Playing Fact or Fiction with Each New NBA Playoff Contender

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIAugust 30, 2013

Playing Fact or Fiction with Each New NBA Playoff Contender

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    Within a revamped NBA landscape, many new-look rosters are setting their sights on playoff contention in 2014. The 2013-14 campaign will see some big changes as upstart teams aim to climb out of the draft lottery. But are the playoff aspirations those of a factual contender or a fictitious pretender?

    Following rough offseasons—in which the talent level of each roster was significantly downgraded—the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks will more than likely be on the outside looking in at a playoff berth.

    That leaves the door open for other Eastern Conference contenders, like the Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers, to make the cut.

    The Western Conference, meanwhile, remains as competitive as ever. There’s only a slight crevice where teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves or Dallas Mavericks could sneak in.

    Before we play fact or fiction with potential postseason contenders, a conference breakdown will help decide what playoff spots are even available.

Western Conference Breakdown

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    The NBA’s Western Conference is absolutely loaded.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs continue to be mainstays at the top of the playoff hierarchy.

    Contenders like the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers experienced positive changes during the summer. They’ve all but guaranteed their spot in the postseason as well.

    The Denver Nuggets lost Andre Iguodala and Coach of the Year George Karl, so they may not win 57 games again next season. However, they’re still loaded with talent and team chemistry, so it’s logical to believe they won’t slide out of playoff contention.

    Another team that must be mentioned is the Memphis Grizzlies, a team that made it to the Western Conference Finals due to the play of Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol.

    As we go down the list, the only team in the West that doesn’t appear playoff bound again is the Los Angeles Lakers. They barely snuck into the playoffs after a disastrous 2012-13 season with Dwight Howard on board. Now, with Kobe Bryant recovering from an Achilles tear he suffered in April, the Lakers aren’t a sure thing for the first time in a long time.

    To recap, there’s no reason to believe the Thunder, Spurs, Rockets, Warriors, Clippers, Nuggets and Grizzlies won’t appear in the postseason again in 2014. That leaves just one Western Conference playoff spot open for playoff hopefuls.

    The Western Conference landscape could certainly change over the course of an 82-game season. But for the sake of argument, only one “new” playoff contender will make the cut in the West.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves were absolutely ravaged by injuries a season ago. Kevin Love missed 64 games; Chase Budinger was prevented from playing in 59; Ricky Rubio was MIA 25 times and Nikola Pekovic was absent from 20 matchups. Needless to say, they were never at full strength.

    Considering that those four guys missed a combined 168 games last season, and are projected to make up four-fifths of Minny’s starting rotation next season, there’s sure to be some rust.

    I’d like to give the T-Wolves some credit for having Love on the roster, but the fact of the matter is that he A) has never played every game in a season, and B) hasn’t even led the Timberwolves to an eighth seed in the Western Conference after five seasons.

    In addition to Love’s track record, Minnesota was the league’s worst three-point-shooting team last year at 30.5 percent. It addressed that weakness to some extent by bringing in Kevin Martin, who shot a career high 42.6 percent from deep with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season.

    Martin will help, but Corey Brewer—another key offseason acquisition—is a dreadful outside shooter. The former Florida Gator will likely split time at shooting guard and small forward, where his career 29.8-percent shooting from downtown won’t be a welcome sight.

    To illustrate how much three-point shooting matters, consider that eight of the top 10 teams in three-point field-goal attempts last season made the playoffs. Additionally, seven of the top 10 teams in three-point field-goal percentage made it to the postseason.

    In the loaded Western Conference, only well-rounded teams make it to the playoffs. I’m not sold that the Timberwolves are there yet even if they stay healthy (which is a long shot to begin with).


    The Minnesota Timberwolves are a playoff team, fact or fiction?


3. New Orleans Pelicans

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    After Nerlens Noel fell to the New Orleans Pelicans at pick No. 6 in the 2013 NBA draft, they promptly shipped him (along with a 2014 first-round pick) to the Philadelphia 76ers for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday.

    We won't know for a few years which team got the better end of the deal, but in the short term, the Pelicans are clear winners. Noel is recuperating from a torn ACL and has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as 2012’s No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis.

    As a result, it made sense for New Orleans to acquire a young All-Star floor general capable of leading the team into the future.

    On paper, New Orleans shows a lot of promise.

    Davis will look to embrace his potential after an injury-riddled rookie campaign stunted his development.

    I love the addition of Tyreke Evans, because he’s needed a change of scenery for a while. After winning Rookie of the Year in 2010 for averaging 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds, Evans has regressed statistically in three straight seasons.

    Ryan Anderson is one of the most unique players in the game as a big guy who can shoot the lights out from the perimeter, and Eric Gordon has shown the ability to average 20-plus points per game when healthy.

    With all that said, the Pelicans don’t have a bona fide alpha dog who's the unquestioned go-to guy.

    Davis may develop into the star he was projected to be out of college, but averages of 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game are eerily similar to Marcus Camby’s rookie stats. Camby never made an All-Star team in his career, but he won Defensive Player of the Year in 2006-07.

    The Pelicans will be a playoff team down the road, but 2013-14 still appears to be part of the transition phase.


    The New Orleans Pelicans are a playoff team, fact or fiction?


2. Portland Trail Blazers

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    After beating the Miami Heat, 92-90, on Jan. 10, the Portland Trail Blazers improved their record to 20-15 on the year. They were very much in the playoff hunt as the Los Angeles Lakers continued to falter, but the Trail Blazers simply couldn’t keep pace.

    Despite a respectable start to the season, Portland lost traction down the stretch because Damian Lillard was logging massive minutes as a rookie and the team literally didn't have a second unit to take pressure off the starters.

    The Trail Blazers' bench ranked dead last in minutes (13.3) and points (18.5), according to Hoops Stats. The 18.5 points per game scored was the lowest by any second unit in the NBA by nearly six points.

    As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Trail Blazers' bench scored less than half the bench points of six NBA teams: Dallas Mavericks (41.5), Denver Nuggets (40.9), Los Angeles Clippers (40.1), New York Knicks (38.5), Utah Jazz (37.2) and Charlotte Bobcats (37.1).

    Portland's offseason focus had to be on upgrading the reserves, and the front office certainly delivered. Acquisitions of Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez, CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe have created a completely viable second unit—Lopez will probably start and send Meyers Leonard to the bench. It would be shocking if the Trail Blazers finished last in any bench categories next season.

    Improving the bench was a huge step in the right direction. However, Lillard will have his hands full not only trying to improve upon a stellar Rookie of the Year campaign, but also aiming to avoid a possible sophomore slump.

    The Trail Blazers improved by leaps and bounds this summer, but there’s just one team holding them back from getting that final Western Conference playoff spot.


    The Portland Trail Blazers are a playoff team, fact or fiction?


1. Dallas Mavericks

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    Dirk Nowitzki led the Dallas Mavericks to a 28-25 record in 53 games played last season. He made it happen despite being surrounded by the likes of Elton Brand (7.2 points per game), Darren Collison (couldn’t keep a starting job) and Mike James (took said starting job despite playing just 15 NBA games spanning the three seasons prior), all while having O.J. Mayo choke away wins with sloppy ball handling in crunch time.

    He no longer gets the credit he deserves now that the Mavericks haven’t won a playoff game since winning the title in 2011. Nevertheless, Nowitzki is still one of the league’s best players.

    Mark Cuban failed to land Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard after blowing up the 2011 title team. And while additions like Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis and Samuel Dalembert aren’t what you’d call “elite,” they’re all improvements over recent offseason departees.

    Nobody should be clamoring over this Mavericks squad, but with Nowitzki at the helm and head coach Rick Carlisle patrolling the sideline, the Mavs have the best shot at making the playoffs in comparison to other hopefuls.

