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TGS HOOPS SPECIAL REPORT...2014-15 NBA SEASON WINS TO WATCH!
by Bruce Marshalll, Goldsheet.com Editor and P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor


It's hoops time! Along with the commencement of the NBA regular season this week, TGS Basketball begins its online publishing as well; for subscription information, check out "Buy Products" above or give us a call at 1-800-798-GOLD (4653) to take advantage of special full-season pricing offers. As always, we begin our hoops coverage with our featured season "over/under" win recommendations; season win totals are listed next to each team.


EASTERN CONFERENCE


ATLANTIC DIVISION: We hope the oddsmakers are not downgrading the Brooklyn Nets (41 ½) because of the departure of HC Jason Kidd; we've got some oceanfront property in Phoenix to sell to anyone who believes Lionel Hollins isn't an upgrade from Kidd on the bench. Yes, we acknowledge some significant issues in Brooklyn, with the durability of frontliners Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett (as well as Andrei Kirilenko) very much in question, and Deron Williams' days as an elite PG are probably in the rear-view mirror. But most nights, the backcourt tandem of Williams and Joe Johnson can still wheel and deal with the best, and functional G Jarrett Jack was a useful offseason addition. Croatian 6-8 rookie swingman Bogan Bogdanovich might also emerge as a nice complementary scorer. If the Nets stay relatively healthy, they can challenge for the Atlantic title, and the presence of Hollins (which ensures less behind-the-scenes maneuvering than with predecessor Kidd) should at least get the Nets above .500...even if Lopez and Garnett are somewhat slowed once more. It's an "over" for us at Barclays Center.

Perhaps it is appropriate to mention the Philadelphia 76ers (16 ½), especially since we are preparing a retrospective on the 1972-73 Sixers (they of the NBA all-time worst 9-73 record) in the coming months. But we have to wonder if that Philly team from 42 years ago that featured Mad Dog Carter and ABA relic Manny Leaks, among others, might be able to give a whuppin' to the current version of the Sixers, as second-year GM Sam Hinkie continues to dismantle his roster at an astonishing rate. Hard as it is to believe, Philly looks even more shallow than last year's 19-win team that lost 26 in a row at one point, as only Rookie of the Year G Michael Carter-Williams (hurting at the outset of this season and whose stats were inflated due to bad teammates) and ex-Kentucky C Nerlens Noel, coming back from a serious ACL tear suffered 20 months ago, appear to be assets that Hinkie will move forward with as he continues to reassemble the roster that will likely not include Kansas rookie C Joel Embiid, the top draft pick whose recovery from a broken foot might keep him out all season, and Euro F Dario Saric, who will be playing in Turkey. Look "under" in Philly, with the possibility of chasing the futility mark of the '72-73 Sixers could add a very interesting subplot at Wells Fargo Center.

While several Eastern contenders spent the offseason reshaping their rosters, the Toronto Raptors (48 ½) mostly stood pat (what a novel idea in the NBA!) after last year's surprising 48-34 breakthrough campaign and Atlantic Division title for HC Dwane Casey. The Raptors, however, did not do it with mirrors, instead buying into Casey's defensive mindset, and with role players embracing their opportunities to contribute. Off-guard DeMar DeRozan (22.7 ppg in 2013-14) is the closest thing to bona fide star power in the lineup, and fellow G Kyle Lowry approached that high-profile status last season. Critics maintain that Lowry's upgrade came in a contract year, but we're not quite that cynical. We happen to like the blue-collar mentality of the Raptors as exemplified by roll-up-your-sleeves Casey and no-nonsense frontliners Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas...all refreshing departures from the normal NBA prima donna mindset. Moreover, new front office blood (including Canadian rapper Drake) has helped locals look beyond their inevitable disappointment associated with the NHL Maple Leafs and turn Air Canada Centre into one of the NBA's most raucous home courts. Toronto deserves to be favored in the Atlantic and, if healthy, can reach the 50-win plateau, so we're looking "over" north of the border.

