-- With the calendar turning to August and the NBA's offseason hitting its quiet period, let's take a first look at how the league will shake out after a busy summer. Starting Thursday with the Eastern Conference and wrapping up Friday with the West, I'll take a look at the tiers in each respective conference based on where teams stand entering the 2015-16 season.
Tier 1: Championship contenders
With J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson as yet unsigned, there's still work for the Cavaliers to do. Even without those players, Cleveland would still be the heavy favorite to win the Eastern Conference. With them, the Cavaliers would have a chance to be more competitive if they return to the NBA Finals. Given the quality of the Western Conference's top teams, Cleveland's position as championship favorites by Las Vegas linesmakers is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but certainly the Cavaliers have the best odds of reaching the Finals by a wide margin.
Tier 2: Championship hopefuls
The defining feature of this season's Eastern Conference is the large gap between Cleveland and the rest of the conference. While some other challenger will inevitably rise from the pack, there's no other team that appears certain to win 50-plus games.
Tier 3: Likely playoff teams
While the Hawks won 60 games a season ago, several factors are working against a repeat. Atlanta's point differential (plus-5.4 ppg) was more typical of a 55-win team, and teams like the Hawks, who have improved their record by at least 20 games from one season to the next, have regressed two wins the following season. Add in the loss of starting forward DeMarre Carroll, and Atlanta is likely to return to the 45-50 win range the team has occupied much of the past decade.
Consider the Celtics a sleeper to claim home-court advantage and/or win a playoff series. Boston had the East's second-best record (20-11, .645) and fourth-best point differential (plus-2.9 PPG) after acquiring Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline. While the Celtics didn't land a star this summer, the addition of veteran Amir Johnson strengthens their biggest weakness, interior defense.
Because of their track record and because they battled a weakened Cleveland team evenly through the first four games of their playoff series, the Bulls' 2014-15 season seemed better than it was. Chicago won 50 games with a slightly weaker point differential (plus-3.0) than that would generally imply. If Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are healthier, the Bulls could bounce back, but otherwise they are counting on the arrival of Fred Hoiberg to lift them back into serious contention after bringing back a largely similar cast.
No team in the NBA has a wider range of realistic outcomes in 2015-16 than the Heat. With a stacked starting lineup featuring Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside -- all but Whiteside having either been an All-Star or All-NBA player in the past three seasons -- Miami could emerge as the biggest threat to the Cavaliers. But if Wade is plagued by injuries and Whiteside is unable to produce consistently, it's not inconceivable that Miami could end up in the lottery again.
After a fast start to 2014-15 ended in a disappointing first-round sweep, the Raptors remade their roster in a more defensive mold over the summer. Replacing Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams with DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph should get the Raptors closer to how they played in 2013-14, when the team ranked ninth on a per-possession basis at both ends of the floor before slipping to 23rd in defensive rating last season.
The loss of Paul Pierce will make it difficult for the Wizards to build on a playoff run that depended heavily on Pierce's big shots and ability to wreak havoc as a small-ball power forward. Getting Jared Dudley for a heavily-protected second-round pick was a decent save for Washington, but Dudley is coming off back surgery. And despite the presence of young stars John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards have one of the league's oldest rosters. So expect another season in the middle of the East pack.
Tier 4: Playoff hopefuls
There's a realistic chance this is the best Charlotte team since the NBA returned to the Queen City via expansion in 2004-05. Improved shooting with the arrival of Nicolas Batum, Spencer Hawes and Frank Kaminsky should help the Hornets to respectability on offense. Given Charlotte has had a top-10 defense both seasons under Steve Clifford, that should be enough to get the Hornets back to the playoffs -- and maybe even win a game this time.
After their disastrous 5-23 start, the Pistons went 27-27 the rest of the season. And they could have been better. Having added Reggie Jackson at the trade deadline, Detroit went 11-17 in the second half despite a dead-even point differential. With the addition of Ersan Ilyasova, the Pistons seem better constructed around their core of Jackson and center Andre Drummond.
It's tough to envision a Pacers team playing small ball without Roy Hibbert in the middle, the experiment Indiana has undertaken with its offseason moves. With better spacing around improved shot creation from the likes of Monta Ellis and Rodney Stuckey, this could be the best Pacers offense in years. But it's unclear whether Indiana can hold up defensively with severely compromised rim protection.
While the Bucks are building an intriguing young core, there are reasons to believe they might take a slight step backward in 2015-16 despite the addition of Greg Monroe. After all, Milwaukee made an even bigger leap than Atlanta, winning 26 more games than 2013-14. And of the four full-season Bucks with the best net ratings on the court last season per NBA.com/stats, only Khris Middleton returns. (Dudley, Ilyasova and Zaza Pachulia were the others.)
Tier 5: Playoff long shots
The Knicks should be improved from last season solely by virtue of having NBA-caliber players throughout their rotation, led by a healthy Carmelo Anthony. Still, New York hasn't done nearly enough to close the gap on the playoff contenders. Derrick Williams isn't a credible starting power forward, and Arron Afflalo's reputation dramatically outstripped his performance last season. Only at center have the Knicks found an average starter in free agency with Robin Lopez.
Orlando is probably still a season away from making real noise in the Eastern Conference. New head coach Scott Skiles' experience in his previous stop with Milwaukee might offer a guide. The Bucks improved by eight wins in Skiles' first season at the helm, almost entirely at the defensive end, but it wasn't until the second season that Skiles put together a top-five defense and got Milwaukee in the playoffs.
Tier 6: Likely lottery teams
The Nets' second-half surge was something of a mirage. While Brooklyn went 17-13 after adding Thaddeus Young, the team was outscored by 0.9 points per game. And that was with Deron Williams at point guard. The Nets outscored opponents by 1.6 points per 100 possessions with Williams on the court during the second half, per NBA.com/stats. Brooklyn was minus-6.0 points per 100 possessions after the break with replacement Jarrett Jack on the court. Gulp.
Philadelphia probably belongs in a tier of its own. The Sixers don't look much closer to competing with Joel Embiid likely out for the season and no veteran additions in free agency. Philadelphia should have better shooting with the arrival of Nik Stauskas and a full season of Isaiah Canaan, and Jahlil Okafor gives them an offensive anchor. But the Sixers' move up the standings is probably a season away.