NBA Predictions 2014-15: Win-Loss Projections for Every Team, Pre-Training Camp

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterSeptember 23, 2014

NBA Predictions 2014-15: Win-Loss Projections for Every Team, Pre-Training Camp

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    Last week, yours truly took a somewhat wild stab at sorting out the NBA's 30 depth charts ahead of training camps opening. This week, we're tipping things off by cranking the Speculation-O-Meter up to 11.

    By that, I mean, it's time for win-loss projections.

    Inevitably, many (if not most) of these prognostications will be way off. There's no telling who, exactly, will be injured or for how long, how new teammates will mesh (I'm looking at you, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving) or how first-year coaches will adapt to their new surroundings.

    In truth, we're not here to be perfect. Rather, we're here to give you an idea of where teams stand in relation to one another and about how well each should fare within that framework.

    What we think we know is that, based on what went down last season and over the summer, the Western Conference will once again be much stronger than the East, with perhaps 11 squads among the former capable of finishing with records of .500 or better.

    What we don't know is, well, everything else. But what the heck? Let's give these projections a shot anyway, going from East to West, and from the bottom to the top in each conference.

15. Philadelphia 76ers: 16-66

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    Could this year's Philadelphia 76ers be worse than last year's edition? Worse than the team that lost an NBA-record-tying 26 games in a row?

    Absolutely. If anything, it seems likely that the Sixers will take another step back, even if they don't set any new historic marks for futility.

    At least the 2013-14 Philly team started the season with three players (Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes) who had competed in the postseason as a group. That trio is gone now, replaced only by the likes of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Jason Richardson (who missed all of last season with an ACL injury) and Alexey Shved.

    To be sure, this squad has some considerable upside with which to work. Michael Carter-Williams, the reigning Rookie of the Year, should see plenty of improvement between Years 1 and 2. Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 pick in the 2013 draft, looked like a shot-blocking fiend during the summer league, albeit while getting pushed around a bit physically.

    Still, the likelihood of this team being better than last year's 19-win outfit seems slim—especially when its biggest addition (Joel Embiid, the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft) could miss most, if not all, of the upcoming campaign.

14. Boston Celtics: 21-61

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    Will they or won't they?

    Trade Rajon Rondo, that is. Even Danny Ainge doesn't have a clear answer to that question.

    "The truthful answer is I really don't know," the general manager of the Boston Celtics told The Worcester Telegram & Gazette (via James Herbert of CBSSports.com). "I have no intention. I'm not trying to trade Rondo, but because he's a free agent this summer, he assured me that he wants to stay in Boston. We'd love to keep him in Boston." 

    As well he should. Players of Rondo's caliber don't grow on trees. The fact that he has four All-Star appearances, two trips to the Finals and a title under his belt ties him all the more closely to the franchise's history.

    But Rondo's timeline clearly doesn't align with that of the Celtics. He's 28, working his way back to full strength from an ACL tear in 2013, with some prime (and pricey) job prospects coming up next summer. Boston, on the other hand, has a roster rife with castoffs and young talent, including a precocious point guard prospect by the name of Marcus Smart.

    In other words, the writing's on the wall. It's only a matter of time until Ainge heeds it and the C's fortunes take a hit as a result.

13. Orlando Magic: 24-58

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    It's year three of the post-Dwight Howard era for the Orlando Magic, and the team still has a long way to go before it's ready to compete for anything other than lottery ping-pong balls.

    That's not to say the 2014-15 season won't be one of significant progress in the Magic Kingdom. With rookie Elfrid Payton on board, Orlando can move Victor Oladipo, its best bet for a bona fide star, back to his more natural position off the ball.

    Nikola Vucevic has long since solidified his spot at center, so long as he stays healthy. In Channing Frye, the Magic have themselves one of the sweetest-shooting stretch 4s in all of basketball. And between Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless and rookie Aaron Gordon, head coach Jacque Vaughn should be able to find at least one quality starter on the wing.

    That's all well and good, but there's a difference between having the proper pieces in place and actually winning games—and it's an important one. The youngsters will need time to mature, and the team as a whole won't come together overnight.

