By Mike McGraw
Editor's note: Our NBA expert, Mike McGraw, breaks down the contenders and pretenders and offers his rankings for the Eastern and Western conference teams as the regular season begins with three games on Tuesday and nine more on Wednesday, including the Bulls opening at home against Sacramento.
1. Miami Heat: Let's face it, the Heat are going to be difficult to dethrone. When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are surrounded by successful 3-point shooters, opposing defenses have little chance. Miami stepped up that strategy by signing Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis this summer.
2. Indiana Pacers: This might be the league's deepest team. With defensive-minded coach Frank Vogel, the Pacers should score plenty of regular-season success. They sorely lack a game-finishing superstar, though, and may not last long in the playoffs.
3. Philadelphia 76ers: Sure, the Sixers got carried away by beating the depleted Bulls in the playoffs. But if ex-Lakers center Andrew Bynum can shake off his sore knees, he could be a nice fit with developing stars Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner.
4. Boston Celtics: When the Celtics had Miami on the ropes in last year's Eastern Conference finals, it appeared to be the last stand of Boston's Big Three. It was, actually, since Ray Allen defected to Miami. But the Celtics return Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, and added Jason Terry to fill in as designated shooter.
5. Bulls: At full strength, the Bulls should have enough talent to play above .500 while Derrick Rose recovers from knee surgery. Any lengthy injury to a starter will be a problem, though, because they don't have the same depth as in the last two years.
6. Atlanta Hawks: Atlanta discarded high-scoring, highly-paid guard Joe Johnson, but landed some interesting replacements in ex-Bull Kyle Korver and former Sixers guard Lou Williams. SF Marvin Williams also left town, but he never did much anyway.
7. Brooklyn Nets: For all the hype about moving to Brooklyn and chasing Dwight Howard, the Nets' main move was adding Joe Johnson from Atlanta to play next to Deron Williams. The front line still features Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace.
8. New York Knicks: The front line of Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler remains decent in theory. This summer, the Knicks tried to corner the market on aging players, adding Jason Kidd (39), Kurt Thomas (40), Marcus Camby (38) and Rasheed Wallace (38).
9. Toronto Raptors: Even though the Raptors had a good record in preseason, better times are likely a year away. Two rookies, SG Terrence Ross and C Jonas Valanciunas, arrive to fill a couple of gaping holes in the lineup, while PG Kyle Lowry will try to end the reliance on Jose Calderon.
10. Milwaukee Bucks: Scott Skiles is hoping for improved interior defense and the Bucks blocked plenty of shots in preseason. The biggest question, though, is whether Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis can thrive in the same backcourt.
11. Washington Wizards: It took a few years, but the Wizards finally started to resemble a quality team late last season. Former Bulls draft pick Kevin Seraphin is a promising post presence, and Washington added Nene and Emeka Okafor to the front line. PG John Wall will miss the start of the season.
12. Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs had reason to be happy with 2011 No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving, but most of the roster is suspect. This year's storyline is whether Cleveland guessed right by selecting Syracuse SG Dion Waiters with the fourth pick in the NBA Draft.
13. Detroit Pistons: They traded Ben Gordon to Charlotte for Corey Maggette, but it doesn't seem like the Pistons are ready to move beyond the 30-win barrier. It will be interesting to watch rookie C Andre Drummond, an eye-popping athlete whose bust potential is off the charts.
14. Orlando Magic: For all the time it took to get rid of all-star center Dwight Howard, the Magic didn't ask for much in return. Orlando wanted small salaries and future cap room, which means the rebuilding project has begun.
15. Charlotte Bobcats: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist wasn't much of a scorer in college and No. 2 overall draft picks aren't supposed to be role players. So this season will be mostly about his development, along with second-year center project Bismack Biyombo.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder: The defending West champs are bound to feel threatened, especially with SG James Harden dealt to Houston. But the Thunder will be strong as long as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are on the floor.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: On paper, this sounds like a can't-miss proposition: adding two-time MVP Steve Nash at point guard and all-star C Dwight Howard to Kobe Bryant's final years. Nash turns 39 in February, though, and it's anyone's guess how Howard will handle a more intense spotlight.
3. San Antonio Spurs: How much longer can Tim Duncan keep the Spurs among the NBA's elite teams? At least one more year, most likely. Quality depth should be able to make up for the aging stars. Duncan is 36 and SG Manu Ginobili 35.
4. Los Angeles Clippers: The Clips may have some flaws, but any combination of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin should have a positive outcome. Lamar Odom, Grant Hill and Jamal Crawford are among the newcomers.
5. Denver Nuggets: Already an energetic group, the Nuggets added Andre Iguodala from Philadelphia and will hope for more improvement from guys like C JaVale McGee and SF Corey Brewer. PG Ty Lawson is one of the league's most underrated players.
6. Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizzlies probably have a small window to turn from challenger to true contender. They could find hope in the return of underrated PF Darrell Arthur from injury and a full training camp to help Rudy Gay blend with big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
7. Utah Jazz: The pieces don't exactly fit, but the Jazz has one of the league's most intriguing rosters. Utah has three quality power forwards in Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and Derrick Favors; plus slam dunk champ Jeremy Evans and second-year phenom Enes Kanter. If only the guards can play well.
8. Dallas Mavericks: The Mavs tore up their championship roster with the hope of adding Dwight Howard or Deron Williams this summer. When that didn't happen, they settled for PF Elton Brand, C Chris Kaman and SG O.J. Mayo as Dirk Nowitzki's new supporting cast.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves: Someday, Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love should really click. For now, Rubio is recovering from ACL surgery and Love broke his right hand doing knuckle push-ups. SG Brandon Roy is a long way from his Portland level.
10. Golden State Warriors: The Warriors rode SG Klay Thompson and PF David Lee to a pretty good preseason. They need to share the ball and play better defense when PG Stephen Curry and C Andrew Bogut return from injuries.
11. Houston Rockets: The great restricted experiment had mixed early returns. C Omer Asik was one of the league leaders in rebounds, but PG Jeremy Lin shot 22 percent from the field in preseason. Now former OKC SG James Harden joins the roster mix.
12. Portland Trail Blazers: Injuries spoiled Portland's promising future and the team may not be bad enough to rebuild quickly. Rookie guard Daman Lillard (16.2 points) had a strong preseason.
13. Phoenix Suns: Steve Nash started his career with the Suns, left and came back to great success. Now Phoenix will try to duplicate that formula with PG Goran Dragic, who played well for Houston last season. Michael Beasley and Luis Scola also joined the mix.
14. New Orleans Hornets: It should be fun to watch Chicago native and No. 1 draft pick Anthony Davis develop. In the short term, it will be interesting to see if rookie Austin Rivers can play point guard and coexist with SG Eric Gordon.
15. Sacramento Kings: Unfortunately, negotiations for a new arena and the possibility of relocation are bound to overshadow what the Kings do on the court. In a nutshell, PF DeMarcus Cousins has been mostly good, while former rookie of the year Tyreke Evans is probably ticketed for a trade.