    I refuse to overlook a proven champion like Nowitzki, even though the Trail Blazers, Pelicans and Timberwolves will improve via a combination of roster moves and a healthy lineup.


    The Dallas Mavericks are a playoff team, fact or fiction?


Eastern Conference Breakdown

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    The NBA’s Eastern Conference is arguably weaker than the Western Conference in terms of overall team talent.

    However, the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks are all playoff locks. Even if they experience a key injury, the odds they fall out of playoff contention are not high.

    Meanwhile, with Kevin Garnett (traded) and Paul Pierce (traded) out of the picture and Rajon Rondo (recovering from ACL tear) not expected back until possibly sometime in December, the Boston Celtics appear closer to competing for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft than they do for a playoff berth.

    The Milwaukee Bucks dueling banjos backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis was downgraded to Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo in the offseason. Unless Larry Sanders makes massive strides on the offensive end next year, the Bucks will be bound for a top-10 pick in the 2014 draft.

    That leaves the Atlanta Hawks, a team that finished with a 44-38 record last season en route to the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

    The Hawks lost Josh Smith, Devin Harris and Zaza Pachulia to free agency, but they re-signed Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. They also added Paul Millsap, Elton Brand and DeMarre Carroll, which are three of the offseason’s most underrated moves in my opinion.

    And after a stellar draft that included Dennis Schröder, Lucas Nogueira and Mike Muscala, the Hawks don’t appear to have any less talent than they did a season ago.

    An offseason DUI charge for new coach Mike Budenholzer (per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today) is certainly a distraction. However, Atlanta still appears to be talented enough to maintain playoff position.

    For the purpose of this article, two Eastern Conference playoff spots are up for grabs.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    After finishing 34-48, missing the playoffs and ranking 28th in the league in rebounds per game (40.2), the Toronto Raptors are hoping for a breakout season from Jonas Valanciunas.

    The Lithuanian center played 62 games for Toronto as a rookie, 57 of which were starts. In 23.9 minutes per game, Valanciunas averaged 8.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 3.0 personal fouls.

    Foul trouble often prevented him from playing big minutes, but the NBA sophomore showed signs of improvement during the NBA Summer League.

    In four games played in Las Vegas, the 21-year-old big man averaged 18.8 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. He shot 56.1 percent from the field, 87.9 percent from the free-throw line and won Summer League MVP for his efforts.

    Unfortunately, there were still some evident red flags.

    Not only did Valanciunas average five turnovers per game, but he also committed 5.8 personal fouls per contest. Since players can’t foul out of Summer League games, the Raptors big man recorded a ridiculous nine fouls on July 16 against the Sacramento Kings. He also notched six personals against the San Antonio Spurs two days prior.

    Valanciunas’s stats may cause Raptors fans to salivate, but the gaudy double-double average needs to be taken with a grain of salt. He wouldn’t have lasted in an actual NBA game due to foul trouble, and there’s the five turnovers per game to worry about as well.

    Valanciunas will show improvement during the 2013-14 campaign, but he still needs to learn the fundamentals in order to stay on the court. Since the Raptors will be relying on Rudy Gay’s terrible shooting and the injury-prone Kyle Lowry, I don’t think they’re quite ready to reach the playoffs.

    Fortunately for Raptors fans, they now have 2013 Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri pulling the strings.


    The Toronto Raptors are a playoff team, fact or fiction?


3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    On paper, the Cleveland Cavaliers are a vastly different team than they were a year ago.

    Offseason acquisitions of Earl Clark, second-round pick Carrick Felix, Jarrett Jack, Andrew Bynum and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett have completely revamped the Cavs from cellar dweller to playoff hopeful.

    But that’s just on paper.

    In Kyrie Irving’s first two seasons as a pro, he’s never played more than 77 percent of Cleveland’s regular-season games. He missed 15 games as a rookie during the lockout-shortened year, and then 23 games last season. He simply hasn’t had the same durability as other NBA stars.

