#1: Miami Heat: Nobody creates open looks like LeBron James. Still, Miami ranked just 20th in three-point makes and 11th in three-point percentage in 2011/12. Now, having spent their spare change on three-point shooters like Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, the Heat are poised to acheive higher standing in each of these categories, which will make them much more difficult to defend. A healthy Dwyane Wade will do the same, and it seems as if LeBron James will never cease to make his subtle offseason improvements.
#2: Boston Celtics: I love the moves the Celtics made this offseason. Jason Terry will be the dynamic offensive threat that Ray Allen simply can’t be anymore, and guys like Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, and Jared Sullinger figure to help this team establish a potent bench for the first time in a long time. The Cs are certainly deeper than they were last season, and there’s little doubt in my mind that they’ll be better. However, I do not think they’ve done enough to topple the Heat, who should also experience improvement. That being said, I think they’re all alone in second place. If their record doesn’t reflect that it’ll be because Doc Rivers doesn’t put a world of emphasis on the regular season.
#3: Indiana Pacers: Had there been 82 games last season, the Pacers would’ve won 52 of them. With Derrick Rose sidelined for the foreseeable future, Indiana has the Central Division all but locked up, assuring them a top-four spot as well as homecourt advantage in the first round. With the exception of Darren Collison, they bring back the same starting five from ’11/12, and they’ve added stellar bench contributors such as Gerald Green and Ian Mahinmi, both of whom played very well in the preseason. DJ Augustin should be a marginal upgrade over Darren Collison anyway, so the Pacers have only gotten better.
#4: Brooklyn Nets: Don’t be surprised if it takes the Nets a while to hit their stride, but once they do I think they’ll be a force to be reckoned with at the offensive end of the floor. All five of their starters are more than capable of scoring the ball, and guys like Andray Blatche and CJ Watson ought to be able to get the job done in reserve roles. This team has a pair of All-Stars, a low-post threat, and remarkable depth. What it lacks is a defensive anchor, and that’s a legitimate concern. Talent alone ought to make the Nets better than most, though.
#5: New York Knicks: If the NBA was a video game the Knicks would be looking down at the majority of playoff teams. Unfortunately for New York, there’s more to basketball than collecting individual talents. Until this team proves that they can function properly as… well… A TEAM, then I can’t rank them any higher. It’s kind of sad, but I could be reaching as it is.
#6: Chicago Bulls: The absence of Derrick Rose obviously takes the Bulls out of title contention, but the insertion of Nate Robinson should have little to no effect on Chicago’s elite defense. I still believe they’re a lock for the playoffs, but where exactly they finish will have a lot to do with Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer’s ability to put the ball in the basket. Remember, Chicago wasn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut WITH the league MVP. Even if you hold the opposition to 88, you’ve still got to score 89.
#7: Atlanta Hawks: This is a strange team. It’s led by Josh Smith, its second-best player plays out of position, and its top five is rounded out by three score-first point guards. The roster features some solid role players, but mostly journeymen. I’m sure the Hawks will aim to get out in transition, which they were already doing last season (ranked 6th in fast-break points)… but what about halfcourt scenarios, and the defensive end? This team is severely undersized, and I feel like it lacks some offensive polish.
#8: Philadelphia 76ers: Philly’s biggest strength last season was their depth, and they’ve taken a hit in that department. Nick Young is essentially a Lou Williams clone, but he’s more one dimensional and not as good. Andre Iguodala being gone puts Evan Turner in the starting lineup, which weakens the bench. Thad Young will also start this season, making the inferior Dorell Wright an important reserve. Andrew Bynum should help to offset this trend, but he’s yet to suit up in the red white and blue. Obviously, the Sixers’ success hinges on Bynum… and that’s a bit scary.
#9: Milwaukee Bucks: They couldn’t defend a lick last season, and I don’t see what they’ve done to adress that issue. If they qualify for the playoffs it’ll happen because they score over 100 PPG. With Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings, and Ersan Ilyasova, I won’t put it past them… but they’re a flawed collective playing under the wrong coach.
#10: Cleveland Cavaliers: This team will go as far as Kyrie Irving can carry it. I expect Irving to become an All-Star this season and help the Cavs improve fairly dramatically, but to make the quantum leap to .500 would require a 15-win improvement over last season. With a weak supporting cast and the development of young players to be emphasized, I don’t see the Cavs cracking the top eight just yet.
#11: Detroit Pistons: The outlook of this franchise isn’t as depressing as one might think. Andre Drummond appears to be further along in his development than anyone had anticipated, and Greg Monroe is already a player of borderline All-Star caliber. Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey compose a pretty solid backcourt, and guys like Tayshaun Prince and Jonas Jerebko should help to keep this young group glued together. Last season, a similar Pistons team was one win short of going .500 from February on. That’s a sample of 43 games, over half a season.
#12: Toronto Raptors: Some folks feel that the Raptors will fight for a playoff position. I don’t see what makes Toronto any better than the three teams I’ve listed directly above them, but I guess I don’t see what makes them any worse, either. In fairness to the Raps, Kyle Lowry is a significant addition and I can see them finishing as high as 9th place.
#13: Washington Wizards: Martell Webster looked like a nice addition in the preseason. Bradley Beal had his moments as he averaged 11 PPG. Beyond that, there isn’t much but doom and gloom to associate with the Washington Wizards. With John Wall out another month and the statuses of Nene and Kevin Seraphin still up in the air, the Wizards could be without three of their four best players to start the season. This doesn’t figure to help them start off on the right foot.
#14: Orlando Magic: Jacque Vaughn’s inaugural season as a head coach is about to be a major challenge. The Magic lack size and talent, and they’ll be fored to rely upon role players to lead the way. Will be in contention for the #1 pick.
#15: Charlotte Bobcats: What reason is there to believe that the Bobcats will be significantly better than they were last season? Ben Gordon? He’s better than Corey Maggette, but no. The long, painful road continues for MJ and his kittens.