1. Oklahoma City Thunder (ESPN Projected Wins: 48)
The closest thing you can have to a lock. Barring a major, catastrophic, injury this team is going to run away with the west. Durant is the best player in the conference. Westbrook can be a top five point guard when his head is on straight. Everyone knows how I feel about James Harden. Kendrick Perkins. They have the pieces, the experience, and the young legs. Look out.
2. Memphis Grizzlies (ESPN Projected Wins: 40)
Quietly the most underrated team in the league. Although, I guess it'd be hard to loudly be the most underrated team in the league. They bring back Mike Conley, OJ Mayo, Tony Allen, Xavier Henry, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol. They added Josh Selby out of Kansas - one of my favorite picks of the entire draft - and Dante Cunningham (former Villanova Wildcat, throw your V's up) to replace Darrell Arthur. Again, look out.
3. Los Angeles Clippers (ESPN Projected Wins: 41)
I love everything that Lob City stands for. The dunks, the three pointers, the superstars, and the undercutting of the Lakers. I will bet a lot of money that the Clippers finish with a better record than the Lakers.
4. Dallas Mavericks (ESPN Projected Wins: 45)
Will they win 45 games? Absolutely not. Will they continue to be a dismal team? Absolutely not. They will straighten it out, or Mark Cuban will gut the roster and trade for Dwight Howard, Deron Williams, and Pau Gasol to straighten it out. A roster full of career-long winners (with a couple pairs of talented young legs - looking at Roddy Beaubois and Ian Mahinmi) can't fall out of the playoffs.
5. Portland Trail Blazers (ESPN Projected Wins: 34)
I wanted to put Portland ahead of Dallas. I really did. But the injury problems are a really dark cloud over the potential of th- what's that? Greg Oden is injured again and may miss the entire year? Well damnit, there goes that. But LaMarcus Aldridge is supremely talented and he has a lot of guys around him that can score and play defense. Be on the lookout for Portland to surprise some people.
6. Denver Nuggets (ESPN Projected Wins: 35)
The ultimate "the season is short and compact, teams with young legs will do a lot of winning" team. If you look at Denver's roster, they really go two deep at every single position. Lawson/Miller, Afflalo/Fernandez, Gallinari/Brewer, Nene/Harrington, Mozgov/Birdman. Sheesh. Talk about depth. Throw in this video as proof that they'll make a few SportsCenter highlights and that's really all you need to know about that:
PS: that track is now playing in the background of my computer, and it's such a catchy chorus.
7. Golden State Warriors (ESPN Projected Wins: 30)
Take the over. That's all you need to know. Simply too much offense to not make the playoffs. Their big three combined with a talented pair of youngsters (Klay Thompson and Ish Smith) and Brandon Rush is very fun to watch. Mark Jackson may win coach of the year - don't lock that down or anything but it could happen. I liked what I saw out of him the other night.
8. Los Angeles Lakers (ESPN Projected Wins: 42)
I hope they miss the playoffs. I really do. When my first thought during the game was, "Man, Troy Murphy looks good," you know something is wrong with the most stories franchise in NBA history. But when it comes down to it, Kobe and Pau are still one of the best twosomes in the league. But I would take the under for sure.
Blah Blah Blah Nobody Cares About These 9-12 Teams
13. Sacramento Kings (ESPN Projected Wins: 23)
They just need time. Jimmer - Tyreke - DaMarcus. They will be dynamic one day. But they need a few more years and a few more high draft picks. The two problems to their success this season: Evans and Cousins are nutjubs, and the spotlight is going to be on them every night because of Jimmer.
14. Utah Jazz (ESPN Projected Wins: 28)
They got a great haul from the Deron Williams trade, and it will pan out for them eventually. Just not this year. In the future, a core of Devin Harris-Gordon Hayward-Derrick Favors-Paul Millsap-Al Jefferson will be fearsome. Just not this year.
15. New Orleans Hornets (ESPN Projected Wins: 22)
They also got a great haul by dealing their superstar.They also just need time. Eric Gordon will one day position himself as one of the best 5 guards in the NBA. Or something. Going forward, they have Jack, Vasquez, Gordon, Ariza, Aminu, Landry, and Okafor. That's a lot of young talent. They could potentially deal Chris Kaman's expiring contract to pick up a superstar who would commit to stay for a few years to play with all the young dudes. They are getting a lottery pick in the next draft. Could you imagine a Jared Sullinger-Emeka Okafor frontcourt? I feel like I'm saying this again, but they just need another couple of seasons.
I think I found the replacements for the aging Spurs, Lakers, and Celtics.