Outlook: Things are looking up for the Pistons as they finally move on from the remnants of their 2004 title team and build with younger players. Monroe is a splendid post player who gave the Celtics major issues last season and he’s a solid cornerstone. For the Pistons to make a run at the eighth playoff spot, Knight needs to make more of an impact and Stuckey has to be consistent.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
Last season: 21-45, missed playoffs. Coach: Byron Scott
Starting five: Kyrie Irving, C.J. Miles, Alonzo Gee, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao.
Outlook: The Cavaliers are a year or two away from contending but it will be fun to watch Irving develop into one of the league’s top guards. Thompson had a solid rookie season while Gee became a surprise contributor. The Cavaliers are taking baby steps to respectability and this year they will be better, but not playoff caliber.
1. Boston Celtics
Last season: 39-27, lost in conference finals. Coach: Doc Rivers
Starting five: Rajon Rondo, Courtney Lee, Paul Pierce, Jared Sullinger, Kevin Garnett.
Outlook: The run was supposed to end last year but GM Danny Ainge ensured another shot through some shrewd moves, including the acquisition of Lee and re-signing of Green. With Ray Allen gone, Jason Terry will serve as the primary scorer off the bench. Unlike past years, the Celtics have legitimate depth and it could lead to a return trip to the NBA Finals.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
Last season: 35-31, lost in conference semifinals. Coach: Doug Collins
Starting five: Jrue Holiday, Jason Richardson, Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, Andrew Bynum.
Outlook: While the 76ers’ run to the conference semifinals was spirited, they made several changes, including acquiring the space-eating Bynum, who is big and productive when healthy. They got rid of Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams, meaning more is expected from Turner and Holiday. The 76ers will be a tough opponent every night, but still a step away from elite.
3. New York Knicks
Last season: 36-30, lost in first round. Coach: Mike Woodson
Starting five: Raymond Felton, Ronnie Brewer, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler.
Outlook: The Knicks definitely got older, if not better. Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, and Rasheed Wallace join the club to help out but it will all come down to whether Anthony and Stoudemire can flourish under Woodson. Woodson was hired as full-time coach at the end of last season, but he has yet to prove he’s a frontline coach. This is his chance.
4. Brooklyn Nets
Last season: 22-44, missed playoffs. Coach: Avery Johnson
Starting five: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Brook Lopez.
Outlook: The only reason the Nets are picked fourth here is because someone had to finish there. Brooklyn has unquestioned talent but the question is whether Avery Johnson can gather all these pieces quickly. The key player here may be Joe Johnson, who could never lead the Hawks to the next level. He needs to be more productive.
5. Toronto Raptors
Last season: 23-43, missed playoffs. Coach: Dwane Casey
Starting five: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Landry Fields, Amir Johnson, Andrea Bargnani.
Outlook: The Raptors are in rebuilding mode yet again but they are an interesting bunch with players such as DeRozan and Bargnani trying to prove they aren’t busts. Rookie center Jonas Valanciunas may bid for playing time as Toronto waited a year for him to develop in Lithuania. Lowry is a more explosive option than steady Jose Calderon.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last season: 47-19, lost in NBA Finals. Coach: Scott Brooks.
Starting five: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins.
Outlook: Without the recently traded James Harden, the Thunder may take a few steps back until they build chemistry with Kevin Martin, who will come off the bench and score, which is his forte. If Kendrick Perkins is healthy from a series of injuries and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to flourish, there’s no reason the Thunder can’t return to the Finals.
2. Denver Nuggets
Last season: 38-28, lost in first round. Coach: George Karl.
Starting five: Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala, Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee.
Outlook: The Nuggets have put together an athletic roster that can score. Now the question is whether a team that’s essentially starless can overcome the Thunder and Lakers. Iguodala is a perfect fit here because he won’t be depended on as the savior, while Lawson is an effective guard. If McGee can stay focused and become a defensive stopper, the Nuggets will be a formidable opponent.Continued...