As we have seen early on with the injuries to Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal and LeBron’s move to Cleveland, one injury or personnel move can completely change the season outlook for a team, division, or conference. No preview is truly a crystal ball, but as the NBA enters its most prolific era since the late 1980s/early 1990s, the separation between the NBA have and have nots is widening. The new TV deal and CBA may upset this trend, but for the next couple of years, the top powers – most of whom we have already gotten use to seeing in the playoffs – will continue to dominate, while other teams continue to build to try and challenge this dominance. With this in mind, here is my preview for the 2014-2015 NBA season:
Toronto Raptors, 46-36
Toronto has 85% of their minutes returning this year with the only major changes being the trade for Lou Williams and Brazilian center Lucas Nogueira and fellow Brazilian Bruno Caboclo, a project they drafted in the first round. If Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozen, and Jonas Valanciunas continue to develop, they should easily maintain their position at the top of the division as the other teams struggle to get to .500.
Brooklyn Nets, 37-45
A team that relies heavily on the oft-injured Brook Lopez is a team who is fighting a playoff spot. Lopez is already injured again, while Jarrett Jack is supposed to pick up the offensive slack from the departure of Shaun Livingston and Paul Pierce, while also filling in for Deron Williams when he eventually gets injured. Joe Johnson is not longer able to carry an offense for an entire game, and apparently Kevin Garnett decided to play another year as the league’s most expensive backup center. It seems the Russian experiment in Brooklyn may be coming to an end as the team ages out of relevance and will look to rebuild in the next couple years.
Boston Celtics, 34-48
By resetting with a young team, the Celtics are at least giving the fans an interesting product while providing some hope for the future. Marcus Smart joins a young core of improving players that include Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, and Avery Bradley. Rajon Rondo also returns to either provide veteran leadership or a plethora of trade rumors, depending on what the Celtics do with him. If the team can ride their strength inside and somehow offset their terrible outside shooting, they may sneak into the playoffs.
New York Carmelos, 29-53
If I am trying to find a second banana to help Carmelo Anthony compete during Phil Jackson’s rebuild, Jose Calderon would not even be on the list. The lack of talent on this team combined by the growing pains of first-year head coach Derek Fisher should result in an especially rough season for the Knicks. Amare Stoudamire and Andrea Bargnani’s expiring contracts could help fetch some future help, but expiring contracts do not hold the same value they did five years ago. Carmelo’s presence should keep them from complete collapse, but it will also keep them out of the running for the top pick, which may be the one thing that can save the Knicks from mediocrity over the next couple years.
Philadelphia 76ers, 12-70
Tankapalooza 2.0 will make last year’s team look competitive in comparison. Gone are Spencer Hawes, Thad Young, and Evan Turner, replaced by a collection of borderline NBA players and 10-day contracts ensuring the team ends up with the best odds at the top pick in the draft, which the NBA was unable to take away from the team with the most controversial rebuilding strategy. It will be interesting to watch Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams, but a developing 20- and 23-year old cannot carry a team in the NBA.
Jason Richardson will provide some veteran leadership as the team figures out what they have talent-wise, but any team that is trying to make Tony Wroten a point guard has a long road ahead of them.
Chicago Bulls 58-24
Most probably expected another Midwestern team here, but the Bulls are built for the regular season. They return a team who tied for third in the conference playing D.J. Augustin and Kirk Hinrich at point guard. If Derrick Rose can stay healthy (and that’s a huge if), then the team can dominate the regular season even if he is just 80% of his old self. Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic join Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson in the frontcourt, giving them one of the most versatile frontlines in the league. Gasol and Noah’s passing will come in handy when distributing to the variety of shooters that include Mirotic, Mike Dunleavy, Hinrich, Aaron Brooks, and rookie Doug McDermott. Jimmy Butler also returns, providing perimeter defense and athleticism to round out the stronger Bulls team.
Cleveland Cavaliers 54-28
If you were living under a rock, the Cavs made a few moves that should help them become contenders again. They were able to sign the best player in the world back from the Heat, and then they leveraged the first pick in the last two drafts into Kevin Love. LeBron also recruited Mike Miller, James Jones, and Shawn Marion to join him, Love, Kyrie Irving, and Tristan Thompson. It will take some time for the team to develop the chemistry to truly dominate, but I suspect most of the issues will be worked out before the playoffs, though as a result, it may cost them home court throughout the postseason.
