This week marks the beginning of the 2014-15 NBA season and I’m sure we’re all excited to see what the new campaign will have to offer. The NBA’s off-season is never dull, and this past summer was no exception with a multitude of big names changing cities. LeBron James was obviously the top story during the NBA hot stove, and his departure from Miami drastically alters the landscape of the Eastern Conference this season. But LeBron aside, there were other key additions throughout the league that have the potential for some teams that were watching the playoffs from their couches to play meaningful basketball come April. Key acquisitions via free agency or trades can make impact conference seeding, all-star roster spots, and can change the dynamic within certain divisions. Division races don’t matter as much in the NBA as they do in say, the MLB or NFL, but they provide interesting match-ups throughout the season, and some divisions offer a much more exciting slate of games than its counterparts. Each season there are divisions that hold hostage a few more playoff teams than the others. So which NBA division will be the best overall in 2014-15? Here are my NBA Divisional Rankings for the start of this season.
1) Southwest Division
The division that is home to the NBA champs holds the top spot, but that is not the only reason that the Southwest is the best division in the NBA. If the Spurs were in a division with Utah, Minnesota, Sacramento, and the LA Lakers, that wouldn’t make for the best division, but a division featuring the reigning champs, plus three other playoff teams from a season ago boasts the best overall depth of any division in the league.
San Antonio is being picked to once again hoist the O’Brien trophy in June, and even if they fail to win the championship, will certainly be contenders come playoff time. Houston finished with a top 4 seed a season ago and will hope to climb a little higher in the standing this season, possibly taking early advantage of the injury to Kevin Durant. Memphis and Dallas took the final two playoff spots lost season, edging out Phoenix in a great playoff race at the end of the regular season, and both teams got stronger this off-season. I expect both of these teams to make the playoffs again this season, once again giving the Southwest four playoff teams, without even considering the up and coming Pelicans and Anthony Davis, who have the potential to make some noise in a crowded Western Conference. The match-ups within this division make for some great rivalry games and the playoff implications down the stretch will make it the most interesting division to keep an eye on.
2) Central Division
The top Eastern division comes in second on this list thanks to the arrival of LeBron James and Kevin Love in Cleveland. The Cavs instantly become title contenders and if not favorites, co-favorites in the East along with Chicago. LeBron’s move shifts the balance of power from Miami to the Midwest, and also dramatically improves what was an ailing Central division. Cleveland and Chicago are the two best teams in the East and will likely be battling for a spot in the finals. Indiana will be fighting to make the playoffs after losing Paul George to injury this summer and seeing Lance Stephenson leave for Charlotte. If Indiana were fully healthy, this division would likely have three sure playoff teams. Even with questions about Indiana’s chances this season, Detroit will be improved under new coach Stan Van Gundy and has a chance to sneak into one of the final playoff spots, if everything goes right. The Bucks are far from playoff contention, but have the pieces to build a contender around in the future. Even if it only sees Cleveland and Chicago make the playoffs, this is a top heavy division that will feature some potentially great games and whose two best teams are enough to give it the second spot here.
3) Pacific Division
The Pacific gets the nod here over the Southeast because they have two teams that have a better chance at competing for a championship this season. The Clippers and Warriors should both be competing for a top 4 spot in the West. Whether or not either team can compete for a title is another story, but there are high expectations for both teams after their recent success and the talent that both teams have acquired the last couple of years. Phoenix just missed out on the playoffs last season, but got Isaiah Thomas to an already loaded backcourt and will look to do what they couldn’t quite accomplish last season. I expect Phoenix to fall short again this season, but they will be in the mix and are a competitive team that would easily make the playoffs in the East. Sacramento and the Lakers are both far from being contending teams and likely even playoff teams this season. The exciting play of the Clippers and Warriors and their championship aspirations make this division worth watching.
4) Southeast Division
This division epitomizes “good, not great” this season, with a possible four playoff teams, none of which are probably real title contenders. Miami looks to pick up the pieces from LeBron bolting for Cleveland. They made some nice pick-ups in the off-season, but will not be the same team without the league’s best player. Washington is an Eastern finals sleeper if John Wall and co. can improve upon the strides they made last season and if there are injuries to other Eastern contenders, while the newly revamped Charlotte Hornets look to make the playoffs again and build on their strong showing last season. The Hawks look to stay in the playoffs and will have a chance with the return of Al Horford to pair with all-star Paul Millsap. The only truly bad team in the division is Orlando, who drafted some nice pieces and have good young talent, but are far from being a relevant playoff contender. The Southeast will have likely three, possibly four, playoff teams, which makes it a good division, but the absence of title contenders makes me put it fourth to begin this season.
5) Northwest Division
The Northwest boasts two sure-fire playoffs teams and one title contender, but the drop-off after Oklahoma City and Portland makes for a pretty weak division top to bottom. OKC looks to overcome the Kevin Durant injury early on. They would have been a probably top two seed, but will still be in the mix for a top seed if Russell Westbrook can hold the fort for the first two months or so. Portland probably isn’t competing for a title unless it shores up its bench, but they have two young stars who can carry them into the playoffs again and will look to advance into the second round for the second straight time. Minnesota, Denver, and Utah are all looking to rebuild, and will likely be providing the other teams in the division plenty of wins this season. Three bad teams and only one true contender leaves a lot to be desired in the Northwest division this season. A long playoff run by the Thunder or another second round appearance by the Blazers are the only chances of anything exciting coming from this division this season.
6) Atlantic Division
The Atlantic division is an absolute mess coming into the new season. The only true playoff team they can brag about is Toronto, who are up and coming and looking to improve upon last season’s success and the best finish in franchise history. The neighbors from New York are going to be fighting to make the playoffs this year, with both the Knicks and Nets bringing in new coaches and systems. Boston is looking at a long term rebuild and will probably deal Rajon Rondo sometime before the trade deadline and Philadelphia’s tanking efforts are well documented. Top to bottom this is easily the worst division in the NBA, with only one likely playoff team, two borderline playoff hopefuls, an awful Celtics team, and a team that could match its own mark for the worst record ever in the NBA. There won’t be much reason to watch this division unless you’re a fan of one of the teams.
All this being said, there are always teams that surprise and disappoint, so I look forward to seeing what teams can boost their division’s rankings throughout the course of the NBA season.
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Main Photo Credit: AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt