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Who will make biggest leaps in 2015?

In the NBA, every year is a leap year. So which teams and players should we expect to make big jumps in 2015? Our 5-on-5 panel looks ahead.


1. Which East team will make the biggest leap in 2015?

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Pistons. Over the past week we've started to see the makings of a respectable basketball team that plays pro-level defense. There's a glut of point guards in the league and any number of them would be an upgrade from Brandon Jennings. If Detroit can retain Greg Monroe this summer -- or find a suitable replacement -- it can crack the Eastern Conference's middle class by fall.

Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: Pistons. I may be an easily convicted prisoner of the moment here, but Detroit seems to be putting it together since the release of Josh Smith. And Stan Van Gundy has recovered from slow starts in the past. In his first season as an NBA coach, he started 0-7 with the Miami Heat before making a run to the Eastern Conference semifinals. He doesn't have a young Dwyane Wade on this team, but he does have a giant Andre Drummond.

Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com: Pistons. The Josh Smith move is and will always be a bit of a head-scratcher, but they can't possibly stay as bad as they've been with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe surrounded by shooters running Stan Van Gundy's system, right? Nowhere to go but up.

Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: Cavaliers. For all the Cavs' defensive problems, for all the injuries (most recently LeBron James), Cleveland is too talented to muddle along at a 46-win pace. At some point, things will click for the Cavaliers.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com: Pistons. They needed to unclog that frontcourt rotation, and paying Josh Smith to go away accomplished that. Eventually Jodie Meeks will cool off, but his return should continue to help them in 2015. Also, they're on pace to receive a pretty good lottery pick this summer.


2. Which West team will make the biggest leap in 2015?

Arnovitz: Jazz. The pieces fit nicely, they just need some seasoning. Their frontcourt rotation is a sweet combination of strength and stretch, and they have a ton of young guys on the roster who know how to move the ball. The Jazz aren't playing much defense right now, but that's more a function of youth than any lack of ability. They'll learn, because there's certainly enough length and savvy on the floor.

Gutierrez: Thunder. Certainly the Spurs have room for growth, but their MVP, Tony Parker, can't shake this hamstring issue and won't be back for a while, it appears. OKC has its top duo together again, and it's time to shoot up the standings. Is there anything more entertaining than watching Russell Westbrook aim for an MVP trophy? Not in my book.

McMenamin: Rockets. This was a tough category because there are 10 pretty legit teams in the conference already, so the leap for Houston is to come into next season as the West's top contender. With the team extending Kevin McHale's contract and Dwight Howard and James Harden knowing each other's games by now, the Rockets have the right mix of talent and timing for their best shot at a title since 1997, when John Stockton hit the shot of his life.

Pelton: Thunder. They're the obvious choice. In the category of teams that haven't lost their two star players to injury, however, the Spurs are likely to make a run up the standings at some point as their schedule evens out and their depth outlasts thinner opponents.

Strauss: Kings. It's hard to target a team because most of the conference has made the leap already, but the Kings have something the vast majority of teams lack: a possible superstar entering his prime. Their owner might be bizarre, their methods might be questionable, but it's so easy to build an offense around DeMarcus Cousins. They just need to add some shooters.


3. Which East player will make the biggest leap in 2015?

Arnovitz: We still haven't seen Jonas Valanciunas, finished product. He's currently an average defender but has enough strength, size and mobility to be elite. And while he's a monster when he works one-on-one in the post, he hasn't mastered the art of leveraging those skills to turn a decent shot into an easy one and a tough shot into a smart pass. The good news: He's likely to have a chance this spring to play a huge role on a big stage.

Gutierrez: Derrick Rose. This is almost just blind faith talking, but it would make sense to see a player this talented, who's shooting a lousy 41.3 percent, come on strong. He has All-Star-caliber teammates all around him, so a comfortable Rose should be able to take advantage and be the go-to playmaker that would put this Bulls team over the top.

McMenamin: Giannis Antetokounmpo. I might have been swayed after seeing him play in person and put up an effortless 14-point, 8-rebound, 5-assist, 3-block game against the Cavs this week, but he is a safe bet to keep improving. His body makes him the poster boy for length the way David Robinson was the standard for muscle definition for all those years. He has a chance to be a top-10 player in the league before long.

