With the NBA’s free agency period winding down and almost all of the top players off the market, the biggest remaining question about the 2012-13 season is the eventual resolution of the Dwight Howard saga. Of course, you could have said the same thing at this point last December.
But while Howard is the one player who could upset the balance of power at the top of the NBA, the bottom of the NBA could be radically different next season. Thanks to an incredibly strong draft class, there’s hope on every roster after two years where most of the league’s bottom third seemed more intent on bottoming out than building up.
Even the Charlotte Bobcats have a highly-touted rookie -- No. 2 overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- to pique the interests of season-ticket holders. There should be a lot fewer automatic wins on the schedule this year, as the league continues to put the lockout behind it.
The Super Teams
1) Miami Heat -- With the signings of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, Miami is pushing forward with the small frontcourt (Chris Bosh at the five, LeBron James at power forward) they used to win the NBA Finals. Now that LeBron has embraced playing in the post, it’s a nearly indefensible lineup. A dominant seven-footer who can force the Heat to play a traditional center might be the only hope for stopping a dynasty on South Beach.
2) Oklahoma City Thunder -- The next 12 months could be a crossroads for Oklahoma City, as they will have to make tough financial decisions on Serge Ibaka and James Harden. If the league’s big markets continue to flout the luxury tax, the Thunder may have to pay to keep up. They’ll get a boost on the back-end of their rotation from the return of Eric Maynor and the arrival of Perry Jones III, who could end up being the steal of the 2012 draft.
3) Los Angeles Lakers -- Incorporating Steve Nash into their offense will require some juggling, but his shooting ability will dramatically improve their talent level and floor spacing around Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. But as dangerous as they are offensively, they’re going to need Mike Brown to work some miracles on the other end of the floor, which is why Howard would be such a good fit with this roster.
The Next Tier
4) San Antonio Spurs -- San Antonio’s finely-tuned offensive system should continue being the envy of the rest of the NBA, but they won’t win another championship until they improve their defense, particularly their lack of a big man who can play above the rim and protect the paint at an elite level.
5) Boston Celtics -- The Big Three is no more, but Jason Terry should be able to fill Ray Allen’s shoes as a perimeter shooter and secondary ball-handler, and Courtney Lee will provide strong depth. Boston will have enough perimeter shooting around Rajon Rondo to keep him playing at an All-NBA level, but the Celtics will only go as far as the ageless Kevin Garnett can take them, especially on the defensive end.
6) Memphis Grizzlies -- No team should be more haunted by the 2012 playoffs than Memphis, who allowed a historic comeback in Game 1 and blew a home Game 7 to the Clippers. The continuing recovery of Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur from knee injuries should improve their front-line, but they still need to figure out how to maximize Rudy Gay’s offensive ability.
7) New York Knicks -- In a league getting smaller by the year, would New York be better off moving Carmelo Anthony to power forward and improving their floor spacing? Amar'e Stoudemire will never regain his explosiveness, which is why he’ll need to continue expanding his range out to the three-point line to justify his contract going forward. Raymond Felton, meanwhile, had better come into training camp in shape this year.
8) Brooklyn Nets -- Deron Williams, the NBA’s top point guard, has never played with a core as talented as Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez. However, without much interior defense, the Nets will have to hope they can sneak back into the Howard discussions in January to have a chance of contending for a title.
9) Dallas Mavericks -- The great irony is, now that they’ve gotten younger on the perimeter with Darren Collison and OJ Mayo, they could have built a title contender around Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler. Chris Kaman is a nice pick-up, but without Chandler, the team doesn’t have enough interior defense to contend.
10) Denver Nuggets -- With Ty Lawson at the helm of George Karl’s uptempo offense, Denver should continue their streak of playoff appearances. However, any chance of breaking out of the first-round will depend on the continued development of Javale McGee. At the very least, it will be interesting.
11) Los Angeles Clippers -- Blake Griffin’s latest knee injury is a huge red flag, especially given the history of high-flying big-bodied PF’s like Shawn Kemp, Antonio McDyess and Amar'e. They have a lot of big names on the wings - Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups, Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill - but they’re all in the decline phase of their careers.
12) Chicago Bulls -- Everything in Chicago revolves around the health of Derrick Rose, as there’s no way to know whether he’ll be 100% by the start of the playoffs. Tom Thibodeau and their size upfront will keep them afloat, but they’re looking at another first-round exit if Rose can’t dominate offensively.
13) Indiana Pacers -- Indiana’s deep run in the 2012 playoffs may be a bit of an illusion, as they beat an Orlando Magic team without Howard and benefitted from Chris Bosh’s injury to push Miami to six games. They’re a big, skilled and athletic, but they don’t have an All-NBA caliber player to build their offense around or a frontcourt player they can build a defense around.
