“A lot of intrigue and potential in a very weak division”
Key Additions: Louis Williams, James Johnson and Greg Stiemsma were the main free agent additions. These guys won’t wow anyone, but they will solidify the bench, especially Lou Williams, who will play sixth man for the Raptors. Also, keep an eye on Bruno Caboclo, the Brazilian draftee who could prosper.
Key Losses: The Raptors lost backup small forward John Salmons in the Louis Williams trade. He was a contributor, but the Raptors are capable of replacing his production. Other than that, the Raptors have done a good job in retaining free agents like Kyle Lowry.
Probable Strengths: The Raptors have a nice core entering its prime. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both had unexpectedly great seasons, and made Toronto the feel good team of the year. In addition, the Raptors have a lot of chemistry, especially on defense. While the starting lineup doesn’t have any exceptional defenders, they are the 7th best team in terms of points allowed on defense.
Probable Troubles: Masai Ujiri’s new team is very similar to his old Denver Nuggets squad. The Raptors are a talented team that can make the playoffs yearly, but they lack the superstar that can take them to the next level. Despite a valiant effort, the Raptors lost in the first round of the NBA playoffs to the Nets in a very close 4-3 loss. Perhaps DeMar DeRozan can take his game to the next level and become a star, or maybe Jonas Valanciunas can reach his potential in his third season in the NBA.
Player to Watch: After a motivational talk with GM Masai Ujiri, Kyle Lowry put together a great season that led to a 4 year $48 million contract. However, there have been plenty of great contract year seasons that lead to disappointment next year (see Ariza, Trevor). However, it could also be a case of a journeyman figuring it out and rising to the occasion. Either way, there is a wide range of possibilities for Lowry’s season. He could have a drop off year, or he can make the All-Star team.
Win range: 45-50 wins. The Raptors are not title contenders by any means, but they definitely have what it takes to make the playoffs and even make it to the second round of the playoffs. With the Atlantic Division as weak as it is now, it is safe to say the Raptors are a lock for home court advantage. This young team is entering its prime, and it will be an interesting one to look at outside of the main contenders.
New York Knicks
Key Additions: The primary transaction involving the New York Knicks is the Tyson Chandler trade. From that trade, the Knicks acquired Samuel Dalambert and Jose Calderon, both of whom should be starters for the Knicks. They also received Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin and two second rounders from the Mavericks. Ellington was since traded, and while Larkin is young, he does not project to be much more than a backup. Also, the Knicks drafted Cleanthony Early, who led Wichita St. to an undefeated record.
Key Losses: The New York Knicks lost two starters, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton, in a trade to the Mavericks. Felton likely won’t be missed, and Calderon is an upgrade over him. Chandler on the other hand, is aging and overpaid, but he was the best (only) paint defender the Knicks have, and Dalambert is not as good as Chandler.
Probable Strengths: Carmelo is still Carmelo, and I would not expect that to change. Even though new coach Derek Fisher will transition the Knicks to the triangle offense, Carmelo is still the superstar and while he may lose a few shots, expect him to still average 25 points per game.
Probable Troubles: The Knicks already had an atrocious defense last year, and that was with former Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler in the middle. With him gone, the Knicks could be in for a really bad defensive year. Samuel Dalambert is a good shot blocker, but next to him you have Amare Stoudamire and Andrea Bargnani, hardly examples of exemplary defending. The amount of points the Knicks would allow will be too much for Carmelo and the offense to keep up with.
Player to Watch: Jose Calderon is someone who should make an impact upon arrival in New York. Calderon is a ball distributor who does not dominate possession, exactly the type of player that Carmelo and the Knicks need. Since Calderon and Dalambert already have chemistry from Dallas, Calderon should do a good job getting the ball to Dalambert, and should also be able to find Carmelo for open threes.
Win Range: 35 – 40. The Knicks did not do much to improve upon last year’s 37 win record, so I would not expect them to do much this year. Phil Jackson is thinking 2015 for the Knicks, when Amare Stoudamire’s gargantuan contract will expire and New York will be flush in cap room. But for this year, the Knicks will fall short of the playoffs.
Key Additions: Due to salary cap concerns, the Brooklyn Nets were not able to do much in terms of adding free agents, though they did add Jarrett Jack and Sergey Karasev from the Cavaliers. They can be used as bench depth, but not much else.
Key Losses: The Brooklyn Nets could not resign Shaun Livingston, who departed for Golden State. Livingston was the heart and soul of the Nets’ surge back into the playoffs. In addition, Paul Pierce left for Washington, and reserve center Andray Blatche signed for a Chinese team.
Probable Strengths: The Brooklyn Nets are a very deep team at the center position, a statement that not too many teams can brag about. They have Brook Lopez coming off of a long injury, and when healthy, Lopez is one of the best centers in the league. They also have Kevin Garnett, who is pretty old at this point, but still decent in a bench role. And waiting in the wings is Mason Plumlee, who stepped up last year when both centers were injured. Expect a bigger role for the youngster this year.
Probable Troubles: The Nets managed a second half surge last year to get into the playoffs, but despite Brook Lopez’s return, this is a much weaker team. They lost Pierce and Livingston, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett and Joe Johnson are old, and with Brook Lopez having two of his last three seasons significantly curtailed by injury, there is not much reason for optimism in Brooklyn.
Player to Watch: With Brooklyn having spent most of their draft picks for the foreseeable future, they will have to rely on the youngsters they have on hand already. Mason Plumlee, who had a great rookie year last year, will have even greater expectations come 2014. At the moment he is a backup to Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett, but with Lopez’s injury woes and Garnett’s age, Mason Plumlee will be asked to step in even more often. Expect him to get 25 minutes per game either off the bench or as a starter.
Win Range: 32 – 37 wins. The Brooklyn Nets experiment was one with a lot of initial hope for owner Mikhail Prokhorov. However, its lack of sustainability was evident from the start with its massive expenditures for declining veterans. And in year three of its inception, it looks like it will start its long and painful fall to the cellar.
Key Additions: The Boston Celtics added swingman Evan Turner via free agency from the Indiana Pacers. Turner was the sixth man for the Pacers, and he will likely play the same role for Boston this season, leading the second unit and backing up Jeff Green and Avery Bradley. Their biggest addition, however, would have to be Marcus Smart, who was taken 6th in the draft. He will back up Rondo throughout most of the year, but he is the future of this team.
Key Losses: The Celtics sent Kris Humphries to the Washington Wizards in a sign and trade. Humphries is a decent veteran, but with the youth and potential of Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk, Humphries presence would hinder their development, so losing him makes perfect sense.
Probable Strengths: The Celtics are only in the second year of their rebuild, and already they have plenty of starlets to show for it. Kelly Olynyk is raw, but has a lot of the necessary tools to be good center, while Jared Sullinger took a big leap forward in his development, averaging 13 points and 8 rebounds on 28 minutes of play. With the starting role firmly his, expect even more. As for the rookie Marcus Smart, it will vary how much playing time he will have once Rondo returns, but he had a good Summer League and preseason, especially on the defensive end.
Probable Troubles: The Celtics have a good mixture of youngsters (Olynyk, Sullinger, Smart) and veterans (Rondo, Bass, Green), but apart from Rondo, they don’t have enough talent to compete, even in the weak Atlantic Division. Jeff Green is the next best player, and while he puts up good stats in Boston, he likely won’t be a starter on a good team. Also, Rondo comes with plenty of baggage. He was struggling with injury all of last year, and trade rumors persist due to Rondo’s desire to explore free agency next year. Whether this will prove to be a distraction remains to be seen.
Player to Watch: Point guard Marcus Smart will be one of the most scrutinized draftees this year apart from Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins. Smart has already shown that he could defend like a pro, the question is whether he can distribute on offense and be an offensive threat. Even when Rondo is back, Smart could potentially be slotted in as a shooting guard. It will be important for the Celtics to give Smart necessary experience and minutes while not putting him under too much pressure. He will likely take the starting job next year, and watching Smart mature as the season goes forward will be an interesting storyline.
