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The Bottom 10

Hawks, Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Cavs, Bucks, Magic, Pistons, Kings, Bulls.

The Middle 10

Spurs, Knicks, Wizards, Nuggets, Bobcats, Suns, Timberwolves, Raptors, Thunder, Warriors.

The Top 10

10. New Orleans Hornets
2011-12 RECORD: 21-45, fifth place, Southwest Division; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: F Anthony Davis (first round, first pick overall); G Austin Rivers (first round, 10th pick overall); F Ryan Anderson (sign-and-trade with Orlando, four years, $34 million); C Robin Lopez (sign-and-trade with Phoenix, three years, $15 million); F Hakim Warrick (acquired from Phoenix); G Roger Mason, Jr. (one year, $1.22 million); F Darius Miller (second round, 46th pick overall).

LOST: C Gustavo Ayon (traded to Orlando), F/C Emeka Okafor (traded to Washington); F Trevor Ariza (traded to Washington); C Chris Kaman (signed with Dallas); F Carl Landry (signed with Golden State); F Rashard Lewis (waived, signed with Miami); G Marco Belinelli (signed with Chicago); G Jarrett Jack (traded to Golden State); C Brad Miller (retired); F Darryl Watkins (traded to Philadelphia).

RETAINED: G Eric Gordon (matched four-year, $58 million offer sheet from Phoenix).

THE KEY MAN: G Austin Rivers.

Moving Jack to the Warriors opened up playing time for the rookie guard, which will help him get acclimated quicker. He will have a full plate early, likely playing both guard positions; there will be some interesting huddles if he waves Gordon off to feed Davis, or vice versa.

But Austin Rivers has learned a few things about the pro game from his father, Doc. There's little doubt that even before his one season at Duke, Rivers has believed himself destined for the NBA, and he'll get his chance to show it very quickly.

THE SKINNY: Well, they didn't have any place to go but up after finally ending the Chris Paul era and starting over. A top-10 ranking isn't an endorsement of being as bad as the Hornets were last season, or a prediction of success next season.

But they have done a lot more than get lucky in the lottery and taking the no-brainer Davis with the first pick. They made it clear that they would keep Gordon, a restricted free agent, and despite his protests to be set free, that's exactly what they did.

And it was the right move. New owner Tom Benson did what he said he'd do, opening up the wallet wide to keep Gordon, signing Lopez -- who'll start in the middle, allowing Davis to play a more natural power forward to start -- and getting Anderson's space-creating stretch four skills from the Magic.

And there's nobody better to coach up and demand from a young team than Monty Williams. It's not a playoff team. It's not a .500 team. But there's a foundation in place that can grow together over the next couple of years, and Benson's willingness to spend to improve the roster as he deals with the year-long ramifications of the Saints' bounty penalties from the NFL is encouraging.

9. Indiana Pacers
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
2011-12 RECORD: 42-24, second place, Central Division; lost in Eastern Conference semifinals.

ADDED: G D.J. Augustin (one year, $3.5 million); F Gerald Green (three years, $10 million); C Ian Mahinmi (acquired from Dallas); F Miles Plumlee (first round, 26th pick overall); team president Donnie Walsh; G Orlando Johnson (acquired from Kings in draft day trade, 36th pick overall).

LOST: G Darren Collison (traded to Dallas); F Dahntay Jones (traded to Dallas); G A.J. Price (signed with Washington), team president Larry Bird.

RETAINED: C Roy Hibbert (matched four-year, $56 million offer sheet from Portland); G George Hill (five years, $40 million).

THE KEY MAN: G/F Paul George.

The rising third-year swingman made vast improvements last season and showed flashes of potential stardom at the defensive end. But as you would expect from a young guy, George struggled in the playoffs, shooting just 38 percent and getting a public pep talk from Bird.

The Pacers believe George will be a special one, and usually that becomes obvious by year three of a young player's career. So now is when George should put it all together at both ends, well into May and June, when his team will need him the most.

