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Heat, Thunder top preseason heap

Under any circumstances, the preseason Power Rankings are a crapshoot, an alchemistical jumble of hard data and gut instincts. In the lockout-shortened scrum that has passed for both preseason play and the free-agent signing period, trying to predict the future has become even more fanciful.

What follows is my subjective assessment of how each team will fare not only in terms of regular-season record but also in the overall caliber of their play. (It is harder to win games in the more competitive Western Conference.) Throughout the season, I'll use this space with the intention of stimulating debate (I welcome feedback via the email link at the top of the page) and hopefully offering some insight on the prospects and progress of each team. Check back Tuesday, Jan. 3 for the first regular-season edition of the Power Rankings.

(Last season's records in parentheses.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Miami Heat
Miami Heat (58-24)
For the fourth straight year a LeBron James team comes into the season regarded as a title favorite, making the regular season mere prelude to his own increasingly mysterious melodrama come playoff time. On paper, the Heat should be better: James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have had a chance to sort out roles and get used to being a highly scrutinized overdog; coach Erik Spoelstra has the added authority of a contract extension; and free-agent signee Shane Battier is exactly the sort of cool customer who can space the floor and lessen the defensive load on the perimeter for LeBron and Wade. Yes, with or without Eddy Curry, the center slot is still problematic. But again, that's prelude. The Heat will most likely rise or fall based on how James performs during crunch time of a game or two in June.
 
2Oklahoma City Thunder
Note to David Stern and whining NBA owners: The best and perhaps only way to achieve competitive balance is by hiring smart people to build your teams and manage your bottom lines. The Thunder, under general manager Sam Presti, are a small-market team whose top four players -- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka -- are either 22 or 23, each with 23 games of playoff experience over the last two years. They are supported by three defensive-oriented role players in veterans Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha. As their top competitors in the West cope with the turmoil of the league's economic politics and free agency, and worry about the aging knees of their veterans in a condensed schedule, the Thunder return their entire young, hungry roster. They are the NBA's most fundamentally sound basketball operation -- on and off the court.
 
3Dallas Mavericks
Owner Mark Cuban, citing the need to maintain financial flexibility, did not re-sign center Tyson Chandler to a long-term deal that would have made the Mavs favorites to repeat at least as conference champions. But after watching Chandler jump to the Knicks, it wasn't until Lamar Odom practically fell into their laps, with a salary fully guaranteed only through this season, that Cuban and the front office started recalibrating their prospects against their budget; they filled out the roster with the kind of inexpensive but valuable veteran role players you need to make a championship run, such as guards Vince Carter and Delonte West for less than $5 million combined. Now Dallas is belatedly in it to win it, but not coincidentally, this year's Mavs feel a lot like the pre-Chandler editions -- loads of offensive firepower led by Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, but lacking the active and agile rim protector (sorry, Brendan Haywood) so crucial to last year's success.
 
4Chicago Bulls
Although way too much was made of the Bulls' supposed weakness at shooting guard, the signing of perpetual-motion scorer Rip Hamilton and waiving of defensive specialist Keith Bogans broadened their options at the position. Hamilton, soon to be 34, has a lot of miles on him (literally and figuratively), but he will provide a nice complement to the long-range catch-and-shoot skills of Kyle Korver and the defensive tenacity of Ronnie Brewer. But the worry for the Bulls isn't personnel, or X's and O's. Last year's 62-win team had a charmed chemistry and blessed run of self-discovery that is rarely repeated. Sustaining that magic and meeting lofty expectations is the hard part that never had to be a piece of last season's equation.
 
5Denver Nuggets
With the recent re-signings of Arron Afflalo and Nene, George Karl -- now the NBA's active leader in coaching victories after Phil Jackson's retirement -- has a good, deep blend of youth and experience. He also has a nice mix of unselfish, well-paid stars and hungry role players who will scrap with opponents at both ends of the court in the high altitude. It is a situation tailor-made for his preferred coaching style. Don't sleep on Denver. This is a team that, remarkably, ranked first in offensive efficiency before the Carmelo Anthony trade and first in defensive efficiency after it. The Nuggets have a roster -- and a coach -- that can wear you out.
 
