Fortunes rise and fall quickly in the NBA. Sometimes an injury can push a playoff team into the lottery, while other times a great offseason pickup can help push a struggling organization into the postseason.
Last year we saw five non-playoff teams from the 2019-2020 season jump into the postseason. In the Eastern Conference, three perennial losers in the New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, and Washington Wizards made the playoffs for the first time in years. In the Western Conference, the Phoenix Suns stomped into the postseason for the first time in more than a decade, and the young Memphis Grizzlies beat out Stephen Curry and the Warriors in the play-in tournament to claim the eighth seed.
This season we will predict less playoff turnover. Still, three are poised to change their 2020-2021 fortunes and jump into the postseason.
The Eastern Conference
Which Teams Could Be Out?
The Philadelphia 76ers
On the surface, the 76ers look like a lock to make the playoffs. Dig deeper, though, and you’ll see they’re on the brink of disaster.
Last year the Houston Rockets were in a similar situation as the 76ers. Former MVP James Harden wanted out of Texas, so he missed most of the 2020 training camp. When he did finally make an appearance, he was ten pounds overweight, angry, and unmotivated.
A decent Houston Rockets team with new imports, including Christian Wood and John Wall, along with returning players, P. J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, Danuel House, and of course James Harden flopped the first nine games of the season, going 3-6. Prompting Houston management to finally trade “The Beard.” In the end, the Rockets slumped through the season, finishing last in the Western Conference.
Fast forward one year, and an angry, unmotivated, and out-of-shape Ben Simmons wants desperately to start over in a new city. After recent developments, this situation seems to be a matter of "when" instead of "if."
We’re not saying Ben Simmons has the same impact for the 76ers as James Harden had for the Rockets. Simmons isn’t even the best player on his team; that honor goes to Joel Embiid. But the problem is that the 76ers' MVP candidate Joel Embiid has played in 260 out of a possible 555 career games. Embiid missed many of those contests during his rookie and sophomore seasons when he didn’t suit up at all. Still, he’s never played an entire season, and taking away his first two years in the league, he’s played in only 75 percent of his possible contests.
According to my math: an unhappy Ben Simmons + a likely Joel Embiid injury + a much deeper eastern conference + heckling 76ers fans = a disastrous season for Philadelphia.
Things could work out in Philadelphia, but don’t simply look at the 76ers 49-23 record from last season and think they’re guaranteed a playoff spot. Two years ago, the Lakers won a title. The injury bug hit the next season, and they finished seventh in the West, forcing LeBron James and company to contend with the Warriors in the play-in tourney. The Purple and Gold were down in that game against Golden State with one minute to go before LeBron heaved in a (miracle) three-pointer from five feet beyond the arc. The 2020 champs were inches away from potentially missing the 2021 postseason.
Houston's (former) GM Daryl Morey has always focused on statistics and discounted things like culture and chemistry. Now we’ll see how important the intangible aspects of basketball are because everybody knows Ben Simmons wants no part of Philadelphia, which has to affect team morale. Perhaps Joel Embiid’s talent and Tobias Harris’s midrange game can gloss over the chemistry problems that are sure to ensue. But, when the eventual Embiid injury occurs, the 76ers season could quickly spiral out of control.
The Washington Wizards
It’s easy to see the Washington Wizards missing the postseason in 2022.
Last year, they finished the regular season with a 34-38 record. They were essentially written off for the playoffs until Russell Westbrook went nuclear over their last 15 games averaging 23.8 PPG, 14.4 APG, and 13.5 RPG. That production helped Washington go 10-5 over their last 15 contests and make the play-in tourney. But the Wizards got handled easily by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the play-in and then eked out a win against a Pacers squad that wanted nothing more than to get away from the soon-to-be-fired Nate Bjorkgren and his crazy mood swings.
The eighth-seeded Wizards were predictably dominated by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs ending their season. Now, Russell Westbrook’s off in Hollywood, replaced by Spencer Dinwiddie, who missed all but three games last season with a torn ACL. Former Lakers players Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Montrezl Harrell are also in, but after spending last season playing under the bright lights in LA with LeBron James, nobody knows if they’re really IN.
Small-ball lineups with Rui Hachimura at center, Davis Bertans at power forward, Kyle Kuzma at small forward, and Bradley Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie rounding at the backcourt should be fun to watch on offense. Still, this team will not be able to stop anybody on defense. Last season they finished tied with the Dallas Mavericks for 20th in defensive rating. Next season with negative defenders across the board, it’s easy to see them end up last in the NBA in overall defense, which isn’t exactly a playoff recipe.
Which Teams Could Be In?
The Chicago Bulls
The preseason is, well, the preseason. The games are meaningless, superstars rarely play, and coaches use the time to evaluate youngsters trying to make the team. Wins and losses don’t matter. Still, sometimes you get that tingle running up and down your spine during the preseason when you watch a squad. Sometimes you just get that feeling like something special could be brewing.
The Chicago Bulls are going to be good this season, and they could be great.
Zach Lavine and Lonzo Ball form a dynamic backcourt. Both men are excellent three-point shooters and willing passers. Lavine’s one of the best in the league out of isolation sets, and he’s more than capable of carrying the load in the halfcourt when things bog down. Add in Alex Caruso’s IQ and three-point touch off the bench, and you’ve got one of the most dynamic guard rotations in the league.
DeMar DeRozan's also in. He’s another guy who can get his own shot, but he’s also one of the best passing wings in the league.