THE SKINNY: Such is the value of a talented big man that Indiana vaults into the top 10 just by not letting Hibbert go to the Portland Trail Blazers. The Pacers couldn't let a 7-foot-2, 25-year-old All-Star who is already one of the best passing bigs in the game walk, and they didn't.

Nor did they take a chance on letting Hill get on the open market, and by dealing Collison to Dallas they made it clear who their point guard of the future was going to be, while getting him a solid backup in former first-rounder Augustin.

The Pacers did take some chances, reaching for Plumlee much higher than most other teams had him rated, and giving the heretofore disappointing Green a pretty good contract seemingly based on 31 games' worth of work for a bad Nets team. But if Green really is developing into an NBA player, he can help.

Bringing back the universally respected Walsh for a second tour of duty while Bird takes at least a year off couldn't have gone smoother.

8. Houston Rockets
2011-12 RECORD: 34-32, fourth place, Southwest Division; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: G Jeremy Lin (three years, $25 million); C Omer Asik (three years, $25 million); G Jeremy Lamb (first round, 12th pick overall); F Royce White (first round, 16th pick overall); F Terrence Jones (first round, 18th pick overall): F JaJuan Johnson (acquired from Boston); G Shaun Livingston; F Sean Williams (acquired from Boston); G Toney Douglas (acquired from New York); C Josh Harrellson (acquired from New York); F Jon Brockman (acquired from Milwaukee); F Gary Forbes (one year, $1.5 million); C Jerome Jordan (acquired from New York).

LOST: G Goran Dragic (signed with Phoenix); G Kyle Lowry (traded to Toronto); F Luis Scola (amnestied); C Samuel Dalembert (traded to Milwaukee); C Marcus Camby (sign-and-trade to New York); F Chase Budinger (traded to Minnesota); G Courtney Lee (traded to Boston).


THE KEY MAN: G Jeremy Lin.

Really, who else could it be? After all the sturm und drang about Lin and whether he was a flash in the pan or the second coming of Pete Maravich, he gets the ball in Houston with a chance to show who he really is going to be in the NBA.

Whether he creates the buzz in Houston that his star turn produced in New York is irrelevant; can he really run a team every night? What is his ceiling as a basketball player? The Rockets had two pretty solid point guards last year; now they have a question mark. But it's a question mark that we're all going to watch.

THE SKINNY: Anyone who tells you they know what kind of team the Rockets are going to be is a liar or delusional. After general manager Daryl Morey finally stopped wheeling and dealing, trying to get Dwight Howard, Ken Reeves, Katie Couric and Wilt Chamberlain in 437 simultaneous trades, no one has the slightest idea who the Rockets are or what they're going to be.

But they do have more talent than they did last season, and at least Morey didn't sit around and accept being mediocre. Lin can score, and Asik can rebound and defend the post, and Houston's three rookies all bring something interesting to the party.

But Morey will trade all of them in a second for Howard. It's created a bit of a problem in the Rockets' locker room; players have no idea if they're really a part of the team's future or just a chip that will be dealt when someone better is available. But that's not Morey's problem; it's coach Kevin McHale's. At least McHale has some interesting options, almost all of whom are now well short of their 30th birthdays.

7. Boston Celtics
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2011-12 RECORD: 39-27, first place, Atlantic Division; lost in Eastern Conference finals.

ADDED: G Jason Terry (three years, $15.6 million); G Courtney Lee (sign-and-trade from Houston, four years, $21.5 million); F/C Jared Sullinger (first round, 21st pick overall); C Fab Melo (first round, 22nd pick overall); F Kris Joseph (second round, 51st pick overall); C Jason Collins (one year, $1.35 million).

LOST: G Ray Allen (signed with Miami); C Ryan Hollins (signed with Clippers); F JaJuan Johnson (traded to Houston); G E'Twaun Moore (traded to Houston); F Sean Williams (traded to Houston); C Greg Stiemsma (signed with Minnesota); G Sasha Pavlovic (traded to Portland).

RETAINED: F Kevin Garnett (three years, $34 million); F Brandon Bass (three years, $20 million); F Jeff Green (four years, $36 million); F/C Chris Wilcox (one year, $1.35 million); G Keyon Dooling (one year, $1.35 million).

