How Every Projected 2016 NBA Playoff Team Can Exceed Expectations
NBA expectations are often in a state of evolution.
Hot streaks, savvy acquisitions and internal improvements can all raise the bar that clubs are trying to reach. Conversely, injuries, backfiring transactions and frigid slumps can push reasonable hopes in the opposite direction.
Few teams are still chasing their preseason targets by this point. Who actually saw the Golden State Warriors pursuing 73 wins? Or the Houston Rockets having to claw for their playoff ticket? Or the Miami Heat playing their best basketball without Chris Bosh?
We've looked at all the evidence offered over the course of 2015-16 and dissected what it would take for the 16 projected playoff participants to outperform their current expectations. In doing so, we've also wagered on how the final postseason field will look. (Spoiler alert: We're terrified by the Dallas Mavericks' loss of Chandler Parsons, the Chicago Bulls' leaky defense and the hole the Washington Wizards dug for themselves.)
Atlanta Hawks: Advance to Eastern Conference Finals
The Atlanta Hawks would have to be thrilled with a repeat of last season's run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
They're much more one-sided than they were a year ago, bolstered by a defense ranked second in efficiency but hampered by their offense, which is rated 14th in efficiency. Kyle Korver's shooting has come back to Earth. Jeff Teague has endured sizable declines in his field-goal percentage (42.8 from 46) and player efficiency rating (17.2 from 20.6). And they also miss the reliable two-way play DeMarre Carroll provided.
Atlanta could sweep its remaining schedule and still fall eight victories shy of its 2014-15 win total. It's never found the groove that group rode to a standard-setting campaign for the franchise. So, while retracing those playoff steps may seem like a lack of progress, it would actually be evidence of the current collective playing better than this season's rate.
And it's entirely feasible for this to play out. The Hawks have one of the league's most talented frontcourt tandems in Al Horford and Paul Millsap. They've defended better than anyone in 2016. Korver hasn't missed much since the All-Star break. Plus, they gained valuable experience during that deep playoff push last year.
Boston Celtics: Win a Playoff Series
By any measure, the Boston Celtics are ahead of schedule. They won 25 games just two seasons ago during head coach Brad Stevens' debut, and now they're on pace for 48. All this despite having only one All-Star (Isaiah Thomas) and continuing to receive one-sided returns from the No. 6 overall pick in 2014, Marcus Smart.
"There are no franchise players in Boston," Sports Illustrated's Andrew Sharp wrote, "and nobody who would even be considered a top-five player at his position."
What the Celtics do have, though, is a coaching superstar in Stevens and a scrappy, versatile roster. They defend like crazy (fourth in efficiency and opponents' field-goal percentage) and evenly spread the scoring duties behind Thomas.
They don't beat themselves, and they'll trounce teams who aren't ready to play.
Boston has the coaching, execution and effort to pass its first-round test. But its lack of star power would put it on the underdog side of a matchup with the Toronto Raptors or Cleveland Cavaliers.
Charlotte Hornets: Score a Postseason Upset
Can you hear the buzz?
No, it's not part of a clever Charlotte Hornets' marketing ploy. It's the alarm clock trying to wake anyone who continues to sleep on Queen City's finest.
Forget everything you thought you knew about the franchise, and stop doubting the vision of owner Michael Jordan. This group will be a handful for any postseason opponent. The Hornets are one of only five teams (Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs) with top-10 efficiency ranks on both ends of the court (10th on offense, eighth on defense).
Kemba Walker is having his best season as a pro, thanks to the support of Swiss army knife Nicolas Batum and the spacing created by Charlotte's upgraded perimeter attack. The Hornets get more than a triple per game from six different players, which stretches defenses thin when Al Jefferson is rolling underneath. Charlotte limits turnovers, fouls and opponents' transition opportunities.
There are many reasons to like the Hornets—but how many will reach the second season? They have dealt with moving pieces all year, and this reshaped core hasn't taken a playoff trip together. Charlotte needs to validate its rise with a postseason upset, whether that's fighting off a higher seed in the first round or dispatching a giant during the second.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Capture the Crown
Championship or bust.
That's been the measure for the Cleveland Cavaliers since LeBron James penned his way back to Northeast Ohio, and nothing about this season has changed that.
That said, their climb to the top looks awfully steep. Consistency has been an issue under new head coach Tyronn Lue, as it was during the reign of his predecessor, David Blatt. Kevin Love still hasn't found his offensive niche, and, at times, Kyrie Irving seemingly has the same issue. The Cavaliers defense has also grown uncomfortably generous since the All-Star break: It's 18th in opponents' field-goal percentage and 13th in efficiency.
