Projecting Whether Every NBA Team Will Be Better or Worse in 2014-15

Bryant KnoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2014

Projecting Whether Every NBA Team Will Be Better or Worse in 2014-15

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    A second-half slip shouldn't worry the Indiana Pacers, especially with Andrew Bynum back in action.
    A second-half slip shouldn't worry the Indiana Pacers, especially with Andrew Bynum back in action.Associated Press

    With the 2013-14 NBA season nearing its conclusion, we have a strong inclination as to who has a bright future ahead.

    Nicely put, we can also surmise which teams don't and which are in for a bumpy road in 2014-15. 

    Making long-term projections can be a laborious task because winning now doesn't always equate to betterment later. Conversely, a strong 2014 draft class will help numerous franchises improve, giving them hope as early as next season.

    There's no crystal ball saying who will make leaps during the summer of 2014, but knowing what we know now, we can look ahead and forecast which franchises are headed in the right direction.

     

    *Teams are listed in order of current standings (rankings, records, standings and statistics are current as of March 12 at 2 a.m. ET).

    **All information regarding draft picks is courtesy of RealGM.

15. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Tom Lynn/Associated Press

    2013-14 Record: 13-51

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    One theme you'll notice throughout this list is that the Eastern Conference shouldn't be nearly as awful next season. That's more of an indictment on how bad it's been this year than how good it will be in 2015, but a strong draft class will clearly make a difference.

    Regarding the Milwaukee Bucks, this is an organization that can only go up. It has the worst record in the NBA by a relative long shot, and it's a strong candidate to land the No. 1 pick in June.

    For all that's gone wrong this season (or right if they'll admit they've been tanking), the Bucks have a lot to be thankful for. Not only do they have a top-four pick coming their way barring an actual improvement down the stretch, but they have pieces such as John Henson and Giannis Antetokounmpo who will push toward the future alongside guys like O.J. Mayo and Larry Sanders.

    Milwaukee fans shouldn't fret too much this season, as they'll have a chance to start competing again soon, especially if the East remains mediocre from the third or fourth seed up.

14. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    2013-14 Record: 15-48

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    We all knew that Michael Carter-Williams would have a significant role on the Philadelphia 76ers following the team's moves in the draft. What we didn't know is how well his game would translate to the NBA, giving Philly a legitimate floor general to build around for both the immediate and distant future.

    As well as Carter-Williams has played, don't ignore Thaddeus Young as the nucleus of this rebuilding roster. It's become clear that he can't lead a team by himself, but 2014-15 will feature a different cast of role players to complement his production.

    Fist and foremost, the return of Nerlens Noel should help defensively. Then consider whatever pick the Sixers land in the upcoming draft.

    That's two lottery picks for the price of one, moving Philadelphia further away from the basement of the Association.

13. Orlando Magic

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    David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 19-46

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    With a number of West Coast games remaining, the Orlando Magic don't have to worry about playing themselves into a much later pick.

    Draft aside, Orlando already has pieces in place to improve quickly (especially being out East). Arron Afflalo has proven he can be a go-to scorer, Nikola Vucevic is averaging a solid double-double at 23 years old, and Victor Oladipo is a top Rookie of the Year candidate—although that honor is unequivocally Michael Carter-Williams' to lose.

    Don't forget about guys such as Moe Harkless, Tobias Harris and Kyle O'Quinn either. This roster may not be great in 2014-15, but it will be a step closer to the postseason with growth and a lottery addition.

12. Boston Celtics

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    2013-14 Record: 22-42

    2014-15 Projection: Worse

     

    The Boston Celtics are in the midst of a massive shift, and while the future should get brighter for this storied franchise sooner rather than later, don't be shocked if the light at the end of the rebuilding tunnel doesn't shine until 2016.

    Despite Danny Ainge's reluctance toward trading Rajon Rondo, you have to believe the general manager will expend all options when it comes to the point guard. There's virtually no chance the team gets better immediately if Rondo is dealt; then again, there's no guarantee the team gets better at all if it keeps him running the show.

    With the futures of guys such as Avery Bradley and Jeff Green up in the air, it's tough to predict exactly what this squad will look like entering 2014-15. This is a group that needs a clear direction, and until it gets that, it'll be stuck in NBA limbo.

11. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 24-40

    2014-15 Projection: Worse

     

    Speaking of teams that lack a clear direction, enter the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    We all know the fantasy: Cleveland brings in a superstar then lures LeBron James home in 2015. If step one becomes a reality, the team will undoubtedly be improved, but the problem is actually seeing it through.

    According to the Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd, the Cavs want to add either LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love to the mix. The organization believes that one of those guys can be the catalyst to brighter days (and more specifically, bringing in James), as clearly the move to trade for Luol Deng hasn't expedited the improvements the way the team was hoping for.

    The right move would do wonders for this rebuilding roster. Unfortunately, making that move a reality will be easier said than done.

10. New York Knicks

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    David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 25-40

    2014-15 Projection: Worse

     

    "Anything that can go wrong has gone wrong for us," Carmelo Anthony told reporters back in February, via Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News.

    That statement sums up the season well for the New York Knicks, and at this point, it's tough to see things getting much better.

    On the bright side, ESPN's Chris Broussard has reported that the team is set to finalize a deal with Phil Jackson to give the former head coach "control of the club's front office." The move will put a basketball genius behind the scenes making decisions, but the question is: How will his brilliance on the sidelines translate to basketball operations?

    The addition of Jackson is a step in the right direction, but the future of this team solely depends on Anthony. This group lacks a first-round pick in one of the most highly anticipated drafts in years, and while it has talent spread across the roster, we've seen how far that's gotten it thus far.

9. Detroit Pistons

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 25-39

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    The Detroit Pistons are a prime candidate to make a lateral move in 2014-15. They won't be a contender without a significant shakeup, but the truth is they have too much talent to take a legitimate step backward, especially if they're able to jell entering their second season as a new-look roster.

    According to ESPN's Chad Ford, the Pistons have locked up a spot in the upcoming lottery. Equally or even more important is the fact that Andre Drummond is blossoming into one of the best young centers in the game.

    If Detroit can't get greater efficiency out of Josh Smith, at least it has a lottery selection and an excelling Drummond to hopefully dilute the forward's shot attempts. Then there's the option of trading Greg Monroe. And while it's not ideal, it would open up a spot in the rotation to slide Smith to the 4 and bring in a better shooter to own the perimeter.

    Nothing is certain for Detroit, but the future isn't as bleak as some would like you to think.

8. Atlanta Hawks

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    Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 27-35

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    If the Atlanta Hawks had Al Horford on the roster, chances are they'd be fighting for the third seed out East with the home stretch upon us.

    With Horford back in the lineup next season, expect Atlanta to be in the mix for that top-three spot. It's true that the conference should be improved, especially with Derrick Rose returning to the Chicago Bulls, but improvements across the conference shouldn't be so significant that they take away from what Horford brings to Atlanta.

    The Hawks' rebuild began when they shipped out Joe Johnson back in 2012, and they took another huge step in 2013 by letting Josh Smith walk. Financial flexibility became a huge part of the long-term vision, and the team isn't done improving.

7. Charlotte Bobcats

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    Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 30-34

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    The soon-to-be Charlotte Hornets have experienced a huge turnaround this season. They've gone from 14th out East in 2012-13 to eyeing the playoffs, and while a big part of that is because of the underachieving conference, it also has to do with an overall improved roster.

    At this point in the process, it would have behooved the Bobcats to earn another lottery pick. But simply put: The postseason is too tempting. This organization has only seen the playoffs once, and tanking among this many bad teams clearly wasn't an option.

    Charlotte will be a better team next year than it is right now, but the problem is, casual fans may not actually notice. If the East truly does improve as a whole, the competition will be tougher, and a spot in the top eight will be less likely.

    That said, the bigger picture shows something more clear, which is that the franchise is headed in the right direction. The players on board are performing at a level unlike most years before, and that's a good sign for a franchise that is desperate to succeed.

6. Brooklyn Nets

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 32-30

    2014-15 Projection: Worse

     

    The Brooklyn Nets aren't getting any younger.

    Fans in Brooklyn will fight this one, but it's tough to imagine a scenario where the Nets actually improve without a drastic roster move. Yes, we all know Brook Lopez will be back, but if we've learned anything throughout the 2013-14 campaign, it's that nothing is guaranteed.

