Wave goodbye to 2013.
It was a good year for teams like the Miami Heat (winning a title), Indiana Pacers (watching Paul George develop into a superstar), Houston Rockets (landing Dwight Howard), Golden State Warriors (see: Iguodala, Andre) and so many other squads. But as S.E. Hinton would say, that was then, and this is now.
The calendars have changed to 2014, the ball has dropped at Times Square and we don't have to worry about seeing Ryan Seacrest for another 12 months.
All of a sudden, it's time for a new set of teams to lay claim to the year.
For the purposes of this article, which will identify the 10 teams best set to enjoy a rocking 2014, there are two ways to dominate the year.
A team can experience instant gratification, competing for a title during the 2013-14 season and then either maintaining that dominance during the next season or experiencing a subsequent decline. Or a team can opt for the delayed route, waiting until the offseason to stake its claim as one of those doing the rocking.
Both options are equally valid, and both will inevitably happen.
Paul George is pretty certain the Indiana Pacers aren't going to go away anytime soon. At least that's what his play is indicating.
The All-Star swingman has been even better than before during his fourth professional season, heading into the new year with per-game averages of 23.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 47.1 percent from the field. It's a strong enough line that George is almost certainly in MVP contention at this stage of the 2013-14 campaign.
As Phillip B. Wilson of IndyStar.com writes, "Perhaps the highlight reel (like this one) will become an annual must-see-video tradition." And it should, assuming George's career remains on its current trajectory.
However, the Pacers are about so much more than PG.
David West continues to thrive as the defensive enforcer and offensive glue guy. Roy Hibbert and his principles of verticality have turned this defense from a great unit into a historically excellent one. Lance Stephenson is breaking out and becoming offensive dynamite. The bench is coming together, especially now that Danny Granger can contribute to the game and not just the suit game.
There's a reason the Pacers enter 2014 with the best record in the NBA, putting them 1.5 games ahead of the Miami Heat for the lead in the Eastern Conference. There's a reason Indiana has taken down the Heat once and then lost another game only because Roy Hibbert was in serious foul trouble and Miami completed a big comeback.
This team is for real.
The Los Angeles Clippers are on the rise.
Thanks to the dominant play of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, this squad morphed into a point-scoring machine. That much was clear from the very beginning of the season, as Griffin has been a 20/10 mainstay while CP3 plays more like a point god than a point guard.
But the defense struggled.
Past tense is key there, as Doc Rivers has the Clippers turning into an elite defensive unit. Blake Griffin's fundamentals are impressive, DeAndre Jordan is finally making the right rotations and properly protecting the rim, and the rest of the L.A. teammates are all clicking.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Clippers now boast the No. 9 offensive rating in the NBA, scoring 108 points per 100 possessions. At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, that would be accompanied by one of the worst defensive marks in basketball, but that's no longer the case.
In fact, the Clippers now rank higher on the less-glamorous side of the ball.
Allowing 103.1 points per 100 possessions, LAC comes in at No. 7 in terms of defensive rating. If the current trend continues, the team could finish the season trailing only the Indiana Pacers, who are pretty much untouchable at this point.
Only four teams in the NBA rank in the top 10 for both offensive and defensive rating: the Clippers, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Not bad company.
The Miami Heat haven't been able to break past the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference standings, but there's still no doubt this is an elite team.
Those are the three reasons that you can never count the Heat out. When the Big Three is healthy and on the court together, there isn't a team in the NBA that can hope to act like air conditioning and beat the Heat.
Miami has won each of the past two championships, and a three-peat is the ultimate goal. Not playing for the No. 1 seed during the regular season. Not going on a lengthy run of unblemished basketball.
It's title or bust in South Beach, and all the pieces are in place to do exactly that.
Do you really want to doubt LeBron at this stage of his career?
If you twist around enough in your mind, you can actually view Russell Westbrook's injury as a positive.
Even without the All-Star point guard in the lineup, the Oklahoma City Thunder are still going to be a playoff team, difficulty of the Western Conference be damned. With Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka playing, there's too much talent for OKC to just fall off a cliff.
