With the NBA Playoffs less than a week away, the fans of 16 teams are prepping themselves for the excitement of the second season, each team just 16 wins away from calling themselves world champions. However, there are 14 other teams that will not be able to take part in the playoffs. There is hope though, because with every new season brings another 82 games where anything can happen and any team can make the rise from bottom feeders to playoff contender. While it is highly unlikely that all 14 of these teams will make that jump, there are a select few of them that have begun to put the pieces in place to jumpstart the process.
This list would normally start with the loser between Utah and the Lakers’ race for the No. 8 seed out West, but since we can’t put a finger on that team just yet (it’ll come down to Wednesday night with the Jazz in Memphis and the Lakers hosting Houston), I’m sticking with five definitive lottery teams.
Here are five teams that could become fresh new faces in the 2014 NBA Playoffs.
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5. NEW ORLEANS HORNETS/PELICANS (27-54)
What better way to start off the tenure of the newly named New Orleans Pelicans than with a playoff appearance? The last team to make a name change, the Oklahoma City Thunder (who also relocated from Seattle), were in the playoffs within two years of making the change. Who’s to say the Pelicans can’t make that jump sooner? With the impressive play of rookie forward and No. 1 pick Anthony Davis (13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game), the improved play of point guard Greivis Vasquez (13.9 points, 9.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds a night, all career-highs), the shooting of Ryan Anderson (38 percent from beyond the arc), the defense of Robin Lopez (career-high 1.6 blocks per game) and most important of all, a healthy Eric Gordon (41 games played, most since 2010-11 season), the talent is definitely there for the team formerly known as the Hornets to make some noise around the league. Head coach Monty Williams will be entering his fourth year as coach and he has shown he is more than capable of running the show for an NBA franchise. Health and cohesion are going to be two big words for this team, but if they are able to get Austin Rivers to impact the game and a solid rookie in the 2013 NBA Draft, the Pelicans may just swoop into the playoff hunt next season.
4. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (24-56)
Ever since “The Decision” in 2010 broke the hearts of Cleveland Cavalier fans everywhere, there has been a since of anxiousness for the team to regain it’s foothold as a perennial playoff squad (Dan Gilbert, clearly one of those most frustrated, provided the team’s call-to-action in a Comic Sans outburst). The fans of Cleveland didn’t have to wait long to find a new hero to root for though, as the 2010 NBA Draft’s No. 1 overall pick, Kyrie Irving, immediately showed he was more than ready to be the Cavs next superstar. Now after two years in the league, Irving is only getting better and moving further along the pantheon of point guards in the NBA today. Surrounded by a young nucleus of players 25 and under like Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller, Wayne Ellington, Alonzo Gee, Marreese Speights and Dion Waiters, this team is stockpiling youthful talent. With another lottery pick in their possession this offseason (they will have multiple first-round picks this summer… again), Cleveland will have the chance to improve even more and the right rookie may be the one thing they were missing. Irving’s injury history still lingers over this team (his 57 games played this season are a career-high), but if Irving can play 75-80 games, this team is dangerous every night. Youth is no longer an excuse for failure; just look at what the Thunder was able to accomplish these past two seasons with a roster full of stars yet to turn 25 years old.
3. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (33-47)
One of this season’s most surprising teams was the Portland Trail Blazers. Led by the play of All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and likely Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, the Blazers made noise in a Western Conference stocked of good teams. While they weren’t able to stay in the hunt as long as the Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers have, they were relevant for much longer than anticipated. The key for this quick turnaround falls squarely on the shoulders of Lillard (19.1 points and 6.5 assists). Often overlooked during his time at Weber State, Lillard came into the NBA and took it by storm, recording 23 points and 11 assists in an opening night victory over the star-studded Lakers. Aldridge carried his fair share of the weight too, and Swiss Army Knife forward Nicolas Batum provided a steady presence on the wing as well. Portland now has the talent and the cap space (around an estimated $15 million) to bring a marquee free agent to the Northwest. Lillard has said that he is ready and willing to recruit the right players to come join him in Portland and after the season he had, there should be people knocking down general manager Neil Olshey‘s door to try and get that opportunity.
2. WASHINGTON WIZARDS (29-51)
In 2009, the Washington Wizards saw the ping-pong balls bounce their way, winning the lottery and the right to draft point guard John Wall. After, two seasons and the departure of immature characters and ball dominant players like Jordan Crawford, JaVale McGee, Nick Young, Gilbert Arenas and Andray Blatche, Wall is finally developing into the talent everyone thought he was coming out of Kentucky. Wall missed the first three months of the season following a stress injury to his left kneecap, but once back in the Wizards lineup, the team has gone 24-23. If they were to remain at that level for 82 games, they would have earned a playoff spot in the East and who wouldn’t want to see athletes like Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Wall face off in a series. However, Wall isn’t solely responsible for the better play. The front office put together a roster of players whose skills fit perfectly with Wall’s style of play. Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Nene and Emeka Okafor are all better players because of Wall’s ability to effortlessly drive the lane and set up teammates for easier shots. Randy Wittman is showing he knows how to coach in his season and a half on the sidelines. With a full roster in tact and hopefully, the addition of another rookie suited to play with Wall, this is a team that could find themselves playing into the month of May next year.
1. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (30-50)
Pundits, analysts, fans, and even players in the league had a feeling this would be the year the Minnesota Timberwolves would finally get the proverbial monkey off their shoulders and make it into the playoffs. The season ended differently, though. Instead of being a playoff team, they dealt with injuries. Kevin Love (fractured right hand: 62 games missed), Nikola Pekovic (left calf contusion: 18 games missed), Brandon Roy (sore right knee: 75 games missed), these three players and a full-year with a healthy Ricky Rubio were supposed to be influential parts of Minnesota’s success this season. The cards didn’t play out that way for the Timberwolves and they are once again among the NBA’s lottery teams. Love is rumored to be growing tired of the lack of success in Minnesota and might be looking for greener pastures when he is a free agent following the 2014-15 NBA season. That means two years still remain on Love’s contract and as long as the T’Wolves can hold onto him, they are contender for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. In their two years as teammates, Love and Rubio still haven’t played a full season together. If both players have the injury bug out of their system, next season could be the one Minnesota fans have been waiting for.
Will any of these teams make the playoffs next year?
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