Staff writer Ira Winderman offers his perspective on the 2009-10 NBA season:
1. Los Angeles Lakers. The next step is Kobe Bryant convincing teammates such as Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom that the first championship is merely a starting point.
2. Boston Celtics. Never doubt a hungry and (supposedly) healthy Kevin Garnett. Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels also will help.
3. San Antonio Spurs. This assumes better health for Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, but the acquisitions of Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess should ease their burden.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers. It will be boon or bust when it comes to the addition of Shaquille O'Neal, but LeBron James' hunger should make it work.
5. Orlando Magic. We're still not sold on Vince Carter at the expense of Hedo Turkoglu, but the complementary additions should help.
6. Portland Trail Blazers. The kids are growing into a future force, led by Brandon Roy. Now it's time for Greg Oden to take the next step.
7. Dallas Mavericks. The playoffs ultimately will define the season, but with Shawn Marion added, the wins should be there at least through April.
8. Denver Nuggets. It's foolhardy to ever question a team guided by Chauncey Billups. Now we'll learn whether last season was the rule or the exception.
9. New Orleans Hornets. There should be greater confidence with Chris Paul, David West and now Emeka Okafor, but too often it's all-or-nothing with Paul.
10. Utah Jazz. The Carlos Boozer-Paul Millsap logjam needs to be addressed, but Jerry Sloan has a knack for getting his team well positioned.
THREE THAT COULD SURPRISE
1. Los Angeles Clippers. The talent is undeniable and Blake Griffin sets up as a front-runner for Rookie of the Year. Chemistry is the concern.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder. Arguably Perhaps the best young talent in the league, but the playoffs likely still are a year away.
3. Philadelphia 76ers. Lots of length and athleticism. Now the challenge is making it work with Elton Brand.
THREE THAT COULD GO BUST
1. Phoenix Suns. It's a shame the Suns decided to go back to running only after losing Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, Raja Bell and Mike D'Antoni.
2. Miami Heat. How much longer can Dwyane Wade consistently handle such heavy lifting? Has it come down to Beasley or bust?
3. Toronto Raptors. Yes Hedo Turkoglu, Marco Belinelli and DeMar DeRozan were added, but where is the toughness?
FIVE PLAYERS ON THE SPOT
1. Gilbert Arenas, PG, Wizards. Agent Zero insists he is all the way back from injury and is now more of a team player. Of course, Arenas has said plenty through the years.
2. Shaquille O'Neal, C, Cavaliers. A seemingly annual fixture on this list, Shaq again looms as a boom-or-bust presence with a title contender.
3. Richard Jefferson, F, Spurs. If he plays well, the burden is significantly reduced for Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
4. Drew Gooden, C, Mavericks. He's not a center, but he'll play one for a team desperately trying to make small ball work.
5. Greg Oden, C, Trail Blazers. With Portland rising to the level of contender, the patience appears to be running rather thin.
PROJECTING THE AWARDS
Most Valuable Player
1. LeBron James, Cavaliers. The unquestioned best player in the game isn't deferring to anyone, even Shaq.
2. Kobe Bryant, Lakers. Relishes nothing more than the challenge of being considered anything less than the best player in the game.
3. Dwight Howard, Magic. Not only the game's premier dominant big man, but also, arguably, the league's only dominant big man.
4. Chris Paul, Hornets. He finally has a post presence in Emeka Okafor and a team that is in a make-or-break phase.
5. Dwyane Wade, Heat. It's not a matter of if he can do it all. It's a matter that, with this team, he has to do it all.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
1. Blake Griffin, Clippers. This year's Derrick Rose, a clear front-runner from the season's opening tip.
2. Jonny Flynn, Timberwolves. Minnesota will give him every chance to make fans forget the Ricky Rubio debacle.
3. Stephen Curry, Warriors. Nellie can be as good as anyone at inflating a player's statistics.
COACH OF THE YEAR
1. Nate McMillan, Blazers. A heck of a challenge satisfying all that talent.
2. Jerry Sloan, Jazz. He'll push and prod Utah to another overachieving season.
3. Phil Jackson, Lakers. The won-loss record will be too much to overlook.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
1. Kevin Garnett, Celtics. There will be a vengeance after idly sitting by last season.
2. Ron Artest, Lakers. Will go out of his way to establish perimeter dominance.
3. Dwight Howard, Magic. Will block, rebound, intimidate to the max.
SIXTH MAN AWARD
1. Lamar Odom, Lakers. Another year of agreeing to play the good soldier.
2. Jason Terry, Mavericks. Dallas not about to mess with a good thing.
3. Ben Gordon, Pistons. Not that it makes any sense to play him off the bench.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
1. Brook Lopez, Nets. Underappreciated as a rookie, he will emerge as one of the best big men in the East.
2. Kevin Durant, Thunder. Poised for the NBA's most difficult step, from star to superstar.
3. Will Bynum, Pistons. What do you know, Rodney Stuckey isn't the Pistons' best point guard.
TOP FIVE OFFSEASON MOVES
1. Mavericks land Shawn Marion for nothing.
What's the downside? Dallas adds a true Western Conference talent and gets him on the cheap, as well.
2. Celtics add Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels.
Both arrive with NBA Finals experience and instantly make Boston's second unit one of the best in the league.
3. Cavaliers bolster their perimeter depth.
Perimeter length was an issue in last season's East finals. Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker could produce more of a payoff than Shaq.
4. Hornets acquire Emeka Okafor.
Yes he's undersized in the middle, especially in the West, but there at least now is the threat of a post game for New Orleans.
5. Thunder plays a pat hand.
Rather than reach for veteran free agents, Oklahoma City leaves room for Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green to grow from within.
FIVE MOVES THAT COULD BACKFIRE
1. Lakers sign Ron Artest.
Talk about your feast-or-famine moves. While Artest can be very good, he also can be very bad for championship continuity.
2. Grizzlies add Allen Iverson and Zach Randolph.
No, the kids are not all right. Is this the type of influence you want to be adding to such a youthful roster?
3. Magic swap out Hedo Turkoglu for Vince Carter.
Yes, Carter is more talented, but Turkoglu in many ways was the glue to Orlando's success last season.
4. Cavaliers add Shaq.
It certainly didn't end well with the Lakers, Heat and Suns. But, to be fair, there was success in his earlier days there.
5. Nuggets lose Linas Kleiza and Dahntay Jones.
The luxury tax depletes the depth of a conference finalist. The cost could be significant with the rest of the West now stronger.