Chances of Each NBA Team Making the Playoffs Heading into 2014-15 Regular Season
It's all about getting to the NBA playoffs.
From there, anything can happen. We've seen No. 8 seeds take down No. 1 seeds, and if that can become a reality, then there's at least a possibility of an overmatched squad pulling off upset after upset en route to a championship. Sixteen teams have a distinct chance at holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy after the regular season, while the other 14 are forced to watch from home.
At this point in the year, everything revolves around the postseason, whether teams are just trying to gain entry to the all-important festivities or attempting to position themselves with a specific seed. A title is the ultimate goal, but the playoffs are the first step.
Unfortunately, not every team has a legitimate shot to make it past the 82nd game of the 2014-15 campaign. And even those that do can be placed in a hierarchy of their own, counting down toward the one squad that's the biggest postseason lock of all.
These rankings are not about which team is best, and a squad that comes in one spot ahead of another isn't necessarily better. They're determining which franchises have the best chance to make the playoffs, looking at upside for those that aren't projected to be a top-16 team and the floor for those that are.
The Fuhgeddaboudit Group
Even with Rajon Rondo possibly returning to action as soon as opening night, the Boston Celtics still don't have enough talent to compete for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. There's plenty of talent in the backcourt, and Jared Sullinger is about to kick off a breakthrough season, but the C's are at least a year away from playing more than 82 games.
Boston could certainly make things fairly interesting, avoiding mathematical elimination until the final month of the season, but let's allow for the many young additions to gain their sea legs before projecting anything more than another lottery berth.
If you want to talk about the 2016 postseason, that's fine. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Larry Sanders, John Henson, Khris Middleton, Brandon Knight and more on this roster, there's through-the-roof upside for the Milwaukee Bucks.
But unless each and every player on the team either rebounds from last season's disappointing campaign or showcases some drastic and immediate improvement, the 2015 playoffs are out of the question. Milwaukee will probably exceed the expectations to some extent, but not enough to worm its way past the regular season.
In many ways, the Minnesota Timberwolves are essentially the Western Conference's version of the Bucks. There's so much talent on the squad, but not much of it is ready to be competitive right away.
Once Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Glenn Robinson III have fully transitioned to the rigors of NBA life and a few of them are threatening to become stars, then the postseason becomes a more realistic possibility. For now, though, the 2014-15 campaign will be filled with lots of entertainment, plenty of alley-oops and an abundance of losses.
Noticing a theme here?
The Orlando Magic are blessed with so much upside, mostly in the form of Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Moe Harkless, Kyle O'Quinn, Andrew Nicholson, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic. So basically, there's untapped potential flowing through the pores of just about every notable player on the roster. But much like the Wolves and the Bucks, the Magic can't expect anything quite yet.
The Philadelphia 76ers have a promising future, but the present is going to ensure they're the very worst team in the NBA. This team won't push into double-digit wins until the regular season is drawing to a conclusion, and there's actually a chance it could finish without that tough-to-earn 10th victory.
Seriously. This could be one of the very worst squads in NBA history, especially if Michael Carter-Williams is unable to spend much time on the court due to his shoulder injury.
Were the Sacramento Kings in the Eastern Conference, they'd have a legitimate shot at making it to the playoffs. But not in the brutal gauntlet that is the league's tougher half, where they're a more established commodity and sit behind at least 11 teams in the pecking order.
DeMarcus Cousins is close to establishing himself as the Association's premier 5. Darren Collison is an underrated commodity at the point, and Rudy Gay was quite good after he was traded to Sacramento by the Toronto Raptors. This isn't a terrible team, but it's in a terrible situation, due primarily to geography.
Trey Burke. Dante Exum. Gordon Hayward. Alec Burks. Rudy Gobert. Derrick Favors. Enes Kanter. Rodney Hood.
