Tuesday, October 28, 2014

J-Speaks: The 2014-15 NBA Off-Season Review/Season Preview

Tonight, the 2014-15 NBA Campaign will get underway. A lot of activity took place this off-season. A four-time MVP left the comfortable shores of South Beach to return to midwest to help deliver a championship. The defending champs broke the glass ceiling in their new edition to their coaching staff to help them win back-to-back titles. Another All-Star player who flirted with leaving decided to stay in the "Big Apple." Some teams made additions to take the next step in their maturation. Some teams on paper made the grade, some did okay and others did not come close. Here is the off-season review of each of the 30 NBA teams, their grades and their prospects for the upcoming season.

Abbreviation Key-stats from 2013-14 NBA Season: ppg-points per game; rpg-rebounds per game; apg-assists per game; spg-steals per game; bpg-blocks per game.

Eastern Conference
Atlanta Hawks: Finished 38-44 (4th Southeast Division; No. 8 Seed East); 24-17 at home, 14-27 on the road. Lost to the Indiana Pacers 4-3 in East Quarterfinals.

-101.0 ppg-15th; opp. ppg: 101.5-15th; 40.0 rpg-28th.

The Hawks came into last season with a different look than in previous seasons.

Manning the sidelines was long time Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, who took the place of Larry Drew.

Gone were mainstays Josh Smith, ZaZa Pachulia and guard Devin Harris.

Their attempt to sign a superstar player in the off-season like center Dwight Howard did not pan out as he signed with the Houston Rockets.

In free agency, they signed forwards Paul Milsap and Elton Brand and forward DeMarre Carroll.

They retained starting lead guard Jeff Teague, who received an offer sheet to sign with the Milwaukee Bucks. The Hawks matched the four-year $32 million and they resigned sharp shooter Kyle Korver to a new four-year $24 million contract.

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

The Hawks got off to a solid start a season ago, but that all changed when the team's anchor in starting center Al Horford (18.6 ppg-led team, 8.4 rpg, 1.5 bpg-led team) suffered a tear in his right pectoral muscle one day after Christmas that required season ending surgery.

With Horford, the team was 16-13, in the third spot in the East. Without him, they went 22-31.

With their best low-post scorer gone, the team's playoff chances were in serious doubt.

While the team struggled at times, they were able to stay a float and make the playoffs again thanks to career seasons from Millsap (17.9 ppg, 8.5 rpg-led team, 1.7 spg-led team), Teague (16.5 ppg, 6.7 apg-led team) and Carroll (11.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 36.2 3-Pt.%) and they gave the top seeded Pacers all they could handle taking them to the edge, but falling to them in seven games.

The Hawks were able to make it to the postseason for a seventh consecutive season because they changed their offensive approach by going to a free flowing offense that required the guards like Teague to draw in the defense through dribble penetration and kicking it out to open shooters at the three-point line.

The change turned the Hawks into one of the best three-point shooting teams in terms of makes at 9.4 per game, which was tied for second in the league and they shot a solid percentage at 36.3 percent, ranked 13th in NBA.

The biggest benefactors of those kick outs were Milsap, who made a career-high 76 three-pointers and shot 35.8 percent; Mike Scott (9.6 ppg), Pero Antic (7.0 ppg).

This off-season, the team re-signed Scott, Brand and back-up guard Shelvin Mack (7.5 ppg, 3.7 apg) and they signed guard Kent Bazemore to add depth to their bench.

Through a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Hawks received perimeter defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha (6.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg).

With the 15th overall selection in last June's draft, the Hawks selected forward/center Adreian Payne out of Michigan State. He will give the Hawks another player who can spread the court as well as play down in the low post. As season ago as a senior, the former Spartan averaged 16.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game earning second-team All-Big Ten honors and he helped to lead the Spartans to the Elite 8 in 2014.

The Hawks have made the playoffs for seven straight seasons, the most in the East in that time frame. Trying to make it for an eighth time will not be easy, especially with their issues in the front office.

Majority owner Bruce Levenson announced his intentions to sell his stake in the franchise following a racist e-mail that was exposed not to long ago and General Manager Danny Ferry is dealing with a fallout of his own stemming from racist comments on a conference call about then free agent forward Luol Deng, who signed with the Miami Heat this off-season.

With turmoil in the front office, an Eastern Conference that has gotten better and a true star to lean on offensively, the Hawks will have the an even bigger uphill battle to keep the longest playoff streak in the East alive this season, which stands at seven.

-Best case scenario: The Hawks makes the playoffs as the No. 7 or No. 8 Seed in the East.

-Worst case scenario: Their playoff streak ends in April.

Grade: C-

Boston Celtics: Finished 25-57 (4th Atlantic Division: missed the playoffs); 16-25 at home; 9-32 on the road.

-96.2 ppg-26th; opp. ppg: 100.7-13th; 42.5 rpg-18th.

When the Celtics basically said good-bye to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and head coach Doc Rivers a season ago, the writing was on the wall that the Celtics were starting over.

The new head coach was Brad Stevens, who turned the Butler Bulldogs into a power in college basketball.

His first season on the pro sidelines was one to forget as the Celtics had their fewest amount of wins since 2006-07, when they won just 24 games.

The front office under owner Wyc Grousbeck and general manager Danny Ainge knew that if the team was going to get the C's back on track this was the off-season where they had to make some headway.

In this past June's draft they selected their backcourt of the future in Marcus Smart with the 6th overall pick out of Oklahoma State and James Young with the 17th selection out of the University of Kentucky.

The team re-signed Avery Bradley (14.9 ppg) to a four-year $32 million contract and they signed former lottery pick Evan Turner (14.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg).

Through a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the C's acquired more youth in forwards Erik Murphy, Dwight Powell and Malcolm Thomas and guard John Lucas III, who was waived by the Celtics. The Celtics sent guard Keith Bogans to the Cavs.

In a prior trade with the Cavs, the Celtics acquired forward Tyler Zeller (5.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg).

In another trade, the Celtics acquired streaky shooting guard Marcus Thornton from the Brooklyn Nets (9.8 ppg, 34.5 3-Pt.%).

The new edition along with some of the current core players like forwards Brandon Bass (11.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Jeff Green (16.9 ppg-led team, 4.6 rpg), Jared Sullinger (13.3 ppg 8.1 rpg-led team) and second-year forward Kelly Olynyk (8.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg) gives the Celtics a chance for better days ahead.

The big elephant in the room for them is the future of Rajon Rondo (11.7 ppg, 9.8 apg-led team, 5.5 rpg). The All-Star guard played in just 30 games a season ago returning from a torn ACL the year prior and he is a free agent at the end of the season.

If the Celtics decide to trade the 28-year-old Rondo, they could get more assets to build their team back to a playoff contender and it gives the team the opportunity to turn the team over to Smart.

At first, it seemed that Rondo was expected to miss the start of the season due to fracture of the left meatcarpal on his left hand that required surgery, but he plans to be ready for opening night on Wednesday against the Brooklyn Nets.

If they keep him and Rondo decides to leave as a free agent at season's end, it gives some of the young backcourt players to learn from one of the best lead guards in the business.

No matter what, the Celtics will be in rebuilding mode for another year as Stevens continues to put his system in place and it will be up to him and Ainge to determine which of the young cast of the Celtics will lead them into the future.

-Best case scenario: They grasp what coach Stevens is preaching to them and they win at least 30 games.

-Worst case scenario: They do not improve and they have multiple losing streaks of five games or more.

-Grade: C-

Brooklyn Nets: Finished 44-38 (2nd Atlantic Division; No. 6 Seed in East); 28-13 at home; 16-25 on the road. Defeated the Toronto Raptors 4-3 in East Quarterfinals. Lost to the Miami Heat 4-1 in the East Semifinals.

-98.5 ppg-21st; opp. ppg: 99.5-T-10th; 38.1 rpg-29th.

Last season, the Nets went all in trying to garner an championship acquiring in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from the Celtics and signing veterans like Alan Anderson (7.2 ppg, 33.9 3-Pt.%) and Andrei Kirilenko to go alongside the likes of guard Deron Williams and Brook Lopez.

They took a major gamble in their selection of Jason Kidd as their new head coach.

Things did not go well to start the season.

The team lost 21 of their first 31 games. Lopez (20.7 ppg-led team, 6.0 rpg, 1.8 bpg) was lost for the season due to a foot injury that he sustained on Dec. 19, 2013 against the Philadelphia 76ers.

The team did recover to a 34-17 finish to close the season, thanks in large part to going to a small lineup where Pierce played at the power forward position and Garnett played at center.

Also, guard Joe Johnson gave this team consistency at the offensive end on many nights, particularly in the closing seconds (15.8 ppg, 45.4 FG%, 40.1 3-Pt.%).

Another reason for the team's turnaround was the emergence of players like forwards Mirza Teletovice (8.6 ppg, 39.0 3-Pt.%) and Mason Plumlee (7.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg).

The Nets outlasted the up and coming Toronto Raptors in the first round in seven games, but things did not go well against the Miami Heat in the Semis as the team lost in five games.

Things only got worse in the off-season as Pierce and back-up lead guard Shaun Livingston moved on in free agency to the Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors respectably.

Kidd, who had some disagreement with Nets' management about having more control of the team was basically shown the door and in his place is former head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies Lionel Hollins.

In terms of new additions, the Nets acquired from the Cavs guard Jarrett Jack (9.5 ppg, 4.1 apg) to be the back-up to Williams.

They will also have a new rookie in shooting forward Bojan Bogdanovic to help bolster their bench.

While the cupboard is not bare for Hollins, his new team does have a lot of questions to answer.

Can Lopez stay healthy become the kind of consistent presence in the paint on both ends as well as a force on both the defensive and offensive glass?

Can Williams (14.3 ppg, 6.1 apg), who has been inconsistent in his Nets career, get back to the form that made him one of the top point guards in the NBA?

On top of that, what do Garnett (6.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg), who had career-lows across the board offensively a season ago and Kirilenko (5.0 ppg) have left in the tank?

Both looked and played as if they were ready for the rocking chair a season ago.

If any of these questions can be answered in a positive way, the Nets have a chance.

They have an experienced coach on the sidelines now and veteran players who know the ropes.

Beyond the Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls, the rest of the East is up for grabs. It is up to the Nets to seize the opportunity.

-Best case scenario: The Nets make the playoffs as a No. 5 to No. 7 Seed. Lopez and Williams play at a high level and the supporting cast gives them consistency.

-Worst case scenario: The Nets squeak into the playoffs, but flame out in the first round. Garnett is a shell of himself and Lopez and Williams revert back to their inconsistent ways.

-Grade: D

Charlotte Hornets: Finished 43-39, as the Bobcats (3rd Southeast Division; No. 7 Seed East); 25-16 at home; 18-23 on the road. Lost to the Miami Heat 4-0 in the East Quarterfinals.

-96.9 ppg-23rd; opp. ppg-97.1-4th; 42.7 rpg-T-15th.

Change is something we all experience and go through. That is certainly the case in professional sports. Sometimes that change can be for the better and other times it can be for the worse.

In Charlotte, the 2013-14 season and the upcoming 2014-15 season, change has been for the better.

After a decade be called the Bobcats, the team picked up the old Hornets name which carries some weight in the Carolinas.

It is a total turning of the page for a franchise that desperately needed to start a new chapter.

To put that into perspective, as the Bobcats in their first 10 seasons made only one playoff appearance, which was in 2010, where they were swept by the Orlando Magic 4-0. Two seasons back under the direction of Paul Silas, the team in the shortened season went just 7-59, a 10.6 win percentage, the worst in NBA history. In 2012-13 under the direction of new head coach Mike Dunlap, the then Bobcats went just 21-61, 25.6 win percentage.

This amazing turnaround happened last off-season when the team hired long time assistant coach Steve Clifford to steer the team in the right direction.

In free agency, they found their anchor in the middle in signing forward Al Jefferson (21.8 ppg-led team, 10.8 rpg) to a three-year $41 million contract and he rewarded them by being just one of five players to average 20-plus points and 10-plus boards for the season and making the All-NBA Third Team.

Jefferson's offensive presence gave the likes of guards Kemba Walker (17.7 ppg, 6.1 apg-led team) and Gerald Henderson more room to operate on the perimeter, which allowed them to raise their games to another level.

While the team did not re-sign their do-it-all forward Josh McRoberts, who signed with the Miami Heat and the Jazz matched the 4-year $63 million contract to swingman Gordon Hayward, the team did make some keys additions in free agency and the draft.

Back in June, the Hornets selected at the No. 9 of the draft Noah Vonleh out of Indiana, who they hope can become their starting power forward alongside Jefferson to give them another presence in the paint and on the glass.

At the No. 26 spot, the Hornets selected sharp shooter P.J. Hairston out of North Carolina, who played last season in the NBA Developmental League.

In free agency, the Hornets signed triple-double threat and versatile defender in swingman Lance Stephenson (13.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 4.6 apg), who led the league with five triple-doubles a season ago. They also signed former North Carolina Tar Heel Marvin Williams (9.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and guard Brian Roberts (9.4 ppg).

The new additions along with some of the current core players, which also includes center Bismack Biyombo, guard Gary Neal (10.5 ppg, 37.8 3-Pt.%), forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (7.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg), center Cody Zeller (6.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and guard Jannero Pargo (4.7 ppg) give the Hornets something they did not have a season ago, depth.

The new editions on the perimeter will hopefully improve the shooting percentages at the three-point line, which the Hornets ranked 25th in makes per game as season ago at 6.3; 27th in attempts at 17.9 and 23rd in percentage at 35.1 percent.

To further illustrate this, McRoberts, Anthony Tolliver and Chris Douglas-Roberts combined for 258 of the Hornets 516 makes from distance a season ago.

From 1988-02, the first Hornets team, now the New Orleans Pelicans had a plus .500 mark or better for 10 straight seasons, seven playoff appearances and lead the NBA in attendance eight times.

This new addition of the Hornets hopes to equal that stellar history, while also winning a few Southeast Division titles and making appearances in the Semifinals, which the original Hornets never did in their 14 seasons in Charlotte, NC.

The attendance mark is headed in that direction as the new Hornets attracted the second most new season ticket holders in the league, trailing only the Cleveland Cavaliers.

-Best case scenario: The Bobcats win the Southeast Division and get homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs. Jefferson becomes an All-Star. Walker, Henderson and Kidd-Gilchrist take their games to another level.

-Worst case scenario: They finish in the bottom of the East playoff standings and lose in the first round again.

-Grade: A-.

Chicago Bulls: Finished 48-34 (2nd Central Division; No. 4 Seed East); 27-14 at home; 21-20 on the road. Lost to the Washington Wizards 4-1 in the East Quarterfinals.

-93.7 ppg-30th; opp. ppg-91.8-1st; 44.1 rpg-10th.

In four seasons under head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls have been a team that plays hard night in and night out, especially on the defensive end. They play together no matter whose in or whose out of the lineup and they have a unwaivering confidence to win games at all cost.

The result, four straight playoff appearances, being the No. 1 Seed in the East in Thibodeau's first two seasons.

Unfortunately, the boys from the"Windy City" have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals just once, back in 2011.

In two of the last three seasons, they have first round exits and in the last two postseaons, they have been without their top scoring ace guard Derrick Rose.

The 2011 Most Valuable Player (MVP) has played in just 10 games the past two seasons because of a serious ACL tear he suffered in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the First Round versus the Philadelphia 76ers on Apr. 28, 2012. He missed the rest of the series and the Bulls fell in six games.

Rose missed the following season rehabbing that torn ACL. He returned for 2013-14 season and on Halloween night hit the game-winning shot to defeat the New York Knicks.

Rose's season would be cut short again when he tore the meniscus in his right knee on Nov. 22, 2013 at the Portland Trail Blazers and missed the final 72 games of the season.

This summer, he played in the 2014 FIBA World Cup for Team USA in Spain and he helped them to a 9-0 record in capturing Gold.

While he only averagedjust 4.8 point per contest on 25.4 percent shooting, he hopefully knocked some of the rust off from not playing in basically the last two seasons and he can get back to the MVP form of three years ago when he averaged 25.0 points and 7.7 assists per contest.

Two stats that really put him shoulders above the rest in the league is that he was second to Oklahoma City Thunder lead guard Russell Westbrook in free throw attempts per game by a guard at 6.9 and only San Antonio Spurs' lead guard Tony Parker and Westbrook ranked in front of him in terms of points in the paint for a guard per game at 10.3 back in 2010-11.

Along with getting Rose back, finding him some offensive help was a big priority this off-season.

While they missed out on super stars Carmelo Anthony, who stayed with the Knicks and Kevin Love, who was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bulls signed versatile forward Pau Gasol (17.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 1.5 bpg).

He should fit well alongside last season's Defensive Player of the Year in center Joakim Noah, who had a career season with 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.5 blocks per contest and one of the best reserves in Taj Gibson (13.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg).

In the draft this past June, the Bulls acquired the rights to gifted scorer Doug McDerMott (11th overall) out of Creighton and coming from overseas will be former first round pick in 2011 Nikola Mirotic.

To put the value that McDerMott and Mirotic might have for the Bulls this season in historical context, the last time two rookies were major cogs on an NBA championship team was the 1974-75 Golden State Warriors when Phil Smith averaged 7.7 points in 14.3 minutes per game and Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes averaged 14.2 points in 30.7 minutes per contest.

The team re-signed back-up guard Kirk Hinrich and added guards Aaron Brooks (9.0 ppg, 38.7 3-Pt.%) and E'Twuan Moore (6.3 ppg) to add more depth to the bench, which ranked 15th in scoring output per contest at 29.7.

These new additions along with core players like swingmen Mike Dunleavy, Jr. (11.3 ppg, 38.0 3-Pt.%) and defensive ace Jimmy Butler (13.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.9 spg-led team) should help an offensive attack that was dead last in both scoring (93.7) and field goal percentage (43.2) a season ago.

You can knock on the door so many times before that opportunity passes you by. This might be the best chance the Bulls have on winning a championship.

Their chances will be great if Rose can stay healthy and some of the new additions along with the remaining core and be consistent at the offensive end as they are on the defensive end.

-Best case scenario: The Bulls win the Central Division and are one of the top two seeds in the East. Rose returns to his MVP form. The Bulls win the East and make it to The Finals.

-Worst case scenario: They have another early exit in the postseason. The offensive struggles continue and Rose is not back to his All-NBA form.

-Grade: A+

Cleveland Cavaliers Finished 33-49 (3rde Central Division; missed playoffs); 19-22 at home; 14-27 on the road.

-98.2 ppg-22nd; opp. ppg-101.5-16th; 44.1 rpg-11th.

Back in the summer of 2001, the then New Jersey Nets acquired Jason Kidd, current head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, one of the top floor generals and one of the best players in the league at that time.

Kidd along with No. 1 overall pick out of University of Cincinnati forward/center Kenyon Martin, fellow rookie forward Richard Jefferson, forward Keith Van Horn, guards Kerry Kittles and Lucious Harris and head coach at the time Byron Scott, the new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers turned the Nets from an outkast into Eastern Conference champions. They would fall in The Finals to the Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, who captured their third straight title.

That is the last time a team went from worst, where the Nets won just 26 games the year prior, to first in making the NBA Finals.

That is the same dream that the fans of Northeast Ohio hope the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers can make a reality.

They began that journey on July 12th when four-time MVP and a two-time NBA champion in All-Star LeBron James (27.1 ppg-3rd NBA, 6.9 rpg, 6.4 apg, 56.7 FG%) signed a two-eayr contract worth $42.1 million to return to the place he began his NBA career in 2003.

In late August, the Cavs acquired in a three-team deal another premiere player in Kevin Love (26.1 ppg-4th NBA, 12.5 rpg-3rd NBA, 45.7 FG%, 37.6 3-Pt.%) from the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for this year's No. 1 overall pick in swingman Andrew Wiggins out of Kansas and last season's No. 1 overall pick in forward Anthony Bennett.

In free agency, the Cavs signed veteran sharp shooters in swingman Mike Miller (7.6 ppg, 48.1 FG%, 45.9 3-Pt.%) and forward James Jones (4.9 ppg, 51.9 3-Pt.%) who were big parts along with James in helping the Miami Heat win titles in 2012-13.

The Cavs also in free agency signed another former champion in forward Shawn Marion (10.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg), along with journeyman forward Lou Amundson and guard A.J. Price. They also acquired from the Hornets center Brendan Haywood.

While the new additions, particularly James give the Cleveland faithful the credibility to do what the Nets did 13 years ago, this team's success will also rest on how quickly mainstays like last year's All-Star Game MVP Kyrie Irving (20.8 ppg-led team, 6.1 apg), Dion Waiters (15.9 ppg), Tristan Thompson (11.7 ppg, 9.2 rpg) and Anderson Varejao (8.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg) can adjust to being under the microscope of high expectations.

Irving, who signed a five-year $90 million contract this off-season and helped Team USA win Gold at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain, Waiters and Thompson have shown in spurts that they can play with the best in the NBA.

With James, Miller and Marion as their teammates, they will learn very quickly the importance of preparation, concentration and committment to being great.

Harnessing all of this talent and molding it into a functioning machine on both ends will be longtime international coach and the Cavs new head coach David Blatt, who will be under a serious micropscope of high expectations.

Coming into the 2001-02 season, the Nets had no expectations and they went from worst to first. The 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers from the players, head coach Blatt, general manager David Griffin and owner Dan Gilbert will have all the expectations in the world to win it all this season to not only win the East, but to win it all.

Will they live up to those expectations? Fans will see that answered over the next seven, hopefully nine months.

-Best case scenario: The Cavs win the Central Division, are the No. 1 or No. 2 Seed in the East and they make it to The Finals. LeBron James wins his fifth MVP trophy.

-Worst case scenario: They lose in the Eastern Conference Finals.

-Grade: A+

Detroit Pistons: Finished 29-53 (4th Central Division; missed playoffs) 17-24 at home; 12-29 on the road.

-101.0 ppg-14th; opp. ppg: 104.7-27th; 45.4 rpg-3rd.

Having a team filled with talented players is a great thing to have. That is what the Pistons consist of.

When you say names like forward Josh Smith (16.4 ppg-led team, 6.8 rpg), forward/center Greg Monroe (15.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg), guard Brandon Jennings (15.5 ppg, 7.6 apg-led team), center Andre Drummond (13.5 ppg, 13.2 rpg-2nd NBA, 1.6 npg-led team) and swingman Kyle Singler (9.6 ppg, 44.7 FG%, 38.2 3-Pt.%), they are as talented as they come.

Unfortunately, this collection of talent last season did not produce victories at a high rate and the combination of Smith, Monroe and Drummond on the front line was a disaster a majority of the time.

To get this team of talented players on the same page, the Pistons signed former Miami Heat and Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy on May 14 to a five-year $35 million contract to be not just their new head coach, but President of Basketball Operations, a job that was held by former two-time champion with the organization Joe Dumars, who remains with the team as an advisor to the organization and the team's ownership.

In free agency, the Pistons signed sharp shooter Jodie Meeks (15.7 ppg, 46.3 FG%, 40.1 3-Pt.%), who will miss eight weeks with a stress facture in his lower back; guard D.J. Augustin (13.1 ppg, 4.4 apg, 40.1 3-Pt.%), forward Caron Butler (10.5 ppg), center Aaron Gray and siwngman Cariter Martin (5.6 ppg).

The Pistons also acquired center Joel Anthony from the Celtics for guard Will Bynum.

In looking at the Pistons, three things must happen for them to become a playoff contender again.

First, Jennings must become a true point guard who takes pride in getting his teammates in better position to score than just getting off on his own.

Second, some of the role playes like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5.9 ppg), forward Tony Mitchell, forward Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome to develop and become key reserves off the bench for the Pistons.

Above all else, the Pistons must take a more serious approach to the defensive end. This team is way to good talent wise to be giving up 47 percent shooting from the floor.

This team has talent. Players who are very skilled and versatile. The question is can they play the game with substance, where they take pride in playing the right way on both ends?

That is something Van Gundy will preach and demand and if the Pistons listen, they can get back to the playoffs and who knows what can happen.

-Best case scenario: The Pistons play consistent on both ends and claim the No. 7 or No. 8 playoff spot in the East.

-Worst case scenario: They miss the playoffs again and the team gives Van Gundy headaches because of their lackluster play.

-Grade: C-

Indiana Pacers: Finished 56-26 (1st Central Division, No. 1 Seed in East); 35-6 at home; 21-20 on the road. Defeated the Atlanta Hawks 4-3 in East Quarterfinals. Defeated the Washington Wizards 4-2 in East Semifiinals. Lost to the Miami Heat 4-2 in Eastern Conference Finals.

-96.7 ppg-24th; opp. ppg: 92.3-2nd; 44.7 rpg-8th.

After losing to the Miami Heat in the Conference Finals the past two seasons, the Pacers started last season on a mission to make it back and this time break through.

With a 40-11 mark on Feb. 10, the Pacers were at the top of the East and on their way to securing home court advantage through the East playoffs.

A 16-15 struggle to the finish line nearly wiped that dream out, but they held on to the top spot in the East.

Things did not get better for them in the first round as the Hawks stretched the Pacers to the limit, though they did prevail in seven games.

In the Semifinals, the Wizards really played well at times, but the Pacers closed them out in Game 6 to take the series 4-2 to meet up with the Heat in the Conference Finals.

After winning Game 1 of the East Finals, the Pacers lost Games 2,3 and 4, two of those three losses by double-digits, to be one game away from seeing their season end short of The Finals.

They won Game 5 to send the series back to Miami, but the eventual four-time East champs took it to the Pacers in Game 6 117-92 to win the series 4-2 to advance to The Finals.

Things went bad to worse this off-season as Lance Stephenson left in free agency and signed with the Hornets.

The team also did not re-sign swingman Evan Turner, who they acquired at the trade deadline from the Sixers in exchange for the beloved Danny Granger.

The worst came on Aug. 1 when top gun and defensive perimeter ace Paul George in a Team USA scrimmage suffered a very serious lower leg fracture when he landed at the base of the basketball stanchion following a foul from Houston Rockets' guard James Harden.

George had his leg surgically repaired and while there has been no official prognosis on when he will return, the Pacers' best player is expected to miss the entire season. That is 21.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 steals averages from a season ago gone from the Pacers line-up. Not to mention his outstanding perimeter defense.

While the championship dream may be out of the picture for the Pacers this season, the organization's confidence of the team has not.

That is why the Pacers extended the contract of head coach Frank Vogel, who has gone 167-100 since taking over the team three and a half years ago.

If the Pacers have any plans on making the playoffs again, they need the remaining core players to step up and perform.

They need center Roy Hibbert (10.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.3 bpg-4th NBA), who really struggled after the All-Star break a season ago to be a consistent presence, in particular on the defensive end as a shot blocker.

Forward David West (14.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg), who has been the emotional leader and calming influence on the Pacers since he got their must become their top scorer in the frontcourt. Unfortunately, West is expected to miss the first three games of the season because of a sprained right ankle.

Lead guard George Hill (10.3 ppg, 3.7 apg), back-up guard C.J. Watson (6.6 ppg, 36.6 3-Pt.%), forward Luis Scola (7.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and forward/center Ian Mahinmi must give more offensively. Hill and Watson are expected to miss the start of season because of a left knee contusion and bruised right foot respectably.

The same can be said forwards Chris Copeland and Lavoy Allen, guard Donald Sloan and new additions in free agency Rodney Stuckey (13.9 ppg), C.J. Miles (9.9 ppg, 39.9 3-Pt.%) and Chris Singleton.

In moments like this when a key part to the puzzle of a team is gone like George, you learn a lot about what the team is made of. It give other players a chance to take the reigns and bring their best to the forefront.

The one thing in the Pacers favor is that they have an established identity that has worked for them. Playing tough hard nose defense and playing inside and out on offense. They will need to play to their identity on a very consistent basis this season if they plan on playing past the month of April.

-Best case scenario: The Pacers squeak into the playoffs.

-Worst case scenario: They miss the playoffs.

-Grade: F

Miami Heat: Finished 54-28 (1st in Southeast Division; No. 2 Seed East); 32-9 at home; 22-19 on the road. Defeated the then Charlotte Bobcats 4-0 in the East Quarterfinals. Defeated the Brooklyn Nets 4-1 in the East Semifinals. Defeated the Indiana Pacers 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Lost to the San Antonio Spurs 4-1 in the NBA Finals.

-102.2 ppg-12th; opp. ppg: 97.4-5th; 36.9 rpg-30th.

In four seasons together, the "Big Three" of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh helped the Heat win four straight Eastern Conference titles, four straight Southeast Division titles, four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013.

After losing in the Finals to the San Antonio Spurs in five games this past June though, the question was would the"Big Three" of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh be back to try and win more championships.

All three opted out of their contracts and the first domino to drop was James who decided to go back home and he signed with the Cavs.

Putting the why's and how the four-time MVP could leave South Beach, the organization had to go to work.

They re-signed Wade (19.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.7 apg), Bosh (16.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg) as well as center Chris Andersen (6.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg), lead guard Mario Chalmers (9.8 ppg, 4.9 apg38.5 3-Pt.%) and Udonis Haslem.

In the draft this past June, they selected Shabazz Napier (24th overall) out of the University of Connecticut to add depth to the lead guard spot behind Chalmers and Norris Cole (6.4 ppg).

