1. SB Nation's 2014NBA Preview

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    1. Credits

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  2. The summer of LeBron

  3. Eastern Conference

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  4. Atlanta Hawks

    Brett Davis - USA TODAY Sports

    The offseason was far from average for an Atlanta Hawks team that found itself about average in many things – record, efficiency and pace – last season. Racially-charged comments forced owner Bruce Levenson to step aside and general manager Danny Ferry to take a leave of absence, and now it’s an attempt to get back to basketball. A floor spacing team will again ride the underrated Paul Millsap, but a healthy Al Horford could help coach Mike Budenholzer build a true playoff contender in his second season.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 38-44
    • FINISH: 8th
    • HEAD COACH: Mike Budenholzer
      • PG: Jeff Teague
      • SG: Kyle Korver
      • SF: DeMarre Carroll
      • PF: Paul Millsap
      • C: Al Horford

    How they play

    Think of Atlanta’s offense as Spurs lite. Mike Budenholzer brought many of San Antonio’s sets to Atlanta, incorporating dizzying motion, pristine spacing and quick passing to generate offense. Budenholzer loves employing four and sometimes five three-point shooters at once, with Paul Millsap evolving into the extra one last season.

    One key difference: the Hawks don’t have two penetrating guards like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, so they tilt defenses with off-ball motion, particularly Kyle Korver running through screens and pulling defenders scared of yielding open jumpers to him. There’s a little more inside balance with Al Horford healthy, but it’s largely a perimeter system.

    The Hawks lack elite perimeter defenders, but position themselves smartly, so they overachieve. Like many teams, they force pick and rolls to the sideline. The drop-off between the superlative Horford and his backups can be steep.

    Key changes

    IN: Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha, Adreian Payne

    The Hawks gave the 25-year-old Bazemore an opportunity to earn a rotation spot, but he’ll be fighting to back up Korver with an established defensive specialist in Sefolosha. Atlanta’s drafting of Payne gives Budenholzer the luxury of another floor spacing power forward who comes off the bench behind Millsap.

    OUT: Lou Williams, Gustavo Ayon, Cartier Martin

    Ayon and Martin saw limited action and had their spots upgraded, but losing a scoring punch like Williams might hurt a tad. Atlanta, however, is confident in what it looks like without Williams, who isn’t the model of efficiency the Hawks would like.

    How will the offseason drama affect the team on the court?

    This is a big question. Where will Danny Ferry be in the 2014-15 season? His leave of absence and the For Sale sign in the windows of Philips Arena undoubtedly will cause some uncertainty that you’d believe needs to be addressed before the next offseason.

    However that resolves, the on-court Hawks are mentally prepared for the season and are surprisingly upbeat, due in part to the expected return of Al Horford, another year under Mike Budenholzer and the character of the players that have joined the team. One of their strengths is their mental toughness and hard work. That’s what will carry them past the drama of this past offseason and the lingering ownership/front office issues that still remain.

    Best case

    Atlanta picks up where it left off in the playoffs, putting opponents on their heels with its quirky five-out system. A healthy Al Horford and contract-year Paul Milsap form the best frontcourt in the East this side of Cleveland. The focus finally pivots back to basketball after a bizarre and uncomfortable offseason.

    Worst case

    We’re still talking about Danny Ferry eight months from now.

  5. Boston Celtics

    Winslow Townson - USA TODAY Sports

    Boston did heavy lifting to dig itself a deeper pool of talent through both the draft and via trade, but Rajon Rondo’s role and the inevitable trade rumors in his contract year will continue to write the leading headlines. The Celtics should improve upon a year ago with rookie Marcus Smart likely ready to contribute immediately, but whether coach Brad Stevens can get significant contributions out of his other young players remains to be seen. Until that happens and until Rondo’s situation is resolved, the identity of the Celtics remains hard to nail down.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 25-57
    • FINISH: 12th
    • HEAD COACH: Brad Stevens
      • PG: Rajon Rondo
      • SG: Avery Bradley
      • SF: Jeff Green
      • PF: Jared Sullinger
      • C: Brandon Bass

    How they play

    It’s tricky to decipher Brad Stevens’ offensive system. Back in December, a scout told Sports Illustrated that the Celtics’ play calls were tough to pick up because they ran a read-and-react system instead of rigid set plays. Teams eventually figured Boston out as the season progressed, but that probably has more to do with its lack of talent.

    The Celtics’ roster doesn’t have many traditional big men, so expect Stevens to let Rajon Rondo run the show and keep the middle open. Stevens is analytically minded, so players like Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk will shoot plenty of threes.

    The Celtics defended pick and rolls very conservatively last season, which worked well until a late-season tumble in the rankings. However, Stevens preferred a more aggressive hedge-and-recover system while coaching Butler and is expected to return to that style this year.

    Key changes

    IN: Marcus Smart, Tyler Zeller, Evan Turner, Marcus Thornton, James Young, Dwight Powell.

    A three-team deal helped general manager Danny Ainge acquire two young but different big men in Tyler Zeller, a traditional big, and Dwight Powell, an athletic stretch 4 who underwhelmed at Stanford. The trade also netted Thornton, who could give the Celtics a scoring boost in his contract year. Drafting the competitive Smart fit the Celtics’ culture perfectly, and Young could be a Morris Peterson-esque lefty shooter down the road. Turner, the second overall pick in 2010 whose career seems to be at a crossroads, was the most curious addition.

    OUT: Kris Humphries, Jerryd Bayless

    Humphries was simply a stopgap for a season and wouldn’t have given Boston’s young bigs a chance to grow. Bayless was another veteran rotation player who didn’t fit the team’s long-term plans.

    Should the Celtics trade Rajon Rondo?

    No. There’s always a chance that another team will come in and give the Celtics an offer they can’t refuse. But until that happens, I’ll continue to bang the bass drum that has the following words stenciled onto the side: Rajon Rondo is worth more to the Celtics than he is to any other team.

    The Celtics are rebuilding right now, but they’ll have a chance to get a lot better this offseason. They have more future draft picks than they could ever realistically use, so some of them are going to be packaged together to bring in some help. The team will have a great deal of cap space next summer, and if they want to attract free agents (or retain traded players with contract extensions), Rondo is going to be a key recruiter.

    You simply don’t get to be a really good team without having stars. The Celtics already have one in Rondo and they need to add more next to him.

    Best case

    Rajon Rondo returns in full to the glorious basketball weirdo he once was, inverting defenses and turning the court into his own personal game of Connect Four. Marcus Smart gives Boston its first exciting rookie in years. Kelly Olynyk’s part-time modeling gig provides a nice amount of supplemental income.

    Worst case

    Rondo gets cranky on a bad team in the last year of his contract and the intrinsic joy is sapped out of his game. The Boston frontcourt is defeated nightly by a strong wind. Brad Stevens realizes he maybe didn’t have it so bad in the Horizon League.

  6. Brooklyn Nets

    Elsa/Getty Images

    Jason Kidd is out of Brooklyn, so maybe the Nets will stay out of the news for their cup-spilling incidents and attempted front office upheaval. That might be hard to do with owner Mikhail Prokhorov reportedly having interest in changing the ownership structure of the team, but first-year coach Lionel Hollins should bring stability. Despite signs of financial prudence for once, the Nets still have enough talent with a post presence in Brook Lopez, perimeter experience from Joe Johnson and Deron Williams and added youth thanks to fine backend roster management.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 44-38
    • FINISH: 6th
    • HEAD COACH: Lionel Hollins
      • PG: Deron Williams
      • SG: Joe Johnson
      • SF: Bojan Bogdanovic
      • PF: Kevin Garnett
      • C: Brook Lopez

    How they play

    Last year’s Nets played small and spread the floor, yet ran fewer pick and rolls than anyone. Jason Kidd’s club incorporated elements of Rick Adelman’s Corner offense to confuse opponents, exploiting mismatches all over the court. Wings like Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce thrived because they were either too big or too quick for the players defending them.

    But with Brook Lopez healthy and Lionel Hollins replacing Kidd, expect a change to a more traditional system. There’s talk of Hollins incorporating Jerry Sloan’s old offense and centering the system around pick and rolls rather than Lopez’s post-up ability, but we’ll see if that actually carries over to the regular season. Minimizing Lopez’s biggest strength isn’t wise.

    The Nets’ defense was very aggressive defending pick and roll and plugging the middle last year, but with Lopez back, expect a more traditional setup that doesn’t force the lumbering 7-footer too far from the basket.

    Key changes

    IN: Jarrett Jack, Bojan Bogdanovic, Sergey Karasev, Markel Brown

    Despite his flaws, Jack can take on ball-handling duties to score or make plays for his teammates, which is big for a team that lost Livingston in free agency and has to worry about injuries to the aging Williams and Johnson. Bogdanovic’s scoring capabilities on the wing shined through this summer in the World Cup and could result in a starting gig. Karasev and Brown give the Nets even more youth that bodes well for the future.

    OUT: Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston, Andray Blatche, Marcus Thornton, Jason Collins

    Pierce continues his post-Celtics days in Washington, where his game is more valuable on a developing playoff squad. Livingston, Blatche and Thornton all played their part last year on an injury-plagued team. Livingston earned a new contract in Golden State, while Blatche and Thornton leave their posts on what was a hodgepodge roster.

    Will Deron Williams ever be a star again?

    When Deron Williams came over, he was expected to bring the Nets out of a blue period the franchise and fanbase following Jason Kidd’s departure (the first one) and the messy Carmelo Anthony saga. But since he’s been in the Eastern Conference, Williams hasn’t played up to that standard. He’s dealt with wrist and ankle injuries throughout his tenure with the Nets that have sapped his athleticism and explosiveness.

    Watching the new generation of point guards excel while the point guard the team pinned so many hopes on underperform will anger the home fans. When you add in his status as a max contract player, those frustrations become even more pronounced.

    Thus, this is perhaps the most important season of Williams' career. He’s taken tons of criticism and has seen his stock in basketball circles plummet.

    But there are good signs for Nets fans. Williams underwent surgery in the summer to fix his ankles and has come into camp looking trimmer than usual. He’s close to 100 percent and has a great chance to silence the critics.

    Best case

    Lionel Hollins reminds folks that he was a very good head coach not long ago. Brook Lopez stays healthy and proves he’s one of the best young centers in the NBA. Inside of an otherwise-uninspiring offense, Iso Joe is never used as a pejorative again.

    Worst case

    The foot injuries that have plagued Lopez so often pop up again. Deron Williams proves once and for all that he’s never returning to the player he once was. Mikhail Prokhorov quits the NBA entirely to focus on uranium mining and extreme jet ski stunts.

  7. Charlotte Hornets

    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

    The Hornets are back. No, not the New Orleans Hornets, but the teal and purple Charlotte Hornets that made a big splash in acquiring Lance Stephenson and are on the rise after a surprising playoff berth last year. This is a young team growing under head coach Steve Clifford and will be a tough out with their renewed focus on defense and Stephenson there to (hopefully) provide more offensive punch with Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 43-39
    • FINISH: 7th
    • HEAD COACH: Steve Clifford
      • PG: Kemba Walker
      • SG: Lance Stephenson
      • SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
      • PF: Marvin Williams
      • C: Al Jefferson

    How they play

    Steve Clifford achieved a minor miracle last year by building an elite defense around notorious sieve Al Jefferson. Clifford asked his wings to sink deeply into the lane on any pick and roll, creating a shell around the paint to aid Jefferson even if it meant temporarily yielding open three-pointers. Charlotte gambled that Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Josh McRoberts had enough length to recover and they usually did.

    That will change slightly with McRoberts departing to Miami. Clifford has admitted he only incorporated his base defense last year. This year, we should see new wrinkles.

    Offensively, Charlotte squeezed out inches of spacing with pristine ball movement and strong entry passes to Jefferson. But while the then-Bobcats were technically proficient, their lack of perimeter shooting made things difficult when Jefferson wasn’t dominating. Charlotte was also very slow-paced last year, but that should change with the addition of Lance Stephenson and his customary 1 on 3 fast breaks.

    Key changes

    IN: Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams, Brian Roberts, Noah Vonleh, P.J. Hairston

    General manager Rich Cho needed to rebuild around the one-two punch of Jefferson and Walker with a number of free agents leaving. Stephenson is the huge get: his playmaking and, yes, occasional recklessness is welcome for a team that didn’t have a great secondary ball handler last year. Williams, Roberts and even Hairston can contribute to the depth, while Vonleh is only a project with a lot of promise at this point.

    OUT: Josh McRoberts, Luke Ridnour, Anthony Tolliver, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Ben Gordon

    McRoberts leaving for Miami pained Charlotte because of how well his passing and shooting fit with Jefferson’s low-post desires. Losing Tolliver, who is now playing in Phoenix, also leaves some questions about the floor spacing. Charlotte went with youth over Ridnour and Douglas-Roberts, while the team is simply happy Gordon is off the books.

    Who is sticking around for the long haul?

    The Hornets have several players whose futures are up in the air.

    For center Bismack Biyombo, this season is a final chance to prove himself. Once a starter, Biyombo only started nine games last season. Is it worth paying lottery scale money for a limited offensive player to play 15 minutes per game? Probably not, especially as the Hornets continue to find better players at his position.

