UPDATE: Playoff predictions for the Western Conference were inadvertently omitted from the original posting.
First seed, Southwest Division Champion: San Antonio Spurs
Second seed, Pacific Division Champion: Phoenix Suns
Third seed: Dallas Mavericks
These three teams could finish in any order but collectively they'll be the class of the Western Conference.
In San Antonio, Jackie Butler and Francisco Elson should adeqautely replace Rasho Nestervoic and Nazr Mohammed. If Butler can maintain his semi-established level of production while playing more minutes, the Spurs will get improved production from the center position. San Antonio also brought in Matt Bonner as Robert Horry insurance and Jacque Vaughn to replace Nick Van Exel. Vaughn is so ineffective offensively that I think Gregg Popovich will have no choice but to play Beno Udrih more.
I'm not a huge Marcus Banks fan, but he will complement Leandro Barbosa far better than did Eddie House. Phoenix got less than 1500 combined minutes from Amare Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas last year. Every minute more than that they get from those two will significantly improve their defense and add to their win total.
Dallas made a good trade with Indiana. I think Austin Croshere, especially in a contract year, will be an improvement over Keith van Horn and Anthony Johnson is obviously better than Dsrrell Armstrong at this point. I'm not a fan of signing both Greg Buckner and Devean George as both figure to be far less effective than Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse, neither of whom is likely to appear in 82 games this year. Avery Johnson would be better off going small when his top two wings are marked absent. If Dallas is healthy come playoff time, they'll still be a tri-favorite at worst to represent the Western Conference in the NBA finals.
Fourth seed, Northwest Division Champion: Seattle Supersonics
In the end, I chickened out of picking an upset winner in either the Atlantic or the Southeast Division. Despite Robert Swift's possible absence for the year, I won't renege on this prediction in what could be a disastrous example of iconoclasm.
Here's my case: Seattle was historically awful defensively last year. More playing time for Earl Watson and Nick Collison should help improve the defensive numbers and neither of those guys will kill the effective Seattle offense. Bob Hill's an underrated coach, too.
Fifth seed: Houston Rockets
A healthy Tracy McGrady will make a big difference, but, assuming he still misses a fair number of games, I'm not sure that Shane Battier, playing his typical 80 games, won't have a bigger hand in improving Houston's offense. I also like all the options Jeff Van Gundy has in the backcourt. Out of Rafer Alston, Luther Head, Kirk Snyder, Bonzi Wells, Vassilis Spanoulis, and John Lucas there's got to be a combination more effective than Alston, Head, David Wesley, Keith Bogans, and Derek Anderson were last year.
Sixth seed: Los Angeles Lakers
I underestimated the combined strength of Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson last year. With an improved bench: Maurice Evans, Vladimir Radmanovic, Jordan Farmar, and Shammond Williams, I not only won't make the mistake of picking them to miss the playoffs again, they're one of the five teams in the West I'm certain will make the playoffs.
Seventh seed: Denver Nuggets
Denver's in the (projected) playoffs on the strength of Carmelo Anthony's talents and their overstocked, yet injury prone frontcourt. Enough of those guys will be healthy at any one time to field a decent team, yet they'll never all be healthy enough to create problems over minutes. The sooner George Karl and JR Smith become mature enough to help each other out, the better Denver will be.
Eighth seed: Sacramento Kings
First playoff runner-up: Los Angeles Clippers
Second playoff runner-up: Utah Jazz
Sacramento could be the fifth seed if they get a full year from Ron Artest. If Artest goes off the reservation or they suffer a serious injury to Mike Bibby or Brad Miller, they might not get to 40 wins. They don't have a lot of depth behind an excellent starting five with John Salmons slated to backup multiple positions.
The Clippers made the playoffs on the back of Elton Brand's career year. Sam Cassell is still effective, but declining from his peak. Shaun Livingston should be better this year, but he'd have to take a major step forward to match Cassell's production. Corey Maggette could conceivably take up some of the slack if Brand and Cassell aren't as effective, but Mike Dunleavy is rather ambivalent about playing him. I would be shocked if Tim Thomas is as productive as Radmanovic and Chris Wilcox were in their half-seasons with the Clippers last year.
If I thought Jerry Sloan would play Ronnie Brewer more often than Derek Fisher, I'd put the Jazz in the playoffs.
Eleventh place: NO/OKC Hornets
Twelfth place: Minnesota Timberwolves
Chris Paul is a great point guard but he's not good enough to turn any of the Hornets' centers into effective offensive players. Bobby Jackson and Jannero Pargo project to be inadequate replacements for Speedy Claxton and I'll be impressed if Paul and David West maintain their outstanding play from last year. To ask for improvement from both seems awfully optimistic.
If I thought he'd get to touch the ball very often, I'd make Randy Foye my Rookie of the Year pick. I don't understand how he, Mike James, and Ricky Davis are going to complement each other. In the frontcourt, Kevin Garnett produces about as much as any player in the NBA, but not so much that he can make up for the lack of contributions from Trenton Hassell, Mark Blount, and Eddie Griffin.
Thirteenth place: Memphis Grizzlies
No team, not even one whose success is built on a foundation of limiting possessions and playing hard every night, can survive the loss of its two best players.
Fourteenth place: Golden State Warriors
Moving Mikey Dunleavy to power forward and running the offense through Mikey Dunleavy are horrible ideas independent of each other. The silver lining for Warriors' fans is that doing both at the same time might prove so disastrous that the experiment doesn't last very long. Don Nelson's desire to go small appears to marginalize Golden State's two most intriguing young players (Ike Diogu and Andris Biedrins) in order to give more minutes to Mickael Pietrus (who will probably become effective now that I've given up on him) and Monta Ellis (he of the old-man knees) or Dajuan Wagner (missed 2006 season while having colon removed/reputation helped by Tskitishvili being an even worse Top 6 pick in 2002 Draft).
Fifteenth place: Portland Trail Blazers
I expect Portland to be much improved, but even a ten win improvement might not keep them out of the Western Conference cellar. Brandon Roy should be able to contribute immediately and Jarrett Jack will be far more effective as a full-time point guard. I still think Martell Webster is more likely to be George McCloud than Glen Rice, but I'd be surprised if he doesn't take a big step forward in his second year.
1st Round Playoffs
San Antonio over Sacramento 4-1
Phoenix over Denver 4-1
Dallas over Los Angeles Lakers 4-2
Houston over Seattle 4-2
San Antonio over Houston 4-3
Dallas over Phoenix 4-3
San Antonio over Dallas 4-2
San Antonio over Cleveland 4-2