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Preseason Isn't Completely Worthless

It's that time of year when most teams still feel pretty optimistic because everybody is still officially unbeaten until next week. Bottom-feeders believe they will make the playoffs, middle-of-the-pack teams think they are championship contenders and championship contenders try to deflect the attention elsewhere.

Well, it's a good thing the preseason means absolutely nothing - right? Because based on the exhibition standings, the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors are headed on a collision course for the NBA Finals, while the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, New Jersey Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers, despite their talent-laden rosters, will be fighting off the winless Charlotte Bobcats for the right to draft Greg Oden next summer.

Of course, I'm being facetious. In the words of Sir Charles Barkley, the preseason really is "a rip-off" because most teams approach their intra-squad scrimmages more seriously. Players routinely takes games off, scrubs who may never make an NBA team are on the floor in the final minutes, and you rarely get a sense of what these teams are really about.

Or do you? With the exception of the Orlando Magic, every team that finished with the best preseason record in its division last season wound up making it to the playoffs - and the Magic came mighty close. So, what am I saying? Don't dismiss or turn up your nose at teams like the Raptors (5-0), Warriors (4-0), Magic (5-1) and Houston Rockets (4-1). Those teams may have missed out of the playoffs last season, but they should be in the playoff hunt come April.

The Raptors have been retooled with an international mix of players who really know how to play. No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani isn't expected to play much but appears NBA-ready, Jorge Garbajosa could provide a decent low post complement to All-Star Chris Bosh and T.J. Ford, if he can stay healthy, helps them pick up the pace and push it. Toronto, looking to resemble Phoenix-East with former Suns general manager Bryan Colangelo in tow, is the highest scoring Eastern Conference team in the preseason at 107.0 points per game.

The Warriors didn't make too many personnel changes last offseason, but they paid the most significant coaching change, by bringing back Don Nelson from his vacation in Hawaii. Nelson might just be the man to get Baron Davis to finally play up to talents and be more consistent. And, by moving Troy Murphy to center - where Murphy leading the league in rebounding at 12.3 per game in the preseason -- and Mike Dunleavy to power forward, Nelson has made it clear that he wants skilled players on the floor at all times. Small ball lives, as the Warriors lead the league in preseason scoring at 118.6 points per game - and, Nelson may be able to finally lift the Curse of Chris Webber (the Warriors haven't been to the playoffs since he was traded to Washington in 1994).

The Magic was one of the best teams down the stretch last season, finishing 16-4 with wins over Miami, Dallas, San Antonio and Detroit. The Magic has an exciting young trio in Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson and Darko "I'm Not A Bust" Milicic. And, if - again, this is a big if - Grant Hill can give them, say, 68-72 games, the Magic should be all right.

The Rockets really just need to be healthy. Any team with stars like Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming should be good, but injuries meant that the two rarely were on the floor together last year and Houston stunk. Jeff Van Gundy says he's going to loosen the reigns some on offense - let's hope so - and the additions of Shane Battier and Bonzi Wells should provide a boost.

By Michael Lee  |  October 23, 2006; 3:40 PM ET
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