Following an offseason where many playoff teams improved or held pat, breaking into the playoffs field will be difficult this season. Of the 14 lottery teams from last season, these six have the best chance to trade in their ping pong balls for the postseason.
These teams will try several formulas to crash the postseason party. Improvement from young players is a tried and true strategy. Other teams are resting their hopes on avoiding injuries that derailed last season. But the easiest strategy of all, however, is playing in the weaker Eastern Conference. Let’s take a look at six lottery teams eyeing playoff berths.
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New Orleans Pelicans
Last season: 34-48, missed playoffs by 15 games
In 21-year-old Anthony Davis, the Pelicans have a perennial All-Star and SI.com’s No. 6 player of 2015, a franchise player every team without LeBron James or Durant envies. Since whiffing on Austin Rivers with the No. 10 pick in 2012, the Pelicans have eschewed the draft and opted to build through free agency and trades, including dealing their last two first-round picks to acquire point guard Jrue Holiday. Last season was marred by injuries to Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Holiday and the Pelicans returned to the lottery. Better luck on the injury report will go a long way in developing chemistry. The biggest acquisition of the offseason, in both size and impact, is former Rockets center Omer Asik. New Orleans led the league in blocked shots last season and adding Asik on the frontline next to Davis should see that trend continue. With the paint locked down, Monty Williams will enjoy the luxury of playing his best offensive guards and wings without worrying about hemorrhaging points defensively.
Key player: Tyreke Evans, G/F (14.5 points, 5.0 assists, 4.7 rebounds)
Davis will unquestionably be the focal point for the Pelicans on both sides of the ball, but identifying a secondary star will determine if they have enough to challenge for a playoff spot. A case could be made for Holiday or Gordon, but Evans might have a higher ceiling than either of them. Entering his second season in New Orleans, Evans possesses the best skillset on the team to complement Davis. Since becoming only the fourth rookie to average 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in 2010, however, Evans has regressed statistically in each season. His Rookie of the Year campaign may seem like ages ago, but Evans is only 25 and entering the prime of his career. After struggling to adjust to a role off the bench early last season, he rebounded to average 19.9 points, 6.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds during 22 starts after the All-Star break. Now entering his sixth season and surrounded by the most talent of his career, Evans playmaking ability can finally flourish.
Last season: 48-34, missed playoffs by one game
In their first spin in Jeff Hornacek’s uptempo offense, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe nearly led the Suns to an unlikely playoff berth. Dragic scored a career-high 20.3 points per game and won the league’s Most Improved Player award. A meniscus tear limited Bledsoe to 43 games last season as Phoenix narrowly missed the postseason with 48 wins, which would have tied them for third in the weaker Eastern Conference. Phoenix returns almost its entire core, sans Channing Frye, and added Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas (who averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists last season) and Zoran Dragic, Goran’s little brother. After barely missing the playoffs last season, the Suns will be in the running again this year.
Key player: Markieff Morris, F (13.8 points, 6.0 rebounds)
The departure of Frye shifts Morris into the starting five and changes the complexion of Phoenix’s dynamic offense. Frye made 160 three-pointers last season, and the team depended on him to space the floor and open driving lanes for the guards. As SI.com’s Rob Mahoney detailed in his outlook on the Suns’ playoff chances, they scored 110.4 points per 100 possessions with Frye in the lineup, but eight points fewer with anyone else filling his spot. Morris, who signed a four-year, $32 million extension during the offseason, is a career 33 percent shooter from beyond the arc and averaged 13.8 points off the bench last year. He’s a far superior athlete than Frye and better equipped to finish around the rim. Despite being only 6-foot-10, Morris said he expects to play minutes at center in small-ball lineups. Offense will not be a problem for the Suns, but Morris’ continued development in isolation situations will give Hornacek another valuable option in his playbook late in games.
Last season: 36-46, missed playoffs by 13 games
The Nuggets were ravaged by injuries last season and missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. With the team finally getting healthy, however, there is cause for optimism in Denver. Danilo Gallinari is returning after missing all of last season with a torn ACL, JaVale McGee is back from a broken leg and Nate Robinson is already playing after tearing his ACL in January. Denver also re-acquired Arron Affalo from the Magic after he averaged a career-best 18.2 points last season. The Nuggets can also expect continued development from point guard Ty Lawson and power forward Kenneth Faried. The challenge for second-year head coach Brian Shaw will be finding the best lineups for a team that is legitimately two-deep at each position, but lacks a signature star to carry them late in games.
