Monday, November 25, 2013

J-Speaks: Early Season Candidates For Most Improved Players in NBA

When a new season begins, one of the main questions that is asked is what players are going to put all of their amazing talent together and start to tap the potential that many so-called experts and analysts believe certain players have. Last season, it was Indiana Pacers' swingman Paul George who put it all together and not only won the Most Improved Player Award a season ago, but he helped lead the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they fell one game short of the NBA Finals to the eventual back-to-back champion Miami Heat. This season, there are five players who have done what George did a seasons ago and not only have played well themselves, but they have made their teams better.

Those five players who have improved their games as well as their teams are New Orleans Pelicans center Anthony Davis, Philadelphia 76ers center Spencer Hawes, Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson, Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague and Phoenix Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe have done exactly that.

A season ago, Davis put up solid numbers as a rookie with 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest.

In his second season, he numbers have been off the charts with averages of 20.7 points, 11.0 rebounds (5th NBA), 1.9 steals and 4.0 blocks, which ranks second in the league behind, Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who averages 4.3 blocks per contest.

In the Pelicans (6-6) 105-98 victory versus the Utah Jazz (1-14) on Wednesday night, Nov.13, Davis had 22 points on 9 for 12 from the field, nine boards and eight block shots. The eight rejections Davis had was the second consecutive outing that he recorded that number, joining current Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Garnett as the only players in league history to record back-to-back games of eight or more blocks at the 20 years of age or younger.

Davis had 13 points nine boards and nine blocks in the Pelicans 135-98 win versus the Sixers four days prior.

The improve play of Davis on both ends has helped to makes the Pelicans a very competitive team in the early part of this season. More than anything else though, he has made life a little easier for the likes of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon. Davis' ability to shoot from 15 feet along with his ability to score around the basket and change ends helps the Pelicans to score quickly, which they have made a better effort to do this season and to keep teams from having easy chances at the rim in the half court.

Along with that, the effort and energy that Davis has shown on a nightly basis gives this talented group the most important thing they will need if they have plans on making the playoffs. A sense of urgency to bring a high competitive spirit to the court night in and night out.

That was never more prevalent than this past Friday versus the Cleveland Cavaliers (4-10). Trailing 93-81 late in the fourth quarter, the Pelicans closed the game on a 23-7 run the final 4:44 to win the game 104-100.

Davis was one of six Pelicans in double-figures with 17 points to go along with 13 boards and three blocks.

When Davis came out of the University of Kentucky as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 Draft out of Kentucky, he was a player in the eyes of many experts as one who can change the fortunes of a franchise.

This season in particular, he is living up to those expectations and if he continues to perform at the level he is this season, he not only has a strong chance of winning the Most Improved Player Award, but to make his first All-Star appearance, which would be really nice, since the game will be played in New Orleans.

Coming into the season, the Sixers (6-9) were in a rebuilding mode. The centerpiece of this new era of Sixers basketball was rookie guard Michael Carter-Williams (17.3 ppg, 7.4 apg-leads team, 5.7 rpg, 3.0 spg-2nd NBA). The anchor of the team was going to be swingman Evan Turner (21.7 ppg-leads team, 6.9 rpg, 3.6 apg). While he and forward Thaddeus Young (14.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.7 spg) was going to be important in this process as the veterans, no one expected the kind of start that starting center Spencer Hawes got off to this season.

His averages of 16.8 points, 10.3 boards and 1.6 blocks per contest are the best numbers of his career.

To put these stellar numbers of Hawes into perspective, there are only six guys who are averaging 15-plus points and 10-plus rebounds per game. Those players are Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star forward Kevin Love (24.9 ppg-3rd NBA, 13.6 rpg-T-1st NBA), Los Angeles Clippers All-Star forward Blake Griffin (22.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg), aforementioned Davis of the Pelicans, Houston Rockets All-Star center Dwight Howard (17.9 ppg, 13.6 rpg-T-1st NBA), Orlando Magic starting center Nikola Vucevic (15.0 ppg, 10.7 rpg) and Hawes.

For much of his career, Hawes has been a solid player. In three of his prior six seasons coming into this one with the Sacramento Kings and the Sixers, he averaged double figures in points and aside from his rookie year, he has averaged between five and seven boards per contest.

His emergence has been a huge boost for the Sixers who have a lot of talented players in the aforementioned Turner, Carter-Williams, guards James Anderson (10.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Tony Wroten (12.6 ppg) to name a few.

When you have that kind of talent, it takes having guys like Hawes, Turner and Young who have some years in the NBA and production to go alongside it as teammates to see from practice to game action the kind of work ethic and committment it takes to succeed individually and to help the team succeed.

Hawes put that veteran experience on full display last Friday versus the struggling Milwaukee Bucks (2-10), when he hit a fall away three-pointer right in front of the Bucks bench with 1.7 seconds left in regulation to tie the score at 102-102.

He scored 11 of his team-high 25 points in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime to lift the Sixers to a 115-107 win, snapping a four-game losing streak. Hawes also had 12 to garner his ninth double-double of the season. He was 11 for 16 from the field, including going 3 for 6 from three-point range.

Hawes is a great example of how being prepared is the first step in becoming a great player and his stellar play combined with the young talent on the roster gives the Sixers hope for the future.

As mentioned earlier, the emergence of George is a big reason why the Pacers (12-1) pused the back-to-back champion Heat to the limit in the Eastern Conference Finals a season ago. The other player who emerged a season ago and has really raised his game this season is swingman Lance Stephenson.

In the East Semifinals against Heat two years ago, Stephenson got attention not for a play that he made on the court, but for a chocke gesture he made when back-to-back Most Valuable Player forward LeBron James of the Heat missed a technical foul free throw. It was not received well afterwards, especially since the Pacers after winning Game 3 of the series to go up 2-1, they lost the last three of the series to fall 4-2.

Last season though, the Brooklyn, NY native grew up and allowed his play on the court to do the talking as he averaged 8.8 points and 3.9 boards as a starter for the East runner up Pacers who took the Heat all the way to Game 7 before falling again to the Heat one game short of the NBA Finals.

This season, Stephenson has been stellar as the Pacers second leading scorer at 13.4 points to go along with 5.9 rebounds and a team leading 5.2 assists per contest.

His play along with the continue emergence of leading scorer Paul George (24.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.7 spg) is the reason why the Pacers are becoming a true threat to the Heat in the Eastern Conference.

It is not just his scoring, but like George, Stephenson has raised his game in every other area with his rebound and assists averages. Stephenson has learned that he can effect the game in other areas besides scoring.

He demonstrated that the 103-96 overtime win at the struggling New York Knicks (3-9) last Wednesday night. He struggled scoring the ball putting in just nine points, but he had nine boards and five assists.

In the Pacers 97-82 win at the Celtics (5-10), Stephenson recorded his second triple-double of the season with 10 pionts, 11 rebounds, 10 assists to go along with four steals.

Of all the players mentioned who are in early running for the Most Improved Player Award, Stephenson is the one player who is on a championship contender and his continued improvement will play a major key to the Pacers this season, especially if they want to unseed the Heat in the East.

It is one thing to have a breakthrough season it is another to go to an even higher level. That is the case for Hawks (8-6) lead guard Jeff Teague.

Last season, the product of Wake Forest University had the best season of his young career averaging 14.6 points, 7.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game.

The question coming into this season though, with a new head coach in Mike Budenholzer, former teammate Josh Smith moving on to the Detroit Pistons and a new cast of teammates like forwards Paul Milsap, Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll, Cartier Martin, could Teague bring his game to another level.

So far, the answer has been a solid yes, leading the team in scoring at 18.0 and assists at 8.8 for the Hawks.

In their 113-103 victory over the Sixers 10 days ago, Teague had a career-high of 33 points to go along with 10 assists in the victory.

When you are the floor general for your team, you are an extension of your head coach. You are the engine that makes the car go. So far this season Teague has been driving the train for the Hawks pretty nicely and is a big reason why the Hawks are going to be in the playoff hunt once, despite the fact that the roster has had some major changes to it.

Another starting guard who has risen his game to a different height has been Eric Bledsoe for the Phoenix Suns (7-6).

In the first three seasons of his career with the Los Angeles Clippers, Bledsoe has been a reserve who has shown flashes of brilliance. He has also had the chance to be an understudy to one of the best at his position in All-Star Chris Paul.

When he was traded to the Suns this summer, he finally was going to get his chance to prove that he can run a team on his own.

So far, the former Kentucky Wildcat guard has done a stellar job averaging career-best of 20.4 points, 6.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds on 50 percent from the field and 83.3 percent from the free throw line.

Bledsoe has been a solid compliment starting backcourt mate Goran Dragic (16.4 ppg, 6.4 apg). They along with other new additions in guard Gerald Green (15.2 ppg), starting center Miles Plumlee (10.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg-leads team, 2.1 bpg-leads team) and some of the current core which includes the Morris twins Markieff (11.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg,) and Marcus (10.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg), P.J. Tucker (9.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and forward Channing Frye (8.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg).

Of the five players that I have mentioned that are on early watch for Most Improved Player Award, Bledsoe was the one player that has been the most impressive.

He was coming to a new team that was coming off one of the worst season in the history. There was a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek. Other new players in Green, who had shown flashes that he could be brilliant and Plumlee, who barely got any time with the Pacers a season ago and a first round pick (5th overall) Alex Len, who has played little this season and core players like the Morris twins, Dragic and Tucker who had a lot of room to grow.

So far, the match of Bledsoe and the Suns has been one made in heaven, even though he has missed the last four games because of an injury to his left shin.

Davis, Hawes, Stephenson, Teague and Bledsoe are players who entered this league with a world of talent. Unlike a lot of players who have a lot of talent, these five players have taken their skills to another level and made themselves better individuallly and have made their teams better.

These are five worthy candidates for Most Improved Player Award and who ever wins it will be worthy because it is not just the fact that these players have taken their games to another level, but the teams they play for are benefiting from that improved play in the win column.

While the Pacers were expected to be great this season and so far they are living up to the bill, not much was expected from the Sixers, Pelicans, Hawks and Suns. Many experts thought the Suns and Sixers were going to be two of the worst teams in the league. While they and the Pelicans are longshots to make the playoffs, their futures look a lot brighter because of the play of the Bledsoe, Hawes and Davis. Teague's continued emergence has given the Hawks a fighting chance to make their seventh straight playoff appearance this April.
Information and statistics are courtesy of 11/23/13 5 a.m. edition of NBA TV's "Gametime" with Vince Cellini, Mike Fratello and Michael Redd;;

Monday, November 11, 2013

J-Speaks: National Basketball Association (NBA) Review: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

It has been a very exciting start to the 2013-14 NBA season. Some teams and some players have lived up to the hype they came into the season with. Some have had a rough go of it to begin. Then there are a couple of teams who have shown that things are going to get worse before they get better. Here is the NBA in review.

The Good
On Saturday night, the Atlanta Hawks (3-3) defeated the Orlando Magic (3-4) 104-94 for their ninth straight home win verus the guys from Walt Disney World, forward Kyle Korver hit a three-pointer for the 79 straight game, which tied former guard Michael Adams and surpassed current NBATV analyst Dennis Scott, who recorded his 78 straight game with a three-point connection on Apr. 4, 1996 versus the Boston Celtics. He is now just 10 games short of tying former NBA guard Dana Barros, who did it from 1994-96.

"Records are good. I got a lot of great teammates looking for me setting great screens," Korver, who had 14 points, eight boards, five assists on 6 for 10 shooting, going 2 for 5 from three-point range, said to NBATV's Matt Winer after the game on Saturday.

Back on Nov. 5, the Miami Heat (4-3) won at the Toronto Raptors (2-4) 104-95, garnering their first road win of the season, two-time Most Valuable Player LeBron James achieved a remarkable milestone.

With his 35-point effort, which led the Heat, he recorded his 500 straight game of scoring in double-figures. He joined Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, who scored in double-figures for 866 consecutive games; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had a 787 streak and a 508 streak of scoring in double-digits; Karl Malone who did it for 575 straight games and Moses Malone who scored in double-figures for 526 straight games.

"When I see a stat like that, I'm like 'Wow,' because I know the history of the game, I know the guys who paved the way for myself and my teammates," James said after the game.

"To be in such a great class like that, it's an amazing feeling."

To top it off, when James scored on a put back with 2:31 left in the opening quarter, it was the 162nd time during that streak that he reached double-digits in the first stanza.

This streak began after he scored just eight points at the Milwaukee Bucks back on Jan. 5, 2007. The next night at the then New Jersey Nets he scored 19 and the rest as they say is history.

What this streak brings into focus more than anything is that James, like Jordan before him understands that the fans whether at Miami's home court the American Airlines Arena or when the Heat play on the road, fans come to see the four-time MVP at his best and he has delivered and at the same time he has a tremendous amount of respect for those that came before him and the foundation they have laid for him to be who he is and wants to continue to be on the hardwood.

"That's not something that any average player can do," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game.

"Part of his greatness is consistency. Night in, night out, you know what to expect."
While we have come to expect a lot from James, we did not know what to expect this season from Philadelphia 76ers (4-3) starting rookie guard Michael Carter-Williams.

Well, the 2nd player to win the first Eastern Conference Player of the Week to start a season, since current NBATV/TNT analyst Shaquille O'Neal back in 1992-93, made a solid impression, especially in his first game of his NBA career.

The rookie out of Syracuse had a debut for the ages when put up 22 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds and nine steals. Not a bad way to announce that you are in the league.

For a team that was supposed to have more low moments than up this season, the team has shown that they want to start growing this season and their lead guard is a big reason for that.

While the sample has been a small one, Carter-Williams has shown he not only belongs, but he can take care of business against the best as he stats of 18.7 ppg, 8.1 apg and 5.9 rebounds per contest has stated so far.

Against one of the best in the East the Chicago Bulls (2-3), who bring to the table one of the best defenses in the business, Carter-Williams scored 26 points and dished out 10 assists as the Sixers came from behind to defeat the Bulls 107-104 to go to 3-0.

On Saturday night in a 127-125 defeat at the Cleveland Cavaliers (3-4), Carter-Williams shined again against former Rookie of the Year guard Kyrie Irving as he scored 21 points to go along with 13 assists, seven boards, two steals and two block shots. Irving was stellar for the Cavs with 39 points and 12 assists.

While the Sixers have a small chance of making the playoffs this season, they at least have the lead guard of the future in Carter-Williams. While he will experience some tough times as this season moves on, if the small sampling can become a consistent one, the Sixers have something special to build around.

In New Orleans, the Pelicans (3-4) have that building block to build around in last season's No. 1 overall pick out of Kentucky in forward/center Anthony Davis, who this past Friday night had a game to remember.

In the Pelicans 96-85 win versus the Los Angeles Lakers, which snapped an 11-game losing streak to the visitors from the "City of Angels," Davis had a career-high 32 points to go along with 12 rebounds and a career-high tying six block shots.

This was the fourth double-double for Davis in the Pelicans first six games. He added another with 14 points and 12 rebounds in his team's 101-94 setback at the Phoenix Suns (5-2).

After last season, where he showed flashes of how good he could be, Davis start to this season has shown that he wants to stratch that surface of greatness and eventually break that glass. He also hopes that will help the team win more games and eventually be one of the elite in the Western Conference.

"We defintely got to keep playing like this. We can't come into our next game and be lackadasical and be satisfied with this win. We just got to keep coming in with this energy and effort," Davis said to Fox Sports New Orleans sideline reporter Jennifer Hale after the game on Friday night.

While they had a setback on Sunday at the Suns, it is clear that the Pelicans have a different mindset this season.

That showed in the rest of the Pelicans on Friday night at least as starting lead guard Jrue Holiday had a double-double of his own with 13 points, 13 assists and four steals. His starting backcourt mate Eric Gordon had 16 points and six boards.

If there is one team that came into this season where we did not know what to expect is the Phoenix Suns.

They have shown in their first seven games, winning five of them and four of those have come at home, they are headed in the right direction.

In their 114-103 victory versus the Denver Nuggets (1-4) on Friday night, some of their young core players really showed how much they have grown.

Forward Markieff Morris had a career-high 28 points on 10 for 13 from the floor to go along with 10 boards off the bench. His twin brother Marcus had 11 points and eight boards.

Two of the Suns newest players have been a major part of the Suns amazing start this season and they were on full display against the Nuggets. New starting lead guard Eric Bledsoe had 17 points and nine rebounds on 6 for 11 from the floor and new starting center Miles Plumlee, who the Suns acquired from the Pacers in the off-season had 18 points and 11 rebounds.

In the Suns 101-94 win versus the Pelicans on Sunday, Bledsoe led the way with 24 points. Markieff followed up his career night on Friday with a 23-point effort off the bench on Sunday. Plumlee had just eight points, but he had 12 rebounds and five block shots.

If there is one thing that is different about this team from a year ago is that they have leadership on the bench in former Suns and NBA veteran Jeff Hornacek as their head coach.

An example of this is that in the third quarter of Sunday's win at home, he called a timeout and ripped into his team for their uninspired effort and it resulted in them outscoring the Pelicans 30-29 in the fourth quarter to capture the win.

While the Suns, Sixers and Pelicans are teams trying to build consistency, their is one team that has the talent on paper that should be consistent, but injuries a season ago derailed an chance to turn that into reality. This season however, good health to begin the season has been great for the Minnesota Timberwolves (5-2).

Driving this train that will hopefully lead them to their first playoff birth since 2004 is the combination of forward Kevin Love and guard Ricky Rubio and the newest edition in starting shooting guard Kevin Martin.

In their 116-108 over the Dallas Mavericks (4-3), Love was amazing with 32 points, 15 boards and eight assists on 12 for 21 from the floor, including going 3 for 6 from three-point range and 5 for 5 from the free throw line.

Martin matched Love with 32 points of his own on 10 for 19 from the field, including going 3 for 5 from three-point territory and 9 for 10 from the charity stripe.

At the Lakers (3-5) the duo of Martin and Love were spectacular again and so was Rubio.

Love recorded his seventh double-double in as many games with 25 points, 13 rebounds on 8 for 17 from the floor, including 4 for 9 from three-point territory and 5 for 5 from the free throw line.

Martin led the way with 27 points on 11 for 23 from the floor.

Rubio, who has had his struggles shooting wise this season from the floor, recorded his second career triple-double on Sunday night with 12 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds.

Starting forward Corey Brewer and starting center Nikola Pekovic also contributed with 17 points and 14 points and 10 rebounds respectably in the win at the Lakers.

The 23-point win at the Lakers was not only the T'Wolves biggest against their opponent in team history on Sunday, it also snapped a 22-game losing streak to them.

The last time the team from the "Twin Cities" beat the Lakers prior to Sunday night was a 117-107 victory at the Target Center on Mar. 6, 2007.

The T'Wolves were led not led by current Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Garnett, who had 26 points and 17 rebounds, but guard Ricky Davis, who had 33 points, 10 boards and eight assists.

The Lakers were led by Kobe Bryant, who is out right now recovering from surgery on his Achillies, who had 40 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.

As mentioned earlier, the Wolves are healthy unlike a season ago. Love by himself played in just 18 games a year ago because of a broken hand that he suffered twice. Martin, who played with the Thunder a season ago, has been a great pick up.

His stellar play though should not be a surprise because earlier in his career with the Sacramento Kings (2004-10) and the Houston Rockets (2010-12) he put up numbers like this while playing for the T'Wolves current coach Rick Adelman.

With the team that they have and stellar way they play offensively, if they can stay healthy and Rubio's shooting percentage improves, the Timberwolves will make the playoffs.

The one team and one player that have come out of the gates like gang busters has been the Indiana Pacers (7-0) and their top gun Paul George.

In their 96-91 win at the Nets (2-4), the Pacers eclipsed their best start in team history, which surpassed their 6-0 beginning since 1970-17 team when they were in the American Basketball Association (ABA), where they were led by Hall of Famers Mel Daniels and Roger Brown. The team went on to win the Western Division that season.

The Pacers were led by George, who scored 16 of his 24 points in the second half to go along with six rebounds.

George in Saturday's victory tied former Pacer Clark Kellogg for the most games of 20 points to start a season with seven. Kellogg's accomplishment came in the 1985-86 season.

In the Pacers 91-84 win versus the Toronto Raptors last Wednesday, he tied Hall of Famer Reggie Miller with six games of scoring 20-plus points to start a season. Miller accomplished that in the 1990-91 season.

"He's a stat stuffer. He just doesn't score. He rebounds, block shots, defends," Pacers starting center Roy Hibbert, who had 15 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks at the Nets on Saturday, said to NBATV's Matt Winer after the game.

