SI.com NBA writers Sam Amick, Paul Forrester, Lee Jenkins, Chris Mannix and Ian Thomsen size up the NBA pecking order as training camps approach.
Sam Amick: Count me among those who think this is only the beginning for LeBron James, who is carrying the weight of his trophy-less world no more. As the reigning MVP enters his 10th season at the sprightly age of 27, the pressure relieved from winning it all could unleash something even more special than we've seen already. So, no, I don't think anyone -- not even the Lakers -- will dethrone the Heat. Dwyane Wade may be comfortable as the resident No. 2 these days, but that doesn't mean he won't be gunning for redemption after the PR hits he took for his various postseason struggles. Ray Allen will have something to prove, too, after the way his role was relegated in Boston.
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Paul Forrester: Injuries could, and so could an in-shape and motivated Paul Pierce in Boston. Derrick Rose might have a chance if he gets healthy in time for Chicago. But those are longshots. That leaves the Western Conference, where the Thunder and Lakers have enough talent and experience to match Miami's growing legion of Superfriends. Defeating the Heat requires a belief they can be beaten, and after losing in five games in last season's Finals, the Thunder have to have their doubts. Confidence isn't a problem in L.A. (where Dwight Howard's presence will make life more difficult for penetrators such as James and Wade), but chemistry and age could be. After answering a nation of critics last season, Miami looks poised to run the league until LeBron's next decision, in 2014.
Lee Jenkins: The Lakers could give them some problems inside. The Thunder, with their depth advantage, could also take them in a rematch. Just because the Thunder lost one series to the Heat doesn't mean they will lose another. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka are all inching into their primes, plus backup point guard Eric Maynor will be healthy, and the Thunder will benefit from their Finals experience. Every year this team advances one round farther.
Chris Mannix: You can't beat the Heat playing small ball; they will play faster, shoot better and score more than almost any team in the league. But they are still vulnerable inside. Indiana gave Miami some fits in the second round last season, and an older, wiser Pacers team should be even more dangerous this year. And with the Heat likely to give a bulked-up Chris Bosh additional minutes at center in order to play James and Rashard Lewis more at power forward, a team that can pound them on the inside has a shot -- if it can keep Miami from exploding offensively.
Ian Thomsen: A crucial injury would open the door, and with Wade turning 31 in January that possibility will create hope for other teams. But if the Heat are healthy, I don't see anyone beating them. LeBron is going to be better than ever this year now that he'll be playing with unprecedented confidence after his championship leadership of the Heat and the Olympic team. His ability to command from the post or the perimeter makes him practically unstoppable -- there is no anti-LeBron defender out there.
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Amick: Minnesota could sneak in as long as the injury bug doesn't hit like it did last year. Rick Adelman, the second-best coach in the league as I see it (behind San Antonio's Gregg Popovich), has more depth and versatility than he did when the Wolves stayed in the playoff hunt for much of last season (they were 21-20 when point guard Ricky Rubio went down with a knee injury, then lost 20 of their last 25 games). Kevin Love is likely to get better yet again. Brandon Roy will be a veteran voice even if he doesn't play like his old self, while Andrei Kirilenko looks plenty capable of making an impact based on his play in Europe last season and his performance for Russia at the Olympics. And with the sensational Rubio's telling a Spanish media outlet recently that he could be back from his ACL and LCL surgery in December, a second-half surge could be in order.
Forrester: David Kahn has spent three years shuffling bodies in and out of Minnesota; this season it finally yields some tangible evidence of success. In fact, the Timberwolves weren't far off in 2011-12, contending for a playoff spot before Rubio's knee injury set in motion a late-season collapse. Guard Alexey Shved, 23, will help bridge the gap to Rubio's return with the skills to create for himself as well as others. If Kirilenko can offer some semblance of his former self, he should help a defense that ranked 25th in points allowed per possession. Most intriguing is the addition of Roy, who, if able to play significant minutes, would give the Timberwolves one of the game's most dynamic backcourts while turning the heat up a bit on the Wolves' odd rivalry with the Trail Blazers. If this group buys into Adelman's underrated system, Minnesota is poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Jenkins: Even though Rubio will probably miss the first month, the Timberwolves are going to make the playoffs, and if they don't Love may combust. Roy will provide some of the veteran leadership that was obviously lacking when the Wolves fell apart in the second half of last season.
