Predicting Which NBA Playoff Bubble Teams Will Take the Leap in 2013-14
Parity is a largely foreign concept in the NBA.
When the league is operating at maximum efficiency, dynasties are forged. Championship contenders can be counted with a single hand.
Teams can work to better their future, but rarely does that change happen overnight.
It's often a gradual process made possible only by consistent draft-day success and shrewd decisions on the free-agent and trade markets.
For these eight teams entering the 2013-14 season on the playoff bubble, championship thoughts are the least of their concerns. The important thing is finding a postseason ticket, and each club is already well into that search.
John Wall told ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman that his Washington Wizards are on their way to finishing that search. Is he right? And if so, which teams will be joining the Wizards at basketball's biggest dance?
2012-13 Record: 24-58
Key Offseason Additions: Anthony Bennett, Andrew Bynum, Earl Clark, Jarrett Jack
Notable Offseason Losses: Wayne Ellington, Daniel Gibson, Shaun Livingston, Marreese Speights
Playoff Forecast: Clear Skies Ahead
The Cleveland Cavaliers enter 2013-14 as their own worst enemy.
They have the talent to compete for a playoff berth (and then some) with or without a healthy Andrew Bynum. If the big man trades his bowling shoes and suit collection for Cleveland's wine and golds, the Cavs are one of the only teams that could play their way into championship talks.
As far as a playoff berth, something that has eluded this franchise since LeBron James' departure in 2010, the Cavaliers need to avoid old habits. Those promising young pieces (Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters) have known nothing but losing in their brief NBA careers.
If the veterans can teach these young guns how to win and the team buys into playing Mike Brown's brand of defense—Cleveland's 109.4 defensive rating ranked 27th last season—the Cavs' basement shouldn't be lower the No. 8 seed in the East.
Los Angeles Lakers
2012-13 Record: 45-37
Key Offseason Additions: Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson, Chris Kaman, Nick Young
Notable Offseason Losses: Earl Clark, Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison, Metta World Peace
Playoff Forecast: Heavy Fog
If you can see through the L.A. smog, you can make out the remnants of a playoff roster.
For all of the pieces that the Lakers lost this summer, they did find a few unheralded gains.
Pau Gasol has elite-level talent if he's back on the low block. Jordan Hill has had time to heal from his back and hip injuries and hopes to return with a perimeter shot added to his arsenal. Nick Young and Wesley Johnson bring the speed and athleticism that Kobe Bryant asked for in his exit interview, via Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times.
But the uncertainty surrounding the Mamba's return from a torn Achilles, and the pieces still missing from Mike D'Antoni's small-ball system leave some unsettling questions for this perennial power.
There are plenty of things that can go right in Laker Land, but just as many potential disasters. L.A. should be in contention all year, but it's too early to start making postseason plans.
2012-13 Record: 41-41
Key Offseason Additions: Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Monta Ellis, Devin Harris
Notable Offseason Losses: Elton Brand, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman, O.J. Mayo
Playoff Forecast: Partly Sunny, Chance of Rain
The Dallas Mavericks failed to land an ace on the free-agent market (again), and the one still up their sleeve has lost some of its luster.
At 35 years old, Dirk Nowitzki's days of carrying a franchise are over. But given that he's still surrounded by complementary pieces (both new and old), that remains his burden to bear.
There's a best-case scenario where the Mavericks field a surprisingly strong squad in 2013-14. Monta Ellis trades triples (28.7 three-point percentage last season) for efficient offense. Nowitzki feasts on the growing number of one-on-one chances. Jose Calderon elevates the play of the up-and-comers but finds enough touches to keep the veterans happy.
But there's also a worst-case scenario where this season is over before it can even get started. Ellis takes easy shots over good ones. He and Calderon don't play a lick of defense. Nowitzki's body succumbs to the increasing physical demands.
I think the former is more likely than the latter, but it's impossible to rule out either one.
2012-13 Record: 29-53
Notable Offseason Losses: Jose Calderon, Brandon Knight, Jason Maxiell, Khris Middleton
Playoff Forecast: Partly Sunny, Chance of Thunderstorms
If the Detroit Pistons can't snap their four-year playoff drought this season, it won't be for a lack of trying.
Detroit has more newcomers (eight) than returning players (seven). The Pistons swung for the fences with Josh Smith, did it again with Brandon Jennings, then laid down a sneaky squeeze bunt with sharp-shooting Italian import Luigi Datome.
It's tough to place a proper ceiling for this team, so let's just say it's incredibly high.
Andre Drummond is a free throw away from being dominant (37.1 percent in 2012-13). Jennings is a better passer than people—including himself—realize (career 2.4 turnovers per game). Greg Monroe has reworked his body, per Pistons.com's Keith Langlois, for his move to power forward. Josh Smith is fine-tuning his post game (and unfortunately more of those long twos) under Rasheed Wallace's watch.
I really think this experiment is going to work. But if it doesn't, it's going to be a train wreck.