After their season ended one game short of reaching the Finals a season ago to the eventual back-to-back champion Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers came into this season with a chip on their shoulder and it has shown in the first two weeks of this season.

They are balanced team now and the core players like George, last season's Most Improved Player, Hibbert, forward David West, who had 18 points and eight boards on Saturday and guard Lance Stephenson, who had 15 points and seven assists also on Saturday are primed for a big year.

The editions of forwards Luis Scola and Chris Copeland and guard C.J. Watson have made the bench better and when forward Danny Granger returns from injury soon, this team should be primed to challenge the Heat in the East. 

The Bad
When the 2013-14 NBA campaign began, one of the teams in the East that was seen as a big threat to the two-time defending champion Heat was the Bulls. A big reason for that is that the Bulls' star guard Derrick Rose was back after missing all of last season recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered in the first round of the playoffs the year prior.

The team with their top scoring ace back in the lineup however, they have not gotten off to a great start.

Rose individually is struggling averaging career-lows to so far in scoring (14.4), assists (4.0) and shooting percentage (32 percent).

To bring this more into focus, Rose coming into last Friday nights action versus the Utah Jazz (0-7), Rose had more turnovers (25) than field goals made (24).

In the Bulls 97-73 win versus the Jazz on Friday, Rose stilled struggled scoring just 12 points on 3 for 8 shooting. The one positive is that, he did get to the foul line five times connecting on all of them.

What also happened in this game is that they were able to get contributions from the rest of the cast, which is why they were able to still win and make the playoffs a season ago.

Forward Luol Deng nearly had a triple-double with 19 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and five steals. The other starting forward Carlos Boozer had 18 points and 10 boards. Starting center Joakim Noah had 14 points and eight rebounds. forward Taj Gibson had 12 points off the bench and new acquistion swingman Mike Dunleavy had nine points as well off the bench.

We have to remember that it is early in the season and while Rose is medically recovered, it will take time for him to return to the form that made him the only player to win the MVP Award not named LeBron James, which he accomplished in 2010-11.

On top of that though, the Bulls must become consistent at the offensive end. The defense will always be there because that is preached each day by head coach Tom Thibodeau. If the offense cannot catch up though, they will have another disappointment in the postseason.

One other team that feels that they have a serious chance on contending for a title, at least in the eyes of their owner is the New York Knicks (2-4).

Unfortunately, the team that won their first Atlantic Division title since 1993-94 season and won their first playoff series a season ago since 1999-00 season has gotten off to a rough start.

They are just 1-3 at Madison Square Garden after beginning last season 10-0 at home.

Their 120-89 loss on Sunday versus the defending Western Conference Champion San Antonio Spurs (6-1), which was their largets marging of victory ever against the was a microcosm of their season.

They played very poor defense as the Spurs shot 53.9 percent from the floor, hit 12 three-pointers, surrendered 17 fastbreak points and 44 points in the paint.

A big reason the Knicks struggled defensively is because the absence of starting center Tyson Chandler, who suffered a non-displaced fracture in his right fibula in the 102-97 loss versus the Charlotte Bobcats last and will be out for the next four to six weeks.

On top of that, their three-point shooting which carried them a season ago has gone down to 29.9 percent this season.

"We didn't compete tonight," Knicks head coach Mike Woodson, whose team suffered its worst home loss since a 128-78 defeat versus the Dallas Mavericks back on Jan. 24, 2010.

"That's just unacceptable. Right from the start, we let our offense, shots that we missed dictate how we defended on the other end and that's a bad combination.

Anthony, who had 16 points and eight boards on Sunday, echoed those same feelings of Woodson saying, "It was embarrasing for us to come in on our home court and lose a game like this. It wasn't about losing the game, its just how we lost the game. We didn't compete today and it showed out there on the court."

While it may be early and that cannot be stated enough, the Knicks have some serious issues they need to straighten out and soon.

They need the likes of forward Andrea Bargnani, guard J.R. Smith, who made his season debut after missing the first five games for violating the league's anti-drug policy and scored five points on 1 for 9 from the field, guard Raymond Felton, forward Amar'e Stoudemire and Metta World Peace to play better on both ends.

To put the direction of both the Spurs and Knicks into perspective, they met in the NBA Finals back in 1999.

Since then, the Spurs have had only one head coach, Gregg Popovich, while the Knicks have had eight head coaches, current NBA on ESPN color analyst Jeff Van Gundy, Don Chaney, Herb Williams, Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas, Mike D'Antoni and Woodson. The Spurs have won four titles (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007), the Knicks have won none. The Spurs have won the Southwest Division 10 times, while the Knicks won their first division title since the aforementioned 1994. The Spurs have made 15 straight playoff appearances and the Knicks have made the playoffs just seven times.

So while in the eyes of owner James Dolan that his team is a title contender, those that were in the audience at MSG on Sunday afternoon and those that watch on television, might have a different point of view.

From one team that might be consider delusional of thinking their are championship caliber to a couple of teams who talent wise are that, but things have gotten off to a rocky start are the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors (4-3).

When the Clippers brought in Glenn "Doc" Rivers to be their new head coach, re-signed starting lead guard Chris Paul and brought in the likes of guard J.J. Redick and swingman Jared Dudley, it was clear the other Los Angeles basketball team was serious about winning it all.

Right out of the gate however, they lost to the undertalented Lakers 116-103. They followed that up with three straight wins, which began with a 126-115 victory on national television versus the Warriors, where Paul had 42 points and 15 assists. They followed that up with wins at the Sacramento Kings (1-5) 110-101 and versus the Houston Rockets (4-3) 137-118. That was followed by back-to-back losses in Florida at the Magic 98-90 and at the Heat 102-97. They did bounce back with a come from behind win at the Rockets 107-94 on Saturday night.

Their is amazing talent across the board with the Red, White and Blue Clippers. They have a championship caliber coach in Rivers. One of the best players and leaders in Paul. A supporting cast in the likes of guard Jamal Crawford, Redick, Dudley, guard Darren Collison, sharp shooting forward Byron Mullens and the athletic duo in all-star starting forward Blake Griffin and starting center DeAndre Jordan.

With all of that being said, they have to get to the point where they force themselves to become consistent where they beat the teams they are supposed to like the Magic and Lakers. They showed they are capable with two wins over the Rockets this season.

That consistency though must start at the defensive end and it must then turn into an offensive style that allows for consistent sharing of the basketball and Griffin to be more complete offensiveley with a lethal jumper from 15 to 17 feet and an ability to operate in the post.

In the case of Jordan, Rivers has said he should be Defensive Player of the Year. If he can perform to the tune of 12 points, 18 rebounds, three blocks and two steals nightly for the rest of this season, he will have a great chance of making his coach's dream a reality.

Last season, the Warriors showed that they are primed to be in the conversation as one of the best in the West. With four wins in their first five games, all be it against not the best competition in terms of the perception of each team, the Warriors started this season trying to build on their 47-35 season, which ended in the Conference Semis a season ago.

Their last two losses however at the Spurs 76-74 and at the Memphis Grizzlies (3-3) 108-90 are a cause for concern.

The Warriors setback at the Spurs last Friday night did reveal some positives. The team found out that they do have a solid back up in Toney Douglas who had 21 points on 8 for 14 shooting, including going 5 for 9 from three-point range off the bench. He got a lot of time at the lead guard spot because normal starting point guard Stephen Curry missed the game because of a bone bruise in his ankle.

They also learned that on a night they struggled offensively, they could defend and keep the game close and give themselves a chance to win. That is how it will be come playoff time.

The Warriors did not fair well the next night at the Grizzlies, who shot 53 percent from the floor, out-rebounded them 44-33 and outscored them 54-18 in the paint.

If the Warriors have any plans on contending for a title, they just cannot rely on their ability to make their hey offensively from the three-point line, where they went 10 for 30 from on Saturday night.

The Ugly
There are two teams in the league who in the first two weeks of this season have shown that its going to be very long and painful run.

The Utah Jazz (0-7) after 115-91 loss at the Toronto Raptors (3-4) continued them on a path to their worst start since their 0-11 beginning to the 1974-75 season when they were playing in New Orleans.

Their last two losses have been extremely tough as they lost by 24 points at the Bulls on Friday night and to the aforementioned Raptors the next evening.

"This is not fun. I don't think we showed up with the intensity that we need to compete against these guys tonight," Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin said after the game.

Coming into this season, the Jazz, Knicks and Lakers are the only NBA franchises not to lose 60 games or more in a season.

At the rate the Jazz are going, they could experience that.

What also has to be understood here is that this team is not the same that it has been in previous seasons.

For starters, veterans forwards Paul Milsap and Al Jefferson left in free agency for the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Bobcats respectably and the leadership and scoring responsibility has fallen to the likes of forward Derrick Favors, swingman Gordon Hayward and center Enes Kanter.

They are also without their prized draft choice in guard Trey Burke, who is out right now because of an injured finger.

This will be a season of growing pains for the Jazz and if they have plans of salvaging this tough beginning, Favors, Hayward, Kanter along with the likes of guard Alec Burks, forward Marvin Williams, when he returns from injury and forward Richard Jefferson have to step up.

Current starting guard John Lucas III said it best after the game on Saturday, "We got to figure out who we are. That's out thing. We got to look ourselves in the mirror because this ain't cool. I know its seven games in, but still I don't want nobody to get use to this."

The other team that has struggled out the gate mightly is the Sacramento Kings (1-5), who lost both games in the home-and-home against the Portland Trail Blazers (4-2) over the weekend.

After their 96-85 home loss to the Trail Blazers, head coach Mike Malone expressed his frustration.

"I'm embarrassed. Every night, its the same thing," Malone said. "I think we have a lot of guys that just care about themselves on this team and if their game is not going, they quit playing."

With everything that went on with the Kings from the owners to keeping the team in Sacramento, to the selling of the team to Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive, the addition of new minority owner current NBATV/TNT analyst Shaquille O'Neal and the selection of guard Ben McLemore at No. 7 in June's draft, it seemed like better days were ahead for the Kings.

They also gave talented but immature center DeMarcus Cousins a four-year $62 million contract extension and so far he has performed well early in the season.

After winning their first game on opening night back on Oct. 30 90-88 versus the Nuggets, they have not won a game since.

This team has talented players that have a lot of skill from forward Jason Thompson, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons, Marcus Thornton, Jimmer Fredette, Isaiah Thomas Travis Outlaw and Greivis Vasquez.

However, talent is only half the battle. It takes committment to the task at hand. That task in Sacramento is making that group of talented players develop winning habits and understanding the way things use to be cannot continue. Those who do not conform will not play.

"I've seen enough at this point. We've played six games and its more than a broken record so we'll make changes and give ourselves a better chance to win," Malone said after the game on Saturday night.
Information, statistics and quotations are courtesy of 11/6/13 2 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" with Rick Kamla, Steve Smith and Rick Fox; 11/9/13 1:30 a.m. edition of ESPN 2's "NBA Tonight" with Cassidy Hubbarth and Avery Johnson; 11/9/13 2 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" with Rick Kamla, Mike Fratello and Steve Smith; 11/11/13 1:30 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" with Rick Kamla, Steve Smith and Brent Barry;; USA article "Tyson Chandler injury puts Knicks' Title Bid in Reverse" by Jeff Zillgitt on Nov. 7, 2013.

Friday, November 8, 2013

J-Speaks: "The Answer" Officially Retires

Pound for pound, he was one of the best players in the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA). While he only stood at six foot and weighed just 160 pounds, he played with every bit the intensity, skill and toughness as a guard that stood '6'6.'' His image in the eyes of many was controversial and he clashed with coaches, but not matter what arena he played in from the Philadelphia, where he played 10 of his 14 years in the league to overseas, people came to see him perform and perform he did. Last week, before his former team's home opener versus the two-defending champion Miami Heat, which they won 114-110, the player also known as "The Answer" officially said goodbye to the game.

Last Wednesday, Oct. 30, former Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson officially announced his retirement.

In the 14 seasons of his career, which includes stints with the Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies, he averaged 26.7 points per contest, which is sixth all-time in NBA history, while also averaging 6.2 assists per game.

The former No. 1 overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft out of Georgetown was an 11-time All-Star (2000-2010) and won the All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Award in 2001 and 2005. Iverson was named Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the league in 2001. He won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1997; garnered four scoring titles (1999, 2001-2002 and 2005); led the league in steals per contest from 2001-2003; made the All-NBA First Team three times (1999, 2001 and 2005) and All-NBA Second Team on three occasions (2000, 2002-03).

In a conversation prior to the announcement of his retirement, Iverson said to NBATV/TNT Insider David Aldridge that he will most remember about his NBA career is the competition.

"I think when I was in college, that's all I used to think about," Iverson said to Aldridge.

"That's the greatest part about it. Ain't no cake walks in no NBA basketball game. Everything that you do, that you do successful in those games, you earned it. You earned it."

As mentioned earlier, Iverson was pound for pound one of the best players in the history of the game. He was also one of the most unique as well. Many players who stand at six feet and under normally play point guard in the NBA. Iverson was different because he had a shoot first mentality and pass second.

His uniqueness is very similar to a couple of Hall of Famers. The first that comes to mind is Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Fame lead guard Earvin "Magic" Johnson. He was one of the first players in the history of the NBA to stand '6'9'' tall and play the point guard position as well as the shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center. Not only could he score with the best, he had the ability to grab the rebound and lead the break, while also being able to direct the offense from the top of the key and in the low post and in the triple threat position.

The other Hall of Famer whose game was unique for his position was current NBATV/TNT analyst Charles Barkley. He was one of the very few in the NBA to play power forward and stand at '6'6'' while he really was about '6'4 1/2." He like Johnson had an ability to score in the low post, especially against taller players. He had a jump shot that extended all the way out to the three-point line. He could grab the rebound and lead the break as well as finish and like Johnson, he was very good passer at the top of the circle, which he especially did well in his days with the Phoenix Suns.

The way Iverson was unique was he had an ability to run off screens to get open and he was a rare guard for his size that could get off close to 30 shots and take the physical punishment in putting the ball on the floor and get to the line at a consistent rate of eight to 10-plus times per game.

For all of his greatness on the hardwood, he was very controversial from his countless number of tattoos that were very noticable on his body, the cornrows in hair to the fact that his wardrobe that he wore to games consisted of a backwards cap, gold chains, earings and pants that sagged. His image was the main reason why the league a few years ago instituted a dress code where players had to wear suits or really nicely dress clothes to games on game day.

Iverson's image also drew the side eye from many sponsors who felt that the NBA's relationship with the hip hop community was one that turned a lot of people's stomachs.

With that being said though, the hip hop community provided a major bridge, especially in the early years of Iverson's career.

When Iverson's journey in the NBA began, it occurred at the end of the Michael Jordan era and in the crosshairs of the NBA Lockout 15 years ago, which shortened the 1998-99 season to 50 games.

It was because of Iverson's stellar play individually on the court that allowed the NBA to gain a whole new fan base and turn the page from the Jordan years.

Think about this, without Iverson, there may not be a Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. The one person that made that happen was hip hop legend and entrepreneur Shaun Carter also known as Jay-Z.

When Iverson came into the league, he took it by storm individually. The Sixers on the other hand were still languishing at the bottom of the NBA mountain winning just 22 and 31 games respectably in his first two seasons.

Things started to turn around the next season when the Sixers hired "Mr. Fix It," in head coach Larry Brown back in 1997-98 season.

They would make the playoffs in the aforementioned lockout shortened season going 28-22, making their first postseason appearance since 1991 as the No. 6 Seed in the Eastern Conference. Iverson won his first scoring title that season averaging 26.8 points per game.

In the East Quarterfinals, the Sixers defeated the No. 3 Seeded Orlando Magic 3-1 to win their first playoff series in eight years.

Their season ended in the East Semifinals, the Sixers were swept 4-0 to the East runner-up the Indiana Pacers, coach Brown's old team that he coached from 1993-1997.

In his first postseason, Iverson averaged 28.5 points per contest in the eight playoff games.

The team went 49-33 the next season, garnering their most victories since the 1989-90, when they went 53-29.

As the No. 5 Seed in the East, they defeated the No. 4 Seed the then Charlotte Hornets in the first round 3-1.

For the second straight season though, they fell to the Pacers, the East representative in the Finals that season 4-2.

Iverson in the postseaon that year averaged 26.2 points per game, 4.8 assists and four rebounds.

While the Sixers were back as one of the elite teams in the East, behind the scenes Iverson and Brown clashed. It reached a point that in that off-season, the team was actively trying to trade their star. The Sixers reached a deal with the Pistons, but when then center Matt Geiger, who was going to be included in the deal did not want to part ways with his $5 million trade kicker the deal was rescinded.

After a conversation with then Sixers' owner Pat Croche that for the betterment of the team Iverson and Brown had to put aside their differences and Iverson had to become the all around leader of the team.

He did that and the Sixers reaped the rewards for it.

They started the 2000-01 season like a house of fire winning their first 10 games, en route to the best record in the East at 56-26, their first 50-plus win season in over a decade.

Iverson averaged a then career-best 31.1 points and 2.5 steals per contest, which both led the league.

His stellar performance garnered him 93 of 124 first place votes on his way to winning his only MVP Award of his career. He became the shortest and lightest player in NBA history to win MVP.

On top of that at the 2001 All-Star Game, which was held in Washington, DC, not to far from where Iverson played college basketball at Georgetown University and he won the first of his two All-Star Game MVP Awards in his career.

In the first round of the playoffs, the Sixers met up with Pacers, the No. 8 Seed, for the third straight postseason.

In Game 1, it looked like the Sixers were going to make quick work of the Pacers, but they could not hold an 18-point lead and lost 79-78. They would bounce back taking the next three games and winning the series 3-1.

In the Semis, they met up with the then Vince Carter led Toronto Raptors. The series went to the limit and the Sixers won 4-3 to advance to the Conference Finals.

They went up against the Milwaukee Bucks, who would take them to seven games, but the Sixers came out on top winning 4-3 and advancing to their first Finals since 1983, where they would face the Los Angeles Lakers, who they swept in the Finals 18 years prior winning their third NBA crown in franchise history and the first and only title in the career of Hall of Famer Dr. Julius Erving.

This time around the Sixers led by Iverson took on the Lakers and their dynamic duo of Kobe Bryant and current NBATV/TNT analyst Shaquille O'Neal.

The Sixers stole Game 1 in overtime 107-101. Iverson led the way with 48 and had the signature moment of the contest where in the extra frame he hit a stepback jumper right in front of the Lakers' bench and in the process stepped right over then guard Tyronn Lue.

It was the Lakers first loss of the 2001 playoffs, which also ended a 19-game overall winning streak that dated back to the regular season. It would also be their last loss as they won Games 2, 3, 4 and 5 to win the series 4-1 and win their second of three straight NBA titles.

In the years that followed, Iverson would continue to put up solid numbers, but the team would not reach the Finals again.

After the next season, which ended in a six-game defeat to the East runner-up the Pistons in the Semis, coach Brown moved on. He and Iverson indicated that they were on good terms and had a genuine respect for one another. In fact eight years back, Iverson said of Brown that he was "the best coach in the world."

Iverson's tenure with the Sixers ended on Dec. 19, 2006 when he was traded to the Nuggets for guard Andre Miller, forward Joe Smith and two first round picks in the 2007 draft.

In two seasons with the Nuggets, the high scoring tandem of Iverson and then forward Carmelo Anthony never made it passed the first round losing to the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in five games and the West representative in the Finals the Lakers in a four-game sweep.

Iverson was traded again on Nov. 4, 2008 to the Pistons for 2004 Finals MVP guard Chauncey Billups, forward Antonio McDyess and center Cheikh Samb. Iverson while with the Pistons changed his jersey number from No. 3, which he has worn since his days at Georgetown to No. 1.

Things did not go well in the "Motor City" for Iverson. In fact as the regular season drew to a close that year, Pistons' President of Basketball Operations Je Dumars announced on Apr. 3, 2009 that Iverson would be lost for the remainder of the season because of an ongoing back injury. It was reported two days prior however that Iverson stated he would rather retire than come off the bench.

The next September, Iverson signed a one-year contract with the Grizzlies.

He again voiced his displeasure at being a bench player and left the team on Nov. 7, 2009 for "personal reasons."

Nine days later, the Grizzlies announced that they were terminating Iverson's contract, where all he did in just three games with team averaged 12.3 points and 3.7 assists in those games.

For a lot of athletes, they do not get to end their career on their own terms and it seems like Iverson was going to be in that majority.