    Though Gerald Henderson signed a two-year deal in the summer of 2013 and has a player option for 2015, the Hornets' perimeter additions indicate they may not be married to him in the long run. If he can prove to be a strong contributor as a sixth man or spot starter, he’ll stick around. If not, the front office could view him as trade bait.

    Finally, Kemba Walker will be looking to earn an extension. Unlike Biyombo, it’s not a matter of “if”, but “when” and “how much.” Walker could be in for a bigger deal if he is able to rediscover his shooting stroke and builds on what he already does well.

    Best case

    Lance Stephenson blows up the way James Harden once did as the primary option on a new team. Al Jefferson keeps eating up Eastern Conference frontcourts. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s new shooting stroke isn’t a mirage.

    Worst case

    Stephenson tries to do too much and realizes life was better with Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert around. A surprisingly-effective defense from last season regresses. The city of Charlotte suddenly becomes nostalgic for the halcyon days of Rufus.

  8. Chicago Bulls

    Mike DiNovo - USA TODAY Sports

    The list of Eastern Conference title contenders is short, but the Bulls, even with a few significant additions and questions, have the cultural backbone others don’t thanks to coach Tom Thibodeau. A healthy Derrick Rose shook off some rust with Team USA this summer, while free agent addition Pau Gasol gives Chicago another dimension alongside Joakim Noah. There’s time for those players to develop offensive chemistry with a remaining emphasis on defense. That defense is an important head start over the challengers for conference supremacy that reside in Cleveland.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 48-34
    • FINISH: 4th
    • HEAD COACH: Tom Thibodeau
      • PG: Derrick Rose
      • SG: Jimmy Butler
      • SF: Mike Dunleavy
      • PF: Pau Gasol
      • C: Joakim Noah

    How they play

    Playing against Chicago is like going to the dentist. You dread having to do it, but you have no choice if the meeting is on the schedule.

    Tom Thibodeau has slightly altered his strong-side zone defensive scheme over the years, but the basics are still the same. Chicago forces pick and rolls to the sideline, aggressively covers the first pass out and uses Joakim Noah’s roaming ability to address any problem areas elsewhere.

    The offense … yeah. That was equally cringe-worthy without Derrick Rose last year. The Bulls have slowly evolved into a club that’s built around Noah’s high-post passing, but when D.J. Augustin is the best perimeter playmaker, it’s hard to generate anything when sets inevitably break down. The hope is that Noah and Pau Gasol can carry enough of the playmaking burden from the elbows until Rose feels comfortable.

    Key changes

    IN: Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Aaron Brooks, E’Twaun Moore

    Chicago relied too much on Noah to create offense last season, so the addition of Gasol should help a great deal. Those post passers will find a little space in the middle thanks to Mirotic and McDermott in what the Bulls hope is an offense that doesn’t put too much of a burden initially on Rose. Brooks fills the need for a quick-triggered point guard after Augustin’s departure.

    OUT: Carlos Boozer, D.J. Augustin, Jimmer Fredette

    The perception of Boozer outside the team was toxic, with fans clamoring for him to be amnestied over the last few years given his declining play and the effectiveness of backup Taj Gibson. Losing Augustin hurts the Bulls because they relied on him so much, though that’s also a sign of how poorly the offense operated.

    Can Derrick Rose be great again?

    He’s still THE thing to put the Bulls back into title contention. Tom Thibodeau’s defense, Joakim Noah’s progression into an All-NBA player, the addition of Pau Gasol and Doug McDermott … none will matter much of Rose can’t come back to be the player he was.

    What will be key for this season is that Rose gets there by the time the playoffs roll around. The 10 games he played last season were rough and he looked to be a shell of himself at times during the World Championships. The two major non-contact knee injuries and simply the time he’s missed since his MVP year mean that it may still take time for Rose to be himself again.

    But as we’ve seen in years prior, the regular season is merely the prelude. So even if there’s sloppy play, poor shooting, and – yes – a minor injury here and there, as long as Rose is back near his established level by the time the playoffs begin, the Bulls should be primed to make a run.

    Best case

    Derrick Rose stays healthy and regains his form as one of the best guards in the NBA. Joakm Noah and Pau Gasol spend the season dropping beautiful backdoor passes to open cutters. Tom Thibodeau finally chills out a little bit.

    Worst case

    Rose gets injured again. Thibodeau’s relentless minutes allocation grinds Jimmy Butler and Noah into a fine powder by March, causing an early playoff exit. Rookies Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott struggle to find consistent burn.

  9. Cleveland Cavaliers

    Ken Blaze - USA TODAY Sports

    Here’s the crazy perspective to understand about the Cavaliers: Just eight months ago, they were searching for a new general manager. Five months ago, they were looking for a new head coach. The NBA’s most dysfunctional team then is now the favorite to win the title after adding LeBron James and Kevin Love. From 1.7 percent odds of winning the lottery to owner Dan Gilbert making up with James for their ugly split in 2010, everything has gone Cleveland’s way. It’s on new coach David Blatt to bring it together.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 33-49
    • FINISH: 10th
    • HEAD COACH: David Blatt
      • PG: Kyrie Irving
      • SG: Dion Waiters
      • SF: LeBron James
      • PF: Kevin Love
      • C: Anderson Varejao

    How they play

    No matter what, they’ll be fun to watch. But the how is still up in the air.

    The Cavaliers will have a great offense, but we’ve yet to see the specifics beyond the preseason. David Blatt is a Princeton Offense disciple, preferring to pair pace with Pete Carril’s traditional read-and-react style that opens the floor and puts bigs in the high post. All indications are that he’s bringing those principles to Cleveland, if not the specific system itself. But Blatt is also a pragmatist that’s known for adapting to whatever puts his players in the best position to succeed.

    Cleveland’s defensive philosophy is an even bigger mystery. Despite his reputation as an offensive savant, Blatt has always taught this end extremely well. But without an obvious rim protector on the roster, will Blatt mirror Miami and dial up the pressure? Or, will he play more conservatively to save LeBron’s energy?

    Key changes

    IN: LeBron James, Kevin Love, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Brendan Haywood, James Jones

    Nothing like getting the best player in the world. A more mature and thinner LeBron returns to Cleveland aiming to impart wisdom on Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and others. James’ free agency decision led to the Cavs trading for Love, giving the team three All-Star caliber starters. Marion, Miller, Haywood and Jones all bring a wealth of playoff experience to help James change the culture.

    OUT: Luol Deng, Spencer Hawes, Anthony Bennett, Jarrett Jack, C.J. Miles, Tyler Zeller, Alonzo Gee

    Both Deng and Hawes found themselves in Cleveland via trade last year, and there was no way they were coming back with the team set on signing LeBron. Bennett, Zeller, Gee and Jack were dealt to clear the way for James and Love, while Miles was allowed to walk.

    How will David Blatt mold his roster?

    Do Kyrie Irving and LeBron James have duplicative talents? Should their minutes be staggered? If you do that, where does Dion Waiters fit in? Should Tristan Thompson start at center to help manage Anderson Varejao’s minutes? Should Kevin Love ever leave the game? Is Shawn Marion more valuable to the Cavaliers guarding shooting guards, small forwards or power forwards? How do you divide up minutes between Matthew Dellavedova, Waiters, Mike Miller, Marion and perhaps Ray Allen while keeping everyone happy?

    Let’s distill another question a bit further. Does Blatt want to maximize the amount of time Irving and LeBron play together, or does he want to minimize the amount of time the Cavaliers play without either?

    These questions get into the minutiae a bit, but they matter. They are difficult to answer and are more reasons why this season will be fascinating.

    Best case

    LeBron, Love and Kyrie turn every game into their personal highlight reel within the league’s best offense. Anderson Varejao stays healthy and quarterbacks the defense to a championship. Clevelanders can finally stop pretending they’re more tortured than every other group of sports fans.

    Worst case

    The Cavs struggle to find their footing in the first year the same way the Miami Heat once did and lose in the conference finals. The interior defense proves to be a problem that cannot be fixed. LeBron confuses Dion Waiters with Mario Chalmers and never stops yelling at him.

  10. Detroit Pistons

    Rick Osentoski - USA TODAY Sports

    The amalgamation of a roster the Detroit Pistons put together last offseason didn’t fit, and the team fired coach Maurice Cheeks before he had a chance to solve the challenging puzzle. Now, well-regarded coach Stan Van Gundy has the task of fitting Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith together as an effective defensive unit, all while reeling in Brandon Jennings, among others, to get somewhere closer to ideal offensive efficiency.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 29-53
    • FINISH: 11th
    • HEAD COACH: Stan Van Gundy
      • PG: Brandon Jennings
      • SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
      • SF: Caron Butler
      • PF: Greg Monroe
      • C: Andre Drummond

    How they play

    Anything will be more aesthetically-pleasing than last year, when Detroit was the most disorganized non-Philadelphia team in the league. The spacing challenges presented by the roster were never solved and defensive communication was so awful that simple pick and roll action left Detroit scrambling.

    New coach Stan Van Gundy historically prefers a four-out offensive system and a conservative defensive approach, but he doesn’t have the ideal roster for either. We may instead see him be a pragmatist that picks out a few core tenants on both ends that the team can master easily before moving on to more elaborate designs. Charlotte’s Steve Clifford was successful using a similar philosophy last year.

    Key changes

    IN: Jodie Meeks, D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler, Cartier Martin, Spencer Dinwiddie

    After making their big splashes last summer by adding Smith and Jennings, the Pistons weren’t as active in their first offseason under Van Gundy. As GM, the former Magic coach also tried his hand at solving the current roster, only adding minor reinforcements in Meeks, Augustin and Butler. The shooting ability of that trio will certainly be a welcomed addition.

    OUT: Rodney Stuckey, Chauncey Billups, Charlie Villanueva

    The Pistons ultimately didn’t break up their frontcourt after seemingly considering it throughout the summer. Instead, the team’s biggest losses were Stuckey, Billups and Villanueva, who all walked as free agents. It’s easy to see why Van Gundy decided to go in a different direction from those three players.

    How will minutes be split between Greg Monroe, Josh Smith and Andre Drummond?

    I’d be willing to bet that the trio of Drummond, Monroe and Smith will not start this year, which means one of Monroe or Smith comes off the bench. Smith is the superior defender but a much inferior offensive player. Monroe complements Drummond better, but isn’t as versatile defensively and might not be a long-term answer.

    Even with all the incompetence of the lone Mo Cheeks / John Loyer season, the Pistons were a pretty good team when any two of the three big men were on the floor. In the 1,540 minutes any two of the three bigs shared the court, the Pistons actually outscored their opponent by 36 points. The problem is that the three bigs played together for 1,360 minutes and got destroyed by 185 points. Just turning the three into a big-man rotation rather than a regular frontcourt unit pushes the Pistons a lot closer to respectability.

    But to get into the playoffs in one year will be a monumental undertaking by Van Gundy. For that to happen, one of Monroe or Smith has to come off the bench, accept the role and thrive.

    Best case

    Andre Drummond takes off as one of the most physically-gifted athletes in the league. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope develops into the shooter Detroit badly needs in his second season. Stan Van Gundy starts to change the culture and Detroit makes the playoffs for the first time in five years

    Worst case

    The front court logjam between Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Drummond continues to be an issue. There isn’t enough shooting or spacing around Drummond. Van Gundy has no magic answer for a team perpetually stuck in rebuilding mode.

  11. Indiana Pacers

    David Richard - USA TODAY Sports

    Pity the poor Pacers. The East’s best regular-season team was surprised when it lost Lance Stephenson in free agency and were devastated by Paul George’s horrible leg injury during a Team USA scrimmage. This is a team that struggled to score with both of their best perimeter players last season. Without them, Indiana’s offense is going to be brutal. The downfall from the league’s best team last January to now could be swift.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 56-26
    • FINISH: 1st
    • HEAD COACH: Frank Vogel
      • PG: George Hill
      • SG: Rodney Stuckey
      • SF: C.J. Miles
      • PF: David West
      • C: Roy Hibbert

    How they play

    Indiana’s offense was cringe-worthy late in the season last year … and that was with Paul George and Lance Stephenson. Without them, it’ll be like watching paint dry. Frank Vogel will attempt to go through the post with David West and Roy Hibbert, but West is past his prime and Hibbert struggles to fight for position. Indiana is an awful screening team too and doesn’t have a guard that can consistently make plays off the dribble unless Rodney Stuckey steps up. So … enjoy!

    Indiana’s defense should still be elite, though. The Pacers funnel all dribble penetration to Hibbert, who swallows everyone at the rim provided officials are lenient with enforcing the verticality rule. Because Hibbert is such a presence in the paint, Pacers wings can stay at home on shooters and force opponents to take inefficient long two-point jumpers.

    Key changes

    IN: Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, Damjan Rudez, Chris Singleton

    The Pacers clearly didn’t plan for a major overhaul this summer, as their offseason additions pale in comparison to their losses. Stuckey and Miles will immediately help on the wings, where Indiana needs the most aid, and Rudez could be a useful addition as well. They’re asking these guys to replace George and Stephenson, though.