In free agency, the Heat signed solid veterans in forwards Luol Deng (16.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Danny Granger, Josh McRoberts (8.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg4.3 apg, 36.1 3-Pt.%) and Shawne Williams (5.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg), guards Shannon Brown and Reggie Williams.

While the best all around player may be gone from the team in James, we have to remember Wade and Bosh were just as important to the Heat being the last team standing in the East the past four seasons. On top of that they have one of the best head coaches in the business in Erik Spoelstra, who established a system on both ends that made this team thrive.

The one improvement from last season to this upcoming one is that the team has more depth across the board then it did a season ago.

The big thing for the Heat this season is that Wade and Bosh must be at their best as the No. 1 and No. 2 options. Wade cannot miss games like he did in the past to rest for the playoffs and Bosh must become a consistent rebounder on both backboards.

If Wade and Bosh can play up to their capabilityes and the role players perform consistently night in and night out, the four-time East champs can contend the East.

-Best case scenario: The Heat win another Southeast Division title and are fighting for homecourt in the East playoffs. They reach the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

-Worst case scenario: They are a lower seed in the playoffs and they lose in the first round.

-Grade: B-

Milwaukee Bucks: Finished 15-67 (5th Central Division; missed playoffs); 10-31 at home; 5-36 on the road.

-95.5 ppg-28th; opp. ppg: 103.7-25th; 41.1 rpg-24th.

In order to be a great team, especially in professional sports, where you contend for championships, you need ownership, the coaching staff and the players to be on the same page. Ownership that brings in talent from the front office to the players on the court that gives the team its best chance to win every night. A coaching staff that puts a system in place where the players can thrive and players who take pride in working hard in the off-season and coming together during the season to win as many games as possible.

After their worst season in franchise history, the Bucks knew they had to change and begin this process anew.

The organization bid fareweel to the Mom-and-Pop philosophy under former owner Sen. Herbert "Herb" Kohl (D-WI) and said hello to the bold and get after it vision of new bosses Wes Edens and Marc Lasry.

In their first order of business they selected with the No. 2 overall pick forward Jabari Parker out of Duke University, who stated when he was introduced to Bucks' nation that he wants to devote his career to the organization and not bolt when things get tough.

Parker will be a part of a team that has a lot of talent on it, especially the core players like guard Brandon Knight (17.9 ppg-led team, 4.9 apg-led team), who had 33 games of 20-plus points a season ago; versatile second-year forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (6.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg); forwards Irsan Ilyasova (11.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Khris Middleton (12.1 ppg, 41.4 3-Pt.%); guard O.J. Mayo (11.7 ppg); centers John Henson (11.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg-led team) and Larry Sanders (7.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.7 bpg).

The question is can these talented players put it all together. Can Antetokounmpo, Henson and Middleton go from gifted players into ones that can flat out get it done on a consistent basis?

Can Sanders, who missed 25 games a season ago because of injuries and issues off the court, harness his emotions and play to the level of his four-year $44 million contract that he signed a season ago?

Can O.J. Mayo, who signed a three-year $24 million the prior off-season, play like he did the year prior with the Dallas Mavericks, when he averaged 15.0 points on 44.9 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from the three-point line? Shooting just 40.7 percent from the floor and just 37.0 percent from three-point range for a player of his talents is unacceptable.

The other question is who backs up Knight?

Will it be second-year guard Nate Wolters (7.2 ppg, 3.2 apg), who was a major surprise a season ago as a rookie or will it be Jerryd Bayless (9.3 ppg, 35.8 3-Pt.%), who will be playing for his sixth team in seven seasons or Kendall Marshall (8.0 ppg, 8.8 apg, 39.9 3-Pt.%), who also signed as a free agent this off-season?

On top of that, what kind of role will forward Jared Dudley, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers this off-season and center ZaZa Pachulia (7.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg) play on the Bucks this season?

Will they be mentors to the younger players? Will they have key roles off the bench or will they be both?

Trying to put all of this together will be new head coach Jason Kidd, who essentially was dealt to the Bucks after a falling out with the Nets, who he guided to the Semifinals after a rough start a season ago.

The fourth Bucks' head coach in the last two seasons has his work cut out for him. Last season he had a team full of veterans with the Nets. Now he has a young team in need of direction and leadership from the practice court to the gameday.

The Bucks have not past the opening round of the playoffs since 2001, when they made it to the East Finals led by then former No. 1 overall pick in 1994 out of Purdue Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and head coach George Karl.

The Bucks hope that Parker is another in a long line of No. 1 draft picks in Bucks' history like Kareem, Abdul-Jabbar in 1969, who stands today as the No. 1 scorer in NBA history; Kent Benson (No. 1 overall in 1977) out of Indiana; the aforementioned Robinson out of Purdue and Andrew Bogut out of Utah, now with the Golden State Warriors that lead the Bucks back on the NBA map as a team that can contend for the playoffs and eventually championships.

-Best case scenario: Parker is the Rookie of the Year and they win at least 35 games.

-Worst case scenario: The parts do not mesh and the Bucks have another season of 55-plus losses.

-Grade: C+

New York Knicks: Finished 37-45 (3rd Atlantic Division; missed the playoffs); 19-22 at home; 18-23 on the road.

-98.6 ppg-20th; opp. ppg: 99.4 8th; 40.3 rpg-27th.

Two seasons ago, the New York Knicks defeated the Celtics in the First Round in six games. It was their first postseason series win at that time in 12 years.

To put that in perspective, I was in my senior year at Uniondale High School when that took place.

Despite falling in the Semifinals to the eventual East runner-up the Pacers, the Knicks felt they had the makings of a championship contender.

They took a major step back a season ago though when they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

What made it worse is that they waisted one of the best seasons of superstar forward Carmelo Anthony's career (27.4 ppg-2nd NBA, 8.1 rpg, 45.2 FG%, 40.2 3-Pt.%), who did opt out of his contract this summer and became a free agent.

One of the few bright spot in a disappointing season came courtesy of Anthony when he scored a career-high, a franchise record and a Madison Square Garden single-game record 62 points to go along with 13 rebounds in a 15-96 win over the then Charlotte Bobcats on Jan 24.

The other bright spot for the Knicks in 2013-14 was the play of rookie guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. (10.2 ppg, 36.3 3-Pt.%), who more than held his own and if he continues to improve, he might become better than his father Tim Hardaway, Sr. who had a solid career with the Golden State Warriors, Heat, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers and is now an assistant coach with the Pistons.

One of the many reasons the Knicks missed the playoffs a season ago was the up and down, mainly down play of guard J.R. Smith.

Last season's Sixth Man of the Year, who averaged a career-high 18.1 points per contest, scored an average of just 14.5 points and shot just 41.5 percent from the field.

Two years ago, center Tyson Chandler was the Defensive Player of the Year and gave the Knicks a much needed presence in the paint, the same he gave to the Mavericks in 2010-11 when they won it all.

He has not been the same the past two seasons, in particular last season when he missed 25 games because of injuries.

On top of that, Knicks got inconsistent play from two of their high priced players in forward Amar'e Stoudemire (11.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg), who had career-lows in scoring and rebounding a season ago; forward/center Andrea Bargnani, who the Knicks acquire from the Toronto Raptors last off-season played in just 39 games because of injury and scored just 13.3 points and grabbed just 5.3 boards per contest.

Plus swingman Iman Shumpert (6.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg), who began his career with a lot of promise two years ago has regressed greatly. He shot just 37.8 percent from the field last season.

To get the Knicks back on the championship track, the team turned to a figure from their past, who helped them win titles in 1970 and 1973 and one that has ended their season many times in the 1990s as a head coach.

On Mar. 18, the organization lead by MSG chairman James Dolan and GM Steve Mills announced that former Knicks and Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson as the new Knicks President.

His first act was hiring a new head coach, which he did on June 9, when he hired former Laker, Warrior, Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Derrick Fisher, who helped the Lakers win three straight titles (2000-2002) under Jackson's guidance.

They also in June traded Chandler as well as guard Raymond Felton to the Dallas Mavericks and acquired guards Jose Calderon (11.4 ppg, 4.7 apg, 45.6 FG%, 44.9 3.Pt.%), Shane Larkin and center Samuel Dalembert (6.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg).

In another trade, the Knicks acquired forwards Quincy Acy and Travis Outlaw from the Sacramento Kings for forward Jeremy Tyler.

This past Monday, the Knicks traded Outlaw and a 2nd round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers for forward Arnett Moultrie, who was waived by the Knicks.

In the trade with the Mavs, the Knicks also netted two second round picks, which they used in this past June's draft to selected forwards Cleanthony Early (34th overall) out of Wichita State and Thanasis Antetokounmpo (51st overall), the younger brother of Giannis, who plays for the Bucks.

In free agency, the team signed forward Jason Smith (9.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and they re-signed center Cole Aldrich to add depth to the front court.

All of these moves would not have mattered though if the Knicks did not re-sign Anthony.

While the seven-time All-Star did visit with other teams this summer like the Lakers and Bulls, he re-signed a brand new five-year contract.

Yes they have their best player back in the fold. Yes they have a head coach, although it is his first time on the sidelines, he has championship experience and a President who has won more than any other head coach in NBA history, 11 titles to be exact, this team will experience some growing pains, especially learning the triangle offense.

With Anthony turning 30 years old in May, the clock is ticking for him to win a championship and the Knicks are a ways away from reaching that goal. The pressure is still on for Jackson and the organization to continue to build this team into a true championship contender.

-Best case scenario: The Knicks are back in the playoffs as a low seed between No. 6 and No. 8 spot and they give a solid showing in the Quarterfinals.

-Worst case scenario: The Knicks miss the playoffs again and the team struggles to grasp "The Triangle" offense and Anthony reverts back to going one-on-one at the offensive end.

-Grade: C+

Orlando Magic: Finished 23-59 (5th Southeast Division; missed playoffs); 19-22 at home; 4-37 on the road.

-96.5 ppg-25th; opp. ppg: 102.0-17th; 42.0 rpg-21st.

I have had the wonderful privilege of visiting Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL on three occassions when I was a kid. I loved to visit a place that was built on fantasy and exploring the depths of one's imagination. The tough part was leaving and going back to reality of the real world.

That is the case of the Orlando Magic, who have lived the fantasy of having talented top notched NBA players that they have drafted or signed in free agency like Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill and Dwight Howard.

The unfortunate reality is that neither one of those players delivered a title to Orlando. O'Neal helped to the lead the Magic to the Finals in 1995, but they were swept by Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler the eventual two-time NBA champion Houston Rockets 4-0. Howard led the Magic to The Finals in 2009, but they lost to the eventual back-to-back champion Lakers in five games.

The tandem of McGrady and Hill never got the Magic to the promise land. A major reason for that is Hill had a nagging foot injury that never allowed him to play to the level he did in his time with the Pistons and while McGrady shined individually, he never could raise the level of his teammates.

Eventually all the aforementioned star players left via free agency or they were traded. That is what happened with Howard in the summer of 2012 when he was dealted to the Lakers.

That left the Magic to build back to a championship level from scratch. The good thing is that they had some fuel to drive this car.

In the Howard trade, they received a protected first round picks from the 76ers and the Lakers, who also gave the Magic a conditional second round pick.

One of the pieces that they are re-building around that they acquired two seasons back is center Nikola Vucevic (14.2 ppg, 11.0 rpg), who is third in the NBA since 2012 in double-doubles with 82, trailing only DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings (88) and Howard with 95.

Another player that the Magic acquired to help them get back to being a part of the NBA elite is forward Tobias Harris (14.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 46.4 FG%), who came over at the trade deadline two seasons back and has become a staple at the small forward.

With the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, the Magic selected guard Victor Oladipo (13.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.6 spg) out of Indiana and he really played well as a rookie whether he was at the lead guard spot or the shooting guard.

This off-season with the No. 8 pick in this June's draft, the Magic selected Aaron Gordon out of Arizona and they acquired the rights to the No. 10 picks out of Louisiana Lafayette in 2014 Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year in guard Elfrid Payton (19.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 5.9 apg, 2.3 spg).

Payton and Oladipo are expected to be the starting backcourt of the future as the Magic released all-time assists leader Jameer Nelson, who signed with the Mavericks and last year's starting shooting guard and leading scorer Arron Afflalo was traded to the Nuggets. In return the Magic received guards Evan Fournier (8..4 ppg, 37.6 3-Pt.%) and Devyn Marble.

Along with the young talent expected to lead the Magic to success in the future, they also signed in free agency some veterans to help show the way in guards Ben Gordon, Luke Ridnour, Willie Green and forward Channing Frye (11.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 37.0 3-Pt.%).

Along with the core guys and the new additions, the Magic need to see serious growth from the likes of forwards Maurice Harkless (7.4 ppg, 46.4 FG%, 38.3 3-Pt.%), Andrew Nicholson (5.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg), forward Kyle O'Quinn (6.2 ppg, 5 .3 rpg) and center Dewayne Dedmon.

In two seasons under head coach Jacque Vaughn and GM Rob Hennigan, they have been able to acquire some talented pieces that have shown they can take care of business in spurts against the best of the NBA. However, the team has gone just 43-121 in that time span.

Yes in Vucevic, they have a center that should be their pillar in the paint for the next five-plus seasons. A guard in Oladipo who can do many things on the court. Talented prospects in Payton and Gordon who have the talent and work ethic to be great one day.

While making the playoffs might be too much to ask for this group, winning games and showing serious progress is a must especially if Vaughn and Hennigan want to be around to lead the Magic in the years ahead.

-Best case scenario: The Magic win 10 more games than a season ago. The core players of Vucevic, Harris and Oladipo take another step in their development and Payton and Gordon play well as rookies.

-Worst case scenario: The core young players regress in their improvement and the Magic have a number of five-game plus losing streaks.

-Grade: D+

Philadelphia 76ers: Finished 19-63 (5th Atlantic Division; missed playoffs); 10-31 at home; 9-32 on the road.

-99.5 ppg-19th; opp. ppg: 109.9-30th; 42.7 rpg-15th.

When you are trying rebuild a team from the ground up like the Magic, Celtics, Kings and the Philadelphia 76ers are right now, it is imperative you have a clear cut plan that you can sell to your fan base that they can get behind.

The Sixers have that plan by building their team through the draft, by getting a coach who is willing to be as much as a teacher of the players both individually and collectively.

For the Sixers that head coach/teacher is longtime assistant coach of the San Antonio Spurs Brett Brown.

One of those young talented players the Sixers selected through the NBA draft a season ago was center Nerlens Noel (6th overall) out Kentucky, who the team acquired his rights from the New Orleans Pelicans in 2013.

The former South Eastern Conference Freshmen and Defensive Player of the Year missed all of last season recovering and rehabbing a torn ACL in his left knee that he sustained on Feb. 12 2013 at the University of Florida Gators.