Detroit Pistons, 40-42
If anyone can figure out how to use the Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond three-headed monster, it would be Stan Van Gundy. I have a sneaking suspicion that Smith and Brandon Jennings may be moved during the season, which may be addition by subtraction no matter what they get back for the two. Van Gundy has brought in a collection of players that include Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler, and Cartier Martin, so if Monroe and Drummond get the bulk of the time inside, their outside shooting could propel them into the playoffs.
Milwaukee Bucks, 29-53
The worst team last year did not do much beyond drafting the second player in the draft, Jabari Parker, but if some of their core players can stay healthy and regain their form, they could easily double their win output from last year (15). If Ersan Ilyasova can play like he did from 2011-2013, the Bucks may have the most versatile set of wings and forwards in the league. Parker will get some looks at the 4 with his rebounding skills, and Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo are both over 6’8’’ playing small forward and shooting guard respectively. They also have John Henson, who took a huge step forward last year and Larry Sanders up front, which could be formidable if Sanders can remember how to play basketball. They also have veterans Jared Dudley and O.J. Mayo, who can contribute if they can handle reduced minutes behind all the youngsters.
Indiana Pacers, 27-55
This may surprise NBA fans, but Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles cannot replace Paul George and Lance Stephenson. The Pacers let Stephenson walk over principle and pieces of George’s leg may still be on the Team USA practice court. As they showed in the playoffs, they cannot rely on Roy Hibbert and David West is 34, so he can only handle a certain amount of the scoring load while contributing mediocre defense. The one hope might be George Hill, but it is questionable whether he will be able to handle the increased offensive load. After ending the last season with the best record in the East, it may be a long road to April for Pacers fans.
Washington Wizards, 48-36
One of the more exciting young teams in the NBA finally came to form last year as they upset Chicago as the fifth seed in the first round of the playoffs before bowing out to Indiana in six games. They lost Trevor Ariza to the Houston Rockets and Bradley Beal probably won’t see the court until late December, giving young players Glen Rice Jr. and Otto Porter a chance to prove themselves next to veteran Paul Pierce. Martell Webster will also come back from a back injury about the same time of Beal, giving the team the outside threats that should open things up for Nene, Marcin Gortat, and new Wizard Kris Humphries. DaJuan Blair also comes to Washington adding even more depth to an already strong frontcourt. If John Wall can hold the team above water through the first couple month, the Wizards could end up with above 50 wins and the three seed in the East.
Atlanta Hawks, 44-38
The biggest addition for the Hawks will be the return of All-Star power forward Al Horford. His offensive skill and solid defense will automatically improve a team that was using Elton Brand and Pero Antic at center in the playoffs. The addition of rookie Adreian Payne and development of Dennis Schroeder will help boost a second line that traded Lou Williams, but signed defensive stalwart Thabo Sefolosha to help contain wings like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. It will also be interesting to see how Horford meshes with Kyle Korver and the other shooters on the team. They won’t win any beauty contests, but the Hawks should be solid again.
Miami Heat, 40-42
The Heat had a huge decision to make when LeBron bolted for the Midwest, but they ended up deciding to keep the other two members of the Big Three, hoping to at least compete in the weak East. They add Luol Deng to try to replace a portion of the defense and athleticism lost by James’ departure and Josh McRoberts adds some versatility inside. They also hope Danny Granger can find some of the talent that made him an All-Star five years ago, and Dwyane Wade can stay healthy. Shabazz Napier should be a fun addition, but rather than competing for a championship, these Heat will be lucky if they can get home court advantage in the first round.
Charlotte Hornets, 35-47
The two biggest changes for Charlotte this offseason was a new mascot and signing versatile guard Lance Stephenson. The team captured the seventh seed last year behind the solid inside play of Al Jefferson and Josh McRoberts. McRoberts is gone, replaced by capable, but underwhelming, Marvin Williams, with some help from Cody Zeller. The team should find themselves fighting for one of the last playoff spots like they did last year as they try to find some scoring from the outside.
Orlando Magic, 26-56
The rebuilding continues with Evan Fournier replacing Aron Affalo and rookies Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon adding some athleticism and hope to a team that has struggled since the departure of Dwight Howard. They also overpaid Channing Frye for some solid outside shooting from the power forward spot. Fournier will get a chance to prove himself as a capable wing with Oladipo out the first month, and the team should be fun to watch, but they are still a year away from building the chemistry necessary to get a playoff spot in the NBA. But the future looks bright in Orlando.
Oklahoma City Thunder, 52-30
Kevin Durant’s extended absence will hurt them in the regular season while possibly helping them in the long run. Giving Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, and Serge Ibaka more responsibility on the Durant-less team may help them prepare to take on a bigger role in the playoffs. They have added Anthony Morrow to improve their outside shooting, and Steven Adams should improve, pushing Kendrick Perkins farther down the bench where he belongs. The only thing keeping them from challenging the Spurs has been injuries, but if Durant comes back and everyone else stays healthy, they should be competing for a spot in the Western Finals.
Denver Nuggets, 48-34
The Nuggets struggled last year as their top outside scorer Danilo Gallinari worked his way back from a knee injury. With the Italian back and J.J. Hickson, JaVale McGee, and Nate Robinson healthy, the Nuggets should find themselves above .500 again after falling below that mark for the first time in a decade. Ty Lawson will continue to break down defenses, while adding Aron Afflalo and locking up Kenneth Faried long term may be enough to help them compete for the division as Durant sits out the first quarter of the season with a broken foot.
Portland Trail Blazers, 40-42
Luck was the theme for the 2013-2014 Portland Trail Blazers. They were able to avoid major injury and ride career years from multiple players to the Western semifinals. They decided to make a couple minor moves, replacing Mo Williams with Steve Blake and bringing in the near-broken down Chris Kamen to help inside. I doubt Damian Lillard and company can stay that healthy again, and unless a player like C.J. McCollum can step up, they may find themselves on the outside of the playoffs this year.
Minnesota Timberwolves, 32-50
After a series of offseason moves, the Timberwolves seem ready to move on with life without Kevin Love. They added athletic rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine and second year player Anthony Bennett to a young core that already includes Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng, and Shabazz Muhammad. They also brought in Thaddeus Young and Mo Williams to provide some veteran leadership. The best strategy long term is to get the young players some run, because if even half of their players under 25 turn out to be stars, the T-Wolves have a bright future.
Utah Jazz, 25-57
Like the T-Wolves, the Jazz are going to experience some growing pains with their young players. Rookie Dante Exum looks talented but raw, and they hoping for a leap from second year players Trey Burke and Rudy Gobert along with veterans Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Gordon Hayward, who received a new contract in the offseason. A solid core is starting to emerge, but Quin Snyder and his young players will most likely have to endure another season near the bottom before they start their rise.
Los Angeles Clippers, 57-25
I think the biggest obstacle for the Clippers in the regular season is complacency. They know how good they are and are just waiting until the playoffs to prove it. The bring back the big names in Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and DeAndre Jordan while adding Spencer Hawes as a much-needed third big man. Chris Douglas Roberts and Jordan Farmar should add some stability to the second line as the team tries to make another championship run in the loaded West.
Golden State Warriors, 55-27
Instead of trading for Kevin Love, the Warriors decided to keep the best backcourt in the league intact with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson headlining the talented team. The biggest questions are inside, but if Andrew Bogut and David Lee can stay healthy, the team can compete with anyone coming out of the West, and if Curry and especially Thompson take the next steps in their development, they could be playing well into June.
Phoenix Suns, 44-38
The addition of Isaiah Thomas may inject some fun into last year’s surprise team, but losing a player like Channing Frye may set them back just as much. The Morris brothers and Anthony Tolliver should be able to provide some of the same pick and pop potential, but the key will be the three-headed point guard monster they have in Thomas, Goran Dragic, and Eric Bledsoe. In the long run, they need a frontcourt player like Alex Len or Miles Plumlee to make the leap in their development, or the the Suns may be one of the last teams out of the playoffs again.
Sacramento Kings, 32-50
The Kings enter the season with a solid frontcourt with DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay improving their chemistry throughout last season. If they can get some solid production from Jason Thompson, Carl Landry, Omri Casspi, or even Derrick Williams, they should be able to compete with any frontcourt in the division. The problem is their guards, who have talent, but are still trying to figure it out in the NBA. Ray McCallum and Ben McLemore are intriguing, and Nik Staukas adds some shooting, but they cannot compete with the other backcourts in the division, which will result in another trip to the lottery.