    OUT: Paul George (so to speak), Lance Stephenson, Evan Turner, Rasual Butler, Andrew Bynum

    It’s going to be a rebuilding year on the wings for Indiana after losing George (to injury), Stephenson, Turner and Butler. The latter two losses don’t hurt much, but it’ll be a tall task to replace two players as valuable as George and Stephenson, who’s in Charlotte now. So much of what the Pacers did last season went through those two. It’ll be a major adjustment playing without them.

    Who will replace Paul George and Lance Stephenson?

    Rodney Stuckey, Solomon Hill, C.J. Miles, Chris Copeland and Damjan Rudez are among the group of players in the mix for rotation minutes and a starting nod. The most likely scenario has Stuckey starting as a combo guard that can mix and match with George Hill, allowing both players to play off the ball at times. If Frank Vogel wants more size, he can go with Miles at shooting guard, but that seems unlikely.

    The small forward slot will be where the main competition takes place. Solomon Hill is a strong defender who’d complement the starting unit’s defensive disposition quite well, but his offensive game isn’t nearly as stout. For Copeland, knocking down shots isn’t a problem – his task is to prove he’s not a liability on defense. Miles is the best two-way option, though he’s more of a scoring threat that’d provide offensive punch for the reserve unit.

    So, yeah, the options aren’t thrilling.

    Best case

    A team that seemed like it hated playing with each other last season finally starts having fun again and earns an unlikely playoff berth. Roy Hibbert bounces back to remind you he’s one of the NBA’s best rim protectors. David West scares some people.

    Worst case

    A team without Paul George and Lance Stephenson simply doesn’t have enough firepower offensively. Hibbert sulks again and is the subject of trade rumors through February.

  12. Miami Heat

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    When a team loses LeBron James, it’s next to impossible to fully recover. But Pat Riley did his best, keeping other core players and adding some intriguing newcomers. Luol Deng will never be confused with James, but he’s a very good NBA player and joins the retained Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and fellow newcomers Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger. The Heat still have plenty of talent and one of the league’s best coaches in Erik Spoesltra, so they’ll still be competitive. Just don’t expect any titles.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 54-28
    • FINISH: 2nd
    • HEAD COACH: Erik Spoelstra
      • PG: Mario Chalmers
      • SG: Dwyane Wade
      • SF: Luol Deng
      • PF: Josh McRoberts
      • C: Chris Bosh

    How they play

    Chris Bosh’s injury in the 2012 playoffs convinced the Heat to embrace being a small-ball juggernaut that spread the floor, shot tons of threes and attacked all driving lanes. LeBron James is gone, but the system should remain. A Bosh/Josh McRoberts frontcourt will feature lots of speed, passing and versatility, if not much rebounding. Dwyane Wade, Bosh and Luol Deng all have excellent post games, so Miami will spend plenty of time inverting the floor and forcing smaller defenders to defend inside.

    The Heat’s aggressive blitzing defense should remain as well. McRoberts is especially well-equipped to show 25 feet from the basket and rotate back into position.

    Key changes

    IN: Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger, Shabazz Napier, Reggie Williams, Shannon Brown, Shawne Williams.

    It’s certainly not the offseason Pat Riley wanted, but his ability to re-craft the Heat roster after losing LeBron was impressive. Bosh and Wade remain an intriguing one-two punch and role players like Deng, McRoberts and Granger are fine ways to fill out a roster. The team might regret drafting Napier given the seemingly LeBron-centric reasons behind the decision, though.

    OUT: LeBron James, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, Michael Beasley, Toney Douglas, Greg Oden, James Jones

    It’s been a long time since a team lost as much talent as the Heat did over the summer. Any time you lose a once-in-a-generation superstar is devastating. It’s a testament to Riley’s ingenuity that the franchise didn’t roll over, but the bottom line is Miami lost the game’s best player and there’s no way to break even after that.

    Can Chris Bosh do it all?

    Bosh sacrificed far more than James and Wade during the Big Three era. He relegated himself to a safety-valve offensive option and the Heat rarely ran plays for him. He vastly improved his defensive game, shifted over to the center position and emerged as the anchor of the Heat’s aggressive trapping defense. Also, he extended his range to the three-point line to draw big men away from the paint. In a moment of candor, Bosh told Grantland’s Zach Lowe during last year’s playoffs that he doesn’t post up anymore because playing Miami’s style of defense is exhausting.

    It remains an open question whether Bosh can become the 20-point scorer Miami needs him to be, chase pick-and-rolls at the three-point line and defend opposing centers while at a weight disadvantage. Spoelstra used Bosh and Chris Andersen in the same lineup more frequently last season and that may be an option again. But with Bosh vaulted from the third option to the first option, one has to wonder whether he has the energy to stand as the defensive anchor.

    Best case

    Dwyane Wade plays a full season and reminds the world he’s still one of the best shooting guards alive. Chris Bosh thrives as the primary scoring option. Erik Spolestra finds a way to leverage some nice supporting pieces around the two stars and leads Miami to 50 wins.

    Worst case

    Wade is cooked. Luol Deng slows down after putting so many miles on his body in Chicago. Shabazz Napier has more money for food, but is struck with the harsh realization he’s no longer the most talented player on the floor.

  13. Milwaukee Bucks

    Benny Sieu - USA TODAY Sports

    There’s optimism surrounding the league’s worst team last year, but the Bucks still have a ways to go. Jason Kidd jumped ship from the Brooklyn Nets to lead the Bucks into a brighter future, but that future won’t arrive overnight. What matters now is the development of young wings Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, who is an early Rookie of the Year favorite. Milwaukee’s headed for another tough season, but having high-potential players to watch grow over an 82-game journey should ease the pain for fans.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 15-67
    • FINISH: 15th
    • HEAD COACH: Jason Kidd
      • PG: Brandon Knight
      • SG: Khris Middleton
      • SF: Giannis Antetokounmpo
      • PF: Jabari Parker
      • C: Larry Sanders

    How they play

    The “longball” approach that Jason Kidd used in Brooklyn after Brook Lopez’s injury is ideally suited for this Bucks roster. In Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, Kidd has two rangy combo forwards that have the length to guard bigger players and the speed to sneak around them. Kidd will surely do everything he can to push the pace; the long-rumored Point Giannis experiment is likely just a vehicle to empower the Greek youngster to take off and run instead of looking for the point guard when he grabs rebounds.

    Defense will be a challenge. Antetokounmpo is still raw on the perimeter and Parker comes in with a poor reputation. A lot will be asked of Larry Sanders, who had a trying season both on and off the court after breaking out the year before.

    Key changes

    IN: Jabari Parker, Jared Dudley, Jerryd Bayless, Kendall Marshall, Damien Ingles

    For a team looking towards the future, the only offseason addition that really matters is Parker. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft is Milwaukee’s best shot at a superstar in years. He’s slated to start at power forward from Day 1 and should quickly establish himself as one of the game’s better scorers.

    OUT: Ramon Sessions, Jeff Adrien, Ekpe Udoh, Miroslav Radulijca

    Losing a few minor pieces during the summer shouldn’t concern the league’s worst team. Sessions is a decent point guard and someone might coax quality performances out of Adrien or Udoh eventually, but they’re certainly not building blocks for a team that’s a work in progress.

    Is Brandon Knight a part of the team’s future?

    This season represents a major crossroads for Knight as the Bucks’ de facto point guard. He was one of the few pleasant surprises of Milwaukee’s 2013-14 season, but career-highs for Knight were mostly just average in an overall league context. It’s still fair to wonder whether Knight will ever develop the requisite lead guard skills to make the leap.

    Improving decision-making will be key for Knight and he knows it. But it’s not as simple as waiting for the game to slow down, which doesn’t magically happen when a player hits 7500 minutes or some other arbitrary milestone. Knight has tremendous quickness and athleticism, but he didn’t leverage those abilities into production often enough. He’ll need to improve his shooting at the rim to put more pressure on defenses and his pick-and-roll game needs work.

    Significant progress in his fourth year could earn Knight a big extension and a major role moving forward. A step back could see him relegated to permanent “bench combo guard” territory.

    Best case

    Jabari Parker leads all rookies in scoring and shows he’s going to be a future star. Giannis Antetokounmpo thrives as the biggest point guard in basketball history under Jason Kidd. Larry Sanders blocks some shots and takes a break from tossing champagne bottles in the club.

    Worst case

    The point guard situation remains unresolved, Sanders and John Henson never mesh and the Bucks lose a lot of games without their young players developing. Kidd flees elsewhere after another power struggle with management.

  14. New York Knicks

    Anthony Gruppuso - USA TODAY Sports

    Knicks basketball has a new identity, thanks to a new leader that’s accomplished a thing or two in his career. With first-time coach Derek Fisher as his vessel, Phil Jackson will try his hand at bringing the Knicks back, installing the Triangle offense while using the re-signed Carmelo Anthony as his focal point. New York is still in transition, but the structure will help them improve on last year’s disastrous fall from grace. Let’s see if the Zen Master still has that magic touch.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 37-45
    • FINISH: 9th
    • HEAD COACH: Derek Fisher
      • PG: Jose Calderon
      • SG: Iman Shumpert
      • SF: Carmelo Anthony
      • PF: Quincy Acy
      • C: Samuel Dalembert

    How they play

    It’s baaaaaaaaaack. The Triangle offense returns to the NBA, with Derek Fisher spreading the gospel to Carmelo Anthony. Read this feature story for the definitive guide on the system.

    Anthony will surely be the focal point, both on the wing and in the post. The Knicks have several good spot-up shooters among their guards, but are still lacking in big men that can facilitate out of the high post. This isn’t going to work overnight, but at least the offense should eventually be more fluid than Mike Woodson’s system.

    Fisher’s defense of choice is unclear, but again, it should be much better than Woodson’s. The Knicks defended pick and roll strangely last year, inviting middle penetration and attempting to cut it off with their wings instead of their big men. (If Tyson Chandler has a defensive revival in Dallas this season, you can thank his escape from Woodson’s idiosyncratic scheme).

    Key changes

    IN: Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Jason Smith, Travis Outlaw, Cleanthony Early, Quincy Acy, Shane Larkin

    New York is hoping it found the answer to its point guard problem in Calderon, who was acquired from Dallas in a trade that also netted the Knicks Dalembert and Larkin. Calderon’s marksmanship should be a good fit for the Triangle offense, though he’s a defensive sieve. In addition to Dalembert, the Knicks also added Smith and Acy to help down low.

    OUT: Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Kenyon Martin, Toure’ Murry

    Dealing away a former Defensive Player of the Year is a tough pill to swallow, especially considering the fact that Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani offer very little in that area. But Chandler had grown frustrated by the organization and his play declined along with his spirit. The losses of Felton, Martin and Murry shouldn’t hurt much.

    Which is better: the No. 8 seed or the No. 8 pick?

    ChristianBaber: I’d rather the Knicks sneak into the playoffs. The ‘15 offseason may provide a chance to secure a skilled star center like Marc Gasol or Greg Monroe. The pick is enticing, but I’d rather work to add proven veteran talent likely to contribute at a high level immediately.

    Jonathan Schulman: No. 8 pick. The Knicks need talent at every spot and on both sides of the ball that can complement Carmelo Anthony and Jose Calderon. Adding that talent on such a reasonable contract is paramount to getting the No. 8 seed or more in 2015-16.

    Seth Rosenthal: Catch me on a different day and I’d say the No. 8 pick, but I want the Knicks back in the playoffs. I already miss the postseason after a year off. It’s a heartening, emulsifying experience, it tells free agents the Knicks are near-ready, and they’d get a decent pick (their own!) anyway. Like, right now I’d rather have the No. 16 pick and a feeling of accomplishment than just the No. 8 pick.

    Best case

    Carmelo Anthony thrives in the Triangle and continues to explode for huge scoring nights. The point guard play is vastly improved by Jose Calderon, and Derek Fisher gets the Knicks to play a little defense again. New York earns the sixth seed and nearly advances to the second round.

    Worst case

    Melo still doesn’t have enough help on either side of the ball, and the lack of rim protection plagues the team nightly. The best free agents in 2015 start to wonder why anyone would choose New York.

  15. Orlando Magic

    Jeff Hanisch - USA TODAY Sports

    The Magic championed a defense-first philosophy this summer, which could lead to growing pains because the team is filled with high-potential, low-experience players. Victor Oladipo had a very good rookie season, and he’ll now have rookies Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon to help him hound opponents and brick jump shots. There will be struggles, but at least the Magic have a direction. Embracing it may be painful for the time being, but the payout will be worth it down the road.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 23-59
    • FINISH: 13th
    • HEAD COACH: Jacque Vaughn
      • PG: Elfrid Payton
      • SG: Victor Oladipo
      • SF: Maurice Harkless
      • PF: Channing Frye
      • C: Nikola Vucevic

    How they play

    Scoring points will be a chore for the Magic given their lack of shooting. Projected backcourt starters Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo are both slashers. Key frontcourt youngsters Aaron Gordon and Maurice Harkless possess two of the five worst jumpers in the entire league. Nikola Vucevic is decent from mid-range, but that’s it. Fellow frontcourt player Tobias Harris shot 25 percent from three-point range last year. The hope is that the threat of newcomer Channing Frye opens the floor for those slashers to get to the basket, but that’s a big challenge for Jacque Vaughn.

