Finding wiggle room in the NBA league standings is about as easy finding great value in the free-agent market.
Some teams fail to live up to their preseason hype (see: 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers). Others refuse to be written off, even while pundits keep predicting their demise (see: San Antonio Spurs, any season).
But every once in a while, a team (or two) surges out of its slumber and dramatically outperforms expectations. Mediocre teams crash playoff parties. Postseason hopefuls turn championship contenders.
The 2013-14 season has a number of those sleeping giants coasting below the radar. All of them should start making postseason plans, and the best should pack for a lengthy stay.
These six clubs won't start the year to a lot of fanfare, but don't be surprised when each goes out with a resounding bang.
Key Offseason Additions: D.J. Augustin, Dwight Buycks, Tyler Hansbrough, Steve Novak
Notable Subtractions: Alan Anderson, Andrea Bargnani, Linas Kleiza, John Lucas III
Setting the Bar: No. 8 seed in the East
More light sleepers than hibernators, the Toronto Raptors are set to see the first (modest) return on their $15 million investment in new general manager Masai Ujiri.
Saddled by expensive contracts left by his predecessor, Bryan Colangelo, Ujiri was largely handcuffed this summer. Still, he managed to swing former draft bust Andrea Bargnani for three draft picks and some salary relief.
The Raptors are one of a handful of teams expected to compete for one of the final three playoff berths in the East. But really this is their fight to lose.
With a full training camp to integrate Rudy Gay into Dwane Casey's attack, Toronto has the talent to snap its five-year postseason drought. If Jonas Valanciunas can build on his sizzling summer league play, the Raptors could be on the verge of something even sweeter.
The bench is still thin, but the starting lineup has the chance to be special. Once Ujiri has the funds to be more active, Toronto won't be getting slept on again.
Key Offseason Additions: Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Anthony Morrow, Jeff Withey
Notable Subtractions: Xavier Henry, Robin Lopez, Roger Mason, Greivis Vasquez
Setting the Bar: No. 8 seed in the West
After an active offseason, the New Orleans Pelicans certainly got the Bayou buzzing again.
The arrivals of All-Star Jrue Holiday and former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans caused the biggest stirs, but the Pelicans' under-the-radar moves will help. Sharpshooter Anthony Morrow adds another weapon to Monty Williams' offense, and bigs Greg Stiemsma and Jeff Withey compensate for the intimidation lost with Lopez's departure.
New Orleans has gone from a lottery lock to a playoff dark horse, but I still think this club is being undervalued.
Anthony Davis was ready for superstardom yesterday. Holiday and Eric Gordon are one of the few backcourt combos that thrives at both ends of the floor. Evans and Ryan Anderson are a dynamic one-two punch off the pine, with former lottery pick Austin Rivers serving as the third wheel in New Orleans' reserve big three.
Anything beyond a first-round exit is probably asking too much. But for a franchise holding a .324 winning percentage since Chris Paul's departure in 2011, this playoff berth will be good enough for now.
Key Offseason Additions: Robin Lopez, C.J. McCollum, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright
Notable Subtractions: J.J. Hickson, Jared Jeffries, Eric Maynor, Sasha Pavlovic
Setting the Bar: No. 7 seed in the West
What's left is something between a good and really good team, a franchise that plugged its biggest holes over the summer but still doesn't have the star power of the elites. Still, Portland did enough to free itself from the logjam at the back end of the Western Conference playoff picture.
A formerly punch-less second team—league-worst 18.5 points last season, via HoopsStats.com—found some knockout artists in Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and C.J. McCollum. Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard will look to play the rim-protecting role alongside Aldridge that J.J. Hickson never could.
And through all of these win-now moves, the roster is still rich with potential.
Damian Lillard (19.0 points and 6.5 assists) is years away from hitting his ceiling. Nicolas Batum (14.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists) is still figuring out the best way to put his long, athletic frame to work. Robinson, McCollum and Leonard were each selected in the last two draft lotteries.
The Blazers have a ceiling near home-court advantage, but their basement still features a playoff berth.
Key Offseason Additions: Anthony Bennett, Andrew Bynum, Earl Clark, Jarrett Jack
Notable Subtractions: Omri Casspi, Wayne Ellington, Daniel Gibson, Shaun Livingston
Setting the Bar: Playoff Series Win
Whenever you have a past—and possible future—with LeBron James and an owner like Dan Gilbert, it's hard to go unnoticed in the basketball world. When Andrew Bynum—and his many hairstyles—joined the fun, the Cleveland Cavaliers assured themselves front-page real estate for 2013-14.
But too many of their moves have been viewed with raised eyebrows.
Here's what very few people are saying right now—the Cavaliers could be a very good team without getting a single minute out of Andrew Bynum.
Kyrie Irving's already a potent scorer (22.5 points per game in 2012-13) and in great position to become even more dangerous. With more weapons to use (Anthony Bennett, Earl Clark, rookie Sergey Karasev) and another to play off of (Jarrett Jack), Irving's offensive evolution will be a sight to behold.
At the opposite end, he'll have help from the sideline (coach Mike Brown) and under the basket (Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao).
While the narratives will continue to revolve around Bynum's health and James' next decision, don't forget how talented the Cavaliers are without either one.
Key Offseason Additions: Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap, Dennis Schröder
Notable Subtractions: Devin Harris, Zaza Pachulia, Josh Smith, DeShawn Stevenson
Setting the Bar: Top-Five Seed in the East
You can scour the web for season previews and chances are very little will change at the top of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. The order might change, but the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks will each hold a top-five seed.
Any other team that would be in the discussion has at least one pressing issue keeping it out of the conversation. Whether that's the spacing issues in Detroit, the shot selection in Toronto, the thinning frontcourt in Washington or the Andrew Bynum watch in Cleveland, something is holding analysts back when it comes to these franchises.
But the Atlanta Hawks are left out of those talks despite entering this season as essentially an open book.
Paul Millsap seems like he was born to play with Al Horford. Elton Brand's a better two-way contributor than Zaza Pachulia, and DeMarre Carroll has more substance to his intimidation than DeShawn Stevenson did. Josh Smith's long twos are out, and Dennis Schröder's ridiculous upside is in (hopefully in a two-guard lineup alongside Jeff Teague).
Throw in a former San Antonio Spur in the executive's box (GM Danny Ferry) and another on the sideline (coach Mike Budenholzer), and it comes as little surprise that this team is so well put together. It shouldn't be a surprise that this team is getting criminally overlooked, either.
Key Offseason Additions: Nick Calathes, Jamaal Franklin, Kosta Koufos, Mike Miller
Notable Subtractions: Darrell Arthur, Austin Daye, Keyon Dooling
Setting the Bar: Western Conference Finals
Maybe there are a lot of Darrell Arthur fans out there. Or Lionel Hollins' support is greater around the country than it is inside of Memphis.
Something is apparently wrong with these Grizzlies, and I'd love to know what it is.
This is a team that won 56 games during the regular season and needed just 11 games to make it through the first two rounds of the playoffs last season. And that group had to deal with a dramatic midseason shakeup (the Rudy Gay trade), never found a comfort zone for the prized piece of their return package (Ed Davis) and didn't have Mike Miller's sharpshooting (career 40.6 three-point percentage) to keep defenses honest.
For pundits needing a big three, Memphis has one of the best in the business. Mike Conley's two-way play is nearly unrivaled at the point guard spot, and no frontcourt pairing is harder to contain than Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
With Miller helping with floor spacing and Davis and Kosta Koufos strengthening the interior, this Grizzlies group could be even better than the last one. But even a repeat performance would be enough to shatter most preseason projections.