Last NBA season was a great one, with records being set, as well as some stars emerging, but at the end of the day, basketball is a team game, and while we once again had the Warriors dominating the competition, there are plenty of teams ready to step up to the plate and face that challenge head-on. While I believe the Warriors will again work their way to their third ring in the past four years, there is going to be plenty of stiff competition, as the West continues to get deeper year after year, and it will no doubt be one of the best years for fans in recent memory.
This offseason has been a crucial one for many teams, with some stepping up to the plate and making big moves, while others have struggled to do anything of note, and that all effects how teams will fare once the season starts in just a few months. Which moves will pay off? Which teams will improve from within? Which teams may fall off in the short term for long term gain? We can’t answer those with 100% certainty, but we can tell you 8 NBA teams who will improve on their record in the upcoming season, and 7 who will unfortunately see their win total drop from a season ago.
15 Improve – Miami Heat
Ever since LeBron James left the Heat, the team has been struggling to put together consistent performances, but in the second half of 2016/17, the team put together the best record in the entire NBA, and with a talented young roster led by Hassan Whiteside, as well as the continued weakening of the Eastern Conference, the Heat should not only improve from their .500 winning percentage last year, but should make a strong push for the playoffs. There are obvious improvements that need to be made in this Miami team, but with a good mix of veterans and future stars, plus a fairly deep bench, this could be a team that troubles any other in the playoffs, no matter how deep they go. Don’t expect the Heat to dethrone Cleveland or Boston this year, but they will certainly take a major step in the right direction to becoming a powerhouse once again.
14 Regress – Utah Jazz
After struggling for years since the team lost Deron Williams, the Utah Jazz slowly built their way back up to contention in the Western Conference through the likes of Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward, but with Hayward leaving for greener pastures in Boston, this team could be looking at a severe fallout. Sure, the team retained the rest of their team, as well as picking up Ricky Rubio to run the point, but with so many stars coming to the West and joining forces, it only spells doom for this team, who struggled down the stretch last year even with their biggest stars together. It may not be long before this team is out of the playoffs, as they have a solid young core to build, and while it’s unfortunate, the team will certainly dip out of the top eight in the West in this upcoming season.
13 Improve – Golden State Warriors
It’s ridiculous to think that the Golden State Warriors can continue to improve year after year, especially following their record 73-win season in 2015, but after adding Kevin Durant last year, they’ve managed to again improve by adding the likes of Nick Young and Omri Casspi, as well as re-signing Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Stephen Curry to huge deals. The West keeps getting better, but with their ridiculously talented roster, the Warriors could somehow manage to improve on their 67-win season, even challenging their 73-win record. With LeBron possibly on his way to the West following this season, as well as upcoming contracts for the likes of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, this dynasty could finally be challenged. But at least for this upcoming regular season, don’t expect this dominant Warriors squad to slow down at all.
12 Regress – Los Angeles Clippers
In this past offseason, the Clippers were in danger of completely falling apart, and while they lost Jamal Crawford, they managed to bring back Blake Griffin, and while Chris Paul left for Houston, he insisted on a sign and trade, which kept the Clippers as playoff contenders for this upcoming season. This is one of the biggest roster turnovers for a team in recent memory, as they brought in Danilo Galinari, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker and Pat Beverly, while losing the two aforementioned players, and while I believe the Clippers will again be in the playoffs, it’s unlikely they'll be in the top four. The Western Conference continues to get deeper, and if the Clippers can stay healthy, they can definitely contend, but don’t expect to be seeing this team as good as they have been over the past several years with Chris Paul at the helm.
11 Improve – Los Angeles Lakers
After being the benchmark for success in the NBA for so many generations, the Los Angeles Lakers have undergone quite a long rebuild in recent years, and with #2 pick Lonzo Ball teaming up with fellow top picks like Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram, they could finally again be on the slow climb to the top. It’s not going to be easy, as it will always take time for a young team to gel together, but if they want to convince Paul George to join the team following this season, they will need to show some improvement, and I believe they will. With the West getting stronger every year, it’s going to be incredibly hard, but with Lonzo Ball running the team, they are bound to improve, even if it’s just by a few games, as that will be something to hang their hat on.
10 Regress – Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies were once an old school, grind-it-out team that had some great success in the West, but they were never able to have a deep playoff run that many thought they were capable of. And with so many teams improving in the already stacked Western Conference, this team is unfortunately going to start declining this season. With Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and others, this team still has potential, but with so many teams competitive in the West, it’s hard to see their slower style of play working too well, for the very near future anyway. With many teams below them improving, it’s going to be hard to see the Grizzlies keeping their playoff spot again, and while the drop off won’t be as drastic as some other teams on this list, it will certainly be noticeable for such a consistent playoff presence over the past few years.
9 Improve – Milwaukee Bucks
In 2017, the Milwaukee Bucks were one of the league’s most underrated teams, and with budding superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way by leading the team in each statistical category, they will certainly climb the ranks in the Eastern Conference again, solidifying themselves as a future threat to the top tier teams out East. With improving young players around The Greek Freak, as well as a few teams falling off from the top of the East, this team could make a serious push for the top four in the already weaker Eastern Conference. If Giannis can continue to improve at the rate he has been over the last two years, we could be looking at one of the top five players in the entire NBA, and if the team can improve alongside him, they will be a serious threat for quite some time.