Pelton: Andre Drummond. After a slow start while getting more post-up opportunities under Stan Van Gundy, Drummond got back on track in December, averaging 15.6 points and 14.0 rebounds. Per Basketball-Reference.com, Van Gundy's old center (Dwight Howard) is one of just two players to average 14 and 14 over a full season in the past two decades. Kevin Love is the other.

Strauss: Andre Drummond, who has the potential to make the biggest literal and figurative leap this year. As I said before, the Pistons had to unclog the frontcourt rotation. Drummond will benefit from Smith's absence as a spacing killer. The use of Drummond as a post player has had mixed initial results, but I expect that emphasis to pay off down the road.


4. Which West player will make the biggest leap in 2015?

Arnovitz: Dante Exum. About twice a night, Exum will commit a sin of commission -- maybe trying to thread the needle against a defense longer and faster than anything he's ever seen. Accept these as indications that he sees and feels the game with the instincts of a player who exceeds his experience at this moment in time. That experience will come, and with Alec Burks down for the season, it might come ahead of schedule.

Gutierrez: Kawhi Leonard. Why not? Whenever he finally does return from a hand injury, the Spurs will need his athleticism and fresh legs to make up for Tony Parker's absence. Given that this season we have yet to see the Leonard who dominated the final three games of the NBA Finals, it would be nice to see if he can rediscover that this regular season. I'm convinced he can.

McMenamin: DeMarcus Cousins. Did you see his baseline drive and dunk against the Knicks? It reminded me of Michael Jordan walking the tightrope near the out-of-bounds line to do the same thing 20 years ago, only Cousins is 6-foot-11, 270 pounds. He's fourth in the league with a 27.55 PER, with his maturation finally matching his skill level. Nobody will want to play against Cousins in 2015. Nobody.

Pelton: Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has been a different player since Shabazz Muhammad moved into the starting lineup, using his strength advantage against opposing shooting guards to create high-percentage shots in the half court to go with his above-the-rim finishes in transition.

Strauss: Gorgui Dieng. Younger Wolves players get more publicity, but Minnesota's second-year big man is closer to making a leap to stardom. He's long, mobile and progressing quickly after picking up the game later than most basketball players. With Kevin Love gone, he has plenty of room to grow.


5. What storyline will you be watching closely in 2015?

Arnovitz: At virtually every pregame availability, head coaches discuss which guys they're resting, which need time off, which are pacing themselves. A good number of NBA stars are on some kind of minutes-controlled program. The league and fans accept all this as a fact of life -- but it doesn't need to be. So I'm curious to see if at some point Adam Silver and the NBA board of governors take action and find a better way.

Gutierrez: Just one?!? As much as the Pelicans' playoff push, the Warriors' run to remain atop the West and the Spurs' attempt to find themselves in this repeat attempt are all fascinating, there can't be a more compelling storyline than the Cleveland Cavaliers. From the personnel issues to the coaching to the health of LeBron James, it's almost made-for-reality-TV stuff.

McMenamin: The way LeBron James rebounds from his knee and back strains. He missed only 44 games in his first 11 seasons. Now in his 12th season and having just hit 30 years old, he's already missed three and could miss another eight or nine as he sits out to rest. James' two elite abilities have always been his athleticism and his court vision. What happens if he starts to lose one?

Pelton: Kevin Love's free agency. No matter what LeBron may or may not have said to Dwyane Wade, it's hard to see him leaving Cleveland after his emotional homecoming. But Love is a hired gun, and if the Cavaliers continue to struggle to integrate him into the offense, Love could head elsewhere and change the league's balance of power.

Strauss: LeBron and the Cavs. My interest in this storyline has a lot to do with how it's covered. When he chose Miami in 2010, LeBron was ripped for every little thing. Now he chooses a Cavs team he says can't win a title this season, signs a short-term deal, they trade their No. 1 pick to placate his need to win now, he effectively acts as agent for teammate Tristan Thompson, he tells his fans to "relax" about his team's disappointing performance and he continues to play bad defense. I'm not saying LeBron's many critics should come rushing back out of hiding, but at what point will they?