    As such, expect the upcoming campaign to be one of incremental improvements and growing pains for the Magic.

12. Milwaukee Bucks: 28-54

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    Asking the Milwaukee Bucks to almost double their output from last season may seem like a tall task, but with the transformative summer this organization underwent, a jump toward 30-win territory looks like a distinct possibility.

    When last we saw the Bucks playing NBA basketball, they were just getting used to life under the Wesley Edens-Marc Lasry ownership regime, with Larry Sanders sidelined by injury and without anything resembling a go-to scorer.

    Since then, Edens and Lasry have had their opportunities to change the "eighth seed or bust" culture that pervaded the organization under Senator Herb Kohl. Moreover, Sanders will be back in action, albeit after serving a five-game suspension for marijuana use; Jabari Parker, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft, will debut as not only a ready-made pro scorer, but also as a Rookie of the Year favorite; and Giannis Antetokounmpo, last year's delightful debutante, will shoulder more responsibility as a part-time point guard, with Hall of Famer Gary Payton serving as his mentor.

    Oh, and Jason Kidd power-played his way into Larry Drew's old job, for better or worse.

    It'll be another couple of years before anyone really begins to "Fear the Deer" again, but this season should be a solid step in the right direction for the Bucks.

11. Detroit Pistons: 33-49

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    Perhaps the Detroit Pistons will shock the NBA this season. They've already spent the summer surprising onlookers and fans alike.

    Brandon Jennings got an early start to #MuscleWatch with 25 pounds of his own, per The Detroit News' Vincent Goodwill. Jodie Meeks, one of Stan Van Gundy's first signings and a prospective partner of Jennings in Detroit's backcourt, already has his sights set on competing for his country—even though he hardly ranks among America's best shooting guards at present.

    "(Being on the Olympic team in 2016) would be an honor and a dream come true," Meeks told The Detroit Free Press' Perry A. Farrell. "I know it's a long way down the line, and we still have a full season ahead, but anytime you have a chance to play for your country, it's an honor."

    And then there's the not-so-small matter of Greg Monroe settling for the Pistons' one-year qualifying offer over a reported five-year, $60 million deal from his incumbent team.

    If the Pistons are, indeed, going to make hay in the Eastern Conference this season, they'll need Jennings, Meeks and their ilk to space the floor for Monroe, Andre Drummond and Josh Smith—and everyone to bring it on the defensive end.

10. Indiana Pacers: 35-47

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    As far as purely on-court considerations are concerned, no team has had a worse summer than that of the Indiana Pacers.

    First, they watched Lance Stephenson turn down a five-year, $44 million offer to stay in favor of a three-year, $27 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets. Then, they cringed as Paul George crumpled to the ground with a gruesome leg injury during Team USA's pre-World Cup scrimmage in Las Vegas.

    Now, they face a 2014-15 season with 40 percent of their rock-solid starting lineup from last year out of commission, and with only a smorgasbord of underwhelming options (i.e. C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey, Solomon Hill, Chris Copeland, Damjan Rudez) to fill the void.

    With all of that in mind, it'll take an extraordinary effort to extend the Pacers' postseason streak to a fifth season. That's not to say it's out of the question; the East is soft enough, and Indy has enough going for it, particularly up front, to make some noise.

    In all likelihood, though, the year to come will read more like an interregnum between George's glory days than the continuation of a carefully constructed powerhouse.

9. New York Knicks: 36-46

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    For once, the New York Knicks put together a summer that, in some respects, could be characterized as "smart."

    They parlayed their souring relationships with Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton into a package featuring a savvy, sweet-shooting point guard for the triangle offense (Jose Calderon). That deal also saw the Knicks trade their way into draft, where they wound up with Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo as second-round picks. Moreover, they managed to re-sign Carmelo Anthony for slightly less than the maximum.

    On the whole, those moves, along with Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher, should afford New York a measure of improvement, perhaps even enough to sneak back into the playoffs. But with their underwhelming options at power forward (i.e. Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani) and without much in the way of defensive ability at point guard or center, the Knicks figure to find themselves teetering on the edge of the lottery once again in 2015.

