Pretenders and contenders

RYAN WOLSTAT -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:00 AM ET

Atlanta Hawks

Last season: 26-56, .317

Key additions: Speedy Claxton, Shelden Williams, Lorenzen Wright

Key departures: Al Harrington

Outlook: Sophomore Marvin Williams and Josh Smith are ready to play more minutes, which will help overcome loss of Harrington ... Solid free-agent pickups in Claxton and Wright, though they would likely be backups on contending teams ... Rookie Shelden Williams fills a need for toughness up front ... Team on the rise should get to 30 wins for the first time since 2002-03, but playoffs are still a ways off for this young group

Prediction: 14th in conference

Boston Celtics

Last season: 33-49, .402

Key additions: Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff, Rajon Rondo, Luke Jackson

Key departures: Michael Olowokandi, Raef Lafrentz, Dan Dickau

Outlook: Missed playoffs for first time in four seasons last year ... Loaded with young talent like Al Jefferson, Sebastian Telfair and Gerald Green, but those players are still developing, while star Paul Pierce is already in his prime ... Rondo could supplant flashier Telfair as starting point guard some time this season ... Lineup is thin up front and Kendrick Perkins, Jefferson and Theo Ratliff are all injury-prone.

Prediction: 10th in conference

Charlotte Bobcats

Last season: 26-56, .317

Key additions: Adam Morrison, Othella Harrington, Walter Herrmann, Michael Jordan (front office)

Key departures: Jumaine Jones

Outlook: Team has stocked up on outstanding college players like Morrison, Emeka Okafor, Sean May and Raymond Felton, but lacks veteran leadership ... Morrison was an elite NCAA scorer, but there are questions about his ability to put up similar numbers in the NBA ... Bobcats were plagued by injuries last season. Okafor played just 26 games, Final Four MVP Sean May, just 23 and Gerald Wallace missed nearly 30 games himself ... If team can stay healthy, 30 wins are possible, but playoffs are still at least a year off.

Prediction: 15th in conference.

Chicago Bulls

Last season: 41-41, .500

Key additions: Ben Wallace, Tyrus Thomas, P.J. Brown, Thabo Sefolosha, Adrian Griffin

Key departures: Tyson Chandler, Othella Harrington

Outlook: Best lineup since Michael Jordan retired after sixth title ... Adding four-time defensive player of the year Wallace, solid vet Brown and shot-blocker Thomas to what was already NBA's sixth-best defence ... Now two-deep at every position, Bulls ready to make a big leap and should supplant Detroit as class of the Central division ... With lots of cap space remaining, should be elite team for years to come.

Prediction: 2nd in conference.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Last season: 50-32, .610

Key additions: Shannon Brown, Scott Pollard, Daniel Gibson

Key departures: None

Outlook: Nearly shocked Pistons in playoffs last year ... Failed to add pieces beside James to make longer playoff run a reality ... Need to rest James more -- his 42.5 minutes-per-game were second only to Allen Iverson last season ... Weak at point guard and off-guard Larry Hughes is consistently injured ... Have league's best player and good starting lineup, but lack of depth and placement in best division in NBA hold them back.

Prediction: 5th in conference.

Dallas Mavericks

Last season: 60-22, .732

Key additions: Devean George, Austin Croshere, Anthony Johnson, Maurice Ager, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Greg Buckner, Darius Washington

Key departures: Marquis Daniels, Keith Van Horn, Adrian Griffin, Darrell Armstrong, Josh Powell

Outlook: Fell just short last season, blowing 2-0 lead in final ... Improved West may keep them from reaching the final again. Suns and Spurs have gotten healthier and improved lineups ... Dirk Nowitzki leads one of NBA's best offences, while defence remains solid ... Playoff run should make young head coach Avery Johnson even better.

Prediction: 3rd in conference.

Denver Nuggets

Last season: 44-38, .537

Key additions: J.R. Smith, Jamal Sampson, Joe Smith

Key departures: Francisco Elson, Ruben Patterson, Greg Buckner, Dermarr Johnson

Outlook: Benefit from playing in a weak division but deserve credit for winning it last season despite injuries ... Newcomer Smith has great talent but extremely immature ... Talented frontcourt of Marcus Camby, Nene and Kenyon Martin simply cannot remain healthy for any period of time ... Will likely battle Minnesota for the division's only playoff berth, but injuries should keep them out ...

