With the 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, nearly $17 million in available cap space and four draft picks, the Portland Trail Blazers will be even better next season.
As the 2013 NBA playoffs progressed and the contenders were separated from the pretenders, basketball fans were left with the "usual suspects"—the Miami Heat, who advanced to their third consecutive NBA Finals, and the San Antonio Spurs, who have won four NBA titles since the 1998-99 season. While a champion still needs to be crowned in 2013, when looking ahead to next year, there are a number of surprising teams who will be even better in the 2013-14 season.
A combination of young players who have shown they have a lot of potential, a talented roster, cap room for offseason moves and good draft positions will determine the top 10 most surprising NBA teams who will improve in the 2013-14 season.
A team's inclusion and position on the list is determined by the combination of factors listed above, the amount of surprise in the team's success and how much the team improves from last season to next season.
Any team is capable of making the list, whether it's a team that made the finals this season or the Orlando Magic, who had the worst record in the league last season (20-62), as long as the team meets the necessary requirements.
The Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers are among the surprising NBA teams who will be even better next year because of their combination of cap space, draft picks and current young talent.
Note: Player stats and team records courtesy of ESPN.com. Playoff seeding courtesy of NBA.com/playoffs
Several teams were on the cusp of making the top 10 most surprising NBA teams who will be even better next season.
With a guaranteed total salary of only $17 million for next season, the Utah Jazz have nearly $43 million left in cap space. The Jazz also have the 14th, 21st and 46th picks in the draft. However, the five players who started the most games for Utah last year will become unrestricted free agents on July 1, which is why the Jazz were left off the list.
If Andrei Kirilenko does not opt out of his contract and Nikola Pekovic, Greg Stiemsma and Dante Cunningham extend their contracts to next season, Minnesota will have a team salary of $59.7 million, which leaves $300,000 left in cap space, according to Hoops World.
The Timberwolves have the 9th, 26th, 52nd and 59th picks in the draft. Due to the potential for very little cap space to sign draft picks and free agents, Minnesota did not make the cut.
Now, to the top 10 most surprising NBA teams who will be even better next season.
Despite four current or former All-Stars in its starting lineup, Los Angeles barely made the playoffs in 2012-13.
After acquiring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the Los Angeles Lakers assembled a starting lineup with 32 All-Star appearances and three MVP awards combined between Nash, Howard, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
Twenty-five of ESPN's 35 basketball writers, analysts and radio hosts picked the Lakers to win the Western Conference in the preseason.
L.A. snuck into the playoffs as the seventh seed after winning its last five games of the regular season to finish with a 45-37 record. The San Antonio Spurs swept the Lakers and now rumors about Howard heading to the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks or Golden State Warriors dominate the conversation about the Lakers' future.
According to Hoops World, the Lakers are "well over tax" but they can attain cap room with the "amnesty of Kobe Bryant, the opting out of Metta World Peace and other cuts (maximum of $18.4 million in space without trades)."
The Lakers had a team salary of $99 million last season and if every player with a contract option for next season signs with L.A. next season, the team's salary will be only $84 million. If Los Angeles is willing to pay up to $100 million again next season, the Lakers could pursue free agents in the offseason.
It was clear throughout the season that the Lakers' new roster was not a perfect fit as Howard and Bryant had their share of problems with each other.
If L.A. clears up cap space, then they could sign a center that fits better with head coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive scheme or a younger guard to take the burden off of the Lakers' aging starting lineup.
L.A.'s only draft pick is the 48th selection.
The Lakers are 10th on the list because they only have one draft pick, the NBA luxury tax may limit how much their front office is willing to spend on free agents, Bryant's future is questionable after his injury last season, and because most of their key players are at least 32 years old.
The Lakers have a lot of individual talent, but now it's just a question of if their individual players can mesh as a team. Bryant posted numbers above his career averages for points, rebounds and assists so as long as he is healthy, L.A.'s leading scorer is capable of leading his team to the playoffs. Not having Howard next season would get rid of a major distraction for the Lakers and L.A. could play to its potential in 2013-14.
Despite making their third consecutive NBA Finals this season, the Miami Heat will be even better next year.
This year's playoffs have exposed some of Miami's weaknesses and the Heat no longer appear as untouchable as they once did.
But it didn't.
In the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Indiana Pacers proved that a combination of length, physicality, pounding the ball into the post and rebounding can beat Miami.
After this season, Ray Allen, Chris Andersen, Mario Chalmers, Juwan Howard, James Jones and Rashard Lewis will become unrestricted free agents.
The key for Miami's success next season will be finding the next batch of skilled veterans who are willing to take a pay cut to play with the Big Three to have a chance to win an NBA title.