Things looked up though on Nov. 30, 2009 when he had one last go around with the Sixers as he and the team agreed to a one-year non-guaranteed contract at the NBA's minimum salary, which is a prorated portion of $1.3 million that would become guaranteed if Iverson remained on the roster passed Jan. 8, 2010.

He got back on the court on Dec. 7, 2009 versus the Nuggets and he finished with 11 points, six assists and five rebounds in a loss.

While he remained on the active roster passed the aforementioned due date, Iverson left the Sixers on Feb. 22, 2010 to tend to his four-year old daughter Messiah, who was having health problems. He did not attend the All-Star Game that season, where he was voted in as a starter by the fans.

Iverson after the 2008-09 season never played on an NBA court again. His last time on the hardwood came for the Besiktas, a basketball team that was part of a Turkish Basketball League. He signing was made official in New York City at a press conference on Oct. 29, 2010.

He played in just 10 games and returned to the U.S. in Jan. 2011 to have calf surgery. He never played another professional basketball game after that.

It very rare to come across a basketball player who was a great player on the court that was unique, exciting and controversial. Allen Iverson was all of those things.

A big reason why he is one of the greatest to ever play on the hardwood was because he performed that way on the same floor as some of the best ever and earned the respect from some of the greatest to ever grace the professional hardwood.

"This guy was defintely a dog. He always came to play everynight. People perceived him as being a problem, but I know him personally. A great guy. Loves to compete. Loves to win," O'Neal said on TNT's "Inside the NBA" on Friday, Nov. 1.

"I can honestly say if they faced anyone else besides the Lakers in the Finals, he would have a championship ring."

Barkley, a fellow Sixers great also said on the show said that Iverson was the best scorer for his size in the history of the NBA.

"For this little guy to have such a career like he had, I look forward to when the Sixers put his number in the rafters and when he goes into the Hall of Fame," Barkley said.

"It's been an honor and a pleasure to watch him play."

He was also exciting. Whe Iverson hit the court, people looked forward to seeing him. Eight years ago, when I was attending Howard University and my school played at our arch rival Hampton University, Iverson made an apperance walking behind the sidelines of Howard and some of my peers, in particular the women in the bleachers walk down to the end of where we sat and took out their cameras to get a photo of Iverson as he walked. Some of them were in tears when they saw him. It was at that moment I understood the appeal he had.

Along with being a great player and an exciting one, Iverson was also a controversial one. If he ever at the end of his run in the league was more a team player instead of a me player, he could have been a major help to any team, he might have gotten on to a championship contender and might have won a title.

While he was their for his daughter Messiah when she was very sick, his family life was not that great either.

Last February, Iverson's divorce from his wife Tawanna became final and the presiding Atlanta, GA family court judge that signed off on the decree had some harsh words for the All-Star and All-NBA performer.

Those words from the unidentified judge consist of him not knowing how to manage children; having little interest in learning how to manage children and at times has been a hindrance to their spiritual and emotional growth and development.

To add to the situation, in order for Iverson to even have the chance to see his own kids now according to this decree, he must not consume any alcohol for an 18-month stretch and untile the children turn the age of 18, he cannot consume any alcohol within a 24 hours of contact with Tiaura, Allen II, Isaiah, Messiah and Dream.

Is Allen Iverson a sure Hall of Famer? Yes indeed. One of the very best to play on the hardwood. He was controversial and did not always wanted to go by the beat of his own drum. He has gone through tough times and is going through some now, but their is one thing for sure is that he never waivers from who he is, embraces what he has gone through both on and off the court and lives to fight another day. That is what along with some other things is why Aldridge said on Monday's edition of NBA TV's "The Beat," "the champion"of the hip hop community.

"I think about the tough times. Bad times," Iverson said to Aldridge last week.

"How can you call any time a great time without the tough ones. Gotta have them. You gotta sprinkle them in somewhere and I don't mind. I understand. That's the way its gonna go. That's life."
Information, statistics and quotations are courtesy of 11/1/13 1 a.m. edition of TNT's "Inside the NBA" with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal; 11/4/13 5:30 p.m. edition of NBATV's "The Beat" with Vince Cellini, Sekou Smith, David Aldridge and Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times;;; 02/04-13 article on, "Judge Hammers Allen Iverson In Final Divorce Decree;" The Sporting News Official NBA Guide: The Ultimate 1999-2000 Season Reference; The Sporting News 2006-07 Official NBA Guide.

Friday, November 1, 2013

J-Speaks: National Basketball Association Off-Season Review/Season Preview of 2013-14

This Tuesday, the 2013-14 National Basketball Association (NBA) season will get underway. For many teams, this off-season was one of retooling and improving their respective roster and sometimes the organization from the front office right on down to the roster. Some teams at least on paper have made the grade, while others teams did not.

Here is a review of each team's off-season, my grades for each team and their prospects for the season ahead.

Abbreviation key-stats from 2012-13 NBA season:; ppg-points per game; rpg-rebounds per game; apg-assists per game; spg-steals per game; bpg-blocks per game and mpg-minutes per game; MVP-Most Valuable Player.

Eastern Conference
Atlanta Hawks: Finished 44-38 (2nd Southeast Division; No. 6 Seed East) in 2012-13; 25-16 at home; 19-22 on the road; lost to the Indiana Pacers 4-2 East Quarterfinals.

-98.0 ppg-tied for 13th; Opp. ppg: 97.5-13th; 40.9 rpg-23rd.

For six straight seasons, the Hawks made the postseason after missing the playoffs for eight straight years. In 2009, 2010, 2011, they made it to the Semifinals, but in two of those appearances they were swept 4-0 and all three times they lost to the conference runner-up in the Cleveland Cavaliers (2009), Orlando Magic (2010) and the Chicago Bulls (2011).

When they were bounced out of the quarterfinals for the second straight season, they were at a serious crossroads as a franchise. The Hawks had to decide to either stick with the core group that they had or make changes. They decided to make some serious changes.

It started by not re-signing free agents forward Josh Smith, center ZaZa Pachulia and guard Devin Harris walk in free agency.

In Smith, they said goodbye to one of best players in team history who finished second in team history in blocks, fifth in steals and minutes, seventh in rebounds and double-doubles and eighth in points.

They set their sights on signing in free agency center Dwight Howard, guard Chris Paul or both. When both signed with other teams, Howard with the Houston Rockets and Paul re-signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, they signed forwards Paul Milsap (14.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 49.0 FG%), two-time All-Star Elton Brand (7.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg), DeMarre Carroll (6.0 ppg) and forward/center Gustavo Ayon.

They retained starting lead guard Jeff Teague (14.6 ppg, 7.2 apg, 45.1 FG%), who was an restricted free agent and signed an offer sheet with the Milwaukee Bucks. The Hawks matched the offer and signed Teague to a new four-year, $32 million deal and they re-signed sharp shooter Kyle Korver (10.9 ppg, 46.1 FG%, 45.7 3-Pt.%) to a new four-year, $24 million contract.

In the draft, the Hawks selected guard Dennis Schroder from Germany (17th overall) and via trade with the Mavericks acquired the rights to guard Jared Cunningham (24th overall) out of Oregon State.

They also added a new head coach in longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer to replace Larry Drew, who is now the new head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.

With all the changes, the prospects of making the playoffs seems very up in the air.

The Hawks will lean heavily on two-time All-Star forward/center Al Horford, who averaged career-highs of 17.4 points and 10.2 boards per contest on 54.3 percent. They will need that and then some from Harford both offensively and vocally.

The Hawks chances of making the playoffs also hinges on how quickly the players buy into coach Budenholzer's system and the return of their top reserve Lou Williams (14.1 ppg, 36.7 3-Pt.%), who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) back on Jan. 18 at the Brooklyn Nets comeback be at the form that got the Hawks off to a good start a season ago. There is no timetable for his return however.

On top of that, can second-year guard John Jenkins (6.1 ppg, 38.4 3-Pt.%) emerge as more than just a shooter off the bench?

When a team has gone as far as they can go with a certain group, you have to decide whether going in a new direction is possible. The Hawks decided to go in a different direction.

Both coach Budenholzer and general manager Danny Ferry have seen what consistent and sustained success looks like being a part of the Spurs for many years. They have a long ways to go before the Hawks resemble what the Spurs are.

-Best case scenario: The Hawks make the playoffs as the No. 6, No. 7 or No. 8 Seed. Budenholzer begins laying the foundation for success in the years to come. Horford fully establishes himself as the anchor of the Hawks.

-Worst case scenario: The Hawks miss the playoffs and the players do not buy in to the coachign of Budenholzer.

-Off-season grade: C-

Boston Celtics: Finished 41-40 (3rd Atlantic Division; No. 7 Seed East) in 2012-13; 27-13 at home; 14-27 on the road; lost to the New York Knicks 4-2 East Quarterfinals.

-96.5 ppg-18th; Opp. ppg: 96.7-12th; 39.3 rpg-29th.

From the Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens eras, the Larry Bird, Robert Parrish, Kevin McHale Danny Ainge era to the Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo era, they all have one thing in common. They all played well individually as well as with the teams they were a part of. They won a lot of games as well as championships.

Those eras of the Celtics have another thing in common. They came to a conclusion.

The Garnett, Pierce and Allen conclusion began last off-season when Allen signed with the rival Miami Heat, whre he played a big part in them winning their second consecutive title this past June.

The last two parts of that trio and head coach Glenn "Doc" Rivers ended on the court on May 3 when they Celtics lost in Game 6 at home versus the New York Knicks.

On June 3, the Celtics and Ainge, the Celtics GM allowed Rivers to go to the Clippers. The C's received a 2015 unprotected first round pick in return.

That was followed by the team trading Garnett, who waived his no-trade clause in his contract, Pierce and guard Jason Terry were dealt to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for guards Keith Bogans and MarShon Brooks, forwards Kris Humphries (5.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Kris Joseph, who was waived on July 15th and Gerald Wallace (7.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg).

On July 3, the team announced that Brad Stevens, who led Butler University to two straight appearances in the NCAA Final Four in 2010 and 2011 as the 17th head coach in franchise history, signing him to a 6-year, $22 million contract.

If there is one thing to understand about the transition periods the Celtics have gone through is the journey back to making the playoffs consistently, let alone winning championships is a long and hard one.

In fact after the 1992-93 season, the Celtics missed the postseason seven out of the next ten seasons and prior to making the playoffs the last six seasons in succession, they had two very underachieving seasons where they garnered just 33 and 24 wins respectably in 2005-06 and 2006-07.

That seems like the same situation the team is facing now. They have a combination of veterans who are out of place like forwards Brandon Bass (8.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Jeff Green (12.8 ppg, 46.7 FG%) and guard Avery Bradley (9.2 ppg). Key young cogs like guard Rajon Rondo (13.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 11.1 agp-led NBA) and forward Jared Sullinger (6.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 49.3 FG%) can return from ACL and back surgery respectably that cut their seasons short and lead them to great days that one of the NBA's greatest franchises is accustomed to.

Rondo is not expect back for a while. When he does return, he will very likely be rejoining a team that is at the bottom of the East standings. The question then will be, will he still be on board with the rebuilding process the C's are going to be going through or will the team look into trading him before the end of the season or sometime this summer?

The draft selection this past June of forward/center Kelly Olynyk (13th overall) out of Gonzaga and the free agent signing of Vitor Faverani from Brazil will give the Celtics front court depth, but the jury is still out on if they can be cornerstones for the team in the years to come.

This season will be one of opportunity and learning on the job for the C's, especially for Stevens. It is also one where if things break right for them, they could be in the running for a high draft pick in what is going to be one of the best draft classes in recent memory in June 2014.

-Best case scenario: They are competitive game in and game out. Rondo returns to form and he is committed to this rebuilding process. The players that came over from the Nets have an impact.

-Worst case scenario: They don't improve and they play with no effort and lose a lot of games by 15 points or more. They decide to trade Rondo before the February trade deadline. They are in the running for a high draft pick.

-Off-season grade: D-

Brooklyn Nets: Finished 49-33 (2nd Atlantic Division; No. 4 Seed East) in 2012-13; 26-15 at home; 23-18 on the road; lost to the Chicago Bulls 4-3 in East Quarterfinals.

-96.9 ppg-17th; Opp. ppg: 95.1-6th; 42.8 rpg-10th.

Let us start with this number $313 million. That was the salary the Nets committed to five key members of their team a season ago.

When they finished the month of November at 11-4 a season ago, their best mark in franchise history, it seemed like that big financial committment coupled with the move to Brooklyn, NY and their new arena the Barclays Center was panning out.

After a 93-76 setback versus the Celtics to a national audience on Christmas Day, their 10 loss in 13 games in the month of December, a team with high expectations was at 14-14.

The result, out was then head coach Avery Johnson and in was assistant P.J. Carlesimo.

The result, a 35-19 finish to the season.

Unfortunately, the team fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Chicago Bulls in seven games, who were without superstar guard Derrick Rose.

The team pulled of a major trade this off-season in acquiring future Hall of Famers forwards Kevin Garnett (14.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and Paul Pierce (18.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.8 apg) and guard Jason Terry (10.1 ppg, 37.2 3-Pt.%) in exchange for guards Keith Bogans and MarShon Brooks, forward Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace.

They added bench depth in signing swingman Alan Anderson (10.7 ppg), forward Andrei Kirlienko (12.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 50.7 FG%) and guard Shaun Livingston (7.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg) to go alongside forwards Andray Blatche (10.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Reggie Evans (4.5 ppg, 11.1 rpg-led team).

The other big edition came on the sidelines where they signed former New York Knick and former Nets guard Jason Kidd.

Most first time head coaches are a part of a team that is in rebuilding mode, trying reach the point where they can in the future they are competing for a championship. Kidd gets that chance and all the pressure that comes with that right of the bat.

The best thing that he has going for him that he has solid veteran leadership in Garnett and Pierce and an assistant coach in former Nets and Pistons head coach in Lawrence Frank to lean on.

At the end of the day, how far the Nets will go this season will depend on how the supposed starting five of Garnett, Pierce, guards Deron Williams (18.9 ppgm 7.7 apg-5th NBA) and Joe Johnson (16.3 ppg) and center Brook Lopez (19.4 ppg-led team, 6.9 rpg, 2.1 bpg-led team) can mesh together on the court.

If Williams can play to the form of the averages of 22.9 ppg, eight assists on 48.1 percent from the floor and 42 percent from three-point range after the All-Star break, the Nets have a chance to do big things this season.

The Nets also have to get into the frame work of having the ability at the offensive end to be a team that moves well without the ball and not rely some much on isolation, one-on-one tatics to score points, especially in the half court. This team is too good to average just 20.3 assists per contest (27th NBA) like they did a season ago as well as scoring just 9.3 percent of their offensive output on the fastbreak. That was ahead of the New York Knicks, where just 8.8 percent of their points on the fastbreak.

Coming into this season, the Nets luxury tax bill will be more than $87 million, if they do not make a major roster change before the end of the regular season. It will be on top of a team salary totaling $102,210,949 this season.

That number alone is a big reason why the Nets need to have a sense of urgency this season to gel together and be in the conversation with the Pacers and Chicago Bulls as a team that can challenge the back-to-back defending champion Miami Heat.

Two other numbers that the Nets should keep in the back of their mind. The numbers 37 and 36, the ages of Garnett and Pierce. They know that their window of playing is closing

-Best case scenario: They win over 50 games for just the second time in NBA franchise history and just the fourth time overall in their overall team history. Garnett and Pierce stay healthy and the starting five along with the bench gel together They finish as one of the top three seeds in the East and they meet the Heat in the Conference Finals.

-Worst case scenario: The team has another flame out in the playoffs. Pierce and Garnett miss a lot of games because of injury and Kidd struggles to find his footing as a head coach.

Off-season grade: A+

Charlotte Bobcats: Finished 21-61 (4th Southeast Division; missed playoffs) in 2012-13; 15-26 at home; 6-35 on the road.

-93.4 ppg-26th; Opp. ppg: 102.7-29th; 40.3 rpg-27th.

Here are two numbers that puts the history of the Charlotte Bobcats in perspective.

The first number is one, which represents how many times the Bobcats have made the playoffs since this franchise started back in 2004-05. That lone playoff appearance came three years ago, which ended in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic.

The second number is seven, which represents the number of seasons the Bobcats lost 50 games or more in a season.

Their worst season came in 2011-12, the strike shorten season where the team went 7-59, a .106 win percentage, the worst in NBA history.

With no stability on the court, players who are just average and that's being kind, not even one of the greatest players of all-time in team owner Michael Jordan can begin to sniff any kind of success.

Since the 2006-07 season, when Jordan purchased a minority stake in the organization and acsended to majority owner, the Bobcats have gone 206-352, just a .369 winning percentage. They have had six different head coaches. Averaged a league worst 94.0 ppg and have made the playoffs just once, in the aforementioned 2010.

So it is no wonder that first year head coach Mike Dunlap was shown the door at the end of last season and in comes long time assistant Steve Clifford.

In Clifford, the Bobcats at least have a head coach who has experience success as an assistant coach working for teams like the New York Knicks, Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers. He was a part of the coaching staffs that were led by the Van Gundy brothers Jeff and Stan.

The addition of Al Jefferson (17.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg), who signed a three-year, $40.5 million contract, gives the Bobcats something they have lacked in recent years. A legitimate scorer in the low post, who has averaged 16.4 ppg, nine boards on 50 percent shooting in his nine-year career. He is also one of five players to average 17-plus points, nine-plus boards and over one block per contest since 2007-08 joining the likes of Dwight Howard, Time Duncan, Pau Gasol and Yao Ming.

Jefferson however, will have to be something though that he did not do in his days with the Utah Jazz, a vocal leader in practice and in games.

They also in free agency signed forward Anthony Tolliver and guard Jannero Pargo (6.5 ppg).

With the 4th pick in this June's draft they selected forward/center Cody Zeller out of Indiana.

He showed well in the Las Vegas Summer league where he averaged 16.3 ppg and 9.3 rpg on 52 percent from the floor.

They also picked up the team options on guard Ben Gordon (11.2 ppg) and forward Josh McRoberts (6.4, 4.9 rpg).

They also re-signed guard Gerald Henderson (15.5 ppg, 44.8 FG%), whose brillant play down the stretch of the season, where he averaged 23.9 ppg earned him a new three-year, $16 million deal.

After being so bad for much of their history, the Bobcats at least put together a team from the head coach to the players that should at least be competitive on a nightly basis.

The frontcourt consist of a low post scorer in Jefferson; a young prospect in Zeller; a solid shot blocker in Bismack Biyombo (4.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg-led team, 1.8 bpg-led team), veteran center Brendan Haywood (3.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg), who will miss the first 10 weeks at least to start because of a left foot problem and a second-year forward in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (9.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg) who hopefully comes into this season with an improved jumpshot.

The backcourt is led by Kemba Walker, who led the team last season in scoring (17.7), assists (5.7) and steals (2.0). Flanking him in the backcourt is Ramon Sessions (14.4 ppg) and Jeffrey Taylor (6.1 ppg).

If the Bobcats are going to makes strides as a franchise this season and going forward, they must have stability from the front office to the players and head coach on the court. They must give coach Clifford a chance to make this team into a consistent performer on the court.

-Best case scenario: The Bobcats are competitive and cohesive and they win over 30 games. Some of the core players like Walker, Henderson and Kidd-Gilchrist continue to improve.

-Worst case scenario: There is no improvement. The teams has mutiple losing streaks and players do not respond to coach Clifford.

-Off-season grade: D-

Chicago Bulls: Finished 45-37 (2nd Central Division; No. 5 Seed East) in 2012-13; 24-17 at home; 21-20 on the road; Defeated the Nets 4-3 in East Quarterfinals; lost to the Heat 4-1 East Semis.

-93.2 ppg-29th; Opp. ppg: 92.9-3rd; 43.2 rpg-8th.

Ever since head coach Tom Thibodeau came to the "Windy City" three seasons ago, there are two things you can set in stone when the Bulls took the court.

They were going to play hard night in and night out and they were going to play tough, hard nose defense for 48 minutes.

The result, three straight playoff apperances, going 157-73 in the regular season and two of the season ended with Bulls having the best record in the East.

Last season, they had to soldier on without their scoring ace and team leader in guard Derrick Rose, who tore his ACL in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the first round on Apr. 28, 2012 versus the Philadelphia 76ers. The 2011 MVP missed the rest of the series in which the Bulls lost 4-2 and the entire season a year ago.

Despite his absence, the Bulls made the playoffs, beat the Nets in the first round in seven games.

