Published October 29, 2012
Philadelphia, PA – Sixteen teams make the NBA Playoffs. Maybe five of them have a legitimate shot at winning the NBA title.
For some teams, after years of ineptitude, making the postseason is the ultimate goal.
For others, it's a gaudy title ring, or the season was a wash.
These are the 16 teams who will make the playoffs, but in their order by standing in the whole NBA:
16. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Surprised? Don't be, the Warriors' roster is loaded, but there is a gigantic asterisk next to this pick. Steph Curry and Andrew Bogut are the cornerstones of the franchise. They are also two of the most injury-prone athletes in the world. Curry damaged his surgically repaired right ankle already in the preseason, but should be ready to go on opening night. Bogut may not be thanks to his surgically repaired left ankle. If the big man comes back soon and this pair stays on the floor, Golden State is playoff-bound. Klay Thompson and David Lee are strong complements in the starting lineup and the bench is deep with Jarrett Jack, Richard Jefferson, Carl Landry and Harrison Barnes. Head coach Mark Jackson stated the Warriors would make the playoffs last season. You're not losing your mind, they didn't. But they are ready to now, assuming Curry and Bogut stay on the floor.
15. UTAH JAZZ
After the Jazz missed the playoffs last season, they tinkered without compromising their nucleus. The Jazz acquired Mo Williams, the most underrated offseason pickup. Williams is a perfect point for this relatively young squad. He will facilitate, but also take, and make, the big shot when needed. Marvin Williams came in a trade, but the strength of the Jazz, outside of Williams, is the colossal front line. Al Jefferson is a star with double-double skills, Paul Millsap is the same and close to a top-15 player in the league. Derrick Favors is making great strides and Enes Kanter is only one season into the league. That group of behemoths will dominate the paint on the opposition. Utah may not be a credible threat in the postseason yet, but a team like the Los Angeles Lakers, who also boasts a huge front line, won't have an easy time with the Jazz.
14. CHICAGO BULLS
With Derrick Rose, the Bulls are once again a threat to finish with the best regular-season record in the NBA. Without him, they will make the playoffs, but barely. Rose tore his ACL in the first game of the first round of the playoffs and he's now talking that he might not return this season. That would be crushing since the other starters - Carlos Boozer, Richard Hamilton, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng - have some tread on the tires. Rose means more to his team than anyone in the league, but Kirk Hinrich is a fine choice to replace him. The other players can keep the Bulls afloat, but without Rose, this team is going nowhere in 2012-13.
13. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Give the Sixers credit. It would've been easy to sit back after they got within one game of the Eastern Conference Finals and be content with the progress of the team. Truth was, they benefited from Rose's injury in Round 1. Philly went out and got a bona fide star in center Andrew Bynum from the Los Angeles Lakers. Problem for the Sixers is, Bynum has only practiced for about 90 seconds this preseason. He's getting a bucket load of shots in his right knee and his availability for the season opener is seriously in doubt. Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday are nice pieces and there is shooting talent on this deep roster. But this squad goes as far as Bynum takes it and the longer he is out and has to be worked into the rotation, the farther they might slide. The Atlantic Division is loaded, so any falling behind without Bynum will cost the Sixers long term.
12. BROOKLYN NETS
Speaking of that loaded Atlantic Division, the now Brooklyn Nets got better in the offseason. They resigned All-NBA point guard Deron Williams, traded for All-Star guard Joe Johnson and tried to get Dwight Howard. Didn't happen, so they brought back their underrated bigs, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez. With Gerald Wallace, who was brought in last season and re-upped in the offseason, this is a great starting five. The problem for the Nets is that the bench is thin. Head coach Avery Johnson can ride his starters heavy minutes and get a higher seed in the playoffs, but his guys' tongues will be hitting the floor. Brooklyn will be one of the more fun teams in the league with the move and the new star power. They'll need to enhance the bench before any real contending can happen, so get on that, Jay Z.
11. ATLANTA HAWKS
It would be easy to think that with Joe Johnson gone, the Hawks would take a tumble. Not necessarily and that has to do with an improved bench and two fantastic all-around forwards. Al Horford missed the majority of last season and when healthy is such a good player. His game has few holes. Josh Smith is the other big piece and he's a little more complicated. Smith's skills are undeniable. He can slash, post up, rebound, block shots and run the floor. However, Smith jacks up way too many 3s and drifts a bit mentally. But Smith is in a contract year, so the hunch is he will have a monstrous season. Lou Williams, Devin Harris and Kyle Korver were brought in for support. Atlanta always makes the playoffs and does nothing in them. It's probably the same this season, but the Hawks will win a fair share of games in the regular season.