The immediate transition from active player to head coach is not always a smooth one. Ask Jason Kidd, who inherited a playoff-caliber roster last year in Brooklyn but went through a lengthy bump-and-grind phase before things finally settled somewhat in the second half of the season. By comparison, the New York Knicks (40 ½) do not have similar roster depth for new HC Derek Fisher, who makes his sideline debut this term. Fisher will be the latest coach to try to implement team prexy Phil Jackson's pet triangle offense, but will be doing so with a roster that was a dysfunctional mess for much of last season, when the half-court attack mostly consisted of clear-outs for Carmelo Anthony. Worryingly for Knicks fans, Fisher (with Jackson looking over his shoulder) and his Laker-connected staff will likely need a suicidal resolve with the triangle, which was generating more than 20 TOs pg throughout much of the preseason. Meanwhile, as Carmelo has been inked to a pricey extension, several big-money contracts (including Amar'e Stoudemire's) are due to expire in the summer, which suggests the Knicks are still in the early phases of Jackson's franchise retrofit. For this season, at least, we're shading "under" at MSG.

We are not usually into provisional votes for our NBA preview, though we are tempted to make dual predictions on the Boston Celtics (27). On the surface, the roster does not appear too different from a year ago when the rebuilding Cs struggled to a 28-54 mark for rookie HC Brad Stevens. But that was without a healthy G Rajon Rondo for much of the season. There's the rub, however, because Rondo's looming free agency could make him prime trade material at some point this season, so it's a bit tricky trying to gauge his season-long contributions at TD Garden Even if Oklahoma State rookie G Marcus Smart is as good as advertised, he's not ready to become a featured component quite yet, and there is decided lack of star power elsewhere on the roster. Given the possible directions the Celtics could head personnel-wise during the course of the season due to Rondo, we're probably better off simply staying neutral in Beantown.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION: Yes, the Miami Heat (44) are understandably downgraded after LeBron James' departure. But Miami is also unlikely to disappear from NBA radar, especially with several question marks elsewhere in the Southeast and in the Eastern Conference. The Heat will have to stay healthy, which means Dwayne Wade must play in more than the 28 games he participated in a year ago, and newly-added frontliner Josh McRoberts needs to get beyond preseason nagging injuries. The most celebrated offseason addition, F Luol Deng, has also battled to stay healthy in the past. But expect Chris Bosh to flourish in the post-LeBron era, and plenty of veteran savvy remains at Erik Spoelstra's disposal. Unless injuries ravage the roster, getting into the mid-to-high 40s and a playoff berth appear quite reachable for the Heat. Even without LeBron, it's an "over" for us by Biscayne Bay.

The Washington Wizards (48 ½) generated a lot more hype than the Redskins last season, especially when dominating the Bulls in the playoffs and looking for a while as if they would eventually challenge LeBron and the Heat and play for a conference crown for the first time since the Wes Unseld-Elvin Hayes-Bob Dandridge days of the late '70s. Now, vet Paul Pierce steps in at a SF spot, and rugged DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries have fortified the frontline while hopefully reducing some of the wear and tear on Nene. But we see some potential issues, with the departure of versatile Trevor Ariza perhaps not addressed properly by the presence of Pierce or ex-Georgetown ace Otto Porter, and how Pierce might co-exist with shot-happy and sometimes-careless Gs John Wall and Bradley Beal remains to be seen. Randy Wittman steers the Wiz to the playoffs again, but a jump of five wins beyond last season seems a bit much. While we highly recommend a chili half-smoke at Ben's Chili Bowl on nearby U Street in D.C., we also look "under" at Verizon Center.

