NBA

NBA Predictions 2014-15: Win-Loss Projections for Each Team, Post-Free Agency

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 1, 2014

NBA Predictions 2014-15: Win-Loss Projections for Each Team, Post-Free Agency

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    With a few notable exceptions like Greg Monroe, Eric Bledsoe and Shawn Marion, most of the NBA's marquee free agents have made their way to their homes for the 2014-15 season. 

    What does that mean? 

    A lot, but for our purposes, it means that we can finally make realistic—and informed—win-loss predictions for the 30 teams in the Association. There's far less guesswork involved, as rosters are starting to become finalized and the landscape of each conference is beginning to take shape. 

    It's at this stage that I must lament the limited nature of the postseason. 

    Unfortunately, only eight teams in each conference have an ability to suit up for more than 82 games during any given campaign, and that's especially painful this year. I'm all in favor of meritocracies—when possible, of course—which means I'd love to see 11 playoff spots handed out to the Western Conference heading into the NBA's latest go-round. 

    Alas, that's not going to happen. As a result, tough postseason omissions ensue. 

15. Philadelphia 76ers: 18-64

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    Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    It's a pretty clear indication that a team doesn't plan on being particularly competitive when it's upset the league is making efforts to change what essentially amount to the policies on tanking. 

    "The NBA is pushing toward changes to the draft lottery system by next season but is facing a strong objection from the Philadelphia 76ers, the franchise that could suffer the most from it, multiple sources told ESPN.com," reported Brian Windhorst

    Doesn't that just about say it all? 

    In case drafting Joel Embiid (who won't compete at the start of the season and could possibly be held out all year, a la Nerlens Noel) and Dario Saric (not scheduled to arrive in the NBA for years) wasn't making things obvious enough, their objection is a surefire indication that the Philadelphia 76ers aren't planning on doing anything but competing for the NBA's worst record.

    Again. 

    Though Noel impressed during summer league action and the roster has some promising pieces, there's not enough established talent to do anything else. 

    "We know what the Sixers are doing," writes Yahoo Sports' Kelly Dwyer. "Philadelphia wants to lose, and the team’s evasive front office is also gaming the system."

    It should be a successful game, unless the changes are made. 

14. Milwaukee Bucks: 22-60

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    Jack Arent/Getty Images

    How's this for a good sign? 

    Even though Jabari Parker enjoyed a pretty solid run through the action in Las Vegas, he wasn't the main headline for the Milwaukee Bucks. That honor belonged to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who spent time playing point guard—yes, despite being 6'11" and still growing—while flashing his All-Star upside on a regular basis. The Greek Freak is ridiculously far ahead of his expected developmental curve, and he's primed to be a must-watch player in 2014-15. 

    However, the rest of the Bucks won't be too enjoyable. 

    This team is still trying to figure out its identity under a new head coach, and Jason Kidd has gluts of talent but not many established players. Chances are, this is another tanking season, but things are finally starting to look more promising for Milwaukee. 

    Winning more than 15 games—the total in 2013-14—should be a given, but the Bucks aren't going to blow that mark out of the water. 

13. Boston Celtics: 30-52

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    This offseason hasn't gone as smoothly as initially hoped for the Boston Celtics. 

    Drafting Marcus Smart gave general manager Danny Ainge another promising piece and potential trade chip, but the rest of the additions and re-signings haven't made too much sense. Not only did the C's overpay for restricted free agent Avery Bradley by giving him $8 million per season for the next four years, but they also gambled on Evan Turner, who doesn't fit with the current pieces in any way, shape or form. 

    Rajon Rondo, Smart and Turner are all lackluster—I'm trying to be nice—shooters from the perimeter, and it remains to be seen whether Bradley's impressive performance was a one-year fluke. Even if his development was legitimate, the Celtics have too many positional logjams and not enough help in the frontcourt to do anything more than stagnate. 

    Fortunately, the C's are set up to make further moves. They have plenty of tradable parts (including Rondo) and an abundance of movable draft picks at their disposal, creating a high likelihood of a trade either during the back end of the offseason or the beginning of the season. 

12. Orlando Magic: 31-51

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Orlando Magic are confusing. 

    Adding Channing Frye and Ben Gordon would make sense if the Magic were trying to compete right away, but then wouldn't they also have kept Jameer Nelson instead of cutting him to save the management some money? 

