Predicting the Most Improved NBA Teams for the Upcoming Season
The offseason has a funny way of establishing hope in even the most moribund NBA franchises.
It's the time of year when "the roster looks great on paper!" becomes an operative phrase. It's when best-case scenarios reign supreme and when most teams seem to have an easy route to a playoff spot or a 50-win season. (See: Anthony, Carmelo.)
Once the 2014-15 season actually begins, of course, a litany of injuries, boneheaded plays and soul-crushing last-second losses will damper much of that enthusiasm. The basketball gods are often cruel, fickle beasts.
A number of teams have legitimate reason to be thinking big this coming season, though. Thanks to some combination of internal improvement, external additions (via the draft, free agency or trades) and the weakening of divisional foes, these squads are poised to significantly improve upon their 2013-14 records.
Based on those factors, here's a look at which teams will undergo the biggest turnarounds this upcoming season.
2013-14 Record: 36-46
The Denver Nuggets went largely unnoticed throughout the 2013-14 season, as injuries wreaked havoc on their chances of competing in the cutthroat Western Conference. Sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari failed to return from a torn ACL, while center JaVale McGee only made it through five games before a stress fracture in his left tibia sidelined him for the remainder of the year.
With Gallinari, McGee and microwave scorer Nate Robinson back in the fold, the Nuggets should be far more competitive in 2014-15. The additions of Bosnian center Jusuf Nurkic and Michigan State shooting guard Gary Harris, the Nos. 16 and 19 picks in the 2014 draft, respectively, will only add to Denver's impressive depth.
The real key to the Nuggets' turnaround, however, will be shooting guard Arron Afflalo, who they acquired from Orlando for 2-guard Evan Fournier and the No. 56 pick in this June's draft.
After averaging a career-high 18.2 points per game last season, Afflalo should slide into Denver's starting lineup and provide the scoring punch the Nuggets desperately need alongside Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried.
Predicted 2014-15 Record: 42-40 (+6)
2013-14 Record: 15-67
Frankly, the Milwaukee Bucks can't be worse in 2014-15 than they were this past season. They won only 15 games with two of their five projected starters—center Larry Sanders and shooting guard O.J. Mayo—mired in a mess of injuries and off-court distractions for much of the year.
The one bright spot was rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has quickly emerged as one of the league's most unique players. According to Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy, the Greek Freak is now 6'11" with a 7'4" wingspan, which should allow him to guard a range of positions a la LeBron James.
Adding Jabari Parker, the No. 2 overall pick in June's draft, will only help expedite Milwaukee's rebuild, as he's an NBA-ready scorer who enters the year as one of the Rookie of the Year favorites. Though the Bucks likely won't take a major step toward the playoffs this season, a marginal improvement should get them out of the Eastern Conference's basement, replaced by the proudly tanking Philadelphia 76ers.
Predicted 2014-15 Record: 22-60 (+7)
New York Knicks
2013-14 Record: 37-45
Though his college coach, Jim Boeheim, believed Chicago to be a better fit, per Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com, All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony opted to re-sign with the New York Knicks this summer. (In the words of Jerry Maguire: "Show me the money!")
With Anthony signed long-term and the stench of a 37-win season still permeating, the Knicks will be under far less pressure heading into this year compared to 2012-13. No one knows just what to expect from rookie head coach Derek Fisher, while New York traded away its best defender, center Tyson Chandler, in the deal that netted point guard Jose Calderon and center Samuel Dalembert.
The Knicks' 54-win season in 2012-13 might have been an aberration, but last year was just about the floor for this roster. If J.R. Smith keeps his head on straight and young guards Tim Hardaway Jr. and Iman Shumpert continue to develop, Melo's prediction about the Knicks being playoff-bound might not be so crazy after all.
Predicted 2014-15 Record: 44-38 (+7)
6. Utah Jazz
2013-14 Record: 25-57
After re-signing swingman Gordon Hayward and drafting combo guard Dante Exum and forward Rodney Hood, don't expect the Utah Jazz to finish with the Western Conference's worst record for the second straight season.
Yes, Utah's core remains exceptionally young, with Hayward (24), Alec Burks (23), Derrick Favors (23), Hood (22), Enes Kanter (22), Trey Burke (21) and Exum (19) all under the age of 25. In all likelihood, their collective lack of experience will lead to some truly head-scratching late-game meltdowns this coming season.
