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Celtics, Western powers lead the way

The 2008-09 season tips off Tuesday night. To help set the stage, we present our preseason Power Rankings. Keep in mind, this list represents how we see teams stacking up on paper going into the season. We'll start ranking them based on performance starting Monday, Nov. 3.

(Send comments to siwriters@simail.com)
NBA Preseason Power Rankings
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1Boston Celtics
The defending champs return nearly all the key players from last season's 66-win juggernaut, meaning they have to be considered favorites to notch Boston's first repeat title since the Bill Russell era (1968 and '69). The development of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins alongside Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen also bodes well. But will the Big Three be as hungry now that they've got their rings? And will they miss the departed James Posey come playoff time?
 
2Los Angeles Lakers
With the reigning MVP in Kobe Bryant and the return to health of 7-foot center Andrew Bynum, L.A. gets the early nod to come out of the West. The presence of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson doesn't hurt either. But Bryant's long Olympic summer, Bynum's surgically repaired knee and the stiff competition in the West make a sixth Finals trip for the Lakers this decade far from certain.
 
3San Antonio Spurs
They might be a little old around the edges, but they can't be counted out. They finished just one game behind the Lakers for the West's best record last season and eliminated the Hornets in the second round of the playoffs. Their defense and championship experience still make them dangerous. If the early absence of Manu Ginobili (ankle surgery) is the worst of the injuries for the star trio of Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, the Spurs will be right there again. Besides, it's an odd-numbered year for the four-time champs ('99, '03, '05, '07).
 
4New Orleans Hornets
With Posey joining MVP runner-up Chris Paul, David West, Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic and Morris Peterson, the Hornets should be able to build on last season's surprising success. Posey's ability to defend the likes of Bryant, Ginobili and Tracy McGrady in the playoffs might even give New Orleans an edge. But will they find it tougher this season now that they face loftier expectations?
 
5Houston Rockets
In the boldest gamble of the offseason, they acquired Ron Artest in a trade with the Kings. The mercurial forward could team with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming to form a Big Three to match up with those in Boston, L.A. and San Antonio. Or he could wreck the chemistry with his history of creating needless off-court distractions. Look for Artest to be on his best behavior this season, and for the Rockets (assuming they stay healthy) to continue their ascent in the West.
 
6Utah Jazz
A possible sleeper to come out of the West, Jerry Sloan's crew just keeps humming along like that proverbial '57 Chevy. Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Andrei Kirilenko and Ronnie Brewer lead a deep and talented roster, and Utah boasts one of the NBA's biggest home-court advantages. However, the Jazz will have to improve their team defense to break through with a deep playoff run. If not, the old car could be headed for an overhaul next summer.
 
7Cleveland Cavaliers
They're hoping point guard Mo Williams, acquired in a trade with the Bucks, can provide the scoring help that LeBron James needs. If so, the pieces appear to be there for a second Finals trip in three years. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao defend and clean up on the boards. Wally Szczerbiak, Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson and Delonte West give them options in the backcourt. James, in his sixth season but still a spry 23, is good enough to take care of the rest.
 
8Detroit Pistons
There is no denying their talent. Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess still form one of the NBA's best cores. If new coach Michael Curry can light a fire under them, and youngsters Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson can step up, they have a good shot at a seventh straight trip to the East finals -- and maybe another chance at their second ring this decade.
 
9Orlando Magic
Led by Dwight Howard, they won 52 games last season to stamp themselves a legitimate factor in the East. With the scoring ability of Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, they will have a potent offense again. The addition of Mickael Pietrus and the return of Tony Battie (out last season with a shoulder injury) should improve their defense. But the Magic won't be able to sneak up on opponents anymore, and it remains to be seen if they can be as effective with a bigger lineup.
 
10Dallas Mavericks
New coach Rick Carlisle could be just the man to reignite this veteran crew seeking to return to elite status after a subpar 2007-08 season. The former Pistons and Pacers coach will tailor the offense for Jason Kidd and open things up for Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard, Jason Terry, etc. But will thirtysomething guards Kidd, Terry and Jerry Stackhouse have enough left in the tank at the end of the season?
 
