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The crystal ball


Thomsen: Mavericks over Pistons. The Mavs were too young to win the past two years, but their recent postseason troubles have made them stubborn. Avery Johnson has learned the necessary lessons, and Josh Howard will emerge as the requisite No. 2 star in support of Dirk Nowitzki.

Burns: Spurs over Pistons. The Spurs still have the best big man in the NBA (Tim Duncan) and the stingiest defense. The Pistons are hungry to regain their throne in the East. In a rematch of the 2005 Finals, San Antonio's superior balance will again enable it to overcome Detroit and finally notch those elusive back-to-back titles.

Mannix: Spurs over Celtics. The Spurs remain frighteningly efficient, and by the end of the season, Tony Parker will be mentioned in the same breath with elite point guards Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. The Celtics have enough to come out of the East, but their lack of depth will catch up with them when their tired legs can't match a San Antonio team bred for the playoffs.

McCallum: Mavs over Celtics. The Celts' new Big Three gets them back to the promised land but not all the way past a Mavs team bent on forgetting the pain of last year's one-and-out.

Aschburner: Suns over Cavaliers. This year, finally, the Suns break through, not only reaching the Finals but also winning them. There's a sliver of daylight in between Dallas' heavy expectations and San Antonio's aging bench, and no one is more creative with the smallest of spaces than Nash. (This scenario gets more likely if the Mavs and the Spurs beat up each other in a seven-game, second-round series.)

Forrester: Mavs over Bulls. The Mavs learn their lesson after last year's debacle and play to their strengths -- defense, spreading the offensive points of attack -- to put an exclamation point on a year David Stern would rather forget. Though the Bulls fall short of trophy No. 7, they ride a stifling defense, a rejuvenated Ben Wallace and, perhaps, a newly added superstar (see question No. 9) past the aging Pistons and shallow Celtics to take the East.

Thomsen:LeBron James, Cavs. After driving the Cavs to the NBA Finals last season, LeBron's singular leadership can't be ignored any longer.

Burns: Kevin Garnett, Celtics. Energized by his move to Boston, the Big Ticket will play like he did four years ago when he won the award. His amazing versatility -- and the hype surrounding the Celtics' return to relevance -- will be enough to push him past LeBron and Kobe Bryant.

Mannix: Duncan. Couple LeBron's long playoff run with his third straight summer playing for Team USA -- and add the fact that he may be without two major weapons in Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic -- and King James is ripe to wear down. After last spring's Dallas flameout, voters won't touch Nowitzki, and Nash has to slow down sometime. That leaves Duncan atop the heap.

McCallum: LeBron. 'Bronnie's better and the team around him is not; he should win easily, with token comp coming from former winner Garnett and perennial contender Nash.

Aschburner: LeBron.It's time and he's ready, on the court and off. The supporting cast wasn't upgraded, but that actually will work in James' favor for this award, since he'll be lugging as big a load as ever.

Forrester: Garnett. KG will do what he always does -- at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and four assists a game -- but will do so in the media spotlight that is the Northeast, not the forgotten Midwest. Combined with the 45-50 games Boston likely will win, that same media will recognize KG for making the C's relevant again.

Thomsen: Knicks. The Knicks will rally to the playoffs with Nate Robinson surfacing as the true point guard they've long needed.

Burns: Nuggets. With Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Nenê and a healthy Kenyon Martin, the Nuggets have plenty of weapons. In his third full season, George Karl now has his system in place. Don't be surprised if they're leading the league at the All-Star break.

Mannix: Rockets. Luis Scola fills a gaping hole at power forward, the Rockets will love playing in Rick Adelman's fluid offense while maintaining the principles that remain from Jeff Van Gundy's defense, and the competition at point guard will benefit the team. The Rockets will be battling Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio for home-court advantage.

McCallum: Bulls. They're probably not a complete surprise, but they will make it to the Eastern finals without a certified superstar.

Aschburner: Nuggets.The Nuggets have issues and flaws, but the Iverson-Anthony fit should be even better over a full season. If Martin comes back fully healthy, and Camby stays relatively healthy, there should be enough weapons and enough emotion to boost this club past Utah in the Northwest Division.

Forrester: Hawks. With Atlanta already bursting with a talented core of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Josh Childress, the solid additions of Al Horford and Acie Law IV bring a sense of workmanlike purpose, pushing the Hawks into a second-tier (5-8 seeds) playoff spot and saving Mike Woodson's job for at least one more season.

Thomsen: Nets and Lakers. Kidd and Kobe will miss the playoffs as both franchises consider major changes.

Burns: Heat.Too many old bodies. Too slow on defense. And who knows how many games Shaq will play? Even if Dwyane Wade makes a full recovery from his shoulder and knee surgeries, he won't get enough help from his supporting cast to prevent a second straight disappointing campaign.

Mannix: Heat.I hear that Wade's recovery from shoulder surgery is coming along slower than people think, and with Shaq, you can only expect to get about 60-65 games per season. New addition Ricky Davis is talented, but he's combustible too. If Wade is out for a couple of months, Miami could find itself in a hole too deep to dig out of.