"Forget the cryptic tweets or Love's elbow touches. You can even ignore Irving's low assist totals. The most pressing issue is Cleveland finding its defensive identity that led them to the NBA Finals last year," Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor wrote.
The Cavs can score with anyone—even if Love and Irving aren't always functioning at full capacity. Consider it the LeBron effect. But Cleveland must shore up its defense to fend off the potent offenses it will encounter in the Eastern Conference playoffs—let alone compete with whichever two-way power emerges from the Western Conference.
Detroit Pistons: Crack the Playoff Field
The Detroit Pistons are still in the construction phase. President of basketball operations and head coach Stan Van Gundy has hoarded young, athletic talent and positioned this franchise for a fruitful future.
Four of its five leading scorers are 25 or younger, and the exception, Marcus Morris, is only 26. Andre Drummond is already a terror down low, and Reggie Jackson is an ideal pick-and-roll partner. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson could grow into three-and-D roles, while midseason addition Tobias Harris can carry an offense in spurts.
Detroit's developmental clock isn't behind schedule if this group falls short of the playoffs. But imagine how much more promising tomorrow is if the Pistons get a hands-on lesson about postseason hoops.
"Detroit is not ready to contend for anything beyond a low seed, but it is ready to learn what it doesn't know yet about playoff basketball," NBA.com's Steve Aschburner wrote. "It would be a shame for the Pistons and their fans...if that process has to wait another year."
Golden State Warriors: Set Wins Record, Defend Throne
It wasn't that long ago when a simple playoff berth qualified as a shattered expectation for the Golden State Warriors. But fortunes can change quicker than Stephen Curry's shot release, and the Dubs now face the most daunting of challenges.
Just defending their title—a task so difficult the San Antonio Spurs have never done it—is no longer enough.
For the Warriors to ace their 2015-16 exam, they'll have to deliver another world championship and break the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' NBA record of 72 wins. Even head coach Steve Kerr, who previously prioritized rest over the record, has said his guys are gunning for history.
"We're right there," Kerr said, per Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. "That's pretty enticing.
"It's really the players' record. I know they want to get it. So, we'll act accordingly."
Golden State has the talent to check both boxes. Curry is a shoo-in for his second consecutive MVP Award, and his supporting cast is stacked with snipers, stoppers and a slew of table-setters. But the Warriors need a clean bill of health and a tighter defense than they've had in the second half (12th in efficiency since the All-Star break, second before it).
Houston Rockets: Challenge First-Round Goliath
The primary pieces that steered the Houston Rockets to last year's Western Conference Finals still reside in Space City. But this group has struggled to get above .500 while ranking outside the top half of the league in net efficiency.
James Harden carries too much of the offensive burden. Dwight Howard's usage sounds alarms for both its volume (8.7 field-goal attempts per game, fewest since 2004-05) and manner (finished 268 possessions with post-ups and only 88 with screen-and-rolls). Houston's defensive efficiency has plummeted from sixth last season to 23rd.
The chemistry seems like a science experiment gone wrong.
It's far too late to change any of that. The Rockets have lowered the bar significantly over the past five months. Plans to build on last season's success have been swapped for damage control. A competitive showing against one of the West's best would be better than what Houston has put forth so far.
The Rockets would need to bait their opponent into a scoring race, and the oft-generous Oklahoma City Thunder might bite if Houston can secure that matchup. OKC still has a significant edge in firepower, but if the Rockets can hit enough triples, they could put a scare into Harden's old club.
Indiana Pacers: Escape Opening Round
It's been a transitional season for the Indiana Pacers and their franchise face, Paul George. Indy has trotted out small, speedy lineups, big bruising ones and everything in between. George has nights when he looks better than ever and others when it seems there's some rust left from his lost 2014-15 campaign.
The Pacers are still forming their identity. Even with the offseason departures of David West and Roy Hibbert, they're still a defensive force (third in efficiency). And despite George's return, Monta Ellis' arrival and a notable climb in pace (10th, up from 19th), their offense remains far from elite (24th in efficiency).
But Indy's roster includes several intriguing pieces. Both George and Ellis are capable of igniting at any time, and together they've given the club 37 outings of 25 or more points. Myles Turner is one of the biggest wild cards in the playoff field, as the 6'11" freshman can already take over games with his scoring, rebounding and/or shot blocking. George Hill is playoff-tested and shooting a career-best 40.6 percent from deep.
