|LAST SEASON'S RECORD||PROJECTED WIN DIFFERENTIAL|
Surprise! The Heat isn't championship material this season, but it will be the NBA's most improved team—simply because Miami was so awful a year ago. Dwyane Wade, Shawn Marion and rookie Michael Beasley are not Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning and Jamal Mashburn of '96--97, but they'll make a sizable difference.
*BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT IN FRANCHISE HISTORY: +19 (1996--97)
The Clippers hoped to have a dynamic inside-outside duo of Elton Brand and Baron Davis, but Brand fled for Philly. Still, L.A. won't be the worse for it, considering Brand was injured most of last season. Marcus Camby fell into the Clippers' laps, and they have plenty of scorers (though none as prolific as Bob McAdoo in '73--74).
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +21 (1973--74, as Buffalo Braves)
Portland went from 39 to 59 wins in '89--90, the first full season for coach Rick Adelman. This edition of the Blazers won't be able to match that feat coming off of 41 W's—even with Greg Oden—but they will still be one of the league's most improved teams. And a return to the postseason will be a sweet consolation prize.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +20 (1989--90)
After being a tough out in the playoffs last spring, the 76ers signed power forward Elton Brand, filling the main hole in their lineup. Philly won't break its mark for greatest improvement—which came on the heels of an NBA-record-low nine wins—but with 48 victories it could earn home court advantage in the first round.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +16 (1973--74)
The Cavaliers don't have an All-Star playmaker coming back from a torn ACL, like Mark Price in '91, but they do have a new floor general in 25-year-old Mo Williams, the best all-around point guard that LeBron James has had to work with. That combo should help Cleveland exceed 50 wins and get back to the conference finals.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +24 (1991--92)
Unfortunately for long-suffering fans, new coach Mike D'Antoni will not be as successful as Rick Pitino, who in each of his two years on the bench improved the Knicks by 14 wins. This team will be more watchable than last season's, but New York needs to reshape the roster to get the full effect of D'Antoni's up-tempo attack.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +14 (two times, most recently in 1988--89)
The Raptors' 20-game surge in '06--07 was due to a new management team, which brought an international flavor to the club. But this off-season's top acquisition was born in the USA: South Carolina native Jermaine O'Neal, who with Chris Bosh will form the league's most potent low-post tandem.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +20 (2006--07)
The Timberwolves smartly turned one lottery pick (O.J. Mayo) into two starters (Kevin Love and Mike Miller), accelerating their rebuilding process. Still, other than 6'10" Al Jefferson, none of Minnesota's players have proved to be more than an average NBA starter. Which is why the club will have another lottery pick next June.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +14 (1996--97)
The hopes of this franchise rest on the shoulders of 20-year-old native son Derrick Rose; the top pick in the draft, out of Memphis, he's poised to lead the team from the point. His arrival, plus the calming influence of rookie coach Vinny Del Negro, will help the Bulls get back to respectability (and closer to .500).
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +25 (1995--96)
While you were sleeping, the Bobcats have actually been getting better. New coach Larry Brown is a Hall of Famer renowned for milking wins out of limited talent. He's also 68 and does not have a fondness for young players or for staying in one place—which makes him a perfect short-term solution in Charlotte.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +8 (2005--06)
Patience, Oklahoma City fans. Although several pieces are still missing, your new team is heading in the right direction (and we don't just mean to the Great Plains). Kevin Durant is a terrific cornerstone, and newcomer Joe Smith is a valuable veteran presence on a young squad. Still, for now, wins will be mighty hard to come by.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +18 (1981--82, as Seattle SuperSonics)
New G.M. John Hammond has been aggressive in overhauling the roster, but the team will need a few months to adapt to new coach Scott Skiles's type of play. And while he was a great off-season addition, Richard Jefferson won't make nearly the impact that rookie Lew Alcindor made in '69--70.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +29 (1969-70)
On paper the Lakers are a budding juggernaut. With 7-foot Andrew Bynum healthy, L.A.'s frontcourt can be as long as any in league history. Kobe Bryant was finally acknowledged as the best player on earth. And most of the role players return, with Finals experience. The regular season? No problem. The playoffs? Still a question mark.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +21 (1971--72)
In '94--95 rookie point guard Jason Kidd was behind the Mavericks' jump in wins. Kidd's return last winter didn't have the same effect, as Dallas struggled with its identity and faltered in the first round for the second consecutive year. The Mavs still have plenty of talent and depth, but they are stuck in a playoff rut.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +23 (1994--95)
Much like the season that preceded their franchise-best turnaround, last year's struggles owed a lot to injuries. The reason fans won't see a similar improvement this time around? The key player who was hurt (Jermaine O'Neal) has been dealt, and Mike Dunleavy and Danny Granger can't do it alone.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +19 (1997--98)
