Current Tiers of the NBA

26 07 2013

Championship contenders: Heat, Pacers, Nets, Bulls, Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Grizzlies, Warriors (Fringe: Knicks, Rockets)

Playoff contenders: Hawks, Bucks, Pistons, Wizards, Cavaliers, Nuggets, Lakers, Mavericks, Blazers, Timberwolves (Fringe: Celtics, Bobcats, Raptors, Pelicans)

Lottery contenders: Sixers, Magic, Jazz, Suns, Kings

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My Far-Too-Early Early 2013-14 NBA Playoff Positions

8 07 2013

Having a few spare moments at work today, I thought I would share my 2013-14 NBA seeding predictions…at the moment. These are subject to change. Please stay tuned.

West                                                                            

1. Clippers                                                                 

2. Thunder              

3. Warriors

4. Spurs

5. Rockets

6. Grizzlies

7. Timberwolves

8. Blazers

Almost made it: Pelicans

 

East

1. Heat

2. Pacers

3. Bulls

4. Nets

5. Knicks

6. Cavaliers

7. Wizards

8. Hawks

Almost made it: Pistons

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Mavs Finally Make A Move—Get Pure Point Guard

5 07 2013

They didn’t get Dwight. But the franchise got another foreign point guard with the first name Jose that is a fierce playmaker.

Calderon-MavsAfter attempting to bring him to town via trade last season, the Dallas Mavericks will sign Jose Calderon to a four year, $29 million contract, accoring to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. Once free agents can officially be signed on July 10, there will be a clearer picture as to the structure of his contract. (Some are questioning the duration of this contract for a soon-to-be 32 year old; however, due to the new CBA’s stretch provision, it’s not as bad as it sounds.)

Other than Chris Paul, who decided to re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, Calderon was the purest point guard available from the free agent market this offseason. The Spaniard has always been a great distributor and shooter while also being very efficient with the ball.

After being traded to the Detroit Pistons last season, Calderon put up fantastic numbers for a point guard—11.6 ppg, 6.6 apg, 52.7 FG%, 52.0 3P% and 89.3 FT%. And including his time with the Toronto Raptors, he led the League in 3-point field goal percentage (46.1%).

His most interest statistic, though, has to be his consistently high assist-to-turnover ratio. He ranked second in the NBA in 2010-11 (4.09), first in 2011-12 (4.50) and second in 2012-13 (4.11). Superstar CP3 has been the only player in the League with a better ratio the past three seasons. He may not be a flashy, high-rising, do-it-all guard that will light up the highlight reel…but he is certainly a great fit for a Mavericks’ team that had a tendency last year to allow turnovers to ruin games and turn many into blowouts. Dallas is getting a smart player that will work with Rick Carlisle to quickly learn his coaching methods and style of play.

Furthermore, this will make life much easier on Dirk Nowitzki as he now has a ball handler that won’t take long to understand who should be putting up the most shots (something last year’s squad just couldn’t figure out…yes, I’m looking at you Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo). Even though he won’t impress you with his athleticism, the guy knows how to be a floor general (see below).

Dirk works best with a guard that will take control of the offense and drive the team forward…there honestly isn’t a better free agency move for Dirk’s offense.
Calderon also gives rookie Shane Larkin a well-rounded mentor to learn the game from. They can both run the pick-and-roll with a center to be named along with the pick-and-pop with the Big German. Calderon is the first true vocal leader for the Mavs since Tyson Chandler was on the team; he will be ready to step in and work to win.

Dallas has had a good track record of bringing in point guards with high basketball IQs to run their offense. Steve Nash. Jason Kidd. He might not be as famous of a name but Calderon can be added to this list. Along with finding much more scoring (Vince Carter is currently the team’s second best offensive option), the next step for the Mavs is to get a rim protector to anchor this defense, especially with the signing of Calderon. Even though he has almost every skill you want from a point guard on the offensive end of the floor, Calderon lacks any sort of presence defensively, similar to the heavily-criticized Nash. Bringing in Andrew Bynum is a probable scenario, instead of Dwight Howard….

