10. Orlando Magic
The Magic didn’t exactly have a stellar run at free agency this year, overpaying Channing Frye and Ben Gordon; the latter of whom is already over the hill, while the former figures to be by the time this team’s ready to compete. They also may have massively undersold on Arron Afflalo, getting back unproven Evan Fournier and a bargain-basement draft pick.
That said, their roster’s brimming with upside, and coupling promising rookies Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton with another year of development from Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic should begin to steer this team upwards. There aren’t too many other places to go after last year’s 23-win campaign.
9. Detroit Pistons
Last season’s total breakdown in Motor City was enough to finally slam the door on Joe Dumars’ riches-to-rags tenure as their front office’s top dog. The team’s much-needed makeover remains a work-in-progress, but the mere presence of a proven NBA winner like Stan Van Gundy is an encouraging sign.
While low-post beast Greg Monroe remains curiously unsigned, there’s plenty for Pistons fans to be encouraged about: They picked up one of the Draft’s biggest sleepers (Spencer Dinwiddie) and Caron Butler’s ‘long distance call’, finally have a player who can hit a shot outside 15 feet (Jodie Meeks), and Andre Drummond is only getting better with time.
It’s hard to forecast their 2014-15 season with Monroe still in limbo, but it’s a safe bet that their management decisions will be more productive, now that someone competent is making them.
8. Denver Nuggets
Speaking of Arron Afflalo, his new squad also figures to make an improvement this year, bolstered by his return from Orlando, and those of Danilo Gallinari and Javale McGee, who were both scratches last season.
Afflalo and Gallinari will give Denver a lot more perimeter firepower, taking pressure off of Ty Lawson to do everything on offense. McGee is a valuable defensive backbone when he’s focused and motivated; his return will mean less time out-of-position at center for JJ Hickson.
Denver’s roster is relatively young, and won’t have huge adjustments to make in working these guys – and potential stud Gary Harris – into the rotation. But even if the on-court product is improved, don’t expect too much ascension up the brutally competitive West standings.
7. Atlanta Hawks
Pretty much everyone had written the Hawks off last year when Al Horford went down for the count in December. Evidently nobody gave Mike Budenholzer that memo; the rookie head coach re-worked his offense into a confounding three-point assault that took opponents off guard and almost won them a Playoff series (albeit against the Pacers).
Swapping Lou Williams for John Salmons, the Hawks are keeping virtually the same roster, only adding a perennial All-Star with Horford’s return. They’ll also welcome a defensive beast in Thabo Sefolosha, continue developing another one in Dennis Schroder, and picked up one of the most NBA-ready rookies in Adreian Payne.
Led by a strong bench boss, and with some East teams faltering, the Hawks could see themselves rise a couple of spots up the conference’s totem pole.
6. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs were involved in two of this offseason’s biggest moves; their ‘maybe we should’ve just re-signed him’ trade for Tyson Chandler, and the successful swipe of Chandler Parsons from Houston.
While Parsons is an awful defender, this team is clearly built to score, with Chandler serving as the lockdown guy inside; a role he’s far better suited for than the inconsistent and petulant Sam Dalembert. Chandler looked a step slow at times last year, but he was neither healthy nor motivated amid the shit-storm of blown coverage that was the 2013-14 Knicks.
Yes, Dirk’s a year older, but he’s also aging better than any current NBA player. Losing Vince Carter will hurt, but the new faces – capped by Jameer Nelson’s replacement of Jose Calderon – make this supporting cast more well-rounded.
5. Charlotte Hornets
First off, they got rid of the awful ‘Bobcats’ moniker and all the negative mojo that went along with it. Merely having their old identity back has created a ‘buzz’ about this team. What's more, Kemba Walker and Cody Zeller will be a year older (and likely better), and Charlotte snaked great value out of their 9th overall Draft pick, scooping up a guy who could’ve very easily gone as high as 4th in Noah Vonleh.
While Vonleh may be a year away from regular contributions, the Hornets also added Marvin Williams to patch the gap left by Josh McRoberts’ failed attempt to play with LeBron. They may have overpaid for Williams, but their next signing – a borderline All-Star in Lance Stephenson – is a strong two-way addition, even if you consider the decent odds that he may go completely insane.
4. Washington Wizards
Things continue to look up for the Wizards after their return to the Playoffs last year. While they lost Tervor Ariza in free agency, they nailed a priority in holding onto Marcin Gortat, while also adding the still-got-it Paul Pierce to fill the empty slot at SF.
The front line was further deepened by picking up DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries on reasonable contracts, but the Wizards will be going as far as their guards take them: John Wall and Bradley Beal form the one of the NBA’s two or three best backcourts, and both are still developing, especially Beal. Another year of growth from them could lift the Wizards even higher – potentially into the East’s top tier.
3. New Orleans Pelicans
Few teams have as much to look forward to as the Pelicans this year, on a multitude of levels. For starters, they welcome back Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson, two extremely important offensive cogs who missed large chunks of last season.
They also managed to snag Omer Asik from Houston’s liquidation sale, and while they might be overpaying for his services, they’ll be able to team with Anthony Davis, creating arguably the best defensive backbone in the NBA.
And then there’s Davis, who by every indication is on the fast-track to MVP status. Last year he casually flashed the type of all-around skill that rightfully terrified the league’s other 29 teams; look for the Brow to keep building.
2. Chicago Bulls
Last season appeared to be a tanking mission for the Bulls when they salary-dumped Luol Deng, but Tom Thibodeau wouldn’t allow it. Despite not “earning” a Lottery pick, Chicago traded up for one anyway, nabbing the instant-offense of Doug McDermott; a perfect fit for their roster.
As if that weren’t enough, they finally got rid of the rapidly-eroding Carlos Boozer, replacing him with Pau Gasol who can swing between C and PF, allowing for Taj Gibson to take on more minutes. Chicago also welcomes stashed Euro prodigy Nikola Mirotic, who should pay dividends immediately.
Of course, much of their hope for next season hinges on Derrick Rose’s knees. Either way, this roster should compete for a Top-4 seed in the East, but if Rose can maintain anywhere near his pre-injury level of dominance, the Bulls should have very legitimate title aspirations.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Clearly you knew this was coming.
There isn’t much to be said about the Cavs that hasn’t already this offseason. Not only did LeBron ‘come home’, but they stung the #1 Draft pick for the third time in four years, allowing them to flip two young assets for one of the NBA’s ten best players.
Love and LeBron will join forces with Kyrie Irving to form the league’s newest (and best) ‘Big 3’ and catapult Cleveland from the top of the Lottery to somewhere very near the top of the East.