By Bryan Toporek
The 2017 NBA playoffs proved there’s a mammoth chasm between the Golden State Warriors, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the league’s other 28 teams. Though legitimate title contention is nothing more than a than a pipe dream for most of the remaining franchises, a 2018 playoff berth remains in reach for all but a few.
Longtime bottom-feeders such as the New York Knicks are headed on the wrong trajectory, but other lottery-bound squads could find themselves in the postseason conversation next season. As their youngsters develop and their newly acquired players begin to coalesce, a 25- or 30-win team could add 15 to 20 victories overnight.
Which teams are most likely to bounce back from disappointing 2016-17 campaigns and force their way into playoff contention next season? Based on how their respective offseasons played out—including June’s NBA draft, trades and free agency—the following five stand out.
Honorable mention: Detroit Pistons
After a surprisingly tumultuous offseason, the Detroit Pistons enter a make-or-break year in 2017-18.
Head coach and team president Stan Van Gundy “quietly explored the trade market” for both Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond leading up to the trade deadline, league sources told ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe, but he was reportedly “disappointed with the potential return.” According to Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders, the Pistons again gauged the trade market on both players leading up to the draft, but they opted to stand pat for the time being. With both coming off lackluster seasons—knee tendinitis limited Jackson’s effectiveness, while Drummond’s development appeared to stagnate—their improvement is key to any realistic playoff hopes for Detroit.
Rather than moving on from Jackson or Drummond, the Pistons shed two of their other starters. After reaching a contractual standstill with restricted free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, they shipped Marcus Morris to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Avery Bradley and rescinded their rights to KCP. Former No. 8 overall pick Stanley Johnson, who spent much of his sophomore season in Van Gundy’s doghouse, now enters his junior campaign as the presumptive favorite to start at Morris’ vacant small forward spot.
If Detroit was in the Western Conference, it would have next to no hope of earning a playoff berth this coming season. Even in the ravaged Eastern Conference, the Pistons aren’t a shoo-in. Given the uncertainty surrounding Jackson and Drummond’s long-term future in the Motor City, a slow start to the 2017-18 campaign could spell a major roster shakeup leading into the trade deadline.
It isn’t difficult to imagine Detroit’s path to the playoffs in the East, however. Jackson and Drummond could bounce back. Johnson could thrive in a larger role. Bradley could provide some much-needed toughness. Rookie Luke Kennard could serve as a long-range sniper off the bench. Not all of these need to break right for the Pistons to make it back into the postseason, but a Jackson and/or Drummond resurgence will be pivotal.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
On paper, the Philadelphia 76ers look damn close to a playoff lock out East.
Not only will 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz make his NBA debut this fall, but 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons will do the same after missing his entire rookie campaign due to a foot fracture he suffered during training camp. Adding two savvy ball-handlers and passers will provide an immediate jolt of energy to the Sixers offense, which largely relied upon a scrappy, undrafted free agent in T.J. McConnell at point guard last season.
Joel Embiid, meanwhile, will look to build upon a promising 31-game stint from 2016-17 in which he looked like a surefire future All-Star. Though a meniscus tear cut his dominant debut campaign short, he recently told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated that he’s been cleared to do everything but play five-on-five and expects to be ready by training camp. Joining him will be free-agent additions JJ Redick and Amir Johnson, who will infuse the Sixers with veteran savvy and playoff experience they’ve lacked over recent seasons.
The key to the Sixers’ playoff chances, of course, is health. Embiid has missed 215 of a possible 246 games over his first three seasons. Simmons is coming off a foot fracture. Fultz sprained his ankle during his first outing at the Las Vegas Summer League. Robert Covington, one of the league’s most underrated three-and-D wings, is recovering from a meniscus tear. If another swath of injuries strikes Philadelphia’s young studs, a playoff berth will go from a near-certainty to virtually impossible.
If Embiid, Simmons and Fultz can all dodge the injury bug, though, the Sixers may become the East’s most terrifying young team. With Dario Saric, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Richaun Holmes, Justin Anderson and McConnell coming off the bench, Philadelphia suddenly goes a legitimate 10 deep without even mentioning Johnson, Nik Stauskas or Jerryd Bayless. Even if Jahlil Okafor sits on the bench and collects dust all season, the Sixers suddenly have the talent and depth to make a legitimate postseason push so long as they stay relatively healthy.
