(You may not have your copy of SLAM 123 yet, but here’s the NBA Preview I wrote for the mag. If you want to save it to read it when you get the magazine, feel free to hit the “back” button on your browser. Otherwise, enjoy the preview.)

by Lang Whitaker

1. Are international leagues catching up with the NBA?
Those darn internets were buzzing all summer with talk of hoops leagues from Europe — suddenly flush with Euros thanks to the recession in the US — making a run on NBA talent. Even a source close to LeBron James allowed that Bron would “consider” flying across the pond for a deal worth $50 million a year. (No kidding! If someone offered me more than double my salary to move to Europe, I’d be at the Rosetta Stone kiosk at the mall so fast your head would spin.) Still, a handful of solid NBA players (Josh Childress, Carlos Arroyo, Jannero Pargo, Nenad Krstic) joined high school star Brandon Jennings in taking the money and heading to Europe. Does a cluster of NBA role players leaving the League constitute a mass exodus of talent? Not even close. While it should raise the level of play in Europe, the NBA remains the world’s gold standard in pro basketball, to play against the best talent and find the most endorsement cash. (Unless something crazy happens like the US stock market dropping 500 points in one day. But that would never happen.)

2. Which team will surprise the League this season?
There are several teams entering the season with low expectations: for instance, nobody expects much from the Oklahoma City Thunder except that they’ll look like they’re wearing WNBA uniforms. But if I’m selecting a darkhorse team this year, they’re definitely coming out of the Eastern Conference, which despite improving still remains a notch or two below the West. And if there’s one franchise nobody’s talking about, it’s the Charlotte Bobcats. They’ve been addled by injuries and poor coaching for years, but this season they add rookie DJ Augustin, defensive stopgap free agent Shannon Brown, plus a healthy Sean May and Adam Morrison. Most important, Charlotte GM Michael Jordan inked his UNC blood brother Larry Brown as coach. Brown won an NBA title just four years ago with Detroit, but since then presided over a terrible USA Basketball team and a disastrous season with the Knicks. With his legacy tarnished, LB ain’t going out (to the Hamptons) like that. And as bad as the BETcats were last year (32-50), they still finished just five games out of the Playoffs.

3. Which team will be the biggest disappointment this season?
Was it really just 16 months ago that the Golden State Warriors fans in The Bay were filling up Oracle Arena in Oakland like Google was handing out free source code as the Warriors shocked the world (and the Mavericks) in the Playoffs? At the time, I wrote on SLAMonline.com that “there’s a certain feeling of fatalism to watching the Warriors play right now. They’re not building something for the long term, they’re not developing their young guys, they’re just trying to win that game on that night.” Since then, the Warriors have lost their two best players—Jason Richardson and Baron Davis—and lavished all their free agent cash on a reserve swingman from the Clippers (Corey Maggette) and an undersized back-up center from the Lakers (Ronny Turiaf). And with Monta Ellis on the chilling list for the first half of this season with a mysterious ankle injury, the Warriors don’t look like they’re going to be coming out to play this season. I don’t think it’s beyond believability to assert that Don Nelson will be on the beach in Hawaii long before the Warriors go fishing.

4. Which team has the most to prove?
A few years ago, the Dallas Mavericks were one quarter away from being the NBA champs, and then it all fell apart. But the tension might be even more palpable in Phoenix. When Suns GM Steve Kerr traded for Shaquille O’Neal last season, it sent shockwaves through the desert. Mike D’Antoni tried to sprinkle some of his magic offensive dust on The Big Cactus, but despite winning 55 games in the regular season and getting big years from Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, the Suns hit their usual post-season speed bump and were sent home before the Conference Finals began. With D’Antoni now gone to NBA purgatory (the Knicks!), Terry Porter comes to Phoenix and gets a shot at making this roster not only fit together but contend for a title, which is really all this current group has left to accomplish. Adding Matt “Fishbone” Barnes and Robin “Sideshow” Lopez should give the Suns the depth D’Antoni could never seem to find, but until someone on that staff explains how defensive rotations are supposed to work, the Suns will remain eclipsed.

5. Which player was the most important addition to a team this summer?
When the Celts added Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett last summer, many people immediately bumped them atop the Eastern Conference. They had experience (Allen), interior defense (KG) and scoring (Pierce). To me, however, it wasn’t until they added James Posey that the Celts truly became Championship contenders. Just as he did with the Heat in ’06, Posey hit big shots from long range and took more charges than Visa. Boston won a banner…and just like that, he’s out: With Boston unwilling to commit to Posey long-term, the N’awlins Hornets ponied up the dough and inked Posey to a four-year deal. The Hornets managed to sting the NBA last season, but adding Posey to their already-simmering nucleus (including CP3, Tyson Chandler and David West) should make New Orleans a Conference title contender this year. Now if we can just get Byron Scott to start acting like he’s taking the games seriously while he’s on the sideline…

6. Which team needs an extreme makeover?
For many years, the San Antonio Spurs were the NBA’s model franchise. They signed their big players to long-term deals, found complementary starters who didn’t burst their budget, got veteran guys who bought into Gregg Popovich’s philosophy, all while fostering continuity in their front office and coaching staff. (Also, they were really boring.) But after winning 56 games during the 2007-08 regular season and advancing to the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs too often looked like a team undergoing an energy crisis, as though someone had spiked their Red Bull with Ambien. By the end of the season, the only way they could’ve looked older would have been if Hume Cronyn started at the 3. Rest might help, but Ginobili balled in the Olympics and then had surgery, and Tony Parker played for France in Eurobasket gaulification. While Duncan, Ginobili and Parker are all under contract though 2010, the only vet the Spurs added this summer was reserve swingman Roger Mason Jr, while their best defender, Bruce Bowen, turned 37 years old. They may have been the closest thing to an NBA dynasty since the Lakers of the early millennium, but the Spurs are going to need serious sharpening if they want to maintain their crown as the best the NBA has to offer.

