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.Continued...