TEAMS ON THE RISE
1. Denver Nuggets: If you are looking for a sleeper in the West, try the Rocky Mountains. The Nuggets might not have an All-Star but they are loaded with Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala, Kenneth Faried, and Wilson Chandler. The Nuggets are young and athletic, and will reach their potential with underrated coach George Karl.
2. Brooklyn Nets: The Nets have finally become relevant in the NBA after years of playing second fiddle to the Knicks. They re-signed Williams and Gerald Wallace and added Joe Johnson and C.J. Watson to become a playoff contender. The question is whether they can mesh for a 2012-13 run.
3. Milwaukee Bucks: This might be the last call for Scott Skiles but the Bucks might save his job. by making some noise in the Central Division. Trading Andrew Bogut got them Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh to go with Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova.
TEAMS ON THE DECLINE
1. Dallas Mavericks: Mark Cuban saved a satchel of money for Deron Williams and Dwight Howard but got neither. So the Mavericks are relying on an aging Dirk Nowitzki (34), Vince Carter (35), and Marion (34). With Nowitzki already out because of knee problems, Dallas will be free-falling.
2. Orlando Magic: How can the Magic not fall precipitously without Dwight Howard and most of the crew that went to the ’09 Finals? Orlando is starting over with a bunch of not-so-great rookies and youngsters. It will seem eerily similar to the post-Shaq years in the Magic Kingdom.
3. San Antonio Spurs: Really, how long can the Spurs compete with the trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker? They will try it one more time, at least. The Spurs looked old against the Thunder last season and they basically have the same team. So what changes now?
1. Anthony Davis, Hornets: He expected to play for the Hornets’ summer league entry but ended up replacing Blake Griffin on the US Olympic team and improved immensely competing with future Hall of Famers. Davis is going to be fun to watch as he develops into a defensive force, and the Hornets will be better.
2. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers: The Portland rookie has been given the point guard duties and he should wow fans with his speed and talent. He was underrated coming out of Weber State, but has garnered attention already and the Blazers will be improved.
3. Jared Sullinger, Celtics: There will be other rookies who start, but that’s generally out of necessity. Sullinger will likely start because of his talent and quick adjustment to the NBA game. He fell to 21st overall in the draft because of apparent back issues, but Sullinger played in every preseason game.
1. LeBron James, Heat: He is the best player in the game because his skills have finally caught up with his athleticism. He already has won three MVPs. It will be a well-deserved honor if he can lead Miami to a repeat and James has promised to be more of a leader.
2. Kevin Durant, Thunder: He’s the NBA’s best scorer but needs to ratchet up his game in other areas to get the Thunder to the top. If Oklahoma City finishes with the league’s top record, the award is Durant’s, but he would rather have a title.
3. Chris Paul, Clippers: If the Clippers reach an elite level, it will be because of Paul. He’s capable of a 20-10 season in points and assists. If he becomes the main man for the Clippers and they exceed expectations, Paul will win his first MVP.
WORST ROAD TRIPS
1. Denver’s 14 games and five trips in 25 days: This is a doozy. The Nuggets begin the trip on Dec. 5 in Atlanta, then go to Indiana, New York, Detroit, and Minnesota. They return home for one game, then go to Sacramento, return for one more, then head to Portland, return for one more, then play the Clippers in Los Angeles, return for one more, then play at Dallas and at Memphis.
2. Brooklyn’s eight-game road trip that covers four time zones: The Nets better save their energy for late March because they hit the road for 16 days to Detroit, Dallas, LA Clippers, Phoenix, Portland, Denver, Utah, and then finish four days later in Cleveland. That is a brutal stretch.
3. Portland’s seven-game zig-zag trip in November and December: Call this an East Coast trip for the Blazers if you want, but this is insane. The Blazers begin at Brooklyn, Detroit the next night, and then to Washington, north to Boston, west to Cleveland, east to Charlotte, and west to Indiana. Seriously.
FACES IN NEW PLACES
1. Dwight Howard, Lakers: He finally got his long-desired trade, but not to the Brooklyn Nets. The question is whether Howard can respond to the pressure of playing for a team expected to win now. Howard is coming off back surgery, but should inject the youth and athleticism the Lakers need.
2. Steve Nash, Lakers: Nash agreed to come to Los Angeles for one final shot at an NBA title. The two-time MVP is 38, and there is concern whether he can continue to play at a high level, even with all those weapons around him. Nash should rise to the occasion.
3. Ray Allen, Heat: Allen left the Celtics to sign with the rival Heat and will come off the bench, the same role he would not accept with the Celtics. The Heat were looking for another shooter and veteran presence, and Allen will fill those roles. You wonder whether he could have done the same thing in Boston.
POTENTIAL BUSTS WITH NEW TEAMS
1. Andrew Bynum, 76ers: He did not participate in training camp because of knee problems and the 76ers say they won’t play him until he’s pain free. That might be months. He is the 76ers’ primary threat in the paint, but his desire to fulfill his potential has always been questioned. What will Philly fans say?
2. Jeremy Lin, Rockets: Is he really an $8 million-per-year player or just a name to put fans in seats in Houston? Lin will no longer carry the upstart label with the Rockets and will be relied upon to lead a young team. That’s a big responsibility for someone who has played just 35 meaningful games in his NBA career, although the addition of James Harden should ease the burden.
3. Brandon Roy, Timberwolves: Through no fault of his own, Roy might not make it because of knees that forced him to retire from the Portland Trail Blazers in December. He signed a two-year deal with the Timberwolves, his knees feeling rejuvenated. But then again, Roy hasn’t endured the pounding of an NBA season and he’ll have to prove he can play at a high level.
TOP STORY LINES
1. Can the Heat repeat? Miami brought back the core of the 2012 title team and added Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. In 2007, the defending champion Heat were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs because they were so inconsistent. Can LeBron encourage teammates to end the banquet circuit?
2. Will the Lakers return to the Finals with Nash and Howard? General manager Mitch Kupchak nabbed Howard and Nash through trades to capitalize on Kobe Bryant’s remaining years. The team is unquestionably interesting, but the bench is questionable. Can Bryant still lead the league in scoring despite his age (34) and responsibilities?
3. Will the Knicks emerge as a factor with an older roster? To remain relevant, the Knicks acquired Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Rasheed Wallace, and Kurt Thomas. Although they are loaded with big names, are they loaded with talent? And is Atlanta castoff Mike Woodson the right coach to lead them?
COACHES ON THE HOT SEAT
1. Vinny Del Negro: The Clippers underachieved last season, losing to the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs. And if this year’s club, with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, fails to get off to a positive start or barely makesthe playoffs, Del Negro could be dumped for a more experienced, high-profile coach.
2. Alvin Gentry: The Suns have been stuck the past few years with aging players and a lack of talent. Now the team is rebuilding and Gentry is in charge of leading the Suns back to respectability. If they struggle or the youngsters don’t develop, he could be gone.
3. Scott Skiles: The Bucks held on to him for another season, which happens to be the final one of his contract. If his hard-charging style doesn’t result in a rapid start, he could be the first coach to go. The Bucks have disappointed the past two seasons.