In the NBA you don’t want to be a team is perennially stuck in the midfield and this year is not exception, especially with the prizes for finishing last. This next group of teams could be sorted into any order and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid such is the nature of the teams competing for the final playoff seeds. An injury or a breakout season could push any of these teams into contention or the lottery and some of these teams will provide some of the best subplots of the upcoming season.
For part 1 of the NBA preview click here.
23rd Best – Toronto Raptors
The Raptors have a decent nucleus to build around in Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Lowry is in a contract year and doesn’t have to compete with Jose Calderon, Lithuanian Valanciunas has unlimited potential and will only benefit from spending more time in the American game and DeRozan has reportedly improved on his woeful three point shooting over the summer. Where does Rudy Gay fall into the rotation? He still is a handy scorer on the right team (he averaged 20.2ppg in 33 games for Toronto) but Toronto isn’t the right team. His skill set matches that of DeRozan and you would rather pay the younger DeRozan $10 million a year instead of Gay $18 million a year. The Raptors are desperate for someone to be able to stretch the floor and sharpshooter Steve Novak will help but the offense will still be stagnant at best. Defensively, the team will be hoping for Amir Johnson and Valanciunas to anchor a defense that was league average last season. A healthy Landry Fields will help on that side of the ball but without Valanciunas making the leap to the next level, this team will not be in playoff contention.
22nd – New Orleans Pelicans
This is one of those teams that made headlines this summer for the bold moves it made and will continue to make headlines throughout the seasons as coach Monty Williams pieces together what could be a very frustrating team. The additions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans seem like good pickups on paper, but they certainly aren’t the players that will make this team a contender. Former number one pick Anthony Davis is the guy that can make this team special, especially if he takes his offensive game to the next level this season. If Davis can be a real offensive presence for the Pelicans, then coach Williams will have the luxury of bringing Tyreke Evans off the bench to bolster a bench rotation that includes Ryan Anderson and Anthony Morrow, who provide serious threats from beyond the three point line. Eric Gordon may end up being trade bait if he can’t stay healthy but he still provides reasonable defense and another kamikaze scorer for New Orleans to add to their arsenal. Evans and Gordon meshing could either make or break this team who need to make the playoffs after trading away their first round pick for 2014. However, with the way this roster currently is, I don’t see the Pelicans making the playoffs.
21st – Washington Wizards
The Wizards are finally building towards something that resembles a competitive team. John Wall’s return from injury last season has given the team hope as it hopes to compete come playoff time this winter. He averaged 20.7 points and 7.8 assists after the All-Star break and combined with Bradley Beal gave Washington one of the best up and coming back courts in the league. Scoring will not be a problem for these two and Beal has proved he is more than capable of guarding his position. Nene’s health is the key to the Wizards chances of success as the Wizards lacked a interior scoring option while Nene sat out due to plantar fasciitis. Emeka Okafur and Trevor Ariza have single-handedly raised Washington’s defence from the ground up but chew up more than $22 million in salary next season and may find themselves on the trade table if all is not well in Washington come midseason. In the meantime, Ariza remains a better option than lottery pick Otto Porter Jr. who continues to recover for a hip flexor strain. Wizards’ fans are celebrating the significant change in team mentality from the days of Gilbert Arenas, Jordan Crawford and Javale McGee and they may be able to cheer on a successful team this season.
20th – Milwaukee Bucks
Owner Herb Kohl refuses to allow this team to bottom out as the Bucks again will mount a charge at the 8th seed in the East. Few faces remain from last season’s team but the problems will remain the same. The new back court of Brandon Knight and OJ Mayo complement each other better than the Monta Ellis – Brandon Jennings combination but questions still linger over Knight’s ability to facilitate an offense. Knight is a better defender than either Jennings or Ellis and Mayo shoots the 3 ball better than all three aforementioned players so this pairing certainly looks better than their predecessors. Milwaukee actually has one of the up and coming front courts in the league with Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson and Larry Sanders. Ilyasova’s ability to stretch the floor and rebound allow him to play as a stretch 4 and he may become expendable if Henson’s offensive game develops throughout the year. Sanders came on in leaps and bounds late last season as one of the best rim defenders in the league and combined with Zaza Pachulia will provide give Milwaukee one of the better interior defences in the NBA. The small forward spot remains in flux and the Bucks appear to be a perfect candidate for a Rudy Gay trade. Outside of that happening though, the Bucks are just off competing for the 8th seed.
19th – Los Angeles Lakers
This will make a lot of people very happy. The Lakers were a mess last year and they barely scraped into the playoffs. Now that the ‘Dwightmare’ is over, the Lakers may be even worse off than last season. Kobe Bryant will miss the first part of the season with an Achilles injury and they still have Mike D’Antoni as coach. This whole team is based on what Bryant can manufacture once he gets back from injury. Steve Nash has proven that he can run D’Antoni’s offense and the Lakers have more shooters than last season which was wrecked by injury but Nash is now 40, and realistically can only expect to play 25 minutes a night to stay healthy. The key again is Pau Gasol. If Gasol can get back into the low post instead of working around the elbows, he and Nash may be able to keep this team in playoff contention so that Bryant can put the Lakers on his shoulders once he gets back. It is all a big ‘If’ though and with a weak bench and no defence, the Lakers are odds on to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005. I will say this though – bet against Kobe at your own peril.
