Expect a return of the Heat at championships
Lakers and Thunder come back hungry from the West, ready to dethrone the Heat
1. Boston Celtics (4)
2. Philadelphia 76ers (5)
3. Brooklyn Nets (6)
4. New York Knicks (7)
5. Toronto Raptors
The Atlantic Division has become the most competitive division in the NBA practically overnight. With that said, the Boston Celtics are still the best team in the division, and they have improved significantly over the offseason. After losing Ray Allen in the offseason, the Celts signed Jason Terry and Courtney Lee to add depth to their off-guard position. Jeff Green also returns for the team, after missing all of last season with a heart condition. The most interesting move Boston made, however, is selecting Jared Sullinger with their first round pick. Sullinger was projected to be picked in the top 10 at one point last year, but his stock fell drastically due to injury concerns. The Celtics potentially got their power forward of the future in Sullinger if he can stay healthy. As long as Boston has Garnett, Pierce and Rondo, they will always be competitive come playoff time.
The 76ers are one of the most improved teams in the league. Near the end of a seemingly lackluster offseason, the Sixers became involved in the blockbuster trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers by acquiring LA center Andrew Bynum. Although they lost their All-Star forward Andre Iguodala, Bynum is a legitimate superstar in the low post, which is something the Sixers have been lacking since the days of Moses Malone. They also signed gunners Nick Young and Dorrell Wright, both of whom should get plenty of open shots with Bynum commanding double teams. One of the Sixers’ best under-the-radar moves was the acquisition of shooting guard Jason Richardson in the Bynum trade. Richardson is a proven veteran 3-point marksman, and he may even potentially step into a starting role. The bench remains one of the best in the league, even with the loss of Louis Williams, and Philadelphia should have no problem reaching the playoffs this year. If Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner can break through this season, the Sixers may even compete in the championship.
The Knicks were picked by many last season to challenge the Heat for the Eastern Conference last year, but they disappointed for the majority of the season. They received a shot in the arm from the unexpected advent of Jeremy Lin, but now Lin is gone and New York spent the offseason attempting to replace him at the point guard position. They signed future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, but after last season, there are questions as to how much he has left in the tank in his 21st season. They also re-acquired Raymond Felton after a stint with the Nuggets and the Trailblazers. Felton played incredibly well in his first season with the Knicks, and he hopes to replicate that success this season. SF Ronnie Brewer also joins the Knicks and will add some tough defense off the bench. Until Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire prove that they can play together effectively for an entire season, however, the Knicks will continue to be a middle-of-the-road team.
Even though Toronto is last in the Atlantic in these predictions, it doesn’t mean that they are not on their way to being a playoff-caliber team. With the offseason acquisitions of Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross and Landry Fields, the Raptors have bolstered a backcourt that already was a position of strength (anchored by Jose Calderon and DeMar DeRozan). Calderon, however, will likely find himself as the odd man out at some point in the middle of the season, as the Raptors have already made efforts to trade him previously. The team’s biggest weakness is their post play. Big man Andrea Bargnani plays a very European style of basketball, mostly spotting up from mid-range and outside. Although a very good shooter, Bargnani does not supply much force in the low post, and Toronto struggles against bigger teams because of it. It remains to be seen what last year’s first round pick, 7-footer Jonas Valanciunas, will bring to the table in terms of toughness, but without a legitimate low post presence, the Raptors will continue to miss out on the playoffs. If Valanciunas can come in and grab some tough rebounds and get some garbage points, the team could go farther than anticipated.
1. Indiana Pacers (2)
2. Chicago Bulls (3)
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
4. Milwaukee Bucks
5. Detroit Pistons
Indiana was one of the NBA’s biggest surprises last season, but they shouldn’t catch anyone off guard this year. This team is legitimately one of the most complete teams in the league and they aren’t far off from competing for a title. Last season, their center Roy Hibbert was selected to his first All-Star team, and an argument can be made that he is currently the second best center in the East behind Andrew Bynum. They also have a legitimate top-level scoring wing in Danny Granger, a promising, athletic, young guard in Paul George and a proven veteran post presence in David West. George Hill showed that he could run a team last season when he took over the starting role at point guard, which eventually led to the trade of Darren Collison. With Tyler Hansbrough coming off the bench, this is one of the deepest teams in the league and they will make a lot of noise in the Eastern Conference this season.