But Westbrook's absence forces the Thunder to adapt and evolve.
Maybe it'll be Durant taking that proverbial next step and learning how to carry a team, much like LeBron James did with the Cleveland Cavaliers during he first act of his career. Maybe Reggie Jackson will morph into a quality starting point guard, rendering him more of a luxury item than ever before.
Serge Ibaka could also develop more offensive skills than the ones he uses in pick-and-pop settings, and Scott Brooks could learn how to draw up a creative play or two instead of relying on his two superstars to do all the heavy lifting.
If even one of those scenarios comes to fruition, the Thunder will be an even more dangerous team when Westbrook returns. And it's not like they were just a cuddly pushover beforehand.
After all, Basketball-Reference reveals that OKC is the only team to rank in the top five for both offensive and defensive rating.
The Houston Rockets aren't set up well enough to move into the instant gratification portion of this article.
They're right on the verge, as the team has been teasing us throughout the 2013-14 campaign. Some nights, everything clicks, and the Rockets look like an unstoppable team on both sides of the ball. Some nights, the efforts are more lackluster, and they can find themselves on the wrong end of a blowout. Some nights, I stay up, cashing in my bad luck.
A 21-13 record during the 2013 portion of the 2013-14 season is impressive, but it's hard to feel that great about the Rockets.
Their margin of victory lags behind the other elite teams in the Western Conference, although they have played one of the tougher schedules up to this point in the year. There's always a chance Dwight Howard starts clicking with his teammates on a regular basis, rendering all of my doubt worthless.
But there haven't been many signs of that happening.
It'll likely take this talent-laden team another year to put all the pieces together and become true contenders for the right to hold up the Larry O'Brien Trophy, and that's why they're in between the two categories.
Houston will only be scarier next season, after D12 has a chance to mesh with his teammates, James Harden has another year of growing, Chandler Parsons moves into the realm of mini-stars and players like Terrence Jones continue to break out.
There isn't much potential to make significant roster moves—barring a trade of Jeremy Lin and/or Omer Asik—but simply keeping the current parts together will be grounds for improvement.
I'm not ready to say that the Portland Trail Blazers will win a title at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season.
They're capable of doing so, but experience helps, and this is a group that hasn't been battle-tested on the big stage before. While LaMarcus Aldridge is a veteran and Damian Lillard is mature beyond his years, it helps to have been there before.
Portland is dominating opponents, showing resiliency (see the bounce-back victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder on New Year's Eve) and hasn't played an exorbitantly easy schedule, but it's still a little too soon to call it favorites to advance out of the Western Conference.
Contenders, sure. But not favorites.
That changes in the near future, as Rip City has put together a squad capable of growing together and getting even better. All the pieces are in place for the 2014-15 season: Lillard, Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and more are under contract already.
But the Blazers will also be adding in a more seasoned version of C.J. McCollum, and the rest of the team is only gaining experience. Nothing is going to change next season, other than Portland getting even more dangerous.
This is quite a trail the team is blazing.
The Charlotte Bobcats have surprised the NBA world by jumping out to a 14-18 record that leaves them firmly within the playoff picture in the weak Eastern Conference.
They've done so thanks to the marvelous coaching of Steve Clifford, who has preached transition defense and Tom Thibodeau-style packing of the paint. Offense is obviously a work in progress, but this young team, even while giving major minutes to Al Jefferson, has allowed only 100.6 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.
The list of teams that are stingier is a short one: the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Seriously. That's it.
This unit isn't the least bit fluky, so long as the players continue buying into the effort-based system. If anything, it'll get better next year when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is healthy, Jeff Taylor has two working Achilles and Bismack Biyombo has another season of NBA experience under his belt.
The Bobcats are in great shape, strange as that may seem to say after so many years of treating them as the league's premier punching bag.
Even with the current roster, this team has a shot to excel. But the 'Cats also have plenty of cap space next offseason when Ben Gordon and Ramon Sessions come off the books. On top of that, they'll likely be enjoying multiple first-round draft picks in the stacked 2014 class, assuming the Portland Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons keep winning games.