7. Which NBA superstar will be traded this season?
It doesn’t happen often, but adding the right honest-to-goodness NBA star to your franchise can either lead to a championship (see: KG to Boston) or create a lot of buzz but no hardware (see: Shaq to Phoenix). While many franchises are clearing cap space for the summer of 2010, when Bron and DWade hit the open market, there are a couple of big-name guys who might be calling the moving trucks in February. As their contracts near expiration, if their teams feel like they could lose them for nothing in the off-season, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Allen Iverson or Shawn Marion traded when their teams are out of contention at the trade deadline. And if you want at least one fearless prediction, I say Carlos Boozer is wearing a Miami Heat uniform this time next year.

8. Who will be the Rookie of the Year?
Just last month in SLAM, we used our cover to highlight OJ Mayo, Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose, three rookies who all have the tools to cop an Eddie Gottlieb trophy as the NBA Rookie of the Year. HOWEVA!, the leading contender for this season’s ROY is in Portland next to (Brandon) Roy: Greg Oden. Even though big Greg hasn’t played an injury-free season since high school, missing last season as he recovered from microfracture surgery gave him a chance to get accustomed to the frantic NBA lifestyle while studying the Blazers up close and figuring out where he’ll best fit in this season. He’ll enter the L not only as the most-seasoned rookie (and the oldest looking), but also the biggest, most athletic big man in recent memory. And word out of Portland is that Oden doesn’t intend on finessing his way to any interior buckets—he’s looking to go through and over everyone else. If he can stay healthy this season, Greg Oden will be the runaway ROY winner, with Michael Beasley and his double-double points and rebounds averages finishing second.

9. Who walks away with the MVP?
Steve Nash had his run with Phoenix, and Kobe won it last season, but this year the award has LeBron James’ name written all over it, mostly because the Cavs are going to be just as bad as they were last year. Counter-intuitive? Maybe, but I think the Lakers will be more comfortable playing this strange new style of “team” basketball than they were one year ago. And with Andrew Bynum returning to the Lake Show, Kobe will be asked to do even less offensively than before; whether or not 24 accepts this assignment is anyone’s guess. What I do know, however, is that adding Mo Williams does not make the Cavs a contender for the NBA Championship, much less an Eastern Conference title—they still have too many holes, not enough experience and Wally Sexyback projected as a key player. That doesn’t mean they won’t put together a winning season, though, and I think if the Cavs finish five or six games over .500, and Bron continues growing his averages, it’ll be more evident than ever that LeBron James is the most valuable player in the NBA.

10. Who wins the Finals?
Last season’s appearance in the Finals by the Boston Celtics wasn’t such a surprise. They were obviously talented and, just as importantly, motivated. Now that they’ve won a nice set of commemorative rings, expect The Cs desire to flicker a little, at least during the regular season. Once we get to Playoff time, though, Boston will turn things up and hold off the Pistons to return to the Finals, where their age will finally catch up to them. This year, the Champs are coming out of the West. I’m keeping an eye on Houston, who won 55 games last season despite missing chunks of time from Yao and T-Mac. Adding Ron Artest will give them a tough rotation, but Yao, T-Mac and Adelman have to convince me they can win when it’s elimination time. New Orleans will be the second-best team out West, though they’re still an athletic swingman and backup big man away from being a Championship team. Which leaves us with the Los Angeles Lakers. We know that Kobe can get the big baskets, that Gasol, Bynum and Odom should be the best frontcourt in the NBA. But more than anything, I just trust Phil Jackson to get it done. Over the long haul, PJ knows how to motivate, when to crank it up, when to turn it down, how to manage late-game situations and how to win Playoff games. (Oh, and he’s also won a ring or two…or nine.) Boston may be back, but Phil and the Lake Show didn’t come so far last year just to get knocked out of the hunt. The Lakers are ready for their close-up.

BONUS: PREDICTED FINISHES
In the magazine, I go through team-by-team with some thoughts on each franchise and why I’m picking them where I’m picking them. Here online, I’m just going to run through my predicted order of finish. You want more? Buy a magazine, ya cheapskate!

EASTERN CONFERENCE
ATLANTIC DIVISION
1. Boston
2. Philly
3.Toronto
4. New York
5. New Jersey

SOUTHEAST DIVISION
1. Orlando
2. Washington
3. Atlanta
4. Charlotte
5. Miami

CENTRAL DIVISION
1. Detroit
2. Cleveland
3. Milwaukee
4. Chicago
5. Indiana

WESTERN CONFERENCE
SOUTHWEST DIVISION
1. New Orleans
2. Houston
3. San Antonio
4. Dallas
5. Memphis

NORTHWEST DIVISION
1. Portland
2. Utah
3. Denver
4. Oklahoma City
5. Minnesota

PACIFIC DIVISION
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Phoenix
3. Los Angeles Clippers
4. Golden State
5. Sacramento