In this article, I will take a look into which teams for each conference will be battling for the eighth seed. During most years, the Western Conference is the one with an interesting playoff battle, but with the recent rise of talent in the Eastern Conference, a new more competitive battle can now occur in the Eastern Conference. I will highlight four teams from each conference, who have will likely be battling it out for these final spots in the playoffs.
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis is elevating his game to new heights this offseason, as he is developing a reliable three point shot. Additionally, a report came out claiming he has added 12 pounds of muscle this past offseason. New Orleans is going to need this and much more to secure their second consecutive playoff spot in the crowded Western Conference. The offseason did give New Orleans a boost, as Portland lost four of their five starters via trade and free agency, and look to be a bottom dweller in the conference for this next season. Dallas lost out on DeAndre Jordan during the free agency, but were able to rid themselves from the disaster in the form of Rajon Rondo, and add Deron Williams. Dallas is a little weaker than they were last season, and as you will see shortly, Dallas will be the main competitor for New Orleans for the final playoff spots. New Orleans’ biggest X-Factor for this upcoming season will depend on Jrue Holiday. If Holiday can stay healthy, his ability to score will help take the pressure off Davis, and form a deadly combination that New Orleans can ride into the playoffs. Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans will be leaned upon to provide offense as well, as the back court or New Orleans is rather thin compared to their deep frontcourt, which has a wide variety of different skill set players, giving New Orleans the ability to exploit weaknesses in different teams. Going into the season, New Orleans will be looked at as a playoff team, and I expect the Pelicans to be a seventh seed next year as long as everyone stays healthy.
Dallas Mavericks: As mentioned above in the New Orleans Pelicans portion, Dallas had a rough offseason, but still have the talent to compete for a playoff spot. With DeAndre Jordan backing out of his word, Dallas set its sights on Wesley Matthews, who is a good two-way player. Matthews was overpaid, especially considering Matthews coming off a major injury, but Dallas was desperate to add talent to give Dirk Nowitzki another chance at a championship run. The starting five has the potential to be one of the better ones in the league, but the key for Dallas to make the postseason will be their bench depth. A lineup of Williams-Mathews-Parsons-Dirk-McGee should give Dallas one of the best offenses; coach Carlisle can flat-out coach any talent given to him. Meanwhile, Dallas has a very young and inexperienced bench, causing great concerns on how far they can go this year. Zaza Pachulia, Devin Harris, and Charlie Villanueva will need to be key veteran presence off the bench, as all of the rookies lead by Justin Anderson will need all the mentoring they can get. Justin Anderson has the makings to be an excellent two-way player; all he needs is playing time, coaching, and veteran leadership. Furthermore, Dallas’ main competitor for the final playoff spot will be the Utah Jazz, who will be a surprising team to watch this next season. Dallas has the starting five to make the playoffs, but health and youth might be the Achilles Heel for Dallas in their quest for making the postseason.
Utah Jazz: Utah is going to be an interesting team to watch this next season. Utah lost Dante Exum to a torn ACL during international play, which was a critical blow, as Utah was hoping for Exum to make big strides in his development this next season. With this injury, Trey Burke will need to step-up and become the leader and top guard, Utah drafted him to be. Alec Burks will be another big piece for Utah, as his ability to score will be leaned upon for this young Jazz team. If healthy, Burks can finally live up to and justify the contract that Utah rewarded him with last year. Gordon Hayward is the star player for this team, and if his play can continue like this past season, Utah could be a very dangerous team, as the rest of the talent catches up this season to the level of Hayward’s. The frontcourt is a very dangerous tandem in the form of, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. Favors is going to be leaned on for the offense down-low, as Gobert is still developing this part of his game. Although Favors will be leaned on for his offensive prowess, he does provide solid rebounding and is outstanding as a help defender and low-post defender. Gobert will continue his fast rise to defensive stardom, and with a full season with Enes Kanter out of the way, Gobert’s offense should greatly improve, giving the Jazz a potential star two-way center to build around. After the all-star break last year, Utah saw constant improvement as each month passed. Their strength is their top-5 defense; look for that to carry on to this season as they battle for their first playoff birth since 2012.
Phoenix Suns: As of recent years, Phoenix has been an overlooked team. The Suns always seem to have the talent to be a playoff team, but can never form the chemistry needed to become that playoff team they should be. This season is no different. The back court is led by Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, the forward positions are filled by an unproven high volume scorer, T.J. Warren, and a distraught Markieff Morris. At center, Tyson Chandler looks to bring proven rim protection to the team, which was sorely needed. They have the makings to being one of the better offenses in the league, but outside of Bledsoe and Chandler they look to be mediocre on defense. As mentioned earlier, this team could be doomed due to an unstable front office. We have seen ever since Nash and Amare’ left the franchise has been in constant turnover, leading to no stability whatsoever. If they keep players in tact this year and everyone stays healthy, then Phoenix has a fairly decent shot at sneaking into the crowded western conference. Furthermore, this is a very young team with only two players having more than six years of NBA experience, so that is what could hold this team back from getting to the playoffs again.
