Northwest Division Champions: Denver--The Nuggets aren't as good as their record down the stretch last year indicated, but they're about as good as the second- and third-best teams in the Southwest Division and will have the benefit of home court advantage against, if not being on the opposite side of the bracket from, the three best teams in the Conference once they reach the playoffs.
Pacific Division Champions: Sacramento--Somebody has to win the Pacific Division. The Kings will be a pretty good team, a slightly better iteration of the recent Memphis teams. Jason Hart will prove equally effective as Bobby Jackson, but in a different way. Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Bonzi Wells will have the opportunity to restore their reputations. If Wells fails, Kevin Martin will get a chance to make his rep. Francisco Gracia and Jamal Sampson provide decent, young insurance at the end of the bench.
4th Place: Houston--With Bobby Sura due to miss a long stretch, there's not much separating Houston and Denver. I think the Rockets can piece together an adequate backcourt between Skip To My Lou, Anderson, Head, Wesley, and Jon Barry, but you never really know with that sort of thing until you try out the various permutations. It all revolves around Tracy McGrady dominating the ball, so Alston may be the odd man out in crunch time. The frontcourt of McGrady, Yao (backed up by Mutombo), and Stromile Swift (backed up by Juwan Howard, who may have finally found a role in which he can succeed) should excel.
5th Place: Dallas--Avery Johnson has a limited number of options from which to choose Nowitzki's supporting cast. There are nine guys, but that assumes that everyone's healthy and that Doug Christie and Darrell Armstrong can still play. I suspect Johnson will ride Terry, Howard, Dampier, Daniels, and Devin Harris hard, use Stackhouse and Van Horn when they're available and beg for a better backup center than DeSagana Diop. I wonder if Greg Drieling or James Donaldson still live in the Dallas area?
6th Place: Phoenix--Even without Stoudemire, they should make the playoffs in the weakened Western Conference. If Amare can return in time for the playoffs, they'll be "the team nobody wants to play." They'll still probably lose in the first round as Amare won't be in game shape.
Steve Nash won't make James Jones Joe Johnson-rich, but he'll all look good playing alongside the nominal MVP. Somebody other than Marion and Kurt Thomas will have to grab some rebounds. My guess is Boris Diaw, though Raja Bell might put up good numbers for a guard.
7th Place: Seattle--I'm not convinced that Flip Murray and Damien Wilkins can successfully replace Antonio Daniels. So Luke Ridnour will have to play better. The rest of the team will be about the same as last year, though giving the Jerome James minutes to Mikki Moore and Nick Collison should be a net positive. I peg the Sonics at about 48 wins. Anything less than that we can blame on Bob Weiss, or retroactively credit Nate McMillan.
8th Place: Memphis--No better, no worse, just a little different. Bobby Jackson, Damon Stoudamire, and Eddie Jones might benefit from playing fewer minutes as a result of the Grizzlies' depth. Hakim Warrick, Lawrence Roberts, and sleeper big man John Thomas should steal minutes from the needlessly demonstrative Brian Cardinal. Fratello might also try playing Pau Gasol more than 32 minutes a night just to see if that would help.
First Playoff Runner-Up: Utah--A full season of Kirilenko will make a huge difference, but they will only make the playoffs if somebody falters. His versatility will help overcome any games missed by Boozer and Harpring. When at full strength, those three and Okur comprise an imposing frontcourt. Though I thought he was closer to being the third best point guard than the third best player available in the draft, Deron Williams should be solid, and thus, an immediate upgrade over Keith McLeod.
Second Playoff Runner-Up: Golden State--Exactly who is Chris Mullin worried about stealing away Adonal Foyle or Mikey Dunleavy? If the Warriors have a successful season it will be because Pietrus and Biedrins have taken away their starting jobs. Ike Diogu's late start will slow the rush for the eighth playoff spot. Baron Davis's first big injury of the year will likely end the playoff illusions in the Bay Area.
Eleventh Place: LA Lakers--None of the next five teams are very good at all, but the Lakers have two good players and an historically successful coach. Unfortunately, their best player wastes most of his energy trying to prove he's the best player rather than trying to win basketball games, their second best player has yet to fulfill the promise of his vast ability, their coach has been successful in vastly different circumstances, and Brian Cook might be their third best player. Actually, the Lakers might not have a third best player.
Twelfth Place: LA Clippers--Again, the Clippers don't have any depth and a couple of their key players (Cassell and Livingston) pose serious risk of injury. They should look pretty good when everybody's available to Mike Dunleavy without ever threatening a playoff spot
Thirteenth Place: Minnesota--Garnett is one of the two best players in the NBA. It's Garnett and Duncan. I don't care which one you argue for, but those are the only viable options. You've got to change the debate and discuss "most dominant" to argue for Shaq, or "most talented" to argue for Kobe or LeBron (though this may be the year that LeBron joins Garnett and Duncan as the class of the NBA). That being said, Wilt Chamberlain himself couldn't make this awful T-Wolves team competitive. When Marko Jaric, as I've read many a place, is the key to your season, you can go ahead and make those late April vacation plans.
Fourteenth Place: Portland--If Nate McMillan can get Zach Randolph to play hard, Portland will finish ahead of Minnesota. More likely, McMillan will make a sound decision for the future of the franchise and let Randolph go waste his considerable talent elsewhere. It's not like a foundation of Miles, Outlaw, Przybilla, Jack, and Telfair isn't a start. Webster, Monia, or Khryapa might turn into something useful as well, even if only as trade bait.
Fifteenth Place: NO/OKC Hornets--This here's the worst team in the NBA. Chris Paul could be an offensive talent to rival Steve Nash, but he has similar defensive limitations. JR Smith isn't very good yet, no matter how many points he scores while taking many, many shots. Chris Andersen is their best player, but he doesn't seem to be in line for a significant number of minutes. Desmond Mason and Speedy Claxton are decent, though I don't know if you can play Claxton and Paul at the same time. The rest of the roster is just looking to prove themselves useful players off the bench or as legitimate members of the NBA fraternity. They should have the freedom to take the best player available in the 2006 NBA Draft.