    Lopez's health is hardly worth putting money down on at this juncture. The same can be said about Deron Williams. And I hate to break it to the Brooklyn faithful, but Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett aren't going to sip from the fountain of youth and return to their All-Star days. 

    As B/R's Dan Favale put it back in November, "Long term, they have no idea what they have. All that currently awaits them is a mixed bag of indelible contracts and scaling sheaf of luxury tax bills."

    The Nets have no picks, no clear path to improvement and virtually no hope of becoming the championship contender they thought they'd be in 2013-14. This is a group that needs a facelift or at least a younger core to support the veterans.

5. Washington Wizards

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    2013-14 Record: 33-30

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    To the outsider looking in, the Washington Wizards have experienced substantial success in a short amount of time, and that can be worrisome to those projecting their outlook for the immediate future.

    All that said, you shouldn't take too much away from what they've accomplished. Their improvements have been in the making for quite some time, and John Wall's boost in production has been just what the team needed to get to the next level.

    According to Wall, via B/R's Lance Fresh, he wants to be known as the best point guard ever. That's quite the goal for anyone of any age, but while he's a ways away from making that claim, he can officially say he's an All-Star in such a point guard-heavy league.

    With Wall at the helm, this group has a shot to be even better in 2015. The hope is that Bradley Beal continues to improve as well, and that the rest of the pieces fall into place with the stars leading the way.

4. Chicago Bulls

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    2013-14 Record: 35-29

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    The Chicago Bulls are once again closing out the year with Derrick Rose on the bench, and they're once again exceeding expectations.

    Currently sitting fourth out East, the Bulls are hoping for lightning to strike come playoff time. They've found success against both the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers during the regular season, but chances are a seven-game series against either would prove to be too much with Rose in street clothes.

    The only wild card here regarding next season is whether or not the Bulls organization makes substantial roster moves to bring in a star.

    NBA.com's Sam Smith told B/R's Adam Lefkoe that there is a "1 percent" chance Chicago brings on Carmelo Anthony next year, but on the off chance a move like that goes through, you have to wonder if having another superstar would outweigh the sacrifices made to make it happen.

    At this point in the process, the Bulls will be happy to simply have Rose back. Barring another catastrophic injury, the 2014-15 campaign will help restore confidence in the point guard's ability to lead a contender.

3. Toronto Raptors

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    Ron Turenne/Getty Images

    2013-14 Record: 35-27

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    The Toronto Raptors played themselves out of the lottery early. Rather than conceding to the notion that they can't win a championship, they opted to ride out the year, using their playoff hunger as motivation.

    Those looking at the glass half empty will say the team blew a shot at tanking in a year where there are legitimate franchises pieces available. I say: nonsense.

    What Masai Ujiri has done in his first year has been remarkable. If fans in Toronto don't have faith in him by now, they're ignoring the steps he's taken to help this organization.

    It'd be foolish to assume Ujiri will stand pat when the time comes to make the next big improvement, giving this fanbase every reason to believe the team will be even better in 2014-15.

2. Miami Heat

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    Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 44-17

    2014-15 Projection: Worse

     

    The Miami Heat should be worse in 2014-15 than they are now, but understand that they're still going to be a championship contender and a top-three team out East.

    Think about it this way: What could Miami do to get even better? Unless it finds a perfectly healthy season from Dwyane Wade and a dominant comeback from Greg Oden, the Heat are looking at another year of dominance in a weak Eastern Conference without necessarily getting better along the way.

    Chances are, LeBron James will find some way to improve his game at 29 years old. He's done it each of the past few years, helping solidify himself as the best player on the planet.

    Miami won't be bad barring significant roster moves (free-agent departures), so the message to Heat fans is: Don't overreact when the team is a bit less productive (that same message applies to detractors).

1. Indiana Pacers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    2013-14 Record: 47-17

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    The Indiana Pacers started the year nearly invincible. They were 40-12 before All-Star Weekend, and if we'd looked at their 2014-15 projections then, we could have said "worse" simply because playing any better would have been almost unrealistic.

    As it turns out, Indiana has come back down to earth, making it easier to justify its future improvements.

