5 NBA Playoff Teams That Took a Step Back During 2014 Offseason

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIIJuly 30, 2014

5 NBA Playoff Teams That Took a Step Back During 2014 Offseason

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    NBA free agency has been tough on a few of last year's playoff teams. 

    Whether it is due to key players finding greener pastures elsewhere or questionable draft decisions, a handful of the NBA's elite have taken a step back this summer. As a result, the power has shifted and new contenders have been formed. 

    We're going to take a deeper look at where these teams went wrong and how it will affect them next season. While free agency is the main focus of this piece, the draft will be taken into consideration, too.

    Also, it's important to keep in mind that each team's decline is different. For a couple teams, this offseason was a mere stutter-step. For the others, it was a painful fall from glory. 

    As always, reader participation is encouraged. If you feel your team has been wrongly mentioned or would like to advocate for another franchise, feel free to let your voice be heard in the always-entertaining comments section. 

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Admittedly, putting the Oklahoma City Thunder on here is a little bit of a stretch. Even with a few departures on the team's second unit, the Thunder are still among the NBA's elite. 

    That said, the bench did suffer a slight downgrade this summer. The biggest loss was small forward Caron Butler, who signed with the Detroit Pistons. While Butler was only a midseason acquisition last year, he provided quality depth and toughness that OKC has yet to replace. 

    The next key departure was defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha, who wound up with the Atlanta Hawks. Sefolosha's decision to leave doesn't come as much of a surprise. The writing was on the wall when the team removed the Swiss stopper from the starting lineup during the tail end of last year's playoffs. 

    Instead of paying Sefolosha, the Thunder stole three-point marksman Anthony Morrow away from the New Orleans Pelicans with a three-year, $10 million deal. Morrow is coming off a solid season in the Big Easy, averaging 8.4 points and shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc. 

    While Morrow will provide an offensive spark off the bench, the team will take a hit defensively with Sefolosha gone. The team will also miss the veteran presence of point guard Derek Fisher (now the head coach of the New York Knicks). 

    The Thunder opted to replace the retired Fisher with journeyman floor general Sebastian Telfair. Telfair hasn't played in the NBA since the 2012-13 season with the Phoenix Suns. He spent all of last year playing in China. 

    Of the team's draft picks, only big man Mitch McGary stands to make an immediate impact.

    OKC tried to lure Pau Gasol before he signed with the Chicago Bulls, and Durant admitted his recruiting pitch didn't pay off, per B/R's Kevin Ding:

    That was my first time recruiting a guy, but it didn't pan out. It's kind of tough to sell guys on Oklahoma City [over] Chicago, Oklahoma City [over] L.A. But if they come to Oklahoma City and see the love that they get there, guys will want to come.

    Granted, this may all be overreacting. The Thunder still have a dynamic one-two punch in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The supporting cast is still solid with the likes of Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson. 

    The losses may be minor, but they are still worth noting. It wouldn't be a huge surprise if the Thunder move back a spot or two in an ultra-competitive Western Conference. 

Miami Heat

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    When your team loses the best player in basketball, it's fair to say it has taken a considerable step back. In the Miami Heat's defense, they managed to put together a solid Plan B after LeBron James decided to go back home to Cleveland. 

    Miami's plan for life after LeBron started with bringing most of the old band back together. After flirting with the idea of going home as well, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh chose to finish what they started in South Beach. 

    Bosh turned down a four-year, $88 million deal to chase championships with the Houston Rockets and signed a more lucrative contract with the Heat (five years, $118 million). As for Wade, there was interest from his hometown Chicago Bulls (per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski), but he decided to stay with the only team he's ever played for. 

    The Heat also filled James' spot with All-Star forward Luol Deng as well as re-signed key role players such as Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen and Mario Chalmers. They also added UConn point guard Shabazz Napier in the draft.

    Still, the loss of James drops the Heat from an Eastern Conference juggernaut to a solid playoff team. A lot will ride on Bosh's ability to lead this team as well as how much Wade has left in the tank. Beyond James, the team will also miss Shane Battier (retired) and possibly Ray Allen (leaning towards going to Cleveland, per ESPN.com). 

    Talk of the Heat's demise may have been premature, but there's no question that this is a different team than the one that dominated the East for the last four years. 

Indiana Pacers

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    The power shift in the Eastern Conference doesn't stop with the Miami Heat. The Indiana Pacers suffered a huge blow when emerging star Lance Stephenson left in free agency to join the Charlotte Hornets. 

    The 23-year-old (will be 24 in September) had a breakout season last year, averaging 13.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game and finishing second for the NBA's Most Improved Player award. With center Roy Hibbert floundering, Stephenson stepped up as the clear No. 2 to superstar Paul George.  

    The Pacers signed former Detroit Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey to fill Stephenson's void, but Stuckey isn't nearly as talented. According to 82games.com, Stephenson held opponents to 46.1 percent shooting, while Stuckey allowed a mark of 52.1 percent.

