by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.,com Editor and P.Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Well, it's about time!

The long-delayed 2011-12 NBA campaign finally gets underway on Christmas Day. Better late than never, we suppose, as it looked for much of the autumn like we might not have an NBA season at all.

Instead, we're presented with a unique challenge as we preview the campaign with our annual best recommendations for season "wins" pricing. We suspect that dynamics such as continuity and depth will be extremely valuable assets in the NBA this term, especially in the early going of the campaign.

Due to the extended lockout, there was no traditional offseason as such beyond the NBA Draft at the end of June. No summer leagues, no free-agent movement beginning July 1, no trades or other personnel moves throughout the relaxed summer months, and no traditional early October beginning of training camps like usual.

Rather, the resolution of the lockout at the end of November and a rush to commence the regular season by Christmas resulted in condensed training camps and player transaction periods, each crammed into brief December windows. Each team also played only two preseason games. Indeed, the NBA teams hit this season not too much different than college squads, with little live-fire action before the games begin to count.

We expect that teams with new coaching regimes might also be behind the eight-ball at the outset, having less time to integrate their new systems. Indeed, sides with new coaches have had almost no time to acclimate themselves to their new surroundings.

The revised 66-game schedule presents its own challenges, with more games jammed into fewer days, creating more back-to-back situations, at least one back-to-back-to-back scenario for each team, and many more three games-in-four nights scenarios. Expect the injury factor to be enhanced due to the decreased preseason conditioning, increased game load, and less recuperative time. The uneven scheduling necessitated by the condensed season creates other anomalies compared to the usual NBA slates in past years.

We return, however, to depth and continuity as the two qualities we would focus upon most in the early stages of the campaign.

Whatever, it's time to project forward and provide, as usual, our best recommendations for season "win" totals as listed by various sports books.

Let the games begin!


NORTHWEST DIVISION: Top recommendations...Not since Kevin Garnett was in town have the Minnesota Timberwolves (24 ½) generated much buzz. But we can't wait for the long-awaited debut of hotshot Spanish G Ricky Rubio, who along with ex-Maverick J.J. Barea gives the T-wolves a fresh new look in the backcourt. Arizona rookie F Derrick Williams is another new face who could prove a plus, and we expect Rick Adelman to be a major upgrade from Kurt Rambis on the bench. Even if Kevin Love and Michael Beasley continue to take off possessions on the stop end, the upgraded backcourt provides enough firepower in the Minnesota mix to cause some trouble in the Northwest. "Over" at Target Center...To the surprise of some, the Denver Nuggets (38 ½) didn't miss Carmelo Anthony and his related distractions one bit after his trade-deadline move to the Knicks last February. And keeping Nene in the fold to patrol the paint was extra important after Kenyon Martin's departure (and subsequent contract mess in China, preventing him from joining another NBA team until the Chinese season ends in February). With Wilson Chandler and J.R. Smith (both FAs) also likely stuck in China until at least February, we expect an adjustment period in Denver with new faces on the wings (Rudy Fernandez and Texas rookie Jordan Hamilton) that could reduce the win total. "Under" for us at Pepsi Center...The days of the Utah Jazz (25 ½) as serious playoff contenders are over for the time being, and the Jerry Sloan Era ended last February. Plus, longtime familiar face Andrei Kirilenko appears to be staying to play in native Russia rather than return to Salt Lake City. There are still a few nice pieces to the Jazz puzzle (we're big fans of PF Paul Millsap), but not enough of them for HC Ty Corbin to mold a contender. At least not yet, with much youth laced throughout the roster (especially the frontcourt). "Under" at EnergySolutions Arena.

Others...Much like the Heat and the Bulls, the Oklahoma City Thunder (48 ½) has much the same look as it did last year when reaching the Western Conference Finals. And third-year G James Harden appears ready to burst upon the scene and join Kevin Durant in the star category. Russell Westbrook's occasional wildness at the point, however, concerns us enough to back off this rather-aggressive win total for Scott Brooks' team. It's a no-call for us at Ford Center...The Portland Trailblazers (41 ½) could be ready for their long-awaited breakthrough, and the recent addition of Jamal Crawford from Atlanta mitigates the absence of explosive Brandon Roy, whose sore knees finally forced him into retirement. If we were convinced that C Marcus Camby could hold up over a full season, we might be looking "over" with the Blazers...but we're not. Instead, it's a pass for us at the Rose Garden.