Win Range: 30 – 35 wins. The Celtics are a better team than they were last year, but they still have to take several more steps before they are ready for playoff contention. Just like the Knicks, they are playing for 2015, but due to their young talent, they are in better shape than New York. Expect Olynyk to make a huge leap, and for the youngsters to make an impression.
Key Additions: The Sixers did not make many meaningful addition through free agency, and are fully invested in building through the draft. Their draftee of this year, Joel Embiid, is likely to be redshirted due to injury. However, last year’s sixth overall pick, Nerlins Noel, will make his debut this season. Noel would have been picked first if it wasn’t for a long term injury. This year, it is up to him to show the league what he is capable of.
Key Losses: Philadelphia traded away Thaddeus Young to the Timberwolves in a move to focus itself on future development (tanking). Whatever Sam Hinkie and Philadelphia’s motivations may be, `the Sixers have lost their best player. Their old core of Thaddeus Young , Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes is gone, they are committed to the young players they have now and those they will acquire in future drafts.
Probable Strengths: Michael Carter-Williams, the Rookie of the Year, is entering his second year… Nerlins Noel is debuting… Elfrid Payton and KJ McDaniels have shown some potential. That’s about it.
Probable Troubles: Where to begin? For one, it’s hard to succeed when the front office is hellbent on losing games for draft position (though last year’s Toronto Raptors beg to differ). Also, the Sixers are devoid of veteran presence, with only three players older than 24, and apart from MCW and Noel, there isn’t much NBA ready talent there. And even with Carter-Williams, there are some baffling trade rumors centered around him, and due to the lack of talent around him, he seems primed for a sophomore slump.
Player to Watch: A dark horse to emerge in Philadelphia might just be second round rookie KJ McDaniels. KJ had a great Summer League, and he garnered a lot of attention. He is raw on offense, but he has already proven himself as a great defender, and should help improve the Sixers’ league worst defense. He won’t start right away, but expect him to claw through the depth chart, going from a situational defender to a full time starter.
Win Range: 12-17 wins. I truly feel for the fans in Philly this year, because for all the lows the Sixers hit last year, this year may be even worse. The 76ers at least had three respectable veterans last year in Hawes, Turner and Young, but now, they are at a serious dearth of talent. Therefore, this year might actually be even worse than the last. For their sake, let’s hope they actually do grab the number one pick this time around.
“The Heat say hello to new blood”
Key Additions: The Washinton Wizards kept it simple this offseason, adding some veterans to an otherwise young team. Kris Humphries will primarily be used as a backup big man while Paul Pierce, despite his declining minutes, should still play a big role as a forward and a leader to a young team.
Key Losses: Trevor Ariza was a breakout player last year, excelling in his 3 and D role on the Wizards. Paul Pierce will be his replacement on the starting lineup, but it is Otto Porter, last year’s 3rd overall pick, who needs to step up after a brutal rookie year.
Probable Strengths: The biggest strength from the Washington Wizards lies within their backcourt. The Wall & Beal duo is a deadly force to deal with. John Wall, first overall draft pick, has lived up to his expectations carrying this team on his back. However, no one really expected this from Beal. He had a great sophomore year that translated well into the playoffs. Beal will be coming off an injury and will miss some time, but once he’s back, this team will be dynamic.
Probable Troubles: The biggest weakness that comes from this team is injuries. This is an injury ridden team that has already plagued them early on. Otto Porter had missed a lot of time along with Bradley Beal. Not to mention Nene seems to be in and out all the time. The main reason they got Gortat was from injuries of Okafor, who then was traded away. Adding Pierce and Humphries doesn’t seem to bode well for this team to stay healthy, as they too are injury prone. It does create depth so we shall see where the Wizards will continue to go.
Player to Watch: Otto Porter had a terrible rookie season, averaging 2.1 points and 1.5 boards on a measly 8:42 minutes per game. This year, the Wizards are counting on him to fill in the minutes for Ariza’s departure. Porter is a solid player that has yet found his groove in the NBA, but has been playing a lot of minutes in the Summer League. Porter looks ready and he will come out seizing every opportunity he could find. Expect this kid to come out of nowhere and provide a 10 point 6 rebound season.
Win Range: 47 – 52 wins. Even with Beal’s injury, the Wizards are clearly the most talented team in this conference. Wall and Beal work so well together that once Beal comes back, this team will immediately change. For now, the frontcourt of Nene and Gortat will hold down the fort.
Key Additions: To appease LeBron James, the Heat made a lot of mid-range additions to their squad. They added Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts and drafted Shabazz Napier. When that failed to convince LeBron James to re-up, the Heat signed Luol Deng to be his replacement. Deng is coming off of a down season with the Cavs, and while he will be a serviceable starter, he is no LeBron, no one is.
Key Losses: Despite finding great success with the Miami Heat, LeBron James chose to return home to Cleveland. This is a huge loss, as it knocks the Miami Heat off of the title picture. However, the Heat have brought back some good pieces that should at the very lease keep the Heat as a playoff lock.
Probable Strengths: The strength of this Miami team is their experience. They’ve been there, done that too many times to just give up when their star player has left. They still have two of their superstars left. Chris Bosh is poised to step up this year and looks to have his best season as a member of the Heat, especially with the three point shot in his arsenal Also, Dwyane Wade, while declining, is still a great player when healthy, and he should take advantage of the increased opportunities he will get.
Probable Troubles: Their weakness is rebounding. This team has always been hurting with size. Without rebounding the ball, they will need to focus more on defense as they are clearly aware that defense wins championships. Their leading rebounder, Chris Bosh, had only 6.6 rebounds, a very low total, especially for a team that wants to stay competitive.
Player to Watch: It will be interesting to see how Luol Deng meshes in Miami. Chris Bosh will be the primary guy in Miami now, but there will be very high expectations for Deng, especially since he is the direct replacement for the best player in the league. However, I expect him to have a rebound year and be the same great player as he was in Chicago. He is an experienced and skilled player, and should be a decent replacement for LeBron.
Win Range: 45 – 50. The Miami Heat will still be a playoff team without Lebron. Let’s not forget that they still have Bosh and Wade on their team. Not to mention the added pieces and Coach Spoelstra leading the way. The Heat play in a very weak Eastern Conference and they have enough experience and remaining pieces to put a good and talented team on the floor in South Beach.
Key Additions: Lance Stephenson was one of the most hyped potential free agents of last year before he blew it all away with his antics. Now, he goes to Charlotte and joins a rising and talented squad. The now-Hornets also drafted Noah Vonleh, a talented forward, who, judging from the Hornets’ trajectory, appears to be the last lottery pick they will be making for a while.
Key Losses: The biggest loss for the Charlotte Hornets will have to be stretch four Josh McRoberts. McRoberts had a good season, but he is replaceable. Conventional wisdom says replace like with like, and that means slotting Marvin Williams at the four, but expect second year Cody Zeller to get some minutes as well.
Probable Strengths: Their biggest strength comes from their defense. Despite Al Jefferson’s notoriously terrible defense, he seemed to fit well in Charlotte’s system. What makes their defense great is their back court. Kidd-Gilchrist was considered to be one of the best young defenders and now with newly added Lance Stephenson, this backcourt will be straight up scary.
Probable Troubles: The biggest weakness the Charlotte Hornets have is their whle offense. They were ranked #23 in total points scored last season. Their FG & 3PT percentages were similarly ranked near the bottom of the league. Their offense came mostly from Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker. Now that this team has added Lance Stephenson, they will be able to bring their offense to par and solidify their place as a playoff team.
Player to Watch: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist regressed a bit from his rookie season averaging just 7.2 points per game. The second overall pick needs to be more confident and should take advantage of his good shooting (47.3%). If Steve Clifford can coach him up, MKG could be a serious candidate for Most Improved Player. He is already known for his tremendous defense and if he gains just a little more confidence, MKG will be a force to be reckoned with. With his tremendous defense, he is needed to stay in games longer and focus on locking players down.
