Five teams poised to make a big leap forward this season

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Last year it was the Phoenix Suns — they made a huge leap forward, one few saw coming (they were considered a tanking team before the season). Credit Jeff Hornacek for putting together a system that really took advantage of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. The Suns were almost a playoff team in the deep West.

So who makes the leap this season.

It’s always a little tricky to predict, but here are my five picks for the teams that will make big leaps forward in 2014-15.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers. Well, duh. This is obvious but the list is incomplete if the Cavs are not on it. As everyone who has not spent the past four months backpacking through rural Thailand knows, they added LeBron James and Kevin Love to a roster that had the All-Star Game MVP in Kyrie Irving. Plus the roster has solid role players — Anderson Varejao, Mike Miller, James Jones, Tristan Thompson, and on down the line. The only questions about this team are of the “can this keep them from winning a title this year?” variety. The Cavs won 33 games last season with a bottom 10 offense, they are now likely to have the best offense in the league and push 60 regular season wins.

2. New Orleans Pelicans. There are a lot of reasons the Pelicans are going to jump from 34 wins up to contending for a playoff spot. First, Anthony Davis is going to make a third-year leap from “basketball fans know he’s very good” to “everyone knows he’s very good.” As in he gets mentioned in the MVP voting good. But it’s a lot more than one guy in the Big Easy. New Orleans made one of the most underrated moves of the off-season when they got Omer Asik from Houston — he is a rock solid defensive and rebounding center who lets Davis move to his more natural four spot. This should improve the Pelicans defense, which is the key to them making a step forward (they were bottom five on D last season). Also, this team gets a seemingly forgotten quality stretch four back in Ryan Anderson. If the trio of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans can just stay healthy this is a high-40s win team. Even in the West.

3. Charlotte Hornets. Charlotte made a leap forward last season because coach Steve Clifford got a team anchored by Al Jefferson in the paint to be a top five defensive squad. He should have gotten more coach of the year votes because of that. But holding them back was the need for more shot creation — enter Lance Stephenson. He and Kemba Walker give them two guys who can create both in transition and in the half court. Charlotte’s offense will not be bottom 10 this season. The Hornets won 43 games last season and in a deeper East it’s not like they are going to win a whole lot more, they are not contenders, but they are a team that can make the second round of the playoffs and will be a tough team to beat nightly.

4. Dallas Mavericks. If you’re betting on Dallas getting considerably better — as I am — then you’re really betting on two things. First, and most importantly, that Tyson Chandler in the paint can lift the defense up from bottom 10 to above average or higher. He’s a big upgrade over Samuel Dalembert, but Chandler was slowed by injury to start last season in New York and didn’t ever move very well. He has to regain his form, and as a team the Mavs need to be more defensively focused. The other bet you are making is that Chandler Parsons is going to live up to his new, massive contract. His ability to draw defenders to the weak side, who then can’t jump in to help on the Monta Ellis/Dirk Nowitzki pick-and-roll should get everyone better looks (Dallas has had the third most efficient offense in the NBA during the preseason). If these two things happen Dallas can be a four seed and make the second round in the West playoffs.

5. Detroit Pistons. This is a vote for Stan Van Gundy. He’s going to make the Pistons better by first not trying to force feed the Andre Drummond/Greg Monroe/Josh Smith combination — it didn’t work, it’s time to move on. Second, SVG’s teams have always been fierce defensively and this Pistons team was bottom 10 on that end of the court last season (despite having Smith and some good defensive players). The Pistons aren’t contenders, but they are not going to be pushovers anymore. The challenge is even if they improve by 10 games this season, that only brings them up to 39 and that may not be enough to make the playoffs in the East this season. Bottom line, even though they take a step forward that may not get them to the postseason.

Kings’ Buddy Hield fined $25,000 for kicking ball into stands in celebration

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This was a $25,000 celebration by Buddy Hield.