There's plenty of promise contained within the friendly confines of Salt Lake City, but this team is too young, too inexperienced and too far down in the Western Conference hierarchy to yield any result but another finish in the lottery. Breakouts this season could alter that narrative for 2015-16, but patience is a key virtue for the Utah Jazz throughout the upcoming campaign.
23. Los Angeles Lakers
On paper, the Los Angeles Lakers' playoff hopes are all but dashed heading into the 2014-15 campaign. Even if Kobe Bryant turns back the clock about five years, Jeremy Lin rekindles the "Linsanity" craze from his Madison Square Garden days, and there are numerous breakouts from guys like Julius Randle, Ed Davis, Jordan Hill and Wesley Johnson, the talented is still just too limited.
Objectively, the Lakers aren't going to be able to hang with the eight playoff teams from last year or the three primary challengers (the Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns), and there's a serious case to be made they could finish behind either or both of the Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings.
As Amin Elhassan writes for ESPN (subscription required), there just aren't too many reasons to be all that optimistic:
The good news is the Lakers will have money to spend in 2015; the bad news is in the meanwhile they are expected to be the worst team in the conference for the first time since 1958, when they still played in Minnesota.
Kevin Pelton's SCHOENE projection expects the Lakers to win 29 games next season, with a surprisingly optimistic expected offensive efficiency (108.4 points per 100 possessions, 12th highest), although a healthy Bryant and Nash, along with additions Lin and Boozer, would give the offense some punch. Defensively, they are projected to allow 110.8 points per 100 possessions, second worst in the league and only 0.3 points behind league-worst Philadelphia. Again, this makes sense as almost every player is a defensive liability.
So, why are the Lakers showing up in the ranked section? Why aren't they thrown in with the rest of the teams you can just forget about when it comes to the playoff competition? Is this favoritism and preferential treatment?
Nope, it's just because Bryant still exists.
So long as he's on the roster, even at 36 years old and coming off of two major injuries, it's impossible to count the Lakers out completely.
22. Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers should still boast a solid defense. After all, Roy Hibbert will be anchoring the point-preventing unit, there's plenty of talent surrounding him, and Frank Vogel is still on the sidelines.
While losing Paul George and Lance Stephenson may prevent the team from finishing right at the top of the defensive standings, it shouldn't be far off from that crown. And that's enough to keep it on the fringe of playoff contention, especially because the Eastern Conference is weak enough that a sub-.500 team could sneak into the postseason festivities.
But how are the Pacers going to score?
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Indiana scored only 104.1 points per 100 possessions during the 2013-14 season, giving it the No. 23 offensive rating throughout the Association. Chances are, it's about to get much worse after losing the aforementioned stars.
After all, George led the team in offensive win shares last season, posting 4.4 throughout the year. Stephenson's 2.6 came in at No. 4 for Indiana. Replacing those two dynamic creators isn't an easy task, and the Pacers simply don't have the personnel necessary to do so.
Chances are, Rodney Stuckey will lead the team in scoring, as he's the only player on the roster who's filling a prominent role and capable of creating his own looks off the bounce. That in and of itself should be a death knell for the playoff hopes, though the defensive capabilities of this squad don't allow it to be ruled out entirely.
21. New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans are swimming in talent, but they have to prove too much to be viewed as playoff favorites during the 2014-15 season.
Anthony Davis has already arrived as a superstar, emerging as a top-five player in the Association before he turned 21 years old. His combination of defensive ferocity, offensive capabilities and all-around excellence is something to behold, and he's only moving closer to his seemingly limitless ceiling.
But beyond Davis, there are a bunch of question marks.
Jrue Holiday is a former All-Star, but even during that season with the Philadelphia 76ers, he wore down during the stretch run and hasn't done anything to justify the selection since. Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans both have massive upside, but each has struggled mightily since coming to the bayou. Ryan Anderson is a great shooter, but how does he work with a frontcourt that now also boasts the services of Omer Asik?
Oh, and which one is guaranteed to stay healthy? Every player mentioned thus far has had his share of injury trouble, and that's problematic for a team that needs to stay in tip-top form throughout the season if it hopes to displace one of the established playoff squads.