Win Range: 45 – 50. The Hornets combined big free agent splashes (Stephenson) with smaller additions (Williams, Brian Roberts) to quietly turn their team into a permanent fixture in the Eastern Conference. It was a long and painful rebuild, but Michael Jordan now has a team that might last, especially if their depth can be improved.
Key Additions: The Hawks added Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore this year. Thabo, the 2 from the Thunder, is a defensive specialist who is a polar opposite of three point threat Kyle Korver. Bazemore, meanwhile is a sparkplug off the bench.
Key Losses: Louis Williams left for the Raptors. Lou backed up starting point guard Jeff Teague last year, and his position should be replaced Shelvin Mack, or even Dennis Schroder, a young European that the Hawks should evaluate.
Probable Strengths: The biggest strength comes from their shooters. They have great outside shooters that space the floor really well for this team. They move the ball very fluently and find the open man. Their coach, Mike Budenholzer, was an assistant to Greg Popovich for over 15 years. The principles of moving the ball lead the Hawks to play more efficient, unselfish basketball. They ended up in second place in total assists last season. Can you guess who was first? (Yes it’s that obvious, the San Antonio Spurs). With another season under the same new coach, the Hawks will look to do some damage.
Probable Troubles: Their greatest weakness comes from their size. Al Horford is exactly what you want in your big man. He can grab rebounds, shoot from distance, protect the rim, and space the floor. He can do so much that it leaves their team vulnerable in the paint when Horford is not around. He needs to stay healthy this year in order for the Hawks to succeed. They lack size and rebounding is an issue for this team.
Player on the Rise: Jeff Teague is looking to break out this year as he’s continually gotten better year after year. Teague is not a great defender which can be a liability, but his explosiveness on the offensive end makes up for that. Teague is likely to carry the load with Horford when this team gets down. Expect him to be right under the elite guards and explode this season.
Win Range: 40 – 45 wins. If Horford can stay healthy, this team can be sneaky. What they lack in size, they make up for with speed and 3 point shooting. This will be just enough to squeeze into the playoffs. From there, the question is whether the Hawks can step up and win a series and make an extended push.
Key Additions: The rebuilding Magic continued to add tools to their arsenal. Their main free agency addition is Channing Frye, the stretch four from the Phoenix Suns. He has starter quality, and is a good man to put beside Nikola Vucevic. Through the draft, the Magic added Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon. Payton should start this year, and he is an ideal distributor, while Aaron Gordon is more of a project, he has the necessary tools to be a successful forward.
Key Losses: Jameer Nelson and Aaron Afflalo had good seasons for the Magic last year, but simply put, they were expendable veterans on a young and rebuilding team. Youngsters like Elfrid Payton and Tobias Harris should replace their production.
Probable Strengths: Ever since the Orlando Magic traded Dwight Howard, they have been on a steady rebuild, gathering young talent whether by trade (Vucevic, Harris) or draft (Oladipo, Payton). Vucevic should establish himself as an All-Star candidate this year. Oladipo and Harris, now with established starting positions, should see their stats explode, while Edfrid Payton is the new guy who will be expected to step up as the starting point guard.While the Magic may not win much this year, they are onto something special here, and they will be a force to be reckoned with in a couple of years, especially with their already good defense.
Probable Troubles: Their greatest strength is also their weakness: Youth. Since their 2005 trip to the NBA finals, the Orlando Magic have parted ways with all centerpieces from that era. Despite adding some veteran experience (Ben Gordon, Channing Frye), this team will continue to struggle. They have a bright future, but for now, this team will lack the talent to go very far. They are so young and raw that it’s unavoidable to look for potential, but reality will kick in as they endure a long painful season, one that will be marred by offensive struggles. They will undoubtedly be on the bottom of the Southeast Division. As for now, it’s time to use up all those draft picks and build a playoff team for the future.
Player to Watch: The second overall pick, Victor Oladipo, had a great rookie season and shows promise in this young squad. His offense saw great strides last season as he averaged 14 points per game. Oladipo is known for his athleticism as well being a great lockdown defender. Now that he is entrenched in the starting shooting guard position, he will take the next step to become a dependent star player for this squad.
Win Range: 20 – 25 wins. The Orlando Magic will be the worst team in the Southeast. There is great potential here, but they are 2-3 years away from being real contenders. They need to keep rebuilding to overcome the powerhouse(s) in the East.
“This Division is one of intrigue and talent at all levels”
Key Additions: The Cavaliers had the best offseason of the year. It was already big enough that the Cavaliers added their old hometown hero in LeBron James. He is the best player in the game, and he might have his best season with a mission to bring a title to the long suffering Cleveland sports fans. In addition to the prodigal son, the Cavs also added Kevin Love. Love was a stat machine in Minnesota and while he won’t have the ball nearly as much in Cleveland, he will have the open looks to sink some threes.
Key Losses: The Cavaliers had to give up Andrew Wiggins, their number one overall pick, in order to secure Kevin Love. While Wiggins has limitless potential, this is a Cavs team that has to win right now, and to do that, they need some size and star power, which Kevin Love can provide. There is also the loss of Luol Deng to the Miami Heat, but considering they replaced him with LeBron James of all people, the loss of Deng is merely an afterthought.
Probable Strengths: When you have three superstars in their prime on your team, there aren’t enough words to describe strengths. You’ve got Kyrie Irving driving in, Kevin Love making it rain from three, and LeBron James dominant from just about anywhere. This team has great expectations, and a lot on its shoulders.
Probable Troubles: Their strengths, however, do not eliminate their potential weaknesses. The Cavs are similar to the 2010 Heat in that for all their talent, they will have chemistry issues in the first couple weeks. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in particular won’t mesh well at first, because they are both players who like to dominate the ball. Ironically, even it will be Kyrie who will face the hardest transition even though he’s the one who was on the team last year.
Player to Watch: Kevin Love will have to deal with becoming a secondary option, after being the center of the offense with the Wolves. Despite the lack of opportunities, he could arguably become an even better and more efficient player. Love will get plenty of open threes as defenses key in on Kyrie and LeBron, and chemistry issues will not affect Love as much, since he was never much of a ball dominator in Minnesota. Also, look to see if he could develop his defense to fill in the Cavs’ need for a post defender.
Win Range: 57 – 62 wins. The Cavaliers will have some snags to overcome in the early weeks of the season, especially with David Blatt in his first season as a basketball coach in the US. However, once the Cavs fix their chemistry issues, expect some exciting basketball from the shores of Lake Erie. Due to sheer talent alone, they should be one of the favorites to come out of the East.
Key Additions: Pau Gasol is the big addition for the Bulls here. They initially pursued Carmelo, but Gasol is a more than adequate consolation prize. Just like frontcourt partner Joakim Noah, Gasol is someone who has the vision to pass to the open man if an opportunity fails to present itself in the paint, making the Bulls that much more dangerous. They also traded up to grab Doug McDermott, a sharpshooting master who will take advantage of passes from Gasol and Noah.
Key Losses: The Chicago Bulls amnestied Carlos Boozer, finally bringing an end to the much maligned forward’s tenure in Chicago. Bulls fans will be more than satisfied with Pau Gasol replacing his production, and even Nikola Mirotic could see some minutes off the bench as a 4.
Probable Strengths: The big three of this Bulls team will be Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. Derrick Rose, since his return, has had a great preseason, and contrary to critics, has retained his old playing style. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah are two players that are very similar to each other in terms of playing style, and they should have no problem meshing well amd establishing immediate chemistry.
Probable Troubles: To be very specific, the trouble lies in Derrick Rose’s knees. When healthy, Rose has been one of the best players in the league. However, he has played a total 49 games in the last three years. Without Rose, the Bulls are still a respectable team, but they are not a contender without him. So far, he has shown no signs of slowing down, but there are many questions centered around his ability to play 82 games.
Player to Watch: We’ve spent enough time talking about Rose and how important he is to the team, so let’s focus on his backup, Kirk Hinrich. Hinrich is a longtime Bull and he know the team and its players very well. He will just be a backup to start the season, but if the worst case scenario comes true and Rose has to miss significant time, then the veteran Hinrich will be under tremendous pressure to keep the Bulls afloat.