    Things get less confusing when you remember that general manager Rob Hennigan has a multiyear plan. The Magic obviously aren't going to be competitive with Elfrid Payton (a nice Rookie of the Year sleeper), Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon—among others—all filling in prominent roles, but they also have enough talent that they could earn a playoff berth in the not-so-distant future. 

    Ideally, Frye and Gordon are there when that happens, as they'll be able to serve as veteran presences both on and off the court. Yes, even Gordon, who will finally have to work for his living instead of sitting on the bench in disgruntled fashion. 

    The Magic have too much talent to fade to the bottom of the conference, but they're not ready to compete for a playoff spot either. This is just part of the process, even if the simultaneous lack of hope for a postseason berth and a top lottery pick might frustrate the fanbase at some point in January or February. 

11. New York Knicks: 35-47

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Even with Carmelo Anthony returning to Madison Square Garden on a massive contract, the New York Knicks aren't going to make the playoffs during the 2014-15 season. There's a slight chance they do—in fact, they're the first team in these standings with a realistic shot at a coveted postseason berth—but there's too much novelty and not enough talent. 

    Don't get me wrong. Phil Jackson has gotten off to a great start while running the show for the 'Bockers, trading for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin and others, drafting Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, luring Melo back to New York and allowing hope to enter back into the equation. 

    However, that hope should apply to the 2015 offseason, not what comes between now and then. 

    With Derek Fisher learning how to coach just months removed from playing in the postseason for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and a roster that isn't too much more talented than last year's, the postseason is a pipe dream. Plus, learning the triangle offense will be a process for the established incumbents. 

    Don't count the Knicks out quite yet, but don't expect them to play past the regular season either. 

10. Detroit Pistons: 36-46

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    There's still no indication of any resolution to the Greg Monroe saga. The talented restricted free agent is still a part of the open market, signing neither a contract to return to the Detroit Pistons nor an offer sheet that would force the franchise's hand. 

    Until something points firmly to the contrary, I'm operating under the potentially faulty assumption that Moose will be back in the same uniform for the 2014-15 season, even if he's only playing for a qualifying offer so that he can hit unrestricted free agency next summer. 

    And that makes shooting all the more important, which it seems like everyone in the organization is aware of. Andre Drummond is no exception, as he made clear when speaking with MLive.com's David Mayo:

    Stan [Van Gundy] really wanted to get a lot of shooters and give me space on the block to really operate and not worry about getting double-teamed and guys sagging off. We have great shooters now, so they either have to stick them, or they're going to get dunked on, or they're going to give up a three. So I think the reason why he's doing that is to really get us flowing and spread the floor out.

    Shooting was the goal, and the goal was achieved.

    Between Jodie Meeks, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caron Butler, D.J. Augustin and Cartier Martin (as well as the expected improvement from summer league standout Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), the Pistons added a boatload of players who could capably fire away from beyond the arc and space the floor for the bigs. 

    But will it be enough? 

    Until there's an established system, comfort with Stan Van Gundy and a guarantee that Josh Smith will play to his strengths, there can't be a positive answer.

9. Brooklyn Nets: 37-45

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    NBA Photos/Getty Images

    Is Jarrett Jack really going to replace Shaun Livingston? 

    You tell me based on these per-game numbers and advanced metrics from Basketball-Reference.com

     PPGRPGAPGSTLFG%TS%PERWSWS/48
    Livingston8.33.23.21.248.355.114.54.40.108
    Jack9.52.84.10.741.049.811.52.30.049

    Unless you get caught up in looking at per-game numbers in a vacuum, it's hard to make an argument for Jack. Especially because he's four inches shorter and not as capable of starting at shooting guard and pushing Joe Johnson to the 3, as Livingston so often did when the Brooklyn Nets were hot.

    Beyond that, replacing Paul Pierce will be an impossible task, especially with no truly notable additions to the roster. The hope is that Brook Lopez's return will be enough to offset any decline from Kevin Garnett and the rest of the aging roster, along with Pierce's absence and the backcourt downgrade.

    News flash: It won't be.

    Aging teams with a key player returning from a chronic injury, little depth and no identity don't tend to fare well. Maybe Lionel Hollins can squeeze some elite defense out of K.G., Johnson and the rest of the roster, but even that won't be enough to get back into the postseason, price of the roster be damned.  

8. Indiana Pacers: 42-40

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    Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

    It might seem strange to have the Indiana Pacers going from the top spot in the conference to the bottom place in the postseason field, but were the Pacers really a No. 1 seed last year? 

    Technically, yes. 

    But this team did everything it could to squander that luxury during the second half of the season and underwhelmed in the playoffs. Why should the strong beginning of the campaign trump everything else? If you look only at what happened after the All-Star break, the Pacers had a 16-14 record. In the playoffs, they went 10-9. 

    The first gives Indiana a winning percentage of 53.3 percent, while the latter is 52.6. If those were the sole basis of a team's placement in the Eastern Conference during the 2013-14 season, they would each have the squad finishing with the No. 6 seed, ahead of just the Charlotte Hornets (then Bobcats) and Atlanta Hawks among postseason teams. 

    So don't think of this as dropping from No. 1 to No. 8.

    It's more like a two-spot decline, one created—covered in more detail here—by attempting to replace Lance Stephenson with Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles, having the league as a whole figure out the defensive schemes, failing to add depth and taking away the player who made Paul George thrive on the offensive end.

    Losing Born Ready to the Hornets is going to sting (shameless pun intended), but that's not the only issue here. Even if the psychological issues go away, the talent isn't there, at least not to the same extent.

    Is it enough to drop a team seven spots? Absolutely not. But the Pacers haven't played like a No. 1 seed in a long time. 

7. Miami Heat: 43-39

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Few teams have the up-and-down potential possessed by these new-look Miami Heat. 

    If Luol Deng returns to form, freed from the heavy minutes of Tom Thibodeau and thriving in a smaller offensive role, the Heat will be solid. If Chris Bosh can capably hold down the fort as a No. 1 option, they'll be better. If Dwyane Wade can survive after losing the protection offered by LeBron James, continuing to play like an elite shooting guard even if he has to take the occasional maintenance day, the Heat will exceed even the most optimistic expectations. 

    Any combination of those three things could happen, which could allow Miami to rise as high as No. 3 in the Eastern Conference standings. Of course, "any combination" allows for the distinct possibility that none of them could...

    There are question marks everywhere, even when it comes to Erik Spoelstra's coaching without LeBron helping him out (personally, I think Spo has proved enough that those concerns are foolish) and the depth of the second unit. 

    Miami has the potential to rise to No. 3, but it could also fall out of the playoffs entirely in the wake of the four-time MVP's departure. Chances are, there's a healthy compromise, hence the placement at No. 7. 

6. Atlanta Hawks: 44-38

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Hawks had the cap space necessary to make a big splash during the offseason. 

    But instead of compressing himself into a small space and rolling with a massive cannonball, GM Danny Ferry dove cleanly into the water, only displacing a small amount of the free-agency pool. While Carmelo Anthony was the pipe dream and Luol Deng was the realistic goal, Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha were the actual additions. 

    They can both be key players, helping the wing defense on the Atlanta roster assert itself as one of the best units in the league, but neither is a high-impact player at this stage of their respective careers. But fortunately for the Hawks, they didn't have to sign one of those special players, because one was returning from injury. 

    Al Horford should be ready to go after a torn pectoral knocked him out of action for most of the season. He's still a bona fide All-Star who can carry a team on the offensive end of the court while playing above-average defense, and the Hawks were on pace to earn the No. 3 seed before he went down with that injury for the second time in his career. 

    Don't sleep on this team now that he and Paul Millsap are set to join up once again. 

5. Charlotte Hornets: 46-36

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    Kent Smith/Getty Images

    Lance Stephenson is a great fit for the Charlotte Hornets, as he's a player who can buy into Steve Clifford's defensive stylings while providing the team with another set of hands capable of creating shots for anyone on the court. 

    The biggest concern, though, is that his antics will be detrimental to a team that had some of the best chemistry in the entire NBA during the 2013-14 season. One immature presence in the locker room is enough to create a yawning chasm and split the team into opposing factions, and the former Bobcats can't afford for that to happen. 

    As the Associated Press explains, Stephenson is aware of the national perception of his game, and Michael Jordan is too: 

    Clifford said Hornets owner Michael Jordan addressed those issues with Stephenson in a meeting (prior to the signing) in Las Vegas.

    'He talked to him about what we can work on—and [Stephenson] knows that,' Clifford said. 'Lance knows that sometimes he has crossed the line a little bit. But I think he does it out of competitiveness.'

    Stephenson acknowledged he has to mature as a player. But he said that after talking to Jordan, he knew he wanted to join the Hornets.

    'He loves my game and what I bring to the table,' said Stephenson, who turned down a five-year, $45 million deal to stay in Indiana. 'He loves that I'm a great passer and I play with my teammates, and he loves the competitive edge that I have.'

