Chicago Bulls (under 55.5) - There are a lot of interesting pieces on this Bulls and they are definitely the biggest threat to the Cavs, on paper. However (Stephen A. Smith voice) there are a lot of open questions about how all the pieces fit together and what this team will look like next season.
1) Derrick Rose - He did not look super impressive in the World Cup and he hasn't had a full, injury-free season since his MVP campaign. If he is dominating the ball and putting up numbers like he did before he got hurt last season - 16 points on 35% shooting, 4 assists on 3 turnovers - he is going to drag this team down. He only knows one to play and they are probably going to have to live with him rounding back into form. We are kind of flying in uncharted waters here, but the All-Star break seems like a fairly middle-of-the-road projection for when he would be back to being Derrick Rose.
2) How do Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah fit together? On paper, two of the best passing big men in the NBA should be a re-incarnation of the Webber-Divac Kings, but Pau and Dwight Howard looked like they would be awesome on paper too. As he has gotten older, Pau has gotten less and less comfortable playing on the perimeter. Like KG, he's pretty much just a 5 at this point in his career. Noah, in theory, should be able to play more as a 4, but he's never done it before and his lack of shooting could kill their spacing.
3) Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott - A lot of the optimism surrounding the Bulls is what their two rookies could bring to the table, but A) Thibs doesn't like playing rookies B) who knows how they will be able to handle his defensive schemes and C) both guys are most comfortable playing as small-ball 4's, which they did last season in Europe and the NCAA. The problem is that Chicago has always been a two-post system and Taj Gibson will eat up most of the minutes at the 4 that don't go to Pau and Noah.
LA Lakers (under 31.5) - I couldn't be less optimistic about the Lakers coming into the season. Mike D'Antoni got run out of town but I thought he did a pretty tremendous job, considering the circumstances. Last year's team overachieved like a MF to get to 27 wins and they snuck up on a lot of teams. Byron Scott is exactly the kind of play by the book old school NBA coach who is going to get killed when his teams don't have good talent. When you are the underdog, you have to play unconventional and use underdog strategies, ala D'Antoni or Don Nelson.
There are some big names on this team, but this is a team that should be a big underdog on almost every night in the Western Conference. Look at their starting 5 - Lin, Kobe, Wes Johnson, Boozer, Hill - and ask yourself how that group is ever going to be play any defense? They should score some points, but there isn't a stretch 4 to open up the floor for Lin, whose not going to be super-effective spotting up off of Kobe. Boozer, meanwhile, is openly decaying on the court. And there are some interesting young guys on the bench, but in the West, interesting young guys is a recipe for getting beat like an old drum.
Houston Rockets (over 49.5) - I'll have some stuff out about the Rockets in the next few weeks that goes more into this, but I'm more optimistic about them than most people. They still have Dwight Howard and they still have James Harden, so they are going to have a pretty good defense and a pretty good offense. If anything, they should be much better at D, as Harden should be improved after the World Cup, Trevor Ariza is a huge upgrade over Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones should be much more comfortable on that end in his third season in the league. If you look at their starting 5 - Beverley, Harden, Ariza, T. Jones and Dwight - that's one of the most athletic groups in the league.
They will miss Lin and Asik off the bench, but one thing Daryl Morey has proven himself to be pretty good at is finding NBA-caliber talent on the cheap. I expect they will be able to cobble together a decent platoon at the backup 5 and 1 spots with some of the young guys and European vets they have brought in. More than anything else, this is a bet on Terrence Jones, a guy who I think has a chance to really break out in his third season in the league. He's a great athlete, he's very skilled for a guy his size and he's put up really nice numbers in a smaller role. With Parsons gone, T. Jones is more than capable of stepping into that third option role.