10. NEW YORK KNICKS
If you look at the totality of it, the Knicks have the best roster in the league. They don't boast the starters of the Los Angeles Lakers, but from 1-15, the Knicks have all quality. Carmelo Anthony is an elite scorer and one of the league's best in the fourth quarter. Amare Stoudemire is injured, but when healthy can still move better than most big guys. Tyson Chandler is the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Iman Shumpert, also hurt to start the season, is a great defender. Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas were brought in for depth, leadership and senior discounts at the movies. The Knicks' biggest problems last season dealt with personalities and then offensive flow. The Kidd acquisition can do a lot to stem those potential roadblocks. Raymond Felton is back where he had the best season of his career. JR Smith is a great bench piece. Basically, the Knicks have a little bit of everything, and if you don't buy into them, you either don't like them, or have no faith Anthony will share the ball. If the Knicks don't make a move in the playoffs this season, something will have to give, most likely with Stoudemire, who could go during the season, too. All of that depth, coupled with a top- five defense in the league, and the Knicks will improve this season. Yes, I like the Knicks this season.
9. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Ever since the Grizzlies upset the San Antonio Spurs two seasons ago in the playoffs, this team has been intriguing. Last season, they earned the fourth seed in the West, then lost Game 7 at home to the Los Angeles Clippers. That was a decided step backward for Memphis, but hopes are high again, based on an awesome frontcourt. Marc Gasol is better than his brother Pau. Zach Randolph is scary good and Rudy Gay has a chip on his shoulder from getting cut by the U.S. Olympic basketball team. Memphis is not deep, but this first five - the frontcourt, Tony Allen, the best defensive guard in the universe, and Mike Conley - have been together awhile. They play great team basketball. A long playoff run may be unrealistic out West, but the Grizzlies will win a lot of regular-season games.
8. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
A season after they beat the aforementioned Grizzlies, the Clippers got walloped by the San Antonio Spurs in the second round. The Clips got swept and went hunting for some veteran leadership in the offseason. Of course, do you need much when you have the best point guard in the league, Chris Paul, playing in a contract year, alongside Blake Griffin? Apparently, the Clippers thought they did because they brought in Grant Hill, Matt Barnes, Ronny Turiaf and, of course, Lamar Odom, who was pitiful with the Dallas Mavericks last season. Chauncey Billups will be back sooner rather than later, and his injury last season cost LA a decent chance at contention. If you add it all up, the Clippers can contend with anyone out West, but it's hard to make them a favorite with all of the talent in the their lease-sharers at the Staples Center, the Lakers, as well as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Spurs. The Clippers' 1-2 punch of Paul and Griffin, who injured his knee during a practice for Team USA this past summer, will produce a lot of wins. Getting to the Western Conference Finals is realistic, but the veteran group of wing players will have to step up.
7. BOSTON CELTICS
This whole Ray Allen soap opera is wearing thin. He went to the Miami Heat as a free agent this summer. He's gone and the Celtics did great in replacing him with Jason Terry and Courtney Lee. Both are better 30-minute players than Allen is at this point in Allen's career. Kevin Garnett, who balked at playing center, then did tremendously at it, re-upped for three years and Paul Pierce is still a great scorer and turned into an above-average 3-point shooter. The fact is this, the Celtics, mostly due to head coach Doc Rivers, Rajon Rondo, Garnett and Pierce, know what needs to be done. They get older every season and lose some talent, but that nucleus will always pull it together in June. They may not finish as the No. 2 seed. Heck, they may not even win the Atlantic Division, but would you bet against them getting to the Eastern Conference Finals? Of course, you wouldn't. If anything, the Celtics might be underrated at this point. People look at Boston and see age. I look at Boston as well-balanced, smart and in possession of the intangibles it takes to win meaningful games. Rivers will sacrifice regular-season wins to have them ready for the playoffs. They are at the outer fringe of contending for an NBA Championship, but they have a better chance than a few teams you've yet to see in this space.