McCallum: Nuggets.Yes, Carmelo has matured into the franchise player, and Iverson is supposedly OK with that. But the chemical imbalance, which includes the task of reintegrating Martin, will keep the Nugs back in the pack.

Aschburner: Mavs. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The Mavs would gladly trade 10 regular-season victories for a more satisfying postseason experience, so if there's any way for this team to better pace itself for April and May, Avery Johnson and his crew need to do it. Winning 67 again will just get everyone overly excited -- and set the Mavs up for serious razzing again if a No. 8 seed beats them.

Forrester: Cavs. This will be more a matter of perception than an actual slide, as the Cavs' personnel issues (missing Varejao and Pavlovic to start the season, if not a lot longer) and a tough early schedule will make it difficult for Cleveland to repeat last year's 50-win campaign. The drop into the playoffs' second tier, coupled with an early exit, will have people wondering if the Cavs have taken a step back and give the LeBron-to-N.Y. speculation new life.

Thomsen: Andrea Bargnani, Raptors. The second-year forward will be a Most Improved candidate as he grows into his Nowitzki-ish role as a gigantic three-point threat to complement Chris Bosh.

Burns: Rudy Gay, Grizzlies. This 6-8 forward played well as a rookie a year ago, but few noticed because he did it for a dismal team. Gay's athleticism should enable him to thrive in new coach Marc Iavaroni's wide-open system, and the Grizzlies' dramatic improvement will bring him the spotlight he didn't get last season.

Mannix: Bostjan Nachbar, Nets. It's a contract year for Boki, who averaged a team-high 19.8 points during the preseason. Coach Lawrence Frank has no hesitation playing Nachbar at either forward spot, and Nachbar's ability to stretch the defense (he shot 42.3 percent from three-point range last season) makes him Kidd's prime target on drive-and-kicks.

McCallum: Luol Deng, Bulls. It's hard to be a star on a democratic team, but Deng's accurate mid-range shooting, long-armed defense and generally unorthodox style will get him noticed.

Aschburner: Deng.No one is saying that Deng has been underachieving or overlooked, but since the guy hasn't played in an All-Star Game yet, I figure he's eligible here. The Bulls' failure to add that perfect low-post piece means that Deng will have to produce even more than last season, and he has put in the offseason work to make that happen.

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Forrester:LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers. For as mush as a rookie learns and improves in his first year, stars often take "the leap" in Year 2. After averaging 14 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, plus shooting 53.4 percent after the All-Star break last season, Aldridge appears ready to jump into stardom with both feet. And with Zach Randolph out of town and Greg Oden out for the season, Aldridge won't have to share the paint with anyone all season.

Thomsen: Woodson, Hawks. He's in the final year of his contract, and he was given two more rookies to work into one of the league's youngest rotations.

Burns: Woodson, Hawks. With their team having not made the playoffs since 1999, the NBA's longest active drought, Hawks fans are losing patience. Woodson, in the final year of his four-year contract, has made progress with a young roster but needs to take it to the next level to avoid becoming a fall guy.

Mannix: Woodson, Hawks. The Hawks have stuck by Woodson, but in three seasons the losses have piled up as fast as the lottery picks. Atlanta was terrific in the preseason (7-1), and Woodson will be expected to keep the team in the playoff hunt. If he can't, don't expect ownership to have a lot of patience with a coach who enters the season having won just 28 percent of his games.

McCallum: Pat Riley, Heat. OK, it might be his own seat, but Pat's on it. He's only two seasons removed from winning a championship and his team appears to be in free fall. Does he have a chute to slow the descent?

Aschburner: Flip Saunders, Pistons. The correct answer here is Isiah Thomas, but given James Dolan's mismanagement of the Knicks, there's no reason to expect a change. Woodson might be the first coach fired but that would happen because of the Hawks' imbalanced roster, not Woodson's performance. But Saunders has more expectations and eyes on him, since the Pistons may have more talent now than when they won the title in '04.

Forrester:Eddie Jordan, Wizards. The Wizards have yet to find an opponent they are willing to even try stopping defensively, a fact that limits this team's potential, no matter how many points Gilbert Arenas scores. More important, Arenas has said he plans to test the free-agent waters next summer, and if he and Jordan bump heads, as they did last season, why risk losing your franchise player over a coach who isn't getting it done in the first place?

Thomsen: Scola. Seattle's Kevin Durant will show the most promise, but Scola -- a 27-year-old Argentine from the Euroleague -- will be Rookie of the Year as an all-around contributor for Houston.

Burns: Scola. His high hoops IQ and ability to pass and score inside should make him a perfect fit alongside Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, and help make the Rockets a top contender in the West.

Mannix: Durant. The hands-down Rookie of the Year even before Greg Oden went down. Durant will average 16-19 points per game and give East Coast fans a reason to stay up late.

McCallum: Durant. New Seattle coach P.J. Carlesimo will be reluctant to hand the reins to a rookie. But Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are gone -- you got a better idea?

