2018 NBA Playoff Teams That Won't Make the Cut Next Season
Since NBA superstars are both available in relatively small quantities and capable of producing a tremendous impact, the professional hoops world is a land of haves and have nots.
But the Association's seeming predictability isn't as simple as copying a playoff field from one season and pasting it in the next. In each of the previous six campaigns, at least a quarter of the postseason participants have changed from the year prior.
The 2018-19 season should include more of the same. Between the marquee movers in free agency and the arrival of a draft class that looks impressive both in quantity and quality, the 2019 playoffs should include at least a handful of newcomers.
Each addition, though, requires a subtraction, and that's our focus.
By examining roster changes and statistical trends from last season, we identified the 2018 playoff clubs most in danger of missing the cut the next time around.
Do the Timberwolves like each other? Players don't necessarily need to be best friends, but Minnesota can't win big in the Western Conference on talent alone. If the chemistry isn't right, maybe that prevents the Wolves from taking a step forward. And remember, they didn't punch their 2018 playoff ticket until the overtime period of the season finale.
They ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency. That looks like a fatal flaw that can only be corrected by significant growth from Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Their bench could be a mess again. Replacing Nemanja Bjelica with Anthony Tolliver feels like a lateral move, and handing the second-team keys to Derrick Rose might be an accident waiting to happen.
New Orleans Pelicans
It's possible the Pelicans came out ahead this summer by adding Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton while subtracting DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo. They were No. 1 in pace and could play even faster with the younger, more athletic newcomers. Anything that gets Anthony Davis into the open court is a good thing, and there should be a frontcourt look for every occasion with him, Randle and Nikola Mirotic.
But New Orleans became less skilled this offseason. Both Cousins and Rondo are four-time All-Stars. Payton is on his third team in six months, and Randle's "breakout" 2017-18 effort featured all of 16.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. There's risk of a step back, and this team had no margin for error to begin with (two more wins than the ninth-place Denver Nuggets).
The Wizards waged chemistry wars with themselves last season. Are the additions of Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers supposed to help? Maybe they deemed the talent boost worth the risk, but the new pieces can only help if Washington finally becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Not to mention, John Wall quietly faces about as much pressure as any All-Star. He struggled to look the part during an injury-riddled campaign (lowest player efficiency rating since 2011-12), and his colossal supermax extension already weighs heavily on the 2019-20 books. The front office battled limited flexibility to give Wall extra on-court help; now he must figure out how to maximize it.
LeBron James' exit won't force the Cleveland Cavaliers into a rebuild. That's their story, at least, and they're sticking to it.
"You won't be nearly as good if you lose a player of that magnitude," Cavs general manager Koby Altman said, per Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon. "But we can still be competitive, we can be tough, we can be skilled, we can be talented, and we can still use that culture that's sort of been embedded these last four years."
Or the Cavs can be rationale and realize that without James, there's no reason to keep the costly core designed to give him championship support.
Kevin Love will turn 30 before the season starts, and he's never been the best player on a winning team. He'd be as unappealing as the anchor of a rebuild as an All-Star can get. But his size, shooting stroke, past production and experience would all interest win-now clubs who might have future assets to route to Northeast Ohio.
Kyle Korver and George Hill should similarly interest contenders. And if anyone wants to take on the money owed to Tristan Thompson, JR Smith and/or Jordan Clarkson, more power to them.
Cleveland's future looks brighter than it did the last time LeBron left. But it's on the Cavs to embrace that long-term potential and let the likes of Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr. and—assuming he's brought back in restricted free agency—Rodney Hood take control.
Can depth compensate for the lack of a star? The Miami Heat are betting big than it can with at least $119.3 million on next season's books and no players who collected any of last season's All-NBA votes.
Who cares, right? Isn't the rest of the LeBron-less East severely watered down?
To an extent, yes. But even then, there are multiple stars on the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors plus at least one heavyweight on the Cavs (Love), Wizards (Wall), Indiana Pacers (Victor Oladipo), Milwaukee Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo), Detroit Pistons (Blake Griffin) and Charlotte Hornets (Kemba Walker).
The Heat's playoff scoring leaders were Goran Dragic, a 32-year-old with a 17.2 career PER, and Dwyane Wade, a 36-year-old who might be retiring and only averaged 22.9 minutes per game last season. Dion Waiters was second on the regular-season scoring list (while shooting 39.8 percent) before ankle surgery shut him down. Hassan Whiteside was third despite playing his fewest minutes in three seasons.
Miami needs a major reset, both to relieve its bloated books and to inject some needed high-upside youth. But the Heat can't even dump the deals owed to Whiteside and Tyler Johnson, per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. The fact they've explored the possibility, though, suggests a willingness to step back in order to eventually move forward.
The Heat have alternated making and missing the playoffs each season since LeBron bolted. The glaring lack of elite talent might mean that pattern will continue.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers were regression candidates before the summer even started.
They wobbled down the stretch like a boxer one punch from hitting the canvas, losing seven of their final 12 outings and four of their last five. Four quick jabs from the Pelicans knocked the Blazers out of the playoffs, making them the only top-three seed that didn't advance.
Portland needed help—at wing, at center, at anything related to defense. Somehow, the summer only delivered more scoring guards to slot in behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Rookies Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. look like long shots for the regular-season rotation. Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas might crack it, but maybe not in a meaningful way—Curry hasn't played since March 2017, and Stauskas owns an anemic 8.8 career PER.
"It's hard to see Portland having a better squad than they had last year," Robert Flom of Blazer's Edge wrote. "If anything, they are probably somewhat worse, with the possibility of breaking even if their young guys develop quickly."
Even if the Blazers can tread water, they might feel like drowning with all the waves out West. The conference's potential playoff field might be 14 teams deep. Portland needs more than All-Star(ish) production from Lillard and McCollum to retain its spot.