Chicago will have to play much of their season without superstar point guard Derrick Rose once again this season. Rose is still recovering from his devastating ACL tear he suffered in last season’s first round of the playoffs. Rose’s injury eventually led to a first round exit at the hands of the 76ers. Rose missed much of last season, as he was plagued with injuries for much of the year. Chicago continued to win however, mostly due to their stifling defense led by center Joakim Noah and forward Luol Deng. They added some instant offense off the bench in the offseason with the signings of Nate Robinson and Marco Bellinelli. Chicago also solidified their backup point guard position after losing outstanding 6th man C.J. Watson by re-acquiring Kirk Hinrich. The Bulls will be able to ride their defense until Rose returns, and as long as he doesn’t suffer any more critical injuries this season, they should be a force in the playoffs.
Cleveland is definitely on an upswing. Behind 2nd year point guard Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers are returning to a culture of winning for the first time since Lebron left town. After drafting guard Dion Waiters, the Cavs hope that they have their backcourt of the future. They still have some rebuilding to do, as Anderson Varejao is the only starter-caliber player on their front line. Alonzo Gee showed promise last season averaging 10.6 points per game, but he is most likely not the answer at small forward. Last year’s first round pick Tristan Thompson should improve after last season and the Cavs hope he can develop into their power forward of the future. With this young, talented core, Cleveland will reach the playoffs in due time. They are just too raw this year to make a splash in the top-heavy East.
Last season, the Bucks made the only blockbuster trade at the deadline, acquiring top-flight scorer Monta Ellis from the Golden State Warriors for the former #1 pick, center Andrew Bogut. The trade gave Milwaukee one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league with Ellis and Brandon Jennings. Both guards can score points in a hurry and teams will have trouble matching up with both. The Bucks’ main problem, however, is their big men. Ersan Ilyasova was one of the most surprising players of last season, showing outside shooting touch and rebounding skill. He should improve more this season and be a very reliable 3rd option. Outside of Ilyasova, Milwaukee will have to shuffle between veteran Samuel Dalembert, shot-blocker Ekpe Udoh, Larry Sanders and 1st round pick John Henson. In the end, they will not have enough solid players in their frontcourt to compete for a playoff spot.
Detroit is currently in the middle of a rebuilding process. After their championship run spearheaded by the likes of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace, they have struggled to return to that level of play ever since. They drafted an incredibly talented center in Greg Monroe, who is in his 3rd season. Monroe could definitely be in for a breakout year, especially after he averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds last season. He is definitely a player that Detroit can build around going forward, but he will not be able to lead them into the playoffs alone. Guard Rodney Stuckey has been a fixture of the franchise for the past several years and he continues to be one of the team’s primary scoring options. He was forced to move to shooting guard last season, however, when the team drafted point guard Brandon Knight. Knight had a good rookie season, averaging 13 points per game and he should shoulder more of the load this season. He needs to bring up his assist numbers though if he wants to lead the Pistons back to the playoffs.
1. Miami Heat (1)
2. Atlanta Hawks (8)
3. Washington Wizards
4. Charlotte Bobcats
5. Orlando Magic
Obviously the reigning champions, the Miami Heat, are a lock to make the playoffs this season. As if they weren’t good enough already, they acquired former 3-point marksman Rashard Lewis and future Hall-of-Famer Ray Allen in the offseason to add depth to an already loaded team. Still lacking a true center, Miami will most likely play Chris Bosh in the middle for the majority of the season and move LeBron James to power forward. LeBron has shown to be dominant when playing down low, considering the vast percentage of his playoff minutes were played there. He uses his strength to overpower weaker defenders and speed to blow by slower, larger players. The Heat will continue to dominate teams night in and night out, and barring any significant injuries to James, Bosh or Dwyane Wade, they can punch their ticket to a third straight NBA Finals appearance.
Atlanta has completely changed the image of their team. Joe Johnson, the longtime face of the franchise, was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in the offseason, allowing the Hawks to basically get a mulligan on his huge contract. They retained explosive shot-blocking forward Josh Smith and will continue to build around him toward the future. They signed former Philly 6th man Lou Williams, who will definitely provide a much needed scoring punch after Johnson’s departure. Jeff Teague returns as the team’s starting point guard and he provides solid defense as well as good all-around play. He will need to take on more of a scoring role this year, but he should be up to the task. Center Al Horford will continue to develop and he hopes to avoid another major injury this season. If he can stay healthy, he gives the Hawks another legitimate low post option next to Josh Smith, and they will be able to pound teams in the post all season.
