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.