    The team’s defensive system should also be interesting. Vaughn played pick and roll conservatively last year to protect Vucevic’s lack of mobility, but the athletes everywhere else on the roster would benefit from an aggressive system that tries to generate steals and get in the open floor.

    Ah, the open floor. The Magic should be fun in those situations, with Oladipo, Gordon, Harris, Harkless and even Payton filling the lane.

    Key changes

    IN: Channing Frye, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Luke Ridnour, Ben Gordon

    The rebuilding Magic had quite a bit of turnover in the offseason, starting with the addition of two lottery picks in Gordon and Payton. The development of those two and the host of other youngsters on the roster will be the major storyline for Orlando this season. The Magic also added several veterans in free agency in Frye, Ridnour and Gordon. Frye had a banner year in Phoenix and presents major matchup problems with his shooting.

    OUT: Arron Afflalo, Jameer Nelson, Jason Maxiell, E’Twaun Moore, Doron Lamb, Ronnie Price

    Afflalo was Orlando’s leading scorer last season, but the team didn’t see him as part of the future, so they dealt him in order to get some return before his free agency hit next summer. The loss of Nelson, who had spent his entire 10-year career in Orlando, will also be felt, but his departure allows Payton to immediately take over the reins.

    Can anyone shoot?

    Even with Channing Frye, one of the league’s most lethal jump-shooting bigs, in the fold, Orlando will struggle to hit from the outside. The departed Arron Afflalo, Jameer Nelson, E’Twaun Moore and Doron Lamb accounted for 63.4 percent of the Magic’s total three-point makes a season ago. Replacing those attempts with some from Frye, Evan Fournier and Ben Gordon could ease the load a bit, but generally speaking, opposing defenses will pack the paint against the Magic.

    And make no mistake: shrinking the floor against Orlando is lethal given that its best offensive weapons thrive on open space near the hoop. Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris need some spacing to facilitate their drives, and Nikola Vučević will certainly enjoy more success with his back to the basket if he doesn’t have secondary and tertiary defenders breathing down his neck. Coach Jacque Vaughn will need to find creative ways to space the floor in order to maximize the offensive strengths of his young charges.

    Best case

    The Magic finally start winning more games in their third season without Dwight Howard. Young veterans like Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic take another step forward in their fourth pro season. Rookies Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton establish themselves as solid pieces to the rebuild.

    Worst case

    A lack of shooting hurts the development of all the young players. Oladipo can’t cut back on turnovers and Aaron Gordon shows he’s a couple years away from contributing anything offensively. Orlando is one of the worst teams in the NBA for the third straight season, costing Jacque Vaughn his job.

  16. Philadelphia 76ers

    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

    Philadephia has become the poster child for the so-called tanking problem since general manager Sam Hinkie took over. This year should be their lowest moment. There’s even more youth and no-name players on the roster, so the losses will pile up again in ugly fashion. This is the plan. On the bright side, Nerlens Noel will finally make his debut after sitting out his rookie season with a torn ACL. His development will go a long way in determining how quickly the Sixers become relevant again.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 19-63
    • FINISH: 14th
    • HEAD COACH: Brett Brown
      • PG: Michael Carter-Williams
      • SG: Tony Wroten
      • SF: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
      • PF: Nerlens Noel
      • C: Henry Sims

    How they play

    Besides badly?

    Coach Brett Brown doesn’t over-complicate anything for such an inexperienced roster, instead emphasizing the need to run opponents into oblivion. That means quick shots, gambling for steals and turnovers. Look for the 76ers to again use guerilla tactics to generate these opportunities, which should lead to some hilarious breakdowns when they fail. One day, Nerlens Noel will be good enough to cover up those mistakes, but that day probably isn’t here yet.

    The shot selection should be … interesting. Give any 76ers player even a slight opening, and the ball’s going up, especially if it’s a three. This explains how Michael Carter-Williams took over three treys a game last year while shooting 26 percent.

    Key changes

    IN: Joel Embiid (sorta), Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, Alexey Shved, K.J. McDaniels, Jerami Grant

    The Sixers welcome in three new players via the draft this year, but Embiid likely won’t see the court at all this season. He underwent surgery in June to repair a stress fracture in his foot, and while the five-to-eight month timetable says he should be back at some point during the season, the rebuilding Sixers will likely hold Embiid out like they did Nerlens Noel. McDaniels, an early second-round pick, signed a unique contract that will make him a restricted free agent next offseason. Mbah a Moute and Shved were both acquired as part of the Kevin Love deal.

    OUT: Thaddeus Young, James Anderson

    Young was always productive in Philly, but the Sixers flipped him to the Timberwolves in order to help facilitate the Love trade. With Young’s contract up after the season and Noel ready to play, the Sixers felt it was time to move on and get a first-round pick for him.

    When will the 76ers actually be competitive?

    Much of the action over the next six months will be painful to watch, but the ship is in fact being righted. That light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t appear to be a train, but we won’t know for certain until at least two years from now.

    With so many questions surrounding the Sixers, it’s difficult to offer a definitive statement about the future. Some of the answers (Michael Carter-Williams’ jump shot, Nerlens Noel’s ability to play the 4) may very well come this season, while others (Joel Embiid’s health, Dario Saric’s ability to adapt to the NBA) figure to be at least a year or two away. The player who will ultimately lead the Sixers out of the doldrums and into contention may not even be on the roster yet.

    Slowly but surely, it will all come into focus soon, though not soon enough for those opposed to Sam Hinkie’s unabashed teardown worthy of the DIY network. But one thing everyone can agree on is that the Sixers have a clear direction for the first time in years, and their unwavering commitment to that vision should count for something.

    Best case

    Nerlens Noel looks healthy and explosive as one of the league’s best rookies. Michael Carter-Williams improves his shooting and shows he’s one of the best young guards in the East. Joel Embiid recovers completely and gives Philly some optimism heading into next year. The 76ers finally win the No. 1 pick, redoubling league efforts to change the draft lottery structure.

    Worst case

    The Sixers set the NBA record for losses in a season, but still don’t end up with the No. 1 pick.

  17. Toronto Raptors

    John E. Sokolowski - USA TODAY Sports

    One of the best stories of last year is looking for more. Led by the elite backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Toronto won 48 games and returned the postseason for the first time since 2008. The whole gang is mostly back together, with only a few minor losses to go along with some solid additions. With all these pieces in place, the Raptors should once again challenge for a spot in the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, though they aren’t sneaking up on anyone this time.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 48-34
    • FINISH: 3rd
    • HEAD COACH: Dwane Casey
      • PG: Kyle Lowry
      • SG: DeMar DeRozan
      • SF: Terrence Ross
      • PF: Amir Johnson
      • C: Jonas Valanciunas

    How they play

    The Raptors take after Kyle Lowry on both ends. Their style isn’t always pretty, but they remain effective by nailing their screens, pressuring the ball aggressively and never being afraid to stick their nose in the middle of the action.

    The Raptors lack natural off-the-dribble playmakers, so their offense must be precise with its baseline screening action to free DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. Amir Johnson’s role is critical here; a big reason Toronto couldn’t advance in the playoffs is that Johnson was playing hurt. When plays break down, Lowry is crafty at forcing his way to the free-throw line. Over the course of the regular season, many teams aren’t disciplined enough to fight through the picks. The jury is still out on whether the system works in the playoffs given Brooklyn’s ability to smother DeRozan.

    Toronto is stout defensively and mixes up its pick and roll coverages to confuse teams. The Raptors are equally willing to trap the ball and drop back to induce mid-range jumpers.

    Key changes

    IN: Lou Williams, James Johnson, Jordan Hamilton, Greg Stiemsma, Bruno Caboclo

    Williams returned from an ACL injury last season and had his moments, but often struggled. Still, he should be able to provide a scoring punch off the bench for Toronto. Johnson, who already has one stint with the Raptors under his belt, is hoping to make this second act a better one. The 2009 first-round pick found a niche with Memphis last year and is looking to build on that this year. Hamilton and Stiemsma were added for depth purposes, while Caboclo, aka the “Brazilian Kevin Durant,” is a long-term project.

    OUT: John Salmons, Steve Novak, Nando de Colo

    None of these losses are significant. Salmons was mostly ineffective and de Colo didn’t play much after coming over from San Antonio. Novak shot a high percentage from three, but he only played 54 regular-season games and barely played in the postseason.

    Is Toronto really able to take the next step?

    The Raptors (and their fans) are past the “just happy to be here” stage. Toronto has long been operating as a middling NBA team, both competitively and culturally speaking. There have been other fairly recent playoff appearances, sure, but most pundits have never really taken the Raptors seriously. For this season to be a success, the Raptors will need to force the NBA media and basketball fans to acknowledge a singular notion: this team is for real.

    Still, while it sounds greedy to ask for more than last season and foolhardy to jump too far ahead, it’s hard not to think on where the Raptors can go next. On the one hand, much of the team’s young nucleus is signed to reasonable contracts for the next few years. On the other hand, how much farther can this Kyle Lowry Lowry/DeMar DeRozan-led team go?

    Some have said that GM Masai Ujiri has basically assembled the same team in Toronto as he did in Denver after trading Carmelo Anthony. The ceiling on that team was a first-round playoff exit. It seems fair to wonder now, with the Raptors ready to attempt their first serious playoff run in over a decade, if they are good enough or just, sigh, good enough.

    Best case

    Last season’s second-half surge proves to be a stepping stone for an even better campaign in 2015. Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross break out, pushing the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals. The league finally spotlights the tremendous playoff atmosphere in Toronto.

    Worst case

    Toronto is competitive, but doesn’t have enough to get past the top few teams in the East. The front office receives a massive fine after Drake releases several songs about why Andrew Wiggins needs to come home.

  18. Washington Wizards

    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    After a string of dreadful seasons, the Wizards returned to the playoffs last year and stunned the Bulls before bowing out in a competitive second-round loss to Indiana. With young studs in the backcourt to go along with a formidable frontcourt and the veteran guile of Paul Pierce added to the mix, Washington has its eyes set even higher this season. With a bit more consistency, the talented backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal has the potential to return the Wizards to a level not seen since the 70s.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 44-38
    • FINISH: 5th
    • HEAD COACH: Randy Wittman
      • PG: John Wall
      • SG: Bradley Beal
      • SF: Paul Pierce
      • PF: Nene
      • C: Marcin Gortat

    How they play

    The Wizards are a lot of fun … on the fast break. That’s because of John Wall, who is good for two breathtaking plays a game and has become smarter at reading defenses instead of just charging head-first to the rim. Wall’s speed changes how teams play; they cannot crash the offensive glass because they must get bodies back to meet Wall and are prone to sagging into the middle to stop him, leading to open threes for Bradley Beal and (now) Paul Pierce.

    But they’re more like a 90s team in half-court situations. Randy Wittman’s sets are well suited for the rugged frontcourt of Nene and Marcin Gortat, but too often lead to mid-range jumpers. The spacing gets cramped, which makes it difficult for Wall and Beal to get into the lane and makes that mid-range pull-up way too tempting. The hope is that Paul Pierce’s versatility opens more options than Trevor Ariza standing in a corner.

    The Wizards are tough defensively, though they will miss Ariza’s athleticism. Last year’s Wizards aggressively played passing lanes and tried to force steals. This year’s Wizards are expected to value positioning instead, which puts more pressure on Nene and Gortat.

    Key changes

    IN: Paul Pierce, Kris Humphries, DeJuan Blair

    Pierce was the big offseason signing, and he’ll bring plenty of veteran moxie to a Wizards team looking to take the next step. Pierce will be 37 years old by the start of the season, but he remained effective in Brooklyn last year and should benefit from playing with Wall. Humphries and Blair were signed to bolster the frontcourt behind Nene and Gortat.

    OUT: Trevor Ariza, Trevor Booker, Al Harrington, Chris Singleton

    Ariza enjoyed a career year last season, taking advantage of all the open three-point opportunities created for him by Wall. Signing Pierce more than mitigates his loss offensively, but Ariza’s wing defense will be missed now that he’s off to Houston. Booker was a valuable big man reserve, but the Wizards figure the duo of Humphries and Blair will more than make up for that loss.

    Will the defense stay great?

    Deride Randy Wittman all you like, but don’t ignore the fact that Wittman has established something that has been lacking in D.C. for years: “A commitment to playing f—ing defense.”

    Even when the Wizards started 4-28 in 2012-13, they had an above-average defense while missing multiple key parts. Last year, they finished ninth even after losing anchor Emeka Okafor to injury.

    But getting back to that level will require Wittman’s best coaching job yet. Trevor Ariza is gone and he was critical to the Wizards’ success last year, whether it was covering the LeBrons of the world or chasing around a small point guard like D.J. Augustin in the playoffs.

    Replacing Ariza with Paul Pierce, who will be 37 and spent most of last year playing power forward for the Nets, will pose a challenge for Wittman. Though Pierce is a solid team defender, it’s asking a lot at his age to defend small forwards every night.