8. Brooklyn Nets: 40-42

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    Losing Paul Pierce—and, to a lesser extent, Andray Blatche—won't make the Brooklyn Nets any better. But this squad is still in the mix in terms of playoff contention, particularly in the Eastern Conference.

    To be sure, this team's hopes will be largely contingent on Deron Williams' ankles and Brook Lopez's foot, all of which have been anything but reliable in recent years. According to the New York Post's Tim Bontemps, Williams has already insisted that his ankles feel much better after offseason surgery.

    As for Lopez, he's getting back into it after playing in just 17 games last season—and just in time for training camp, no less, which was relayed by the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy:

    According to Billy King, today was the first time Brook Lopez played 5-on-5 since surgery.

    If those two can stay healthy and produce at or near an All-Star level, the Nets could finish much higher than eighth, especially with Lionel Hollins now at the controls of this super-sized, experienced squad. If not, Brooklyn will be hard pressed to concoct any miracle turnaround on par with last season's switch.

7. Atlanta Hawks: 42-40

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    The Atlanta Hawks seemed ready to fly high into the 2014-15 season. Jeff Teague was coming off a strong playoff performance, Paul Millsap got in some dribbles with Team USA in training camp and Al Horford was due to return from another season-ending injury.

    Then...well, word leaked that part owner Bruce Levenson wrote some racially insensitive things in an e-mail and general manager Danny Ferry said some racially insensitive things on a company conference call. Levenson said he'll sell his share of the team, Ferry remains on an indefinite leave of absence and the organization's upper rungs remain in flux.

    As a result, the Hawks will head into training camp with second-year head coach Mike Budenholzer doing double duty as the team's president of basketball operations. "There are extra things you have to do to prepare for camp and the season," Budenholzer told NBA.com's Steve Aschburner. "But we’ve got a great group. So there’s more work but I think we can manage it. The team, for the most part, is in place. That’s the most important thing."

    Indeed, it's helpful for the Hawks that, despite the front-office issues, the team on the court remains largely intact. That measure of familiarity should come in handy as Atlanta attempts to weather the storm that it's higher-ups have borne.

6. Miami Heat: 43-39

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    In hindsight, the Hawks' loss turned out to be the Miami Heat's gain once Luol Deng put pen to paper on a two-year deal worth just under $20 million. Deng would be hard pressed to fill the gaping hole left behind by LeBron James' departure, though he brings plenty of value to the table, as a two-time All-Star with impeccable defensive and community credentials, in his own right.

    A core of Deng, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh sports enough combined talent and experience to make things interesting in the Eastern Conference. Throw in Erik Spoelstra's creativity from the sideline and Pat Riley's willingness to wheel-and-deal, and who knows?

    Perhaps the Heat, if they sort out their situation at point guard and properly integrate Josh McRoberts, will wind up opposing James' Cleveland Cavaliers at some point in the postseason.

5. Charlotte Hornets: 45-37

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    Leave it to Steve Clifford, the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets, to sum up where the team stands and what its expectations are in its first season since ditching the Bobcats nickname.

    "I feel like we built a foundation for how we want to do things and the way we need to play," Clifford told The Portland Press Herald's Randy Whitehouse. "Our defense was really good (ranked sixth in the league). Our offense needs to get better and it was towards the end of the season. I think we have a better roster, and with the work that the guys have done with the team in the offseason, I think we can build on that foundation."

    Indeed, the foundation Clifford built in Charlotte is a solid one. The team managed to win 43 games despite having only one player (Al Jefferson) capable of regularly drawing double-teams on offense. In Lance Stephenson, the Hornets now have another player who, when properly deployed, could become a similar such magnet.

    If Charlotte's sputtering offense can catch up to its air-tight defense this season, the Hornets could prove to be a bigger threat in the East than most might otherwise anticipate.

4. Washington Wizards: 50-32

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    The Washington Wizards have had themselves a resplendent offseason, to say the least. They passed on retaining the streaky, expensive Trevor Ariza, choosing instead to sign Paul Pierce to a brilliant mid-level contract for two years. They also kept their frontcourt intact by re-signing Marcin Gortat for five years.

