The Most Dangerous Sleeper Teams in Projected 2016 NBA Playoff Picture

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 7, 2016

The Most Dangerous Sleeper Teams in Projected 2016 NBA Playoff Picture

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    Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

    The better seed doesn't always win during the NBA playoffs. 

    Last year, each conference's No. 5 seed advanced to the second round. In 2014, three upsets took place during the initial series, as the Washington Wizards, Brooklyn Nets and Portland Trail Blazers all defeated their respective foes. One season prior to that, the Memphis Grizzlies finished fifth out West but advanced to the conference finals. 

    Upsets happen in the NBA. 

    A few teams currently falling outside the top four in each conference should be able to make a substantial amount of noise during the NBA's second season. Some have the necessary star power, while others play a style conducive to playoff success. 

    If you're among the favorites, you won't want to see one of these sleepers coming up on the schedule. 

Charlotte Hornets

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    John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

    "I've always been wary of calling the Charlotte Hornets a playoff team this season. Just too many injuries, too much adversity, too little chance for cohesion and a sense of an ordered playing rotation," Rick Bonnell wrote for the Charlotte Observer before reversing course after a March 4 victory over the Indiana Pacers. "This is a playoff team. There, I said it."

    Despite the pair of season-ending injuries to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist—the second one only possible because he recovered far quicker than expected from the first—and Al Jefferson's maladies, the Hornets have quietly crept up the Eastern Conference standings. Heading into Monday's contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves with a 33-28 record, they control their own destiny and even enjoy a bit of cushion during the stretch run.

    As Bonnell went on to explain, this team excels in the areas typically conducive to playoff success. When the games slow down and rotations shrink, squads often require go-to scorers such as Kemba Walker and Jefferson. They need to excel on the defensive glass to avoid allowing second-chance points, and they must limit fouls and turnovers. 

    Charlotte's defensive rebounding percentage? A strong 79.7 percent, which leaves it only marginally behind the San Antonio Spurs for the top mark in the NBA. The team's free throws allowed per field-goal attempt? An impressive 0.190, which leaves it behind just the Brooklyn Nets, Spurs, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat.

    Plus, the Hornets record turnovers on just 12.1 percent of their possessions, leaving them tied for No. 2 behind the Dallas Mavericks. 

    All the underlying metrics check out, and we haven't even begun to discuss how the team learned to play without Jefferson in the lineup. The emergence of Cody Zeller at center gives Charlotte yet another weapon on offense, and head coach Steve Clifford has helped the defense remain one of the 10 stingiest units in the league. 

    By Basketball-Reference.com's Simple Rating System (SRS), which looks solely at margin of victory and strength of schedule, the Hornets have been the No. 9 team throughout the NBA and No. 5 in the Eastern Conference. That's even before factoring in the playing style that lends itself to postseason success and the growth of a few young pieces. 

    Overlook Charlotte at your own peril. 

Chicago Bulls

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    Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

    The Chicago Bulls don't fit the profile of a typical sleeping giant.

    After their 108-100 victory over the Houston Rockets on March 5, they moved just one game above .500, and they're still being outscored on the season by 1.1 points per 100 possessions. According to Pythagorean wins, which look solely at points scored and allowed, the Bulls should actually be just 28-33, putting them well outside the playoff picture. 

    But no one should want to play them when they inevitably make it into the postseason festivities. Barring any injuries during the stretch run, they should actually be near full strength again, with only Joakim Noah missing from the original depth chart. 

    Throughout this campaign, Derrick Rose has battled injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness. Jimmy Butler went down with a hyperextended knee just before the All-Star break, and the team slipped down the Eastern Conference standings in his absence by winning only three of its 11 contests.

    However, Chicago has posted a 0.5 net rating with Butler on the floor—significantly better than the minus-4.0 net rating without him. And while lineups featuring both members of the starting backcourt basically split the difference, it's encouraging that Rose is trending up. 