While being stuck in the middle of nothing and nowhere these past two seasons, Mark Cuban has played the waiting game for “big fish” to come to town as a No. 1 option for years to come. He has been working to clear enough cap space to sign a major player to a max contract to give these past few years a happy ending. Well, he missed on Deron Williams, he missed on Paul and he has now missed out on Howard. This move should remind you that Cuban is a good basketball businessman and does know how to make good signings—like making Calderon the point guard to build a team around.

I’m not excusing Cuban for swinging and whiffing on Howard after setting up a system in which he destroyed a championship team, decided to be bad (based on Mavs’ standards) and cleared space to bring a celebrity in…we can all agree it has failed. Real, alive people on a roster as assets have now shown to be much more valuable than simply cap space and more cap space…that’s a discussion for another time.

Right now, it’s time to move onward with “Plan B.” The other two Texas’ teams are clearly superior compared to anything going on in the Big D. Time to do some work, Mark.

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Howard Doesn’t Want L.A.; He Wants Texas

27 06 2013

 

Jalen Says Dwight Howard Will Be a Houston Rocket | Jalen Rose Report

One of these images will be a reality by next year’s NBA season.

Dwight Howard does not plan to re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers this summer and will meet with the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks once teams are allowed to meet with free agents on July 1, according to sources close to the situation.

The Lakers, being his previous team, are allowed to sign him for one extra year and for more money. By signing with a different team than the Lakers, Howard is leaving an extra year of $30 million on the table. However, it should be noted that Howard is only 27 and will most likely sign another huge deal when his four-year, $88 million contract would come to an end. I think he’ll be okay financially.

Unlike the team that shares their arena, the Lakers would not make changes to the makeup of their team just to appease their young superstar. The Los Angeles Clippers fired Vinny Del Negro and hired supercoach Doc Rivers in an attempt to keep their team’s future on the roster. Chris Paul urged them to make this change and will now most likely go back to the Clips.

The Lakers are sticking with Mike D’Antoni. They won’t be a placemat for their superstars. Well, Howard’s biggest reason he doesn’t want to go back to Lakertown is D’Antoni’s coaching system. His “let’s have some fun!” attitude toward the game compared to Kobe Bryant‘s “no horseplay” attitude is also sure to be a problem for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Either way, L.A.’s about to lose a huge part of their future and could already be looking toward the 2014 NBA Draft.

(Can we also all agree it is kind of ironic and amusing that the day after L.A. saw this billboard that Howard expresses his interest in anywhere but L.A.? #PoorHollywood….)

Among these three teams, Atlanta is at the biggest disadvantage due to the fact that it’s D12’s hometown. Being a kid that never wants pressure or scrutiny, Dwight might experience some of that by going back to where he was born. Most say he doesn’t have much desire to go to Atlanta.

So, that puts us in a battle between teams of the Lone Star State.

Dallas v. Houston. Dirk v. Harden. No. 1 option v. No. 2 option.

The biggest reason he goes to Houston is because he gets to win now. Coming off an impressive playoff season, the Rockets look to be moving up the Western Conference ladder for the next few years. They have a young star in James Harden that is the future. The Mavs missed the 2013 playoffs and would need more pieces alongside Dirk and Howard to seriously compete, so there’s not as much certainty with that roster. As I said earlier, I think Houston is Howard’s best fit.

However, just as Howard didn’t like D’Antoni’s system, he worries about coach Kevin McHale‘s system, sources say. That team likes to shoot three-pointers all game long and more…that doesn’t really play into Howard’s post-game. Will he get touches? That’s what Howard wants to know.

In terms of why he would go to the other Texas team, well, that’s the news of the day. Howard now has shown clear interest in Dallas and what the future holds for him in the Big D. It’s always been assumed he’d be the No. 1 option and future franchise face if he went to the Mavs, letting Dirk Nowitzki gracefully become the No. 2 option that he has been ready and willing to become. And with the pay cut Dirk will be taking in 2014, Mark Cuban will have cap space to land a big player during a 2014 free agency filled with “big fish.”

Check out how ESPN’s Chris Broussard put it Thursday morning.

 

Screen shot 2013-06-27 at 11.49.29 AM

 

Before anybody reading this gets their hopes up, remember who we are talking about. Mr. Howard is one of, if not the most immature and indecisive players in the entire NBA. Very few have been able to figure out what exactly goes on in his head. Even though these reports could be 100 percent accurate, who knows what their accuracy will be once July 1 comes.

