With the flurry of summer movement behind us, which teams are in position to take a giant leap next season? And which teams are due for a decline? Our expert panel weighs in.
1. Which East team will make the biggest jump?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Miami Heat. They had Chris Bosh available for only 44 games and Josh McRoberts for only 17 because of injuries last season. (I'm not even counting Dwyane Wade's 62 games since that's become normal for him; he hasn't played in 70-plus games since 2010-11). Give midseason acquisition Goran Dragic a full year in Miami and Justise Winslow a couple of months to get acclimated to the NBA, and the Heat should zoom past the 37 wins they posted last season.
Ian Begley, ESPN.com: Miami gets the nod over Toronto here. After a disappointing 2014-15 season, Pat Riley brought back Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade and convinced Gerald Green and Amar'e Stoudemire to sign deals that were considered below market value. Those transactions, in addition to adding a healthy Chris Bosh, should help Miami quickly rebound after a 37-win campaign in 2014-15. Here's hoping we get a Heat-Cavaliers series in the playoffs.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: Heat. In terms of sheer wins and losses, the New York Knicks may improve more because they started at just 17 wins. But the Heat figure to take a larger jump from the lottery to possibly the biggest threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East if they stay healthy.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: I suspect Miami will be the most popular choice among our esteemed panelists, but I've got my eye on Milwaukee. Questions about the Bucks' spacing will be plentiful (and justified) until we see the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker (once healed) making 3s with more consistency, but the Bucks needed more scoring, and Greg Monroe can provide it. I'm sure we'll hear just as much skepticism about Monroe's defense, but Jason Kidd's kids have the length and athleticism to help cover for Monroe at that end. Shooting and experience are real worries, but no less significant than Miami proving it can dodge injury.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Miami's record was artificially depressed last season because of injury and they've improved themselves. Also, Erik Spoelstra completely altered his team's style of play on the fly last season. Give them a training camp and reasonable health and they'll be vastly improved.
2. Which West team will make the biggest jump?
Adande: Tempted to say the San Antonio Spurs, coming off that sixth seed last season. But that's based on the now-antiquated seeding system. Give me the Oklahoma City Thunder. If Kevin Durant's foot heals completely, it gives OKC the most successful offseason of anyone.
Begley: The Spurs and Clippers had strong offseasons, but it's hard to see any team in the conference improving its win total more than Oklahoma City. The Thunder should add at least 5-7 wins to their 2014-15 total (45) based solely on the health of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. OKC also locked up Enes Kanter and Kyle Singler, both of whom should provide strong support for OKC's "Big Three." Kanter is a liability on defense but should help OKC bludgeon teams on offense.
Pelton: Oklahoma City Thunder. While the Thunder have added only rookie Cameron Payne to the roster this summer, a healthy Durant will be enough to take Oklahoma City from out of the playoffs and into the mix for home-court advantage.
Stein: Oklahoma City, as long as you're prepared to assume a mostly healthy season for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Billy Donovan's move to the NBA, like Fred Hoiberg's in Chicago, will be a source of season-long curiosity. The talent, though, is too good when available for the Thunder not to make their traditional run at 55-ish wins, no matter how the new coach fares.
Windhorst: OKC is probably the best answer because of insane injury issues. But I'm looking forward to seeing what the Jazz do. They were transformed defensively after they moved Rudy Gobert in as a starter, and they'll get Alec Burks back. If last season was a little longer, they'd have been in the playoffs because they were charging.
3. Which East team will suffer the biggest fall?
Adande: Toronto Raptors. They're actually in the middle of a fall; after a 24-8 start to last season, they went 25-25 the rest of the way. The slide will continue as they transition from Amir Johnson and Lou Williams to a new defensive identity with DeMarre Carroll and Bismack Biyombo. Check back in 2016-17, when Bruno Caboclo should be ready to contribute.
Begley: Picking the Hawks here isn't an indictment of their offseason. It's more a reflection of the idea that it's hard for any team to duplicate a 60-win season. After losing DeMarre Carroll to the Raptors, the Hawks added two young, unproven players in Justin Holiday and Tim Hardaway Jr. If Atlanta can develop Holiday and Hardaway as they did Carroll, the club will have two more low-cost, high-yield pieces for the future. But it's hard to see the duo helping them get anywhere near 60 wins this season.