Nikola Vucevic is a double-double machine with excellent post moves and a smooth three-point stroke (40.0 3P% last season).
During the preseason; Lonzo Ball, Zach Lavine, Alex Caruso, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic whipped the ball around the court, creating open looks behind the arc and towards the rim. Add in the fact that Ball, Lavine, Caruso, and Vucevic are all capable of shooting over 40 percent from deep, and you have the makings of a squad that will be special on offense throughout the upcoming season.
Last season, the Chicago Bulls were better on defense than you think. They finished the season ranked 11th in defensive rating. If Bulls head coach, Billy Donovan can coax a top-ten defense out of this squad, then the Bulls could morph into the Atlanta Hawks from last year’s playoffs and make it to the Eastern Conference Championship round, if not all the way to the Finals.
The Indiana Pacers
Last season the Indiana Pacers struggled under first-year head coach Nate Bjorkgren's coaching style.
- One league executive said this about Bjorkgren, “He’s just very different, He’s not a d--k; he’s just completely out of his element as a leader.”
- Another anonymous source labeled Bjorkgren's communication abilities “aggressive and abrasive” with everyone in Indiana, including the players.
- Bjorkgren was also known to “erupt” over the smallest miscues.
Mice don’t perform well in stressful situations. Nor do monkeys. And yes, human beings accomplish more when they are treated with respect and positivity. Who knew?
Pacers management fired Nate Bjorkgren after only one unsuccessful season in Indiana, and rehired the great Rick Carlisle for a second stint.
Rick Carlisle’s teams always seem to execute well on the defensive end. This Pacers team features three excellent defenders in Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner, and Domantas Sabonis. Last season with Nate “I could blow up at any time” Bjorkgren at the helm, Indiana finished the year ranked 13th in the NBA in defensive rating (112.4). Now, with the more cerebral Carlisle pulling the strings, it’s easy to see this roster creeping up into elite status as a top-five defensive unit.
On offense, Caris LeVert is better than you think. During the 2020-2021 season, he averaged an impressive 20.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, and 5.2 APG across a large sample of 47 games. At 27-years-old, he’s entering his prime, and if the Pacers start off well, he could garner All-Star attention for his ability to manufacture points for himself and his teammates when the offense stalls in the halfcourt.
Malcolm Brogdon scored a cool 21.2 points per game to go along with 5.3 RPG and 5.9 APG. He doesn’t have the same ability as LeVert to turn nothing into something, but he’s a top-shelf point guard who many feel got snubbed last year when he didn’t make the All-Star team.
Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner are both only 25-years-old, and together they form the Pacers version of the twin towers. Sabonis is one of the best in the league out of the post, while Myles Turner is a solid three-point shooter and a kangaroo at the rim.
This Pacers squad is stocked full of excellent players just entering their primes. They’re going to be well-coached, and they’re going to go hard on the less glamorous side of the ball. They’re ready to make the playoffs.
Which Team Could Be Out?
The Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers should be decent this year. Last season, the Trail Blazers crept into the postseason in sixth place out West behind the brilliance of Damian Lillard, and... well, just the brilliance of Lillard.
Portland was 29th in the NBA in defensive rating throughout the 2021 season. Lillard is an offensive stud, but he doesn’t play D, CJ McCollum is a solid offensive weapon in his own right, but he, too, doesn’t play D. At center, it’s more of the same. Jusuf Nurkić is a decent post threat, but he moves like a 50-year-old math teacher on the perimeter and offers little resistance at the rim. Portland management needed to upgrade the roster, and they needed to bring in more hard-nosed defenders. Instead, they ran it back.
Sure, Portland should be decent next season, but decent will not get it done in a tough Western Conference.
The Memphis Grizzlies made the playoffs last season, and they aren’t going anywhere. Ja Morant is a future superstar. Jarren Jackson Jr. is back from injury to start the season, and he’s an All-Star in the making. Dillon Brooks could be the best player you’ve never heard of, and Kyle Anderson, Desmond Bane, and Steven Adams are all excellent two-way role players.
The Dallas Mavericks have Luka Doncic. Enough said.
The Clippers will start the season without Kawhi Leonard, and the Nuggets will begin without Jamal Murray. Still, the Clippers have Paul George and an excellent supporting cast, while the Nuggets have MVP Nikola Jokic and their own excellent array of supporting players.
That leaves the Golden State Warriors, which we’ll get into next.
Which Team Could Be In?
The Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors finished last season three games behind the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference. While Portland is running back mostly the same team this year, the Warriors' roster looks significantly better.
Jordan Poole finished the preseason averaging 21.8 points per game in 23 minutes. He looks ready to make a jump because he’s explosive towards the rim, and his outside stroke is clean. Recent pickup Otto Porter Jr. also looked excellent in the preseason. He shot over 55 percent from deep while playing excellent defense. Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins are still there, and they can be counted on to play top-level defense and make the right decisions on offense.
Five-time All-Star Klay Thompson is due back sooner rather than later, and all recent reports have him looking as good as new.
Things are already looking good for the Warriors, but we haven’t even mentioned the two keys to this squad: Stephen Curry and their defense.
If you’re reading this article, you already know about Stephen Curry. He’s a game-changing, two-time MVP who’s the best shooter the world has ever seen. Next, you might not even know that the Golden State Warriors had one of the best defenses in the league last season behind Draymond Green on the inside and Andrew Wiggins on the perimeter.
We’re betting on Stephen Curry, the return of Klay Thompson, and an impressive defense to propel the Warriors into the postseason over Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers.