5 Dark-Horse NBA Playoff Teams for 2014-15 Season

In the long, unbroken quiet of the NBA offseason, a man can get to thinking strange thoughts—thoughts that, if examined at another time of year, might seem a little crazy.

Thoughts like this: The Milwaukee Bucks might make the playoffs.

Now, might is the operative word here. And nobody’s saying a team that won a measly 15 games last year is likely to crash the postseason party. But as the memory of the preceding season fades and attention turns to draft picks, free-agent moves and hopeful good health, the impossible starts to seem possible.

Besides, an NBA playoff bracket populated by usual suspects isn’t any fun at all, which is why the occasional out-of-nowhere postseason entrant is so exciting to dream about.

You need those underdogs, those surprisingly resurgent teams, those ready-before-anyone-expected upstarts. Sure, they tend to get chewed up and spat out in a brutal first-round matchup with a superpower. But we’re not out to name dark-horse title contenders who can actually win a series or two; this is just about clubs that could make the postseason unexpectedly.

In the spirit of that excitement and at a time when it’s way too early to worry about whatever predictable flaws will fell these teams, let’s isolate the clubs that could make an improbable leap from the lottery to the playoffs.

How improbable? Well, for starters, any team earning our dark-horse distinction must have finished at least 10 games shy of the No. 8 seed in its conference last year. Additionally, it can’t be a team with built-in buzz. You know, one that already has more than a few pundits predicting a playoff possibility.

Now then, let’s think some crazy thoughts.

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Predicting When NBA’s Longest Playoff Droughts Will Finally End

NBA playoff droughts aren’t easy to get into, but once they have ensnared a team their grip can be relentless.

The league isn’t exactly stingy with its postseason tickets. More than 53 percent of its teams (16 of 30) qualify for the big dance, a significantly higher portion than what is seen in the NFL (37.5) or MLB (33.3).

Yet that generosity still hasn’t kept these six teams from suffering through agonizing droughts. One empty season is a disappointment, two can cause alarm sirens to blare, but three (or more) constitute a full-fledged drought—at least for our purposes here.

So where do these six clubs stand on the road to recovery? Which ones are ready to crash the playoff party, and which should be hoarding necessities for more barren years ahead?

With our prognosticators’ hats secured and our crystal ball in sight, it’s time to predict when these six teams will finally snap out of their second-season funks.

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Who’s the Weak Link in New Orleans Pelicans’ Playoff Hopes?

The case for the New Orleans Pelicans reaching the 2014-15 postseason isn’t all that hard to make.

In Anthony Davis, the Pelicans could have one of the league’s elite two-way players and a real MVP candidate.

Jrue Holiday, consistently one of the most underrated point guards in the league, is healthy again.

Omer Asik, one of the better overall defensive centers in basketball, was acquired from the Houston Rockets without having to give up any current talent.

Ryan Anderson, maybe the league’s very best stretch 4, is healthy. As are two potentially explosive wings in Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans.

Put all those pieces together, and hope for some much better injury luck, and yes, the Pelicans can absolutely contend for the No. 8 seed in a difficult Western Conference and maybe even more.

The question, however, isn’t whether or not the Pelicans are capable of reaching the playoffs. They are. It’s more about who the weak link is and who might keep the Pelicans from reaching their high ceiling this upcoming year.

 

Whom to count on

While it’s easy to dream on the potential of the Pelicans roster, it’s prudent to look at whom you can count on for reliable production.

You can safely pencil in Davis to be one of the best frontcourt players in the league next season, so long as he can stay on the floor. Even if Davis plateaus completely, which won’t happen, his 20 points, 10 rebounds and nearly three blocks a contest are the building blocks for a great offense and defense. He had a player efficiency rating of 26.5, as a 20-year-old, for goodness’ sake. 

We could explore the merits of Davis for much longer, but essentially what I’m saying is he’s not the weak link here or on any basketball team he’ll ever play for.

During Davis’ first two years, however, the center next to him has routinely been a weak link, especially last season. With Omer Asik added this offseason, though, the Pelicans should be getting bankable production.

The variance of Asik‘s play and stats in his four seasons in the league has been minimal. Aside from blocking more shots with the Chicago Bulls and rebounding at a higher rate with the Houston Rockets, Asik is a relatively well-known entity. He’ll use his size and mobility to defend pick-and-roll action and protect the rim while cleaning the glass.

Here’s what Monty Williams told Jim Eichenhofer at NBA.com about the combo of Asik and Davis:

I think Omer is going to be able to take some pressure off AD as far as guarding other bigs. 

AD can go challenge shots and not worry about the backside of the defense, as much as we have in the past. Both of those guys are great rebounders. They both can challenge shots and they can play off of each other, as far as getting rebounds and not allowing offensive rebounds, especially late in the shot clock, which is something we struggled with last season.

It would be a surprise if Asik were anything but the solid defensive center he’s shown in the past that he definitely is.

