It actually hasn't been that long since the Bulls were a top 10 team in the preseason. I would have given them that distinction just three years ago when they finished with 33 wins and were a world class disappointment. However, I felt pretty good entering that season.
A reminder, that things may not always go as well as you hope.
I almost cut this list short at six, because I didn't have the heart to write out "these teams are good, but we already know they're not good enough" four times, but I decided to gut it out. That's what I bring to the table.
#1 The Miami Heat
Talk all you want about not crowning them, if my house is on the line and I have to bet who wins the NBA finals, I'm putting my money down on the Heat. Interestingly though, for the first time since the Jordan era, it's probably more difficult to come out of the East than the West to get to the finals, so they'll have some tough matchups having to fight through at least two of Orlando, Boston, and Chicago most likely before taking on whomever comes out of the west (most likely the Lakers).
The Heat have the most potent offensive talent we've seen on one team since perhaps the showtime Lakers who had Magic, Kareem, and Worthy. Heck this might be the most potent offensive team of all time. Do they have enough depth though? Do they have enough size? Can they be physical enough defensively? We'll find out. I pick the team with the most talent, but I'll acknowledge they have to answer considerable questions of fit and toughness. It's worth noting when Boston won their title recently, no one in preseason said they'd have a chance due to lack of depth either.
#2 Los Angelas Lakers
Again, I doubt this pick is shocking the world. The breaking news siren certainly isn't going off in houses across America with this statement. If the Heat are 1A, the Lakers are 1B. The Lakers don't have as potent an offensive lineup. LeBron > Kobe, Wade > Gasol, Bosh > whomever La's #3 guy is, but they have better depth, and their pieces mesh together much better.
They have the front line that could give the Heat fits, especially if Bosh can't man up and is abused by Pau Gasol (likely). No one on the Heat stands a chance against Andrew Bynum who will become a key player if the Lakers are to win a championship and have to face the Heat.
#3 The Boston Celtics
It might be Boston's last chance, and they may be the first team to have a medicare supplement packaged sponsered by the team, but they have a lot of depth and talent at every position with guys who will sacrifice and work together.
With Shaq, Kendrick Perkins, Jermaine O'Neal, and Kevin Garnett, they have the interior size to match up with Orlando and L.A. and beat up the Heat on the interior. They have an excellent play making PG, a SG you can't leave alone, and a versatile do everything SF.
Boston will likely coast again in the regular season, and could enter the playoffs as low as the fourth seed, but come playoff time, if everyone is healthy, then they should be a force to reckon with again.
4: Orlando Magic
The Magic are behind the Lakers/Celtics, but Dwight Howard alone poses as great a threat to Miami as any player in the NBA. Quite simply, Miami has no one who even has a snowball's chance in hell of defending Dwight Howard, and Howard protecting the paint is the best defense possible against two offensive studs who's game is predicated on driving to the basket.
The problem with Orlando is that they bring back basically the same team that wasn't good enough the past two years with no notable improvements and some notable losses. That said, they were close enough in both years to be in the mix for the title again this year.
After these four teams, I view a drop off in the odds of winning a title and the overall talent level.
#5 The Oklahoma City Thunder
Things start to get dicey here, and with both the Bulls and Thunder, I'll take the unknown over the known when the known isn't good enough.
The Thunder haven't added much talent in the off-season, but they have so much young talent that has room to grow that internal improvement could add five wins to their season.
I think the Thunder are good enough to be the second seed in the West based on talent, and if they develop better than expected then they could be a dark horse with a legitimate chance to topple L.A. given that they would have had a shot last year if Durant had a good playoffs.
#6 The Chicago Bulls
It's hard to rate the Bulls, my gut instinct is to put them lower, because they've been lower for so long. However, they finally have a really well rounded team in terms of player fit and talent. They'll get offense in the front court from Boozer. They've got an elite penetrating wing in Rose with one of the best floor spacers in the game in Korver to help loosen up the defense. Deng/Brewer are excellent off the ball players, and Noah will frustrate the hell out of teams cleaning up the offensive glass and using his athleticism to get to the hoop if teams try to leave him alone.
I love the all around passing and basketball IQ this team will bring to the table. On the defensive end, you can argue that they start too many poor defenders to be good defensively, but Brewer replaces Hinrich while Boozer replaces Miller. I think they're improved in both of those spots. The only time the defense is really worsened is when Kyle Korver steps on the floor, but overall they have stronger defensive personnel and Rose/Noah are both likely to come back as considerably better individual defenders this season.
All that said, the Bulls are definitely a fringe team when it comes to title hopes, as they're my fourth pick out of the east. Much like the Thunder, they're rated highly because of the unknown potential in a potent lineup vs the known lackings of some of the lineups below.
With the Thunder I think their median is to be the second seed with reasonable upside to potentially win the West if everything broke well for them. With the Bulls, I think their median is the fourth seed, and it's a real stretch to see them come out of the East.
#7 San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs had a great run while it lasted, and while Parker, Jefferson, Ginobili, and Duncan will still be a potent opponent and win their 50+ games, it's hard to imagine them putting enough together to win a title this year, but if everyone stays healthy they've still got that snowballs chance in hell against L.A., and they could top the Thunder with their experience.
The thing is, their key players have struggled to stay healthy in recent seasons, and there are rumors that Parker simply wants out now, so who knows if his play declines or if he possibly gets moved.
Four titles was a great run, but they'd be long odds to win it all this season.
#8 Dallas Mavericks
Look, it's hard to imagine Dallas having a legitimate shot to win given that they've never won, and their team certainly isn't any better than it's been in the past. Dirk's game is such that it matures well, but he's still in the slow decline years where any year could be the one he falls off a cliff in terms of production.
Much like San Antonio, the whole team is basically just a year older, the only difference is San Antonio's team of vets was able to win some rings and put it together, so I'll take them first.
#9 Denver Nuggets
It's hard to see Denver putting everything together, but if Carmelo gets his head on straight then he and Billups make up a talented tandem that can do some damage. The problem is they still don't have a great team defense, and they added Al Harrington to the roster this off-season. How is that supposed to help?
It's difficult to imagine Denver putting together the run to get this thing done, because they've been the same team for awhile, always fallen short, and Melo will have questionable motivation this season while preparing for next year's free agency (see LeBron and Bosh throwing in the towel last year and quitting on their team).
#10 Utah Jazz
The Jazz have downgraded considerably this off-season losing Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver, and Carlos Boozer. They brought in Al Jefferson who's no where near as good as Boozer IMO, so they'll have their work cut out for them.
The individual brilliance of Deron Williams should allow them to compete and win a bunch of games still, but their talent loss has been immense IMO.