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|The Heat landed a free-agent bonanza, but will it lead to the largest leap in 2010-11? Survey says|
Surya Fernandez, Hot Hot Hoops (Heat): The Heat make this list because of one word: LeBron. The fact that they also retained Dwyane Wade while adding Chris Bosh to the mix makes it an even bigger no-brainer. Chemistry may be a concern for a team that at one point this offseason had only one player (Mario Chalmers) on its roster. But after bringing back seven players from last season's squad, and adding free agents Mike Miller and Eddie House for some much-needed fire power, the Heat are primed for a big turnaround this season.
Sebastian Pruiti, Nets Are Scorching (Nets): Not only do the Nets have a new owner, a new coach and a new arena, but they have a completely new roster as well. Only four players remain from last season's 12-win team, but the new additions are much better complements to Brook Lopez. Anthony Morrow is a good shooter who keeps teams honest and prevents double-teams, and Troy Murphy is a stretch-4 who can work the high post with Brook down low. Expect big things from the Nets next season.
Nick Friedell, ESPNChicago.com (Bulls): Derrick Rose is going to elevate his game even more this season and become a top-10 player in the NBA. If Carlos Boozer stays healthy he will become the perfect complement to both Rose and Joakim Noah and will give the Bulls one of the best front lines in the league alongside Luol Deng. Chicago may have the deepest bench in the league with Taj Gibson and the additions of Kyle Korver, Kurt Thomas, C.J. Watson, Keith Bogans and newcomer Omer Asik.
Rahat Huq, Red94 (Rockets): Frankly speaking, because they're better than the 42 wins they posted last season. Once again, everything revolves around health for the Rockets: If they can avoid injuries, they'll win 50 games; if not, see you at the lottery in June.
Unmentioned and unnoticed is the fact that had they not lost guard Kyle Lowry for a two-week stretch, they probably make the playoffs last season. A full season of Yao Ming, Kevin Martin, and Brad Miller will have obvious benefits. And the fact that Trevor Ariza is out and Courtney Lee is in (meaning more Shane Battier and Chase Budinger) can only help matters.
D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog (Clippers): Exit Marcus Camby, enter Blake Griffin. That's the most notable change this season for the Clippers, and while it may be a little unreasonable to expect Griffin to exceed Camby's production, especially on the defensive end of the floor, he won't be charged with the task of filling the void by himself. Fellow rookies Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe will enter a rotation bolstered by newcomers Ryan Gomes and Randy Foye to give the Clippers the most depth and flexibility they've had in years.
Kyle Weidie, Truth About It (Wizards): Guess who's back?
Last year, the Wizards were ESPN.com's top pick to turn around a miserable 19-win campaign after receiving 23 votes (43 percent of the panel). Now, expectations have been tempered a bit, as the Wizards look to improve just not necessarily in the win column. Behind John Wall, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee -- as well as a talented supporting cast (and yes, that includes Gilbert Arenas) -- Ted Leonsis' team will put the fun back in Fun Street.
Fernandez: Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks should be able to pick up where they left off late last regular season, before Andrew Bogut went down with an elbow injury. John Salmons was re-signed, and Corey Maggette, Drew Gooden and Keyon Dooling were brought in to add depth. With a solid playoff performance under his belt, prized point guard Brandon Jennings will have every opportunity to build on an impressive rookie campaign and thrive for this dynamic team.
Pruiti: Sacramento Kings
The Kings already have one of the best young point guards in the league. Now they have one of the best young centers to pair him with. Carl Landry is an underrated power forward, and Sacramento has nice complementary pieces in Omri Casspi and Donte Greene. Look for summer signing Pooh Jeter to turn some heads off the bench, too.
Huq: New Orleans Hornets
New Orleans, just by virtue of having a top-five player return to the lineup. Being spoon-fed by Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza should also have by far the best season of his career. In no other sport is the success of a team more dependent upon one player. So if CP3 stays healthy, the Hornets should be back in the playoffs.
Foster: New Orleans Hornets
When Chris Paul was healthy, he was the best point guard in the league and the Hornets were a playoff team. Here's the scary thing: If Paul can find a way to stay on the floor, he'll have a chance to lead the most talented starting unit he's ever played with, and that includes the 56-win team of 2007-08.
Weidie: Milwaukee Bucks
By April, people will see the Bucks as a legit threat. They will have gone from a middle-of-the-road team to a force that could, crazy as it sounds, make the Eastern Conference finals. Milwaukee picked up more scoring and solid contributors in the offseason, and it is still defined by Scott Skiles' toughness. Now, the Bucks must stay healthy and decide whether Michael Redd will be a complementary shooter for a playoff push (if he returns in February), or an $18.3 million expiring contract they can use at the trade deadline.
Fernandez: Chicago Bulls
Although they struck out with their top choices in free agency, the Bulls still added solid pieces in Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver. But I'm not convinced that they're an elite team in the East. Adding seven players to a team that still has some holes to fill means they need to jell quickly, and they're surprisingly thin at guard. Only two players on the team are taller than 6-foot-9, so size is also an issue.
Pruiti: San Antonio Spurs
Every season we wait for the Spurs to fail, and every season they surprise us. But this season may finally be the time we see the Spurs in the bottom of the West. It would be shocking to see guys like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker closer to the bottom than the top of the standings, but with the team getting up there in age, it's possible.
Friedell: Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers always have the ability to spectacularly implode, but I actually think they'll be much better this season. Say what you want about Vinny Del Negro, but his Bulls team always played hard defensively. If Baron Davis is focused and Blake Griffin can stay healthy alongside a young core that already features Chris Kaman and Eric Gordon, among others, the Clippers are going to surprise a lot of people.
Huq: Utah Jazz
I don't know if it will necessarily come as a shock, but Utah could be scary if Al Jefferson returns to full health. With Kobe Bryant slipping, the Jazz have a guy in Deron Williams who could quite possibly be the best player in the conference -- that alone suffices for title hopes. If Jefferson somehow returns to form and can mesh in with Paul Millsap and Mehmet Okur, the Jazz are probably the biggest threat to the Lakers out West.
Foster: Denver Nuggets
Carmelo Anthony's pending free agency and George Karl's health issues could be distractions, but things on the court look a little shaky as well. J.R. Smith will be shooting (literally) for a new contract, while new addition Al Harrington isn't exactly renowned for his ability to share the ball. Selfish play usually manifests itself on the defensive end first, where the Nuggets can't afford to slip. If they play for the name on the back of the jersey rather than the front, the Nuggets could suffer a surprising fall in the standings.
Weidie: Detroit Pistons
The Pistons might become a fashionable pick, even if Tracy McGrady isn't a factor. Detroit has talented players -- it just needs some of them to step up and stop underperforming (looking at you, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva). The Pistons are a bit young. But if point guards Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum perform well, their defense gives effort and if Joe Dumars can resolve the Tayshaun Prince situation, they could find themselves in the playoff picture.