Key player: JaVale McGee, C (7.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks in 5 games)
McGee doesn’t have the offensive skills to be the star Denver needs, but he can impact the game in ways no other Nugget can. Incumbent starter Timofey Mozgov is a solid, but decidedly unspectacular center, and Faried, for all of his high-energy play, lacks the size to control the game on both ends of the floor. With his size and uncanny athleticism, McGee is the dynamic player who can anchor the Nuggets’ uptempo attack offensively and defensively. Granted, getting the best out of the enigmatic McGee will be a challenge for Shaw, something his predecessor George Karl couldn’t do. McGee is still recovering from the stress fracture in his tibia and hasn’t played so far in the preseason. His presence on the interior will be necessary for the Nuggets to improve on their No. 28 scoring defense from last season.
New York Knicks
Last season: 37-45, missed playoffs by five games
New team president Phil Jackson and first-year head coach Derek Fisher are bringing the triangle offense to the Knicks, a team that won 54 games just two seasons ago. They accomplished their No. 1 offseason goal when Carmelo Anthony re-signed for five years and $124 million. The Knicks then shipped Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to Dallas for Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert. The loss of Chandler hurts the team’s already porous defense, and they will be forced to rely on a frontcourt rotation featuring weak defenders in Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani. Outside of Iman Shumpert and Dalembert, Fisher will have a tough time getting stops. Early results from the preseason have not been encouraging on offense, either, as the team has struggled to pick up the basic principles of the triangle. Yet, even with all the uncertainties about the Knicks, someone has to make the playoffs in the East, and New York does have Anthony to carry them. Their inclusion on this list is a referendum more on the state of the conference than the team itself.
Key player: Jose Calderon, G (11.4 points, 4.7 assists with Mavs)
The Knicks had chemistry issues from the outset of last season, and starting point guard Raymond Felton drew the ire of Knicks fans for his poor play and getting arrested for gun possession. Calderon, a nine-year veteran with ample international experience, will be a steady hand who can space the floor and make sure his teammates are getting enough touches. His numbers last season in Dallas were modest, but his impact will be more intangible than statistical. Bargnani enjoyed the best seasons of his career with Calderon as his point guard in Toronto. Can Calderon help revive him after a disappointing, injury-plagued first season in New York? With a lack of defensive stoppers, Calderon needs to have the offense humming from the get-go or the season could turn sour quickly.
Last season: 29-53, missed playoffs by nine games
Year One of the Josh Smith experiment saw the Pistons repeatedly trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The Smith-Greg Monroe-Andre Drummond frontcourt suffered from non-existent floor spacing and had a -185 plus/minus rating in more than 1,300 minutes last season, according to nba.com/stats. Smith and Monroe are both at their best playing power forward, and new head coach Stan Van Gundy would be wise to move one to the bench in favor of a more traditional lineup. Point guard Brandon Jennings, who has shot better than 40 percent just once in his five-year career, will also be a challenge for Van Gundy. He set a career-high with 7.6 assists last season, but poor shot selection led to his worst shooting season since his rookie year. Van Gundy’s best teams with the Orlando Magic were built around defense and three-point shooting, two things that were in short supply last season in Detroit.
Key player: Andre Drummond, C (13.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks)
With the uncertain futures of Smith and Monroe, Drummond is the franchise centerpiece and rightfully so. His progression during his first two seasons closely mirrored Van Gundy’s former center in Orlando: Dwight Howard. Entering his third year and fresh off a summer with Team USA, Drummond should take his game to an All-Star level this season, just as Howard did in his third year. Drummond will be counted on to draw more attention from defenses, including developing some semblance of a low-post game. Van Gundy coached Howard during his peak seasons and is the best candidate to help Drummond reach his potential in Detroit. On a team missing a few puzzle pieces, Drummond’s continued development this season would bring clarity to the team’s plans going forward. Sneaking into the playoffs isn’t outside the realm of possibility.
Last season: 33-49, missed playoffs by five games
Key player: That guy from Akron might have something to say about his new team making the postseason. Maybe.