Having a reliable frontcourt defensively will be huge for the Pelicans, and the return of Jrue Holiday should help tremendously on that front as well. 

Holiday is a really strong on-ball defender, and he should limit some of the penetration that’s gashed New Orleans over the years. Perhaps more importantly, Holiday is a 37.6 percent three-point shooter, so he should help space the floor for Davis when he’s not running pick-and-roll action with him.

Regarding what Davis needs, Monty Williams told Zach Lowe of Grantland: “What hurts him now is that we just don’t have guys who can shoot. We have to add shooting. When we put more shooting around him, he is going to be unguardable.”

Although he may not be considered elite, Holiday doesn’t really have too many weak spots in his game, aside from his inability to draw fouls at the rim and lack of an efficient scoring weapon in the paint. He can do a little bit of everything for you, and he should be dynamic with Davis so long as he’s healthy. 

In Davis, Asik and Holiday, the Pelicans have a dependable trio on both ends to lead them.

 

Potential weak links

All of the major questions for New Orleans come on the wing.

Ryan Anderson has proved to be an effective stretch 4 over the course of his career, and in a reduced role as a bench scorer and third big man who can take advantage of matchups, he can be a really nice piece. You just have to hope he’s fully recovered from his spinal injury that caused him to miss most of last year.

Out of the major players, that leaves Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans as the players who could throw the balance all off. Everyone else seems to have established roles and a decent mesh, but Evans and Gordon are much tougher to peg.

It’s a little scary, but New Orleans’ playoff hopes may rest upon which Evans shows up for the 2014-15 season. 

Evans looked like two different players over the course of last year, and that’s because he was.

As a starter (22 games): 35.3 minutes, 19.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 56.4 true shooting percentage.
As a reserve (50 games): 25.0 minutes, 12.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 46.8 true shooting percentage.

Evans came on strong over the course of last year as he got healthier, but here’s Bleacher Report’s Ian Levy explaining what’s important to take from that:

Ultimately, which position Evans plays is much less important than the players he’s on the floor with and what offensive responsibilities he’s given.

We can see that in the splits between those two obvious roles that appeared open when Evans was first acquired. As the offensive focal point for the second unit, he has struggled mightily.

Basically, Evans works best next to other great players, as he struggles to find efficient opportunities for himself when the spacing is poor and defenses are locked in on him. He hasn’t been the sixth man New Orleans envisioned, so he may need a more substantial and consistent role. 

Of course, that might leave Gordon in a tough spot.

Here’s Bleacher Report’s Dave Leonardis with more on that:

The idea of a $15 million sixth man is a tough pill to swallow. You then factor in Gordon’s inability to stay healthy. After that, there’s New Orleans’ glaring hole at small forward and the need for quality depth behind a promising starting rotation. 

When you add all of that together, you get a clear understanding that Gordon needs to go. 

Trading Gordon and his large salary is going to be awfully difficult, but Evans and Gordon may need to find a way to coexist for the Pelicans to reach their potential.

New Orleans just doesn’t have a great three-and-D option at small forward who would be ideal next to the other starters, so playing Evans and Gordon together might be viewed as the best option.

That wing combination wasn’t very effective last season, though. According to NBA.com’s media stats site, in the 752 minutes Gordon and Evans shared the floor last season, the Pelicans had a net efficiency rating of minus-8.1.

The pairing posted a defensive rating of 115.2, by far the worst of any two-man pairing that played a minimum of 500 minutes together last year for New Orleans.

Ultimately, if the Pelicans do stick with this group and see if it can work, Gordon may have to make the most concessions, even if he does remain as the starting shooting guard with Evans playing the 3.

He’ll have to settle into a role as more of a spot-up threat than he’s been in his first three seasons, and he’ll have to defend with much more intensity on the other end. Gordon is certainly capable of doing both of those things, but he’ll have to ramp it up in order to justify his minutes, salary and role on a potential playoff team.

Aside from health, the success of the Pelicans will likely depend on which versions of Gordon and Evans show up on a nightly basis. There’s just too much being invested, both in terms of playing time and salary, for New Orleans not to get consistent production from its wings, but that hasn’t happened quite yet.

If you’re looking for the weak link of this team, it’s the wings. 

 

All stats via basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted. 

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What New York Knicks Must Do to Climb Back into 2015 Playoff Picture

Redemption is only a playoff berth away for the New York Knicks.

The stench of last season’s 37-win disaster still lingers. No amount of coaching, roster or systematic changes will erase the memory of a lottery-lost campaign that sent the Knicks and their fans into a panic-stricken frenzy.

What would happen next? What could Phil Jackson do without any cap space? Would Carmelo Anthony leave for the win-now Chicago Bulls?

Given what little resources the Knicks had, Jackson’s offseason activity—from acquiring Jose Calderon to drafting Cleanthony Early to re-signing Anthony–equates to him working small miracles. The Knicks are a deeper, more well-rounded team on paper, built to contend for the playoff spot they missed last year.

