Predicting Next Season's NBA Sleeper Teams
This NBA offseason produced a number of shockers—none bigger than LeBron James' return to the Cleveland Cavaliers—but the basketball surprises won't be restricted to the summer.
The six teams on this list are well positioned to shatter expectations, whether that's a "good team" producing greatness or a lost cause still producing in the absence of hope.
The checklist for making a good sleeper and the reasons these clubs fit the category differ on a case-by-case basis.
Some spent the summer getting healthy, but their lack of splashy acquisitions kept them off the front page. Others swung for the fences and missed, then patched in their roster holes with a Plan B approach that might be preferable to Plan A.
Another is rebounding from a disastrous 2013-14 season, which warped people's perception of how good it can be and pulled attention away from impactful moves on and off the court.
This group could be light on championship contenders—only three of these teams made the playoffs last season, none securing better than a No. 7 seed—but it's high on potential. Or higher than most might realize, at least.
For the savvy investors of the basketball world, these are six stocks worth buying for the 2014-15 season.
For the Atlanta Hawks, this offseason wasn't about rebuilding, retooling or even reloading. No, this was the summer of recovering, with two-time All-Star Al Horford working his way back from a torn pectoral muscle for the second time in his career.
With Horford on the mend, the Hawks are poised to make major noise in an Eastern Conference that looks deeper, but not as top heavy as its been in recent years.
His injury took the air out of Atlanta's sails last season—the Hawks were 16-13 with him, 22-31 after he went down—but it may have been a blessing in disguise.
With the big man out of the mix, different players could take their turn under the spotlight. Paul Millsap seized the opportunity and punched the first All-Star ticket of his career. Jeff Teague set personal bests in points (16.5) and player efficiency rating (17.1), via Basketball-Reference.com.
Still, it goes without saying the Hawks are a better team with Horford than without him. During his 958 minutes last season, Atlanta enjoyed a plus-3.7 net rating, via NBA.com. That would have ranked as the league's eighth best, ahead of playoff teams like the Portland Trail Blazers (plus-3.5), Toronto Raptors (plus-3.5) and Chicago Bulls (plus-1.9).
A healthy Horford won't be the Hawks' only addition, either. They picked up Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore to bolster their perimeter ranks in free agency. They nabbed versatile big man Adreian Payne with the 15th pick of the draft, whose four-year stay at Michigan State should have prepared him to make an immediate impact.
With Gregg Popovich disciple Mike Budenholzer back calling the shots, the Hawks have a number of intriguing pieces and a sharp enough coaching mind to fit them all together.
The Queen City is buzzing and not only for the long overdue name change back to the Charlotte Hornets.
Team owner Michael Jordan might have stumbled out of the gate as an executive, but the Hall of Fame player is quickly figuring things out.
Last summer, he threw $40.5 million at throwback center Al Jefferson, then bit his tongue as critics gave scathing reviews of the signing. Jefferson rewarded Jordan's trust with an All-NBA third-team selection, helping the franchise snap a three-year playoff drought in the process.
That got Jordan dreaming big for this summer, and while his first option, Gordon Hayward, didn't pan out, the Hornets found more than a consolation prize in former Indiana Pacers swingman Lance Stephenson.
With head coach Steve Clifford orchestrating a defensive transformation—Charlotte finished sixth in defensive efficiency after occupying the category's 30th spot in each of the previous two seasons—Stephenson should seamlessly blend into Clifford's vision.
"Born Ready" also brings a deep bag of offensive tricks that could pay major dividends to the Hornets. Between his scoring (13.8), playmaking (4.6 assists) and perimeter shooting (35.2 three-point percentage), he's a highly intriguing third wheel alongside Jefferson and scoring point guard Kemba Walker.
The Hornets added size (Noah Vonleh) and shooting (P.J. Hairston) on draft night, expanding on their collection of young talent that already includes Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. If they can keep the volatile Stephenson in line, he could be the key to the Hornets continuing their ascent up the conference standings.
The Dallas Mavericks adapt to their situation about as well as any team in the league, and that's not only because they have mastermind Rick Carlisle on the sideline.
Rather than sulking, the franchise simply moved on to the next name on its list: Chandler Parsons. The 25-year-old restricted free agent signed a three-year, $46 million offer sheet with Dallas that even he expected the Houston Rockets to match, but the Rockets ultimately decided to let the Swiss Army knife walk.
After already having traded for former Defensive Player of the Year and ex-Maverick Tyson Chandler and point guard Raymond Felton, the Mavs could have stopped their retooling with Parsons and still been primed for a successful season.
They didn't. Instead, they inked veterans Jameer Nelson, Richard Jefferson and Al-Farouq Aminu to free-agent deals. Energetic big man Greg Smith came over in a trade with the Chicago Bulls.
