Predicting the Playoff Teams in the NBA

Nikhil BaradwajSenior Analyst IDecember 21, 2011

Predicting the Playoff Teams in the NBA

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    In less than five days, the NBA season will be beginning. On Christmas Day, we unwrap five of the best matchups that we could ever imagine, like Dallas vs. Miami and Chicago vs. Los Angeles. 

    That got me to think about the top teams in the league and where they will rank among each other.

    The Western Conference will be as wild as ever, likely with only a few wins separating the top eight. Many of these teams will be contending for an NBA title.

    The Eastern Conference is far more predictable, but there might be a few surprises in store for all of us with Dwight Howard being possibly dealt to the New Jersey Nets.

    Here are the projected top eight seeds in both conferences for the incoming 2011-12 season as of today. This article does not take into consideration future trades and signings.

No. 8: Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers were the seventh seed last year in the East and fell to the Heat in the first round in five games. 

    Although they have likely improved from last year, drafting Nikola Vucevic in the first round and re-signing young bigs Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes, they are not nearly as good as the top-heavy Eastern conference.

    Philadelphia might orchestrate a midseason trade to pick up a superstar, a piece which they need if they want to join the elite teams of the East.

No. 7: Atlanta Hawks

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    The Atlanta Hawks finally exercised their demons against the Orlando Magic last year, finally beating a team which always gave them trouble in the playoffs. They lost to the Bulls in six games in the Conference Semifinals.

    Atlanta management seems to want to keep their core of Al Horford, Josh Smith and Joe Johnson together, even though this trio has yielded no trips past the second round. 

    In fact, Atlanta got worse in the offseason, downgrading from Jamaal Crawford to Tracy McGrady at the sixth man.

    Look for the Hawks to be dispatched in the first round this year.

No. 6: Orlando Magic

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    The Orlando Magic had a disappointing year last season, losing to the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. Since making the NBA Finals in 2009, the Magic have not made their way back.

    Orlando's playoff chances hinge totally on one player: Dwight Howard. If he stays, an unlikely proposition, the Magic would find themselves in the bottom half of the playoff teams, as they failed to improve in the offseason.

    If Dwight is traded, Orlando will find itself in the lottery.

No. 5: Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers had a successful 2010 campaign, making the playoffs for the first time since 2006. They pushed the Bulls for the first four games, but eventually lost the series in five.

    Indiana probably improved the most during the offseason. Larry Bird acquired George Hill in exchange for Kawhi Leonard, who was sent to the Spurs. In addition, the Pacers picked up a solid power forward option in David West.

    The Pacers could find themselves in the second round of the playoffs, if they can get a solid seed during the season and a favorable matchup.

No. 4: Boston Celtics

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    Just last year, the Boston Celtics seemed to be destined for their second straight NBA Finals and third with the "Big Three." That all changed when Danny Ainge shipped Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder. Boston was manhandled by the Heat, losing their series in five games.

    Boston did not digress in terms of players, but they also did not improve. They did swap Glen Davis for Brandon Bass, who plays solid defense and can be an able backup to Kevin Garnett, but they still do not have a good enough option at the center.

    Losing Jeff Green was a huge blow to their championship hopes, and the Celtics might not make it out of the first round because of this.

No. 3: New York Knicks

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    The New York Knicks made the playoffs for the first time since 2004, after signing Amar'e Stoudemire and acquiring Carmelo Anthony. However, their stay was short-lived after they lost to the Celtics in a sweep in the first round.

    The Knicks had a successful offseason on many levels, considering they signed one of the best centers in the league in Tyson Chandler. Chandler will likely provide a strong defensive presence for a team which lacks it.

    Their chances of winning the East will hinge on their guard play. New York was forced to amnesty Chauncey Billups in order to sign Chandler, making Baron Davis and Toney Douglas the only options at point guard.

No. 2: Chicago Bulls

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    After claiming the No. 1 seed in the East and the best record in the NBA, the Chicago Bulls performed admirably in the playoffs, losing to the Miami Heat in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals. 

    Chicago did improve during the offseason, picking up a viable option at shooting guard in Richard Hamilton. Jimmy Butler was a solid draft choice and he will likely be a future "glue" player.

    If Chicago wants to reach the NBA Finals and contend for the title, Carlos Boozer needs to step up. The Bulls cannot afford a repeat performance of his in the playoffs again because they need a secondary scorer to complement Derrick Rose.

No. 1: Miami Heat

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    The Miami Heat fell short of their preseason goal, losing to the Dallas Mavericks in six games in the NBA Finals. However, the Heat did exceed many analysts' expectations by reaching the Finals, beating the 76ers, Celtics and Bulls in the process.

    Miami had a great offseason, picking up necessary pieces to improve their already elite team. The acquisition of Shane Battier might be one of the most underrated pickups of the whole offseason, and point guard Norris Cole has looked impressive so far.

    If the Heat want to win the championship, they just need to play up to their potential. If they do this, LeBron James can finally silence his many critics.

No. 8: Portland Trailblazers

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    The Portland Trailblazers could not make it out of the first round of the playoffs yet again, falling to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks in six games. 

    Portland had a horrendous offseason, starting with losing Brandon Roy to retirement. In addition, Greg Oden will likely not be a major factor yet again, forcing the Blazers to play the oft injured Marcus Camby in his place. They did sign Jamaal Crawford who will be a top scorer off the bench.

    The Blazers will struggle to get out of the first round once more, and will require an unbelievable performance from LaMarcus Aldridge to do so.

No. 7: Denver Nuggets

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    Even after losing Carmelo Anthony, the Denver Nuggets made the playoffs and garnered the No. 5 seed. Unfortunately, they managed only one win against the Thunder in the first round.

    The Nuggets had a successful offseason, re-signing both of their major players in Arron Afflalo and Nene long term. In addition, they picked up solid role players like Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez through trades and Kenneth Faried in the draft.

    Denver is probably a superstar away from being a serious championship contender in the league. This team will get even deeper after Wilson Chandler returns from China and could easily pull a first-round upset.

No. 6: Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies were the team that shocked everyone last year, beating the No. 1 Spurs in the first round and pushing the Thunder to seven games—without Rudy Gay.

    Memphis had a mediocre offseason, re-signing Marc Gasol, but losing a defensive stalwart in Shane Battier to the Heat. They did not make any major signings. However, they did lose Darrell Arthur for the season with a torn Achilles, giving them very little depth at the power forward position.

    If the Grizzlies get on a roll, this team can make the NBA Finals. However, they could also succumb to injuries and fall early in the playoffs.

No. 5: Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Los Angeles Lakers had a disappointing 2010 season, after being swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the Conference Semifinals. They will begin their 2011 campaign without Andrew Bynum due to a five game suspension.

    The Lakers had a nightmarish offseason, after failing to acquire Chris Paul when David Stern voided the deal for the Hornets. In actuality, this deal would have made the Lakers extremely thin in terms of their frontline.

    Losing Lamar Odom for nothing was a huge blow to their title hopes, and the Lakers need Josh McRoberts, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum to help carry the load all year.

No. 4: San Antonio Spurs

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    After starting the year so strong, the San Antonio Spurs stumbled late and lost to the No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs. 

    R.C. Buford and management flirted with trading Tony Parker but decided instead to trade George Hill for the 15th overall pick, Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs made no major offseason moves and decided against using the "Amnesty Clause" on Richard Jefferson.

    This season could be either catastrophic or glorious for San Antonio. If Manu Ginobili can stay healthy, they could make one last run at the title as their core ages.

No. 3: Los Angeles Clippers

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    The Los Angeles Clippers are the only team on this list who did not make the playoffs last year, but absolutely will in 2012.

    The Clips made the biggest acquisition when they traded Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, and a Minnesota first-round pick for Chris Paul. In addition, they signed quality veterans in Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups, who will both start for the team.

    I know, the No. 3 seed is pretty high for the Clippers. But aging and injury-prone teams will most likely struggle with a shortened season. Los Angeles is not a title contender just yet, but will be if they can improve their bench and pick up a true shooting guard.

No. 2: Dallas Mavericks

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    The Dallas Mavericks are the reigning World Champions, after they shocked the Miami Heat in six games in the NBA Finals.

    Dallas' offseason began on the wrong foot, when Tyson Chandler decided to sign with the New York Knicks. After losing their defensive anchor, the Mavericks made one of the more lopsided deals of the offseason, picking up Lamar Odom for Chandler's trade exception. Losing JJ Barea will be tough, but Vince Carter will likely pick up some of the load.

    While Dallas will be a top seed in the West, they could struggle in the later rounds of the playoffs. It seems like Mark Cuban chose not to re-sign Chandler in an effort to get a superstar in the 2012 offseason. 

No. 1: Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder had a successful 2010 campaign, reaching the Western Conference Finals from the No. 4 seed. 

    Oklahoma City did not lose any major pieces and picked up Lazar Hayward in a trade. In addition, they drafted Reggie Jackson with the No. 24 selection, a major steal and yet another athletic guard for Scotty Brooks to utilize.

    If Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant can learn to co-exist, the Thunder will win the West quite easily. They have all the pieces in place for a championship run and could be the only team in the Heat's way.