NBA Teams Poised to Make the Biggest Leap During 2014-15 Season
In the midst of an exciting summer, a handful of teams are poised to break out during the 2014-15 NBA season.
While a number of clubs improved in the offseason, these six helped their cause the most by improving their roster through a combination of free-agent and trade moves. The health of these teams will also be critical in determining their true ceilings.
Some will emerge from the basement and return to the NBA spotlight, while others are playoff teams that have positioned themselves as potential contenders.
The beauty of the draft and free agency is that it can turn a franchise's fortunes around in an instant. If you hit on the right rookie or sign a capable veteran, you can go from chasing pingpong balls to NBA championships in no time.
We will take a look at what makes the following six teams so special and how far they've come since the end of last season.
New Orleans Pelicans
Outside of the Western Conference's top eight teams from last season, there is a small group that could play their way into the playoff picture this year.
The Phoenix Suns shocked the basketball world by coming within a few games of making the postseason. After a strong draft (T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Alec Brown) and the signing of point guard Isaiah Thomas, they will be competitive once again.
The Denver Nuggets suffered a number of costly injuries that led to a 36-46 record, including to J.J Hickson, JaVale McGee, Nate Robinson and Danilo Gallinari. This summer, they added a few pieces, like veteran shooter Arron Afflalo and rookie Gary Harris.
However, of the teams that missed the playoffs in the West last year, the New Orleans Pelicans will be the club that makes the biggest leap.
Why? Well, for starters, they have an emerging superstar in Anthony Davis. The 21-year-old has been so good early in his career that he caught the attention of reigning MVP Kevin Durant, according to NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer:
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. I’m excited to see what he does from here. He’s definitely on pace.
That's heavy praise for a kid that has played just two seasons so far. The excitement in NOLA doesn't stop at The Unibrow. Like the Nuggets, the Pelicans dealt with a ton of injuries last season, including to Davis. When healthy, the team will be able to surround Davis with a solid supporting cast that includes Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, all of whom missed significant time in 2013-14.
The final cherry on top is the addition of former Houston Rockets center Omer Asik. New Orleans needed a big man inside to pair with Davis, and they got one in the Turkish 7-footer.
With Davis and Asik, the Pelicans have one of the best defensive frontcourts as well as a dynamic duo that will be great on the glass.
Now, to make the playoffs, New Orleans will need a few breaks. The Dallas Mavericks had to win 49 games just to nab the eighth seed last year. Still, if this core can stay healthy and Davis continues to grow, the Pelicans can greatly improve on last season's 34-win campaign.
When center Al Horford went down after just 29 games with a torn pectoral muscle, it would have been understandable if the Atlanta Hawks' season went with him. Instead, Jeff Teague climbed the NBA's point guard ranks and Paul Millsap put the frontcourt on his back by averaging 17.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game.
Now, Horford is back and ready to build on last year's output of 18.6 points, 8.4 boards and 1.5 blocks per contest. The team also added a solid perimeter defender in Thabo Sefolosha and got a potential steal in versatile big man Adreian Payne with the No. 15 overall pick.
If Horford returns to form, Atlanta will have arguably the best frontcourt duo in the Eastern Conference. It also gives the Hawks two more guys who can defend their position along with Teague and Sefolosha. Plus, you have to throw in Kyle Korver, who shot a ridiculous 47.2 percent from behind the arc last year.
Even with injuries, Atlanta managed to earn the eighth seed and gave the Indiana Pacers all they could handle during a seven-game series. Now, the East is a bit more wide-open, and the return of Horford as well as their offseason additions make the Hawks a legitimate sleeper team.
If a hobbled Hawks team could win 38 games with their best player missing most of the season, imagine what they can do if the core stays healthy. After all, they were the third seed in the East before Horford's season-ending injury.
The Charlotte Hornets (formerly the Bobcats) were one of the NBA's biggest surprises last season. After winning just 21 games during the 2012-13 campaign, Charlotte more than doubled that total by going 43-39 and making the playoffs.
What do the new-look Hornets have in store for an encore?
Well, the Hornets weren't satisfied in just having a solid one-two punch in Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson, so they made some nice additions. The biggest was when they signed one of last season's breakout stars in Lance Stephenson.
Stephenson stepped up his game considerably and emerged as the Indiana Pacers' second-best player behind Paul George. He averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game while also showing off some defensive chops as well.
Beyond Stephenson, the Hornets strengthened their second unit by signing point guard Brian Roberts and forward Marvin Williams.
The Hornets also added Indiana forward Noah Vonleh, who slid to them at No. 9 overall. At just 18 years old, Vonleh has star potential. He joins Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the list of Charlotte prospects who could be on the rise in the near future.
The key to the Hornets is youth. Stephenson is 23 years old. Walker is 24. Zeller, MKG and Bismack Biyombo are all 21 or under. Jefferson is the grandpa of the group at 29 years old.
With the top of the East suddenly vulnerable, the Hornets could move from the seventh seed last year to among the top three this year. They have a capable coach in Steve Clifford and now add Stephenson to a solid core.
