5 NBA Teams That Could Make Surprising Playoff Appearances Next Season
As the NBA inches ever closer to the start of training camp, the propagation of predictions, power rankings and over-unders is bound to hit a fever pitch.
The most hotly anticipated variety of speculation, of course, is the guesswork of who will finish where in the conference standings—which teams will make good on their playoff promise and which will end up bound to the conference basement.
But as with last year’s Phoenix Suns, there are bound to be at least a few teams who use the indignity of low expectations as motivational rocket fuel.
So join us as we pinpoint five teams who have a legitimate shot at proving us pundits wrong.
As such, all of our candidates meet one of two criteria: Either they missed the postseason altogether, or their rosters have endured such flux that this year’s prospects stand to look—on paper anyway—much grimmer.
The Suns couldn’t quite seal the playoff deal a year ago. Might these teams author a different fate?
After losing versatile forward Danilo Gallinari late in the 2012-13 season, the Denver Nuggets were sure to have a tough row to hoe doubling down on their 57-win campaign.
Few thought it would be this bad.
Marshaled by rookie head coach Brian Shaw, the Nuggets—much like the Pistons—struggled with positional redundancy and general inconsistency en route to an 11th-place Western Conference finish this past season.
Gallinari’s return and the re-arrival of Arron Afflalo are no panaceas, of course. At the same time, Shaw’s early growing pains should result in a more flexible, personnel-oriented style—one that can also incorporate the versatile backcourt tools of rookies Gary Harris and Erick Green.
From a talent standpoint, this year’s Nuggets aren’t that far removed from the unit George Karl used to win himself NBA Coach of the Year honors. To get back on track, though, will require that the offense recapture its fifth-ranked form of two years ago (the Nuggets dropped all the way down to 16th this past season).
With Ty Lawson another year older and wiser and Galinari providing some much-needed secondary playmaking punch, these Nuggets have a chance to leapfrog a team like the Memphis Grizzlies or Houston Rockets, the latter of which is struggling through arguably its worst offseason in years.
What’s that, a team coming off 23 wins in a historically wretched Eastern Conference making the playoffs after little in the way of substantial roster changes?
You heard it hear first, folks: The Orlando Magic might possibly be kind of, sort of halfway decent.
And while the Magic’s formula makes for a finer high-wire act than most teams on this list, it’s not entirely inconceivable either: A legitimate second-year leap from Victor Oladipo, the continued improvement of Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic and—perhaps most crucial of all—Jacque Vaughn’s San Antonio Spurs-derived offense finding its next gear.
The big question mark, after the loss of veteran Jameer Nelson, is at point guard. Oladipo simply doesn’t have the playmaking instinct to excel at the 1, and rookie Elfrid Payton, for all his Rajon Rondo-like bona fides, will need some time to develop.
The more realistic assessment, of course, is that these Magic—loaded with upside, sure, but with lots of learning left to do—are likely a year or two away from being included as legitimate conference players.
But if last year’s Suns taught us anything, it’s that there’s no substitute for contagious chemistry. That the Magic have a much easier path of resistance in a still-down East only makes their case for a premature ascent all the more intriguing.
New Orleans Pelicans
From “Are you Crazy?” to “I’ve seen shorter limbs on a tree stump.”
Yes, the New Orleans Pelicans stand to be one of the underdog darlings of the 2014-15 slate. Having Anthony Davis, one of the league’s legitimate soon-to-be superstars, makes it all but inevitable.
All the same, winning 34 games—albeit in an admittedly loaded Western Conference—isn’t exactly a happy harbinger of things to come.
The addition of Omer Asik will pay immediate dividends on the defensive end for the Pelicans, who were forced last year to rely on Davis far too much to be the team’s principal rim protector. With Davis now afforded a broader range of movement, New Orleans’ 25th-ranked defense stands to make a considerable leap.
Offensively, Monty Williams still has his work cut out for him in forging some semblance of rotational harmony among the team’s trio of young guards: Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon.
With only a one-year player option remaining on the latter’s contract after this season, expect the Pelicans to shop Gordon hard at the trade deadline in hopes of landing some more bench depth in return.
For all its somewhat awkward positional fits, New Orleans has one thing few other bottom-dwellers can boast: a future star whose ceiling could be measured in light-years.
Heading into the start of the 2013-14 season, guesses as to how the Detroit Pistons’ new-look roster would fit tended to take one of two very different tones: Either pairing Josh Smith with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond would prove the year’s smart-like-a-fox move for general manager Joe Dumars, or….
The or ended up happening.
What was hoped to be a dynamically skilled frontcourt wound up being a positional-strategic logjam. Shoe-horned into playing heavy minutes at the small forward position, Smith’s worst tendencies were increasingly exposed, with his propensity for strangely timed three-pointers driving both fans and analysts alike completely bananas.
Writing shortly after Smith’s signing, Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes predicted with startling accuracy precisely how the gambit would unfold:
Stated simply, Detroit has no idea how to get better.
Joe Dumars just paid $56 million to a player who—even in ideal circumstances—is not good enough to be the No. 1 option on a contender. The result will almost certainly be a Pistons team that threatens to make the postseason, but won't be good enough to do more than lose a first-round series.
Even worse, Detroit won't be able to bottom out, either.
What makes this year any different? Three-ish words: Stan Van Gundy.
Five years after turning the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic into a legitimate championship contender, Van Gundy will attempt to duplicate his feat by building around Drummond’s eerily comparable skill set.
Additionally, newly signed Jodie Meeks and second-year sharpshooter Kentavious Caldwell Pope are destined to help improve Detroit’s 29th-ranked three-point prowess (per NBA.com).
If he can somehow manage his frontcourt’s minutes while getting something resembling Jameer Nelson-level steadiness from the mercurial Brandon Jennings, there’s nothing stopping these Pistons—talented as they doubtless are—from sneaking their way into May.
Los Angeles Lakers
Just because you happen to be one of the NBA’s most storied franchises doesn’t mean you’re not ripe for the occasional off year—nor does it mean that you can’t exceed expectations.
Besides, coming as they were off one of the worst seasons in team history, it’s hard to think things could get much worse for these Lakers.
Kobe Bryant will be back—that much we know. How effective he’ll be at 35 years old and coming off a pair of potentially perilous injuries, however, remains an open question.
The acquisition of Jeremy Lin might be seen by some as nothing more than a cynical grab for theatrics—a way to draw in otherwise agnostic fans in what is sure to be another down year.
But Lin, who turns 26 on August 23, remains a promising point guard product. Indeed, playing at a slot that takes some years to truly master (Chauncey Billups, anyone?) in an age where the position is arguably stronger than it’s ever been is no easy task.
Handed the full-time reins for the first time since his inaugural season with the Houston Rockets, Lin will be given every opportunity to recreate the magic he summoned as a D-League afterthought-turned global icon of the New York Knicks.
Throw in the recently amnestied Carlos Boozer, rookie stud Julius Randle, sixth-man extraordinaire Nick Young and a hopefully healthy Steve Nash, the Lakers—while by no means the deepest team in the league—have all the makings of a pesky conference pest. Perhaps, if all breaks right, a playoff berth will be the result.
Ask general Manager Mitch Kupchak, though, and the expectations in Lakersland are the same as they've ever been.
"We're still going to pitch that this is a championship franchise and that's going to be our goal," Kupchak told ESPN's Dave McMenamin shortly before the start of free agency. "As long as Kobe is on this team, we have to believe that we can contend for a championship."