Early NBA Playoff Field Predictions After Big Offseason Shifts

Bryant KnoxFeatured ColumnistAugust 5, 2013

Early NBA Playoff Field Predictions After Big Offseason Shifts

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    Anybody bored by the NBA offseason clearly can’t appreciate the league’s best storylines. The Brooklyn Nets have reshaped their starting lineup, Dwight Howard finally made up his mind and chose the Houston Rockets over the Los Angeles Lakers. Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors made the move from likable Cinderellas to downright dangerous.

    Both conferences saw power shifts when it comes to playoff contenders, and it’s only natural at this time—the lull between summer league and the preseason—that we look ahead at what 2013-14 will have to offer.

    In 2012 it’s true that the Lakers showed us nothing is ever a guarantee. They created the league’s newest super team with Howard and Steve Nash, yet when it was all said and done they flopped to the floor after barely making the postseason.

    But while there’s always bound to be a team that surprises us—for better or for worse—it’s never too early to think about who will be chasing the Larry O’Brien Trophy when the regular season comes to an end.

Eastern Conference Honorable Mentions

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    Toronto Raptors

    The Eastern Conference is a top-heavy place to play, meaning there aren’t a whole lot of honorable mentions to go around. The Toronto Raptors have constructed a roster that is at least notable at this point, and whatever happens, they deserve to be optimistic about competing.

    To say that this team is a lock for the playoffs is unfair. There are still questions to be answered, as we’ve yet to see Rudy Gay play a whole season as the No. 1 option.

    But while there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to this group, they’re certainly moving in the right direction by bringing in Masai Ujiri, the NBA’s Executive of the Year in 2013, as the next general manager.

     

    Washington Wizards

    The Washington Wizards proved during the 2012-13 season that they are a completely different group when John Wall is on the court. The point guard just signed a contract that will set the bar for floor generals of the future, and it’s time for him to prove that it was money well spent on the part of the organization.

    The combination of Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. is going to be fun to watch. The frontcourt comprising Nene and Emeka Okafor has the potential to be forceful, but the more accurate comparison is to that of a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.

    This team is about as fringe as it comes when thinking about the postseason, but in a conference that leaves things wide open around the eighth seed, look for them to make a splash.

No. 8 Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers have given their fans reason to be hopeful when it comes to the 2014 postseason. Along with selecting Anthony Bennett first overall in the draft, they brought on Andrew Bynum, Earl Clark and Jarrett Jack to make a push toward the playoffs.

    This group is adding talent at a quick pace, and that’s a recipe for success in such a star-driven league.

    All that said, expectations must be tempered. Bennett’s role has yet to be defined, health will be a concern across the roster and Bynum’s production likely won’t be what it once was.

    Bynum has the potential to return to form, challenging the likes of Dwight Howard as the game’s top center, but he has to prove he can play both sides of the floor at a high level for the duration of the year.

    The playoffs are within sight for the city of Cleveland, but to deem them contenders straight out of the gate wouldn not be fair. They’ll be in the mix for the postseason, and anything between the sixth and eighth seed should be considered acceptable as of now.

No. 7 Detroit Pistons

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    Speaking of tempering expectations, the Detroit Pistons have to answer a lot of questions before we look at their roster and instantly think thoughts of a deep run.

    The additions of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings make this team immensely more fun to watch than they have been in recent memory. The question is going to be whether or not those two can improve when it comes to discipline on the offensive end.  

    One move that has gotten lost in the shuffle is the signing of Chauncey Billups. Mr. Big Shot is going to be a huge presence both on and off the floor, as his clutch shooting and leadership will add consistency to a roster that is bound to have its ups and downs.

    One of the biggest questions for the Pistons is how the frontcourt is going to handle the logjam between Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. The combination of offense and defense is something to be excited about, but finding the shots and minutes to go around could be difficult.

    Chemistry is going to be an issue with this group to start the year, but the hope is that they can figure out their roles early in order to make a strong, late push.

No. 6 Atlanta Hawks

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    When it comes to the Atlanta Hawks, it’s easy to fall into the mindset that they have done nothing but regress. Two major departures in two seasons never bodes well for a team looking to contend, but the truth is that they have made do when it comes to building for the future.

    Adding Paul Millsap and Elton Brand will help make up for what the team lost when Josh Smith signed with the Detroit Pistons. They will give Atlanta the rebounding that it needs, and they will also give the team smarter shots than it had with Smith running the show.

