The start of every season brings with it a new sense of hope for fans of the 30 NBA teams. In reality, though, only a handful of teams have a legitimate shot at winning a championship each year, while everyone else is playing catch-up.
The latter group is comprised of three tiers. There are the teams that are knee-deep into rebuilding mode with no signs of emerging anytime soon (Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic). There are the once-proud franchises that currently find themselves on the decline due to age or a mass exodus of talent (Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks).
Then there are those teams that are right on the cusp of joining the elite. They may be a couple years away from being viable title threats, but they have already laid the groundwork to become potential contenders.
This third tier is comprised of seven teams. Let's delve into what makes this faction so promising and what is hindering its road to stardom.
When Chris Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2011, the feeling was that the then-New Orleans Hornets would have a long road back to respectability. With a combined record of 48-100 the last two seasons, it would appear the skeptics were right.
However, thanks to some good fortune in the draft and some shrewd roster maneuvering, the team now known as the Pelicans has some promise.
The turn started at last year's NBA draft lottery, when New Orleans won the top overall pick and landed franchise cornerstone Anthony Davis. "The Unibrow" wasn't an immediate superstar in his first season, but he flashed signs of being special down the road.
This past June, the Pelicans got lucky again.
Shot-blocking big man Nerlens Noel, believed to be the favorite to go No. 1 overall, slipped to New Orleans at No. 6. Worried about his troublesome knee, the team flipped the Kentucky defensive stalwart to Philadelphia for emerging point guard Jrue Holiday.
GM Dell Demps wasn't done revamping the team just yet. He added former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans to be a super-sub off of the bench as well as insurance for brittle shooting guard Eric Gordon.
With a new name and a new look, the Pelicans now have a new core. Davis, Holiday, Evans, Gordon and sharp-shooting big man Ryan Anderson are all 25 years old or younger. When you throw in promising role players like Austin Rivers, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jeff Withey, you get a team on the cusp of something big
To be contenders, however, a few things need to bounce the Pelicans' way. Davis must continue to make strides and be the anchor he was drafted to be. Gordon, who has missed 97 games since joining the team, has to put his injury woes behind him.
Most importantly, this hodgepodge of young talent has to build chemistry and learn to play together. If all these things happen, this team could be very scary for a long time.
It seems odd to have the Washington Wizards on this list. After all, the world has seen them make some big mistakes, from the Kwame Brown draft bust to the Gilbert Arenas debacle to their most recent miss with European forward Jan Vesely.
However, the Wiz have managed to get it right the last two drafts. Last year, they selected Florida marksman Bradley Beal with the No. 3 overall pick. The former Gator shot 41 percent from the field, including nearly 39 percent from behind the arc. He also contributed 13.9 points per game.
This summer, Washington used the No. 3 overall pick again on local product Otto Porter out of Georgetown. The lanky Hoya averaged 16.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game this past season. He also shot 48 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range.
As important as adding those two pieces was, the biggest push in the right direction came from former No. 1 overall pick John Wall making "the leap" last year. The former Kentucky speedster had the best season of his career, averaging 18.5 points and 7.6 assists a night.
With Wall, Beal and Porter, the Wizards have a devastating young trio to build around. The team also re-signed small forward Martell Webster, who is coming off of his best season as a pro as well.
The next step for Washington is to stay healthy. Wall's 2012-13 season didn't even start until January due to knee troubles. Beal also missed the final month of his rookie season with a stress injury in his right fibula. With only a limited amount of time playing together, it is imperative Wall and Beal go unscathed and develop a rapport.
The team could also use some help up front. Nene Hilario and Emeka Okafor are an adequate pair, but they don't have the chops to compete with guys like Chris Bosh, Roy Hibbert and Tyson Chandler on the inside.
Still, there is a reason for optimism in the nation's capital. Wall just signed a new five-year, $80 million contract, and he has a solid supporting cast around him now. With the mistakes of the past behind it, only time will tell how far this franchise goes.
It seems like the Minnesota Timberwolves have been a team on the rise for quite some time now. For the last few years, there has been an expectation for this young core to put everything together and return to the playoffs.