Aschburner: Durant. Assuming his preseason ankle injury doesn't linger, Durant remains the smart choice for Rookie of the Year. But the Clippers' Al Thornton could get a lot of opportunity, given Elton Brand's injured status. And I'm eager to see what Mike Conley Jr. can mean to the Grizzlies' attack -- unless he spends most of his time watching Kyle Lowry.

Forrester: Durant. While I still would have drafted Oden over Durant 10 times out of 10, Durant is already the centerpiece of the Sonics' attack, an opportunity that should have him scoring in the 20s and allowing him the freedom to showcase his skills without worrying about fitting in with the tight constrictions of a playoff contender. Well, that and he's damn good, too.

Thomsen: Lingering effects of the Tim Donaghy scandal.The story may have moved off the front pages, but millions of fans who bet on basketball haven't forgotten it -- and all season long their complaints about the veracity of NBA officiating will be heard in every league arena.

Burns: All-Star headache. The NBA will take a PR hit at the All-Star Game for the second straight year as some unruly fans get out of control while partying in New Orleans. The good news for David Stern is that Pacman Jones will decide to stay home this year and watch it on TV.

Mannix: Can the NBA make it work in New Orleans? With the All-Star Game coming to the city in February, plenty of focus will be on the Hornets, who left a lucrative and popular Oklahoma City market to return to a still recovering city that didn't support them in the first place. If attendance dwindles, there will be a call to return the team to Oklahoma -- before the Sonics beat them to it.

McCallum: The new flagrant-foul review. There will be reviews of the reviews and no one will be happy ... just like always.

Aschburner: The Donaghy fallout. China will be keeping an eye on the Bucks, people will be taking Kobe's pulse daily, the Sonics soon could be Oklahoma-bound and the Knicks' next sensitivity training session begins in 35 minutes. But in terms of breadth, the referee-gambling scandal isn't going to go away overnight. Stern is taking a more "human'' approach these days to dealing with his officials, but fans around the NBA get emotional and now have the Donaghy mess as ammo for their heckling and grumbles. A league that always preferred its refs be essentially anonymous is going to have them in the spotlight to an uncomfortable degree.

Forrester: A player will be accused of using a performance-enhancing substance. Given the NBA's bad luck, you didn't think the league would escape allegations of doping, did you? As the game has become more defense-oriented, as compared to 30 years ago, the ability to withstand the bumps and bruises dished out each night places a premium on strength and quickness, two aspects of performance that have caught numerous athletes in almost every other sport in the steroid tangle. The NBA's turn is coming.

Thomsen: No. Before the February deadline, the Lakers will trade for a star in hopes of returning to contention and appeasing Bryant. But if the results aren't good, then Bryant will force the Lakers to deal him next summer by vowing to opt out in 2009.

Burns: No (more on this below).

Mannix: Yes. With the Lakers having no cap space and limited assets to deal, moving Bryant is a foregone conclusion. The destination likely will depend on Chicago's commitment to Deng, the gold piece in any deal and one that the Bulls (for the moment) are loath to surrender. Expect Bryant to be gone by the All-Star break.

McCallum: No. It just seems too difficult to get this deal done. Chicago is the most obvious destination, but the Bulls will be a surprise team with their current makeup. So we can listen to this through the '08 offseason, though at least the Kobester will be preoccupied with the Olympics.

Aschburner: No. Trades of franchise-level players most often happen in the offseason, when a team like the Lakers can shop him properly and achieve maximum bidding for Bryant's services. Usually it's the second, third, or lower bananas who get moved at the trading deadline. The team acquiring Bryant would give up so much, it would spend a month or more drastically reconfiguring itself to play around him and find proper supporting roles. No contender -- and that's the only sort of team Bryant will approve -- will want to take that risk during the season.

Forrester: Yes. As hard as it may be to believe, the Lakers will finally part ways with Bryant and give almost everyone what they want. Kobe will get to assume the Michael Jordan throne -- literally -- he has long coveted in Chicago. The Bulls will get the superstar their fans want, and the team's East title hopes may need. The Lakers likely will walk away with Ben Gordon, Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah and Chicago's first-round draft pick in 2008. Well, at least everyone in Chicago will be happy.

Thomsen:Jermaine O'Neal, Pacers. The struggling Pacers will move O'Neal (possibly to the Lakers), and if things aren't going well in New Jersey, then the Nets might renew conversations with teams interested in Kidd. Shawn Marion, Andrei Kirilenko and Mike Bibby are obvious candidates as well.

Burns: Jermaine O'Neal. In a blockbuster, the rebuilding Pacers will grant their 6-11 All-Star power forward his wish and trade him to the Lakers for a package of young players and draft picks. O'Neal and Bryant will combine to lead L.A. to the playoffs, but it won't be enough to get the Lakers back to the Finals.

McCallum: O'Neal and Bibby. Both players want out and their respective teams are going nowhere. Perhaps they could be dealt for each other ... and their teams will still go nowhere.

Aschburner: O'Neal. Keeping O'Neal on a Pacers squad going nowhere is a waste of everyone's time. He might, in fact, end up with the Lakers in an attempt to placate Bryant. Otherwise, the choice here is Rasheed Wallace, who seems absolutely determined never to become the great player he could be.