Returning this season, Noel can hopefully give the Sixers a presence in the paint on the offensive and defensive glass as well as an ability to block and change shots for opponents at the defensive end.

Noel can hopefully also begin to build chemistry with second-year lead guard Michael Carter-Williams, the 11th overall pick in last seaon's draft out of Syracuse who lead all rookies a season ago in scoring (16.7), rebounds (6.2) and assists (6.3) on his way to winning the 2014 Rookie of the Year.

He became just the second player to be selected at the 10 spot of the draft or later to win the award. The other is former head coach of the Golden State Warriors, the fourth all-time assist leader in NBA history and current color analyst for NBA on ESPN/ABC Mark Jackson, who was the 1987 Rookie of the Year of the Knicks after being the 18th overall selection in that year's draft out of St. John's University.

In this past June's draft, the Sixers with the 3rd overall pick selected center Joel Embiid out of Kansas,

Unfortunately like Noel last season, Embiid will likely be out for the entire season rehabbing a broken navicular bone in his foot, which requires four-to-six months to recover from.

The Sixers other first round pick Dario Saric (12th overall) will be spending this season overseas.

So the only rookies from this year's draft that will be on the court for the Sixers in 2014-15 are forwards K.J. McDaniels (32 overall) out of Clemson and Jerami Grant (39th overall) out of Syracuse.

On Monday, the Sixers acquired forward Travis Outlaw and a 2nd round pick from the Knicks in exchange for forward Arnett Moultrie.

The other part about a team going into a season that is rebuilding is that it gives young players a chance to get some real playing time and experience that they would not have gotten.

That is the opportunity awaiting the likes of second-year forward Brandon Davies; third-year forward Arnette Multrie; third-year guard Alexey Shved; third-year center Henry Sims (7.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg); second-year guard Hollis Thompson (6.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg); third-year guard Elliot Williams (6.0 ppg) and third-year guard Tony Wroten (13.0 ppg).

The part that is not good for these young Sixers players is that they do not have a few veterans to learn from about how to become a better pro. The two they do have to learn from are guard Jason Richardson, who has 12 seasons of experience with the Warriors, Hornets, Phoenix Suns and Magic. The other veteran is defensive forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who has six seasons of NBA experience with the Bucks, Timberwolves and Kings.

Just two years ago, the Sixers were minutes away from being in the Eastern Conference Finals. This off-season, they said good-bye to the last person from that team when they traded forward Thaddeus Young to the T'Wolves in that three-team deal involving the Cavs and themselves in which Cleveland got Kevin Love.

There is another season of losing in the making for the fans of the city of "Brotherly Love." Hopefully it is not a 26-game losing streak, which tied the all-time NBA record.

The question is will it lead to a better future, one that consist of a core of Carter-Williams, Embiid, Noel and Saric?

Also will that top five lottery pick in next June's draft be one that also takes them to great heights in the future?

-Best case scenario: The Sixers win five more games than last season. Noel becomes a presence in the paint and Carter-Williams continues to improve. The fans see hope in some of the players that will take the court this season.

-Worst case scenario: The Sixers have another long losing streak. Hopefully it is not one that goes on for two months.

-Grade: F

Toronto Raptors: Finished 48-34 (1st Atlantic Division; No 3. Seed East); 26-15 at home; 22-19 on the road. Lost to the Brooklyn Nets 4-3 in the East Quarterfinals.

-101.3 ppg-13th; opp. ppg: 98-7th; 42.5 rpg-17th.

A 6-12 start began to spell another lost season and a fifth straight season of not making the playoffs.

On Dec. 9, new GM Masai Ujiri executed a trade that sent forward Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings along with forward Quincy Acy and center Aaron Gray in exchange for John Salmons, now with the New Orleans Pelicans; guard Greivis Vazquez (9.6 ppg, 4.1 apg, 37.7 3-Pt.%), forward Patrick Patterson (8.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 46.0 FG%, 36.4 3-Pt.%) and forward/center Chuck Hayes.

A 10-3 mark over the next 13 games was the springboard that valuted the Raptors to a franchise record 48 wins and their second Atlantic Division title in franchise history.

A big part of the turnaround was the emergence of the starting backcourt of first-time All-Star DeMar DeRozen (22.7 ppg-led team) and Kyle Lowry (17.9 ppg, 7.4 apg, 38.0 3-Pt.%), who at one point was going to be traded to the Knicks. His breakout season got him a new four-year $48 million contract this off-season when he re-signed.

To put the emergence of Lowry and DeRozen into perspective, only the Warriors starting backcourt of "Splash Brothers" Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson averaged more points at 42.4 than the Raptors starting guards, who scored 40.6 points per contest combined in 2013-14.

Starting center Jonas Valanciunas (11.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg) and starting forward Terrence Ross (10.9 ppg, 39.5 3-Pt.%) had very solid seasons a year ago.

Starting power forward Amir Johnson was a solid compliment to Valanciunas in the paint as he posted career-highs in points (10.4) and rebounds (6.6) per contest.

The emergence of this team from where they started this season is in large part to head coach Dwayne Casey, who took over in 2011-12.

Last season, Casey finally was able to put a team on the floor that fit the style of play he has been preaching.

A team that could play both ends of the court and do it as a collective unit. The result, Casey went from being a coach on the out to one that got a three-year extension this off-season.

The Raptors finished 10th in opponents field goal percentage at 45.0 percent and seventh in opponents three-point field goals made at 6.9 per contest. Offensively, the Raptors were tied for seventh in three-point percentage at 37.2 percent and ninth in three-pointers made per game at 8.7.

The young Raptors though were unable to continue their great season as they fell in the first round to the Nets in seven games.

To improve the team, the Raptors in the off-season signed forward James Johnson (7.4 ppg), swingman Jordan Hamilton (6.7 ppg), center Greg Stiemsma and they acquired one of the top bench scorers in the leauge in Lou Williams from the Hawks (10.4 ppg, 34.2 3-Pt.%).

The additions should be solid contributors to the second unit that will also consist of "Mr. Energy" in forward Tyler Hansbrough and swingman Landry Fields.

The last time the Raptors made it to the postseason in back-to-back years was 2007 and 2008. They lost in the opening round to the then New Jersey Nets and the Magic respectably in those years.

The last time they were in the Semifinals, 2001, where they lost to the eventual East champions the Sixers in seven games lead by the MVP of that season Allen Iverson.

The enter this season as the only team in NBA history not to win 50 games in a regular season.

If Lowry and DeRozen can come close to the seasons they had in 2013-14, Valanciunas and Ross can take their play to another level and the new additions can have an impact off the bench, the Raptors can make some serious noise in the East.

One area they have to get better in is winning close games. They were just 3-8 in games decided by three points or less and 1-6 in overtime a season ago.

Good teams win close games and they make big plays in clutch situations. The Raptors have to raise their level of play in those moments if they want to contend this season.

-Best case scenario: The Raptors win the Atlantic Division again and garner 50 wins or more for the first time in franchise history. They are fighting for home court in the first round of the playoffs. They reach the Semifinals.

-Worst case scenario: They are a lower playoff seed and they have another first round exit.

-Grade: B+

Washington Wizards: Finished 44-38 (2nd Southeast Division; No. 5 Seed East); 22-19 at home; 22-19 on the road. Defeated the Chicago Bulls 4-1 in East Quarterfinals. Lost to the Indiana Pacers 4-2 in the East Semifinals.

-100.7 ppg-16th; opp. ppg: 99.4-9th; 42.2 rpg-20th.

It has been nearly a decade since the nation's capital has could say that their pro basketball team was a winner.

The Washington Wizards returned to the playoffs after a five-year absence and won their first playoff series for the first time in nine seasons.

A big reason for the turnaround is the emergence of the team's lead guard John Wall, (19.3 ppg-led team, 8.8 apg-2nd NBA, 1.8 spg-led team), played in all 82 games for the first time in his career and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft validated the five-year $80 million contract extension he signed last off-season.

Alongside him in the backcourt is Bradley Beal (17.1 ppg, 40.2 3-Pt.%), who has become one of the up and coming sharp shooters in the league.

Unfortunately, Beal will be sidelined to start the season after sustaining a non-displaced fracture of the scaphoid bone in his left wrist back in a preseason game on Oct. 12 against the Charlotte Hornets. He is expected to miss six to eight weeks.

Another key performer for the Wizards that will be out is sharp shooting forward Martell Webster (9.7 ppg, 39.2 3-Pt.%), who sustained a herniated disc in his back in late June that required surgery. It will take three to five months before the sharp shooter can resume any basketball activities.

Beal and Webster's absence puts the spolight on the Wizards frontline to pick up the scoring that will be missing.

One person expected to take charge is starting center Marcin Gortat (13.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg-led team, 1.5 bpg-led team, 54.2 FG%), who the Wizards acquired from the Phoenix Suns a season ago for center Emeka Okafor, fit like a glove in the starting five and provided a presence, especially late in the season as starting power forward Nene (14.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 50.3 FG%) missed time because of injury. Gortat's great season garnered him a new five-year $60 million contract this off-season.

The Wizards will also need more from back-up guard Andre Miller, forward Drew Gooden (8.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 53.1 FG%) and their signing in free agency in "Mr. Clutch, Jr." swingman Paul Pierce (13.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 45.1 FG%, 37.3 3-Pt.%).

The championship experience and ability to make big shots at the end of games will give the Wizards confidence to get the job done late in games.

To bolster the bench, the Wizards signed in free agency forward/center DeJuan Blair (6.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg), swingman Rasual Butler, guard John Lucas III and in a sign-and-trade acquiried forward Kris Humphries (8.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg), who will also miss the start of the season after surgery to repair nerve damage in his right pinky finger, which he sustained during a preseason game last week against the Chicago Bulls.

The absence of Humphries, Beal and Webster will provide an opportunity for forward Otto Porter, Jr., guard Glen Rice, Jr. and center Kevin Seraphin.

Porter, the third overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Georgetown rarely played a season ago. The injuries give him a chance to get some serious playing time and he has the tools, he just has to bring them to the forefront and be productive.

Rice really showed well over the summer, winning MVP honors and his ability to strike a match from the perimeter could be a huge help for the Wizards who will be counting on his outside shot in the early part of this season.

Seraphin in his young career has shown flashes that he can be a really good player. With the injury to Humphries, he has a chance to earn his way into the rotation and give the Wizards another big body to through at the opposition.

After a rough beginning to his coaching stint in the nation's capital, a great season saved head coach Randy Wittman, who went 47-84 in his first two seasons from getting the axe and netted him a new three-year contract.

With James leaving the Heat for the Cavaliers, the Wizards have a great chance of winning the Southeast Division and garnering one of the top three spots in the East.

Last season, the Wizards won their first playoff appearance in five seasons and won their first playoff series in nine seasons.

They have one of the best backcourts in the league in Beal and Wall. Championship credibility in Pierce. A plethora of talented front court players that can score, rebound and defend the paint. They also gained valuable experience from last season that should help them, particular in the early part of the season as they try to take care of business with three key players that will be missing at the start.

With that being said, there are no more excuses. This team has all the tools necessary to be a contender in the East. What they do with that opportunity is on them.

-Best case scenario: The Wizards win the Southeast Division and get home court advantage in the postseason as a No. 3 Seed. Wall and Beal make the All-Star team and the Wizards make it back to the Semifinals.

-Worst case: The Wizards are in the bottom half of the East playoff bracket and they lose in the first round.

-Grade: A-

Western Conference
Dallas Mavericks: Finished 49-33 (4th Southwest Division; No. 8 Seed West); 26-15 at home; 23-18 on the road. Lost to the San Antonio Spurs 4-3 in the West Quarterfinals.

-104.8 ppg-8th; opp. ppg: 102.4-20th; 40.9 rpg-26th.

Fifteen years ago, the Dallas Mavericks were purchased by internet entrepreneur and one of the Shark's on ABC's "Shark Tank" Mark Cuban.

The result, 11 consecutive 50-plus win seasons, a 656-312 record in that stretch and 12 straight postseason appearances.

The only thing that was missing from Cuban's $285 million purchase of the team from prior owner Ross Perot and his group was an NBA title.

That box was checked off four years ago when the Mavs beat the Heat 4-2 in the 2011 NBA Finals to capture their first title in franchise history. It also completed the career of the team's all-time leading scorer and 11-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki.

Two other key cogs on that Mavs title team were guard J.J. Barea and center Tyson Chandler.

Both players were not re-signed because Cuban wanted to keep the team under the salary cap to make a push for the likes of Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony when they contracts expired.

Chandler moved on to the Knicks and Barea signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The result, the Mavs failed to make it out of the first round two of the next three seasons and their streak of 12 consecutive playoff apperances ended in 2012-13. Another big reason for their playoff streak ending is Nowitzki missed the start of the season because of knee surgery and he never really got on track.

It took three years, but Cuban like any good business man got wise and found a way to get Chandler back in the Mavs' fold.

They acquired the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year from the Knicks on June 26, but they gave up their starting point guard from a season ago in Jose Calderon. They also dealt center Samuel Dalembert, guard Shane Larkin, swingman Wayne Ellington, who signed with the Lakers after being waived by the Knicks and two second round picks.

The Mavs recevied from the Knicks guard Raymond Felton, who hopes to turn things around from a nightmare where he had the lowest scoring average per game of his career of 9.7 on just 39.5 percent shooting from the floor and 31.8 from three-point territory.

The Mavs also have a possible new back-up lead guard in Jameer Nelson (12.1 ppg, 7.0 apg, 34.8 3-Pt.%), who the Mavs signed in free agency. He will be competing for the back-up lead guard spot with Devin Harris (7.9 ppg, 4.5 apg), who re-signed with the Mavs for four seasons at $16 million.

The Mavericks other big catch this off-season was also named Chandler in former starting small forward of the Houston Rockets Chandler Parsons (16.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.4 apg, 47.2 FG%, 37.0 3-Pt.%), who signed a three-year $46 million contract that the Rockets did not match.

In Parsons, the Mavericks have another go-to scorer who can score inside and fill it up from the perimeter.

In adding more depth to the bench, the Mavs signed veteran forward Richard Jefferson (10.1 ppg, 45.0 FG%, 40.9 3-Pt.%), forwards Greg Smith, Ivan Johnson, Al-Farouq Aminu (7.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Charlie Villanueva.

While all the new additions, Chandler in his second stint with the Mavericks, the Mavs hopes for success this season will rest on Nowitzki and last year's prized free agent signing in guard Monta Ellis (19.0 ppg, 5.7 apg, 1.7 spg).

A season ago, Ellis found a way to be the great scorer that he has been throughout his career, while doing an incredible job in improving his shot selection and being a playmaker for his teammates. The play of Ellis and Nowitzki were a big reason they put a scare into the eventual World Champion Spurs in the first round of last season's playoffs, though they would fall in seven games.

