It has been quite the NBA off-season.
From LeBron “coming home”, to Carmelo staying home.
From racially charged insensitivity from Donald Sterling and Danny Ferry, to a gross price tag for the Clippers by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
From the Kevin Durant injury to the apparent return of Derrick Rose to full health.
All of the excitement, the hoopla, the moving puzzle pieces, it all adds up to create a puzzle that might just be unsolvable. This season is highly difficult to project, which essentially ensures that it will be one of the most exciting NBA seasons in the past few decades. TheAirUpHere is up to the challenge, enjoy our preview of the 2014-15 NBA season.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
The return of LeBron James to Cleveland is the headliner to this NBA season. James’ departure from Cleveland to “take his talents to South Beach” shook up the NBA landscape four years ago, but now his homecoming gives the city a chance to finally earn a title. In his previous stint with the Cavs, he was unable to lure big name free agents to join him, but now that he’s a proven champion, he hit no roadblocks in recruiting Kevin Love to join him and fellow All-Star Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. Few can argue that on paper, the new “Big 3” are a more natural fit than the previous trio, but how quickly will the chemistry mesh and can this team make up for glaring defensive deficiencies? Additionally, this team’s key pieces have a reputation for injury concerns, so there has to be focus on keeping minutes down early in the regular season.
2. Chicago Bulls
It confuses me that more people aren’t talking more about Pau Gasol. He’s a tremendous player who provides an offensively-challenged Bulls team with the perfect remedy. Obviously, the return of Derrick Rose and his ability to remain healthy will weigh heavily on the success of this ball club, but there’s little doubt that this team has the pieces to make a championship push. Look no further than here for the NBA’s premier defensive team, and that will always give you a chance.
3. Washington Wizards
The Wizards are the hot name among media experts to challenge the Bulls and Cavs in the Eastern conference, and the hype is warranted. Washington boasts one of the league’s premier guard combinations in John Wall and Bradley Beal, and the pair will only get better with experience. Marcin Gortat and Nene form a balanced and potent duo that is widely undervalued throughout the league. The loss of Trevor Ariza looms large, however, and despite Paul Pierce stepping in to replace him, it is likely he will need to be on a strict minutes restriction to make it through the season with all of the pounding he’s taken throughout his career.
4. Toronto Raptors
Simply put, the Raptors play in the most abysmal division in the NBA, which will undoubtedly push their win total up a bit. They are the lone team in their division with enough talent to make a legitimate push to the Eastern Conference finals, but they don’t have a true superstar and will have to stay healthy throughout. Kyle Lowry just might be the NBA’s most unheralded player, and Demar DeRozan has really elevated his game as well. If Jonas Valunciunas can become more consistently reliable offensively and work harder on the defensive side of the court, the Raptors can make some noise in the playoffs.
5. Miami Heat
The Heat are actually the more dangerous team than the Wizards, but they’ve never focused on the regular season and they will strategically keep Wade out of the line-up throughout the season to try and save his knees for crunch time. That will likely push them behind Washington in the standings. Luol Deng is another quality signing that will keep the Heat relevant, but do not pretend Deng will replace what LeBron brought to South Beach. Expect Chris Bosh to be the leading scorer this season, he’s extremely talented, and he’s on a mission to remind his detractors.
6. Charlotte Hornets
The good news? The Hornets are back, and their logo is fantastic. The bad news? There’s a significant talent gap between them and the teams listed above. Lance Stephenson is capable of putting up tremendous numbers, but he’s also capable of being a locker room cancer and he hasn’t had to be the lead dog before, how will he handle the change? I love Noah Vonleh and PJ Hairston as prospects, but they both project to take awhile to round into form. Al Jefferson needs to ensure that he receives heavy doses of paint touches from shoot-first Kemba Walker and his aforementioned shoot-first back court sidekick.
7. Detroit Pistons
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the X-factor for this franchise, as they don’t have much depth on the wings. If he can improve and become a reliable weapon, Detroit has a chance to do some things this season. They’re front-court just oozes potential with Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond. Brandon Jennings really fits well there, and they’ve sprinkled in some veteran presence and toughness with Caron Butler, Jodie Meeks, and DJ Augustin. Surprisingly, Spencer Dinwiddie has been cleared to play after last season’s ACL tear and looked effective in his preseason debut, and many NBA scouts and executives believe he was of the most underrated players in last year’s draft.
8. Atlanta Hawks
Al Horford’s return has Atlanta talking playoffs again. Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap are plus starters in the Eastern Conference, and Kyle Korver is the league’s most lethal three point shooter, but the rest of the roster is riddled with young and unproven talent. Adreian Payne fell into a perfect system where he can learn under Elton Brand and Millsap.