The Pelicans are sure to be fun, and they have an incredible building block at the center of both their offense and their defense. They're the first of the 21 teams that could absolutely work their way into the postseason without dropping any jaws, but the injury concerns and unproven nature of the roster make them the least likely of that bunch.
20. Phoenix Suns
Had the Phoenix Suns managed to stay healthier, they may have snuck into the playoffs last season. Goran Dragic was playing with just about everything hurting him, and it wasn't enough to get by the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks in a three-way battle at the end of the regular season.
This year, there's even more talent in place.
Eric Bledsoe is ready to go—Jared Cunningham can certainly attest to that—and the addition of Isaiah Thomas makes Jeff Hornacek's two-point guard stylings even more dangerous. There's even more depth in the backcourt when you factor in Tyler Ennis, Zoran Dragic and Gerald Green.
Defense is going to be interesting for this fast-paced team, and there's still the tricky situation that revolves around overcoming a dearth of post-up presences. This is a limited team, even if it excels in certain facets of the game.
Fortunately, it's not so limited that it has no shot at the playoffs. Though it might take a few injuries helping them out and hurting other teams, the Suns do have enough upside to make some noise throughout the year, especially in the backcourt.
And if Miles Plumlee emerges as more than an average starting center or a healthy Alex Len begins living up to the pre-2013 draft hype, the ceiling only gets higher for this massively entertaining collection of talent in the desert.
19. Denver Nuggets
Depth, depth, depth.
The Denver Nuggets are overflowing with quality NBA players, to the point that a promising young wing player like Quincy Miller couldn't make the final roster in order to make room for an established and defensively oriented veteran like Alonzo Gee. There's an upper-tier backup at every position, and the starting lineup is plenty strong as well.
If Timofey Mozgov continues what he started during last season's stretch run and emerges as a reliably potent offensive contributor, that forces JaVale McGee to the bench. And in that case, the Nuggets (when everyone is fully recovered from season-ending injuries they suffered in 2013-14) would be looking at a second unit of Nate Robinson, Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, J.J. Hickson and McGee.
That's a five-man group that might compete for a playoff spot in the East.
The biggest issue here is simply the lack of a star. Though Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and possibly Danilo Gallinari all have All-Star upside, there isn't a go-to player on the team, one who can carry the squad when nothing else is going right.
At the team's media day, head coach Brian Shaw didn't know who was going to lead his team in scoring, though Lawson did tell Bleacher Report that he expected to be the one on top of that leaderboard. Regardless, there are going to be a lot of points scored by this uptempo squad.
If Hickson, McGee, Robinson and Gallinari can play like the injuries never happened and the team coalesces on defense, Denver will be a tough out. Frankly, it'll be one even if the roster is thinned out a bit by that pesky injury imp.
18. Brooklyn Nets
At this point in the countdown, it's important to note that these aren't rankings of teams in a vacuum. The Brooklyn Nets, for example, are not a better team than the New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns or Denver Nuggets; they just have a better chance at making the playoffs because they play in the weaker Eastern Conference and would gain entry if they manage to finish around .500.
Is that possible?
If Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and the rest of the aging roster can stay healthy, it certainly is. But with Lopez already spraining his foot (yes, the same foot that's caused so much grief the past few years), that's already a tough bet to make.
Kevin Pelton's numbers would agree, as Jordan Brenner relays for ESPN (subscription required).
Based on the projection systems, the Nets should finish with a 107.8 and 109 offensive and defensive rating, respectively, leaving them at No. 17 and No. 23 throughout the NBA. Even in the East, it's tough to make the postseason with below-average contributions on both ends of the ball.
So, how about that .500 finish? The Real Plus-Minus projection has Brooklyn at 35-47, and SCHOENE has the Nets coming in with only one more win.