2012-13 Record: 34-48
Key Offseason Additions: D.J. Augustin, Dwight Buycks, Tyler Hansbrough, Steve Novak
Notable Offseason Losses: Alan Anderson, Andrea Bargnani, Linas Kleiza, John Lucas III
Playoff Forecast: Cloudy, Chance of Sunshine
The Toronto Raptors enter this season the same way they did last year: with playoff hopes and roadblocks in their path.
Any help in finding a reversal of fortunes will have to come from within. They made their big splash landing Rudy Gay at the 2013 trade deadline; the offseason saw much calmer waters.
Gay must find a way to improve his efficiency (career 16.1 PER). He's always taken a quantity over quality approach to getting buckets. His offseason schedule is intriguing (corrective eye surgery and low-post work with Hakeem Olajuwon), but expectations should be tempered until we know how these developments will translate to the game.
And that wasn't the only encouraging news this summer for Toronto fans. Sophomore center Jonas Valanciunas earned MVP honors at the Las Vegas Summer League (18.8 points and 10.0 rebounds). DeMar DeRozan has revamped his three-point shot (career 23.9 percent).
This trio holds the key to Toronto's season. The Raptors might not have the upside of some of their Eastern Conference foes, but I think their floor still sneaks them into the dance.
2012-13 Record: 31-51
Key Offseason Additions: Corey Brewer, Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad, Ronny Turiaf
Notable Offseason Losses: Andrei Kirilenko, Luke Ridnour, Brandon Roy, Greg Stiemsma
Playoff Forecast: Sunny, Slight Chance of Showers
No playoff bubble team has more at stake this season than the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Their problem has never been with talent, it's been finding enough productive healthy bodies to compete.
But that hasn't earned any sympathy points from Kevin Love. He wants to win, and Minnesota has two years to prove it's capable of filling that need—assuming he opts out of his deal after the 2014-15 season.
If healthy, the Timberwolves should have their most complete roster since Love arrived in 2008. Over the summer they added perimeter scoring (Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad) and defense (Corey Brewer). They re-signed physical post man Nikola Pekovic to a five-year deal.
But medical red flags have a way of flying around this franchise. Decimated by injuries, the Timberwolves started 15 different players in 2012-13.
It's hard to penalize this team for attracting the injury bug, but it certainly deserves mention. Injuries are the biggest (only?) thing threatening Minnesota's playoff chances in 2014.
Portland Trail Blazers
2012-13 Record: 33-49
Key Offseason Additions: Robin Lopez, CJ McCollum, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright
Notable Offseason Losses: Luke Babbitt, J.J. Hickson, Eric Maynor, Nolan Smith
Playoff Forecast: Unseasonably Warm
This should have been a summer to celebrate for Portland Trail Blazers fans.
After watching their champagne starting five derailed by a (cheap) beer bench, Portland took major strides in making this weakness a strength.
No team has more depth at the lead guard spot (Damian Lillard, Mo Williams, CJ McCollum and Earl Watson). The perimeter is full of versatile floor spacers (Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Dorell Wright). Between the arrivals of Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson and a summer of seasoning for sophomore Meyers Leonard, J.J. Hickson's nightly double-doubles should be replaced.
But two major issues are keeping the Blazers from being postseason locks.
The elephant in the room is the status of perennial All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Was there any truth behind the trade rumors that Comcast SportsNet's Chris Haynes reported hearing, or is the big man as happy as Portland general manager Neil Olshey says he is, via Ben Golliver of SportsIllustrated.com?
But the other pressing issue is whether Lillard (2012-13 Rookie of the Year) can avoid a sophomore slump and make the players around him better.
If Aldridge is content and Lillard is at least as productive as he was last season, the Blazers will have a playoff berth waiting for them.
2012-13 Record: 29-53
Key Offseason Additions: Al Harrington, Eric Maynor, Otto Porter, Glen Rice Jr.
Notable Offseason Losses: None yet
Playoff Forecast: Early Storms, But Sunny Skies on Horizon
With a competent backup for John Wall (Eric Maynor), a budding star at small forward (Otto Porter) and a proven stretch 4 (Al Harrington), the Washington Wizards had addressed their biggest needs this summer.
Everything seemed to be going to plan.
But that plan has been forcibly changed. Just hours after news broke that they had lost reserve big Chris Singleton for six-to-eight weeks with a broken foot, reports surfaced that starting center Emeka Okafor was out indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck, via Michael Lee of The Washington Post.
Whether these are slight setbacks or the beginnings of another lost season will depend heavily on the play of Wall, Washington's freshly minted $80 million man. He's made strides in each of his three NBA seasons (career best 20.8 PER in 2012-13), but he's yet to give Washington true max-contract production.
If Wall continues his ascent, Bradley Beal follows his lead, Nene avoids injury and Otto Porter hits the ground running, the Wizards could see an immediate return on their investment.
They have the pieces in place to snap their five-year playoff skid, but those pieces need to have more floor time than doctor visits.