a little bile creep up into my taste buds.

    Oh, dear God. I just saw that Omri Casspi and Luke Walton are still on the roster. Why?

    Even with the nausea-inducing questions that this roster does have, the Cavs still have Byron Scott to coach and Irving to lead. They have a focus and a direction.

    As long as Irving stays healthy, this team will remain competitive.

    In Kyrie We Trust. 

21. Toronto Raptors

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    This is another team I'm liking more and more each time I look at its roster.

    People have been crying about the lack of parity when the new CBA was being hammered out and "super teams" were continuing to be constructed. Yet, we're actually headed toward more parity.

    Look at the bottom of the league. There aren't a lot of teams lacking legitimate playoff aspirations. We have a few teams separating themselves at the top, but many more bottom teams are moving toward the middle and positioning themselves to be a major player with one or two key moves.

    The Raptors are one of those teams.

    They brought in the right coach in Dwane Casey a year ago to right the ship. They dealt with the departure of Chris Bosh by bringing in a couple of young big men who have a chance to grow into a solid rotation.

    I believe in Ed Davis and liked what Andrea Bargnani showed before he got hurt last season. And by adding Jonas Valanciunas, we'll get to see if his rebounding and defensive presence will transform Casey's vision into a reality.

    The Raptors have also bolstered the perimeter by bringing aboard Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross next to DeMar DeRozan. They also have Jose Calderon, Landry Fields and Linas Kleiza to round out the perimeter attack. That's a pretty decent and deep rotation.

    Now they need to focus on offense. Bargnani isn't good enough to be the go-to scorer, but can the combination of Bargnani and Lowry running the pick-and-roll/pop be a winning combination? Can they prod Calderon to be more of a scorer on the wings? Will DeRozan or Ross develop into a good enough scorer to make the offense a playoff-caliber attack?

    This Raptors team is moving in the right direction. Let's see how much traction they can grab early in the season.

20. Washington Wizards

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    I've talked before about how this team is being built to win now. It's similar to the strategy we saw the Nets implement this summer.

    They ignored the salary cap and brought in veterans in an attempt to win games and energize their fanbase.

    The Wizards' core seems fairly legit.

    I believe in John Wall and think he's had a solid first two years. He hasn't been Derrick Rose, by any means, but he also hasn't been DaJuan Wagner either. Wall's been able to produce scoring chances for his teammates, despite being saddled with a dysfunctional set of teammates. 

    This season, he'll be joined in the backcourt by Bradley Beal, who is already better than Nick Young was with the Wizards. Beal will play defense. He'll hustle even at all times, and he'll be a much less crippling scorer than Young. He's already easily Wall's best backcourt mate since coming to the Wizards.

    The acquisition of Emeka Okafor and Nene over the last seven months should be a huge score for this frontcourt. Yes, they have to be healthy players, but both are capable defenders and rebounders, and Nene can be a devastating scorer in the halfcourt.

    They're also backed up by Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin—two big men who will be solid coming off the bench.

    The question is, what happens at small forward? Trevor Ariza is unlikely to be good enough to log big minutes there. Jan Vesely is a project, and Chris Singleton might be too confident for his own good.

    Is this team good enough to overcome that weakness and challenge for a playoff spot?

    That will be up to the health of the team and Wall's ability to excel in his third season. He won't be the only scoring option at the end of the shot clock, which could mean he's primed for a much more efficient season. 

    If that happens, the greatness predicted by many pundits when he was in high school will start to be fulfilled.

19. Portland Trail Blazers

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    The Blazers looked like a dangerous playoff team at the beginning of last season, but then wisely punted on the season to retool before everybody in the league knew what they were doing.

    Out of this, they found Damian Lillard to pair with LaMarcus Aldridge. Thanks, Billy King!

    Similar to what we saw from Kyrie Irving in his rookie year, Lillard looks to be a star in the making. The point guard out of Weber State will get plenty of chances to score this season, and he'll capitalize.

    The key for him will be finding ways to balance the scoring chances with creating for his teammates. Aldridge is still the best player on the team and should remain the focus of the offense. The team should run its sets through him. This way, the rest of the team will have much more room to operate.

    That's not necessary for someone like Lillard, but with Nicolas Batum's new contract breathing down his neck and Wesley Matthews needing a bounce-back season, that will help to get everyone in the flow of the half-court offense. 

    The reason I'm not sold on Portland catapulting back into the thick of the Western Conference playoff race is because of its lack of depth or even competent players inside.

    The best-case scenario is that Meyers Leonard turns out to be the second-best big man on the roster, but it's quite conceivable that Jared Jeffries is that guy instead. That thud you just heard was every hipster in Rip City dropping their PBR cans at the thought of this atrocity.

    Leonard should be a good player eventually, but he figures to be inconsistent throughout much of his rookie season, as foul trouble could keep from getting many minutes. That leaves J.J. Hickson and Jared Jeffries to play competently next to Aldridge.

    Of course, you could believe in the greatness of Joel Freeland.

    That should solve everything. 

18. Atlanta Hawks

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    I don't trust this Hawks team as far as I can throw them, and I don't have a great arm.

    Earlier, I talked about why Josh Smith has been a negative influence on the Hawks' offense. Maybe that can all change with the departure of "Iso" Joe Johnson, which should put the ball more in the hands of point guard Jeff Teague. The presence of a healthy Al Horford could open things back up for Smoove this season.

    But I'm also worried about this team's perimeter attack.

    In theory, throwing shooters like Kyle Korver, John Jenkins and Anthony Morrow in the corners and letting Teague pick you apart with pick-and-roll type plays works well. However, what if Larry Drew gets dumb and plays Devin Harris evenly with Teague. What if Harris is just good enough to earn significant playing time?

    Even if you're not sold on Teague (and I'm definitely not), that sounds like a horrifying scenario for the Hawks.

    Lou Williams' arrival will help with the end-of-game scoring load previously carried by Johnson. Yes, JJ was paid far too much, but he was still the Hawks' best player, especially in crunch time. But if Smith can't find a way to be an offensive weapon who doesn't have the home crowd groaning whenever he takes a 20-footer, this team may not have enough weapons to match the regular-season success it has enjoyed the last couple of seasons.

    It's time for this franchise to center its team around Horford, shop Smith and hope it can pair its big man with a big free agent down the road.

    Danny Ferry has done an admirable job in getting this team off the treadmill and on the path to somewhere. But this team still has a ton of questions, and I don't trust it to have the answers just yet.  

17. Golden State Warriors

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    I love this team if it's healthy.

    I'll continue to praise it, but it might prove to be paper-thin if the injury bug slaps it around a bit.

    We know Stephen Curry is capable of being a star-level player when he's healthy, but his ankles keep turning on him. His shooting percentage keep climbing as his number of games played keeps falling.

    We know Andrew Bogut is a huge difference-maker on defense and is capable of anchoring a top defensive team. In his last two full seasons in Milwaukee, the Bucks were second and fourth in points allowed. The problem is, he hasn't played 70 games in a season since 2007-08.

    The complementary players around these two couldn't fit better. David Lee is an offensive power forward who can crash the boards and provide significant and efficient scoring from the low and high post. He doesn't play a lick of defense, but that won't matter much if Bogut is backing him up.

    Klay Thompson is a dead-eye shooter who will be ready to spread the floor and try to live up to the expectations of Mark Jackson, who expects him to become the next Reggie Miller. Momma, there goes that hyperbole. Thompson showed last year that if you give him a bunch of shots, he'll give you a bunch of points.

    And there's Harrison Barnes coming into the league with a reputation for scoring and the potential to be a defensive presence on the wing. He gives the Warriors a scorer on the block against wing players, a spot-up shooter and a slasher on offense.

    Put these five players together and it looks like a piece of machinery with moving parts that all need each other to get the job done. They'll have Jarrett Jack, Brandon Rush (or Barnes if Rush starts), Richard Jefferson, Carl Landry and Andris Biedrins ready to give them production off the bench.

    The problem is, what happens if Curry and Bogut aren't healthy again? Will the Warriors fall apart?

16. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The Timberwolves were a darling franchise last season before Ricky Rubio went down.

    Everybody wanted to watch it. They wanted to see Rubio lead the team in the half-court offense. They wanted to see Kevin Love put up stats that we've never seen before, combining his scoring, rebounding and three-point ability. They wanted to see Nikola Pekovic crush opponents.

    Then Rubio's ACL went down and everything tore with it. The team fell out of the playoff race, and it was back to another pathetic April for this franchise.

    This offseason, the Wolves struck out on their top target in free agency, failing to sign Nicolas Batum. But, they still ended up transforming the team quite a bit. They're deeper now, sporting depth at nearly every position like we've never seen from this organization.

    They added foreign players with Alexey Shved and the return of Andrei Kirilenko. They brought in Chase Budinger to be a more productive version of Wes Johnson on the wings. They brought in Brandon Roy and are buying into his claims that he's healthy with a plan to return to being a very good basketball player. Derrick Williams dropped a bunch of weight, hoping to regain the magic from his college days.

    There are questions about frontcourt depth, but they're still sporting a solid five-man rotation inside with Love, Pekovic, Williams, Dante Cunningham and Greg Stiemsma.

    But the biggest question for Rick Adelman's squad is about Rubio. When will be come back and how effective will he be?

    He's starting to run, which can only be a good sign that late December is an accurate estimate for his return. As for his effectiveness, that's up to the Knee Gods to determine. We know he'll work hard to get back to where he was before the injury, but sometimes hard work isn't enough to appease them.

    The sound you hear in the background is Love's career biological clock ticking.

15. Utah Jazz

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    This team, which fought its way into the playoffs last season, needs a star.

    Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are All-Star-caliber players, but that doesn't mean they're capable of being stars in this league. In fact, the only guy on this roster who has a chance of becoming that is Derrick Favors, which leads to questions about what you do with this roster.

    The Jazz have an abundance of quality big men. Jefferson, Millsap and Favors are all on the spectrum between good and really freaking good. They're backed up by Enes Kanter, who could also develop into a solid big man. But is there too much talent in the frontcourt to allow Favors to grow?

    You can say, "Well, just deal Jefferson or Millsap and let Favors slide into their spot. You'll add a good player with the trade and acquire the space for Favors to blossom."

    Here's the problem with that: It's very presumptuous. 

    Can anybody tell us the market for Jefferson and Millsap? Are teams banging at the Jazz's door to ask for their big men's hands in marriage? Is the Utah front office fighting off offers with a stick?

    I have no idea whether Favors can be a star. He projects to be a very good rebounder and someone who could change the game for his team on defense. You'd like a much better point guard and playmaker than Mo Williams to set him up, but that's fixable through the draft, free agency or a trade.

    What I do think we know is that Millsap and Jefferson probably aren't going to get much better. That's not a bad thing if you're using them as options two and three. But if the goal is to win the title, they can't be your No. 1 and 2 options.

    So how do you get them that star? Are Jefferson and Millsap good enough trade bait to get the star? Do they need to vacate the premises to give Favors the chance to grow into the role?

    With the Jazz's depth and flexibility, these aren't bad questions to have to answer. But they still have to answer them sooner rather than later.

14. Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Sixers lost their two best players (Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams) and replaced them with Andrew Bynum, who is expected to be the center and focus of this franchise.

    This freed up much-needed room on the perimeter for guys like Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young and gives Bynum the chance to finally shine as the best player on a team. It's hard to argue with what the Sixers did, since the squad they put out there last season had a definite ceiling.

    But will it work?

    Is Bynum the star Lakers fans proclaimed him to be the last two years? Is he capable of leading a team when he's had multiple accusations of quirkiness and immaturity? Can he overcome his issues with double teams and find a way to dominate like men his size should?

    These questions will be answered by Jrue Holiday and Turner as much as they will be by Bynum. This backcourt, which will be backed up by Nick Young and Jason Richardson and flanked by Young and Dorrell Wright, will have to set the table in extremely efficient and decisive ways.