Only flirting with a postseason appearance won’t constitute success. Not after Anthony was overcome with enough optimism to guarantee one.

“Yeah, I think so for sure,” he said when asked if the Knicks would return to the playoffs next year, per the New York Post‘s Fred Kerber. “Absolutely.”

Making good on that promise is essential. It just won’t be easy.

 

Offensive Preeminence

There is only offense in New York. 

Next year’s Knicks aren’t built to defend. They flipped their best, albeit intermittently disinterested, defender in Tyson Chandler for a middling protector in Samuel Dalembert and a defensive liability in Calderon. Even when factoring in Raymond Felton’s departure, they didn’t upgrade defensively.

Such action invokes a new mandate: Score, score, score. 

Last season’s Knicks ranked 11th in offensive deficiency. That’s not going to be enough. They’re a group that needs to finish in the top seven or top five of offensive efficiency to really establish themselves as a threat.

To do that, the Knicks will turn to Jackson’s famed triangle offense—or some version of it. Derek Fisher was hired as Mike Woodson’s successor for that reason: to implement the system he won five NBA championships in.

Bits and pieces of what the Knicks need are already in place. Calderon is a triangle-ready floor general who can make an impact on or off the ball, they have a glut of wings ready to contribute and—most importantly—Anthony has slimmed down with the intention of taking his game to a different, more profound level.

“He wants to be as athletic as he was when he was a rookie,’’ an Anthony confidant told The New York Post‘s Marc Berman. “Plus he wants to be a facilitator in the triangle and speed will help that.’’

Grasping the intricacies of the triangle is paramount for everyone involved, and, incidentally, everyone must be involved. 

This is a system the Knicks are trying to install. They’re trying to be the San Antonio Spurs without actually being the Spurs.

Succeeding within the triangle demands players make reads and have foresight. It’s a cohesive ball of energy in which hero ball is embraced only as a bailout or last resort.

“It can be manipulated to run almost anything: low-post chances, elbow isolations, pick and rolls, spot-up threes, anything,” Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley wrote. “It’s all about reading and reacting to the defense, a process that ideally becomes organic over time.”

Time is something the Knicks won’t have if they wish to end their brief playoff sabbatical. They’ll need to excel in the system immediately.

Anthony will have to become a full-time facilitator and scorer. J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr., Andrea Bargnani, Calderon, Early and everyone else must become accustomed to moving and acting without the ball for stretches at a time the way New York’s “Summer Knicks” did.

The Knicks will need to resemble the offensive force they were during the final 30 games of last year, when they boasted the league’s sixth-best offense. Only they’ll have to match that potency from start to finish, for a full 82 contests, without games-long furloughs and deviations from what must be a new norm.

 

About That Defense…

Offensive perfection is impossible to reach and subsequently sustain.

For all the Knicks are built to do on offense, they’re not emblematic of the perfect triangle model. They lack one critical part of said system: a playmaking big man.

Unless Amar’e Stoudemire, Cole Aldrich, Jason Smith and Dalembert are poised for career passing years that see them steal Pau Gasol‘s court vision, there promises to be growing pains on the offensive end. To keep the good vibrations rolling, they’ll need to do what they couldn’t last season and hold their own defensively. 

And that won’t be easy. Or perhaps even possible.

Woodson’s switch-happy, “Who am I guarding again?” Knicks finished 24th in defensive efficiency last year. Matching that standing might wind up being an accomplishment worthy of fist- and chest-bumping parties. That’s how feeble they figure to be defensively.

Rim protection will come at a premium for a team that doesn’t have an established shot-blocker. Neither Stoudemire nor Dalembert has the lift left to consistently contest shots at the rim—not that Stoudemire ever partook in such activities—and Bargnani remains a defensive disaster. 

Smith should be able to provide situational minutes at the 5 and somewhat deter dribble drives and point-blank opportunities, but he’s not your ideal iron guardian, either. Aldrich is now the Knicks’ best interior presence, which Bleacher Report’s Fred Katz paints as a borderline good picture:

The four-year vet averaged 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes last season, and swatted 8.1 percent of two-point shot attempts while he was on the floor, a figure that would lead the league by a hefty margin if strung out over enough minutes. And on a team that has just one guy who consistently defends on the perimeter (the Knicks need you, Iman), rim protection is a skill Derek Fisher’s squad can’t take for granted.

If you’re not going to stay in front of ball-handlers, you better have someone behind them. And now, Aldrich can actually go out and attack offensive players.

While problematic, though, rim protection isn’t the Knicks’ greatest defensive issue. They ranked in the top 12 of field-goal percentage allowed within five feet of the basket last year, and the 39.5 points per game they permitted in the paint was sixth-best in the league, per TeamRankings.com.

That the Knicks were able to maintain a semblance of respectability in that department—all while allowing opposing point guards to torch them—despite Chandler missing 27 games is encouraging. The chaos that ensued beyond the arc is not.

Opponents drilled 37.1 percent of their three-point attempts against the Knicks last season. Only the Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings—not one of whom won more than 28 games—were worse.

