Free agency has pretty much died down at this point. The teams with money and the desire to spend it have spent it. Really, only Greg Monroe and Eric Bledsoe remain unresolved in free agency. The Cavaliers have signed Andrew Wiggins to his rookie contract, meaning they cannot trade him for 30 days. That effectively kills Kevin Love trade talk for at least a month.
The basketball world, after a great Summer League, is turning its attention to international basketball as the FIBA World Cup is getting set to kick off in about a month. There will be a lot of great, passionate basketball there.
The NBA’s season is not too far from our minds though. We are ready to take a small glimpse at what the NBA will look like at this point when the 2015 season begins and put our prognosticator’s (and demand for your clicks!) hat on.
Who is the early favorite to win the title? Read on. . .
There were moments during the Thunder’s run to the Western Conference Finals when it really looked like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook did not trust anyone else on the floor but each other. Durant’s MVP speech aside, the Thunder crumpled at times in the Playoffs. They seemed to fall apart at the seams with Serge Ibaka getting hurt and bounce back when he came back. This is a resilient team, hungry to win. The Spurs are the champs. But it is asking a lot of them to go to three straight Finals. You have to slot the Thunder as co-favorites at least.
The Spurs did something they had never done before last season. Championships were easy for them. Getting to back to back Finals was something Gregg Popovich and co. have never done before. The Spurs made few changes this year. They re-upped Boris Diaw and set themselves up to keep moving forward. There is no doubt that they have the ability to win the championship again.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Offseason Acquisitions: Donald Sterling selling the team, Spencer Hawes, seriously Donald Sterling is gone
Cliche of the Week: Ding, dong the witch is dead
The Clippers did very little this offseason. They were all just sitting and waiting to see how the Donald Sterling saga would end and see if everyone would jump ship. Well, a court ruled Monday Sterling was incompetent and could not administer the trust, clearing the way for Shelly Sterling to sell the team to Steve Ballmer. That is a release off this Clippers team that could have very easily beaten the Thunder. Blake Griffin continues to improve and get better. This year could be a big season for him and his team.
LeBron James makes any team he is on a title contender. He is that good. With Kyrie Irving in tow as well, James will keep the Cavaliers in the title conversation. Clevelanders can continue rejoicing. Winning a title is not going to be a given though even with James. The East is pretty weak and the Cavaliers are far from a complete team. But James is that damn good. The Quicken Loans Arena should be a rocking place to play again.
Nice, Playoff Teams
The Warriors seemed in utter turmoil after their first round exit last year from the Playoffs. A team with outsized expectations failed to live up to them and then fired its super successful coach for an unproven former general manager and broadcaster. No pressure, Steve Kerr filling in the shoes of the very popular Mark Jackson. What Golden State does have is a great back court and assets to improve if that is what the team wants to do. Getting Andrew Bogut back from injury will be a big relief too.
The changing face of the East starts in Miami but it certainly touches in Indianapolis. All the problems the Pacers had in the Playoffs and down the stretch last season has left them wondering if they are still title contenders. I guess in the East, they could still reach the Finals. As much as losing Lance Stephenson will help in the locker room, he turned out to be the team’s most consistent player in the Playoffs. He was the straw that stirred the drink in a lot of ways and forced the action for the Pacers. The problem is, he sometimes spun it too fast.
7. Portland Trail Blazers
Offseason Acquisitions: Chris Kaman, experience
Cliche of the Week: Ripped City
The Blazers were great last year. What do you do for an encore? Damian Lillard certainly is capable of doing what he did again. LaMarcus Aldridge is capable of doing it again. The Blazers though did not make any significant improvements to make their bench better and they are still going to rely heavily on Lillard and Aldrdige to generate offense. That will work most of the time. But Portland does not seem quite ready to take that next step into serious title contention.
The Wizards are the “it” pick in the Eastern Conference right now. Their run to the second round and first-round win over the Bulls caught some by surprise. This is a young team that is poised for more growth. John Wall made a leap last year with an improved jumper and his first All-Star birth (there will be more). There are a lot of reasons to be excited for this group. Getting Marcin Gortat back adds to a beefy front line. And Paul Pierce could very well give some veteran toughness for a deeper Playoff run.
The Rockets failed this offseason in getting another star to pair with Dwight Howard and James Harden. That part sounded simple. They cleared the cap room and fell short. They lost Chandler Parsons in the process. They still need to take on a defensive mentality to take the next step as a team. It does not sound like the Rockets are ready to do that. They will be filling in roles from players they missed. Howard and Harden will have to lead this change. They do not seem willing at this point.
