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2014-15 NBA Preview: Sleepers And Underachievers

Max Holm |
October 23, 2014 | 12:50 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

The re-branded Charlotte Hornets are ready to make some waves in the East. (@Hornets/Twitter)
The re-branded Charlotte Hornets are ready to make some waves in the East. (@Hornets/Twitter)
Every year experts, and not-so experts, do their best to embarass themselves by making predictions before the season starts. We do it, we consume it and we love it. Almost every prediction is wrong because, let's face it, sports are so unpredictable; injuries happen, players get traded, and players improve.

Nonetheless, here's another one of those predictions. 

The NBA is coming off one of its most popular seasons in recent memory. The Spurs toppled LeBron and the Heat, appeasing all the LeBron haters and basketball purists out there. Then we had the craziest offseason in league history. Now, as the preseason comes to a close and rosters are pretty much set, it's clearer which teams could be destined to be sleepers and which are susceptible to underachieve this season. 

Before getting into it, parameters must be set as to what defines a sleeper. A sleeper will not necessarily have to be a championship darkhorse or even a playoff sleeper; it's simply a team who can and I expect to exceed expectations from a year ago based on the moves they've made. 


The first sleeper is a team that should be feared and considered an championship calber team.

The past several seasons has seen Memphis become more known for basketball then their fine, sweet jazz. The big man combo of Z-Bo and Marc Gasol is arguably the best in the league, Mike Conley remains a heavily underrated pointguard and leader and they're complimented by the defensive duo of Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen. 

This is a top-five defensive team, so naturally for Memphis to be a contender, its offense has to improve. Randolph and Gasol have to be healthy, but now they've added Vince Carter to go along with Quincy Pondexter (underrated) Kosta Koufos and Courtney Lee. Then the Grizz picked up two peaches in the draft with Jarnell Stokes out of Tennessee and Jordan Adams from UCLA, who can contribute right away as they're immersed in a professional winning environment. Memphis is deep, full of veterans, hungry and ready to rumble in the West. Its defense will be inpenetrable and Conley should make another step up. 

Had Randolph not been stupidly suspended in Game 7 against OKC, they had a great shot to make back to back Western Conference Finals against the Spurs. They'll give the Spurs, Thunder and Clipps all they can handle and really resemble the second most complete team in the West.

SEE ALSO: 5 Storylines To Follow This NBA Preseason

In the Eastern Conference, there is a team that isn't quite on Cleveland or Chicago's level, but could easily be the next best squad. No, it's not the Raptors nor the Wizards. Welcome aboard, the Hornets bandwagon.

Conspiracy right here: the year after the Tampa Bay Devil Rays became the Rays, they made the World Series. Name changes can work (even though Charlotte couldn't make the finals unless Michael Jordan was 20 years younger). Following an impressive run to the playoffs, Jordan came out swinging in free agency and has assembled a formidable team.

Big Al and Kemba Walker remain to anchor the team and supposedly Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has developed some major confidence in his shot. MKG is also the team's best defensive wing, and an elite one at that, which is imperative for any competitive team.

There's room to grow for young big men Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo, along with new talented rookies P.J. Hairston and Noah Vonleh, who sould have a bright future. Then "His Airness" tried to sign Gordon Hayward to a max contract, who would have fit well into the team. However after Utah matched, Jordan took that money and threw it at Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams. Now that's a squad.

The biggest problem for Chrlotte is that there are two other really good young teams in the East: the aforementioned Wiz and Raptors. However, under Steve Clifford, Charlotte had one of the best defensive teams in the league. They add two-way upgrades in Williams and Stephenson to go along with athletic young guys, Big Al and the ever improving duo of MKG and Kemba. Toronto and Washington kept their core, but they're not above-average defensive squads and didn't truly get much better. 

The Hornets are back; they played the Heat tough in a series most people forgot about because it was a sweep, but Charlotte was in most of each game. They are legit and will be back in the playoffs to make some noise right in your ears.

Jabari Parker and Jason Kidd's Bucks shouldn't be overlooked. (@Bucks/Twitter)
Jabari Parker and Jason Kidd's Bucks shouldn't be overlooked. (@Bucks/Twitter)
The third and final sleeper is also in the East, but shouldn't be expected to challenge for even a playoff spot. That doesn't mean the Bucks can't or won't greatly improve however and leave behind the depths of the pathetic cellar of the Eastern Conference (sorry Boston and Philly). 