Still, Utah possesses the requisite talent to make a run toward 35 wins. With Burke, Exum, Burks and Hood around to relieve some offensive responsibility from Hayward, he should bounce back from the career-low shooting percentages he posted last season.
In the frontcourt, meanwhile, Kanter will almost assuredly be entering a contract year, unless he and the Jazz agree upon an extension before the Oct. 31 deadline. Utah general manager Dennis Lindsey told reporters that the big man struggled at times last year due to offseason shoulder surgery but is "counting on a big jump this summer," according to Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune.
Figuring out the backcourt rotation will be one of the biggest challenges awaiting new head coach Quin Snyder, with Burke, Exum and Burks all deserving of major minutes. Given the young talent on this roster, though, it wouldn't be hugely surprising if the Jazz made a leap like the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns did under first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek.
Predicted 2014-15 Record: 33-49 (+8)
5. Atlanta Hawks
2013-14 Record: 38-44
The Atlanta Hawks are likely to be one of the most under-the-radar teams heading into the 2014-15 season. Despite pushing the top-seeded Indiana Pacers to seven games in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, Atlanta seems to be generating little buzz as a dark-horse contender in the Eastern Conference.
With center Al Horford returning from a season-ending pectoral injury, however, it's unwise to turn a blind eye toward the Hawks. Though Horford doesn't seem to fit coach Mike Budenholzer's three-point-heavy offense, keep in mind that the big man averaged career highs in points (18.6) and blocks (1.5) along with 8.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game before going down last season.
If anything, reinserting Horford into the starting lineup makes the Hawks that much more of a headache for opposing defenses. When he played alongside forward Paul Millsap last season, Atlanta outscored its opponents by 3.6 points per 100 possessions, as few teams have a frontcourt talented enough to match up well with the Horford-Millsap duo. (Good luck defending that, Cleveland.)
Rookie Adreian Payne should have little trouble sliding in behind Millsap at the backup 4 spot, having drilled 42.3 percent of his attempts from downtown for Michigan State last season. Next to backup center Pero Antic, the Hawks will have two legitimate three-point-shooting threats in their backup frontcourt, making life hell on opposing reserve big men.
Losing Lou Williams in free agency wasn't ideal, as Jeff Teague will be the only proven shot-creator on the roster. Still, the Hawks frontcourt should give them enough of an advantage most nights to push them above the .500 threshold.
Predicted 2014-15 Record: 47-35 (+9)
4. Charlotte Hornets
2013-14 Record: 43-39
The Charlotte Hornets were one of the biggest surprises in the Eastern Conference last season, with center Al Jefferson and point guard Kemba Walker leading the then-Bobcats to the team's second-best record in the past decade. Miami made mincemeat of Charlotte in the first round of the playoffs, but that can largely be chalked up to Jefferson being hampered by a foot injury.
This year, not only do Jefferson and Walker return; they'll be joined by mercurial 2-guard Lance Stephenson, who departed Indiana to sign with the Hornets as a free agent.
Assuming he keeps his head on straight—and with team owner Michael Jordan keeping a watchful eye over him, he'll have little choice in the matter—he'll provide Charlotte with a shot-creating threat it so desperately lacked last season.
Stephenson led the league with five triple-doubles last season, averaging a career-high 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Slotting him alongside Jefferson, who posted per-game averages of 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds in 2013-14, and Walker, who went off for 17.7 points, 6.1 assists and 4.2 boards per game, gives Charlotte a sneaky-good Big Three.
Losing Josh McRoberts to the Miami Heat in free agency will undeniably sting, but in sophomore Cody Zeller and rookie Noah Vonleh, the Hornets have a few capable young big men ready to fill his shoes.
Zeller struggled as a rookie, finishing the year with a below-average player efficiency rating of 13.1, but he looked vastly improved at Vegas Summer League, averaging 15.7 points per game on 58.6 percent shooting.
With Stephenson on board, don't sleep on Charlotte this upcoming season. A top-four finish in the Eastern Conference is a real possibility, especially in the wide-open Southeast Division. (Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose thinks so, at least.)
Predicted 2014-15 Record: 53-29 (+10)
3. Chicago Bulls
2013-14 Record: 48-34
After point guard Derrick Rose went down with his second straight season-ending knee injury, the Chicago Bulls still managed to gut out a 48-win season in 2013-14. Center Joakim Noah largely put the team on his broad shoulders, averaging an astounding 13.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game after the All-Star break.