    Also, Cleveland rolled the dice by signing Bynum this summer. The big man didn’t play a single minute for the Philadelphia 76ers following the blockbuster Dwight Howard trade, and he's had injury woes dating back to his days with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    The Cavs have a plethora of talented young players, and the addition of Jack as a veteran presence will be huge, but the main question is whether the Cavaliers can keep their two stars healthy.

    A Bynum/Irving tandem would be an offensive juggernaut if both guys show up to games sans street clothes.

    There’s a lot to like about this Cavs team, but there’s also a lot to worry about.


    The Cleveland Cavaliers are a playoff team, fact or fiction?

    Fact (If Bynum and Irving can stay healthy)

2. Washington Wizards

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    The success of the Washington Wizards hinges on the play of John Wall. When the former No. 1 overall pick returned from injury last season, he helped lead the Wizards to a 24-25 record (a mark that would have been better if the Wizards didn’t end the season on a six-game losing skid).

    Despite the fact that one game under .500 isn’t a mark to strive for, that would have been adequate enough for the Wizards to nab the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference last season over the Milwaukee Bucks if it was sustained throughout the season.

    Wall’s 49-game stretch was highlighted by a 47-point, eight-assist, seven-rebound effort in a win against the Memphis Grizzlies. He did, however, get off to a slow start as he worked his body back into game shape.

    As is the case with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Wizards simply have to stay healthy in order to compete for a playoff spot.

    In addition to Washington’s star point guard, Bradley Beal, Nenê Hilario and Trevor Ariza all missed significant time due to injuries. The supporting cast simply has to avoid getting hurt, because Wall doesn’t have a wingman as talented as Andrew Bynum.

    Washington has a balanced mixture of offense (Wall, Beal, Nenê) and defense (Emeka Okafor, Ariza). Making the playoffs in 2014 will depend on their ability to put all the pieces together to form a cohesive unit.


    The Washington Wizards are a playoff team, fact or fiction?

    Fact (If the Cleveland Cavaliers don’t stay healthy)

1. Detroit Pistons

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    Even with a young, inexperienced roster and a tough schedule to start the season, it was surprising that the Detroit Pistons came out of the gates with an 0-8 record in 2012-13. The Pistons never recovered from the poor start and finished 29-53.

    Despite being well out of the 2013 playoff picture, Detroit reloaded in a major way this summer.

    The biggest splash was made when the Pistons acquired Josh Smith—one of the best talents available in free agency—on a four-year, $54 million deal.

    The Pistons also brought back Chauncey Billups, who led Detroit to an NBA title in 2004, to provide veteran leadership. In addition, the Pistons agreed to a sign-and-trade deal with the Milwaukee Bucks to acquire point guard Brandon Jennings on a three-year, $24.2 million deal (a borderline hijacking given the price).

    The upgrades in talent are obvious, but there are some questions with regard to how the Pistons will gel as a team.

    Smith is projected to be the starting small forward. He’ll join a frontcourt that already features Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Considering that those two big men will be taking up space on the interior, Smith’s inability to spread the floor with outside shooting doesn’t make him an ideal fit.

    Nevertheless, Smith is a huge upgrade in talent on both ends of the court. His presence ensured that the Atlanta Hawks made the playoffs in each of the past six seasons.

    Jennings, the Pistons' other addition, certainly has his faults. He’s a career 39.4-percent field-goal shooter and doesn't display the best shot selection.

    However, he averages just 2.4 turnovers per game despite dominating the ball out of the point-guard spot. Out of all qualified point guards last season, Jennings had fewer turnovers per game than Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Tony Parker, among others.

    It may take some time for the Pistons to get acclimated to one another, but there’s no question that they have the talent to contend for a playoff spot next year.


    The Detroit Pistons are a playoff team, fact or fiction?