Predicted Finish for Western Conference: 2010-11
RANK TEAM COMMENT
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are still the team to beat, but getting a three-peat will be a challenge. Kobe Bryant is slowly starting to show his age, Lamar Odom played a lot of basketball this summer and could burn out, Andrew Bynum is already ailing and the competition in the league and in the West got stronger.
Kevin Durant is the front-runner for the MVP award this year. Russell Westbrook looked like a potential star for Team USA, and the Thunder have a ton of effective role players and an excellent coach. May be premature here, but they have the ability to knock the Lakers off.
Por. Trail Blazers
The Blazers are the West's sleeping giant. Last year the team had a terrific season, despite a flurry of injuries. We're still waiting to see if Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla can come back healthy, but even if they can't, the Blazers are loaded with talent. They could be the best team in the West.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs continue to find a way to stay relevant, even as their core ages. The emergence of George Hill and DeJuan Blair was a revelation last season and I'm expecting a significant contribution from rookie Tiago Splitter this year. Not sure the Spurs can challenge the Lakers, but they'll be tough.
The Mavs have the veterans to make a deep run in the playoffs. The addition of Tyson Chandler should dramatically improve the team's frontcourt D. However, you wonder if the Mavs can maintain their mojo much longer. Once again it's now or never for Dallas and I continue to lean toward never.
The Jazz lost Carlos Boozer, but I'm not sure they took a step backward thanks to the addition of Al Jefferson. Jefferson is younger, makes less money and he's hungry to play for a winner. If Mehmet Okur can get back to full strength by the end of December, the Jazz will be dangerous.
Once again the Rockets come down to Yao. With him, they appear to be a pretty formidable playoff team. Without him, they'll scrap again for a low playoff seed. GM Daryl Morey has done a good job of improving the team's perimeter, but if the big fella stumbles, it's hard to believe the team can go deep.
When healthy, Chris Paul may be the best PG, but can his supporting cast help the Hornets get over the hump? Trevor Ariza, along with veterans like Emeka Okafor and David West, can help the team make some noise. Given the troubles in Denver and Phoenix, the playoff window is open.
There are just too many question marks. Even if the team keeps Carmelo all season (odds of that: slim), I'm a little suspicious that it'll be able to maintain what it's done the past few years. If Denver trades Melo and doesn't get an All-Star back, it could slide all the way to 13th in the West.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers continue to be a Bill Simmons punchline, but after watching Blake Griffin tear it up in the preseason, I'm hedging on putting the Clippers too low. If he stays healthy, Baron Davis may actually engage and if that happens, the Clips could make a surprising run at the playoffs.
Is this the year the Suns' flame is extinguished? They still have Steve Nash and they're determined to play up-tempo again, but the loss of Amare Stoudemire, the middling talent everywhere else, along with Nash's age, keep them from being a major threat anymore.
The Grizzlies had a better than expected season last year thanks to a terrific performance by Zach Randolph and improvements by Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol and O.J. Mayo. But they did little to improve their roster this summer while other teams in the West made up significant ground.
I'm as bullish as I've ever been on the Warriors, despite the low ranking. The subtraction of owner Chris Cohan and coach Don Nelson, along with the addition of David Lee, a healthy Andris Biedrins and new coach Keith Smart makes the future brighter in Golden State than this ranking suggests.
The combo of Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins gives them two very formidable building blocks. I'm also a fan of Carl Landry. But after those three, there aren't a lot of other players on the Kings that wow you. Building blocks are there, but it's going to be a few years before they're a playoff team.
GM David Kahn overhauled the roster in two years, but I'm skeptical. Kevin Love is now the core of the team, which is a good thing. New additions like Wesley Johnson, Martell Webster and Nikola Pekovic should help. I think the Wolves will compete with the Nets and Raptors for the worst record.
