6 Sleeper Teams NBA Powerhouses Don't Want to Face in the Playoffs

Josh BenjaminCorrespondent IDecember 11, 2012

6 Sleeper Teams NBA Powerhouses Don't Want to Face in the Playoffs

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    In every postseason, there will be some teams that are regulars. In the NBA, this group includes the Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and others.

    Then you have the teams that don't regularly make it to the big dance. These teams are your sleepers, and not to be written off automatically.

    A sleeper team can be designated as such for a few reasons. It could be incredibly young and without much star power, have just barely made the postseason or a good team that is a low seed just because its star player is injured. Despite these circumstances, it plays hard and gives the top teams a run for its money, sometimes even defeating it and advancing to the next round.

    One sleeper team that really stands out in basketball history is the 1999 New York Knicks, who made that year's NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed. A more recent example would be the 2011 Memphis Grizzlies, who were ranked No. 8 and defeated the No. 1 Spurs in the first round without injured star forward Rudy Gay.

    There are plenty of teams who would earn such a label if the playoffs started today, and they would certainly make the elite teams earn a trip to the next round.

    All statistics in this article are accurate as of Monday, December 10, 2012

No. 6: Indiana Pacers

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    The Pacers made the playoffs last season as the No. 3 seed, but they have struggled this season. They are currently one game out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and center Roy Hibbert has not performed up to expectations after signing a long-term deal over the summer.

    Just the same, Indiana is not to be taken lightly. Much of its struggles can be attributed to the absence of star forward and top scoring option Danny Granger, who is out until February with a knee injury. Once he is back in the lineup, the team will be in a great position to go on a run to the playoffs.

    Granger is a 38 percent career three-point shooter with a career average of 18.2 points per game, and teammate Paul George is also coming into his own as a go-to scorer. Once Hibbert gets back on track, there's no telling what this team can do in the playoffs.

    They were able to take the eventual champion Miami Heat to Game 6 of the conference semifinals last season, and the Pacers will be hungry for more once Granger is back. Come playoff time, they will be a team that can get hot fast and play spoiler.

No. 5: Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves were on their way to contending for a playoff spot last season, but then-rookie point guard Ricky Rubio tore his ACL. The team stumbled the rest of the way and is still injury-prone this season.

    Minnesota currently ranks 9-9 and is the No. 8 team in the Western Conference. Brandon Roy's knees are acting up again, and he could very well have to retire again if they do not improve. Rubio only just got back to practice, but still has no timetable for his return.

    Kevin Love is back in the lineup following recovery from a broken hand, but is struggling with his jump shot. However, once Rubio makes his long-awaited return, Minnesota will be a team to watch out west.

    Rubio plays defense, is a decent shooter and has great court vision. He will create plays for all of his teammates, and the Timberwolves' performance will reflect for the better.

    It may make the playoffs as a lower seed, but Minnesota is not a team to be counted out. It played well as a unit last season, and will definitely do the same once everyone is back on the court this year. In the postseason, their its approach will separate it from the rest of the pack, and other teams may not have an answer for it.

No. 4: Utah Jazz

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    Utah just barely made the playoffs last season, and it is in even better shape this year. The team ranks sixth in the Western Conference and is playing well on the backs of star big men Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. Both players make the Jazz a force in the paint and low post and are tough to defend on any night.

    What makes the Jazz an even greater sleeper is that Millsap and Jefferson each have viable backups in Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, who may be the team's starters next year when the starters hit free agency this coming summer.  Favors provides shot blocking, while Kanter is the conventional center who provides a big body in the middle on both sides of the court.

    Utah's backcourt is also respectable in the form of Mo Williams and Gordon Hayward, both of whom are starting to get on track. If Randy Foye can maintain consistency from beyond the arc, then the team will be more than just a low seed that gets to the playoffs and is one of the first ones gone.

    Things are different in Utah this season, and rivalry teams had better start taking note.

No. 3: Atlanta Hawks

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    The Hawks were already one of the league's most underrated teams entering this season, but they are even moreso now. The team has won nine of 11 and is just 1.5 games behind the Miami Heat for first place in the Southeast Division.

    What makes Atlanta's performance all the more incredible is that it has played so well without last year's star scorer, Joe Johnson. He was traded to the Brooklyn Nets last summer, and the Hawks still have a great void at shooting guard. Devin Harris just isn't getting the job done.

    Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague have united despite that. They have formed Atlanta's new deadly trio, each bringing their own unique skill set to the mix.

    The team does not have much in terms of depth, save for shooters Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow and sixth man Louis Williams, but the team as a whole still has a lot of potential. For all we know, rookie John Jenkins could become a force off the bench in the second half of the season. DeShawn Stevenson could follow and become the X-factor he was with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.

    Sure, Atlanta may be ranked No. 3 in the East now, but it certainly doesn't look like that high a seed on paper. This team will swoop down on any elite team, regular season or playoffs, and carry it away until victory is ensured.

    Any squad who underestimates the Hawks will, unfortunately, have to learn the hard way.

No. 2: Golden State Warriors

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    The Golden State Warriors have taken full advantage of the struggles of the Los Angeles Lakers. The team is second in the Pacific Division, just half a game behind the Los Angeles Clippers, and fifth in the Western Conference. The amazing part is that the Warriors have managed to go 14-7 despite having center Andrew Bogut for just four games, and the team is still playing good defense without him.

    Everyone is responding well to second-year head coach Mark Jackson, who is showing just how much of an effect he can have on players despite not having any coaching experience prior to last season, his first with Golden State. Stephen Curry's ankle injury is a thing of the past, and he and David Lee have great on-court chemistry.

    Klay Thompson is coming into his own as a shooting guard, and Carl Landry is doing great work off the bench. Yes, the Warriors are a very young team, with every regular under the age of 30, but they are definitely something special.

    They have already beaten the Brooklyn Nets twice and the Los Angeles Clippers once, and they don't appear to be done slaying top teams. They will continue to do so during the regular season, and again in the playoffs if they can maintain this pace.

    Powerhouse teams had better prepare accordingly because Golden State is out to play spoiler, and succeeding.

No. 1: Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Sixers are missing a key piece of their lineup in newly-acquired center Andrew Bynum, currently out indefinitely with knee issues, but are still playing some good basketball. Jrue Holiday is turning into one of the best scoring point guards in the league, and Thaddeus Young is playing excellently at power forward.

    The biggest surprise for Philadelphia, however, has been third-year forward Evan Turner. He is turning into a fine young point forward, doing everything from scoring to passing to rebounding. In his last five games, he is averaging 17.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest. He is only shooting 41 percent from the field over that stretch, but that can be chalked up to him still learning how to be the alpha dog on offense.

    He and Holiday are providing the Sixers with the star power they lacked last season, even though they did end up going to Game 7 of the Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics. Just the same, everyone is playing pure team basketball this year, and the on-court chemistry is looking great.

    Forget how far the team went in the playoffs last season. Elite teams should keep an eye on this year's Philadelphia 76ers, who are far improved. They have already defeated the Boston Celtics twice and will only continue to get better as the season progresses.

    Once Bynum is back in the lineup, if at all, then the team will have another star on the court and be all the more tough to beat. At that point, higher-ranked teams had better start drawing up a plan on how to beat Philadelphia, lest they want to be victims of a potential upset.