    Meanwhile, Glen Rice Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. tore up the Las Vegas Summer League, and John Wall and Bradley Beal got some valuable experience in training camp with Team USA.

    As it happens, the Wizards might not be done maturing into a contender just yet. According to The Washington Post's Jorge Castillo, Washington is among a handful of teams that's hard after Ray Allen, who's yet to decide whether he should play on or retire. The Wizards, for their part, could use his sharp shooting after losing Ariza via free agency and Martell Webster to back surgery.

    Even if Allen doesn't wind up in D.C., the Wizards should be in plum position to compete for a spot in the conference finals come spring.

3. Toronto Raptors: 51-31

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    The Toronto Raptors shouldn't have much trouble bringing home their third Atlantic Division crown and second in a row. If nothing else, their competition (i.e. the Nets, Knicks, Celtics and Sixers) doesn't figure to put up much of a fight.

    The bigger question for the Raptors is whether can they be a legitimate threat to win the East. That will depend as much on the leadership of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan as on the development of Jonas Valanciunas into Toronto's third All-Star-caliber cog.

    According to The National Post's Eric Koreen, Toronto hooked him up with a famous big-man tutor to get him to that point:

    The team had him spend time with Hakeem Olajuwon this summer, with the hope being that the Hall of Famer would teach the burgeoning Raptors centre some grace in the post. On the other end, Valanciunas will need to further navigate the intricacies of Dwane Casey’s defensive system.

    The more Valanciunas can do to improve on both ends, the better able the Raptors will be to give the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers all they can handle in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers: 55-27

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    If not for one opposite-of-small detail, the Cleveland Cavaliers would be the undisputed favorites to win the East in pursuit of the Larry O'Brien Trophy. That detail? The lack of depth or reliable talent on the interior, particularly as it pertains to rim protection.

    Anderson Varejao is a perennial injury risk. Brendan Haywood missed all of last season and could miss a big chunk of 2014-15 after undergoing foot surgery. Louis Amundson and rookie free agent Alex Kirk could help but aren't likely to inspire much fear in the hearts of those hoping to parade down the lane at Quicken Loans Arena.

    And it's not as though there are any quick or easy solutions, as far as the Cavs are aware, per FOX Sports Ohio's Sam Amico:

    Cavs set w 20 guys on camp roster. Would like to add another big man, but as GM David Griffin said, he can't force teams to trade centers.

    That being said, in the grand scheme, worrying about who's playing center in Cleveland might amount to picking nits. Their offensive firepower—between LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and the corps of shooters they've enlisted (and are attempting to enlist)—could be enough to wipe out their opponents whole-hog.

    Then again, when push comes to shove against a quality opponent in the playoffs, that nit in the middle could get picked apart and undo this team's championship plans.

1. Chicago Bulls: 58-24

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    The Cavs may look great on paper, but until they actually step onto the court and start playing basketball, the Chicago Bulls look like the better bet to finish with the best record in the East.

    Not that the Bulls don't have plenty of their own concerns to address. First and foremost is Derrick Rose, who made it through the FIBA Basketball World Cup without incident but didn't exactly make a dent on the scoresheet. The hope, it would seem, is that he'll knock off the rust he accumulated through three injury-plagued years in due course.

    If he does, Chicago should field its best team of the Tom Thibodeau era, what with Pau Gasol and rookies Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott joining Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson to form the NBA's best front line.

    Even if not, so long as Rose can simply stay healthy and fulfill a more moderate role within the Bulls offense, the team should be good enough to compete for no worse than a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.

15. Minnesota Timberwolves: 22-60

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves could be the most intriguing and entertaining last-place team in NBA history, thanks to the high-flying talents of Anthony Bennett, Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer and rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine.

    That's small consolation for a club that hasn't been to the postseason in a decade and just watched another superstar (Kevin Love) wind up in more competitive climes. 

    Things could get worse, too, if the T-Wolves don't take care of Ricky Rubio. According to The Minneapolis Star Tribune's Jerry Zgoda, Rubio isn't too thrilled with the $48 million offer Minnesota extended in its attempt to lock him in before the Halloween deadline for rookie-scale extensions comes and goes.