    So long as he's not a distraction, Stephenson is one of many promising additions during this offseason—Brian Roberts (say goodbye to missed free throws), Marvin Williams (overpaid but a solid veteran off the bench), P.J. Hairston (triples galore if he doesn't get into trouble off the court) and Noah Vonleh (high-upside two-way presence in the frontcourt). Plus, Jeff Taylor should be healthy again. 

    Charlotte can no longer be taken lightly. 

4. Toronto Raptors: 48-34

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    Ron Turenne/Getty Images

    Toronto isn't just a destination for overlooked players to go to anymore. 

    Kyle Lowry re-signing, Greivis Vasquez never showing any desire to go elsewhere and the acquisition of an underrated contributor like James Johnson all saw to that. Now, the Raptors are poised to continue what they started after Rudy Gay played his last game for Toronto on Dec. 6 and was subsequently traded to the Sacramento Kings. 

    From that point on, the team went 42-22, good for a winning percentage of 65.6 percent. If you prorate that to an entire 82-game season, Toronto would have gone 54-28. 

    So, why the decline? 

    It's not really a dip in effectiveness, but rather an admission that the Raptors didn't improve as much as the other teams in the Eastern Conference. Just think about the other teams from the East you haven't seen yet, plus the growth of many squads who have more potential to steal games from the Canadian representatives despite finishing below them in the standings. 

    The Chicago Bulls are set to get Derrick Rose back, and they made many notable additions. The Cleveland Cavaliers now have LeBron James and the Washington Wizards are a young, growing team that added a veteran presence and depth. 

    Having a worse record than that prorated one isn't an indication of regression, just an admission that the team didn't keep pace with the conference's other improvers. Of course, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross could quickly make me regret that. 

3. Washington Wizards: 51-31

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Losing Trevor Ariza hurts, but adding Paul Pierce helps. 

    Although The Truth isn't quite as good from beyond the arc, he gives the offense a new flavor. The veteran forward is more capable of creating shots off the bounce, and he's one of the more underrated perimeter defenders in the league, thereby mitigating any negative impact on that end after Ariza's departure to the Houston Rockets. 

    Plus, there's a chance he could do a convincing Ariza imitation from beyond the arc. John Wall is that good at finding open shooters in the corners, and free looks tend to boost percentages. 

    But while Pierce is obviously the headlining addition, the newfound depth is what allows the Washington Wizards to win seven more games than they did last year while moving up in the standings. 

    Hoopsstats.com shows that the Washington bench finished No. 26 in minutes played, No. 28 in offensive efficiency and No. 26 in defensive efficiency, making for a brutal combination whenever the starters needed some pine time to catch their breath. 

    Adding DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries will help the frontcourt. Massive improvements from Glen Rice Jr. and Otto Porter, who both looked fantastic at summer league, will aid the cause as well, and the rest of the key bench players (like Drew Gooden, a late-season addition last year) won't hurt. 

    On top of that, there's a great chance Bradley Beal makes the proverbial leap, while Wall continues his ascent toward the top of the unofficial point guard rankings. If both of those things happen, Washington is the first team in these projected standings with a legitimate shot at the No. 1 seed. 

2. Cleveland Cavaliers: 54-28

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Having LeBron James on the roster helps. 

    Any team he's on is going to be an immediately competitive squad, as he's reached that point in his development and has been there for a few years now, but the Cleveland Cavaliers already had quite a bit of talent on the roster.

    Kyrie Irving may finally start living up to the hype, assuming he's motivated to play defense and thrives when LeBron draws attention away from him, which will allow him to become more efficient than ever before. Anthony Bennett appeared to be in better shape and far more confident during the Las Vegas Summer League, and Andrew Wiggins is obviously an impressive talent. 

    Add in Dion Waiters (great in the second half of the season), Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao and the rest of the roster, which should be laden with veteran shooters by the time the offseason ends, and you're looking at a great team. 

    However, let's not give King James and the Cavaliers a crown yet. 

    Defense is still going to be an issue, especially if the depth and talent are gutted for a chance to acquire Kevin Love. So too is the overall youth, and the fact that a first-year head coach is running the show. Talented as David Blatt may be, his success overseas doesn't guarantee quality work in the Association.

    I'm on board the Blatt train, but there will still be an adjustment period. 

1. Chicago Bulls: 58-24

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah is a scary combination. 