The Dwight Howard roller coaster is upon us yet again. Take a seat and endure the ride.

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Clippers-Celtics Blockbuster Trade (Step 1)

23 06 2013

Before the NBA Finals even had a chance to make its way onto NBATV, the first blockbuster trade of the 2013 NBA summer is upon us. Lob City just became Destination City.

It seemed to be an impossible dream of swapping pieces. Then it suddenly became something actually happening that was only a few pieces from successfully occurring. Then it all died away due to a mutual interest for a certain backup point guard. Then we seemed to be on the doorsteps. Then the Clippers backed off because they felt like they were giving up too much. Then Los Angeles’ star point guard stepped in, said to continue the trades talks and scared his organization half to death. Then the league had questions about the proposed deals and the connections between the two since there can’t be trades with contingencies or side deals. But now, we have a deal. Partially.

The Boston Celtics have begun the destruction of their “Big 3+Coach” core and traded head coach Doc Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers for a 2015 unprotected first-round pick, according ESPNBoston’s Jackie MacMullan.

Coach Rivers isn’t technically a part of a trade since teams can’t trade coaches involving players. These two organizations came to an agreement that will give L.A. the coaching rights to Doc after Boston has released their coach and then give Boston draft pick compensation. MacMullan says the length of the deal is still being worked out.

The original deal was for the Celtics to trade Rivers and power forward Kevin Garnett to the Clippers for center DeAnde Jordan and two first-round draft picks. The league intervened, though, because certain contingencies and side deals (which is what Rivers, a coach, would have been) can’t be accounted for under the league’s cap rules, making the trade illegitimate. For the deals to take place, the NBA would have to be convinced that the Rivers deal is completely separate from any player discussions. Well, they were sold.

So that’s where we stand. We’re halfway there…or so we’re not supposed to think. But since the Rivers deal has been completed, we must play dumb and play the waiting game for Garnett to be traded to L.A. If a third team has to join in on the trade, it will happen. The Clippers will do what they must to snatch KG. Trust me—it’s inevitable.

Doc-Garnett L.A.

(With Doc leaving Boston, other than Gregg Popovich, the NBA now has no coach that has been with his team for more than five years. Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle were each hired in 2008. The NFL has nine coaches and the MLB has ten managers that have been with their team more than five years. In terms of security of a job, I would not want to be a coach in the NBA at the moment.)

The Clippers first didn’t want to give up rising guard Eric Bledsoe, and then once he was taken out of the picture, they didn’t want to give up two first-round draft picks. So talks were supposedly “dead.” But once unrestricted free agent (emphasis on unrestricted) Chris Paul twisted his team’s arm to make this idea a reality, the organization started talking to the Celtics again and made the trade discussions start to move forward. And they’ll probably still get to keep Bledsoe.

My initial reaction to all of this is “how long before Garnett is traded and Paul Pierce is bought out by the Celtics and joins his buddies?” (Answer: very soon.) My second is realizing the impact this will have on two All-Star point guards.

Lucky Paul. Poor Rajon Rondo.

This most assuredly guarantees that CP3 will re-sign with the Clippers as he now got his way and his superstar coach of choice. Once the next step of this trade goes through (Garnett), Paul will have a supporting cast ready to seriously compete for a championship right away. (Just look at how quickly the C’s core meshed in 2008 in order to win a championship during their first season together.) Sorry Dallas and Atlanta, looks like CP3 is staying home.

It will also be interesting to see the impact Garnett can have on Blake Griffin once the nine-time NBA All-Defensive First Team player heads on over. Will the highlight of all highlight reel dunkers find a way to finally become a defensive force due to the guidance of one of the best team defenders in the league? Or will he shut out Garnett’s serious influence due to his desire to have fun and make KIA commercials?

And on the other end of this trade, you have to feel somewhat bad for Rondo. Not only has he been given the raw end of this deal since he will soon be the sole leader of a team in full rebuilding mode (LaMarcus Aldridge feels his pain), he will likely have one of his worst NBA seasons since his play—and assists per game—is bettered with a strong cast around him. No. 9 isn’t the type of player that can take over a game, team and season without quality help from his teammates.

It is mind-blowing what one free agent signing—CP3—has done for this Clippers’ franchise. Once a place that every budding star wanted out of has transformed into the landing spot for players/coaches who want one last shot at a title. (Well, the city hasn’t changed. The franchise has.)

Doc, Garnett and Pierce will soon get that shot in L.A.

And the Lakers will just have to watch.

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Beards Be Gone

27 03 2013

Take a good look at the image above. This face will look a little different very soon.

From starting out the first third of the season without their superstar, to having six different starting centers at different points, to losing seven straight overtime games, the 2012-2013 NBA season has not been kind to a Dallas Mavericks franchise that is so used to it being nicer the past 12 playoff-filled seasons.

Nothing has come easy. This isn’t to say that the blame shouldn’t be on their shoulders, especially since they have allowed plenty of games to slip right by them countless times. However, the basketball gods have made it clear they want the Mavs to work for their 13th consecutive playoff appearance.

The Mavericks showed that they are willing to work for that milestone Tuesday night. And they showed it in a big way.

The Dallas Mavericks inched past the Los Angeles Clippers 109-102 in overtime as Dirk Nowitzki not only pushed his way past Patrick Ewing for 17th on the all-time scoring list but also pushed his team one win away from a .500 record and from some clean-shaven faces.

American Airlines Center clearly had a playoff atmosphere right from the opening tipoff. It started with the ceaseless boos for LamLam Odom and ended with the chants of “Air Ball” after Matt Barnes air-balled a wide-open three-pointer with 22 seconds to go in overtime that would have tied the game.

In between these two events was a game filled with plenty of cheering for the home team. The Mavs and Clippers simply put on a fantastic basketball game that remained close throughout. If you haven’t heard at this point, Chris Paul is pretty good at basketball and is statistically one of the best clutch players in the game. The Clippers opponent had a player just as clutch with a completely different array of skills. And much, much more facial hair.

Paul and Dirk played some of their best basketball of the season, each setting season-highs with 33 points. Chris Paul made two different shots that could have been game-winning shots. However, due to O.J. Mayo finally deciding to show up when it matters most and Dirk scoring the Mavs first eight points in overtime, Paul had to settle for two pretty good shots and another loss.

This big-time offense from the Mavs stars was clearly a huge reason they came out on top, but the defense down the stretch was just as important. And it started with Elton Brand and his never-ending motor. Not only did he collect eight points, five rebounds and four blocks in 25 minutes off the bench, but the 13-year veteran shut down All-Star Blake Griffin.

BrandGriffinIn the first five minutes of play while Brand sat on the bench, Griffin went 3-for-3 from the field, 2-for-2 from the free-throw line and had eight quick points. Once Brand entered the game, Griffin had no field goals until late in overtime when the game was already over.

It may be in a completely different way, but Brand has found a way to replicate the type of energy off the bench that Jason Terry brought to the floor and hard-nosed defense Tyson Chandler has made a living off of. When he guards big men on the block, he rarely is sucked into pump fakes and firmly holds his ground. This intelligent defense kept the Mavericks in the game when the offense couldn’t find a rhythm on the other end of the court. No other Dallas big man can do what Brand does night in and night out.

There’s one more old man that has to be mentioned. (That’s not counting Vince Carter, who simply needs to forget about this horrible night filled with a multitude of mistakes.) This is the old man that had one more assist and six fewer turnovers than Chris Paul. That’s right – Mike James.

After making a worst first impression than Manti Te’o did on the NFL, James (10 points, six assists, four rebounds, one turnover) has figured out his role, and the team’s 9-3 record since he became a starter is proof. No longer do people have to wince when James begins to dribble; instead, they can become excited for what he’s going to do with the ball. He is playing smart basketball and creating for his teammates as a starting point guard is supposed to do.

Now, we can’t forget about the man that goes by the name Dirk. Tuesday night showcased a vintage Dirk that reminded the nation why he is so unguardable. Head coach Vinny Del Negro threw Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and even a smaller Barnes at the bearded power forward in order to find some way of stopping him. Dirk and his one-legged fadeaway jump shot gladly showed all of these players just why he can still play at an elite level. There’s no question.

Nowitzki performed this way during the Mavericks’ biggest regular season win since last year when they took down the San Antonio Spurs in overtime. This one is even bigger due to the fact that the playoffs are less than a month away and because this is the Mavs first win against a top 4 Western Conference opponent (Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Nuggets) in 12 tries this season.

“It’s a good time to be playing your best basketball of the season,” Nowitzki said.

So, even though it’s nice to see this team playing so well and coming into form, why would they want to push for a playoff spot when they will inevitably be bounced in the first round just like last year?

Pride. Pride in the Maverick and what it represents.

At three different points this season, Dallas had a record of 13-23, 20-28, and 25-32. Tanking could have been initiated at any of these points and Mark Cuban could have started watching March Madness to see what lottery-bound player would be coming to his team. This isn’t an outlandish idea as NBA teams will commonly do this once they realize there’s not much more to play for.  But the Mavericks aren’t finished.

“Our work is not done. … The motivation is clear. This has been a winning franchise for a long time,” Rick Carlisle said.

As a Mavericks fan and a sports fan, I find very few things more respectable than the grit and grind this team has shown in order to get to where they are now and where they will end up. There were plenty of excuses they all could have given in order to mark this season as a lost cause. I mean, this was a team that had Eddy Curry start a basketball game…. Eddy Curry. Yeah.

But through it all, they never gave in and never gave up. And this attitude starts right at the helm with their head coach and franchise player. Carlisle and Nowitzki have made it clear to the media with their interviews throughout the season that they believe in their team. They will always believe. Because of this relentless optimism, they find themselves on the doorsteps of basketball in late April…again.

No matter the outcome of this season and possibly postseason, the Dallas Mavericks have given DFW sports fans a reason to not lose all hope in pride for their sports teams. The Cowboys seem to be obsessed with mediocrity and collapsing at the end of the season. The Rangers…let’s not even go there.

The 2011 NBA Champions have shown that they will not give up on their city. They will not give up on their franchise. They will not give up on Dirk.

The Los Angeles Lakers may seem like the logical choice to grab the eighth and final playoff seed with their star-studded roster. The Utah Jazz may also seem like the more probable choice with their strength of schedule and amount of home games they have left to play. But with the Lakers losing their last three games and the Jazz losing nine straight on the road and nine of their last twelve, the surging Mavs can see the playoff-light at the end of the tunnel. The path is filled with difficult playoff teams as opponents, but it’s there.

The Mavericks are clearly a team that will continue to fight for their lives and improve their chemistry until they have no more games to play, but this murky path will still be difficult to follow and conquer; however, with a healthy Dirk leading the way, this team is about to prove their doubters wrong one more time.

Get out those razors, Mavs.

And get ready for the playoffs.

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2013 NBA Season Excitement Preview

31 10 2012

The NBA season is finally upon us. No lockout – just basketball. With a multitude of story lines inundating this league, there are many reasons to be amped about this season. I will give you the main reasons to be excited about watching each team in the NBA.

 

 

Atlanta HawksAl Horford will quickly develop into the focal point of this offense as this franchise moves into the post-Joe Johnson era. At the point guard position, speedy Devin Harris will get the chance to get back to the player – a better player –  he was before Utah. Will a sixth consecutive playoff appearance go along with this? Josh Smith‘s decision to stay or go next summer will be effected based upon the answer to this question.

Boston Celtics – With the acquisitions of Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa along with a healthy Jeff Green, Rajon Rondo might finally have the athletic pieces to allow him to completely take the reins of the offense. Correction: he will take the reins of the offense. Once breakout rookie Avery Bradley comes back in December, this team has a good chance to be the Heat’s best competition in the East as so many have already claimed.

Brooklyn NetsDeron Williams. Black and White jerseys. Brooklyn. Jay-Z. What is not exciting about the newest team in the NBA? If they continue to win at the same rate as they did in New Jersey, though, they will quickly become old, bland news. Joe Johnson won’t let that happen.

Charlotte Bobcats – After finishing the lockout season with the worst winning percentage in NBA history (.106), there’s only one place this franchise can go: up. As we move into the era of washed up veterans (Ben Gordon and Brendan Haywood) and Michael-Kidd Gilchrist, they might finally move out of the last spot in the East all thanks to Dwight Howard.

Chicago Bulls – The eventual early return of superstar Derrick Rose will rank as one of the most emotional moments in NBA – if not sports – history. When he comes back, we will see less Nate Robinson, but we will see an inspired team that can compete in the playoffs.

Cleveland Cavaliers Kyrie Irving. This kid is about to elevate himself into the upper echelon of the league and become a superstar for his team. As one of the youngest and potential-filled (Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller) teams in the NBA, the city of Cleveland can finally have hope for their franchise’s future.

Detroit Pistons – If you like tough big man play, this is the team for you. Budding soon-to-be All-Star Greg Monroe along with already impressive rookie Andre Drummond (two men that are both one inch away from being seven-footers) will provide Detroit with a chance to squeeze into the playoffs – if Rodney Stuckey finally takes his point guard game to the next level.

Indiana Pacers – Following the Thunder’s footsteps by making it into the bottom-half of the playoffs two years ago followed by the top-half of the bracket last year, can they continue to follow suit and take the next step into the NBA Finals? With a healthy Danny Granger, always improving Paul George and dominate All-Star seven-footer Roy Hibbert, a generous playoff route could direct them to the promise land. At the very least, Gerald Green will provide casual fans with plenty of jump-off-your-couch-in-excitement slam dunks.

Miami Heat – What is next for LeBron James? What’s next is an unimaginable season. With a relaxed attitude toward the game of basketball, the King (he has a ring…) will collect his fourth MVP award as the Heat will have a commanding season (along with Ray Allen hitting many three-pointers), making it to the Eastern Conference Finals at the very least.

Milwaukee Bucks – Finishing ninth in two straight seasons, this team has been scraping the edge of the playoffs. Monta Ellis getting a full NBA season with the team beside fellow guard Brandon Jennings makes this yet another exciting East backcourt duo. This will be a very scary group that could beat any team on any given night when both of these players are having solid shooting nights.

New York Knicks – Yes, they are the oldest team in NBA history. But they have quality old veterans that still know how to use their intelligence to play the game (Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas). Since Amare Stoudemire will be out 6-8 weeks, Knicks fans get to see Carmelo Anthony at the position he plays best (power forward), making this group the best team in New York.

Orlando Magic – They might not win many games this season, but this fan base can finally let out a sigh of relief as their baby center finally got his wish. Keep an eye out for Andre Nicholson, who could become the surprise rookie of the 2012 class.

Philadelphia 76ers – When Andrew Bynum finds a way to get healthy, that’s when the excitement can start. This Sixers season is all about their new pure center. Fitting Bynum into Doug Collins and Jrue Holiday‘s system could lead to a challenge for the much smaller Miami Heat once the playoffs roll around.

Toronto Raptors – Even though it would have been nice to bring Steve Nash back to his hometown, this franchise got a stat-stuffing guard in Kyle Lowry, who will record multiple triple-doubles this year. Rookie center Jonas Valanciunas will find his way onto many SportsCenter Top 10’s throughout this season.

Washington Wizards – Once John Wall recovers from surgery, Bradley Beal will be an exceptional shooting guard to compliment his game and Nenê will continue to be the offensive force he has been since he entered the league. Just like the Pistons, this young team could find themselves in the playoffs if Wall does not continue to plateau as a basketball player.

 

 

 

Dallas Mavericks – For a team that doesn’t have Jason Kidd, Jason Terry or Dirk Nowitzki playing in their season opener, it’s difficult to get a grasp on this team’s identity. If they can establish their identity, Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo can wipe away last year’s regressed season and Dirk can play like a healthy and hungry Dirk, they will make the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season.

Denver Nuggets – Easily the funnest team in the league (Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried both having styles of play that any fan would enjoy watching), this group of pretty-good-to-great players has the most potential in the league. For this potential to turn into something legitimate, Andre Iguodala must become that go-to guy they have desperately been searching for since Melo left for New York.

Golden State Warriors – For the first time since 1997, the Warriors will have an All-Star in Stephen Curry – if he stays healthy (yes, that is indeed a big “if”). Putting him in a lineup with Klay Thompson, who will drastically improve this year, and Andrew Bogut, who will be a force down low, this new and improved California team will fulfill Mark Jackson’s prediction from last year that his team will make the playoffs.