Corner threes killed the Knicks more than anything. Opposing squads combined to shoot better than 39 percent from either corner when facing New York last season.

Pick-and-rolls created problems everywhere on the floor for the Knicks too. They ended last year with the worst defense against pick-and-rolls in the league, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). It rarely mattered how or where the play ended; the Knicks were simply terrible.

Improvement starts on the perimeter. Last year’s perimeter players—with the oft-exception of Shumpert—were leaky faucets. Ball-handlers came off screens, and the Knicks looked confused and lost and then reacted the only way they knew how: by switching their way to implosion.

Somehow, someway that needs to change. They need to control the pace of games better and defend with consistency.

In lieu of numerous defensive stoppers, they’ll need internal development—player epiphanies that culminate in the defensively useless becoming useful, lest the burden of success fall solely on their offense.

 

Keeping Pace

Pinpointing exactly what the Knicks must do to reach the playoffs next season is difficult because of how incalculable it is.

They need to score a lot, because duh. They need to actually play defense, because obviously.

They need to fare better than last season, because yeah.

More than where and how they must improve, it matters what their tweaking and fiddling must amount to: keeping pace with other playoff teams.

This Knicks team wouldn’t sniff the postseason in the Western Conference, where powerhouses are standard and (most) one-sided outfits are eaten alive, then spit out for good measure.

Lucky for the Knicks, they play in the Eastern Conference—the much-improved, though-still-wide-open Eastern Conference.

At least 10 Eastern Conference teams project to contend for playoff spots next season, and that’s assuming the Indiana Pacers fall outside the postseason picture without Paul George.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and Charlotte Hornets all look like playoff locks after making substantial additions or staying strong over the offseason. Throw the Miami Heat in there too. They couldn’t have rebounded any better from losing LeBron James to the Cavaliers.

That realistically means six playoff teams are already accounted for, barring catastrophic injuries. That also means the Knicks will have to beat out two of the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets to breathe postseason air again.

Possible? 

Absolutely.

Likely?

Well, that’s up to the Knicks. It’s up to their need-to-be-dominant offense. It’s up to their unpredictable defense. It’s up to Anthony and his ability to continue playing like a top-seven superstar. 

It’s up to this Knicks team actually becoming a team. 

Keep pace with and ultimately surpass most of the Eastern Conference’s fringe playoff contenders, and the Knicks will be fine, their lottery-dwelling over, their ill-fated 2013-14 crusade a distant memory.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.


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WATCH: Kobe Bryant takes over 1995 high school playoff game

Any NBA fan has seen highlights of Kobe Bryant taking over a game. The five-time NBA champion scored 81 points in a single game once, and he has scored 50 or more in a game 25 times in his career. But have you ever seen Kobe dominate in high school? We have you covered. In […]

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Why Los Angeles Lakers Face Uphill Climb Back Toward Playoff Contention

With their roster set and a head coach in place, the Los Angeles Lakers march toward 2014-15 and beyond facing an uphill climb back to playoff and championship contention.

Actually, that doesn’t do their present predicament enough justice.

Know that cliche-carting, geriatric golden-ager who peddles some exhausted—not to mention totally untrue—bunkum about having to slog through uphill snowstorms to and from school on foot? That’s the Lakers.

That’s the intimidating journey they now face.

There is no way to completely avoid it either. There is only the uncertain possibility of the Lakers finding a much-needed, smoothly paved, fair-weather shortcut. 

 

Kobe Bryant and the Immediate Battle

Before looking ahead, it’s imperative to look at right now. And right now, the Lakers figure to be overtly and overly dependent on a soon-to-be 36-year-old Kobe Bryant, who appeared in only six games last season.

“It’s my job to go out there next season and lay it all out there on the line and get us to that elite level,” Bryant said in July, via ESPN.com.

Indeed, it is. But should it be?

This isn’t an almost-playoff-bound Lakers team Bryant is trying to revive. The Lakers weren’t even close to elite last season; they weren’t even close to good.

Coached by Mike D’Antoni, playing mostly without Bryant and Steve Nash, the Lakers ranked 21st in offensive efficiency and 28th in defensive efficiency. They won 27 games. They schlepped through the worst season in franchise history. No one player is going to reverse their fortunes—not even Bryant.

Especially Bryant.

The shooting guard’s protection against traditional thinking is mythical in measure. Long before he suffered a ruptured Achilles, he was viewed as invincible, above pain. This side of realizing he isn’t made of steel, Bryant is still not held to the same standards as everyone else. 

If and when he returns to form, it won’t be surprising. It will be Bryant being Bryant. That aspect of his mystique hasn’t changed. Bryant will forever be thought of as this superhuman individual bound to nothing and no one.

Yet even if Bryant recaptures his dominant pep and step, even if he plays like it’s 2012-13—with wildly reckless and effective abandon—what does that mean for the Lakers?