Win Range: 52 – 62 wins. When the Bulls are at their best, they are capable of beating a team like the Cavaliers, simple because they have chemistry as a unit. In addition, their acquisitions fit Thibs’ vision and they have good depth at all positions. However, another injury to Derrick Rose will severely derail the Bulls’ chances, and while the Bulls are a team expected to find success, the degree of that success is contingent on Rose’s health.
Key Additions: As a small market team that lacks cap room, the Pacers did not make many high profile adds. They did add Rodney Stuckey, a mid-level guy who will plays primarily on the bench. However, due to the unlucky Pacers hitting the injury bug, Stuckey will be pushed into the starting five.
Key Losses: The Pacers may be the most weakened team in basketball this year. First they lose their breakout player in Lance Stevenson, who for all his terrible antics had a phenomenal beginning to the season. Then came the nail in the coffin with Paul George’s gruesome leg injury that will keep him out for the season. Losing their two most talented and important players will likely be far too much for the Pacers to absorb.
Probable Strengths: This team still has its frontcourt intact. David West is still healthy, and he should get more opportunities to score from mid-range. Next to West is Roy Hibbert, who many hope will recover his 2013 form to resume his position as a top NBA center. The defensive scheme that bested the Heat in the regular season is still there as well, so the Pacers must hope Coach Vogel can find the correct replacements for Stevenson and George to execute in their roles.
Probable Troubles: The Pacers lost far too much talent this offseason to still be competitive this year. And the bigger issue is that the Pacers did not replace their stars either. Offense will be a pain, as they don’t have anyone on their roster who averaged more than 15 point/game (West is highest at 14.0p/g). Even on defense, Stevenson and George are two of the best wing defenders in the league, and losing them would put a serious dent in the Pacers’ ability to execute their defensive scheme.
Player to Watch: No player in recent memory had as bizarre of a fall from grace as Roy Hibbert. He went from top-three center in the league to scoreless laughing stock. No one is quite sure what caused his drastic decline. It will be interesting to see if Hibbert could bounce back from such a terrible stretch. If he does, then a center starved league will have one more big man. If not, then it will be a sad decline to a very promising career.
Win Range: 30 – 35 wins. The Pacers are a well-run franchise built from the ground up, but they will not be able to overcome this kind of a talent loss. The coaching is still there, but there aren’t very many reasons to be excited with George Hill, David West and Roy Hibbert as their top three.
Key Additions: The biggest addition for the Pistons is Jodie Meeks. Meeks, while overpaid, performed well for the Lakers last year and took advantage of a talent vacuum to score 15.7 and be a threat from three. With all the talent up front creating space, Meeks should get plenty of open looks.
Key Losses: The Detroit Pistons lost longtime backup guard Rodney Stuckey. Stuckey was a sparkplug off the bench, and with the inconsistent Brandon Jennings running the point, Stuckey had an important role. To replace Stuckey in this role, the Pistons acquired DJ Augustin from the Bulls.
Probable Strengths: The Pistons have one of the deepest frontcourts in the NBA. Andre Drummond is a rising star in this league, and is teeming with potential. Josh Smith, for all the flak about his contract and shot selection, is still a talented player, and Greg Monroe is a talented big who could start anywhere else and is far too good to come off the bench.
Probable Troubles: Josh Smith is talented, but he is someone in need of stern coaching. Ideally, the Pistons would put their three best big men in the frontcourt, but they can’t do that because Joe-Smoove has a propensity to throw up low-percentage shots when he is lined up at the three. New coach Stan van Gundy is a coach who preaches (screams) discipline. If he can’t fix Smith’s shot selection issues then nobody can.
Player to Watch: For all the dysfunction in Detroit, center Andre Drummond is truly someone to build around for van Gundy and the Pistons. As atrocious as his free throw shooting is, the third year pro is a double double machine. He grew tremendously last year, and this year, he could take a big leap to become one of the best centers in the league. The whole team will benefit from the double teams Drummond will attract.
Win Range: 30 – 35. The Pistons are a true mixed bag as a team. Drummond is a big ray of hope, but Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings are sources of frustration. Even Greg Monroe is increasingly looking like he will get traded, especially with news that he will be playing off the bench. While the Pistons are improved from last year, Detroit looks like a team that will have to restructure its roster around Drummond in order to become a playoff team again.
Key Additions: The biggest addition for the Bucks will have to be their drafting of Jabari Parker with the second overall pick. Parker is the most pro-ready player in a very deep draft, and he should be an excellent addition to an already young and talented team.
Key Departures: The Bucks did not have very many important losses this year. They did lose some backups such as Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien. However, the Bucks have a lot of depth for a bottom of the barrel team, with Kendall Marshall and Jared Dudley being the additions to replace them.
Probable Strengths: The biggest strength for the Bucks has to be their youth and potential at the wings. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker have a very bright future ahead of them. Parker is the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, and the Bucks will give him every opportunity to run the floor. Giannis is someone who played off the bench last year, and showed limitless potential in limited minutes. The Greek Freak is a matchup nightmare, playing shooting guard at 6’ 11” and could be the most versatile player in the league by the season’s end.
Probable Troubles: The veterans on this team have had very disappointing years last year and lacked consistency. Center Larry Sanders had a poor year marred with altercations, suspensions and injuries, and averaged only 7.7. points and 7.2 rebounds in 23 games. He needs to recapture the defensive brilliance that made him 3rd in line for Most Improved Player in 2013. Meanwhile, OJ Mayo played mostly off the bench last year despite high expectations and had a campaign marred by a lack of poise and a gain of weight. These veterans need to be a good example for the youth in this team and have rebound years this time around.
Player to Watch: We’ve already talked about Giannis and Jabari, so we are going to cheat here and talk about a former player the Bucks have acquired, Coach Jason Kidd. Captain Kidd had a much maligned start in his first season as the Brooklyn Nets coach, only to rebound and lead a hot Nets team to a playoff run. Through bizarre circumstances, however, Kidd’s rights were traded to Milwaukee. The Bucks gave Kidd more control over team operations, and it will be interesting to see the type of long term plans the second year coach has for the Bucks.
Win Range: 20 – 25 wins. The Bucks are have the ideal cornerstones for a rebuild. Jason Kidd has to decide what to do with his veterans and how to distribute minutes to his youngsters. Despite their promise, the Bucks should not expect much this season in terms of wins. If Kidd focuses on youth and gives them the opportunities they need to grow, Milwaukee could have a playoff team in their hands after a few seasons, especially if the East stays this weak.
“In this stacked division, anyone can be a playoff contender”
San Antonio Spurs
Key Additions: N/A. The Spurs did not make a free agency splash, and instead chose to retain what got them to the NBA Finals by resigning role players Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner. They also drafted Kyle Anderson with the 30th pick in the draft, a point forward with potential off the bench.
Key Losses: N/A. The Spurs managed to retain their key free agents.
Probable Strenths: The Spurs are a team that is built around strong defense, and the three ball. They led the league in three point percentage last year year, and only allowed 97.6 points per game last year. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have continued to play great basketball despite their age, and with Kawhi Leanard continuing to blossom, the Spurs could potentially be better. There is also no reason for their three point game to falter, especially with Austin Daye expecting to have an expanded role.
Probable Troubles: Coach Popovich has been successful in dealing with the age of his Big Three. But what will he do about the regression of center Tiago Splitter? Splitter only managed 8 points, 6 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in 22 minutes last year. He needs to step up so that the Spurs can maintain a strong frontcourt presence when Tim Duncan is on the bench.
Player to Watch: Kawhi Leanard has had a dominant NBA Finals earlier this year, bagging the Finals MVP award and sending LeBron James’ Miami Heat home empty handed. Now, “The Assassin” has the opportunity to firmly establish himself as the NBA’s next superstar. Keep an eye on Leonard as he begins to take control of the Spurs going forward.
Win Range: 58 to 63 wins. While the Spurs Big Three could potentially lose a step, Kawhi Leonard should be able to absorb those opportunities and keep the Spurs on top of the Western Conference. And as long as Popovich and Duncan are on that team, the Spurs will be in the title picture.
