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Who Are the Top Playoff Sleepers?

Although these teams aren’t very high on many early-season projections, they’ve got what it takes to make late-season playoff pushes.

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Every year oddsmakers decide who they think are the top eight teams in both the East and the West. Year after year, someone different sneaks into the playoffs.

Last year we saw teams like the Indiana Pacers and Utah Jazz enter the postseason with respectable five seeds, although before the season most sporting outlets had them missing the playoffs. Thanks in part to great coaching, as well as the breakout play of both Victor Oladipo and Donovan Mitchell, respectively, these teams ended with playoff-worthy records.

Let’s take a look at a few teams that aren’t getting any love from the press or Vegas, but have a legitimate chance to beat the odds.

Memphis Grizzlies

After seven straight years of making the playoffs, injuries (and a decent dose of tanking) caused the Grizzlies to miss out last season. After a solid 2016-2017 campaign where Mike Conley saw 20 points and six assists a game, he only managed to play in 12 games last season before suffering a foot injury that led to a season-ending surgery. Chandler Parsons missed over half the season in both 2016-2017 and 2017-2018. Before his injury problems, he put together four years of double-digit scoring.

Oddsmakers have the Grizzlies pegged to win 34.5 games. While that is much higher than their 22 wins this last season, they have the roster to sneak into the playoffs. A healthy Parsons and Conley, coupled with All-Star center Marc Gasol, make this a solid team.

The NBA-ready players Memphis got in this year’s draft could really make things interesting and push them over the edge. Jaren Jackson Jr., the fourth pick in this year’s draft, showed flashes of greatness during the NBA Summer League. His tall and lanky frame, coupled with his elite athleticism, will help give the Grizzlies matchup nightmares. Their second-round pick, two-time college defensive player of the year Jevon Carter, will wreak havoc on second-string backcourts. Both players will make an instant impact for the Grizzlies and will only improve throughout the season.

Portland Trail Blazers

Another team that continues to get left out of the 2018-2019 playoff conversation is the Portland Trail Blazers. As surprising as this should be, it really isn’t. The West is understandably loaded, and the Lakers instantly became playoff-spot contenders by adding LeBron James via free agency. Still, people are forgetting that the Blazers have now made the playoffs for five straight seasons, and the Damian Lillard/C.J. McCollum duo certainly don’t plan on letting that streak end.

The Blazers ended the season as the third seed in the West, which seems impressive until you realize that it was only two more wins than the eighth-seeded Timberwolves. They were abruptly swept by the Pelicans, which came as a surprise to most of the NBA. That is likely the main reason they are expected to miss the playoffs this upcoming season. Most are expecting them to enter this season with low morale and little desire to commit to the same roster.

The only significant loss they suffered during the heat of the free agency race was reserve center Ed Davis. While his consistent play will be missed, people forget they have a monster in the making with their backup center Zach Collins, who had a solid rookie campaign after being the tenth man selected in the 2017 draft. He was impressive during the 2018 NBA Summer League, averaging eight points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks on just 23.7 minutes a game.

Losing Shabazz Napier could be considered a blow as well. But the additions of both Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry will likely make his loss a wash.

Furthermore, this Trail Blazers team is familiar with adversity. During the 2015 free agency period, they lost three key starters to free agency and traded another. Most people thought they would miss out on the playoffs after losing LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Nic Batum, but they strung together a solid season behind the leadership of Lillard. They ended up advancing to the second round of the playoffs. The point is, Portland isn’t a team we should just forget. They know how to win and have both the coaching and personnel to do so.

Brooklyn Nets

Led by Spencer Dinwiddie, this Nets team has the opportunity to make a big jump in the LeBron-less East. Dinwiddie is coming off his best season, almost grabbing the coveted Most Improved Player reward. Keeping Joe Harris onboard was a great move. He finished the season averaging 10.8 points per game with a high clip of 41.9 percent from beyond the arc. Those two, coupled with young guards D’Angelo Russell and free-agency-acquisition Shabazz Napier, should give the Nets plenty of firepower in their backcourt.

Their frontcourt saw solid acquisitions of Ed Davis and Kenneth Faried. Both of them will help improve the team’s ability to grab boards, both on the defensive and offensive end. Davis will certainly help on the defensive end. The Nets were one of the weaker defensive teams in the league last year with a rating of 108.5. Davis clocked in a solid 103 last season, playing almost 20 minutes a game.

A final note to make for the Nets: both players they took on draft night have three years of professional experience overseas. While Dzanan Musa, 19, and Rodions Kurucs, 20, are both young, they each have plenty of length at 6-foot-9, and should be able to contribute valuable bench minutes right away. The learning curve for both players will be high, that’s certain, but in a depleted Eastern Conference, they have a chance to make a difference.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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