As has been the case in previous seasons, I open the season with my tiered power rankings. Please remember that these are not based on anything but projected regular season success. The concept is that teams could finish in any configuration within a tier and I would be surprised if they finished outside of that tier, excluding major personnel changes.
Los Angeles Lakers: One of the single biggest talent upgrades I have seen for a high-quality team, and that includes how highly I think of Andrew Bynum. While Steve Nash has his major defensive flaws and there are still major questions on how this team will handle the last few minutes of ballgames, the Lakers again have the talent to run over most teams from now until the second round of the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs: It feels like people are forgetting that the Spurs actually had the best record in the Western Conference last season and had a seemingly commanding lead on the Thunder before the series shifted completely. The Spurs are getting older, yet also have players like Kawhi Leonard that are ready to grow their roles and keep this team trucking, especially in the regular season.
Oklahoma City Thunder: With the recent roster changes, it may take a little longer for the Zombie Sonics to get in gear. Despite receiving quality contributions from their core, Oklahoma City needs to get get more all-around contributions from their bench (especially Eric Maynor and the bigs) in order to have a better shot at getting the top seed.
Denver Nuggets: Without too much argument, the Nuggets stand out as the deepest team in the NBA going into the season. The addition of Andre Iguodala gives Denver a cohesive identity that they have not had since the Carmelo Anthony trade and they have the upside to make a series run at tier one in both the regular season and the postseason. I would pay good money to see a Nuggets/Thunder series in any round.
Los Angeles Clippers: If the Clippers can go into the playoffs with a healthy squad, they will be an incredibly tough out. My biggest concern is that they do not have the depth to withstand injuries of meaningful length to their top guys, which is why they sit right here despite their starting lineup. As much press as their two All-Stars get, DeAndre Jordan could end up playing a pivotal role if he plays within himself and makes the right kind of impact game to game.
Memphis Grizzlies: The question for Memphis has to be whether Rudy Gay and the rest of the team can make up for not really replacing what OJ Mayo brought to the squad over the last few seasons. If they can do that, and keep Marc Gasol healthy, we could see something more like the 2011 iteration than the 2012 playoffs.
Houston Rockets: The massive upgrade they got over the summer was completed with the acquisition of James Harden this weekend. Look for him to mesh well with Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik as the Rockets battle with a series of injury-riddled teams for the last few seeds in the West.
Golden State Warriors: For the first time in a long time, Golden State has a starting five that resembles the rest of the league in both logic and quality. Andrew Bogut could be the most meaningful addition to any team in the West other than Howard, while Stephen Curry has the opportunity to define his role in the NBA.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The dual injuries to Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio could end up being long enough to keep this team out of the postseason for one final year, but I think Minnesota finally has the talent to compete with the best and brightest at full strength. Any improvement out of Derrick Williams would help a ton, particularly in the early part of the season when the team will need a boost.
Utah Jazz: A playoff team last season that did not lose much in the way of talent, the Jazz should serve as an interesting test case of the difference between building with new talent and improving by gelling and being on the right side of the aging curve. Derrick Favors needs to break out and will have no better time than this season.
Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki's recent knee scope will hurt their chances of developing early chemistry and get a jump on one of the final spots in the playoffs. That said, I love how the Mavs got younger (and likely better) by being aggressive and procuring both OJ Mayo and Darren Collison. Roddy Beaubois should have an opportunity as well to create a niche on the team, while Elton Brand will have a shot to make an impact at the start of the season.
New Orleans Hornets: My #1 NBA League Pass team to start the season, the Hornets have a compelling assortment of talent and the right level of intrigue to make them worth watching all year long. Austin Rivers has the chance to show the basketball world what he can do and where he can play, while Anthony Davis gets the opportunity to define himself on both sides of the ball after one of the best calendar years of hoops ever for a young player.
Portland Trailblazers: Possibly the most fascinating concoction of young talent because of two lottery picks (Meyers Leonard and Damian Lilllard) along with two “young veterans” in LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum. This core should get a few years to try and make it work and I for one will be watching to see how it all starts.
Sacramento Kings: Considering they possess the big man with the highest ceiling in the entire league (DeMarcus Cousins), it still feels weird to have the Kings in the lowest tier in the West. However, their petrifying lack of swingman talent outside of Tyreke Evans and strange PG situation makes it hard to argue that they will move beyond this grouping this season. Still fascinated to see where they go when they get a little more high-end talent.
Phoenix Suns: While clearly better than the Bobcats, it seems hard to figure out exactly how the Suns will reliably beat other teams. Their offense and rebounding will be fine but not dominant, while their defense leaves plenty to be desired. Jared Dudley gets to make a statement that he can be more than a role player while Goran Dragic will get the reins of a team full-time.
Miami Heat: Truly in a class by themselves when it comes to the Eastern Conference. What makes Miami so terrifying is that they do not even need homecourt in order to run rampant through this conference in the playoffs, yet they should have it anyway without breaking much of a sweat. Ray Allen’s role on this team should be fun to watch from start to finish.
Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are potentially the most underhyped team heading into the 2012-13 season. Indiana has a logical and effective starting five that features quality players at each position even though George Hill needs to continue to find himself as a PG. Roy Hibbert will be playing with a bigger contract and therefore be under a bigger microscope but has the talent to deliver all season long.
Boston Celtics: Boston moves down a few slots, not because of replacing Ray Allen with Jason Terry, but rather for the simple fact that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are still the lynchpins of this team, and Rajon Rondo is not dominant enough to counteract Father Time. That said, I do like the additions of Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green (sort of) and Fab Melo from a talent perspective. If Garnett and Pierce can turn back the clock, Boston could be a brutal out in the playoffs.
Philadelphia 76ers: Andre Iguodala was one hell of a player and may have been underrated during his tenure in Philly because of his offensive numbers. You know who else is one hell of a player? Andrew Bynum. Their offseason changes make a more cohesive and dangerous team on both sides of the ball while also retaining the nastiness that made them work last season.
Brooklyn Nets: Despite carrying some notable flaws, the Nets have the talent to stick in this tier as long as Deron Williams stays healthy most of the year. Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace would have been a much better backcourt half a decade ago, yet still should be able to make teams sweat for the next few seasons. They need Brook Lopez to become more than he has been in order to go beyond the second round.
Chicago Bulls: The Bulls break my tier rules because I have absolutely no idea where they will end up. A fully healthy team sits as the second-best team in the conference, even after executing the bench mob that helped make them so successful last season. Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Tom Thibodeau are just that good. However, who knows if and when we will see the whole gang together again.
New York Knicks: I will undoubtedly get some heat for having the Knicks here (and below their newly closer neighbors), but this stands as the correct placement for them. The incredibly disappointing move to not retain Jeremy Lin and instead go with Raymond Felton kneecaps what could have been a much more potent all-around team and likely wastes the best years of the Melo/Amare/Tyson triumvirate.
Atlanta Hawks: While ESPN The Magazine apparently thinks this team can finish second in the East, I am dubious despite loving Al Horford considerably. This Atlanta team needs both an identity and late-game production that can win them close games. The gaping hole at small forward and lack of depth at the big man spots scare me enough to leave them firmly right here.
Toronto Raptors: As a believer in Jonas Valanciunas, I feel the Raptors can be a relevant team immediately, even though they are still incredibly flawed. The addition of Kyle Lowry gives them better point guard play than they have had recently and that could yield some benefits for a swingman group that needs breakout stars.
Milwaukee Bucks: A full year of the Brandon Jennings/Monta Ellis backcourt experiment will be a blast and a half. My biggest problem with the Bucks is that their talent does not fit together well and it seems hard to piece together how they can win enough games to outpace this tier.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving is the real deal. Unfortunately for him, the Cavs have the worst swingman group in the entire league (and yes that includes the Bobcats). Any production from those guys would go nicely with a solid enough big man rotation and get this team on the road to what counts as prosperity without King James.
Washington Wizards: Another underrated team in the East, the Wizards finally have a roster that makes sense even if it needs more offensive firepower. Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor and Bradley Beal each add something Washington has needed in recent years and now is the time for John Wall to become the franchise player he was drafted to be, even if he still cannot shoot.
Detroit Pistons: Adding a high-upside big like Andre Drummond helps keep the Pistons on the path to long-term success. Unfortunately, the rest of the team does not have the talent or production to keep the team in the playoff hunt until Drummond is ready for prime time. Look for Brandon Knight to create a more clear-cut role for himself this season.
Orlando Magic: While the Pistons have some talent that could guide them out of the wilderness, the Magic just traded themselves deep into it. This should be a rough year for Orlando since their talent suddenly does not make since due to the lack of a certain elite big. If they go anywhere this season, Arron Afflalo should be the one to do it since he has the all-around game to help them forge an identity.
Charlotte Bobcats: The Bobcats were so bad last year, even a meaningful improvement leaves them down here by themselves again. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a great piece for an eventual playoff teams, giving the team exactly one player that fits that description.
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James
Coach of the Year: George Karl
Rookie of the Year: Anthony Davis
Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams
Most Improved Player: Kawhi Leonard
Lakers over Warriors in five
Spurs over Rockets in seven
Thunder over Grizzlies in seven
Nuggets over Clippers in six
Lakers over Nuggets in seven
Thunder over Spurs in seven
Western Conference Finals:
Lakers over Thunder in six
Heat over Hawks in four
Pacers over Bulls in seven
Celtics over Knicks in six
76ers over Nets in seven
Heat over 76ers in six
Celtics over Pacers in seven
Eastern Conference Finals:
Heat over Celtics in five
NBA Finals: Heat over Lakers in six
Finals MVP: LeBron James