8 Regress – Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons haven’t been relevant in the NBA for a decade now, and just as it looked like the team was improving, they struggled throughout the 2016/17 season, and without any major moves made in the offseason, it’s unlikely that they will fight their way back in the upcoming season. With other teams out East improving, it will definitely be a struggle for the Pistons, and without much of a future, they might even look at moving Andre Drummond sometime throughout the season, and while that would help long term plans, it would definitely hurt them in the short term. If you’re from Detroit, your Tigers are struggling, the Lions don’t have much of a chance in the NFC, and the Pistons will again fall to the bottom of the East, so there isn’t really too much to cheer for.
7 Improve – Denver Nuggets
With all the moves that are being made in the West this offseason, most of the focus will be on Golden State, San Antonio, Minnesota and even OKC, but a team that will fly under the radar is the Denver Nuggets, who have not only improved as a team over the past few years, but added All-Star Paul Millsap who will be a huge help to this young core. With guys like Jamal Murray, Kenneth Faried and Gary Harris alongside their two stars, Millsap and Nikola Jokic, this team could be a dark horse team, and while I don’t think they will be a contender to Golden State, they could sneak into the playoffs with an improved record from last season. A few years ago, we saw teams struggle to keep up with the high-octane offense of the Nuggets, and this team has the potential to do the same, but only time will tell.
6 Regress – Houston Rockets
Coming into the 2017 offseason, it looked like the Rockets were primed to become the Golden State Warriors, and while some think giving up their depth to get Chris Paul helped the team, I believe that it will indeed hurt Houston, as they will struggle to equal their win total from a season ago. Sure, the backcourt tandem of Paul and superstar James Harden is better than Harden and Pat Beverly, but to get that, they needed to give up several very good role players, and with this combined with the increased strength of the rest of the West, it’s unlikely they succeed in the same manner of 2016/17. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if this team could be serious contenders to the Warriors out West, but they’re going to have to go through much harder competition to make it happen. Expect their record will slightly go down in the regular season.
5 Improve – Oklahoma City Thunder
The biggest story of the entire 2016/17 NBA regular season was the record shattering performance by OKC point guard Russell Westbrook, as he not only dethroned Oscar Robertson as the single season record holder for triple-doubles, but he ended up averaging a triple-double with a 31.6 ppg/10.7 rpg/10.4 apg stat line, which also netted him the MVP award. That’s an incredible individual effort, so in the offseason, it was clear that the organization wanted to improve their team around Russ, so they traded for Paul George, and teaming the two superstars will have an immediate impact. It’s going to be tough, even with the reigning MVP for OKC to challenge the elite in the West, but expect the Thunder to make vast improvements this season, hopefully for them, even enough to convince PG13 to stick around beyond this upcoming season.
4 Regress – Indiana Pacers
Just a few years ago, the Pacers were LeBron James’ biggest challenger when he was with the Heat, and they gave them a good run for their money on several occasions, but with the injury to Paul George and slight roster turnover, the organization came crumbling down. And with the team getting rid of PG13 in this offseason, they could come crashing down even further. They got a decent pair of players back for their superstar in that trade, but unfortunately two decent players to pair with young star Myles Turner just won’t be enough to keep this team in the playoff hunt, so it could be worse for Indiana following this season. Don’t get me wrong, there are still teams in the East who will struggle more than the Pacers, but from a playoff team to the cellar in one season, Indiana will have one of the biggest dropoffs in recent memory.
3 Improve – Philadelphia 76ers
Over the past few years, one of the biggest stories in the entire NBA has been ‘The Process’ in Philadelphia, and with Joel Embiid showing plenty of promise in 2016, it looked like their rebuilding process could finally be paying off. So with Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz set to join the team in 2017, it could finally be time for Philly to see some results. What also helps is the fact that the Eastern Conference seems to get weaker by the year (and with rumors that LeBron James could be looking to leave at the end of this season, it could get much, much weaker), so not only could the Sixers finally have a winning record, but they could, and I predict will make a massive leap all the way to the playoffs in the year 2017/18.
2 Regress – Chicago Bulls
Just a few short years ago, the Chicago Bulls were the Eastern Conference’s biggest contenders to stop whatever team LeBron James was playing on at the time, but since completely blowing up their roster, they have become nothing more than a joke, even with such a star like Dwayne Wade leading the team. There are small amounts of potential on the team, especially with Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine coming over in the Jimmy Butler deal with Minnesota, as well as Nikola Mirotic, but as a complete NBA team, expect the Bulls to continue their drop in the Eastern Conference. This past year, the team managed to just squeak into the playoffs, going down in a good 6-game series against the Celtics, but for the near future, expect this team to miss the playoffs in very unfortunate fashion.
1 Improve – Minnesota Timberwolves
This past offseason, there was no team that improved their chances more than the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have gone from cellar-dwellers in the Western Conference to potentially the Golden State Warriors biggest challenger. Despite trading away some young, potentially promising talent, the T-Wolves transformed their lineup with the addition of superstar Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague to their starting five, as well as veteran Jamal Crawford to their bench, and if the team can gel, they will be a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference. With Butler, Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins all together on the same team, there is immense opportunity for offensive explosions with this team, and with coach Tom Thibodeau leading the group of rising stars, this could potentially be the most successful season in Minnesota basketball history.
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