    Since the All-Star Game, the Pacers are just 7-5. That stretch included four straight losses—the longest losing streak of the year—and it's helped the Miami Heat shorten the gap between first and second place.

    When it's all said and done, consider this much ado about nothing. Evan Turner will be fine, the team will get back to its winning ways and even Andrew Bynum, who looked good in his first game back, could become a solid part of the rotation.

    The biggest question mark here is the contract of Lance Stephenson, but if he walks, the team has a contingency plan in Turner ready to step up.

15. Sacramento Kings

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    2013-14 Record: 22-42

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    The Sacramento Kings have given us every reason to bet against them in recent years, but with the moves they've made this season, it's easy to see how they'll actually improve before 2014-15.

    Will the Kings be a playoff team? Don't count on it. The West is still too tough for anyone in last place to make that jump, but if nothing else, they'll be worth keeping an eye on for the majority of the year.

    Rudy Gay has turned into an efficient scorer, Isaiah Thomas is one of the most improved players in the NBA and DeMarcus Cousins has taken another step toward competing as the best center in basketball.

    Now the Kings have the luxury of adding a lottery pick to the mix entering 2013-14. The hope is that they make the right choice and officially head down the path for a brighter future.

14. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    2013-14 Record: 22-42

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    The Los Angeles Lakers couldn't possibly get any worse, right?

    The truth is we have no idea what this roster will look like after the offseason. According to B/R's Kevin Ding, L.A. is expected to retain Steve Nash, meaning we'll hopefully see the pairing of Nash and Kobe Bryant that we were supposed to see all along.

    But as Ding points out, keeping Nash on board pushes the Lakers out of the running for any significant free agents until 2015, causing even more questions to pop up surrounding the 2014-15 campaign.

    With Pau Gasol and other pieces to this year's jumbled puzzle possibly out the door, why should we have faith that this team will be any better? Combine Bryant's return with a potential top-three pick, and you get your answer.

    Besides, as we've already discussed, this team can't get any worse, right?

13. Utah Jazz

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 22-42

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    Believe it or not, the Utah Jazz have a bright future ahead of them. Not only do they have young pieces such as Trey Burke, Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward (barring a toxic contract that forces Hayward out of town), they also have big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter continuing to grow into their roles on the block.

    Combine all that talent with cap flexibility, and you understand why fans are excited to get the ball rolling on the retooling process.

    For most teams with Utah's record, fans would be crying for the year to come to an end simply to put them out of their misery. However, if you haven't watched this group play together, you're missing out on the fact that they're actually entertaining.

    This group won't be down and out for long, giving the organization hope for improvements as early as the 2014-15 season.

12. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    2013-14 Record: 26-37

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    When you have Anthony Davis on your team and he's improving at the rate he is, there's virtually no way you get worse from one season to the next.

    Not only is Davis proving to be one of the best two-way bigs in the NBA at just 21 years old (as of March 11), but this team has health concerns that have slowed it down. Jrue Holiday has missed most of the year—the same can be said about Ryan Anderson—and with the puzzle short a couple of pieces, the Pelicans have kissed the playoffs goodbye and are headed for the lottery.

    Odds are this is the perfect season for New Orleans to miss the playoffs. The chances of it taking down the powerhouses out West are unlikely, so its reality becomes yet another lottery pick instead of an early exit.

    With a year under their belts, all the new faces on this roster should be better off next season. Adding another prospect is simply icing on the cake.

11. Denver Nuggets

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    2013-14 Record: 27 -36

    2014-15 Projection: Worse

     

    When George Karl was coaching the Denver Nuggets, he found great success in the regular season but ultimately lost his job because he couldn't get it done in the playoffs.

    First-year leader Brian Shaw shouldn't be worried 63 games into his new position, but having taken a step backward since Karl's termination, this team is headed in the wrong direction.

    When you think of the go-to options on this roster, there aren't many, and that's a problem. Ty Lawson is a great young point guard with plenty of skills, but Wilson Chandler has never averaged more than 16.4 points per game. Nate Robinson has a recovering ACL (and a player option), and Kenneth Faried, as good as he is, seems to have plateaued a bit at this point in his career.

