For the first time in a decade, Shaquille O'Neal isn't the man in the middle. His body can't be trusted, he has lost a few steps, and the pack that has been nipping at his heels for the past few years has continued to improve.
|The Heat can count on being Shaq-less for 20 percent of their games. (Getty Images)|
Considering where he started at this point last year to where he ended up at season's end, Stoudemire displayed a great deal of character. He's an impressive competitor, mentally tough and relentless in his pursuit of improvement.
He got my All-NBA first-team vote in the spring, so it's only natural to give him the inside track to O'Neal's throne. Over the past few months, Stoudemire got fitter than ever and put in work on his jumper while staying busy with Team USA, another act of defiance against an injury some thought would doom him.
Rankings note: Players are ranked in the order of their projected impact on the coming season. Upside is taken into account, but only for the next 12 months. Whether you're a bargain or a bad contract doesn't matter.
1. Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix: He made up for a slight loss of explosion by improving in other areas. He didn't necessarily reinvent himself, but you get the sense he'd be able to if that's necessary down the road. He must to continue to improve as a leader and embrace Steve Nash as the perfect point guard to chase a championship with.
2. Yao Ming, Houston: When he was healthy, he was unstoppable, finally becoming the dominant presence everyone impatiently hoped he'd grow into. He has had some freak injuries each of the past two seasons, but that hasn't deterred his significant improvement. If anything, getting knocked down seems to have increased his hunger. Expect even bigger numbers under new coach Rick Adelman.
3. Dwight Howard, Orlando: When he entered the league, there was a fear a nice kid like Howard would be too passive to dominate inside. That's laughable now. He's still working on his consistency, but he has turned up the volume significantly as he has grown up. Expect him to own the paint much more often this year; he's poised to become the league's most prolific rebounder.
|1. A. Stoudemire||3|
|2. Y. Ming||4|
|3. D. Howard||2|
|4. S. O'Neal||1|
|5. M. Camby||6|
|6. E. Okafor||--|
|7. T. Chandler||13|
|8. R. Wallace||--|
|9. B. Wallace||7|
|10. M. Okur||9|
|Complete 2006 Rankings|
4. Shaquille O'Neal, Miami: You can never write him off, but you also can't overlook that it's become a given that nearly 20 percent of the Heat's games will be played without him. He missed at least 15 games in five of the past six seasons and will spend the final three years of his contract conserving energy in order to earn one last ring.
5. Marcus Camby, Denver: The NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year is aging gracefully. He played in 70 games for only the second time in his career last year, actually getting stronger as the season progressed. He blocked four or more shots in six of his last eight regular-season games and averaged more than 15 boards per game against the Spurs in the playoffs.
6. Emeka Okafor, Charlotte: He has been listed as a power forward since coming into the league, but since the Bobcats plan to run under Sam Vincent, Okafor is likely to see significant time at the five. Ideally, he'll be able to flourish on both ends in an up-and-down style, which I believe will contribute to helping him post All-Star-caliber numbers.
7. Tyson Chandler, New Orleans: A new situation was exactly what Chandler needed, and there was no need for any adjustment period. He came in grabbing boards and swatting shots and never stopped, leading to an invitation to the U.S. National Team and increased expectations for 2007-08.
8. Rasheed Wallace, Detroit: He'll report to camp 25 pounds lighter, set on thriving in a new position. The Pistons need a shot in the arm after falling apart last season, and Wallace could be the key to that, capitalizing on the vast array of mismatches he'll no doubt create.
9. Ben Wallace, Chicago: If you want to be Joe Friday about it, Wallace did have a down year in his first season in a Chicago uniform. In retrospect, growing pains probably should've been expected given the new environment, and it bodes well for the Bulls that Big Ben seemed to settle into a comfort zone by the time the playoffs rolled around. He may be 33 and not getting younger, but don't consider him a bust just yet. Wallace stays in phenomenal shape and will give the Bulls a healthy return on their heavily scrutinized investment.
10. Mehmet Okur, Utah: His perimeter touch found him the perfect niche in the Utah lineup, eventually resulting in his first All-Star appearance. It looked like he wilted down the stretch, though, resulting in poor performances against San Antonio in the Western Conference finals and for Turkey at the European Championships. Okur should benefit from a little time off before the season tips.
Greg Oden, Portland: Since he'll be missing the 2007-08 season, Oden doesn't qualify to make this list. If he had remained healthy, this is where he would've been ranked to begin his pro career.
11. Eddy Curry, New York: His progress was encouraging, particularly since he stayed healthy and brought his lunch pail to work nightly. Still, there's significant work to do for him to be considered a franchise center. It remains to be seen whether he and Zach Randolph can co-exist, especially on defense. Curry also needs to become a more productive rebounder and limit turnovers.
|Sept. 25||Power forward|
|Sept. 26||Small forward|
|Sept. 27||Shooting guard|
|Sept. 28||Point guard|
|Oct. 1||Top 50|
12. Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee: The coming season should ideally be the breakthrough year for the top pick of the 2005 draft. He's not the type of player who is going to get you 30 points and be the primary go-to guy, but he's capable of standing out with his all-around game if everything comes together.
13. Nenad Krstic, New Jersey: Krstic was thriving (16.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg) before tearing his ACL and is poised to come back strong and reprise his role as the Nets' best offensive big man. He gives defenders headaches with his ability to run the floor, a deft shooting touch and nice moves around the basket.
14. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland: His presence is essential to the Cavs' dynamic, supplying a calming veteran influence to a team that only recently learned how to win.
15. Chris Kaman, L.A. Clippers: Last season was a disaster for a variety of reasons, starting with lackluster conditioning. Kaman wanted to ensure that didn't trip him up again, so he showed up to play for L.A.'s Summer League entry. With Elton Brand gone, he'll get more opportunities, but also increased attention from opposing defenses.
16. Andris Biedrins, Golden State: Don Nelson gets the most out of the young Latvian, who reciprocates with great energy on defense and on the boards, even though his offensive game is still relatively non-existent. Still, his marvelous athleticism helps the Warriors go, helping super-charge their relentless pace.
17. Andrea Bargnani, Toronto: He's the latest in the growing trend of center variables, and if his rookie year is any indication, he's going to be one of the best. He's not afraid to take the big shot and his perimeter touch is deadly. He should be in the starting lineup this season, and although there will be many challenges -- rebounding, in particular -- there will be flashes of brilliance, too.
18. Brad Miller, Sacramento: Miller was really never healthy a year ago, so he's getting a pass for his first non-productive season in a Kings uniform. He has long been able to overcome his physical limitations by outthinking and outworking opponents, but his constant bouts with plantar fasciitis were too much to overcome. Hopefully the rest he gave his feet this offseason will allow him to get back on track.
19. Alonzo Mourning, Miami: The best backup center in basketball, he has been invaluable in full-time duty behind Shaq, averaging about eight points, five rebounds and 2.5 blocks in roughly 20 minutes of work over the past few years. Although his offensive game has become limited, he can still control a game for stretches with his defense.
20. Samuel Dalembert, Philadelphia: He's a notoriously slow starter, so news of a stress fracture in his left foot a few weeks before training camp is an ominous sign. Dalembert increased his productivity following Allen Iverson's departure, so the Sixers are once again expecting big things from him. That has been a recurring theme for years, but Dalembert is coming off his best season.
Also considered: Jamaal Magloire, New Jersey; Darko Milicic, Memphis; Troy Murphy, Golden State; Andrew Bynum, L.A. Lakers; Kwame Brown, L.A. Lakers; Primoz Brezec, Charlotte; DeSagana Diop, Dallas; Erick Dampier, Dallas; Mark Blount, Minnesota; Chris Mihm, L.A. Lakers; Rasho Nesterovic, Toronto; Kendrick Perkins, Boston; Jeff Foster, Indiana; Nazr Mohammed, Detroit; Zaza Pachulia, Atlanta; Joel Przybilla, Portland; Robert Swift, Seattle; Fabricio Oberto, San Antonio; Brendan Haywood, Washington; Etan Thomas, Washington.