After stealing Game 1 at the Heat to capture home court advantage, the Bulls as they did two years ago in the Conference Finals lost the next four games to have their season end in five games.

This off-season, the Bulls put a priority on getting more perimeter shooting. In free agency, they signed swingman Mike Dunleavy (10.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 37.2 3-Pt.%) and in June's draft, they selected forward Tony Snell with the 20th overall pick out of New Mexico.

To underscore the Bulls struggles at the offensive end last season, they ranked 25th in field goal pecentage at 43.7 and tied for 20th in three-point percentage at 35.3 percent.

If Rose can return to form that made him MVP of the league back in 2010-11; Dunleavy can provide steady offense on the perimeter; back-up guard Marquis Teague can provide consistent offense and run the team so Rose is not playing heavy minutes and swingman Jimmy Butler (8.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 46.7 FG%, 38.1 3-Pt.%) continues to be that do whatever is asked him on both ends as he did in the playoffs a year ago starting all 12 playoff games and averaged 13.3 points and 5.2 boards in 40.8 minutes, the Bulls can make it to the Finals.

Two big things the team has to also decide this season and in the future is whether they are going to keep their second best scorer in starting forward Luol Deng (16.5 ppg-led team, 6.3 rpg) or trade him?

They also have to see if starting forward Carlos Boozer (16.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 47.7 FG%), who recorded 44 double-doubles a season ago is going to be a part of this team going forward also. He could make that decision easier if he has finally emerges as the team's go-to scorer in the low post.

While the Bulls starting man in the middle Joakim Noah, who had career-highs of 11.9 ppg, 11.1 rpg-led team on 48.1 field goal percentage, brings energy and hustle to the court, he is not the solution for this team inside scoring wise.

This is the one team that has the pedigree to beat the Heat in the postseason, even though they have lost to them in two of the last three years. They defend well. Their front line is physical and they are a great rebounding team. If the offense does not improve though, their season will end in disappointment again.

-Best case scenario: They win over 50 games and are one of the top three seeds again. Rose returns to form pre-injury. The offense catches up to the defense. They get back to the Conference Finals and they beat the Heat.

-Worst case scenario: They lose in the Conferene Finals again to the Heat.

-Off-season: C-

Cleveland Cavaliers: Finished 24-58 (5th Central Division; missed playoffs) in 2012-13; 14-27 at home; 10-31 on the road.

-96.5 ppg-19th; Opp. ppg: 101.2-25th; 41.0 rpg-22nd.

Four years ago, the best thing to ever happen to the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise in forward LeBron James announced on live television to Jim Gray of ESPN at the time that he was taking his talents to South Beach and joining the Miami Heat.

He has led the Heat to three straight Finals appearances and back-to-back championships.

Over the past two years though, general manager Chris Grant and owner Dan Gilbert have put together a roster through the draft and free agency that has brought hope to Ohio.

It all began with getting the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, which they selected Kyrie Irving (22.5 ppg-led team, 5.9 apg-led team), whose 18.5 points on 46.9 shooting from the floor, 5.9 apg and 1.5 steals per contest earned him Rookie of the Year.

Last February, he appeared in his first All-Star Game and if he leads the Cavs to the playoffs this season, he will be on the same track James was in his first three seasons in the league.

He has already equaled James and former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans in one area.

Last season, Irving became just the third player in NBA history to average 20-plus points and five-plus assists per contest at 20 years of age or younger.

Evans did it in 2009-10 with the Kings averaging 20.1 ppg and 5.8 apg. James did it twice with the Cavs in 2003-04 averaging 20.9 ppg and 5.9 apg and in 2004-05 averaging 27.2 ppg and 7.2 apg.

With the additions the Cavs made in the draft and in free agency this off-season, that dream could become a reality.

It started by bringing back Mike Brown to be head coach, replacing Byron Scott.

In the five seasons that Brown patrolled the Cavs sideline, they went 272-138, a .663 winning percentage in the regular season. They advanced past the first round in each of those five seasons, making it to the Conference Finals in 2009, where they lost to the Orlando Magic in six games. In the three seasons under Scott, whose has had success as a head coach with the Nets and the Hornets, the Cavs went 64-166, a .278 winning percentage.

Winning the No. 1 overall pick again in the NBA Draft Lottery last May for the second time in three seasons, the Cavs June selected forward Anthony Bennett out of UNLV. At pick 19, the Cavs selected guard Sergey Karasev out of Russia and at pick 33, the team selected guard Carrick Felix out of Arizona State.

In free agency, the Cavs added bench depth with the signings of forward Earl Clark (7.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and guard Jarrett Jack, who averaged off the bench for the Golden State Warriors 12.9 points and 5.6 assists per contest on 45.2 percent from the field and 40.4 from three-point range. In the playoffs, Jack averaged 17.2 points on 50.6 percent shooting from the floor.

The big signing the Cavs made this off-season is the talented, but agnatic two-time NBA champion center Andrew Bynum.

One of the rare big men in the league these days, Bynum missed all of last season with knee problems and his attitude and inability to practice for teams to see if his surgically repaired knees were up to par turned a lot of interested teams away. It was one of the reasons the Cavs guaranteed him just $6 million of the 2-year $24 million contract Bynum signed.

He has unfortunately not been cleared to practice with the team, let alone play as the regular season is just hours away.

If he can ever get back on the court and return to the form he was two years ago, where he averaged career-highs of 18.7 points and 11.8 boards per contest, he would give the Cavs a consistent inside presence on both ends of the court.

He would make the Cavs frontcourt of him, Bennett, Clark, forward Tristan Thompson (11.7 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 48.8 FG%) and off-injured center Anderson Varejao (14.1 ppg, 14.1 rpg, 47.8 FG% in 25 games), who averaged 23.2 percent of the Cavs rebounds a season ago, which was second only to forward Reggie Evans of the Nets, who averaged 27.4 of his team's rebounds and center Tyler Zeller (7.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg), who will miss the beginning of the season after being diagnosed with a appendicitis, which resulted in him having his appendix removed.

The team should be solidified, particularly on the perimeter led by Irving, Jack, guards Dion Waiters (14.7 ppg), C.J. Miles (11.2 ppg, 38.4 3-Pt.%) and forward Alonzo Gee (10.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg).

If the third youngest team in the league in 2013-14 at 25 years 22 days of age is going to make the playoffs, their effort at the defensive end must improve, which is major part of Brown's make-up in his time with the Cavs.

Teams on average a season ago shot 47.6 percent against the Cavs as well as 37.2 percent from three-point territory, ranking 30th and 25th respectably in the NBA.

While the team ranked 7th in the league in offensive boards per game at 14.9 per contest, overall they were out-rebounded by opponents by a 1.1 average per contest.

Two signs that show that the Cavs are ready to take that next step in becoming a playoff team for the first time in 2010 is that 35 of their games last season were decided by six points or less and Irving averaged 6.8 points per game in the fourth quarter, which ranked 4th in the league.

There is a lot to like about the 3rd youngest team in the league, which averages 25 years and 22 days and the direction they are going. With that being said, it comes down to producing.

A playoff birth would go a long way in the development of this team that has gone from dreaming of making the playoffs in the years ahead to now making it a reality.

-Best case scenario: They are competing for the No. 7 or No. 8 Seed in the East. Irving goes from being just a scorer to an all around play maker and Varejao and Bynum stay healthy and provide a much needed presence in the paint on both ends.

-Worst case scenario: They miss the playoffs again. The defense does not improve. This talented group does not gel together and Irving and Varejao miss time again because of injury.

-Off-season grade: B+

Detroit Pistons: Finished 29-53 (4th Central Division; missed playoffs) in 2012-13; 18-23 at home; 11-30 on the road.

-94.9 ppg-19th; Opp. ppg: 98.8-18th; 42.1 rpg-13th.

For the first decade of the new millenium, the Detroit Pistons were one of the best teams in the league with eight straight playoff appearances from 2002-2009. That also includes six consecutive trips to the Conference Finals (2003-2008) and back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals in 2004 and 2005, winning their third title in franchise history in 2004.

In the year's that have followed, they have made just one playoff appearance (2009) and their win percentages in those seasons have been .476, .329, .366, .379 and .354.

It has not just been the fact that they have traded away key people like guard Chauncey Billups, who they re-signed in free agency this off-season; forwards Rasheed Wallace, who they signed to a two-year contract to be an assistant coach and Tayshaun Prince, who was traded to the Grizzlies a season ago.

The two head coaches the team hired in former Cavs assistant John Kuester and Lawrence Frank flamed out after a stint of two seasons respectably.

They also signed in this period averaged players in free agency in guard Ben Gordon and forward Charlie Villanueva to five-year deals worth $55 million and $35 million respectably. Those deals not only flopped for the Pistons on the court, it hamstrung them in making any major moves to improve the team.

They have had some luck in the draft in this time period selecting Rodney Stuckey (11.5 ppg), center Greg Monroe (16.0 ppg-led team, 9.6 rpg-led team), who ranked ninth in the league with 37 double-doubles a season ago and center Andre Drummond (7.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg-led team), who finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting a season ago and made the 2012-13 NBA All-Rookie Second Team.

This summer, the team under new owner Tom Gores and general manager Joe Dumars hired former NBA champion player and head coach in Maurice Cheeks, who went 284-286 in eight seasons as coach of the Portland Trail Blazers and the Philadelphia 76ers. He had spent the last five seasons as an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In free agency, the team signed talented forward Josh Smith (17.5 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.8 bpg). In a sign-in-trade with the Bucks, the Pistons acquired guard Brandon Jennings (17.5 ppg, 6.5 apg, 1.6 spg) in exchange for guard Brandon Knight, Viacheslav Kravtsov and Khris Middleton. They also signed this year's Italian league MVP Luigi Datome from Virtus Roma.

With the 8th overall pick in this June's draft, the team selected guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope out of University of Georgia. With no consistent two-guard on the team, he will have every chance to solidify that positon.

While their is no question about the talent on the team from the "Motor City," the players collectively and some indivdually have a lot of questions to answer.

Can Smith and Jennings play at a consistent level and not in flashes as they have been known for back in their years with the Hawks and Bucks respectably?

Can Cheeks provide the stability on the sideline that has been lacking with the team since former head coach Flip Saunders?

Team wise, will the Pistons lack of pure perimeter shooting on the roster hinder the team's ability to win games?

With teams like the Celtics and Hawks most likely to take a step backwards this season, making their first playoff apperance since 2009 is a real possibility and having Billups and Wallace around will surely help.

From 2003-08 when Billups and Wallace were in their prime, the Pistons won 284 games, four Central Division titles to go along with the aforementioned consecutive trips to the Finals in 2004 and 2005 and the title in 2004.

-Best case scenario: The Pistons led by a balance attack claim either the No. 7 or No. 8 Seed and fans fill the Palace of Auburn Hills again.

-Worst case scenario: The Pistons misses the playoffs again. Jennings and Smith are inconsistent as they have been in their careers and the lack of perimeter shooting hinders the team, especially in close games.

-Off-season grade: B-

Indiana Pacers: Finished 49-32 (1st Central Division; No. 3 Seed East) in 2012-13; 30-11 at home; 19-21 on the road; Defeated the Hawks 4-2 in East Quarterfinals; defeated the New York Knicks 4-2 in Semifinals; lost to the Heat in Conference Finals.

-94.7 ppg-23rd; Opp. ppg: 90.7-2nd; 45.9 rpg-1st.

There are teams in the NBA that go through a maturation process to become great. It takes having quality players that have a system that is preached by the head coach and the players by in completely. Also that head coach does not waiver in his belief in that system.

When the system is established, it comes down to the team getting better year in and year out.

For the Indiana Pacers, that maturation began in the middle of the 2010-11 season when on Jan. 30, 2011 the Pacers named assistant coach Frank Vogel interim head coach, reliving Jim O'Brien.

The Pacers made the playoffs as the No. 8 Seed, but lost to the eventual runner-up in the East the Bulls 4-1.

In the off-season, the team took interim tag off and named Vogel their head coach on July 7, 2011. Also that summer, the Pacers acquired from the San Antonio Spurs guard George Hill (14.2 ppg, 4.7 apg, 36.8 3-Pt.%), the team's current starting point guard.

In free agency, the Pacers signed forward David West (17.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg) to a two-year contract and he has provided the veteran leadership and toughness for the young Pacers the last two seasons. This off-season, the team rewarded the starting power forward with a new 3-year $36.6 million contract.

Those two moves to go alongside some of the core Pacers like center Roy Hibbert (11.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.6 bpg-4th NBA), forward Danny Granger, swingman Paul George (17.4 ppg-led team, 7.6 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.8 spg-led team) and guard Lance Stephenson (8.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 46.0 FG%) are the reason the Pacers had their best season (42-24) since 2003-04, when they made to the Conference Finals falling to the East champion Pistons.

In the 2012 playoffs, the Pacers defeated the Orlando Magic in the first round in five games to win their first playoff series since 2004-05. They lead the Semis versus the eventual NBA champion Heat 2-1, but lost the next three games to fall 4-2.

That aforementioned identity of the Pacers is their ability to play solid lockdown defense which ranked second in the NBA a year ago in points allowed; first in field goal percentage and three-point percentage allowed at 42 and 32.7 percent respectably.

Another reason the Pacers took a major step to greatness a season ago was the emergence of George, whose break out season earned him the 2013 Most Improved Player Award and a new five-year max contract extension worth between $80 and $90 million this off-season.

In the playoffs last spring, the Pacers made it all the way to the Conference Finals and took the defending champion Heat to the limit, but lost Game 7 in Miami.

Two main reasons the Pacers lost the series was their inability to take care of the basketball and their lack of bench production, which ranked 29th in the league with a 26.1 point average.

In Games 5 and 7 of the Conference Finals, the Pacers committed 17 and 21 turnovers respectably.

This off-season, the Pacers signed forward Chris Copeland (8.7 ppg, 47.9 FG%, 42.1 3-Pt.%), guards Donald Sloan and C.J. Watson (6.8 ppg, 41.1 3-Pt.%) to improve the second unit. They also acquired forward Luis Scola (12.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 47.2 FG%) from the Suns for forwards Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green.

The Pacers have taken a step further in their maturation into becoming a champion and there is no reason this season they can take the ultimate step. Making it to the Finals and winning a title.

Along the way, the team also has to understand the importance of sacrifice if they want to win it all this season.

Granger, who played in just five games because of left knee soreness and another eventual surgery has to understand that he is no longer the central figure of the offense and have the ability to accept a lesser role or even coming off the bench and being a spark. That opportunity will be stalled for the first three weeks of this season because of injury he sustained to his left calf.

They have a head coach that the team believes in. A solid core of players in George, Hibbert, West, Granger and Stephenson. An improved second unit and identity that starts on the defensive end and an offensive identity of playing inside out.

-Best case scenario: The Pacers win the Central Division back-to-back years for the first time since 1998-99, 1999-00. Get one of the top three seeds. Make it back to the Conference Finals where they beat the Heat and advance to the Finals.

-Worst case scenario: They do not reach the Conference Finals. George regresses and the bench does not compliment the starters.

-Off-season grade: A+

Miami Heat: Finished 66-16 (1st Southeast Division; No. 1 Seed East) in 2012-13; 37-4 at home; 29-12 on the road; Defeated the Bucks 4-0 in East Quarterfinals; defeated the Chicago Bulls 4-1 in Semifinals; defeated the Pacers 4-3 in the Conference Finals; defeated the Spurs in the Finals 4-3.

-102.9 ppg-5th; Opp. ppg: 95.0-2nd; 38.6 rpg-30th.

With under 30 seconds remaining in Game 6 of the Finals, the Heat trailed by five and faced the aspect of seeing their run at back-to-back titles go up in smoke.

Two three-pointers and some missed free throws by the Spurs allowed the Heat to tie the game at the end of regulation and they pulled a hard earned 103-100 win in overtime and, which they followed up with a 95-88 win in Game 7 to capture their second consecutive title.

What has made this team special is that they made it to three straight Finals, winning back-to-back titles in the face of many doubters, especially when the "Big Three" of LeBron James (26.8 ppg-4th NBA, 8.0 rpg-led team, 7.3 apg-led team, 56.5 FG%-5th NBA), the MVP in the regular season two straight seasons and four of the last five and Finals MVP for two straight year; Dwyane Wade (21.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 5.1 apg, 1.9 spg-led team) and Chris Bosh (16.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 53.5 FG%) came together three off-seasons ago.

James for the sixth straight season averaged 25-plus points, 7-plus rebounds and 7-plus assists per contest per season. He joined Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson (six seasons), John Havlicek (two seasons), Michael Jordan and Larry Bird one season each. James is the only one to do it in a season where he shot 55-plus percent from the floor, which he did a year ago. On top of that, James posted seven triple doubles last season, three of which came in the postseason.

Their individual greatness and their ability to gel together along with the steady guidance of head coach Erik Spoelstra (260-134 as Heat head coach), who got a much deserved contract extension this off-season has allowed this team to not get to high in the best of times like the 27-game win streak they had in the middle of the season, the second longest in NBA history or too low in the tougest of times like in the Conference Finals versus the Pacers and the NBA Finals versus the Spurs where they were had to win Game 7 both times.

It was especially impressive because Wade, who averaged just 15.9 ppg in the postseason, was not himself because of knee trouble and Bosh, who had his problems scoring consistently in the postseason as he averaged just 12.1 ppg and 7.3 rpg. In Game 7 of the Finals alone he was scoreless.

Even with the greatness of the "Big Three" and the steady hand of coach Spoelstra, the Heat are not back-to-back champions if guard Ray Allen (10.9 ppg, 40.6 3-Pt.%) does not is the game-tying three-pointer in the closing moments of Game 6 of the Finals, of a Bosh offensive rebound and they do not win Game 7 if swingman Shane Battier (6.6 ppg, 43.0 3-Pt.%) does not go 6 for 8 from three-point range.

It is because of the clutch performances in the postseason from Allen, Battier and guards Mario Chalmers (8.6 ppg, 40.9 3-Pt.%), Norris Cole, center Chris Andersen (4.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 57.7 FG%) and forward Udonis Haslem the Heat are trying to join the Celtics, Bulls and Lakers as the only teams in NBA history to achieve a three-peat.

The editions of center Greg Oden, who has not played in an NBA game since Dec 5, 2009 because of knee problems and forward Michael Beasley (10.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg), whose inconsistent play on the court and inability to keep his noise clean off the court ended his days with the Phoenix Suns who terminated his contract, will add even more depth to the team. This is also a time for the former No. 1 overall pick in 2007 in Oden and No. 2 overall pick in 2008 in Beasley to prove there is still plenty of basketball left in their careers.

The one distraction that will follow this team from now until their season ends is will James opt out of his contract and test the free agent waters again.

The Heat hopes that winning a third straight title will keep James and his talents in South Beach.

It will not be easy. Just ask the 1990-91 Pistons, 1995-96 Rockets and Lakers 2010-11, who failed to three-peat. The Pistons of that year lost to the Bulls, who beat the Lakers in the Finals 4-1 their first title. The Rockets lost to the Seattle Supersonics who fell to the Bulls in six games and the Lakers fell to the Mavericks in a four game sweep.

Also, the team has played a lot games over the past three seasons. James has played the most games regular/postseason since 2011 with 284. Chalmers has played in the second most with 278. Battier has played in the third most with 277. Bosh has played in the seventh most with 266 and Wade has played in the 11 moth with 260.

On top of that, the last team to make it to the Finals four straight times were the Celtics, who did it from 1984-1987.

If the Heat do manage to win it all this season, they will join the Minneapolis Lakers (1952-54); the Boston Celtics (1959-66), the Bulls (1991-93 & 1996-98) and the Los Angeles Lakers (2000-02) to win three consecutive NBA championships.

-Best case scenario: The Heat make it back to the Finals and win their third straight title. James wins his third straight MVP and joins Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Kobe Bryant as the only players in league history to lead their team to three straight championships.

-Worst case scenario: The Heat do not make it back to the Finals and James decides to opt out of his contract.

-Off-season grade: B

Milwaukee Bucks: Finished 38-44 (3rd Central Division; No. 8 Seed East) in 2012-13; 21-20 at home; 17-24 on the road; defeated by the Heat in the East Quarterfinals 4-0.

-98.9 ppg-12th; Opp. ppg: 100.4-20th; 44.0 rpg-5th.

The best way to describe the Bucks is average. They are not the kind of team that attracts big name free agents and they are not bad enough to get in the top 10 of the draft lottery to pick a big time collegiate player.

To put the Bucks fortune over the past decade plus into perspective, they have not made it past the first round since 2001, where they lost to the East champion Philadelphia 76ers in seven games.