While the politically-sensitive NBA media corps makes a mountain out of the offseason organizational controversies regarding the Atlanta Hawks (42), all indicators are that none of that is likely to impact the on-court performance of team in ex-Gregg Popovich aide HC Mike Budenholzer's second season on the job. The Hawks were able to slog their way into the playoffs last spring despite being minus injured C Al Horford, and then proceeded to nearly spring an 8 vs. 1 upset over Indiana in the opening round. Horford's return from a torn pectoral muscle has been monitored closely, and his scoring touch seemed to return in later preseason games, and the Hawks made several useful offseason additions, including defensive specialists Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore and 6-10 Michigan State rookie Adreain Payne, who also adds Horford-like intangibles to the Atlanta mix. If rugged frontliner Paul Millsap continues to extend his offensive arsenal farther from the bucket, it should open even more opportunities in the paint for Horford, and dagger thrower deluxe Kyle Korver (47.2% on his triples last season!) remains one of the NBA's best catch-and-shoot marksmen. But the key cog remains Horford...as long as he stays healthy, Atlanta comfortably advances to the postseason and gets several games above .500. It's a guarded "over" for us at Philips Arena.

Already, there are worrisome developments for the Orlando Magic (27 ½), as key cogs G Victor Oladipo (facial injury) and top offseason addition C Channing Frye (knee) are both likely sidelined for at least the first month of the season due to preseason mishaps. Any extended absence of Frye, the centerpiece of Orlando's personnel maneuvers since last season and an important defense/rebounding piece in the paint, could be particularly devastating to the slow rebuild under the watch of beleaguered third-year HC Jacque Vaughn. Expect first-round draft picks F Aaron Gordon (Arizona) and G Elfrid Payton (UL-Lafayette) to immediately find themselves in the starting lineup, and Vaughn's rotations will have a very young look after vet Gs Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson departed after last season. With a healthy Frye and Oladipo from the outset, we might have been tempted to project Orlando to 30 or more wins, but their early absences have made Vaughn's job that much harder. So, we're looking "under" at Amway Center.

No longer needing a nickname ode ("Bobcats") to former majority owner Bob Johnson, Michael Jordan's re-branded Charlotte Hornets (44 ½) have reassumed the name of the former NBA expansion team (and, for those with very long memories, a short-lived WFL franchise, with current CBS broadcaster Gary Danielson at QB, that was the successor to the memorable New York Stars in the mid '70s). After making a quick ascent to playoff status a year ago under former Lakers aide Steve Clifford, the Hornets are intriguing, especially with electric ex-Pacers G Lance Stephenson having been lured via free agency in the offseason. The "good Lance vs. bad Lance" remains a bit unpredictable, however, and it would not surprise if it takes the entire season for holdovers such as Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to learn which buttons to push with the volatile Stephenson. And if C Al Jefferson's rickety knees act up, will Indiana rookie Noah Vonleh be ready to step into a featured frontline role? There are some hard-to-predict factors in Charlotte, so we'd rather pass at the Cable Box.

CENTRAL DIVISION: Regardless what the media has you believe, let's pump the brakes a bit with the Cleveland Cavaliers (58 ½) and the return of "King James" to Quicken Loans Arena. While Johnny Football seems like the only new Cleveland resident not on the Cavs' roster, expecting instant chemistry between LeBron, fellow newcomers Kevin Love and HC Dave Blatt (how did his jive twang work in Israel?) and holdovers like Kyrie Irving might be a bit of a reach, especially considering LeBron's somewhat bumpy first year with more-established stars in Miami. As for Love, he's already chirping about needing more inside touches, and Blatt would also be the first coach to get Love to work as hard on "D" as his does on padding his scoring and rebound stats. By April, Cleveland is likely a title-threatening force, but to get to 59 wins means the gears need to mesh sooner. Look "under" at The Q.