    Best case

    John Wall and Bradley Beal each have career-best seasons. Marcin Gortat and Nene stay healthy and the Wizards reach the conference finals. Otto Porter establishes himself as a viable option in his second season. Paul Pierce proves he still has something left in the tank.

    Worst case

    Their quest to become the most hated team in the league fails because they aren’t good enough to be feared. Beal’s injury causes a slow start from which they can’t recover and they fall meekly in the first round of the playoffs. They miss Trevor Ariza’s athleticism more than expected.

  19. Western Conference

    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBA
  20. Dallas Mavericks

    Jerome Miron - USA TODAY Sports

    Just when it seems the Mavericks were about to fade away, Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki coaxed them back into relevance. Last year’s surprise playoff squad followed it up by scooping Chandler Parsons out of Houston and bringing champion Tyson Chandler back to play under a familiar system. Armed with newcomers and plenty of continuity in terms of style, the Mavs will again be one of the many dangerous teams out west.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 49-33
    • FINISH: 8th
    • HEAD COACH: Rick Carlisle
      • PG: Jameer Nelson
      • SG: Monta Ellis
      • SF: Chandler Parsons
      • PF: Dirk Nowitzki
      • C: Tyson Chandler

    How they play

    Dallas’ free-flowing offense centers around Dirk Nowitzki’s shooting. Rick Carlisle uses a variety of decoy motion to set up pick and rolls and isolations from all spots on the floor, most of which go to Dirk. Even the plays that don’t directly involve Nowitzki sort of do anyway because they look like plays for him. Nowitzki is such a versatile offensive threat that the other four players find more openings than usual thanks to all the attention he gets.

    Dallas used a lot of guerilla tactics defensively last year to compensate for not having a rim protector. Ball-handlers were trapped aggressively in the hope of forcing turnovers, which often left the basket area open. That style could remain, but it may be calmer now that Tyson Chandler is back and Swiss Army Knife forward Shawn Marion is elsewhere. That said, Dallas has played a lot of zone in the preseason and will continue to fine-tune it as a weapon to use in certain matchups.

    Key changes

    IN: Chandler Parsons, Tyson Chandler, Jameer Nelson, Raymond Felton, Al-Farouq Aminu, Richard Jefferson

    The Mavericks again failed in their attempts to lure another superstar to Dallas, but still made several changes over the summer. Parsons’ signing was the biggest; he should immediately have an impact partnering with Nowitzki and Monta Ellis on the offensive end. The real uncertainty comes on the other end of the floor, where the return of Chandler is welcomed after years of struggling to find a steady rim protector. If he can stay healthy, Carlisle will have some new weapons to play with this season.

    OUT: Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Samuel Dalembert, DeJuan Blair

    The big losses are on the wings, where veterans Marion and Carter have moved on after successful stints with the team. Parsons will eat up lots of those minutes, albeit while bringing a significantly different style of play. Blair also walked as a free agent, while Calderon, Larkin and Dalembert were shipped to New York as part of the Chandler deal.

    Can the Mavs win the West?

    There’s no way in hell I’m going to say that it is in any way likely that the Mavs make the NBA Finals this season, but unlike the past three seasons, I am willing to entertain the possibility.

    The Spurs have to be the favorites, and the Thunder and Clippers are right behind them, followed by about eight other teams out West that should all be legitimate playoff teams if not for the NBA’s terrible conference setup. Even though the Mavs have more talent for Rick Carlisle to work with than any year since the 2011 championship season, it is a very steep uphill climb.

    Still, for the first time in a long time, the Mavs are built to compete with anyone.

    Best case

    Dirk continues to fight off Father Time one fadeaway at a time. Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons shore up a defense that was too inconsistent for a deep playoff run a year ago. Dallas wins a first-round series and falls valiantly in seven games in the second round.

    Worst case

    A point guard rotation with Devin Harris, Jameer Nelson and Raymond Felton proves too shaky for real contention. Chandler reminds fans how quickly big men can age in the NBA.

  21. Denver Nuggets

    Chris Humphreys - USA TODAY Sports

    No team in 2013-14 was hit by worse luck. Knee injuries to key players decimated the roster in coach Brian Shaw’s first season, but the return of Danilo Gallinari should help the Nuggets recover this year. Kenneth Faried’s growth with Team USA is the most interesting storyline in Denver, which could use some grit defensively to pair with an athletic group of gunners.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 36-46
    • FINISH: 11th
    • HEAD COACH: Brian Shaw
      • PG: Ty Lawson
      • SG: Arron Afflalo
      • SF: Danilo Gallinari
      • PF: Kenneth Faried
      • C: Timofey Mozgov

    How they play

    If Brian Shaw had his way, Denver would be a methodical team that played inside-out through the post. But Shaw does not have that roster, which he slowly realized after he tried to make too many sweeping changes early last season.

    Instead, expect this Nuggets team to play more like George Karl’s clubs, which were built on fast breaks, dribble drives and trips to the free-throw line. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari are especially crafty when given space, and Shaw will lean on their skills with the Italian healthy. Shaw will mix in traditional post-ups and pindowns within that structure, particularly for Kenneth Faried, whose inside game jumped a level toward the end of last season.

    Denver’s defensive system was a mess last year, with blown rotations and ill-fated traps far away from the basket. Shaw would be smart to simplify matters this year, especially if Timofey Mozgov can snag most of the center minutes.

    Key changes

    IN: Arron Afflalo, Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic

    The biggest possible change for Denver this season involves staying healthy. Thus, the team mostly stood pat last summer other than a pair of trades around draft day. Afflalo’s return from Orlando should give Lawson a more steady backcourt partner, though he presumably won’t put up the same numbers in a smaller role. The team also had a nice draft, moving down to nab Harris and Nurkic with two first-round picks.

    OUT: Evan Fournier, Aaron Brooks, Anthony Randolph

    There should be some newfound stability in Denver next season with most of the core still intact. Fournier is in Orlando now after being dealt for Afflalo, while Brooks is in Chicago and Randolph is toiling Russia. They aren’t significant losses.

    Who will start?

    Brian Shaw used 592 different starting lineups last season, give or take a few hundred. Taking injuries out of the equation, Shaw tinkered with J.J. Hickson as the starting power forward and center, shuffled Randy Foye out of the starting lineup early in the season as he was dealing with shooting struggles and cemented Timofey Mozgov as the starting center late in the season.

    The good news: the Nuggets are deep. Ty Lawson is the unquestioned starting point guard, Arron Afflalo should start at the two, Danilo Gallinari at the three, Kenneth Faried at the four and we’ll see how the center spot shakes out in camp between Mozgov and JaVale McGee. Nate Robinson is a proven spark, Wilson Chandler seems to play better as a key reserve and Hickson’s role off the bench proved to be a good one too. If Foye can get loose quick as the backup shooting guard, the Nuggets are going to possess one of the deadliest benches in the league.

    Best case

    Denver rediscovers some of the verve de vivre that made them so enjoyable two seasons ago. Kenneth Faried keeps winning over the hearts of basketball fans with a motor that never stops. The mustache tattooed on JaVale McGee’s face comes back fuller and thicker than you remember.

    Worst case

    The Nuggets' lack of star power makes them dull and mediocre in a Western Conference that’s as tough as ever.

  22. Golden State Warriors

    Kelley L. Cox - USA TODAY Sports

    The Warriors are at a crossroads. They are definitely a team to watch, but how much belief is left that they can make a serious title run after they were dropped in the first round by the Clippers? Stephen Curry still shoots the lights out, but this team has remained largely unchanged over the last few seasons. Well, except for head coach, where ownership moved on from Mark Jackson and brought in a fresh face in Steve Kerr. The pieces are there for Kerr’s style to thrive, but do they have enough to make a big dent in a stacked Western Conference?

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 51-31
    • FINISH: 6th
    • HEAD COACH: Steve Kerr
      • PG: Stephen Curry
      • SG: Klay Thompson
      • SF: Andre Iguodala
      • PF: David Lee
      • C: Andrew Bogut

    How they play

    The Warriors should have a beautiful offense, but they underachieved last year. It’s on new coach Steve Kerr to change that.

    The so-called League Pass darlings of the NBA were glorious to watch in transition, but things got ugly when the games slowed down. They suffered from an unimaginative offense that featured too many isolations and post-ups without much ball movement. Mark Jackson’s club finished last in the NBA in passes per game, an amazing stat considering the facilitating talent on the roster.

    Kerr’s task is to develop better ball movement and restore some of the funky sets that defined Golden State’s rise the year before. He’ll incorporate elements of the Triangle offense and San Antonio’s motion to do so, using Stephen Curry off the ball more and activating Andrew Bogut as a pivotal high-post facilitator.

    Kerr would be wise to leave the defense unchanged. Golden State’s perimeter players do a fantastic job funneling ball-handlers into difficult spots and few big men clog the middle better than Bogut.

    Key changes

    IN: Shaun Livingston, Brandon Rush, Leandro Barbosa

    Golden State’s big moves for the summer were the hiring of Kerr and the pursuit of Kevin Love, which didn’t pan out. Instead of Love, the team addressed its backcourt depth, signing a trio of veteran guards to short-term contracts. The addition of Livingston is particularly intriguing, as his size and skillset provides a major change of pace at point guard from Curry.

    OUT: Jermaine O’Neal, Jordan Crawford, Steve Blake

    The team needed to address its backcourt depth because Crawford and Blake walked as free agents. Blake signed with the Trail Blazers in July, while Crawford is now a member of the Xinjiang Flying Tigers in China. Golden State also lost O’Neal; the former All-Star center hasn’t announced his retirement, but also remains unsigned.

    Will Steve Kerr be better than Mark Jackson?

    Right after the playoffs loss to the Clippers, Joe Lacob, Bob Myers, Jerry West and crew wondered about their coaching situation. What if last season’s team had real practices? What if they had a creative offense? What if they were prepared for each and every single game? What if they had a coaching staff that worked NBA coaching hours? What if they had a team that didn’t quit on their coach in the playoffs and embarrassingly lose by 40 points? That’s why they fired Mark Jackson and his assistant coaches. In their place, the Warriors hired the hottest coaching candidate on the market in Steve Kerr, keeping him on the West Coast and out of the reach of Phil “Triangle” Jackson.

    Kerr is a rookie head coach and there will definitely be a learning curve. But with associate head coach Alvin Gentry poached from the Clippers to join Kerr’s staff, a lot of the typical first-year coaching struggles should be mitigated. Gentry would have been a fine head coaching hire, but he’s an outstanding lieutenant that’ll guide Kerr through this journey.

    Best case

    Klay Thompson has a huge year to make everyone forget Golden State could have traded him for Kevin Love. Stephen Curry keeps putting up dark horse MVP numbers. Draymond Green uses the national stage of the playoffs to become a folk hero outside of the Bay Area.

    Worst case

    Everyone takes a deep breath and realizes the Mark Jackson era wasn’t all that bad.

  23. Houston Rockets

    Brendan Maloney - USA TODAY Sports

    The Rockets are always a work in progress. They landed two franchise players over the previous two summers, but lost a major piece in Chandler Parsons and two role players in Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin in a failed pursuit for a third. There are plenty of questions around Dwight Howard and James Harden, but it’s hard to count out a franchise that has two of the best talents in the NBA. The Rockets will be good again, but how good will depend on how well they mesh their run-and-gun style with an improved defensive identity.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 54-28
    • FINISH: 4th
    • HEAD COACH: Kevin McHale
      • PG: Patrick Beverley
      • SG: James Harden
      • SF: Trevor Ariza
      • PF: Terrence Jones
      • C: Dwight Howard

    How they play

    Houston’s philosophy is simple: spread the floor, attack the gaps presented by the defense, leave the paint to Dwight Howard and shoot tons of threes. On a given regular-season night, their shooting combined with Howard’s inside presence and James Harden’s driving present impossible challenges for the defense. Their simplicity can work against them in crunch-time – when defense lock in, Houston often becomes predictable. But the system works on the whole, though losing Chandler Parsons’ playmaking will hurt.

    Houston’s defense isn’t as bad as many suggest, but it suffers from poor execution. Ball-handlers get middle too easily and cutters too often sneak behind unaware help defenders. Harden’s embarrassing ball-watching tendencies are now famous thanks to the magic of YouTube, but replacing Parsons with Trevor Ariza is a big defensive upgrade.

    Key changes

    IN: Trevor Ariza, Kostas Papanikolaou, Clint Capela, Jeff Adrien, Jason Terry

    These aren’t exactly the moved Daryl Morey planned to make after freeing up near-max cap space for a third star. However, the Rockets were left scrambling after Chris Bosh spurned their offer and the Mavericks signed a huge offer sheet with Parsons. Ariza was ultimately brought in to replace Parsons on a four-year deal, but the rest of the moves are mostly filler to keep the long-term books clean.

    OUT: Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Omri Casspi, Jordan Hamilton

    Houston expected to lose Lin and Asik as part of its cap-clearing effort, but the departure of Parsons to the Mavericks was surprising. The Rockets opted to let the forward hit restricted free agency instead of exercising his dirt cheap option for 2014-15 and apparently didn’t think (or didn’t care) that a team like Dallas would offer so much money. So Houston let Parsons walk too and will hope Ariza can replace his production.


    Can Daryl Morey pull off one more big move?