That was also the last time the Bucks had true All-Star talent in Ray Allen, Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson and Sam Cassell.

Since that season, the Bucks have made the playoffs just five times, losing in the first round each time. They have had just four seasons over .500. Their highest finish in the division was second in 2009-2010 and they have had six fifth place finishes in the division.

In the last five seasons, the Bucks win percentage has been .415 (34-48), .561 (46-36), .427 (35-47), .469 (31-35) and .463 (38-44).

Their best season in that span came three years ago where they finished in the No. 6 spot taking on the No. 3 seeded Hawks and lost that first round series 4-3.

This off-season, the team hired a new head coach in Larry Drew, who was the coach of the Hawks the last three years. He compiled a 128-102 record, making the playoffs in all three seasons.

The team ended the Brandon Jennings era, trading the lead guard to the Pistons for their starting lead guard Brandon Knight (13.3 ppg, 4.0 apg).

They also said goodbye to his backcourt mate Monta Ellis, who signed with the Dallas Mavericks.

In July, the Bucks acquired guard Luke Ridnour (11.5 ppg) in a three-team deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves. Ridnour will be in his second tour of duty with the team.

In August, the Bucks acquired from the Phoenix Suns veteran forward Caron Butler (10.4 ppg) for guard Ish Smith and forward Viacheslav Kravtsov.

In free agency, the Bucks signed guards Carlos Delfino (10.6 ppg, 37.5 3-Pt.%), O.J. Mayo (15.3 ppg, 44.9 FG%, 40.7 3-Pt.%), Gary Neal (9.5 ppg, 35.5 3-Pt.%) and center ZaZa Pachulia (5.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg).

With the parts they added, the question how will the other core players like forwards John Henson (6.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg), Ersan Ilyasova (13.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 46.2 FG%, 44.4 3-Pt.%) and center Larry Sanders (9.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 2.8 bpg-2nd NBA) mesh with them?

Sanders in particular looks ready to be one of the Bucks corner stones as he finally lived up to the teams expectations when they drafted him 15th overall three years ago.

He had a triple double of 10 points, 12 boards and 10 blocks in a 95-85 loss at the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 30, 2012 and 18 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks in a 91-88 win versus the Celtics on Dec. 1, 2012. He finished 2012-13 with 26 double-doubles and had 36 games where he garnered 10 rebounds or more and 34 games where he registered three or more blocked shots. He finished third in balloting for Most Improved Player Award and in seventh place for Defensive Player of the Year. On top of that, he received a four-year, $44 million contract extension this summer.

The key for Sanders continued development is his ability to keep his cool and not get technical fouls, which he garnered 14 of them, which tied for third in the league and he was first in ejections with five.

Sanders and the rest of the members of the Bucks front court will be important to the team this season. One big question is the team's first round draft selection in 18-year-old swingman Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th overall) become a cornerstone of the team?

The Bucks are a team that does not have the resources to go out and find a franchise player in free agency. So building from within is how they are going to improve themselves.

-Best case scenario: The Bucks are in the playoff conversation. Sanders has another solid season. Antetokounmpo shows flashes of brillance.

-Worst case scenario: They miss the playoffs. The roster does not mesh together and Antetokounmpo has growing pains as a rookie.

-Off-season grade: C-

New York Knicks: Finished 54-28 (1st Atlantic Division; No. 2 Seed East) in 2012-13; 31-10 at home; 23-18 on the road; Defeated the Bucks 4-0 in East Quarterfinals; lost to the Pacers in the Semis 4-2.

-100.0 ppg-11th; Opp. ppg: 95.7-7th; 40.6 rpg-26th.

Conventional wisdom in the NBA says that in order to win a championship you need your superstar to play great at all times. You must play consistent defense, be a solid rebounding team and you have to play inside and out offensively.

The Knicks have that superstar in Carmelo Anthony, who led the league in scoring a season ago at 28.7 points per game and averaged 6.9 boards per contest on 44.9 percent from the field and 37.9 percent from three-point range.

The team as a whole though took a different route at the offensive end as they were mainly a perimeter oriented team, which set the NBA record for most three-point field goals made and attempted in a season with 891 connections in 2,371 tries. They shot 37.6 percent from three-point territory, ranked 5th in the league.

It resulted in the Knicks first 50-plus win season in 13 years and their first division title since 1993-94 season, where they made it all the way to the Finals falling in seven games to Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets.

Their 13-game winning streak from Mar. 18-Apr. 9 was the third longest in team history and the longest since winning 15 in a row nearly two decades ago.

Last season's Sixth Man Award winner guard J.R. Smith, who averaged a career-best 18.1 points and 5.3 boards off the bench was retained in the off-season with a new three-year $18 million dollar contract. He will miss the start of the season because of knee surgery.

In the playoffs, the Knicks defeated the Celtics 4-2 to win their first playoff series since 2000.

In the Conference Semis against the Pacers, that unconventional offensive system left them two games short as they fell to the Pacers in six games.

In the playoffs, the Knicks averaged just 88.6 points per contest on 41 percent from the floor and just 34.3 percent from three-point land. Anthony in the Semis against the Pacers shot just 40.6 percent from the floor.

This off-season, the Knicks added former Laker and Queens, NY forward Metta World Peace (12.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) for his defense and toughness.

They also signed veteran guard Beno Udrih (8.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 44.1 FG%) and acquired former No. 1 overall pick center Andrea Bargnani (12.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg) from the Toronto Raptors in exchange for center Marcus Camby, forward Steve Novak, guard Quentin Richardson, a 2016 first-round draft pick and a second round draft pick in 2014 and 2017.

In this past June's draft, the Knicks selected the son of former NBA guard Tim Hardaway, Tim Hardaway, Jr. out of Michigan, who he helped guide the Wolverines to the NCAA Men's National Championship where they lost to Louisville.

They also resigned forward Kenyon Martin (7.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg).

For the Knicks, their success this season comes down to a few things.

For starters, can Anthony be more than just a scorer and can he and forward Amar'e Stoudemire (14.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg), whose numbers were down across the board and he was injured for a great deal of the season co-exist on the court together on both ends?

In the 29 games Stoudemire played in, Knicks were just 16-13 averaging 97.2 points per game on just 43.3 percent from the floor and 34.6 percent on three-pointers. In the 53 games without Stoudemire, the Knicks went 38-15 averaging 101.5 points on 45.6 percent from floor and 39.3 percent from three.

Can Bargnani be more than just a shooter and become a presence inside offensively and be a better rebounder?

Can Chandler get back to the form the season prior to a year ago where he was the Defensive Player of the Year?

When he was at his past two years ago, the Knicks were the No. 6 ranked defense in the league and any of the team's defensive deficiencies were nullified.

With Chandler not at the top of his game a season ago, plus the fact that he was injured as the regular season closed, the Knicks ranked 17th in defensive efficiency.

Can guard Iman Shumpert (6.8 ppg) become that other scorer they can rely on and can Raymond Felton (13.9 ppg, 5.5 apg, 36.0 3-Pt.%) return to form that he was in his first stint with the Knicks where under former head coach Mike D'Antoni was having the best season of his career?

On top of that, can Udrih and Pablo Prigioni provide the leadership and grit on the court that was lost when Jason Kidd retired and is now the head coach of the Nets?

The Knicks on paper have made some effective additions, but other teams in the East like the Pacers, the crosstown rival Nets and Bulls have as well.

So if they want to stay in the mix as one of the teams that can challenge the Heat, they are going to have to get better from within.

They also have to diversify their offense. The 2012-13 Knicks shot 35.4 percent of their shots from behind the three-point line was the highest in the legaue the last two seasons and 8.8 percent of their offense came via fastbreak.

Novak, Kidd and Copeland took 322 of the 891 three-pointers the Knicks made a season ago out the door and World Peace, Udrih and Bargnani, who are in their place have shot a combined 32 percent from behind the arc the last two seasons.

Better offensive execution and improve play defensively are a must if the Knicks want to be in a better position to make a title run this season.

-Best case scenario: They win over 50 games again and another Atlantic Division title. They get one of the top four seeds and make it to the Conference Finals. Anthony and Stoudemire begin to co-exist and they become a better rebounding team.

-Worst case scenario: They do not have home court advantage in the playoffs and as a result have an early exit.

-Off-season grade: C+

Orlando Magic: Finished 20-62 (5th Southeast Division; missed playoffs) in 2012-13; 12-29 at home; 8-33 on the road.

-94.1 ppg-24th; Opp. ppg: 101.2-24th; 42.7 rpg-12th.

For seven straight seasons, the Orlando Magic were among the best in the East. They made the Finals in 2009, where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers 4-1.

Leading the charge was center Dwight Howard and head coach Stan Van Gundy who together help the Magic win 259 games in the regular season.

Today, Van Gundy is doing radio in Florida and Dwight Howard is now a member of the Houston Rockets after spending just one season with the Lakers, where he was dealt from the Magic last off-season.

In just one season, the Magic went from the top of the NBA mountain to the bottom of the cliff.

While the climb back will be hard one, the team has a young coach to lead them back and talented young players to get them there.

In head man Jacque Vaughn, who is entering his second season on the Magic sideline, they have a coach who played in the NBA for 12 seasons with the Utah Jazz, Hawks, Spurs, Nets and aforementioned Magic. He was a part of the Spurs 2007 title team, where he also spent two seasons as an assistant coach learning under one of the best in Gregg Popovich.

The front court consist of starting center Nikola Vucevic (13.1 ppg, 11.9 rpg-2nd NBA, 51.9 FG%); forward Tobias Harris (11.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg), who in 27 games with the team after being acquired from the Bucks averaged 17.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg; forwards Maurice Harkless (8.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg), Andrew Nicholson (7.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and Kyle O'Quinn have serious upside.

The return of forward Glen Davis (15.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg), who was having the best season of his career before an injury cut his season short and the signing of forward Jason Maxiell (6.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg) should add depth to the Magic front court.

Here was the value Davis brought to the Magic. With him, they were 12-13. Without Davis, the Magic went just 8-49.

The veteran leadership of the Magic lies in the backcourt with starting guards Jameer Nelson (14.7 ppg, 7.4 apg) and Aaron Affalo (16.5 ppg-led team).

They will be a very big help to the team's first round draft choice guard Victor Oladipo (No. 2 overall) out of Indiana University, who the team hopes can become one of its major building blocks.

In the Orlando Summer League, Oladipo averaged 19.0 ppg, which ranked second in the summer league. He also averaged 4.3 rpg, five assists and three steals.

When you are starting from scratch, you have to have two things in your favor, hope and patience. It also helps to have talented players as well and a coach that can get the best out of them.

The Magic have talented players to build with. A head coach in Vaughn who has seen and knows what it takes to win.

It is up to general manager Rob Hennigan to continue to bring in talent that will get the Magic back to competing to be the best in the East.

-Best case scenario: The Magic compete night in and night out. Oladipo develops along with the likes of Vucevic, Harkless and Harris.

-Worst case scenario: The Magic lose consistently by double-digits and the young talented players develop bad habits.

-Off-season grade: D-

Philadelphia 76ers: Finished 34-48 (Tied for 4th Atlantic Division; missed playoffs) in 2012-13; 23-18 at home; 11-30 on the road.

-93.2 ppg-30th; Opp. ppg: 96.9-9th; 41.3 rpg-20th.

One year ago at this time, the Philadelphia 76ers had plans of competing to be one of the top teams in the East.

They acquired center Andrew Bynum from the Lakers. They had an emerging star in lead guard Jrue Holiday, who made played in his first All-Star game last February and swingman Evan Turner (13.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.4 apg, 36.5 3-Pt.%) was scratching the surface of being the player the Sixers hoped he could be when they selected him with the No. 2 overall pick out of Ohio State three seasons ago.

In head coach Doug Collins, they had one of the best motivators and teachers in the league to guide them.

Unfortunately, the Sixers never lived up to the hype. Bynum's knee problems never allowed him to play a single game for the Sixers and they let him walk in free agency.

Holiday, a first time All-Star last February was traded on draft night this past June to the New Orleans Pelicans for the rights of the No. 6 overall pick in the draft forward/center Nerlens Noel out of Kentucky. The Sixers also received the Pelicans first round pick of next June's draft.

At the No. 11 position of the draft, the Sixers selected guard Michael Carter-Williams out of Syracuse.

When Collins resigned at the end of last season, the Sixers were in need of a new head coach. They found him in August hiring long time Spurs assistant Brett Brown to be the organization's 24th head coach in franchise history.

Just 15 months ago, the Sixers were one game away from the Conference Finals as they lost to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Conference Semis.

The hopes is that that the youngest team at 24 years 68 days old on average coming into this season led by Noel and Carter-Williams can emerge as the cornerstones of the Sixers going forward. The Sixers will have to wait for Noel to answer that question as he continues to rehab from an ACL injury in his knee that he sustained last February in a game between Kentucky and Florida.

With no established veteran floor general, Carer-Williams will get the keys to car right from the jump and he will have to lead the team the best he can.

Some of the remaining veterans from that aformentioned Sixers playoff team center Spencer Hawes (11.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 46.4 FG%, 35.6 3-Pt.%), forward Thaddeus Young (14.8 ppg, 53.1 FG%, 7.5 rpg, 1.8 spg) and guard Jason Richardson (10.5 ppg, 34.1 3-Pt.%) will be important in helping the Sixers in this rebuilding process.

It will also be very important for Turner to really establish himself as one of the cornerstones of this team going forward. He will get every opportunity to do so. Will he take advantage of it is the question. Shooting the ball consistently then he did a seaosn ago when he shot just 41.9 percent from the floor will help.

They will lose a lot of games this season, but what the team and new general manager Sam Hinkie is counting on is that they will get luck in the next NBA Draft Lottery this May and they will pick in the top three of next June's draft which is projected to have star-ladden talent to chose from.

With a projected two more picks from the trades they made this off-season, with the safe bet the New Orleans Pelicans miss the playoffs, the Sixers have a great chance to put together a young talented core that will allow them to be better in the year's to come.

-Best case scenario: The team plays hard every game and gives the city of "Brotherly Love" hope for the future.

-Worst case scenario: The Sixers are not competitive on a game in and game out basis and Noel and Carter-Williams have more low points this season than high ones on the court.

-Off-season grade: D

Toronto Raptors: Finished 34-48 (Tied for 4th Atlantic Division; missed playoffs) in 2012-13; 21-20 at home; 13-28.

-97.2 ppg-16th; Opp. ppg: 98.7-17th; 40.2 rpg-28th.

The year of 2001 was the best in the history of Canada's basketball team.

They won a franchise best 47 games and in the playoffs defeated the Knicks in the first round in five games to win their first playoff series in franchise history. They took the Sixers to the limit in the East Semis and came within one shot of going to the Conference Finals, falling 4-3.

After that season, the Raptors made the playoffs in three of the next 12 seasons. After the 2008 season, their last playoff appearance under former head coach Sam Mitchell, the team has won just 33, 40, 22, 23 and 34 wins.

With that awful record, changes came from across the board. Former Staples Center executive Tim Leiweke became the Raptors new team president. General Manager Bryan Colangelo was relieved of his duties and former Denver Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri took his place.

The team traded former No. 1 oveall pick center Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks for center Marcus Camby, whose contract was bought out and he signed with the Rockets; forward Steve Novak (6.6, 43.3 3-Pt.%), guard Quentin Richardson, who was waived by September, a first round pick and a future 2nd round pick.

In free agency, the Raptors signed former Pacers' guard D.J. Augustin (4.7 ppg) and forward Tyler Hansbrough (7.0 pg, 4.6 rpg). They also signed forward Austin Daye.

The new editions to go alongside swingman Landry Field (4.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and second year guard Terrance Ross (6.4 ppg) should provide the second unit with more energy off the bench.

The Raptors biggest move came last season was acquiring swingman Rudy Gay from the Memphis Grizzlies in a three-team deal.

In 33 games with the Raptors, Gay averaged 19.5 points, 6.4 boards and 1.7 steals in helping the Raptors go 17-16 during that stretch and in the hunt for the No. 8 spot in the East playoff race.

He along with guards DeMar DeRozen (18.1 ppg, 44.5 FG%), Kyle Lowry (11.6 ppg, 6.4 apg, 4.7 rpg), who will be a free agent at the end of the season, forward Amir Johnson (10.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and center Jonas Valanciunas (8.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 55.7 FG%) give the Raptors a solid starting five.

If this team plans on getting back to the playoffs and being in the position they were 13 seasons ago, Valanciunas, must stay healthy and develop into the franchise player the organization believes he can be. If the 6-11 Lithuanian is anything like he was in the Las Vegas Summer League, where he averaged 18.8 points and 10.0 rebounds on 56.1 percent shooting in winning MVP honors, it will allow DeRozen, Gay and Lowry more room to operate on the perimeter.

The team must also get better at the defensive end, something that head coach Dwane Casey has preached from day one since becoming the team's head coach.

Last season, the Raptors allowed their opponents to shoot 45.8 percent from the floor (18th NBA) and 36.1 percent from three-point range (19th NBA).

Maybe more than anything else, the roster must grow together. When the team was successful in the early 2000s, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady were leading the way.

Since those two have left, the Raptors have been searching for that franchise player to lead them.

Nine years ago, the Raptors drafted Chris Bosh to be their franchise player. He left in free agency three years ago for the Heat and he alongside Dwyane Wade and LeBron James to back-to-back titles.

With Ujiri in the Raptors front office now, the Raptors will hopefully bring in talented players to go alongside the core players and the team will win consistently and grow together. Three seasons ago, he made the tough call in trading Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks and for Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mosgov and Wilson Chandler. The Nuggets got better with that trade and hopefully he can make moves of that nature to better the Raptors.

-Best case scenario: The Raptors are in the playoff mix for the No. 6 to the No.8 spot. They play better defense on a nightly basis and Gay becomes and All-Star for the first time.

-Worst case scenario: They miss the playoffs again and the core players Valanciunas, Gay, DeRozen and Lowry do not gel together.

-Off-season grade: C-

Washington Wizards: Finished 29-53 (5th Atlantic Division; missed playoffs) in 2012-13; 22-19 at home; 7-34 on the road.

-93.2 ppg-28th; Opp. ppg: 95.8-8th; 43.2 rpg-9th.

There comes a time in a player's career and for a franchise that they reach a crossroads. Where the player and the organization have to decide whether they will continue to be underachieving or take measures to become an elite team.

The Wizards are at that crossroads and based on what they did this summer, they are ready to become a consistent winner in the NBA.

For starters they signed starting lead guard John Wall to a five-year $80 contract extension.

Despite playing in just 49 games a season ago, the former No. 1 overall pick in 2010 led the Wizards in scoring at 18.5 points-career-high and 7.6 assists on 44.1 percent from the field.

The team went 24-25 in the games Wall played, compared to just 4-29 without him to start the season as he recovered from knee surgery.

They hope that this season Wall and his starting backcourt mate Bradley Beal (13.9 ppg, 38.6 3-Pt.%) can stay healthy and build a solid chemistry that drives defenses crazy.

They added depth to their frontcourt in the draft this past June by selecting forward Otto Porter with the 3rd overall pick out of Georgetown University. In the 2nd round, they drafted guard Glen Rice, Jr.

The team this past weekend added another talent to their front court in acquiring center Marcin Gortat (11.1 ppg, 52.1 FG%, 8.5 rpg, 1.6 bpg) from the Phoenix Suns as well as guards Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown (10.5 ppg) and Malcolm Lee. They sent center Emeka Okafor and a protected 2014 pick to the Suns.

He joins center Nene (12.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 48.0 FG%), forwards Trevor Ariza (9.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 36.4 3-Pt.%), Jan Vessely and center Kevin Seraphin (9.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg).

In free agency, they signed solid glue guys in guard Eric Maynor (4.5 ppg) and forward Al Harrington.

The one thing the Wizards had in their favor a season ago is that they were a solid defensive team, which is something very rare for a team that won the amount of games the Wizards did.

Besides ranking eighth in opponents point per contest, they were tied for fifth with the Heat in field goal percentage allowed at 44.0 percent. Tied for ninth with the Sixers in three-point percentage at 34.9 percent.

If the team plans to win more games this season, the offense has to get better.

Ranking 27th in shooting percentage at 43.5 percent and 19th in assists per contest at 21.6 will not get it done.

There are no more excuses for the team from our nation's capital. If Wall stays healthy, he should be a first-time All-Star and emerge as one of the top floor generals in the league. They have a front line that can rebound and defend in the paint and guards that have the ability to shoot the ball well from the perimeter. Their committment to the defensive end should allow them to use their athleticism to create offense in the open court.

