Playoff predictions can be a tall order in the preseason. Though we have a decent idea of how particular groups of players might perform in the months to come, there's simply no way to account for the twists and turns of a full, 82-game campaign.
Injuries are a great unknown. Chemistry is an estimation. Coaching success is largely assumed. We see names on paper and take a reasonable guess as to how that collection of players might do over the course of a season, but such guesses will always be limited by the glut of information that we simply don't have access to as of yet.
Still, there is value in expectation, even if we don't know which teams might see their fate altered mid-stream. League-wide standing exists even before the league's season does, and as we suss out which teams figure to be locks to make the playoffs in the coming year, here's an early guess at four teams that will be left on the wrong side of the playoff cusp.
The Magic's postseason fate is obviously tied to the resolution of the Dwight Howard trade saga, but even if Orlando holds on to Howard all the way until the deadline, the loss of Ryan Anderson should prove to be incredibly costly.
Gustavo Ayon, who was acquired in the deal for Anderson, is a quality role player, but one who can't be overextended to provide all that much on offense. That leaves a lot of minutes and production for Glen Davis (and a supporting cast of unproven bigs) to fill alongside a post-rehab/foot-out-the-door Howard, which is pretty unfortunate news for the Magic.
Plus, losing Stan Van Gundy is tough. Howard may have grown tired of Van Gundy's unending criticisms, but he was nonetheless a tremendously talented coach who made the odd, outmatched core around the Howard work at a high level.
He turned Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson, Ryan Anderson, Brandon Bass, an aging Jason Richardson and many others into workable parts in an elite defense. What are the odds that Orlando keeps up anything even close to that defensive pace in the year to come?
Jacque Vaughn has a hell of a learning curve in his first season as an NBA head coach and some massive shoes to fill. He's not at all incapable, but pushing the Magic into the playoffs this season—with all of the noise around Howard, Anderson's departure, and the generally unfortunate state of the roster—is an incredibly tall order. They may win enough to fight for a spot, but there's too much going on in Orlando to assume a postseason berth.
The Utah Jazz may actually be an improved team this year with the acquisition of Mo Williams, the addition of Marvin Williams, and the further development of Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, and Enes Kanter. But the rest of the Western Conference field churns on as well, and though the Jazz were able to turn some regular season heroics into a playoff spot a year ago, this year's fringe competition is quite a bit tougher.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are almost certain to break through to the playoffs after being derailed by Ricky Rubio's ACL tear a year ago, meaning that one Western Conference playoff team will likely be nudged out.
Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Memphis and both Los Angeles teams are all locks. Dallas is likely to make it back to the playoffs with a fresh, new roster; and Denver should be able to make it out of the regular season alive. That leaves only the Jazz to stand in the way of the upstart Timberwolves, and though Utah is quite solid, they lack the potential of an upgraded and still-improving Minnesota squad that should do very well this season.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors' potential playoff exclusion goes along the same line of logic that was hashed out above; unless the Mavericks or Nuggets are to be unseated, there may only be a single playoff spot for grabs from last season's Western Conference crop.
That puts Golden State in a tough spot. This team looks incredibly promising and certainly worthy of competing for a place in the postseason, but are we really so confident in these pieces and this coach as to pencil them in for the top eight in the West?
It should shock no one if the Warriors are good enough to be a playoff team this season, but it would be a bit surprising if Dallas or Denver were to fall out of postseason contention. Neither of those teams is really vying for a title this year, but both clubs are sturdy and deep enough to earn a playoff spot, while the Warriors remain one of the league's great unknowns.
In their second year under Dwane Casey (and their first with the recently acquired Kyle Lowry and 2011 lottery pick Jonas Valanciunas), the Raptors figure to be one of the most improved teams in the NBA. Lowry alone would be a tremendous addition, but Toronto's real promise comes from the interlocking value of their various parts.
Much can be expected of Lowry; his elite perimeter defense should hold particular value in such a tremendous defensive system. His playmaking skills will benefit virtually everyone on the roster, and his ability to penetrate off the dribble provides a nice contrast to the more conservative Jose Calderon.
It's from there that the Raptors' incredible potential for improvement begins to take shape, as a tandem of productive playmakers should provide a far more effective offensive foundation than the pair of Calderon and Jerryd Bayless (a good player but one lacking Lowry's more general utility) were able to last season.
That bodes well for Toronto's nice collection of wing players and underrated frontcourt and rounds out what was a miserable offensive team last season into a far more promising outfit.
Natural defensive improvement, imported offensive personnel and a bevy of talented prospects could push Toronto all the way to the playoff brink. It's just possible that it's not quite their time, and that a more experienced club (Philadelphia, Atlanta, etc.) could beat them out for a playoff spot that would otherwise be up for grabs.