    They're complementary players who can create beautiful basketball with their phenomenal passing from all areas of the court, and Noah's defense should mesh perfectly with Gasol's finesse offensive game. But the Spanish 7-footer—who might create some problems with Taj Gibson, seeing as the now-veteran power forward eventually needs a starting gig—wasn't the only big move this offseason. 

    Doug McDermott is a scoring stud who should make immediate contributions in the Windy City. Nikola Mirotic is coming across the pond as well and is set to help increase the offensive capabilities of this defensively dominant squad. 

    Oh, and Derrick Rose. You may have heard something about him. 

    While we won't know anything definitive about the former MVP until he's provided us with a sizable sample of regular-season action, he's been phenomenal during the summer. 

    "He's been the most impressive guy here," Jim Boeheim said to ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell, referring to Rose's performance during the Team USA training camp in Las Vegas.

    Similar sentiments were given by Mike Krzyzewski, and Rose hasn't exactly been shy about expressing confidence in his game.

    If the point guard is vintage D-Rose, the Bulls may as well be a lock for the No. 1 seed. But this roster is now so deep and talented on both ends of the court that he could ease his way back into action, play like a replacement-level guy at the start of the season and still help lead a charge toward the top of the East. 

15. Utah Jazz: 16-66

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    Jack Arent/Getty Images

    The Utah Jazz have a lot of young talent. There's no doubt about that, especially after matching the offer sheet for Gordon Hayward and retaining his services for a max deal. 

    However, not much of that talent is ready to help the Jazz compete right now. 

    Trey Burke's development is coming along more slowly than expected, especially after a fairly miserable showing in Las Vegas during summer league play. Dante Exum has superstar potential, but he's one of the least NBA-ready picks from this year's first round, and his growth is going to be filled with dizzying ups and plenty of downs. 

    On top of that, the Jazz have lost many of their veteran contributors. 

    Brandon Rush, John Lucas, Marvin Williams, Andris Biedrins, Jamaal Tinsley and Richard Jefferson were the players on last year's roster with five years of NBA experience or more. Every single one of them is gone, replaced by only Steve Novak. Trevor Booker has the second-most experience, and this will be his fifth professional season. 

    Even though Quin Snyder's presence on the sideline offers hope, the Jazz are doomed to a season without many wins. 

14. Sacramento Kings: 26-56

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Ridiculous offensive explosions have come out of nowhere before, even if some have been lost in the crowded annals of NBA history. 

    Take Michael Adams, a historically underrated point guard who was going about his business for the Denver Nuggets before flat-out exploding during the 1990-91 campaign, even if he didn't spend too much more time on the court. One year after averaging 15.5 points and 6.3 assists per game, Adams caught fire, posting 26.5 points and 10.5 dimes per contest the very next year.

    The 5'10" point guard made the jump in his sixth season, which just happens to be the one Darren Collison is entering now that he—two inches taller than Adams, mind you—is joining the Sacramento Kings and replacing Isaiah Thomas in the starting lineup.

    How is this relevant?

    Because that's the type of unforeseen offensive explosion that would be necessary for the Kings to exceed the expectations dramatically enough that they work their way into the postseason amid a ridiculously stacked field of teams in the Western Conference. It has to come out of nowhere, and it has to be huge. 

    Hell, even that from the former Los Angeles Clipper might not be enough. He'd do an even more convincing Adams imitation, because the lack of team success would lead to him eventually being overlooked two decades down the road.

    And of course, it's not exactly likely in the first place. Collison may have posted fairly similar per-minute numbers to the ones Adams registered before exploding, but there have been no signs of that type of growth from the new Sac-Town floor general.

    Chances are, the Kings will stagnate this year, reeling after losing the former Mr. Irrelevant and waiting for their myriad young talents to make massive strides forward.  

12 (tie). Minnesota Timberwolves: 32-50

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    Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

    The Kevin Love situation prevents us from having any clarity. 

    If he's traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Minnesota Timberwolves will be getting back a package of players that won't allow them to compete right away. There will be far too much youth, though the level of talent will drastically increase, presumably with Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett on the roster. 

    If he's dealt to the Golden State Warriors for Klay Thompson (and other pieces), the 'Wolves will be more competitive right away. Good enough to make the playoffs, though? Not without Love on the roster; that's for sure. They'd only be moderately better. 

    Oh, and how long will it take for Minnesota to find a trade that works for both parties? 

    The team could deal Love tomorrow, wait until the end of the offseason, shop him at the beginning of the season, wait until the deadline is looming or inexplicably keep him until he walks in free agency next summer. 