Key Additions: Plenty. Chandler Parsons was addition who could be the steal of free agency. They also reacquired Tyson Chandler via trade, and added Raymond Felton from that same trade as well. Richard Jefferson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Devin Harris and Jameer Nelson should also bolster the bench.
Key Losses: In order to get Chandler and Felton, the Mavs had to give up starters Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert, as well as Shane Larkin and Wayne Ellington. In addition, they failed to resign sixth man Vince Carter.
Probable Strengths: Dirk Nowitzki had a great resurgence last year, significantly increasing his points per game and field goal percentage. He is the leader of this team, and with a much improved supporting cast, the Mavericks should do even better this year. Chandler Parsons is an ideal team player, and should mesh well with Nowitzki. Dirk and Tyson Chandler already have chemistry from the 2010 championship year, and while he isn’t the same player, he is an improvement over Dalembert.
Probable Troubles: Someone has to play point guard for Dallas this year. The departure of Jose Calderon is a significant one, and the Mavericks has signed several point guards to try and mitigate that loss. However, Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris and Raymond Felton are all past their prime, and no one has stood out from the pack thus far.
Player to Watch: Chandler Parsons. Parsons comes to the Dallas Mavericks with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Parsons was unceremoniously slighted by the Houston Rockets when James Harden said he was a role player, and this is Parsons’ opportunity to prove the Rockets wrong. Parsons will handle the ball more often due to the absence of a volume shooter on the Mavs, so don’t be surprised if he breaks out for 20 points or more per game.
Win Range: 52 – 57 wins. The Mavericks have been actively improving their team this offseason to give Dirk Nowitzki a strong supporting cast for a final run at the NBA Title. While the Mavericks may not be truly title caliber quite yet, they are better than last year’s team that took the Spurs to seven games.
Key Additions: The most significant addition for the Houston Rockets would be small forward Trevor Ariza, who came to Houston via a three team trade after a breakout season with the Wizards.
Key Losses: The biggest loss for Houston came when Chandler Parsons, a budding star, left for the Dallas Mavericks via restricted free agency. In addition, the Rockets also lost two of their biggest bench contributors, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, in cost cutting moves.
Probable Strengths: The Houston Rockers sure can score, can they? With 107.7 points per game, the Rockets will have no problem putting up points. Losing Chandler Parsons will put a dent in that high number, but the Rockets are an up-tempo team, the opportunities will be absorbed either by up and coming shooters or by James Harden, who is one of the best offensive weapons in basketball.
Probable Troubles: As good as the Rockets are on offense, they can be just as bad at defense. They allow 103.1 points per game, which is the worst among playoff teams. The loss of Chandler Parsons could very well make this problem worse. Trevor Ariza, his replacement, was a good defender last year, but he screams contract year wonder, and is unlikely to replace Parsons’ production.
Player to Watch: Terrence Jones. The Houston Rockets had numerous role players step up last year, and Terrence Jones was the most impressive of the bunch. He came out of nowhere to average 11 points and seven boards, and even had a 36 point game. A youngster with a lot of room to improve further, Jones could have an expanded role with the Rockets going forward.
Win Range: 48-53 wins. The Houston Rockets, with Harden and Howard, should be locks to make it to the playoffs. However, they cannot make an extended run in the playoffs if they cannot shore up their defense. They haven’t improved from last year, so don’t expect anything more than a first round exit.
Key Additions: The Memphis Grizzlies snagged Mavericks sixth man Vince Carter and will look to him to bolster their own second unit. In addition, rookie Jordan Adams could potentially beat out Courtney Lee and Tony Allen for the starting 2 guard spot by the end of the year.
Key Losses: James Johnson, Ed Davis and Mike Miller have departed the Memphis bench for better opportunities elsewhere. While the Grizzlies’ starting lineup is intact, Memphis will need to quickly find new bench players to hand minutes over to.
Probable Strengths: The Memphis Grizzlies are a top three defensive team, whether it is the size of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the frontcourt, or the perimenter defense from Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince. A healthy Memphis team can be pretty strong, judging from its 36-14 record after Marc Gasol’s return last year.
Probable Weaknesses: The Memphis Grizzlies lack offensive talent on the wings. Starters Tayshaun Prince and Courtney Lee average a combined 17 points and 3.3 assists between them. This won’t do against a faster paced team.
Player to Watch: Marc Gasol. Gasol is the best center in the league, and the heart and soul of the Grizzlies. He also happens to be entering free agency. All signs point to him staying in Memphis, but an extension hasn’t been worked out yet, and there is potential for him to be enticed by a large market team, especially if he has another DPoY worthy season.
Win Range: 45-50 wins. The Memphis Grizzlies are a defensive behemoth, and Vince Carter should find plenty of success as a sixth man and even potential starter. However, Memphis has not done as much to improve as other lower playoff seeds like Dallas have, and that could jeopardize their playoff spot.
New Orleans Pelicans
Key Additions: Omer Asik was the team’s main addition. Asik was someone who was favored to go to New Orleans for all of last season, but he finally made it to New Orleans for a package centered around a 2015 first round pick. He will likely start at the five for the Pelicans.
Key Losses: The Pelicans lost some bench contributors like Jason Smith and Anthony Morrow, but their primary loss would have to be Al-Farouq Aminu. Aminu was someone who is best off the bench, but able to slot in as at the three.
Probable Strengths: Two words, Anthony Davis. This man is a freak and a true superstar in the making. By the time the season is done, he may well be the third best player in the NBA. He’s a wall on defense, and for someone dominant near the rim, he also has a decent mid-range jumper in his arsenal. Now with the Unibrow established as an efficient star (26.54 PER), it is up to coach Monty Williams to best utilize his talent to the team’s advantage.
Probable Troubles: This team was ravaged by injuries last season, leading to a disappointing 34-48 record. While we cannot assume they will face such issues this season, the Pelicans have plenty of injury prone stars that could potentially derail their season again. Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans have long injury histories. If one of them goes down, the Pelicans lack the depth to replace their starters. A major injury could strongly derail a high potential campaign.
Player to Watch: Paying attention to Anthony Davis is a given, but be sure to keep an eye on Ryan Anderson as well. Anderson is a stretch five who had a breakout start for the Pelicans, averaging 20 points, 7 rebounds, 40.9% from three, and an astounding 95.2% free throw percentage on 36.1 minutes of play. He would have been a potential Most Improved Player candidate had it not been for a freak neck injury that limited him to 22 games for the year. Now he is back as a sixth man, and it will be interesting to see whether he can pick up from where he left off.
Win Range: 40 – 50 wins. The Pelicans are a dark horse candidate to make the playoffs out of the West, but if healthy, that possibility should not be out of the question. There is a large gulf of talent between the top six players and the rest for the Pelicans, and that will prevent New Orleans from making a deep push even if the playoffs do happen. However, even if there are some injuries, as long as Anthony Davis can play 82 games, there is no reason not to expect the Pelicans do at least get a winning record.
“This murky division is a microcosm of the league”
Oklahoma City Thunder
Key Additions: The Thunder, like most small market teams, did not do much in free agency, instead choosing to retool their bench by adding Anthony Morrow and Sebastian Telfair via free agency and drafting Josh Huestis and Mitch McGary.
Key Losses: Thabo Sefalosha, the two guard who specializes in defense, has left for Atlanta. In addition, Caron Butler and Derek Fisher are gone, with Butler on the Pistons and Fisher as the Knicks head coach. None of these guys are starters, but they are important parts of the Thunder bench.
Probable Strengths: It was having the 2nd best player in the world on your team. Now it’s having the second-best player in the world on your team but minus 8 or so weeks. The fact remains that the Thunder have the Durantala, barring some freak regression in his game post-injury. That plus the most athletic guard in the game in Westbrook, you have a recipe for success, offensive sets be damned. Add in Ibaka, who has transformed from one-trick pony weak-side block chaser into an all-around defensive and spacing menace, and you have (still) a contender in the west. And it only helps that The Thunder have one of the best back-up PG in Reggie Jackson, a measured player that brings a certain calmness that complements Westbrook’s fire.
