Photo: Miami Heat forward LeBron James goes to the basket as Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) watches during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, in Washington. The Wizards won 100-82. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
With much of the focus coming into the 2013-14 NBA season being placed on the Miami Heat’s quest for a third straight title and their main threats, there are a number of teams lingering in the middle of the pack that have flown under the radar; teams that have enough talent to make it in the playoffs and make a run, but aren’t expected (at least not yet) to get very far.
In part One and Two of this 3-part preview of LeBron James and the Heat’s quest for a third straight NBA title, I enlisted Miami’s main challengers this upcoming season.
In this final installment, however, we’ll look at some teams that have the potential to be very good, but simply need a little bit more seasoning or are a player or two away from being considered as serious threats.
Here’s my list of potentially surprising teams:
Photo: Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) of Germany grimaces as he stands at the free throw line during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game against the Orlando Magic in Dallas, Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. The Magic won 102-94. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
The Mavericks retooled again in the offseason and replaced players they took in last season with ones that can theoretically fit better in Rick Carlisle’s system.
Gone are Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand, and were replaced by Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Samuel Delambert and DeJuan Blair.
A side-by-side comparison shows that the Mavs practically took in similar players compared to the ones they let go. One can argue why not let the same players develop with another year under Carlisle’s system and a healthy Dirk Nowitzki considering they just missed the playoffs last season by a few games and finished with a commendable 41-41 record given the circumstances they had to endure.
With that being said, the Mavs front office took on a proactive approach and realized that they did have something good going and chose to simply upgrade with players that bring more to what they’re trying to accomplish.
Calderon, for one, can extend defenses better than Collison with his 3-point shooting and is also an efficient pick-and-roll point guard. His 46.1% clip from behind the arc led the league last season while dishing out 7.1 assists per game. The question with Calderon, who already sat out the first part of the preseason with a groin injury, is if he can stay healthy all year.
Then you have Ellis, who I believe is a far better player than what he’s shown while playing alongside the trigger-happy Brandon Jennings in Milwaukee. Ellis is an underrated passer and defender, and can take away a lot of the scoring load off Nowitzki. The best thing about Ellis is that he wants to win first and foremost, which is why he took a pay cut and left the Bucks to join the Mavs.
Delambert and Blair will bring interior toughness, while veterans Devin Harris, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Brendan Wright and Jae Crowder form a very competent bench.
As it is, this unit can surprise a lot of teams in the playoffs, but I do feel that they are one or two players away from being serious title contenders.
I expect Mark Cuban and co. to be very active and come up with a trade or two and give their aging superstar one last chance in making a run at a ring.
Photo: Detroit Pistons forward Josh Smith (6) questions a foul against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first half of their preseason NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
With the addition of Josh Smith, the Pistons have one of the most formidable frontcourts in the league anchored by their budding star Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe.
Add Brandon Jennings, rookie stud Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the returning Chauncey “Mr. Big Shot” Billups to the mix, and Pistons fans are finally excited about the postseason for the first time since Billups last donned their jersey.
There’s depth in that roster, too, with guys like Rodney Stuckey, rookie Tony Mitchell, Charlie Villanueva and Jonas Jerebko coming off the bench. The key for this team, however, will be how coach Maurice Cheeks can mold Jennings into an all-around point guard and cut down on his own shots.
Cheeks has had success in the past in handling characters like Allen Iverson, and Jennings has talked the talk about playing unselfish ball and setting up his teammates first. He will have to, especially with his newfound options in the paint.
Photo: Cleveland Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving, left, drives the baseline against Philadelphia 76ers' Evan Turner during the third quarter of an NBA preseason basketball game Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio. The Cavaliers beat the 76ers 104-93. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Kyrie Irving is poised to have a breakout All-Star-type season, and if his supporting cast can stay healthy, the Cavs can even make it back to the postseason for the first time since they burned all those number 23 jerseys three seasons ago.
If Andrew Bynum can come back around January and if Anderson Verajao finds a way to keep his body intact for an entire season, the Cavs have enough firepower to latch on to the 7th or 8th seed in the East.
Bringing back the defensive-minded Mike Brown will help develop young guys like Tyler Zeller, Tristan Thompson, Deion Waiters and top rookie draft pick Anthony Bennett, while Jarrett Jack brings in his veteran toughness, tenacity and serves as an insurance policy if Uncle Drew breaks down again at some point.
Photo: Washington's John Wall dunks during an NBA basketball exhibition game against New Orleans, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/James Crisp)
John Wall is healthy he is also sick and tired of losing. With a new max contract in tow, Wall is bent on taking the Wizards back into the playoffs. The latter part of last year’s regular season, wherein he averaged 20.7 points and 7.8 assists, is proof that he can do just that.
They also recently acquired center Marcin Gortat for the injured Emeka Okafor’s expiring contract, and should make for a nice frontcourt tandem with Nene.
Bradley Beal has been impressive during preseason and should have no problems with the “sophomore slump”, while Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster will provide enough firepower and transition options for Wall.
Eric Maynor is an upgrade at the backup point guard spot as well, while rookie Otto Porter can contribute right away.
Honorable mentions: Atlanta Hawks, Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans.
East: Heat, Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Knicks, Hawks, Pistons, Wizards or Cavs
West: Spurs, Clippers, Rockets, Thunder, Grizzlies, Warriors, Mavs, Nuggets-Pelicans-TWolves
Teams you should forget about this season: 76ers, Celtics, Suns, Kings.
Follow Dennis on Twitter @dRealSource