Roundtable: Best and worst teams
If Miami is healthy, the rest of the NBA will be hard-pressed to deny it a title
The Timberwolves have the talent and depth to finally return to the playoffs
The improved Bobcats will still struggle to avoid finishing with the worst record
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.
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.
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.
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