Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - On Thursday, we unleashed the race for Andrew Wiggins column about the 14 teams that will be lottery-bound at the end of the season. http://tinyurl.com/ca6jmnp
Now it's time for the 16 teams headed to the postseason. To be clear, these are not the best 16 teams in the league. The Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets would wrap up playoff berths in the Eastern Conference by Valentine's Day, but alas, they are hamstrung by geography.
Let's keep counting them down:
16. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
It seems silly to note the departure of a borderline All-Star backcourt as a positive for the Bucks, but Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis weren't guys who were irreplaceable.
They both had a shoot-first mentality, although, upon further review, Ellis had some strong numbers, especially in the assist column. Replacing them will be O.J. Mayo and Brandon Knight with Luke Ridnour. That's a pretty sturdy group. Knight is so young and still on the rise and Mayo was awesome at the beginning of last season with the Mavericks.
Larry Sanders (hey now!) had a breakout campaign in 2012-13. Ersan Ilyasova is a supremely skilled big man and a guy like Caron Butler may be on the back nine of his career, but he wants to be in his home town. There's an odd amount of competent NBA players in Milwaukee.
Larry Drew replaced Jim Boylan, who replaced Scott Skiles. Drew is a capable man and despite the turnaround in Brew City, it should be enough to keep the Bucks in the playoffs.
That, and the fact that eight teams have to make it.
15. DETROIT PISTONS
Before last season, I branded the Pistons the best bad team in basketball. They opened with eight straight losses and my first season as the NBA editor got off to a rousing start.
What I loved about the Pistons was the interior toughness of Greg Monroe. He's still tough and now is playing for a contract which makes him either a great choice for a big season, or trade chum.
Andre Drummond was great last season, but, like Milwaukee, changes came.
Lawrence Frank was replaced on the bench by Maurice Cheeks, who just seems like he should be a great coach despite a lackluster career record of 284-286. He hired Rasheed Wallace as an assistant, and no joke, it was a great hire. He's as smart a basketball mind as there is.
But the big transition for the Pistons won't be the guys in suits, it's the guys in tank tops. Josh Smith came from Atlanta with his talent and questionable shooting judgment. Ditto for Brandon Jennings, only he came from Milwaukee. Chauncey Billups was brought back and swears it's not for nostalgia. It's a great idea, but to trust him to play a full schedule is nonsense.
Detroit could be a disruptive force with its length on the front line. Believe it or not, my faith in Sheed is what is driving me to choose them for the playoffs.
14. ATLANTA HAWKS
Is it weird to pick a team who lost one of its best players, its head coach and a chunk of its front-court depth to remain in the exact spot as the season before?
Maybe, but ask yourself this, what exactly did the Hawks lose that they didn't adequately replace? Josh Smith is gone, replaced by Paul Millsap, who won't trend on Twitter, but he's averaged 16.1 ppg and 7.1 rpg over the last three seasons.
New head coach Mike Budenholzer finally flew the Gregg Popovich nest and promptly got popped for DUI. It wasn't a great first impression.
This team is weak at shooting guard until Lou Williams fully returns from a torn ACL. This squad has less depth than a puddle, but Al Horford is one of the best big guys in the league. I just don't see that they lost that much.
13. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
The Wolves would've been a playoff team if they didn't lose 341 man games to injury. That number was a tad inflated considering it also counted Brandon Roy and he came with a gigantic "As is" sign on him.
Kevin Love is still the key. Before last season, which was a lost cause with a twice-broken hand, Love was a top-10 player in the league. If he's healthy, that should continue.
Nikola Pekovic is a beast. Ricky Rubio might win the Most Improved Player award. They brought in Kevin Martin to play shooting guard and Rick Adelman is still on the bench. He wanted to give it one good shot with everyone in place.
They get to the postseason for the first time in 10 years.
12. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
That's right, the Lakers not only make the playoffs, but they don't squeak in either.
This is about two things: complete unconditional faith in Kobe Bryant and how good Bryant and Pau Gasol can be.
It's laughable to have that kind of trust in a 35-year-old who has played over 54,000 minutes and is returning from a torn Achilles tendon. If you had to pick one guy in the NBA right now to do it, it has to be Bryant.
He had a monstrous season last season before he went down. Bryant matched a career-best with 6.0 apg. He did it all because he had to. Now, with a huge chip on his shoulder based on no one's belief he can come back from the injury at his age, and no one's belief the Lakers are any good, expect a huge season from the Mamba.
Plus, anything the Lakers did to make Bryant and Gasol, and just those two guys, the focal point of the offense, was smart. There are two types of people in this world - Mike D'Antoni guys, or people like me. But with a full camp, an extremely motivated Bryant, who is also a free agent at the end of the season, and those two back as stars, together, I am buying the Lakers.
11. NEW YORK KNICKS
Carmelo Anthony's impending free agency is already looming as a distraction in the preseason even though anyone with a brain knew he would file for free agency. He's most likely staying in New York, but the Knicks are always good for a story.