Close to nothing, as Silver Screen & Roll’s James Lamar fittingly articulates:

It’s reasonable to expect the team to improve upon last season’s 27-win output, but tempered expectations entail only a marginal increase. Bryant should return to reasonable form, especially after missing 76 games last year, but his 2012 campaign (25.5 points per game on 46 percent shooting, a career-best 6.0 assists average) was good enough for only a seven-seed, and that was alongside Dwight Howard

Operating on the assumption that Bryant can defy time the way he did nearly two years ago counts for little. His splendid, time-thwarting performance couldn’t carry a team headlined by another top-15 superstar then; it’s not going to ferry the Lakers back to the postseason now.

Not when Nash is a silhouette of his former self. Not when Pau Gasol is representing the Chicago Bulls

Not when the second-best player on this team goes by the name Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Nick Young or Julius Randle.

Immediately, the Lakers are trapped in this competitive state of oblivion, trying to remain relevant, even though relevancy more likely than not doesn’t include ending their one-year postseason drought.

 

To the Future

Soothing reassurance isn’t found when glossing over present-day dilemmas.

Glimpses of tomorrow do not lie in the roster of today. The Lakers’ docket is a makeshift placeholder stocked with talent on one-year deals.

Four players are under guaranteed contracts beyond next season, per ShamSports.com—Bryant, Young, Randle and Ryan Kelly. Only one player—Young—is under lock and key beyond 2015-16, though it’s safe to say the Lakers will pick up Randle’s team option that summer.

That leaves the Lakers with two long-term building blocks at most. Everyone else—from Lin and Boozer, to Ed Davis and Jordan Hill, to Robert Sacre and Kelly—is basically playing for their next contract, whether it’s with the Lakers or not. 

Pinpointing a future direction is impossible. So much of the Lakers’ forthcoming course depends on how impressed or unimpressed they are by this year’s auditions and, more importantly, the decision-making process of players they don’t even house.

Cap-conserving summers don’t get any more blatant than this. The Lakers flirted with Carmelo Anthony headlines and were—out of ritual more than anything—linked to all the big names, but this offseason never figured to carry superstar bombast.

Next summer—and the summer after, when Bryant’s contract expires—is when the Lakers will more aggressively pursue free agents. Until then, they’re in a holding pattern, like Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding discloses:  

The absolute uncertainty as to when some faceless free-agent superstar will choose the Lakers is what makes the suffering that much worse for their fans.

It doesn’t even feel like rebuilding. It feels like waiting.

Because it pretty much is.

Waiting is a risky game—one the Lakers have been playing since they traded for, and then lost, Dwight Howard. 

Biding their time puts them at the mercy of players wanting to join them. Past prestige will put them in any conversation, but they need a competent core to sell as well. Slapdash stopgaps aren’t going to strengthen their sales pitch. 

They also find themselves at the market’s behest. They can’t target players who aren’t available. 

Kevin Love’s arrival once approached formality. One rival executive told CBS Sports’ Ken Berger that “everyone” knew he wanted to join the Lakers. But that was in January, ages ago. Love is now on the brink of joining LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski

Another preeminent free agent is basically off the board. What if that keeps happening? It’s already happened with LaMarcus Aldridge, after all:

What if Marc Gasol is next? Or Rajon Rondo?

In no time at all, the Lakers could find themselves waiting for 2016, when Kevin Durant is available.

The thought, while compelling, is a pipe dream. They’re going to have competition from every other team with cap space. He could stay with the Thunder or sign with the Brooklyn Nets or New York Knicks. He could return home to the Washington Wizards.

Then what? The Lakers will have sat still for nothing, wasting Bryant’s swan song in the process, all because they waited and waited and waited, and indentured their rebuild and redemption to events beyond their control.

 

No Choice but to Soldier On

Worse than anything, the Lakers aren’t outfitted in contingency plans. There are none.

Rebuilding through the draft isn’t an option. Their 2015 and 2017 first-rounders (top-five protected) belong to the Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic, per RealGM. If for some reason the Lakers (are bad enough to) retain those picks, the debts linger until paid. 

Best-case scenario has them forfeiting those selections sooner rather than later, by 2017, just so they’re free and clear.

You know, four years from now, in 2018.

Retooling through free agency and continuing this unsettling game of wait and see is their only immediate option. The lone alternative is to tank so hard that they mathematically keep their draft picks. And not even that promises anything when pingpong balls wield so much power.

This plan, this violently uncertain plan, is all the Lakers have. Their road back to the playoffs and title contention is tiled in other teams’ players—talents they have neither direct access to, nor realistic guarantees from—and small, sanity-scorning miracles.

Glances into the Lakers’ crystal ball, then, yield nothing other than a future obscured by the unpredictability of a team relying on its storied past to rise above a seriously steep uphill climb.

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5 Playoff Teams in Real Danger of Missing Postseason in 2014-15

The big moves of the 2014 offseason certainly changed the landscape of the league, and to expect the playoff picture for this season to remain unchanged after everything that’s happened would probably be foolish.