    Since resting up over the All-Star break, the former MVP is averaging 21.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting 56.2 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from beyond the three-point arc. Those numbers are likely unsustainable, but they offer a glimpse into the upside Rose still possesses. 

    Chicago isn't going to rocket up the standings and earn home-court advantage in the first round. But even working away from the United Center, this is a dangerous team with so much upside that it could catch fire and topple a favored opponent. And if Bobby Portis does the same at the end of his rookie year, the Bulls could grow even more dangerous still. 

Houston Rockets

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    What if it all clicks? 

    Lest we forget, the Houston Rockets went 56-26 during the 2014-15 campaign, earning the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and advancing all the way to the penultimate round of the playoffs, where they lost in five games to the Golden State Warriors.

    Hard as it may be to believe, this team really isn't all that different. 

    During last year's Western Conference Finals, 11 different players suited up for the Rockets. This year, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Clint Capela, James Harden, Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones, Josh Smith and Jason Terry are all back on the roster. Only Nick Johnson, Kostas Papanikolaou and Pablo Prigioni have departed, and it's not like any member of that trio was an essential piece. 

    In a vacuum, the Rockets should be getting better. Adding Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley back into the mix should only help this squad, as should letting young players such as Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker, K.J. McDaniels and Capela grow.

    But chemistry has been the issue.

    The Rockets have been utterly disengaged for significant stretches, and certain players' defensive apathy has proved contagious. Heading into the All-Star break, interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff had grown so frustrated that he was willing to lay it all out for ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins:

    We're broken. It's that simple. We're a broken team, and we all need to use this break to figure out how we're going to impact change. If we don't want to impact change, then we need to be made aware of that, too, and we'll go in a different direction.

    We can't continue to go out and play this way. It's easy to see it's a fragmented bunch. You can't win that way.

    So again, what if it all clicks? 

    The Rockets have a bona fide superstar in Harden, and it's not like they're lacking in talent on either end of the court. If the team decides to put aside its differences and play in a way that makes all cliches come true—play like it's your last day, leave it all on the court, etc.—it's capable of outperforming its seed by a significant margin. 

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Leon Halip-USA TODAY Sports

    At this point, betting against Damian Lillard would be foolish. 

    Since he was snubbed from the All-Star Game, the explosive point guard has averaged 32.8 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists while shooting 48 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from beyond the arc. Somehow, his 50-point masterpiece against the Toronto Raptors wasn't even his best showing since the midseason festivities. 

    That's because Lillard dropped a 51-spot in an upset victory over the Golden State Warriors. He simply couldn't be stopped, drilling nine shots from beyond the arc, recording seven assists, stealing the ball seven times and never coughing it up. It was as perfect an outing as you can imagine against Stephen Curry's squad—or any squad, for that matter. 

    With Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the Rip City backcourt, that kind of upside is always feasible. The 50-point outbursts may be few and far between, but the possibility of one is always right around the corner. 

    And that's exactly why no one wants to play the Portland Trail Blazers in the postseason. Even the Warriors would have to be a little worried, because, as Jesse Blancarte wrote for Basketball Insiders, Portland is one of the few teams with the firepower necessary to beat anyone at any time. 

    But as Lillard and the Blazers have shown recently, they can go toe-to-toe with any team in the league on any given night, including the Warriors. Whether the Blazers could beat the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder or even the Clippers in a seven game series is unclear at this point. But when a player like Lillard is playing at this level, anything can happen.

    Portland boasts the exact types that causes nightmares during the playoffs. It's a young team with plenty of players still learning to thrive in the NBA, and it has a superstar leader who's capable of torching any defender.

    Maybe the Blazers, who would admittedly be operating at a talent deficit in most first-round matchups, would crumble on the big stage. But just imagine if Lillard catches fire and steals Game 1. 

    When this team starts gaining momentum, the off switch is awfully difficult to find. 

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are from Basketball-Reference.com or Adam's own databases and are current heading into games on Monday. 

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