11Portland Trail Blazers
The debut of 2007 No. 1 pick Greg Oden, who missed all of last year with a knee injury, has many experts predicting a breakthrough season for this up-and-coming team. Oden will have plenty of support from All-Star Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Martell Webster (sidelined early with a foot injury), Travis Outlaw and newly signed Spanish guard Rudy Fernandez. But will all the new pieces fit, and will the young players be able to handle the expectations?
 
12Philadelphia 76ers
In the biggest free-agent coup of the summer, Elton Brand bolted the Clippers to sign a five-year, $80 million deal with the Sixers. The 6-foot-8 workhorse fills Philly's biggest need as a two-way power forward who can score in the low post and defend at the other end. Along with Andre Miller, Andre Iguodala, Samuel Dalembert and Thaddeus Young, the Sixers appear poised to build on last year's surprising 40-win campaign and first playoff berth of the post-Allen Iverson era.
 
13Toronto Raptors
Like the Sixers, they are counting heavily on a former All-Star power forward to take them to the next level. If Jermaine O'Neal can regain his form after four seasons battling injuries, the Raptors could vault into the East's top four. But if O'Neal goes down again, Toronto's lack of depth and overall toughness will doom it to another first-round playoff ouster.
 
14Phoenix Suns
After several near-misses at a Finals berth, the Suns finally ended the Mike D'Antoni small-ball show last summer and brought in Terry Porter to implement a more balanced approach. In a big change for the likes of Steve Nash, Amaré Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa, Porter will try to slow the pace a bit and get the Suns into a defensive mind-set. But with several aging key players and little proven depth, Phoenix could be headed for a decline.
 
15Denver Nuggets
With Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith, the Nuggets once again figure to be among the league leaders in scoring. But the loss of Marcus Camby (traded to the Clippers in a cost-saving move) threatens to leave them even more defenseless than usual. It's going to take a monster season from Nenê in the middle, and a lot of prodding from coach George Karl, for Denver to snap its streak of five first-round playoff exits.
 
16Indiana Pacers
As part of a needed housecleaning, president Larry Bird traded O'Neal for T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic and rookie center Roy Hibbert. The cat-quick Ford should thrive in Jim O'Brien's up-tempo offense along with Mike Dunleavy, Danny Granger and Troy Murphy. If Nesterovic, Hibbert and veteran Jeff Foster can provide a consistent defensive presence in the middle, the Pacers could be a surprise playoff team in the East.
 
17Atlanta Hawks
After ending their NBA-long eight-year playoff drought last season, Joe Johnson & Co. are looking to take the next step. With Mike Bibby, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Al Horford, the Hawks certainly have the talent to get back. But will Smith be as hungry now that he has a fat new contract, and will they play defense for coach Mike Woodson?
 
18Washington Wizards
They managed to re-sign star point guard Gilbert Arenas over the summer, ensuring that their own Big Three (along with Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison) would stay intact. But defense and depth remain major concerns, and the loss of Arenas (knee, mid-December projected return) and center Brendan Haywood (wrist, mid-February) raises serious doubts about whether this team will ever be healthy enough to become a serious East contender.
 
19Los Angeles Clippers
Baron Davis' arrival was part of a major roster turnover for the Clippers, who also added veterans Camby and Ricky Davis and rookie Eric Gordon. But with Brand no longer around to do the heavy lifting, and Davis always a risk to end up on the injured list, a lot will have to go right for the Clippers to join their city rivals in the West playoff field.
 
20Miami Heat
New coach Erik Spoelstra takes over for Pat Riley as they try to put last year's 15-67 debacle in the rearview mirror. With Dwyane Wade, Shawn Marion, Udonis Haslem and hotshot rookie Michael Beasley, the Heat have the weapons to get back in the playoff race. But gaping holes at point guard and center, combined with uncertainty over offensive philosophy, mean Wade will have to be fully healthy and at MVP level all season for them to crack the East's top eight.
 
