Leading up to Bulls media day on Sept. 28, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman will preview the upcoming NBA season with daily features on everything related to the Association. Today the pair analyze which playoff teams may become new faces in the 2016 NBA Playoffs.
Mark Strotman: Even in the lowly Eastern Conference it was difficult to imagine the Bucks making last year's playoffs, let alone earning the No. 5 seed. They topped their Vegas win total (24.5) before February and won 41 games despite losing No. 2 pick Jabari Parker to an ACL tear in mid-December and learning a new system under Jason Kidd. In the West, Anthony Davis's Pelicans team got an early start on their resurgence and reached the postseason over Russell Westbrook's one-man show in Oklahoma City - Westbrook's stretch from February to April was as much fun as I've had watching a player since LeBron's 2012-13 campaign. Boston returned to the playoffs in another surprise, while Cleveland's ridiculous offseason made them a shoo-in for the postseason.
Four new teams reached the postseason in 2015, and I could see that happening again in 2016. Which fresh teams could pop up in this year's postseason, and who are they replacing?
Vincent Goodwill: Every year teams break out from the lottery to playoff contention, but rarely will a team go from the doldrums to the penthouse. That’s where the Oklahoma City Thunder come in, as long as all the pieces that have been masterfully put together alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook stay healthy.
They were decimated by injuries last year, especially the scary foot injuries suffered by Durant. While the NBA world was treated to a triple-double fest from Westbrook, it didn’t amount to a playoff appearance. They finally realized Scott Brooks had maxed out with this team and brought in Florida coach Billy Donovan, who’s highly regarded as an NBA-ready coach. Durant and Westbrook will have to re-adjust to one another, given Westbrook’s development and desire to be on the same billing as the 2014 MVP. Whether the deepest roster finds a way to develop enough chemistry to get on the same level as Golden State or San Antonio remains to be seen, but it’s clear that with any kind of relative health, they’ll be in the thick of the title chase.
Durant missed 55 games last year, Westbrook 17. Serge Ibaka missed 18 and the Thunder went through a bit of upheaval before the deadline yet they still had a record good enough to be fifth in the East if they played there. Either way, the most compelling story in the NBA sans LeBron James this season.
MS: I can't wait to see what Durant does this season. The question will always linger about how Westbrook and he play together, and I'm intrigued to see if the progression the former made last season playing "alone" will translate with a healthy Durant back on the floor. If it does, it's pretty clear there's not a better 1-2 punch in the game.
I'll stay in the Western Conference and swap out the Mavericks for the Utah Jazz. Quinn Snyder's group went 21-11 to finish the season, including an impressive 8-8 mark in that span against eventual playoff teams. That stretch, which began on Feb. 7 with a win over the Kings, saw Utah post the league's best defense by nearly FOUR points per 100 possessions (95.3). They were one of the league's best rebounding teams in that span, and had the fifth best net rating in the NBA. The four teams ahead of them? San Antonio, Golden State, the Clippers and Cleveland. Not bad company, huh?
They return their entire young core (minus the raw yet talented Dante Exum, who tore his ACL this summer) led by the impressive frontcourt tandem of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert. The latter really took off after the Jazz dealt Enes Kanter at the trade deadline, and paired with Gordon Hayward that duo is going to be good enough to sneak into the No. 8 seed. Their duo of young shooters on the perimeter in Rodney Hood and Alec Burks should make a jump, and rookie Trey Lyles could help right away giving teams a different inside-out look than Favors/Gobert give. That being said, I'm far from sold on Trey Burke as an everyday point guard, and their depth there is really shaky. Still, last year's finish was more than just a sample size; these guys are for real, and while I don't think Steve Kerr will stay up at night wondering how to stop them, the Jazz are headed for the postseason.
VG: I would be with you on Utah but losing Exum is too big to assume this young team will overcome it without bumps and bruises. Trey Burke has yet to prove much of anything in his first two years, so they’re on the bubble for me.
A team I can believe in, though, that can at least sneak into the bottom two playoff spots in the East is the Indiana Pacers. They traded away Roy Hibbert and David West surprisingly opted out of the last year of his deal to go to San Antonio, but they have some pieces after losing on a tiebreaker for the 8th seed this past April.
Paul George is back and healthy, as many have forgotten he was on the doorstep to superstardom 18 months ago, on the same plane as a Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, and perhaps a step ahead of both before his leg unfortunately met the basket stanchion at the USA Basketball showcase in July 2014. Rodney Stuckey and Monta Ellis are pretty interchangeable, and make up a pretty dynamic backcourt from a talent standpoint. I’ve always been a fan of Frank Vogel as a coach, despite his semi-arrogance. He knows what he’s doing as far as in-game adjustments, and crafted a very stout defense around a center in Hibbert, who wasn’t very mobile.
If the Pacers play more small ball with George playing the four at times, things can get very interesting in the Midwest. Lest we forget, George averaged nearly 22 points per game with 6.8 rebounds in 2013-14, and went toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals two years in a row. If he’s relatively healthy…Katy Bar the door.
MS: You didn't even mention Myles Turner, my favorite prospect in the 2015 rookie class, who will help with the loss of Hibbert and West inside. I'm still not sure if their depth is good enough, but it's the Eastern Conference we're talking about. Having a better season than the Brooklyn Nets isn't a major accomplishment. And speaking of George, I'm expecting a monster year from him. You're not wrong about him being on the cusp of the NBA's next great young star before his injury. Hopefully he can get back there this season.
My second favorite draft prospect was Devin Booker, and he goes to a Suns team that has been thisclose from the postseason the last two years. They underwent a big change in 2015, dealing Goran Dragic to Miami and winding up with Brandon Knight after the dust settled, and then they paid Knight $70 million. He and Eric Bledsoe form a supremely talented backcourt (not sure how they'll co-exist long-term, but it'll be fun to see) while Booker and Archie Goodwin, a pair of former Kentucky Wildcats, will add good two-way depth.
I also loved the addition of Tyson Chandler after they swung and missed on LaMarcus Aldridge. The Suns were 17th in defensive efficiency a year ago, and Chandler could vault them into the top-10 conversation. If the Markieff Morris situation remedies itself and he somehow stays in Phoenix, I really like the versatility of this roster. I'm not as high on them as I am the Jazz, but considering they were 6 games out of the final playoff spot after losing 10 of their last 11, I believe they'll improve greatly on their 39-win mark and have a chance to sneak in as a No. 7 or 8 seed.