The Bulls are seen as the best team in the East IF Derrick Rose returns healthy. Tom Thibodeau has done an incredible job getting the Bulls to play better than their talent might suggest each season. There is no doubting that. But something was certainly missing as Chicago did not have that extra gear for the Playoffs against Washington. The Bulls added some nice pieces including Euroleague star Nikola Mirotic. Will Thibodeau ride his players too hard again? Can Rose survive the season? Those are the key questions for Chicago.
11. Toronto Raptors
Offseason Acquisitions: Re-signing Kyle Lowry, Lou Williams
Cliche of the Week: Not aggressive enough in free agency
The Raptors were the surprise of the Eastern Conference last year as Dwane Casey finally reached Kyle Lowry and turned the team’s defense into a juggernaut in the watered-down East. They lost in the first round, but the Raptors were a legitimate force in the regular season. Toronto opted to keep developing their young core which includes DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. That might be good enough to be solid in the East and repeat as division champions.
The Mavericks pushed the Spurs to seven games in the first round last year and seemed poised to continue growing. Mark Cuban spent his cap room acquiring Tyson Chandler and then signing Chandler Parsons. There is a ton of talent on this roster and Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis figured out how to work well together. This should be a better team than it was last year. Rick Carlisle always does a masterful job getting everyone to work together.
13. Charlotte Hornets
Offseason Acquisitions: Team name, colors, mascot, Lance Stephenson
Cliche of the Week: Larry Johnson is not walking through that door
There is a lot of buzz with the Hornets (damn, puns). And for good reason. Charlotte took a huge step forward last year and made the Playoffs before getting dealt a bad hand with the Heat in the first round and Al Jefferson getting injured. The Hornets added Lance Stephenson showing they mean business in free agency and in improving upon their record last year. They still have a strong defense and that will not change, making them dangerous this season.
Trudging in mediocrity
The Grizzlies season last year was derailed by Marc Gasol‘s injury. When he returned to the lineup, the Grizzlies remained one of the toughest teams to play in the Western Conference. They proved that in taking the Thunder to seven games in last year’s first round. This is a tough team to play. Nobody wants to see them in the Playoffs. The problem is getting them there (that is not really the problem) and envisioning this team as doing something more. Dave Joerger did a fantastic job in his first season, but has Memphis really improved beyond getting Gasol back for a full year?
15. Phoenix Suns
Offseason Acquisitions: Isaiah Thomas, T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis
Cliche of the Week: Only one way to glow
The Suns were the darlings of the league last year, nearly crashing the Playoffs behind a great season from just about everyone involved. Can Phoenix recapture that again? There could be a crash back to the mean year this year. Particularly if Eric Bledsoe takes his restricted free agent delay hard come October or is not as good as previously believed. Thomas could be a great player to add or could be another player who needs the ball too much and does not buy completely in. There are questions for this organization and continued success is no guarantee.
Kudos to Mike Budenholzer for an ingenius and innovative plan for last year’s Hawks team. With Al Horford injured (again), he did a five-out offense with 3-point shooters all around. They nearly made the big upset as an 8-seed last year. Now add Al Horford back in and there is an opportunity to make some damage. The problem is that Atlanta does not really seem to have a long-term plan. This team is virtually the same as last year with Horford coming back from injury. It is hard to see what Altanta is trying to do.
The Pistons have talent. Between Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings. They have a starring coach in Stan Van Gundy now. But this is a mismatched roster. They will not likely reach their full potential unless someone is willing to give the ball up, fit into a role and believe in the system Van Gundy instills. In the East, talent should be enough to break through for the Playoffs especially with this coach.
The Nets were cash-strapped and did not have a whole lot of room to make many moves. They let Paul Pierce walk in free agency, but still have some solid veterans to lead the team into Playoff contention yet again. Deron Williams has to find himself after a few years of injury. Brook Lopez is coming off injury. Joe Johnson is solid, but hardly spectacular. The Nets are banking on young players (the few they have) to step up. Not to mention, they have to buy into a new coach in Lionel Hollins.
Anthony Davis was simply a revelation last year for the Pelicans. He made this one of the exciting young teams to watch in the Western Conference. There will still be growing pains though in the future. Ryan Anderson has to come back from injury to provide some floor space. Jrue Holiday has to come back from injury too and regain his All Star form from his year in Philadelphia. There remains a lot of questions about how this team grows. Acquiring Omer Asik gives them some defensive toughness next to Davis. They will be formidable on the interior.
The Heat lost this offseason. LeBron James left them in a lurch after he departed and the Heat quickly did what they could do to recover. Miami quickly recovered to re-sign Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The whole function of the team is going to have to change now that James is no longer able to be the spoke from which all things radiate from. And the question is whether Wade and Bosh can carry that burden. Miami still seems to be getting older and did not solve a lot of the problems they had with James there even.
