5 NBA Teams That Will Be Better Than Expected in 2014-15
Regardless of how intensely we scrutinize the ever-shifting quality levels of NBA teams, a handful will always defy perception and achieve more than observers had imagined they would.
Expectations vary depending on whom you ask, of course, but only to an extent.
The Cleveland Cavaliers just made LeBron James their future king and will eventually make Kevin Love their future power forward, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. Some might dub them title favorites as soon as this upcoming season; some might think they need time to coalesce as a team before receiving world-beater consideration.
Regardless, they're in the championship conversation, so saying the Cavs will win it all doesn't represent a step beyond the upper limit of that expectation.
We're here to talk about the overlooked—the squads being considered outside their proper context—whose place in the league landscape has less to do with their own merit and more with that of bigger, starrier franchises around them.
This isn't meant as an I-told-you-so exercise if and when these teams seemingly overachieve in 2014-15. Rather, this is an opportunity to consider the way we make offseason-caliber evaluations and identify the overshadowed bright sides of these teams' future prospects.
Perhaps this seems like a strange place to start.
The Atlanta Hawks finished 38-44 last season, making the playoffs only due to NBA league bylaws mandating that eight Eastern Conference teams qualify. Once there, however, they earned some respect as they forced the discombobulated Indiana Pacers to seven games by flooding the floor with shooting at every position.
Still thinking of the Hawks as a fringe playoff team—albeit a feisty and offensively creative one—underrates their ceiling, though. Say what you will about the Pacers last spring, but they made the conference finals, and Atlanta nearly beat them without its cornerstone big.
Limited to just 29 games due to a torn pectoral, Al Horford led all Hawks with 18.6 points and 1.5 blocks per game, and he was just a tick shy of Paul Millsap with 8.4 rebounds. When Mike Budenholzer's group nearly shocked Indy, it had been without its most reliable scorer and only viable rim-protector for more than half the season.
Forget about Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore—a healthy Horford will be the most valuable addition by far for the 2014-15 Hawks.
Yes, adding some perimeter D will help as well, but Horford will provide a significantly more imposing interior presence on both ends than Pero Antic could, and Horford's mid-range game will allow Atlanta to maintain the elite spacing it had without him.
When the Hawks pushed Indiana in the 2014 playoffs, it was a pleasant surprise, but it still would have felt fluky if they had advanced. Next time around, if they make the second round, they'll be plenty deserving.
Let's not bury the lede: The Charlotte Hornets can beat any Eastern Conference team in a seven-game series.
That isn't the same thing as saying they're in the East's top tier with LeBron's Cavs and Derrick Rose's Chicago Bulls; the former Bobcats lack the star power to compete for a top-two seed in a full season, but they have the sturdiness and depth to take four games.
Steve Clifford made Charlotte a top-five defense in his first season as head coach, and that was with Gerald Henderson as his best defensive guard. Now, Henderson will move to the bench as Lance Stephenson, a true lockdown ace, fills that role, making a staunch unit even more formidable.
Stephenson will also help diversify the Hornet offense, adding some much-needed shooting to the mix.
Outside of Kemba Walker, no Bobcat could create off the bounce last season, while Stephenson was Indiana's primary ball-handler. Charlotte's three-point shooting will still be pedestrian next season, but with a pair of offensive perimeter threats operating around Al Jefferson, the inside-out game should complement all parties; opponents can't collapse on Big Al or key on either Walker or Stephenson without giving at least one of the others room to work.
That means even greater things for Jefferson, who averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds last season; he hadn't hit 20 or 10 in a full season since tearing his ACL in 2008-09. With weapons around him and comfort in a defensive system for the first time in his career, he could be one of the best bigs in the East.
Cleveland won't have the bodies to stop him inside, and if the Bulls' supporting cast or Rose lags in the scoring department, Charlotte's defense can shut Chicago down. A Hornets series victory over either would be a true upset, make no mistake, but it's suddenly conceivable.
The Western Conference proved so strong last season that it naturally stratified into a collection of haves and have-nots. Each of the top nine teams had at least 48 wins, followed by a steep drop to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who finished with 40 and will now be without Kevin Love. After them, no one won more than 36 games.
That was the Denver Nuggets, who did so despite getting ravaged by injuries and playing under a first-year coach transitioning the roster away from a deeply rooted system.
The result should have been complete discord for Brian Shaw's squad. Ty Lawson and Wilson Chandler each missed 20 games, JaVale McGee played just five, and Danilo Gallinari didn't suit up at all. How could Shaw implement his half-court offense when Kenneth Faried was his only consistently healthy starter?