Washington goes as John Wall goes. The former number one pick is known to be one of the most explosive players in the league when in the open court, but if the Wizards wish to make the playoffs, Wall must develop a reliable jumpshot in the halfcourt setting. After trading for big men Nene and Emeka Okafor last season, Washington has one of the stronger frontcourt tandems in the league, especially defensively. Draft pick Bradley Beal out of Florida is said to be one of the best pure shooting prospects in recent memory, and forward Trevor Ariza will bring tough defense to the SF position. Washington lacks depth however, and even though they have put together a playoff-caliber starting lineup, their bench will be what undoes them this season. Outside of Jordan Crawford, no one can come off the bench and give the Wizards quality minutes, which will leave them just short of the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference.
The Bobcats are coming off the worst season in NBA history. They set a record for lowest win percentage in a season, and they are currently on the 3rd longest losing streak of all-time, dropping their past 23 games. They won’t contend for the playoffs for the next few seasons, but they are slowly building a core for the future. Last year’s first round pick Kemba Walker has quickly emerged as one of the future centerpieces of the team, and Charlotte drafted forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist this season. MKG is one of the most athletic players in the draft class and he will provide tough defense and solid rebounding to a Bobcats team that sorely needs it. They also drafted Bismack Biyombo last season out of Zaire. Biyombo is a shot blocking presence down low and as he plays more in the NBA, his instincts and timing will improve every season. They acquired Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon in the offseason, both of which are solid veteran players. They will not make enough of a difference to make the team competitive, but it’s a start.
Orlando is in complete disarray. After trading away their franchise player, Dwight Howard, they find themselves with a roster devoid of talent. It would have been impossible to receive equal value for a player like Howard, but the Magic really came out as the losers of the trade. They received rookie Maurice Harkless and 2nd year big man Nikola Vucevic from the 76ers and defensive guard Arron Afflalo from the Nuggets along with Al Harrington. Most importantly, they somehow were not able to get rid of Hedo Turkoglu’s large contract in the trade, so they will be somewhat stuck with this roster for the foreseeable future. They did receive some draft picks as well, but considering Jameer Nelson has not been able to stay healthy the past few seasons, the team will have to rely on players such as Glen Davis, Afflalo and Harrington to stay competitive, which is not a formula for success. It’ll be a long year for the Magic.
1.Los Angeles Lakers (1)
2.Los Angeles Clippers (6)
3.Golden State Warriors (8)
With the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash during the offseason, the former being a former three-time Defensive Player of the Year with the Orlando Magic, the latter a former two-time League MVP during his tenure with the Phoenix Suns, the Los Angeles Lakers are now the heavy favorites to dominate the Western Conference. The Lakers are still lead by Kobe Bryant, who at age 34 has yet to show any major signs of slowing down, averaging at least 25 ppg for the last eight years, including a 27.9 ppg average last season. A foreseeable problem with the Lakers, however, is a lack of depth of the front line. Jordan Hill is in no way prepared to be a starting center in this league, however if Howard ever gets injured, this will be the Lakers unfortunate situation. With a starting five featuring three future hall of famers (Bryant, Howard, and Nash) and also often forgotten Pau Gasol (17.4 ppg, 10.4 rpg) the Los Angeles Lakers have arguably the best starting five in the league, and with newly acquired Antawn Jamison (17.2 ppg) to lead the bench unit, the Lakers are the team to beat in the West.
The Los Angeles Clippers seem to have the mentality that an entirely new team is needed every year in order to be competitive. Last season, the Clippers brought in nine new players, and this season, they added seven more new faces. The core unit of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan are among the returning players, ensuring the continuation of Lob City and of the continued rise of the team formerly known as the Lakers’ JV team. Jamal Crawford highlights this year’s crop of newcomers. A former Sixth Man of the Year (2010), Crawford will look again to lead the bench unit with his instant offense. The return of Chauncey Billups from a season-ending Achilles tear means the Clippers will have solid guard play even when Chris Paul takes a rest. Injuries will be a large concern, as many of the Clippers’ key players (Grant Hill, Matt Barnes, Chauncey Billups, Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler) are on the wrong side of 30. With a collection of veteran talent and unproven youth, if the old men go down, the Clippers are left in a rough spot; however Chris Paul alone is capable of dragging a team to the playoffs.
