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NBA PM: Which Non-Playoff Teams Can Make the Jump to the Playoffs?

Cody Taylor breaks down which non-playoff teams from last season may have better luck this upcoming season.

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Updated 1 year ago on

12 min read

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Each NBA season there seems to always be at least one team that shows significant improvement. Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks got off to a great start, led by new head coach Jason Kidd. The Bucks went 15-67 during the 2013-14 season, but improved last season to 41-41, which earned them the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Of course, the Cleveland Cavaliers also saw a huge increase in wins last season after LeBron James returned home to join forces with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The Cavaliers went 33-49 two seasons ago and are now coming off an NBA Finals appearance against the Golden State Warriors. The New Orleans Pelicans and Boston Celtics were also teams that made the jump from being a non-playoff team in 2013-14, to qualifying for the playoffs last season.

Now that the bulk of the free agency moves are behind us, we’re beginning to see how teams are shaping up. There are still some minor moves to be made with teams filling in their open bench slots and training camp rosters, but the majority of teams are done making moves. With teams beginning to show a new identity, we can now consider which non-playoff teams from last season can make the leap to being a playoff team next season.

Here are the non-playoff teams from each conference and their playoff outlook for next season (ranked from having the worst chance to having the best chance):

Eastern Conference – 

Philadelphia 76ers (18-64), 14th:

The team may have hit a home run in the draft after Jahlil Okafor fell to the third spot, but this team is still at least a few seasons away from competing for a playoff spot. It’s clear that Okafor could possibly be one of the best players from the draft in the years to come, but he’s still some time away from leading the team into contention. The 76ers have a ton of young talent on the roster they’re still developing and represent one of best up-and-coming rosters in the league, but are still a little ways off from a playoff berth.

New York Knicks (17-65), 15th:

The Knicks made a lot of moves this summer, and they appear to be headed in the right direction. They brought in Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant through the draft, and brought in several players through free agency that can contribute. We’ve seen the Knicks in the past try to go for home run signings and offer a lot of money for one or two players, but the team seemed to be going for value this summer after signing Robin Lopez, Derrick Williams, Arron Afflalo, Kyle O’Quinn and Kevin Seraphin. Porzingis is a project big man, and may not be able to contribute significantly right away, but his presence will help the team improve, especially down the road. The Knicks appear to be primed for an improved 2015-16 campaign, but that won’t translate into a playoff berth next season with the bottom of the East improving.

Detroit Pistons (32-50), 12th:

The Pistons are coming off of their best season in six years as they won the most games in a single season since the 2008-09 campaign, which is also the last time they made the playoffs. They averaged just 28 wins over the last six seasons and appear to be heading in the right direction. It seems as though there will be some starting positions up for grabs, so the 2015-16 season might be spent trying to lay a foundation for the future, with the development of Stanley Johnson as a key priority.

Charlotte Hornets (33-49), 11th:

The Hornets were quick to make changes to the team this summer and decided to bring in Nicolas Batum from Portland and sign free agent Jeremy Lin. They drafted Frank Kaminsky, acquired Jeremy Lamb from Oklahoma City and added Spencer Hawes in the Lance Stephenson deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. Adapting all of these pieces together could take some time as each of these players figure to see significant roles next season. Finding minutes for those players and settling them into their roles could be a tough task for head coach Steve Clifford. The playoffs don’t seem to be in their future next year, but that could change depending on how quickly everything comes together.

Orlando Magic (25-57), 13th:

While the playoffs may be at least another season away, the Magic are poised to return to the postseason in the next couple of seasons. The team feels their defense can take the next step in development with new head coach Scott Skiles coming in. They upgraded the offense by drafting offensive-minded players in Mario Hezonja and Tyler Harvey. With core players in Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton taking the next step in their development, the team should be in for an improved season. An improvement of at least 10 wins will likely be needed to be in the playoff hunt, and that doesn’t seem that far off.

Indiana Pacers (38-44), 9th:

Few people imagined the Pacers would in the playoff hunt last season without Paul George. Nevertheless, despite not having George, the Pacers were in the playoff hunt until the final day of the regular season. With George returning to 100 percent, the Pacers should be in the hunt all season and could be the first team we’ve covered to have a legitimate chance at returning to the postseason. The Pacers will need at least one team to fall out of the mix from last season, and everyone seems to believe that team could be the Nets. Indiana added Monta Ellis to help the offense, and to incorporate a new up-tempo offense. Draft pick Myles Turner seems to be in for a big rookie campaign, and his addition could help the Pacers finish in the top eight next season.

Miami HEAT (37-45), 10th:

The HEAT figure to have the best chance from this list to make the playoffs next season. They finished just a game back of the Nets last season, despite being at less than 100 percent. Key players like Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic and Chris Bosh all missed several games at different points of the season for various reasons, which resulted in an up-and-down year. With the team returning Dwyane Wade, Dragic, Bosh and Luol Deng (player option), the HEAT seem poised for a big season, if they can remain healthy. We’re not quite sure how many games Wade will play or how effective Bosh will be, but if they can have a consistent season, they’re likely to reach the playoffs.