4. Miami Heat
After Gordon Hayward spurned the Miami Heat in free agency to sign with the Boston Celtics, team president Pat Riley sprang right into plan B.
James Johnson and Dion Waiters, each of whom proved critical to Miami’s late-season surge—and each of whom willingly waited out Hayward’s decision—signed four-year contracts worth $60 million and $52 million, respectively. With Boston in cost-cutting mode to carve out the requisite cap space for Hayward’s max contract, Riley also pounced on the newly rescinded Kelly Olynyk, handing him a four-year, $50 million deal. Though reserves such as Luke Babbitt and Willie Reed departed in free agency, Miami’s top eight minutes-getters from last season will return for an encore.
Beyond adding Olynyk to that core, the Heat will also have former No. 8 overall pick Justise Winslow back in the fold. The Duke product missed nearly all of his sophomore season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, which afforded him the opportunity to work on form shooting, as he told Rohan Nadkarni of Sports Illustrated in July. Winslow shot just 35.6 percent overall and 20.0 percent from three-point range during his limited time on the court last season, but with Johnson, Waiters, Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside surrounding him, he should be able to slide into a complementary glue-guy role on offense this year.
Miami may have walked into one of the bigger steals of the 2017 NBA draft, too, as it selected Kentucky big man Bam Adebayo with the No. 14 pick. Although it looked like a minor reach at the time, Adebayo’s performances during the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues—he averaged 16.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 30.0 minutes across seven games—helped justify the selection. If the big man slides in behind Whiteside and gives the Heat a quality 15 minutes per game as a rookie, Reed’s departure will be a relative non-factor.
As BBALLBREAKDOWN’s James Holas noted Monday, Miami’s fate in 2017-18 may come down to Waiters, whose late-season ankle sprain caused the team to go into a tailspin. If Waiters builds upon his career-best production and stays hungry after his fat payday, the Heat should be a near-playoff lock. Even if he regresses, having Olynyk, Adebayo and Winslow in the fold could be enough to sustain Miami’s postseason chances.
3. Denver Nuggets
Outside of Gordon Hayward, the Denver Nuggets landed perhaps the biggest fish in free agency. Unfortunately for them, many of their fellow Western Conference playoff hopefuls likewise bolstered their rosters during the offseason as well.
It’s difficult to imagine a more ideal frontcourt compatriot to Nikola Jokic than Paul Millsap. The 32-year-old is teeming with veteran moxie, having starred on the 60-win Atlanta Hawks from a few years back. Fresh off four straight All-Star appearances and per-game averages of 18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 triples last season, Millsap will give Jokic a do-it-all companion down low, making Denver’s elite offense that much more dangerous.
How far the Nuggets go this season will largely depend upon Jokic’s development. The Serbian big man became a Basketball Twitter sensation last season upon permanently seizing a starting gig in mid-December, after which he erupted for 19.2 points on 58.7 percent shooting, 10.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists in just 29.7 minutes across his final 51 games. Jokic’s dazzling passing ability is unparalleled among players his size, which may convince Denver head coach Mike Malone to run much of the team’s offense through him. If the 22-year-old becomes less of a defensive sieve this season, he’ll quickly ascend the league’s “unicorn” power rankings.
With Danilo Gallinari having departed for the Los Angeles Clippers this offseason, the Nuggets suddenly have a scoring void to fill on the wing, but they have no shortage of options with which to address that. Rising fourth-year swingman Gary Harris appears primed for a breakout season after putting up 14.9 points on 50.2 percent shooting, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists last year despite being hampered by injuries. Veteran Wilson Chandler, who figures to slide into Gallinari’s vacant spot in the starting lineup, was a revelation in 2016-17 after missing the preceding season with a hip injury. Will Barton could force his way into the Sixth Man of the Year conversation, too, as his per-minute output has been superb in recent years.
Point guard is the one major concern for Denver heading into the 2017-18 campaign, as former No. 7 pick Emmanuel Mudiay has been an inefficient turnover machine throughout the first two seasons of his career. As such, rising second-year combo guard Jamal Murray may be Denver’s nominal starting point guard, but he’s better suited to play an off-ball, catch-and-shoot role. Veteran Jameer Nelson is a steady hand at the point, but he stands little chance against the murderer’s row of floor generals he’ll routinely face out West.
If the Nuggets can find a solution to their point guard conundrum, they’ll comfortably slide into the Western Conference playoff bracket after missing out by just one game a season ago. Don’t be surprised if Murray, Harris, Millsap and Jokic all split ball-handling duties to compensate for the team’s lack of a high-caliber full-time floor general.