Given the changes in personnel and philosophy, securing a playoff spot would be an accomplishment. But a healthy George is a superstar, and teams that have one should be thinking beyond the opening round.
If the Pacers can avoid the Eastern Conference's top two seeds—they're 1-5 against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors—they should be aiming for a spot in the conference semifinals.
Los Angeles Clippers: Make Western Conference Finals
The Los Angeles Clippers are the fourth-best team in the Western Conference. That's something both the standings and efficiency rankings agree on.
What's not too clear, though, is what that distinction actually means. It sounds like an elite status—or something awfully close to it—but it's tough to see L.A. as such. This group has struggled mightily with its stiffest tests. It owns just two wins (and eight losses) against the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. The Clippers are winless in four tries against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors.
"The Clippers remain an enigma," CBS Sports' Matt Moore wrote Jan. 12. "They should be contenders, at least fringe ones, yet they don't feel that way."
Would a healthy Blake Griffin change that? Perhaps, though it's unclear when the All-Star forward will rejoin the lineup. Even when his body is ready, he'll still have to serve a four-game suspension for striking a team staff member.
But the clock is ticking for this core—Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Doc Rivers—to break through its second-round ceiling. L.A. seems a half-step (or more) behind the West's top three, so dispatching one of them could be huge for its psyche.
Memphis Grizzlies: Leave Mark on First Round
Even at full strength, the Memphis Grizzlies are perpetually fighting an uphill battle. But with All-Star center Marc Gasol done for the year and so much of their rotation wrecked by injury, Memphis' fight has matched the difficulty of Sisyphus' eternal struggle.
The Grizzlies can't reach wherever they had hoped to go before the season started.
Gasol has been their most important piece at both ends of the floor. Mike Conley is No. 2 on the totem pole, and his sore Achilles tendon could keep him out at least through the end of the regular season, per Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal.
Yet, Memphis has done a remarkable job of pushing forward without its fallen stars. The Grizzlies have won more games than they've lost since Gasol went down (11-10), and they've challenged a lot of the clubs they've been unable to defeat.
But the Grizzlies are losing the numbers game to the injury bug, and there's no way to hide the missing talent in a seven-game series. They're already crashing back to Earth with the fourth-worst efficiency rating in March. They'll face astronomical odds in the first round. Simply making their opponent sweat would qualify as a success.
Miami Heat: Bounce an Old Friend
The Miami Heat should have the attention of the basketball world. Since embracing an uptempo, small-ball attack after the All-Star break, they've posted the fourth-best net efficiency rating (plus-6.7) and are tied for the fifth-best winning percentage (.684).
Though their rotation is limited—Chris Bosh and Tyler Johnson are out indefinitely—they still manage to attack in waves. Goran Dragic is a terror in the open floor, while both Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson can create something from nothing in the half court. The revamped bench unit gets copious energy from Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, and Luol Deng hasn't stopped moving in months.
This offense is tough to defend, which the Cleveland Cavaliers know firsthand. Their head coach, Tyronn Lue, downsized his starting five during his club's last trip to South Beach, which the Heat viewed as the ultimate sign of respect.
"Lue would explain that he was trying to keep Kevin Love from needing to chase Deng all over the court, but he didn't need to say so. The Heat already knew," Ethan Skolnick of the Miami Herald wrote. "The Cavaliers' switch was a rallying cry before Heat players took the court: They felt the East's No. 1 seed had felt compelled to adjust to them."
The Heat can compete with the Cavs. The ultimate validation for this late-season surge would be Miami prematurely ending the postseason travels of LeBron James and Co.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Advance to NBA Finals
There might be (a few) better teams in the NBA than the Oklahoma City Thunder, but not one has a superior superstar pairing. As long as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook reside in the Sooner State, the Thunder will remain near the front of the championship race.
But they've had those pieces in place for nearly a decade. And they haven't so much as sniffed the NBA Finals since being dispatched in the 2012 championship round—thanks in no small part to ill-timed injuries and unimaginative offense.
They've had a healthy 2015-16, but they're still staring up at both the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs—whom they're 2-4 against. Consistent production has been hard to find behind Durant and Westbrook. Turnovers have been an issue. And this defense has leaked badly in the second half (101.6 efficiency rating before the All-Star break, 106 since).
