Predicting the Most and Least Improved NBA Teams for 2014-15 Season
From spawning championship dreams to dashing playoff hopes, the 2014 NBA offseason produced some dramatically different results depending on which of the 30 unique lenses it was viewed through.
For a lot of clubs, this summer didn't move the needle significantly in one direction or the other. Some got a little better, while others got a little worse, but most emerged with the same forecast they had upon entering it.
Those are not the teams that will be discussed here.
This group of risers and fallers features a collection of six franchises headed in opposite directions.
Free-agent finds, player development and respite from some bitter attacks of the injury bug vaulted three of them up the league's pecking order. The remaining three saw their stocks plummet as personnel casualties decimated their talent bases.
As the start of the 2014-15 season creeps closer, these are six franchise fortunes that are about to change—for better or worse.
Most Improved: Chicago Bulls
2013-14 Record: 48-34
Key Losses: D.J. Augustin, Carlos Boozer
With Derrick Rose stumbling throughout a 10-game comeback attempt before a torn meniscus forced him off the floor, the Chicago Bulls should have been a disaster in 2013-14.
They thrived in the face of adversity—because that's what Tom Thibodeau-led teams apparently do—posting the league's second-best defensive rating (97.8, via NBA.com) and securing the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. During Thibodeau's four seasons at the helm, the Bulls have enjoyed a .657 winning percentage and never finished outside the top five in defensive efficiency.
While they have struggled scoring at times, they used this summer to address that issue. They brought in the crafty Pau Gasol (17.4 points per game last season), stretch big Nikola Mirotic (MVP of Spain's ACB League in 2012-13) and three-time Associated Press All-American Doug McDermott (a 21.7 points-per-game scorer during his four seasons at Creighton).
The offensive talent is greatly improved, but it's the way those puzzle pieces fit together that really makes this roster intriguing.
"The shooters should spread the court," wrote Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta. "Rose's driving and kicking should give them open looks. Rose and Gasol orchestrating the pick-and-roll should be highly productive. [Joakim] Noah and Gasol's interior passing should be a catalyst to make it all work together."
Considering the Bulls already had proven in-house producers in Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and a hopefully healthy Rose, plus developing prospects in Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell, Chicago is back in position to fight for the conference crown.
Least Improved: Houston Rockets
2013-14 Record: 54-28
Notable Additions: Trevor Ariza, Ish Smith, Clint Capela
Key Losses: Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin
Despite the offseason losses suffered by his Houston Rockets, two-time All-Star James Harden claims he isn't worried. He and eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard are still on the roster, which Harden apparently thinks is all that matters.
"Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets," Harden told The Philippine Star's Joaquin Henson. "The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team."
Harden isn't technically wrong—although this certainly could have been left unsaid—but he is glossing over the fact that those "role players" aren't nearly as deep or as skilled as they were last season.
A close-but-no-cigar pursuit of Chris Bosh wound up costing the Rockets three of coach Kevin McHale's top seven rotation players: Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. The additions of Trevor Ariza and Ish Smith should help Houston's defense, but this team lost some offensive versatility and the insurance it had behind Howard.
Harden and Howard aren't simply the Rockets' cornerstones, they are really Houston's only hope to retain some of the progress made in 2013-14. That still gives the franchise one of the most talented tandems in the league, but this duo didn't always see eye to eye the last time around.
The Rockets have the pieces to compete for a playoff spot, but that's hardly a consolation prize for a team that carried championship hopes into last season.
Most Improved: Cleveland Cavaliers
2013-14 Record: 33-49
Notable Additions: LeBron James, Kevin Love*, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller
Key Losses: Luol Deng, C.J. Miles, Spencer Hawes
No other team added a top-10 player this summer. Once Kevin Love's trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers is complete, via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, the Cavaliers will have picked up two.
But it wasn't until prodigal son LeBron James penned his way back to Cleveland that the Cavs learned the real definition of a best-case scenario. Not only did they secure the services of the best player on the planet, but he also happened to bring along a pair of lights-out shooters (Mike Miller and James Jones) and a versatile forward with championship experience (Shawn Marion).
This offense doesn't simply project as being elite, it has the pieces to be historically proficient.
"Having great shooters combined with great passers, the world's best player (and possibly its best athlete) and one of the top rebounders the game has ever seen gives the Cavs a multitude of offensive options," noted ESPN Insider David Thorpe (subscription required).
