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Outside of the Western Conference's top eight teams from last season, there is a small group that could play their way into the playoff picture this year.
The Phoenix Suns shocked the basketball world by coming within a few games of making the postseason. After a strong draft (T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Alec Brown) and the signing of point guard Isaiah Thomas, they will be competitive once again.
The Denver Nuggets suffered a number of costly injuries that led to a 36-46 record, including to J.J Hickson, JaVale McGee, Nate Robinson and Danilo Gallinari. This summer, they added a few pieces, like veteran shooter Arron Afflalo and rookie Gary Harris.
However, of the teams that missed the playoffs in the West last year, the New Orleans Pelicans will be the club that makes the biggest leap.
Why? Well, for starters, they have an emerging superstar in Anthony Davis. The 21-year-old has been so good early in his career that he caught the attention of reigning MVP Kevin Durant, according to NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer:
I know how good he is now, but I know how good he’s going to be. He’s an MVP-caliber player. So he’s next. He’s next in line – a guy that has grown so much in just a year. I’m excited to see what he does from here. He’s definitely on pace.
That's heavy praise for a kid that has played just two seasons so far. The excitement in NOLA doesn't stop at The Unibrow. Like the Nuggets, the Pelicans dealt with a ton of injuries last season, including to Davis. When healthy, the team will be able to surround Davis with a solid supporting cast that includes Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, all of whom missed significant time in 2013-14.
The final cherry on top is the addition of former Houston Rockets center Omer Asik. New Orleans needed a big man inside to pair with Davis, and they got one in the Turkish 7-footer.
With Davis and Asik, the Pelicans have one of the best defensive frontcourts as well as a dynamic duo that will be great on the glass.
Now, to make the playoffs, New Orleans will need a few breaks. The Dallas Mavericks had to win 49 games just to nab the eighth seed last year. Still, if this core can stay healthy and Davis continues to grow, the Pelicans can greatly improve on last season's 34-win campaign.