Houston Rockets' James Harden, Dwight Howard
The five most improved NBA teams for the 2013-14 season are all expected to win at least 10 more games than they did last season.
This list includes two teams who are now capable of winning at least half of their games after finishing among the five worst records in the league a year ago. It also includes a No. 8 seed who will now have an opportunity to compete for a conference championship after adding a second All-Star to its exciting young core.
This list does not include teams like the Chicago Bulls because, while they will be better with the return of Derrick Rose, they already finished fifth in the Eastern Conference without him.
It also doesn't include the Washington Wizards based on their improvements being directly related to the return of a healthy John Wall and Bradley Beal. Each team is listed in order of how many games it is projected to win next season.
New Orleans Pelicans' Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday
2012-13 Record: 27-55
2013-14 Prediction: 39-43
The New Orleans Pelicans posted the second-worst record in the Western Conference last season at 27-55.
After trading for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, however—along with acquiring former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans—they have given themselves an opportunity to improve by at least 12 wins in the 2013-14 season.
Eric Gordon, who appeared in only 42 games during the 2012-13 campaign, will help form a talented five-man core that also includes Ryan Anderson and an improving Anthony Davis in addition to Holiday and Evans.
While it will take time and effort collectively throughout the first half of the season for New Orleans to truly understand where its pieces fit, expect this team to make significant strides by the All-Star break.
Holiday and Evans project to help make the biggest impact on the offensive end of the floor. Despite solid production from Greivis Vasquez, who has since been traded along with Robin Lopez in the deal that acquired Evans, New Orleans ranked 25th in points per game at 94.1 and 23rd in assists at 21.
As members of the Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings, respectively, Holiday and Evans combined to average 32.9 points and 11.5 assists. If they can provide that same offensive firepower for their new team, the Pelicans have a legitimate chance of finishing with a .500 record.
Detroit Pistons' Andre Drummond
2012-13 Record: 29-53
2013-14 Prediction: 42-40
Despite a record of 29-53, the demonstrated potential of rookie Andre Drummond was an intriguing enough reason to check in with the Detroit Pistons last season.
While it remains to be seen if the Pistons have assembled a foundation capable of eventually competing for an Eastern Conference championship, their collective athleticism will at least be entertaining.
With Smith and Jennings, Detroit will now employ two fringe All-Stars each capable of scoring 20 points on a nightly basis. The defensive attention they will require should also create easier scoring opportunities for Drummond and Monroe than they had last year.
Exactly how Smith fits in the Pistons' frontcourt will be one question that head coach Maurice Cheeks must answer as the season unfolds, but the upgrade in Detroit's talent level is undeniable.
Among the Eastern Conference teams who did not qualify for the postseason last year, expect the Pistons to have the best chance of doing so in 2014. On athleticism alone they appear improved by at least a dozen games and maybe even more.
Cleveland Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters
2012-13 Record: 24-58
2013-14 Prediction: 43-39
If everything goes right for the newly restructured Cleveland Cavaliers, the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference is well within reach.
For a team that finished with 24 wins last year, while compiling a woeful record of 64-166 since the 2010-11 campaign began, even the possibility of postseason play at this point represents a dramatic improvement.
The biggest reason for optimism in Cleveland is the brilliance of All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. After averaging 22.5 points and 5.9 assists a season ago, Irving has an opportunity to earn All-NBA honors in 2014.
In support of Irving, however, the Cavaliers acquired veteran guard Jarrett Jack through free agency, and he'll help provide legitimate leadership and production. They've also added Earl Clark along with inking former All-Star Andrew Bynum to an incentive-laden contract that guarantees only $6 million of his two-year, $24 million deal.
Besides the improvements made on the free-agent market, the Cavs used the first overall pick on Anthony Bennett from UNLV as well as spending the 19th overall selection on Russian sharpshooter Sergey Karasev.
These moves, along with the return of a healthy Anderson Varejao, improving young nucleus of Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller and a collective focus on defense under recently rehired coach Mike Brown, has 43 wins as an attainable goal for Cleveland.
Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard
2012-13 Record: 33-49
2013-14 Prediction: 45-37
Damian Lillard led the NBA in total minutes played last season. The Rookie of the Year averaged 38.6 minutes per night while appearing in all 82 games for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Along with Wesley Matthews, the Portland starters were forced into logging as many minutes as they did because the team couldn't afford to play its bench players for extended stretches.
According to HoopsStats.com, the Trail Blazers finished with the lowest-scoring bench in the league at 18.5 points per night last season.
This lack of support from the second unit inevitably led to Portland's subpar record of 33-49, but it was also the primary area addressed by the team this summer.
After adding Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez, Mo Williams and rookie C.J. McCollum, the Trail Blazers will enter the 2013-14 campaign with what projects to be a potentially dynamic bench. This should help dramatically for the team led by what could also be two All-Stars in Lillard and Aldridge.
Houston Rockets' Dwight Howard
2012-13 Record: 45-37
2013-14 Prediction: 55-27
The Houston Rockets won 45 games during 2012-13 and earned the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
After securing the prize of this summer's free-agent class by signing Dwight Howard to a max contract, they should improve that regular-season total by at least 10 wins.
Combining a healthy Howard with All-Star James Harden will also help Houston advance in the 2014 postseason.
While adding Howard, the Rockets were also able to maintain a solid supporting cast that includes Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. Combining the abilities of Howard and Asik could be a challenge for head coach Kevin McHale, but having too many talented bigs is a good problem to have.
Howard will make the biggest immediate impact for the Rockets by defending the basket. Last season, Houston ranked 28th overall in points allowed at 102.5 per game, and that will need to improve for Houston to compete for a Western Conference championship.
To potentially help some in the backcourt defensively, according to the Associated Press, the Rockets also signed free-agent swingman Ronnie Brewer on Aug. 28.