SOUTHWEST DIVISION: Top recommendations...Expect the Dallas Mavericks (44 ½) to put forth a spirited defense of their title next spring. But remember that it was an aging roster in Big D that went the whole way last term, and adding Vince Carter and Lamar Odom hasn't made the Mavs any younger. We could see Dallas pacing itself accordingly in the condensed schedule as it looks to peak in the spring, and Tyson Chandler's no-nonsense presence on the blocks might be missed. The Mavs should still be in the title mix, but we're still looking "under" at American Airlines Center...Losing anchors Chris Paul and David West figures to push the New Orleans Hornets (2 4½) much further from contending status. But they picked up some nice spare parts (Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman) from the Clippers in the Paul trade. Which, along with the remaining core of Carl Landry, Emeka Okafor, and Jarrett Jack, should at least allow the team to compete for HC Monty Williams, who impressed with his ability to scheme (especially defensively) a year ago. "Over" in the Big Easy...Like the Celtics, it could be argued that the 66-game slate will be a positive for the familiar-looking and veteran lineup of the San Antonio Spurs (41 ½). On the other hand, the condensed nature of the slate might prove more difficult for Tim Duncan and his nagging hurts, and the Spurs have been notorious for pacing themselves in the regular season the past few years. With an aging lineup, we don't see a departure in that approach from "Coach Pop." We're looking "under" at AT&T Center...The experience of last year's playoff run should do wonders for the Memphis Grizzlies (38 ½), who played hard a year ago for HC Lionel Hollins (a neat trick, considering how the likes of Zach Randolph have often slacked on the job in the past). Having Rudy Gay available after he was sidelined past mid-February last year should also be a plus. "Over" at FedEx Forum.

Others...It's a transition year for the Houston Rockets (34 ½), who spared us an "under" recommendation with their late signing of vet C Samuel Dalembert; we were a bit concerned if the Rockets were going to rely upon 2nd-year Jordan Hill in the post. This was also a team ready to move out linchpins Luis Scola and Kevin Martin in the aborted Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers trade that would have landed Pau Gasol in Houston, so there's no telling what GM Daryl Morey and new HC Kevin McHale have in mind for the roster, which could be under reconstruction into February. It's a no call for us at Toyota Center.

PACIFIC DIVISION: Top recommendations...It's not business as usual for the Los Angeles Lakers (40 ½), whose trade for Chris Paul was nixed by the league. The Lake Show still moved Lamar Odom (to Dallas, reducing the Kardashian presence by one at Staples Center) but for the moment retains Pau Gasol, who was on the move to Houston if the Paul deal wasn't aborted. Got that? Moreover, Andrew Bynum opens the season on suspension after his antics in the playoffs vs. Dallas, and Kobe is already hurting, with a potentially bothersome wrist ligament injury hardly insignificant for a scoring machine and threatening his availability at the outset. With the star power on the wane, depth questionable, and Phil Jackson gone, the Lakers could slip precipitously under new HC Mike Brown. Look "under" for the Lake Show...Believe it; the star attraction now at Staples Center looks to be the Los Angeles Clippers (38 ½) instead. Adding Chris Paul to a core that consisted of frontline powerhouses Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan gives the Clips a 1-2-3 combo close to any in the league (Heat and Celtics included). Add in the leadership of just-signed G Chauncey Billups, along with holdovers Mo Williams and Randy Foye, and the Clips might have one of the best backcourts in the league, too. If Vinny Del Negro can put the pieces together, and Griffin stays healthy, this could be a title contender. Really! "Over" for the Clips...It's been a while since the Golden State Warriors (27 ½) have been relevant; they haven't been to the playoffs since 2007. But the backcourt has lots of firepower with Stephen Curry (this week's preseason ankle injury not considered serious) and Monta Ellis, now augmented by Washington State rookie Klay Thompson, and the frontcourt should be serviceable if Andris Beidrins stays healthy. Ellis' off-court problems could be a distraction, and the jury is out on new HC Mark Jackson, but there's enough to indicate an "over" for us in Oakland at Oracle Arena....The Phoenix Suns (31 ½) are on the descent, not adequately replacing the departed Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, or Jason Richardson, and counting upon the aging Steve Nash and Grant Hill to revisit their younger days in order to keep the team afloat. Not encouraging. The hope is that athletic ex-Laker Shannon Brown can blossom now that he is no longer Kobe Bryant's valet, and expect some highlight reel dunks on the end of Nash's passes. But good luck to HC Alvin Gentry trying to coax something more out of the likes of Josh Childress, Robin Lopez, and Hakim Warrick, all off disappointing seasons. "Under" at US Airways Center.