Probable Troubles: Well there are only so many things two transcendent players and a great player can do to overturn a stagnant offense. Coach Brooks while playing to the athletic strengths of his stars, the ball tends to stick regardless of player or set executed. This is only going to be exacerbated with Lamb and Jones III slated to take in more minutes to shore up depth. While both have potential, Lamb has seen to be something of a chucker and Jones III just hasn’t been able to string together consistent outings. Of course, this could possibly be due to limited minutes, but one has to worry about the direction of the offense and how the lack of depth at the wings may prevent the Thunder from breaking through.
Player to Watch: Last year it was Durant’s time to take the team into his hands solely with Westbrook out. This time the roles are reversed and all eyes will be on Russell. The decision-making isn’t always the soundest and his shot comes and goes (though it should be noted he shot 40%+ from between 9 ft till the three-point line last season) and that 3 point stroke just isn’t consistent. But the man can get to the rim at will and he makes electric plays once he gets there. His passing has progressively getting better – he looks for his teammates, just that by playing with Durant every mistake he makes is magnified in the context of some false rivalry between the too. And expect that to be no different with Durant in street clothes. NBA fans are in for treat with a Westbrook -centric team, rife with horror and awe, and see how that carries over when Durant is reinserted to the line-up.
Win Range: 56-58 wins. The Thunder will take a small hit in their record in the first month or two with Durant out, but expect them to bounce back once the Durantula returns. As long as the Thunder have Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, they are title contenders, alongside the Spurs and Clippers. The question is whether youngsters like Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb can step up in Durant’s absence. If so, then the Thunder may just be even better.
Key Additions: The Trail Blazers signed Chris Kaman and Steve Blake to bolster their bench. Both of them should serve as backups to Damien Lillard and Robin Lopez respectively. They are hardly eyepopping additions however.
Key Losses: Mo Williams was the sixth man for the Blazers last year, and while he played a big role in Portland, he was an aging player who was easy to replace. Other than that, Portland was kept its lineup stable, focusing on building upon a breakout year.
Probable Strengths: The Blazers have stood pat this off-season, and that’s okay. They’re banking on internal development to pave the way to certain contender status, and when you have studs like Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, you can afford to lean on greatness pushing itself to evolve. Aldridge is a consistent force at the mid-post, baseline, and elbows – and supposedly he’s trying to add a three-ball to complement his mid-range mastery. The real key is Lillard’s continuing development. Last year cemented him as a star point guard, a lead dog with a penchant for firing it up in the 4th, and that was just his 2nd year in the league. He’ll need to work on his finishing at the rim, as he clocked in at a well below league average 53% for the year last year. If he can bump that number by at least 5 percentage points, the mid-range heavy game-plan for the Blazers should benefit well.
Probable Troubles: Well, standing might be understandable, but there’s no way to justify it when looking at the Blazers bench. Their bench is just woefully thin: Kaman looks like the best bench guy of the bunch, Thomas Robinson is out with a torn ligament in his thumb, and Steve Blake set to sop up minutes at the back-up PG spot with Mo gone. And even though Blake is a veteran, it feels a little puzzling with combo guard CJ McCollum coming off a nice summer league and looks to have more quickness than Blake on the defensive end. And the defense will have problems in both the starting and bench line-ups. Even with Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez all acting as plus defenders, Lillard has been notorious for his lackadaisical effort to get around screens, and the bench is amok with plodding and flat-footed defenders. The Blazers will have to find some sort of scheme to best cover up their defensive issues and probably a mid-season trade to shore up that bench if they want to be considered contenders.
Player to Watch: It’s Dame Dog, no questions about it. While I personally find this team has a collection of talent that I enjoy watching (Batum is whirling dervish of arms, Wesley Matthews is great off-ball cutter and a sharpshooter, and Aldridge’s form on his jumper is just plain sweet), we are talking about a pro entering his 3rd year after averaging 20.7 points, 5.6 assists, and 3.5 boards. Obviously, as outlined above, the finishing is not up to snuff yet, and while he takes care of the ball he only assists on 25.1% of the possessions he uses. The assists numbers might be low because they have such a workhorse in Aldridge, and his mid-range game doesn’t lead to many spot-up shot. But there is no excuse for guy with such an explosive first step and ability to play through contact to post such a low field goal percentage at rim. But that’s what makes him exciting – he has the possibility to grow, the probability to be great.
Win Prediction Range: 49-52 wins. It remains to be seen which Blazers team will show up this year. The one that started off as the hottest team in the league? Or the one that had a .500 record in the second half of the season. Most likely, the Blazers will drop off slightly, but with Damian Lillard continuing to improve and LaMarcus Aldridge adding the 3 to his arsenal, expect to still see the Trail Blazers in the playoffs.
Key Additions: Arron Afflalo had a breakout season for the Magic last year, and now he returns to Denver, where he spent three years (2009 – 2011) as he grew into the serviceable starter he is today. Gary Harris was the Nuggets’ draftee, and he will start off on the bench, though he can fill in via injury.
Key Losses: The Nuggets did not have very many important losses, though Evan Fournier and Jan Vesely did leave via free agency. However, with the Nuggets’ additions and the plethora of players they have coming off injuries, this is a team that retained its core. The question is whether that is enough.
Probable Strengths: Health, at least to start off the year. Last season, the Nuggets lost 4 rotation players to season-ending injuries: Danillo Gallinari, J.J. Hickson, Javale McGee, and Nate Robinson. In a sense, you could add that lot to key additions for this year’s campaign. With a healthy team, the Nuggets have solid depth at every position, so there will not be a steep decline from starter to bench. Wilson Chandler can get his shot off and score of the pine, Nurkic has vaulted up to the second-string on the depth chart, and Robinson will as usual bring the fire and determination. This team is built for speed, especially with Ty Lawson spear-heading the attack and Kenneth Faried running the lanes. Health willing, of course.
Probable Troubles: The one thing we have to worry about players coming back from injury if they will stay the same player. Gallinari and McGee especially as both have a missed a large amount of games throughout their career. And chemistry remains an issue as well – both those guys were out for more or less the whole season (McGee did get to play 5 games). How will they mesh in Shaw’s offense and with fellow teammates after returning from injury remains to be seen. While it is unlikely that the Nuggets will suffer as many injuries as they did last year, having so many injury prone players on one team is not very viable strategy going forward.
Player to Watch: I want to say Ty Lawson and it should be Ty Lawson. In my estimation, he is the most agile point guard in the game with his ability to change direction and burst through gaps. He’s master at the pick and roll and a fearless driver. He’s going to even better this year with a full cast, enough that the word star will be tossed his way more often. But I’m going have to go with the big fella Mozgov. Mozgov made some impressive strides last year in becoming a bonafide stopper. He only average 21.6 minutes a game last year, but his per-36 numbers were impressive – 15 and 10 plus 2 blocks. Even though he isn’t the most mobile big man, he moves his feet well and covers up driving angles well with his big frame. He’s not flashy but his game has substance to it. And this season he has the starting job, so expect him to gobble up more shot attempts and establish himself as a real-deal rim protector.
Win Range: 39-47 wins. The Nuggets were disabled by injuries last year. However, the Nuggets improved their depth this year, and have starting caliber players on their bench ready to step up. They will improve over last year, but the question is whether they can make the playoffs with their current core, especially in a stacked West.
Key Additions: The biggest addition for the Utah Jazz has to be Dante Exum. Exum was Utah’s target in the draft all along, and luckily for them, the Orlando Magic passed on the Australian and he fell on Utah’s lap. Exum will be eased in slowly, since he doesn’t have college experience. But he is a flexible player who can play both guard positions, and he will exhibit a lot of growth from Game 1 to Game 82.
Key Losses: Marvin Williams and Richard Jefferson both got significant minutes last year at the two forward positions and both of them left via free agency. While they were never expected to stick around, the Jazz still need the next man up to step in and produce.