You can safely pencil in at least one non-playoff team last year in, at the least. With LeBron James back in Cleveland and Kevin Love joining him soon enough, the Cavaliers are an instant favorite in the Eastern Conference. That means at least one team has to fall. 

That wasn’t the only big change, even though you have to like the Miami Heat’s chances a lot less without LeBron. The Indiana Pacers lost Paul George to a gruesome leg injury and Lance Stephenson to free agency. The Brooklyn Nets lost Paul Pierce. The Houston Rockets waved goodbye to Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.

And for the teams that just stayed put? There are plenty of up-and-coming teams nipping at the heels of last year’s playoff squads.

Let’s take a look at five teams that are in danger of missing the 2014-15 postseason.  

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Are Miami Heat a Playoff Lock or a Fringe Team Next Season?

The Miami Heat will have their work cut out for them next season.

LeBron James’ free-agency departure for the Cleveland Cavaliers has left the team weakened, which means the Eastern Conference is no longer the cakewalk it once was for the Heat. Miami made four consecutive trips to the Finals during James’ four seasons with the franchise.

The four years prior?

Three first-round exits and a 15-win campaign.

The Heat won’t be as bad as they were leading up to acquiring James, but they certainly won’t match the level of success enjoyed during the LeBron years.

 

Gauging the Heat

The death of Miami’s Big Three will make it a little tough to accurately surmise what kind of team the Heat will be during the 2014-15 campaign.

Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are still part of the team, and that should give head coach Erik Spoelstra a fighting chance at fielding a very competitive team.

It should be noted that Wade was talented enough in his younger years to carry Miami to the postseason without much help, while Bosh managed a similar feat during the 2006-08 period as a member of the Toronto Raptors.

In the case of Bosh, he’s evolved as a player and will likely become the focal point of the Heat offense.

“I played with the best player in the world. I didn’t have to be the alpha,” Bosh said to ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh in July. “But now, I get to see if I have it in me, and not many people are going to believe I have what’s necessary. But that’s what makes it exciting.”

Bosh became a spot-up shooter to complement the skills of Wade and James over the last four years, and it’s added an additional layer to his game.

He drilled 74 treys last year, which is more than his six previous seasons combined, according to Basketball-Reference.com. With James no longer occupying the low-post area, it’s safe to say Miami will utilize Bosh in that spot, among many others.

During his years in Toronto, he did a great job of scoring with his back to the basket and from the high post, and I doubt those skills have vanished. The addition of the three-point stroke will make him a matchup nightmare that most might not be prepared to handle.

Think LaMarcus Aldridge with added range. The one area where Bosh will suffer is in the efficiency department. LeBron was always the primary option in Miami, which meant defenders often converged on him. In turn, that opened up the floor for Bosh to make open jumpers.

NBA.com tells us James assisted on nearly a third of Bosh’s field goals last season, which speaks to the importance of LeBron as it pertains to Bosh’s offense. Granted, Miami will replace some of that lost playmaking with the addition of former Charlotte Hornet Josh McRoberts (acquired during free agency).

He’s not a great passer, but he’s good enough to hit players in stride if a defender falls asleep or is a split-second late on a rotation. Wade should also make things easier for Bosh because of his ability to get into the paint via post-ups and drives.

He’s one of the better playmaking 2-guards in the league, and defenses will throw a bit of help Wade’s way in an effort to slow him down. The extra attention will benefit Bosh and the rest of his teammates.

With that said, Wade is a huge wild card. He missed 28 games during the 2013-14 season because of knee trouble, and it’s certainly possible this will be an issue again.

According to The Palm Beach Post’s Steve Dorfman, Wade has changed his diet in an effort to lose weight and reduce the wear and tear on his body, but one must consider the possibility that this will only do so much.

In the event he sits out contests or compromises his game to better cope with his physical shortcomings, the Heat will need the rest of the roster to raise its level of play.

That’s hardly a given.

The veteran newcomers were all rotation players last year with their former teams, which essentially means they rated somewhere between mediocre and decent.

McRoberts averaged 30.3 minutes, 8.5 points and 4.8 rebounds while converting 43.6 percent of his shots, per Basketball-Reference.

Luol Deng, who will likely replace LeBron in the starting unit, produced 16 points and 5.7 rebounds in his 35.1 minutes per game with the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers. He made 43.1 percent of his field goals.

Now might be a good time to point out that team president Pat Riley sold Deng as a savior after obtaining his commitment. “Signing Luol Deng is one of the most important free agent signings that we have ever had in the history of the franchise,” Riley said in July, per Miami Herald’s Joseph Goodman.

I realize that Deng’s contract fits perfectly within the grand scheme of the Heat’s cap situation, but Riley may have exaggerated a bit.

Miami positioned itself to have a boatload of cap space in the summer of 2016, when the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant becomes a free agent. That’s great long-term planning, but it does very little in the immediate future.