"If we just want to be a great team, the way we're playing, we're fooling ourselves," Durant said March 3, per ESPN.com's Royce Young. "We want to win a bunch of games in the regular season, that's cool, but we're fooling ourselves with the way we're playing."
Defensive lapses and offensive miscues can be fatal flaws in the Western Conference postseason. The Thunder must find a way through this minefield while they still have the Durant-Westbrook tandem intact.
Portland Trail Blazers: Scare Opening Opponent
This was supposed to be a rebuilding season for the Portland Trail Blazers. But the foundational backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum rocketed their young roster into the postseason hunt.
Together, Portland's starting guards provide 46.2 points, 11 assists and 5.5 triples a night. They're the reason the Blazers field a top-10 offense (seventh in efficiency) despite having only one other double-digit scorer (Allen Crabbe, 10.2 points per game).
"The two guards are playing at a quantum level," Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said in January, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. "They're playing gangbusters."
Lillard and McCollum are ready for the bright lights. They've been thriving underneath them all season. But the rest of the Blazers have yet to catch up.
As good as these guards are, they can't knock off a Western Conference favorite on their own—but Portland could gain valuable experience by playing a competitive series.
San Antonio Spurs: Bring Title Back to Alamo City
The Golden State Warriors have a realistic chance to set the new standard for single-season wins. And still, the San Antonio Spurs have bettered the defending champs in a number of categories, including point differential (plus-11.7 to plus-11.1) and net efficiency rating (plus-12.9 to plus-12.1).
The Spurs have seamlessly moved Kawhi Leonard to the top of the food chain and welcomed LaMarcus Aldridge into the No. 2 slot. They continue getting great mileage from Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. And their bench has grown deeper as the season has progressed, thanks to internal development (Kyle Anderson, Boban Marjanovic) and external additions (Kevin Martin, Andre Miller).
But for San Antonio to hoist its sixth championship banner of the Duncan-Gregg Popovich era, the Spurs must navigate through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference. And Pop acknowledged he's more aware of the problems the Warriors present than he's been with any prior opponent.
"I've spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I've ever thought about in my whole career," Popovich said in an ESPN Radio interview Feb. 12 (via ESPN.com's Marc Stein). "... You try to solve them, but they're in a sense unsolvable because it's a particular mix of talent that they have. ... Everybody on the court can pass, catch and shoot. And they all get it."
Toronto Raptors: Punch Franchise's First ECF Ticket
Barring a total collapse, the Toronto Raptors will set a franchise-record in wins for the third consecutive season. But they need this group to deliver much more substantial success than the last two did, which both fizzled amid first-round upsets.
The Raptors have never constructed a ceiling this high. In terms of efficiency, they're getting career-best campaigns from Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. They've also complemented their top-five offensive efficiency with top-12 defensive efficiency, striking the balance last season's group never found.
They're at the point where they're not dependent on Lowry and DeRozan going berserk. Their defense still slips at times, but it could get a massive lift late.
Toronto's biggest offseason signing, DeMarre Carroll, could soon find his way back from a nearly three-month absence after knee surgery. He's a two-way weapon at full strength, but he did not join the team on its current road trip, per the Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstat.
Even without Carroll, the Raptors should have the backcourt edge in any Eastern Conference playoff matchup. That matters, as does Toronto's improved depth. The Raptors can relieve some of the weight on their shoulders by avoiding a first-round collapse, but they'll need a pair of series victories to truly impress.
Utah Jazz: Bother Top Seed
When Dante Exum went down with a torn ACL in August, the injury threatened to pause the progress of the Utah Jazz's rebuild. As vicious as their frontcourt defense grew last season, the 6'6" Exum played a pivotal role as head of the snake.
The Jazz have struggled to find a suitable replacement (though Shelvin Mack has added needed doses of scoring, spacing and distributing), and yet, they're still in the playoff mix. They've masterfully made use of the versatile skill sets possessed by Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood. And they've been borderline elite when Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors share the floor (plus-3.4 net rating, which would rank ninth overall).
Utah's core players are collectively moving toward their primes, which still sit a few years down the line. Its heavy-lifters all have room to grow, and there could be massive roles awaiting Exum and 2015 lottery pick Trey Lyles. The best is yet to come.
Still, it'd benefit greatly from drawing a top seed and seeing firsthand what's required to win during the second season.
"I think this whole process right now is good," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said, per NBA.com's Fran Blinebury. "... To the extent we can be there—whether we stay in eighth, drop out or whatever the case may be—it's a good opportunity for us to get better."