Last season two Eastern Conference teams got into the playoffs with losing records. In the Western Conference the New Orleans Pelicans were tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder but got in because of a tiebreaker.
For this upcoming season I think there are six locks to make the playoffs for each Conference (East – Hawks, Bulls, Cavaliers, Raptors, Wizards and Heat; West – Warriors, Rockets, Clippers, Grizzlies, Thunder and Spurs). When I say lock I don’t mean a 50 win season because the East only had three teams win 50 games last season. The West had seven such teams last season and during the 2013-14 season the 8th seed won 49 games in the West.
This is a list for teams to watch for this season:
1. Milwaukee Bucks – I know the Bucks made the playoffs last season but they were only 41-41. They were never more than eight games over .500 during the course of the season and they really struggled on the offensive end. They traded away their best player in Brandon Knight while bringing in another long athlete in Michael Carter-Williams. The loss of Jabari Parker hurt them on the offensive end and it really showed during the playoffs as they struggled to put up points against the Bulls in the first round. This team has the tools to be a really good playoff team. The addition of Greg Monroe and the return of Parker will boost their offense which ranked 22nd in points per game and26th in offensive rating. Their defense was 8th in opponent points per game and 4th in defensive rating.
2. Charlotte Hornets – Their last season as the Bobcats ended with a first round exit and many were hopeful the returning Hornets would continue to get better. The team dealt with many injuries and missed out on the playoffs once again. The Lance Stephenson experiment did not work at all. Lance was one of the worst players in basketball last season and after shooting 35% from three during his last season in Indiana; he shot just 17% in his lone season with the Hornets. The Hornets were once again respectable on the defensive end but struggled offensively. Their defense should be consistent with the addition of Nicolas Batum. Batum had some injuries last season and struggled on the offensive end but continued to be a very good defender for the Blazers. If he can find his offensive touch again the Hornets could be headed back to the playoffs. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is expected to miss the season after he tore his labrum and dislocated his shoulder in a preseason game. MKG signed a big contract in the off-season and has been plagued with injuries since he was drafted. This is a major blow to the Hornets on the defensive side. The Hornets were the worst three point shooting team last season; the additions of Jeremy Lin, Frank Kaminsky, and Nicolas Batum should help.
3. New Orleans Pelicans – New Orleans did make it to the playoffs last season but I think they backed in because the Thunder had so many injuries. They got the tie breaker because Anthony Davis hit a double pump buzzer beating three pointer. If this team is healthy they could make the playoffs in a tough Western Conference. Jrue Holiday might be the key. He has only played in 74 out of 164 games the last two years due to injuries. Anthony Davis is looked at as a top three player in this league and now is the time to prove it. He has a new coach in Alvin Gentry would should improve their pace and points per game. The Pelicans made three pointers at a high rate, 37% per game but they did not take many three pointers. Tyreke Evans has quietly become a better basketball player. He is a more improved passer and still does a good job of getting into the lane. His jumper is still broken but he did hit a career high 69 three pointers while finally cracking 30%. Health is key for this team. Eric Gordon looked really good at times last and had a couple of good playoff games. He also hit a career high in three pointers (141). Norris Cole is a suitable backup point guard but they need Jrue Holiday to play and have a great connection with Anthony Davis. Davis is already a superstar who puts up monster stat lines. He has gotten stronger during the off-season and has added a three point shot. Just think in his first playoff series he averaged 31 ppg, 11 rpg and 3 blks while shooting 52% and he’s getting better.
4. Utah Jazz – The Jazz ranked number one in opponent points per game giving up only 94.9 ppg. I bet most people would not have guessed that. They were also dead last in pace and ranked close to the bottom in points per game. Alec Burks was limited to only 27 games due to a shoulder injury so he should help their offense. The bad news is Dante Exum has torn his ACL and will miss the majority of the season for the Jazz. However Utah can make the playoffs without Exum. With Burks out last season rookie Rodney Hood got to play a lot especially during the end of the season. He played alright but most importantly he was able to knock down three pointers. He shot 36% from three and should be a valuable asset to this team. Rudy Gobert continued to improve as he got more time on the floor. His production and rim protection should go up with his increase in minutes. Derrick Favors quietly had the best season of his pro career and should continue to improve. Gordon Hayward might be the most underrated player in the league right now. He increased his scoring and shooting percentages this past season even though he was playing most of the year without Alec Burks. He was more aggressive, he took more shots and he is a well-rounded player. The Jazz also added Trey Lyles in the draft. He might be a project but he’s a tall skilled player who should see some minutes early on.
5. Sacramento Kings – The off-season has been all about the drama between Coach George Karl and star DeMarcus Cousins. Well both guys are still with the organization so they have to work together and win some games. The Kings have to improve on the defensive end if they want to compete for a playoff spot. They gave up 105 ppg last season while only scoring 101. We know Karl will get them to score the ball but they need to get stops at crucial times. DeMarcus is the star and he will continue to get his numbers. He has to become a better leader for this group in order for them to win those tough games on the road or those close games on a back-to-back. They added veterans in Caron Butler, Marco Belinelli and Rajon Rondo. Belinelli and Rondo might be the only two guys to contribute but Butler’s presence on the bench will be helpful. Rondo is a big question mark especially after the way his season ended with the Mavericks. Is he still good? Will he be a problem in the locker room? Darren Collison was having a career year until he got injured so Rondo better not mess up. Rudy Gay was solid for the Kings and should see some more time at power forward. Ben McLemore improved from his rookie season and he should thrive in a fast tempo system. If Seth Curry stays in the rotation he should get plenty of open looks while Cousins gets double-teamed. Willie Cauley-Stein will help them a great deal on the defensive end. With a faster pace he should get easy buckets in the open floor similar to Kenneth Faried in Denver. Stein has been working on his offensive game and anything he gives them from that end is a plus. He will be in there to play defense and guard anyone on the floor. The Kings have a good team on paper. They have a star, some toughness, experience, improved shooting but everyone needs to be on the same page so this team can make it back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2005-06 season.