In a dramatic change of focus, at last season’s trade deadline, the traditionally all offense, no defense Golden State Warriors traded away scoring machine Monta Ellis for defensive-minded center Andrew Bogut (8.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg in an injury-plagued season last year, 11.1 rpg, 2.6 bpg the year before). This offseason, the Warriors made a series of unglamorous, yet solid acquisitions: drafting Harrison Barnes and trading for PG Jarret Jack (15.6 ppg, 6.3 apg). Harrison Barnes out of UNC is a solid all-around player, yet known primarily for his polished offensive game. He should beat out SF Richard Jefferson for the starting job at small forward, joining the sweet shooting young backcourt of PG Stephen Curry (46 percent 3pt) and SG Klay Thompson (41 percent 3pt), along with the always solid PF David Lee (20.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg). Stephen Curry is primed to break out this season as a star if he can stay healthy. That is a big if. Curry missed 40 games last year due to recurring ankle injuries, however Jarrett Jack has proven to be capable of leading a team, so an injury to Curry will not be as traumatic as in years past. Look for Golden State to sneak into that last playoff spot.
The Sacramento Kings needed one of two things to happen this offseason for in order to be able to push for a playoff spot: either the rapid maturation of their young, but very talented core, or the acquisition of a mature veteran presence to give direction to this team. This offseason, the Kings signed Aaron Brooks, who played in China last season after spending the previous four years in Houston. He has shown to be a solid scoring option from his position in the past, but mature he is not. Combined with the immaturity of star young center DeMarcus Cousins, if Sacramento doesn’t end their losing ways, the Kings locker room could become a toxic environment. An interesting player is swingman Tyreke Evans. His rookie season was on par with those of Oscar Robertson, LeBron James, and Michael Jordan as the only rookies to average 20pts, five rebounds, and five assists, yet his stats has since regressed inexplicably. If he can regain his form as a potential superstar, then Sacramento will be competitive. However that is unlikely. DeMarcus Cousins should emerge as the second best center in the west, behind only Dwight Howard, yet with the uncertainty surrounding the play of Tyreke Evans, don’t look for the Kings to break out of the lottery this season.
The Phoenix Suns traded away their best player to a division rival for essentially nothing. That almost always spells for a horrible season, however all is not lost. The Suns were one of the busiest teams this offseason. They signed PG Goran Dragic to replace Steve Nash, signed talented, yet unfocused former second overall pick SF Michael Beasley, traded for former fourth overall pick Wesley Johnson, and outbid all other teams in claiming PF Luis Scola off waivers. A lot of young talent means a lot of growing pains this season. Marcin Gortat is quickly becoming one of the most consistent offensive centers in the league, and should continue that development. Look for him and Goran Dragic to form a potent scoring combination. Any other sources of offense will be a welcome surprise. Beasley has shown flashes in the past, and Wes Johnson has all the athleticism of an all-star swingman, but neither has demonstrated any consistency, and Johnson has been downright horrendous the past two seasons. As with any young team, defense will be a serious issue, which unfortunately for Phoenix seals their fate as a contender for the 1st pick this coming draft. With all the new faces, this will be an exciting, yet at the same time painful season for Suns fans.
1.San Antonio Spurs (4)
2.Memphis Grizzlies (5)
4.New Orleans Hornets
The Spurs had a relatively uneventful offseason, and that might have been the best thing for them. They resigned all of their free agents, keeping together a team that went 50-16 in the shortened season last year. The core trio of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, although aging, still form one of the most formidable trios when healthy. Tony Parker, at age 30, is in the prime of his career and emerged last season as the undisputed star in San Antonio thanks in part to Duncan’s decline in production. Wingman Kawhi Leonard has a year of NBA experience under his belt and should look to improve from an impressive rookie season as he continues to learn the NBA game. As with previous seasons, the main concern the Spurs have is age. With Tim Duncan at age 36, Ginobili age 35, and key reserve Stephen Jackson at age 34, the Spurs have a lot of wear and tear built up through the years. The Spurs do have the depth to deal with injuries with the likes of DeJuan Blair and Gary Neal, however like any other team, a prolonged injury will eventually take its toll. Look for the Spurs to have a very Spurs-like season and finish in the top four of the conference.