6Los Angeles Clippers
When it comes to trying to predict each team's 2011-12 performance, there is no bigger wild card than the Clippers. First, let's stipulate that Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are a match made in hoops heaven, and that newly re-signed center DeAndre Jordan has a skill set very reminiscent of Tyson Chandler's back when Paul formed a special bond with Chandler at both ends of the court in New Orleans. There is plenty of additional firepower among newcomers Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups, plus Mo Williams. But to land Paul, the Clippers sacrificed depth everywhere except point guard. Who can defend at shooting guard? And there is nothing in his history to indicate that coach Vinny Del Negro is ready for the prime-time scrutiny that comes from such a marquee roster in a town like L.A.
 
7Los Angeles Lakers
Whom do Lakers fans hate worse at this point, commissioner David Stern or general manager Mitch Kupchak? Barring the acquisition of another All-Star without sacrificing both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, the Chris Paul and Lamar Odom trade fiascos have given Kobe Bryant his worst supporting cast in five years as he enters a compressed season at the age of 33. However highly one thinks of Mike Brown, he's no Zen Master. And while Josh McRoberts was a nice pickup, the Lakers' biggest weakness last season, perimeter defense, hasn't been addressed.
 
8Memphis Grizzlies
Remember when owner Michael Heisley was almost universally, and unfairly, derided as a notorious cheapskate? With the recent signing of center Marc Gasol to a four-year, $58 million deal, Heisley is now paying three players at least $13 million apiece per year through 2015 (assuming forward Rudy Gay picks up his option then) and point guard Mike Conley another $40 million total through 2016. All this is in small-market Memphis, where Heisley also put himself in luxury-tax territory back when Jerry West was team president. On the court, coach Lionel Hollins has fostered a tough, physical style that features Zach Randolph as a low-post workhorse on offense and Tony Allen as a defender inducing claustrophobia while guarding the perimeter. The Grizzlies surged despite the absence of Gay from mid-February on, going 15-10 in the regular season and beating the top-seeded Spurs in the playoffs.
 
9New York Knicks
Tyson Chandler was the perfect free-agent acquisition, a mobile, defense-first big man for a team that was wretched at stopping opponents after obtaining Carmelo Anthony last season. Anthony, Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire are a championship-worthy frontcourt, but the Knicks are woefully thin after that. At point guard, Toney Douglas is a quality defender who takes care of the ball relatively well, but he can't be relied on for much playmaking -- and aging Mike Bibby is the backup with mercurial Baron Davis waiting in the wings. Last year's rookie surprise, glue guy Landry Fields, will share the backcourt with Douglas, but unless New York again struck gold on draft day with Iman Shumpert, the drop-off is steep from Fields.
 
10Boston Celtics
Losing Jeff Green for the season because of an aortic aneurysm furthers the sense that the proud Celtics core will ultimately have just that one championship to mark its legacy. The contracts of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen will expire after the season, as will that of de facto starting center Jermaine O'Neal. Paul Pierce is in for the longer haul, but after trading Kendrick Perkins (for the now-injured Green, the departed Nenad Krstic and a 2012 first-round pick from the Clippers likely to be in the low-to-mid-20s) and hawking Rajon Rondo like a bazaar trinket as a seemingly annual offseason rite, the front office has rendered hollow the "Ubuntu!" philosophy of togetherness that started in 2008. As for the complementary roster pieces, Brandon Bass is probably a slight upgrade over Glen Davis, and Marquis Daniels and Keyon Dooling can provide quality defense off the bench. But the Celtics are in "ring or bust" mode, without enough quality troops for a happy ending.
 
11San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs flipped their typical script in a bad way last season, peaking in the regular season rather than the playoffs. Now that the changeover to a more run-and-gun offense has been incorporated and most of the top rotation players (excepting sixth man George Hill) are returning, expect coach Gregg Popovich to rest Tim Duncan, 35, Manu Ginobili, 34, and Tony Parker, 29, even more often at the expense of the record. Like the Celtics, the Spurs' leaders have the hearts of proven champions. But the gaggle of players plugged into the center position -- last year's disappointing rookie, Tiago Splitter, the undersized DeJuan Blair and long-range shooter Matt Bonner -- won't scare, or stop, many opponents, and Duncan can no longer hold the fort by himself.
 
