11. Brooklyn Nets: The Nets are making a push for a title. During a draft day trade, they landed future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, adding to a team that already included All-Stars Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. They’re not the spryest of squads, averaging 29.5 years of age, but they have the playoff experience to put a scare into the Eastern Conference.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves: Health concerns will always arise in Minneapolis, but if the T-Wolves can remain physically intact they can be force in the West. Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio form a dynamic duo up north, and the additions of Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer may push them into the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
13. Washington Wizards: Big changes are-a-brewin’ in the nation’s capital. Star point guard John Wall was signed to a 5-year, $80 million extension and Marcin Gortat was acquired in a trade with Phoenix. The oft-injured Nene looks healthier than ever and so does shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of the most promising young players in the game. Don’t look now, but the Wiz are on their way up.
14. New Orleans Pelicans: “Pelicans” may not be the most imposing of team names, but putting fish-eating seabirds aside, New Orleans’ management has made a real effort to turn this team into a contender. They made two significant trades in the off-season, acquiring point guard Jrue Holliday from Philadelphia and small forward Tyreke Evans from Sacramento. Last year’s #1 pick, Antonio Davis, is primed to break out after a solid rookie season (13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks), and Eric Gordon might actually begin the year on the team, rather than in an infirmary. After winning only 27 games last year, the Pelicans are vastly improved, but can they add 18 wins to that total? 45 victories was the requirement to making the playoffs in the West last season.
15. Detroit Pistons: There are many reasons for the residents of Motown to smile again. The additions of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings make them a team to be reckoned with. Center Andre Drummond is a beast and draft picks Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Luigi Datome are expected to contribute immediately. The Pistons may be rising in the rankings in a few weeks.
16. Denver Nuggets: Former coach George Karl was ousted after last year’s playoff loss, and in his place is Brian Shaw. The ex-Laker guard vows to play a more defensive-minded game, which means more playing time for mercurial center JaVale McGee. The Nuggets will try to stay in the hunt long enough to await the return of Danilo Gallinari (ACL).
17. Portland Trailblazers: There’s a lot of reason to be excited if you live in the Pacific Northwest. The Blazers have an excellent young core of players with the potential to carry them into the playoffs. Damian Lillard, only the fourth player ever to be unanimously chosen as the Rookie of the Year, leads a starting cast that included LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews. Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright were brought in to help a team that was significantly lacking in depth last season.
18. Dallas Mavericks: Owner Mark Cuban insists the Mavs will be a competitive team this year, but isn’t that what any proud papa would say about his creation? Newcomers Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon will make up a solid backcourt, and Dirk is, well, Dirk, but the team as a whole is much older (5th oldest in the NBA) and will lack that punch to carry them to the top.
19. Atlanta Hawks: Josh Smith is out and Paul Millsap is in, which will bring more discipline to the Hawks attack, and Jeff Teague and Al Horford should benefit from that the most. The Hawks don’t have much depth, and that’s something that could keep them from being a legitimate threat to the rest of the league.
20. Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs are serious about trying to bring LeBron James back into the fold next year. They showed their commitment to winning by extending the contracts of All-Star Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller. They are big up front, with Thompson, top draft pick Anthony Bennett, Anderson Varejao and previous science experiment gone wrong, Andrew Bynum. If the latter two can stay healthy, the Cavs could find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since LeBron was running the show in Cleveland.