NBA Eastern Conference
1. Chicago Bulls – 45-37 last season, projected 62-20
The Bulls operated at a first-place 62-win pace for two seasons behind Derrick Rose’s leadership. The winning core of Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Carlos Boozer are back and this team is good enough to produce another 60-plus win season.
2. Miami HEAT – 66-16 last season, projected 60-22
The HEAT still have James, Wade and Bosh, so they remain favorites to return to the Eastern Conference Finals, however, they won’t lose any sleep about what position in the top four they end up at during the regular season. That alone makes first place an unlikely result.
3. Brooklyn Nets – 49-33 last season, projected 58-24
The Nets have the highest payroll in the NBA and will set a luxury tax record this season. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if they ended up in first place in the East.
4. Indiana Pacers – 49-32 last season, projected 55-27
The Pacers should have won more games last season and with the addition of Luis Scola and the return of Danny Granger they are better now. However, the Pacers will probably play their best against the teams they respect and do just enough for a top 4 finish against everyone else. Look out for these guys in the playoffs.
5. New York Knicks – 54-28 last season, projected 48-34
The Knicks are old and have injury issues, but they won 54 games last season under Head Coach Mike Woodson facing many of the same problems. Somehow Woodson kept this team on track during the regular season and he will probably do it again this year.
6. Detroit Pistons – 29-53 last season, projected 44-38
The Pistons added talent and should make the playoffs. Dumars landed free agent forward Josh Smith with a four year $54 million offer and completed a sign and trade deal to acquire Brandon Jennings from the Bucks at $24 million over three years.
7. Toronto Raptors – 34-48 last season, projected 44-38
The Raptors have brought back the core of last season’s roster that played .500 ball after the Rudy Gay trade and have upgraded the Andrea Bargnani anchor that had been holding them back last year with three-point shooting specialist Steve Novak and the physical play of Tyler Hansbrough.
8. Atlanta Hawks – 44-38 last season, projected 41-41
The Atlanta Hawks have their payroll under control and they made a value signing with Paul Millsap. However, it is hard to envision this team not being slightly worse than last year without their former leading scorer Josh Smith and their 10 point per game backup point guard Devin Harris.
9. Washington Wizards – 29-53 last season, projected 36-46
The Wizards believe they can play .500 ball with this roster for an entire season if Wall stays healthy and maybe they can, but this season, it will be starting center Emeka Okafor injured for an indeterminate amount of time. Expect the Wizards to put player development ahead of making the playoffs this season.
10. Milwaukee Bucks – 38-44 last season, projected 36-46
Once again, this team is good enough to grab the eighth spot if the teams that are supposed to be better flounder and that situation is not all that hard to imagine.
11. Cleveland Cavaliers – 24-58 last season, projected 34-48
The Cavaliers are a true wild card. If Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving can stay/get healthy and play most of this season, then this roster can compete with the Knicks for fifth place and they should succeed. However, those are massive ifs. It is more important to continue the growth and development of Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller, Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev.
12. Boston Celtics – 41-40 last season, projected 33-49
Boston didn’t have to let Head Coach Doc Rivers out of his contract and trade Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett if they were going to take steps to ensure a return to the playoffs this season. However, the Big Three era in Boston was over. Point guard Rajon Rondo will miss the start of the season and probably a lot more before his rehab is done.
13. Charlotte Bobcats – 21-61 last season, projected 28-54
A starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Al Jefferson still only averages 23-years-old and while there is plenty of firepower, it will be matched by mistakes at the other end. This team is still under development, but the light at the end of the tunnel should no longer be assumed to be an oncoming train.
14. Orlando Magic – 20-62 last season, projected 25-57
The Magic have done an exceptionally good job of rebuilding out of the ashes of their Dwightmare. Last season Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson showed they were part of the future and the second overall 2013 draft pick Victor Oladipo is a potential future All-Star guard. However, the rebuilding isn’t done and another high draft pick in 2014 is definitely in the plans.
15. Philadelphia 76ers – 34-48 last season, projected 18-64
76ers fans have a facebook page called Winless For Wiggins. This roster is young, suspect and ideal for tanking. Veteran Jason Richardson is unlikely to play this season after knee surgery. The team dumped All-Star Andre Iguodala for nothing but wishing and hoping last summer and recently traded All-Star Jrue Holiday for the injured 2013 sixth overall draft pick Nerlens Noel.
NBA Western Conference
1. Los Angeles Clippers – 56-26 last season, projected 62-20
The Clippers are better than last season. 28-year-old Jared Dudley is an excellent replacement for Caron Butler. J.J. Redick is a big upgrade over Willie Green. Plus, five of the Clippers top six scorers from last season are back, so this team has continuity. Then there is Doc Rivers.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder – 60-22 last season, projected 58-24
The Thunder are contenders to reach the Western Conference Finals for the third time in four years. This team is still deep and talented and has assets to trade if the young players Steve Adams and Jeremy Lamb are not quite ready for prime time in backup roles. Any slippage from last season will be slight.
3. San Antonio Spurs – 58-24 last season, projected 54-28
One day Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are going to pack it in after long and successful NBA careers. Unfortunately for their Western Conference rivals, that time hasn’t arrived just yet.
4. Houston Rockets – 45-37 last season, projected 54-28
The Rockets joined the list of serious contenders to advance to the Western Conference Finals when they won the Dwight Howard sweepstakes. Two bona fide big-time All-Stars has been the formula to contend in the NBA and combination of Harden and Howard is as legit as it comes.
5. Golden State Warriors – 47-35 last season, projected 51-31
The Warriors defense just took a huge step forward with this summer’s acquisition of Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut looks like he will be ready to start the season and re-create his big defensive presence from last season’s playoff run. The only obvious risk in Golden State is how well Stephen Curry’s ankles hold up.
6. Memphis Grizzlies – 56-26 last season, projected 48-34
There isn’t anything more frustrating in professional sports than watching a well-built successful franchise knock itself down a peg in order to save money. The Grizzlies still have a good roster, however and if it wasn’t for handing the heading coaching job to Hollins’ assistant Dave Joerger, it might be easier to believe this would still be a 50-win team.
7. Denver Nuggets – 57-25 last season, projected 44-38
The Denver Nuggets lost the 2013 NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri to the Raptors. They fired the 2013 NBA Coach of Year George Karl. Free agent Andre Iguodala joined the Warriors and free agent Corey Brewer opted for the Timberwolves. Danilo Gallinari is still rehabbing a partially torn ACL. This team is deep or no one would be talking about the playoffs.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves -31-51 last season, 42-40 projected
This is a roster bouncing back from injuries to Ricky Rubio, Chase Budinger, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, but Minnesota didn’t wait for their best players to get healthy, this summer they picked up free agents Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin. Nine years in the lottery should come to an end if this team can stay healthy.
9. Dallas Mavericks – 41-41 last season, projected 40-42 projected
Dallas has a collection of talent for the second year in a row that screams .500-team. While this group could sneak into the playoffs if other teams stumble, the only truly redeeming feature of this roster is less than $30 million is guaranteed after this season.
10. Portland Trail Blazers – 33-49 last season, projected 37-45
The Trail Blazers are too good to be bad and need to find minutes for their young players whether that results in wins or not. This season should have a slightly better record than last year, but winning is probably going to take a back seat to player development.
11. New Orleans Pelicans – 27-55 last season, projected 36-46
New Orleans projected starting unit of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson has an average age 23-years-old. This team’s best players are young, developing and a long ways from their projected prime and that is not usually the formula for a playoff appearance.
12. Sacramento Kings – 28-54 last season, projected 32-50
The Kings made some nice additions this summer. However, center DeMarcus Cousins is the player that could move this team from the lottery to playoff contender and everyone is waiting for him to grow up and do it. While that is probably not a fair expectation this season, if Cousins finds his maturity and Ben McLemore is as good a rookie as his natural gifts suggest, this might be the last season the Kings can be left out of the playoff conversation for a while.
13. Los Angeles Lakers – 45-37 last season, projected 29-53
Videos of Bryant running on an anti-gravity treadmill only serve as a stark reminder that last year’s savior is not going to be there on opening night against the Clippers. Unfortunately, Bryant’s Achilles tendon rehab program isn’t the only question mark on the Lakers’ season.
14. Utah Jazz -43-39 last season, projected 26-56
When the Jazz let Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams and Randy Foye leave, took back a boat load of salaries no one wanted for 5 future draft picks, and added two 2013 first round draft picks to this season’s roster, the message was clear. The Jazz were tired of mediocrity and the rebuild was on.
15. Phoenix Suns – 25-57 last season, projected 20-62
The Suns didn’t win a lot of games last season and based on the moves they made this summer, that number is going to drop. The Suns have some nice young assets on this roster and a few veterans that should be moved before the trade deadline.