Though the names on this roster are recognizable ones, age is the downfall of even the most excellent players (Tim Duncan notwithstanding). The Nets will certainly be in the conversation for a playoff spot, but it's going to take a lot breaking their way in order to actually earn one.
17. New York Knicks
"The triangle itself is just an offense based on freedom of the ball to go to different places, everybody feeling involved," Jeff Van Gundy said about the New York Knicks' new offensive scheme, per Marc Berman of the New York Post. "It's a good thing. It won't be the triangle itself that will be the reason they win or lose. It's going to come down to Carmelo Anthony playing exceptionally well. [Iman] Shumpert and J.R. bouncing back with a big year. J.R. Smith playing well. It’s not going to be because of a system."
While that's a valid point, the personnel still have to fit the system.
Based on the inexplicably bad results of the preseason (which Van Gundy doesn't think matters much), there are already some concerns. Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, for example, has already written a detailed breakdown of whether Carmelo Anthony can fit into that triangle offense.
Then there's the J.R. Smith quote, in which he revealed the Knicks might not master their new offense until the calendars had flipped over to 2015.
Fortunately for New York, this season is more about gaining familiarity and setting the stage for a great 2015 offseason than it is competing immediately. There will inevitably be major hurdles and frustrating spells of ineffective offensive basketball, and it's not as though the team boasts all that much defensive potential.
Nonetheless, the Knicks remain in the postseason hunt, both because they play in the Eastern Conference and because there's so much talent on this roster. If, as Van Gundy suggests, Shumpert and Smith bounce back, this is bound to be a playoff team. If Anthony keeps getting better and plays the part of willing passer without seeing his scoring effectiveness decline, this is bound to be a playoff team. If some of the young players emerge quickly, this is bound to be a playoff team.
Those are big ifs, though.
16. Detroit Pistons
I believe in Stan Van Gundy. You should too.
Even last year, there wasn't much of a question about the amount of talent on the Detroit Pistons roster. This year, that's even more true, as Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings will be joined by a bevy of shooters. Jodie Meeks missing time at the beginning of the year will hurt, but don't overlook the impact on an improved Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, as well as D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler and Cartier Martin.
Now it's just a matter of making everything fit together, and who better to build a working system around an up-and-coming center like Drummond than the same head coach who took Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals? As Brendan Savage writes for MLive.com, Van Gundy is a big reason for optimism:
The Pistons might have finally gotten it right in their search for a coach who can turn things around after the ill-fated stints of Michael Curry, John Kuester, Lawrence Frank and Maurice Cheeks failed to produce a playoff series victory during a six-year stretch. Van Gundy is a proven winner who has never missed the playoffs in seven full seasons. He took the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals and his .641 winning percentage is the sixth-best in league history among coaches with at least 500 career games. He also wields the hammer of being team president, meaning the players won't be able to go over the coach's head when they're unhappy. On top of all that, he can bring in the players he wants - and get rid of the ones he doesn't.
Last season, I was quite down on Detroit's chances, largely because I had no confidence in the coaching staff getting the non-complementary talent to work together. The primary pieces still don't necessarily jell together, but at least Van Gundy can make things mesh enough to make the playoffs.
And from there, anything can happen.
15. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat are by no means a lock to make the postseason (for reasons detailed at length here), but they're still a favorite for one of the final spots in the Eastern Conference.
While there's uncertainty surrounding the durability of both Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng, not much talent coming off the bench (barring a return to prominence from Danny Granger) and a collection of lackluster or unestablished point guards, this is still a team that boasts plenty of high-quality players in the starting five.
Wade, when he's on the court, remains the best shooting guard in the league. It's just managing to suit up that can be so difficult, as his balky knees force him to take the occasional maintenance day and should end up limiting him to 60 games played, at the most.
Then there's Deng. On one hand, he could be a bit washed up, worn out by the heavy minutes he played under Tom Thibodeau during his Chicago Bulls days. But if he's fresh, he's still a defensive stopper and a great tertiary option on the offensive end.