Miami Heat (over 43.5) - They are going to miss LeBron, but I don't think a team with Bosh (who should have a huge year as the defacto first option after becoming a glorified role player in Miami) and Wade on it is going to be a .500 team either. The main concern is Wade's injury history - they can't afford him to be at 40-50 games this season. If he can play, though, this is still a really solid team that can compete for a Top 4 seed in the East. The Bosh/McRoberts frontcourt will spread the shit out of other teams ala Phoenix and Atlanta last season and Luol Deng can eat a lot of minutes and give them solid two-way play at the SF. This isn't going to be like the 2011 Cavs - there's an infrastructure in place in Miami that should allow them to compete for 50 wins.
Minnesota Timberwolves (over 26.5) - I went over this in a blog post last month after the Love trade went down. Long story short, this is a team with the point differential of a 48-win team last season, they still have a starting-caliber player at all five positions and they have massively upgraded their bench. Kevin Love is a great player, but he's not going to cost you 25-30 wins, that's LeBron/Dwight Howard territory, guys whose absence destroys your offense and your defense. If you assume he's more in the 15-20 range and then factor in the upgrades on the bench (which was absolutely ghastly last season) and I think the T-Wolves could be respectable this season.
New Orleans Pelicans (over 41.5) - The funny thing about how the Pellies are perceived is everyone apparently thinks Anthony Davis is the 3rd best player in the league yet they don't think he's going to be able to move his team into the upper half of the West, even though there is plenty of talent around him. Omer Asik was a huge get, Ryan Anderson is one of the best frontcourt reserves in the league and Jrue Holiday is one of the most underrated guards in the NBA. Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon, for all their flaws, are pretty solid players as your 5th-6th guys. If Blake or Dwight Howard had this much talent around them, they would be a playoff team, I can assure you of that.
Holiday - Gordon - Evans - Davis - Asik should be absolutely dynamite defensively and they spread you out pretty well too. There's no reason why a group with that much athleticism on the perimeter and with two freakishly long and mobile 7'0 in the paint can't be a Top 5-10 defense. And they have more than enough offense to beat you, especially when they bring Anderson off the bench. The Pellies, if they can stay healthy, are a legit operation.
New York Knicks (under 40.5) - They are like a East Coast version of the Lakers in that there are a lot of big names and a lot of guys who can score, but how are these guys going to play any defense? They are really going to miss Tyson Chandler and Sam Dalembert isn't going to be the answer. He can hardly stay on the floor if he's going up against smaller players, which will be a problem against all the smaller frontlines in the East. With Carmelo, Amare, Bargs and Calderon getting major minutes, this is a group that needs an elite defender at the 5 just to be respectable. I like their wings, but this is a small team that can't defend and is going to get killed on the glass - getting to .500 would be a real accomplishment.
Phoenix Suns (over 42.5) - My one concern with the Suns is that they are going to miss Channing Frye a lot - he was huge for their scheme, in his ability to be a lights-out shooter and swing between the 4 and the 5 positions without killing their defense. He opened up a lot of floor for everyone else and he compromised a lot of team's defensive integrity. Markieff Morris can do a lot of the same things, but not nearly as well.
That said, the Suns won 48 games with Eric Bledsoe playing half the season. If they are healthy, they are still a really young, really fast team that can spread you out and blow you off the floor, particularly on their home court. I'm a big fan of Alex Len and TJ Warren and I think if those two can get some minutes, they will give Phoenix some different looks in the frontcourt and give them some internal improvement to compensate for losing Frye. The Suns were slept on all last season and judging by this line, they are still being slept on.
Toronto Raptors (over 49.5) - Here's the other surprise team from last season that made me a ton of money because people refused to believe they were good. If you take out the 6-12 start when they still had Rudy Gay, the Raptors were damn near a 48-49 win team already and that's without counting any internal improvement from a young team that should benefit from their continuity as well as an improved bench with James Johnson and Lou Williams as their 8th and 9th men. I expect Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas to take big steps forward this season and I could see the Raptors as an ECF team. I'll still have to think about a lot of these lines, but Toronto over 49.5 is a take it to the bank start planning your trip to the Bahamas line.