Training camp is just around the corner, which means players will soon be touting their weight loss and new muscles, as their coaches promise to focus on defense and pick up the pace. Many of those preseason goals and declarations get tossed aside or exposed within a few weeks after opening night, but we shouldn't be so cynical that we miss out on the possibility of legitimate year-to-year improvement.
Here's a rundown of five teams -- some contenders, some simply fighting for playoff spots -- that should make meaningful strides on offense this season.
Chicago Bulls: What was the cost of losing Derrick Rose last season? The Bulls' offensive efficiency plunged from No. 5 in 2011-12 to No. 24 in 2012-13, a drastic decline that can really only be compared to that of the Suns (who fell from No. 8 to No. 29 after trading Steve Nash) and the Magic (who slipped from No. 14 to No. 27 after trading Dwight Howard). Chicago plowed forward in Rose's absence thanks to its ever-stout defense and occasional moments of heroism from the likes of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli, all of which helped the Bulls squeeze the most out of their lost season. There's just no replacing a superstar, especially one like Rose, whose very presence defines Chicago's attack (he led the Bulls in scoring and assists in 2010, 2011 and 2012) and whose Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Offensive Win Shares ranked in the top 10 in the NBA the last time he suited up.
Whether you're ready to buy into the upbeat reports about Rose's health and physique or you'd rather wait to see him in regular-season action before drawing any conclusions, there's little doubt that Rose's return should transform Chicago's offense back into a much more effective outfit. The addition of Mike Dunleavy, a jack-of-all-trades offensive weapon, should help, too. One of the summer's best under-the-radar signings, Dunleavy can stroke it from deep (42.8 percent for the Bucks last season) and is accustomed to contributing without dominating the rock. Throw in some anticipated Year 3 growth from 23-year-old forward Jimmy Butler as a cherry on top, and last year's bleakness -- Chicago failed to score 84 points in 16 games -- should be a thing of the past.
Indiana Pacers: The 2013 conference finals were the wasteland where imbalanced teams went to die. Miami and San Antonio, teams that ranked in the top seven on both sides of the ball, dispatched Indiana and Memphis, teams that placed No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on defense but couldn't even muster league-average offenses. In the Pacers' case, there were some obvious explanations: 2011-12 leading scorer Danny Granger was unexpectedly lost for most of the season with a knee injury and Indiana's bench unit was among the worst in the league. The only reserve unit to score less than Indiana's (24.1 points per game) was Portland's, and the Pacers' subs finished last in field-goal percentage (39.3 percent).
It goes without saying that the Pacers will still butter their bread on the defensive end, but there are reasons for optimism on offense. Granger is expected to return, and while his exact role is still to be determined, he should be able to add a scoring punch from the bench, at the very least. Even though swapping in C.J. Watson for D.J. Augustin at the backup point guard position lacks glamour, it's still a clear upgrade, as Watson sports better numbers (standard and advanced) across the board and is generally a more stable option. It's certainly debatable whether Luis Scola was worth a first-round pick in trade at this point in his career, but the Argentine big man is a proven low-post option whose craftiness in the basket area and dependable mid-range jumper should help keep the Pacers' bench afloat if things start trending toward ugly.
Are these factors enough to get Indiana's offense into the league's upper echelon? Probably not, but they're a good start. To climb higher, Indiana will need Roy Hibbert to play like the guy he was after the All-Star break (15.7 points on 51 percent shooting), as opposed to the slow-starting center who couldn't buy a bucket as he battled a hand injury before the break (10 points on 41 percent shooting), and it'll need the newly maxed Paul George to make an efficiency leap. George enjoyed a career year in 2012-13, but his numbers compare very unfavorably with the age-22 seasons posted by the league's cream of-the-crop scoring wings (LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony).
Minnesota Timberwolves: Much like the Bulls, the Timberwolves will be welcoming back their franchise player to full health following a lost year. Kevin Love missed most of last season due to hand injuries incurred while doing knuckle push-ups, and the shooting touch he displayed in his two All-Star seasons was (not surprisingly) nowhere to be found when he did take the court. Even though Minnesota has never produced even an above-average offense during the Love era, it's not for lack of Love's trying: He was in the top five in PER and Offensive Win Shares in both 2011 and 2012.
Without Love -- and with a recovering Ricky Rubio -- Minnesota's offense ranked No. 25 last season, in large part because it was the worst three-point-shooting team by a country mile. Love's return should help that, as should the re-signing of Chase Budinger, who was injured for most of 2012-13, and the addition of Kevin Martin, who ranked in the top 10 in three-point percentage and true shooting percentage last year.
During Rick Adelman's four seasons in Houston, the Rockets' offense generally hovered around league average, although it leaped to No. 6 in 2011, thanks in large part to a career year from Martin. Is the 30-year-old guard capable of reaching those heights again? That remains to be seen, but the Love/Martin/Rubio combination -- plus the re-signed Nikola Pekovic, who will hold down the paint -- should be enough to help Minnesota significantly improve its offensive efficiency. Timberwolves president Flip Saunders didn't exactly spend his dollars in the most economical and cost-efficient fashion this summer, but he did at least put them toward areas of real need.
Portland Trail Blazers: The big question in the Rose City is whether Portland will be able to stop anybody. The Blazers ranked No. 26 on defense last year, sacrificing points left and right thanks to their weak interior. The addition of Robin Lopez -- acquired in a trade with the Pelicans -- should help somewhat, but he's not exactly an elite stopper. The state of the union on the other side of the ball is much more promising: The Blazers had a league-average offense last year despite tanking down the stretch (13 straight losses to close the season) and possessing the league's least potent bench.
Most of the credit goes to All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and Rookie of the Year point guard Damian Lillard, who made for a reliable and formidable inside/outside combination. Three of Blazers GM Neil Olshey's major summer additions -- Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and lottery pick C.J. McCollum -- look like natural fits in coach Terry Stotts' three-happy, ball-movement offense, as they are all willing and capable shooters. Indeed, Portland ranked No. 4 in three-point attempts last year, a ranking that should only rise in 2013-14, as Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and the trio of new guys will all enjoy a permanent green light.
As Lillard has hinted, his individual efficiency and shooting numbers should improve thanks to a slightly lighter load than last year, and the same can be said for both Matthews and Batum, who dealt with injury issues under the strain of career-high playing time numbers in 2012-13. There are enough weapons on hand for the Blazers to climb into the league's top-10 offenses, especially if Aldridge and Lillard continue to enjoy good health.
Washington Wizards: File this one under: "There's nowhere to go but up." Washington ranked last in offense in 2012-13, and it played some of the ugliest basketball that the NBA has seen in recent memory. Even though the Wizards played at a league-average pace, they failed to crack 90 points in 32 games, going 5-27. The loss of John Wall to a serious, preseason knee injury left a gruesome sight in its wake: terrible ball movement, turnovers and so, so many low-percentage, ill-advised shots.
The Wizards' inclusion on this list has less to do with Washington's new pieces (it was a quiet summer) and everything to do with Wall's return to health (he played so well during the second half of the season that he was rewarded with a five-year, $80 million extension). Wall's PER has shown steady improvement during his three-year career, and he placed among the league's best point guards last year in that stat. He also ranked in the top 10 with eight assists per game, the second straight year he's accomplished that feat. As for impact, it couldn't be clearer: The Wizards' offensive rating rose from 94.8 when he was off the court (last in the league by a wide margin) to 102.1 when he was on the court (slightly below average).Bradley Beal