With NBA training camps set to open in about six weeks, here's my view of how the Eastern Conference stacks up. (Click here for the West.)
1. Miami Heat: The two-time defending champions return 12 of their 13 most-used players from last season (Mike Miller was amnestied), and stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh remain in their primes. Miami still has size issues, and the likes of Indiana's Roy Hibbert, Brooklyn's Brook Lopez and a healthy Andrew Bynum of Cleveland will be tough matchups. Enter Greg Oden, the snakebitten former No. 1 pick who signed a minimum deal this month. An NBA source said Oden likely won't be able to contribute much in the first half of the season. But if the 7-foot, 275-pound center can regain some of his defensive and rebounding form, he will be a valuable addition to Miami's front line.
2. Chicago Bulls: The return of 2010-11 MVP Derrick Rose, who missed last season while recovering from knee surgery, likely ensures at least one thing: regular-season success. The Bulls finished with the best record in the East in Rose's last two seasons, and the fact that players such as Jimmy Butler were force-fed more responsibility in Rose's absence should strengthen coach Tom Thibodeau's team. Can the Bulls unseat Miami or overcome Indiana or Brooklyn in the playoffs without a consistent low-post scoring presence? Who knows. But with Rose and another stingy defense, they will collect a lot of victories before they get there.
3. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers will miss Tyler Hansbrough's hustle and rebounding, but they picked up a more than adequate replacement in Luis Scola, who will inject some badly needed offensive punch into the second unit. Whether the Pacers trade Danny Granger or not, they will benefit from his return. With Granger, Indiana adds another offensive weapon, likely off the bench, as coach Frank Vogel may not want to mess with the starting lineup on the NBA's most efficient defensive team. And if the Pacers deal Granger, they may be able to acquire more help at point guard, which could be their only weakness.
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4. Brooklyn Nets: Well, this should be fun. Kevin Garnett fills a gaping hole at power forward, Paul Pierce is a more consisting scoring option than departed small forward Gerald Wallace and both newcomers will teach a lifeless locker room how to hate Miami. But it's the signing of forward Andrei Kirilenko that irritated rival coaches the most. With Kirilenko, a long, experienced defender, the Nets have a weapon to deploy against James, Indiana's Paul George and Chicago's Luol Deng in the playoffs. Questions remain about Jason Kidd's coaching ability, the chemistry between so many alpha dogs and the age of some key players. But if the talent can come together, this is a scary bunch.
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5. New York Knicks: By acquiring Andrea Bargnani in a questionable trade that cost them a first-round pick and two second-round picks, the Knicks are going all in on Melo Ball. Bargnani is a floor-spacing shooter who will draw big defenders away from the basket, freeing up more room for Carmelo Anthony to operate. What he doesn't do is help a defense that deteriorated significantly after the first month of last season. New York's best chance to challenge the conference elite is if Amar'e Stoudemire can come back healthy and give the lineup offensive balance. But who wants to put their money on that darkhorse?
6. Detroit Pistons: With a playoffs-or-bust mentality, the Pistons went on a spending spree, signing occasionally erratic forward Josh Smith to a four-year, $54 million contract and acquiring more frequently erratic point guard Brandon Jennings on a three-year, $24 million contract in a sign-and-trade deal with Milwaukee. On paper, Detroit has more than enough talent to make the playoffs in a top-heavy conference in which a host of teams can grab one of the last three spots. But Smith plays a position (power forward) occupied by rising star Greg Monroe, Jennings is far from a pass-first point guard and top draft pick Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, the shooting guard of the future, may not be ready for significant minutes yet at a position of need. Again, this is a playoff team. But it doesn't look like one that will accomplish much in the postseason.
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7. Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs are the wildest of wild cards. If Andrew Bynum comes back healthy; if Jarrett Jack can duplicate his play from last season, when he was a Sixth Man Award candidate; if Anthony Bennett plays like a top pick; if the Cavs' cluster of young talent (Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson) can improve; and if coach Mike Brown can fix an abysmal defense -- got all that? -- then Cleveland is going to be very good. But Bynum has two bad knees and hasn't played in more than a year, Irving's injury history is a little scary and Brown isn't a miracle worker. One thing is certain: For the first time in a few years, it will be an interesting season in Cleveland.
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8. Washington Wizards: The Wizards made some curious financial decisions this summer, giving point guard John Wall a five-year, $80 million extension a year before they had to and doling out a four-year, $22 million deal to small forward Martell Webster despite drafting Otto Porter just days earlier and already having Trevor Ariza. But this team should be fun to watch. A healthy Wall will steer what should be a potent up-tempo offense that will also feature shooting guard Bradley Beal, who improved as his rookie year progressed before a leg injury ended his season in early April. Washington went a respectable 24-25 when Wall returned from a knee injury last season. If Wall stays healthy (and shoots a little better from the perimeter), the Wizards should make the playoffs.