Any ideas why Michael Carter-Williams is smiling?
Maybe it's because the Philadelphia 76ers are in excellent shape for the 2014-15 season. The 2013-14 campaign will continue to be filled with futile efforts, but that's actually a good thing. The more losses pile up, the better the shot at adding Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins or one of the other top prospects in the stacked 2014 class.
Thanks to the emergence of MCW as the premier talent in the more lackluster set of prospects from the 2013 selection process, the Sixers are in better shape than they could have possibly expected.
Not only does the lanky point guard look like a franchise centerpiece, but Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes have become attractive trading assets. Additionally, Philadelphia has plenty of cap space going forward, and the 2014 draft could treat them quite kindly.
After all, the following picks are all under control of general manager Sam Hinkie:
- Their own first-round selection, unless they somehow make the playoffs and hand it over to the Miami Heat.
- A first-round pick from New Orleans, protected for the top five slots.
- Their own second-round pick, protected for pick Nos. 31-50 and 56-60.
- A second-round pick from Houston.
- A second-round pick from Brooklyn.
Oh, and there's this guy named Nerlens Noel who is still waiting to make his professional debut.
The Phoenix Suns are in much better shape than anyone could've guessed.
With Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic emerging as one of the NBA's elite backcourts, the Suns are actually in position to make the playoffs in the brutally difficult Western Conference. Heading into 2014, they sit pretty with a shocking 19-11 record, one that leaves them at No. 5, ahead of teams like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors.
It's not a fluke.
The Suns have the No. 9 margin of victory in the NBA, and they've actually played the 10th-toughest schedule in the league. Basketball-Reference combines these factors to form what it calls "simple rating system," and Phoenix checks in at No. 10.
Not in the Western Conference. In the Association as a whole.
The Suns obviously aren't going to win a title this year, but this is a young team that has an opportunity to develop into a powerhouse in the near future. That's especially true because Ryan McDonough has done such a great job running the organization during his brief tenure that the Suns could boast four first-round draft picks in 2014.
They're guaranteed to have their own, and stealing the Indiana Pacers' lottery-protected selection seems like a guarantee as well. So long as the Minnesota Timberwolves aren't in the top 13 and the Washington Wizards don't fall in the top 12, the total will rise to four.
The Suns could use all of their draft picks or listen to their general manager, who told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper the following:
I think one of the things that’s important for people to realize is that we may not draft four players even if we have four picks. Our preference would probably be to maybe package a few of them. We’re obviously all looking for stars and we feel like we can put together a package as good, if not better, than any other team in the league if and when a star becomes available. That’s kind of generally what we’ve wanted to do, not only with our draft-pick situation but also with the cap space that we’ve acquired.
The Suns are in fantastic shape to own 2014 due to their inevitable rise to more than just prominence.
This Trey Burke guy is pretty good.
The Utah Jazz rookie point guard spent the 2013 portion of his first professional campaign averaging 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game, despite his late debut thanks to a broken finger prior to the start of the season. More importantly, the Jazz are actually winning games.
Without Burke in the lineup, Utah stumbled its way to a 1-11 record. But since he returned, it's gone a much more respectable 9-13 record.
To put that in even more relatable terms, Utah was on pace to go 6-76 without Burke. Since he's been healthy and in the lineup, they've been on pace to 33-49.
That's a pretty big turnaround, and it shows just how impressive the young floor general has been. Despite his sub-40 percent shooting from the field, Burke is a dynamic force who can create looks both for himself and his teammates due to the confidence he plays with and defensive attention he automatically draws.
Add in Derrick Favors, and it's clear that Utah already has a few building blocks who will help jump-start the retooling process. The Jazz also have as much cap space as anyone during the 2014 offseason, and they're gaining an extra first-round draft pick from the Golden State Warriors.
Especially if the ping-pong balls bounce right and give the Jazz a shot at Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins, Utah could be a surprisingly dangerous team at the start of the 2014-15 campaign.