1 Los Angeles Lakers
Our forecasters say the champion Lakers will edge the Cavs for best record in the NBA and home court throughout the playoffs, which will come in handy if we get a Kobe-LeBron showdown. That's the only close race the Lakers will be in, according to our panel, which doesn't seem too worried about potential disruptions by Ron Artest.
2 San Antonio Spurs
The aging Spurs appear to be back in business, though in fact they somehow managed 54 wins and the No. 3 seed last season before being bounced in Round 1. This time around, their hopes rest on a return to health by Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and the additions of Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair.
3 Portland Trail Blazers
Can Portland become the proverbial "team nobody wants to face" in the Western Conference playoffs? Or are they ready for true contender status? Expectations are large, as are the variables: Can Greg Oden find himself? How will Andre Miller's go-go style mesh with the walk-it-up Blazers? And who's the starting point guard, anyway?
4 Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets won't sneak up on anyone this year, and perhaps they won't need to. With largely the same roster as they had in May, Denver is counting on good health and the further development of Carmelo Anthony to stay among the West's best. If these predictions hold, they might get a playoff rematch with the Lakers.
5 Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs had a topsy-turvy summer that, according to our panel, will leave them right where they were last season: 50-32, and in the middle of the pack. They brought back Jason Kidd and acquired Shawn Marion and Drew Gooden, but lost a battle of wits with Orlando for Brandon Bass and Marcin Gortat. Expect the moves to keep coming.
6 Utah Jazz*
Utah was a trendy name a year ago, but barely rates a mention now, for a couple of reasons: The team is coming off a disappointing season, and the Carlos Boozer situation is unresolved. But the Jazz still have a potent roster led by Deron Williams, and the dark-horse label seems to fit this team as well as any other in the West.
7 New Orleans Hornets*
It was a disappointing season in New Orleans, relative to the high expectations they started with, but they still won 49 games and they still have Chris Paul. The Hornets are another of the West's "if everything breaks right" contenders, as they need Julian Wright, Ike Diogu and Hilton Armstrong to do more to justify being lottery picks.
8 Phoenix Suns
The Suns were a lottery team last season, but a good one, winning 46 despite a coaching change and an eye injury to Amare Stoudemire. Now Shaq's gone, and the speed game is back, led by Steve Nash. If Amare returns to full health, the Suns will light it up again. But will that be enough for more than 8th best in the West?
9 Houston Rockets 37
The Rockets were a remarkable story last season, taking the Lakers to seven games without Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Now Houston is in a transition year, as Yao appears out for the season and T-Mac's return is iffy. One thing does seem certain: The Rockets will scrap and claw and make every opponent's W well-earned.
10 Los Angeles Clippers 33 49 .402 19 63 .232
Giddy Clippers fans might not appreciate this forecast, but keep in mind: A 33-49 record would be a 14-game leap, and L.A. has been such a disheveled franchise it's going to have to prove itself to our panel. That said, some see the Clips winning as many as 50 games, thanks in large part to the arrival of Blake Griffin.
11 Oklahoma City Thunder
No West bandwagon is more crowded than OKC's, with our panel seeing the team that started 1-16 a year ago making the leap to mediocrity. Given the age of Kevin Durant (20), Russell Westbrook (20), Jeff Green (23) and newcomer James Harden (20), it's not hard to see what the excitement is about. But it will be hard to see them on TV.
12 Golden State Warriors
Golden State celebrated its crowning as Team Turmoil with another heaping helping of controversy, as putative team leader Stephen Jackson reportedly asked to be traded to a good team. The talent of such youngsters as Monta Ellis and Anthony Randolph is undeniable, but clearly our panelists just do not trust the Warriors to pull it together.
13 Minn. Timberwolves
Minnesota's noisy offseason of trades, controversial draft picks, the firing of Kevin McHale, the hiring of Kurt Rambis and a failed bid to sign Ricky Rubio is likely to be followed by a quiet season on the hardwood. The immediate future is about getting Al Jefferson healthy and seeing what youngsters Kevin Love and Jonny Flynn can do.
14 Memphis Grizzlies
The talent base is improving thanks to youngsters Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Marc Gasol, Hasheem Thabeet and Mike Conley. However, the arrival of Zach Randolph, our pick for Worst Newcomer, means that chemistry will continue to be an issue in Memphis, which also has its sights set on the 34-year-old Allen Iverson. Go figure.
15 Sacramento Kings
The Kings take the honors as the NBA's worst team, both in last season's standings and this season's projections. Reasons for optimism include a return to health for Kevin Martin and the arrival of Tyreke Evans, but even that is a bit troubling, as they might end up playing the same position. Expect another long year in Sac-Town.