A lot has changed since we last went through this exercise. LeBron James' return to Cleveland has shifted the East balance of power and many other teams also made big moves one way or the other. That includes the Wizards, who let go of Trevor Ariza to sign Paul Pierce and a slew of big men that'll provide frontcourt depth.
It looks like there will be as many as 11 teams fighting for eight playoff spots, depending on how you feel about the Knicks and Pistons. Those 11 teams are clustered pretty tightly together without an obvious favorite. Thus, the Wizards could finish at the very top ... or they could be near the back of the pack.
A look at the contenders:
ATLANTA: The Hawks were heading toward a third-place finish last year before Al Horford was lost for the season in December. Even after his injury, they were in the hunt until a slew of other ailments caused them to fade away. They pushed Indiana to the brink in the first round with every non-Horford piece healthy, terrorizing the Pacers' vaunted defense by spacing the floor and shooting a ton of threes. Horford's return to health is a big boon, but Atlanta's also so far struck out with their large cap space, only adding Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha while subtracting Lou Williams. A big move is still possible, though there aren't many big names left on the market.
BROOKLYN: They lose Pierce and Shaun Livingston, which are definitely blows, but they also get back Brook Lopez and may have upgraded the coaching spot by replacing Jason Kidd with Lionel Hollins. With Pierce out and Lopez healthy, I'd expect a return to a more conventional style of play after it flopped so badly last year. Will Lopez and Deron Williams hold up physically to make it work? Even if not, this team still has talent, so they shouldn't be dismissed. Jarrett Jack should be much better here, and youngsters Bojan Bogdanovic and Mason Plumlee are primed for bigger roles.
CHARLOTTE: The Hornets are getting a lot of buzz latest (pun intended), and for good reason. Signing Lance Stephenson for $9 million a year is a steal even with his well-documented off-court troubles. Lance is a nut, but I think he was also a scapegoat to some degree for bigger Indiana problems last year. He immediately becomes Charlotte's best playmaker and adds a whole new transition dimension to a team that was very slow-paced last year. Toss in other underrated additions -- Marvin Williams found himself as a 4 in Utah last year, Brian Roberts is an excellent backup point guard and Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston were strong draft picks -- and this team is going to be much improved. They're a little short on shooting and they'll miss Josh McRoberts, but they're very deep, especially on the wings. I don't think it's a stretch to consider them a contender for a top-four seed.
CHICAGO: The big question: can Derrick Rose return to health? Turning Carlos Boozer into Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic is an upgrade, though I don't see how Gasol, Mirotic, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson can all get enough minutes. Doug McDermott and Tony Snell looked great in Las Vegas and would provide much-needed wing depth if that performance carries over. You also know that Tom Thibodeau will push these guys for as many regular-season wins as possible. But there won't be serious improvement unless Rose is healthy again, and that's a difficult bet to make.
CLEVELAND: LeBron James makes any team a contender, even one with as many unsettled pieces as Cleveland. I'm assuming that Kevin Love ends up here one way or another for Andrew Wiggins, which makes them the obvious favorites in the conference. It'll be interesting to see which pieces end up in Minnesota or elsewhere. Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson have all been disappointments on different levels (Waiters less so than the others), but all have a place on this team. Cleveland needs Thompson's length because its frontcourt is shallow and Waiters and/or Bennett provide much-needed bench scoring. Trade too many pieces, and this becomes a very thin team that will take some time to jell.
DETROIT: Only including them on here because of Stan Van Gundy's ability to get the most out of teams. It appears the Pistons are going into the season with the same big man glut they had last year, so I'm curious to see how Van Gundy addresses that. Jodie Meeks was overpaid, but he and D.J. Augustin will help, even if he takes minutes away from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. They have a ways to go and it appears Van Gundy is building for the long haul, but don't underestimate how poorly coached they were last year. Plug in a guy like Van Gundy and that talent could easily coalesce into a good team.
INDIANA: It's very tempting to drop them way down the list after losing Stephenson, their only competent perimeter creator. I've always liked C.J. Miles, but a playmaker he's not. The hope is that improved shooting will mask the absence of good passers, but I'm a little skeptical. Nevertheless, they still have Paul George and Roy Hibbert, and both should bounce back after rough ends to last year. (Also: don't underestimate newcomer Damjan Rudez. He's a stretch 4 like Chris Copeland that can actually defend).
MIAMI: They replaced LeBron James with Luol Deng and McRoberts and brought most of the same players back, so yes, there's a dropoff. But I wouldn't write off Miami too much because a lineup of Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, Deng, McRoberts and Chris Bosh will not be easy to defend. I expect Erik Spoelstra to show off his creativity by inverting the floor and putting Wade and Deng in the post with Bosh and McRoberts spaced out on the perimeter. That's the kind of look that teams coming in during the dredges of the NBA season won't be able to scout effectively. Wade's the big question mark, of course, but I think he'll show up in better shape. I don't see them winning the East, but they could easily win more games than folks expect.
NEW YORK: Carmelo Anthony is back, which may or may not be great depending on which Knicks fan you talk to. The rest of the team, meanwhile, appears upgraded on the surface, though losing Tyson Chandler might hurt. Jose Calderon has a poor contract and can't play defense, but he's still a huge upgrade on Raymond Felton. If Jason Smith stays healthy, he's a nice fit in the Triangle and could replace Chandler. Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire are still here, as is J.R. Smith, but last year went horribly wrong and the Knicks still finished only a game out of the playoffs. Things shouldn't go that poorly again, right?
TORONTO: (Arguably) the East's best regular-season team from January on kept every key player and swapped out Nando de Colo and John Salmons for Lou Williams and James Johnson. Both of those are major upgrades. Williams is still young and could easily regain the form that made him one of the league's best sixth men, while Johnson, if he's seeing eye to eye with Dwane Casey this time around, is the tall shutdown defensive wing Toronto lacked last season. This is a dangerous team, folks. About the only thing that could slow them down is if Kyle Lowry regresses after last year's huge season.
WASHINGTON: The Wizards will miss Trevor Ariza's defense, but Paul Pierce, if he can passably play the wing again, provides much-needed secondary scoring and crunch-time play. There's also frontcourt depth that can survive the inevitable Nene injury, though some of that duplicates itself. Can the improved firepower overcome the loss of Ariza? Can John Wall and Bradley Beal take further steps forward? Will the mix of talent mesh?
Discussion time: where do you rank the Wizards as of now, and what variables could either propel or drop them from your projected rank?