Ben Gordon, Elton Brand, Chris Kaman, Shawn Marion, Chauncey Billups, Antawn Jamison, Kenyon Martin, Derek Fisher and Emeka Okafor will all become unrestricted free agents this offseason. All of these players are experienced veterans who are in the back halves of their careers.
There would have to be mutual interest—the Heat would have to think a free agent would fit well with the team and a free agent would have to be willing to take a pay cut—but these are the types of players that Miami could attract to improve its roster.
However, Miami's team salary could be more than $3 million higher next season before the addition of any new players, according to Hoops World.
Miami does not have any draft picks but the Heat are one spot in front of the Lakers because free agents are more likely to want to play with the Big Three than the struggling Lakers. Plus, if Dwyane Wade fully recovers from his knee injury in the offseason, he'll be even better next year.
John Wall missed 33 games last season due to a knee injury, but led the Wizards in scoring once he returned.
By having 18 different players in their starting lineup this season, the Washington Wizards never established a consistent rotation.
Due to injuries and six players being traded or waived midseason, the healthy portion of the Wizards' roster nearly changed on a weekly basis. The average player played just over 53 games last season for Washington.
While the Wizards finished last season with a 29-53 record, they are not without building blocks for the future. Washington's core is a pair of young guards in John Wall and Bradley Beal, as well as a veteran big man in Nenê Hilario.
Wall, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 NBA draft, averaged 18.5 points, 7.6 assists and four rebounds per game last year. His field-goal percentage has increased each year that he has played in the league and he cut down on his turnovers per game from his first two seasons.
Beal averaged 13.9 points per game on 41 percent shooting in his rookie season.
If healthy, both players should continue to improve as they get more in-game experience.
Nenê averaged 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last season.
The Wizards are currently slightly over their cap limit but their salary could drop to $34 million if Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and Garrett Temple do not re-sign, according to Hoops World.
With the 3rd, 38th and 54th picks in the draft, Washington has a number of options to improve in the offseason. Nerlens Noel and then either Ben McLemore or Victor Oladipo will likely be taken with the first two picks of the draft, which still leaves a handful of talented prospects available for Washington. McLemore or Oladipo, whatever player isn't drafted, will be the best-rated player available. Otto Porter Jr., Anthony Bennett and Trey Burke are among the next tier of prospects, according to ESPN's NBA draft expert Chad Ford.
With an electric young point guard, a few complementary role players and the third pick in the draft, Washington should be able to improve from its 12th-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season.
Washington is in front of the Lakers and Heat because they have more cap space, better draft picks, younger talent and more room to improve.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were unable to make another run at the NBA Finals after their starting point guard, Russell Westbrook, injured his knee in the first round against the Houston Rockets. Assuming Westbrook is healthy next season, Oklahoma City will have its core intact and the Thunder will be poised for another title run.
Kevin Martin, Derek Fisher and Ronnie Brewer will become unrestricted free agents in the offseason.
Martin was Oklahoma City's third scoring option last season; Fisher and Brewer were minor role players off the bench last season who combined to average fewer than nine points per game.
While the Thunder are limited to only a few million dollars in available cap space, they have the 12th, 29th and 32nd draft picks.
Oklahoma City could potentially draft Cody Zeller or Kelly Olynyk with the 12th pick to play center alongside Serge Ibaka in the frontcourt.
The Thunder could select a point guard to add depth behind Westbrook and a shooting guard to make up for the loss of Martin.
Despite limited cap space, the Thunder will be even better next year once Westbrook returns to full health and after they draft three players in the first 32 positions.
Oklahoma City has better overall draft picks than the three teams behind them, better young talent and the Thunder have more room to improve in the playoffs if Westbrook stays healthy. However, Oklahoma City falls short of making the top five because of its limited available cap space.
Danny Granger played only five games for the Indiana Pacers last season due to a knee injury.
The Indiana Pacers had more success against the Miami Heat than any other team in the NBA this season. Indiana gave Miami five of its 20 combined losses from the regular season and the playoffs.
The scary part for the Heat and the rest of the NBA is that the Pacers will be even better next season.
The key for Indiana is to re-sign unrestricted free agent David West, who averaged 17.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game last season. At 6'9" and 250 pounds, West is a physical power forward who created serious matchup problems for Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Indiana head coach Frank Vogel told Zak Keefer of the Indy Star that Granger could potentially return to the starting lineup next season.
We gotta see how he returns. My anticipation is that he’s going to have a full recovery. I told him if he returns to full health and the ability that he’s exhibited throughout his career, then he’ll be the starter.
While the Pacers missed Granger's talent and experience in the playoffs, his absence aided the development of 2013 Most Improved Player Paul George and Lance Stephenson, who could be a contender for the award next season if he continues to progress as a player.