Two years ago, many in NBA circles thought that the best days of eventual Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki were behind him. If last season proved anything is that he has plenty of game left and that the off-season additions give the Mavs a chance to make some noise in the tough Western Conference.

He also has a chance to raise his place in NBA history. Nowitzki stands in 10th place on the NBA's all-time scoring list at 26,786 points. With another stellar season, the future Hall of Famer will pass Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon (9th place: 26,946); Elvin Hayes (8th place: 27,313) and Moses Malone (27,409). Next season, assuming he stays healthy, he will pass current NBATV/NBA on TNT analyst and future Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal, who is in sixth place on the scoring list at 28, 596 points.

It will not be easy, especially in the loaded Southwest Division, which consist of the World Champion Spurs, the high powered Rockets, the tough Memphis Grizzlies, who all made the playoffs a season ago and the young New Orleans Pelicans.

If this roster of experience and youth can put it all together, the Mavericks might be a serious contender in the West.

-Best case scenario: The Mavs are in contention for homecourt advantage in the West. Chandler returns to his Defensive Player of the Year form and Parsons proves he was worth the big contract.

-Worst case scenario: The supporting cast is inconsistent and the Mavs have a flameout in the first round.

-Grade: A-

Denver Nuggets: Finished 36-46 (4th Northwest Division; missed playoffs); 22-19 at home; 14-27 on the road.

-104.4 ppg-9th; opp. ppg: 106.5-28th; 45.4 rpg-2nd.

Two seasons back, the Denver Nuggets won an NBA franchise record 57 games, with 38 of those victories coming at the Pepsi Center, where they went 38-3.

Unfortunately, the No. 3 Seeded Nuggets fell in six games to the No. 6 Seeded Golden State Warriors ending their season way too soon in the minds of management.

The result, 2013 Coach of the Year George Karl was not re-signed by the Nuggets and the team signed in his place is 15-year NBA veteran with the Celtics, Heat, Magic, Warriors, 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers and the Lakers, three-time champion (2000-02) with the Lakers and a former assistant coach with the Lakers and Pacers Brian Shaw.

Shaw did not walk into his first coaching job with the cupboard bare.

He had a roster loaded with the kind of talent that most coaches could only dream of.

Three things went against Shaw and the Nuggets a season ago.

First, the West was loaded with good teams.

Despite being the second best rebounding team in the league, opponents scored at a high rate against the Nuggets.

To make matters worse, 169 total games were missed because of injury a season ago to the core players of the Nuggets in starting lead guard Ty Lawson (17.6 ppg-led team, 8.8 apg-3rd NBA, 1.6 spg-led team), swingman Wilson Chandler (13.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 34.8 3-Pt.%), forward/center J.J. Hickson (11.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg-led team, 50.8 FG%), guard Nate Robinson (10.4 ppg, 37.7 3-Pt.%), center JaVale McGee (7.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and forward Darrell Arthur (5.9 ppg).

Robinson, Hickson and McGee all suffered season-ending injuries.

The one healthy Nugget during the 2013-14 season and took full advantage of his opportunity was starting forward Kenneth Faried (13.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 54.5 FG%).

The 28th overall pick out of Morehead State in 2011 rose his game to great heights the last four months of the season. In January he averaged 11.5 points and 7.9 rebounds. In February, Faried averaged 13.8 points and 6.6 boards. In the month of March, Faried averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 boards and in April, Faried finished the season averaging 21.0 points and 13.0 rebounds per contest.

His great season earned him a four-year $50 million contract extension and earned a opportunity to try out for Team USA. He made the team which compete in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain and played a major role in them winning Gold. His 12.2 points and 7.7 boards in the nine contest, where Team USA went 9-0 earned him spot on the All-World Cup team and proved his brand of energy and tenacity can make a difference in the NBA as well as in International play.

The injuries also gave a chance for center Timofey Mosgov (9.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg), who finished the season strong with 15.9 points and 9.1 rebound and 1.5 block averages in the month of April.

Another player who showed well was guard Randy Foye (13.9 ppg, 38.0 3-Pt.%). The veteran guard who signed as a free agent last summer gave the Nuggets a solid periemter shooter and someone who could play the lead guard spot.

Along with the return of Robinson, McGee and Hickson from season-ending injuries, the Nuggets will have a new starter at the shooting guard spot in Arron Afflalo (18.2 ppg, 45.9 FG%, 42.7 3-Pt.%), who the team acquired from the Magic this offseason.

The addition of Afflalo will give the Nuggets a great shooter, especially from the three-point line and a solid perimeter defender to against some of the best two guards and small forwards in the West.

In the draft this past June, the Nuggets selected Gary Harris (19th overall) out of Michigan State and Erik Green (46th overall) out of Utah.

The Nuggets enter this season with as mentioned one of the most talented rosters in the league. An interchangaeble starting five and a second unit that can change the pace of the game at a moments notice. Size and strength in the frontcourt and speed, quickness and shooting in the backcourt.

For this team to get back to the playoffs though, they must make a serious committment to the defensive end and they must stay healthy.

One guy in particular that the Nuggets hope returns to form is forward Danilo Gallinari, who has missed 93 games the past two seasons recovering from a ACL injury.

If Gallinari play to the level of this era's Tom Chambers; McGee can become a consistent force at both ends and if the team can grasp Shaw's defensive philosophy, the Nuggets could be a player in the Northwest.

They have enough offense to compete with anybody, especially at home. Their willingness to compete to the other 47 feet of the court will make all the difference.

-Best case scenario: The Nuggets are in playoff contention. Gallinari returns to form pre ACL injury. The Nuggets greatly improve at the defensive end and their road record is above .500.

-Worst case scenario: The defensive struggles continue and they miss the playoffs again.

-Grade: B+

Golden State Warriors: Finished 51-31 (2nd Pacific Division; No. 6 Seed in West); 27-14 at home; 24-17 on the road. Lost to the Los Angeles Clippers 4-3 in West Quarterfinals.

-104.3 ppg-10th; opp. ppg: 99.5-10th; 45.3 rpg-5th.

Last season was the first time in two decades the Warriors won 50-plus games.

The last time that happened was the 1993-94 season. That team was coached by Don Nelson and some of the main players were 1994 Rookie of the Year and current NBATV/NBA on TNT analyst Chris Webber, Hall of Fame forward Chris Mullin, guard Latrell Sprewell and former NBA head coach with the Mavericks and Nets Avery Johnson.

To put this accomplishment in perspective, this was just the fourth time in team history that the Warriors won 50 games or more, with 24 of those coming on the road, tying the 1991-92 squadron.

While the team did suffer a difficult seven-game defeat in the first round to their dvision rival the Los Angeles Clippers, it was clear that head coach Mark Jackson had this team going in the right direction.

So it sent shockwaves across the NBA spectrum when on May 6, just 72 hours after the Game 7 defeat to the Clippers, the organization relieved Jackson as head coach after a 121-109 record in three seasons.

Taking his place is five-time NBA champion with the Bulls and Spurs and former NBATV/NBA on TNT color analyst Steve Kerr.

If there is any situation that you would want to walk in for your first head coaching job, it is this one.

Kerr will coaching one of the best shooting backcourts in the business in All-NBA Second team selection and first-time All-Star a season ago in lead guard Stephen Curry (24.0 ppg-led team, 8.5 apg-5th NBA, 1.6 spg-led team, 47.1 FG%, 42.4 3-Pt.%) and his running mate Klay Thompson (18.4 ppg, 41.7 3-Pt.%).

To put their splended markmanship from three-point range into perspective, Curry and Thompson, who made 261 and 223 triples respectably, made more three-pointers combined than the entire Memphis Grizzlies team.

Also, Curry became just the seventh player in NBA history to lead the NBA in three-pointers made in consecutive seasons, joining Darrell Griffith, Hall of Famer Larry Bird, Michael Adams, Dan Majerle, Vernon Maxwell and Ray Allen.

If he accomplishes this amazing feet again, he will be the first player to lead the NBA in made three-point field goals in back-to-back seasons.

The surrounding parts are nothing to sneeze at either.

Swingman Andre Iguodala (9.3 ppg, 4.7 apg, 1.5 spg), who the team signed a season ago, gives the Warriors a player who can defend well on the perimeter and can put up a triple-double at a moments notice.

Doing the dirty work inside and on the glass is starting forward David Lee (18.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and center Andrew Bogut (7.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg-led team, 1.8 bpg-led team).

The question for both is can they stay healthy, especially Bogut, who has had a history of injuries. If either one were to miss significant time, there is not much behind them.

The Warriors tried to improve their bench this off-season in signing guard Leandro Barbosa (7.5 ppg), three-point specialist in forward Jason Kapono, guard Shaun Livingston (8.3 ppg) and swingman Brandon Rush, who will bein his second tour of duty with the Warriors.

For the Warriors to get back to the Semifinals and beyond, they need forward Harrison Barnes, centers Festus Ezeli and Marreese Speights to play at a consistent level.

In his rookie season two years ago, Barnes showed well, especially in the postseason, He went from 9.2 points and 3.5 boards in the regular season in 2012-13 to 16.1 and 6.4 points and rebounds in the postseason.

Last season though, the 7th overall pick in the 2012 draft out of North Carolina regressed scoring just 9.5 points and grabbing just 3.1 boards on 39.0 percent from the floor in the regular season and averages of just 7.9 points and 4.0 boards in the first round aginst the Clippers.

Ezeli missed the entire 2013-14 season because of knee issues. His return is necessary to give a break to Bogut.

Speights (6.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg) is a very talented big man, but his inability to bring it night in and night out leaves you scratching your head.

If any of these three talented players had the mindset and tenacity of forward Draymond Green (6.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg), the 35th overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Michigan, the Warriors bench would give the Warriors one of the best reserve units in the league.

Along with a talented team to work with, Kerr will have two of the best assistant coaches on his staff in former NBA head coach Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams.

With that being said, he is replacing a coach in Jackson that was beloved by the players and who turned them into winners.

The pressure is on. Anything less than an appearance in the Western Conference Finals would be considered a disappointing season.

With a loaded Western Conference, making that dream into a reality will be a tall task. Good luck Warriors.

-Best case scenario: The Warriors win 50-plus games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in team history. Bogut and Lee plays in 70 games or more. Curry and Thompson make the All-Star. The bench plays consistently and the Warriors reach the Western Conference Finals.

-Worst case scenario: The Warriors lose in the first round. Bogut misses significant time because of injury again.

-Grade: B-

Houston Rockets: Finished 54-28 (2nd Southwest Division: No. 4 Seed) 33-8 at home; 21-20 on the road. Lost to the Portland Trail Blazers 4-2 in West Quarterfinals.

-107.7 ppg-2nd; opp. ppg: 103.1-23rd; 45.3 rpg-4th.

In back-to-back off-seasons, the Houston Rockets managed to get one of the top reserves in the league in James Harden (25.4 ppg-5th NBA, 6.1 apg, 4.7 rpg, 1.6 spg-led team, 45 .6 FG%, 36.6 3-Pt.%), who has taken off as a starter and Dwight Howard (18.3 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 4th NBA, 1.8 bpg-led team), who came close to the form that made him a multiple Defensive Player of the Year recipient with the Magic.

The supporting cast around Howard and Harden consisted of back-up center Omer Asik, starting lead guard Jeremy Lin and starting forwards Terrence Jones and Chandler Parsons.

Despite two postseasons that ended in disappointment to the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Portland Trail Blazers in six games, things seemed to be on the up for the Rockets.

Those aspirations of winning a title in the future took a major hit this off-season when the pursuit of free agents Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh did not pan out.

They created that cap room to try to snag Anthony or Bosh by trading Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans; Not matching the three-year $46 million offer sheet the interstate rival Mavericks offered Parsons and trading Lin to the Lakers.

Taking over at the lead guard spot for the Rockets this season will be Patrick Beverly (10.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 36.1 3-Pt.%), who in his brief NBA career has yet to play a full season.

While the team still has Jones (12.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 54.2 FG%) and acquired forward Trevor Ariza (14.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 45.6 FG%, 40.7 3-P.t%) in the off-season as well as NBA champion Jason Terry, three proven commodities, the rest of the supporting cast in guard Troy Daniels (8.4 ppg, 48.0 3-Pt.%), Donatas Motiejunas, (5.5 ppg) and new comers in guards Ish Smith, Isiah Canaan, forwards Earl Clark, Joey Dorsey, Jeff Adrien (6.8, 5.8 rpg), Robert Covington and rookie guard Nick Johnson will be counted on for consistent scoring.

This is not the way that head coach Kevin McHale wanted to go into this season, which is the last on his contract.

When both Harden and Howard got to Houston, they each said that they came ehre to win a title for Houston. That task in the loaded West got much harder.

If they are going to make that dream a reality, particularly this season, the dynamic duo of Harden and Howard must emerge as the heart beat of the team. Ariza and Jones must emerge as the linchpins of the starters. The some of the young guys must provide solid scoring punch off the bench and they must make a serious committment to the defensive end.

That attention to detail that cost the Rockets in Game 6 of the first round when Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard got free to hit the game-winner to send the Rockets home for the summer.

Changing that way of thinking starts with Harden and Howard and the rest of the supporting cast following suit.

-Best case scenario: The Rockets win over 50 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2007-08 and 2008-09. The young supporting cast compliments Harden and Howard. The team makes it to the Western Conference Finals.

-Worst case scenario: The Rockets have another flame out in the first round of the playoffs.

-Grade: C+

Los Angeles Clippers: Finished 57-25 (1st Pacific Division; No. 3 Seed West); 34-7 at home; 23-18 on the road. Defeated the Golden State Warriors 4-3 in West Quarterfinals. Lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-2 in West Semifinials.

-107.9 ppg-1st; opp. ppg: 101.0-14th; 43.0 rpg-14th.

The city of Los Angeles has always been and will always be a Laker town. Why? Because of the number of Hall of Famers and the number of championships, 16 they have won.

Make no mistake though, the other basketball team in L.A., the Clippers are making history of their own.

Last season they set a franchise mark for wins with 57 and won their second consecutive Pacific Division title.

They went into last season's determine to make some serious noise and then the unthinakable happened.

Back in late April during their first round series against the Warriors, a recording obtained by entertainment news website TMZ was released in which then team owner Donald Sterling expressed his displeasure of his so-called mistress V. Stiviano posing ina picture with Hall of Famer Earvin "Magic" Johnson on Instagram and that he did not want her associating with African Americans and that he did not want her to bring them to Clippers games.

The vulgarity on the recording resulted in serious backlash that included condemnations from current and former NBA players.

A number of major Clippers sponsors like KIA Motors, State Farm and Virgin America cut ties with the team. There was even a threat of boycotting the remainder of the Clippers postseason games.