THE KEY MAN: G Rajon Rondo.

Did Rondo and Allen's relationship get so sour that Allen decided to take less money in Miami? We'll probably never know for sure, but it's no secret that Rondo, while immensely talented and intelligent, is also a handful to deal with on a daily basis.

But Rondo isn't the kid point guard any more; he's 26, and he's got to smooth out some of his rough edges. He has the most unique skill set of any player in the league at his position, so most nights, he's well worth any trouble. Most nights.

THE SKINNY: By the end of last season, Allen was a shell of himself, gutting it out on a bad ankle that ultimately required surgery, and he had been beaten out in Doc Rivers' eyes by second-year guard Avery Bradley.

We'll know more by the end of this season, but on paper at least, Boston has as good a guard rotation as any team in the league. Rondo's speed, defense, rebounding and passing, plus Terry's shot making and fearlessness, plus Lee's solid perimeter game, plus Bradley's on-ball D and emerging offensive skills, plus Dooling's harassing nature and experience, makes for a pretty strong and deep backcourt.

KG's decision to return was obviously the biggest development for the Celtics, though, and if Wilcox can stay healthy and Sullinger and Melo grow up fast, they can all help fill the gap at center that forced Garnett into the middle last year.

Having Green back after he missed last season following heart surgery will be a boon as well; even though he struggled at times after coming from the Thunder, he still hasn't had a full training camp since coming to Boston. His best days in green are almost certainly ahead of him.

6. Los Angeles Lakers
2011-12 RECORD: 41-25, first place, Pacific Division; lost in Western Conference semifinals.

ADDED: G Steve Nash (sign-and-trade with Phoenix, three years, $24 million; F Antawn Jamison (one year, $1.35 million); assistant coach Eddie Jordan.

LOST: G Ramon Sessions (signed with Charlotte).

RETAINED: C Jordan Hill (two years, $8 million); F Devin Ebanks; G Darius Morris.

THE KEY MAN: Head Athletic Trainer Gary Vitti.

Vitti is one of the best ever at his job, with three decades of experience getting guys ready to play. He will have a new challenge this season keeping the 38-year-old Nash fresh.

The Suns' staff, led by head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson, did incredible work with Nash and Grant Hill over the past several seasons, using all manner of therapies to allow them to play at a high level well into their 30s.

Vitti has a willing patient; Nash is a Spartan when it comes to diet and fitness, and he does a lot on his own with his physiotherapist Rick Celebrini. But the pressure will be on: since the start of the 2001-02 season, Nash has started and played in 862 of a possible 902 regular season games, a 95.6 percent suit-up rate.

THE SKINNY: Even after the word came down on the Fourth of July that Nash was, indeed, going to the Lakers, it was hard to believe -- and hard to see how he could be effective playing next to Kobe Bryant. It's not a criticism of either man, but both have been in a system where they dominated the ball. Neither is a catch-and-shoot guy.

Nash has to be in constant motion; Bryant is criticized for Hero Ball by some in the analytic community, but Hero Ball is what's made him a five-time champion. And how would Pau Gasol, seemingly exiled on offense last season under head coach Mike Brown to get Andrew Bynum more touches in the paint, be integrated back into the flow?

And then came word that the Lakers were bringing ex-Wizards and 76ers head coach Eddie Jordan back to the team where he played in the early 80s as an assistant coach, and it made a lot more sense. Jordan is a fierce proponent of the Princeton Offense that he coached to some success in Washington (but
 none in Philly, where he was fired after a disastrous season).

Princeton is all about movement, with numerous reads and cuts. It's perfect for a big man like Gasol, who is a terrific passer and should be incredibly efficient at the top of the key, either making dribble handoffs to Nash, stepping out for jumpers or otherwise moving the defense.

It's also an offense in which Jamison, who played four-plus seasons in Washington for Jordan, has thrived; when defenses had to game plan for Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, Jamison's unorthodox moves and 3-point abilities were often deadly.