What’s more, Danny Granger will back up Deng next season, and that’s not exactly a great proposition. Granger only appeared in 41 games last year due to knee issues (great, another wing player with those) and gave his teams very little in a second-unit role.

He averaged 20.7 minutes, 8.2 points and 3.2 rebounds on 37.8 percent shooting from the field.

These players simply won’t come close to reproducing the offense the Heat had while James was in a Miami uniform. Perhaps improved point guard play could help offset some of the creativity lost with LeBron’s exodus, but the Heat brought back the erratic Mario Chalmers.

They also drafted Shabazz Napier, and I’m not yet sold on him being a superior player to Chalmers.

The Heat will take a big step back, and it might actually look huge with the way the East is shaping up.

 

Beasts in the East

The Eastern Conference will field some very good teams next season, and that will complicate Miami’s playoff push.

Cleveland added LeBron and will acquire Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski.

The tandem of Love and James will join Kyrie Irving and give the Cavs the best trio in the East. Based on ESPN’s Summer Forecast, the Cavs are now projected to finish with the best record in the conference.

Not too far behind them are the Chicago Bulls. An argument could be made that Chicago has made the second-biggest acquisition of any team in the East by welcoming back Derrick Rose.

He’s been sidelined for most of the last two years because of  knee injuries, but his Team USA showings would indicate that he hasn’t lost a step.

The Bulls have looked formidable in recent years with a healthy Rose, and there is little reason to believe that will change. The additions of Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic certainly reinforce that.

Chicago and Cleveland will be the power teams in the conference, while a couple of other teams will challenge Miami’s march to the playoffs.

The Toronto Raptors mostly stood pat this offseason, and they could certainly afford to do that after winning 48 games last season. Interesting enough, they might actually be better this time around.

Last year, the team was 7-12 prior to the Rudy Gay trade and rebounded with a 41-22 record after sending him away to the Sacramento Kings.

Gay wasn’t necessarily everything that was wrong with the Raptors in those 19 games, but he was certainly part of the problem. Gay held onto the ball far too long in an effort to set himself up, and it bogged down the offense. One can forgive that on some level for a player in the caliber of Carmelo Anthony, but Gay is nowhere near that.

He was an inefficient scorer in Toronto (38.8 percent from the field with Raps), struggled to create high-percentage looks and gave the Raptors next to nothing defensively despite his impressive athleticism.

Toronto took off once he was jettisoned, and it might do better next season with Gay away from the team for the entire 82-game stretch.

Also, don’t sleep on the acquisition of Lou Williams via trade. Basketball-Reference tells us he averaged 15.6 points and 5.2 assists per 36 minutes for the Atlanta Hawks during the 2013-14 season.

He’s a shifty ball-handler who creates shots in one-on-one situations. Williams plays both guard spots and should fortify Toronto’s bench.

The Raptors might very well win the Atlantic Division again, but the No. 3 seed might now be out of reach. The Washington Wizards are bringing back mostly the same core, and one could argue they’ve upgraded the small forward spot with Paul Pierce.

Trevor Ariza was the starter last year, but he signed with the Houston Rockets this offseason, his second stint with the team.

Pierce is a superior individual scorer and will contribute in the long-range shooting department as well.

The one area where I believe Pierce will elevate the Wizards is in late-game situations. He’s been great throughout his career in this setting because of his ability to get separation and shoot in the face of defenders. As his former coach Doc Rivers loved to say, Pierce is a “professional scorer.”

Granted, we have to take into consideration that he will be 37 years old by the time training camp starts. Thus, Pierce might be a step slower when compared with last year, and he could even sit out games to preserve his body for the playoffs.

If such is the case, Washington could slip out of the race for the third seed and watch the Hawks swoop in.

Atlanta made the playoffs last year despite the fact its best player (Al Horford) only appeared in 29 games due to a torn pectoral.

Horford’s return coupled with the stellar play of Paul Millsap and the impeccable shooting of Kyle Korver make the Hawks a playoff lock.

The three remaining Eastern Conference playoff spots are up for grabs.

The Charlotte Hornets, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons (under new head coach Stan Van Gundy), Indiana Pacers and Miami will have to battle it out for a playoff berth.

Brooklyn’s core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett is really interesting and can compete for one of the top records in the East.

However, Williams’ ankles haven’t consistently held up and Lopez has two seasons in which he played under 20 games. Also, Garnett will apparently play this upcoming season, based on comments new head coach Lionel Hollins shared with Bleacher Report’s Jared Zwerling.

It hardly sounds like a lock, though. “It’s his right to make that decision or change his mind if he has decided to come back or not come back,” Hollins said. “I’m not worried about that. That’s out of my control. That’s a decision that KG and his family have to make, and I’ll leave it with him.”

The Nets are a bit of a question mark, but I suspect they’ll get into the playoffs.

We’re down to two spots.

Charlotte added Lance Stephenson via free agency but lost Josh McRoberts. The Hornets were seeded seventh in last year’s playoffs and could jump up to sixth with the improved perimeter production Stephenson will provide.

One spot left.