    You can no longer dribble incessantly and make slow decisions. There can't be many late shots in the shot clock. The Sixers have to attack quickly and precisely with Bynum in the post before the defense can react. They have to make the defense pay if Bynum negotiates the second defender properly and moves the ball to his perimeter teammates.

    Doug Collins will have to find a way to get through to his players in a way that doesn't wear them down like it did Andre Iguodala last season. He can't be the panicking, overbearing coaching figure that has reared his head in his previous coaching stops.

    He needs a plan of attack and his team needs to carry out that plan. Acquiring Bynum removes the ceiling for this franchise and allows it to look toward the sky. But it's going to take a team effort to compete with the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

13. Brooklyn Nets

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    Hello, Brooklyn!

    The Nets had to go all-in with their roster in their first year and Brooklyn to show fans that this is a team to support in New York.  Whether they end up bringing a fair number of casual Knicks fans and young people to their side, the Nets now have a team capable of making the playoffs, but also a team with little room for improvement or change down the road.

    This is their squad.

    It's not a bad squad either. Deron Williams at the point, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace on the wings, and Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez in the post combine to form a solid five-man unit. Throw in MarShon Brooks, C.J. Watson, Josh Childress, Reggie Evans and Mirza Teletovic and you have a productive second unit.

    (Note: This is where some Nets fans remind us they got Andray Blatche for the minimum and we nod and smile while making fun of them once they leave the room.)

    Brooklyn is not going to house a bad team, but it also isn't going to house a title team during the four years of contracts it gave out to Williams, Wallace and Lopez, and the bloated Johnson contract it acquired via trade. I'm not against keeping Lopez by any means, but the max deal he was given was forced on the front office.

    Dwight Howard appeared determined to go to Brooklyn, but other teams floated rumors about giving  Lopez a max offer sheet, which would have killed any chance the Nets had of using him to help facilitate a trade for Howard. The Nets didn't force the bluff to be called. They gave Lopez his max deal and put off until January any chance of a Howard trade.

    Then Howard was dealt to the Lakers and the Nets were left with this team and the luxury tax payments for the next four years. Again, it's not a bad team, but it's also not championship-caliber. 

    How long until the new natives grow restless?

12. New York Knicks

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    Speaking of futile title hopes...

    Okay, I do actually like this Knicks team on a certain level. I'm leading the Carmelo Anthony bandwagon, and the work Amar'e Stoudemire did with Hakeem Olajuwon this summer certainly won't hurt his game.

    You also have Tyson Chandler coming back for another year with Mike Woodson and defending his Defensive Player of the Year award. That's a really nice frontcourt "on paper." The problem is, we've seen plenty of empirical evidence that shows Anthony and Stoudemire are just awkward together. 

    We saw last season that Melo was much better as the power forward. With Stoudemire not in the best of shape because of the lockout and dealing with the death of his brother, he struggled. And it seems foolish to think that he'll do a 180 and become a dominant player again, especially not if paired with Anthony.

    Again, it's just so awkward thinking about them playing together.

    It's up to the point guards and the role players around them to make it work somehow.

    The point guards are Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni. They will be trying to replace the wonderment and confusion that was the Jeremy Lin era with the Knicks.

    Last time Knicks fans saw Felton play for this team, he was having a fantastic half-season under Mike D'Antoni. He was then dealt to Denver before moving to Portland. In the process, he added a lot of weight to his game and his frame, and none of it seems to be good.

    He'll be backed up by two players at the ends of their respective careers that are hoping to hold onto an outside shooting touch. Kidd and Prigioni are probably more there for leadership than production. But if Felton can't get back to his normal weight and play, they'll be needed to give both.

    In the meantime, the Knicks will anxiously wait for the return of Iman Shumpert for a spark off the bench, pray J.R. Smith channels the best aspects of J.R. Smith and hope Amar'e and Melo can figure out how to coexist in an elite manner. 

11. Indiana Pacers

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    The Pacers could have easily been ranked higher.

    It was hard not including them in the top 10 because they finished third in the East last season, are one of the best and most physical defensive teams in the league and still have a great core.