The Mavs had 49 wins last season, tied for second in offensive efficiency and pushed the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs the full seven games in their opening-round matchup. This was a good team already, and their summer reads like a case of the rich getting richer.
"The Dallas roster is better now than it was a year ago, and this team already experienced a great deal of success on the offensive end of the court," noted Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal.
The Western Conference is loaded like always, but a starting five of Nelson, Monta Ellis, Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler—plus a deep bench behind them—gives Dallas a knockout puncher's chance at the conference crown.
At some point last season, the Denver Nuggets unofficially changed their official logo to a giant medical red flag.
Only four players made more than 70 appearances. Only one of those four, Randy Foye, logged more than 30 minutes a night.
Skilled shooter Danilo Gallinari missed the entire campaign while recovering from a pair of surgeries on his left ACL. Spark plug Nate Robinson and productive post player J.J. Hickson both suffered torn ACLs during the year. Athletic center JaVale McGee went down with a stress fracture in his left leg just five games into the season and never returned.
The Nuggets weren't healthy enough to play the part of the walking wounded. Starters Ty Lawson and Wilson Chandler both missed 20 games.
How does a team rebound from a rash of injuries like that? It doesn't; it simply moves on, as the Nuggets could do quite well next season.
At full strength, the returning core is full of high-octane players who can light the lamp a number of different ways. Just getting those guys back and giving head coach Brian Shaw a full offseason to work could do wonders for a team that won 57 games in 2012-13.
There are more reasons for optimism, too.
Veteran swingman Arron Afflalo returned to Denver in a trade with the Orlando Magic. Rookies Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris arrived on draft night. Point guard Erick Green, a second-round pick in 2013, and forward Quincy Miller, a 2012 second-rounder, both had strong showings at the Las Vegas Summer League.
The Nuggets have plenty of talent. If they can keep the roster healthy, they could add to the deep field out West.
New Orleans Pelicans
Last season taught us two things about New Orleans Pelicans blossoming big man Anthony Davis.
First, he's every bit as good as advertised—and probably better.
The 21-year-old, still incredibly raw on the offensive end, put up 20.8 points on 51.9 percent shooting. He also averaged 10.0 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.3 steals a night. To put those numbers into perspective, Basketball-Reference.com provided the list of players who averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and a steal last season: Anthony Davis.
There's a reason his MVP future isn't tied to whether he will ever win the award, but rather how many Maurice Podoloff trophies will sit on his mantle when his playing days are over.
The other truth we learned about Davis is that he cannot carry an injury-riddled roster by himself.
The Pelicans tried building a contender around him: Jrue Holiday at point, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans on the wing, Ryan Anderson as the always impactful stretch 4. It could have been a nice foundation. In limited minutes, it was. During the 91 minutes those five played together, they outscored their opponents by 3.7 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com.
The problem was New Orleans only had its fantastic five together for 91 minutes in an 82-game season. All five missed at least 10 games and combined for 151 absences.
Getting those players healthy will be huge. So, too, will be the arrival of burly rim protector Omer Asik. But the real cause of this sleeper status is Davis, who should keep turning heads as his feel for the game improves.
"In Davis, the Pelicans aren’t merely in possession of a future superstar. He’s already there," wrote Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan.
New York Knicks
When Carmelo Anthony opted to return to the New York Knicks on a five-year, $124 million contract, some saw the signing as a chance for New York to avoid complete disaster—or an awful sequel to last season's disaster. They felt that the benefit for Anthony, outside of the jackpot payday, would not be felt for at least another year.
In some respects, that's true. The Knicks need to wipe the contracts of Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani off the books before going big-game hunting in free agency.
Fresh off a 37-win season, the Knicks obviously aren't on the doorstep of title contention. They're probably not even on the right block yet.
However, they're a lot closer to extinguishing last year's tire fire than some might realize. They have the chance to be good in 2014-15, which could be worlds removed from some of the doomsday predictions you'll hear about this team.
"A lot of people feel everybody around Carmelo needs to be different," first-year coach Derek Fisher said, via Ian Begley of ESPN New York. "I don’t necessarily agree with the mindset. We have some very good basketball players on our team."
Talent wasn't the problem last season. Chemistry and coaching issues held that group back, both problems that could be alleviated with Fisher and team president Phil Jackson on board. The less hero ball the Knicks run, the smaller offensive burden Anthony and J.R. Smith will have to carry.
Jose Calderon is an ideal point guard for the triangle offense. Cleanthony Early might be one of the biggest steals of the 2014 draft. Iman Shumpert, Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani have talent, and this new system could bring the best out of them.
"Even if nothing else changes, we’re good enough to be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference," Fisher said.
Those words aren't nearly as bold as they sound. The Knicks have more than enough to contend for a playoff spot, even if their critics will say something dramatically different.
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