After losing Stephenson to Charlotte and Paul George to a broken leg, Indiana is likely out of the playoff picture, but it could still make a run and win 40 games. The Pistons look like a long shot, but Van Gundy has a track record of getting his teams into the playoffs, which should make fringe teams sweat just a bit.

New York is the great unknown here. It could win anywhere between 35 and 45 games, and I wouldn’t be surprised. There are some decent pieces on the team, but until we see how new Knicks head coach Derek Fisher integrates the talent, it’s tough to really gauge what their ceiling is.

All of which brings us back to Miami and where it’ll end up in the playoff race.

 

Miami Gets in…Barely

The Heat will make the playoffs next season, but it certainly won’t be an easy task.

Miami will have an elite power forward with Bosh, but the jury is still out on what Wade will be able to contribute.

I’m just not convinced that the Wade of old will resurface and plug up holes the way he did pre-LeBron. He’s no longer a rim-protector, perimeter nuisance (defensively) or explosive finisher. Miami got by in spite of that because the other Heatles could mask some of his deficiencies, but those days are gone.

Furthermore, some of the Eastern Conference teams have improved, which means the Heat will have to fight for the first time in four years just to get into the playoffs.

I believe Miami will ultimately make it because Spoelstra will get his troops to buy in on the defensive end. The Heat slipped last season on this front with LeBron on the roster, but it was probably a product of the team going to four consecutive Finals. Miami played with an on and off switch, which was mostly evident in its defensive intensity.

That will likely change considering the change in team dynamics. The offense will take a bit of a dive without No. 6, and the best way to mitigate that is by limiting the opposition’s scoring.

The 2014-15 Heat will forge a strong defensive identity with a cast of characters who will embrace the challenge of rebounding in the aftermath of James’ departure.

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Drew League 2014 Results: Tracking Playoff Scores, Updated Bracket from Week 13

With just four teams remaining in the Drew League tournament, Saturday’s semifinal matchups figured to be hotly contested games.

This is a pro-am event, but players of this caliber have a lot of pride. In some instances, bragging rights are almost as important as championships in more established leagues. The rosters are made up of talented current, former and future NBA players, and some who have exclusively taken their talents overseas.

The group has combined to create some exciting moments up to this point.

The semifinals and championship game should create even more excitement.

The first of the two games featured C.O.A taking on Hank’s Cheaters 2. The late game is Cheaters taking on Hank’s Houdini’s All-Stars. Here’s the bracket heading into Saturday’s action.

And here’s the recap for both games.

 

C.O.A Defeats Hank’s Cheaters 2 83-72

Behind a strong and dominant inside presence from Craig Smith, Julian Wright and Jerome Jordan, the No. 2-seeded C.O.A squad avoided the upset and pounded the No. 5-seeded Hank’s Cheaters on the inside. 

Per the tournament’s official Twitter account, Smith’s double-double was instrumental in bringing in the win for C.O.A.

The team is on a roll coming into the championship game. Saturday’s win marked the fourth in a row after a slow start in group play. Overall, C.O.A is 8-3 with just one game separating them from a Drew League championship.

Smith is a 6’7″, 265-pound bull on the inside. He’s a six-year veteran of the NBA and has played for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers.

He hasn’t been on an NBA roster since the 2011-12 season. Last year, he played in the NBA Developmental League for the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

Wright has taken a similar path. He last played in the NBA during the 2011-12 season for the Toronto Raptors but now plays professionally in Russia. He was the 13th overall pick by the New Orleans Hornets back in 2007.

The biggest of all the C.O.A frontcourt players is the 7-foot Jerome James. The former New York Knick plays professionally in Italy. With such a wealth of size and NBA experience, it’s easy to see why C.O.A is on the threshold of a title.

 

Hank’s Houdini All-Stars Defeats Cheaters 86-85 (4 OT)

The championship game will have a tough act to follow after the second semifinal game on Saturday. The Cheaters and Hank’s Houdini All-Stars went through four overtimes before the latter finally emerged with a hard-fought 86-85 win.

The All-Stars’ head coach, Allen Caveness, spoke with Network United’s Law Murray about the championship matchup after the game:

Cheaters came in as the No. 1 team led by former NBA All-Star Baron Davis, but Cory Allen’s 40-point outing pushed his team to victory.

The current University of South Florida guard put on a performance that is sure to make him a Drew League legend moving forward. 

Allen averaged just nine points per game for South Florida last season, but its clear he has the ability to get hot.

Davis had a chance to win it for his team at the buzzer, but he couldn’t convert in the final seconds. The All-Stars will take on C.O.A in the final, and they’ll have to contend with a ton of size and NBA experience.

James, Wright and Smith sounds like a law firm, but Allen and Co. have already proven to be rule-breakers by taking down the tournament’s top seed.

   

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Is second-rounder key to Knicks’ playoff hopes?

Tim Hardaway Jr. spoke to For The Win about the Knicks’ future and his rookie season.

      
 

 

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