    In the last three years, the Rockets’ general manager has made two massive moves, picking up Dwight Howard and James Harden to change the Rockets fortunes from lottery fodder to potential contender. But this summer, he whiffed on the third move, failing to get Chris Bosh, losing Chandler Parsons and getting stuck holding the pieces after a high profile blunder.

    Still, armed with intriguing young players in Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Kostas Papanikolaou, Nick Johnson, Clint Capela and a possible lottery pick from New Orleans, could Morey swing for at least a somewhat big move this year? He believes the Rockets still need a third star player, but can he deliver it to Houston? If he does, he’ll be a hero after a summer of being demonized. Another early playoff flameout, though, and the questions will start to mount.

    Best case

    James Harden leaps over a very low bar to improve his individual defense and lead Houston to the Western Conference Finals. Terrence Jones takes off in a bigger role. Dwight Howard finally decides mooning reporters in the locker room has lost its appeal.

    Worst case

    There isn’t enough shooting around Howard on offense, nor are there enough quality perimeter defenders in front of him on defense. After yet another first-round playoff exit, people continue to talk about Howard’s personality instead of his game.

  24. Los Angeles Clippers

    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    The Clippers and Chris Paul are in a familiar place together: stuck outside the conference finals. The Clippers have come a long way since drafting Blake Griffin and landing Paul, but they haven’t gone far enough together. The good news: Griffin continues to make strides in his development and Doc Rivers laid his foundation last season. With Donald Sterling out of the picture for good, the Clippers should be free of the distractions that consumed last year’s playoff run. Will this year finally end with a Finals trip?

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 57-25
    • FINISH: 3rd
    • HEAD COACH: Doc Rivers
      • PG: Chris Paul
      • SG: J.J. Redick
      • SF: Matt Barnes
      • PF: Blake Griffin
      • C: DeAndre Jordan

    How they play

    The Clippers’ half-court offense was frustratingly bland under former coach Vinny Del Negro despite the team’s talent. Thus, Doc Rivers’ big focus in his first season was to get into half-court sets quicker so there was more time for the secondary motion his predecessor ignored. The Clippers took a big leap forward in this area and would have been even more devastating had they avoided injuries to Chris Paul and J.J. Redick. Rivers is especially creative at getting the ball to Blake Griffin in the high and low post and will use Redick’s off-ball movement to create openings elsewhere.

    Rivers always asks his big man to slide to the level of the ball when defending pick and rolls and last year was no exception. This puts a lot of pressure on DeAndre Jordan as both a primary defender and rim protector. Increasingly, he handles the tasks beautifully, but he still occasionally falls flat.

    Key changes

    IN: Spencer Hawes, Ekpe Udoh, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Jordan Farmar, C.J. Wilcox

    This offseason was about small tweaks for the Clippers. The biggest move was signing Hawes for the mid-level exception, which cost them a chance to snag Rivers favorite Paul Pierce. Otherwise, the team didn’t have much flexibility to add significant talent and instead signed intriguing names like Udoh and Douglas-Roberts to low-risk deals.

    OUT: Darren Collison, Jared Dudley, Ryan Hollins, Danny Granger

    The Clippers will be using their third backup point guard in three years after seeing Collison get a lucrative deal from Sacramento. Farmar seems destined to get first crack at filling that role and there’s little reason to believe he can’t stick as long as he’s healthy. Dudley and Granger also left as free agents over the summer, meaning we’ll likely see more of second-year player Reggie Bullock on the wing.

    Is Blake Griffin’s new jumper for real?

    Griffin had a breakout season last year and became a marginally better perimeter shooter in the process. But he has worked on his shooting even more this offseason and had lots of observers convinced that it was the real deal when he made six straight jumpers in the Clippers pre-season opener. (Of course, he then missed everything in put up in the second exhibition, so beware of small sample sizes.)

    As great as Griffin has been, he still has plenty to work on in his game, including his shooting. If indeed he has made major strides during the offseason, then he will become nigh impossible to defend. He already has a strength and quickness advantages over the vast majority of his opponents. The way defenders compensate is by playing a step or two off and daring him to shoot. But if defenders have to start honoring that shot, it will set up the rest of his game.

    Best case

    The good vibe ushered in by new ownership manifests itself in a rejuvenated team. DeAndre Jordan establishes himself as one of the best interior defenders in the league. Blake Griffin shows his improved jumper is here to stay. Everyone runs for cover as the Clippers reach the Finals.

    Worst case

    You remember that this team could have been so much better if it hadn’t traded Eric Bledsoe for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley a year ago. The Clippers win over 50 games again, but fade into the pack instead of staying at the level of the Spurs and Thunder.

  25. Los Angeles Lakers

    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    The Lakers’ descent to the bottom of the Western Conference has not been graceful, to say the least. Don’t expect it to end this year. Kobe Bryant returns from injury, but even if he manages to turn back the clock again, the rest of the roster looks like a lunch hour potluck that’s gone stale. Did we mention that the West is stacked and the Lakers must send their first-round pick to the Suns unless it’s in the top five? Lakers fans’ best hope is that the team is so bad that they keep the pick.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 27-55
    • FINISH: 14th
    • HEAD COACH: Byron Scott
      • PG: Jeremy Lin
      • SG: Kobe Bryant
      • SF: Wes Johnson
      • PF: Carlos Boozer
      • C: Jordan Hill

    How they play

    Good question! The answer: probably however Kobe Bryant wants. Byron Scott has used many Princeton offense sets in his previous NBA stops, but he’d be foolish to implement only this style of offense after the Lakers failed so spectacularly running the system under Mike Brown in 2013. Instead, look for a measured pace, lots of slow-moving plays, traditional post-ups and plenty of 16-foot turnaround jumpers from Kobe. The Lakers shot a comically low number of threes in preseason, and while they’ll attempt more once key shooters return healthy, that’s a sign that the team is using an outdated approach.

    Scott’s used a number of defensive styles over the course of his career with varying levels of success, but his reputation is in shambles after some terrible years in Cleveland. That Cavaliers roster was indeed a mess, but the Lakers don’t offer much defensive resistance on paper either. There should be plenty of scoring … for the other team.

    Key changes

    IN: Carlos Boozer, Julius Randle, Jeremy Lin, Ed Davis, Wayne Ellington, Jordan Clarkson

    This is what a Lakers offseason looks like when stars aren’t involved. Unable to lure Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James to Hollywood, GM Mitch Kupchak went out and signed a bevy of veterans to fill out the roster. Boozer, Lin, Davis and Ellington should all play significant roles next season, while Randle, the team’s first-round pick, is as talented a young player as L.A. has had in a while.

    OUT: Pau Gasol, Jodie Meeks, Kendall Marshall, Jordan Farmar, Kent Bazemore, Chris Kaman

    The Lakers needed to make so many signings over the summer because they lost so many players from last year’s team. As chaotic as the relationship between L.A. and Pau Gasol got over the past few years, the team will miss his presence.

    What does Kobe Bryant have left?

    Kobe’s return to the NBA should be celebrated. He’s still one of the most entertaining players to watch – his baseline turnaround is timeless – and there’s not much time left with one of the greatest players of the last 20 years. Cherish it while you can. And his fingers are certainly itch for rings, though actually winning those rings will be very difficult.

    So far, Kobe’s looked pretty good through preseason. His ability to hit mid-range jumpers no matter the angle and defensive pressure is a marvel to witness, and he’ll probably find himself in position to facilitate the offense as well. It’s been a long road for the Black Mamba since he tore his Achilles at the end of the ‘12-13 season, but he’s back. We’ll know more about what’s left in the tank as the season progresses.

    Best case

    Kobe stays healthy, goes off for a few scoring binges and manages not to strangle Nick Young. Julius Randle showcases his versatile offensive game and proves he’s a cornerstone for the future. After Iggy Azalea releases a new single with Master P, Young begins entering games in the No Limit tank.

    Worst case

    This ends up being one of the worst defensive teams the Western Conference has seen in a long time. Carlos Boozer starts applying shoe polish to his skull again, for some reason.

  26. Memphis Grizzlies

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    The Grizzlies have been very good over the years, but have consistently failed to escape the clutches of their competition. They’ve maintained their standing in a loaded conference, but there’s much more pressure to stay in the picture this season. Frontcourt mainstay Marc Gasol is in the final year of his contract, so if the Grizzlies are unable to break through that glass ceiling, who knows what the future holds. For now, Memphians can enjoy another season of Grit ‘N Grind.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 50-32
    • FINISH: 7th
    • HEAD COACH: Dave Joerger
      • PG: Mike Conley
      • SG: Courtney Lee
      • SF: Tayshaun Prince
      • PF: Zach Randolph
      • C: Marc Gasol

    How they play

    Brilliant marketing and endearing personalities obscure Memphis’ ugly style of play. This is the plodding team you watched every Sunday on NBC in the 90s. It’s big, brash, physical and labors to score.

    The offense has a little more fluidity than it did under old coach Lionel Hollins, but the same general structure remains after Dave Joerger’s early attempts to push the pace more failed miserably. Plays run through Marc Gasol in the high post, with Mike Conley (on the perimeter) and Zach Randolph (down low) playing secondary roles. The Grizzlies are very good at cutting off Gasol, who will slip passes through any crease to find open teammates. But without shooting and an elite perimeter scorer, those creases are very small.

    Memphis’ defense, however, remains brilliant. The Grizzlies are physical, but also do a great job of mucking up the paint and anticipating gaps before they arrive. Gasol is their free safety, roaming off his man on every play to plug the middle.

    Key changes

    IN: Vince Carter, Jordan Adams, Jarnell Stokes

    We’re still trying to wrap our heads around Vince Carter in a Grizzlies jersey. The big addition for Memphis this season, Carter is looking to continue his late-career renaissance as a role-playing wing on a team that could badly use the help. Prince is no longer a steady option for big minutes on the wing. Carter can be. The team has also gambled on rookie Jordan Adams, a talented scorer at UCLA.

    OUT: Mike Miller, Ed Davis, James Johnson, Jamaal Franklin

    The core of the Grizzlies remains intact, with most of the changes coming on the bench. Miller reunited with LeBron James in Cleveland after a one-year stint in Memphis, Davis is looking for a bigger role in L.A. and Johnson got a two-year deal from the Raptors after surprising last season. Franklin hasn’t signed elsewhere after underwhelming during his time with the Grizz.

    How do the Grizzlies move up in the West?

    I can’t see the Grizzlies getting past the Spurs, because they haven’t done so ever since that crazy upset in 2011. San Antonio has their number, and until I see the Grizzlies win the head-to-head regular season series against the Spurs, I won’t be able to make a Finals prediction for Memphis.

    I do, however, think another Western Conference Finals appearance is in the realm of possibility. The Grizzlies are a very deep and possibly looking to get better before the trade deadline. If both the players and coach Dave Joerger, hit an early stride and stay healthy, I could see a top-4 seed on the horizon.

    But there isn’t any room to try figure things out for a few weeks in the West. The Grizzlies got the No. 7 seed with 50 wins last season. There’s reason to believe they could win more games this year and still end up in the same position.

    Best case

    Marc Gasol has a career year in his last season under contract, establishing himself as the best center in the league. Mike Conley finally makes the All-Star team. We’re all treated to another playoff series against the Thunder, the Clippers or both, but this time Memphis pulls off the upset.

    Worst case

    Tayshaun Prince keeps claiming too many minutes and sabotages the flow of the offense. There still isn’t enough shooting around Gasol and Randolph, causing another first-round exit.

  27. Minnesota Timberwolves

    Brian Spurlock - USA TODAY Sports

    How do you go about losing a top-10 player gracefully? By trading him for one the most anticipated rookies to enter the NBA since LeBron James. Kevin Love has left the Timberwolves’ tundra, but he left behind hope. Hope that Andrew Wiggins really is generational talent. Hope that last year’s No. 1 pick, Anthony Bennet, can turn it around. Hope that Zach LaVine’s athleticism and potential make him a mid-draft steal. The Timberwolves are still headed to the lottery, but their fans were given a rare fresh start.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 40-42
    • FINISH: 10th
    • HEAD COACH: Flip Saunders
      • PG: Ricky Rubio
      • SG: Kevin Martin
      • SF: Andrew Wiggins
      • PF: Thaddeus Young
      • C: Nikola Pekovic

    How they play

    The roster dictates that they play fast. Timberwolves fans have been dreaming of Ricky Rubio running point with Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Thaddeus Young filling the lanes ever since they traded Kevin Love. Eventually, they’ll play that way.

    But it’s not going to happen as quickly as many hope because there are still several veterans on this team that prefer a structured half-court system like Rick Adelman’s corner offense. The Timberwolves want to be competitive, so Flip Saunders is going to cater to those veterans, at least at the start. Saunders has historically preferred slow-paced, precise half-court offenses that hit jumpers consistently and don’t partake in too many out-of-control drives to the basket.

    This may sound counterintuitive, but League Pass aficionados should wait until the season gets out of hand and delusions of competitiveness fade. That’s when Minnesota will be free to run without anything to lose.

    Key changes

    IN: Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young, Anthony Bennett, Mo Williams, Zach LaVine

    The Timberwolves have a new face of the franchise after shipping out Love for a package led by Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft. Wiggins should slot into Flip Saunders’ starting lineup from Day 1 in Minnesota, and while expectations are being tempered for his rookie season, the potential is undeniable. The Timberwolves also landed Young and Bennett in the Love trade and drafted UCLA standout Zach LaVine, who’s already something of a human highlight reel.

    OUT: Kevin Love, Dante Cunningham, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Alexey Shved

    The only loss that really matters for Minnesota is Love. Sure, Cunningham and Mbah a Moute are fine players, but the fortunes of the franchise were directly altered by sending Love to Cleveland. Now the Timberwolves are effectively rebuilding around Wiggins and Ricky Rubio, a process that won’t yield results immediately. After missing the postseason during the entirety of the Love era, it’ll be interesting to see how patient ownership is with this group.

    How long will it take for Andrew Wiggins to look like a star?

    This is the most important issue for the Wolves in the medium term. Rookies who become great players rarely help you win in their first years, but usually they show flashes of what they can become.

    The future of Andrew Wiggins is absolutely vital for the Wolves. While they have many young players, Wiggins becoming a star over the course of his rookie contract is the most important thing for this team going forward. They need a fulcrum, a player to build around. They made the Love trade hoping Wiggins can become that player.

    It isn’t going to be this year, but fans need to see signs of a star in the making.

    Best case

    Ricky Rubio shines in a contract season when surrounded by more athletes that can get out and run. The improved bench and an underrated group of starters keeps the team fighting in a brutal conference every night. Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett and Gorgui Dieng prove they’re all major pieces for the future.

    Worst case

    Wiggins and LaVine struggle as teenagers going up against grown men. Rubio still can’t find his shooting stroke. Everyone keeps waiting around for a bailout from Kevin Love that never comes.

  28. New Orleans Pelicans

    Derick E. Hingle - USA TODAY Sports

    The Pelicans have plenty of talent, especially with Anthony Davis leading the way, but they have to find a way to stay healthy. Injuries to key players short-circuited the Pelicans’ big makeover last season. The roster looks great on paper, with Omer Asik joining Davis and a trio of talented guards in Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans, but they’ll only make the playoffs for the first time since Chris Paul left if they stay on the court. If they can, perhaps this is the season Davis and the Pelicans soar.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 34-48
    • FINISH: 12th
    • HEAD COACH: Monty Williams
      • PG: Jrue Holiday
      • SG: Eric Gordon
      • SF: Tyreke Evans
      • PF: Anthony Davis
      • C: Omer Asik

    How they play

    The Pelicans’ roster dictates a spread-the-floor style built around the driving abilities of their three young guards and the dynamic cutting of Anthony Davis. But a lack of health stymied those efforts last year, so New Orleans’ system is a big question mark. Monty Williams is among the league’s most creative set play artists, but his half-court offense can occasionally be too structured. How many times do the Pelicans set up with two big men at the elbows, only to get an 18-foot jumper on a pick and pop? Those who watch the team should be throwing up their hands

    Williams’ defensive system works well in theory, but was disastrous last year because of injuries and a lack of personnel. The Pelicans had Davis showing hard on pick and rolls, something the young big man doesn’t do well yet. It’d make sense to switch to a more conservative style with Omer Asik around, though Davis’ versatility means Williams will mix things up appropriately.

    Key changes

    IN: Omer Asik, John Salmons, Jimmer Fredette, Russ Smith

    The Pelicans finally landed a quality rim protector to pair with Davis by trading next year’s first-round pick for Asik. The Rockets’ big man had a rough 2013-14 season after Dwight Howard took his spot as starting center, but he should rebound in a new environment. The combination of Davis and Asik protecting the rim should make the coaching staff excited. New Orleans also added depth to its oft-injured backcourt by bringing in Salmons, Fredette and Smith.

    OUT: Anthony Morrow, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jason Smith, Greg Stiemsma

    Morrow has been one of the best three-point shooters in the league over the past few seasons and will certainly be missed. Aminu never quite panned out in New Orleans after coming over in the Chris Paul trade, and now he’s trying to carve out a role in Dallas.

    What more can Anthony Davis do this season?

    Amaze. Excite. Bend your perceptions of what is possible. Block shots you previously thought were unblockable. Catch and finish impossible alley-oops thrown merely in the direction of the backboard. All true. But most importantly: lead.

    No longer are there questions about who controls the locker room. Davis’ time spent with Team USA was instrumental, particularly while surrounded by the stars of other franchises in practices and down time off the court. Iron sharpens iron. Instead of just a summer of pickup games, photo-ops, and media appearances Davis spent over a month practicing against DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond. That is a significant step up from going against Jason Smith, Alexis Ajinca and Greg Stiemsma.

    Expect to be astonished. Lift off occurred last season, followed by a 10-game streak through the sky. This season, Davis will take his place among the stars.

    Best case

    Anthony Davis becomes one of the five best basketball players alive. Jrue Holiday breaks out for the second time in three years and becomes an All-Star again. Omer Asik and Davis form a great wall of interior defense, leading the Pelicans to the playoffs.

    Worst case

    Eric Gordon still can’t stay healthy or live up to his contract. The bench remains terrible. The team improves, but can’t come through on a playoff berth in an impossible conference.

  29. Oklahoma City Thunder

    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Another year, another chance for Kevin Durant and the Thunder to take the wheel. The Thunder have suffered key losses in each of the past two postseasons and absorbed a big blow with Durant’s foot injury that’ll hold him out until December, but this team has been so good for a long time. Their equation is unchanged when Durant returns: a lot of KD and Russell Westbrook, a dash of Serge Ibaka and the hope that coach Scott Brooks can pull enough strings to get his team over the top. As always, they are one of a handful of teams that can win it all. With Durant’s free agency on the horizon, the pressure is on.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 59-23
    • FINISH: 2nd
    • HEAD COACH: Scott Brooks
      • PG: Russell Westbrook
      • SG: Andre Roberson
      • SF: Kevin Durant
      • PF: Serge Ibaka
      • C: Kendrick Perkins

    How they play

    The bottom line: the Thunder have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, two of the most breathtaking players in the league. A lot of analysts (myself sometimes included) nitpick the Thunder’s lack of offensive fluidity. We want the Thunder to resemble the Spurs with whiplash ball and player movement; instead, their offense resorts to isolations for Durant and Westbrook. But Oklahoma City’s simplicity also makes sense. They have two of the best one-on-one players in basketball, so why not use their talents appropriately?

    That simplicity will be tested while Durant is injured. Westbrook will gobble up a lion’s share of the possessions, but the Thunder need to move the ball and themselves better without the crutch of Durant’s shot-making available to bail them out.

    The Thunder use an aggressive defense that swarms the ball, rotates in an exaggerated manner to the obvious pass out of traps and causes chaos for most opponents with devastating speed and length. Serge Ibaka’s role is critical to the scheme’s success. Whenever there are breakdowns – and there are many – it’s his athleticism that must save the day. This is why Oklahoma City was lit up with him injured in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals.

    Key changes

    IN: Anthony Morrow, Mitch McGary, Sebastian Telfair

    Oklahoma City signed Morrow to a rather cheap deal in free agency in an attempt to remedy outside shooting issue that surfaced in the playoffs. Morrow shot nearly 46 percent from three-point range last season and is a career 43 percent marksman. The Thunder also made a run at Pau Gasol in free agency, but he went to Chicago instead, leaving McGary as the only frontcourt addition this offseason.

    OUT: Thabo Sefolosha, Caron Butler, Derek Fisher

    Sefolosha, Butler and Fisher all played key minutes for the Thunder last season … and that was a major part of their downfall. After two consecutive strong shooting seasons from long range, Sefolosha had a down year and was useless offensively by the playoffs. Butler and Fisher weren’t any better, which allowed opponents to cheat off them and focus on Durant and Westbrook.

    Is Kevin Durant really a threat to leave in 2016?

    The Thunder kept a low profile this summer, magnifying Durant’s free agency in 2016. Wizards fans are already priming themselves for their team’s chance to make a run at bringing Durant to his childhood home. Durant says all the right things about Oklahoma City and his teammates, but who knows exactly how happy he is there. He hasn’t won it all with the Thunder yet.

    A championship will go a long way toward keeping Durant’s morale up, and the Thunder still have a pretty good shot at getting theirs. But the summer of 2016 is a bit too close for comfort. Although he made his love for Oklahoma City clear in an interview with USA Today, nothing is guaranteed.

    Best case

    Durant’s injury allows several young players to thrive with a bigger opportunity early in the season, which pays off when Durant returns. Steven Adams establishes himself as Oklahoma City’s best center. The Thunder finally get through a postseason without injuries to their best players and win that elusive title.

    Worst case

    Oklahoma City remains snakebitten by bad luck and Durant’s free agency bonanza creeps another year closer after a second-round defeat.

  30. Phoenix Suns

    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Suns were supposed to win 20 games last season. Instead, they were the league’s feel-good story, stunning everybody with a 48-win campaign that sadly left them just short of the postseason in the stacked Western Conference. Phoenix won’t surprise anybody this season, but are armed with one of the league’s most talented backcourts after re-signing Eric Bledsoe and inking Isaiah Thomas to join Goran Dragic. The next step for the Suns is to fight their way into that crowded West playoff picture, which will be much easier said than done.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 48-34
    • FINISH: 9th
    • HEAD COACH: Jeff Hornacek
      • PG: Eric Bledsoe
      • SG: Goran Dragic
      • SF: P.J. Tucker
      • PF: Markieff Morris
      • C: Miles Plumlee

    How they play

    The Suns soared to the top of everyone’s watchability rankings by solving a simple equation: talented guards + space = lots of fun. Phoenix put the ball in the hands of its playmakers, spread the floor and let them go to work. By playing two point guards, the Suns were able to run the break easily because both Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe were equally capable of leading the break and filling the lane. Combine them with great perimeter shooting elsewhere, and every Suns player had much more room to play their game.

    Top shooting big man Channing Frye is gone, but the guard-oriented attack added another layer with Kings guard Isaiah Thomas. Whether newly re-signed Markieff Morris can be the threat Frye was in the starting lineup remains to be seen, but the Suns are clearly doubling down on their style.

    Key changes

    IN: Isaiah Thomas, T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis, Anthony Tolliver, Zoran Dragic

    The presence of Dragic and Bledsoe in the backcourt didn’t stop the Suns from going out and nabbing Thomas from the Kings, who for some reason never bought into him as a starting point guard. Phoenix also added Ennis via the draft, giving them an exceptionally deep crop of players at that position. The Suns also selected a pure scorer in Warren in the draft, and Tolliver had a quietly solid year with Charlotte last season. Finally, there’s now also another Dragic on the roster with the addition of Goran’s brother, Zoran.

    OUT: Channing Frye, Ish Smith, Leandro Barbosa

    Losing Frye hurts, but this will give the newly extended Markieff and Marcus Morris more time to shine. Markieff is coming off a season that had him in the running for the Sixth Man of the Year award and he’s in line to take Frye’s spot in the starting lineup. Tolliver will also be used to replace Frye’s outside shooting. Smith and Barbosa aren’t big losses considering the depth in the backcourt.

    How will the Suns replace Channing Frye?

    The departure of Frye left a hole at the center position, where he spent a good deal of time last season. The Suns opted instead to turn to incumbent young guns Miles Plumlee and Alex Len to step up and man the 5.

    Both Plumlee and Len currently present more questions than answers. While Plumlee impressed in what was essentially his rookie season, he still has some glaring holes in his game and might be best used as an energy player off the bench. Len has oodles of potential, but has yet to prove he can stay healthy, fracturing the same finger twice before preseason even started.

    As for the defense, the bane of the Suns' existence in 2013/14 was the obscene boatload of points surrendered in the paint: 45.5 per game, to be exact, which was fifth worst in the NBA. That’s the kind of stat that separate playoff teams from lottery players. But while some contribution from Len would be a hell of a bonus at this point, don’t be surprised if the young Ukranian has an impact season.

    Attempting to replace Frye’s adequate interior defense organically was a gamble by a front office that’s itching to make the playoffs. If the 21-year-old Len can have a breakout year, they’ll look all the smarter for it.

    Best case

    Dragic and Bledsoe run by opposing defenses as the best backcourt in basketball. The young players grow together another year and find a way to sneak into the playoffs in the West. Alex Len reminds people that he was picked No. 5 in the 2013 draft for a reason.

    Worst case

    Bledsoe can’t stay healthy and Phoenix’s breakneck tempo no longer takes anyone by surprise. The West ends up being too difficult for a postseason trip to be possible.

  31. Portland Trail Blazers

    David Richard - USA TODAY Sports

    The Blazers morphed into one of the league’s most exciting teams, finishing with 54 wins and an offense that was statistically better than the Spurs. That didn’t mean much when the two teams played each other in the second round of the playoffs, but nobody expected the Blazers to even get that far. Portland will try build off that effort this year with the same core, with a few changes on the edges. Damian Lillard is hoping for a third-year leap after shining in the postseason; if he achieves that, it’d make the Blazers an even bigger threat in the Western Conference. If not, LaMarcus Aldridge’s free agency could get interesting again.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 54-28
    • FINISH: 5th
    • HEAD COACH: Terry Stotts
      • PG: Damian Lillard
      • SG: Wesley Matthews
      • SF: Nicolas Batum
      • PF: LaMarcus Aldridge
      • C: Robin Lopez

    How they play

    Is “Spurs-like” fair? That may seem sacrilegious, but Portland’s half-court Flow offense is a thing of beauty. The two wings – Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum – define the system by looping around the perimeter on many sets as if they are circling a racetrack. Their movements are used in traditional pindowns, weakside actions on pick and rolls and cuts to open up easy post-entry passes to LaMarcus Aldridge. To steal a line from a famous old advertisement: they aren’t directly involved in a lot of Portland’s sets, but they make the people directly involved in a lot of Portland’s sets better.

    The people directly involved are usually Lillard and Aldridge. Lillard has unlimited range and is slowly developing into a better finisher around the basket, so he’s nearly impossible to cover in the pick and roll. Aldridge is one of the five best mid-range shooters alive, and his itchy trigger finger is essential in preserving Portland’s offensive balance.

    Portland was hyper-conservative defensively last year, letting Robin Lopez hang way back on pick and rolls and asking its wing defenders to stay at home on shooters. Expect the latter to change and the former to remain the same.

    Key changes

    IN: Steve Blake, Chris Kaman

    The Blazers’ starting lineup remains the same, but Blake and Kaman were brought in to help bolster a bench that has been weak over the past few seasons. This is Blake’s third stint in Portland. He’ll replace Mo Williams as the backup point guard.

    OUT: Mo Williams, Earl Watson

    Williams was fine during the regular season as the backup to Lillard, but he was mostly ineffective in the postseason and eventually bolted for a bigger payday in Minnesota. Blake and second-year guard C.J. McCollum should be able to replace Williams’ production. Watson barely played last year and won’t be missed.

    Who will be Portland’s Sixth Man?

    The popular answer among Blazers fans is C.J. McCollum, and for good reason; he’s a great shooter, can create his own offense and has shown a willingness to set up teammates. Will Barton also has a chance to be a big-time contributor off the pine, but he’ll need to demonstrate more controlled play. Thomas Robinson also struggled to play within himself at times, so seeing the game slow down for him a bit this year would be nice. Of course, Steve Blake is also a good shooter who will find open teammates and Chris Kaman can score in a number of ways.

    But perhaps one of the most overlooked pieces among Stotts' reserves is forward Dorell Wright. A few years ago, he led the entire league in three-pointers made. Last year, he had one of his worst seasons as a pro, struggling to get his offense going in limited minutes. If Wright can rediscover his outside shot, the minutes at small forward behind Nicolas Batum are his for the taking. The 11-year veteran should have a solid bounce-back season.

    Best case

    Damian Lillard becomes a more aggressive finisher at the rim in his third year. LaMarcus Aldridge commits to the franchise long-term. Meyers Leonard or C.J. McCollum breaks out to give the bench a boost.

    Worst case

    The starters continue to carry a heavy burden because of a weak bench and an untimely injury to a key player knocks Portland out of the playoffs. Lillard and Aldridge petition the NBA to move Portland to the Eastern Conference.

  32. Sacramento Kings

    Cary Edmondson - USA TODAY Sports

    On the court, the Kings’ first season under new ownership was similar to those under the previous regime: lots of losses and few glimmers of hope. But despite the struggles and some curious offseason decisions, there’s some reason for optimism with a professional outlet in charge instead of the Maloofs. DeMarcus Cousins is locked up long term and is becoming one of the league’s best low-post forces, while Rudy Gay turned things around after a midseason trade. If the young players can develop and the defense makes strides, Sacramento should improve.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 28-54
    • FINISH: 13th
    • HEAD COACH: Mike Malone
      • PG: Darren Collison
      • SG: Ben McLemore
      • SF: Rudy Gay
      • PF: Jason Thompson
      • C: DeMarcus Cousins

    How they play

    The Kings pay lip service to “positionless basketball,” but their actions demonstrate they want to build a more traditional offense around DeMarcus Cousins’ post game. That’s why they expected Rudy Gay to return to his Memphis levels after a poor stint in Toronto and it’s why they drafted Nik Stauskas to bust double teams. To a lesser extent, it’s why they let the ball-dominant Isaiah Thomas leave in free agency, though signing a similar, but worse player in Darren Collison to replace him was a strange decision.

    The defense remains a work in progress, but there were some signs of competency in Mike Malone’s first year. Malone comes with a strong defensive reputation and immediately began implementing fundamental concepts like forcing side pick and rolls to the baseline and helping in the middle of the floor properly. This is the year where that foundation should result in a higher defensive ranking.

    Key changes

    IN: Darren Collison, Nik Stauskas, Ramon Sessions, Omri Casspi, Ryan Hollins

    The Kings didn’t want to pay Isaiah Thomas, so they went out and signed Collison, although the difference in annual price between the two players turned out to be small. Sessions was also added later in the offseason to bolster the depth at the point. Sacramento used the No. 8 pick on shooting guard Nik Stauskas despite drafting shooting guard Ben McLemore the year before, but the Kings clearly were intent on accumulating multiple shooters and ball-handlers.

    OUT: Isaiah Thomas, Travis Outlaw, Quincy Acy, Aaron Gray

    The Kings were never committed to making Thomas the long-term solution at point guard, consistently bringing in players to take the starting job from him. Thomas always beat them out, but Sacramento still didn’t have enough faith in him to reward him with the payday he desired. Outlaw, Acy and Gray all contributed little last season.

    Are the Kings going to make another splash?

    Last year, general manager Pete D'Alessandro shocked the rest of the NBA when he traded for Rudy Gay in the midst of the worst season of his career. The trade ended up being a win-win for both the Kings and the Raptors. Toronto flourished with a new bench and more room for guys like Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, while Gay played some of his best basketball in Sacramento.

    Since then, the Kings have been mentioned in just about every trade rumor imaginable, but two names keep coming up with consistency: Josh Smith and Rajon Rondo. As the Kings are not a premier free agent destination, trades are usually the only way to get those kinds of talented players. Regardless of whether the Kings go after those two, expect D'Alessandro and company to be aggressive.

    So strap on your seatbelt, Kings fans. I’m expecting more twists and turns before we get to the end of this rebuilding tunnel.

    Best case

    DeMarcus Cousins cuts back on technical fouls, but maintains his edge and fully arrives as one of the best centers in basketball. Ben McLemore takes a leap forward in his second year. Nik Stauskas knocks down threes all season.

    Worst case

    None of the power forwards next to Cousins establish themselves as a good fit long-term. Kings fans tweet a lot about how much they miss Isaiah Thomas. Rudy Gay signs for way too much money in the offseason.

  33. San Antonio Spurs

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Every time folks think the reign of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili is coming to an end, they prove us extraordinarily wrong. After suffering heartbreak in the 2013 NBA Finals, the Spurs came back and made sure that didn’t happen again, running roughshod over the two-time defending champion Heat for their fifth title since 1999. Kawhi Leonard arrived on the big stage in the Finals, and his continued improvement will help make up for any decline of the Spurs’ legends. Every important piece is back, so another run at a title is very much in play.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 62-20
    • FINISH: 1st
    • HEAD COACH: Gregg Popovich
      • PG: Tony Parker
      • SG: Danny Green
      • SF: Kawhi Leonard
      • PF: Tim Duncan
      • C: Tiago Splitter

    How they play

    The best illustration of the Spurs’ brilliance: 29 other teams talk about playing more like them every preseason. The greater sports world saw San Antonio’s style on display in the Finals and hopefully fell in love. If not, it’s only because the Spurs are so good that they remove any drama of a close game.

    The reason the Spurs are often imitated, yet never duplicated is because the team’s overall skill level is taken for granted. From 1 through 5, San Antonio has playmakers that are both willing and able to make a decisive play as soon as they catch the ball. No other team possesses bigs that can pass like Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter. No other team has multiple guards as quick as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Even specialists like Danny Green come to understand that quickly attacking a gap is essential to keeping the flow going.

    The Spurs’ discipline also comes in handy on defense, where they’ve managed to remain elite due to Duncan’s longevity, Kawhi Leonard’s emergence and Splitter’s improvement. The ethos there are the same as they were a decade ago: play pick and roll conservatively, value positioning over steals and don’t foul.

    Key changes

    IN: Kyle Anderson

    Anderson seems like the perfect Spur, a versatile wing who can dribble, pass and shoot effectively. It’s unfair that he dropped to the defending champs at No. 30 in the draft. But his impact may not be felt for a few years considering the depth already in place.

    OUT: None

    It’s ideal to bring back everybody from a team that just won a championship.

    Can the Spurs overcome complacency?

    Gregg Popovich is concerned about it. Manu Ginobili admitted the Spurs will “have to work mentally to have the same desire, the same hunger.“ For all the milestones a new title would help the team achieve, there’s a possibility that going deep in the playoffs three years in a row and finally getting revenge for a heartbreaking loss can lead to a feeling of satisfaction and contentment. After all, the veterans have their legacy secured and the youngsters have their NBA career still in front of them.

    So the onus will be on the coaching staff and Tim Duncan to keep everyone in the right mindset. The good news is Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are rabid competitors and Kawhi Leonard is a cyborg whose first directive is to always improve. Also, the Spurs reached the conference finals and then the finals in the past few years without the extra motivation that resulted from the heartbreak of the 2012-13 season. They don’t need revenge to drive them; a chance to win it all is enough. Or at least that’s the hope.

    Best case

    The Spurs keep playing perfect basketball and no one can keep up. A sixth title is claimed easily

    Worst case

    The impossible happens: advancing age finally catches up to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

  34. Utah Jazz

    Kelley L. Cox - USA TODAY Sports

    The rebuilding process continues in Utah, where the Jazz will field a roster stocked full of young talent under first-year head coach Quin Snyder. The entire projected starting lineup is under 24 and No. 5 overall pick Dante Exum is just 19, so don’t expect a lot of wins. But there’s no denying some of the talent, and while it may not come to fruition this season, more wins may be coming down the road.

    • 2013-14 RECORD: 25-57
    • FINISH: 15th
    • HEAD COACH: Quin Snyder
      • PG: Trey Burke
      • SG: Alec Burks
      • SF: Gordon Hayward
      • PF: Enes Kanter
      • C: Derrick Favors

    How they play

    It’s a new era in Utah. The flex offense used by Jerry Sloan and maintained by outgoing coach Ty Corbin is out. Spurs-like motion and shooting favored by GM Dennis Lindsay and new coach Quin Snyder is in. Snyder will surely be pragmatic implementing his new system because the roster isn’t ideally suited to his preferred style, but a keen eye should notice how Utah’s sets mirror San Antonio’s in design. It’ll be interesting to see what that means for the traditional big man pairing of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. They, along with Trevor Booker, are going way out of their comfort zone and shooting three-pointers during the preseason.

    The Jazz ditched their leaky defensive system midway through last year for a more conservative approach, which should continue.

    Key changes

    IN: Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, Trevor Booker, Dahntay Jones, Steve Novak, Toure Murry

    Exum is the splashy addition, although it’ll take some time for him to get used to the NBA game. He just turned 19 years old in July and is raw, but all that potential has Jazz fans drooling. Hood was the other major addition via the draft; his shooting stroke will be a welcome addition on a Jazz squad that ranked near the bottom of the league in three-point shooting last season. Novak will also help in that area, while Booker is a nice addition to the frontcourt.

    OUT: Richard Jefferson, Marvin Williams, Brandon Rush

    Jefferson started almost every game last year, but the Jazz will now go with the younger duo of Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks on the wing. Jefferson could have provided valuable depth at the minimum, but he chose to go to Dallas for a better chance at winning. Williams also saw a lot of time as a starter last year, but he cashed in with the Hornets, leaving the frontcourt open for Favors and Kanter. Rush played little in his return from an ACL injury.

    Why should Jazz fans be excited about this team?

    Last season, the team was specifically built for the NBA draft lottery. The Jazz didn’t have any imagination on offense, were astoundingly poor on defense and played at such a slow pace that it only seemed to make the season seem longer.

    The new era promises much more for fans. They’ll try to fit the offense to the talents of the players and not shoehorn Derrick Favors or Enes Kanter in Al Jefferson’s old playbook. They have a point guard who can dunk. The big men will be allowed to expand their range. Better yet, the pull quotes from practice this year are more likely to be informative and constructive instead of the “get better / be better / young guys / you know” mantra.

    But the most important reason is the simplest: this era will return the Jazz style back to the Jazz franchise. The team is filled with hip athletes who get along and want to play with one another. The coach is bringing in an offense that flows, swings, jives and jams. The players will be smiling on the court. Getting fans out of their seats – and not because they want to beat the traffic out of the arena after another blowout loss at home – will be easier.

    Best case

    Young big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter prove they’re a long-term match in the front court. Dante Exum becomes everyone’s favorite rookie. Trey Burke and Alec Burks bust out to give Utah a surprisingly potent backcourt.

    Worst case

    Exum isn’t ready for the spotlight as a teenager. There’s another season of growing pains for a talented team that’s still too young to show real progress.