Despite boasting a fantasy-style roster—don't forget that Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova all have ample upward mobility—this team isn't free of all weaknesses. The defense could be generous both inside and out, and head coach David Blatt has no NBA experience.
Still, no team made bigger offseason strides, and Cleveland's championship chances look as strong as any.
Least Improved: Indiana Pacers
2013-14 Record: 56-26
Notable Additions: C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey, Damjan Rudez
Key Losses: Paul George*, Lance Stephenson, Evan Turner
No matter how the Indiana Pacers handled Lance Stephenson's free agency, it was going to be a gamble. If they paid him, they risked watching his headache-inducing antics divide the locker room and spoil his production. If they let him go, they gave up a nightly triple-double threat who led their regulars in rebounds (7.2) and assists (4.6) and ranked third in points (13.8) last season.
When Stephenson balked at their initial offer, they opted for the latter. Short on usable funds, they took a by-committee approach to replacing his production. C.J. Miles brought over some floor spacing (39.3 three-point percentage in 2013-14), while Rodney Stuckey added another ball-handler to the mix.
But neither of those players is Stephenson—not even if the two could be added together—and Stephenson wasn't even Indiana's biggest loss of the offseason.
The Pacers will also be without two-time All-Star Paul George, who suffered a gruesome fracture of his right leg during an intra-squad scrimmage with Team USA. The two-way forward told reporters, "I would love to play this year," but initial projections have him missing the entire season.
With no Stephenson and (probably) no George, the Pacers might have no hope.
Roy Hibbert's second-half slide never stopped, and George Hill struggled with his own disappearing acts. David West turns 34 before the start of the season, so it's hard to say how long Father Time will allow him to keep being Indiana's rock.
A playoff-bracket plummet from first to worst (the No. 8 seed) isn't out of the question. Missing the big dance entirely isn't, either.
Most Improved: New Orleans Pelicans
2013-14 Record: 34-48
Notable Additions: Omer Asik, Jimmer Fredette
Key Losses: Jason Smith, Al-Farouq Aminu, Brian Roberts
The New Orleans Pelicans already had the personnel in place to significantly outperform their record, but a slew of injuries kept a majority of those players sidelined for a massive chunk of last season.
Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson missed a combined 151 games in 2013-14. Those five players, the five best New Orleans had, played only 91 minutes together, via NBA.com.
With that quintet on the floor, the Pellies outscored opponents by 3.7 points per 100 possessions, which would have been the eighth-best net rating in the league. Overall, New Orleans was outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions (21st).
Getting healthy—and adding Omer Asik to limit the physical damage Davis has to take—should be a major lift. Employing a bigger, stronger, better Davis could be an exponential boost.
The 21-year-old put up 20.8 points, 10.0 rebounds and a league-best 2.8 blocks last season, only his second in the NBA. For year three, the single-browed superstar has plans to do even more.
"I’m definitely working on the corner three-pointer," Davis said, via Jim Eichenhofer of Pelicans.com. "(Also) more post moves, a consistent mid-range jump shot, ball-handling."
Least Improved: Minnesota Timberwolves
2013-14 Record: 40-42
Notable Additions: Andrew Wiggins*, Thaddeus Young*, Anthony Bennett*, Zach LaVine
Key Losses: Kevin Love*
The new-look Minnesota Timberwolves don't have their new look yet. But the Love trade has been discussed long enough that a clear vision of that revised roster has emerged.
As a source told Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune, the Wolves are set to receive Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young during the exchange. Love will be off to Cleveland, while current Timberwolves Luc Mbah a Moute and Alexey Shved will be routed to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Taking stock of the Timberwolves' expected haul, they should be getting much more athletic—and a lot younger. This should be an exciting team to watch, but don't look for that excitement to show up in the standings.
Love finished last season ranked fourth in scoring (26.1), third in rebounding (12.5), third in player efficiency rating (26.9) and third in win shares (14.3), via Basketball-Reference.com. Even with that top-tier production, Minnesota limped to its ninth straight losing season.
Ricky Rubio still can't shoot (career 36.8 field-goal percentage), Kevin Martin still doesn't defend and these young, new arrivals need plenty of seasoning. Oh, and two of the team's top players—Nikola Pekovic and Gorgui Dieng—both line up at the center spot.
President Flip Saunders didn't give coach Flip Saunders the win-now package he was after. While that's probably a good thing for Minnesota's future, it might mean taking a few steps back in the present.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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