1. The Cleveland Cavaliers
Upon the acquiring Lebron James, The Cavs looked to be this year’s “worst to first” contender. Even with the King though, Cleveland still had their doubters. To shake those doubters, The Cavs made a second blockbuster move in trading Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, and a first round pick in the upcoming draft for the versatile power forward from Minnesota, Kevin Love. With the core three of Kyrie Irving, Lebron James, and Kevin Love, plus the addition of a new head coach, Cleveland appears poised to finish first in the East.
2. The Chicago Bulls
Even without superstar point guard Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Jimmy Butler led the Bulls to a fourth place finish in the East, and helped create a defensive juggernaut that few could penetrate. Naturally, without their explosive star player, and a defensive mindset, they were 30th in the league in points scored per game. This offseason, the Bulls drafted prolific scorer Doug McDermott, signed Pau Gasol, who will be a force on both ends of the floor, and plan to return Derrick Rose. The addition of these three players add efficient, fresh, high scoring options propelling the Bulls to success and a close second place finish in the East.
3. The Washington Wizards
After pushing the Indiana Pacers (with Lance Stephenson and a healthy Paul George) to six games in this past year’s playoffs, the Wizards showed that they were serious. By resigning Marcin Gortat, and returning a healthy Nene as well as an improved Bradley Beal and explosive as ever John Wall the Wizards proved that they are still serious. They didn’t stop there though. They coped with the loss of Trevor Ariza by signing veteran Paul Pierce who brings clutch scoring ability, leadership, and much needed playoff experience.
4. The Charlotte Hornets
With the return of the Hornets name, I believe that the team will return to its winning form. Not only do the Hornets return the combo of Al Jefferson and point guard Kemba Walker, but also, The Hornets grabbed possibly the biggest steal of the offseason in Lance Stephenson. In the draft, The Hornets made up for the failed Bismack Biyombo experiment by drafting defensive force Noah Vonleh, who has an incredibly high ceiling, and P.J. Hairston, who showed that he can run with the “big boys” by averaging over 20 points a game in the D-Leauge. The Hornets also signed versatile power forward Marvin Williams who adds depth to the roster.
5. The Toronto Raptors
The only thing keeping The Raptors from being the four seed is their lack of depth. Toronto does return prolific point guard Kyle Lowry, and versatile shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, but as seen in their first round defeat to the Brooklyn Nets, they lack the experience and depth to make a playoff run.
6. The Miami Heat
Losing the best player on the face of the earth is bound to shake a team to the core. When Lebron left Cleveland, they earned the top pick in the draft three out of the four years “AL.” (after Lebron) Miami though, returns Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade. Even though Wade can only play limited minutes because of lingering injuries and aging, he can not be underestimated. Miami also signed Luol Deng, Danny Granger, and Josh McRoberts who may be the most underrated passing big men in the league.
7. The Indiana Pacers
The Pacers will start the season off slow, but by the time the all-star break comes and goes, Frank Vogel’s squad will be on their way to a seven seed. If George Hill makes some strides as a passer, he can excel as Indiana’s point guard, and will absolutely cause less controversy than Stephenson. They return Luis Scola and David West, both valuable contributors’. Most importantly, if Roy Hibbert returns to form, they have a top five center in the league.
8. The Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn may have lost Paul Peirce, but they still have Kevin Garnett, who is one of the fiercest competitors in the league. He will continue to turn back the hands of time and play quality minutes. The Nets also have Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, not to mention Brook Lopez, who when healthy is a formidable center. Watch the Nets to be an above .500 team who at the end of the day can win a game or two against a one seed.
Sleeper Teams in The East
The New York Knicks
The Knicks are a team that two seasons ago grabbed the second seed in the East. With a more athletic Carmelo Anthony, a healthy, Amar’e Stoudemire, and a smarter, more efficient J.R. Smith, the Knicks could be headed back to the playoffs.
The Boston Celtics
After a dismal season, I see hope on the horizon for the Celtics. With a healthy Rondo, they aren’t far off from breaking the playoff threshold in the East. Add to that rookie Marcus Smart, who brings intensity on both ends of the floor, the signing of Evan Turner, and locking Brandon Bass up for four years, the Celtics appear to have solidified their core.
1. The Oklahoma City Thunder
Led by reigning MVP Kevin Durant, and explosive, all-star point guard Russell Westbrook, OKC is poised to knock the Spurs off their perch for the one-seed. OKC returns key role players such as Reggie Jackson and a healthy Serge Ibaka, and drafted Mitch McGary, who if he had played a full season this year at Michigan, could have been a lottery pick. If Westbrook becomes a better decision maker, this is a team with limitless potential.
2. The San Antonio Spurs
Everyone’s back. Kyle Anderson out of UCLA will be a good addition. This team is a model of consistency, that’s all there is to it. Enough said.
3. The Los Angeles Clippers
In the 2014-2015 season, the Clippers will once again be the best offensive team in the league. Touting the best point guard, and two of the freakiest athletes in the NBA, the Clippers ranked first and third in points per game and assists per game last season and there is no reason that will change. They return sixth man of the year Jamal Crawford and many key role players. If the Clippers can get to a point in which they are holding opponents to under 100 points a game, (opponents averaged 101 points a game last season) they will be a scary team to face not only in the regular, but post-season.
4. The Golden State Warriors
Golden State’s biggest worry this offseason was possibly losing Klay Thompson. Now that this fear has been subdued, and they return all of their starters and key role players, I see this Warrior’s team making big strides. This could be the year that Harrison Barnes gets the nod to start, and he, Curry, and Thompson on the perimeter would be a scoring Trio unmatched by any in the league except maybe Cleveland. (James-Love-Irving) Also, watch for second year player Draymond Green to have an increased role on the team after his outstanding playoff performance this past season.
5. The Portland Trailblazers
Damian Lillard has ice in his veins. Regardless of what Portland is seeded; expect them to advance. Offensively, Portland ranks fourth and ninth in points per game and assists respectively, but that is not their most impressive, or important statistic. Portland led the entire league in rebounding last year. If they can keep their tenacity up on the boards, and improve defensively, The Trailblazers are poised to make a run this post-season.
6. The Houston Rockets
With the exception of losing Chandler Parsons, I don’t think the Rockets got worse. The reason for their drop in the Western conference standings is simply the improvement of other teams.
7. The Dallas Mavericks
In the 2014 playoffs, the Mavericks were a team that showed grit, guts, and flashes of life for such an old team. This offseason, the Mav’s bought some youth in small forward Chandler Parsons. In addition, current Maverick Monta Ellis should continue to improve in Dallas’s system. Although signing Parsons to such a big contract is gamble for the team’s long term livelihood, this is a move that gives Dirk Nowitzki one more chance to make a deep run before his playing time comes to a end.
8. The Memphis Grizzlies
Defensively, Memphis will always be a force to reckon with, but unless they improve offensively, they will be stuck in the bottom tier of the Western Conference playoff teams. Memphis still has Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol for this season, but they failed to add any true offensive firepower. Vince Carter is an exciting name, but at 37, one has to question how much he truly has left in the tank.
Sleeper Teams in the West
The Phoenix Suns
Although Phoenix will be close to making the playoffs yet again; they don’t have the veteran presence necessary to make that jump. Look for Eric Bledsoe to get even better, and rookie TJ Warren to be a key contributor off the bench. Also, don’t underestimate rookie point guard Tyler Ennis’s potential. As a freshman at Syracuse, he showed veteran instincts that can’t be taught.
The Sacramento Kings
This past season, I believed that the Kings were one or two key players away from success. With the signing of Rudy Gay last year, and the addition of point guard Darren Collison, the Kings are well on their way. If Ben McLemore can become a more efficient scorer, the combination of him and DeMarcus Cousins, who should be an all-star this season, should help the Kings fire up the Western Conference. Not to mention, the Kings selected Nik Stauskus, a pure scorer in the first round, who could be a valuable sixth man.