12Atlanta Hawks
Upsetting Orlando in the first round of the playoffs last season could be a significant psychological marker for the Hawks, who otherwise seem unenviably frozen into being a very good -- but a long way from great -- team. They have $58 million on the books for five players this season -- Joe Johnson ($18 million), Josh Smith ($12.5M), Al Horford ($12M), Kirk Hinrich ($8.1M) and Marvin Williams ($8.05M) -- but only Williams' deal and the top third of Johnson's salary seem like wasted money or bad value. The rest of the roster is necessarily threadbare, although Jason Collins is a tremendous defender against Dwight Howard and a few other big men, and Tracy McGrady, playing for the veteran's minimum, should ease the loss of Jamal Crawford. Atlanta's hopes of getting to the next level rest with the scant chance that third-year guard Jeff Teague blossoms into a star.
 
13Philadelphia 76ers
Another young team that is returning its entire player rotation, the Sixers' decisions to re-sign Thaddeus Young and not to amnesty Elton Brand demonstrate a commitment to build on last season's 14-game improvement. Among the reasons for optimism: the ongoing maturation of 21-year-old point guard Jrue Holiday; indications that swingman Evan Turner is primed to begin fulfilling his promise after a disappointing rookie season; and early signs that No. 16 pick Nikola Vucevic can immediately help alleviate Philadelphia's weakness at center.
 
14Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are putting together pieces throughout the organization: former Portland GM Kevin Pritchard as director of player personnel; Phil Jackson's onetime right-hand man Brian Shaw as assistant coach; two-time All-Star David West as the new power forward; and ex-Spurs sixth man George Hill returning home to do the same for Indiana. The team also still has plenty of cap room, a burgeoning shutdown perimeter defender in second-year swingman Paul George and young talent at center (Roy Hibbert) and point guard (Darren Collison). If longtime team leader Danny Granger effectively circumscribes his on-court role and Hibbert improves his shot selection toward scoring in the paint, the Pacers could be dangerous.
 
15Portland Trail Blazers
Brandon Roy is gone and Greg Oden is, per usual, at least temporarily out of service. Still, the Blazers soldier on, picking up veteran role players like high-scoring combo guard Jamal Crawford and wizened center Kurt Thomas, who somehow makes a virtue out of his immobility. Coach Nate McMillan, who continues to run a tight ship while owner Paul Allen confines his bloodletting to the front office, will once again test the diligence of opposing defenses by milking the shot clock. With Roy's retirement and Andre Miller's departure in exchange for Raymond Felton, McMillan will break in a new backcourt and rely on the hard-nosed skills of swingmen Wes Matthews, Gerald Wallace and especially Nic Batum, whose improvement would go a long way toward clinching a playoff berth.
 
16Houston Rockets
If the Rockets had indeed been able to acquire Pau Gasol and follow up by signing Nene, then it would have made more sense to switch from Rick Adelman, with his motion offense and high-post sets, to new coach Kevin McHale, who prefers a more pound-the-paint approach to scoring. But after the Gasol trade was blocked and Nene re-signed with Denver, McHale's first priority is to develop a center from among Jordan Hill, Patrick Patterson and Hasheem Thabeet. (Last year's starter, 6-6 fire hydrant Chuck Hayes, signed with Sacramento but had the contract voided after failing a physical.) The Rockets still have weapons galore from an offense that ranked fourth in efficiency and third in points last season. But it will be up to McHale (and assistant Kelvin Sampson) to generate enough stops for Houston to slip into the playoffs.
 
17Orlando Magic
Don't expect Dwight Howard to stint on his effort during what is shaping up as his final stretch in Orlando. But team chemistry obviously corrodes when your superstar demands to be traded. And with Gilbert Arenas having been amnestied and Hedo Turkoglu being an albatross because of his contract, it's fair to conclude that GM Otis Smith's blockbuster trades last season didn't pan out. Which of the Magic's two combustible temperaments will blow first: Howard, who has precious little frontcourt beef on the roster to support him, getting baited and whistled for a slew of technicals and flagrants; or coach Stan Van Gundy, who, after four straight seasons of at least 52 wins, must now cope with the circus surrounding Howard's seemingly inevitable departure?
 
