Yep, it's that time again. With a new season a week away and my picks already signed, sealed and delivered, there's only one item left on the preseason agenda: the All-Breakout team.
This is the fourth edition of the All-Breakout squad, and the stakes have never been higher in the wake of the success of last year's squad -- 11 of the 20 players on it earned votes for the NBA's Most Improved Player award, including MVP runner-up Chris Paul and midlife breakout Mike Dunleavy. Of the 20 players, including several midcareer guys, only two were duds: Darko Milicic and Andrea Bargnani. As a precaution, I'll avoid highly touted European 7-footers on this year's squad.
In the interest of full disclosure, other years' teams haven't been quite as accurate as last year's, especially the bomb-laden 2006-07 team. So after raising the bar a year ago, we'll have to see whether I can keep hitting it.
One very unusual candidate is on this year's breakout team. In the past, I've always picked players. But this time, the star breakout candidate isn't a player, nor is it a coach, an executive, or even a team. It's a different entity entirely, but it's one I expect to be vastly improved from a year ago. I'll let the suspense build, however, while you first look through the players on this year's squad. As with a year ago, we've broken them into groups based on where they currently stand heading into this season.
Group I: You already knew, but
OK, there isn't much mystery about whether these guys can play. Nonetheless, each could put up much better numbers than he did a year ago. I suppose you could put Chris Paul on this list, too, but I feel a little weird listing a guy as a breakout candidate when he nearly won the MVP. That leaves us with three other stars who could nonetheless make an even bigger leap:
Deron Williams, Jazz
Does anyone else find it a little weird that he hasn't made an All-Star team yet? Although he's had a bit of a setback thanks to Saturday night's ankle sprain, that oversight should be corrected this season -- especially if the Jazz are as good as I think they'll be. Williams has a good chance of passing Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups in the point guard hierarchy given his steady improvement; even last year, his numbers were much stronger after the break than before, including 12.0 assists per game in the second half. And while Carlos Boozer busies himself with the vagaries of the South Florida real estate market, Williams will spend a full year as Utah's unquestioned go-to guy.
Al Jefferson, Timberwolves
Yes, he's pretty much been an annual fixture on this list, but whaddaya want me to say? He keeps improving and, like Williams, has a good chance of making his first All-Star team this season. Jefferson should again be a force on the block, and this time he'll have a lot more help around him. Because Minnesota has potentially four 40 percent 3-point shooters to play on the perimeter (Randy Foye, Mike Miller, Rashad McCants and Kevin Love), teams won't be very willing to double him down low. The more interesting story will be how much he can improve on D -- if the Wolves get some stops, they can surprise a lot of people this season.
Amare Stoudemire, Suns
The one positive of the Shaquille O'Neal trade is the impact it had on Stoudemire. After the trade, he averaged 28.3 points and shot 58.8 percent from the floor. But the big story was that he was on the floor at all. The move to power forward helped Stoudemire cut his foul rate and consequently upped his minutes to 35.6 per game. If he keeps that up in the coming season and his new goggles don't fog up, he'll threaten the 30-point barrier in scoring.
Group II: Veterans who will bounce back
These guys aren't breakout players in the sense that they'll shock us with a huge year -- in fact, two of them have already won the most improved player award. But after off years last season, I look for each of these three to recover.
Zach Randolph, Knicks
One reason Randolph struggled so much last season was because he was paired with another big, slow post player in Eddy Curry, and there was room for only one of them on the block. Because Curry is likely to be a reserve this season and Randolph is an enthusiastic practitioner of new coach Mike D'Antoni's shoot-first, ask-questions-later philosophy, look for him to revert to something closer to his 2006-07 numbers. No, he still won't play any D or share the rock, but there's a good chance he'll have his third 20-10 season.
Boris Diaw, Suns
Usually, players who have inexplicable drops in 2-point shooting percentage rebound strongly the next year; in other words, when dips like that happen, they're usually flukes. Having a 25-year-old Diaw decline from 55.5 percent to 48.8 percent in that category certainly qualifies, and although I wouldn't expect a repeat of his breakout 2005-06 campaign, I think he'll improve on last season's numbers enough to average double figures and get his overall field goal percentage back over 50 percent.
