For some fanbases, “wait ’till next year” is less a woe-is-me quip late in a dreadful season and more like the only reason to believe in hope before some seasons even start. After the NBA Draft, workouts and Summer League, the time preceding training camp is a time to believe in best-case scenarios. But which of those can come true this year?
Of course, not every team can have their best-case scenario. So today we’re highlighting the two expected to actually turn heads this year after finishing last season far out of the running. One of them even drafted in the lottery last June. We’re not promising worst-to-first, mind you — but we are believing these two, one each from the East and West, can make the playoffs in the first full season since the lockout.
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EASTERN CONFERENCE: BROOKLYN NETS
The question of which lowly team will make the postseason is a little clearer in the Eastern Conference than it is in the West. Indeed, given the existing talent disparity in the East, along with so few teams making significant upgrades during the offseason (some, namely Orlando, appear to have regressed), the smart money is on the literally new-look Brooklyn Nets to jump into the playoffs this year.
Let’s first recap the Nets’ final year in New Jersey. In 2011-12, the Nets went 22-44 and finished 12th in the East (24th in the NBA) — a staggering 28 games out of a playoff spot. Some of the advanced stats paint an equally unflattering picture: The team averaged 103 points per 100 possessions (ranked 23rd overall), and shot 42 percent from the field (third lowest in the league). On defense, they allowed opponents to score 110 points per 100 possessions (28th overall) on 47 percent shooting (third worst).
The depth of New Jersey’s struggles was unsurprising given its roster last season, which consisted of Deron Williams … and little else. According to 82games.com, the Nets’ most used five-man unit of D-Will, rookie MarShon Brooks, DeShawn Stevenson (replaced midseason by Gerald Wallace), Kris Humphries and Shelden Williams combined for a paltry plus-3 plus-minus rating in the 156 minutes they played together. (By comparison, the Miami Heat’s top five netted plus-108 points in the regular season.) Of this group, only Williams and Humphries had a player efficiency rating higher than 13, at 20.3 and 17.9 respectively.
So, what makes the 2012-13 Nets any different?
Besides the obvious move to Brooklyn, the Nets made several aggressive personnel decisions to improve the core. GM Billy King re-upped a few key players to long-term contracts, including swingman Wallace, Humphries, fifth-year center Brook Lopez, who spent most of last year on the injured reserve, and most notably Williams, the unrestricted free agent and All-Star point guard.
King also shocked many by trading Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, DeShawn Stevenson, Jordan Williams and two picks to Atlanta for Joe Johnson. Johnson, of course, is a six-time NBA All-Star and one of the league’s premier two guards. Last season, he averaged 18.8/3.7/3.9 in 35 minutes and ranked fifth among shooting guards in PER. Theoretically, JJ is an ideal fit in the context of the Brooklyn offense. He’s a legitimate perimeter scorer, and his range should extend defenses in the half-court, freeing up valuable space for Williams to create opportunities off dribble penetration.
Taken together, the Nets’ starting five now projects as Williams (PG), Johnson (SG), Wallace (SF), Humphries (PF) and Lopez (C). The Williams-Johnson-Wallace trifecta is easily one of the league’s most talented perimeter units. If Lopez, Humphries, and recent additions like Reggie Evans, Mirza Teletovic and Andray Blatche are able to provide meaningful contributions at both ends, the Nets are capable of winning 50 games or more.
(As a brief aside, one intriguing option coach Avery Johnson can try with this group is to play small. Last season, the Nets’ most effective unit in terms of plus-minus was Williams, Morrow, Gerald Green, Wallace and Humphries, which went plus-20 and outscored opponents 71.4 percent of the time — albeit in only 30.1 minutes of action. Now, however, the Nets could floor a more dangerous small-ball lineup of Williams, Brooks, Johnson, Wallace and Humphries/Lopez. We’ll see if the success Miami and Oklahoma City enjoyed last season employing a similar formula compels Johnson to go with the above combination more often this year.)
