1 - Obviously Cleveland "won" the off-season. But besides them, which team improved the most from last season?
Taylor Young: I think without a doubt the Clippers improved. You can't amnesty Donald Sterling and call your off-season a failure. They also added a great piece in Spencer Hawes. Next year is the first year in the CP3/Blake era when I can conceive a universe in which they win the title.
Jesus Gomez: Sometimes continuity and experience are more valuable than flashy roster moves. That's why I think the Raptors, without making many additions, should be a better team this next season. They brought back Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Kyle Lowry, traded for Lou Williams and added some perimeter defense in James Johnson. I think they could make noise in the East.
Michael Erler: For me, it's got to be Chicago. Gasol, Mirotic, McDermott, and oh yeah, Derrick Rose, a former MVP. I don't expect Rose to be what he was, but if he can even be 80-85 percent of that and the rookies don't get stuck in Tom Thibodeau's dog house, then Chicago should be able to challenge Cleveland. Heck, just getting rid of Carlos Boozer is enough addition by subtraction to significantly improve the Bulls. I think a distant second (well, third if you're counting the Cavs) has to be New Orleans. Signing Omer Asik to help out Anthony Davis and getting Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson back should make them a playoff contender.
Chris Itz: The Bulls missed out on Carmelo Anthony, but they did pick up Pau Gasol and drafted Doug McDermott, who impressed Tom Thibodeau with his swag. The return of Derrick Rose is obviously the biggest boon to Chicago's chances, but in getting Pau, the Bulls added a guy they can go to in the post for stretches when the rest of the offense stalls.
J.R. Wilco: Chicago, Toronto, New Orleans, Los Angeles, all have improved without a doubt -- add to that group Golden State. Not necessarily because of any roster moves, but because of Steve Kerr, who I think will do an excellent job of marrying everything he's learned from both Pop and Phil. I wouldn't be surprised to see him be a coaching lifer, and a perennial candidate for Coach of the Year.
2 - There are only a handful of teams with a real shot at a title and the margin of error is slim, which means taking a step back can be fatal. Which of the contenders got worse?
Young: The Rockets were a Chris Bosh away from being very scary, but they couldn't pull it off. Now they're stuck with Jason Terry and I'd argue their offense got worse while their defense will still be pitiful.
Gomez: I might be stretching the definition of contender a bit but I think the Wizards got worse. It's not that Trevor Ariza is better than Paul Pierce; it's that the fit next to Wall and Beal was just perfect. And I'm not buying the front court additions as huge upgrades either. Are DeJuan Blair or Kris Humphries that much better than Trevor Booker?
Erler: Houston is the obvious one for me. Even if you believe Trevor Ariza and Chandler Parsons are a wash - and I think that's a stretch - they lost some of their defensive depth by letting Asik and Jeremy Lin go and will be relying on unproven guys to replace that depth, which is particularly risky with Howard and his balky back.
Itz: I guess that depends on who was a contender last year. If Indiana counts, then losing both Paul George and Lance Stephenson transforms them from a contender into a team that is likely to miss the playoffs entirely. In the other conference, Houston lost Chandler Parsons to Dallas when they decided to let him enter restricted free agency instead of picking up the last year of his deal for less than a million dollars. Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin are gone and Chris Bosh turned down their max offer to stay in Miami. Trevor Ariza is a nice pickup, but I think they'll be significantly worse because of their offseason.
Wilco: With the way they played the Spurs in the first round, I thought Dallas would be a force this year, but they're going to miss Vince Carter and Jose Calderon. Both of those guys were big for them last season and while the Mavericks added Parsons and re-acquired Tyson Chandler, I don't see them replacing what they've lost and I'm concerned about what Chandler has left in the tank.
3 - What addition was overrated? (By addition I mean coaches, players, front office people - anything)
Young: The Mavericks addition of Chandler Parsons. While I think the Mavs' off-season as a whole was impressive, I don't think Chandler Parsons can be the second best player on a contender. He may send out the most shirtless pics, but he won't be the kind of wingman they want him to be.