Luckily, Rose is shaking off his post-surgery rust with Team USA this summer, which should allow him to hit the ground running once training camp starts up in late September. Early in Team USA training camp, assistant coach Jim Boeheim told reporters (via ESPN Chicago) Rose had been "the most impressive guy here," while head coach Mike Krzyzewski said the Bulls floor general was "better than four years ago."
Rose himself told reporters that his "game is totally different" and that the experience with Team USA is his "chance to actually become a better leader," which will "help [him] with the Bulls." And Dr. Jason Daniels, an expert in emergency medicine, told ESPN Chicago's Michael Wilbon "the international competitive level is probably the perfect incremental step for Derrick."
Getting a healthy, back-to-his-old-self Rose would be scary enough, but Chicago didn't stop there. After trading for rookie sharpshooter Doug McDermott on draft night, the Bulls inked two versatile big men, Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol, to help shore up their frontcourt, along with backup point guard Aaron Brooks. They also amnestied Carlos Boozer, praying for addition by subtraction.
Though Chicago couldn't land its Plan A, Carmelo Anthony, in free agency, Plan B might end up making the Bulls a stronger, deeper team overall.
Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta believes Chicago "should be expected to win the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference," as Rose and the newcomers are projected to add 11.3 victories to the team's 2013-14 win total, based on ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton's "wins against replacement player" calculations (subscription required).
Predicted 2014-15 Record: 59-23 (+11)
2. New Orleans Pelicans
2013-14 Record: 34-48
The New Orleans Pelicans wouldn't be on this list if not for rotten injury luck.
During 2013-14, only four Pelicans appeared in 70 or more games. Starting point guard Jrue Holiday suffered a season-ending stress fracture in January after appearing in New Orleans' first 34 contests, while a herniated disc limited sharpshooting big man Ryan Anderson to just 22 games.
Swingman Tyreke Evans and shooting guard Eric Gordon battled through their own minor ailments, while budding-freak-of-nature Anthony Davis missed seven games due to a broken hand in December. The Holiday-Gordon-Evans-Anderson-Davis lineup thus appeared in just 12 games together for a grand total of 90 minutes.
Few teams could overcome such nonstop calamities, and the Pelicans were no exception. Assuming they don't infuriate the injury gods this coming year, however, they're almost certain to have Anderson and Holiday back for a much longer stint.
According to Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune, Pelicans general manager Dell Demps said Gordon, Holiday and Anderson "appear to be healthy" and have been working out in different parts of the country. Davis, meanwhile, is busy anchoring Team USA for the upcoming FIBA World Cup, especially in the wake of Kevin Durant's departure from the squad.
With a full complement of players at its disposal, New Orleans should be far more competitive in the cutthroat Western Conference. Predicting a 50-win season might be a bit of a stretch, but with the young talent the Pelicans have amassed, a double-digit improvement in victories shouldn't be out of the question, even in the rough-and-tumble West.
Predicted 2014-15 Record: 48-34 (+14)
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
2013-14 Record: 37-45
Wherever the four-time league MVP goes, so goes the most-improved NBA team.
LeBron James' decision to take his talents back to Cleveland this summer led to a complete overhaul of the projected Eastern Conference standings. The Miami Heat, fresh off four straight Finals appearances, will struggle to secure home-court advantage for even one round of the playoffs, while Cleveland enters the 2014-15 season as the presumptive favorite to represent the East in this year's Finals.
Had the Cavs rested on their laurels after signing LeBron, they'd already have the inside track for the most improved record. Of course, that's not at all what happened.
Cleveland sent two former No. 1 overall picks, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for All-Star forward Kevin Love, whose rebounding, passing and shooting abilities will fit like a glove next to James.
The Cavs convinced Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and James Jones to sign below-market deals for the chance of winning a championship, and legendary sharpshooter Ray Allen could follow, per ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard.
James and Love alone combined for over 30 total win shares last season (15.9 and 14.3 respectively), which were the second- and third-highest marks in the league. Throw in Marion, Miller and Jones, and the Cavs are adding just fewer than 40 win shares from 2013-14 to their roster, and that's without even factoring in the potential signing of Allen.
Thus, after this swath of moves, it's difficult to imagine the Cavaliers not winning at least 55 games this coming season, even with the legitimate concerns about their defensive ceiling. They might not win the 2015 NBA title, but, barring significant injury woes, they're virtually guaranteed to tack on roughly 20 victories to their 2013-14 win total.
Predicted 2014-15 Record: 58-24 (+21)