What better way to set the wheels in motion toward the beginning of the season than by establishing where each team sits as they prep for their first game of the year?
What are we looking for?
Let’s start with that and make our way down to the bottom, or as I will call it the spot reserved strictly for the Minnesota Timberwolves until David Kahn proves that he is a genius and way smarter than everyone else. Also, because as a Celtics fan I am biased against Kurt Rambis. You’ll get a little note and a quick (one sentence is all you’ll get) offseason summary and the player to watch. And I might be biased, but I’m not biased enough that I didn’t put the Lakers No. 1, as you shall see.
1) Los Angeles Lakers: Until Proven otherwise, they are on top. But there are question marks here. Mainly the health of Andrew Bynum and the self-proclaimed Black Mamba.
Offseason Summary: Will Steve Blake help solve some of the point guard issues? OK, so Fisher torched the Celtics at times in the Finals, but he had his problems in the regular season.
Player to Watch: Kobe Bryant’s knee injury might take some time to heel. Truth be told, the Lakers are deep enough where they don’t need him to be dominant early on. But if he is not healthy by the second half, they could be in trouble.
2) Boston Celtics: The Celtics are probably not team to beat in East, but they should be there when it is all said and done.
Offseason Summary: A few O’Neals and the return of Delonte West give the C’s more depth. The only real loss for this team was Tony Allen, but something tells me C’s fans won’t be crying about the loss of his inconsistencies. His defense? Maybe.
Player to Watch: Paul Pierce needs to stay healthy, because there is very little depth behind him. I’ve felt Rondo is the key to the C’s, but this year Boston can’t afford for Pierce to fall off.
3) Miami Heat: That Mike Miller injury is going to hurt this team, and I think they might get off to a slow start since they did not have tons of time to gel together thanks to Wade’s injury. Of course, if they jump out to a 10-0 start let’s just pretend I never said that.
Offseason Summary: Is this enough? By the way, it kills me that the Heavy are playing in the background there. Great song just totally destroyed.
Player to Watch: LeBron James is the best of Miami’s trio, but he will have to adapt his game the most of any of these players. Let’s see how it works.
4) Orlando Magic: Overlooked? Maybe. But there is star power there, starting with Dwight Howard. The word on the street is he is primed for an even better season, but I am a little skeptical about this newfound toughness. I wonder why...
Offseason Summary: Hey, I’ll admit J.J. Redick was great against the Celtics last year, but that is an awful lot of money for backcourt guys off the bench with him and fellow former Dukie Chris Duhon (inexplicable signing there).
Player to Watch: I always think Rashard Lewis is the key to Orlando. If you shut him down, the Magic can’t win. Simple as that.
5) Oklahoma City Thunder: Is it possible Kevin Durant is being overhyped after his amazing run at the World Championships? Maybe, but these guys are good. They took the Lakers to the brink last year and added the size up front to compete with them this year. I think people might be too high on them, but for good reason.
Offseason Summary: Will Cole Aldrich make a difference in his rookie year?
Player to Watch: Everyone knows what Durant and Russell Westbrook bring, but how about former Celtic pick (a stretch, true) Jeff Green? He is playing for a contract and gives the Thunder a third scorer to supplement the other two stars. He is capable of some big games, and will be a key factor in the growth of the Thunder.
6) Dallas Mavericks: Think Mark Cuban will be happy if the Mavs fall in the first round again?
Offseason Summary: Any chance that Tyson Chandler gives Cuban the player he has so desperately been looking for in the middle? Maybe the tandem of Chandler and the solid Brendan Haywood can do it.
Player to Watch: Rodrigue Beaubois might miss a good chunk of the early season, but he is the real deal and the heir apparent to Jason Kidd at the point. The more minutes he gets, the better it will be for Dallas.
7) San Antonio Spurs: Is the presence of Tiago Splitter enough to re-energize the fading Spurs? It is one of those odd-numbered years…
Offseason Summary: He was a huge disappointment last year, but the Spurs still brought back Richard Jefferson. At least they got him at a decent price, though.
Player to Watch: DeJaun Blair is going to be a starter, and he was impressive in the preseason. The slim-downed Blair is a double-double threat on any night, and will certainly rebound the ball.
8. Utah Jazz: Do people remember how good Al Jefferson was before his knee injury? I’m talking legit 20-10 player and franchise offensive force. Now imagine what he will do with a point guard like Deron Williams? I don’t think they will miss Carlos Boozer all that much.
Offseason Summary: There was quite a dogfight for Raja Bell’s services this summer, and the Jazz won it. He can be a key piece to a championship team, if the Jazz make it that far.