    There's no way to be sure. The only safe bet is that he'll be gone at some point.

12 (tie). Los Angeles Lakers: 32-50

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    The Los Angeles Lakers managed to add a few big names over the offseason, but there's no reason to think they'll be a playoff team during the 2014-15 season. 

    Not even with Kobe Bryant back on the floor. 

    While the Mamba's return will provide the Lake Show with a big offensive boost, let's not forget that he's a well-tread 36-year-old shooting guard (he will be at the start of the season) coming off multiple major injuries. Expecting him to look just like he did two or three years ago is foolish, and you'll only be setting yourself up for disappointment if that's your route of choice. 

    Plus, offense isn't the worry here. That would be defense. 

    Even if Byron Scott holds his players accountable for their work on the less glamorous end of the court, the pieces just aren't there. Carlos Boozer is one of the bigger defensive liabilities in the Association, and you can't pick a defensive standout between Jeremy Lin, Steve Nash, Jordan Clarkson, Kobe, Nick Young, Julius Randle, Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre and Ed Davis. 

    Hey, that's pretty much the entire roster!

    The Lakers should be moderately better than last season, when they won 27 games and finished in the second-worst spot in the Western Conference. But only moderately.

    Here's Bleacher Report's Dan Favale

    For the Lakers to be better than expected—not even a playoff team; just better than expected—they need to be elite in one area of the game, lest the ultra-competitive Western Conference swallow them whole. Problem is, the Lakers aren't built to defend, Scott isn't an a brilliant offensive mind and their most valuable scorer, Bryant, has appeared in six games since April 2013.

    ...

    Those thinking the Lakers will be marginally better than last year are on the right track, because that's what they are: slightly more talented, walking a slippery slope, one injury away from another season-long fiasco, one Kobe Bryant renaissance shy of exceeding minimal expectations.

    After going more than three decades between single-digit picks in the NBA draft, the Lakers are primed to make one in back-to-back seasons. 

11. New Orleans Pelicans: 41-41

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    The New Orleans Pelicans are the first of the 11 teams in the Western Conference with a legitimate shot at advancing past the 82nd game of the 2014-15 campaign. Yes, they are seriously one shy of a dozen. 

    In fact, NOLA is projected to finish only four games outside of the playoffs here, despite checking in with that No. 11 seed. 

    This is not the same team as last year. Not even remotely. 

    In addition to expected health from all the key pieces, the team has added Omer Asik to bolster the defensive line in the frontcourt. He creates an intriguing mix of specialists among the biggest positions, and lineups featuring him and Ryan Anderson will prove to be quite complementary. 

    But most notable is Anthony Davis, who is set to be bigger, faster, stronger, you-name-it-er (as long as it's positive), smarter and better at shooting during his third professional season. He looks the part in Las Vegas while training with Team USA, and he's primed to assert himself as one of those players in the top tier of the Association, right up there on—or at least near—the level of LeBron James and Kevin Durant

    "I know how good [Davis] is going to be," Durant told NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer after one of the USA practices. "I know how good he is now, but I know how good he’s going to be. He’s an MVP-caliber player. So he’s next. He’s next in line—a guy that has grown so much in just a year."

    Next is happening now. 

10. Denver Nuggets: 42-40

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    "I believe this is a championship team under the right mindset and coaching," Arron Afflalo told Cody Taylor of Basketball Insiders after he was traded back to the Denver Nuggets, swapped for Evan Fournier and a second-round draft pick that turned into Roy Devyn Marble. 

    That's an exaggeration. 

    Denver may have secured some support from Kendrick Lamar (NSFW language warning), but a championship isn't exactly in the cards. Even earning a playoff spot is going to be difficult enough, despite the massive improvements made this season. 

    Adding Afflalo and Gary Harris to the shooting guard rotation makes Denver even deeper. With Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson, JaVale McGee and Danilo Gallinari all set to return from season-ending injuries, the Nuggets are poised to get significantly better than they were during the 2013-14 campaign. 

    But will it be enough? 

    The Nuggets still lack that established star, though Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried could both get to that level. As tough as the West is set to be, that's hard to overcome, even with the ridiculous levels of depth at each and every position. 

    Now if that depth can be turned into star power...

9. Phoenix Suns: 43-39

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The Phoenix Suns are inching closer and closer to completing their "oh my goodness, how did they do this so fast?" rebuild. So really, they aren't inching at all. 

