Which of the teams that missed the postseason last year are poised to bounce back and grab a playoff seed this year? Basketball Insiders’ experts Alex Kennedy, Ben Dowsett and Jessica Camerato shared their thoughts on the non-playoff teams that are ready to crack the top eight in their respective conference this season.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are the obvious selection here. Not only should they return to the playoffs in the 2015-16 NBA season, they will likely be one of the elite teams in the Western Conference if everything comes together as expected.
Last year, Oklahoma City was decimated by injuries. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka combined to miss 88 games in the regular season. The biggest blow by far was losing Durant (who was coming off of his dominant MVP season) for all but 27 games. And even when he was on the court, he was significantly limited at times.
Yet even with all of these injuries – as well as several midseason trades that forced new players like Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler to get acclimated on the fly – they still nearly made the postseason in the brutal West.
The Thunder finished last season with 45 wins, missing out on the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. The New Orleans Pelicans also won 45 games, but they owned the tiebreaker over the Thunder and grabbed the eighth seed. Oh, and how did the Pelicans win the tiebreaker over the Thunder? This video will refresh your memory:
So the severely limited Thunder essentially missed the playoffs due to a ridiculous shot by Anthony Davis.
This year, it’s hard to envision Oklahoma City sitting outside of the playoff picture. Durant should be completely healthy and people close to the forward say he looked terrific (and incredibly hungry) this summer. Westbrook enters the season with a ton of momentum after averaging 31.4 points, 9.9 assists, 8.6 rebounds and two steals after the All-Star break (stepping up big time in Durant’s absence). Last year, Westbrook had 11 triple-doubles (no other NBA player had more than four) despite the fact that he played in only 67 games.
Watching this one-two punch together is going to be a lot of fun this season, and they have a very strong supporting cast as well.
Then, throw in the fact that Oklahoma City hired a new head coach in Billy Donovan, who is expected to get more out of his individual players and run a more complex and unpredictable system than former head coach Scott Brooks.
The Thunder are a legitimate contender this season, meaning they seem like a virtual lock for the postseason.
The HEAT could have been a playoff team last season had it not been for injuries. During All-Star weekend, Chris Bosh expressed it was his goal to have a second-half turnaround, get back to .500 and earn a playoff spot. That changed, however, when Bosh was diagnosed with a blood clot in his lung and shut down for the season in February.
After missing out on the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season with a 37-45 record, the HEAT are poised to return. It starts with their veterans, which have been playing together for years and know what it takes to win championships. Bosh and Dwyane Wade are at the forefront of the team, with Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen and Mario Chalmers among others returning once again.
The HEAT added depth last offseason by signing Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts. Deng was a starter while McRoberts will return from an injury-ridden campaign. One of the HEAT’s most significant moves came last season when they traded for Goran Dragic. They re-signed the point guard to a multi-year deal this summer, giving them a dynamic backcourt duo with Wade. Last year, Miami also took a chance on Hassan Whiteside, who had an incredible breakthrough season after fighting to establish a place for himself in the league.
This summer, the HEAT further deepened their bench by signing free agents Amar’e Stoudemire and Gerald Green. Stoudemire offers a frontcourt contributor while Green can deliver offensive bursts as a reserve – and both were signed for bargain league minimum deals.
For a veteran-heavy team, the HEAT selected a potential sleeper pick in the 2015 Draft. They were able to land Justise Winslow at the 10th spot. Winslow could pan out to be one of the better lottery picks in this class and a steal at number 10. Having title winners around him will expedite his growth as a rookie as well.
The HEAT’s success will depend heavily on health, with many players being injury-prone, but they have the talent and leadership to take back a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Indiana’s case for a return to the Eastern Conference playoffs after a one-year blip rests largely on one obvious factor: Paul George’s full-form return. PG-13 did technically make it back for six games last season, but he played just 91 mostly unimportant minutes.
It would sound silly in the West, but George’s mere healthy presence – provided his game isn’t irreparably damaged – is nearly enough to ensure a playoff spot in the East at this point. Even if he doesn’t quite replicate the level of play we saw in the early parts of the 2013-14 season, when he trailed perhaps only LeBron James and Kevin Durant as an all-around two-way wing, a star of his caliber is a rarity in the poorer conference. The Pacers have stated a desire to shift George up to power forward more often, even potentially as his primary role. There could be an adjustment period here, but at his best he’ll be a walking mismatch in these scenarios.
The Pacers are mostly strong on the perimeter as well. Recently signed Monta Ellis may have his warts, but he adds a dose of shot creation the team badly needed. George Hill remains as an underrated two-way guard with shooting range, and the likes of Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles are around to fill in where needed.
Indiana will have some issues in the frontcourt after the departures of Roy Hibbert and David West, but George’s presence at the four-spot for larger periods will mitigate some of this. Ian Mahinmi is capable enough even if he’ll never wow anyone on the floor, and while incoming rookie Myles Turner will have nights where he looks out of place, he’ll have others where he appears to be a future star in the making.
There are a couple reasonable candidates for teams the Pacers could leapfrog to get back to the postseason. Easily the most likely is Brooklyn, a team that had a strange offseason where they managed to get worse despite owing their 2016 draft pick. They’re a near lock to drop out, leaving a spot open for the likes of Indiana, Miami and perhaps one of the up-and-coming teams with playoff aspirations (like Detroit or Orlando). Teams like Milwaukee and Boston feel like shoo-ins to some, but this might be premature; the Bucks, in particular, could have some growing pains with Greg Monroe now in town, a large departure from their defensive style and culture last season. There could be multiple spots open for the Pacers to gun for, and they’ll be in prime position if they can get the superstar-level production they’ll be hoping for from George.
Which teams do you think will return to the playoffs this year? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.
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