Player to Watch: Andrei Kirilenko can do it all, but will he remain in Utah for the entire season? He always seems to be involved in trade rumors, but a healthy Kirilenko can be a key for this side.
9) Portland Trail Blazers: Who knows when we will see Greg Oden, but Portland fans are in love with new signing Wesley Matthews (he was their best player in the preseason) and Nicolas Batum, who should continue to progress this year. He might even be the second best player on their team. And with all the talk about OKC making the leap, I don’t think there is a team that scares the Lakers more, considering the two sides’ history with one another. Of course, Portland is a lot scarier if some of its big men come back healthy…
Offseason Summary: Well, Rudy Fernandez is still there after all the offseason posturing and will probably be asked to contribute. For the Blazers’ sake, I hope Matthews is as good as their fans think because that’s a good deal of money they are paying for a backup for their best player.
Player to Watch: Marcus Camby will need to hold down the fort up front while Oden and Joel Pryzbilla continue to recover from their horrific injuries suffered last season. Camby is dealing with injury issues himself, but he is going to be a key factor in Portland’s early success.
10) Chicago Bulls: Chicago would probably be higher except those marquee signings have yet to play. The Carlos Boozer injury will hurt them at the start, but they made a smart move in locking up Joakim Noah long term.
Offseason Summary: Old friend Tom Thibodeau will lead the charge on the bench (well deserved, by the way) and Brian Scalabrine will lead the cheering section. Oh, and Boozer and Kyle Korver should be welcome additions as well.
Player to Watch:Derrick Rose didn’t want Wade or James to take over his team. Well, Rose will get the chance to be the man early on this season. I’ll be anxious to see how he looks with Boozer, a real power forward, as well.
11) Houston Rockets: This has pretty much nothing to do with the return of Yao Ming and much more to do with increased admiration for Louis Scola and the belief that Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks will continue to form a potent backcourt, particularly after an impressive preaseason from Martin.
Offseason Summary: So much for that Trevor Ariza signing last year, huh? I like Courtney Lee, but that signing goes down as a failure.
Player to Watch: You have to figure Yao Ming won’t be the same player this season, and maybe never again. But any contribution he can give will be a big boost for a Rockets team that missed his size inside last year. A dynamic backcourt takes some of the presssure off of Yao as well.
12) Milwaukee Bucks: Milwaukee pushed Atlanta to the brink without Andrew Bogut? With him, a more experienced Brandon Jennings, and another scorer in Corey Maggette I expect good things from the Bucks this year. That is, if the Bucks don’t become the next team to tune Scott Skiles out…
Offseason Summary: Keeping John Salmons? Fine. Maggette? OK, I guess. But Drew Gooden? Is he really the answer at power forward?
Player to Watch: The lack of Bogut’s presence was a key factor in the Bucks playoff demise last year. Let’s see what they can do with him back in the lineup. They should be better this year, on paper.
13) Atlanta Hawks: I just can’t shake the fact that the Hawks were embarrassed by Orlando last year in the playoffs, and then basically did nothing to shake up that team besides fire their coach. That might seem like a bigger deal until you remember that Larry Drew was an assistant under Mike Woodson for the last six years.
Offseason Summary: Well, Joe Johnson stayed with Atlanta. Let’s see if he can earn that contract after his playoff disaster.
Player to Watch: Jamal Crawford asked out, but he is a big part of this Hawks team. He turned them from mediocre to good last season. If they want to go from good to great, they need Crawford’s scoring prowess.
14) Phoenix Suns: Losing Amar’e Stoudemire won’t help, but you have to think that Hedo Turkoglu will at least fit in better with the Suns than he did in Toronto. On the plus side, Robin Lopez will no longer just be known as the other Disney-obsessed Lopez twin since he will play a key role in Phoenix this year.
Offseason Summary: That’s an awful lot they invested in replacements for Amar’e Stoudemire’s production. But none of the players will offer what he gave the Suns: a true inside presence.
Player to Watch: Josh Childress returns to the NBA, and he winds up in Phoenix. Will he be the same player that left the Hawks?
15) Denver Nuggets: On paper, a top 10 team easily. Then you factor in injuries to Chris Anderson and Kenyon Martin, Chauncey Billups’ age, JR Smith’s craziness, and that little issue with Carmelo Anthony’s status being up in the air, and you wonder if they deserve to be ranked even lower.
Offseason Summary: Is Anthony still there? There have been so many trade rumors I can’t figure it out. As for actual additions, I like Al Harrington.
Also, if they think Shelden Williams is an answer to anything other than an easy way to get Los Angeles Sparks tickets, they are sorely mistaken. Nothing against Shelden, but he should not be starting on any NBA team, even with injury issues being a factor.