Before Game 4 of the first round series at the Warriors, Clippers players wore their warmup shirts inside-out in protest of Sterling's remarks. The game did not go well for them as they lost 118-97.

Four days later, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in a 2 p.m. press conferenece issued a lifetime ban for Sterling from the Clippers organization and the league. Meaning he could no longer attend games, practices or team activities involving any team in the league. Sterling was fined the highest allowable of $2.5 million. Silver also stated that he would force Sterling to sell the Clippers, which required the consent of 75 percent of the league's other 29 owners.

On May 27, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer agreed to purchase the Clippers for $2 billion.

Ballmer officially took over ownership of the team on Aug. 12 following an order from a California court confirming the sale from Shelley Sterling, the so-called estranged wife of Donald.

As part of the deal though, Mrs. Sterling gets the title of "Owner Emeritus" and will reamin a part of the organization.

Today, the Clippers are a team and organization with a standard of winning, offensive star power that is second to none, a head coach with championship experience and strong leadership from the top on down.

At the head of this train is head coach Glenn "Doc" Rivers, who took over the Clippers sidelines a season ago and has infused this team with the mantra of playing hard defense, sharing the basketball on offense and taking the challenge of being great at all times.

It is those principles he instilled as the head coach of the Celtics and six seasons back they won it all. It also helped that he had future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

Eager to reach that plateau are the so-called "Big Three" of the Clippers in forward Blake Griffin, lead guard Chris Paul and center DeAndre Jordan.

Last season, Griffin (24.1 ppg-8th NBA, 9.5 rpg) took his game to a high level. He went from having a decent offensive game to one that was so complete across the board he finished third in the MVP race behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Griffin lead the NBA in 2013-14 in points in the paint with 1,068. He finished second in consecutive 20-plus point games in succession with 30 and was fourth in first quarter points per game with 7.6.

He added a consistent jump shot, incredible moves in the low-post and he shot a career-high 72 percent from the free throw line.

He really showed his greatness a season ago in the absence of Paul who missed 20 games because of a shoulder injury, where the Clippers went 15-5.

Speaking of Paul, one of the best floor generals in the NBA, he had another stellar season leading the league in assists and steals per contest at 10.7 and 2.5 respectably.

If you read my season preview from a year ago, I mentioned that if the Clippers were going to be a serious contender in the West, Jordan had to raise his game to the level that former Celtics center Kendrick Perkins did in helping the Celtics win a title back in 2008.

He played at that high level and then some averaging a career-high 10.4 points per contest, 13.6 boards, which led the league; a team leading 2.5 blocks per contest and he lead the NBA in field goal percentage at 67.6 percent.

To put Jordan's growth in his game into perspective, he was tied with Al Jefferson of the Hornets for eighth place in the league with 42 double-doubles a season ago.

While Jordan has made strides in his game from the early part of his career, he must continue to be that consistent rim protector where he makes teams think twice before driving into the paint to score.

If he can do that, the Clippers defense will be much better from where they were a year ago, where they were 23rd in terms of opponents points per game in the paint at 44.6.

The team however finished No. 1 in opponents three-point percentage only giving up 33.2 percent last season.

Along with the "Big Three," the Clippers have a strong supporting cast, which was bolstered in the off-season.

Among the new comers is guards Chris-Douglas Roberts (6.9 ppg, 38.6 3-Pt.%), Jordan Farmar (10.1 ppg, 4.9 apg, 43.8 3-Pt.%), forward Ekpe Udoh and center Spencer Hawes (13.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 45.6 FG%, 41.6 3-Pt.%).

They will be joining a supporting cast that includes forward/center Glen Davis (9.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg); last season's Sixth Man of the Year in guard Jamal Crawford (18.6 ppg), who won the award four years ago joined Hall of Famer Kevin McHale (1984, 1985), Ricky Pierce (1987, 1990) and Detleft Schrempf (1991 and 1992) as the only players in NBA history to win the award twice in their careers; guard J.J. Redick (15.2 ppg, 45.5 FG%, 39.5 3-Pt.%), forward Matt Barnes (9.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 34.3 3-Pt.%) and swingman Hedo Turkoglu.

This supporting cast very talented has to be consistent if the Clippers plan to make any noise this season.

Farmar, who was a part of two Laker title teams in 2009 and 2010 has to be the kind of understudy to Paul that last season's back-up guard Darren Collison was a season ago, who signed with the Kings this off-season.

Redick and Barnes must stay healthy and provide solid perimeter shooting and tough defense on the perimeter as the starting small forward and shooting guard respectably flanking Paul, Griffin and Jordan.

Hawes, who has yet to play in the playoffs in his first eight seasons, will be counted on for low post scoring with the second unit as well as his ability to spread the floor. He is also someone who more often than not will see action late in games because of his ability to make foul shots at a high rate.

Going back to the 2011-12 NBA campaign, the Spurs (177-60), Thunder (166-64), Clippers (153-77) and Pacers (147-82) have the five best records in the league.

The difference is that the Clippers have the worst playoff record of this bunch in that span going just 12-18.

With the head coach they have, the talented trio of Paul, Griffin and Jordan; the supporting cast of veterans and a devoted owner who brings a new energy to the organization, the Clippers have out of excuses.

Yes the West is a bear as mentioned before, but if they play to their potential, the Clippers have as good a chance to win the West and maybe the title.

-Best case scenario: The Clippers win the Pacific Division for the third year in a row. They are one of the top three seeds in the West and they make it to The Finals.

-Worst case scenario: They go down in the second round again.

Grade: A.

Los Angeles Lakers: Finished 27-55 (5th Pacific Division; missed playoffs); 14-27 at home; 13-28 on the road.

-103.0 ppg-11th; opp. ppg 109.2-29th; 41.0 rpg-25th.

What do the seasons of 1993-94 and 2004-05 have in common. Those are the only seasons that the Lakers did not make the playoffs.

The other thing those two seasons have in common is that the Lakers were able to get back to the postseason the very next year and after some major roster moves in the years that followed were able to get back to the top of the NBA mountain winning championships.

Some of the big times acquistions via trade, the NBA Draft and free agency were Cedric Ceballos, Shaquille O"Neal, Rick Fox, Brian Shaw, Glen Rice, Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol.

On top of that, the team was able to sign one of the greatest coaches in NBA history in Phil Jackson in the summer of 1999 and five championships followed.

The difference coming into this season though, the Lakers were unable to acquire that power changing talent or keep that kind of talent in the fold.

Gasol, who helped the Lakers reach three straight finals (2008-2010) and two straight titles (2009, 2010) left in free agency to sign with the Bulls.

Bryant played in just six games a season ago because of a broken leg and he was coming off a torn Achillies that he sustained in late April the season prior scored just 13.7 points per contest, the lowest since his rookie season back in 1996-97.

His backcourt mate Steve Nash, who was traded to the Lakers two seasons ago from the Suns for two first round draft picks, two to help them contend for another title is expected to miss the entire season because of nerve issues in his back.

The two-time MVP though did not say that he was going to retire.

The Lakers did make some new additions in the off-season signing forward Carlos Boozer (13.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg), who was amnestied by the Bulls. They also signed forwards Jeremy Tyler and Ed Davis (5.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and guard Wayne Ellington and Ronnie Price.

Without Nash, the starting lead guard will most likely be Jeremy Lin (12.5 ppg, 4.1 apg, 44.6 FG%, 35.8 3-Pt.%), who the Lakers acquired from the Rockets.

With their poor season a year, the Lakers were in the NBA Draft Lottery for the first time in a long time and with the 7th overall pick, they selected in last June's draft forward Julius Randle (15.4 ppg, 10.4 rpg in 2013-14) out of Kentucky. He led the NCAA with 24 double-doubles last season in helping the Wildcats reach the National Title game, where they lost to the University of Connecticut Huskies 60-54.

The injuries to key people last season gave swingman Nick Young (17.9 ppg-led team, 38.6 3-Pt.%), who will miss the start of this season because of a broken thumb, guard Xavier Henry (10.0 ppg, 34.6 3-Pt.%), forward/center Joran Hill (9.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg), forward Wesley Johnson (9.1 ppf, 4.4 rpg) and then rookie forward Ryan Kelly (8.0 ppg) an opportunity to play major minutes and they showed that they have some ability.

The head coach that will be trying to get the Lakers back to the postseason will be figure from their glory days back in the 1980s in three-time champion who played alongside "Magic" Johnson in the backcourt during those times in Bryon Scott.

Scott has not coached since being fired as the head man on the sidelines for the Cavaliers, where he went just 64-166 from 2010-2013.

In his previous head coaching stints with the then New Jersey Nets, now the Brooklyn Nets from 2000-04 and the then New Orleans Hornets, now the Pelicans from 2004-09, he had some success. He lead the Nets to back-to-back appearances to The Finals, where the Nets lost to the Lakers in 2002 and the Spurs in 2003. He won NBA Coach of the Year with the Hornets in 2008 and they reached the Semifinals, where they lost to the Spurs in seven games.

With the Nets and Hornets, Scott had great floor generals to work with in Jason Kidd and a young Chris Paul. He will have Lin to work with this season and while he is shown in his career that he is capable, he is no Paul or Kidd.

On top of that Bryant, who has looked pretty good this postseason is not the young and up and comer that he was when he and Scott played together in Braynt's rookie season 18 years ago.

Bryant also has a chance to make some history as well. Entering this season, he stands 592 points away from passing the person who his game and his mannerisms are compared to the most on the all-time scoring list Michael Jordan as the fourth best scorer in NBA history at 32,292 points.

At start of each NBA season in reent history, the Lakers were one of those teams that came in with the goal of winning it all. Coming into this season coming in, the hope is they have a chance to just make the postseason party.

The team will be coming into this season with a lot to prove individually and collectively.

Scott is out to prove he can return to a place where his NBA journey began that had a lot of great times as a player and he hopes he can return the Lakers to as their head coach.

Bryant, who signed a two-year $48 million contract extension a season ago, is out to prove that his determined will and competitive spirit can restore him in the eyes of his doubters as one of the best players in the game and get the Lakers back to the playoffs.

The likes of Boozer, Lin and Davis are out to prove that their prior teams the Bulls, Rockets and Grizzlies gave up on them way too soon.

Johnson, Henry, Young and Hill are out to prove that they can be major cogs on a team that can contend for the playoffs.

If the Lakers are going to get back to the postseason party, the defense must improve.

They will not sniff the postseason if they have another season where they surrender 46.8 shooting from the floor to the opponent, ranked 26th in the NBA and they commit 14.8 turnovers per contest, tied with the Phoenix Suns for 25th in the league.

-Best case scenario: The Lakers are contending for the No. 7 or the No. 8 Seed in the West playoffs. Bryant remains healthy and returns close to his form pre-Achillies.

-Worst case scenario: The Lakers miss the playoffs again. Bryant is a shell of himself and the defense does not improve.

-Grade: D-

Memphis Grizzlies: Finished 50-32 (3rd Southwest Division; No. 7 Seed West); 27-14 at home; 23-18 on the road. Lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-3 in West Quarterfinals.

-96.1 ppg, 27th; opp. ppg: 94.6-3rd; 42.4 rpg-19th.

Two years ago, the Memphis Grizzlies won a franchise record 56 games. They reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time in team history, but were swept by the eventual West champion Spurs.

The future seemed bright for the team under the direction of head coach Lionel Hollins.

Despite the best season in team history, Hollins was not re-signed by the front office and he was replaced by assistant coach Dave Joerger.

Under Joerger, the team tried to change its philosophy at the offensive end going from the so-called "Grit and Grind" where on the offensive end they would go inside-out to a more uptempo offense.

Things got off to a rocky start and it did not get any better when starting center Marc Gasol missed 23 games because of knee injury. The Grizzlies went just 10-13 in his absence.

When Gasol returned, the team eventually got their act together and went back to the philosophy that got them one round short of the NBA Finals two years ago.

Unfortunately because of their slow start in the tough West, they finished in the No. 7 spot and met up with their bitter rival the Thunder, who they defeated in the Semis the prior season in five games.

This match-up was like the one in the 2010-11 Semifinals where it went to seven games, but the Thunder prevailed in seven games as they did in last season's first round series.

The Grizzlies enter this season with their starting five still in tact. The aforementioned Gasol (14.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.6 apg). At the forwards is Zach Randolph (17.4 ppg-led team, 10.1 rpg-led team), who re-signed a new two-year $20 million contract after exercising the option in his prior one and Tayshaun Prince (6.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg). At the shooting guard spot is defensive ace Tony Allen (9.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.6 spg-led team) and at the lead guard is the ever improving Mike Conley (17.2 ppg, 6.0 apg-led team, 1.5 spg).

While the Grizzlies, have been one of the best defensive teams in the league the past few years, their inability to have a consistent offense, especially on the perimeter has not helped their cause come the postseason.

That is why in free agency this off-season, the Grizzlies signed veteran swingman Vince Carter (11.0 ppg, 39.4 3-Pt.%).

In this past June's draft, the Grizzlies selected Jordan Adams (22nd overall) out of UCLA, who averaged 17.4 points and shot 48.5 percent from the floor and 35.6 percent from the three-point line and the team acquired the rights to the 35th overall pick out of Tennessee in forward Jarnell Stokes, who averaged 15.1 points and 10.4 boards on 53.1 percent shooting last season.

Those additions should bolster a Grizzlies' bench that will get back swingman Quincy Pondexter, who missed 63 games a season ago because of right foot injury.

He along with the two rookies will be joining a bench that will consist of guard Courtney Lee (11.0 ppg, 47.6 FG%, 34.5 3-Pt.%), guards Nick Calathes and Beno Udrih and forwards Jon Leuer and Kosta Koufos (6.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg).

It is hard to pathom that a team that has won 50 games or over in back-to-back seasons can have the kind of disconnect that coach Joerger and team owner Robert Pera have.

It got so bad that Joerger this off-season took an interview for the vacant head coach position with the Timberwolves. The Grizzlies kept Joerger in the fold by giving him a contract extension.

This team has the goods to be great this season, even though they play in the tough Southwest Division and the rugged West.

For them to take that next step though, Conley must go from being a steady lead guard into one an All-Star one. Gasol and Randolph must stay healthy and be a force in the paint. The perimeter players must perform well offensively and the bench must be a productive one.

-Best case scenario: The Grizzlies compete for homecourt advantage in the West playoffs. Conley makes the All-Star team and the Grizzlies get back to the Western Conference Finals.

-Worst case scenario: The Grizzlies lose in the first round and Joerger's coaching future is in jeopardy.

-Grade: B

Minnesota Timberwolves: Finished 40-42 (3rd Northwest Division; missed playoffs); 24-17 at home; 16-25 on the road.

-106.9 ppg-3rd; opp. ppg: 104.3-26th; 44.7 rpg-6th.