    Rather than addressing its need for a post presence, Phoenix made its big offseason splash by securing the services of Isaiah Thomas, giving him one of the best value contracts out there. He'll thrive next to Goran Dragic—and Eric Bledsoe, if the restricted free agent ever agrees to terms with the Suns.

    Even if it's just him and Dragic, he'll work nicely. 

    But are the Suns ready for the big time? 

    They're still an inexperienced team without many established upper-echelon players, and they regressed as the season went on (due both to Bledsoe's absence and teams having a scouting report on their unorthodox two-point guard system). Chances are, they fall just slightly shy of the postseason before adding even more talent next summer, especially without Channing Frye's contributions. Anthony Tolliver just isn't a replacement on the same level. 

    All the while, they'll still be one of the best League Pass teams in the NBA. 

8. Portland Trail Blazers: 45-37

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    The Portland Trail Blazers are not regressing. 

    They just aren't improving at the same rate as the rest of the Western Conference teams fighting for higher seeds in the postseason (save the Houston Rockets, who actually have regressed). 

    The same starting five that was so dominant last year is in place, but is the bench really going to be that much better?

    Chris Kaman and Steve Blake are coming to town, but Mo Williams is leaving. Barring serious improvement from the young guns—C.J. McCollum, Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard chief among them—Rip City will continue to rely far too heavily on the starters. 

    When the combination of Blake and Kaman, two declining players who couldn't play huge roles on a putrid Lakers team, are your big offseason additions during a year in which you didn't even have a draft pick, it's tough to keep pace with the rest of the conference's elite. 

7. Houston Rockets: 46-36

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    The Houston Rockets aren't in as much trouble as some think. 

    Trevor Ariza is actually a better fit for the team than Chandler Parsons was, as he puts the ball in the hands of James Harden even more and is a more dangerous spot-up threat with even better skills on defense. If he can get everyone on the roster to commit on that end of the court, he'll be an even bigger asset than previously thought. 

    However, not everything is positive. 

    The Rockets already had one of the shallowest benches in the NBA, and losing Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik for what essentially amounts to nothing isn't going to help with that. Right now, Ish Smith, Troy Daniels, Nick Johnson, Alonzo Gee and Donatas Motiejunas are poised to be the best players for the second unit, which is a scary proposition for a team that is expecting to earn a postseason spot in the West. 

    On the bright side, Dwight Howard is still the best center in the NBA. James Harden is the best offensive 2-guard in the Association, and his overall status depends on the health of Dwyane Wade, his defensive effort and Kobe Bryant's return. 

    Those two alone should keep this team competitive, but they'll have their work cut out for them this year. 

6. Memphis Grizzlies: 48-34

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    The Memphis Grizzlies found themselves a steal. 

    Vince Carter is essentially replacing Mike Miller, except he brings a lot more to the table. Not only can he rain in threes from the outside, but he can lock down on defense and create offensive opportunities for himself—the former helping him fit in perfectly with that "grit and grind" mentality that defines the Grizz. 

    All the key pieces are back, and they should be more comfortable during their second year working with Dave Joerger. Plus, there's a lot more shooting, between Vinsanity's arrival, Quincy Pondexter's return to health and the combined efforts of Jordan Adams and Jamaal Franklin. 

    It's also worth noting that after Marc Gasol returned from his midseason knee injury, playing against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Jan. 14, the Grizz put together a 33-13 record. Prorate that to a full 82-game season, and that's good for a 59-23 record. 

    Given the aging nature of some of their key rotation members and the overall difficulty of the West, that's not sustainable, but it's a clear indication that this improved roster is capable of pushing 50 wins during the 2014-15 campaign. 

5. Dallas Mavericks: 49-33

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    The Dallas Mavericks are going to have the NBA's best offense during the 2014-15 season. 

    They were already close last year, finishing behind only the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Now, while retaining their two studs (Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis), they're adding a versatile wing with a high ceiling (Chandler Parsons), upgrading at center (Tyson Chandler is limited, but he draws attention and compresses defenses) and bringing quality veterans (Jameer Nelson and Richard Jefferson) aboard. 

    I'd be shocked if there's a more dangerous offensive team out there, particularly with Rick Carlisle at the helm. 

    However, defense is going to be problematic. 

    There aren't many stoppers on the roster, which puts quite a bit of pressure on Chandler to control the rim at all times. Unless Parsons makes that proverbial leap on the less glamorous end and helps replace Vince Carter and Shawn Marion, that will be the team's ultimate downfall. 