Josh McRoberts is an incredibly underrated player as well, one who can help replace some of the point forward production that LeBron James brought to the table during his time calling South Beach home. He's by no means a star, but he'll shore up some of the rebounding woes and help make up for the lost playmaking.
But no matter what, this team will revolve around Chris Bosh, who has to prove he's still capable of being that alpha dog. In many ways, the season depends on how successful he can be, as he's the clear-cut No. 1 option on offense and an oft-overlooked defender.
14. Houston Rockets
As Grant Hughes masterfully explained for Bleacher Report, a consistent playoff field is tough to argue for in the Western Conference. Based on historical data, at least:
Since the NBA went to an eight-team-per-conference format in the 1983-84 season, the West has never featured the same eight teams in consecutive postseasons. Not once.
We've had oddities like the 1993-94 Sacramento Kings missing the playoffs with a 39-43 record and making it in 1994-95 with the exact same mark, and we've had injustices like last season's Phoenix Suns winning 48 games and staying home in the spring.
But we've never had complete year-over-year consistency.
This very well could be the year the trend is bucked, and it seems like a fairly safe bet. That's why we've got all eight of last season's playoff squads in the top 14 of this countdown, though injuries and unforeseen breakouts could certainly spice things up in a fresh way.
If any of the eight are dropping out, though, it's the Houston Rockets.
James Harden and Dwight Howard are both superstars capable of doing the heavy lifting, and the addition of Trevor Ariza should be a nice complementary one. However—and while I hesitate to say the Rockets aren't deep due to the upside of their young second-string players—there isn't much established talent behind the starters.
Beyond Jason Terry, Francisco Garcia and, to a lesser extent, Donatas Motiejunas, Houston is left relying on a hodgepodge of young players who haven't contributed much to a contending NBA team. The Rockets should be a playoff team, but if anyone is going to drop out of the field, they're the best bet for that very reason.
13. Atlanta Hawks
This is not going to be the same Atlanta Hawks squad that careened after losing Al Horford and barely snuck into the playoffs with a No. 8 seed. Granted, it tested the Indiana Pacers during the first round, failing to close out the series in Game 6 despite claiming a late lead that would've felt insurmountable with just one more successfully converted bucket.
Horford is back, and he hasn't looked any worse for the wear during the preseason. Though he's struggled with his shot throughout his brief foray into the exhibition season, he's made such a well-rounded impact that he's earned an 18.3 player efficiency rating, via RealGM.com.
After all, both of his pectoral tears have been freak injuries, ones that shouldn't yet lead to any injury-prone labels.
Before the big man received a terrible post-Christmas present with the injury he suffered on Dec. 26 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Hawks were sitting pretty at the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference. Though other teams have improved enough to jump them, this squad should be just as good as that one was.
Mike Budenholzer is now in his second year, and the roster doesn't feature many aging pieces who are about to experience significant declines. If anything, the Hawks should be more comfortable in his movement-heavy offensive system, and the perimeter defense is better now that both Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore have been added to the squad.
The Hawks aren't playoff locks, but they also aren't far from earning that status, either.
12. Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks are going to be unstoppable on the offensive end of the court.
Last season, Basketball-Reference.com shows that they scored 111.2 points per 100 possessions, given them an offensive rating that trailed only that produced by the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers. Now after adding Tyson Chandler as a roll threat and Chandler Parsons as a do-everything small forward, they're primed for even bigger and better things.
Well, except for on defense.
Unless Chandler turns back the clocks to his Defensive Player of the Year days, Dallas is still going to struggle immensely when trying to keep the other squad from posting gaudy totals. Parsons, though he has plenty of defensive potential, is a severe downgrade from the combination of Vince Carter and Shawn Marion, while the point-guard rotation of Raymond Felton, Jameer Nelson and Devin Harris isn't exactly a promising one on that end.
The Mavericks aren't going to have any trouble putting up points in bunches. Problem is, neither will their opponents. And as the old adage goes, defense wins championships.