Joe Johnson, Hawks
Johnson made the All-Star team largely on reputation last season, shooting only 43.2 percent and losing more than three points off his scoring average. As with Diaw, an inexplicable drop in 2-point shooting percentage was largely to blame -- he went from 50.5 percent to 45.5 percent. Because he's only 27, I suspect that drop will prove to be just a blip. Additionally, having a true point guard around in Mike Bibby means he won't run out of gas in January as he did last season.
Group III: They can play but will they play?
Each guy in this group has undeniable potential, but the perception of each is likely to be impacted by how much burn he gets. Major obstacles stand in the way of playing time for all three.
Andray Blatche, Wizards
At first glance, Blatche seems like a no-brainer for the All-Breakout squad. He made a sharp improvement last season, he's only 22, and the incumbent starter at his position was just declared out for the season. Unfortunately, that pesky six-foul rule may prove to be his undoing. Blatche averaged 6.02 fouls per 40 minutes; with a rate that high and the current ultraconservatism that coaches use with foul trouble, it will be extremely difficult for him to average more than 25 minutes a game.
Amir Johnson, Pistons
After spending the past three years in hiding, Johnson's new promotion to the starting lineup in Detroit makes him a breakout candidate. The 21-year-old forward had the second-highest rate of blocks in basketball last season and could end up among the league leaders even if he plays only 20 minutes a game. That's a distinct possibility, however, given the depth of Detroit's frontcourt and Johnson's tendency to foul. His rate of 7.38 personals per 40 minutes was among the very worst in basketball, and as with Blatche, is likely to keep him pinned to the bench on many nights.
Jordan Farmar, Lakers
I'd have no reservations about making Farmar a breakout player if I knew he would start. He's only 21, he's a good athlete, he can shoot, he took a strong step forward last season, and his biggest shortcoming (a chronic inability to draw fouls) seems easily remedied. Unfortunately, the Lakers already have veteran starter Derek Fisher and probably won't want to rock the boat; additionally, they're talking about spotting Lamar Odom minutes at the point, too. All of which means Farmar must content himself with being a really, really good backup.
Group IV: Stealth All-Star candidates
This is my favorite group -- the guys who most closely fit the definition of breakout players in the sense of taking the league by storm and surprising many people. Six guys stand out this season as having a chance to do so:
Ronnie Brewer, Jazz
If I had to vote one guy as the league's most underrated player, it's him. A productive two-way player for one of the league's best teams, the third-year pro reportedly has shot the ball far better this preseason -- and that was his one weakness. Even if he doesn't improve a lick from outside, his knack for scoring around the basket and improving defensive skills make him one of the best players at his position, and he's still getting better at only 23. With his playing time likely to increase along with his prominence on a key Western contender, he may not stay underrated for long.
T.J. Ford, Pacers
Health is always a concern with Ford, but if he can stay upright and Indy stays around .500, there's a good chance he'll be rewarded with an All-Star berth. Last season, a platoon with Jose Calderon on the Raptors limited him to only 23.5 minutes per game, disguising how effective he was overall -- Ford averaged 20.2 points and 10.2 assists per 40 minutes. With his playing time likely to balloon and a faster-paced system to further boost his numbers, he can establish himself as a star.
Devin Harris, Nets
Harris made steady improvement during his time in Dallas, but now that he has the keys to the offense in New Jersey, we could really see him take a step forward. He'll likely be playing in obscurity for a team going nowhere before sparse crowds, but Harris' blazing speed going to the basket and his improving outside shot could enable him to break the 20-point barrier this season.
Rudy Gay, Grizzlies
Gay had an explosive second season in 2007-08, and he's just scratching the surface of his talent. With Pau Gasol and Mike Miller out of the picture, Gay figures to get more touches than ever, and if he can develop his passing skills in Year 3 as much as he developed his scoring skills in Year 2, he'll be a true triple threat. Even if he remains just a scorer, he has a ton of upside to explore, particularly if he shoots midrange J's as well as he did last season. My one nagging doubt about Gay is that his percentage (45.4) on those shots from last season could prove to be a fluke.