Sacramento led by one in the final seconds against Boston Sunday, but the Celtics had a final shot and Marcus Smart‘s attempt at a game-winning floater hung on the rim seemingly forever… then fell off. The ball was tipped out to mid-court and — as you can see in this video — Heild kicks the ball into the stands as part of the celebration.

Kicking or throwing the ball into the stands is a standing $25,000 fine, and the league came down with that on Hield on Monday. It was not a surprise.

Hield was the reason Sacramento won the game, scoring 35 points to lead the Kings, including going 7-of-12 from three. He’d likely make that trade for the win again.

Kawhi Leonard out vs. Thunder Monday night, third straight game due to knee bruise

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This isn’t load management. This is a bruised knee.

The first Clipper game with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George sharing the court will have to wait as Leonard is going to miss his third straight game with a knee contusion Monday night against the Thunder. Ramona Shelburne of ESPN broke the news.

The Clippers are going to be cautious with bringing Leonard back from this, thinking long term with his health, as they should. Los Angeles is playing for games in May and June, not games in November.

This means tonight the Clippers will be the Paul George show again — in two games he has scored 70 points in 44 minutes. This will be George’s first game against the Thunder since he demanded a trade out of the city last summer, landing him on the Clippers with Leonard.

Kevin Love tries to ignore trade rumors, ‘let the chips fall where they may’

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Cleveland Cavaliers GM said he has no interest in trading Kevin Love.

You can count the number of people around the league who believe him on one hand. There’s a good chance Love is still on the Cavaliers at the end of this season, but that’s more about him being in the first year of a four-year, $120 million contract extension than it is Cleveland’s willingness to trade him (or interest from other teams, if money was not an issue). The Cavaliers are rebuilding, and if they can get young players and picks for Love, they have to consider it.

With Portland off to a slow start, and Love growing up in the Pacific Northwest, that rumor has floated around. There are others. Love is just trying to ignore them and play ball, he told Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times.

“I know there’s talk about me possibly being the missing piece somewhere,” Love said. “There’s been constant chatter since I signed that I could be traded. It’s one of those things where I’m going to keep doing right by the team, by Cleveland and by the organization. If my number is called, so be it, but I’m going to stay true to my commitment and let the chips fall where they may.”

Love, who has been open in recent years about his struggles with anxiety and mental health, said dealing with the trade rumors that constantly swirl around him can be a challenge on that front.

“A big aspect of mental health is just staying in the present but it’s so hard,” he said. “You have to try to not get too far ahead of yourself or get worked up. You can get that anxious feeling or fear for the future, but you have to try to stay focused on getting better and let things work out the way they should.”

Kevin Love has played well to start the season, averaging 18.3 points and 11.3 rebounds a game, shooting a respectable 34.7 percent from three. He could help a lot of teams, particularly ones in the West who want to be in the mix for a ring but who look at the Lakers and Clippers and think, “we have to get better fast.”

The rumors around Love are just going to get louder the closer and closer we get to the trade deadline. Love will have to do a lot of work to tune all that out.

 

Bulls big man Luke Kornet out following surgery on sinus obstruction

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Just before last Christmas, Luke Kornet broke his nose. Apparently, that never healed quite right.

Kornet underwent surgery to repair a sinus obstruction on Monday, the Chicago Bulls announced. There is no timetable for his return, although coach Jim Boylen suggested it could be less than two weeks.

Bulls coach Jim Boylen added this at practice, via NBC Sports Chicago.

“Kornet had sinus surgery this morning. He had blockage and some issues from a previous fracture from when he was in New York. We just felt it was time to go in there and clean that thing out. That happened this morning at 6 AM. He’s out. Surgery went well. We’ll have more to report as we go. Originally, it was a seven-ten-day thing where he’d be back. I think it’s one of those things they don’t know until they get in there how extreme it is. But he had blockage and it needed to be done.”

This does not impact the Bulls much on the court as Kornet has fallen out of the rotation in recent games (in part because of the sinus condition, in part because he just hasn’t played well). Kornet signed a two-year, $4.5 million contract with the Bulls over the summer.