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Fran Blinebury

For differing reasons, the Celtics and Nuggets are two teams who could have a sharp decline from last season.
For differing reasons, the Celtics and Nuggets are two teams which could have a sharp decline this season.
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

These five squads primed for a big climb -- or a big fall


Posted Sep 21 2010 6:17PM

With a few training camps just starting to open later this week and the first steps taken down the long road, you'd practically need a telescope to see the finish line at the NBA Finals next June.

Yet even in these earliest days there are the teams -- Lakers, Heat, Magic, Mavericks, Spurs -- that certainly will be contending in the championship mix and others -- Timberwolves, Pistons, Raptors, Warriors -- that just as surely will have representatives in Secaucus, N.J. for the 2011 Draft Lottery.

It's another handful -- call them the Tightrope Teams -- that could be the most interesting to watch, either performing breathtaking feats at a high level or going splat.

Houston Rockets

There isn't another team in either conference that could see the pendulum swing as wildly either way as the Rockets. If their seven-time All-Star center Yao Ming can make a successful return after a missed season due to reconstructive foot surgery and be anywhere close to his 2008-09 form, they have the roster depth and the potential to challenge for home-court advantage and even one of the top seeds in the West. But Yao will be strictly limited to just 24 minutes per game all through the regular season, which will put pressure on his newly signed backup Brad Miller to produce. With Luis Scola coming off a splendid showing for Argentina at the World Championship and Aaron Brooks ready to follow up on winning the Most Improved Award last season, the Rockets have the ability to get out and score in the running game. But it is Yao's health and production that can make the difference between making a real playoff run or just flirting with respectability again.

Denver Nuggets

How long will the soap opera surrounding Carmelo Anthony continue and how much of a distraction will it be to the Nuggets? Two seasons ago they were pushing the Lakers to near the limit in the Western Conference finals. Then they lost coach George Karl to his battle with cancer, lost their direction, lost their ferocity and lost in the first round of the playoffs last spring to Utah. With Karl chomping at the bit to return to the fight, if Anthony ever agrees to a contract extension, Denver could be back on solid ground and right back into the mix. But as long as the Carmelo question hangs in the air, this group of sometimes flighty personalities could come apart at the seams. Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith have expiring contracts and the new front office team could decide to try again and head in a new direction.

Portland Trail Blazers

How many times can everyone keep pointing to the depth of the Blazers' roster, the abundance of talent and keep saying they're a championship contender in the making until they actually do something? Like stay healthy, for one. Win a playoff series, for another. They drafted center Greg Oden in 2007 to be the anchor in their lineup and in the past three seasons, he's played the equivalent of just one (82 games). They're still a rugged team, a capable team, with Marcus Camby and Joel Przybilla in the middle. But it's a constantly producing Oden who takes them to the next level. They also need All-Star guard Brandon Roy to avoid the nagging minor knee injuries that have slowed him and the Blazers at untimely occasions. If they could all stay healthy, there's the potential for big things rather than more disappointment.

Boston Celtics

How does a team that made a stirring playoff run last spring and won the Eastern Conference title get onto this list? Simply by growing a year older and then adding a 38-year-old center in Shaquille O'Neal. Age was the great leveler of the court for the Celtics all through the 2009-10 regular season as Kevin Garnett struggled to get back to full strength and without his defensive edge Boston lost its spark. With Miami's significant upgrade and Orlando's abundance of talent, can the aging Celtics afford to give up too much ground over the regular season and then turn on the playoff fireworks again? And with underappreciated Kendrick Perkins likely missing the first half of the season, there's going to be a great deal of pressure on the aging Shaq. Can Ray Allen and Paul Pierce stay healthy? Can Rajon Rondo keep taking his game to new heights? We know the Celtics' Big Three Plus One can cause havoc in the playoffs. But can they get there in one piece?

Phoenix Suns

It didn't take long for the shine to come off the Suns' surprising run to the Western Conference finals when Amar'e Stoudemire decided to take his act to the bright lights of Broadway. The first blush inclination is to say that Phoenix will fall back into the middle of the pack. But with Steve Nash still at the controls and showing no signs of slowing down and the acquisition of Hedo Turkoglu after an unhappy season in Toronto, it is quite possible that the Phoenix offense will not miss a beat and the Suns could surprise everyone again.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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