Miami: The Champs are back although injuries seem to be an issue at the beginning of this season. A Wade injury is a major setback and could have them repeating 2004 instead of 2005. While Detroit will probably repeat as the regular season champs, when the Finals are over and the dust has settled, the Heat are the favorites emerge with the trophy.
Detroit: Personally I don't see Ben Wallace leaving as the death knell to the Pistons' fortunes. While he is a big loss, he also isn't a big salary on their ledger which will help out in the long run. Nazr Mohammed is servicable and the team will likely call on Antonio McDyess more often this season. Flip Murray was the biggest move, however, as the Pistons desperately needed some scoring help off of the bench. It also should be interesting to see if either Jason Maxiell or Amir Johnson are ready to step forward and start contributing. The Stones are my bet to take home home court advantage for the playoffs but I can't see them taking down a healthy Miami team in the playoffs.
Chicago: The Bulls made a lot of noise in the offseason but the players that matter are the ones that were there last season. Can Andres Nocioni build (or at least maintain) his playoff level? Will Luol Deng improve his game? Can Gordon and Hinrich take their team to the next level? The Bulls are a tough team to call because there are so many unknowns (Ty Thomas, Thabo, Wallace) and because with PJ Brown's expiring contract and a load of young talent, they could be the frontrunners for a midseason deal that adds a disgruntled star. Right now, Da Bulls look to be a year away from making noise in the playoffs but a deal with Seattle or dare we say Minnesota could make them the favorites overnight.
New Jersey: The Nets road to the title is easy to see: the Big Three (Kidd, Carter, Jefferson) need to stay healthy and the Tres Young (Wright, Boone, Krstic) need to step up. The backup PG spot seems more settled with Marcus Williams, replacing the always-about-to-emerge Zoran Planninic and always-about-to-be-dumped Jeff Mcinnis. A Jason Collins/Krstic tandem isn't terrible and a small ball attack with Uncle Cliffy Robinson could work but this frontcourt still is a major weakness. The biggest weakness, however, is the bench which is, for the most part, young and unproven. Eddie House was a nice addition not exactly what the team needed. This team is in desperate need for a deal to grab another big but right now they don't have the assets to make such a trade. The Nets have improved but they still haven't bolstered themselves enough to be a true title contender.
Cleveland: Lebron. After that, I'm not so sure. Larry Hughes doesn't seem like a good fit to the team and Drew Gooden is always just not good enough when it matters most. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is underrated but isn't a difference maker and the PG situation leaves a lot to be desired. Lebron is one of the league's best but, like Mike, he can't win with The Jordanairres. Until he gets a more suitable supporting cast, James won't be able to lead the Cavs to the promised land.
Orlando: Dwight. Darko. Jameer. All of the young guns are looking good but the key to this season is Grant Hill. How well does Grant play and could they move his expiring deal in a midseason deal to add another star? JJ Redick should be able to add some shooting off of the bench but that's probably all he'll do for his entire career so that pick could have been used on someone better. The Magic came on like gangbusters at the end of last season and that quality of play should carry over into this season however they are still a couple of years away from really making noise in the playoffs.
Washington: The Bullets (as they shall always be known) have a solid enough team but when they say, "This is our year", nobody thinks about winning it all. Moreso they just think about winning a playoff series. This year will be more of the same for Washington although their backcourt did get weaker. Jarvis Hayes and Deshawn Stevenson will likely struggle to hold the 2 guard spot down and the Wiz might be better shifting Antawn Jamison to the 3 and Caron to the 2 for long stretches. Former Celtics Darius Songaila is an underrated signing but this team needed a bold move to change its fortunes.
Indiana: The Pacers are a dangerous team but more often than not they are an injured team which limits their success. A small ball approach with O'Neal at center alongside Granger and Harrington at the forwards could be nice but, again, how much of a pounding do you really want to force JO to take by defending opposing centers? Switch Harrington onto centers? Same issue. Adding Marquis Daniels was a nice move but Larry Bird didn't replace Anthony Johnson at the point. He was one of their best players in the playoffs and one of the few consistent guys on the squad. Marquis Daniels can play some point but you don't really want him to and with Jamaal TInsley being injury-prone and Sarunas being not that good, a real third PG is a must. (And no, ex-C Orien Greene doesn't count). Even with all of these issues, I'd say Indiana is a lock for the playoffs in the six-to-eight range. Unfortunately, another finish like that will likely spell the end of the Jermaine O'Neal era in Indiana.