Prediction: 9th in conference.

Detroit Pistons

Last season: 64-18, .780

Key additions: Nazr Mohammed, Flip Murray

Key departures: Ben Wallace, Kelvin Cato, Maurice Evans

Outlook: NBA's best regular season team last year has peaked and will start to decline rapidly ... Still a group of talented defenders, but loss of anchor Wallace has to hurt substantially ... Billups, playing for a contract, should have a big year ... Will put up a good fight with Chicago and Cleveland for the Central crown, but those teams are getting better while the Pistons are going the other way ... Still capable of winning a playoff round, but another trip to the conference final is unlikely.

Prediction: 4th in conference.

Golden State Warriors

Last season: 34-48, .415

Key additions: Patrick O'Bryant, Devin Brown, DaJuan Wagner, Keith McLeod, Don Nelson (head coach)

Key departures: Derek Fisher, Calbert Cheaney, Will Bynum, Mike Montgomery (head coach)

Outlook: Warriors haven't had a winning record or playoff berth since 1993-94 ... Zany Nelson will make them more fun to watch and has promised some interesting lineups, but still not talented enough to make the playoffs in the West ... Jason Richardson is one of league's most underrated stars, but Warriors have surrounded him with too many overpaid or injury-prone teammates.

Prediction: 10th in conference.

Houston Rockets

Last season: 34-48, .415

Key additions: Bonzi Wells, Shane Battier, Steve Novak, Vassilis Spanoulis

Key departures: Stromile Swift, Rudy Gay (draft day trade)

Outlook: Should be one of NBA's most improved clubs ... Injury-ravaged Rockets were 21-10 when Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming both suited up last season ... McGrady reportedly is in great shape and the now healthy duo gets reinforcements in Wells and Battier ... Novak and Spanoulis provide desperately needed outside shooting.

Prediction: 5th in conference.

Indiana Pacers

Last season: 41-41, .500

Key additions: Al Harrington, Marquis Daniels, Darrell Armstrong, Rawle Marshall, James White, Shawne Williams, Josh Powell

Key departures: Peja Stojakovic, Fred Jones, Austin Croshere, Anthony Johnson

Outlook: Made a ton of changes but didn't get any better ... Free-agent departure of Stojakovic hurts considering Ron Artest was peddled to get him ... Repatriation of Harrington puzzling, considering sophomore Danny Granger is ready to break out at the same position ... Still good enough to make the playoffs in the weak East, but an early post-season exit is likely ...

Prediction: 7th in conference.

Los Angeles Clippers

Last season: 47-35, .573

Key additions: Tim Thomas, Aaron Williams, Paul Davis

Key departures: Vladimir Radmanovic, Walter McCarty

Outlook: Coming of first winning season since 1991-92 ... Boast one of NBA's top frontcourts, with PF Elton Brand and young centre Chris Kaman both coming off of career years ... Deep and talented with one of league's best offences and nice mix of young talent like Shaun Livingston and veterans like Brand and Sam Cassell.

Prediction: 6th in conference.

Los Angeles Lakers

Last season: 45-37, .549

Key additions: Vladimir Radmanovic, Jordan Farmar, Maurice Evans

Key departures: Devean George, Jimmy Jackson

Outlook: Have Kobe Bryant, perhaps NBA's best singular force and Phil Jackson, perhaps its best coach, but still little else ... Lamar Odom and up-and-coming centre Andrew Bynum provide Bryant's little support ... Radmanovic, a lethal outside shooter, will take some of the offensive pressure off of Bryant ... Should squeak into the playoffs and Bryant is good enough to give any team a struggle in a seven-game series.

Prediction: 8th in conference.

Memphis Grizzlies

Last season: 49-33, .598

Key additions: Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, Stromile Swift, Junior Harrington, Alexander Johnson

Key departures: Shane Battier, Bobby Jackson, Lorenzen Wright

Outlook: Will take a step back thanks to Pau Gasol's two-month recovery from shoulder surgery and the trade of Battier for Gay, who will take time to develop ... Had outstanding draft night with heist of Gay and his huge upside, along with late selection of skilled point guard Lowry ... Not deep enough to survive Gasol's injury and the loss of veterans Jackson and Wright ... A return to the lottery looms for the Grizzlies after a few years of playoff appearances.

Prediction: 11th in conference.

