NBA Predictions: 4 New Teams That Will Make the Playoffs in 2012-13
When the NBA comes back this October, the league will look substantially different from where we left it in June.
LeBron James will finally have the pressure of being ringless lifted off his back. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash will be Los Angeles Lakers, Andre Iguodala will be a Denver Nugget and Andrew Bynum will now call Philadelphia home.
The Orlando Magic are headed straight for the lottery after receiving peanuts in the Howard trade, guaranteeing one open playoff spot to an Eastern Conference team that missed out last season.
A Joe Johnson-less Atlanta Hawks team could struggle to make the playoffs, and with Derrick Rose on the mend from an ACL tear suffered in April, the Bulls' playoff spot could very well be in jeopardy, too.
Let's take a look at the four teams best positioned to take advantage of another team's slip-up and sneak into the playoffs, despite landing in the lottery this past season.
1. Brooklyn Nets
Of any team on this list, the Brooklyn Nets are the most obvious.
After spending somewhere around a quarter of a billion dollars this summer, Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov should rightfully be in a "playoff-or-bust" mindset this year, with an eye on championship contention in the near future.
The Nets handed a five-year, $98 million contract to All-Star point guard Deron Williams this summer after trading for the four years and $90 million remaining on Joe Johnson's contract. Throw in an extra $60 million to Brook Lopez, $24 million for two years of Kris Humphries and some additional roster filler, and the Nets' bill this summer gives a giant middle finger to the new collective bargaining agreement.
With a starting five of Williams, Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Humphries and Lopez, the Nets have every reason to expect a significant improvement over last season, when the team finished 22-44. A 45-50 win season shouldn't be out of the question.
Seeing as the East only got more top-heavy this summer, 40 wins realistically should be enough to sneak into the playoffs. If the Nets don't make the playoffs this season, however, Prokhorov's gambles this summer will have locked this team into mediocrity for the next few years.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks will now have a full offseason and training camp for their two explosive backcourt scorers, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, to become more comfortable with one another.
After being traded to the Bucks midway through last season, Ellis averaged nearly 18 points and six assists per game alongside Jennings. He's never been known as the greatest long-range shooter (career percentage from three: 32.7), but his ability to drive to the basket and draw fouls explains why he's so dangerous.
Unfortunately, outside of the backcourt, the situation gets a bit messier for the Bucks. Barring an upset, Mike Dunleavy will likely start the season as the team's starting small forward, with Ersan Ilyasova at the 4 and Houston castoff Samuel Dalembert at the 5.
Dalembert won't provide much offensively, but he and Ilyasova will be counted on to establish a strong defensive front to make up for Jennings and Ellis gambling in the backcourt.
If Dalembert and Ilyasova succeed in fortifying the Bucks' defense, this unconventional lineup could very well make its way into the playoffs as a 7- or 8-seed this season.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves will be seen as a chic playoff pick for the 2012-13 season, and for good reason.
Before going down with an ACL tear last March, Rubio was considered one of the favorites for the NBA Rookie of the Year, as he averaged 10.6 points, 8.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game.
Alongside Kevin Love, who proved himself one of the best young stars in the game by averaging 26 points and 13 rebounds per game last season, the Timberwolves suddenly had a core to build around.
And build they did. The team signed former Utah Jazz sniper Andrei Kirilenko to a two-year, $20 million deal, and landed Kirilenko's fellow countryman Alexey Shved on a three-year, $10 million deal. Together for the Russian Olympic team this summer, the two demonstrated a chemistry that should give the Wolves an advantage heading into training camp.
Assuming Rubio makes it back healthy by Jan. 1, 2013, the Timberwolves have every reason to be optimistic about their first playoff appearance in nearly a decade.
Their biggest obstacle will be the rest of the Western Conference, which is deeper than the Eastern Conference.
4. Golden State Warriors
Can Andrew Bogut stay healthy? If so, it could mean a playoff spot for Golden State.
The fate of the Warriors' playoff chances rests in the hands (or legs, or back, or...) of Bogut, who's been described as having a "freaky injury history." He broke his ankle in 2010 after landing on Kyle Lowry's foot, and suffered one of the more gruesome injuries in recent NBA history when he fell on his forearm and dislocated it after dunking the ball.
When healthy, the 7-footer gives the Warriors a presence in the post that they've desperately needed the past few seasons. Bogut being on the floor allows David Lee to drift around the perimeter and stretch the opponents' frontcourt out, opening driving lines for Harrison Barnes and the oft-injured Stephen Curry.
After a few down seasons, Golden State's starting five has the talent to go to battle with almost any team in the league.
If the Warriors manage to stay relatively healthy this season (and that's a huge "if"), the team could certainly challenge the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks for one of the final few playoff spots in the West.
Sleeper: Toronto Raptors
If the Magic, Bulls and Hawks all miss the playoffs this season, don't be surprised if the Toronto Raptors are the last new team to squeak into the Eastern Conference bracket.
After trading for disgruntled Houston point guard Kyle Lowry this summer, the Raptors now have a legitimate 1-2 punch at PG with Lowry and Jose Calderon, who's not thrilled about losing his starting spot.
Add in the 2012 No. 8 pick Terrence Ross and Landry Fields, who the Raptors signed to a three-year, $20 million deal this summer, and the Raptors' backcourt appears suddenly fortified.
The addition of Jonas Valanciunas in the frontcourt, who the team drafted No. 5 overall in 2011, should allow Andrea Bargnani to log some time at the 4. Seeing as most teams in the East don't carry two competent 7-footers on the roster, the Bargnani-Valanciunas duo could cause major problems for a majority of teams the Raptors face this season.
Don't be surprised to see the Raptors finish around .500 this season, which could be just good enough for the No. 8 seed in the East.