How will Amare Stoudemire fit in when/if healthy?
How will Andrea Bargnani, who head coach Mike Woodson seems to really like, fit in?
How will Metta World Peace fit in?
Will Iman Shumpert get traded?
Will J.R. Smith grow up?
That's a lot of questions to be answered, but don't lose sight of the fact that the Knicks are a really good team. When they play defense, they are elite.
And Anthony is elite as well. He's been branded a scorer and not a true superstar which is poppycock. Anthony should've been more a part of the MVP conversation last season when he played power forward to cause matchup havoc.
Woodson is a solid coach and the man for this team. The Knicks are just fine.
10. HOUSTON ROCKETS
Dwight Howard is not enough to vault the Houston Rockets into championship contenders. That said, he's enough to make them a really dangerous regular- season team.
The reason they aren't title caliber yet is that there is no natural power forward to go alongside Howard. If Omer Asik slides over to play alongside Superman in a huge front line, that might work. Asik was pretty unhappy with the Howard signing, but it's time to suck it up, Omer. Howard was a no-brainer signing.
Defensively, he could be worth the contract if he stayed on the defensive side of the floor and protected the rim and cleaned the glass of rebounds, igniting the Rockets' break.
James Harden is the bigger star and better player. Head coach Kevin McHale will have to make Howard happy with plenty of touches and Lord knows, no coach has been able to make Howard happy yet. If Houston can find the proper 60-40 balance of Harden then Howard, the Rockets will be scary.
Jeremy Lin still scares me as a starting point guard for a contender. The Rockets stink defensively, but they'll lead the league in scoring and finish with a great record. Integrating Howard will take longer than most superstars. That's just how he is.
9. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Tell you what, the Warriors look really good to me.
The Andre Iguodala signing was brilliant. He was exactly what they needed - a shutdown defender and an unselfish wing guy who thrives cutting to the basket.
The Warriors have a superstar in Steph Curry. They have another All-Star caliber guy in David Lee. Klay Thompson is a perfect Robin to Curry's Batman and a healthy Andrew Bogut for a season will be huge.
Harrison Barnes really shone in the playoffs last season, but he probably moves to the bench with the Iguodala signing. That may hurt Barnes' development, but they can go with a small lineup as needed.
Golden State loaded up on veterans for the bench, which is thin. Doesn't matter because the Warriors core is young and capable of logging heavy minutes.
The Warriors this season remind me of last season's Denver Nuggets. They are going to be really good, but they just aren't a title contender. The style may have something to do it, but at least Golden State has a true superstar in Curry.
Also, head coach Mark Jackson will have to make sure their heads don't get too big. After last season's great postseason run and the preseason expectations, the Warriors will have to remain focused.
8. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Doc Rivers is the best coach in the sport not named Gregg. When the Clippers parted with a first-round pick for him, I thought, hate that a trade like that can happen, but it's a good one for the Clips.
Vinny Del Negro won more games every season as coach of the Clippers, but everyone outside the Del Negro family knew he wasn't the man to take this team as far as it can.
Chris Paul is a top-five player in the league. Blake Griffin is in the top-20, although, well, let's say my opinion of him is lower. The Clippers brought in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to shoot and be model citizens.
DeAndre Jordan is one of the keys. Rivers loves him. Gushes about him and defensively, Jordan can be a game-changer. So, too is Paul. He creates havoc pressuring the ball. Paul has to be seen to be appreciated. He's breath- taking.
But the Clippers success falls more on Griffin than anyone else. He's a freak athlete, but what's bugged me about his game is that there hasn't been any evolution. There's little to his game other than jumping and being athletic.
If Griffin becomes a force facing the basket, or develops some sort of mid- range game, the Clips will be terrifying. It's going to take some time for Lob City to get in sync with Rivers' ways, but when they do, they should win the Pacific and make trouble in the Western Conference.
7. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Notice how, especially in baseball, when a new manager comes in, good teams stay relatively solid? The St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees come to mind.
That's what you're going to see in Memphis. Lionel Hollins is gone and Dave Joerger (my new least favorite name to spell) is in. Joerger (argh) was a Memphis assistant for five seasons and specialized in defense.
That fact makes him a good choice. The Grizzlies were the best defensive team in basketball last season. They should be again. Joerger wants to be more up- tempo on offense this season, but pump the brakes on that philosophy. The strength of the Grizzlies is the awesome pair of big men - Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Let them continue to run high and low and the Grizz will be fine.
The bench should be better with Kosta Koufos and Ed Davis, who never fit in Hollins' rotation on short notice. Mike Miller was signed but depending on him for anything other than a few games is overreaching.
The Grizzlies aren't a sexy team to watch, but they will win a lot of games and be a tough out.
6. CHICAGO BULLS
Derrick Rose is back.
Oh, do I need to continue?
The Bulls won 112 of a possible 148 games in Rose's two regular seasons before the ACL tear. They boast a sensational coach in Tom Thibodeau and play great defense.
