15. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers may be the hardest team in the league to predict this coming season, and that’s without them being rumored to be chasing any big name free-agents, as is the case with the rest of the unpredictable NBA teams. Their starting five should look very similar to last year’s, with early rumors pointing to last year’s second overall pick Evan Turner moving in alongside Jrue Holiday, Andre Iguodala and former all-star, Elton Brand. It will be interesting to see how this team plays for Doug Collins, who was the runner-up for NBA’s coach of the year last season, when he was largely credited for the Sixers overachieving after a slow start. However, with a lockout shortened season, if these young Sixers come out of the gates slowly again, it will be very tough to bounce back.
Note: Now matter how well the Sixers play this season, nothing can make up for the atrocity of any of these three potential team mascots: http://www.nba.com/sixers/mascotfanvote.html
14. Houston Rockets
I’m expecting big things from the Rockets this year, mostly because the excuses for missing the playoffs last year are all gone, and it is now time to perform. Despite having to adjust to new coach Kevin McHale, the core of this team remains largely the same and roles should be more firmly established from day 1. While the Rockets were bogged down with the false hope of a Yao Ming return last year, and Aaron Brooks had to battle off Kyle Lowry for the starting point guard spot, the team got off to a slow start. Now, with Lowry as the unquestioned starter, the team will be able to jell from the very beginning. Kevin Martin and Luis Scola are also above average players at their position, and the Rockets boast one of the strongest benches in the league. They will have to make the center and small forward positions a priority in this shortened offseason, but this is definitely a team on the rise in the post-Yao era.
Note: This is a big off-season for backup guard Courtney Lee, who has been traded in every prior offseason of his young career. If he remains with the team, it will be his first time on the same team for two consecutive seasons.
13. Los Angeles Clippers
A lazier sports writer would just write two things for the Clippers and be satisfied with that. 1) Blake Griffin and 2) Minnesota’s unprotected 2012 lottery pick. So, essentially, no matter what the Clippers do, they win. Expect restricted free-agent center DeAndre Jordan to be back and huge as ever, and Eric Gordon should continue to be an explosive scorer as he quietly grows into one of the top young shooting guards in the league. But at the end of the day, this is all about Blake Griffin. He may be able to jump over cars and intern for comedy websites, but he needs to keep on growing as a leader of this Clippers team. He had one of the most impressive seasons of any rookie we’ve seen in the last 20 years and it doesn’t look like there is any chance of being bogged down by the sophomore slump.
12. Atlanta Hawks
Despite Larry Drew’s promotion to head coach last year, the script has been the same for Hawks for years, and until some changes occur, that will remain the case. Every year they just get by in the season, look impressive in the first round before bowing out in the second. Most teams would kill for that second round glory, but the Hawks should look to improve upon past success, and I think they need to make a move to do that. But, assuming they stand pat, Joe Johnson is still a top-tier shooting guard, despite his contract, Josh Smith is one of the league’s most talented players, and Al Horford is a top center. If they can put it all together, they could be a top team. It will probably take some more strong role players off the bench first however, and as currently constructed, the second round appears to be this team’s ceiling.
11. Orlando Magic
Like the Hornets, the Magic are impossible to predict. However, they are so much higher on the rankings, because they are a far better team assuming Dwight Howard is there for at least part of the season. Not only is Howard the league’s top center, but unless he is getting technical fouls, he simply will not miss games for injury. He has missed 7 games his entire career, and will average around 20 points to go with his 13 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. He is obviously an exceptional player, but with questions about how he will play and drama that will surround the team, the other players must step up. Jameer Nelson will continue to overachieve and hopefully veterans Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas can contribute something this year after being brought in mid-season last year. Expect for this team to be very busy one way or another during the off-season, and if Howard is not gone by then, this is another team that will only be caught up in trade talk until a move is actually made.