Cleveland is especially dangerous this season because of its defense. Scouts and coaches say the Olympics have changed LeBron -- "He's defending the best player on the opposing team every game," an Eastern assistant coach said -- while Mo Williams, a half-hearted defender in Milwaukee, has provided solid, game-to-game defense (in addition to scoring 16 points a game).
Steve Kerr took over a team with a coach and star players who were far more established in their roles than Kerr was in his as a new GM. Everyone faces a steep learning curve in this job. I remember the rash moves made by Danny Ainge after he was hired to run the Celtics, and they are the kinds of decisions you don't see him making today. The Suns' window was closing when Kerr was hired, and he made a bold gamble by trading for Shaquille O'Neal in hopes of grabbing a championship before too late. Instead, that deal hastened a transition that so far has drawn in Mike D'Antoni as well as Raja Bell and Boris Diaw. And it isn't finished yet.
The acquisition of Jason Richardson, an athletic scorer who should fit in nicely next to Steve Nash, and Jared Dudley, a versatile forward capable of playing multiple positions, should give the Suns a boost, but they are light years away from being considered contenders. That's a big concern when you consider that the franchise's cornerstones, Nash and Amaré Stoudemire, can walk away after next season.
Philadelphia: GM Ed Stefanski hopes Tony DiLeo, who has limited coaching experience but shares Stefanski's up-tempo philosophy, will find a way to make the Sixers a consistent running team.
Washington: The Wizards (believe it or not) have yet to abandon their hopes of making the playoffs. Ed Tapscott told me that he and GM Ernie Grunfeld are hoping that by making defense a priority, the Wizards will be able to salvage the season.
Minnesota: The conventional wisdom is that Kevin McHale is in a sink-or-swim situation: He has to find a way to win this season or start updating his résumé. That's very possible. But if Minnesota shows signs of improvement, owner Glen Taylor wants this to be the first of hopefully many seasons with McHale on the bench. In many ways, the rest of this season will be about evaluating McHale as a coach.
Oklahoma City: The Thunder were bad with P.J. Carlesimo. They will continue to be bad under Scott Brooks. I get the impression that GM Sam Presti isn't overly concerned about winning this season as long as Brooks gives the young core the opportunity to develop.
Sacramento: See Oklahoma City. The young Kings are a non-factor in this year's playoff race. GM Geoff Petrie needs to evaluate a team that hasn't tuned out its coach.
Toronto: Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo told me that he loved Jay Triano's offensive philosophies. Colangelo will use the last five months of the season to see if Triano has the makeup to be an NBA coach. Of all the interim coaches, Triano probably stands the best chance to keep the job.