The Knicks always seem to be planning something, thinking New York alone will attract free agents. There was real concern that Carmelo Anthony would leave and general manager Phil Jackson seemed indifferent to his departure. Either way Anthony is back and there is a growing sense this team did not get a whole lot better — especially considering defensive linchpin Tyson Chandler was traded. Anthony is good enough to make this team part of the Playoff conversation. They have an eye toward the future though.
22. Denver Nuggets
Offseason Acquisitions: Arron Afflalo, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris
Cliche of the Week: Thin air in Denver
Arron Afflalo said the Nuggets should have championship aspirations this year. He has certainly become a different player since laving the Nuggets the first time. Denver has also become a different team. Brian Shaw struggled in his first year as injuries decimated the roster. They never found their footing and need guys to stay healthy first and foremost. In the crowded West though, Denver has to find an identity that is more than just taking advantage of the elements in the Mile High City.
It is hard to figure out exactly what direction the Kings want to go. DeMarcus Cousins is a great player. Rudy Gay seemed to turn things around individually last year. But this just does not feel like a team that has much direction or can threaten anyone seriously. Particularly in the Western Conference. Throw out playmaker Isaiah Thomas and bring in another ball-dominator in Darren Collison, and, well. . . Vivek Ranadive’s team is still going to be figuring itself out.
The Lakers expect championships. Kobe Bryant expects championships. That is who this franchise is. They went in with several player to help them return to the Playoffs. Instead, it might be another difficult year and another season of missed expectations and frustrating disappointment. And that is even if Kobe Bryant is healthy. This is an odd roster that will rely heavily on Bryant and Lin working the pick and roll. Roles will be redefined as the season goes on, but there just may be too many guys who need the ball in their hands for this to work.
History will show last year’s Bucks finished with the worst record in the NBA. Those who watched the season will probably say the way the 76ers bastardized the end of the season in search of a better lottery pick made them the worst team. Either way, there is no denying the Bucks still have some talent on the roster, even if that means there is a delicate balance that can easily be toppled by injuries — like the one to defensive linchpin and mercurial star Larry Sanders. Throw in a very NBA-ready Jabari Parker, and there is cause to believe in a turnaround.
26. Orlando Magic
Offseason Acquisitions: Channing Frye, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton
Cliche of the Week: Process
The Magic have a nice collection of young talent. They have done a good job collecting quality young players willing to work and build after the Dwight Howard trade. The question is when will this team take a step forward? When will they begin winning? Many suspect this is the year the team stops the out-and-out tanking and start trying to collect wins for a Playoff bid. The problem is they still do not have a ton of scoring. Their draft pick, Aaron Gordon, is a work-in-progress on that end of the floor. They might be able to defend pretty well, but scores could be very low unless someone breaks through.
The only reason you cannot say the Celtics are “tanking” is because Rajon Rondo is really good at making players around him better and you always have the sense that Danny Ainge is thinking up something big and has the means to pull it off. Boston has assets to get involved with Kevin Love, but maybe not the ability to have Love guarantee he can stay. Ainge is keeping his team poised to make a big move if the timing is right. It is not right now and the team is not very strong.
The Jazz could very well turn into winners with a backcourt of Dante Exum and Trey Burke. They seem to have complementary skills and could very well work together. The concern though is the growth from the other players and the amount of money spent to retain Gordon Hayward. Those might be long-term issues. This is a team that is not particularly talent-filled — we know who most of these players are — and do not quite have a star. The Jazz might be looking to fish for another pick this year.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves
Offseason Acquisitions: Whoever they get for Kevin Love, Zach LaVine
Cliche of the Week: Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em
The Timberwolves are trading Kevin Love. There is no getting around it at this point. He is gone. He is not staying. The Timberwolves have no hope of keeping him. They just do not have the assets to make any move other than to trade him, or lose him for nothing. They are not going to the Playoffs either. Not unless Ricky Rubio takes a crazy leap forward and Kevin Martin learns how to play defense. The Wolves are likely angling to start their rebuild — Andrew Wiggins.
30. Philadelphia 76ers
Offseason Acquisitions: Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel (from injury), Dario Saric
Cliche of the Week: Injured, but talented big man? Draft him!
The Sixers are going to have another rough year. Not historically bad like last year might have been, but it will be rough nonetheless. Very, very rough. The talent is just not there and the Sixers are still nowhere near the salary floor. They do not even seem like they are pretending to win games. There are virtually no veterans on the roster. They quickly cut the ones they acquire, it seems. They will wait a year for Joel Embiid just like they did with Noel. Patience, Sixers fans. They are probably looking at grabbing one more high lottery pick.
Agree? Of course, not. Disagree? Of course you do! Share your thoughts in the comments below along with your predictions.