After years of being an afterthought, this could be the season that Charlotte emerges from the pack.
This summer couldn't have gone any better for the Cleveland Cavaliers. It started with the team winning the No. 1 pick for the third time in four years and selecting Kansas phenom Andrew Wiggins. That alone should have been enough for Cavs fans to get excited about next season.
Then, the Cavaliers made headlines by luring Cleveland's native son, LeBron James, back home from South Beach.
Now, per ESPN's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst, the Cavaliers appear to be the last team remaining in the sweepstakes for Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star forward Kevin Love:
However, sources this week have described the Cavs as the only team in contention for Love. Those sources say the Chicago Bulls have become increasingly pessimistic about their chances of trumping Cleveland's offer, while the Golden State Warriors remained unwilling to bend on their longstanding refusal to surrender Klay Thompson in a deal for Love.
Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press adds that Wolves owner Glen Taylor has called a Love trade "likely" and that Aug. 23 is the date it is expected to happen. The reason for the delay is that Minnesota's compensation centers around Wiggins, who recently signed his rookie contract and can't be dealt until 30 days after.
Regardless of who Cleveland sends to Minnesota for Love, the Cavs would go into next season with the talented trio of James, Love and Kyrie Irving. While that could be problematic defensively with Love and Irving, the offensive firepower should be more than enough to make up for it.
Beyond Cleveland's new "Big Three," the Cavs also have young role players like Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and Dion Waiters to help out. The team has steady veteran Anderson Varejao to bang bodies inside as well.
As with any newly formed superteam, there are going to be growing pains. However, James has been down this road before, and the East is weak enough that the Cavs could still dominate even as they find their rhythm.
In just a few months, the Cavaliers have gone from one of the worst teams in basketball to a potential title contender.
The Dallas Mavericks weren't satisfied with being the best eighth seed in recent memory and giving the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs all they could handle in the first round of the playoffs.
Instead, a team that won 49 games with a veteran roster found a way to get better this offseason. Star forward Dirk Nowitzki opened the door for Dallas' big summer by taking a significant pay cut and signing a three-year, $25 million deal.
That allowed the Mavericks to pull off other significant moves that included:
- Bringing back center Tyson Chandler in a trade with the New York Knicks that also netted point guard Raymond Felton.
- Luring emerging small forward Chandler Parsons away from the Houston Rockets with a three-year, $46 million contract.
- Signing a group of low-budget free agents such as Richard Jefferson, Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris and Al-Farouq Aminu.
After courting the likes of Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, the Mavericks bounced back from their failed attempt to land a superstar by becoming one of the deepest teams in the league. Their starting five of Chandler, Nowitzki, Parsons, Monta Ellis and Felton rivals any rotation in the West in terms of talent.
With a team like Houston taking a step back, it isn't impossible to think that the Mavericks and Rockets could switch spots in the Western Conference standings (Rockets were the No. 4 seed last year).
It's difficult to make too huge of a jump from 49 wins, but the Mavericks are now in the discussion as one of the West's better teams. When you throw in the fact they were the only team to put up a fight against the Spurs in the playoffs, Dallas has a chance to go from formidable eighth seed to NBA champion.
Like the Dallas Mavericks, there isn't too much of a leap left for the Chicago Bulls to make after last season. The Bulls won 48 games, even after losing Derrick Rose and trading away Luol Deng, and fought hard before losing in the first round to the Washington Wizards.
Now, the landscape of the Eastern Conference has changed. The Miami Heat's "Big Three" is a man short, and the Indiana Pacers are likely to fall from glory after losing Lance Stephenson (free agency) and Paul George (injury).
That means the East is up for grabs, and Chicago has positioned itself to be at the top of the list. It all starts with the D-Rose's health. The last time Rose was healthy for a full season (2011-12), he won MVP and led the Bulls to the top seed.
While the Bulls have proved capable of making the playoffs without him, they are clearly a different team when he's on the floor.
In Rose's absence, Joakim Noah has stepped up as a potential MVP candidate. He averaged 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals per game last season, while also taking home Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Instead, Chicago made some stealthier moves. The Bulls made a draft-day trade for arguably the best rookie shooter available in small forward Doug McDermott. They amnestied Carlos Boozer and replaced him with veteran forward Pau Gasol.
Most importantly, by not pulling off a trade for 'Melo or Love, Chicago maintained its depth. The Bulls' second unit is led by Sixth Man of the Year contender Taj Gibson. The Bulls also have some talented young players in Tony Snell, Nikola Mirotic and Jimmy Butler.
While other teams spent the summer loading up on stars, the Bulls stayed true to themselves. In Rose's return, they gain back a former MVP determined to prove his doubters wrong. With him, Noah, a top coach in Tom Thibodeau and a deep roster, Chicago could flirt with the league's best record.
It may not look like a huge leap in the win column, but it will be a big step forward if the Bulls can bring a championship back to the Windy City.