Ron Artest is no Elvin Hayes, who rescued the '68--69 Rockets, but the club hopes that his addition is enough to elevate Houston from 50-win team to bona fide contender. Artest (and a healthy Yao Ming) may not be worth any more victories during the regular season, but his intensity will make a huge difference come the playoffs.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +22 (1968--69, as San Diego Rockets)
The Jazz will be competitive (50-plus wins, at least one playoff series victory) as long as Deron Williams is running the point. But with rumors circulating that Carlos Boozer will opt out of his contract and sign with the Heat next summer, the 21st century Stockton and Malone may get broken up before they get Utah to a Finals.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +15 (three times, most recently in 2005--06)
By winning 52 games a year ago, the Magic might have maxed out its win total with the current core. The leap to perennial championship contender will require a significant upgrade in the backcourt—or the arrival of a star like Shaquille O'Neal, who as a rookie helped Orlando achieve its record improvement.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +20 (1992--93)
If only the Wizards could magically cure Gilbert Arenas's left knee woes. The franchise opened up the vault to give Arenas $111 million and re-sign sidekick Antawn Jamison, whose pairing was the key to the '04--05 resurgence. But with Arenas out for at least the first month, Washington won't be any better than it was last year.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +20 (2004--05)
The season will end in an odd year, which makes the Spurs (NBA champs in '99, 2003, '05 and '07) shoo-ins for the title, right? Numerology aside, San Antonio's Big Three (led by Tim Duncan, whose '97 arrival launched this impressive string of success) is still formidable enough to make another championship run.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +36 (1997--98)
The Hornets will prove that last year's feel-good season was no fluke, but the Southwest is too strong for them to get to 60 wins. That said, the team will trade a few regular-season W's for a few more in the postseason. And the signing of forward James Posey—owner of two championship rings—makes that upgrade possible.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +20 (2005--06)
The Hawks finally solved their point guard woes last February by acquiring Mike Bibby, who helped Atlanta give the eventual champion Celtics a huge scare in the first round. But after that addition came this subtraction, during the summer: Sixth man Josh Childress departed for Greece, leaving an already thin bench even thinner.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +19 (1962--63, as St. Louis Hawks)
Second-year coach Marc Iavaroni won't come close to Hubie Brown's second season, when the Grizzlies improved by 22 wins. Point guards? Memphis has five. Foreign-born centers? Lots of them, too (three). But in between, there is only one player (Rudy Gay) with All-Star potential, which means another lost season.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +22 (2003--04)
Despite missing their top two scorers (Kevin Martin and Ron Artest) for more than 20 games apiece, the Kings finished close to .500 a year ago. Ah, the good old days. Now that Artest and Mike Bibby have been shown the door, Martin and Sacramento will be fortunate to clear 30 wins.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +17 (1978--79, as Kansas City Kings)
After the greatest single-season improvement in league history, there's nowhere for the Celtics to go except down. But while Boston won't match its 66-win total, it is still the favorite in the East. And with Kevin Garnett as intense as ever, the team will not become complacent as it goes for Banner 18.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +42 (2007--08)
The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least in Motown, where the league's most venerable starting four (plus the promoted Amir Johnson) has another go-round. New coach Michael Curry won't have the same impact Rick Carlisle did in '01--02, but the Pistons will still scare the bejesus out of everyone in the East.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +18 (four times, most recently in 2001--02)
With Mike D'Antoni's departure from the Suns, John McCain is once again Arizona's only maverick. Which means goodbye, outlandish run-and-gun; hello, standard motion offense. Make no mistake, Phoenix certainly has the personnel to succeed in the half court. But it will no longer be able to impose its will on teams.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +33 (2004--05)
A late surge got the Nuggets into the playoffs last April, but that won't happen this season. Five years ago Carmelo Anthony (and Andre Miller) arrived and helped the Nuggets to their biggest turnaround as an NBA franchise; by February, Allen Iverson could be gone and Anthony could be a one-man team.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +26 (2003--04; +28 in 1974--75 as ABA team)
It's hard to believe that 17 months ago the Warriors upset the Mavericks. Since then they have traded Jason Richardson to Charlotte, missed the playoffs and watched Baron Davis sign with the Clippers. Coach Don Nelson's first stint in Oakland started with a bang (in '88--89); his second stint will end with a whimper.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +23 (1988--89)
Jason Kidd, the catalyst for the record 26-game jump, was traded last season. Leading scorer Richard Jefferson was the next to go. Now Vince Carter may be on the block. The young pieces remaining have a potentially bright future when the franchise moves to Brooklyn—but the Nets are in for a long three years until then.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: +26 (2001--02)
*The lockout season of 1998--99 was not used in determining the record improvements.