Mannix: Love said he would be surprised if Minnesota doesn't make the playoffs, and I agree with him. The Wolves were tracking toward a postseason berth last season before Rubio went down. They imported veteran talent like Roy, Kirilenko and Chase Budinger to fortify the wing positions and added shot-blocking center Greg Stiemsma to solidify the middle. Minnesota's playoff fate likely rests on Rubio's recovery. If he indeed is ready to play sometime in December, this team has the talent to sneak into the postseason.
Thomsen: At least one losing team makes the playoffs by default in the East nearly every year. I look at lottery teams like Milwaukee, Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland and Washington and could imagine any one of them as the No. 8 seed this season. The West, as always, will be more difficult. I don't envision any lottery teams breaking through in that conference.
Amick: It's hard to see the Jazz's overachieving for a second straight season, and their offseason additions (Mo Williams, Marvin Williams, Randy Foye) may not be enough to help them hold on to that eighth spot.
Forrester: Minus Howard, Ryan Anderson and Stan Van Gundy, the Magic can book their flights to the draft lottery now. Not as obvious are the risks facing the Sixers and Jazz. Andre Iguodala's departure leaves the Sixers without their best defender and a solid three-point shooter. Also gone are Lou Williams and Elton Brand, both of whom had their limitations but also provided scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking. In are Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson, among others, along with likely full-time starting roles for Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner. If Bynum buys what Doug Collins is selling, then the moves could work. But a long history of injuries and immaturity smells like trouble with someone as hard-wired as Collins. And if Bynum loses interest, the Sixers may lose their hold on the playoffs. As for Utah: With as many as eight players in the final year of their contracts and a front office savvy enough to know how many teams are ahead of it in the West, Jazz players are priced to move. Rosters in transition aren't the types that make the postseason.
Jenkins: Utah overachieved to reach the playoffs and did not do much this summer, acquiring Mo Williams, Marvin Williams and Foye. The Jazz are still young, and while Derrick Favors will continue to improve, it's fair to expect them to fall back a bit. But their slide won't be severe.
Mannix: Atlanta. Under new GM Danny Ferry, the Hawks are more intent on creating payroll flexibility than winning this season. Joe Johnson was the first to go, and if the right deal comes up, Josh Smith could be right behind him.
Thomsen: Orlando, without any doubt whatsoever, is going to miss the playoffs. And when I say miss, I mean it's going to be like that scene in Bull Durham when the pitcher hits the mascot. The Magic are going to plummet to the bottom of the conference.
Amick: Indeed they will. The second-worst team last season (Washington) had 13 more victories than the Bobcats and managed to improve significantly during the offseason. Meanwhile, none of the teams that qualified as the also-rans -- Cleveland, Sacramento, Golden State, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Toronto, etc. -- took steps backward.
Forrester: Fact. True, guards Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon should help the league's 30th-ranked offense, and center Brendan Haywood and draft picks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeff Taylor should make the 30th-ranked defense more stout. But Charlotte -- which features first-time NBA head coach Mike Dunlap -- has a lot of work to do to close the gap on the other bottom-feeders after last season's 7-59 finish.
Jenkins: Fact. They hired a respected teacher in Dunlap and picked two of the best defenders in the draft, Kentucky's Kidd-Gilchrist and Vanderbilt's Taylor. But this is a team that finished 30th in points, too, and although Gordon will help with some of his scoring surges, the Bobcats are still going to be offensively challenged. They won seven games last season. They have a long way to go to catch the Wizards.
Mannix: Fact. Just look at the teams at the bottom of each conferece: Washington inflated its payroll to help out John Wall; Cleveland is a year older; Sacramento added Thomas Robinson to a talented (albeit mercurial) roster; and New Orleans has two stud draft picks and a healthy Eric Gordon. Unless Orlando completely bottoms out, Charlotte should once again be all alone in the basement.
Thomsen: Fiction. No team will be worse than Orlando, which, believe it or not, will fit with its long-term plan: If you're going to be bad, then be very bad in order to rebuild through the draft. Its only goal now can be to tear it all down and start anew.
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