Player to Watch: Carmelo is the one. He is going to be under the microscope all season, whether he remains in Denver or not.
16) Memphis Grizzlies: OK, so Rudy Gay is overpaid. And Zach Randolph is volatile. And OJ Mayo is nothing close to a pure point guard.
You know what? I don’t care. Marc Gasol is a force inside and this team is going to continue to get better. I mean, the Grizz did go undefeated in the preseason.
Offseason Summary: Rudy Gay might not be a real superstar, but he is as close as they come on this team and it was important the Grizz resigned him. Oh, and they also added old friend Tony Allen.
Player to Watch: Obviously I like Memphis to surprise some people this year, and I think the key to that is the play of Mayo. His progress in the backcourt is key for a team that doesn’t have a real point guard (Mike Conley has been a bigger bust thus far than Oden).
17) NY Knicks: Well, they didn’t get Joe Johnson, Wade, or LeBron James. But Amar’e Stoudemire is a pretty decent consolation prize. Judging by his preseason performance, he is going to be a force for the Knicks. They will need him to be if they want to make a playoff push.
Offseason Summary: So Donnie Walsh’s master plan produced Stoudemire and Raymond Felton? Not exactly the haul Knicks fans must have been hoping for heading into the summer. I dont love giving up the underrated David Lee, but it had to be done. And getting Anthony Randolph should be a coup. On paper he is a great fit in the D’Antoni system.
Player to Watch: Felton is going to be the key for this team. He hasn’t had the easiest time fitting into a new system, but it should only be a matter of time before he finds his way. Playing with Stoudemire should help his numbers immensely.
18) LA Clippers: How will the Clippers disappoint this year? Hopefully it won’t involve another injury to Blake Griffin. He is primed to put up big numbers in his “rookie” year.
Offseason Summary: That’s a few intriguing draft picks the Clips got: Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Bledsoe and Willie Warren, who was pegged as a top 10 pick before a disastrous sophomore season. Let’s see if any of the three contribute, though, on a roster with some pretty decent veteran talent.
Player to Watch: Eric Gordon seems to be on the verge of a breakout year after his solid performance in the World Championships. If he can keep himself healthy, he should put up big numbers for new coach Vinny Del Negro.
19) New Orleans Hornets: A healthy Chris Paul makes all the difference. Hopefully.
Give the Hornets credit for trying to turn things around, but if they aren’t in contention by the trade deadline there could be a fire sale in New Orleans.
Offseason Summary: Will Trevor Ariza thrive playing with Paul? And who emerges at the shooting guard spot: rookie sensation Marcus Thornton or one of the newcomers, Marco Bellinelli or the recently acquired Jerryd Bayless?
Player to Watch: Emeka Okafor’s numbers were solid for his first season in the Big Easy, but he was inconsistent and his numbers paled in comparison to what he did in Charlotte. The Hornets will need him to get back to that status this season if they want to make the playoffs.
20) Indiana Pacers: I love the Darren Collison trade. Indiana spent the better part of two seasons searching for a solid point guard, and it found one in the former Hornet.
Offseason Summary: I know that Larry Bird really liked Paul George, but why spend a top 10 pick on a player that plays the same spot as your best guy? And then Indiana brought in James Posey as well.
Player to Watch: Roy Hibbert is going to be the key inside for the Pacers. He shot a disappointing 42 percent from the field this preseason, but if he improves on that mark he could see a rise in his numbers with Troy Murphy gone and Josh McRoberts starting next to him. See, he doesn’t exactly have much competition inside in terms of guys to take away from his numbers.
21)Washington Wizards: How do you think Gilbert Arenas will pair with John Wall in the Washington backcourt?
Offseason Summary: It’s all about Wall, the dynamic top pick in June’s draft. But don’t sleep on the addition of Kirk Hinrich, who should be a key off the bench.
Player to Watch: Andray Blatche averaged an astounding 22 points and eight rebounds last season after the All-Star break with Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison gone. Maybe he won’t put up numbers at that rate, but he is the real deal.
22) Golden State Warriors: Goodbye former Celtic great Don Nelson. Hello Keith Smart.
This team has a ton of talent, but let’s see if smart can put it all together.
Offseason Summary: Like I said, I am a big David Lee fan. Of course, the Warriors already had a high draft pick in Brandan Wright, then used their pick this year on another power forward, Ekpe Udoh.
Player to Watch: I’d love to put Jeremy Lin, but I can’t. I love watching Curry, who should be great again this year, but Dorell Wright is going to get a lot of time for this team and they will need him to excel.
23) New Jersey Nets: I actually think that New Jersey should be much better this season, even without a key contribution from rookie Derrick Favors. Brook Lopez is one of the best young big men in the league and will lead this team to a much better record under Avery Johnson.