21Golden State Warriors
The departure of Davis, and an injury to Monta Ellis (ankle, out until at least mid-December), threaten to cripple Don Nelson's small-ball attack. Newly signed free agent Corey Maggette will try to pick up the slack, along with Stephen Jackson and Andris Biedrins, but it will be difficult without a proven QB to run the show. It won't help matters that Nelson is in the last year of his contract and facing an uncertain future in the Bay Area.
 
22Charlotte Bobcats
With Jason Richardson, Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton and Emeka Okafor, Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown has a core of young talent around which to build. But Brown will have to be patient with this mostly offensive-minded crew, and he might need another season to plug holes in the lineup as he goes about getting them to "play the right way."
 
23Milwaukee Bucks
New general manager John Hammond and coach Scott Skiles have promised to change the culture and improve the defense. The acquisition of Richard Jefferson (trade with Nets) was a good first step while also giving Milwaukee a potent offensive perimeter duo (along with Michael Redd). But questions at point guard and power forward, as well as overall frontcourt depth, likely will prevent the Bucks from making a big leap in the standings.
 
24Chicago Bulls
The arrival of No. 1 pick Derrick Rose has brought hopes of a quick return to respectability for the Bulls after last season's disaster. Rose, Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich, Larry Hughes, Andres Nocioni, Drew Gooden, Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah give Chicago solid depth. But with a rookie point guard, a rookie coach (Vinny Del Negro) and no real low-post threat, the Bulls just have too many questions to expect a playoff berth.
 
25New Jersey Nets
After trading Jason Kidd and Jefferson over the past eight months, New Jersey is clearly in rebuilding mode. The long-term goal appears to be to clear enough cap space to make a run at LeBron in 2010. For now, that means Vince Carter and Devin Harris will have to carry the load while youngsters Yi Jianlian, Sean Williams, Brook Lopez, Josh Boone, Ryan Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts learn the NBA ropes.
 
26Sacramento Kings
Like the Nets, they are trying to rebuild for 2010 while keeping enough veterans around to stay respectable in the interim. Kevin Martin is a legit All-Star candidate, while John Salmons, Beno Udrih, Brad Miller, Bobby Jackson and Mikki Moore form a respectable core. But they are going to have to share a lot of time with youngsters Spencer Hawes, Francisco Garcia, Jason Thompson, Shelden Williams and Donte' Greene.
 
27Minnesota Timberwolves
The arrival of Mike Miller and rookie forward Kevin Love in a trade with the Grizzlies (for O.J. Mayo and Marko Jaric) provides two more solid blocks in their post-KG reconstruction. Along with Al Jefferson, Randy Foye and Corey Brewer, Minnesota is at least starting to resemble an NBA team again. But until they get a real point guard and a proven center to help out Big Al, the Wolves are going to struggle to rise in the West.
 
28New York Knicks
New president Donnie Walsh and D'Antoni were not able to do much this summer about the mismatched roster full of bad contracts (Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry, et al.). Unless Chris Duhon suddenly morphs into Nash, the Knicks are going to need at least another season to implement D'Antoni's fast-paced system.
 
29Oklahoma City Thunder
After two years of legal wrangling in Seattle, owner Clay Bennett finally got his wish and relocated the franchise to Oklahoma City. As a result, the NBA has a new team with a new nickname and a new uniform color scheme. Unfortunately for Oklahoma fans, the team still looks a lot like last season's Sonics. At least Kevin Durant is back to build on his Rookie of the Year campaign.
 
30Memphis Grizzlies
The rookie additions of Mayo and Spanish center Marc Gasol (younger brother of Pau) have brought a glimmer of hope after recent woes for the franchise. But the Grizzlies' youth means serious growing pains this season, and Gasol will have to make a fast NBA transition for them to avoid another year in the cellar.
 
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