Despite these changes, questions still surround the Nets as they embark on their first season together in BK: What sort of chemistry will this revamped squad develop? Can they play together? Who plays defense? Can Lopez finally stay healthy, and if not, who replaces him? Finally, can potential meld into actual competition with Miami, Boston and Chicago for the Eastern Conference crown? Nevertheless, because of the top-heavy nature of the Eastern Conference — a fact only amplified by the departure of Dwight Howard from Orlando — it’s hard to imagine a playoff scenario that doesn’t include the Brooklyn Nets.
WESTERN CONFERENCE: MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Since 1984, the first season the playoffs expanded to include 16 teams, the Western Conference has never had the same eight playoff teams in back-to-back years. I’m going to side with history here and say that a Western Conference loser from last season will snag a playoff spot this year. But which team will that be? Will Steph Curry and Andrew Bogut stay healthy and will Warriors’ games have playoff implications in April? Is Damian Lillard going to be solid enough in his first season to propel the extremely young Trail Blazers? Will the Wolves keep their heads above water until Ricky Rubio returns from his knee injury?
One certainty among all the questions is that the West will be as competitive as ever this season, and one coach’s familiarity with that grind will help his team on the verge. â€¨â€¨Rick Adelman is entering his 22nd season as an NBA head coach and his second with the Wolves. Last season he endured his first losing record since 1997 and only the fourth of his career. There’s no way that will happen again this year. Adelman will lead the Wolves to their first playoff appearance since 2004 on the back of another MVP-caliber performance from his All-Star power forward Kevin Love.
Like all teams battling for a bottom seed in the playoffs, a lot more will have to go right for the Wolves than go wrong. But with some fortuitous bounces and the blessing of the health gods, the Wolves will be playing in May. â€¨â€¨GM David Kahn took some big swings in the offseason to improve his roster. He struck out on restricted free agent Nicolas Batum, but added some solid role players. Brandon Roy‘s production will obviously rely heavily on whether or not a year away from the game helped his (once or still) rapidly disintegrating knees. Even if Roy can only contribute 15-20 minutes a game, he is still an upgrade over Wesley Johnson (the Wolves will happily take 15 minutes of a creaky Roy as opposed to the 22 inconsistent minutes Johnson averaged per game last season). Plus, with the addition of suddenly resurgent Andrei Kirilenko, it will be easier to hide the hobbled Roy on defense as Kirilenko fills a desperate need for a tenacious wing defender. Kirilenko, along with newcomers Chase Budinger and Dante Cunningham will push second-year forward Derrick Williams to play more aggressively and consistently on defense. Additionally, Williams must improve on his 41 percent shooting from the floor if he hopes to get the minutes he desires.â€¨â€¨
There is the question, of course, of who leads this team. The Wolves’ biggest blow last season was when Rubio crumbled to the floor with a torn ACL in March. At the time of his injury, they were only a game out of the eighth spot in the West — but sans Rubio they went 5-20 to finish the year. With more and more reports penciling his return sometime in December, the Wolves shouldn’t have to rely on veteran point guard Luke Ridnour for more than 20 or so games. While Ridnour is a steady veteran, the Wolves went 8-27 when Rubio was not the starting point guard last year and they will need him back as soon as possible if they want to compete for a playoff spot. â€¨â€¨
The Wolves’ starting frontcourt is among the most promising in the West with its mix of potential and proven success. Center Nikola Pekovic will continue to improve as he sees more playing time this season. Rebounding won’t be an issue with Love (13.3 boards per game) and Pekovic (owner of the second-highest offensive rebounding rate in the league last season). Pekovic averaged 18 and 10 last year per 36 minutes while shooting 56 percent from the floor. Look for the 26-year-old giant from Montenegro to have a breakout year. Keeping the frontcourt healthy will be crucial for the Wolves as second-year big Greg Stiemsma is the only other player on the roster taller than 6-9.
â€¨â€¨In order for the Wolves to make the playoffs next season, they must supplant an excellent Western Conference team. Will the Mavericks be able to ride 34-year-old perennial All-Star Dirk Nowitzki to a 13th consecutive playoff berth? Are the additions of Mo and Marvin Williams enough to keep Utah in the hunt come April? All signs point to a tight race down the stretch between Minnesota, Dallas and Utah, but look for the Wolves and the Jazz to secure the 7th and 8th seeds this coming season.
Which non-playoff team from last year is ready to make the playoffs this year?
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