1 Though seeded third in the West, the Sonics will lose in the first round, making it even more unlikely that they'll accede to the contract demands of free-agent guard Ray Allen.
2 Power forward Dirk Nowitzki will begin laying the groundwork for his 2006 MVP candidacy by leading the Mavericks to a second-round upset of the top-seeded but less-experienced Suns.
3 After losing to the Pistons in the Finals as a Laker last season, Shaquille O'Neal (above) will come up short against Detroit again--this time when the Heat bow in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
4 The grittier Pistons will upend the Spurs to win their second straight NBA title. An exhausted Larry Brown will then announce he's taking a year off, forcing Detroit to hire a new coach.
5 In the off-season the Timberwolves will put Kevin Garnett on the market rather than try to piece together another expensive supporting cast for him. Potential trade partners will have to take swingman Wally Szczerbiak and point guard Troy Hudson in the deal as well. --I.T.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (O'NEAL)