Pelton: Atlanta Hawks. I might have said the Hawks no matter what after they unexpectedly won an East-high 60 games last season, but losing DeMarre Carroll without an obvious starting-caliber replacement on the roster means Atlanta could tumble even further.
Stein: Atlanta lost DeMarre Carroll, true, but the Hawks didn't lose their Eastern Conference membership. So I'm not so sure their fall will even classify as steep. But there will be slippage. Slippage, presumably, from the 60-win ranks. Slippage we all notice because there was so little in the East on Cleveland's level to begin with. (And if we're all guilty of underestimating #eventhehawks again, like so many of us did this time last year, all we can say to keepers of such bulletin-board material: You're welcome!)
Windhorst: The Hawks. They probably overachieved in 2014-15 and they really weren't the same team in the last quarter of the season. So much of their style of play is based on harmony and rhythm, and that will be hard to maintain. I don't think it'll be a drastic fall, but I'm not sure that's a 60-win roster.
4. Which West team will suffer the biggest fall?
Adande: Dallas Mavericks. Their true barometer last season was Monta Ellis (who averaged 20 points in their victories), which would be a dicey proposition even if he were returning. But he's gone, and so is Tyson Chandler and so is DeAndre Jordan -- even if Jordan never really was there. It's not fair to Dirk Nowitzki, nor is it fair to expect him to carry this team into the playoffs at age 37.
Begley: The Mavs and Blazers are both strong picks here. But I'll go with Portland since Dallas seemed to add players who can help it win immediately after the club was spurned by DeAndre Jordan. To be clear, the Blazers did well in replacing LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews and their other free-agent defectors. But it's hard to see a regular rotation that includes Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee winning 50 games again in the Western Conference.
Pelton: Portland Trail Blazers. No other team has lost more talent than the Blazers, who saw four of their five starters depart via free agency and trade. After winning the Northwest Division a year ago, Portland is at the start of the process of rebuilding around guard Damian Lillard.
Stein: The Dallas Mavericks have hogged the headlines in this category thanks to the marquee free agent from Hollywood who chose and then un-chose them, but the obvious answer here is the Portland Trail Blazers. The playoff format that rewarded their Northwest Division crown with a No. 4 seed is gone ... as are four starters from that team. Dallas will be scuffling just to stay in the West's top eight, but the Blazers are openly rebuilding.
Windhorst: The Blazers are the obvious answer after all their losses. But you can't predict health, and these days that seems to be a huge variable.
5. Which player will break through next season?
Adande: Zach LaVine. As in, break through from a guy known just for his dunks into a guy recognized as a legit player. The Timberwolves made him a full-time starter for the last 15 games of his rookie season, and he averaged 20 points, six assists and five rebounds in that stretch. In summer league he got wherever he wanted to on the court. He looks ready to do some things for a Minnesota squad that should be fun to watch grow.
Pelton: C.J. McCollum. Given the aforementioned personnel losses in Portland, someone is going to have to step up. There's no better candidate than McCollum, who averaged 15.6 PPG in April and improved that mark to 17 per game in the Blazers' playoff loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Begley: Brandon Knight, Jordan Clarkson and Nerlens Noel all seem poised to break through in 2015-16, but it would be foolish to ignore Goran Dragic. Miami gave Dragic a big contract and should tailor its offense to Dragic's strengths (creating off of the pick-and-roll). So it's fair to assume that Dragic's per-game numbers (16.6 points and 5.3 assists last season) will increase. Another factor in Dragic's favor? He won't have to face the elite point guards in the Western Conference quite as often.
Stein: Instinct tells me this really isn't the sort of nominee you were looking for here, but I'm going with Kevin Love anyway. Because I think we're going to see a much more impactful Kevin Love in his second season as a Cav, which would qualify as a breakthrough, on this scorecard, after such a rough Year 1. (Brandan Wright is another candidate for me here, because I think he's going to grab more spotlight than he has in his previous stops as an uber-athletic sidekick to either Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph).
Windhorst: Andre Drummond is one of the most intriguing young talents in the league. The Pistons have retrofit their roster and seem like they're going to change their style of play with Greg Monroe's departure. These things could line up to set up Drummond to have a surge season in his fourth year, as many players often do. There are flaws in his game -- the free throwing shooting, oof -- but he's been on a similar trajectory as DeAndre Jordan's: a mega athlete who needed time to learn.