Detroit Pistons: Detroit is another highly overlooked team for this next season. Detroit’s first round pick, Stanley Johnson, was tremendous this offseason in summer league, and looked as having the ability to step into the starting small forward position, and shore up the perimeter defense for the Pistons. During the offseason, Detroit acquired Ersan Ilyasova from the Milwaukee Bucks, who is a better suited frontcourt partner for Andre Drummond and Stan Van Gundy’s offensive system. Detroit also resigned Reggie Jackson to a long-term deal, giving them the flexibility to potentially trade Brandon Jennings for a bigger need during the season. Before Jennings Achilles injury, his stock was as high as it ever has been, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they moved him. It would also be interesting to see certain lineups containing both Jennings and Jackson. Brandon Jennings, Steve Blake, and Spencer Dinwiddie provide good depth at the point guard position, and with the shooting guard position filled by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jodie Meeks, the back court is very potent and deep. The frontcourt is not short of depth either; led by Drummond and Ilyasova, Aron Baynes, Anthony Tolliver, and Joel Anthony provide solid depth. Detroit has a great center in Andre Drummond, and have built an arsenal of quality shooters around him, allowing them to solve the issue of spacing they had over the past two seasons. With this, Detroit has the ability to surprise many and sneak into the playoffs as an eighth seed. Once in the playoffs, Detroit would not likely win a series against a Chicago or Cleveland type team, but could at least stay around and cause problems for those teams in the first round.
Boston Celtics: Boston surprised many this past season by making the playoffs, and although lacked the talent to beat Cleveland, the playoff experience was vital to their young core. The summer of 2015 was supposed to be the summer that the Celtics signed a marquee free agent who would elevate them back to a reliable playoff contender. Things did not go as planned, and with a confusing draft strategy, the roster is now filled with quite a few question marks. After trading Rajon Rondo during the season, Marcus Smart excelled as a rookie, and made All-Rookie Second Team, and looks to have the talent to be the starting point guard of the future. He wasn’t reliable as a shooter, but expect him to be vastly improved. He suffered a gruesome finger injury in summer league, so we will see how that affects him. Furthermore, the point guard position is set with Smart as the starting point guard and Isaiah Thomas as the electric sixth man. Boston also elected to pick Terry Rozier, a combo guard, with their first choice in the 2015 NBA draft. Rozier does a lot of the things Smart does, and he is just as bad at shooting if not worse. Their draft night started to look even stranger after they selected R.J Hunter, a shooting guard/small forward, with their second first round pick. They were already stacked with guards and. Boston had a huge need for a defensive center, and although they drafted a shot blocker from LSU in Jordan Mickey, his smaller statue will not hold up against NBA size centers. This again gives Boston a lot of depth at the power forward position, and not a lot of quality depth at small forward or center. Boston still has time to make a big trade with their surplus of young players, but with no true difference maker on their team, and the return of Paul George to Indiana, and a healthy Miami Heat team, Boston, with their current roster will struggle for a playoff seed in the more diverse Eastern Conference. If any coach has the brains to assemble a decent team into a difficult match-up, it is Brad Stevens, and this is why you should not be surprised to see Boston sneak into the playoffs.
Atlanta Hawks: From first to possibly eight? This might become Atlanta’s reality this season, as they lost a few key players to free agency. In addition to that, add the fact that there are other talents rising in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta’s success will be built on their team chemistry, much like last season. The loss of DeMarre Carroll hurts the flow of their offense and defense. He was great defensive specialist and spread the offense with his ability to knockdown three pointers at a decent clip. Tiago Splitter was acquired in a trade with the San Antonio Spurs, which helps give the Hawks an upgrade over former back-up center Pero Antic. The Hawks used their first round pick to acquire Tim Hardaway Jr from the New York Knicks, which was not a good trade with what was left on the board. This decision will only further hinder success for next season, and as stated before, the rising talent within the conference will only decrease the chances of Atlanta being a top team, and having to fight for one of the last seeds in the conference. Atlanta does have the veteran leadership in Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Kyle Korver to get to the playoffs, and be dangerous, but it will all depend on their chemistry and if they can fill the void of DeMarre Carroll.
Charlotte Hornets: Charlotte should be an improved team this year. You could have drawn this conclusion based on them trading away Lance Stephenson, but the addition of Nicolas Batum greatly increases the perimeter play. Batum is a plus defender and spreads the floor unlike Stephenson ever could. Charlotte also acquired Spencer Hawes and Frank Kaminsky, giving them two stretch big men to work with. This was a big problem for Charlotte as you saw last season without Josh McRoberts in their line-up. Jeremy Lamb was added to the team, and although he has never lived up to his lofty expectations in Oklahoma City, Charlotte offers less expectations and a desire for his skills off the bench. P.J. Hairston, with a year under his belt should look to get more minutes, and his dynamic ability to score will only make last year’s stagnant looking offense that much more potent. Of course, Jeremy Lin was added, and as much as people like to hate on him, a back-up role should give him less spotlight, and a chance to regain his confidence, and provide an offensive spark off the bench. Charlotte is being forgotten about right now, and with the veteran leaders of Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson, along with the defensive stalwart Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte could look to sneak into the playoffs with a potentially dangerous team.
By: Mac Crowe, @Mac_Truck17
Edited By: Hamed Qashmar, @HamedQashmar