The Playoff Race
14) Utah Jazz -- Utah GM Kevin O’Connor has done a masterful job of staying competitive while rebuilding, but it might get awkward this season. Derrick Favors is ready for a featured role and Enes Kanter needs minutes while Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are in the last years of their contracts. Mo Williams’ perimeter shooting could be a good fit on a team with so much post scoring.
15) Golden State Warriors -- Everything in Oakland will depend on the health of Andrew Bogut. They’ve got excellent shooters at every position -- David Lee, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry -- but none play much defense and all would be more effective playing off a low-post threat.
16) Atlanta Hawks -- Atlanta unloaded the contracts of Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson, but they still have enough talent for a playoff push. Any team with a pair of athletic two-way 6’9+ forwards like Josh Smith and Al Horford will be competitive on a nightly basis, while Jeff Teague and Devin Harris will both be playing for a contract.
17) Philadelphia 76ers -- The playoff experience Philly received last year won’t overcome a lack of reliable scoring or defense upfront. 6’11 rookie Arnett Moultrie could help off the bench, but Nick Young is a downgrade from Lou Williams. Dealing Andre Iguodala may be the only way to shake-up this mismatched roster.
18) Minnesota Timberwolves -- Ricky Rubio’s ACL injury last season couldn’t have come at a worse time, as his absence for most of the season may ruin Minnesota’s playoff chances. If Kevin Love wants to make the playoffs, he’ll have to carry the Wolves for the first few months unless Brandon Roy’s knees have fully healed.
19) Orlando Magic -- After everything that has happened, it’s hard to imagine Howard still being in town by the start of the season. Until that is finished, the franchise will be in limbo.
20) Washington Wizards -- There are no more excuses for John Wall, as Washington has a veteran frontcourt -- Nene, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza -- as well as playoff expectations heading into his third season. There are still a lot of oddly fitting parts in Washington, but there’s enough talent to make a playoff push.
21) Milwaukee Bucks -- The Bucks must not have a problem with redundancy: they have three ball-dominant 6’2+ guards and at least four 6’10+ athletic shot-blockers with iffy perimeter jumpers. Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings can score a lot of points, but they’ll need to do so much more efficiently to make the playoffs.
22) Phoenix Suns -- Is there a plan in Phoenix? The handling of Steve Nash (holding on to him for two rebuilding years before sending him to Los Angeles for draft picks) and Goran Dragic (losing a first-round pick to send him away and then giving him a $30 million contract a year later) would indicate no. Maybe Michael Beasley can ride again.
The Rebuilding Teams
23) Portland Trail Blazers -- Meyers Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge will be one of the biggest and most athletic frontcourts in the NBA, but Portland’s ceiling will depend on whether Damian Lillard can play up to his No. 6 overall selection.
24) Cleveland Cavaliers -- Kyrie Irving has been as good as advertised and Tyler Zeller is one of the most NBA-ready rookies in the draft. However, Cleveland’s fate this season will depend on the play of two No. 4 overall picks -- Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters -- considered reaches by many.
25) New Orleans Hornets -- Austin Rivers is not a point guard and Anthony Davis is not a center, which makes Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson weird fits with the Hornets two lottery picks. It’s now or never for Xavier Henry and Al-Farouq Aminu, headed into their third year after being lottery picks in 2010.
26) Toronto Raptors -- They are going to have almost an entirely new team this season, as Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross will have a chance to form a Big Three of their own up north. Since Chris Bosh’s departure, the Raptors have been one of the most brutal teams in the NBA, but things are finally pointed in the right direction.
27) Sacramento Kings -- DeMarcus Cousins and Thomas Robinson will form an extremely physical front-line, but neither is a great perimeter shooter or shotblocker. The signing of Aaron Brooks, meanwhile, isn’t a good sign in the front office’s confidence in either Jimmer Fredette or Tyreke Evans.
28) Houston Rockets -- While Linsanity won’t be the same outside of Madison Square Garden, Houston gives him a chance to dominate the basketball that New York could not while playing with Anthony. With three promising rookies -- Jeremy Lamb, Royce White and Terrence Jones -- they’ll be an intriguing team even if a Howard trade never happens.
29) Detroit Pistons -- They have an incredibly promising future, but Andre Drummond is years away while Brandon Knight may not be capable of shouldering a huge offensive load. Greg Monroe has become one of the NBA’s best kept secrets.
30) Charlotte Bobcats -- No one said this would be pretty. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is an excellent defensive prospect, but he doesn’t have the offensive game to carry a team like the Bobcats. There’s no one who fits that description on Charlotte’s roster, who will struggle to score enough points to be competitive on most nights.