Utah Jazz preview: A division-by-division look at the NBA
Predicted finish: 1. New York; 2. Brooklyn; 3. Toronto; 4. Boston; 5. Philadelphia.
Best player: Carmelo Anthony, Knicks
Big question: Can the high-priced Nets stay healthy?
At a glance: Brooklyn's expectations match its $104 million payroll. The Nets have an All-Star cast, but the five starters have 58 NBA seasons behind them and the two youngest Deron Williams and Brook Lopez have been the most injury-prone. Throw in a rookie coach (Jason Kidd) and the Nets might have difficulty stealing the division away from the neighboring Knicks, whose addition of Andrea Bargnani just might jump-start the ex-No. 1 draft pick's career.
Predicted finish: 1. Chicago; 2. Indiana; 3. Cleveland; 4. Detroit; 5. Milwaukee.
Best player: Derrick Rose, Bulls
Big question: Will Rose's knee hold up after surgery?
At a glance: In the top-heavy East, it looks like another two-team race, this one between the Bulls and Pacers. Chicago won 45 games and a playoff series without Derrick Rose. If he stays healthy, the Bulls will likely be a top-three team in the conference. Indiana won't leave Chicago with much wiggle room, however, after taking Miami to seven games in the East finals last summer. The Pacers have improved their depth, especially if Danny Granger is close to 100 percent.
Predicted finish: 1. Miami; 2. Washington; 3. Atlanta; 4. Orlando; 5. Charlotte
Best player: LeBron James, Heat
Big question: Will Miami clinch the division by Christmas?
At a glance: Death, taxes and the Heat winning what has become a perennially weak division. They are all inevitable and will continue to be as long as LeBron James stays in Miami. He is the game's best all-around player. With an assist from aging sidekick Dwyane Wade, the Heat are once again head-and-shoulders above the competition in the Southeast. Washington, led by its dynamic young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, could be best of the rest.
Predicted finish: 1. Oklahoma City; 2. Portland; 3. Denver; 4. Minnesota; 5. Utah
Best player: Kevin Durant, Thunder
Big question: Who wins the scramble for second?
At a glance: Russell Westbrook and Durant give Oklahoma City the best 1-2 punch in the league. Led by Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha, the supporting cast makes the Thunder a top-four team in the deep, deep West. Portland could emerge from the pack and be OKC's primary threat in the division. LaMarcus Aldridge finally has a tough-guy next to him (Robin Lopez) and Damian Lillard gives the Blazers the unstoppable point guard every playoff team needs.
Predicted finish: 1. San Antonio; 2. Houston; 3. Memphis; 4. New Orleans; 5. Dallas.
Best player: Tony Parker, Spurs
Big question: This is the NBA's deepest division, right?
At a glance: Three conference final-caliber teams reside in the Southwest. San Antonio must stay ahead of Father Time, of course, and Houston hopes Dwight Howard's unhappy year in L.A. is behind him. Meanwhile, Memphis looks as capable as last season, when the Grizzlies won 56 games and reached the West finals. Until age has undeniably gotten the best of them, however, it's difficult to pick against Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and the Spurs.
Predicted finish: 1. L.A. Clippers; 2. Golden State; 3. L.A. Lakers; 4. Sacramento; 5 Phoenix
Best player: Chris Paul, Clippers
Big question: Will the Lakers make the playoffs?
At a glance: It's tough to imagine the Clippers owning Los Angeles, but that's the likely scenario this season. While the Lakers can only hope Kobe Bryant returns from Achilles surgery and gets them into the playoffs, the Clippers are legitimate title contenders. New coach Doc Rivers knows what it takes to win championships and Chris Paul is, well, Chris Paul. The Clippers' outside shooting was inconsistent last season, but J.J. Redick and Byron Mullens will help solve the problem.
1. LeBron James (Heat), 2-1
He is the best player on the best team, which always translates into MVP candidacy. James has won the award four times in the last five years. He can become the first player since Larry Bird (1984-86) and the second since Wilt Chamberlain (1966-68) to win it three straight times.
2. Chris Paul (Clippers), 3-1
He finished a distant fourth in the voting last season, but every sign indicates this is Paul's best chance to be the MVP in his nine-year career. He's at the top of his game as a scorer and leader and he quarterbacks a Doc Rivers-coached team that looks like a championship contender.
3. Derrick Rose (Bulls), 5-1
Since 2009, he is the only player other than James to win the MVP award. Rose missed last year because of knee surgery but he's been spectacular during the preseason. His size, speed and quickness make him impossible to guard. His presence makes the Bulls a top-three team in the East.
4. Kevin Durant (Thunder), 6-1
He is the best pure scorer in the NBA. Durant averaged 28.1 points last year, shot 51 percent from the field and made 41.6 percent of his three-pointers. He's made the All-NBA first team four straight times. He's finished second to James in the MVP voting three times in the last four years.
5. Dwight Howard (Rockets), 8-1
Try to forget the drama he created in Orlando and Los Angeles. If you do, Howard becomes a superstar center who transforms the Rockets from a low-level playoff team to a contender. He's a dynamic rim-protector and the Rockets' three-point ability should create space for him on offense.
TEAM ON THE RISE
Shaken to its foundation when LeBron James walked away in 2010, Cleveland is slowly rebuilding. The Cavaliers have used four top-four draft picks in the last three years on Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett. Irving is the leader of the young core and is ready to emerge as one of the game's best point guards. Free agents Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark will add experience and firepower. Anderson Varejao and Andrew Bynum can be formidable around the basket, if they overcome injuries. The bottom-line? The Cavs won't challenge Chicago or Indiana in the Central Division, but they will make the playoffs.
TEAM ON THE DECLINE
A new regime has taken over on Philadelphia. Former San Antonio assistant Brett Brown is the coach and ex-Houston executive Sam Hinkle is the general manager. But they are starting from scratch. A disastrous trade in 2012 cost the 76ers, among others, Andre Iguodala and rising center Nic Vucevic. In return, they got Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson. Ouch. Last summer, Philly traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for No. 6 drat pick Nerlens Noel, who might not play this season because of knee issues. Ouch, ouch. Even in the depth-less Eastern Conference, it appears these 76ers will have difficulty being competitive.
COACH ON THE HOT SEAT
Jason Kidd, Brooklyn
Give Brooklyn owner Mikhail Prokhorov credit for thinking outside the box. After assembling an aging, talented, massively expensive roster that he expects to immediately compete for a championship, he hired a coach without one game of experience. Yes, Kidd enjoyed a illustrious playing career. As one of the NBA's best point guards for over a decade, he was often described as a coach-on-the-floor. But playing and coaching are different animals and, in Brooklyn, Kidd won't have the luxury of honeymoon. Not with Prokhorov looking over his shoulder. Not with Deron Williams in the second year of a $100 million contract. Not with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce getting older every day.
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