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  • Can The Process make the playoffs? Will Jimmy Butler legitimize the Wolves? The Crossover examines four teams primed for improvement in 2017-18.
By Michael Shapiro
August 15, 2017

Summertime is the season for optimism around the NBA, with teams across the league preparing to take their next step as an organization. For some, that means title contention, while for others, simply making the playoffs will be deemed an accomplishment.

Five teams saw win increases of seven games or more last season, with four of those squads reaching the postseason. So which teams are primed for a significant improvement in 2017–18? Here are four teams that could take a leap forward this season.

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Philadelphia 76ers

After four years of racing to the bottom of the league standings, Philadelphia has its eyes set on playoff contention in 2017–18. A young core of Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid will have growing pains early—especially if Simmons struggles with his jumper—but if the trio stays healthy, the 76ers should blow past the 30-win mark for the first time since 2013.

Competing for the playoffs, though, is another matter entirely. The aforementioned trio has a combined 31 games of NBA experience under its belt, and a rookie wall in March and April could seriously hinder Philly’s playoff hopes. Head coach Brett Brown will need to be careful with his minutes for each player early in the season.

Throw in 23-year-old Dario Saric and 25-year-old T.J. McConnell, and Philly’s crunch-time lineup could be as young as any in the league. But there are still a few veterans on the roster. The 76ers added Amir Johnson and J.J. Redick in the offseason, two players with significant playoff experience. They’ll be an integral presence in Philly’s locker room.

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The addition of Redick should do wonders for the 76ers’ spacing and shooting. Philadelphia ranked No. 24 in the league in three-point percentage last year, and no player with more than 50 attempts deep shot over 40%. Embiid flashed some range in limited action, but with Jahlil Okafor (and the now-traded Nerlens Noel) clogging the paint, Philly often relied on a slew of mid-range jumpers to generate points.

Redick is a spot-up marksman of the highest caliber, shooting 43% from three last year. With a quick release and propensity for firing triples off of screens, he’ll have plenty of plays drawn for him in Brown’s offense. And if Simmons is even 70% of the passer he was in college, look out. Redick could see a similar situation to what he enjoyed alongside Chris Paul.

Philadelphia still has plenty of question marks moving forward. Can Fultz and Simmons effectively share the ball together? Will Embiid stay healthy for a full season? And is there enough depth to fill in the gaps when the three youngsters sit? These questions will persist throughout the season, but there’s too much talent to go around for Philly to end its season under the 30-win mark. Expectations are high in the City of Brotherly Love, and rightly so. Anything less than playoff contention in 2017–18 will be a disappointment.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The last time Minnesota made the playoffs, Karl-Anthony Towns was just 8 years old. But after adding Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague in the offseason, the Target Center seems poised to host playoff basketball for the first time in over a decade.

The acquisition of Butler gives Minnesota a focal point on offense and a chance to have one of the highest-octane attacks in the league. No team outside of Golden State will enter 2017–18 with three players who averaged over 20 points per game last year, and head coach Tom Thibodeau should be salivating over the options at his disposal. 

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The Timberwolves are all but guaranteed to improve next season, but in order to truly make a leap into the upper echelon of the Western Conference, they must undergo a vast improvement on the defensive end. Minnesota ranked No. 27 in the league in defensive rating last season, ceding over 112 points per 100 possessions.

The team’s defensive issues start with their two young stars. Towns is an adept shot blocker and a valuable rim presence, but he often struggles with rotations down low. Opposing units attacked him from the weak-side with a vengeance. As for Wiggins, the shortcomings seem to stem from a lack of commitment and focus. Wiggins was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in 2014 due in part to his defensive prowess, an impressive combination of length and lateral quickness. However, those skills have yet to be on full display in the pros.

Butler and free-agent signing Taj Gibson should help spark the Timberwolves’ defensive transformation, and Minnesota could mirror the stifling defenses Thibodeau enjoyed during his time with Chicago. But even if the Timberwolves are just average defensively next year, they should find themselves clinching a playoff spot by the end of March.

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Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks made a nine-win leap in 2016–17, vaulting six spots in the Eastern Conference en route to their first winning season since 2010. And with another year of experience for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker heading into next season, Milwaukee is expected to compete for a top-four seed in the East.

Antetokounmpo experienced a meteoric rise last season, delivering career highs in nearly every statistical category. He started in the All-Star Game, took home the Most Improved Player Award, and ended the season on second-team All-NBA. And he’s just 22 years old. With MVP buzz now circulating around the four-year pro, it seems as though Milwaukee will go as far as The Greek Freak can take them.

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The main concern surrounding the Bucks’ roster is its lack of scoring punch outside of Antetokounmpo. Jabari Parker looked to be a perfect wingman for Giannis after scoring 20 points per game in 51 contests last season, but a torn ACL will keep him out of commission until the All-Star break. Tony Snell and Malcolm Brogdon can’t be counted on for large outputs, and Greg Monroe will likely see a reduction in playing time with the rise of Maker.

Look for Khris Middleton to emerge as Milwaukee’s No. 2 option in Parker’s absence. The Texas A&M product missed much of last season with a torn hamstring, but shined the year prior. He averaged more than 18 points per game in 2015–16, canning nearly 40% of his threes. He’ll be counted on to space the floor when Antetokounmpo takes his mammoth strides to the tin.

There's a chance Milwaukee sees a slight regression next year, especially if Antetokounmpo struggles to shoot a high percentage, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Giannis is too talented, and the Bucks’ young rotation meshed well together through the end of last season and into the playoffs. Barring any health setbacks, Milwaukee should find itself competing for one of the East’s top seeds next season.

Charlotte Hornets

Following a 48-win campaign two years ago, Charlotte spiraled down to 36 wins and the No. 11 seed in the East in 2016–17. The Hornets featured a middling roster aside from Kemba Walker, one with no standout stars or dangerous offensive weapons. 

So why the optimism surrounding Buzz City? Look no further than Charlotte’s front line. The Hornets went an abysmal 3–17 when Cody Zeller was injured last season, and a full season from him will add a significant interior presence. Pair Zeller with Frank Kaminsky, and the Hornets will have a quality inside-out game with its two big men. The second-year man from Wisconsin averaged nearly 12 points per game last year, increasing his range out to the three-point line. He should see even more looks from behind the arc next season.

Alongside Zeller and Kaminsky, Charlotte also added Dwight Howard in the offseason. The eight-time All-Star is far from the dominant player he once was, but he’s still a walking double-double, and a force to be reckoned with in the paint. He’ll make his presence felt on the offensive glass, where he nabbed four rebounds per game last year (Charlotte ranked No. 26 in offensive rebounding in '16-17).

All that said, don’t expect the Hornets to get back to 48 wins this season—that’s a pipe dream. But the team’s disappointing 2016-17 will prove to be more of an aberration than the norm. 

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