18th – Denver Nuggets
All the moves made by the Nuggets in the offseason were bizarre. They fired the Coach of the Year George Karl and they traded (sign and trade) the team’s best player Andre Iguodala to Golden State. They also lost Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri to Toronto and underrated defender Kosta Koufos to Memphis. Now with Brian Shaw as head coach, Denver has to pin all their hopes on the young frontcourt of Javale McGee, Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler. While there will be plenty of highlight plays, the team will struggle on defence. New signings Darrell Arthur and JJ Hickson may help on that side of the ball, but this is not the team that won 57 games and got beaten in 6 by the Golden State Warriors. Ty Lawson and new signing Nate Robinson will provide plenty of flair and speed at the point and the team will hope that three point bombers Evan Fournier and Jordan Hamilton are ready to play significant minutes on a team that struggled from the great beyond last year. They have the talent but many of the young players on this team are still a development year away from turning Denver into a real contender.
17th – Detroit Pistons
The Pistons made plenty of noise this summer after years of mediocrity in the NBA. And while the moves they made have definitely made the team better, one would certainly question how this team will fit together. The team was plagued with one of the worst offenses last season with their inability to be able to adequately spread the floor and their answer to that is Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings – two players in the league that you do not want to be shooting from beyond 15 feet. Fitting Smith into a front court that already houses Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond will be one of the many arduous tasks new head coach Maurice Cheeks will have to handle in his first season as a head coach. Chauncey Billups is back and should give Detroit a shooting option from distance provided he stays healthy, but it seems more likely that slashing combo guard Rodney Stuckey will start instead. Drummond and a motivated Smith already make this team league average, if not better, on defence but Smith is notorious for getting lazy in stretches throughout the season. They still don’t have a true point guard and they may not be pretty to watch, but this may be the most polarizing team in the NBA this season and if Cheeks can get the players to buy into his system, the Pistons should be right in contention for the playoffs.
16th – Cleveland Cavaliers
If there is a team I am irrationally confident about this season, it’s the Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving blossomed into one of the best scoring guards in the league last season and may finally have help in Andrew Bynum. Of course, Bynum missed the entirety of last season with surgery to both knees and has not played 65 games since 2007 but has shown the ability to dominate games, averaging 19.1ppg and 12.1rpg in the lockout shortened season of 2011-12. It all hinges on Bynum’s health on whether this team can be a solid competitor in the East, because the pieces are in place around Irving and Bynum. Jarrett Jack showed last season how invaluable a bench guy can be last season and if he can play to 75% of his output last season, he will still be more than competent as a backup to Irving. Tristan Thompson began to unlock his potential towards the end of last season; Anderson Varejao continues to be a tenacious offensive rebounder when healthy and Anthony Bennett has the chance to be an explosive bench scorer. Mike Brown is back as coach after a stint in LA and if he can get them to buy into his defensive style, then anything is possible for this team, even playoffs. If injury strikes, well, then theres always hope that King James may return home.
15th – Dallas Mavericks
Mark Cuban’s refusal to let star Dirk Nowitzki play on a bad team is keeping the Mavericks from being a contender in July. The team still finished at .500 last season despite the injuries and will continue to be a midtable team as long as Nowitzki plays. This is a radically different team compared to 2012 with nine new players on the roster. Jose Calderon is one of the more underrated players in the NBA with his ability to find the open man and hit shots from distance on a regular basis. Then on the other hand, Monta Ellis is one of the most overrated players in the league for his ability to take horrible midrange shots as well as his reputation for being a defensive sieve. New center Samuel Dalembert will be the crux of their defence as Dallas hopes to mount one last charge at the finals for Nowitzki but there is a lot of emphasis on vets Shawn Marion and Vince Carter to play meaningful minutes which may hurt them down the stretch. Devin Harris returns to Dallas to provide solid minutes off the bench and Brandon Wright is developing into one of the better back up centers in the league but despite all this, I still think the Mavs will fall short of the playoffs.
14th – Portland Trail Blazers
Portland has rebounded surprisingly quickly after the injuries derailed the Greg Oden – Brandon Roy era and they have the pieces in place to be a force in the Western Conference in years to come. LaMarcus Aldridge is arguably the best power forward in the league with his ability to hit a jump shot from 20 feet. Very few people predicted that Damian Lillard would have the season that he did last year and will only continue to get better as he learns to effectively pass the ball. Nicolas Batum has the potential to be one of the most dominant swingmen in the NBA and he’ll be the X-factor if the Blazers hope to return to the playoffs this season. The team needed a defensive center last year – they got Robin Lopez. The team needed a bench unit that didn’t comprise of D-League players last season – they got Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright and Mo Williams while drafting guards CJ McCullum and Allen Crabbe. They still lack a true point guard but Portland will be no easy beats this season.
13th – Minnesota Timberwolves
Will the luck of this team ever change? Maybe it will now that GM David Kahn is no longer part of the organization. The Wolves have the talent on their roster to be a playoff team, if they can stay healthy which has been a massive issue since coach Rick Adelman took over. On his day, Kevin Love is the best power forward in the league and combined with man mountain Nikola Pekovic, they create a dominant front court. The issue on offense for this team is whether they can get enough scoring from the outside as the Brandon Roy experiment was a long shot and Ricky Rubio has continued to struggle developing a jump shot. The addition of Kevin Martin should provide much needed firepower from the wings and this team should be one of the best to watch on offense. For all they are on offense is what they lack on the defensive end. The defence will hinge on Pekovic staying healthy but more often than not, the Wolves will be involved in high scoring shootouts. That being said, if the team stays healthy, Minnesota should make the playoffs.
Next week – Playoff bound teams
Ben Sathananthan is a second year Sports Journalism student at Melbourne’s Latrobe University. You can follow him on Twitter at @bensathsports