Los Angeles Lakers, 25-57
Poor Kobe, first he tears his achilles, then he endures criticism for signing the contract he felt he deserved, then he injures his knee last year and now he’ll have to endure one of the worst seasons in franchise history. They have added Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, and rookies
Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, but those players are either too overrated or too young to truly help. Kobe might have his last great statistical season for a team competing for the worst record in the West.
Dallas Mavericks, 58-24
The Mavs lose the versatile Shawn Marion along with Jose Calderon and Vince Carter, but they gained Tyson Chandler, Chandler Parsons, Jameer Nelson, Al Farouq-Aminu, Richard Jefferson, and Raymond Felton. The offseason moves were facilitated by Dirk Nowitzki signing a reduced contract so he can make one more run. The deep team bodes well for the regular season, but they need Chandler to stay healthy, Parsons to continue to develop, and someone to step up at point guard and the third frontcourt spot to truly make a run in the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs, 54-28
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Spurs come back with the exact same team, merely adding versatile rookie Kyle Anderson. The Spurs may not get the best record in the West as they work to keep Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker fresh and wait for Patty Mills to return, but when the playoffs come around, expect them to be ready to take on all challengers.
Memphis Grizzlies, 49-33
The Grizzlies battled major injury as Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, and Quincy Pondexter missed significant time last season. The addition of Vince Carter and the return of Pondexter should address their biggest issue from last year, outside shooting. The team will not win any popularity contests, but they were one Zach Randolph suspension away from possibly upsetting the Thunder last season. The Grizzlies’ ability to grind down teams will help them get back to the postseason again.
New Orleans Pelicans, 44-38
Injuries to pretty much everyone last season derailed the Pelicans, who still got 34 wins with their starters playing less than two games together. The starting five of Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, and Jrue Holiday is strong, and if they get some time together, they should be able to compete for a playoff spot as Davis continues to develop into a star. Omer Asik also adds even more defense and size to an already solid frontcourt. If the Pelicans were in the East, they would be competing for a division title, but in the West they will have to settle for a possible 8 seed.
Houston Rockets, 41-41
All those transactions just to be a borderline playoff team. The Houston Rockets again enter the season with two of the most talented players in the league, and not much else. They are weak upfront as they hope Terrence Ross continues to develop, and they will have to rely on Patrick Beverley more than ever since they let Jeremy Lin walk. Beverley will have to step up his game to replace the offense lost by letting Chandler Parsons and Lin go. Trevor Ariza should also help to fill that void, but he does not have the best track record outside of his contract years. Dwight Howard and James Harden are good, but they lack the leadership and support to truly make a run.
Western Conference Finals: Los Angeles Clippers over San Antonio Spurs
As Griffin continues to develop, the only thing that might hold the Clippers back is an injury to point guard Chris Paul. The Spurs are smart, experienced, and talented but the Clippers should be able to make up the difference this year after last year’s tough playoff run and the additions they made to the bench.
Eastern Conference Finals: Chicago Bulls over Cleveland Cavaliers
Offense wins games, but defense wins championships. The Cavs might end up with one of the best offenses of all time, but Tom Thibodeau’s defense is always ready for the playoffs. The return of Derrick Rose and the addition of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic should give them enough offense to stop the Cavs as long as Rose can stay healthy through June.
NBA Finals: Los Angeles Clippers over Chicago Bulls
Doc Rivers and Thibodeau are familiar with each other from their battles out East, and they have similarly built teams, but the talent of the top players on the Clippers gives them the edge over the Bulls.
MVP: LeBron James
LeBron should have the stats, record, and story to back up another run at MVP. With Durant out, the two challengers may be Stephen Curry or Anthony Davis. If Curry can lead Golden State to the best record and up his averages to 28-9-5 or Davis take the next step towards being the best big man in the league, they may be lifting their first MVP trophy instead of James.
Rookie of the Year: Jabari Parker
He will get a ton of chances on a mediocre Bucks team, and seems to be the most polished of the incoming players. I think Elfrid Payton and Nerlens Noel will get just as many chances, and if Payton shows he can run an NBA team in his first year and Orlando exceeds their low expectations, or Noel can average a double-double with a couple steals and blocks, then one of them could challenge Parker for the award.