The Detroit Pistons (35 ½) have teased us the past few seasons, but perhaps the addition of no-nonsense HC Stan Van Gundy will finally propel the Auburn Hills bunch back into the postseason mix. As long as the Pistons have spent (wasted?) a lot of FA dollars the past year on F Josh Smith and G Brandon Jennings, Van Gundy is shrewd enough to at least maximize their abilities...and minimize their deficiencies (such as forcing too many bad shots). Van Gundy is also a respected defensive tactician and could have the same impact as fellow-minded coach Dwane Casey has had recently with the Raptors. There are concerns, especially with PF Greg Monroe's FA-to-be status and early-season 2-game, DUI-related suspension as potential distractions, but some NBA sources believe 21-year-old C Andre Drummond could really blossom in the Van Gundy system. Monroe also looms as possible midseason trade bait, perhaps for a perimeter weapon to spread out the offense even more and unclog the lane for Drummond. And while the Pistons didn't have a first-round draft pick, they made several handy offseason FA additions, inking sharpshooter Jodie Meeks, vet swingman Caron Butler, and savvy PG D.J. Augustin, all likely to contribute. With plenty of room to move up the ladder in the East, we're looking "over" at The Palace.

While the basketball world pays attention to developments in Cleveland, savvy NBA insiders are keeping a closer watch on the Chicago Bulls (54 ½), who are hoping to finally pick up where they left off in the 2012 playoffs when star G Derrick Rose first injured a knee. A lost season and another injury-shortened campaign have followed, but if Rose is really back to his former explosive form, it's the Bulls, not the Cavs, that are likely the team to beat in the East. Rose now has a more refined supporting cast, too, as the offseason addition of PF Pau Gasol gives HC Tom Thibodeau two of the best-passing "bigs" in the league, with the ability to shuttle Gasol and Joakim Noah between the high and low posts an added luxury. We'd also expect SG Jimmy Butler, forced to grow up in a hurry in Rose's absence the past two years, to become a potential lethal force now that he figures to get easier looks with a healthy Rose on the floor. The Bulls have not had this much depth and skill at Thibodeau's disposal since he took over at United Center seven seasons ago, and Thibodeau's defensive schemes always rate among the league's best. As long as Rose (and Gasol) stay healthy, the Bulls threaten 60 wins and the top East side, so it's an "over" for us in the Windy City.

Paul George's gruesome leg injury while playing in a meaningless exhibition for Team USA in the summer has reopened the debate regarding NBA players and international team commitments. Stay tuned for more developments on that front. In the meantime, George's possible absence for the entire season has cast a very different light upon prospects for the Indiana Pacers (33), who were already being downgraded after G Lance Stephenson's offseason FA bolt to Charlotte. The task of replacing the nearly 36 ppg contributed by George and Stephenson last season (when the gears would nonetheless grind at Bankers Life Fieldhouse after the All-Star break) could knock the Pacers completely out of the East playoff mix...or maybe not. Now, it will be up to PF David West and new SG Rodney Stuckey to create shots, but there are some other established contributors still around such as underrated PG George Hill and frontliner Luis Scola who can likely handle a bit more of the scoring load. As usual, it will be up to C Roy Hibbert to demonstrate more consistency...only this season that likely means the difference between making the playoffs rather than qualifying for the Finals. Still, at this low win hurdle, there's enough for us to look "over" in Indy.

After winning just 15 games last season, worst in franchise history (even the 1968-69 pre-Lew Alcindor/Kareem expansion team, with Wayne Embry at C and Lenny Chappell and Jon McGlocklin in the backcourt, won 27 times!), the Milwaukee Bucks (24) did what most NBA teams would do, finding a new coach and remaking the roster. For the coaching part, Bucks management would raid Brooklyn and steal Jason Kidd while quickly reshaping the roster (good idea) around second-overall draft pick 6-8 SF Jabari Parker, the ex-Dookie considered the most NBA-ready of all prospects in last June's very deep draft. Kidd's challenge will be to mix Parker and FA additions Kendall Marshall and Jerryd Bayless around an intriguing collection of holdovers with considerable upside such as explosive SG Giannis Antetokounmpo, volume shooter O.J. Mayo, and springy bigs Larry Sanders and John Henson. This is hardly as hopeless a situation as last year's record would indicate, but projecting a 10-game jump in wins is on the aggressive side. Check back next year before we begin to talk playoffs, but we need a while to gauge how all of the new pieces fit in Milwaukee, so we take a pass in Brewtown.