Houston RocketsJames Harden. We have only known Harden as that sixth man on a team with two bigger and better stars. Now it’s his time. Putting the bearded man next to Jeremy Lin will improve both of their games, and with Omer Asik setting picks for these two guards, they now have a foundation for the future.

LA Clippers – Los Angeles does not know the future of superstar point guard Chris Paul with his contract soon coming to a close. But while they have him, this is still lob city. With one of the deepest benches in the league and Blake Griffin improving his low-post game, Paul can take this team as far as his clutch play desires.

LA Lakers – The two most important positions on the court are point guard and center. The Lakers traded for two of the best at those positions in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. They also have that guy named Kobe Bryant. They are officially “Hollywood” with undoubtedly the best starting lineup in the league once they find their chemistry. Since the Thunder also need to gel themselves with Harden gone, the Lakers have a legitimate chance to go all the way yet again.

Memphis Grizzlies – Is it possible to be the dark horse for three consecutive years? The Grizzlies are in the running for this title again. A healthy Zach Randolph takes this team to an extra playoff series – just look at 2011. If they get a better passer in Mike Conley Jr. to lead the exact same core – other than O.J. Mayo – from last year, you can’t forget about this team when making your playoff predictions.

Minnesota Timberwolves – The injury bug just won’t go away in Minnesota. First Ricky Rubio. Then Kevin Love… because of some knuckle push-ups. Even without their best two players, this team still has a lot of depth, and if Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko produce like the players that we used to know, they could still grab that eighth seed.

New Orleans Hornets – Inevitable Rookie of the Year Anthony Davis brings to the court everything you want in a center. Throw in a flashy Austin Rivers along with a healthy Eric Gordon and you have three players that could lead this team for years to come. (And don’t forget about the reigning Most Improved Player of the Year Ryan Anderson spotting up behind the three-point line.) The fans might soon forget about Chris Paul when Davis has his first 20-20 game.

Oklahoma City Thunder – This small-market team gave up a core for the ages in order to avoid the penalties of the new CBA. Durant/Westbrook/Harden could have been a trio for the ages. But now there is a new trio in OKC with a second Kevin in Kevin Martin that will be running off ball screens and drawing fouls. Even if he can’t be a distributor like Harden, he will get his fair share of points. Whether or not they are the favorites to come out of the West does not change the fact that they will be an electrifying ball club with plenty of highlights from Russ and Durantula.

Phoenix Suns – Discovering what the Suns new identity will be is a scary yet exciting thought. They don’t have Steve Nash anymore, but they have a solid frontline in Michael Beasley, Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat that all have not yet reached their ceiling as NBA players. How can they reach that ceiling? Goran Dragic. If their point guard works with these big men, all four could have respectable seasons.

Portland Trial Blazers – The Greg Oden-Brandon Roy era is officially over. Finally. Even though LaMarcus Aldridge still remains as the cornerstone of this franchise, how quickly Damian Lillard, who could make the Rookie of the Year race closer than people think, develops will determine just how soon this team moves out of the pits of the West. Oh, and Nicolas Batum? Just wait until he breaks out this season.

Sacramento Kings – The last pick of the 2011 draft will soon become the most exciting little man to watch in the entire league. Isaiah Thomas statistically improved in both scoring and assisting in every successive month last season and doesn’t look to be stopping any time soon. If DeMarcus Cousins continues to improve his game along with his attitude and Marcus Thornton quietly maintains his average of 18-20 points, they could become the sporadically hot team you never want to face.

San Antonio Spurs – The good news for the skeptics is that Duncan/Ginobili/Parker are now all over 30-years-old. The bad news is that Duncan/Ginobili/Parker have never let age get in the way of winning. Every single season we are reminded that the Spurs are “one year older” and they continue to make it to the playoffs. Thanks for that, Pop. We should expect nothing less this season.

Utah Jazz – Devin Harris is finally gone. And they still have the best quadruplet of big men in the NBA with Favors/Jefferson/Kanter/Millsap leading the way. Every single one of these players can pound the ball down low and actually be a conventional power forward or center. (Shocking, right?) They made the playoffs last year and can now build on this experience.

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