When the T'Wolves acquired the rights to forward Kevin Love (5th overall) on draft day back in 2008, they hoped he could turn the franchise back into a winner.

Last season was the highest in percentage in the Love era, but that .488 record was good enough for 10th in the West which meant a 10th straight season without a playoff berth.

On Apr. 21, then head coach Rick Adelman, who also coached at the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings announced his retirement. Adelman was 97-113 in three seasons with the Timberwolves.

Coming down from the front office to replace Adelman is the most successful head coach in team history is current T'Wolves president Flip Saunders, who was the team's head coach from 1996-2005, going 411-326 in that time frame.

On Aug. 23, the team agreed to a three-team deal involving the Cavaliers and 76ers trading Love to the Cavs.

The T'Wolves received in return. the 2014 No. 1 overall pick in forward/guard Andrew Wiggins out of Kansas and the 2013 No. 1 overall pick in forward Anthony Bennett out of UNLV. The team also received from the Sixers veteran forward Thaddeus Young (17.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg).

The T'Wolves also in the trade sent guard Alexey Shved and forward Luc Richard Mbah A Moute to the Sixers.

In this summer's draft, the Timberwolves selected with the 13th overall pick guard Zach LaVine out of UCLA.

While Wiggins, Bennett and LaVine are the future of the T'Wolves, the surrounding parts bring a lot to the table as well.

That cast consist of guard Kevin Martin (19.1 ppg, 38.7 3-Pt.%); starting center Nikola Pekovic (17.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg); guard J.J. Barea (8.4 ppg, 3.8 apg); forwards Chase Budinger, Shabazz Muhammed and Robbie Hummel; center Gorgui Gieng (4.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg), swingman Corey Brewer (12.3 ppg, 1.9 spg, 48.1 FG%) and Mo Williams (9.7 ppg, 4.3 apg, 36.9 3-Pt.%), who the team signed this off-season.

Most teams when they go through a rebuilding phase, there is a lot of ugly moments that lie ahead for the fan base. T'Wolves fans will have those moments, but they will also have moments of excitement and optimism for a team that will play an uptempo style that feature a lot of fastbreaks and highlight passes and dunks.

The young core players will also have veterans like Martin, Young, Barea, Pekovic and Brewer to lean on to learn how to become a great player in the NBA.

The question is, how many of the veterans on the T'Wolves will be a part of the long term plans for the Timberwolves' future?

One of those veteran players found out that answer quickly as at the start of this week, Barea was wavied by the team.

One person who must become part of that future is starting lead guard Ricky Rubio (9.5 ppg, 8.6 apg-4th NBA, 2.3 spg-2nd NBA).

For all his gifts as a passer, Rubio must become a better shooter and scorer in order for this team to progress into eventually being a playoff team again. Now two years removed from that awful ACL injury, he can be on the path to one day being in the conversation as one of the best floor generals in the game.

-Best case scenario: The Timberwolves win 35 games and Wiggins is the Rookie of the Year.

-Worst case scenario: The young players of Wiggins, LaVine and Bennett have more down moments and up and the team just does not improve.

-Grade: B+

New Orleans Pelicans: Finished 34-48 (5th Southwest Division; missed playoffs); 22-19 at home; 12-29 on the road.

-99.7 ppg-18th; opp. ppg: 102.4-19th; 41.7 rpg-22nd.

In the NBA, it is one thing to have a roster full of talent. It is another thing for that talent to mesh together and be one.

The head of this talented bunch is what many consider the next rising young star in forward/center Anthony Davis (20.8 ppg-led team, 10.0 rpg-led team, 2.8 bpg-Led NBA). The first time All-Star a season ago was one of seven players to average 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds a season ago. He had one of the best performances of his young career when he scored a career-high of 40 points to go along with 21 rebounds on Mar. 16 versus the Celtics. He had three games last season with at least eight block shots.

To put the accomplishments of the former No.1 overall pick in 2012 so early into his NBA career, he was a part of Team USA that capture Gold at the Olympic games two years ago before even putting on an NBA uniform and he helped Team USA capture Gold at the FIBA World Cup this summer.

The acquistion of center Omer Asik (5.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg) from the Rockets this off-season will allow Davis to not take the consistent banging in the paint and he will have more freedom to be that weak side defender that can block shots and clean up on the boards.

Even with their rising star, the rest of the team has a lot of question marks about it.

Starting lead guard Jrue Holiday (14.3 ppg, 7.9 apg-led team, 1.6 spg-led team) and his running mate Eric Gordon (15.4 ppg, 39.1 3-Pt.%) missed a combined 66 games a season ago because of injury. Holiday's injury was a season ender for him.

Even when they were on the court together though, they had their highs, but they also had a lot of lows as well. If they can perform consistently along with swingman Tyreke Evans (14.5 ppg, 5.0 apg, 4.7 rpg), that will make things a lot easier offensively for the Pelicans.

The team also needs forward Ryan Anderson (19.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 40.9 3-Pt.%), who has made the ninth most three-pointers from 2011-13 at 446 to stay healthy as well because his ability to strike a match from behind the arc is a great luxury to have as a starter or coming off the bench.

The bench will be much better served if guard Austin Rivers can finally lived up to his potential. The son of Clippers' head coach Glenn "Doc" Rivers has been nothing but a disappointment so far in his young NBA career. The team needs him to perform to the level he did post All-Star break a season ago when he averaged 10.1 points on 37.0 percent from three-point range.

The Pelicans added depth to their bench this off-season by signing veteran swingman John Salmons and the No. 10 pick in the 2011 draft in sharp shooting guard Jimmer Fredette.

Ever since the depature of Chris Paul and David West, there has been a huge lack of stability and cohesion on both ends of the court for the Pelicans.

With this talent group of players who have shown in flashes they can be great, it is now or never for head coach Monty Williams.

Since making the playoffs in 2011, the Pelicans have been on the outside looking in the past three seasons.

A member of the coaching staff that lead Team USA to Gold at the FIBA World Cup in Spain, Williams needs a big season to keep his job.

For that to happen, the team must stay healthy; settle in on a eight to nine man rotation that can net more wins and they have to establish and identity that will allow the players to perform at their best.

It will not be easy, especially in the division that they play in, which has averaged 45 wins the last four seasons between the Spurs, Rockets, Mavericks and Grizzlies. The Division has had 16 playoff appearances between the teams to go along with five Western Conference Finals appearances, three Finals appearances, all by the Spurs and two NBA titles, won by the Spurs as well.

-Best case scenario: The Pelicans are fighting for the No. 7 or the No. 8 playoff spot in West. Davis is an All-Star again. Evans, Holiday and Gordon perform consistently and stay healthy and the team performs consistently at the defensive end.

-Worst case scenario: The team is on the outside of the playoff picture again costing coach Williams his job.

-Grade: C+

Oklahoma Cith Thunder: Finished 59-23 (1st Northwest Division; No. 2 Seed West); 34-7 at home; 25-16 on the road. Defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 4-3 in the West Quarterfinals. Defeated the Los Angeles Clipper 4-2 in the West Semifinals. Lost to the San Antonio Spurs 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals.

-106.2 ppg-5th; opp. ppg: 99.8-12th; 44.7 rpg-7th.

The fortunes of the Thunder over the past five seasons have rested on the shoulders of All-Star duo Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

For the majority of their career together, the young dynamic duo has stayed healthy and as a result the Thunder in four of the past five seasons have won 50-plus games in the regular season.

Two years ago in the first round versus the Rockets, Westbrook suffered a very serious knee injury that forced him to miss the rest of the postseason. The Thunder defeated the Rockets in six games, but fell to the arch rival Grizzlies in five games.

Westbrook (21.8 ppg, 6.9 apg-led team, 5.7 rpg, 1.9 spg-led team) did return last season, but went under the knife again in late December after having issues with that same knee. It was the first time in his career that he did not play all 82 games, playing in just 46.

Without his running mate, Durant (32.0 ppg-Led NBA, 57.4 rpg, 5.5 apg, 50.3 FG%, 39.1 3-Pt.%) put the Thunder on his back and kept them rolling in the win column.

How hot was Durant, well in the month on January, he averaged 35.9 points per contest, scoring 30 points or more 12 straight games, including his career-high of 54 points against the Warriors. He had an amazing scoring streak of 25 points or more in 41 consecutive, the third most NBA history, trailing only Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson, who did it 47 times in the 1963-64 season and the late great Wilt Chamberlin, who did it 106 straight times form 1961-62.

Durant's incredible season won him the 2014 Most Valuable Player Award, the first of his career.

Unfortunately, the reigning MVP will begin this season on the sidelines for six to eight weeks after having surgery to repair a fracture in his right foot.

That means Westbrook is going to have to carry the load offensively, which he is more up to the challenge to do.

It also means that the supporting cast of forwards Serge Ibaka (15.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg-led team, 2.7 bpg-2nd NBA) and Perry Jones, center Steven Adams, guards Jeremy Lamb (8.5 ppg, 35.6 3-Pt.%) and Reggie Jackson (13.1 ppg) have to step their games up like never before.

They will also need new additions in sharp shooter Anthony Morrow (8.4 ppg, 45.8 FG%, 45.1 3-Pt.%), guard Sebastian Telfair and the 21st overall pick in this past June's draft out of Michigan in forward Mitch McGary to play big time off the bench.

In the five years under head coach Scott Brooks, he and the organization have believed in the next man up philosophy.

The question is will that be enough to keep the Thunder afloat in the tough West until the reigning MVP returns?

-Best case scenario: Durant returns from injury and the Thunder are fighting for home court advantage in the West. They make it back to the Western Conference Finals.

-Worst case scenario: The Thunder are a low playoff seed in the West or they miss the playoffs.

-Grade: D.

Phoenix Suns: Finished 48-34 (3rd Pacific Division; missed playoffs); 26-15 at home; 22-19 on the road.

-105.2 ppg-7th; opp. ppg: 102.6-21st; 43.0 rpg-13th.

In the span of 12 months, the Phoenix Suns went from one of the worst teams in the league the season prior, to one of the up and comers.

They proved a lot of doubters wrong last season when many thought that their rebuilding process was going to last a few years.

That rise back to being a playoff contender started last off-season with the hiring of new General Manager Ryan McDonough.

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

Last off-season, the Suns acquired from the Clippers former understudy to lead guard Chris Paul in Eric Bledsoe (17.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 5.7 apg, 1.6 spg-led team).

He teamed up in the starting backcourt with the 2014 Most Improved Player in Goran Dragic (20.3 ppg-led team, 5.9 apg-ledt team, 50.5 FG%, 40.8 3-Pt.%) to form one of the finest backcourts in the West, not to mention the entire league.

Unfortunately, Bledsoe missed 39 games because of knee surgery and their was a question aboud whether he would be re-signed by the team this off-season. They eventually came to terms and Bledsoe signed a new five-year $70 million deal.

Last summer, the Suns acquired from the Pacers forward Miles Plumlee (8.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg-led team) and swingman Gerald Green (15.8 ppg, 44.5 FG%, 40.4 3-Pt.%) for forward Luis Scola.

Both Green and Plumlee were major factors in the Suns' turnaround last season. Gree, whether as a starter or off the bench gave the Suns a player who was eletric in the open court as well as one who stroke a match from the perimeter more often than not especially from the three-point line.

Two other key factors in the Suns 23-game improvement from the prior season were the Morrs' twins Markieff (13.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Marcus Morris (9.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg).

Both had solid seasons. Markieff gave Suns a player who can score inside as well as rebound as he garnered 11 double-doubles a season ago and his ability to stretch the floor was a perfect compliment to the talents of Dragic and Bledsoe, when they played.

The heart and toughness of the Suns came from swingman P.J. Tucker (9.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 38.7 3-Pt.%). His brought the ability to score from the perimeter on offense and a tenacity to guard the opposition's best perimeter player on defensive.

The Morris' twins and Tucks will have more opportunity this season now that last season's starting forward Channing Frye moved on to the Magic this off-season.

The one player the Suns hope emerges this season is center Alex Len, who has missed a lot of games last season as a rookie. The hope is the fifth overall pick in 2013 can stay healthy and be a presence in the paint this season.

While the Suns turned heads with their amazing play a season ago, it was not enough to get them into the playoffs.

In the draft this past June, they selected at the No. 14 spot forward T.J. Warren out of North Carolina State. The former Wolfpack forward really showed well in Summer League averaging 17.8 points per game and 4.8 boards on 54.4 percent shooting.

With the 18th overall pick, the Suns selected guard Tyler Ennis.

In a trade with the Kings, the Suns added more scoring punch to their back court in acquiring Isaiah Thomas (20.3 ppg, 6.3 apg, 45.3 FG%, 34.9 3-Pt.%).

It is one thing to have a great season like the Suns did with no expectations.

They are not a secret anymore. For them to make the playoffs this season, coach Hornacek will need to push the right buttons and get even more out of this talented and deep team.

They showed they can play with the best, can they do it again?

-Best case scenario: The Suns win close to 50 games and squeak in as the No. 6, No. 7 or No. 8 Seed.

-Worst case scenario: The Suns regress and miss the playoffs again.

-Grade: C+

Portland Trail Blazers: Finished 54-28 (2nd Northwest; No. 5 Seed West); 31-10 at home; 23-18 on the road. Defeated the Houston Rockets 4-2 in West Quarterfinals. Lost to the San Antonio Spurs 4-1 in West Semifinals.

-106.7 ppg-4th; opp. ppg: 102.8 21st; 46.4 rpg-1st.

For years, the Portland Trail Blazers have been one of the steadiest franchises in not just the NBA, but professional sports.

In 44 seasons, the team has made the playoffs 30 times, including last season. They made it to the postseason 21 consecutive seasons from 1983-2003. Only the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League (NHL) have made more consecutive postseason appearances in North American Professional Sports with 29 (1968-96).

With that being said, it has been a long since since the Trail Blazers have been a big time team in the league.

The last time they made it past the first round was in 2000, where they made it to the Western Conference Finals and lost a heartbreaker in seven games to the eventual NBA champion Lakers.

That all changed a season ago when the team won 54 games, their most since 2008-09 and their first season of 50 wins since 2009-10.

Their first playoff series win came in spectacular fashion when first time All-Star and the 2012 Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard connected on a three-pointer with 0.9 seconds left in the game that won Game 6 over the Rockets, which gave the Blazers in the first round victory in six games and their first playoff series victory in 14 years.

The success was short lived as they were outclassed by the eventual NBA champion Spurs in five games.

A large amount of credit to the Trail Blazers getting back to postseason and having some success in it was the continued improvement of Lillard (20.7 ppg, 5.6 apg-led team, 39.4 3-Pt.%), who averaged 22.9 points, 5.1 boards and 6.5 assists during the 2014 playoffs and a career-year from All-NBA Third team selection and three-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge (23.2 ppg-led team, 11.1 rpg-7th NBA), who also was sensational in the 2014 postseason with aveages of 26.2 points and 10.6 rebounds.