If the Wizards do not excel this season, team owner Ted Leonsis most likely will give head coach Randy Wittman, who is just 47-84 in his first two seasons as Wizards head coach and just 147-291 in his coaching career the axe.

It has been five seasons since the Wizards made the playoffs, which is tied for the third longest drought currently in the league and with a few teams in the East taking a step backwards this season, their chances are very high in making the playoffs this spring.

-Best case scenario: The Wizards make the playoffs as a No. 7 or No. 8 Seed. Wall becomes a first time All-Star and the team compliments their solid defense with an efficient offense.

-Worst case scenario: They miss the playoffs again. The team suffers injuries to key people again and coach Wittman is fired.

-Off-season grade: A

Western Conference
Dallas Mavericks: Finished 41-41 (4th Southwest Division; missed playoffs) in 2012-13; 24-17 at home; 17-24 on the road.

-101.1 ppg-8th; Opp. ppg: 101.7-27th; 41.9 rpg-16th.

From 1990-91 to 1999-00 season, the Dallas Mavericks were one of the worst teams in the league going 286-549 during that stretch.

Enter internet entrepreneur and season ticket-holder Mark Cuban purchasing the team from the Ross Perot group for $285 million on Jan 14, 2000. They have gone 656-312 in the subsequent 12 years prior to last season.

The team made it to the Finals in 2006 and 2011 where their first title in team history by defeating the Heat 4-2 after losing to them five seasons prior.

The next season, the Mavs let some key cogs of that championship team like guards Jason Kidd, J.J. Barea DeShawn Stevenson and Jason Terry and center Tyson Chandler go in free agency.

The Mavs let those players go because they wanted to get under the salary cap so they can go after franchise changing free agent like center Dwight Howard, guard Chris Paul and Deron Williams, who were to become free agents over the next two summers.

Unfortunately, the Mavs were unable to sign either of those players when they entered free agency. Williams, re-signed with the Nets prior to last season and Howard signed with the Rockets and Paul re-signed with the Los Angeles Clippers this past off-season.

In free agency, the team signed forward DeJuan Blair (5.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg), guards Jose Calderon (11.3 ppg, 49.1 FG%, 7.1 apg), Monta Ellis (19.0 ppg, 6.0 apg and 2.1 spg) Wayne Ellington (7.9 ppg), Devin Harris (9.9 ppg) and Gal Mekel and center Samuel Delmbert (6.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg).

In June's draft, they selected guard Shane Larkin out of University of Miami with the 18th overall pick out.

Last season was a tough one for the Mavs as they missed the playoffs for the first time in the last 13 seasons.

A big reason for that was not having their leader and top scorer forward Dirk Nowitzki (17.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) the first 29 games of last season because of knee surgery. His scoring and rebounding averages per contest were the lowest since his second season in the league.

If the 11-time All-Star, the 2007 MVP and 2011 Finals MVP is healthy along with the new additions the team made, the Mavs chances of competing for a playoff spot are pretty good.

If that is to happen though, the team defense must improve.

While the team ranked eighth in the league in block shots per contest at 5.5, they ranked just 12th in the league in opponents field goal percentage at 44.5 percent; 17th in opponents three-point percentage at 35.9 percent; tied for 16th in steals per game at 7.9 and 17th in forced turnovers per contest at 14.

This upcoming season can be looked at as one where the Mavs are at a crossroads.

They have expiring contracts of swingman Vince Carter (13.2 ppg, 40.6 3-Pt.%) and forward Shawn Marion (12.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg) that could prove valuable at the trade deadline.

Another question the Mavs may have to answer is that if they are not going to make the playoffs for a second straight season, do they consider trading Nowitzki at the deadline or let him walk in free agency at the end of the season?

-Best case scenario: The Mavs contend for the No. 7 or No. 8 Seed in the West. Nowitzki returns to his All-Star form and the supporting cast meshes together, especially defensively.

-Worst case sccenario: The Mavs miss the playoffs for a second straight season and the team considers or does trade the likes of Nowitzki, Marion and Carter.

-Off-season grade: C-

Denver Nuggets: Finished 57-25 (2nd Northwest Division; No. 3 Seed West) in 2012-13; 38-3 at home; 19-22 on the road; Lost to the Golden State Warriors in West Quarterfinals.

-106.1 ppg-1st; Opp. ppg: 101.1-23rd; 45.0 rpg-2nd.

Last season was the best in the NBA history of the Nuggets. They won an NBA franchise best 57 games, with 38 of those victories coming at the Pepsi Center, where they were a league best 38-3.

Then head coach George Karl was named NBA Coach of the Year and led the team to the playoffs for the ninth straight season.

Unfortunately, the Nuggets lost in the first round to the up and coming Golden State Warriors in six games. It was the eighth time in those nine season that the Nuggets season ended in the quarterfinals.

Unexpectedly, the team did not extend the contract of coach Karl and hired former Pacers and Lakers assistant coach, five-time champion with the Lakers (2000-2002) as a player and assistant (2009-10) and 14-year career with the Celtics, Heat, Magic, Golden State Warriors, 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers and the aforementioned Lakersfs Brian Shaw in his stead on June 25th.

In the front office, Executive of the Year general manager of the team Masai Ujiri left to take the same position with the Raptors and in stead is former assistant GM Tim Connelly.

Changes also occurred with the roster as swingman Andre Iguodala was sent to the Warriors in a sign-and-trade, receiving in return guard Randy Foye (10.8 ppg, 41.0 3-Pt.%).

In free agency they signed forward/center J.J. Hickson, whose 12.7 points and 10.4 rpg on 56.2 percent from the field output with the Portland Trail Blazers a season ago earned him a three-year $15 million contract.

They also signed guard Nate Robinson (13.1 ppg, 4.4 apg, 40.5 3-Pt.%) and they acquired forward Darrell Arthur (6.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg) from the Memphis Grizzlies and a 2nd round pick (55th overall) forward Jeffrey Lauvergne in exchange for forward Kosta Koufos (8.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg)

One thing that Shaw will have in his favor starting his coaching career in Denver is a talented roster to work with.

Along with the new editions, the roster consist of forwards Kenneth Faried (11.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg-led team), center JaVale McGee (9.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.0 bpg-led team, 57.5 FG%-3rd NBA), forward Anthony Randolph and center Timofey Mosgov.

The team though will start this season without one of its great front court in forward Danilo Gallinari (16.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 37.3 3-Pt.%), who tore his left ACL back on Apr. 4 versus the Mavericks. There is no timetable for his return.

The back court is led by starting floor general Ty Lawson (16.7 ppg-led team, 6.9 apg-led team) and his understudy Andre Miller (9.6 ppg, 5.9 apg, 47.9 FG%); swingman Wilson Chandler (13.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 46.2 FG%, 41.3 3-Pt.%) and guard Evan Fournier (5.3 ppg, 40.7 3-Pt.%).

Whenever there is a new head coach on the scene, change is expected. That has been the case for the Nuggets, who under Shaw plan to be a better defensive team and better offensive execution in the half court.

For all the great things the team did offensively with their Road Runner style, where they No. 1 in the league with 20.1 fastbreak points per game, they were more like Wile E. Coyote when it came to playing defense.

While team's shot 44.4 percent from the field against the Nuggets, teh team allowed the opposition to shoot 36.3 percent from three-point range.

The Nuggets did out-rebound their opponent by a little over three boards per game. They ranked second in the league in steals and forced 15.2 turnovers per game, which ranked fourth in the league, they themselves turned it over 14.7 times per contest.

Going back to the team being more productive in the half-court offensively, they did rank No. 1 in points in the paint per game at 58. They did struggle in the playoffs against the Warriors though with just a little over 47 points in the paint.

While the team may lack that superstar player that can score at a moments notice, the team has talented parts that work well together.

The question now is can Shaw incorporate a half-court offense that requires the team to execute to a tee game in and game out as well as play better defense?

-Best case scenario: The Nuggets make the playoffs again as one of the top four seeds. Gallinari returns to form as one of the Nuggets top guns. The team becomes better defensively and a better in the half court offensively, which advances them to the Semis.

-Worst case scenario: They are fighting to just make the playoffs. The players do not by in to the new philosophy of coach Shaw on offense and defense.

-Off-season grade: B

Golden State Warriors: Finished 47-35 (2nd Pacific Division; No. 6 Seed West) in 2012-13; 28-13 at home; 19-22 on the road. Defeated the Denver Nuggets 4-2 in the Quarterfinals 4-2; Lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the Semifinals 4-2.

-101.2 ppg-7th; Opp. ppg: 100.3-19th; 45.0 rpg-3rd.

There are two teams in the NBA no matter if the team is completely awful or pretty good, the fan base is loyal to a tee. The first team that comes to mind is the Sacramento Kings and the other is the Golden State Warriors.

To put this loyalty of the fan base in the Bay Area into perspective, prior to last season the Warriors had made the playoffs just twice in the past 17 seasons, 1993-94, the first season of former forward and current NBA TV/TNT analyst Chris Webber, who won Rookie of the Year and 2007, where the team managed to beat the No. 1 Seed Mavericks, who won an NBA-best 66 games that season. They lost in the Semis to the West runner-up the Utah Jazz 4-1.

In Mark Jackson's first season two years ago, the team struggled going 23-43 in the lockout shortened season.

They did a complete 180 a season ago winning 47 games, their most wins in nearly two decades, where they went 50-32 back in aforementioned 1993-94.

A big reason for the turnaround was the play of the starting backcourt of Stephen Curry (22.9 ppg, 6.9 apg, 1.6 spg 45.1 FG%, 45.3 3- Pt.%) and Klay Thompson (16.6 ppg, 40.1 3-Pt.%).

In Curry's first healthy season where he played 78 games, he not only led the Warriors in scoring, assists and steals, he made an NBA record 272 three-point field goals.

He became just the 10th player in NBA history to make 200-plus three-pointers while shooting at least 42 percent from behind the arc. Curry is the first to do since Peja Stojakovic who made 231 three-pointers on 44.1 percent from that distance in 2007-08.

The second best three-point shooter in terms of percentage in league history at 44.6 percent to NBA on TNT/NBA TV analyst Steve Kerr took to another level against the Nuggets in the quarterfinals where he averaged 24.3 points and 9.3 assists on 46.8 percent from the field and 43.4 percent from three-point land.

Forward David Lee (18.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg-5th NBA) led the league in double-doubles with 56 double-doubles and was named to the 2013 West All-Star team as a reserve, becoming the first Warrior to be named to the All-Star team since swingman Latrell Sprewell in 1997.

Rookie forwards Harrison Barnes (9.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 25.4 mpg, 43.9 FG%, 35.9 3-Pt.%), Draymond Green and center Festus Ezeli had solid seasons and are going to be counted on big time this upcoming season.

Barnes step up his game in the playoffs averaged 16.1 points and 6.4 boards in 38.4 minutes in the playoffs last season.

While the team was very solid offensively ranking 11th in field goal percentage at 45.8 percent, 1st in three-point percentage at 40.3 percent, the team got back to the postseason because of their play at the defensive end, which is something coach Jackson has preached the past three seasons.

They were ranked 4th in opponents field goal percentage at 43.9 percent and 6th in opponents three-point percentage at 34.7. They out-rebounded their opponents by a 2.3 average per contest.

In the off-season, they signed in free agency All-Star swingman Andre Iguodala (13.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.7 spg) to a four-year $48 million contract. The addition of the should make the Warriors defense even better, epsecially on the perimeter, where they reanked just 27th in steals per game at 6.9 and just 26th in forced turnovers at 12.9.

Two very important cogs in the Warriors attack last season in guard Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry moved on in free agency to the Cavaliers and Kings respectably.

The team hopes that new additions guard Toney Douglas (7.5 ppg, 38.0 3-Pt.%) and forward Marreese Speights (8.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 44.5 FG%) can have the kind of impact that Jack and Landry had.

The team also signed forward/center Jermaine O'Neal (8.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 48.2 FG%) to add depth to the front court.

The most important player of the front court is center Andrew Bogut (7.7 rpg, 1.7 bpg-led team), who averaged a career-low 5.8 points per contest in just 32 games a season ago. He has missed 104 games the last two seasons.

If Bogut can stay healthy, he will give the Warriors a huge presence in the paint on both ends of the court. That will especially important with the loss of Ezeli to start the season because of off-season surgery on his MCL and PCL. The Warriors showed how confident as they gave him a three-year, $36 million contract extension.

As mentioned earlier, the Warriors have made two playoff apperances in nearly two decades.

After their 1994 appearance, a 3-0 sweep to the Phoenix Suns, they went 12 seasons before their next appearance. Their 2013 apperance came off a five season absence, which was also the first time the advanced past the first round since 1991.

If they expect to be in the conversation with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Spurs and Clippers as a contender, they must beginning being a constant to the postseason party and not just a one-year wonder.

-Best case scenario: The Warriors win 50 or more games and make back-to-back playoff appearance for the first time since 1991 and 1992. Bogut plays over 70 games. Curry and Thompson continue their progression as the best shooting backcourt in the league. The likes of Speights and Douglas have impacts off the bench.

-Worst case scenario: The Warriors are one of the bottom seeds in the West playoff picture. Bogut and Curry misses games due to injury again and the Warriors bench is not as productive as a season ago.

-Off-season grade: B+

Houston Rockets: Finished 45-37 (3rd Southwest Division; No. 8 Seed West) in 2012-13; 29-12 at home; 16-25 on the road. Lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-2 West Quarterfinals.

-106.0 ppg-2nd; Opp. ppg: 102.5-28th; 43.4 rpg-7th.

It is very hard to draft, trade or sign a player that can change the direction and the expectations of an organization. In a two-year period of time, the Rockets have done just that.

On Oct. 27, 2012, they acquired form the Thunder guard James Harden in exchange for guard Kevin Martin, who is now with the Minnesota Timberwolves and guard Jeremy Lamb and two future first-round picks. Harden signed a six-year $80 million contract extension.

Harden responded with the best season of his young career with aveages of 25.9 ppg, 5.8 apg, 4.9 rpg and 1.8 spg on 43.8 percent from the field, 36.8 percent from three-point range and 85.1 percent from the free-throw line.

He led the league in combined points scored in the paint and free throws with 1,342, ranking ahead of perennial All-Stars Kobe Bryant (1,279) of the Lakers, Russell Westbrook (1,248) of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dwyane Wade (1,124) of the Heat.

Less than nine months later, the Rockets signed in free agency three-time Defensive Player of the Year and the elite big man in the game today center Dwight Howard (17.1 ppg, 12.4 rpg-1st NBA, 2.5 bpg-5th NBA).

In a season where it seemed like he could not get out of his own way, whether it was because of his return from back surgery or the fact he jsut did not fit in with the Lakers a year ago, Howard still finished second in the league in double-doubles with 48 and second in field goal percentage at 57.8.

Howard is very eager to put the nightmare season of 2012-13 behind him and the Rockets are hoping he can bounce back from his lowest scoring output per contest since his third year in the NBA.

Being coached by one of the greatest scorers in the low post in NBA history in Rockets' head coach Kevin McHale and working with former Rockets great and Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon should do wonders for his offensive game.

The supporting case of young talent that consists of swingman Chandler Parsons, who averaged 15.5 points, 5.3 rebounds per contest on 48.6 percent from the floor and 38.5 percent from three-point territory; starting guard Jeremy Lin, who after his amazing with the Knicks the year before, came back to Earth last season averaging 13.4 ppg, 6.1 apg and 1.6 spg on 44.1 percent shooting and 33.9 from three-point range; center Omer Asik (10.1 ppg, 11. rpg-3rd NBA, 54.1 FG%); forward Donatas Motiejunas (5.7 ppg); guard Patrick Beverly (5.6 ppg, 37.5 3-Pt.%); forwards Greg Smith (6.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Terrence Jones (5.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg).

Besides signing Howard in free agency, the Rockets signed some solid veteran in center Marcus Camby, swingman Ronnie Brewer, forward Omri Casspi and guard Reggie Williams. They also retained guards Aaron Brooks and Francisco Garcia (5.5 ppg, 37.4 3-Pt.%).

With a talented roster with Harden and Howard as the lynch pins, the Rockets are primed to contend with the likes of the Spurs, Thunder for supremacy in the West as well as for a title.

Offensively, this team was one of the best ranking 6th in the league in assists per game at 23.2 and field goal percentage at 46.1 and tied for eighth in three-point percentage at 36.6.

If they have any plans on competing in the West, let alone winning a title, they must improve at the defensive end.

With Howard a part of the mix now, teams should not be shooting 45.4 percent against them (T-15th NBA) from the floor and 36.7 percent from three-point range. They should also be ranked higher than 24th in the league in block shots per contest at 4.4.

They also must take care of the basketball as they ranked dead last in turnovers per game at 15.8 and they must have more diversity on offense. On average, 34.9 percent of their shot attempts came from the three-point line.

-Best case scenario: The Rockets win over 50 games. Harden and Howard are a solid one-two punch. The supporting cast compliments the two stars. The team finishes with one of the top three seeds in the West and make it to the Conference Finals.

-Worst case scenario: The Rockets finish in the lower level of the playoff seeding again. Harden and Howard struggle to complement each other on the court and the Rockets have another early exit.

-Off-season grade: A+

Los Angeles Clippers: Finished 56-26 (1st Pacific Division; No. 4 Seed West) in 2012-13; 32-9 at home; 24-17 on the road. Lost to the Memphis Grizzlies 4-2 West Quarterfinals.

-101.9 ppg-9th; Opp. ppg: 94.6-4th; 41.6 rpg-18th.

For nearly three decades, when you said Los Angeles and you talked about basketball, it was about the Lakers. They were always the "Big Dogs" in the "City of Angels" and their counterparts the Clippers were always the second fiddle.

That clearly has changed, especially after last season, the greatest in Clippes history.

They won their first Pacific Division title in franchise history, where they also won 50-plus regular season games.

On Dec. 12, 2012, they defeated the Sacramento Kings 97-85 to garner their 12 straight victory, which broke their previous franchise best 11-game winning streak they had during the 1974-75 season when they were the Buffalo Braves.

On Dec. 30, 2012, the Clippers defated the Jazz 107-96 notching their 17th victory in succession, a new franchise record.

The Clippers finished the month of Decemebr 16-0, which made them the third team in NBA history to go undefeated in a month.

The problem was all of those great moments occurred during the regular season.

The Clippers season ended in the first round to the Grizzlies, who won the next four games of the series after dropping the first two to win the series 4-2.

This was a serious step backwards from the prior season where the Clippers defeated the Grizzlies in seven games, but were swept by the Spurs in the Semifinals 4-0.

At a crossroads, the Clippers went for broke to improve their team this off-season.

They did not re-sign head coach Vinny Del Negro, who now works as an analyst for NBA TV and on June 24, the league approved a trade of head coach Glenn "Doc" Rivers of the Celtics to the Clippers for an unprotected 2015 first round pick.

The team re-signed guard Chris Paul (16.9 ppg, 9.7 apg-2nd NBA, 2.4 spg-led NBA) to a five-year $107 million contract. They also retained swingman Matt Barnes (10.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 46.3 FG%, 34.2 3-Pt.%) and center Ryan Hollins.

The Clippers traded Paul's understudy Eric Bledsoe in a three-team deal to the Phoenix Suns for forward Jared Dudley (10.9 ppg, 46.8 FG%, 39.1 3-Pt.%) and guard J.J. Redick (14.1 ppg, 36.3 3-Pt.%) from the Bucks.

They also signed guard Darren Collison (12.0 ppg, 5.1 apg) to back up Paul; cetner Byron Mullens (10.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and forward Antawn Jamison (9.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 46.4 FG%, 36.1 3-Pt.%).

The new additions along with Sixth Man supreme guard Jamal Crawford (16.5 ppg, 37.6 3-Pt.%) and on and off again starter guard Willie Green (6.3 ppg, 46.1 FG%, 42.8 3-Pt.%) has made the Clippers bench even more verastile.

Even with the re-signing of Paul, the new additions and coach Rivers, this team will only go as far as the play of forward Blake Griffin (18.0 ppg-led team, 8.3 rpg-led team, 53.8 FG%) and DeAndre Jordan (8.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 64.3 FG%-led NBA).

There is no way with all the athleticism they both bring to the table that they should be averaging 5.5 and 6.3 rebounds per contest like they did in the first round against the Grizzlies a season ago.

If Jordan could watch anyone at his position to see how effective he should be, all he has to do is watch tape of Thnuder center Kendrick Perkins when he was with the Celtics. His defense and toughness, which he learned from Garnett was a big reason the Celtics were one of the best defensive teams in the league for five seasons.