WESTERN CONFERENCE


SOUTHWEST DIVISION: A season ago, it took a while for the Memphis Grizzlies (49) to adjust to then-new HC Dave Joerger. Or, should we say, it took Joerger a while to adjust to his roster, the core of which having fermented under Joerger's predecessor Lionel Hollins. After forcing new-style hoops "analytics" down the Grizzlies' throats the first two months of the season, Joerger would relent and once again tailor the Memphis offense to its inside-out preference, with rugged bigs Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol (when both were healthy, at least ) getting their touches in halfcourt sets, while playing at a more deliberate pace to highlight the defensive tenacity in the lineup. The window might be closing on core players Randolph and Gasol, who have had more problems staying off the injured list in recent seasons, but they should remain sustainable features for at least another year, along with PG Mike Conley's savvy pick-and-roll execution. To make a deep run in the playoffs, Joerger will need offseason additions Vince Carter and Courtney Lee to space the floor and provide offense, while rookies G Jordan Adams (UCLA) and PF Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee) will be expected to contribute valuable minutes. Maybe Memphis' best chance to get to the Finals has already passed, but we do think the Griz can still get to 50 wins. Look "over" at FedEx Forum.

The Dallas Mavericks (50) turned over half of their roster after last season's 49-33, playoff-qualifying mark. But there was a back-to-the-future element in the wheeling and dealing with former C Tyson Chandler, a bedrock of the 2010-11 championship team, having returned to Big D in the offseason. Still, about all that remains from the title-winning year is Dirk Nowitzki (plus HC Rick Carlisle...and how can we forget owner Mark Cuban?), and Chandler will be expected to compensate for the lack of defensive stoppers elsewhere on the Mavs' roster. And Dallas did not exactly initiate a youth movement when adding Chandler and vet G Jameer Nelson in the offseason. On the plus side, Nowitzki and G Monta Ellis learned to co-exist last season, and ex-Rocket Chandler Parsons adds some welcome athleticism and an ability to stretch the floor. Still, we wonder if the Mavs are really going to improve from a year ago, when they proved a mild pleasant surprise. In the rugged West, however, there's more room to move down than move up. At the risk of disqualifying ourselves from any invitations to a Cuban "Shark Tank" viewing party, we look "under" at AmericanAirlines Center.

If not for bad luck, the New Orleans Pelicans (43) wouldn't have had any luck at all last season, with injuries once again decimating the core of the roster. And not just minor injuries, as key cogs G Jrue Holiday and PF Ryan Anderson would miss significant chunks of the campaign, while 6-10 Anthony Davis continued to be slowed by a succession of minor hurts. If that core can stay healthy and on the floor, however, the Pelicanos could make a dramatic jump this season. The offseason signing of ex-Rockets C Omer Asik adds a quality interior defender, big-time rebounder, and space-eater on the blocks, all of which should lessen the wear and tear on Davis and perhaps be the key to big Anthony's long-awaited emergence as a dominant force. We suspect that if HC Monty Williams can keep his team healthy and develop a consistent lineup rotation (as well as allowing Holiday to run the offense) that Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon can also learn to play together. Sure, there are a lot of "ifs" in New Orleans, but if the pieces stay together, this could be the surprise team in the West. "Over" for us in the Big Easy.

After landing the big prize in last year's FA sweepstakes (Dwight Howard), the Houston Rockets (49 ½) tried to make another major splash this past offseason when offering spirited pursuits of both New York's Carmelo Anthony and Miami's Chris Bosh, either considered by many to be final pieces of a possible title-winning puzzle at Toyota Center. Instead, both re-signed with their existing teams, and suddenly there was a net loss in the offseason for HC Kevin McHale's roster, with the likes of Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik, and Jeremy Lin all leaving town, and, instead of Carmelo or Bosh, swingman Trevor Ariza the highest-profile addition. Though Ariza might be a good running mate for James Harden on the wing and add a defensive stopper to the perimeter, the loss of Parsons means that the Rockets have one fewer shot creator on the attack end to complement "The Beard." Asik's departure also leaves the Rockets a bit more vulnerable to teams with active fours, as there is only so much ground that Howard can cover on the stop end. The Rockets should get back to the playoffs, but we expect they have a hard time hitting 50 wins, so we give a measured "under" vote in Houston.

