5 NBA Teams That Vaulted into Contention During the 2014 Offseason

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IJuly 24, 2014

5 NBA Teams That Vaulted into Contention During the 2014 Offseason

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    It’s not often that a free-agent crop is capable of completely shifting the NBA landscape—of turning pretenders into contenders and contenders into also-rans.

    Years from now, the summer of 2014 will stand a good chance of living up to that billing.

    As we head into the 2014-15 campaign, five teams have vaulted their way into the championship conversation—three from the East, two from the West.

    In order to make the cut, these teams must have made at least one move of genuine significance and not merely be banking on next-level leaps from their young or otherwise lottery-bound cores.

    Some of the names on this list won’t surprise anyone. Others, meanwhile, might take some getting used to.

    On that note, let us vault!

Washington Wizards

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    After re-signing stalwart center Marcin Gortat to a five-year, $60 million deal, the Washington Wizards—buoyed by the ascendant backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal—appeared poised to at least challenge for a top-four seed in the East.

    Then came the even sneakier coup: On July 17, just days after losing Trevor Ariza to the Houston Rockets, the Wizards announced the surprise signing of 10-time All-Star forward Paul Pierce.

    At 36 years old and coming off the worst statistical season of his career, Pierce’s best days are behind him. But for a team whose two principal players are both younger than 24, having a leader of Pierce’s caliber—to say nothing of his tremendous playoff experience—is sure to reap dividends beyond the box score.

    With the prospects of the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat now squarely up in the air, Washington stands a great chance of snagging home-court advantage.

    If Wall and Beal can take their games to the next level, there’s reason to believe these Wizards—with Pierce in the fray and a top-10 defense behind them—can make some serious playoff noise.

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    A team coming off a 34-win season with a backcourt logjam and injury concerns galore? Competing for a championship? Have we lost our minds?

    No. But Anthony Davis might. And that's a problem for the rest of the league.

    Of all the teams on this list, none boasts a bigger, better X-factor than the 22-year-old man-child power forward. In Davis, the Pelicans aren’t merely in possession of a future superstar. He’s already there.

    Last year’s Pelicans were a mess—no doubt about it. But considering the slew of injuries the team suffered (Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson all missed significant stretches of the season), you have to think New Orleans is due for some good old-fashioned continuity.

    In acquiring rim-protecting beast Omer Asik from the Rockets, Davis is now free to log more minutes at power forward. When head coach Monty Williams decides to go small, he can pair Davis and the sharpshooting Anderson at the 4 and 5, respectively.

    As it was a season ago, the big question mark for New Orleans lies in how effectively its backcourt—featuring Holiday, Gordon and Tyreke Evans—can mesh. Managing the trio’s minutes (and their egos) could go a long way in determining if these Pelicans have what it takes to vault themselves into the conference conversation.

Chicago Bulls

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Compared to the Pelicans, this one is about as surprising as a sunrise.

    The Chicago Bulls tried hard to steal Carmelo Anthony away from the New York Knicks, despite entering the offseason with minimal cap room to spare.

    But even when Anthony opted to return to New York, the Bulls had a backup plan at the ready. On July 18, Chicago finally got its man, inking All-Star forward Pau Gasol to a three-year, $22 million tender.

    Joining a core that already includes Joakim Noah and a soon-to-be healthy Derrick Rose, Gasol gives the Bulls an instant two-way upgrade over the recently amnestied Carlos Boozer. Gasol is a five-tool low-post player with a high basketball IQ and playoff experience to match.

    Despite Rose’s near two-year absence, head coach Tom Thibodeau has managed to turn his team’s top-tier defense into a playoff-caliber calling card. He has done this despite fielding one of the most woefully inefficient offenses in the league.

    Gasol isn’t merely a better, more efficient scoring option than Boozer; he’s a far better rim protector as well.

    This upgrade alone would have been enough to push Chicago a few notches up in the Eastern Conference standings. With Rose back in the fold? These Bulls are aiming squarely for a march into June.

Dallas Mavericks

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Unlike some of their counterparts on this list, the Dallas Mavericks needed much more than one isolated move to stake their claim as contenders.

    Things got off to something of a strange start for Mark Cuban and company, with the Mavs dealing Jose Calderon and a trio of assets (along with a pair of draft picks) to the New York Knicks in exchange for Tyson Chandler—a staple of Dallas’ 2011 title team—and Raymond Felton.

    Slowly but surely, however, Cuban started putting the puzzle together. After stealing Chandler Parsons away from Houston (three years, $46 million), the Mavs staged perhaps their biggest coup of the summer when they retained Dirk Nowitzki for a ludicrously low three-year, $25 million tender, per Fox Sports’ Mike Fisher.

    Finally, on Tuesday, Dallas made what will likely be its last significant move of the summer, adding veteran point guard Jameer Nelson to the mix.

    After logging the league’s third-most efficient offense a season ago, the Mavericks have all the tools to blow the doors off the rest of the league. And with Chandler back protecting the paint, head coach Rick Carlisle—three years after his team’s first and only title—has to feel pretty good about making another run.

    Even as far back as last spring, in an interview with ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM (h/t ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon), Cuban hinted it was all in a few years' work:

    We want to be a championship team. We've never said we have to be a championship team this year. We want to be a better team, a top-seed team. If we get the top free agent, that doesn't leave us a whole lot of flexibility to add a lot of players, but we have a good nucleus around them. We know we'll have a good team, but we won't know if we have a great team. If you look at this like a two-year plan, then we think we're on a track to have a great team by the end of next year.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Bleacher Report

    Who knew that (re)landing the best basketball player in the world would make the Cleveland Cavaliers an instant title contender? Besides everyone, we mean.

    Don’t get us wrong—new head coach David Blatt has a lot of toying and tinkering to do before these Cavs can find a sustainable offensive groove. Still, having someone like James—a guy whose sole mission, it often seems, is making the guys around him better—is bound to make the transition a smoother one.

    In Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, Cleveland touts a trio of young prospects whose promise and upside finally have a legitimate shot of being actualized. With so much of the defensive focus about to be directed at James, these three in particular will enjoy open looks the likes of which they’ve never seen, let alone thought possible.

    And that’s before we even get to Andrew Wiggins, the 6’8” small forward phenom who just had his greatest possible mentor dropped straight into his lap.

    Don’t expect the Cavs to storm out of the gate. Especially, FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver points out, if they don't get Kevin Love:

    If it happens, the Cavaliers may need some additional help to build an instant championship contender for LeBron. In an article earlier Thursday, I projected the Cavaliers’ record should they sign James and Ray Allen but otherwise stand pat. It wasn’t so great: 52-30. That would be enough to make them one of the better Eastern Conference teams but probably not good enough to win a championship.

    Once they find their groove, though, James and company have just as good a shot as anyone else of making it through the Eastern Conference gauntlet and into the NBA Finals.