9. Brooklyn Nets
10. Indiana Pacers
11. New York Knicks
12. Boston Celtics
13. Orlando Magic
14. Milwaukee Bucks
15. Philadelphia 76ers
1. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs were historically dominant last season, and nothing has changed heading into 2015. Tim Duncan is the best power forward to ever play the game, and his game is timeless. He will be effective until he decides he doesn’t want to be on the court anymore, it is as simple as that. Manu Ginobili’s resurgence throughout the Finals last season was obviously a huge boost for the team, and Tony Parker still remains one of the league’s best point guards. This bus, though, is now Kawhi Leonard’s to drive. The Finals’ MVP has quickly become one of the best all-around players in the league, and their bid for a repeat title will rest squarely on his shoulders.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Their roster is arguably the most talented out West, but despite Chris Paul’s accolades, he’s failed miserably to find success in the playoffs. Until he gets over that hump, it is hard to find an argument worth bringing to the table that they can unseat the Spurs this season. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan continue to get better, and the addition of Spencer Hawes gives them a new look on the inside and an additional weapon from distance. Doc Rivers has the experience to put these pieces in the right places and bring a championship back to LA, but there are too many questions as of right now.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder would be right there with the Spurs if it weren’t for Kevin Durant’s absence. Unlike the Spurs, they play for playoffs home court advantage in the regular season, but with Durant out extensive time, they will likely be too far behind to make a run for the conference title. Come playoff time, though, this team will be ready to go. Russell Westbrook, while boisterous and a lightning rod for criticism, is one of the most talented players in the league. They will be extremely young on their bench, which has to be a concern for crucial situations, especially early in the season.
4. Golden State Warriors
The Splash Brothers remain among the most difficult guard combinations in the NBA, and likely none give opposing coaches more headaches. They can create from anywhere on the court, in any situation, and they are open no matter who is guarding them. The key for the Warriors, as always, will be in the hands of their front-court, where David Lee and Andrew Bogut have vast talent, and even vaster injury concerns. Andre Iguodala is a perfect complement to their roster and stays under the radar besides being an Olympic staple. Draymond Green is a premier bench luxury, and the signing of Shaun Livingston projects to have a quality impact on their success.
5. Portland Trailblazers
If there was a team to pick as a sleeper out West, this has to be the choice. Damian Lillard is already an elite PG in just his 3rd NBA season, and he’s already developed a reputation for being clutch down the stretch. LaMarcus Aldridge is the best PF in the NBA, not Kevin Love, not Blake Griffin. Nic Batum and Wes Matthews are both criminally underrated, and they have added quality bench pieces in Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez, and Chris Kaman.
6. Houston Rockets
The loss of Chandler Parsons is significant, there’s no two ways about it. Trevor Ariza is an underrated veteran, but he isn’t Parsons. Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas combine for an intriguing PF pair, but beyond James Harden their guard play is suspect at best. Dwight Howard will continue to be a physical beast on the glass and on the defensive end, but he’s a huge liability in late game situations. That fact can’t be ignored when projecting how far this team can advance in the playoffs.
7. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks have been another hot name to contend in the Western Conference but we aren’t sold yet. Their top four has immense talent, but who among the rest can you rely upon every single night? There appears to be a lot of players past their prime on the roster, and in the tough Western Conference, will that be enough to contend? Chandler Parsons was a phenomenal player as a third wheel, but is he ready to be a go-to performer?
8. Memphis Grizzlies
Toughness prevails. There isn’t a more physical group in the league from top to bottom, and Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Marc Gasol bring it every single night. The rest of the group leaves a lot to be desired, but the Grizzlies seem to find themselves in the thick of the playoff picture year in and year out.
9. New Orleans Pelicans
10. Phoenix Suns
11. Denver Nuggets
12. Utah Jazz
13. Sacramento Kings
14. Minnesota Timberwolves
15. Los Angeles Lakers
Pre-Season Predictions and Awards:
- Western Conference Finals: Spurs over Thunder
- Eastern Conference Finals: Cavs over Bulls
- NBA Finals: Spurs over Cavs
- Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
- Most Improved Player: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
- Rookie of the Year: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
- Defensive Player of the Year: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
- Sixth Man of the Year: Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls
- Note: I would have had Reggie Jackson if it weren’t for the Durant injury, forcing him to start a good portion of the year)
Prop, Lock, and Drop it… Into Your Wallet
Toronto Raptors: O48.5 Regular Season Wins -115
Last year’s Raptors won 48 games, they return all of their key pieces, and the division appears to be even less talented than last year, if you can believe it. Take the over.
Indiana Pacers: O33.5 Regular Season Wins -105
Look at last year’s Bulls without Derrick Rose, everyone left them for dead and they hustled and played tenacious defense and kept themselves relevant. Obviously that team is more talented than this year’s Pacers squad, but I just don’t see Frank Vogel letting these guys quit unless they choose to tank and try and land a premier draft pick.