Miami Heat

Last season: 52-30, .634

Key additions: Antonio Burks

Key departures: Derek Anderson, Shandon Anderson

Outlook: Defending champs a year older, but with no significant losses, will still be a force if Shaquille O'Neal can stay healthy ... O'Neal and Dwyane Wade still league's best combo, but the Heat is not very deep beyond them.

Prediction: 1st in conference.

Milwaukee Bucks

Last season: 40-42, .488

Key additions: Charlie Villanueva, Steve Blake, Ruben Patterson, Brian Skinner, David Noel

Key departures: T.J. Ford, Jamaal Magloire, Joe Smith, Toni Kukoc, Jiri Welsch

Outlook: Very active in the off-season, but not much better ... Villanueva, though coming off a poor pre-season, should be a nice complement to centre Andrew Bogut, but Bucks got next to nothing for former all-star Magloire ... At full strength, a playoff contender, but with Bogut out up to two months, will find themselves on the outside looking in.

Prediction: 11th in conference.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Last season: 33-49, .402

Key additions: Mike James, Randy Foye, Vin Baker

Key departures: Ronald Dupree, Anthony Carter

Outlook: Foye regarded as potential top rookie, but plays same position as James and incumbent Troy Hudson ... Should be able to score, but very small up front save for superstar Kevin Garnett .... A first-round exit is the best they can hope for.

Prediction: 4th in conference.

New Jersey Nets

Last season: 49-33, .598

Key additions: Marcus Williams, Josh Boone, Eddie House, Josh Boone, Hassan Adams, Mikki Moore,

Key departures: Zoran Planinic, Lamond Murray, Jacques Vaughn

Outlook: Healthy Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson would be enough to easily win the Atlantic again ... Cupboard is bare save rookie steal Williams behind those three ... Carter, now 30, can opt out next summer, so could be playing for a big new contract ... At best, the Nets will lose in the second round again.

Prediction: 4th in conference.

New Orleans Hornets

Last season: 38-44, .463

Key additions: Peja Stojakovic, Tyson Chandler, Cedric Simmons, Hilton Armstrong, Bobby Jackson, Jannero Pargo

Key departures: P.J. Brown, Speedy Claxton, J.R. Smith, Kirk Snyder, Arvydas Macijauskas

Outlook: Hornets led by sophomore Chris Paul, already among league's best point guards ... Very inexperienced up front ... Widely praised for acquisitions of Stojakovic and Chandler, but both are massively overpaid ... Stojakovic will improve NBA's 26th-best offence, but Hornets still at least a year away from playoffs in deep West.

Prediction: 13th in conference.

New York Knicks

Last season: 23-59, .280

Key additions: Jared Jeffries, Renaldo Balkman, Mardy Collins, Kelvin Cato, Glen Grunwald (assistant general manager)

Key departures: Maurice Taylor, Jackie Butler, Jalen Rose

Outlook: Horribly mismatched roster filled with individual talents ... Newcomers Jeffries and Balkman buy into the team concept, but holdovers Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis and Jamal Crawford never met a shot they didn't like ... General manager Isiah Thomas steps behind the bench ... Knicks will be in a tight race with Atlanta and Charlotte

Prediction: 13th in conference.

Orlando Magic

Last season: 36-46, .439

Key additions: J.J. Redick, James Augustine

Key departures: DeShawn Stevenson, Stacey Augmon

Outlook: Stacking talented young pieces like Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson and much-maligned Darko Milicic ... Grant Hill appears healthy for a change and should be an excellent sixth man ... Ready to take the next stage in rebuilding process with a return to the playoffs.

Prediction: 8th in conference.

Philadelphia 76ers

Last season: 38-44, .463

Key additions: Rodney Carney, Bobby Jones, Alan Henderson

Key departures: John Salmons, Michael Bradley, Matt Barnes

Outlook: Allen Iverson coming off highest scoring season (33 ppg) ... Have too much money tied up in fading Chris Webber and underachieving centre Sam Dalembert ... Andre Iguodala and rookies Carney and Jones give great depth at swing positions, but team far too thin everywhere else ... Tough to count out Iverson, but he has nothing to work with here and the Sixers will miss the playoffs again.

Prediction: 12th in conference.