    It also can’t be forgotten that this team will be adding Lou Williams back to the rotation. The guard scored 14.1 points in 39 games before getting hurt, and his ability to keep defenses honest from behind the arc will help set up low-post players on a more regular basis.

    Will this team take the next step toward greatness with its roster? Not likely. But it should be considered a lock to make the top eight when it’s all said and done.

No. 5 New York Knicks

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    The New York Knicks landing the No. 5 spot out East would be a vast disappointment. Their roster is built to compete for championships, and it’s certainly possible they contend for a top-three spot when the year comes to a close.

    But while they have tried to bring in talent, the problem is that the teams ahead of them also have players coming in—players who could have an even bigger impact on the regular season.

    Being the fifth seed in such a top-heavy conference is more a testament to the competition than it is to the team itself. The truth is that the Knicks added players such as Andrea Bargnani and Metta World Peace, which will help them tremendously if injuries continue to be a problem.

    But as much potential as this team has, there are just too many questions to overlook.

    How many games can they win on three-point shooting alone? Will Amar’e Stoudemire be healthy enough to make a difference? If he is healthy, how will he play alongside Carmelo Anthony?

    If those answers are discovered early, you’re looking at one of the most dangerous teams in the association. If they’re not, you’re looking at a disappointing year in the Big Apple.

No. 4 Brooklyn Nets

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    Placing the Brooklyn Nets ahead of the New York Knicks isn’t going to be the popular choice in a number of circles, but it’s too tough to ignore the talent on this roster.

    The Nets made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason when they acquired three former Boston Celtics: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry. The team has one of the most talented starting units in the game today, but what can’t be ignored is the fact that it has depth to go along with its star power.

    The signings of Andrei Kirilenko, Andray Blatche and Shaun Livingston give the Nets players who can step up and spell the starters when age kicks in. A lot of money is going into this group’s payroll—money that is going toward building a roster aimed at postseason success.

    But while the money was well spent, we have to see the Nets get it done on the court, not just on paper. Brooklyn’s moves have officially made it a threat, but it still has to get past the perennial contenders before we throw the word “favorites” into the mix.

    This team is talented enough to win a title, but rest and health toward the end of the year will play huge roles in how far it goes.

No. 3 Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers gave the Eastern Conference a run for its money during the 2013 postseason, and they’re bound to do the same in 2014.

    The Pacers didn’t make any drastic moves during the offseason, but the nice thing is that they didn’t need to. They’ll be bringing back Danny Granger following his knee injury, and while the role of Paul George is sure to change, they’ll likely find the boost in scoring they lacked the entire 2012-13 campaign.

    But while an offensive boost is going to help this team succeed, it’s the defense that will keep them near the top of the conference. They allowed the second-fewest points per game a season ago, and they grabbed the most rebounds of any team in the league.

    They were also a top-five team when it came to blocks, and if Roy Hibbert can take another step toward a more consistent game, he can be the presence they need to contend deep into they playoffs.

No. 2 Chicago Bulls

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    The Chicago Bulls are going to be a scary team during the 2013-14 season.

    Without Derrick Rose on their side, Chicago won 45 games and took down the Brooklyn Nets in a tough seven-game series. Defense was a priority, and the team showed that it is more than capable of competing without a superstar anywhere on the roster.

    Now, with Rose making his return, the Bulls have the offensive weapon they so desperately needed against the conference’s top team, the Miami Heat.

    Rose is going to be the undisputed leader of this group, but you have to look at the growth of Jimmy Butler and the signing of Mike Dunleavy as two factors that will also improve the backcourt. That combined with the presence up front of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng, and you have a roster that is complete at every position.

    Watch for the Bulls to challenge for the top spot throughout the entire season. It’s not ridiculous to assume that the top spot could be theirs when the year comes to a close, but one team is going to have a lot to say about that until it actually happens.

No. 1 Miami Heat

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    Until somebody officially knocks the Miami Heat off their pedestal, they have to be considered the No. 1 team entering the 2013-14 season.

    Pat Riley deserves a ton of credit for putting the Big Three together back in 2010, but he deserves just as much credit for not being content. Every year he’s added more talent to the roster, and he’s continued to bolster the bench that so many people thought would be doomed from the start.

    The addition of Greg Oden is a shrewd move that has virtually no downside. If he’s hurt or out of shape, he’s a minimum contract on a team that has been to the finals three straight years. But if he plays at a high level and protects the rim, he’s done what he’s being paid to do.