It is likely that one of these three players—Granger, George or Stephenson—will be the team's sixth man next season, which will add much-needed depth to the Pacers' bench. Indiana's bench produced just 21.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, on average, per game in the playoffs.
In addition to West, D.J. Augustin and Sam Young, two of Indiana's second-team players, will become unrestricted free agents this offseason.
Indiana has the 23rd and 53rd picks in the NBA draft, which could be used to add depth at the point guard position and on the Pacers' bench. Virginia Tech's Erick Green and Baylor's Pierre Jackson are two point guards who would likely be available, according to Draft Express, for the 23rd pick if Indiana chose to go that route in the draft.
If the Pacers can re-sign its unrestricted free agents, acquire role players for their bench through free agency or draft-talented prospects, Indiana will be one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference entering next season.
Indiana is in a similar situation as Chicago since both teams will add a healthy All-Star (Granger for the Pacers and Derrick Rose for the Bulls) to their rosters. However, Chicago is ranked higher on the list because Rose is a better player than Granger and since Indiana may lose West to free agency.
Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first round of the 2012 playoffs and missed the entire 2012-13 season as a result.
Despite being cleared to play by Chicago's medical staff, Rose did not see game action in 2013. Without the 2011 NBA MVP, the Bulls earned the fifth seed in the playoffs after winning 45 games in the regular season.
While Chicago's depleted roster hurt the Bulls in the series, it allowed for the emergence of Jimmy Butler. Butler played did not come out of the game for five of Chicago's final seven games of the season. Over the course of his short career, the Marquette product has averaged 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. Against Miami in the playoffs, Butler averaged 15.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while also defending LeBron James for most of the series.
The Bulls have the 20th and 49th picks in this year's draft. With Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson and Daequan Cook's contracts expiring after this season, Chicago could draft a shooting guard to fill the void on offense if those players do not re-sign with the Bulls. Jamaal Franklin, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Allen Crabbe are shooting guards who could likely be available to be selected with the 20th pick.
With his extended time off from basketball, Rose can be expected to make a full recovery and return to the court next season.
With Chicago's core of Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Deng, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler signed through next season, the Bulls can contend for an NBA championship if their key players stay healthy.
Chicago is probably the only team who can say that it will add an MVP-caliber player to its roster next season, which is why the Bulls are ranked higher than more proven teams such as the Heat and Thunder.
The Bulls can draft a solid prospect with the 20th pick but they are in the "tax with a hard cap" according to Hoops World, which is why they are not higher on the list. Chicago's lack of cap space will prevent them from adding talented players through free agency.
Last season, the Portland Trail Blazers finished 11th in the Western Conference with a 33-49 record after losing their final 13 games.
The bright spots on Portland's roster were All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who averaged 21.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, and NBA Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard.
The Trail Blazers have four starters under contract next season in Aldridge, Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews.
Luke Babbitt, J.J. Hickson, Nolan Smith and Elliot Williams will become unrestricted free agents in the offseason, which will clear more than $8.5 million of cap space for Portland. The Trail Blazers have a $60 million cap limit and they currently have a guaranteed total of $43 million for next season, which means that they can pursue a talented free-agent center to replace Hickson.
Additionally, Portland has the 10th, 39th, 40th and 45th picks in the NBA draft. Draft Express projects that the Trail Blazers will select former Pittsburgh center Steven Adams with the 10th pick and a trio of guards—Archie Goodwin, Nate Wolters and Alex Abrines—with their second round picks.
Portland has a pair of elite players, solid role players, cap space and four solid draft positions, which means that the Trail Blazers should be a playoff team next season.
Portland is fourth on the list because of their available cap space, which is better than that of Chicago, Indiana, Miami, Oklahoma City and L.A., and they have better draft picks than most teams in the NBA.
After a frustrating season in Los Angeles, Dwight Howard has expressed interest in the possibility of playing for Houston next season.
The Houston Rockets had a completely new look in the 2012-13 season after acquiring James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik last offseason.
The new-look Rockets were second in the NBA in scoring last season as Houston's three new players learned how to play with Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino.
The Rockets' 45-37 record earned them the eighth seed in the Western Conference before falling to Oklahoma City in six games in the first round.
Houston will be even better next year thanks to its youth, remaining cap space and the possibility of adding Dwight Howard in the offseason.
Harden, Lin, Asik and Parsons have a combined 12 years of experience in the NBA. The Rockets' key players are young and new to carrying the load for their team.