Jason Kidd power-moves Brooklyn, the Greek Freak grows two inches to now become the next closest thing to a young Kevin Durant, Milwaukee drafts Jabari Parker and life is pretty sweet. It may seem hard to move up in the East because several teams got better, and this isn't to say the Bucks will suddenly make the playoffs, but they could come close.

Kidd should be able to get Larry Sanders contributing; and John Henson was a stud last year in Sanders' absence. The shot blocking between those two and Giannis will be incredible. Not to mention Jabari is the most talented rookie and is such a hard-working driven kid, he could be a solid defender by year's end.

They still have talented players with plenty to prove in Brandon Knight and OJ Mayo. Ilyasova and Pachulia are productive big men, and the Bucks have a plethora of reserve guards like former-tar heel Kendall Marchall, Jerryd Bayless and Nate Wolters. 

The Bucks have more depth than most think and Kidd did a great job in Brooklyn with far more talent. If he can find a way to create a balance between developing a young team and letting them grow, Milwaukee should be just outside the playoffs, but in the hunt for a good chunk of the season. Fear the deer!

SEE ALSO: Cavs Win Kevin Love Trade While Wolves, Sixers tank For Future


Now the optimism will fade as three teams destined to take major steps back this season get the spotlight.

Heat. Pacers. Rockets. All doomed.

(The Rockets may be a surprise, but most are expecting down seasons from Indy and Miami. However, not to the extent that you're about to read.) 

Starting with Houston who had the biggest strikeout of the summer. They dump Lin and Asik to create a big four of Harden-Howard-Bosh-Parsons, only to end up with Howard-Harden-Ariza? Yup.

Parsons went clubbing with Mark Cuban and the Miami mafia got to Bosh. Now Houston have one less talented guard, one less starting-caliber big man, and one less incredible wing. They added a good wing. General Manager Morey should be fine though given the new TV contract and given his two stars don't go anywhere.

The West was already a dog fight and this Houston team only had okay depth last year; now it's even thinner. New Orleans and Phoenix will be better pushing for the playoffs, so the Rockets could be in trouble.

You read it here first: Houston will MISS the playoffs. Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies and Mavs are almost all locks. That leaves Houston, Portland, Phoenix and New Orleans for two spots. Put your money on Phoenix and Portland.

Best case sceanrio: Houston gets the seventh or eighth seed and gets swept in the first round. This team missed so badly in the offseason and Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones, and Trevor Ariza cannot carry the load. The bench is near unrecognizable and Kevin McHale is not the coach to save this team. Not to mention how moody and not fun James Harden and Dwight Howard were even when they had a good team. Houston, you sure got a problem.

The Pacers will be without last year's dynamic duo in 2014-15. (Play.it.us/Wikimedia Commons)
The Pacers will be without last year's dynamic duo in 2014-15. (Play.it.us/Wikimedia Commons)
Let's move on to the Indiana Pacers, who might have had an even worse summer than Houston, but in a different manner. Indy loses Lance Stephenson in free agency and Paul George is done for most, if not all, of the season after getting hurt for Team USA. Goodbye, title window. The Pacers will miss the playoffs and be a bottom-five team in the East, maybe even bottom-three. 

Replacing Stephenson and George are CJ Miles and Rodney Stuckey. Indiana's bench, much like Houston's, wasn't that deep and now will be one of the league's worst. Frank Vogel, Larry Bird and Co. are in a tough spot. 

David West should be great and Roy Hibbert could always bounce back. But the wings, along with George Hill, can't cut it in an improved East. Indy, whether its their intention or not, could end up with a top-five pick next June.

Next June won't see the reigning Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat in the lottery, but they might be the weakest playoff team in the conference. They couldn't sell LeBron on staying and now have Danny Granger, Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Shabazz Napier as reinforcements. 

Luckily, for Miami, Chris Bosh didn't bolt to Houston and they still have head coach Erik Spoelstra who remains one of the best coaches in the league. He's the only reason this team has a chance at the playoffs. Bosh should have a monster season, but there's no way Wade can stay healthy, especially now will be more demanded of him.

The Heat have one of the worst benches in the league and terrible play at point guard. It would be surprising to see them miss the playoffs, but if a couple teams really improve, it wouldn't be shocking. Bosh staying may have been the only thing keeping the team relevant, but Miami poses no threat to the better teams in the East. 

Reach Staff Reporter Max Holm here



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