1. Los Angeles Lakers* – They should be able to dominate a pathetic Pacific Division for another 50+ win season and do well enough to grab the first seed in the conference. I continue to have an irrational dislike of Vladimir Radmanovic as a starter in this line-up, but Phil Jackson probably knows something I don’t. It was probably a higher priority to keep Sasha Vujacic off the bench than Ronny Turiaf, so that was a safe move. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol will be able to do their things, and the crucial bit to see is obviously whether Andrew Bynum can be the missing piece to a championship run.
2. New Orleans Hornets* – The team has figured out that to get anywhere in the playoffs, you’re gonna have to play physical, on the verge of cheap shot, defense. Adding James Posey to that kind of defensive mix is the kind of thing that will have refs swallowing whistles and getting psychological edges. Chris Paul will be better and have the season that makes the rest of us swoon.
3. Utah Jazz – One more year of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer in the system of Jerry Sloan should make them a threat throughout the season, particularly at home. I will still take Williams over Paul if you pushed me on it. Not that I think you could lose either way, but Williams’ size and deft work in such a structured system speak volumes. Imagine if the floor was wide open for him.
4. Houston Rockets – Not jumping on the bandwagon to top the conference, no way, not until Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming make it through a full season without injury. Adding Ron Artest could be really good, especially on the defensive end, but they’re not leaping that far ahead.
5. San Antonio Spurs – Has anyone else noticed this team is getting old? Not having Manu Ginobili until December is going to expose this a bit more, and the bench cast doesn’t do as much for me in the way of brutally efficient as it used to. Tim Duncan is still what he is, and so is Tony Parker, but the odd-numbered title years end here.
6. Portland Trail Blazers – Regardless of what happens to Greg Oden, I think they’re making the jump to a playoff spot. There’s too much talent between Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and the other components of that squad to not make some noise.
7. Dallas Mavericks – Does Mark Cuban wish he had that Jason Kidd trade over again? Kidd is still good at what he does, but he’s not the point guard needed for this team right now. Rick Carlisle will be able to get them back to the playoffs, though.
8. Phoenix Suns – By the skin of their teeth. Too many players getting too old. Phoenix fans ought to be furious with ownership for being so luxury-tax conscious that it might have cost them a title shot, along with their lousy defense.
9. Golden State Warriors – No Monta Ellis for a few months, no more Baron Davis, and they’ll have to survive on the leadership of Stephen Jackson, which is good, but won’t be enough to crack an 8-spot.
10. Los Angeles Clippers – Baron returns home to L.A., but losing Elton Brand hurts. Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman will make for good defensive work in the post, and Eric Gordon should be fun to watch. That said, they’re not making the post-season again.
11. Denver Nuggets – George Karl has checked out and can’t get this team to play defense, much as it tries. Getting rid of the one player who could in a salary cap move while paying Nene was idiotic from a competitive standpoint.
12. Sacramento Kings – Only because the teams below are obviously in worse shape.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves – They’re still trying to figure out who they are and what their game is in the Twin Cities post-KG.
14. Memphis Grizzlies – I have more faith in the game of O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay getting them one slot out of the cellar.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder – This is really more of a karmic hope placement than anything truly basketball-related. I just want this franchise to be worse when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook bolt for real teams after their rookie deals are up.
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