Others...We're at least glad to see the Sacramento Kings (17 ½) still anchored at Power Balance Pavilion (nee Arco Arena) and working on getting a suitable local arena built rather than migrate to the overcrowded Southern California marketplace in Anaheim. But it's been a bizarre few weeks in Sacto, with recently-acquired Chuck Hayes failing a physical and the aforementioned Samuel Dalembert changing course and signing with Houston instead, leaving the Kings with a gaping defensive hole in the paint. As it stands, the only additions worth noting are journeyman F Travis Outlaw and BYU rookie G Jimmer Fredette. Something is telling us to steer clear of the Kings, so we will; no play at Power Balance Pavilion.


ATLANTIC DIVISION: Top recommendations...After a slow start last season, the Philadelphia 76ers (36 ½ wins) went 38-28 over their last 66 games; maintaining a similar pace gets them over the projected 36 ½ this season. Keeping PF Elton Brand healthy remains important, but many observers also believe Jrue Holiday is about to break through as an elite PG, while slashing Andre Iguodala remains one of the most lethal wings in the conference. Much the same look roster-wise as a year ago, when the team eventually responded very positively to HC Doug Collins. It's "over" for us at Wells Fargo Center... Some observers believe the lockout that wiped away the first seven weeks of the season was a gift to the aging Boston Celtics (38 ½), who would figure to benefit from the extra time off and shortened campaign. Moreover, the veteran core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo remains together for one more run at the crown. But the Celtics are crossing their fingers that fragile vet frontliner Jermaine O'Neal can remain in one piece, and with fewer off days in the revised schedule, age and lack of depth up front after Big Baby Davis' trade to Orlando are legitimate concerns. And don't forget that the Celts dominated the November-December slate recently, going 94-14 in games played before Christmas the last four seasons. It's an "under" for us in Beantown...The New York Knicks (39 ½) think they might have solved their defensive issues with the addition of C Tyson Chandler from the champion Mavericks. We agree that Chandler will indeed help on the stop end but don't think he'll provide much of a low-post scoring threat. And we're not sold on the PG play, either, with Toney Douglas and defense-poor Mike Bibby the current options for Mike D'Antoni. Don't be surprised if Carmelo Anthony is asking for more help before long. "Under" at MSG.

Others...The New Jersey Nets (21 ½) have avoided some potential distractions now that Kim Kardashian won't be attending games (unless to heckle her ex, Kris Humphries, recently re-signed). But maybe not, if owner Mikhail Prokhorov is really serious about running for president of native Russia. Hey, if George W. Bush and Silvio Berlusconi can go from running sports teams into running governments, why can't billionaire Prokhorov? We expect the Dwight Howard acquisition talks go deep into the winter, and that Howard eventually wears a New Jersey uniform. We're just not sure if it will be soon enough to make the Nets relevant before they move to Brooklyn. No call at the Pru Center...Even with a reduced wins total, the Toronto Raptors (16 ½) can make a case as the league's worst team. Which is why we have little interest getting involved either way with this bunch. No call at Air Canada Centre.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION: Top recommendations...We'll find out next spring if the chemistry is finally right for the Miami Heat (49 ½) to win the title. But there was stability on the roster through the lockout, which should be a plus in the shortened 66-game regular-season slate, and we doubt the Heat are going to backslide in their second year with LeBron and C-Bosh alongside D-Wade. With a hungry look about it, the Heat appear a few steps ahead of everyone else (for the moment, at least) East. "Over" at American Airlines Arena...They're not asking much of the Washington Wizards (19 ½), who, to the delight of old-time regional fans who fondly recall the days of "Da Bullet," have returned to a traditional red, white, and blue uniform design similar to the Wes Unseld Era. The Wizards flashed plenty of upside last year when they could get John Wall, Andray Blatche, and JaVale McGee on the court at the same time, and HC Flip Saunders has another interesting piece to add to the mix in explosive 2nd-year G Jordan Crawford. If Saunders can coax something out of Rashard Lewis, the Wizards should clear that modest win total as the fans make a quick detour to Ben's Chili Bowl for a few chili smokes on the way to Verizon Center, a few blocks away. "Over" in D.C.