    An unhappy (or soon-to-depart) Rubio could put a crimp in the T-Wolves' plans to be a run-and-gun team. After all, what good is a bunch of fast-break fiends without a pinpoint-passing point guard to feed them the ball?

14. Utah Jazz: 23-59

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    The Utah Jazz might as well be the West's answer to the Orlando Magic: a talented, young team that was recently torn down and has the pieces to build back up but will need some time to do so.

    The addition of Dante Exum doesn't figure to accelerate Utah's path to contention in any appreciable way. It could be a while before the Australian teenager delivers on some measure of his considerable promise, if his underwhelming showings in the summer league and at the FIBA Basketball World Cup were any indication.

    Fortunately for the Jazz, they can forge a stable foundation while Exum finds his way. The likely starting lineup of Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Trey Burke features a player at every position who should become no worse than a solid member of the rotation.

    None of those five looks like a true star-in-the-making, though that could change with Quin Snyder taking over for the moribund Tyrone Corbin on the bench.

13. Sacramento Kings: 30-52

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    The Sacramento Kings quelled any remaining concerns about eschewing Isaiah Thomas for Darren Collison at point guard by signing...Ramon Sessions? According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Sessions will join the Kings on a two-year, $4.2 million contract by way of the team's biannual exception.

    To be fair, Sessions has established himself as one of the NBA's better backup point guards in recent years. That's the role in which he's likely to serve with Collison already on board.

    Neither may boast the ball skills that Thomas took with him to Phoenix, but both are bigger than the Washingtonian water bug, which, in theory, should help the Kings defensively.

    And really, so long as Sessions and Collison can deliver the ball to DeMarcus Cousins down low with regularity, their combined job should fall well within range of their skills.

12. Los Angeles Lakers: 31-51

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    Speaking of under-the-radar signings, how about Wayne Ellington to the Los Angeles Lakers? I hear they could use some help at shooting guard...or not.

    In truth, it never hurts to have healthy bodies backing up an aging legend, especially when said aging legend (i.e. Kobe Bryant) is coming off a season that was drastically shortened by Achilles and knee injuries. Ellington's presence could be all the more crucial since Bryant's backup, Xavier Henry, might miss training camp while recovering from wrist and knee surgeries.

    Of course, the more pivotal Ellington becomes to the Lakers, the worse off they'll be on the whole. They'll be hard pressed to compete for a playoff spot even if everything breaks right for them and certainly won't so much as sniff the postseason if Bryant can't play enough to keep Ellington tethered to the bench.

11. New Orleans Pelicans: 37-45

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    It seems like anyone and everyone who's laid eyes on Anthony Davis this summer has had nothing but praise for the 21-year-old phenom.

    "I think watching him watch those guys helped him to grow," Monty Williams, an assistant on Team USA, told The New Orleans Times-Picayune's Jimmy Smith. "So I'm sure he's going to bring a lot of that back to our team. I don't know what he's going to add, but it'll be interesting to see how all that stuff impacted him because I'm sure it did just watching those guys work."

    Of course, Williams isn't exactly an impartial spectator. He's also Davis' head coach with the New Orleans Pelicans.

    Why not take it, instead, from someone who doesn't have quite so much skin in the game—like, say, Shaquille O'Neal?

    "He’s real," O'Neal told The Times-Picayune's John Reid. "I remember when he got hurt (last season), but he came back strong. His jumper looks nice. His legs look fresh. He runs the court and plays that defense. They are going to be a sleeper team this year."

    They could be more than that, if the Pelicans supporting cast can stay healthy together for an extended period of time. Either way, Davis gives New Orleans a tremendous base on which to build a bona fide contender in the years to come.

10. Phoenix Suns: 42-40

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    It's all well and good that, according to AZCentral's Paul Coro, the Phoenix Suns have become the leaders in the clubhouse to sign Zoran Dragic, brother of All-NBA third-teamer Goran Dragic. But the signing of another skilled Slovenian won't likely make up for an offseason that, at best, might be characterized as underwhelming.

    And not just because the situation with Eric Bledsoe has deteriorated to the point where rumors about him being traded have "mysteriously" begun to swirl.