For the Memphis Grizzlies, the major offseason move came as a minus: allowing O. J. Mayo to sign with division rival Dallas. Losing Mayo hurts, not only because Memphis loses their top scorer off the bench, but now Dallas adds a potential 20ppg scorer, making this already competitive division that much more competitive. As for the rest of the team, the same faces return who led Memphis to game seven of the Conference Semifinals two seasons ago. PG Mike Conley and SF Rudy Gay will provide the outside scoring fire, while bigmen Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol provide an inside presence rivaled by few other teams. The Grizzlies success is fueled by their defense, led by defensive specialist SG Tony Allen. The Grizzlies are experts in forcing turnovers, second in the league last year, and using these extra possessions powering their explosive offense. A remarkable aspect about Memphis is their adaptability, having shown to have success even when key players such as Rudy Gay or Zach Randolph are out for extended periods of time. Ironically, when the two are both healthy and playing together, the Grizzlies seem to be caught in between two styles: that of a low post, halfcourt offense designed around Randolph, and that of a high powered, run-and-gun perimeter oriented offense designed around Gay. How well Gay and Randolph can continue to coexist will determine the Grizzlies success this season.
The Dallas Mavericks had gambled it all on signing All-Star PG Deron Williams this past offseason, so when Williams decided to resign with the now-Brooklyn Nets, the Mavs needed to make some serious moves to build a respectable team. While not signing Williams, they also lost former Sixth Man of the Year SG Jason Terry to the Celtics and future Hall of Fame PG Jason Kidd to the Knicks. To fill the holes in the roster created by their absence, Mark Cuban brought in SG O. J. Mayo, C Chris Kaman, PG Darren Collison, and PF Elton Brand. All four of them have starting experience and in some way or another are looking for fresh new start. Darren Collison, much like O. J. Mayo as well, has shown flashes of brilliance, yet has not yet put it all together to become a top player at his position. Kaman will provide a nice compliment to PF Dirk Nowitzki in the post, although both prefer to take jumpers, Kaman does have some nice back to the basket moves. Overall, this team has changed drastically from the team that won the championship two years ago, how quickly the new pieces and the existing system can mold to each other will determine their success. I don’t believe it will happen this year.
With the first overall pick in last summer’s draft, it was no surprise when the New Orleans Hornets selected PF Anthony Davis out of Kentucky. Davis’s freakish athleticism and long wingspan lead to him blocking an outstanding 4.7 bpg. His offensive skills are still a little raw, but his length and shotblocking should translate well to the NBA, so look for him to make an immediate impact on the defensive end of the floor. Also selected in the draft was Duke guard Austin Rivers. While a prolific scoring guard in college, it might take a year or two of adjustment to the NBA game for Rivers to fully realize his potential, but he will be backing up Eric Gordon, meaning he will have the chance to learn from one of the top shooting guards in the league. Gordon plays a key factor in the Hornets’ hopes for this season. When healthy, he can be an unstoppable scoring weapon who can also defend the top players as well, but he is not healthy often. He only played in nine games last season due to cartilage damage in his right knee. Reports now are saying that Gordon may still be feeling discomfort in that knee, fingers crossed Gordon does not become the next Brandon Roy, or worse Greg Oden.
After missing out on the Dwight Howard lottery and now fresh into the rebuilding process, the Houston Rockets were one of the more aggressive teams this offseason. By using ridiculously backloaded offersheets, Houston snatched Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik from New York and Chicago respectively, who were unable to match the contracts, and then traded SG Kevin Martin and a handful of picks to the Thunder for SG James Harden. Both Lin and Asik are expected to be starters. Lin has experience running the Knicks offense, however for Asik, this will be his first starting job. For a defensive minded center with absolutely no offense whatsoever, the Rockets may be asking a bit much from him. In addition to Lin and Asik and Harden, the Rockets have three rookies who look to make key contributions: PF Royce White from Iowa State, PF Terrence Jones from Kentucky, and C Donatas Montiejunas from Lithuania. Although at times inconsistent, he will be asked to lead this team along with Lin, as the two of them are by far the most talented players on this roster. Depending on how well the rookies play and how Harden plays being relied upon as a first scoring option will determine if the rockets spend the year scrapping the bottom of the division or competing for a final playoff spot.
1.Oklahoma City Thunder (2)
2.Denver Nuggets (3)
3.Utah Jazz (7)
After reaching the NBA Finals last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder didn’t need to make many changes to their roster. The biggest move they made this offseason was extending PF Serge Ibaka, who led the NBA in blocks this past season with a staggering 3.6 bpg. Now considering Ibaka’s extension, the Thunder have $54 million reserved for four players (SF Kevin Durant, PG Russell Westbrook, Ibaka, and C Kendrick Perkins), leaving little for extending reigning 6th man of the year SG James Harden, and so traded him to Houston for SG Kevin Martin, who is expected to slide into Harden’s role as sixth man. Expect the Thunder, still led by the All-Star duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and to remain atop the Western Conference Standings for most of the season. Durant led the league in scoring last season with 28ppg, and at only 24 years of age, as scary as it is, he is still getting better. In fact, the Thunder as a team has only one player on their roster who is older than 29 (Nick Collison is 31). So while they are already among the NBA elite, they are still one of the youngest teams, meaning a dynasty is well within reach for this always improving squad.