Others...The Atlanta Hawks (35 ½) have been making steady progress the past few seasons and responded positively to first-year HC Larry Drew a year ago, although we're not sure how much impact the defection of explosive Jamal Crawford (who recently signed with Portland) will have upon the team. The lineup still has plenty of experience, but early injury woes at PG with Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich both hurting have Drew already scrambling for reinforcements (journeyman Jannero Pargo a recent emergency roster addition). No call at Philips Arena...With Dwight Howard's trade demands likely to linger well past New Year's, it's hard to project forward on the Orlando Magic (36 ½). Our gut feel is that it all becomes a distraction for Stan Van Gundy's team, so we're going to pass at the Amway Center...Next year, expect Michael Jordan's Charlotte Bobcats (15 ½) to be a player in the free-agent market. This season, the team is too young to be a factor and will take its lumps, but we're reluctant to look "under" with a win hurdle so low. We'd rather pass at Time Warner Cable Arena.

CENTRAL DIVISION: Top recommendations...Rip Hamilton's departure means the last remaining links to title team of 2003-04 for the Detroit Pistons (20 ½) are Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace, with the latter only a bit contributor these days after spending a few years away from Auburn Hills. But sources believe the Pistons will respond better to underrated new HC Lawrence Frank than they did headstrong John Kuester, who spent too much time feuding with players (Hamilton being one of them). If Kentucky rookie G Brandon Knight makes immediate contributions, the Pistons will not be pushovers. Look "over" at The Palace...Will they or won't they? We're talking about the Chicago Bulls (46 ½), who have been rumored to be involved in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes. But we're not sure the Bulls need Howard; they're already formidable. Derrick Rose is happy after a big contract extension, newly-signed Rip Hamilton could be a big bonus by adding needed outside shooting to the mix, and, like the Heat, there is much stability on the roster. "Over" at United Center...Some believe the Milwaukee Bucks (30 ½) might be ready for a breakthrough. We're not so sure, with Andrew Bogut oft-injured the past couple of years, and with the addition of noted antagonist Stephen Jackson threatening to disrupt team chemistry as he tries to co-exist with shoot-first G Brandon Jennings. At least the Bucks' mascot Bango is cool. It's an "under" for us at Bradley Center.

Others...The Indiana Pacers (36 ½) are being projected by some as a team to watch, especially with the addition of frontliner David West from New Orleans. But the Pacers' 37 wins last year in an 82-game slate projects to just 29.7 wins in this year's reduced schedule; is West worth that much of an upgrade? Maybe, but we're not sure, so we'll just pass instead at Conseco Fieldhouse... We'll give this to the Cleveland Cavaliers (16 ½); they played their tails off for Byron Scott in an extremely difficult 2010-11 campaign that often resembled the Cavs' expansion team with Walt Wesley, Bingo Smith, McCoy McLemore, and Luther Rackley forty years earlier at the old, drafty Cleveland Arena. The good news is that top draft pick Kyrie Irving from Duke can only enhance the explosiveness quotient, which needed a boost. Safe to say the Cavs will be a little better than last year, but we're not sure we want to get too excited. It's a pass for us at "The Q" in another dark post-LeBron season by Lake Erie.

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