18New Orleans Hornets
The Hornets not only sacrificed the best player in franchise history by trading Chris Paul under duress, but they also lost their second-best player of the last five years when David West left via free agency. The package for Paul may be superior to what the Jazz got for Deron Williams (who has no history of knee injuries) last season: a lights-out shooter in Eric Gordon; a probable lottery pick via the Timberwolves; skillful big man Chris Kaman playing for a new contract; and, the hidden gem in the deal, raw but talented forward Al-Farouq Aminu, exactly the sort of player a defensive-minded coach like Monty Williams can develop. But the drop-off at point guard from Paul to Jarrett Jack is still steep enough to warrant against the Hornets returning to the playoffs.
 
19Phoenix Suns
Phoenix Suns (40-42)
The old people who go to retire in Arizona have exquisite role models in Steve Nash and Grant Hill on how to stay mentally positive and physically spry. Seemingly everyone but the 37-year-old Nash himself has clamored for him to be traded to a more viable contender these last two years; meanwhile, the 39-year-old Hill spurned similarly high-powered teams to re-sign with Phoenix. But the quintessential point guard and the ageless lockdown defender need more than above-average center Marcin Gortat to get back to the postseason. Channing Frye, Mickael Pietrus and especially Robin Lopez all regressed last season, as Phoenix finished 25th in defensive efficiency and lacked a go-to scorer -- after Jason Richardson's early-season departure, Nash's 14.7 points per game (accomplished efficiently with a 60.1 true shooting percentage) led the team.
 
20Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks have a bevy of glue-guy forwards and took two more in the draft. But their season will rise or fall on the three players at the other positions. Point guard Brandon Jennings has been more flash than substance in his two years, and he took a slight step backward last season. He could be pushed by Shaun Livingston and/or Beno Udrih. Center Andrew Bogut led the NBA in blocks but was clearly hampered by injuries while executing his multidimensional offensive skills. The Bucks aren't playoff contenders until he returns to the prime form of two years ago. And wild-card shooting guard Stephen Jackson has a stubborn streak and competitive zeal that should ensure a love-hate relationship with his similarly temperamental coach, Scott Skiles.
 
21Sacramento Kings
The Kings are an increasingly talented but complicated jigsaw puzzle. How do you devise an offense and apportion touches and a pecking order among a penetrate-first point guard who can move like a locomotive through the lane (Tyreke Evans); a talented big man who fought with a teammate who denied him the final shot last season (DeMarcus Cousins); and a hot-shooting rookie whose long-range prowess made him a folk hero in college (Jimmer Fredette)? Oh, and don't forget swingman Marcus Thornton, who may be the most potent scorer in the bunch. The Kings haven't won more than 25 games in any of the last three seasons. Losing stolid defender Chuck Hayes to a heart irregularity hurts, but with recent additions like high-motor forward J.J. Hickson and veteran swingman John Salmons added to the names already called, Sacramento can take a big leap forward if it can refine the culture and begin solving the puzzle.
 
22Minnesota Timberwolves
Just the other day I had the Wolves finishing behind the Jazz in my Northwest Division preview. But after watching poised rookies Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams team with a newly buff Kevin Love to spread the floor and hang 117 points on a Scott Skiles defense, I'm jumping to a different conclusion. New coach Rick Adelman still has a long way to go in teaching this roster -- laden with youth and chronic underachievers -- how to play quality defense. But long-suffering Wolves fans have genuine reasons to be hopeful and excited.
 
23Golden State Warriors
The Warriors pursued a number of logical, big-name free agents and trade targets -- Tyson Chandler, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, who signed a four-year, $42.7 million offer sheet that the Clippers matched -- and came up empty. Then the new ownership overreached, paying Kwame Brown $7 million to play center this season when it is already doling out $9 million for Andris Biedrins to do the same thing. Add in the $69 million owed to power forward David Lee through 2016 and there is an expensive logjam in front of last year's No. 6 pick, Ekpe Udoh, who is already Golden State's best frontcourt defender and needs minutes to develop the rest of his game. Meanwhile, in the backcourt for rookie coach Mark Jackson, the team presses on with the all-offense, no-defense redundancy of Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis.
 
24New Jersey Nets
Waiting for Superman is a documentary about the dysfunctional education system in America -- and the theme of the Nets' season. If New Jersey can indeed pair Deron Williams with another potential 2012 free agent, Dwight "Superman" Howard, it'll possess arguably the league's best players at the game's two most important positions heading into a spanking new arena in Brooklyn next year. Until and unless that happens, however, Williams will wage an uphill battle to keep the Nets relevant down the stretch.
 