    I don't like the swapping of D.J. Augustin for Darren Collison, and the additions of Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and Ian Mahinmi probably weren't the players Pacers fans wanted this offseason. It wasn't a bad offseason, but it seems they lost the momentum from last season.

    Still, this team has a frontcourt of Roy Hibbert and David West and a backcourt of Paul George and George Hill. Danny Granger is the primary scoring option, which would be awesome if we gunned the time machine back to 2008 when he was a deadly weapon.

    For the Pacers to go from really good regular-season team and annoying postseason squad to a team that might be able to challenge for the Eastern Conference crown, they either need Granger to realize you're not supposed to peak at 25 years old or for George to figure out how to attack the basket and become a scoring machine.

    The depth on this team is still good and the defense will still be extremely physical. In fact, the Pacers could easily win the Central Division if the Bulls can't regain that regular-season sans-Rose magic. But is that good enough for the team and its fans?

    Is this a beefed-up version of the Hawks of the last couple years, who had a definite ceiling and were more of a treadmill team, or is it a roster on the rise?

    Can this team develop Hibbert into a dominant center or George into a very good wing scorer, which is what it needs to truly compete in the East?

    Either way, I'm glad we get to watch the Pacers beat up their opponents with long, physical defense every night. They really became fun to watch last season.

10. Dallas Mavericks

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    I can't quit the Mavericks.

    Every time I stop, Mark Cuban bats those beautiful money eyes at me, starts saying all of this crazy stuff in the media with conviction and gets me believing that the wins in Texas are even bigger there. 

    The Mavs retooled in the offseason, which they needed to do. They brought in O.J. Mayo to replace Jason Terry, Darren Collison to replace Jason Kidd, and Chris Kaman to replace Rick Perry, just kidding on that last one. They added an amnestied Elton Brand to supplement Dirk Nowitzki.

    They did certainly add some names. But will these guys all fit into what Rick Carlisle needs them to do?

    First off, I don't expect Dirk to struggle nearly as much as he did during his title hangover and lockout-atrophied season. We should see a refocused Nowitzki who is much better from the start of the season to the beginning of the playoffs. That alone is probably worth five to seven wins.

    But even as bad and inept as Brendan Haywood was in Dallas, can Kaman be what Carlisle needs in the middle? Did anybody who watched those Nowitzki-Kaman frontcourt battles for Germany in FIBA play really think, "Hey! That needs to happen in the NBA," when they saw it?

    Cuban made the argument that the Mavs just know how to get guys to do what they need them to do in Dallas. Maybe he's right. Carlisle is a great coach, the Dallas organization is top-notch, and the Mavs have a history reviving seemingly dying careers. 

    But he also said something crazy about the team being better off without Deron Williams, when he was pursuing him pretty hard just months ago. That sounds like losing bidder's remorse. 

    I don't think Kaman will do what Dallas needs him to do defensively, and I don't think Mayo can replicate what Terry did at the end of games for Dallas.

    But then again, a focused and ready Nowitzki is worth quite a few wins. That may be all the Mavs need to regain some regular-season prominence.

9. Chicago Bulls

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    I know you non-Chicagoans are thinking I'm crazy or stupid, or crazy stupid for putting the Bulls this high. But hear me out on this one.

    Even with the depleted bench and Derrick Rose's return doubtful until the second half of the regular season, I don't think Tom Thibodeau will fail at getting his team to play on a nightly basis. That defensive system is a pain in the Boozer to deal with on a nightly basis, and that could be enough to carry them to the Central Division title.

    I'm not so sure this team will struggle offensively, either. The Bulls were the fifth-best offense in the NBA last season, scoring 104.5 points per 100 possessions, and that was with Rose playing barely more than half the season. The team moved the ball incredibly well, and it still have guys who can knock down shots this season.

    Kirk Hinrich and Marquis Teague will share the point-guard duties until Rose is back, and they'll be flanked by Marco Belinelli, Rip Hamilton, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler on the wings. The Bulls will have Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah moving the ball around out of the post and high post.