Harden was the third scoring option in Oklahoma City before leading Houston in scoring last season with 25.9 points per game. Asik averaged slightly more than a quarter of play per game in his last season in Chicago; in Houston, Asik averaged a double-double in 30 minutes per game. Parsons improved his scoring average by six points last season, as his field-goal and free-throw percentages rose in Houston.
The Rockets are young and their starters are now accustomed to being the leaders for Houston. None of those four players have peaked yet in their careers.
Houston also has Thomas Robinson, the fifth pick in last year's draft, at the power forward position. What Houston lacks in draft picks (Houston's only draft pick is the 34th pick), it makes up in a former lottery selection in Robinson.
Another reason for the Rockets to be even better next season is that they are roughly $7 million dollars under the cap limit. That isn't enough money to cover the $19.5 million that Howard made last season for the Lakers but if Houston trades Robinson, as suggested by Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski, the Rockets could sign him to a maximum contract.
ESPN's Marc Stein wrote that Howard is interested in taking an in-person visit to Houston in the offseason and that Howard would like to play with Harden.
If Houston acquires Howard, then they will be one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
Houston is third on the list because of its young talent, a decent draft position and the legitimate chance to land Dwight Howard, which would completely change the West. The Rockets have more room to improve than Chicago, Indiana, Miami and Oklahoma City, who are already at, or near, the top of their respective conferences.
Nerlens Noel is projected to be drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the No. 1 overall pick.
Cleveland selected future four-time MVP LeBron James in '03 and the 2012 NBA Rookie of the Year, Kyrie Irving, in 2011.
While many NBA writers and analysts, including the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan, have said that this year's draft class is weak, the Cavaliers will have the opportunity to select the player that they deem the best pro prospect in this year's class.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that 14 out of 15 mock drafts project that Cleveland will draft former University of Kentucky center Nerlens Noel with the first pick.
Noel, who averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game as a freshman at Kentucky, could start immediately along side of current Cavs center Anderson Varejao if Cleveland wanted to have a big frontcourt.
Varejao averaged more than 14 points and 14 rebounds per game for the Cavaliers last season, which are both career bests. With 71 games of postseason experience, Varejao would take on the role of a veteran leader, and he could show Noel the ropes as a young player.
Cleveland will also benefit from its three other draft picks in 2013. The Cavaliers also have the 19th, 31st and 33rd draft positions.
With an average age of 25.4 years last season, Cleveland has a very young roster. Irving made his first All-Star team last season and he can be expected to become one of the best point guards in the NBA after averaging 22.5 points and nearly six assists per game in his second year in the league.
Alonzo Gee and Tristan Thompson are budding young forwards who started every game for the Cavaliers last season. They combined to average 22 points and more than 14 rebounds per game as role players for Cleveland.
As a rookie, shooting guard Dion Waiters took on a starting role and averaged 14.7 points per game.
Cleveland has young talent, which will only improve with four good draft positions in June, so the Cavaliers have pieces in place to improve from their 24-58 record last season.
The Cavaliers are second on the list because they have four very good draft picks, potentially $33 million in available cap space and a younger core group of players. The only thing keeping them from first is that top-of-the-line free agents have not expressed interest in playing in Cleveland.
ESPN reported that the Atlanta Hawks will pursue All-Stars Chris Paul and Dwight Howard in the offseason.
After earning the sixth seed in the NBA playoffs and being eliminated in the first round by the Indiana Pacers, the Atlanta Hawks will go back to the drawing board in the offseason.
Only five players—Al Horford, Lou Williams, John Jenkins, Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack—from last year's roster are guaranteed contracts with the Hawks next season.
According to Hoops World, the Hawks are currently over the cap but under the tax limit; all of that will change on July 1 when Josh Smith, Jeff Teague, Zaza Pachulia and Kyle Korver's combined contracts of nearly $32 million will expire.
Atlanta has a guaranteed total salary of $18.5 million for next season and a hard salary cap of $58 million, which means the Hawks will have the financial capability to potentially land big-name free agents.
If the Hawks could sign Paul and Howard, they would likely skyrocket to one of the top four teams in the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta also has the 17th, 18th, 47th and 50th draft picks in this month's draft.
Draft Express projects the Hawks to draft Mason Plumlee, Jamaal Franklin, Ray McCallum and Trevor Mbakwe with their four picks.
Atlanta has a blank slate this offseason with the cap space and draft picks to restock on young talent.
The Hawks are the most surprising team in the NBA to be even better next season because they lose several of their most important players, but they can potentially replace them with arguable the best point guard and best center in the league. Atlanta also has two good first-round draft picks and potentially more available cap space than any other team on the list.
Atlanta was a good team last year with a record six games above .500, but the Hawks can be even better and more dangerous in the playoffs if they sign talented players in the offseason.