If Jordan can play like that, the Clippers will be a better team going forward, especially defensively.

Here is the proof. The Celtics in the "Big Three Era" of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, who was there for five of those six seasons and Paul Pierce under Rivers from 2007-2013 led the league in points allowed at 92.9, field goal percentaged allowed at 43.3, three-point percentage allowed at 33.3 and opponents fastbreak points at 11.0.

The Clippers were very good a season ago leading the league in forced turnovers at 16.1 and they were second in opponents in the paint at 37.2.

The Clippers have no more excuses. They have everything in place. The resigned their starting floor general. The got a championship level coach. The supporting cast has been improved.

In their first 27 seasons in Los Angeles, the Clippers won just 34.9 percent of their games with three of those seasons winning 50 percent of their games and four apperaances in the postseason. The last two seasons, the team has won 64.9 percent of their games making the playoffs both times.

If they are going to become a serious championship contender, it has to start this season.

-Best case scenario: The Clippers win another division title and are one of the top three seeds in the West. Griffin and Jordan play at a high level on both ends. Paul is in the conversation for MVP of the regular season. The Clippers reach the Conference Finals.

-Worst case scenario: The Clippers have an early flame out in the postseason again and Griffin and Jordan do not improve.

-Off-season grade: A+

Los Angeles Lakers: Finished 45-37 (3rd Pacific Division; No. 7 Seed West) in 2012-13; 29-12 at home; 16-25 on the road. Lost to the San Antonio Spurs 4-2 West Quarterfinals.

-102.2 ppg-6th; Opp. ppg: 101.0-22nd; 44.8 rpg-4th.

Coming into last season, the Los Angeles Lakers had dreams of winning another championship and with the moves they made, there was good reason for that optimism.

They acquired center Dwight Howard and two-time Most Valuable Player Steve Nash to team up with guard Kobe Bryant and forward Pau Gasol.

From the beginning the pieces did not mesh together. Howard, who despite leading the league in rebounding, fifth in block shots per contest and second in field goal percentage, he just did not fit in whether Mike Brown was the head coach, who was fired after a 1-4 start or Mike D'Antoni.

The last memory he left the fans of Los Angeles was him being tossed in Game 4 of the first round against the Spurs. He bolted for the Rockets in the off-season.

Nash (12.7 ppg, 6.7 apg-led team) played in just 50 games a season ago because of injury and had lowest average of assist per game since his fifth season and seventh seasons in the league.

Gasol (13.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 46.4 FG%), who had injury problems of his own last season that limited him to just 49 games had career-lows in points, rebounds and field goal percentage. A far cry from his first three-seasons with the Lakers where he averaged 18.7 ppg and 10.0 rpg on 54.8 shooting from the floor. His 15 double-doubles a season ago were his fewest since 2004-05 when he was with the Grizzlies.

D'Antoni had a hard time fitting his seven seconds or less up and down high octane offensive system with the Lakers as only 10 percent of the offense came via fastbreak.

The straw that broke the Lakers back was on Apr. 12 versus Warriors when Bryant (27.3 ppg-3rd NBA, 6.0 apg, 5.6 rpg) tore his Achilles. There is no timetable on when he will return this season.

Unlike last off-season when the Lakers added star studded players to the team, they added complimentary parts to put it best in guard Jordan Farmar, who will be in his second tour with the Lakers; center Dan Gadzuric, guards Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, center Chris Kaman (10.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 50.7 FG%), Nick Young (10.6 ppg, 35.7 3-Pt.%) and forward Shawne Williams.

In June's draft, the Lakers selected sharp shooting forward Ryan Kelly (48 overall) out of Duke.

The team amnestied forward Metta World Peace, who signed with the Knicks.

Coming into last season, the Lakers had high expectations and a whole lot of optimism.

Entering this season, there are very low expectations for the "Purple and Gold" and a lot of questions.

Will coach D'Antoni style fit this team? Can Bryant return to form this season? Will Gasol return to his form or will he even be with the team after the trade deadline this February? Can some of the new additions along with guards Steve Blake (7.3 ppg, 3.9 apg, 42.1 3-Pt.%) and Jode Meeks (7.9 ppg, 35.7 3-Pt.%) and center Jordan Hill (6.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg) be serious contributors that have an impact in winnig games?

-Best case scenario: The Lakers make the playoffs as one of the bottom seeds. Bryant can comeback and be at his future Hall of Fame form. The supporting cast makes a big impact on winning games.

-Worst case scenario: The Lakers miss the playoffs. Bryant returns and is a shadow of himself. Gasol struggles again in D'Antoni's system and the supporting cast is deplorable.

-Off-season grade: D-

Memphis Grizzlies: Finished 56-26 (2nd Southwest Division; No. 5 Seed West) in 2012-13; 32-9 at home; 24-17 on the road. Defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 4-2 in Quarterfinals; defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1 in the Semis; lost to the Spurs in the Conference Finals 4-0.

-93.4.0 ppg-27th; Opp. ppg: 89.3-1st; 42.7 rpg-11th.

Last season was the best in franchise history for the Grizzlies. Their 56 wins were the most in franchise history. Their 32 wins at home, a.k.a "The Grind House" were the most in franchise history, where they went 32-9 at home.

A big reason for that is a solid starting five consisting of forwards Zach Randolph (15.4 ppg-led team, 11.2 rpg-4th NBA) and Tayshaun Prince (10.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg); center and Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol (14.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.7 bpg-led team); perimeter defensive ace at guard Tony Allen (8.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and lead guard Mike Conley (14.6 ppg, 6.1 apg, 2.2 spg-3rd NBA).

Unfortunately, last season ended with a four-game sweep to the Spurs in the Conference Finals and the Grizzlies decided to make major changes as a result.

The team named former columnist John Hollinger vice president of basketball operations.

The team also hired Jason Levien to be their new Chief Executive Officer and former agent Stu Lash was hired as the Grizzlies' new director of player personnel and player development.

They also decided not to re-sign the winningest coach in franchise history Lionel Hollins to a new contract and named assistant coach Dave Joerger the team's new head coach.

One of the Grizzlies biggest weaknesses a season ago was perimeter shooting. They addressed that this off-season by signing veteran swingman Mike Miller for his second tour of duty with the team. He played a big part in helping the Heat reach three-straight NBA Finals and back-to-back titles the last two seasons.

The Grizzlies hope that Miller can stretch the defensive that raise them from the 26th ranked team in three-pointers made per game (4.7), in three-point field goals attempted per contest (13.5) and three-point percentage (34.5).

They acquired center Kosta Koufos (8.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 58.1 FG%) from the Nuggets to add more depth behind Gasol and Randoph.

There is solid depth on the bench in guards Jerryd Bayless (8.7 ppg, 35.3 3-Pt.%) and Keyon Dooling and forwards Ed Davis (7.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and Quincy Pondexter (6.4 ppg, 39.5 3-Pt.%).

One of the big reasons the Grizzlies made it to the Conference Finals a season ago was their ability to defend.

They ranked 3rd in the league in opponents field goal percentage at 43.5; 2nd in opponents three-point percentage at 33.8; 12th in block shots per contest at 5.3; tied for 6th in forced turnovers per contest at 15.5; 4th in steals at 8.6 and tied for 11th in rebounding differential at +3.6.

Despite those amazing defensive numbers, their inability to compliment them at the offensive end is why they feel four games short of making the Finals.

They were 24th in assists per contest at 20.9 and three-point percentage at 34.5, which they hope improves with the addition of Miller. The Grizzlies also ranked 21st in field goal percentage at 44.4.

When you make the changes the Grizzlies did in the off-season, especially at head coach, it can go in one of two directions. It can be a great move, which means the Grizzlies make it to the Finals this spring or it can be a bad move with an early exit in the postseason.

As long as Joerger, who has been the Grizzlies assistant since 2007 and the lead assistant the last two years, can keep the team's defensive identity while making the offense more consistent, things should be fine.

Joerger has had success as a head coach in the minor winning championships in the D-League, CBA and IBA in six of seven season from 2001-2007 and is a two-time CBA Coach of the Year.

The pieces are in place for the Grizzlies. They have a team identity that they stand by. All that remains is for the team to win a title.

-Best case scenario: The Grizzlies compete for one of the top four seeds in the West with the Spurs, Rockets and Thunder. The transition from Hollins to Joerger is a smooth one. The offense catches up with the defense and they make it back to the Conference Finals.

-Worst case scenario: The Grizzlies have an early exit in the postseason and they take a step back under Joerger.

-Off-season grade: B

Minnesota Timberwolves: Finished 31-51 (5th Northwest Division; missed playoffs) in 2012-13; 20-21 at home; 11-30 on the road.

-95.7 ppg-2nd; Opp. ppg: 98.1-15th; 42.0 rpg-14th.

To say last season was difficult for the team from the "Twin Cities" is an understatement.

The team suffered injuries to the likes of guard Ricky Rubio (10.7 ppg, 7.3 apg, 2.4 spg-led team), who played in just 57 games a season ago returning from ACL surgery a season ago; All-Star forward Kevin Love (18.3 ppg, 14.0 rpg), who had 14 double-doubles a year ago, missed 64 games because of broken hand he sustained on two occassions; forward Chase Budinger (9.4 ppg), who signed a new three-year, $16 million contract this off-season, played in just 23 games because of a knee injury; guard Brandon Roy, who was trying to make a comeback from cronic knee problems, played in just five games a season ago and has retired again and center Nikola Pekovic (16.3 ppg-led team, 8.8 rpg-led team), who received a contract extension a new five-year $60 million contract, missed 20 games due to injury.

Six players alone missed 18 games a season ago do to injury. The team started 15 different players a season ago

Even head coach Rick Adelman missed 11 games a year ago to tend to his wife Mary Kay, who experienced perplexing seizures that had her spend a great deal of time in the hospital. In fact, Adelman even contemplated retirement all together, but his wife's health improved and he is back on the bench.

The team this off-season did some serious tweaking of the team from top to bottom.

In the front office, they brought back a familiar face from their year's of success in new GM and President of Basketball Operations and former head coach Flip Saunders, who went 638-256 making 11 playoff appearances with the Wolves, Pistons and Wizards.

To put into perspective what the Wolves have now in terms of head-coach-and-chief-exeuctive tandem: Saunders and Adelman have a combined 1,640 coaching victories. The other two tandems that have that high level of success are coach Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley of the Heat with 1,470 wins and Larry Bird and Frank Vogel of the Pacers with 258 victories.

In terms of coaches with 1,000-plus wins, Hall of Famer Don Nelson leads the way with 1,335. After him is Hall of Famers Lenny Wilkens (1,332), Jerry Sloan (1,221), Pat Riley (1,210), Phil Jackson (1,155), George Karl (1,131), Larry Brown (1,098) and bringing up the rear is Adelman (1,002).

The Wolves in free agency signed forward Corey Brewer (12.1 ppg). The team also acquired from the Thunder guard Kevin Martin (14.0 ppg, 45.0 FG%, 42.6 3-Pt.%) and center Ronny Turiaf.

In the draft, the Wolves received from the Jazz the rights to swingman Shabazz Muhammed (14th overall) out of UCLA and center Gorgui Dieng (21st overall) out of Louisville.

Those editions along with the current supporting cast of forward Dante Cunningham (8.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 46.8 FG%), guard Alexey Shved (8.6 ppg, 3.7 apg) and forward Derrick Williams (12.0, 5.5 rpg) allows the team to have flexibility and versatility in to the bench.

From 1997-2004, the T'Wolves made the playoffs under Saunders. In the last nine seasons, where the Wolves had six different head coaches, they missed the playoffs, which is currently the longest drought in the league.

The team has a world of talent from top to bottom. A head coach who has had success in the NBA and they have solid leadership in the front office. A return to the postseason is very realistic.

This is especially a pivotal year for Love, who can opt-out of his contract in teh summer of 2015.

Two summers ago, he was the only member of the 2012 USA Gold Medal Olympic team not to make the playoffs in his first five seaons in the league.

It will not be easy because the average win percentage of making the playoffs in the last five seasons in the West has been .570. In 2011-12, the Jazz made the playoffs as the No. 8 Seed with a .545 win percentage.

-Best case scenario: The Wolves stay healthy, especially Love, Rubio and Pekovic and they make the playoffs as a No. 7 or No. 8 Seed.

-Worst case scenario: The Wolves suffer injuries again to key people like Love and Rubio and they miss the playoffs again.

-Off-season grade: B+

New Orleans Pelicans: Finished 27-55 (5th Southwest Division; miss playoffs) in 2012-13; 16-25 at home; 11-30 on the road.

-94.1 ppg-T-25th; Opp. ppg: 97.9-14th; 41.6 rpg-17th.

When you are ta team trying to establish a winning culture, there is one word that is consistent when you are trying to reach that goal, change. That is the case with the basketball team in the "Big Easy."

The team changed its nickname from Hornets to Pelicans. They changed their team uniform colors from white, teal and gold, to blue, red, white and tan.

They also added some key additions in acquiring via sign-in-trade former Rookie of the Year guard Tyreke Evans (15,2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.5 apg) for guard Greivis Vasquez, who has a new four-year $44 million contract and hopes to rebound from a tough season where he averaged career lows in points, rebounds and assists per game a year ago.

On draft night last June, the Pelicans acquired all-star guard Jrue Holiday (17.7 ppg, 8.0 apg, 4.2 rpg) from the Sixers for the rights to the No. 6 overall pick forward/center Nerlens Noel.

The question is will there be enough basketballs to go around for the high caliber backcourt of Holiday, Evans and Eric Gordon (17.0 ppg), who hopefully avoid injury this season and becomes that great scorer the Pelicans believed he could be when they acquired him a couple of years ago from the Clippers for guard Chris Paul?

Gordon has missed 51 of 148 games since joining the Pelicans.

Another question is how will this trio of guards mesh with last season's No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis (13.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg-led team, 1.8 bpg-led team), who has all the tools to be an impact player on both ends of the court?

On top of that how will the backcourt affect the likes of sharp shooting forward Ryan Anderson, who had a breakout season with averages of 16.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 213 three-pointers made (38.2 3-Pt.%)?

The Pelicans added another sharp shooter to their roster in swingman Anthony Morrow and they also signed cener Greg Stiemsma to add to the front court depth of Davis, Anderson, forward Al-Farouq Aminu, center Jason Smith (8.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and rookie center Jeff Withey (39 overall) out of Kansas.

If the team can get consistent play from Aminu (7.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 47.5 FG%) and guard Austin Rivers (6.2 ppg), who had a rookie season to forget a year ago, the Pelicans' second unit will be one to contend with on a nightly basis.

When the Pelicans hired Monty Williams as head coach three years ago, he wanted to build the then Hornets identity at the defensive end.

Last season though, the team ranked just 26th in opponents field goal percentage at 47.1 percent. Teams shot on average 37.4 percent from three-point territory.

While they ranked 10th in blocks per game at 5.4 and 7th in rebound differential, they averaged just 6.3 steals per contest.

If Williams, who is 94-136 as Pelicans head coach, plans on lasting beyond this season, the second youngest team with an average of 24 years 359 days of age coming into this season must rise to the occasion on that end of the court. If they do not, Williams could get the axe.

-Best case scenario: The Pelicans are fighting to make the No. 8 playoff spot in the West. Davis stays healthy and begins to emerge that franchise player that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the draft a season ago. The backcourt of Evans, Holiday and Evans can establish their roles on the court and mesh together.

-Worst case scenario: The team is inconsistent defensively. The trio of Evans, Gordon and Holiday do not mesh together and the Pelicans are back in the draft lottery again.

-Off-season grade: C+

Oklahoma City Thunder: Finished 60-22 (1st Northwest Division; No. 1 Seed West) in 2012-13; 34-7 at home; 26-15 on the road. Defeated the Houston Rockets 4-2 in the Quarterfinals; Lost to the Memphis Grizzlies 4-1 Semifinals.

-105.7 ppg-3rd; Opp. ppg: 96.5-9th; 43.6 rpg-6th.

Two years ago, the Thunder lost to the Heat in the Finals 4-1. It was the last game of the young dynamic trio of forward Kevin Durant and guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

James was traded to the Rockets for guard Kevin Martin, who was traded this off-season in the Timberwolves.

The team behind Durant and Westbrook and head coach Scott Brooks, who is 234-147 in his career kept the train moving as they got the top seed in the West a season ago.

The team's championship fortunes changed on Apr. 24th when Westbrook suffered an injury in Game 2 of the first round when Rockets' guard Patrick Beverly ran into him attempting to steal the ball.

Westbrook sustained a torn lateral meniscus on his right knee. He had surgery three days later and missed the rest of the postseason. He is expected to be out for the first four to six weeks of this upcoming season because of a second surgery he had most recently on that same right knee.

The absence of Westbrook in the playoffs really affected Durant as he went shooting 51 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from the three-point line in the regular season to 45.5 percent from the floor and 31.4 percent from three-point territory in the playoffs.

He will have to carry the load to start this season, but an even bigger question, who will the third scorer for the Thunder this season now that Martin is gone?

Will it be Serge Ibaka (13.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.0 bpg-led NBA, 57.3 FG%), who had career-highs across the board a season ago? Also, can he expand his game even more offensively this season, especially in the low post?

Will it be back-up guard Reggie Jackson (5.3 ppg), who really emerged after Westbrook went down averaging 13.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg on 47.9 percent from the floor in the postseason.

Can it be forward Ryan Gomes, who signed with the team this off-season?

Can it be talented forward Perry Jones or guard Jeremy Lamb?

They will get the intangibles from starting center Kendrick Perkins, defensive ace gaurd Thabo Sefolosha (7.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 48.1 FG%), veteran guard Derek Fisher (5.3 ppg, 37.5 3-Pt.%), forward Nick Collison (5.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and center Hasheem Thabeet, but consistent scoring is something else for these guys.

The rise of the Thunder the last five seasons has come from the philosophy in the front office and GM Sam Presti, where it is all about looking at the long term view when it comes to building the team.

It is from that point of view how they came to the decision to trade Harden before the season a year ago. It is also the reason they traded Martin and why they did not amnesty Perkins the last two off-seasons.

The Thunder may have a slow start out of the gates, especially until Westbrook returns. The dynamic duo though of Durant and Westbrook gives the Thunder the best chance to win. If they can find that third consistent scorer, their chances of going far in the playoffs will improve.

-Best case scenario: The Thunder compete for the top seed in the West again and a Northwest Division crown. Westbrook returns to his All-Star form. A third scorer emerges and they make it back to the Finals.

-Worst case scenario: The Thunder do not have home court advantage in the later rounds of the playoffs. Westbrook struggles to return to his All-NBA form and the team does not find a consistent third scoring option.

-Off-season grade: C+

Phoenix Suns: Finished 25-27 (5th Pacific Division; missed playoffs) in 2012-13; 17-24 at home; 8-33 on the road.

-95.2 ppg-21st; Opp. ppg: 101.6-26th; 41.6 rpg-18th.

In professional sports, you can be competing to be the best in your sport and all of a sudden you can be starting from scratch. That is what has transpired with the basketball team in the "Valley of the Sun."

Three years ago, the Phoenix Suns were in the Western Conference Finals, where they lost to the eventual NBA champion Lakers in six games.

In the years that followed, the team traded away lead guard Steve Nash to the Lakers in a sign-in-trade a season ago. Forward Amar'e Stoudemire left in free agency to sign with the Knicks. Then head coach Alvin Gentry back on Jan. 18 agreed to resign from the team a day after a loss to the Bucks, which ended a 24-home game winning streak.

After the 2010 season, the Suns went from 54 wins (54-28), to 40 wins (40-42), 33 wins (33-33) to 25 wins (25-57). Their 25-57 record a season ago was their second-worst season in franchise history.

The Suns began their long road back this off-season by starting from scratch from top to bottom.

Owner Robert Sarver hired former assistant general manager of the Boston Celtics Ryan McDonough to be the Suns' new GM.

The 33-year-old first order of business was finding a new head coach and he chose a face from the Suns' glory years in former shooting guard Jeff Hornacek.

In the draft this past June, they selected with the 5th overall pick center Olexsiy "Alex" Len out of Maryland and via a trade with the Warriors they took with the 29th pick guard Archie Goodwin.

In July, the Suns traded forward Jared Dudley and a 2014 second round pick to the Clippers for guard Eric Bledsoe (8.5 ppg, 44.5 FG%) and Caron Butler.

One month later, Butler was traded to the Bucks for guard Ish Smith and center Viacheslav Kravtsov.