Milwaukee: This team could fall completely apart if the injuries continues to mount but for now they seem like a playoff squad. Ruben Patterson could be a surprise on the court if he can get himself together off the court. Andrew Bogut's injury seems bad but what it really does is benefit Charlie Villenueva who will get to be the man in the paint at the start of the season. He excelled last season when Chris Bosh went down and should be able to hold down the fort until Andrew gets healthy. The Bucks are essentially the Grizzlies East (which is a bit odd seeing as Milwaukee is west of Memphis) as they have good talent, a star leading the way, and no real hope of anything more than a competitive first round loss.
New York: That's right. Isiah is going to have his boys battling for the playoffs. The problem is, with the salaries they are making, they should be doing more than just trying to squeak into the playoffs. Still, finances aside, this team has too much talent to lose. The one thing that could hurt them is if MSG becomes a circus side show which is exactly what occurred last season. Isiah is a proven 40 win coach, which is both good and bad. I have full confidence in his getting this team to the 40 win mark but, at the same time, I think he'd probably have the Mavericks hovering in the mid-40's as well. Injuries are of little concern to this team as they run two or three deep at most positions. They could stand to move a PG for another center but it isn't a dire need. David Lee is highly underrated, which is surprising seeing as he is a white basketball player in New York, while Channing Frye should be ready to build on his rookie campaign. The injury to Jared Jeffries might be a stroke of luck as a good start to the season is important for Quentin Richardson, who last year fell to the bench and never got his head right. He spent more time threatening Marbury's life in practice than actually playing in games. If Q can rebound from his lost season and Isiah can throw together a solid consistent rotation, all should be OK in NYC and they could sneak into the playoffs.
Boston: The Celtics might actually be worse off now that they are better. The team needs a rotation and Doc Rivers has announced that he has decided to forego a set gameplan. I don't remember the last time a team didn't have a rotation and did make the playoffs. The team is far too young at the point and far too weak on the defensive end to truly make a difference this season. They might have had a shot at fighting for the final playoffs spot but the schedule just doesn't work in their favor. While Doc is still fiddling with the small ball lineup and throwing out every possible lineup on the floor, the Celtics will stumble through the beginning of their schedule, which is their easiest part of the year. If they ever do manage to get into a rhythm, odds are that they will be running up against teams that are simply better than them. Paul Pierce's hip injury also gives one pause; how many more years of driving and getting to the line can Pierce's body take? And if he has to guard bigger men in a small ball situation, will that only accelerate the problem? The Celtics are moving in the right direction but, rather than being the year during which Doc makes all the pieces fit, this appears to be the season in which C's fans get to figure out which pieces should stay and which should be sent packing.
Philadelphia: Iverson and Webber have one more go around in them and if Iguodala, Dalembert, Korver and company can step up their games, they might have a shot at the playoffs. Unfortunately for Philly fans, a lot of stars have to align to get the Sixers into the second season. Young guys have to emerge, inconsistent players have to become reliable, and injury-prone players need to gut out a full season. In the end, there are simply too many quesion marks to think that they'll be that many W's in the Sixers' future. The best case scenario for the Sixers is that Webber and AI turn back the clock and show that they are still superstars so that the Sixers can deal them at the trade deadline for some fresh talent. While AI might want to end his career in Philly, this team needs to rebuild and the best way to do that is to move the Answer.
Toronto: Bargnani won't be ready, Ford is rarely healthy, and Sam Mitchell is a lame duck coach. I'm not sure Bryan Colangelo is all that interested in winning this season as another losing year will give him a great draft pick and will let him go out and hire his own head coach.
Charlotte: This team will show improvement but they still aren't all that great. Gerald Wallace has to slide down to the shooting guard spot as Adam Morrison takes over the small forward role. The key to the season is the health and play of the big men. If everyone can gel and stay intact, they could put together a decent second half of the season, but the first half will likely be a struggle as the team works to find its identity.
Atlanta: All things considered, the worst franchise in sports. Josh Smith should be ready to have a breakout year and Joe Johnson is an overlooked superstar. Marvin Williams will forever be known as not being Chris Paul and Speedy Claxton is already injured. Shelden Williams and Zaza Pachulia will give a yeoman's effort but like the yeoman on Star Trek, they'll end up getting killed more often than not, despite said effort.