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Which Fans are the Happiest Heading into 2015?
LeBron James has officially announced that he’s returning home to the great state of Ohio. Just like that, the tectonic plates that normally lie dormant at the foundation of the NBA have undeniably shifted, in doing so redesigning the landscape of what was becoming a predictable league. Without LeBron, it seems as though the Miami Heat will snap back to reality. On the other hand, Cleveland, the winner of the LeBron-sweepstakes, should benefit enormously. It’s easy to get caught in the stardom of LeBron James, but this offseason has brought change to plenty of other franchises as well.
With James leaving the city, Chris Bosh will star as the main man in Miami. After adding Luol Deng to the roster, the Heat will look to contend an Eastern Conference that lacks a clear frontrunner. Elsewhere, Carmelo Anthony decided to ante-up in New York, while teams like the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers failed to catch the big fish despite having ample spending money. The Chicago Bulls added Pau Gasol but unless Derrick Rose is back in full force, it’s tough to buy into this team without the addition of another star.
Ultimately, there were more losers than winners in the 2014 Free Agency period. It’s not over, and there are still moves to be made (a Kevin Love trade, perhaps?), but as this offseason comes to a close, it has become easier to imagine what the 2015 NBA season will bring. Teams like Atlanta, Houston, and New York lost out on adding a big-time difference-maker and consequently squandered their title hopes for the next few years. Others, like Golden State, Portland, and the Clippers watched the madness unfold, realizing that less is more in this particular free agent class.
The King’s relocation, along with a handful of other free agency moves, redistributes the balance of power in the NBA. With No. 6 departing South Beach, what city becomes the new “Mecca of Basketball”? Here’s a tentative outlook on the NBA’s elite for the upcoming 2014-2015 season.
1. San Antonio Spurs
With endless noise emerging from the camps of various agents, owners, and alleged “sources” this NBA offseason, it would have been easy to forget about the 2014 NBA Champions, the San Antonio Spurs. Somehow, the Spurs put together one of the quietest yet simultaneously one of the most dominating post-season runs of all time. That’s just the way the Spurs do business; they prefer to fly under the radar.
After celebrating the franchise’s fifth NBA Championship in 40 years, the professionals in black and silver quickly got back to work. 38-year-old legend Tim Duncan opted-in to his contract with the team, ensuring a $10.3 million paycheck for himself in 2015. Coach Gregg Popovich also extended his deal with the Spurs, and with these two basketball geniuses sticking with the organization I’d be a fool to put the Spurs anywhere outside of the top five. Important role players Patty Mills and Boris Diaw also re-signed with the team, signaling this offseason is more about fine-tuning than retooling for the reigning champs.
Considering the fact that San Antonio is fresh off an NBA Finals victory, it’s understandable that they rank no. 1 before the season begins. The consistency of this program is simply remarkable. Expect no less from the Spurs in 2015. This team will be back, largely in tact, and will have another tremendously successful yet overlooked campaign this year.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers were one team that did not have a lot of cash to blow this offseason. That’s because the foundation that has been built in LA is enough to win an NBA Finals series. The Clippers just needed to add a few serviceable pieces around Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan to reach the next level. Ownership (not named Donald Sterling) is smart enough to realize how close the team is to a championship. The free agency period is not over, but the Clippers have made all of the right moves to position themselves for a championship run in 2015.
The Clippers return five starters and the reigning 6th man of the year to a squad that fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semi-finals amidst a great deal of controversy last year. Vegas gives the Clippers 10/1 odds of winning the championship in 2015, ranking only behind the Cavs, the Spurs, the Thunder, the Bulls, and the Rockets, in that order. For a bunch of reasons, I’m not buying those other teams. For Chicago, how will Rose play? For Houston, how will Ariza fill in for Parsons? For Oklahoma City, can you win a championship without a coach? For the Cavs, will the chemistry be there? As you can see, there is reason to doubt any NBA team (except one coached by Pop, then you just shut up and watch). But the Clippers provide very little wiggle room for an analyst’s criticism. Coach Doc Rivers has a championship ring and the only thing holding Chris Paul back from being considered one of the best point guards in NBA history is the acquisition of one.
LA has been a relatively calm town this offseason though it’s a city renowned worldwide for its star-power and its flashy scene. To date, center Spencer Hawes and point guard Jordan Farmar, both backups, have been the major additions to the roster for the Clippers. With the news of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony staying in the East, it’s easy to dismiss these smaller signings as inconsequential, simply filling out a roster with 15 spots needing to be filled. But Hawes’ size and three-point shooting will surprise skeptical fans in Los Angeles. Farmar is no Darren Collison, but he may prove valuable in his ability to stretch the floor and shoot the lights out. There are still two more open spots on the roster, so the Clippers aren’t done making moves. As a cash-strapped team, the Clips won’t be adding any major pieces to the team in the remainder of free agency. But if the Spurs have taught us anything, it’s that continuity in the form of excellent coaching and a strong core of players can produce results. A championship is all that’s in mind for Chris Paul and company this year.