It's a measure of Brown's lack of ego that he realized his team's offense needed to change if the Lakers were to rise up again in the west. It will, and for the better, with Nash running Jordan's stuff, and Bryant, Gasol, Jamison and Bynum the beneficiaries.

5. Los Angeles Clippers
Glenn James/Getty Images
2011-12 RECORD: 40-26, second place, Pacific Division; lost in Western Conference semifinals.

ADDED: F Lamar Odom (trade with Dallas); G Jamal Crawford (four years, $21 million); F Grant Hill (two years, $3.8 million); G Willie Green (acquired from Atlanta); F/C Ronny Turiaf (one year, $1.15 million); C Ryan Hollins (one year, $1.14 million).

LOST: F Reggie Evans (traded to Nets); G Nick Young (signed with Philadelphia); F Ryan Gomes (amnestied); G Mo Williams (traded to Utah); G Randy Foye (signed by Utah).

RETAINED: F Blake Griffin (five years, $95 million extension); G Chauncey Billups (one year, $4.2 million).

THE KEY MAN: C DeAndre Jordan.

The Clippers matched a four-year, $42 million offer sheet Jordan got from Golden State when the lockout ended, but despite posting career highs in rebounds in the regular season, and continuing his proclivity as one of the league's best shot blockers, Jordan struggled to provide more offensively than alley-oop lob dunks from Paul.

He acknowledged that he had a rough playoff series against the Grizzlies. And in the next round against San Antonio, Jordan all but vanished. L.A. needs its center to make more of an impact the next time it makes the postseason, which should be every year for the foreseeable future.

THE SKINNY: The Clippers are relevant. This joins such unexpected-to-write-in-one's-lifetime sentences as "Man, Congress sure is getting things done these days" and "Really, there isn't a better actress working today than Snooki, who just won her third Oscar."

But Paul was everything everyone expected he'd be when he came to town, and the Clips (with CP3's considerable lobbying assistance) got the kind of veteran help that should make things easier for Paul and Griffin.

If Odom isn't ready to play, coming back to the city he and the missus love after a disastrous season in Dallas, I'll be shocked. Hill has a 39-year-old's knowledge and experience, and on this team he should be free to concentrate on defense and moving the ball, scoring as an option, not a necessity.

Crawford should provide the offensive firepower, but can't be a sieve defensively. Assuming Griffin makes a full recovery from surgery to repair torn cartilage in his knee suffered last month, L.A. will have the expectations of a contender without much of a history together. That puts coach Vinny Del Negro under the microscope.

4. Brooklyn Nets
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2011-12 RECORD: 22-44, fifth place, Atlantic Division; did not make playoffs.

ADDED: G Joe Johnson (acquired from Atlanta); F Mirza Teletovic (three years, $9.6 million); F Reggie Evans (sign-and-trade with Clippers, three years, $5 million); G C.J. Watson (two years, $2.13 million); G Jerry Stackhouse (one year, $1.35 million); G Keith Bogans (one year, $1.35 million); F Tornike Shengelia (Draft night trade, Philadelphia); G Tyshawn Taylor (Draft night trade, Portland), F Ilkan Karaman (second-round pick, 57th overall).

LOST: G Jordan Farmar (traded to Atlanta); F Jordan Williams (traded to Atlanta); G DeShawn Stevenson (sign-and-trade to Atlanta); C Johan Petro (traded to Atlanta); G Anthony Morrow (traded to Atlanta); G Gerald Green (signed with Indiana).

RETAINED: G Deron Williams (five years, $98 million); C Brook Lopez (four years, $61 million); F/C Kris Humphries (two years, $24 million); F Gerald Wallace (four years, $40 million).

THE KEY MAN: G Joe Johnson.

The Nets traded almost half of their team for him and took on the remaining $89 million of his massive $124 million contract from Atlanta.

That kind of deal has crushed the spirits and play of many a player over the years, and in the heat of New York City, Johnson will have to produce at an All-Star level every night to withstand the torrent of media and fan criticism that awaits him if he comes up short.

Having said that, Johnson has a chance to live up to it. Williams is the best point guard Johnson has played with since he got a season with Steve Nash in Phoenix in 2004-05.

