MVP LEBRON JAMES,Cavaliers For him to become youngest MVP in history (at 22), Cleveland mustimprove on its 50 wins of last season. It will.
ROOKIE ADAMMORRISON (left), Bobcats Sweet-shooting Gonzaga alum will lead class inscoring--and survive a challenge from Bulls forward Tyrus Thomas.
COACH JERRYSLOAN, Jazz When Utah surges, finest coach in pro sports gets honor he shouldhave won long ago (and more than once).
October 22, 2006
DEFENSIVE PLAYERBEN WALLACE, Bulls He's hungry to prove Detroit's defensive collapse last yearwasn't his fault.
SIXTH MAN BONZIWELLS, Rockets Last-minute free- agent signee will provide instant offense atshooting guard or small forward while helping turn Houston into acontender.
MOST IMPROVEDSHAUN LIVINGSTON (right), Clippers Expect a breakout year from this 6'7"playmaker, Chris Paul's rival to become league's premier young point guard.
EXECUTIVE CARROLLDAWSON, Rockets Despite having no cap space and few tradable assets,retirement-bound G.M. has turned Houston around by dealing for Shane Battierand signing Wells.
C YAO MING,Rockets Shaquille O'Neal is no longer the game's top pivot.
F DIRK NOWITZKI(left), Mavericks Third in MVP voting last two years.
F LEBRON JAMES,Cavaliers Write him into this slot for the next decade.
G DWYANE WADE,Heat Overtakes Kobe Bryant as premier two guard.
G STEVE NASH,Suns His minutes and scoring may drop, but he remains the MVPG (Most ValuablePoint Guard).
DO AS I SAY (ANDAS I DID)
It's no accidentthat teams often take on the identity of the people who assemble them. Here'show these outfits mirror the playing styles of their top basketballexecutives.
DANNY AINGE,Celtics He never met a shot he didn't like, and neither have his perimetergunners in Boston. They, too, have no interest in playing D.
JOE DUMARS,Pistons Teamwork and defense won him two titles as a Detroit guard. They haveearned him one as team's president, with a second Finals appearance.
KEVIN MCHALE,Timberwolves Critics said he lacked a killer instinct at power forward, and hestill can't finish ... building a champion around Kevin Garnett.
CHRIS MULLIN,Warriors Even before Don Nelson's arrival this fall, Golden State was ajump-shooting team with no inside presence at either end. Sound familiar?
JOHN PAXSON,Bulls A tough, overachieving guard for 11 seasons, he has entrusted coach ScottSkiles with instilling those qualities in Chicago's players.
ISIAH THOMAS(above), Knicks Prototypical scoring point guard has accumulated five scoringpoints on his roster--and he owes them about $170 million in guaranteedmoney.
Almostinvariably, a contract year brings out the best in a player. Though the onesbelow may choose to move on next summer as unrestricted free agents, theirteams should benefit from their ultrafocused performances this season. (Thesalaries are from 2006--07.)
C KURT THOMAS,Suns $7.8 million
F RASHARD LEWIS,Sonics $11.7 million
F VINCE CARTER(right), Nets $15.1 million
G CHAUNCEYBILLUPS, Pistons $6.4 million
G MIKE BIBBY,Kings $12.5 million
... ON THE HOTSEAT
ISIAH THOMAS,Knicks Owner James Dolan has given him this year to win--or else.
DWANE CASEY,Timberwolves Backsliding team is on verge of a wholesale makeover.
DOC RIVERS,Celtics With his family in Orlando, he's already halfway gone.
MIKE WOODSON,Hawks Must prove he can win now, before ownership is settled.
MIKE FRATELLO(left), Grizzlies He's in final year of his contract, and Pau Gasol is out forat least two months.
... ON THERISE
RANDY WITTMANThis T-Wolves assistant is likely to take over if Casey is fired.
DEL HARRIS Mavs'defensive guru has been a winner in the NBA for three decades.
STAN VAN GUNDYFormer Heat coach will be picky about his next job.
MARC IAVARONISuns assistant is officially league's hot new candidate.
RICK ADELMAN Wantto win? Hire this unemployed former Kings boss, who has made eight straightplayoff appearances.
Here's the7-foot, 275-pound consolation prize for teams sitting at home in thepostseason: Ohio State freshman Greg Oden (above), an agile rebounder and shotblocker who's expected to be drafted No. 1 in '07. Here are the most intriguingof his likelier destinations:
BULLS Chicagoacquired right (in last year's Eddy Curry trade) to swap first-rounders withNew York. So if Knicks win lottery, Oden could make Bulls a power.
CELTICS Derelictdynasty would get back on track in an instant, with Oden reprising role of BillRussell.
HAWKS The new BigO could galvanize a talented young roster in desperate need of a marqueedraw.
TIMBERWOLVESWould his arrival be enough to persuade Kevin Garnett to stick around?
WARRIORS DonNelson would finally have a young true center to build around.
Get the latest NBA news, insights and analysis fromSI.com's starting five--Jack McCallum, Ian Thomsen, Chris Mannix, Marty Burnsand Mike McAllister--at SI.com/nba.