2. Charlotte Hornets
The Charlotte Hornets didn’t make many waves this offseason, but they’re one of the few Eastern Conference teams who appear to have significantly improved.
No matter what you think of Dwight Howard at this stage of his career, trading the paltry sum of Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli and the No. 41 overall pick for him and the No. 31 pick was a stroke of genius from Charlotte general manager Rich Cho. Howard is devastatingly effective as the roll man in pick-and-rolls, where he averaged 1.18 points per possession last season, placing him in the league’s 83rd percentile. He’s now heading to a Hornets team where All-Star point guard Kemba Walker led the league in pick-and-roll possessions finished as a ball-handler.
Fate also smiled upon Charlotte during the 2017 NBA draft, as Kentucky 2-guard Malik Monk took an unexpected tumble down draft boards. The Sacramento Kings looked like a logical landing spot for Monk at No. 10 overall, but they flipped that pick to the Portland Trail Blazers, who proceeded to take Gonzaga big man Zach Collins in that spot. The Hornets quickly pounced on Monk at No. 11, and he should make an instant impact during his rookie year as a microwave scorer off the bench.
Charlotte lacked a strong secondary scorer alongside Walker last season, but that should no longer be a problem with Howard and Monk in the fold. Having those two shouldering more of a scoring load will allow Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams to slide back into the complementary roles that better suit their games. With seven of their eight top minutes-getters from last season returning, the Hornets are effectively running back an upgraded version of their same core.
If Walker goes down with a long-term injury, Charlotte’s playoff hopes will likely nosedive, as new backup point guard Michael Carter-Williams won’t be able to keep this team afloat. So long as Walker remains healthy, however, it’s difficult to imagine the Hornets not making the playoffs in the watered-down Eastern Conference.
1. New York Knicks
LOL, just kidding. The Knicks are still a tire fire.
1. Minnesota Timberwolves
Upon hiring Tom Thibodeau as head coach and team president last April, the Minnesota Timberwolves emerged as a trendy playoff pick in 2016-17. The youth of their roster caught up to them, though, as they finished 31-51, ahead of only the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference.
This offseason, Thibodeau did everything in his power to ensure the same fate didn’t befall Minnesota. He opened his deal-making salvo with a draft-night trade in which he sent Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall pick to his old haunt, the Chicago Bulls, in exchange for Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick. Right before the start of free agency, Thibodeau shipped incumbent starting point guard Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2018 lottery-protected first-round pick, and then signed Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford to round out his roster in free agency.
Butler, a three-time All-Star and three-time All-Defensive team honoree, is the linchpin of the T-Wolves’ offseason makeover. During his four seasons with Thibs in Chicago, the Marquette product blossomed from a lightly used reserve to a bona fide two-way star. After averaging a career-high 23.9 points on 45.5 percent shooting, 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.2 triples in 37.0 minutes across 76 games this past year, Butler should now slide comfortably into a 1A role alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, the face of the Timberwolves franchise.
Butler’s tutelage will be particularly critical for Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick in 2014. Wiggins has steadily increased his scoring output over his three NBA seasons, but his lack of well-roundedness reportedly gave Minnesota owner Glen Taylor pause in contract negotiations this offseason, according to Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press. While the Kansas product has the physical tools to emerge as a dominant defender, he fared miserably in a host of advanced defensive metrics this past season, from ESPN.com’s real plus-minus to defensive box plus-minus. If Wiggins picks up some tricks of the trade from Butler, he could follow the latter’s career arc and develop into a two-way dynamo.
Towns should likewise benefit from the addition of another Thibs veteran, Gibson, who will provide the team with much-needed toughness up front. Unlike Butler, Gibson isn’t likely to make a major nightly imprint on the box score, but opponents who run into his plethora of hard screens will beg to differ. Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Nemanja Bjelica and rookie Justin Patton will all benefit from having Gibson as a mentor, as he’ll fill the role Kevin Garnett did two years ago while providing more on-court value as well.
With so many new pieces in the fold, Minnesota may again get off to a slow start this season, which could spell doom in the cutthroat West. Unless injuries render this roster unrecognizable, however, the talent should eventually win out. Projecting the T-Wolves to have a 50-win campaign may seem unrealistic after their 31-win finish a year ago, but they’re far more likely to finish well north of .500 than they are to miss the playoffs for the 14th straight season.