Rose, Jimmy Butler (Most Improved candidate), Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng represent a top-five starting lineup. Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich are a great bench trio.
The Bulls have few weaknesses and are title contenders again.
5. BROOKLYN NETS
Teams that load up on superstars have awful track records in sports.
I wanted to not love the Nets as much as I do this season, but upon careful examination, they are loaded.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were brought to help the Nets win in the postseason. Brooklyn didn't have to give up a ton for two guys who may only be in town one season. They go along with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez for the only starting five in the NBA that have all made an All-Star team.
What really lured me to the Nets is the bench. Andrei Kirilenko is still a force in the league, especially defensively. Reggie Evans will make you crazy. Andray Blatche is a more than capable big man. Alan Anderson actually averaged double-figures in scoring last season. And Jason Terry can still play when motivated and one more bite at a ring will be enough.
Jason Kidd is the wild-card. Can he coach? Who knows, but he'll command respect and the veterans can handle themselves. Lawrence Frank was brought in as the top assistant so he can do the heavy lifting when it comes to X's and O's.
This roster is loaded. Kidd can give Garnett and Pierce plenty of nights off and not lose too much. If Kidd keeps them fresh come playoff time, look out.
4. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
The Russell Westbrook injury will hurt the Thunder's regular-season win total and possible Western Conference seeding. But, Westbrook will be back and rested for the postseason, which should scare everyone.
Kevin Durant is the second-best player in the world. He will probably score more in the early going to account for Westbrook's absence.
What concerns me a bit about OKC is who replaces Kevin Martin. Starting with James Harden, then continuing with Martin last season, the Thunder have always had a great scorer off the bench who can either replace Thabo Sefolosha or Kendrick Perkins late in games.
There is no one to fit that bill in Oklahoma City right now. Jeremy Lamb seems to be the consensus favorite to assume the role, but why should anyone have faith in a guy who played 147 minutes last season? That's a pretty massive leap.
Maybe, the Thunder can get someone to take Perkins' $9.6 million contract next year and one of the young big guys like Perry Jones, Hasheem Thabeet or Steven Adams the Thunder have stockpiled over the years for a wing scorer. Or, throw Lamb in the trade too.
OKC has more question marks in the preseason than any season in recent years.
3. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
If there is one team you believe can overcome the harrowing gut-wrenching agony that was last season's Finals loss to the Miami Heat, it's the Spurs.
Tim Duncan had a career rejuvenation last season, but to expect the same this season might be asking a bit much. Tony Parker is still a top-tier point guard, but the man who will make the big jump into All-Star caliber player is Kawhi Leonard. Based on his playoff performance in the summer, Leonard is a good bet to be in the mix for Most Improved player and a possible spot in the All-Star game.
It's the Spurs, they will be fine.
2. INDIANA PACERS
Believe it or not, it came down to the wire in choosing between the Pacers and Heat for the top spot.
This decision relies on a few big things from the Pacers, first being that Paul George continues his ascension into upper-echelon star. It sure looks that way based on his performance in last season's Eastern Conference Finals.
Perhaps even more important for the Pacers is what Danny Granger provides this season. He played in five games during the 2012-13 campaign, but appears to be healthy and strong. If Granger is alright, then Indy is loaded with him, George, Roy Hibbert, David West and George Hill. If Granger isn't fine, or that lineup doesn't work, Granger has an expiring contract and can be moved for a wing stud or an upgrade at point guard. Hill looked shaky at times during the postseason.
The other question that Larry Bird, who is back running things in Indianapolis, apparently answered had to do with the bench. Last season, the Pacers reserves were pathetic, second only to the Portland Trail Blazers in bench scoring ineptitude. Bird acquired Luis Scola for peanuts and signed C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland. Lance Stephenson will go back to the bench and that unit is certainly better than watching Tyler Hansbrough go out there and wait to get punched in the face by the opposition.
Indiana improved and its bruising defensive style caused problems for Miami. This could be the year...
1. MIAMI HEAT
Or maybe not.
What gave the Heat the edge had nothing to do with the back-to-back titles. It came down to this simple question: how could you pick against LeBron James in the prime of his career with a really good team?
James is so clearly the best player in the universe, he could make any team he was on the favorite. The fact that he suits up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh doesn't hurt. Both looked really bad in the playoffs, but the Heat still won, largely based on James' excellence.
Resting Wade some would be wise for head coach Erik Spoelstra.
The biggest obstacle for the Heat will be the off-court distraction of James' impending free agency. He doesn't want to talk about it, but he'll have to, in almost every city he visits.
James' greatness is evident, but the Heat are balanced with Wade and Bosh, who will be fine this regular season, and Ray Allen. Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, Norris Cole and Chris Anderson are great third-role players. (Greg Oden and Michael Beasley mean nothing to this Heat team.)
It was close between the Pacers and Heat, but LeBron is too much to cost his side the No. 1 spot.