Phoenix Suns

Last season: 54-28, .659

Key additions: Marcus Banks, Jumaine Jones, Sean Marks, Eric Piatkowski

Key departures: Tim Thomas, Eddie House, Brian Grant

Outlook: NBA's highest scoring offence gets even better with eventual return of all-star Amare Stoudemire ... Steve Nash coming off second MVP season will have load eased by newcomer Banks ... Underrated Shawn Marion led club in points, rebounds, steals and blocks last year ... Good enough to win 55 games without Stoudemire; if he gets back at close to 100%, Suns are legit title contenders.

Prediction: 2nd in conference.

Portland Trail Blazers

Last season: 21-61, .256

Key additions: LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, Jamaal Magloire, Raef LaFrentz, Dan Dickau, Sergio Rodriguez

Key departures: Sebastian Telfair, Brian Skinner, Viktor, Khryapa, Steve Blake, Theo Ratliff

Outlook: NBA's worst team in 2005-06 completely revamped roster in off-season ... Rookie Aldridge will take time, but should be excellent, while Roy is rookie-of-they-year candidate ... Going in the right direction, but will be brutal again.

Prediction: 15th in conference.

Sacramento Kings

Last season: 44-38, .537

Key additions: Eric Musselman (head coach), John Salmons, Loren Woods, Quincy Douby

Key departures: Rick Adelman (head coach) and Bonzi Wells

Outlook: Kings went from 18-24 without Ron Artest, to 26-14 after acquiring him from Indiana ... Outgoing coach Adelman led club to eight straight playoff appearances and will be replaced by young Musselman, who has just two years' experience as a head coach ... Will make playoffs on the strength of one of league's best starting fives, but lack bench depth to go any further.

Prediction: 7th in conference.

San Antonio Spurs

Last season: 63-19, .768

Key additions: Jackie Butler, Francisco Elson, Matt Bonner, Jacque Vaughn, Eric Williams

Key departures: Nazr Mohammed, Rasho Nesterovic, Sean Marks

Outlook: Won 63 games despite off years from Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili ... With Duncan and Ginobili now healthy, Spurs enter as early favourites to take home title ... Age will catch up to this group sooner or later, but this won't be the year.

Prediction: 1st in conference.

Seattle Sonics

Last season: 35-47, .427

Key additions: Saer Sene, Mickael Gelabale

Key departures: Mikki Moore, Mike Wilks

Outlook: Offensive juggernaut (2nd in ppg last season at 102.6), but awful defensively (NBA worst 105.6 points allowed) ... Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis among league's best offensive pairs, but porous defence will prevent Sonics from returning to playoffs.

Prediction: 14th in conference.

Toronto Raptors

Last year: 27-55, .313

Key additions: Andrea Bargnani, T.J. Ford, Anthony Parker, Rasho Nesterovic, Fred Jones, Jorge Garbajosa, P.J. Tucker, Kris Humphries, Uros Slokar

Key departures: Charlie Villanueva, Mike James, Rafael Araujo, Matt Bonner, Eric Williams, Alvin Williams, Eric Williams, Loren Woods,

Outlook: Reconstructed roster showed positive signs with 7-1 pre-season ... European experiment appears sound ... Ford will lead attack that promises to be one of league's most explosive ... Questions still abound about defence, but adding two 7-footers and experienced defenders Parker, Jones and Garbajosa should mean considerable improvement, still a work in progress, but enough depth to make a run at East's final playoff berth.

Prediction: 9th in conference.

Utah Jazz

Last season: 41-41, .500

Key additions: Ronnie Brewer, Dee, Brown, Rafael Araujo, Derek Fisher

Key departures: Greg Ostertag, Kris Humphries, Milt Palacio, Keith McLeod, Devin Brown

Outlook: Outstanding coach Jerry Sloan somehow coaxed .500 record out of team last year but won't happen again ... Injury-prone stars Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer must stay on the floor for Jazz to have any success ... Good enough to make playoffs in East, but an also-ran again in tough West.

Prediction: 12th in conference.

Washington Wizards

Last year: 42-40, .512

Key additions: Darius Songaila, DeShawn Stevenson

Key departures: Jared Jeffries

Outlook: Will miss best defender Jeffries, but Songaila and Stevenson excellent cheap additions ... Will again be lethal offensively (101.7 ppg last year, 3rd in NBA), but need to improve on 21st-best defence (99.8 points allowed) ... Still not good enough to claim home-court advantage in the playoffs.

Prediction: 6th in conference.


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