By Ian Thomsen
October 21, 2010

Once again I've empaneled a half-dozen NBA advance and personnel scouts to predict the standings and champion for the 2010-11 season. These are the same league experts who have broken down all 30 teams in exhaustive detail for our annual scouting reports in this week's magazine, with their full reports to be posted on Friday.

Let's start with their view of the regular-season race in the East. Miami will run away with the No. 1 seed in conference, according to votes cast in our recent survey (the average rating by the six voters is in parentheses).

1. Miami Heat (1.0)2. Orlando Magic (2.2)3. Boston Celtics (3.0)4. Chicago Bulls (4.7)T5. Atlanta Hawks (5.2)T5. Milwaukee Bucks (5.2)7. Charlotte Bobcats (8.3)T8. Philadelphia 76ers (8.7)T8. Washington Wizards (8.7)10. New York Knicks (9.5)11. Indiana Pacers (12.0)12. Detroit Pistons (12.2)13. New Jersey Nets (12.3)14. Cleveland Cavaliers (13.5)15. Toronto Raptors (13.7)

The Heat were the only team in the league to receive a unanimous vote from the scouts (though you'll see below that there was little agreement on Miami's ultimate outcome). Chicago leapfrogged Atlanta and Milwaukee while jumping from No. 8 last year to a forecast of No. 4 this season, while the Wizards and 76ers -- under new coach Doug Collins -- are picked to tie for the final playoff spot. "I think Doug will get Elton [Brand] back on board," said one scout.

The most difficult team to gauge is the Wizards, who received four votes to reach the playoffs -- one scout rates them No. 6 in the East while two others place them at No. 12.

1. Los Angeles Lakers (1.2)2. Oklahoma City Thunder (2.8)3. Dallas Mavericks (3.7)4. San Antonio Spurs (4.3)T5. Utah Jazz (5.3)T5. Portland Trail Blazers (5.3)7. Phoenix Suns (7.2)8. Houston Rockets (7.7)9. Denver Nuggets (8.2)10. Memphis Grizzlies (10.3)T11. Los Angeles Clippers (11.5)T11. New Orleans Hornets (11.7)T13. Golden State Warriors (13.0)T13. Sacramento Kings (13.0)15. Minnesota Timberwolves (14.8)

The Lakers receive four votes to finish No. 1, with one outlier believing the Thunder will be superior over the 82 games. "I'll be surprised if Oklahoma City doesn't have the most wins," he said. "[Emerging second-year big man Serge] Ibaka is going to make the difference for them, but then the Lakers are going to beat them in the playoffs."

There is little agreement over the rest of this unsettled conference. One scout foresees the Thunder as no better than a No. 5 seed. Five teams received picks to finish No. 2 -- the Thunder (two such votes), Lakers, Mavericks, Spurs and Suns -- with Phoenix also receiving a vote to finish as low as No. 10.

Questions over Carmelo Anthony's status contribute to the uncertainty. "I'm assuming Denver will move Carmelo, which is why I'm dropping Denver down in the standings," said one scout, a belief repeated by two of his colleagues.

Conformity exists at the bottom of the conference, where all agree the bottom five teams -- including the Hornets and Clippers -- won't make the playoffs. "The only thing I can say for certain is Minnesota will be last," said a panelist.

Here are all of the predictions for the Western finals:

Lakers over Oklahoma CityLakers over Oklahoma CityLakers over DallasLakers over DallasLakers over San AntonioSan Antonio over Lakers

Everyone thinks L.A. will reach the NBA's Final Four, and one voter alone believes they won't advance, thanks to the rejuvenation of the Spurs by TiagoSplitter.

The Heat are almost as solid in the East. Every voter likes Miami to reach the conference finals in what is viewed as a three-team race.

Miami over BostonMiami over BostonMiami over BostonMiami over OrlandoBoston over MiamiOrlando over Miami

Lakers over MiamiLakers over MiamiLakers over MiamiMiami over LakersBoston over LakersSan Antonio over Orlando

The experts think five teams have a chance to play in June and four can win the championship. The Lakers are favorites but they're not a dominant pick, based on their tenuous win in Game 7 last year and the health concerns of KobeBryant and Andrew Bynum.

And yet, as much as Miami has established the agenda for this season, most of the experts believe the hype will backfire on the Heat while serving to inspire Kobe. "This whole thing could light a fire under Bryant," said one scout, "because he's still that good and he's going to realize he doesn't have too much time left."

The most surprising pick has Tim Duncan's Spurs beating Dwight Howard's Magic. "It will be the story of the great center bowing out," the scout said of Duncan, who hates to be viewed as a center, "against the young great center."

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