6. INDIANA PACERS
This group is so strong and doesn't really get its due, despite a strong playoff performance against the Miami Heat in last season's Eastern Conference semifinals. Danny Granger, David West and Roy Hibbert may be the toughest front line to match up with in the league. Every night defending that trio and trying to defend that trio will make you want a hug. But the key cog is Paul George, the Pacers' All-Star-in-waiting shooting guard. His numbers went up big-time in season No. 2 and they should go up even more in his third season. Indiana is equipped to blow through the Central Division with Derrick Rose away from the Heat. No team is close to them, so the Pacers might finish with a top-four record in the league. Problem is, the Pacers aren't really built for a great playoff run. Granger is the closest thing they have to a superstar and the NBA is a superstar-driven league. It showed against Miami in the postseason. Frank Vogel is a great coach and his guys love him. Team basketball isn't dead. It lives in Indiana, but, sadly, that doesn't translate into rings anymore.
5. DENVER NUGGETS
Almost everything in the Indiana portion of this preview applies to the Nuggets. Their frenetic style will net a lot of regular-season wins, but doesn't work in the playoffs. Denver has newly acquired Andre Iguodala and Ty Lawson as their best players. That's not enough in the playoffs and neither is fast-breaking. The Nuggets just aren't built for the postseason. They will be exciting and fun to watch and head coach George Karl will have a massive man crush on Iguodala, who is a great fit in Denver's high-octane offense. Iguodala can defend the other team's best wing every night. He wasn't fully appreciated in Philadelphia, but he's also not good enough to warrant his contract or all of the attention he received on Team USA. Iguodala is a great third option on a great team. Again, Denver will have a phenomenal season (Karl is my pick for Coach of the Year), but there are doubts come playoff time.
4. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
The Spurs tied for the best record in the NBA last season. They lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs added no one of significance to the roster in the offseason. Literally, no one. And they didn't need to. You hear a lot that the Spurs are still all about Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but has any team added more efficient role players over the last few years? They traded for Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson, but the little moves, like Kawhi Leonard (a great Most Improved candidate), Gary Neal, De Juan Blair, Patty Mills, Danny Green and Matt Bonner, keep the Spurs in business. With that old trio, that is still very effective, this new blood has kept San Antonio right where it wants to be. So, too, has Gregg Popovich, who continually brings down Duncan's minutes to keep him fresh for the playoffs. The Spurs are still very much an NBA Championship contender.
3. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
After an embarrassing loss to the Thunder in the playoffs, the Lakers went bonkers in the offseason. Kobe Bryant wanted nothing to do with the Lakers team as constituted, so in came future Hall of Famer Steve Nash and probable Hall of Famer Dwight Howard. The Lakers essentially gave up Andrew Bynum and got both. They even kept Pau Gasol. This is the best starting five in the NBA and may be the best in years. They can beat you so many different ways, and if these additions can lighten the load on Bryant come playoff time, the job has been done in the regular season. There are a lot of cooks in this kitchen, but one chef and that's Bryant. Howard's offensive numbers will go down, but he might average 17 rebounds a game policing the paint. Watching Nash work pick and roll with Howard will leave the Lakers' crowd breathless. Don't sleep on the Antawn Jamison pickup as well. He averaged 17 points per game on the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers last season. There is so much talent it's easy to just peg them in for the title, but it takes a while for teams to jell. Remember in 2003-04 when the Lakers brought in Karl Malone and Gary Payton? Didn't work. Granted, Howard and Nash are not on their last legs the way those two were, but be a little weary of the Lakers needing some time before they really click.
2. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Much like the Spurs, why tinker if it's all there already? The Thunder followed that approach and their significant offseason move was a huge draft- night steal in the form of Perry Jones III with the 28th pick. The triumvirate of Kevin Durant (league MVP this season), Russell Westbrook (first-team All- NBA guard this season) and James Harden won gold medals this summer for Team USA at the Olympics, but the Thunder traded Harden to the Houston Rockets this past Saturday for guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. Last season, the Thunder fell to the Miami Heat, but the experience gained will only help. They also start defensive stud Serge Ibaka and nasty center Kendrick Perkins. The bench is solid. Head coach Scott Brooks is top notch. The Thunder have no flaws.
1. MIAMI HEAT
When you win the NBA Championship with LeBron James in his prime, it's hard to get better. The Heat did. Their weakness was 3-point shooting, so Miami brought in Ray Allen, the best 3-point shooter in the history of the sport, and Rashard Lewis. But this team is all about James. When Dwyane Wade deferred to James in the playoffs last season, the Heat finally realized their potential. James is the best player on Earth and will now begin to define his legacy. He made the bold claim of multiple titles in South Beach and now bravado can turn into reality. The most under-appreciated aspect of greatness for James, Wade and Chris Bosh is their professional work ethic. The Heat don't take a night off. They are relentless. They are improved and James is going to look like a prophet. Not one ...