6 NBA Teams That Became Legitimate Contenders During 2014 Offseason
NBA destinies can change in an instant, although some transformations are easier to spot than others.
The Cleveland Cavaliers collected the ultimate prize with the return of four-time MVP LeBron James, but they weren't the only ones to enjoy a fortune-reversing offseason.
Six teams joined the championship discussion this summer. James' Cavaliers were one of four new entries out East, while the gauntlet that is the NBA's Western Conference saw two new contenders enter the equation.
To crack this list, teams needed to make at least one impact move over the offseason. They didn't need to be landscape-shifting transactions. Bringing the King back home obviously has its perks, but so can the right coaching change, draft-day heist or shrewd free-agent investment.
Also, in order to enter the championship race, teams could not have already been a part of it. No team on this list won more than 51 games last season, and only one enjoyed a playoff series win.
With the stage set and criteria laid out, let's take a look at the six legitimate contenders created during the 2014 NBA offseason.
It's OK if you've already forgotten Charlotte's old Bobcats nickname. The franchise has undergone such a dramatic face-lift of late that it would be hard to recognize even if it wasn't back to being known as the Hornets.
Fresh off a 43-win season, the Hornets positioned themselves to keep climbing the conference ladder through a potential bargain signing of rising swingman Lance Stephenson. Chemistry concerns impacted Born Ready's bottom line, allowing Charlotte to swoop up a triple-double threat on a three-year contract worth only $27 million.
Stephenson already plays Steve Clifford-approved defense, and the 23-year-old could provide a major lift to this sometimes stagnant offense.
He shot a career-best 35.2 percent from three last season, which should be music to the ears of lord of the left block Al Jefferson. Stephenson's ability to serve as a secondary playmaker (career 4.2 assists per 36 minutes, per Basketball-Reference.com) will allow Kemba Walker to find a better balance as a scorer and setup man.
"In an Eastern Conference that now lacks a clear favorite, it's possible that the Stephenson acquisition is enough, by itself, to vault the Hornets up into the middle of the playoff pack," wrote Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver.
Considering the Hornets also added Noah Vonleh, Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts, they could vault even higher up the standings. If the young guns on this roster continue to develop, the Hornets could pose major problems to the NBA's elites.
Does getting healthy qualify as an impact addition? When the player in question is former MVP Derrick Rose, it probably should.
Held to a total of 10 games over the last two seasons by a pair of serious knee injuries, the 25-year-old must prove himself capable of holding up over the long haul. With every rave review surrounding his recovery, he feels a step closer to completing that task.
"The first defensive exchange in the camp, he was all over the ball handler, moving his feet, attacking him," Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Rose, per ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell. "There was a buzz right away because it was basically his saying, 'Look, I'm not just back. I'm back at a level that's elite.'"
If Rose rejoins the elites, expect his Chicago Bulls to follow suit.
And those Bulls didn't have the polished versions of All-Star center Joakim Noah, perimeter stopper Jimmy Butler or super-sub big man Taj Gibson. Not to mention the versatile Pau Gasol, the prolific Doug McDermott, the stretch-shooting Nikola Mirotic or the spark plug Aaron Brooks.
These Bulls have offensive depth, defensive discipline and, assuming Rose is healthy, one of the league's most powerful two-way forces. In other words, they have all of the key ingredients to a championship recipe.
Fantasy NBA rosters don't pack the same scoring punch as these new-look Cleveland Cavaliers should.
With nothing standing between Cleveland and sharp-shooting big man Kevin Love but time, the Cavaliers could be on the cusp of redefining the term "videogame numbers."
"This isn't James, [Chris] Bosh and [Dwyane] Wade coming together in Miami in 2010...but it is LeBron taking up with two All-Stars under the age of 26 who seem capable of setting the world on fire on offense," wrote Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine.
First-year coach David Blatt will need to balance the touches for his three-headed monster, but the talent at his disposal is staggering.
Kyrie Irving averaged 20.8 points on 43.0 percent shooting last season—and he was the least productive, least efficient scorer of the three. Love went for 26.1 points on 45.7 percent shooting. James dropped 27.1 points and hit a remarkable 56.7 percent of his field-goal attempts.
Even if those numbers come down a bit, they have room to fall and still be considered incredible. All three are willing passers and competent three-point shooters. Irving can make plays off the bounce, Love can generate offense on the block, and James can score from anywhere.