So far, it hasn't happened.
The T'Wolves haven't been to the postseason since 2003-04.
Hopefully, that drought ends thanks to some aggressive roster shuffling. Minnesota already had a powerful one-two punch in forward Kevin Love and point guard Ricky Rubio. It has also enjoyed back-to-back big seasons from center Nikola Pekovic.
In addition to those pieces, the team signed Kevin Martin to provide an offensive spark on the wing and Corey Brewer to be its defensive stopper. Minnesota also drafted enigmatic scorer Shabazz Muhammad and shot-blocker Gorgui Dieng.
Now the team has depth to go along with its star power.
From the way the injury bug has bit this team, those extra bodies will come in handy. Love played in just 18 games last season. He managed to break his hand twice and then saw his season cut short due to knee problems.
Rubio hasn't been a poster child for durability either. He has yet to play more than 57 games in a season during his short career. If they can avoid injuries to their two biggest names, the Minnesota Timberwolves could be a fixture in the postseason.
Few teams in the West have a better starting five than the projected lineup of Pekovic, Love, Chase Budinger, Martin and Rubio. A second unit led by Brewer, Muhammad and Derrick Williams is impressive as well.
Minnesota will have to prove it is a playoff team first before it can be considered a championship contender. However, the pieces are in place for this team to live up to its huge expectations.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have had the struggles typical of a team three years removed from losing one of the best players in franchise history. Since LeBron James left in 2010, the Cavs have picked in the top five four times. That includes having the No. 1 overall pick twice in the last three years.
On the bright side, those high draft picks have allowed Cleveland to rebuild nicely in the post-LeBron era. Former Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving continues to stake his claim to the league's top point guard mantle.
Last year's No. 4 overall pick, Dion Waiters, had a strong rookie campaign, averaging 14.7 points per game and shooting 41 percent from the field. This year, the team added supremely athletic forward Anthony Bennett with the No. 1 overall pick, as well as Russian sharpshooter Sergey Karasev later in the draft.
The team's best moves, however, came in free agency. The Cavs took a chance that Andrew Bynum's injury woes are behind him and he can go back to being one of the game's best big men. Bynum missed all of last season with a knee injury.
They also added guard Jarrett Jack to bolster the second unit, as well as versatile forward Earl Clark.
Like so many of the teams on this list, health will be the biggest factor in the Cavs' short-term and long-term success. Bynum's lack of durability is well-documented. On top of that, Irving has yet to play a full season as a pro. Last year's 59 games was a career best for the former Duke Blue Devil.
Then there's Anthony Bennett's shoulder issue. The UNLV product underwent rotator cuff surgery in May, which kept him out of draft workouts and the summer league. The rookie should be ready for the start of the season, but it will be interesting to see what kind of shape he's in.
If they are at full strength when the season opens, the Cavs have a chance to be a real menace. Irving, Waiters, Bennett, Tristan Thompson and Bynum is an impressive rotation. On the bench, Jack, Clark, Karasev and Anderson Varejao are a better foursome than some starting lineups.
The East has been King James' property for a while now. With some luck in the health department, Kyrie Irving and Co. won't be watching the throne. They'll be sabotaging it.
The Portland Trail Blazers bounced back from the Greg Oden disaster to put together a great young nucleus.
Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has emerged as one of the game's best big men, and he's now joined by reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard. Small forward Nicolas Batum rounds out an impressive trio.
It doesn't stop there, though.
The team went back to the small-school well in the draft by selecting Lehigh's C.J. McCollum with the No. 10 overall pick. McCollum averaged 23.9 points per game as a senior and shot nearly 52 percent from the three-point line. Together, he and Lillard will form one of the league's best offensive backcourts.
The biggest improvement fans and critics will see from this team comes on the second unit. After finishing dead last in bench scoring last season, Portland added Thomas Robinson, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright as key reserves. You can also add McCollum to that list, as he currently sits behind Wesley Matthews on the depth chart.
Robin Lopez was also acquired from New Orleans to give the team an adequate starter in the middle. Lopez is coming off his best season as a pro, averaging 11.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.
