The West seems to be slipping a little bit in overall dominance and top to bottom quality, but they still hold the best team in all of basketball, which is where we'll start.
1. San Antonio - So they haven't gone back to back yet? So what. This team was the best in basketball last year and my oh my how the rich have gotten richer. They kept their core intact and to that added Nick Van Exel, Michael Finley, and Fabricio Oberto from Argentina. Van Exel can be used in the clutch and when Parker is cooling off. Finley provides great scoring punch of the bench and another lethal outside shooter. Oberto is a banger and does the dirty work. A great team guy who cares about winning. And everybody else on the roster is back and getting better and staying healthy. No good reason to see why they won't repeat. Their only challenge will come in the finals.
2. Dallas - They've got a lot of the same players as last year but I think one player who is growing and adding a lot is Devin Harris. He's providing a nice scoring touch for them so far in the season and is a decent point guard too. He should improve on all his numbers this year. Dampier showed that he can stay healthy and contribute, even after he got awarded that contract. He seems to be hungry to prove that he's worth the money which is good. And Dirk is Dirk. Just a great player from top to bottom. Their emphasis on defense is good, but it isn't yielding huge dividends yet. But this is the second most talented team in the Conference and they should do well in the playoffs.
3. Houston - This team loaded up for a serious run, no more excuses for first round exits Mr. Tmac. Supposedly Yao is refreshed, but he's a good center and it doesn't all hinge on Yao. He's never going to be a Shaq type player, he's more a complimentary player who every now and then will have a monster game. They also brought in Raefer Alston and Stromile Swift to help out with depth and youth, two big problems. Swift seems inconsistent so far, but I expect better things from this team this year and they don't have much competition.
4. Utah - This really depends on Kirilenko staying healthy. He is the hub of that wheel. Jerry Sloan is too good a coach to miss the playoffs twice and they got another decent infusion of talent by missing the postseason last year. Deron Williams looks to be a steady point guard and should hold down the spot for a while. Memhet Okur is playing well, but he'll always be a little inconsistent. In the West though, he is a legitimate All-Star center candidate. A few years ago that would have been a joke. I think they can also take advantage of some of the slips and injuries other teams have had.
5. Denver - Coach Karl is ready for his second year on the bench and Carmelo looks like he's taking this season very seriously trying to prove that he is 1B to Lebron's 1A. What really hurts is the injury to Nene. Their big man depth is thin meaning they're relying on Mr. Glass (aka Camby) to remain steady all season. Stranger things have happened. But with Karl coaching them they should be good on defense and offense. And from what I've seen so far, they're going to set a record for alley oop dunks. Everyone on the team goes for back door lobs and they executre them very well. It's fun to watch, and it's a pretty effective offensive strategy.
6. Phoenix - Losing Amare cripples these guys. But Nash is top flight and Shawn Marion is no slouch himself on the court. Tim Thomas is providing decent low post offense and defense and James Jones is proving to be an able three point marksman hitting around three a game. It's not as automatic as last year though, and they're defense is still atrocious. Still they have the talent to be back in the playoffs, and if Amare returns this season it can only help.
7. LA Lakers - Triangle. Kobe on a mission. What more is there to say? They're not the most talented team out there, but they just barely missed the playoffs with kobe missing 15 games and playing hurt in several others. Smush Parker has been a nice addition, and Kwame Brown is feeling his way through things. Give these guys to the All-star break to learn Phil's geometric attack and then watch them scare some folks in the playoffs. Phil has done more with less before.
8. LA Clippers - They brought in steady veterans to help this team break their losing streak. Cassell has the confidence and experience to help, but he's been breaking down physically and he's kind of a bitch. There's a reason nobody keeps him for more than a couple of years. Mobley is a reliable scorer and another good veteran. And Elton Brand is a steady presence on the block. I think Elton gets to taste his first playoff action.
Playoff cut line ------------------------------------------------
9. Minny Timberwolves- How can I go against Garnett? Well his supporting cast got a lot lighter. They're relying on Rashard McCants to have a big year. He's a good player, but it's tough to depend on a rookie too much. Their depth is dwindling with the Mayor retired and they still play the Kandi man for significant minutes. Never good for your team. Garnett is going to break down from carrying these guys just like he did last year.
10. Memphis - They're well coached and they've brought in some character guys in Eddie Jones and Bobby Jackson. But well coached isn't going to cut it because they just don't have the talent. It's clear that Pao Gasol cannot become a MVP first team caliber player. He's hit his ceiling. He'd be a nice addition to a team with some talent on it, but he cannot carry the load himself. They lost Jason Williams, Earl Watson, and Stromile Swift in either free agency or trades and those guys could play. It is a big problem for their point guard situation as well. I just don't see them cutting against teams that may not be top to bottom more talented, but have better superstar players in the fold.
11. Seattle - I think they lost a little too much in the offseason to repeat last years great run. In order of importance they lost: their coach>Antonio Daniels>Jerome James. James isn't a huge loss, but the first two were. Seattle still has some plucky players, but they've also got guys angling for contracts in Vlad Rad and Ridnour isn't somebody who is going to hold up to 40 minutes a game yet. Daniels was needed for his excellent on the ball defense and steady hand in pressure situations.
12. Sacramento - It doesn't feel right putting them here after all the 50 win seasons they've had, but I'm just not sure they're good enough to escape the curse of Shareef Abdur Raheem. He's got the best numbers of anyone who has never made the playoffs. Addleman's last stand is this year if they don't make it back in. And how soon until Bonzi Wells does something to make an ass of himself or his teammates? My guess is before Thanksgiving. Not a lot to like here.
13. Golden State - Everyone thinks they're going to have a great year, and they are off to a hot start, but the whole thing relies on Baron Davis holding up for a complete season. If there's one thing we know about Baron, it's that he's no longer capable of doing this.
14. Portland Trailblazers - Oh Nate, that money is going to be your only comfort this year. Ruben Patterson and Pudge still remain on a mercurial team of bandits that has alienated one of the great fan bases in all of the NBA. They brought in guys high on character like Steve Blake, Juan Dixon (do these guys always come as a pair, is it in their contract?), Martell Webster, and Jarret Jack. But the talent just isn't there. It's going to be a long year.
15. OKC/NO Hornets - What a tough adjustment it's going to be for these guys to actually play in front of fans. Oklahoma is selling out the arena, something that never happened after Shinn poisoned the deep well of fandom in Carolina. Chris Paul looks like he's going to be the real deal and they still have a guy who goes by the nickname of Birdman.