What to do with the San Antonio Spurs (57), a year older yet hardly skipping a beat last spring when romping to their fifth title of the Tim Duncan era? Along the way, the past two seasons especially, HC Gregg Popovich has confirmed his brilliance by properly pacing his vet stars Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili while developing impressive depth through the regular season. Almost all of the pieces have returned in place for Popovich, with the only potential negligible loss being backup PG Patty Mills' shoulder injury that could keep him out until the All-Star break. We have full respect for Popovich, however, and with Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili still performing at a high level, and Kawhi Leonard a fast-developing star of the future, there is no reason the Spurs can't approach 60 wins again as they aim for the one thing that has eluded them in the championship era--back to-back crowns. Check back next spring to see if it happens. In the meantime, we're looking "over" 57 at AT&T Center.

NORTHWEST DIVISION: With so much youth in the mix, we wonder f nearby BYU has an older roster than the Utah Jazz (26). And that lack of veteran leadership probably keeps Utah far away from the playoffs for a third straight year. But the Jazz also need only a 2-win upgrade from LY to exceed this win target of 26, and new HC Quin Snyder's experience honing his craft in the D-League should come in handy. Utah has shed most of its veteran role players and could have an interesting look on the perimeter if lengthy Aussie rookie Dante Exum proves a matchup nightmare, as some envision, while Trey Burke continues to evolve in his second year as an NBA point guard. Duke rookie Rodney Hood gives Snyder another new toy to use in the backcourt. Another youngster, second-year French C Rudy Gobert, has shown flashes of becoming a defensive force. Even without impact players on the frontline, there is enough at Snyder's disposal (especially with emerging star Gordon Hayward) for the Jazz to make a mild upgrade. It's an "over" for us in Salt Lake City.

The Oklahoma City Thunder (52 ½) are going to be without injured Kevin Durant perhaps until New Year's. Assuming they split the 30 games minus their star, they would have to go 38-14 without him to get to 53 wins. That's a bit of a stretch, especially considering that G Russell Westbrook's durability also remains an ongoing concern. And while newly added Anthony Morrow can likely fill a hole on the wing created by the departures of Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher, and Caron Butler, the Thunder remain too perimeter-oriented as long as Shaqtin'a-fool favorite Kendrick Perkins does not provide a scoring threat on the low blocks. In the East, Ok City might be better able to stay afloat during Durant's absence, but the unforgiving West is a different matter, which makes us think "under" at The Peake.

The Portland Trailblazers (49 ½) are curiously not getting a lot of love from the oddsmakers after last year's breakthrough 54-wins season and ouster of Dwight Howard and the Rockets in an exciting first-round West playoff series. Not that there is an absence of issue in Portland regarding a still-thin bench that ranked last in scoring (24.7 ppg) for the second consecutive year. But HC Terry Stotts constructed a sight-to-behold machine with clearly-defined roles, as All-Stars PF LaMarcus Aldridge and PG Damian Lillard as the primary scorers, with wings Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews providing support at both ends while rugged C Robin Lopez provided much help for Aldridge on the boards and defensive interior. A key offseason addition, C Chris Kaman, should help further in that regard and is likely to have a better chance avoiding his own recurring injury issues by being expected to contribute fewer (though valuable) minutes than in previous career stops. Many of the holdover components (such as Aldridge and Lillard) had career years in 2013-14, perhaps spawning the doubts, but there is room for the Blazers to regress a bit from last season and still exceed the 49½ wins. We're looking "over" at the Moda Center Rose Garden.