    Whether you think those guys are good offensive players, they're definitely good passers in the half-court offense.

    If the ball continues to move on offense, Chicago will be able to survive. The Bulls will be playing system ball more than they'll be asking someone to play hero ball before their hero returns. And they'll still have that suffocating defense to break the backs and wills of their opponents every night.

    This isn't a team that can compete for the title unless Rose magically returns to 100 percent by April. But this is a team that can wear down opponents through the hustle and bustle of the regular season.

    The Bulls are a regular-season team that is capable of persevering, wearing themselves out by season's end and finishing around the 50-win mark. That doesn't give them a great long-term vision for this season, but that was already taken away when Rose went down last April.

8. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Is this the last time we're going to see a good Clippers team for a while?

    Think about it.

    Chris Paul is only under contract for one more season. Blake Griffin's knee seems to be an issue. His knee injury this summer wasn't serious, but it was his second that required surgery in four years.

    That has to be a little concerning, right?

    If the Clippers don't show an ability to challenge for the Western Conference crown this season, what's the incentive for Paul to stay under Donald Sterling's employment? There is a young, fun core, along with some nice veterans, but the Clippers have not been a destination team for free agents for a long time for a pretty big reason.

    There are just better places to play.

    Maybe Lamar Odom returning to his 2010-11 form can keep Paul from leaving to play for a better owner. Having a frontcourt of DeAndre Jordan, Griffin and Odom would take a lot of pressure off Paul. Odom could be more of a playmaker, which would allow Paul to have his legs for the fourth quarter.

    At some point, the Clippers are going to have to stop signing small forwards (they have Caron Butler, Grant Hill and Matt Barnes, in addition to Odom) and get Paul a proper backcourt mate who isn't Chauncey Billups or Jamal Crawford.

    Paul has seen where this league is going and seen many of his friends around the league team up. He won't stick with the Clippers if he doesn't feel like they can win. They have a good team now, a team that will do well in the regular season.

    But the Clippers need to have a great supporting cast if they want Paul to sign his next contract with them.

7. Memphis Grizzlies

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    This is the same Memphis Grizzlies team we saw last year, except they replaced O.J. Mayo with Jerryd Bayless, Tony Wroten and Wayne Ellington.

    Is it possible they're better than they were a few months ago?

    Here's why I potentially love this team over last year's team: They're healthy.

    Well, Tony Allen is a bit banged up, but he should be fine by the time the season begins. But the core of Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are healthy, and that means they will be able to return to the bully ball that can punish teams.

    Two years ago, this team had to get past Rudy Gay's shoulder injury and made a fun run through the playoffs. This last season, the Grizzlies dealt with Randolph being out for most of the regular season and not at full health when the playoffs started. Now that this team has a clean bill of health, we may get to finally see what it can do.

    The addition of Bayless and Wroten actually gives the Grizzlies much more versatility than Mayo was able to give them. Bayless and Wroten are both capable of running the point, something Mayo wasn't good at doing.

    That alone gives the Grizzlies the chance to play more small ball in which they can push the tempo and keep opposing defenses on their heels.

    It also means better passing in the half-court offense to get Randolph and Gay the ball where they need it to be effective. The Grizzlies still have all of their frontcourt depth, with Hamed Haddadi, Marreese Speights and Darrell Arthur filling out the interior. Adding Wayne Ellington's shooting off the bench could be a nice weapon they didn't have much of last season.

    This just feels like a much deeper team this year, even though the roster is pretty much identical. It's funny how health can change your view of a team from one year to the next.

6. Denver Nuggets

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    This team remains the media's darling.

    The Nuggets will once again be one of the NBA's most entertaining teams and will do so while piling on the wins. They've added Andre Iguodala, and while losing sixth man Al Harrington and starter Arron Afflalo, they still have Wilson Chandler and a bevy of depth to replace what them.

    The key to everything will be with how seriously JaVale McGee takes his career from here on out.

    He did and said all of the correct stuff this offseason, riding the wave of professionalism he's grabbed since he arrived in Denver. He went to Hakeem Olajuwon's big-man camp and got private tutoring from one of the greatest players ever. He even got Olajuwonto talk about the prospect of McGee dominating the league.

    And Hakeem was serious!

    If I hadn't seen immediate growth from McGee the instant he got to Denver, I probably would think Olajuwon was just blowing smoke. But George Karl seemed to get through to McGee and showed him he wouldn't just be given minutes. He had to earn them.

    McGee took a little time but got into the flow of the Nuggets' culture pretty quickly, eventually playing Andrew Bynum to a standstill in the first round of the playoffs.

    Now the Nuggets are a presumably better team and have Ty Lawson looking ready to take a leap into the next tier of point guards. This team is going to be near the league lead in fast-break points. The Nuggets are going to smother opponents with their pace in the thin air, and their point differential is going to dazzle us on a nightly basis.

    They're the darlings of the regular season because they're winning without a superstar. Whether that translates to postseason success is another debate. But they'll continue to be one of the best regular-season Nuggets teams we've seen since Carmelo Anthony was traded away.

5. Boston Celtics

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    It's possible the Boston Celtics are no longer saddled with the need to give up early on regular-season games to rest the old legs of their superstars.

    This offseason, the Celtics added depth to support Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. They hope the added depth will allow Rajon Rondo to have more options to pass to when the stars aren't on the court.

    Jason Terry is going to provide them a more versatile weapon on offense than what Ray Allen gave them last season. He's going to give them a scorer off the dribble and a pick-and-roll killer at the end of games. Courtney Lee will be a solid guard capable of playing both wing positions and harassing opposing backcourts with his defense.

    Once Avery Bradley's shoulder is healthy, he'll be back to flanking Rondo, or flanking Terry, and putting shackles on his opponents on a possession-by-possession basis. 

    The Celtics will also have Jeff Green to consume some minutes. I'm not a big Green fan, and I don't think he's worthy of the contract he was just given, but even if he gives the Celtics semi-competent minutes to let Pierce rest, that's a huge contribution.

    Garnett will have Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger, Chris Wilcox, Fab Melo and Jason Collins to help him inside. Some of those guys can get the job done and some of those guys can't. But they have options now for when Garnett needs to rest. 

    And it isn't just throwing minutes to a terrible bench and hoping those players keep you close. This bench can extend leads, grab leads and help pile up the wins like it used to a couple seasons ago.

    It's not crazy to think the Celtics can remain a top-3 defense and get into the upper half on offense. If that occurs, this team could finish with the second-best record in the East.

    This is a retooled Boston team with a plan to be ready for the playoffs. This time, the Celtics don't have to sacrifice wins in the regular season to do so.

4. San Antonio Spurs

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    This is the same Spurs team we saw last year.

    It's the same team that won 50 games for the 14th time in 15 years (only time they didn't was the 37-13 lockout season in 2000). It's the same team that won at least 70 percent of its \ games for the ninth time in 15 years. It's the same team that had the best offense in the NBA and the 11th-best defense.

    We're going to see Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker once again. We're going to see role players like Stephen Jackson, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter who can't stand alone, but fit perfectly into the attack devised by Greg Popovich.

    We're going to see the same team we forgot to talk about until they were winning 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 games in a row. We're going to see the same team that we think has to be written off because they're simply much older than good teams used to be.

    We're going to see the same team that we accuse of flopping, or being annoying, and the same team that we expect to be nearly impossible to beat on a nightly basis.

    This is what the Spurs do. They keep coming back like a bad guy in a horror movie. They've stepped in a bear trap, been stabbed umpteen times, shot by sheriffs at the lake, set on fire and knocked off of cliffs. They keep coming back. They keep stalking their prey. They keep attacking in a never-ending manner.

    It's the same cast of characters pulling off the same tricks. It's like watching a sequel of "Ocean's Eleven" for the 15th time. It's Pop, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili ready to give it one more go. 

    They're still going to be good and they're still going to make us question why we never take them more seriously. It's great to have the gang back together.

3. Los Angeles Lakers

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    There's a reason I put the Lakers under the Thunder in the rankings, and I probably should put them below the Spurs as well.

