New Orleans Pelicans (2013-14 record: 34-48)
The Pelicans were a playoff-potential team shut down by a multitude of maladies. Their main core of Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson totaled 145 missed games, almost doubling the Spurs' starting five (and we thought our guys were hampered by injuries...). Heading into the offseason, New Orleans needed a legitimate center after posting the seventh worst opponent field goal percentage in the league, and Omer Asik may be the answer. Asik and Davis down low in the paint will be a nightmare for penetrating guards, but that may not be able to compensate for the defensive-impact of Al-Farouq Aminu who departed for Dallas. Russ Smith fell to the Pelicans, but I'm not thrilled with his fit on a team that is already jacked with ball-dependent guards (Holiday, Evans, Rivers). New Orleans is one of the more talented teams in the NBA, and as long as they can stay healthy (which may be too much to ask for), they should be much improved.
Predicted record: 40-42
Houston Rockets (2013-14 record: 54-28)
Chris Bosh was headed to Houston. He was ready to knock down his mid-ranged jumpers, Dwight Howard was licking his lips in the post, and James Harden was falling down somewhere. Even Kevin McHale couldn't mess this team up. But then Bosh decided his talents were best kept in South Beach, and everything fell apart. Chandler Parsons is gone. Omer Asik is gone. Jeremy Lin is gone (but Chandler Parsons is probably the only person in Texas who cares). The Rockets have a top-tier starting-five, sprinkled with a few decent role players coming off the bench. This summer wasn't a complete disaster, but I wouldn't expect things to be any better than last year for Houston.
Predicted record: 49-33
Memphis Grizzlies (2013-14 record: 50-32)
Early on in the 2013-14 season, it appeared as if Memphis was out of the playoff picture after three consecutive years of pushing, pulling, grabbing, screaming, and gritting their way past the 82-game mark. Then Marc Gasol came back from his MCL sprain, and all was right with the world. There weren't any major additions or subtractions this offseason for the Griz; they substituted James Johnson, Ed Davis, and Mike Miller for Earl Clark, Vince Carter, Jordan Adams, and Jarnell Stokes. It's important to remember that this team could easily have been a four or five seed if Gasol and Quincy Pondexter remained healthy, but everyone has excuses. Memphis is good, not great, and if they're looking to their summer additions to be the difference-makers, I expect another first or second round exit.
Predicted record: 50-32
Dallas Mavericks (2013-14 record: 49-33)
The Mavericks unquestionably had the best offseason decisions in the NBA. They've upgraded in so many areas, it's difficult to decide where to start. Even if Tyson Chandler isn't the player he once was, he's an upgrade over Samuel Dalembert and DeJuan Blair. Chandler Parsons is just a flat-out better player than the 2014-15 Vince Carter is. I'm big on Al-Farouq Aminu, and he will be a welcome bench addition/defensive stopper. Even the smaller additions (Ivan Johnson, Richard Jefferson, Greg Smith) are serviceable in limited minutes and upgrades over what was once there. One thing to keep track of in the next few weeks: the starting PG battle between Devin Harris, Jameer Nelson, Raymond Felton's gun, and Raymond Felton's man boobs. It should be enthralling.
Predicted record: 55-27
San Antonio Spurs (2013-14 record: 62-20)
They are good. The end. Thanks for coming.
What can be said about this team that hasn't already been said about the San Antonio Spurs? This summer, Danny Green has reportedly worked on his dribble-drive game. Kawhi Leonard has worked on his all-around play. Patty Mills and Tiago Splitter may be out awhile, but it will just give Cory Joseph and Kyle Anderson time to show that they are NBA ready or prepare them for emergency minutes in the postseason. It's scary to think that they have the exact same team as last year's championship squad, and may somehow end up better come playoff time.
Predicted record: 61-21
To recap, the Eastern Conference playoff qualifiers would line up as:
6. Miami Heat
And the Western Conference:
T-1. San Antonio Spurs
4. Dallas Mavericks
5. Portland Trailblazers
T-6. Memphis Grizzlies
8. Houston Rockets