Unlike the others mentioned here, Portland's biggest issue isn't health. It is keeping LaMarcus Aldridge happy. Earlier this summer, there were whispers that Aldridge wanted out of Portland. In July, Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reported Aldridge's camp met with Blazers GM Neil Olshey to discuss a trade.
Aldridge denied asking for a trade, but he did tell Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears that he was "extremely frustrated".
A team with this much promise can't afford for its best player to be even slightly disgruntled. Aldridge should take solace in the fact that his team fixed its biggest need and now boasts one of the best young lineups in the NBA.
Portland has the talent to make a huge leap this season, but how close it gets to a title down the road will depend on the temperament of its franchise big man.
On paper, the Detroit Pistons have one of the most impressive starting fives in the NBA. In addition to young big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, the team acquired forward Josh Smith and point guard Brandon Jennings.
Drummond made the most of his minimal playing time during his debut season. He averaged 7.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game while logging just 20.7 minutes a night. He also posted a 21.69 PER.
Monroe flirted with averaging a double-double a game. He contributed 16 points and 9.6 rebounds per contest in his third pro season. He also played in a career-high 81 games.
Josh Smith's reputation is well known. He's an amazing athlete that doubles as an excellent defender. He provided ink all over the stat sheet in his final season with the Hawks. He averaged 17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals per game.
As for Jennings, his scoring took a slight dip from his 2011-12 campaign (from 19.1 PPG to 17.5 PPG), but he set a career high in assists (6.5 dimes a night). After a surprisingly bare free-agent market, Jennings was eventually shipped from Milwaukee to Detroit in exchange for Brandon Knight.
The team also brought back what's left of Chauncey Billups and drafted guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to be the heir apparent.
How will Detroit make so many diverse parts work together? Smith and Jennings are former alpha dogs that never met a shot they didn't like. How can Monroe and Drummond develop with the veterans dominating the ball? And who defers to who in crunch time?
Figuring out the pecking order on this superteam will be a top priority. As we saw with the Lakers last year, you can't just throw a bunch of big names together on a roster and expect them to dominate the league. It takes time for stars to develop chemistry and learn to play together.
That time seems to be a few years away for the Pistons. This season will be a learning process for them. If (or when) this team puts it all together, however, it has a foursome that can give the East's elite fits.
The Golden State Warriors are another team that made a huge splash in free agency. They rid themselves of Andris Biedrins' and Richard Jefferson's troublesome contracts and added athletic swingman Andre Iguodala.
With Iggy joining breakout stars Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, the Warriors are making a case to be mentioned with the NBA's elite. Iguodala's presence pushes promising forward Harrison Barnes to the bench, which will only make the second unit stronger. Also, don't rule out recently acquired Seth Curry making an impact now that he's reunited with his brother.
Andrew Bogut and David Lee round out the starting lineup. When healthy, they give Golden State a great tandem in the frontcourt.
The key word is health. Bogut has struggled to stay healthy his entire career, especially the last five seasons. During that span, he's played more than 60 games twice. This is a different team on the defensive side of the ball when Bogut is able to protect the rim.
As for Lee, he's been banged up a little over the years but hasn't had the injury woes that Bogut has. When he's on the court, he's a double-double machine who makes up for his lack of size with a ton of heart.
Of course, Steph Curry's shooting is great enough to keep the W's in any game, regardless of who is on the floor. The Davidson product nailed a league-best 272 three-points last season and averaged 22.9 points per game.
Most importantly, his lingering ankle troubles didn't hinder him nearly as much as they did the year before. In just four years, the 25-year-old has emerged as one of best players in the league. He can continue to elevate up the list if he can stay healthy.
With the acquisition of Iguodala, the case can be made for Golden State being a dark-horse contender this season. He improves the team's defense and gives the Warriors another star to take pressure off of Curry.
Still, as exciting as this Warriors team will be, they aren't in the Thunder/Clippers/Spurs class just yet. The team can't expect to win a title by winning shootouts every night. The defense will have to step it up. Iguodala helps that area considerably, but the biggest factor will be a healthy Bogut patrolling the paint.