    Health could be an issue during the regular season for the Lakers, and it's going to cost them wins if it does. Dwight Howard still isn't back to basketball-related activities and will probably start the season on the shelf. I don't know that it's going to be a persistent problem, but it will probably affect this team during the first month or two.

    That means the Lakers will be relying on Pau Gasol to play center and Antawn Jamison to play competent and big with Jordan Hill. Pardon me if I don't have a lot of faith in those bigs when they're not backing up Gasol and Howard.

    There's also the question of Steve Nash's health. Yes, he's been healthy the last few years, but it's primarily been because the Phoenix Suns' Warlock trainers and their advanced ways of knowing when to push Nash and when to ease up on his back. He won't have that team guiding his body with the Lakers.

    The Lakers have a fine training staff, but it will take time for them to get familiar with Nash and what his body needs on a daily basis. If Nash has to rest his back, that means Steve Blake, Darius Morris and Chris Duhon have to shoulder more of the point-guard load.

    How fun does that sound?

    Ultimately, I think they'll be fine and one of the top teams in the West. They figure to be anywhere from a No. 2 to a No. 4 seed, even if it takes Howard and Nash a while to get their bodies finely tuned. And that's assuming Gasol and Kobe Bryant remain relatively healthy.

    This hiccup in health will most likely cost the Lakers a chance at securing home-court advantage in the West, but it doesn't mean their title chances are much dimmer than they were before.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Thunder were closer than they've ever been. They've been steadily climbing up the ranks for the past four years.

    After winning only 23 games in 2009, the Thunder won 50 games and made playoffs in 2010. They lost to the Lakers in the first round, but showed they were capable of putting up a fight against the best in the league.

    In 2011, they figured out how to win a playoff series, winning two tough series over the Nuggets and Grizzlies before losing to the Mavericks, who were led by a legendary performance by Dirk Nowitzki. That loss showed them what they needed to do to challenge for a title.

    Last season, the Thunder were the class of the league. They had a fantastic regular season, swept the Mavs in the first round before hammering the Lakers in Round 2 and eliminating the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

    They matched up with the Heat in the NBA Finals, but couldn't close out enough games to be crowned as champion.

    This year, they'll have almost the same team as they did a year ago.  They'll get Eric Maynor back from his ACL injury and have Serge Ibaka primed with a new deal and more confidence than ever. They also hope to have James Harden's contract situation resolved, so they can focus on the task at hand.

    And, of course, they'll still have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—a seemingly unstoppable duo that still has so much room for growth, which is terrifying to the rest of the NBA.

    The Thunder keep climbing up the NBA ladder. They'll once again be one of the best teams in the league. They seem ready to show that last season wasn't the pinnacle for them.

1. Miami Heat

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    This is still the best team in the NBA.

    Two years ago, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teamed up and everyone predicted immediate championships. But it was not until last season when the Heat added Shane Battier, who came at a discount, that those predictions came true.

    Battier's versatility transformed the Heat defense into a system of interchangeable parts. Because he was able to defend every position on the floor, LeBron James was able to to roam and destroy, and Wade was able to rest occasionally on defense, saving his battered body.

    Battier also bodied up and helped the team rebound when everyone assumed it wouldn't be able to because of its lack of size.

    This offseason, the Miami Heat added two more key role players in outside marksmen Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. Questions remain about how much Lewis has left in the tank, but Allen won't have many doubters.

    Allen will be playing the role that Mike Miller and James Jones filled this past season, only he's a better shooter and harder to cover than either of them. He'll run from corner to corner and wing to wing, waiting for you to mistakenly give him room to load up another three-pointer to add to his all-time total.

    He'll give James, Wade and Bosh more room to operate inside the arc, which has to be a horrifying thought for opposing teams.

    Last season, it was hard to figure out how to score on such a versatile and athletic defense. This season, teams will wonder how to stop the offense from going on 8-0 and 12-2 runs every few minutes. 

    It's not often the champs get to reload and look more impossible to stop going into their title defense.

    The Miami Heat will have that luxury this time.

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