Yes, there are still other players on the team, and guys like Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao and Mike Miller will have their moments to shine.
But Cleveland's talented troika is the reason the Cavaliers are set to crash the championship party.
Few teams, if any, do Plan Bs better than the Dallas Mavericks.
A failed recruiting shot at Dwight Howard last summer wound up resulting in the arrivals of Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Devin Harris, among others. This year, Dallas initially set its sights on Carmelo Anthony before eventually filling its ranks with Chandler Parsons, Jameer Nelson and Richard Jefferson.
The Mavs might not have found any needle movers—although Parsons has to be close to that group after posting 16.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists last season—but collectively, these pieces should all help what was already a 49-win team.
"No team—save the Cleveland Cavaliers, for obvious reasons—has had a more pleasantly surprising offseason than the Dallas Mavericks," observed Sports on Earth's Michael Pina. "They filled a glaring hole, added a rising star and filled the margins with cheap, veteran production."
Prior to free agency, the Mavs snagged their old defensive anchor, Tyson Chandler, in a six-player trade with the New York Knicks. With Chandler patrolling the defensive paint, Dirk Nowitzki drilling shots from all over, and Parsons scratching whatever itch arises, the Mavs have assembled a frontcourt built for the big stage.
Dallas tied for second in offensive efficiency last season, per NBA.com, and this group could have even more firepower with Parsons on board. The Mavs may still struggle with defense, but Chandler and Al-Farouq Aminu should help close some of those gaps.
Dallas has the pieces in place to take a shot out West, and mastermind head coach Rick Carlisle is sure to play his hand correctly.
Golden State Warriors
In terms of free-agent signings, the Golden State Warriors made the smallest splash of any team on this list.
Of course, as the above picture indicates, the team's biggest addition wasn't a roster piece at all.
First-year coach Steve Kerr, a former player, executive and broadcaster, has already positioned the Warriors to make significant strides in their championship quest.
It starts with having his own vision for the pieces returning from last season's 51-win team. Namely, he's looking to improve an offense that has the personnel to be elite but produced at a mediocre level in 2013-14 (105.3 points per 100 possessions, 12th overall, per NBA.com).
"I think you'll see a lot of ball movement," Kerr told reporters at his introductory press conference. "I think you'll see the bigs utilized as passers on the elbows and on the block. I think you'll see some Triangle concepts."
In other words, the isolation sets that handcuffed guys like Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson should be severely curtailed. In their place should be free-flowing looks that maximize the passing and spot-up shooting abilities of this roster.
Kerr won't be the only one unlocking this offense. Alvin Gentry, a brilliant offensive mind, will also help Golden State's rookie coach put his plan into practice. At the opposite end, veteran assistant Ron Adams will ensure the Warriors remain committed to that side of the floor.
The Warriors have the talent to secure a top-four seed in the West, and they appear to have the leadership needed to maximize the value of that coveted playoff ticket.
The Eastern Conference still feels like a two-team race, but it doesn't feel like as much of a foregone conclusion as it has in recent years.
It looks deeper than it has been, but there may not be as much separation at the top. If Rose isn't healthy or the Cavaliers can't find their offensive balance or defensive commitment, a conference finals berth could be up for grabs.
And no one seems better poised to claim it than the Washington Wizards.
The Wizards did not have a loud offseason. Their biggest addition, Paul Pierce, is known better for his past exploits than his present production. Another offseason acquisition, Kris Humphries, is more famous for his marriage history than his hardwood track record.
So, how did the Wizards move onto this list?
Well, Pierce's past could be a major boost for Washington's present. Not only does he have valuable championship experience to share with this rising roster, he's also a proven crunch-time producer who's capable of taking some of the heat off Washington's youngsters.
The Wizards also stand to reap the rewards of internal improvement, with their blossoming backcourt combo of John Wall and Bradley Beal getting another year under their belts. Given the strong summer league showings of Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr., Washington's wings could be more than ready to offset the departure of Trevor Ariza.
Humphries and fellow pickup DeJuan Blair join what has quickly become one of the league's deepest frontcourts. Along with veteran Drew Gooden, Humphries and Blair will help support Marcin Gortat and Nene.
The Wizards won 44 games and a playoff series last season. They're in line to improve both totals in 2014-15.