Probable Strengths: The youth playing and a new coach are what is going to make this team fun and exciting after the doldrums of the last 4 years. After clocking in at 26th in the league in terms of space, look for more up-tempo basketball aimed at getting Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Alec Burks out on the open floor. In the half-court, Snyder seems to be implementing a more Spursian offensive model, rife with off-ball shenanigans and putting an emphasis on taking threes. What’s going to really drive this is that the Jazz have at least 5 legitimate ball-handlers in Trey Burke, Burks, Hayward, Ian Clark, and Exum. Even in non-two-PG sets, Utah’s tertiary ball-handlers will give them a decided advantage in playing with the pass.
Probable Troubles: If the strengths section made it seem like the Jazz are at the least an above-.500 team, let me make it clear here that most likely won’t be the case here. While the potential looks oh-so promising, the rotation is still woefully thin. Exum and Hood still are a ways away, Gobert (while looking absolutely amazing in Summer League, FIBA, and pre-season) is still a work-in-progress on the offensive side, and Trevor Booker might be a Millsap-lite, but he’s not a game-changer at either end. Defense will be an issue as long as Enes Kanter is in the game – the man has wonderful touch in the post and looks to add a 3-ball to his game, but he can’t defend for a lick. Burke is undersized, and the wings are solid at best. Favors and Rudy Gobert will only mitigate the errors so much.
Player to Watch: I really want to say all the core young guys, but that might be a bit too homerific even for me. But if I had to choose one, it has to be the guy who’s finally getting his shot to start consistently and looks to be Utah’s leading scorer (SEMI-BOLD PREDICTION ALERT!), Alec Burks. The 6’6” shooting guard finished with averages of 14 points, 3.3 boards, and 2.7 dimes shooting a respectable 45.7% from the field and 35% from 3-point land (it should be noted that taking away the 9 heaves he took last season, his 3PT% bumps up to 37.3%), which seem decent, but not much else, at first glance. But dig a bit deeper and you’ll see that Burks is a driver extraordinaire. He has amazing body control, an explosive first step, and, most importantly, gets to the line at an insane rate. For every field goal he took last year, he averaged .45 free-throw taken – that’s about 2 percentage points under what Kevin Durant averaged last season. He is positively elite when he gets to the rim, and it is this elite skill plus his production on the boards and out of the pick and roll that will vault him into a top 5 shooting guard in the league (SUPER DUPER BOLD PREDICTION ALERT).
Win Range: 30-35 wins. The Utah Jazz are a team that is reaching the end of its rebuild, at least judging from its retention of Gordon Hayward. Both Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter have taken big leaps forward last year. Trey Burke has shown promise and projects to grow further this year. However, the Jazz aren’t a complete team quite yet, and while they have the players, they must still develop them. Until guys like Burke, Kanter and Favors reach their peak, the Jazz are still a lottery team.
Key Additions: Andrew Wiggins is the big addition to this rebuilding team. While the loss of Kevin Love might sting, Wiggins is exactly the type of player for a rebuild to be centered around. He is a once in a generation talent who could develop into a superstar if surrounded with the right pieces. In addition, the Wolves have signed Mo Williams and Thaddeus Young, drafted Zach LaVine and traded for another No. 1 draft pick in Anthony Bennett.
Key Losses: The one big noteworthy loss has to be the trade of Kevin Love. While Wiggins is more than adequate compensation, Kevin Love was a star and losing him means that the Wolves are back to the doldrums again, trying to return to their zenith of the Kevin Garnett days.
Probable Strengths: Rebuilding from the bottom up is never painless but there will be exciting plays to be had in the Minny cold. LaVine, Wiggins, and Robinson III all project to be amazing athletes at the NBA level and having a dime magician in Rubio to serve them up will at least result in at least 3 “did this dude just do this?” moments per game. Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng look to build up from their promising work at the end of last season and they should fit in nicely with the rest of the youngsters. Even Anthony Bennett showed some flashes of being a good player last year, and he has the chance to prove something in Minnesota. As with any good rebuild, there will be some veterans to ease the transition. Nikola Pekovic is a decent low post center and Thaddeus Young is a mobile forward with plenty of patience, having sat through the debacle of the Sixers season last year without demanding a trade.
Probable Troubles: Other than “you no longer have Kevin Love on your team”? Shooting and spacing was an issue last year, and that trend should continue. Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger are the sole entities of spacing on this team, and with Saunders recently saying that he wants the team to shoot less threes, the offense might stall with the paint packed with defenders. Further exacerbating this issue is that the Wolves just weren’t very good beyond the arc, clocking in at 34.6% clip. This number should only worsen without Kevin Love there to rain it. Beyond the offense, the defense looks to be suspect as Dieng figures to be the only real rim-protector. Athleticism at the wing with Wiggins will only get you so far without a deterrent in the paint.
Player to Watch: The obvious answer is the best answer here. Andrew Wiggins was hyped as no other for the last couple of years, scouts and armchair-coaches alike heralding him as the next generational talent. The hype died down with a year at college, but not nearly enough to bump him off the top spot in the draft. But there’s definitely going to be some bumps in store. The kid’s still raw, his jumper is streaky, he doesn’t pick his spots, the handle has got to be tighter – but don’t tell me that he isn’t electric. The improvisation on the fly, the second effort, the way he lopes to the basket – that’s what Minny fans and NBA fans alike will be treated to. And don’t tell me that process of him figuring out when to turn on the jets and when to take that step-back jumper won’t be just as intriguing either.
Win Range: 18-23 wins. The Timberwolves are not going to be expecting much record-wise. Instead, this season will be a story of player development. There are budding stars in the frigid North, whether they be likely stars (Wiggins), potential stars (LaVine), project players (Dieng, Robinson) and reclamation attempts (Bennett). There will be many reasons to feel blue when the losses start piling up, but the Wolves will be a team to be reckoned with five years from now.
“In the West Coast, superstars shine brightest”
Los Angeles Clippers
Key Additions: Jordan Farmar returns to L.A. to replace the recently departed Darren Collison. Spencer Hawes is another intriguing acquisition who looks to be a main contributor off the bench. Both of them should serve critical roles backing up the stars of this team.
Key Losses: Darren Collison has left to join the Sacramento Kings. Collison served a very crucial role in leading the Clippers at the point while Chris Paul was injured. Losing him was big, and there is a pretty big talent gulf between him and newcomer Jordan Farmar.
Probable Strengths: The Clippers can run with the best of them, and have the most “fan friendly” playing style in recent memory. The Clippers lead the league in offensive efficiency with 109.4 points per 100 possessions. They have great offensive stars in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. In addition, there is JJ Redick from three, Jamal Crawford off the bench, and DeAndre Jordan becoming a weapon in his own right as he enters a contract year.
Probable Troubles: Despite having DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin averaging 23.7 rebounds per game, boards have been a big issue for the Los Angeles Clippers. Last year, the Clippers were critically lacking when it came to rebounds off the bench. The addition of 7’ 1” center Spencer Hawes seems like it would help, and while he did average 10.7 rebounds per 40 minutes, he is a liability on offensive rebounds since he plays offense away from the rim.
Player to Watch: Blake Griffin is rapidly turning into one of the best players in the league. Staying healthy is the key for Griffin after an off-season injury caused him to reluctantly pull out of the USA’s training camp for the FIBA World Cup. Now with the mid-range jumper added to his arsenal, Griffin should take his game to a whole new level. The question is whether the Clips can do the same.
Win Range: 55– 60 wins. The Clippers maintain a roster with All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, along with the break-out year from Deandre Jordan. Not just a top heavy line-up, the Clippers have an array of bench players expected to help them get to the top of the Pacific division. Moving past the Donald Sterling scandal over the offseason, the Los Angeles Clippers look to not only repeat as division champions, but make a title run in the 2014-2015 season.
The Golden State Warriors
Key Additions: Shaun Livingston is the best off season add for the Warriors who did not own a single draft pick in the 2014 draft. He will have an important role in being the primary backup for Steph Curry and Klai Thompson, a hole the Warriors have long wanted to fill. There is also the addition of new head coach Steve Kerr who looks to take this team deep into the playoffs and beyond.
