By Ian Thomsen
October 19, 2009

Here are the most sophisticated predictions you're likely to find for the coming season, as once again I've polled a half-dozen NBA advance and personnel scouts for their thoughts on the upcoming conference races and the playoffs.

These are the same league experts who will break down all 30 teams in exhaustive detail when our annual scouting reports are published in Sports Illustrated and posted in full on later this week.

Let's start with their view of the regular-season race in the West, where the scouts believe the enhanced Spurs have closed in on the Lakers, according to votes cast in our recent survey (the parentheses refers to the average rating by the six voters):

1. Los Angeles Lakers (1.2)2. San Antonio Spurs (2.3)3. Portland Trail Blazers (3.2)4. Utah Jazz (4.5)5. Dallas Mavericks (5.0)6. Denver Nuggets (5.0)7. New Orleans Hornets (7.3)8. Phoenix Suns (7.7)9. Houston Rockets (9.3)10. Los Angeles Clippers (10.8)11. Golden State Warriors (11.0)12. Oklahoma City Thunder (11.3)13. Memphis Grizzlies (13.2)14. Minnesota Timberwolves (13.7)15. Sacramento Kings (14.5)

Last season the scouts correctly forecast a runaway victory by the Lakers as the best team in the conference. While they anticipate the defending champions will maintain home-court advantage throughout the Western playoffs, they also view the Spurs and Blazers emerging as the solid Nos. 2 and 3 teams, respectively. Utah, Dallas and Denver are almost too close to call at Nos. 4, 5 and 6, as are New Orleans and Phoenix at Nos. 7 and 8.

There is an overwhelming consensus on the eight playoff contenders, with the Clippers being the only lottery team to receive a vote -- a single vote from one scout -- to sneak out of the lottery and steal the No. 8 spot. Most of our experts tout the Kings as the worst team in the league. "By far," one scout said. Another described them as "awful."

Here is how they view the race in the East:

1. Boston Celtics (1.7)2. Cleveland Cavaliers (1.8)3. Orlando Magic (3.2)4. Atlanta Hawks (4.8)5. Washington Wizards (5.3)6. Miami Heat (6.8)7. Chicago Bulls (7.0)8. Toronto Raptors (7.5)9. Detroit Pistons (9.5)10. Philadelphia 76ers (10.0)11. Charlotte Bobcats (10.8)12. Indiana Pacers (11.0)13. New York Knicks (13.0)14. New Jersey Nets (13.7)15. Milwaukee Bucks (13.8)

The East promises to be the more entertaining conference, beginning with the fight between Boston and Cleveland for the top seed. The Cavaliers receive four votes to finish No. 1, but two other scouts -- anticipating that Shaquille O'Neal will have a negative impact -- pick them No. 3 or No. 4 in the conference.

Despite reaching the NBA Finals last season, the Magic receive no first-place votes and are viewed as the consensus No. 3 team. Atlanta faces a difficult challenge for the last home-court spot from Washington, while Miami, Chicago and Toronto will be tightly bunched for the last three playoff spots. As in the West, the scouts are almost unanimous in choosing the eight playoff teams, with the exception of outsiders Detroit, Charlotte and Indiana, which each receive a single No. 8 vote. There is also general agreement that New York, New Jersey and Milwaukee will be the bottom three of the conference.

Here are all six of their predictions for the Eastern finals:

Cleveland beats BostonCleveland beats BostonCleveland beats BostonBoston beats ClevelandBoston beats ClevelandBoston beats Orlando

It's almost unanimous that Boston and Cleveland will meet for the conference title, with each team receiving three votes to win the East and advance to the NBA Finals. Every scout believes the Celtics will make it this far, while only one anticipates newcomer Vince Carter will help lead Orlando back to the conference finals. "I can't decide whether the Magic are better or not," said a scout who picks Cleveland to win the championship. "Their offseason was a push at best."

Explained another scout: "You've got to look at the top defensive teams, and I don't care about how many shots you get up or the points per possession -- as you get deeper in the playoffs, it's all about defending." While the Magic played surprisingly good defense last season, they weren't as strong as their Eastern rivals at that end of the floor, and now Cleveland has added Shaq to body up against Dwight Howard while the Celtics have brought in Rasheed Wallace to back up surgically repaired Kevin Garnett.

In the Western finals, almost everyone likes the Lakers again:

Lakers beat San AntonioLakers beat San AntonioLakers beat San AntonioLakers beat PortlandLakers beat PortlandSan Antonio beats Lakers

L.A. is a unanimous choice to return to the conference finals, with only one voter anticipating an upset that will send San Antonio to the NBA Finals. The surprise here is that two scouts believe the young Trail Blazers will turn the corner this season and surge past the Spurs to the conference finals. "Andre Miller was a huge addition," said a scout who also picks the Blazers to finish No. 2 in the regular season. "Portland lacked a starting point guard, and the addition of Miller is going to have more of an impact than the Spurs' additions. When it's close, you go with the team that has the younger legs, and that's the Blazers."

Altogether, six teams are viewed as contenders to reach the final four, with no more than four of those contenders -- the Lakers, Cavaliers, Celtics and Spurs -- likely to be NBA finalists.

Now it gets interesting:

Lakers beat BostonLakers beat ClevelandCleveland beats LakersCleveland beats LakersBoston beats LakersSan Antonio beats Boston

Two votes for the Lakers, two for the Cavaliers and one each for the Celtics and Spurs.

"I like the Celtics' overall team, but I like the starting five of the Lakers better," said the scout who picks L.A. over Boston. "The Lakers will have the better overall record and the team with home-court advantage will win Game 7."

"I don't know if [acquiring] Shaq was a good move, but they might win it despite Shaq," said one of the experts who goes for Cleveland. "I mean, I don't think Shaq is going to necessarily be a problem or that they're going to be worse by any means. In the end, I just have a lot of faith in LeBron."

"Rasheed will focus in and give them one good year," said a voter who likes Boston to beat L.A. "He's not going to be a detriment in any way. I always thought he was one of the most talented players in the league, and he can draw on that to find a role in the classic Celtics sixth-man way. He'll be their Bill Walton this year."

"[Richard] Jefferson has played for good teams in the Finals," concluded the scout who picks San Antonio to upset the Lakers on its way to the championship. "There will be a drop there for the Lakers, they'll have that post-championship coolness, and [Ron] Artest is going to screw their stuff up. Putting him in a major media market was not a great idea."

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