The Denver Nuggets (41 ½) had a rather bumpy ride a year ago in the debut season under HC Brian Shaw, ending up in the draft lottery for the first time in 11 years. Defensive deficiencies mostly caused by injuries helped push Denver down the Western table. Now, with the likes of colorful (but defensively valuable) C JaVale McGee, F Danilo Gallinari, G Nate Robinson, and F J.J. Hickson all primed to stay off the injured list, Shaw is going to have a lot more to work with this term. Also back in the Denver fold is SG Arron Afflalo, who returns to Pepsi Center after a recent stint in Orlando and who could flourish alongside PG Ty Lawson, whose ability to drive-and-kick figures to set up Afflalo for plenty of open threes. Afflalo should also benefit from not having to be the go-to-guy, as he was last season with the lowly Magic. Meanwhile, "Manimal" PF Kenneth Faried is a candidate to be the breakout star of the league after being named to the FIBA World Cup all-tourney team in the summer. If all hands are on deck, Shaw's collection of role players are good enough to push Denver over .500 and into playoff contention, so it's an "over" for us in the Mile High City.

Rarely do we recall a ballyhooed top draft pick becoming such an afterthought in short order. But shortly after the Cavs made Kansas' Andrew Wiggins the top pick in June's draft, the ex-Jayhawk was suddenly becoming a pawn in the evolving LeBron James storyline. And the national press, so enamored with everything LeBron, suddenly forgot about Wiggins, who would subsequently be packaged to the Minnesota Timberwolves (27) in a mega-deal that involved Kevin Love leaving Minneapolis to join LeBron and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. (Also landing in Minnesota as part of that deal was 2nd-year F Anthony Bennett, which means the T-wolves now own the top picks in each of the last two drafts.) Just because Wiggins was shuffled out of Cleveland to make room for LeBron and lost in that overhype, however, doesn't mean that young Andrew should be overlooked; instead, he'll be centerpiece around a Minnesota rebuild under new/old HC Flip Saunders, who assumes his old position that he held during some of the T-wolves' best days during the Kevin Garnett era. Saunders takes over a roster bursting with athleticism, though it might take a while for high-flyers Wiggins and fellow rookies Zach LaVine (UCLA) and Glenn Robinson III (Michigan) to mesh. Along with holdovers Thaddeus Young and Corey Brewer, Minnesota will often have the look of a track-relay team, though the Wolves can play halfcourt style, too, and run the offense through rugged C Nikola Pecovic if needed. We understand the significant win downgrade after Love's departure, but there is enough precocious energy for Saunders to make the T-wolves something of a pest this term, too. We'd rather sit back and watch what unfolds at Target Center and wait until next season before making another projection with Minnesota.

PACIFIC DIVISION: We jumped the gun a bit last season when looking "over" with the Sacramento Kings (29 ½). Perhaps we were simply a year early as the franchise continues to re-tool under new ownership and management. But replacing mercurial Isaiah Thomas with the more-traditional Darren Collison at the point might add more structure to the on-court look, and C DeMarcus Cousins' experience at the FIBA World Cup in the summer should prove an important step in his maturation process. Meanwhile, on the nights Cousins gets in foul trouble, Rudy Gay is available to pick up the scoring slack, while frontcourt depth should be improved with vet Carl Landry now healthy from the outset. The playoffs remain over the horizon for another year in Sacto, but getting to at least 30 wins and "over" is definitely within reach.

At the appropriate time, we will be addressing the many ills of the Los Angeles Lakers (31 ½) and the controversial recent story regarding Kobe Bryant that appeared in ESPN The Magazine. (We highly advise taking a look at that piece, authored by Henry Abbott.) But the Lake Show has made a breathtaking descent into irrelevant status, as last year's 27 wins were the lowest-ever for the team since it moved from Minneapolis to L.A. in 1959 (finally, the 1974-75 edition that included one of our old favorites, high-flying C Elmore Smith, can relinquish its claim as the "losing-est" L.A. Laker team!). The likelihood of Kobe (who has been physically breaking down the past two seasons) again missing significant time would markedly decrease the Lake Show's hopes of reaching last year's 27 wins, much less recording a few more Ws. But even with Kobe, the surrounding cast remains suspect, with aging Carlos Boozer a downgrade from Pau Gasol and Steve Nash now officially out for the season with back problems. Rookie Kentucky PF Julius Randle is also not going to be bigger and stronger than NBA frontliners as he was in the SEC. And in the tough West, there are few easy wins. By January, new HC Byron Scott might be wondering why he took this job. We look "under" for the Lakers half of Staples Center...and we doubt even Jack Nicholson would disagree.

How about the other half of the Staples Center equation? Hard as it might have been to believe a few years ago, the Los Angeles Clippers (56 ½) now rule Tinsel Town. And having quickly gotten beyond last spring's Donald Sterling fiasco (with new owner Steve Ballmer now in place), the Clips are past some of the V Stiviano-related distractions that dominated the news cycles for a few weeks during playoff time in April and May. And with Ballmer now calling the shots, Doc Rivers is firmly in place on the bench after threatening to bolt if Sterling retained ownership of the team. Crisis averted, there is really not much to complain about with the deep Clipper roster except perhaps for a lack of a better stopper on the wings than Matt Barnes, a roster shortcoming that has haunted the Clips in the playoffs in recent years. Still, 56½ wins is awfully aggressive in the deep West, and any injuries to Chris Paul or Blake Griffin (who have been sidelined for long stretches in the past) would probably keep the Clips from exceeding last year's 57 wins. We project the Clips at 53-55 wins, so we're going to make a measured "under" recommendation for Billy Crystal's favorite team.

There remain some non-believers in the Phoenix Suns (44), who might have been the league's most pleasant surprise last season, fighting for a playoff berth in the rugged West until the final day of the campaign for first-year HC Jeff Hornacek. Last season, Hornacek based his strategy upon the Suns' strength in the backcourt featuring Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, and Phoenix effectively doubled-down on that philosophy (perhaps neglecting other positional needs?) when not only inking Bledsoe to a big-bucks contract extension but also adding go-go PG Isaiah Thomas from the Kings. Remember, the Suns won 48 games last season even with Bledsoe missing 33 games to injury, as he was part of a pick-and-rolling backcourt with Dragic that confounded foes and could now have even more dimensions with the presence of the speedy Thomas. This ballhandling surplus allows the Suns to keep two starting-caliber point guards on the court in a pace-pushing, floor-spreading attack. Maybe the Suns don't have quite enough inside muscle to get to the playoffs, but the unique Hornacek formula suggests an "over" 44 wins at US Airways Center.

While many have been expounding the virtues of Steve Kerr since his playing days at Arizona and pro career with the Bulls, to the point we're almost surprised that Kerr hasn't been mentioned as presidential (as in US presidential) material, we sometimes wonder if the Kerr-fest isn't just a knee-jerk reaction among NBA fans who have been led to believe so by the stereotyping media. While apparently a delightfiul chap, Kerr's one experience in an NBA management position was a less-than-stellar run as the Suns GM a few years ago, and he has never held a coaching position before. So we have to wonder if Kerr really is going to be an upgrade from Mark Jackson as the new HC of the Golden State Warriors (51 ½). Kerr is likely to tamper with the offense, which might not be a bad thing (Golden State was down the list in the important points-per-possession category last season), and is expected to feature side-to-side ball movement and the passing ability of bigs Andrew Bogut and David Lee more than did Jackson. Still, we wonder if tampering with the chemistry of "Splash Brothers" Steph Curry and Klay Thompson (league record 484 combined threes LY) could backfire. In truth, the Warriors used good defense more than advertised during the Jackson years, and Kerr is not likely to mess with those dynamics. Still, with a lot of injury-prone players (Curry and Bogut in particular), we're not sure that the Warriors exceed last year's 51 wins. We'd rather take a pass at Oakland instead.


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