Offseason Summary: I like the Troy Murphy pickup next to Lopez, if he ever gets on the court. I’m not so sure about giving all that money to Travis Outlaw, though.
Player to Watch: Terrence Williams is a sleeper candidate this year. He was sensational down the stretch last season, averaging 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists in the month of April. If he gets the minutes, he could really produce this year.
24) Sacramento Kings: Is there a better potential young one-two punch than Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins?
Offseason Summary: The Kings really had to want to be rid of Andres Nocioni’s contract to take on Dalembert’s, right?
Player to Watch: What will Tyrke Evans do for an encore? He was one of only three players to average 20 points, five rebounds and five assissts last season. The other two? LeBron and Kobe. He should only be better this season.
25) Charlotte Bobcats: An awful lot rests on the shoulders of D.J. Augustin. This preseason didn’t look so great for Larry Brown’s team.
Offseason Summary: Felton’s departure left a hole in the depth chart for Charlotte. The front line is a mess, with Desagna Diop and Nazr Mohammed fighting for minutes with Kwame Brown and Tyrus Thomas being counted on at PF alongside the fading Boris Diaw.
Player to Watch: Augustin has never exactly seen eye to eye with Brown, but who else was going to play the point? Let’s see how short the reigns are for the former Texas star.
26) Toronto Raptors: Bosh is gone, and so are any hopes that Toronto has of contending this season. But I think that the Raptors are going to be better than people think. Not good, but better than the dregs of the league. And if they play some defense, maybe even better than that.
Offseason Summary: I’m a big Leandro Barbosa fan, so I think that is a great pickup. And count me among the believers in Linas Kleiza.
Player to Watch: I think Jarrett Jack is the guy for this team. I know Bargnani has to play well up front, but Jack is an underrated point guard and he can do a little bit of everything. He always seems to give the Celtics trouble, and depending on how he splits minutes with Jose Calderon he could put up some strong numbers.
27) Detroit Pistons: Tough break losing the underrated Jonas Jerebko for the season. Rodney Stuckey said that the Pistons were “on paper, the team to beat.” Rolling papers?
Offseason Summary: How much do you think Tracy McGrady will actually play?
Player to Watch: Austin Daye didn’t get a ton of run in his rookie year, but with Jerebko sidelined his role should increase. He looks like he will be the starter at power forward, and he had a great preseason, including a 22 point, six rebound game in the Pistons’ finale against Memphis.
28) Philadelphia 76ers: This is by far the team I was least impressed with among the Celtics opponents.They better find a spot for Evan Turner quick or his rookie year is going to be a waste.
Offseason Summary: It is the end of the Samuel Dalembert era. Shed a tear, Sixers fans. At least you have Spencer Hawes…
Player to Watch: I’d say Turner, but look out for Jrue Holiday. He had great post All-Star game numbers—12 points, 5.5 assists and 1.5 steals a game—and should improve on those as Doug Collins gives him the keys to the Philly offense.
29) Cleveland Cavaliers: For the sake of not continuing to dump on Cleveland, I left them out of the last spot. For now.
I like J.J. Hickson a lot, and the fact that Mike Brown did not play the youngster was a huge factor in him losing his job, but he can’t be a game-changing franchise guy at this point. Let’s see if Mo Williams is All-Star caliber without LeBron by his side.
Offseason Summary: The Decision. ‘Nuff said.
Player to Watch: Jamario Moon isn’t going to be LeBron James. Far from it. But between him and Anthony Parker the Cavs will need to get some production from their swingmen.
30) Minnesota Timberwolves: Ah, David Kahn’s video game roster. A plethora of swingmen who don’t necessarily fit a position and another point guard were David Kahn’s prized acquisitions. Plus, he gave away Jefferson for peanuts. On the plus side, I’m guaranteeing that Kevin Love is an All-Star this year and top five in the league in rebounds. Maybe first if Dwight Howard pursues his music career.
And yes, I know they had a great preseason record. I fully expect them to be five spots higher after the first week.
Offseason Summary: I still think if you are going to trade Jefferson, you have to take DeMarcus Cousins in the draft. Nothing against Wes Johnson, but Cousins is a building block (though a headcase). Kahn bid against himself for Darko, gave dough to Anthony Tolliver and Luke Ridnour, traded for Martell Webster and Michael Beasley…the list goes on.
Player to Watch: Michael Beasley never found his niche with Miami, but there is no doubting his talent. Of course, the Wolves are trying him at that small forward spot where he doesn’t seem to fit so well. Still, he is getting a fresh start and Minnesota needs someone to score. Don’t be surprised if he has good numbers.