THE SKINNY: For an owner who just came on the scene, Mikhail Prokhorov played this offseason like it was 1996 and spent money like they were printing it at his house. (Come to think of it ...) The Nets committed more than $330 million in new salaries in a month's time.

Now, that's not as crazy as it sounds at first blush; Brooklyn's plan was to clear enough cap room to be able to make a run at Dwight Howard and keep Williams, and the Nets did just that, getting more than $40 million under the cap when the free agency period began.

They didn't get Howard, though, and that's why they can't be ranked any higher despite their activity -- which is no guarantee they'll become a contender in the east. But they managed to keep Williams without getting Howard, which is why they can't be ranked any lower.

Brooklyn will certainly get as close to a honeymoon period as you can in Gotham, bringing a major pro sports team back to the borough for the first time since the (still) beloved Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1957. The Nets' new home, the Barclays Center, should certainly produce the kind of revenues, at least for a while, that will soften the impact of their salary commitments.

The Nets' new ceiling may not be as high as they'd hoped, but at least they'll move into their new digs with a lot more talent than when they left Newark last April.

3. Dallas Mavericks
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
2011-12 RECORD: 36-30, third place, Southwest Division; lost in first round of playoffs.

ADDED: C Chris Kaman (one year, $8 million); G O.J. Mayo (two years, $8 million); G Darren Collison (acquired from Indiana), F Dahntay Jones (acquired from Indiana), F Elton Brand (amnesty claim from Philadelphia); G Jared Cunningham (Draft trade from Cleveland); F Jae Crowder (Draft trade from Cleveland); F Bernard James (Draft trade from Cleveland).

LOST: C Brendan Haywood (amnestied); G Jason Terry (signed with Boston); G Jason Kidd (signed with New York); F Lamar Odom (traded to Clippers); C Ian Mahinmi (traded to Indiana).

RETAINED: G Delonte West (two years).

THE KEY MAN: Coach Rick Carlisle.

Mark Cuban didn't get Carlisle's new contract done until after the season, but finally came correct and gave the 2011 Coach of the Year a deal for four years plus an option that will keep him in Dallas for the foreseeable future.

The Mavericks will definitely need him this season, as he has to take some talented but disparate parts and make a competitive stew out of them. Less than two years ago Dallas was a completely different team that could stifle opponents with zone defenses and big plays from its guards. But Carlisle is as good developing offenses out of his Flow system as any coach in the game.

THE SKINNY: The Mavericks looked like they'd struck out in the first days of free agency. They failed to get Deron Williams, their top target, missed out on Steve Nash and didn't retain Terry. But GM Donnie Nelson pulled out of the nose dive with the acquisitions of Mayo and Kaman, who should both start and contribute offensively immediately, taking some of the load off of Dirk Nowitzki.

Collison and a healthy West will more than make up for Kidd's decreasing production (and relieve Dallas of having to wait any longer for Roddy Beaubois to develop) and give Carlisle some good combinations in his guard rotation with Mayo and the rookie Cunningham, who can also get after it defensively. Brand is 33, but he can still help in the paint and on the glass.

More to the point, the Mavericks executed their game plan of remaining competitive this coming season -- keeping Nowitzki's interest -- while laying in wait for the summer of '13, when they will again be players for Dwight Howard if he indeed declines to sign an extension wherever he is and test free agency, or be in position to make meaningful trades and sign free agents.

Cuban has said he won't mind being a taxpayer again, and he'll probably make good on that declaration in a year or so.

2. Philadelphia 76ers
2011-12 RECORD: 35-31, third place, Atlantic Division; lost in Eastern Conference semifinals.

ADDED: G Nick Young (one year, $6 million) F Dorell Wright (acquired from Golden State); G Royal Ivey (one year, $1.23 million); F Maurice Harkless (first-round pick, 15th overall; F Arnett Moultrie (acquired from Miami); C Kwame Brown (two years, $6 million), G Maalik Wayns.

