I've put this off as long as possible. But having come to the following realization: What's more important, though, being right or publishing your predictions before Kobe gets traded so as to have an unimpeachable excuse for some of what you get wrong? I trudge ahead.
Legitimate NBA Championship contenders
San Antonio's the clear favorite to me considering Phoenix's lack of depth, the fragile health of Houston's two superstars, and Dallas's playoff implosion against the Warriors last year. That loss, though, had as much to do with Nellie as the Mavericks possessing a fundamental flaw that lots of teams can exploit so they're far more likely to go from first-round losers to NBA champions than are the Rockets.
Mavs second-favorites for the big trophy, then.
Favorites to lose in the NBA Finals
Each of these teams hope to get better as the season progresses. Chicago hopes to add a superstar for their plethora of above average players to support. Boston hopes that the opportunity to play alongside Garnett, Pierce, and Ray Allen will tempt a bought-out veteran or two to offer what production they can off the bench. Cleveland hopes to get Varejao and Pavlovic re-integrated into the rotation while Daniel Gibson continues to develop. None of these teams, however, as currently composed would be favored to beat any of the four best teams in the West in a seven-game series.
Two playoff locks from the Northwest Division
The main problem I have with power rankings is that though both of these teams will be better than 11-15 Eastern Conference teams, that isn't really worth anything in the real world if they're going to be worse than four Western Conference teams.
I like Denver to win the division, for both to be pesky first round opponents, and one to be a pesky opponent again in the second round.
A bunch of Eastern Conference playoff contenders clustered around 40 wins
I'd be shocked if Detroit missed the playoffs. I'd be almost as shocked if they won 50 games again. A slow descent is indicative of a well-run franchise. I think the Pistons have a decent chance of rebuilding without ever missing the playoffs.
Orlando is my pick to win the Southeast which might be a race to 45 wins instead of 42 this year with the Heat acquiring Ricky Davis and Mark Blount for Antoine Walker. Not that it will matter if Miami doesn't get at least 90 combined regular season games from Wade and Shaq.
Barring significant injury to Chris Bosh, Toronto should make the playoffs comfortably even if they don't match last year's 47 wins.
Though they were debilitated by injury come playoff time, Washington was relatively healthy in the regular season overall. Barring a major roster change, I see them within a couple games of .500 again. Same with New Jersey and their aging stars carrying a next generation of players who aren't very good.
One or two of these teams will make the playoffs ahead of one or two of the above teams
Somebody in the above grouping will crater and at least one of these teams will manage to win 38 or more games and sneak into a playoff spot. I don't know which one and it probably won't much matter in the history of whichever franchise manages to do so.
Three teams for two spots
Los Angeles Lakers
New Orleans has an excellent shot to make the playoffs this year as the bottom 60% of the West has gotten appreciably worse (some, to be fair, have gotten worse to get better) and the two teams closest to them in talent level are far more volatile.
The Lakers, you might have heard, could trade want-away Kobe Bryant. Golden State is relying on Don Nelson's continued interest in being the head coach, Baron Davis's physical health (and Monta Ellis's to a lesser extent), and Stephen Jackson's mental health. Plus, the Jason Richardson-for-Brandan Wright swap was not made in the interests of short term improvement.
The future is not yet now
None of these teams is trying to contend this year. Portland's letting their young core develop while Oden heals. Seattle's letting their young core develop while they try and decide on a point guard and center. Memphis is letting their young players prove they can worth keeping around alongside Gasol and Conley. (My guesses are 'yes' to Warrick, Mike Miller, Navarro, and Darko; 'no' to Gay and Swift with Lowry thrown into a trade) And Sacramento is trying to find out what they can get for Bibby, Artest, and Brad Miller that would complement Kevin Martin.
You try and make the case that they're even trying
Los Angeles Clippers
I guess there's a chance that the Clippers find enough teams desperate for veteran help that they can offload Cassell, Mobley, Patterson, and Tim Thomas for someone or something of value. More likely they trade Maggette for less than he's worth while watching Al Thornton put up good numbers when he can dominate the ball on a terrible team and decide to build around him and Elton Brand not realizing that Thornton's the new Orlando Woolridge (and he's not that much younger than Woolridge).
As for Minnesota, Glen Taylor is stupid and gullible. I don't see how things can get better as long as he owns the team.