3. Washington Wizards
Five years ago, had I put Washington on this list you would have looked at me like I was crazy. Two years ago, if the Wizards found their way onto this list, I would have been called delusional. Today, I declare the Washington Wizards the No. 3 team in the league. You’re staring at your computer screen like I’m a madman. But hear me out; this ranking isn’t as absurd as you’re thinking.
First off, the Wizards benefit from a desolate Eastern Conference. Playing out West, the Wizards would likely end up as a No. 4 or 5 seed. But back home in the East, there’s no obvious pick for the No. 1 spot. Indiana looked shaky at last year’s end, and the Heat should take a step back after LeBron’s departure. The Nets fell apart after a convincing second half of the season display and the Toronto Raptors are too young to do much this year. The Bulls could have grabbed this spot if D Rose was healthy or adequate help had been acquired in free agency, but I’m not convinced. And so, this is how the 2014 5 seed Washington Wizards have ended up in my 2015 top five.
So they lost Trevor Ariza. But the Wizards added some guy named Paul Pierce to the roster for the mid-level exception. Ariza did net 30 against the Bulls during the playoffs last year, a number that Pierce probably won’t eclipse for the remainder of his career. However, in Pierce, Washington finds an experienced veteran, a leader, a teacher for their younger players, and even a proven champion. It’s hard to argue that this signing doesn’t make the Wizards a much better team, especially with Pierce determined to make a last run at a championship before he retires.
The core that is in tact for the Wizards is solid and reminiscent of an older NBA that wasn’t always all about making a big splash in free agency. Washington secured C Marcin Gortat with a 5-year, $60 million contract. Add Gortat to an already fearsome and continually improving trio of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Nene and you have a recipe for a 50+ win season. Call me crazy, but if things remained as they were, I’d give the Washington Wizards a decent shot at winning the Eastern Conference this year.
4. Dallas Mavericks
The real winner of NBA Free Agency: the Dallas Mavericks. With LeBron James taking his sweet time to make a decision, other players and teams around the league were held in limbo due to the offseason’s inevitable complications. Because of the nature of restricted free agency, the cap space of each team, and the preferences of individual players, James’ commitment to the Cavs opened up a “Pandora’s Box” scenario for the rest of the league. With the NBA’s best player off the market, teams could turn their attention to negotiating and targeting some of the less advertised options out there.
For Dallas, the strain put on the Houston Rockets by a Chris Bosh decision put-on-hold resulted in talented small forward Chandler Parsons falling right into the team’s lap. A 3-year, $46 million contract doesn’t make Parsons a cheap pick-up, but for a squad that barely fell short to the eventual champions in a 7-game series, a player of Parson’s caliber should provide enough firepower to push the Mavs over the top. With Dirk Nowitzki restructuring his contract and nearing the end of his career, 2015 will likely be the last good chance for the Mavericks to bring a championship back to Dallas for quite some time.
Free agency isn’t over, and I expect the Mavs to bring in more help as the clocks winds down. Vince Carter won’t return, but his best basketball is behind him so it’s not the worst situation in the world. Lance Stephenson, formerly of the Indiana Pacers, is an intriguing option to add scoring and athleticism on the wing. Stephenson is expensive though and has been known to be a bit of a troublemaker. Whatever the case may be, Dallas has already made enough of an upgrade this offseason to earn them the No. 2 spot on this list. When the chips finally fall in place, the Mavs will be confidently working towards a bid to represent their conference in the 2015 NBA Finals.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs will go from having the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft to a playoff appearance this year. That’s what LeBron does; he makes everything an improved version of itself. The record will be better. The players will perform at a higher level. The new coach will look good. The net worth of the franchise has already jumped by more than $100 million. And now, the Cavaliers have qualified for my NBA top five. This is the LeBron effect.
Honestly, the roster is geared towards the distant future more than the 2015 season. Still, after bringing his team to the NBA Finals four years in a row, LeBron James will try to resume his journey to collect as many championships as possible in what’s left of his legendary basketball career. He’ll be without teammates Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade who provided invaluable support in Miami. Now, he’s paired himself with point guard Kyrie Irving and a cast of promising and gifted youngsters. Anthony Bennett, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, will improve his game alongside James. This year’s first selection, Andrew Wiggins, has shown flashes of greatness in the NBA Summer League and will patiently work to develop his limitless potential under James' tutelage. Dion Waiters won’t be demanding more touches or asking to be shopped anymore, he’s right where he wants to be. A loaded, albeit inexperienced, roster gets even stronger with the addition of James.
A new coach, a new star player, and a new system mean that there will be growing pains in Cleveland this year. The Heat couldn’t win a championship in their first year with LeBron, and I wouldn’t expect the Cavs to reach that level either. But with the best player on the world on your team, you’re going to have a reason to cheer. I would bet on the Cavs finishing no higher than a No. 4 seed in a balanced Eastern Conference. Add Kevin Love to the mix through any manner and the Cavs jump to No. 1 on my list. That possibility is still there, but for now, Cleveland humbly takes the 5 spot.
The Best of the Rest:
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
7. Houston Rockets
8. Chicago Bulls
9. Portland Trailblazers
10. Golden State Warriors