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9. Atlanta Hawks: General manager Danny Ferry's rebooting of the Hawks is nearly complete: Only Al Horford and Jeff Teague remain from the team that lost to Boston in the 2012 playoffs. After striking out in the Dwight Howard/Chris Paul sweepstakes, Atlanta replaced Smith with Paul Millsap and added an aging Elton Brand. The Hawks also drafted Brazilian center Lucas Nogueira (who will remain in Spain this season) and German point guard Dennis Schröder. Mike Budenholzer is a solid young coach whose shot at a head job is long overdue, but he will be hard pressed to make the playoffs with a roster that lacks a true center and much depth.
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10. Toronto Raptors: New general manager Masai Ujiri's thoughts on this season, per the Toronto Star: "We might have to let this thing sit, let it ride and see what you have." Indeed, Toronto didn't do much in Ujiri's first few months on the job, save for signing Hansbrough and a few other free agents to modest deals, trading Bargnani and amnestying Linas Kleiza. Second-year center Jonas Valanciunas remains an impressive prospect, and Kyle Lowry (who is in a contract year), DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay are quality starters. But the Raptors are perilously thin and coach Dwane Casey will need to fix a defense that declined significantly in his second season. Toronto will be challenged to end a five-year playoff drought.
11. Boston Celtics: Depending on when Rajon Rondo returns from an ACL injury -- and Celtics officials continue to publicly suggest that opening night is a realistic possibility -- Boston could finish as high as ninth or as low as 14th. Rondo is special when he's on his game. He can make modest talent better, and even after excising its aging stars, Boston still has Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, Gerald Wallace and rookie Kelly Olynyk, who impressed in summer league. Rondo's ability to control a game on his own is worth more than a few unexpected wins. But if he suffers a setback or sits because, well, the Celtics have no reason to want to win this season as they look to the future, it could get ugly at the Garden.
12. Milwaukee Bucks: GM John Hammond took a two-by-four to a roster that, frankly, wasn't winning anything anyway. Replacing Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick with O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight and Luke Ridnour isn't an upgrade, no matter how little you liked the Jennings-Ellis backcourt. What the Bucks do have is a rising star in center Larry Sanders, a power forward who intrigues them in John Henson, a solid forward in Ersan Ilyasova and a fascinating point forward prospect in Giannis Antetokounmpo. A youth movement was probably the way to go in Milwaukee, but it could have some painful consequences this season.
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13. Charlotte Bobcats: Al Jefferson gives the Bobcats a legitimate offensive option on a front line that had none last season. (It should be noted, though, that Jefferson's three-year, $40.5 million contract was significantly more than Millsap's two-year, $19 million deal even though the former frontcourt partners in Utah put up comparable per-36-minute numbers last season.) New coach Steve Clifford gets high marks from peers for his player-development ability, an important attribute on a team trying to improve second-year forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's shooting, help No. 4 pick Cody Zeller establish himself, get third-year point guard Kemba Walker to take the next step and tease more from third-year big man Bismack Biyombo. Will the Bobcats exceed last season's 21-win total? Yes. Will they crack 30? That will be tougher.
14. Orlando Magic: The Magic drafted an athletic, defensive-minded guard in No. 2 pick Victor Oladipo, who may be moved to point guard in GM Rob Hennigan's quest to find the next Russell Westbrook. Oladipo's development, along with that of young players such as center Nikola Vucevic and forwards Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless, will be a priority this season as Orlando continues to rebuild after Howard's departure. A trip to the a loaded lottery obviously isn't the worst thing in the world, and Orlando is on a direct course for it.
15. Philadelphia 76ers: An NBA source said a fourth-year guarantee was the final hurdle of new coach Brett Brown's contract. Why? Because Philadelphia could be epically bad the next two seasons, and Brown wanted to make sure that leaving a cushy gig as Gregg Popovich's top assistant in San Antonio would be worth it. GM Sam Hinkie's reconstructed roster will likely result in some sloppy basketball, with point guard Michael Carter-Williams (who is still learning the position) and center Nerlens Noel (who is offensively challenged and may not play until Christmas) manning the two most important spots on the floor. Hinkie seems willing to let this team bottom out while throwing his young talent into the fire and hoping a bad season has a silver lining -- i.e., winning the lottery in a strong, Andrew Wiggins-led draft -- for the future.