Predicted Finish for Eastern Conference: 2010-11
RANK TEAM COMMENT
All of the concerns about chemistry are going to disappear in a few weeks. The most surprising thing is the depth the team managed to piece together -- the Heat will have a weakness in the middle, but their strength everywhere else gives them a terrific shot at winning it all.
The Magic have the best big man in basketball, two elite veteran scorers, a healthy Jameer Nelson and a deep, deep bench. They're also perfectly constructed to give the Heat some fits. Their biggest issue? Can they get past the Celtics to actually play the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals?
Did the Celtics make their last gasp in the playoffs? I have my concerns. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are all on the downsides of their careers. Ditto for the Celtics' two new O'Neals -- Jermaine and Shaq. However, with Rajon Rondo running the point, I expect they'll make another deep run.
Had Carlos Boozer not tripped over a suitcase, breaking his pinky, I'd have the Bulls ranked higher. The combination of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Boozer is an intriguing one. If the Bulls can get someone to knock down a shot or two, they could be a very dangerous team.
The Hawks broke the bank to re-sign Joe Johnson and seem to have a late first-round gem in Jordan Crawford. Josh Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams intrigue, but they can't continue to use youth as an excuse. If the Hawks can't turn the corner this season, it may be time to shake up this team.
The keys are Andrew Bogut and the development of Brandon Jennings. Bogut claims he won't be 100 percent, which could pose issues. Jennings got off to a hot start before cooling in the second half. If he takes better shots and cuts down on TOs, the Bucks should be able to repeat last season's success.
New York Knicks
Amare Stoudemire, Raymond Felton and Anthony Randolph aren't exactly LeBron and Bosh, but they'll be enough to help Mike D'Antoni finally field a proper playoff team. But Donnie Walsh will have to find a way to get a player like Carmelo Anthony to get the team back into the elite.
The Pacers made one of the best trades of the summer, swapping Troy Murphy for Darren Collison. But the Pacers are young, don't play D and are going to killed on the boards. Given the relative weakness of the rest of the teams in the East, however, Indiana has a chance at the playoffs.
With John Wall in the fold, a contrite albeit unpredictable Gilbert Arenas back, veteran Kirk Hinrich anchoring the bench and the emerging play of big men Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee, the Wiz will be better than people think. They may not be ready for the playoffs, but the Wiz finally have a future.
Andrea Iguodala, Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holiday and rookie Evan Turner give the Sixers a great young core, but a super weak frontline, led by an aging Elton Brand, means that even Doug Collins could be in for a long, long season.
The Pistons struggled with injuries last season and it dramatically affected their win total. Now that everyone's healthy, I'm still struggling to see how this team fits together. They have plenty of talent on the perimeter, but unless Austin Daye and Greg Monroe really step up, they're going to get killed in the paint.
The Bobcats made the playoffs last season, but I don't see them repeating the feat this year. Not after losing the team's starting point guard and center. Larry Brown has a knack for getting the most out of players, but I struggle to believe that they can repeat last season's performance with this squad.
Without LeBron, the Cavs are a hodgepodge collection of solid role players who will struggle to win 30. Can vets like Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, Ramon Sessions and Antawn Jamison improve now that they're no longer under LeBron's shadow? Can Harrison Barnes save the team next year?
The Raptors imploded this summer. What they have left doesn't inspire confidence. If they win 40 with a healthy Chris Bosh and Hedo Turkoglu, what can they win without them? The combo of Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon, Linas Kleiza and Leandro Barbosa sounds more like a Euroleague contender.
New Jersey Nets
The Nets shook up their roster, but it's unclear how much it's going to help. Derrick Favors was their best acquisition, but he doesn't look ready to dominate. Travis Outlaw, Troy Murphy, Anthony Morrow and Jordan Farmar will help them win more, but I think they'll be stuck in the East basement.
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NBA ESPN Chad Ford's 2010-11 NBA Predictions (http://slumz.boxden.com/f16/espn-chad-fords-2010-11-nba-predictions-1436786/)