    Stephenson also shot 35.2 percent from behind the arc last year, while Stuckey converted 27.3 percent of his trey attempts. 

    The Pacers also signed C.J. Miles from the Cleveland Cavaliers and brought back big man Lavoy Allen. 

    Indiana's problems don't just lie with Stephenson's departure, but that's a big piece of the puzzle as B/R's Ian Levy explains:

    The only other players who averaged more than two drives per game for the Pacers last season were Paul George, George Hill, Evan Turner and Danny Granger. Obviously Turner and Granger are gone, which leaves the Pacers with precious little in the ability to create offense off the dribble.

    The team needs Hibbert to bounce back from his second-half decline and return to being one of the league's best centers. A man standing 7'2" needs to pull down more than 6.6 rebounds per game and can't have spells where he disappears offensively. 

    If Hibbert can't regain his old form, this team is in big trouble. With the East much improved, the Pacers might not just lose their standing as the top seed in the conference; there's a chance (albeit a small one) that they may miss the postseason altogether next year. 

Brooklyn Nets

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    Last summer, the Brooklyn Nets added to their already huge payroll by acquiring Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry from the Boston Celtics. In the deal, they gave up a couple bad contracts (Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries) and a few first-round picks (2014, 2016 and 2018).

    A year later, Terry is with the Sacramento Kings, Pierce is the newest member of the Washington Wizards and Garnett is on his last legs in Brooklyn. The loss of Pierce was the Nets' biggest blow this offseason. 

    While not the elite player he once was, Pierce brought a lot of intangibles to the table during his lone season in Brooklyn. He showed a knack for hitting clutch shots. He was even passable as an undersized power forward. 

    Most importantly, he was a leader. His voice and his presence were key for a Nets team with an unproven coach in Jason Kidd (who is now with the Milwaukee Bucks) and a superstar starting lineup. 

    Now, that presence is helping a young team in the nation's capital. KG could fill Pierce's void in the locker room, but The Big Ticket's leadership style is a little more abrasive. 

    The Nets made some nice moves in adding guard Jarrett Jack and former first-round pick Sergey Karasev from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Jack is an upgrade over the departed Shaun Livingston and can be a spark off the bench. Karasev could develop into a decent outside shooter. 

    Still, Pierce will be missed. His absence leaves the team with a hole at small forward. Karasev and Andrei Kirilenko will likely inherit the minutes, but either would be a downgrade. The team may also lose reserve big man Andray Blatche, who remains unsigned. 

    Brooklyn isn't hurting as bad as others in the East, but it has to be tough that they don't have much to show for last summer's blockbuster trade. They still have enough talent to make the playoffs, but it's hard to see them making an extended run. 

Houston Rockets

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    No team in the NBA has had a worse offseason than the Houston Rockets. To say that the team came up short in their quest to add a third superstar would be an understatement. 

    It all started with the team's decision to decline rising star Chandler Parsons' player option, which made him a restricted free agent. With Parsons set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, the Rockets made the move as a way to both lock him up a year early and still chase a marquee free agent. 

    The first target was dynamic scorer Carmelo Anthony. The team met with Melo for four-and-a-half hours, leaving the meetings with a good feeling about their chances of signing him (per Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen). When it appeared unlikely that Anthony would join, the team shifted its focus to Texas native Chris Bosh. 

    As with Anthony, Houston must have felt good enough about their chances of adding Bosh that they put other cap-clearing moves in place. After trading center Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans, the Rockets sent point guard Jeremy Lin packing to the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Meanwhile, to help throw a wrench in Houston's plans to land Bosh, the Dallas Mavericks offered Parsons a three-year, $46 million contract. The Rockets held off on making a decision on Parsons until they got one from Bosh.

    In the end, Bosh returned to the Miami Heat…and the team still let Parsons walk to Dallas.

    For those scoring at home, that means Houston lost one of the league's best young stars in Parsons, a quality reserve center in Asik and a good bench scorer in Lin while getting next to nothing in return. Making matters worse, two of the aforementioned three went to division rivals. 

    Fortunately, Houston's offseason wasn't a total loss. They brought back three-and-D specialist Trevor Ariza to fill Parsons' spot. That was the lone highlight of the Rockets' summer. 

    The team added a couple other former Rockets in big man Joey Dorsey and guard Ish Smith. At 6'8" and 268 pounds, Dorsey has the girth but not the height to be an ideal backup center. Smith, while serviceable with the Phoenix Suns, doesn't offer much of an immediate impact either. 

    The pressure to stay among the West's elite now falls on the shoulders of Ariza, James Harden and Dwight Howard. They'll need second-year man Isaiah Canaan to fill Lin's shoes as well as continued progress from some of their other young guys (Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones and Robert Covington, to name a few). 

    A return as a top-four seed in the West is easier said than done, though. Houston took a serious hit to their depth, and the talent they added doesn't come close to matching what they lost. The hope is that general manager Daryl Morey has another trick up his sleeve. 

    If not, this summer may just be the start of a long season ahead.