There are many redeeming parts to the 82-game NBA season—finding breakout players, teams making improvements, and discovering day-to-day story lines. But each year, we’re increasingly reminded that things only truly begin to matter once the postseason starts. So, because this is the offseason and prognosticating is what the offseason is for, let’s hit the fast-forward button and look ahead at some teams that, based on their offseason moves (or lack thereof), are likely to jump into the playoffs next season or are likely to fall out.
Jumping In: Los Angeles Lakers
[Insert any and all LeBron highlights here.] I know there’s been talk that, even with the addition of LeBron, the Lakers are in danger of not making the playoffs, and that the West is stacked against them. But until the very moment L.A. is eliminated from the postseason, I will refuse to count out a LeBron-led team. It would be a losing proposition. He alone makes the team miles better than it was last season, and presumably, the effect he will have on the young core will also net positive results. The other important thing to keep in mind: LeBron’s teams haven’t been shy about making drastic trade deadline moves in the past. That’s why even though it seems like LeBron may be taking a year off from the postseason, I wouldn’t be surprised if that story (and maybe even the Lakers’ roster!) is different come February.
Falling Out: Minnesota Timberwolves
The Wolves are frustrating. Ever since they cashed in their chips for Jimmy Butler on NBA draft night last year—a move that made perfect sense at the time—everything seems to have gone awry. Sure, they made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2004, but they were handed a gentleman’s sweep by the Rockets, during which the Wolves looked like they didn’t belong. And instead of spending this offseason making moves designed to improve the roster, the team’s news cycle was dominated by the reported discord between Butler and the younger players in the franchise, like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Speaking of Wiggins, he’s still under that five-year, $146 million contract. Welp.
Unless Towns takes a massive leap and Wiggins becomes more consistent, the Wolves might not be able to squeak into the playoffs like they did last year (though that was, in part, due to Butler picking up two knee injuries that caused him to miss a total of 21 games from mid-January to the end of the season). And next offseason presents perils, too: Butler, who already turned down one extension offer from Minnesota, will be a free agent, and he hasn’t exactly warmed up to the North.
Jumping In: Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets missed the playoffs by a razor-thin margin last season—one game, to be exact. This season they’ll have Paul Millsap back and healthy (fingers crossed), another season of the Nikola Jokic experience, and more opportunities to showcase Gary Harris’s and Jamal Murray’s impressive improvements. They don’t even need their first-round pick, Michael Porter Jr., to play a single minute (especially if he’s still not 100 percent) because on paper, they should vault right into the playoffs this season even without him. The only thing standing in their way is the Lakers … and the rest of the improved West.
Jumping In: Memphis Grizzlies
The likelihood of the Grizzlies making the playoffs is slimmer than that of the Lakers and the Nuggets, both teams on the upswing of their respective trajectories. But for Memphis, the equation is a little simpler. They are getting Mike Conley and Marc Gasol back, adding an impactful rookie in Jaren Jackson Jr., and solidifying a bevy of solid role players around them. That roster alone may not be quite enough to push the team into the playoffs, but there’s also been a shift in goals that could affect their odds; unlike last season, the Grizzlies won’t be tanking, and that extra effort could be the difference.
Falling Out: Cleveland Cavaliers
[Remove all LeBron highlights here.] Can Kevin Love carry the team by himself? And if he does, how long until he’ll get traded? That’s the primary question surrounding the not-rebuilding-but-essentially-rebuilding Cavs this season. The East is so lacking in the “true playoff team” department that at the end of the day, a resurgent Love, a Rookie of the Year campaign from Collin Sexton, and breakout year for Larry Nance Jr. might be enough for the 8-seed. But it probably won’t.
Falling Out: San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio won 47 games last season with Kawhi Leonard on the bench for all but nine matchups. If the franchise’s previous five titles and dynastic era of winning weren’t enough to prove Gregg Popovich’s pedigree, this past year drove the home notion that he’s one of the greatest coaches the sport has ever seen. In theory, adding an All-Star in DeMar DeRozan to the mix should only increase the Spurs’ chances for success, but I have my doubts about what will likely be their mostly midrange offense and how DeRozan will mesh with LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs also lost Tony Parker this offseason, most of their contributors are aging (like Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli, Rudy Gay, and Pau Gasol), and the team will have to rely on guys like Dejounte Murray and Derrick White more so than they’d probably like. I trust Pop, but at some point, the task will become too tall to accomplish. Maybe this is season that will finally happen.
Jumping In: Detroit Pistons
Detroit made a Blake Griffin–sized gamble last season that fell flat. But the bad news had some inherent good news hidden within it. Sure, they’ll be paying Griffin up to $141 million over the next four years, but they’ll get to try to win with a player who was once an All-Star. That’s not insignificant, nor was the jump in free throw percentage that Andre Drummond made last season (from 38.6 percent to 60.5 percent). If Griffin and Drummond can mesh under Dwane Casey’s new system, they’ll create a frontcourt that’s a pain to deal with on a nightly basis. In the East, that counts for something, including, very possibly, a playoff spot.