As part of the trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers, the Denver Nuggets received swingman and defensive specialist Andre Iguodala from the Philadelphia 76ers and sent SG Aaron Afflalo to the Orlando Magic. Iguodala is a pretty sizeable upgrade from Afflalo, as Iguodala is arguably the best on-ball defender in the NBA and his athleticism should be a nice fit in the run and gun Nuggets offense. Also this offseason, the Nuggets resigned C JaVale McGee, who was brought in late last season in exchange for C Nene, to a four-year contract. The Nuggets are one of the most formidable teams in the West due to their intense pressure defense and also, albeit somewhat counterintuitive, due to their lack of starpower. Unlike a traditional team where only three or four players are “scorers,” Denver’s entire roster is a threat offensively. PG Ty Lawson, SFs Wilson Chandler and Danilo Galinari, and even PF Kenneth Faried are all capable of going off for 30, and this lack of certainty as to which player to defend allows for Denver to surprise many of the elite teams and steal some victories. This season, expect Lawson’s continued development to put him into the conversation as a possible all-star as he leads Denver’s charge to the top of the West.
And after just two quick seasons, the Devin Harris era in Utah has come to an end. The main return in the Deron Williams trade, this offseason Harris was dealt to the Atlanta Hawks for SF Marvin Williams. To replace Harris in the starting lineup, the Jazz brought in PG Mo Williams from the Los Angeles Clippers. As always, Utah will be lead by the post tandem of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, with PF Derrick Favors coming off the bench. Utah’s height is what gives them an advantage over most other teams in the league, but with Favors having already expressed unhappiness in his role as a reserve, some of Utah’s bigmen may get moved this season. Also in the starting lineup, SF Gordon Hayward has shown steady development in each of his two seasons so far, doubling his scoring output last season from that of his rookie season. While Utah has two of the best post scorers in the league in Jefferson and Millsap, for Utah to succeed, they must get a perimeter scoring threat as well. It was hoped that Harris would be that scorer like he was when he was a Net, however after two mediocre years, Utah fans now must pray that Mo Williams can fill that role.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are probably the most intriguing team this season, in large part due to the NBA comeback of former superstar SG Brandon Roy. Roy had to retire last season after suffering cartilage damage in both of his knees, however know believes them to be ready to go. Ricky Rubio, after a spectacular rookie season, suffered a torn ACL at the end of the year and will be out for some time to start the year, but expect him to pick up right where he left off when he returns. PF Kevin Love is arguably the best PF in the NBA, and forms a deadly pick and roll combination with Rubio. It will be interesting to see if PF Derrick Williams can show why he was the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft after a disappointing rookie season. He certainly has talent, but maybe playing behind Love is affecting his confidence in his abilities. C Nikola Pekovic had a break out year last season and his bruising physical game is a nice compliment to Love’s faceup game in the post. Timberwolves fans are finally starting to see the development of their young talent translate into wins for the franchise, and this season expect the Wolves to be right in the hunt for the last playoff spot.
The Portland Trailblazers are now in full rebuilding mode. They traded SF Gerald Wallace at the end of last season to the Nets for a first round pick that turned out to be explosive PG Damian Lillard. He is an early favorite to win Rookie of the Year along with New Orleans PF Anthony Davis. Joining Lillard is fellow rookie C Meyers Leonard, who may end up being the team’s starting center. PF LaMarcus Aldridge made his first NBA All-Star appearance last season and will shoulder much of the scoring load for this young Blazers squad. SF Nick Batum returns with raised expectations after signing a 4 year, $46 million contract. He will join shooter Wes Mathews in the starting lineup along with Lillard, Aldridge, and Leonard. This Blazers team will struggle. They have too many young players and will need a couple years to fully develop into a playoff team. Batum will have to perform now with the pressure to live up to his contract, which he may not have the ability to do, and Lillard, like all rookie point guards, will have his ups and downs. Aldridge will be solid like always, but there’s only so much that one player can do. The Blazers better spend most of the year scouting prospects as they will have no chance to escape the lottery this season.