    Even the return of Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee won't be what gets the Nuggets to the next level. Neither has proven to be a leader when it counts, leaving fans questioning: Where do they go from here?

10. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 32-31

    2014-15 Projection: Worse

     

    This was the year the Minnesota Timberwolves were supposed to put all their troubles behind them and return to the postseason for the first time since 2003-04.

    Unfortunately for the Wolves, we've been saying that for the last two or three years, and it's difficult to imagine what else they can do to take the next step toward greatness—or even "moderately betterness"—in a brutal Western Conference.

    One thing is for sure: If the Timberwolves are indeed worse next season—or at least stuck in mediocrity—it will be time to fear the worst when it comes to Kevin Love. The All-Star big man will have the chance to leave as a free agent in 2015, and while cutting the cord can be tough, trading him before he walks just might be the smart thing to do.

    Just ask Dan Gilbert, who ironically might be interested in Love's services, according to the Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd.

9. Phoenix Suns

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 36-27

    2014-15 Projection: Worse

     

    Fans in the desert have been riding high all season, and while no one can take away from what the Phoenix Suns have accomplished, there's also no questioning that they missed a golden opportunity at this year's trade deadline.

    Entering the year, ESPN—as well as most of the basketball world—projected the Suns to finish dead last in the Western Conference. They were supposed to be "riggin' for Wiggins" or whomever they were going to target, but as it turned out, they've exceeded all expectations and are now looking at a potential spot in the 2014 postseason.

    The problem is the Suns have a plethora of first-round picks who could have become productive players at the deadline. As good as the upcoming draft is, Phoenix has played itself out of a top-10 selection (barring a catastrophic finish), and finding proven players would have benefited it more than acquiring potential to stick on the bench.

    The Suns also had Emeka Okafor's expiring contract that would have been good as gold to sellers on Feb. 20. Phoenix has experienced a ton of success very quickly, and while fans should continue to think optimistically, you have to wonder if it missed its chance to truly improve at the 2014 deadline.

8. Dallas Mavericks

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 38-27

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    The Dallas Mavericks have exceeded expectations in 2013-14, but don't think that's stopping Dirk Nowitzki from wanting to improve yet again in 2015.

    "I think we moved away from the concept of one-year deals," Nowitzki said back in January, per Eddie Sefko of DasllasNews.com. "We signed Jose [Calderon], we signed Monta [Ellis]...I think those two guys have been great, but saying all that, we’ll have a lot of cap space again this summer."

    Nowitzki is right to be satisfied without being content. If the team were still throwing one-year deals at any available player, it would be tougher to project its long-term stability.

    But as Sefko's report acknowledges, the Mavs want to bring in another superstar, officially moving Nowitzki to option 1B while ushering in a new era of Dallas basketball. 

7. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 37-26

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    As long as the team stays healthy and the roster stays relatively the same, there's no way the Memphis Grizzlies don't get better in 2014-15.

    Quite frankly, it's a shame this squad was hit by injuries early. Without Marc Gasol, the team lost a major piece of its defensive identity, and while the Grizz aren't always the most entertaining squad to watch offensively, their gritty, physical defense was built for the playoffs.

    Assuming Zach Randolph is back next season, there's no reason to believe this group will take another step backward. Memphis has been a whole new team since Gasol returned this year, and with the playoffs around the corner, it has a chance to prove that no one wants to face it in a seven-game series.

6. Golden State Warriors

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 42-22

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    The 2012-13 Golden State Warriors were the Cinderella story of the 2013 postseason, and while they've taken a step back from their incredible showing in the national spotlight, there's little reason to think they won't bounce back in 2015—let alone the 2014 postseason.

    When hitting on all cylinders, no team is as entertaining to watch. But while we remember the brilliant third quarters from Stephen Curry, passionate crowd at Oracle Arena and incredible series against the San Antonio Spurs, it shouldn't be forgotten that this team is talented enough on both ends of the floor to compete right away.

    Not only do the Warriors have the star power, but they made an excellent move to improve their bench by acquiring Steve Blake at the deadline. Balancing out the rotation was crucial for this team's long-term success, and even if another move is made in the offseason, there's no purpose in questioning management at this point in the process.

5. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

    2013-14 Record: 42-22

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    The Portland Trail Blazers are a tricky team to project. Few teams across the NBA surprised us as much as the squad from the Pacific Northwest, but its drastic increase in success—not to mention spotty bench production and lack of defense—leaves us questioning whether or not the Rip City revival is too good to be true.

    Portland's future essentially comes down to this: Its starting lineup is not going to get any worse. Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez have found their groove together, and as a result, the Blazers are the second-best scoring group in the entire NBA.

    So ask yourself: Is the bench going to get worse? Is the defense going to get worse? At this juncture, it's easy to believe that the only direction is up in those two categories. Everyone on the roster will continue to gain experience—including head coach Terry Stotts—and as the team matures, this is going to be a crew that no longer surprises us but is considered a true contender all across the league.

4. Houston Rockets

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    2013-14 Record: 44-20

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    The Houston Rockets have been arguably the best team in the NBA since the turn of the New Year, giving them nothing but confidence entering the postseason and subsequently entering 2014-15.

    At 44-20, the Rockets are the No. 4 seed out West, largely due to their 22-7 record since Jan. 1. The combination of Dwight Howard and James Harden has proven to be as lethal as the rest of the league feared, and while winning ways have come rapidly, there's enough experience on the roster to sustain success.

    According to Howard, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, he's not even 100 percent recovered from back surgery. That's a scary thought for opponents in 2015, and it makes you wonder just how good he can become in the true prime of his career.

    The variable here seems to be Omer Asik, but fans in Clutch City shouldn't fret. By 2015, the hope is that the big man will be an even more consistent presence on the block, having jelled with Howard by that point.

    If that's not the case, GM Daryl Morey will have another opportunity to wheel and deal—an opportunity that can only make the team better if it's truly struggled incorporating the twin towers into the system.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 45-20

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    The Los Angeles Clippers are already getting better, and there's no reason to believe Doc Rivers will stand for anything less moving forward.

    One of the big improvements this season has come in the form of Blake Griffin's overall game. He's finally proving to detractors that he's more than just a human highlight reel, although we still appreciate a good dunk now and then.

    DeAndre Jordan has also stepped up and boosted his production with more responsibility on the floor. The team still needs a true lockdown defender at the rim, but as good as it is right now, that will be one of the final missing pieces when he finally arrives.

    Rivers has this team moving in the right direction, giving fans hope that Lob City can produce a championship sooner rather than later. There's a lot of competition out West, but remember: The Clippers are part of that competition.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    2013-14 Record: 47-17

    2014-15 Projection: Better

     

    Is it even possible for the Oklahoma City Thunder to get better?

    If it is, I'm sure they'll show us how in the 2014-15 season.

    Kevin Durant has been the MVP for most of this year, and while LeBron James may be catching up in the eyes of some across the NBA, there's no denying what the former Texas Longhorn has accomplished.

    When OKC started the season sans Russell Westbrook, some questioned whether or not Durant could carry the load on his own. It was a reasonable question considering the Thunder's early exit in the 2013 playoffs, but it turned out to be as foolish a query as it comes, as No. 35 got off to a hot start and never looked back.

    Now with Westbrook back on the floor, the team is challenging the San Antonio Spurs for a No. 1 spot out West. Being in the playoffs won't earn Oklahoma City a lottery pick, but on a roster with talent at every corner, who needs one anyway?

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Record: 47-16

    2014-15 Projection: Worse

     

    Let me make it clear that this is not a prediction that the championship window is closing for the San Antonio Spurs. This is not a declaration that age has caught up to them and that the fountain of youth has run dry for a group of veterans past their prime.

    Consider 2014-15 to be yet another year when the Spurs will be in contention from start to finish, but all that said, it just makes sense to assume they'll finally take a step back for the first time in nearly two decades.

    The truth is, Gregg Popovich is as good as anybody when it comes to getting the most out of his bench, and even if the stars slow down, he'll find a way to win games. In fact, he'll likely sit his stars even more, as they'll be another year older, proving to all of us that role players can win on any given night in the regular season.

    Chances are Pop will prove us all wrong again and go into the playoffs with home-court advantage locked up for most if not all of the postseason. But if we're being realistic, the ageless wonders have to show they're human at some point.

    Don't they?