    Still, this was a dangerous squad last year, one that actually pushed the San Antonio Spurs to the brink in the opening round of the playoffs.

    Now it's even better. 

4. Golden State Warriors: 51-31

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Golden State Warriors quietly put together a solid offseason, even if they haven't made any glamorous moves. Of course, they still could if they decide to swap Klay Thompson for Kevin Love, but it's not as though that has resulted in anything other than an impasse up to this point. 

    Last we heard, per Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, things were looking good for the Cleveland Cavaliers in their pursuit of the All-Star forward, which would leave Golden State out in the cold.

    The Dubs still have plenty of young players ready to break out on the bench—Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Nemanja Nedovic and Festus Ezeli—but now they're adding veterans.

    Brandon Rush qualifies as such, even if he's been injured during the last third of his NBA career, and Shaun Livingston is a guard who will fit in perfectly with the Golden State system. 

    Livingston can't stand out as a shooter, but he can handle the ball, distribute it capably, score out of the post and line up at either guard position without giving up any size or speed. He should be a big difference-maker for the Warriors, who have struggled to find workable second-unit guards for some time now. 

    If Steve Kerr fits right in as a first-year head coach, this is going to be a supremely dangerous squad on both ends of the court. 

3. Los Angeles Clippers: 53-29

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    The Los Angeles Clippers went into the offseason desperately needing to shore up a lackluster frontcourt portion of their bench, one that struggled to keep pace whenever Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were either catching a second wind or sitting out with foul trouble. 

    Did they do it? 

    Eh...not really. 

    Spencer Hawes is an intriguing addition, one who can complement Jordan quite well because of his penchant for perimeter play, but Glen Davis is the only other player set to come off the bench. He's a fairly nondescript entity at this stage of his career, and he'll hardly serve as a difference-maker for LAC. 

    Beyond them, there are literally no other backups at the moment. 

    This is still problematic for the Clips, even if the presence of the aforementioned starters, the point god known as Chris Paul, Doc Rivers and the host of talents at the wing positions will keep them right near the top of the conference. If they can parlay some of the shooting guards into big men via trade, they'll have a chance at moving all the way up to the No. 1 spot. 

2. Oklahoma City Thunder: 54-28

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Oklahoma City Thunder are pretty much the exact same squad they were last year, except they've replaced Thabo Sefolosha's defense with Anthony Morrow's offense. 

    Morrow is one of the league's elite sharpshooters, and his perimeter prowess should fit in nicely along the other offensive pieces on the OKC roster. His defensive shortcomings will be noticeable, but less so with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins/Steven Adams cleaning up behind him. 

    However, while he and Mitch McGary are the only significant roster changes (sorry, Sebastian Telfair, Semaj Christon and Josh Huestis), he's not the only improvement. 

    This is still a ridiculously young squad.

    Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are moving toward their respective primes, as is Ibaka. And chances are, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, Andre Roberson and Adams all take strides in the positive direction now that they have even more NBA experience under their belts. 

    OKC might not look too different in 2014-15 than it did last season. But does it need to? 

    Not at all. 

1. San Antonio Spurs: 57-25

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    First of all, let's just acknowledge that the picture up above is fantastic and should be sitting in an expensive frame in the house of every single San Antonio Spurs fan out there. 

    Moving past that ultra-obvious statement—I mean, look at it!—the Spurs are primed to be the best team in the Western Conference yet again.

    Darn, I can't get out of the realm of the obvious yet...

    San Antonio didn't lose any crucial pieces, notably re-signing Boris Diaw and Patty Mills, and it didn't exactly have a need to make any improvements. As Josh Martin made clear for Bleacher Report, the Spurs can afford to "run it back" after winning a title in such dominant fashion:

    And, really, why wouldn't San Antonio run it back? The team won 62 games during the regular season, stormed through the last three rounds of the playoffs and have in place a system in which all the pieces presently fit perfectly.

    All of which is to ask: If it ain't broke, why fix it?

    This team certainly isn't broken, and whatever does go awry will probably just be fixed by Gregg Popovich, who continues building a legacy that will ultimately leave him on the Mount Rushmore of NBA head coaches. 

    Only the parity of the Western Conference and the ages of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker (which will lead to rest days) are going to keep San Antonio from matching last season's 62 wins. And why bother pushing toward that number when 57 should be capable of winning a conference in which all the good teams will keep one another from racking up too many victories? 

     

    OK, go ahead and tell me on Twitter and Facebook where you disagree. Or where you couldn't agree more, if you're feeling kind. 

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