    Winning three straight championships is no easy task, and the Heat are about to find that out. That said, they’re back-to-back champs for a reason. Until Derrick Rose, Paul George or someone else can put their run to an end, it’s not wild to assume they’ll be the favorites in 2014.

Western Conference Honorable Mentions

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    Los Angeles Lakers

    The Los Angeles Lakers have the talent to make the 2014 postseason, but at this point, their success comes down to when Kobe Bryant can return to action.

    If Bryant is on the floor sooner rather than later, we’re looking at a team that still has Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and newly acquired Chris Kaman. They also added Nick Young and Wesley Johnson to the mix, who can help make up the difference while Bryant is stuck on the sidelines.

    Dwight Howard’s departure hurts on both sides of the floor, but defense is going to be what makes or breaks this team. Defending the rim and pulling down rebounds will be a problem at times, but if it can surprise people out of the gate, you’re looking at a group that few teams will want to see come playoff time.

     

    Portland Trail Blazers

    The Portland Trail Blazers had arguably the most effective starting lineup in the NBA during 2012-13, but the reason for that was because their bench was about as bad as it comes. Now, they have added both depth and size to their rotation, and you’re bound to see improvements when it comes to defending the paint and scoring in the second unit.

    The big question is whether or not LaMarcus Aldridge will be traded. Damian Lillard is already a leader on this team following his Rookie of the Year campaign, but it’s Aldridge who takes the pressure off the point guard night in and night out with his ability to score from virtually anywhere on the floor.

    If Aldridge finds himself wearing a new uniform at any point in 2013, the postseason is a long shot for this group. But if the big man sticks around, Rip City will be ready to push for a return to the playoffs.

No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Optimism has been a common theme for the Minnesota Timberwolves in recent memory. Unfortunately for them, that optimism has not led to much success (almost exclusively because of health), but a few key additions to the 2013-14 roster once again lead us to believe that a return to the postseason is imminent.

    Drafting Shabazz Muhammad is a bit of a boom-or-bust situation, but slowly integrating him into the system will remove the pressure for him to be a star. Signing Kevin Martin was also a brilliant move, as he will add a legitimate threat from behind the arc.

    But while the moves they made will help toward making the playoffs, nothing compares to the return of arguably the game's best power forward: Kevin Love.

    The 24-year-old played in just 18 games during the 2012-13 season, and his presence was sorely missed on a roster that finished the year just 20th in points per contest. A healthy Love creates for a happy team in Minnesota, and his ability to own the glass and spread the floor is invaluable for this group.

    Success for this team will be predicated upon staying healthy, and if it can do just that, it should be in the playoff picture throughout the entire season.

No. 7 Denver Nuggets

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    The Denver Nuggets took a step back during the 2013 offseason, but don’t be so quick to remove them from the playoff picture.

    Needless to say, losing Andre Iguodala isn’t ideal, especially considering Danilo Gallinari’s ACL injury will keep him out of the rotation to begin the season. However, the additions of J.J. Hickson, Nate Robinson and Randy Foye should be a step in the right direction when it comes to negating the loss of their one-year rental.

    Robinson is going to give this team a huge spark offensively, and Hickson will provide a ton of effort on the rebounding side of things. Neither player will contribute much on the defensive side of the ball, but if their goal is to outpace and outscore opponents, the Nuggets will be right on track.

    Denver also saw a personnel change at the head coaching position, ridding itself of George Karl and bringing in Brian Shaw. Watching the NBA’s Coach of the Year get fired was surprising to say the least, but bringing in the 47-year-old player’s coach could help solidify a defense that has been suspect in years past.

No. 6 Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies are in a brutal division that consists of the reigning Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs, the vastly improved Houston Rockets and two opponents in the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans—who you just can’t count out on any given night.

    This is still a team that is going to challenge anybody out west, but don’t be surprised if it takes a step back from the 56 wins it recorded in 2012-13.

    Zach Randolph is coming off of a showing in the Western Conference Finals that was forgettable at best despite averaging 12 rebounds per contest. His struggles came on the offensive end where he scored just 11 points per game, but offensive deficiencies were common for the whole team during the season.

    What Memphis has going for it is its defense and the acquisition of Mike Miller. The defense is always going to challenge opposing offenses, no matter how potent they may be, and with the pickup of Miller, the team will have a threat on the outside despite his inconsistency. 

    Memphis is still a playoff team, as its defensive-oriented style will propel it to success. But in a division where the worst opponent is likely to be the improving Pelicans or the wild card Mavs, it’s a reasonable assumption that this crew might take a slight step in the wrong direction.