Under those circumstances, finishing six games under .500 was extraordinary.
Credit Lawson, who still kept up the havoc when Denver broke out in transition and led the team with 17.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. As long as he's running the point, Denver's on-court product will have a clear sense of order, and Lawson's half-court game will be even stronger after another training camp working with Shaw.
He'll also have even more firepower around him. Gallo is Denver's most potent scorer, and Arron Afflalo is back in town after a borderline All-Star season. Assuming McGee starts, the Nuggets would then sport a second unit with J.J. Hickson (who started at center last season), Randy Foye (their fourth-leading scorer in 2013-14) and explosive sixth-man Nate Robinson.
After such a middling season, the Nuggets have become afterthoughts, but without such miserable injury luck, they'll sneak back into competition for a playoff spot in the unforgiving West.
Chris Bosh stayed with the Miami Heat, Chandler Parsons joined the Dallas Mavericks, and the Houston Rockets emerged as the biggest loser of the offseason. Yet the failure of their best-laid plans does not actually represent a step back.
The linchpin of Houston's upcoming season will be Trevor Ariza, Parsons' replacement.
Ariza amounted to a Plan B when Daryl Morey decided he didn't want to tie up cap space paying Parsons in the mid-eight digits, but Ariza fits better on the court for the Rockets as well as on the salary ledger.
Able to score inside and out and both pass and score off the dribble, Parsons has an impressively multifaceted offensive game for a 6'9" guy. Then again, with James Harden doing so much ball-handling and Patrick Beverley filling the point guard role, Parsons' playmaking was a luxury for the Houston attack, not a necessity.
The new guy won't be able to create for himself nearly as well, but Ariza is coming off a season in which he stood in the corner and knocked down more than 40 percent of his threes for the Washington Wizards. He demands attention when he spots up; defenses will have to mark him even more closely than they did Parsons, which gives Dwight Howard more room to establish post position and Harden clearer driving lanes.
Even so, he's a step back offensively from Parsons. But we haven't discussed defense yet.
That's Ariza's greatest strength, as he's long enough to cover either wing position and ensure that Harden can hide on the cushier assignment. Ariza also is slightly more prolific on the boards and in the passing lane than Parsons, recording 6.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game last season to Parsons' 5.5 and 1.2.
Ariza really beats Parsons in the mental game, though. The new Rockets forward is an on-ball maven who is able to expertly navigate screens and hound his man into mistakes. Parsons, meanwhile, gets shaken much more easily and allows his attention to slip even in the most dire postseason situations.
Parsons has much more potential than Ariza, but Ariza has a more well-rounded two-way game right now. For Houston's purposes, having him does not make the Rockets any worse next season, and it's possible he'll even make them a bit better than they were in 2013-14.
It was a tale of two seasons for the Memphis Grizzlies, as they experienced both growing and actual pains before roaring through the remainder of their schedule as the best team in basketball.
The numbers back up that seeming hyperbole. Through January 12, when Marc Gasol returned from a sprained MCL after missing 23 games, the Grizz were 17-19. Even when the big Spaniard was healthy in that time, Memphis' trademark grit-and-grind defense was not as punishing as usual, and the offense was a crowded mess.
Rookie head coach Dave Joerger began turning things around in the few games before Gasol came back, but then the team took off. Memphis went 33-13 the rest of the way; no NBA team had a better record over that span, and the Grizzlies rose from the ranks of mediocrity to nab the seventh seed in the West.
That's the kind of success a healthy Memphis team can achieve, but no one mentions it alongside the Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Clippers as worthy challengers to the San Antonio Spurs. And for further evidence that Memphis belongs with those teams, the Grizz pushed OKC to Game 7, which they played minus Zach Randolph, and almost knocked out the Thunder in Round 1.
Of course, Memphis' biggest criticism is its throwback approach to scoring, predicated on funneling the ball through the twin towers of Z-Bo and Gasol. Even with Mike Conley having a career year in 2013-14 with 17.2 points and 6.0 assists per game, the Grizz lacked other perimeter weapons.
Vince Carter is a huge acquisition for that reason. He can't create much for himself at age 37, but he's a savvy cutter without the ball who will spark some life into Memphis' offense.
The Grizzlies defense is still at its peak, and with Carter and a rising Mike Conley, they are as well-rounded as they have been in this era of Memphis basketball. This team is more than a potential Western playoff spoiler—the Grizz deserve to be mentioned among the championship contenders.