25Detroit Pistons
Last year respected veteran players staged a mutiny on the beleaguered coach and an owner burned by president Joe Dumars' overspending on free agents in 2009 sat on her pocketbook waiting for someone to take the Pistons off her hands. Now there is a vibrant new owner in Tom Gores willing to give Rodney Stuckey $25 million for the next three years, and a new coach, Lawrence Frank, with the pedigree to lift Detroit from its 28th-place ranking in defensive efficiency. Tayshaun Prince has re-signed for four years, and some promising players, including Stuckey, center Greg Monroe, forward Austin Daye and rookie point guard Brandon Knight, will help with Frank's rebuilding. But for Detroit to approach a break-even record, those expensive free agents from two years ago, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, have to start earning their keep.
 
26Utah Jazz
Utah Jazz (39-43)
The Jazz must decide whether to maximize their decent complement of veteran talent or start rebuilding in earnest, and their choice will be foretold by how coach Ty Corbin structures his overloaded frontcourt rotation. Center-forward Al Jefferson has been both an offensive stud in the low post and an inadequate defender on a losing team for his entire career. Forward Paul Millsap is a tireless but undersized power forward best utilized in tandem with a defensive-oriented rim protector. Center Mehmet Okur returns from injuries to stretch defenses with his outside shooting. Then there are the kids, power forward Derrick Favors and center Enes Kanter, the last two No. 3 picks in the draft. If they aren't the keys to the future in Utah, then that future is bleak.
 
27Cleveland Cavaliers
No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving is projected to be the goods at point guard, a place for the post-LeBron Cavs to plant their flag. Otherwise, if last season is any indication, Byron Scott's team will scrap even if its suspect talent is decimated by injuries. With tall and rugged swingman Omri Casspi added to the brutish style of second-year power forward Samardo Samuels and the antic but effective energy of center Anderson Varejao (until he's traded), the Cavs will win some games on grit and guts over tired opponents during this compressed schedule.
 
28Washington Wizards
A team with a proven offensive tactician in coach Flip Saunders and an exciting young point guard in 2010 top pick John Wall somehow finished 29th in assists, 26th in turnovers, 25th in shooting percentage, 28th in three-point percentage and 28th in offensive efficiency last season. The cavalcade of injuries Wall endured is certainly part of the reason why the Wizards were actually worse on both offense and defense when he was on the court, but he needs to learn to play under control and create opportunities for the talented but mistake-prone frontcourt of center JaVale McGee and power forward Andray Blatche. No. 6 pick Jan Vesely will gradually take over the supersized small forward role initially occupied by Rashard Lewis and his $21.1 million cap figure.
 
29Toronto Raptors
New coach Dwane Casey faces the thankless assignment of significantly upgrading Toronto's terrible defense without reducing the prominence of leading scorer Andrea Bargnani, who is owed more than $40 million through 2015. Moving Bargnani from center to power forward might help the spindly 7-footer's coverage, but Toronto is already stocked with solid, if unspectacular players at that position in Ed Davis and Amir Johnson; plus, Casey's options for a legitimate big man in the paint rest with the long-past-his-prime Jamaal Magloire and earnest Aaron Gray, who has never played more than 715 minutes in a season in his four-year career. In the backcourt, point guard Jose Calderon is, like Bargnani, offensively gifted and a horrendous defender -- and he's owed $20 million for the next two years. Good luck, Mr. Casey.
 
30Charlotte Bobcats
As of now, the starting center is 6-8 forward Boris Diaw, who has averaged just over five rebounds while starting all 82 games for the Bobcats in each of the last two seasons. (Other options include overweight 7-footer DeSagana Diop, who is returning from a ruptured Achilles; journeyman Melvin Ely; rookie Bismack Biyombo; and recently acquired B.J. Mullens, who has played sparingly in two NBA seasons.) Charlotte's most athletic players, swingman Corey Maggette and power forward Tyrus Thomas, have a history of posting solid stats without the intangibles that translate into team victories. D.J. Augustin, who has No. 9 pick Kemba Walker pushing him, is a game competitor and serviceable point guard who would be a complementary component on a contending team. Coach Paul Silas provides competence and dignity, but without either Stephen Jackson or Gerald Wallace anymore, even 66 games will be a long season in Charlotte.
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