The team also traded forward Luis Scola to the Pacers for swingman Gerald Green (7.0 ppg), forward Miles Plumlee and a 2014 protected first round pick back in July.

The Suns also in the off-season waived one of their big signings from last summer forward Michael Beasley, whose incosistent play on the court and inability to keep his nose clean off the court was too much for the Suns to pay the final two years and $12 million left on his three-year, $18 million contract. Beasley was picked up by the Heat.

This past weekend, they traded last season's starting center Marcin Gortat, along with guards Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee to the Wizards for forward/center Emeka Okafor (9.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 47.7 FG%) and a protected 2014 protected first round pick. Okafor though is out indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck.

With the latest editions along with some of the remaining core a year ago in guards Goran Dragic (14.7 ppg, 7.4 apg, 1.6 spg), who led the Suns in points, assists and steals per game a season ago and P.J. Tucker (6.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg); and forwards Marcus Morris (7.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and his twin brother Markieff (8.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg), at least on paper, the Suns, who will be the fifth youngest team this season with an average age of 25 years and 108 days are improved.

There is a new GM. New players from rookies looking to prove themselves to young veterans looking to work towards better days. A new head coach who looks to guide the Suns back to the days where they won games and were entertaining in the process. They will also be wearing new uniforms this season.

-Best case scenario: The Suns win over 30 games. Hornacek get the Suns play hard on both ends night in and night out. Bledsoe, Len, the Morris twins and Dragic gel together and build a foundation for the years to come.

-Worst case scenario: There is no improvement. The Suns lose games by 15 points or more consistently and they are in the running for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 Draft.

-Off-season grade: C-

Portland Trail Blazers: Finished 33-49 (4th Northwest; missed playoffs) in 2012-13; 22-19 at home; 11-30 on the road.

-97.5 ppg-15th; Opp. ppg: 100.7-21st; 40.8 rpg-24th.

In the first 43 seasons of the Portland Trail Blazers, they made the playoffs 29 times, which includes a streak of 21 consecutive appearances in the postseason from 1983 to 2003. That is second only to the Philadelphia 76ers, who made the playoffs 22 straight season from 1950 to 1971 and in the history of North American professional sports, the Boston Bruins of the NHL made the playoffs 29 straight seasons (1968-1996).

That was followed by five consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs from 2004-2008.

They followed that up by making the postseason the next three consecutive years from 2009-2011, where they flamed out in the first round each time.

After missing the playoffs in 2012, the team was in contention of making it back a season ago, but a 13-game losing streak to close the season doomed brought that dream to a conclusion.

A big reason for that was the stellar play of the No. 6 overall pick of the draft in June 2012 guard Damian Lillard (19.0 ppg, 6.5 apg-led team) out of Weber State. His spectacular play made him the unanimous choice for the 2013 Rookie of the Year joining the likes of Ralph Sampson, David Robinson and Blake Griffin as the only players in NBA history to accomplish that.

Another big reason for the Blazers stayed in the thick of the playoff chase was the play of the rest of starting five.

Leading the way alongside Lillard was All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who led the team in scoring 21.1 points per contest to go along with 9.1 boards. Rounding out the starting five was guard Wes Matthews (14.8 ppg, 39.8 3-Pt.%), forward Nicholas Batum (14.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.9 apg, 37.2 3-Pt.%), who had career-highs across the board, proving he was worth the four-year, $46 millino contract that the team matched from the same offer sheet he received from the T'Wolves this past July and J.J. Hickson, who signed with the Nuggets in free agency.

The Trail Blazers greatest strength was their starting five, their greatness weakness was their bench, which was the least productive in the league in 2012-13.

To put that into perspective, the Blazers top scorer off the bench was rookie center Meyers Leonard, who averaged just 5.5 ppg and 3.7 rpg.

In the off-season the Trail Blazers used their $11.6 million in cap space to sign forwards Thomas Robinson (4.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Dorrell Wright (9.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 37.4 3-Pt.%) and guards Mo Williams (12.9 ppg 6.2 apg, 38.3 3-Pt.%) and Earl Watson.

In the draft in June, the team selected with the 10th overall pick guard C.J. McCollum out of Leigh University, who will miss the start of the season because of a broken foot. With the 31st selection, the Blazers drafted guard Allen Crabbe out of California.

McCollum can hopefully get back on the court and thrive and not join the long list of Blazer first round selections in Hall of Famer Bill Walton (1974), center Sam Bowie (1984), Brandon Roy (2006) and Greg Oden (2007) to be high first round selection and have short careers because of injuries.

In a three-team deal with the Kings and the Pelicans, the Blazers sent the rights of the 39th overall pick in the draft in Jeff Withey out of Kansas to the Pelicans for center Robin Lopez (11.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 53.4 FG%), who is coming off the best season of his career and is the projected starting center for the team this season.

Entering his second season as Trail Blazers head coach, Terry Stotts, who is 148-217 in his coaching career, will have a solid bench to match the stellar starting five. A point guard in Lillard eager to improve on his stellar rookie season and young players like forwards Joel Freeland, Victor Claver and guard Will Barton to go along with the new additions who are talented and will be competing hard in practice for minutes.

If the fourth youngest team with an average age of 25 years 91 days has any plans on making the postseason this spring, their defense must get better.

Surrendering 47.4 percent shooting from the floor, ranking 29th in the league. Getting out-rebounded by 1.6 per contest, ranking 24th in NBA; blocking just 4.3 shot per game (26th NBA); Averaging just 6.6 steals per contest (28th NBA) and forcing just 12.7 turnovers per game, which is tied for 28th in the league will not get it done.

While the team has its eyes set on beginning a new string of playoff apperances in a row, the big question coming into this season is will Aldridge be a Blazer in the years to come?

The former Texas Longhorn, who has spent his entire seven-year career in the Pacific Northwest has two years left on his contract and has yet to get out of the first round and there have been roomers he wants out.

If the Blazers are on the outside of the playoffs looking at the end of this season or if they have another flame out, those rumblings could get louder.

It will not be easy for them as there are number of solid teams in the West and just winning 41 games will not cut it.

-Best case sceanario: The Trail Blazers win at least 45 games and make the postseason as the No. 7 or No. 8 Seed. The bench and the starting five balance each other and Lillard proves his rookie season is a sign of things to come.

-Worst case scenario: The Trail Blazers miss the playoffs again and the rumblings of Aldridge wanting out become very loud.

-Off-season grade: B-

Sacramento Kings: Finished 28-54 (4th Pacific Division; missed playoffs) in 2012-13; 20-21 at home; 8-33 on the road.

-100.2 ppg-10th; Opp. ppg: 105.1-30th; 40.6 rpg-25th.

Last season was a crazy one for the team from the capital of California.

For starters, the Kings on the court finished under .500 for the fifth consecutive season with winning percentages .207, .305, .293, .333 and .341.

Off the court, the organization was in limbo over whether they would remain in Sacramento for the forseeable future or would they be moving to another city.

Back in February, NBA Commissioner David Stern state that a Seattle, WA ownership group had filed with the league for the Kings to be relocated to the Pacific Northwest.

After a two-month battle and with the involvement of Sacramento Mayor and former NBA guard Kevin Johnson, who put together a very well-regarded ownership group headed by Vivek Ranadive, the NBA owners in a meeting last May in Dallas, TX voted 22-8 to reject the Kings relocation to Seattle.

The next day, the Maloof family reached an agreement to sell the Kings to Ranadive, a tech entrepreneur who leades a group from Silicon Valley Vivek for a valuation of $535 million, an NBA record.

The sale was approved back on May 28. Three days later, the deal was finalized at $534 million.

With the sale of the team in the books, changes began in the organization in the front office and with the team.

General manager Geoff Petrie, who has been with the organization since 1995 and was their when the Kings made the playoffs for eight straight years was relieved of his duties back in June and was replaced by former assistant general manager with the Nuggets Pete D'Alessandro.

In July, the team hired NBA executive Chris Granger as team president and back on September 24th, future Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal purchased a minority shard of the Kings.

The team fired head coach Keith Smart and longtime assistant coach Mike Malone was hired.

In the longtime assistant coach, the Kings will have a leader on the sidelines that comes from winning cultures with the Knicks (2001-05), Cavs (2005-10), Pelicans, the Hornets (2010-11) and Warriors (2011-13).

Back in June, the Kings selected with the No. 7 overall pick in the draft sharp shooter Ben McLemore out of Kansas. With the No. 36 overall pick, the Kings selected Ray McCallum, Jr. out of the University of Detroit.

A month later, the Kings in a three-team deal with the Pelicans and the Trail Blazers sent former Rookie of the Year guard Tyreke Evans to the Pelicans and received guard Greivis Vasquez, who had career-high averages of 13.9 ppg and 9.0 apg, which was 3rd in the NBA a season ago.

That same month, the team acquired defensive ace forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (6.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg) form the Bucks for a future second-round pick.

In free agency, the team signed for his second tour of duty forward Carl Landry (10.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 54.0 FG%), who will be out for the first three to four months of the season after suffering a tear to his left hip flexor.

The new additions should work well in well alongside forwards Jason Thompson (10.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg), John Salmons (8.8 ppg), Patrick Patterson (8.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 49.4 FG%, 44.4 3-Pt.%), Travis Outlaw (5.3 ppg) and Chuck Hayes and guards Marcus Thornton (12.7 ppg, 37.2 3-Pt.%), Isaiah Thomas (13.9 ppg, 4.0 apg, 35.8 3-Pt.%) and Jimmer Fredette (7.2 ppg, 41. 3-Pt.%).

If the Kings have any ideas of climbing back to the win column on a consistent basis a few things must happen.

First, center DeMarcus Cousins (17.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg), who had 35 double-doubles a season ago, must bring a laser focus to the court and he must mature into a team leader now that Evans is gone. Hopefull the reported four-year $62 million contract extension he got recently will make him to stay out of foul trouble and stop him from getting technical fouls, which he garnered 18 of them, which was fourth in the league. He also was ejected from a game four times a season ago.

Second, the team must make a committment to the defensive end like there is no tomorrow.

Last year, the opposition shot 47.2 percent against the Kings, ranked 28th in NBA. They were out-rebounded by three per contest, ranked 25th in the league. Averaged just 4.2 blocks per game, which was tied for 27th in NBA and were ranked 28th in forced turnovers with just 14.1. Opponents averaged 25.1 assists per contest, which was 29th in league and averaged 16.7 fastbreak points per contest, that was 30th in the league.

One thing is for sure under coach Malone, if you do not defend, you will not play.

The Kings can score with the best in the business, although they without question can be better in terms of their shot selection as they averaged just 20.8 assists per contest, ranked 25th in NBA.

There is a new era in the capital of California. A new arena is in the future. The question now is, will this new season be the start of the return of better days like in the early 2000s?

-Best case scenario: The Kings are competitive on a nightly basis, especially defensively. Cousins becomes a team leader and a better overall player. McLemore shows well to prove to the Cavaliers, Magic, Wizards, Bobcats and Suns that they made a big mistake not taking him when they had a chance in the draft.

-Worst case scenario: They do not improve, especially defensively. Cousins is still a headache. The team is back in the lottery again this spring.

-Off-season grade: D+

San Antonio Spurs: Finished 58-24 (1st Southwest Division; No. 2 Seed West) in 2012-13; 35-6 at home; 23-18 on the road; defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 4-0 in Quarterfinals; defeated the Golden State Warriors 4-2 in Semifinals; defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 4-0 in Conference Finals; lost to the Miami Heat in the Finals 4-3.

-103.0 ppg-4th; Opp. ppg: 96.6-11th; 41.3 rpg-21st.

With a five-point lead with under 30 seconds remaining in Game 6 of the Finals back on June 28, the Spurs were on the verge of winning their fifth title in franchise history and ending the Heat's run at back-to-back titles.

Two three-point connections by LeBron James and Ray Allen of the Heat and the Spurs inability to make free throws late turned a Game 6 victory into a 103-100 loss that tied the Finals 3-3 and ended in a 95-88 defeat in Game 7, where the Heat took the series 4-3 and the championship.

One reason the Spurs were on the wrong side of the Finals a season ago was the poor play of guard Manu Ginobili (11.8 ppg, 4.6 apg), who struggled during the regular season because of injuries as well as in the playoffs where he averaged just 11.5 points on 39.9 percent from the field and just 30.2 percent from three-point range.

At one point, he contemplated retiring and would have brought an end to one of the greatest trio of players to ever play in the NBA in him forward Tim Duncan and guard Tony Parker.

That was put to rest when he signed a two-year, $14 million contract this off-season.

Duncan (17.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg-led team, 2.7 bpg-3rd NBA), who at age 37 performed at an All-NBA level a season ago both in the regular season and in the postseason, where he averaged 18.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on 47 percent shooting per contest.

To put the greatness of Duncan into perspective, in his 16 seasons prior to this upcoming one, the Spurs have made the playoffs each time, which is tied with the Lakers from 1959-74 for 6th best in NBA history. When they make the postsesason this year, they will tie the Lakers from 1977-93 with 17. They will be two behind the Celtics, who made 19 straight postseason appearances from 1951-69. The longest postseason streak in NBA history is the Sixers, who made it 22 straight from 1950-71.

Duncan also a season ago became just the second player in league history to average over 1,000 points (1,127), over 500 rebounds (686) and over 150 blocks shots (183) in a single season after age 35. The only other person to do that is Hall of Fame center for the Bucks and Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabber, who in the 1984-85 season recorded 1,735 points, 622 rebounds and 162 block shots at age 37.

Parker (20.3 ppg-led team, 7.6 apg-led team, 52.2 FG%-led team), had another stellar season as he continued to frustrate defenses with his ability to score at will in the paint and from the perimeter with his ever improving jump shot.

With all of that being said, the Spurs do not have this sustained success without one of the finest head coaches in the business in Gregg Popovich.

His ability to get the Spurs to pay attention to the little things, to never skip steps in the process of becoming great and understanding that if Duncan, Ginobili and Parker can be coached to play to a high standard, the rest of the team must apply to that same standard at all times as well.

That was the case for the likes of Tiago Splitter (10.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 56.0 FG%), who has improved each year and swingman Kawhi Leonard (11.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.7 spg-led team 49.4 FG%, 37.4 3-Pt.%), who really played well in the postseason a year ago as the Spurs third best scorer at 13.5 points; their second best rebounder at nine boards per contest and garnering 1.6 steals on 54.5 percent from the field and 39 pecent from three-point land. He really emerged on the national stage in the Finals last season averaging 14.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and two steals per contest. It would be no surprise if he takes his game to an even higher level that he could become an All-Star this season.

Another Spur who came on a season ago is starting guard Danny Green (10.5 ppg, 44.8 FG%, 42.9 3-Pt.%), who averaged 11.1 points per contest on 44.6 percent shooting from the floor and 48.2 percent from the three-point line.

In the first five games of the Finals, Green averaged 18 point and made an NBA Finals record 25 three-pointers. In Game 5 alone, he had 24 points on 8 for 15 from the field, including 6 for 10 from behind the three-point arc in the Spurs 114-104 win to go up 3-2 in the Finals.

In the last two games combined however, both Spurs losses, Green had a total of eight points going just 2 for 19 from the field, with both of those field goals being three-point connections on 11 tries.

If he can demonstrate this season an ability to put the ball down and score inside the arc, the former North Carolina Tar Heel will become a more complete player at the offensive end.

The Spurs made some solid editions to their team in the off-season signing guard Marco Bellinelli (9.6 ppg, 35.7 3-Pt.%), who will add floor spacing. The signing of center Jeff Pendergraph will allow Duncan to get rest during games in the regular season and be fresh for the postseason again.

Those editions along with the likes of guards Patty Mills, Corey Joseph, Nando De Colo and forward Boris Diaw (5.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and Matt Bonner (4.2ppg, 44.2 3-Pt.%) will bring depth again to the Spurs second unit.

This will be the first season that coach Popovich will not have two key assistant coaches on the bench in Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown who are now head coaches with the Hawks and Sixers respectably.

The question for the last few years has been can the Spurs keep up with the rest of the improving Western Conference teams like the Thunder, Clippers and Grizzlies? They have quite nicely.

Led by the dynamic trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, one of the very best coaches in the business in Popovich and supporting cast that is improving and consistent, the Spurs will be a team to reckon with again not just in the West, but the whole NBA.

-Best case scenario: The Spurs are one of top three seeds in the West. They make it back to the Finals and beat the Heat.

-Worst case scenario: They do not make it back to the Finals.

-Off-season grade: A+

Utah Jazz: Finished 43-39 (3rd Northwest Division; missed playoffs) in 2012-13; 30-11 at home; 13-88 on the road.

-103.0 ppg-4th; Opp. ppg: 96.6-11th; 42.0 rpg-14th.

Over the past three decades, there is one word that describes Salt Lake City's pro basketball team, consistentcy.

In the late 1980s, thourghout the 1990s and the early 2000s, the Jazz were led by the Hall of Fame guard/forward combination of John Stockton and Karl Malone and Hall of Fame head coach Jerry Sloan. That combination won division titles won 50 games or close to it and in 1996-97 and 1997-98 made it to the NBA Finals, where they lost in six games both times to Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and head coach Phil Jackson and the Bulls.

In recent years the Jazz have been led first Sloan, then Tyrone Corbin with the guard/forward combination being Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. It went from that to center Al Jefferson and forward Paul Milsap being the mainstays.

The change began with Williams being dealt to the Nets during the season a little over two and a half years ago. Three summers ago, Boozer signed as a free agent with the Bulls This off-season, the Jazz said goodbye to Milsap and Jefferson, who left in free agency for the Hawks and Bobcats respectably.

With the loss of their two scorers and leadership anchors, forward Derrick Favors (9.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg-led team), who just got a four-year, $49 million contract extension and swingman Gordon Hawyard (14.1 ppg, 43.5 FG% and 41.5 3-Pt.%) are now thrusted into the spotlight.

More will also be asked of guard Alec Burks (7.0 ppg), forwards Jeremy Evans and Marvin Williams, who in his first season with the Jazz registered career-lows in scoring per contest (7.2), rebounds a game (3.6) and shooting percentage at 42.3 and center Enes Kanter (7.2 ppg 4.3 rpg), who missed the last part of the season because of a dislocated left shoulder that required surgery.

The one thing that the Jazz have had for nearly three-plus decades is consistency at the lead guard position with Stockton and Williams. They hope that the No. 9 overall pick out of Michigan guard Trey Burke, who rights were acquired from the T'Wolves in this past June's draft can be the next great floor general.

That question will not be answered for quite a while though as Burke will be on the shelf for four to eight weeks because of a bone fracture in his right index finger that required surgery to repair.

So Burks and free agent acquistion John Lucas III will have to run the show until Burke comes back.

The other additions of forward Richard Jefferson, guard Brandon Rush and center Andres Biedrins, who came over in a trade from the Warriors and the signings of rookie guard Ian Clark, forwards Brian Cook and Dominic McGuire do not inspire much confidence in making the Jazz bench one to believe in.

In the history of the NBA, the Knicks, Lakers and Jazz are the only three franchises to never have a season where they lost 60 or more.

For twenty straight seasons (1984-03), the Jazz have made the playoffs. In the last decade, they made the postseason five times, which includes four consecutive appearances (2007-2010).

With the roster they have entering the 2013-14 campaign, their chances of making the postseason in the very competitive Western Conference are not very good. Neither is their chances of not losing over 60 games in a season.

That being said, the Jazz do have a bright side to look at. They will have an unprotected first round pick in the 2014 draft and $31 million worth of expiring contracts to work with during the February trade deadline or next off-season.

The team has some parts to work with, but this team has a long road ahead to becoming not just a playoff team again, but a serious contender.

-Best case scenario: The Jazz win 35 games. The core players like Favors, Hayward, Kanter, Burke, Burks show signs of growth collectively and individually.

-Worst case scenario: The team is not competitive on a nightly basis. Burke struggles like he did in Summer League and the likes of Favors and Hayward do not rise as the team's new cornerstones.

-Off-season grade: D-
Information and statistics are courtesy of; teams;;;'s Hang Time Blog 8/11/2013: Mired in Monotony: Seven Teams In a Rut-Toronto Raptors, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings and Washington Wizards;'s Off-Season Grades by David Aldridge;'s Off-season Report Cards by Steve Aschburner, Fran Blinebury, Jeff Caplan, Scott Howard-Cooper, Sekou Smith and John Schuhmann; NBA TV's Team Preview: All NBA teams; Sporting News 2006-07 Official NBA Guide; USA Today NBA Preview of 2013-14 Season.