Friday October 16th, 2015

At the culmination of the 2014–15 season, a pair of teams in the Eastern and Western Conference vying for the No. 8 seeds finished with identical records. The Nets and Pelicans edged out the Pacers and Thunder, respectively, based on their head-to-head matchups.

It’s worth noting, though, that the Pacers and Thunder were both without their biggest stars for huge chunks of the campaign. With Paul George and Kevin Durant back healthy, their odds of attaining a playoff berth will grow exponentially. Of course, Indiana and OKC aren’t the only teams poised to improve.

A number of lottery teams in each conference positioned themselves well for 2016, but which could be postseason-bound after finishing in the lottery a season ago?

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Western Conference Shakeup?

Oklahoma City Thunder
Last season’s record: 45-37

A Jones fracture in Durant’s right foot limited him to just 27 games a season ago. OKC went 18–9 in those contests, and finished a lackluster 27–28 when KD didn’t suit up to play.

It's not at all surprising that the Thunder were a superior offensive team with Durant on the floor, given his former MVP status and spot as one of the best players in the sport. But the on/off numbers are still remarkable.

Losing Durant for more than half the season clearly crippled OKC’s chances, but his wingman—point guard Russell Westbrook—performed admirably in his absence.

From late February through early March, Westbrook collected six triple doubles (including four straight) over an eight-game span. Despite his dominance, though, Oklahoma City went 4–4 in those eight contests and ultimately missed out on the playoffs by the slimmest of margins.

Neither Westbrook nor Durant can carry this team alone. But together—especially when paired with the offensive firepower of Enes Kanter and Serge Ibaka—this is undoubtedly a playoff team. Before missing the postseason a year ago, OKC had made it in five consecutive seasons with a winning percentage above 61% each time.

Barring another devastating injury, the Thunder will be back in the playoffs and are likely to be a top-four seed.

Utah Jazz
Last season’s record: 38-44

Evaluating the Jazz strictly by their 38–44 record and 11th place finish in the Western Conference a season ago would be shortsighted. In fact, Utah was one of the best teams in the NBA following the All-Star break.

After All-Star festivities, the Jazz finished the year 19–10 with a league-best 94.8 defensive rating. In terms of win-loss record, only six teams were better than Utah in the second half: Warriors, Clippers, Spurs, Cavaliers, Rockets and Celtics. All of those teams made the playoffs.

Perhaps the biggest reason—both literally and figuratively—for the turnaround was Rudy Gobert. The skyscraping center, who took over after Enes Kanter was traded to OKC, became a dominant defensive force and anchored Utah on the less glamorous end of the floor.

Gobert’s emergence was a welcome sign for the Jazz, but their biggest advantage this season might be tied more closely to general continuity.

As Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal broke down in August, continuity of a team’s roster is a pretty reliable indicator of team success. Generally speaking, teams that return most of the same players tend to rack up respectable winning percentages. Provided that Utah is essentially returning the exact same squad that experienced such a great post-All-Star run, there’s a lot to like about the Jazz even though they play in the ruthlessly tough Western Conference.

Many expect the Trail Blazers to fall out of the playoff picture after losing four of their five starters during the offseason. But with Utah appearing primed for a breakout, don’t be surprised if its young core makes a strong push toward postseason play and knocks another team (Dallas, perhaps?) out of the picture as well.

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Eastern Conference Experience

Miami Heat
Last season’s record: 37-45

To be clear, the Heat have a lot of areas they can stand to improve.

For instance, Miami ranked dead last a season ago in both rebounds per game (39.1) and assists per game (19.8). Finishing at the bottom of the totem pole in two fundamental basketball categories is never going to bode well for your playoff chances. It’s no surprise then that the Heat didn’t reach the playoffs a season ago.

A nice mix of youth and veteran leadership could lead to greener pastures in 2015–16.

Both Dwyane Wade and (a hopefully healthy) Chris Bosh are the captains of the ship. Luol Deng is another seasoned leader who can set the tone, but the spry trio of Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside and rookie Justise Winslow is ultimately the X-factor.

If Bosh and Wade can stay relatively healthy while Dragic, Whiteside and the incoming rookie help shoulder the load, Miami will have more than enough depth to compete in the East.

Indiana Pacers
Last season’s record: 38-44

Indy is going with a brand new look this season after carving out an identity as a defensive powerhouse with Roy Hibbert protecting the rim. The additions of Monta Ellis, Jordan Hill and incoming rookies Myles Turner and Joseph Young hint that the Pacers are serious about playing at a swifter pace and scoring more points.

Included in this cocktail is Paul George potentially playing the bulk of his minutes as a small ball power forward—a move he doesn’t seem too thrilled with, per USA Today’s Sam Amick.

Nevertheless, Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird has held firm that he wants George to play at the four spot.

“Well, he don't make the decisions around here,” Bird said, per CBS Sports’ Matt Moore. “I [played power forward]. I loved it after I did it. I just think offensively it's going to be one of the greatest feelings he's ever had. I'm not going to get in a battle with Paul George on where he wants to play.”

Indiana is implementing an intriguing blueprint. We've yet to see whether the small-ball lineups with George and Ellis will display enough offensive firepower to vault it back into the playoff picture.

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The Undervalued Wildcard

New York Knicks
Last season’s record: 17-65

One team that NBA fans might already be writing off as a result of their atrocious record a year ago is the New York Knicks. They posted the worst season in franchise history during Derek Fisher’s first stint as a head coach, but there’s little chance that ineptitude repeats itself.

New York didn’t make any headline-grabbing off-season moves, but Phil Jackson slow-played his summer like a seasoned poker pro—winding up with Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Kyle O’Quinn and Derrick Williams. All of those guys can make an impact as steady role players. Their reasonable price tags have to be ruled a win for Jackson’s off-season.

Of course, merely discussing the free-agent acquisitions omits the potential of No. 4 overall pick Kristaps Porzingis and rookie point guard Jerian Grant. There’s a chance neither will move the needle much this season as they adapt to the pros, but both possess the talent to at least have some bright moments.

I wrote recently about New York’s chances to return to playoff prominence, but the biggest variable standing in the team’s way is continuity. Unlike the Jazz, who are essentially returning the exact same roster, the Knicks saw a lot of turnover. Even if the new pieces play well, each moving part has to jell into a cohesive unit. Often that takes time to develop, and I’m not sure Fisher is experienced enough yet as a coach to get this new machine firing on all cylinders within the first couple of months of the new season.

Can the Knicks go from last place to playoff-bound in the span of six months? Absolutely, but it will require phenomenal play from Carmelo Anthony and quick adaptions from new additions to become a reality.

On that basis, New York should still be seen as a discounted underdog.

More from Ben Leibowitz:

Every NBA Team’s Biggest Draft Bust in History

NFL Beer Prices from Cheapest to Steepest

The Biggest Dead Weight Gone from Every NBA Team

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