Western Conference –

Minnesota Timberwolves (16-66), 15th:

There is no question that the Timberwolves will have a much better season than last year. The Timberwolves added the first overall pick in Karl-Anthony Towns, they have the reigning Rookie of the Year in Andrew Wiggins, and have young talent in Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne and Gorgui Deng. Plus they still have a former No. 1 pick in Anthony Bennett, who has failed to live up to expectations, but could turn things around. Given that the West is so competitive, it seems as though the Timberwolves are still a few seasons away from competing, but make no mistake about it – this team is better, and will make the playoffs in the next few seasons. Once their players really begin to develop, it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if the Wolves emerged as a playoff contender for many years to come.

Sacramento Kings (29-53), 13th:

After the summer that the Kings have had, there’s no possible way that they make the playoffs, is there? Stability within an organization is generally a good starting place to judge how well a team will do, and it seems as though the Kings’ front office is anything but organized. As recent as just a few years ago, the Kings seems poised to really challenge in the West. But that was two head coaches ago, and before the franchise went through turmoil in the front office. Looking at the Kings on paper might suggest a playoff team, but looking at their up-and-down summer suggests otherwise. Seeing how this team comes together on the court this season will be a big indicator on where they stand. Based on what we know so far, the playoffs may not be the end result this season.

Los Angeles Lakers (21-61), 14th:

Just how much the Lakers can improve this season remains to be seen. There seems to be a lot of questions with the current Lakers roster heading into next season. They shocked everyone by selecting D’Angelo Russell with the second pick in the draft and passing on Jahlil Okafor in the process. Russell certainly has the tools to become an All-Star type of point guard in the future, but he’s yet to play in a real NBA game and struggled in the Las Vegas Summer League. The Lakers added Roy Hibbert from the Pacers, and questions will remain with Hibbert until he can return to the type of player we saw a few seasons ago. Of course, the biggest question is how many games will Kobe Bryant play? He looked great, at times, when he did play last season, but his year ended prematurely due to injury. Father Time is undefeated, and Bryant does not seem to be an exception to that. The Lakers have depth in front court after adding Brandon Bass, but Julius Randle has yet to really play after suffering a season-ending injury in his first NBA game last season. There are more questions than answers for the Lakers this season, which doesn’t suggest this team is in position to make a playoff appearance.

Denver Nuggets (30-52), 12th:

The Nuggets will be ushering in a new era this season, with the addition of head coach Mike Malone and Emmanuel Mudiay. The Nuggets should be in for an improved season with a new leader, but like the Lakers, there are questions heading into the season. How will the group respond to a new head coach? Will Kenneth Faried remain on the roster all season or will he be traded? The veteran presence alone on the team should keep the Nuggets around the 30-35 win mark, but that won’t be nearly good enough to get into the playoffs.

Utah Jazz (38-44), 11th:

There could be as many as 11 teams that can compete for a playoff berth next season and that list includes the Jazz. The Jazz have been one of the most hyped teams all summer as we saw their young core of players take the next step in their development during the second half of last season. It was during this time that the Jazz earned the best defensive rating in the league, which is an impressive feat considering they’re going up against some of the best teams in the league in the West. Given how competitive the conference is, the key for the Jazz and some of these other teams trying to make it back into the playoffs is other teams dropping out of playoff race from last year. The case can be made for some teams like the Portland Trail Blazers and even the Dallas Mavericks to fall out of the race, which will open up two spots. The Jazz certainly have an opportunity to claim one of those spots should they open up.

Phoenix Suns (39-43), 10th:

It was just two years ago that the Suns had the worst record in the Western Conference, but they’ve improved in each season since. They finished six games out of the playoff race last year, but part of that was due to the team trading away Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline. By making those trades, the team sacrificed their short-term success in order to improve in the long-term. They signed Brandon Knight to a long-term deal, who they also acquired at the trade deadline, and also signed Tyson Chandler in free agency. The addition of Chandler figures to solidify their front-court and will give the locker room a proven veteran presence. The team may still need to add a few more players to the bench, but they should be among those competing for a playoff spot next season.

Oklahoma City Thunder (45-37), 9th:

The Thunder were another team that was in the playoff hunt last season, even though they suffered from multiple injuries. Kevin Durant played in only 27 games after battling a foot injury, and Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka also missed time throughout the season. Health will be key for the Thunder this upcoming season. With better luck on the health front, they should easily return to the playoffs given their talented core of players. The team has one of the best starting lineups in the league with Westbrook, Dion Waiters, Durant, Ibaka and Enes Kanter. An appearance in the playoffs will be vital in trying to convince Durant to re-sign next summer, so the Thunder should be a team on a mission.

What do you think about our predictions? Would you change them? Let us know in the comments below!

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Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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