Originally posted on NBA 24/7 365  |  Last updated 10/30/12
#1: Los Angeles Lakers: Chemistry is indeed a funny thing, but I’d be more worried about the Lakers if their starting lineup didn’t include three of the most cerebral players in all of basketball.  Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard will develop the most lethal high-low attack of my lifetime, and I believe Kobe Bryant has enough respect for Steve Nash to share the ball from time to time.  Offensively, not even Mike Brown and Ron Artest should keep this team from becoming unstoppable.  I don’t expect it to happen overnight, but come February these guys will be rolling.  Defensively, well, they’ve got Dwight Howard… so they’ll be pretty good. #2: Oklahoma City Thunder: They aren’t #2 because they traded James Harden.  They were already #2.  This is actually one of the reasons why I like the Harden trade.  Kevin Martin is coming off the books this summer, and if they amnesty Kendrick Perkins the Thunder could free up a significant amount of cap space.  The likes of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Josh Smith could all be available.  Having dealt Harden, OKC ought to grow stronger as the Lakers get weaker.  I figure they could reclaim the throne in another couple years. #3: San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs aren’t the only ones getting older and wiser.  I’ll believe in the demise of this team when I see it. #4: Los Angeles Clippers: The Grizzlies edged the Clippers out of this spot by a single game last season, but I don’t expect that to happen again.  Exactly how good the Clippers can be depends on a multitude of factors, but I believe the improvement of young players like Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan as well as additions like Jamal Crawford and Grant Hill have already made them better than they were a year ago.  Also, I don’t expect the second go ’round of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to yield bottom-ten finishes in categories such as fast-break points and points in the paint.  If it does, improvements will be marginal and heads must roll. #5: Memphis Grizzlies: I see that they waived Flip Murray.  Not really a fan of that move.  I don’t know what to say about the Grizzlies other than that I believe they are what they are, which is a little worse than the Clippers. #6: Denver Nuggets: The Iggy trade and that tight series with the Lakers have a lot of people feeling pretty high on the Nuggets.  As much as I’d love to rank such a fun team amongst the West’s elite, I don’t see them being much different from the middling, up-and-down squad they were a year ago.  They finished 6th in ’11/12, so this makes sense to me. #7: Dallas Mavericks: Which Dirk Nowitzki will we see upon his return from knee surgery?  Will will rediscover the legend who out-dueled Kevin Durant and LeBron James to deliver a title to Dallas, or will we find the mere mortal who lost focus, stopped practicing, and allowed his game to fall off?  Unfortunately, I foresee the latter scenario… which will leave Dallas battling the next couple of teams for one of the two Western Conference slots that I consider to be available. #8: Utah Jazz: Arguably the deepest team in the league, the Jazz certainly aren’t lacking talent.  One of their major struggles in ’11/12 was to knock down open shots from the perimeter, and with the additions of Mo and Marvin Williams they’ve certainly improved in that regard.  One thing that worries me is the logjam in the frontcourt.  Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are looking to earn new contracts, and they could become displeased with Utah’s possible intent to usher them out of town in favor of Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors.  Obviously, the Jazz have big decisions to make, and these decisions could result in a season that puts development ahead of wins and losses. #9: Minnesota Timberwolves: I’d have the T-Wolves in the playoffs if I knew Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio would take the floor on opening night.  Unfortunately, neither of them will.  On the brighter side of things, Minnesota will play 50% of their November and December games against teams that I predict will land outside of the playoffs.  If they can maintain a .500 record until Kevin Love returns then they most certainly have a shot. #10: Portland Trail Blazers: I don’t think the Blazers have the depth nor the experience to be a Playoff team this season, but they shouldn’t be totally awful, either.  Having averaged better than 21 PPG over his last two seasons, LaMarcus Aldridge has become a legitimate #1 option.  Damian Lillard appears about as NBA-ready a rookie as you’ll find, and holdovers such as Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews can get the job done.  Size is a problem, and health could be a problem… but the Blazers have competitive talent. #11: Golden State Warriors: When healthy, Andre Bogut is precisely what the Warriors have needed—an imposing defensive presence—for oh so many years.  The problem, of course, is that he’s been sidelined for the past nine months.  Golden State gave up more points than any team not called the Kings last season, and they’ll absolutely need Bogut to play 70+ games… something he’s only done twice in seven years.  And then there’s Steph Curry’s ankle.  On paper, this team is solid… but no sane man would bet on ‘em to hold up through a grueling 82-game schedule. #12: Phoenix Suns: Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Michael Beasley, Luis Scola, and Marcin Gortat.  The Suns’ starting lineup lacks that standout performer that most playoff teams have, but it certainly isn’t terrible.  The problem with the Suns is that they have no bench.  And when I say they have no bench, I mean Wes Johnson is one of the best players on their bench.  Like, the Wes Johnson from years past… not the one who actually played pretty well in preseason (I’m assuming it won’t continue).  Despite their complete and utter lack of depth, I expect the Suns to be better than a couple of the West’s real bottom feeders. #13: Houston Rockets: Is James Harden the “foundational piece” the Rockets believe he is, or has Ricky Davis just returned to Cleveland?  That statement is not meant to be a comparison of James Harden to Ricky Davis, by the way, but a comparison of situations.  The question here is whether or not James Harden’s abilities are that of a lead scorer for a playoff team or a lead scorer for a lottery team.  My placement of the Rockets (well outside the playoffs) obviously reflects my opinion.  Also, Jeremy Lin will shoot sub-40% this season and lead the league in turnovers per minute played.  Omer Asik is low-key beasty, though. #14: Sacramento Kings: On offense, they mostly dribble.  On defense, they basically allow the other team to score so they can get the ball back and dribble it some more.  I expect little progress in Sacramento. #15: New Orleans Hornets: Last I heard Eric Gordon’s status was still up in the air.  Until he comes back, this team will be hard pressed to score 80 points.  Outside of maybe five players, their roster is simply atrocious.  Look at it.  If Gordon misses the entire season again they are the worst team in the NBA.
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