Rick Carlisle is a savvy enough coach to maximize the talent he has at his disposal, but the glaring defensive flaws and aged nature of the frontcourt (Dirk Nowitzki isn't getting younger, and Chandler is on the wrong side of 30 with recurring back problems) make them another candidate to potentially drop out of the Western Conference playoff field.
We're still not to the locks quite yet.
11. Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies are the same as they've ever been...except for two main changes.
First, they have more shooting at their disposal, with Vince Carter now on the roster and coming off a season with the Dallas Mavericks in which he hit 39.4 percent of his three-point attempts while taking 4.6 per game. Additionally, Quincy Pondexter has returned to health, and Jordan Adams should be able to drill a few perimeter jumpers.
That, along with the assumed defensive excellence, is the positive. But the negative, which is the main reason the Grizz aren't quite postseason locks, is the age of this team. When you factor in roles so that a player who spends 30 minutes on the court per game affects the age twice as much as someone who averages 15 minutes per contest, the Grizzlies are the absolute oldest squad in the Association.
In the brutal Western Conference, that's problematic.
The 82-game season is a grueling one, and even one stretch of uninspired play could be the difference between finishing with the No. 6 seed and earning a lottery berth with room to spare.
The Grizzlies are a remarkably talented team with loads of continuity working in their advantage, but they're also as ancient as it gets in today's NBA.
10. Portland Trail Blazers
Now we get to the semi-locks. These are the teams who might as well fall into the higher classification without any descriptor attached to "locks," but don't because, for example, one major injury could wreck their entire season. It's a limited group of teams, sure, but it's still an important distinction to make.
The Portland Trail Blazers are there because they still don't have too much depth.
With the exception of a LaMarcus Aldridge malady at the end of the 2013-14 season, the Blazers stayed remarkably healthy during their surprising run into the national spotlight. Betting on the opposite would be falling for the gambler's fallacy, but that doesn't mean it's a safe bet to think they'll stay completely healthy.
Well, if Damian Lillard, Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum or Robin Lopez goes down for an extended period, that could spell doom for Rip City. The bench is certainly improved after the additions of Steve Blake and Chris Kaman, as well as expected improvement from the young players, but it's still not a unit to write home about.
Kevin Pelton confirms this overall sentiment for ESPN (subscription required):
Typically, a 21-game improvement from one season to the next means decline the third season, a version of regression to the mean baseball writer Bill James termed 'the plexiglass principle.' On average, the 27 teams who improved by at least 20 wins since the ABA-NBA merger have won one fewer game the following season.
Certainly, Portland can expect to suffer worse health. Only theToronto Raptors lost fewer minutes to injury last season, and while that was an impressive start for a new athletic training staff led by 26-year-old Dr. Chris Stackpole, no amount of prevention can eliminate random injuries. The consistency of the Blazers' starting five, so crucial to their fast start, will be difficult to reproduce.
So expect Portland to win something closer to 50 games than last season's 54.
Portland is a strong playoff team, one capable of winning a series or two if all goes according to plan. But it's one of those three teams in the semi-lock tier of this countdown.
9. Charlotte Hornets
Joining Rip City are the Charlotte Hornets.
The two key players on this squad are quite obviously Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson, though the addition of Lance Stephenson should greatly improve the team's offensive capabilities. So, what happens if either of the standouts goes down for an extended period of time?
Should the former Bobcats lose Walker, they're going to end up replacing him with some combination of Brian Roberts and Jannero Pargo. Worse still, should Jefferson pull up lame and find himself in street clothes for an extended time, it'll be Bismack Biyombo coming to the rescue.
Well, trying to come to the rescue. He won't actually be able to keep the team afloat until he develops quite a bit more.
That's the danger for the Hornets, even if they look like something resembling a playoff lock now that they're in Year 2 of the Steve Clifford era and boast even more offensive pieces to complement their adept defensive leanings. They're this close to having the coveted guarantee, but the lack of depth behind the key pieces poses just a bit too much trouble.
8. Golden State Warriors
The best of the semi-lock teams, the Golden State Warriors are just a hair's breadth away from moving into the next tier of the playoff-chance countdown.
This isn't so much about injury as it is uncertainty.
Between Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut, the Dubs still have one of the best starting fives in the NBA when they're all healthy. The bench is also a potent unit, especially if Harrison Barnes starts living up to some modicum of the hype, joining Draymond Green, Marreese Speights, Brandon Rush and Shaun Livingston as another high-quality bench player.
But we have no clue what we're going to get from Steve Kerr, who's coaching for the first time in his career. Chances are, he'll do a fine job, but the Western Conference is too tightly packed to make that kind of assumption and feel great about it.
Think about what that means.
There are only three Western teams who haven't appeared yet, which means that even a team projected to come in at No. 4 isn't completely safe. There's that much parity throughout the 11 primary teams fighting for eight spots, and even a slight decline can end up being quite problematic.
Curry and Co. are a safe bet. They have a great chance of earning another postseason berth. But they're not locks to the point where you should feel comfortable putting your whole net worth on the line.
That type of feeling is reserved for the remaining teams.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder
Here's how you know the Oklahoma City Thunder are the first true lock for the playoffs.
Hopefully the basketball gods forbid this from becoming a reality, but what if Kevin Durant's Jones fracture takes far longer to heal than originally anticipated, and he ends up missing the entire season? What if he re-injures it and has to sit out through next summer?
The Thunder would still make the playoffs.
Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are both stars, and the depth of talent is quite high on this team, between Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb (not the preseason version, though), Steven Adams, Perry Jones and others. Barring a completely ridiculous set of circumstances, they'd just sink to a lower spot in the pecking order but still play more than 82 games.
"Everybody has to step up. It's not one guy," head coach Scott Brooks told ESPN's Royce Young. "You're not going to replace Kevin with one guy. It's the team getting better as a group is what I'm looking to replace him with."
Exactly. The team has to replace him, and it's more than capable of doing just that, whether he returns before the projected timetable dictates he'll be back on the court or he sits out for far longer.
6. Washington Wizards
It's going to be hard enough to fill up the Eastern Conference playoff field with eight teams who actually deserve to be there (conference reform, anyone?), but can you imagine having to pick out that many squads if the Washington Wizards weren't going to make it?
Already, we're likely going to have two of the Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets in the field, but we'd be looking at three of them if Washington somehow failed to make it.
That's almost inconceivable at this point, even with the knowledge that Bradley Beal is hurt going into the opening salvo of the season. John Wall is just that good, and he's surrounded by established talents like Paul Pierce, Nene and Marcin Gortat, not to mention a bench that got much better during the offseason.
These Wizards came into their own during the 2014 postseason, advancing into the second round and giving the No. 1 seed a stern test. The young and inexperienced contributors played beyond their years, and that should serve them well heading into the follow-up campaign.
"There’s real reason for optimism in Washington, D.C., for the first time since the late 1970s, and that's not an endorsement of the Jimmy Carter administration," Ben Rohrbach wrote for Ball Don't Lie. "The Wizards have NBA Finals aspirations."
Making the playoffs feels like a mere formality at this point. The focus will always be on getting even further than the team did in 2014.
5. Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors are in the same boat as the Washington Wizards, except they're slightly better.
Lest we forget, the Raptors were on the verge of becoming an elite team last season after Rudy Gay had played his last game with the Canadian franchise on Dec. 6. At that point in the campaign, Toronto was only 6-12, and there wasn't much hope of Dwane Casey surviving the season, much less the Raptors making the playoffs in definitive fashion.
Throughout the rest of the season, they went 42-22, then gave the Brooklyn Nets a tough test during a seven-game series in the opening round of the playoffs. Had they maintained that rate throughout the entire season, winning 65.6 percent of their outings, they would've finished with a 54-28 record.
And if you saw that rather than the 48-win campaign they actually put together, it would be even more glaringly obvious this is not a team to be trifled with any longer.
DeMar DeRozan is only getting better and building upon his first All-Star appearance, and we're still waiting on that definitive breakout from Jonas Valanciunas.
It's hard to see this squad doing anything but taking another step forward.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Now we move into the realm of the uber-locks.
Adding depth was a key focus for the Los Angeles Clippers during the 2014 offseason, and it's set to pay off rather nicely. Not only are better insurance policies in place, but the ability to use the second unit more frequently will keep the Clippers' key players healthy down the stretch run.
Rather than having a hodgepodge of backups who would hemorrhage points and give up leads, the Clippers now have Spencer Hawes, Ekpe Udoh and Glen Davis on the roster, all of whom are capable of making solid contributions when put into the right spots. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan both have to be thrilled with that development.
Chris Paul remains the league's best point guard heading into the season, and Griffin has emerged as the class of the power forward position. With Jordan rising up the ranks at center, this is a Big Three capable of carrying a lackluster supporting cast into the playoffs.
And since the supporting cast isn't lackluster...well, you can connect the dots.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
Any team with LeBron James on it is going to make the playoffs, as he's a supernaturally healthy basketball player who can single-handedly carry just about any collection of players into the postseason. Maybe that wasn't true in the early years of his career, but he's that good now.
Surround him with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, as well as a full complement of veteran role players and other young talents, and you're looking at a team with a remarkably high floor.
There's a bit more cause for concern here than exists with one other squad in the Eastern Conference, though. A first-year head coach is leading the charge, and there's no established chemistry whatsoever. Irving and Love have never played truly meaningful NBA games, and defense will be a work in progress throughout the year.
This team has the highest upside in the league, but it's also the least certain of our two Eastern Conference uber-locks. Nonetheless, you could play the 2014-15 season 10,000 times, and the Cavs would make the postseason in at least 9,999 of them.
2. Chicago Bulls
Even if Derrick Rose returns to his superstar form, the Chicago Bulls probably don't have quite as much upside as the Cleveland Cavaliers. But that's not what we're looking at here. It's the floors that matter most, as even the worst of worst-case scenarios wouldn't threaten the Bulls' presence in the postseason.
This team is built to thrive even without Rose in the lineup.
Tom Thibodeau has engineered a defense that is consistently near the top of the league in defensive rating, and his has plenty of incredible point-preventing pieces at his disposal heading into the 2014-15 campaign. That much is a certainty already, and we've seen Thibodeau ride a dominant defense into the postseason before, even when the offense struggles mightily.
But now, there are more standout players in place, especially after the addition of Pau Gasol. Plus, the Bulls are without question one of the Association's deepest teams. Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb called them the very deepest, having them edging out both the Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs.
This roster construction is basically foolproof, at least when it comes to advancing past the regular season.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Does anyone believe the San Antonio Spurs are going to miss the playoffs?
Even if they don't finish at the very top of the Western Conference, they're a mortal lock to conclude the campaign with one of the eight best records. Tim Duncan is eerily consistent, even in his old age, and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have both been able to stave off the ill effects of Father Time thus far.
Kawhi Leonard is emerging as a stud and a future face of the franchise, and coming off winning Finals MVP, he'll certainly be looking to justify his award as soon as he gets over his pesky eye infection. Beyond that, the roster is a deep one, littered with high-quality bench players who thrive in the vaunted San Antonio system.
And that's the biggest key of all.
Gregg Popovich is on the sidelines, and so long as that's the case, any reasonable collection of talent is going to be in position to at least make the playoffs. The best coach in the league, he gets everyone to buy in at all times, and both his offensive and defensive schemings are just about as good as it gets.
Frankly, it would be more surprising to see the Philadelphia 76ers make the playoffs than to witness these Spurs missing the most crucial part of the NBA calendar.