Key Losses: The Warriors were rumored to be one of the leading teams in the hunt for Kevin Love, but failed to pull the trigger. This trigger would have most likely involved trading away the likes of Klay Thompson. In my opinion, Kevin Love isn’t necessary to be a threat to the Clippers, but in the high powered Western Conference, the Warriors seem doomed to exit the postseason before the Conference Finals.
Probable Strengths: The Warriors have the best backcourt in the NBA with superstar Steph Curry and budding star Klay Thompson. The Splash Brothers are a defensive nightmare for any team, and are threats whether driving in or from the three point line. This could be the year where both of them improve even further, with Curry edging Chris Paul as the best point guard in the league, and Klay Thompson being added as an All-Star.
Probable Troubles: The Andrew Bogut trade in 2012 was ill received by Warrior fans at first, but it did revitalize them defensively, giving them a good center to balance out the fiery offense. However, Bogut doesn’t do much offensively, and he struggles to stay healthy. In addition, he only averaged 25.5 minutes per game as a Warrior. Golden State will lean on Festus Ezeli a lot more this season, and they will need him to step up.
Player to Watch: Andre Iguadala is my player to watch after having a rough season last year. Granted in a reduced role, Iguadala averaged the second lowest PPG of his career, along with a significant reduction in his stats across the board. Entering his tenth year, expect Iguadala to settle into his sixth-man role and have a bounce back year.
Win Range: 50 – 55 wins. The Warriors are expected to repeat a productive season behind the reigns of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. With one of the most dynamic backcourts in the game, the Splash Brothers are the focal point to the Warriors’ success this season. It will be interesting to see what problems new head coach Steve Kerr will come across especially if a major injury occurs.
The Phoenix Suns
Key Additions: Isaiah Thomas was acquired in a sign and trade from the Sacramento Kings. A four-year deal worth $27 million is in direct response to the career year Thomas had in Sacramento averaging 20.3 points and 6.3 assists per game last season. The Suns got him for a steal, the question here however is making the three point guard offense work.
Key Losses: The magnitude of losing Channing Frye remains unseen, but is expected to hamper playoff hopes for the Suns. Frye was a good fit at the four for the fast offense of the Suns, but as much as he brings to the table, it’s not like the Suns are lacking for offense. The loss of Frye should bring Markieff Morris to the starting five, who is an improving youngster with hustle and defense.
Probable Strengths: I don’t think there is any one team with stronger at one position than the Suns are with their point guards. Goran Dragic, last year’s Most Improved Player of the Year, is firmly in his prime, and is ready to build on a great season. Budding star Eric Bledsoe has committed his future to Phoenix with a 5 year $70 million contract, and can play both guard positions. And then there is new addition Isaiah Thomas from Sacramento, who will likely come off the bench and provide instant offense while filling in during injuries. All three of them are great players who will be starters on most teams, so Phoenix is flush with luxury at the position.
Probable Troubles: The Suns need some size up front to balance out the speed in the backcourt, specifically at the center position. Miles Plumlee had a good season last year, and projects to have a good showing this year as well, but he is more of a tweener than a true five. The Suns need Alex Len, last year’s fifth overall choice, to step up. Whether Len does well or does poorly, Phoenix needs to figure out what they have in the Ukrainian seven-footer. An injury plagued season would just leave more doubt.
Player to Watch: Last season Goran Dragic entered an elite group in NBA history as he joined the 20/50/40 club. Home to only 12 others in NBA history, Dragic averaged 20.3 points while shooting .505 from the field and .408 from downtown. Don’t be surprised by another big year from the Slovenian.
Win Range: 43 – 49 wins. After missing the playoffs last season, the Suns most likely will not click on all cylinders. While the backcourt made up of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic is expected to be a strong attack, the Suns will surely miss Frye. It remains to be seen whether the Suns can improve on last year’s magic. The league will be more prepared for Phoenix this time around, but at the same time, the Suns are a young team with a lot of growing potential.
Los Angeles Lakers
Key Additions: Rookie Julius Randle, the seventh overall pick, and Carlos Boozer, the much maligned free agent from the Bulls, will compete for the power forward position for the Lakers. Jeremy Lin is another add who should start now that Steve Nash is down and out. Is anyone else buying into Linsanity 2.0?
Key Losses: Pau Gasol has found his way out of L.A. and onto a championship contending team. After years of trade rumors, he left on his own terms. The Lakers replaced him with Carlos Boozer, and drafted Joseph Randle to replace him, so the four will not be a weak point for the Lakers.
Probable Strengths: The Lakers still have Kobe Bryant, and while he hardly played last year, Kobe isn’t one to go out with a whimper. He should have a recovery season, averaging a little more than 20 points per game. In his last three preseason games, Kobe scored 27, 26 and 27 points, so this isn’t too plausible. Few teams have the luxury of a superstar, and as long as Bryant’s healthy, he should still be considered one.
Probable Troubles: Pretty much everything else. It starts with coaching, as Byron Scott (64-166 with the Cavs), does not have a good record, and has a reputation for starting veterans and stifling rookie development, which doesn’t bode well for Joseph Randle. Also, with Steve Nash’s possibly career ending injury, the Lakers must rely on Jeremy Lin to be their point guard. Lin, however, is at his best as a sixth man when he is the primary ball handler on the second unit. As a starter, he won’t be doing much when the offense is running through Kobe.
Player to Watch: With Nick Young’s bubbly personality and antics, he’s always a player to watch. Last year, however, he had a pretty good season, scoring 18 points and even having a few 40 point games. He was asked to do a lot with Kobe out injured, but now with Kobe back, Nick Young will have to carve himself a new role, either as the starting small forward, or as a sixth man. He is recovering from injury for now and Wesley Johnson is the probable starter at the three, so Young will likely come off the bench to display his instant offense.
Win Range: 30 – 38 wins. Is it asking too much in hoping for 35 wins for the storied franchise? Another year of rebuilding and dealing with chemistry issues would be pretty frustrating. Steve Nash is out for the year, and there are fears of Kobe getting injured sometime this year. Carlos Boozer can’t be expected to do too much, especially with his weakened post game. It is time to allow the younger guys to develop in another working season which will undoubtedly end in a below .500 record.
Key Additions: Nick Stauskus with the eighth pick overall in this year’s draft. Stauskas is a marksman from three and was one of the best pure shooters in the draft. He will be competing with Ben McLemore, the eight overall pick from last year’s draft. Darren Collison is the big free agent addition for the Kings, and while he did well as Chris Paul’s backup, it remains to be seen whether he can effectively replace Isaiah Thomas.
Key Losses: It is baffling how the Kings allowed Isaiah Thomas to leave, especially for only 4 years and $27 million. Either way, Thomas will be missed, and the Kings hope that Darren Collison is a decent replacement for him.
Probable Strengths: In an era where the pure center is a dying breed, the Sacramento Kings are lucky to have one in Demarcus Cousins. Cousins is a player that comes with baggage regarding his conduct and emotions, but he is also someone who already took a big step forward in his game (23 points and 12 rebounds). As long as he keeps his emotions in check, there is no reason not to expect even more out of him next season.
Probable Troubles: The loss of Isaiah Thomas will put a lot of pressure on young Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas to perform. New arrival Darren Collison is a respectable player, but he wasn’t a starter since 2011-12, so it remains to be seen how he will do as a full time starter. Meanwhile, at the two guard, there is McLemore, who was disappointing last year, and Stauskas, a one dimensional player at the time being. Neither one of them are viable starters.
Player to Watch: Demarcus Cousins looks to build off of his time with Team USA plus a positive 2013-2014 campaign. The real issue with Cousins is his maturity level and whether or not he can be a leader for this team. The stats will come on a mostly empty season, but expect his talent to carry over into an All-Star selection.
Win Range: 28 – 33 wins. While another losing season is ahead of the Sacramento Kings, the loss of Isaiah Thomas brings the possibility of seeing a lot of 8th overall pick Stauskus if Darren Collison fails to impress. The team should work around Demarcus Cousins with plenty of touches in the low post, but don’t expect too much from the Kings as the backcourt will definitely be an issue.