No. 5 Golden State Warriors

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    As the darlings of the 2012-13 season, the Golden State Warriors became a team for casual fans to latch onto during the 2013 playoffs.

    Now, with Andre Iguodala set to boost both the perimeter defense and the transition offense, the Warriors have a chance to push for home-court advantage entering the playoffs.

    Behind the lead of Stephen Curry, this is one of the most exciting teams in the entire NBA. Between the inside presence of Andrew Bogut, the return of David Lee and the maturation of Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, this group is ready to officially break out.

    Don’t forget that this team has an $11 million trade exception that it can use, according to HoopsWorld.

    The Warriors are ready to improve upon their 47 wins, and whether they use that exception or not, they’re likely going to prove that they’re more than just a one-hit wonder.

No. 4 Houston Rockets

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    Any team that signs Dwight Howard becomes instant contenders, and while it’s true that his solo season with the Los Angeles Lakers was a complete disaster, he’ll look to turn around his entire image as a member of the Houston Rockets.

    Houston is a young team, making Howard one of the veterans in the rotation. He has a coach who is sensitive to the needs of a big man, youngsters who better fit his personality and a star, James Harden, who will take the pressure off him to score late.

    Perimeter defense is still going to be an issue for Houston, but unlike the Lakers, the Rockets have another capable big man who will defend the rim when Howard is on the bench.

    For as much hype as there is surrounding this group, it would be unfair to deem them champs the same way we did with the Lakers. Creating chemistry takes time, and this group won’t be an exception to that rule.

    But while they may not make the finals in year one of the Howard-Harden experiment, nobody should be shocked either if they earn home-court advantage in the first round and make a push toward Western Conference supremacy.

No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers

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    An accomplished head coach, solid depth and arguably the best point guard in the entire NBA: These attributes are what the Los Angeles Clippers have going for them at this point, and these are what should earn them home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

    With Doc Rivers now on their side, the Clippers are ready to prove that they’re more than a second-tier team. We have known how good they can be ever since Chris Paul joined Blake Griffin in Lob City, but the former Boston Celtics leader will take them from extreme entertainers to dangerous contenders.

    One area where this team advanced is outside shooting. It brought in players such as J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, who are going to help improve a unit that was a middle-of-the-road shooting squad in 2012-13.

    One area where it neglected to grow is low-post defense. DeAndre Jordan is the team’s best inside presence, but while he has the ability to make highlights, he’s yet to learn the concept of staying focused for the duration of a game.

    The Clippers appear ready to take the next step, but there’s two perennial contenders who won’t easily give up the top two spots in a tough Western Conference.

No. 2 San Antonio Spurs

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    The San Antonio Spurs haven’t finished outside of the top three since the 2009-10 season. It’s true that they continue to age, but at this point, it’s fair to say that they’re more fine wine than they are spoiled milk.

    It’s true that someday the Spurs will need to rebuild, and that someday the age of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and even Tony Parker will be an actual problem. But while people continue to count them out year after year, Gregg Popovich and his crew continue to play the same brand of basketball, no matter how “boring” it may be.

    Per R.C. Buford’s usual routine, the Spurs kept quiet during the offseason. They soundlessly added Marco Belinelli to the rotation, and the biggest addition of all will come in whatever growth takes place for players such as Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard.

    If you’re ready to lay the Spurs to rest, that’s fine—you won’t be alone. But if you watched what this team did during the 2012-13 season, it’s going to take actual, physical proof that a decline is in place before you count out this squad.

No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Northwest Division is going to host a whole bunch of wild cards during the 2013-14 season. The Denver Nuggets, while taking a step back, will still be competitors. The Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves should both be improved following their offseason moves.

    Even the Utah Jazz, who are headed for a true rebuilding season, have the talent to play spoiler on any given night.

    But while each team has something special to offer, none of them will be able to hold a candle to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    If not for the season-ending injury to Russell Westbrook, the outcome of the 2012-13 season could have looked far different. The return of one of the game’s best point guards will be huge for this roster, as Kevin Durant showed how difficult it can be to run the show on his own during the playoffs.

    Not having Kevin Martin in the rotation could be a problem, as the Thunder never found a true replacement. Serge Ibaka has proven he can be counted on to spread the floor and score on occasion, but lacking a perimeter threat could be troublesome.

    The good news for OKC is that the youngsters on the roster will be able to strut their stuff more prominently as a result of Martin’s absence. Westbrook and Durant will clearly run the show, but if there were ever a time to step it up, it’s now.