LOST: F/C Elton Brand (amnesty; claimed by Dallas), G Lou Williams (sign and trade with Atlanta), F Edin Bavcic (trade with Golden State)

RETAINED: F Lavoy Allen (two years, $6 million), F/C Spencer Hawes (two years, $13 million).

THE KEY MAN: G Evan Turner.

The Sixers let their leading scorer, Williams, go to Atlanta, so Turner will be asked to increase his scoring load. The third-year guard improved in all facets of the game last season and that learning curve has to continue trending upward if Philly is going to improve and become a real threat in the East.

THE SKINNY: The 76ers came of age in the playoffs last season, knocking out the highly-favored Bulls after Chicago lost Derrick Rose to a season-ending knee injury in Game 1 of their first-round series. But they were hardly a finished product.

They were really athletic, but struggled to do much in the halfcourt. So, what did Doug Collins and company do? They doubled down, getting even more athletic, and trusted that Collins would be able to divide minutes and shots. Wright has eight years in the league but is still just 26, with two seasons as a starter at small forward with Golden State under his belt.

With Brand amnestied, forward Thaddeus Young will get his best opportunity to capture significant minutes at power forward. He'll still come off the bench behind Spencer Hawes, who Collins said will now start at the four, with Brown playing center.

Brown is what Brown is -- a good low-post defender who doesn't need help, but is limited to putbacks and dunks at the offensive end. Allen was very productive against Boston in the playoffs and Collins believes he could be in the league 10 years.

Harkless and Moultrie should contribute immediately as more high-energy guys that will get after it at the defensive end, and Young will fire away off the bench in Williams' place.

But the Sixers didn't spend any real money for any of those myriad moves, leaving themselves future flexibility if they want to extend starting point Jrue Holiday or make a big trade next summer -- or both. The imminent hiring of cap expert Tom Penn as general manager would indicate Philly is far from finished remaking the team.

1. Miami Heat
2011-12 RECORD: 46-20, first place, Southeast Division; won NBA championship.

ADDED: G Ray Allen (three years, $9 million), F Rashard Lewis (two years, $2.8 million), C Justin Hamilton (acquired from Philadelphia).

LOST: C Ronny Turiaf (signed with Clippers).


THE KEY MAN: F/C Chris Bosh.

Or should that, now, be C/F Chris Bosh? What coach Erik Spoelstra said for the last two years was proven right during the playoffs: Bosh is the Heat's most important player.

When he's healthy, releasing pressure with his improved perimeter game, doing work inside and providing an interior defensive presence, Miami is just about unbeatable.

When he's injured, as he was for the Heat's playoff series with Indiana and much of the Eastern Conference finals with Boston, Miami is still very tough to beat, but not impossible.

THE SKINNY: What do you give a team with the world's best player, now finally unburdened after coming up short for eight years? The best three-point shooter in the history of the league! If that sounds unfair, it's because it is.

And yet, Miami was able to provide LeBron James with yet another lethal perimeter weapon in Allen, who turned down more money to stay in Boston, or go to Memphis, to team up with the SuperFriends. Allen may not be the finisher he once was, and we'll withhold final judgment until we see how he's recovered from offseason ankle surgery, but if he's anything near what he once was, how do you cover Miami on a nightly basis?

Either James, or Dwyane Wade, or Bosh or Mario Chalmers will be single-covered on every play, and while you may think you'll let Chalmers fire away, he showed when it counted against the Thunder that he could make you pay. Defensively, the only question is whether James can once again guard one through five, as he did in his season for the ages.

On the nights he can't, Shane Battier, who now won't have to carry as much of a shotmaking load with Allen around, can do what he does -- any and everything to help you win basketball games. Whatever Lewis, cut by the Hornets after being acquired from Washington, provides is gravy.

At the least, he is another player whose shooting ability opponents have to respect, giving James and Wade even more room in the crawl spaces of defenses, hitting them where it really hurts. Spoelstra has a championship pelt; he won't be under siege any more if Miami loses two in a row. And James is now free to be whatever it is he turns out to be.

Goodness gracious.

Dedrick Hendrix is a contributing writer for FootBasket. You can follow him on Twitter @DedrickHendrix


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