    Let's not forget, the Suns will go into this season without Channing Frye, who was integral to Phoenix's lethal pick-and-pop game. According to NBA.com, the Suns outscored their opposition by six points per 100 possessions when Frye played but lost that battle by a half-point per 100 possessions when he sat.

    The loss of Frye might not be devastating in and of itself, but in a conference where standing pat means losing ground to ravenous competition, even the slightest step back could prove fatal to Phoenix's fringe playoff hopes.

9. Denver Nuggets: 45-37

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    Don't sleep on the Denver Nuggets. The end of their decade-long playoff streak this past season came at the devastating intersection of jarring organizational change (i.e. a new head coach and a new general manager) and injuries to nearly every player of consequence.

    Brian Shaw and Tim Connelly have since had time to settle into their respective positions. Meanwhile, the likes of Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee and Nate Robinson should be markedly healthier after a summer of rest and rehabilitation.

    Throw in the return of Arron Afflalo and the FIBA-inspired confidence of Kenneth Faried, and the Nuggets should be in the thick of the postseason chase come spring.

8. Houston Rockets: 46-36

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    You win some, you lose some.

    That was the story of the Houston Rockets' summer, which featured spurnings from Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony, and Chandler Parsons' departure to Dallas via restricted free agency.

    As it happens, Parsons' flight, which came after general manager Daryl Morey declined a team option that would've paid the young wing under $1 million in 2014-15, was probably the consequence of a much bigger plan involving Dwight Howard and his agent, Dan Fegan. Allow ClutchFans to explain:

    As I’ve been told, Howard’s agent Dan Fegan did not want Dwight in Houston, preferring instead to steer him to another team. Reportedly, that team was Dallas as the agent has a relationship and comfort level with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Dwight preferred Houston. To seal the deal for the premier free agent, Fegan provided the Rockets a list of needs/demands to bring him here and one of them was to let Chandler Parsons, who also was represented by Fegan, out of his contract this summer rather than wait until 2015.

    Say what you will about the perils of such an arrangement, but if that's what it took for the Rockets to rope in a superstar center like Howard, it's well worth the short-term pain of watching Parsons play for an in-state rival while the Rockets themselves slink back down the standings a bit.

7. Golden State Warriors: 47-35

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    One of Andrew Bogut's greatest assets—his toughness, both mentally and physically—could prove to be the Golden State Warriors' downfall once again.

    Bogut had this to say to The San Francisco Chronicle's Rusty Simmons

    My body feels great. All of my injuries have been of the high-impact variety. The only thing I can do to change that is to be a puss and avoid contact at all costs. Then, it’s the other side of the ball when people say I’m a puss. I’ll take the good with the bad. I’ll still take charges and go for blocked shots. Every now and then, I’ll get a knock.

    That's all well and good, but those knocks haven't done his team any good. Bogut missed Golden State's most recent playoff appearance on account of a fractured rib. Without him, the Dubs weren't able to sneak by the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games. With him, they may well have taken control of that series much earlier and earned their shot at the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    The folly, though, isn't with Bogut. He's a physical player, and he's not about to change the way he plays. The fault, rather, lies with the Warriors, who invested a pivotal part of their fortunes in a player whose size, style and disposition leave him prone to absence.

6. Dallas Mavericks: 50-32

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Scoring has never been a problem for the Dallas Mavericks so long as Dirk Nowitzki's been in the lineup. Their issues, for the most part, have popped up on the defensive end.

    That is, since Tyson Chandler left town in 2011. Now that he's back, defense should no longer be a problem in Big D. Take it from Chandler himself.

    "I’m going to make them defend," he told ESPN Dallas' Tim McMahon. "We’re going to defend. You can score as many points as you want, but at the end of the day, defense wins championships and that’s what we’re going to do. 

    "Guys don’t have to be the best individual defenders in the league, but we are going to be a great defensive team. You have to do your assignment. We’re not going to take plays off."

    If that proves to be the case, look for the Mavs to make some serious waves out West this season. They certainly did the last time he was in town.

5. Portland Trail Blazers: 50-32

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    It's a dangerous proposition, especially in the Western Conference, to emerge from a summer without any major roster upgrades and expect to improve in the standings. The Portland Trail Blazers, though, might be able to buck that trend.