Andris Biedrins, Warriors
The 22-year-old Latvian big man is almost a sure thing to lead the league in field goal percentage -- he shot 62.6 percent last season and is at 61.4 percent for his career. Given his production, it's baffling that he played only 27.3 minutes per game. Yes, sometimes he gets early fouls, but he fouled even more the year before and saw more playing time. Hopefully Don Nelson can overcome his infatuation with small ball long enough to play his star big man 33-35 minutes a game, and that playing time would make the rest of the country more aware of his many talents.
Corey Maggette, Warriors
The change in systems from L.A. to Golden State should be like steroids for Maggette's scoring average (he averaged 22.1 ppg last season). He's still the go-to guy, but now he'll do so for a team that plays a much faster pace and for a coach who has no qualms about having his top stars average close to 40 minutes a game (Maggette averaged 35.3 mpg last season). He may not play any better than he did last season, but between the increased minutes and the faster pace, Maggette could take the same shots this season and average more than 25 points per game. If so, the perception of vast improvement will be a hard one to correct.
Group V: The 2008-09 Most Improved Player
J.R. Smith, Nuggets
If I had to bet on one player to bust out in 2008-09, he is the guy. Actually, Smith busted out at the end of last season, but it didn't become a big story because he wasn't playing that much. In the final 30 games, he averaged 15.7 points in just 21.8 minutes; per minute, he scored almost exactly as much as Kobe Bryant. That he did this while hitting 40.3 percent of his 3s and 46.1 percent overall indicates that he wasn't just out there throwing up slop, either. The guy can really fill it up, and he will do it in far greater quantity if given the chance.
He should get more opportunities to do so this season, especially if Allen Iverson is traded at midseason. The Nuggets are so thin that he'll have to play almost 25-30 minutes a game. If so, there's a good chance he'll break the 20-point plateau in scoring while leading the league in 3-pointers.
Group VI: The one breakout candidate above all others
The East: I am ready to state boldly that the East, after a long, dark decade in the wilderness, no longer will be the NBA's doormat. In fact, I am projecting that Eastern teams will win six games more than Western teams this season, which would be a huge turnaround from a 2007-08 season in which eight Western teams won at least 50 games.
Why such a big shift? Let us count the ways:
• Stars shifting. Elton Brand went from west to east, making one potentially decent team subpar out West and making one average Eastern team suddenly look very, very good. Meanwhile, Miami essentially adds a superstar in Dwyane Wade because he's fully healed, and the Heat should improve from league doormat to something in the general vicinity of average.
• Trades. At the deadline last season, the West traded Shawn Marion and Devin Harris for Shaq and Jason Kidd. Great deal in 2000; not so much in 2008. Several lesser players went east, too, in salary dumps (Mike Bibby, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West) without any comparable talents going east to west.
• Injuries. Manu Ginobili and Monta Ellis both will miss big chunks of the season, hurting the West. In the East, Gilbert Arenas is likely to do the same, but because he didn't play last year either, it doesn't knock the East down any from where it was.
• Coaches. You can make a fairly convincing argument that the three least-effective coaches were in the East last season: Larry Krystkowiak, Isiah Thomas and Sam Vincent. Not only were all three sent packing, but each was replaced by a coach with an established track record. Scott Skiles, Mike D'Antoni and Larry Brown will help teams in Milwaukee, New York and Charlotte get off the mat.
• Age. The Western powers are getting up in years and starting to show their cracks, particularly the trinity of Phoenix, San Antonio and Dallas. The three of them could end up dropping 25 wins from the West's total.
• Extremes. At the very top and very bottom, the East rules. Boston, obviously, is the reigning champ, and Detroit had the league's second-best record last season. Meanwhile, I'm projecting every Eastern team to win at least 27 games; rebuilding Western teams in Memphis, Oklahoma City and Sacramento all figure to do worse.
All told, the difference probably won't completely evaporate at the playoff-qualifying level -- I'm projecting Denver to miss the playoffs with 41 wins while Charlotte will make it with 40. But on a conference versus conference basis, I expect things to be pretty close to a draw, and for the first time in eons, it might even tilt to the East's advantage.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.