Gomez: Stan Van Gundy joining the Pistons as coach/GM. The front court remains crowded and it will continue to be until Greg Monroe flees. And the addition of Caron Butler and Jodie Meeks could stunt the development of Kantavious Caldwell-Pope and marginalize the contributions of the underrated Kyle Singler. Stan, the coach could change my mind by making it all work. But I remain underwhelmed by Stan, the GM.
Erler: At this stage of the game, I'll say Paul Pierce with the Wizards. He might provide heroics for a random playoff game, but while his ceiling is better than Ariza's, his basement is much lower. There are going to be plenty of nights where the Wizards will miss Ariza's defense and three-point shooting and he doesn't need the ball to be impactful or force hero shots. I'd place Vince Carter at Memphis in a similar category. How much do they think he has left?
Itz: Call me a hater, but I'm really curious to see how Kevin Love is going to mix with the Cavs. I have my doubts. I'm not sure how overrated the pickup was because there is considerable doubt out there already, but they became the favorites to win the title in Vegas when the trade became official. The cliche is true that defense wins championships, and I'm not sure that pairing one of the worst defensive PFs in the game to one of the worst defensive PGs in the game is the greatest strategy.
Wilco: The entire package of the Cavaliers put together will take more time to gel than most expect. They still might finish first in the East, but they're not going to be what they'll be next season.
4 - What addition was underrated? (Same definition)
Young: I think Doug McDermott could be a Russell Wilson like player in the NBA. I think the Bulls drafting Dougie McBuckets was the perfect pick for them and exactly the type of player they needed. I could see him having the effect Leonard had on the Spurs by filling the exact gaps they need him to fill.
Gomez: Vince Carter joining the Grizzlies.The fit is perfect, since Carter can shoot from deep and create in a pinch. And his presence would allow the Grizz to trot out a crunch time lineup of Conley - Carter - T. Allen - Z-Bo - Marc. Not too shabby.
Erler: I'll step out on a limb with Lance Stephenson. I think his all-around skill set will give that moribund offense a legit second option and his idolatry of Michael Jordan should keep him in line. Also, again, I really like the Asik acquisition for the Pelicans.
Itz: Paul Pierce ending up in Washington. I think he still has a little something left in the tank, and a grizzled vet with championship experience should help the team come April.
Wilco: Carter in Memphis and Pierce in D.C. are both worth more attention than they've received so far.
5 - The Year Durant Won MVP Over LeBron, Blake Griffin living up to the hype, the Knicks imploding and missing the playoffs,the Suns being better and more fun to watch than expected and whatever it is that happened to the Indiana Pacers are just some examples of unexpected events that took place last season.
What will be the biggest surprise of this season?
Young: The Sixers make the playoffs. Just kidding. Hmm, the Blazers will be the number two seed, OKC will get the number four seed and lose to Dallas in the first round, the Wizards will down the Bulls in the second round and Kobe will murder one Laker.
Gomez: The Hornets will disappoint. Charlotte is trying to build on a good season and brought over Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams to help them do that. But Williams is a downgrade over Josh McRoberts and Lance might take the ball away from Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson. On paper they are better, but I'm not sure that will translate to the court.
Erler: There will be more of a shakeup in the West, where the teams are thought of as deeper and more entrenched, than the East. I've got both Houston and Portland, last year's 4-5 seeds, missing the playoffs in the West. In the East, I've got only one 2014 playoff team, Indiana, missing out, and that's mainly because of Paul George's injury. I don't know if this qualifies as surprising or not, but the first mid-season coach firing will be Kevin McHale.
Itz: I'm all in on the Hawks, who took Indiana to seven games in April. Mike Budenholzer learned from the best and the front office and fans are in for the long haul. Their best player, Al Horford, missed two thirds of last season but he made his full-contact debut a couple of days ago. They spread the floor and pass the ball well, and they are bringing back most of last year's squad. Continuity is important. They'll host a playoff series in 2015 and Coach Bud will finish high in the Coach of the Year voting after easily surpassing Vegas' 40 1/2 win total prediction.
Wilco: Kawhi Leonard will become one of the league's best interviews and will start his own podcast as the basketball world is wowed by his easy manner, insight, and loquacity.