    Not that they should anticipate any great leap forward in 2014-15. Steve Blake and Chris Kaman should beef up the bench a bit, and the team can anticipate growth from All-Star guard Damian Lillard in his third season.

    In truth, the upside of this squad rests with its collective experience. If the Blazers can tighten up their defense and continue to pile up points, they could emerge as something more than second-round fodder for the West's best.

4. Memphis Grizzlies: 55-27

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    Think of the Memphis Grizzlies like the upper echelon's answer to the Nuggets: a solid playoff team with a distinct identity, dragged down by organizational turnover (and turmoil) and injuries up and down the roster. In Denver's case, that meant a wholesale slip into the lottery. For Memphis, it meant 50 wins and the seventh seed instead of something much more this past spring.

    Like the Nuggets, the Grizzlies should find themselves on the up-and-up again now that their coaching situation has been settled and their roster looks healthy heading into training camp. No more concerns about how Dave Joerger will want his team to play—or whether he'll be coaching it at all. No alarms to sound about Marc Gasol and Tony Allen.

    Had those two not missed significant time last season, we might've been talking about another deep playoff run in the River City. That should be the case next spring, so long as the one-two punch of Gasol and Zach Randolph remains a devastating combination.

3. Los Angeles Clippers: 56-26

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    It should come as no surprise that at least some of the Los Angeles Clippers have spent the summer stewing over their disappointing playoff exit at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

    "It would be lying to you to say I'd forgotten about it," Paul told The Los Angeles Times' Ben Bolch. "It's one of those things that I don't want to forget, to tell you the truth. I think for me, I feel like you have to remember things like that and therefore you don't want that feeling again. I know I don't."

    The Clippers certainly didn't stand pat after that. They signed Spencer Hawes, thereby killing two birds (backup center, shooting big man) with one stone, replaced Darren Collison with Jordan Farmar as Paul's backup and brought in Joe Ingles and Chris Douglas-Roberts to compete at small forward.

    But none of those moves address L.A.'s most glaring need, the one that might've cost it so dearly against OKC: crunch-time scoring, or rather a lack thereof. As great a player as CP3 is, he can't do it all by himself in the closing moments, especially after shouldering such a heavy load for most of the game.

    Unless Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick and/or Jamal Crawford step up in that capacity, the Clippers could rue the day they used their mid-level exception on Hawes, rather than saving it for, say, Paul Pierce.

2. San Antonio Spurs: 58-24

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    The disease of more shouldn't be a problem for the San Antonio Spurs this season. Gregg Popovich, with the help of his star players, has done a masterful job of fostering an unselfish attitude throughout the organization over the years.

    And, well, most of the principles have already gotten paid or, in Kawhi Leonard's case, are soon to.

    If there's anything that could submarine the Spurs' pursuit of a third straight trip to the Finals and a second consecutive crown—both of which would be franchise firsts—it's the disease of "meh." 

    "I'm worried for one reason," Popovich told The San Antonio Express-News' Buck Harvey. "They are human beings. They are going to feel satisfied."

    That, along with Pop's usual regimen of rest for his stars, could take a toll, however small, on San Antonio's regular-season win total. Once the playoffs start, though, look for the Spurs to be as primed as ever to bring Larry home a sixth time.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder: 61-21

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    Over the last three years, the Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder have taken turns earning the top spot in the Western Conference playoffs. Don't be surprised if/when that trend continues this season, with the Thunder roaring out to the best record in basketball.

    Kevin Durant's coming off another career-defining year and probably has another in store. Russell Westbrook played arguably the best basketball of his life during the 2014 postseason and won't have any knee surgeries to slow him down at the outset this fall. While those two stayed home this summer, Serge Ibaka shined with the Spanish national team at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

    Those three, with their combined youth and talent, are reason enough to peg OKC as early favorites to win the regular season. Assuming Scott Brooks does the right thing and starts Reggie Jackson next to Westbrook (and eventually eschews Kendrick Perkins for Steven Adams), the Thunder could discover yet another gear into which to kick their already-awesome operation.

    What do you make of my projections? Tweet me your thoughts!