1) Dallas Mavericks: Even though the Mavs lost their defensive anchor in Tyson Chandler, they still have a very good chance to come out on top of the Western Conference. They have supplanted Chandler’s length with the additions of Brandon Wright and Lamar Odom and it wouldn’t be surprising if they were able to bring in Samuel Dalembert as a back-up center either. The team should be able to give Brendan Haywood more than a meager 18 minutes per game this year at the center position, and his production should rise exponentially. Finally, a healthy Rodrigue Beaubois and a trigger-happy Vince Carter should help lighten the scoring demand on aging stars, Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki.
2) Oklahoma City Thunder: The big story for the Thunder this offseason has been the transformation of center, Kendrick Perkins; by dropping 32 pounds, Perkins will be lighter on his feet while still maintaining a strong low post presence. With a much-improved James Harden and a more mature Russell Westbrook, the Thunder can put serious fear in the defending champs and the rest of the conference. Oh yeah, they have that Kevin Durant guy too.
3) Memphis Grizzlies: Welcome to the Twilight Zone. The Grizzlies are actually a top-3 team in the West. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph provide a beefy front court that can also supply a scoring punch. At the wings, OJ Mayo and Tony Allen could prove to be X-factors with the return of a healthy Rudy Gay. In the end, the Grizzlies’ bench performance will dictate the future of the team. This is not your father’s Memphis Grizzlies.
4) LA Lakers: It’s difficult to put a team with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol this far down the list, but the loss of Lamar Odom will greatly impact the team. By losing Mr. Kardashian, the Lakers have sacrificed versatility in their front court and also burned the Black Mamba. Now the team will have to rely heavily on World-Peace and Matt Barnes at the wing position. Yet, a March trade for Superman could propel them to the top.
5) Portland Trail Blazers: Unfortunately it looks like Greg Oden will be a non-factor once again this season. However, with Marcus Camby and LaMarcus Aldridge in the paint, Oden could still contribute in limited minutes. Wes Matthews and Jamal Crawford will be threats from the outside and the Blazers will actually be a fast break threat for the first time in years with Raymond Felton at the point guard position.
6) LA Clippers: While the Clip-Show did acquire Chris Paul to create the infamous “Lob City” with Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan, they sacrificed their depth and shooting in the trade. Even after picking up Chauncey Billups off waivers and adding Caron Butler in free agency, the loss of Eric Gordon will hurt them in the long run. The Clippers need to add an additional piece to make it out of the first round of the playoffs this year.
7) San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs are as old as the Alamo, but young guns Gary Neal and rookie Kawhi Leonard should provide a nice injection of youth for the team. Unfortunately, you can’t inject that youth into Manu’s elbow or Duncan’s ankle. As with every year, the Spurs will survive on expert coaching and an unflappable offensive system. However, a condensed schedule could be their biggest weakness.
8) Golden State Warriors: With a depleted Western Conference this year, the Warriors will be able to sneak into the playoffs. Monta Ellis and Steph Curry will provide the majority of ball handling and decision making duties with David Lee and Ekpe Udoh finishing easy plays at the rim. Rookies Charles Jenkins and Klay Thompson will provide bench stability for the team. The forgotten Christmas match up between the Warriors and Clippers could be the most exciting games of the season debut.
Missing the Cut
9) Houston Rockets: Houston seems like a team stuck in the middle-track; Kevin Martin, Louis Scola and Kyle Lowry are all nice pieces, but without a superstar, this team will always be stuck in 2nd gear.
10) Utah Jazz: The Jazz are a young and upcoming team. Favors, Kantor, Burks and Hayward will be their future, while Milsap, Jefferson and Harris will hold down the fort until they are ready to take over.
11) Minnesota Timberwolves: They are in a similar position as the Jazz. Kevin Love and Derrick Williams are the forwards of the future with Ricky Rubio running the show. Hopefully, David Kahn can keep the team together long enough to reap the benefits.
Bottom of the Barrel
12) Phoenix Suns: The only reason Phoenix is this high is because of Steve Nash’s court vision. The remainder of the team is filled with utility pieces and it is questionable what direction this team is going in the future.
13) Sacramento Kings: The Kings’ forward rotation is quite a mess with JJ Hickson, Chuck Hayes, and Jason Thompson all commanding minutes at the 4. Hopefully, Evans and Cousins can overcome their head-case reputations and make the Kings relevant again.
14) Denver Nuggets: Team China. The Nuggets made out a lot worse from the Carmelo Anthony trade thanks to the lockout. Nene’s huge contract could also bootstrap the team in the future.
15) New Orleans: A mess, thank you Chris Paul and David Stern.