Flanking Aldridge and Lillard in one of the best starting quintets in the NBA is all around forward Nicholas Batum (13.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 5.1 apg, 46.5 FG%, 36.1 3-Pt.%), perimeter defensive ace and sharp shooting guard Wesley Matthews (16.1 ppg, 39.3 3-Pt.%) and last off-season's key addition in starting center Robin Lopez (11.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.7 bpg-led team), who was a great compliment to Aldridge.

To illustrate how good the Blazers offense was a season ago, Only the Rockets (779), Warriors and Lakers (774) made more three pointers than the Blazers in 2013-14.

Even with that great offense punch from the perimeter and the starting five, the Trail Blazers came up short against the Spurs in the Semis because of the lowest scoring bench in the league a season ago at averaged just 24.7 points per contest.

In the off-season, the team signed guard Steve Blake (6.9 ppg, 5.6 apg, 37.6 3-Pt.%), who will be in his second stint with the Blazers and center Chris Kaman (10.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg).

The team will need along with the new additions to the bench reserves like last season's first round draft pick (10th overall) guard C.J. McCollum out of Lehigh University, guards Will Barton and Allen Crabbe, center Meyers Leonard, forwards Thomas Robinson, Joel Freeland, Victor Claver and Dorell Wright to play consistent when they are in the game.

The Cinderealla season the Blazers had a season gave head coach Terry Stotts a contract extension.

The team however will need another one this season, especially if they want to keep Aldridge in the fold as he will be a free agent at season's end.

With the injury to Kevin Durant of the Thunder, the Blazers are the early season favorite to win the Northwest Division.

The question is do Lillard and Aldrdige have another level to go to offensively?

Thisis a big year for Aldridge, who will be a free agent at season's end. He has said he wants to remain a Blazer for the rest of his career and the team says they want to keep him.

Another question for the Trail Blazers is will their overall team defense get better?

The Blazers went from 29th in field goal percentage allowed in 2012-13 to 11th surrendering 45.1 percent shooting to the opponent. They were also tied for eighth with the Memphis Grizzlies in three-point percentage allowed at 35.5 percent. They ranked 14 in block shots per contest at 4.7.

They were the darlings of the West a season ago. They made serious strides and proved they can hang with the best in the West. Now can they take it to another level?

-Best case scenario: The Blazers win 50-plus games in back-to-back years for the first time since 2008-09 and 2009-10 and contend for the Northwest Division title. The bench compliments the starters. The Blazers get back to the West Semis.

-Worst case scenario: The Trail Blazers fall in the first round.

Sacramento Kings: Finished 28-54 (4th Pacific Division; missed the playoffs); 17-24 at home; 11-30 on the road.

-1005. ppg-17th; opp. ppg: 103.4-24th; 44.5 rpg-9th.

There comes a point where a team reaches a crossroads. Will they finally get on track and win more games or will they be stuck in neutral.

That is the position the Sacramento Kings are in.

It has been eight years since playoff basketball has been played in the capital of California.

Since Rick Adelman, the Kings have gone through five head coaches, Eric Musselman, Reggie Theus, Kenny Natt, Paul Westphal, Keith Smart and currently Michael Malone.

The Kings have not had an All-Star selection since Peja Stojakovic and Brad Miller made the halfway point classic back in 2004.

They do have an All-Star talent in center DeMarcus Cousins (22.7 ppg-led team, 11.7 rpg-5th NBA), who had 11 games with 20-plus points and 15-plus boards a season ago. He also was one of five players last year to average 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds per game.

His stellar play got him a four-year $60 million contract extension last summer and this past off-season played a major role in helping Team USA capture Gold at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.

The next step in his maturation is to control his emotions, which earned him 43 technical fouls over the last three seasons, which led the NBA. He also must become a more vocal leader in the locker room.

Another talented player on the Kings who has been an enigma in his career has been Rudy Gay (20.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg), who averaged 20.1 points on 48.2 percent shooting in 55 games after being acquired from the Raptors in Dec. 2013.

The Kings hope that the Team USA experience he and Cousins had this summer will help him be the kind of player who can lead the Kings out of the basement in the Western Conference.

Another issue the Kings have had in recent years is finding a point guard.

In free agency, the Kings signed Darren Collison (11.4 ppg, 46.7 FG%, 37.6 3-Pt.%) to be the answer for the presence. The team also signed in free agency guard Ramon Sessions (12.3 ppg).

They hope though that second-year guard Ray McCallum, who had some bright moments as a rookie a season ago, can become the lead guard of the future for the team.

Whoever is the starter at the point, their play will hopefully improved the Kings ability to find the open man as opposed to last season when they were dead last in the league in assist per game a season ago at 18.8.

Along with settling on a starting lead guard, they need to decide who will be the starting two-guard this season and in the future.

Last season's first rond draft choice Ben McLemore (8.8 ppg) is very talented, but was inconsistent in his rookie season. That is why in this June's draft, the Kings selected with the No. 8 pick the best shooter in Nik Stauskas out of Michigan.

If one of them can consistently strike a match from perimeter, especially from the three-point line, the Kings should improve from the 28th ranked percentage from the three-point arc at 33.3 percent and the 28th ranking in three-point makes at 491.

The one area where the Kings will be stout is in the frontcourt.

Along with Cousins and Gay, the front court will consist of "Mr. Energy" in forwards Reggie Evans (4.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Omri Casspi, who will be in his second stint with the Kings; center Ryan Hollins, Carl Landry, Jason Thompson (7.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Derrick Williams (8.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg).

The problem is that some of these front court players have a lot of questions.

Can Landry, who played in just 18 games a season ago because of injury get back to form that made him a solid player in his career,where he averaged 11.5 points and 5.2 boards per game in his career?

Will Evans' in ability to score and shoot free throws, where he shot just 52.3 percent in his career, outweigh his strengths of rebounding the ball.

Hollins has been nothing more than a back-up his entire career and Thompson, has been solid, but has spectacular since being the No. 12 overall pick out of Rider University back in 2008.

The true enigma of the front court is Derrick Williams. A very talented player who has a lot of ability, but he has been unable to play at a consistent level. On top of that, he has not found his true position.

This team like I said before has talent, lead by Cousins and Gay. Instability at the lead guard and shooting guard spots has held them back. Being young and experienced has not helped either.

This season more than anything will be about building cohesion and establishing an identity on offense and defense while hopefully winning more than 28 games, which they have the last two seasons.

They have the offensive anchor in Cousins. Can they surround him with a supporting cast that can play together and win?

-Best case scenario: The Kings establish and identity on offense and defense. Cousins emegers as the vocal leader. The backourt situation is settled. The Kings finish at .500.

-Worst case scenario: The have serveal losing streaks and the issues at guard spots continue.


San Antonio Spurs: Finished 62-20 (1st Southwest Division; No.1 Seed West); 32-9 at home; 30-11 on the road. Defeated teh Dallas Mavericks 4-3 in West Quarterfinals. Defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 4-1 in West Semifinals. Defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-2 in Western Conferene Finals. Defeated the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals 4-1 to win their fifth NBA title in franchise history.

-105.4 ppg-6th; opp. ppg: 97.6-6th; 43.3 rpg-12th.

After losing in The Finals to the Heat two years ago, earning back-to-back titles, many thought that the days of the Spurs winning titles were in their rear view mirror.

They once again proved their doubters wrong by not only earning the best record in the West, but in the whole NBA.

They outlasted the in-state rival Mavericks in the opening round; outclassed the young Trail Blazers in the Semis; got passed the archrival Thunder and outplayed the Heat in the reach match and won their fifth title in franchise history.

Leading way once again was the "Big Three" of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and last season's NBA Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich, which was his third one in his career (2003 and 2012).

Along with having an amazing head coach and a dynamic trio, the Spurs have an amazing supporting cast.

Leading that supporting cast is the 2014 Most Valuable Player of The Finals was forward Kawhi Leonard (12.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 52.2 FG%, 37.9 3-Pt.%).

The third youngest player to win Finals MVP in NBA history at the age of 23, Leonard averaged 17.8 points and six boards on 61.2 percent shooting from the floor and 57.9 percent from three-point range.

The rest of the supporting cast consist of forward Boris Diaw (9.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg), guards Marco Bellinelli (11.4 ppg, 48.5 FG%, 43.0 3-Pt.%), Danny Green (9.1 ppg, 41.5 3-Pt.%) and Cory Joseph, center Tiago Splitter (8.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 52.3 FG%) and Matt Bonner.

A very important part of the Spurs supporting cast a season ago was guard Patty Mills (10.2 ppg, 46.4 FG%, 42.5 3-Pt.%). Unfortunately, he will be out to start this season because of shoulder surgery. He is expected back in January.

The absence of Mills will give more time to the likes of Joseph, Bonner and 30th overall pick in this past June's draft guard Kyle Anderson out of UCLA.

Another addition that the Spurs made this off-season is to their coaching staff bringing on former WNBA guard Becky Hammon, who willl be the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history.

The formula in recent years for the Spurs to be at their best come playoff time has been pretty simple. Keep the "Big Three" of Duncan (15.1 ppg, 9.7 rpg-led team, 1.9 bpg-led team), now 38 years old, Ginobili (12.3 ppg, 46.9 FG%, 34.9 3-Pt.%), now 37 years old and Tony Parker (16.7 ppg-led team, 5.7 apg-led team, 49.9 FG%) healthy.

To put this into perspective, no one on the Spurs averaged more than 30 minutes per game during the regular season.

That has also allowed Popovich to develop the rest of the team, in particular the bench, which lead the league with 44.3 points per game. They are also a very unselfish team, leading the league in assists per contest at 25.2 a season ago.

Along with being an efficient offense team, the Spurs have been one of the best defensive teams over the years. They ranked seventh in opponents field goal percentage at 44.4 percent; tied for seventh in three-point percentage allowed at 35.3 and tied for eighth in block shots per game at 5.1.

To put the greatness of the Spurs into perspective, they are going for 50-plus wins for the 16th straight season and they are trying to make the playoffs for the 17th consecutive season. What makes that very special is that it will have occcured under one coach, that being Popovich.

The two other teams that can somewhat say they had that kind of success for a long period are the Lakers from 1979-91, who won 50-plus games under three head coaches Paul Westhead, Pat Riley and Mike Dunleavy, Sr. and the Mavericks from 2000-2011, who won 50-plus games for 11 straight seasons under head coaches Don Nelson, Avery Johnson and Rick Carlisle.

The only thing that the Spurs have not done in this great run that dates back to 1999 is win back-to-back titles. In theri previous four chances, the lost in the Semfinals twice (2003 and 2005) to the Lakers and Mavericks respectably; they lost in the first round to the Suns in 2000 and they came up short in the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers.

While the Spurs have as good a chance to repeat, the West is as tough as ever and the question is can this veteran team continue to follow the script that has made them successful?

-Best case scenario: The Spurs win 50-plus games for the 16th straight season; their fifth consecutive Southwest Division title and their sixth in the last seven season. They make it back to The Finals for the third straight season and win back-to-back titles.

-Worst case scenario: They sustain a major injury and they have an early exit in the playoffs.

-Grade: A+

Utah Jazz: Finished 25-57 (5th Northwest Divsion; missed playoffs); 16-25 at home; 9-32 on the road.

-95.0 ppg-29th; opp. ppg: 102.2-18th; 41.2 rpg-23rd.

Last season, the Utah Jazz decided that they going to make a full committment to rebuilding the team around some very talented, but young players.

The youth movement in Utah started a season ago with the selection of guard Trey Burke (12.8 ppg, 5.7 apg) at the No. 9 spot of the 2013 draft out of Michigan.

He missed the first 12 games because of a broken thumb and the Jazz struggled out of the gate at 1-11.

When Burke did play, the team was very competitive and they hope the addition of the fifth overall pick in this past June's draft in guard Dante Exum is a combination that can give teams a lot of trouble.

The Jazz also have high hopes for the 23 overall pick out of Duke in Rodney Hood, who they hope can provide them with some outside shooting off the bench.

The fortunes of the future for Salt Lake City's basketball team rest in the hands of swingman Gordon Hayward (16.2 ppg-led team, 5.1 rpg, 5.2 apg), guard Alec Burcks (14.0 ppg, 45.7 FG%); forward/center Derrick Favors (13.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg-led team, 1.5 bpg-led team, 52.2 FG%) and center Enes Kanter (12.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg).

This off-season, Hayward as a restricted free agent received a four-year $63 million offer sheet from the Charlotte Hornets, which was matched by the Jazz. It is now on him to live up or close to the money as a player on the court and a leader in the locker room.

Favors and Kanter are a promising forward and center combination that have made progress in the early part of their careers. If they can get to the point were they dominate on both ends night in and night out, the Jazz will definately be headed for better days.

The Jazz also need reserve players in forward Jeremy Evans (6.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and center Rudy Gobert to make an impact this season to add depth to the team.

The addition of forward Trevor Booker (6.8 ppg, 5 .3 rpg) and three-point special list Steve Novak will respectably add depth to the front court and floor spacing to the Jazz.

Getting the best out of this group while establishing a style of play will be the job of new head coach Quin Snyder this season.

As constituted right now, the Jazz are a long ways away from being a playoff contender. The one thing in their favor is that they have talented players including some core ones to build with.

If they can make a serious jump in their development this season, the future looks bright in Salt Lake, City.

Also, the team's well managed salary cap and with assets to make deals to acquire a high-caliber veteran, the Jazz could be in the playoff picture in the years to come.

-Best case scenario: The Jazz win at least 33 games. Favors, Kanter, Hayward, Burks and Burke continue to develop and Exum and Hood establish themselves in their rookie seasons.

-Worst case scenario: The young core players regress and Exum and Hood have more low points in their rookie season than high points.
Information and statistics are courtesy of www.espn.com/nba; en.wikipedia.org; NBA.com's 2014 Off-Season Report Cards by writers Jeff Caplan, Lang Whitaker, Fran Blinebury, Scott Howard-Cooper, John Schuhmann and Steve Aschburner; NBA Off-Season Player Movement courtesy of NBA.com; Sporting News 2006-07 Preview, 2005-06 Review Official NBA Guide; NBA Preview of all 30 teams with Vince Cellini, Jared Greenberg, Rick Kamla, Steve Smith, Brent Barry, Greg Anthony, Vinny Del Negro, Dennis Scott, Stu Jackson, Mike Fratello, Isiah Thomas, Grant Hill and David Aldridge; 10/22/14 6:30 p.m. edition of "The Starters: Season Preview: Part 6"and 10/27/14 6:30 p.m. edition of "The Starters: Season Preview: Part 9," with Tas Melas, Phil Elder (J.E. Skeets), Leigh Ellis and Trey Kerby.