Moving On Up

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Making the playoffs in the Western Conference is tough during most years, but in 2013-14 it promises to be all out war. Among last season’s playoff teams, the Clippers, Warriors, Rockets, and Grizzlies (with the addition of Mike Miller) got stronger, while the Thunder and Spurs look set to remain among the elite of the conference.

There is a small window of opportunity for some lottery teams to sneak into the playoffs this year, however. The Nuggets, after losing their coach, G.M., and one of their better players, in Andre Iguodala, might fall out of the playoffs; while the Lakers, after losing out on Dwight Howard, and with the uncertainty surrounding Kobe’s achilles injury, could quickly go into free-fall.

The West is tough—there’s no doubt about that—but the following 3 lottery teams from last season have a decent shot of squeezing through that playoff door.

Minnesota Timberwolves
(2012-13 Record: 31-51)

135-341: That’s the Minnesota Timberwolves’ record since Kevin Garnett was traded to the Boston Celtics in the summer of 2007. In other words, the last 6 seasons for T-Wolves fans have been really, really painful. And it’s not as if the years prior to Garnett’s departure were filled with euphoric highs, either—other than a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2004, Minnesota’s had a pretty awful go of things in the Association. Things are looking up for the 2013-14 season, however.

 
 
Well, except that here’s a quick caveat: I’m pretty sure I wrote something about ‘things looking up’ before the start of last season, too. And then Kevin Love decided that knuckle push-ups were great for his game, Chase Budinger tore his meniscus, Brandon Roy’s comeback never got off the ground, and a whole host of other Timberwolves were sidelined throughout the season with various injuries. All this was compounded, of course, by the fact that the team was still waiting on Ricky Rubio to return from his ACL tear. All in all Minnesota lost an astonishing 341 games to injury last season, which explains for the most part why a team that looked set to fight for a playoff place, only won 31 games. 

Okay, so why am I confident that the T-Wolves can go from lottery team, to playoff contender next season? Well, for one thing, teams don’t often experience that kind of terrible injury luck two years in a row. Kevin Love is a super-star, and the best power forward in the league. If he can stay healthy (palm push-ups, Kevin!) that should be worth at least another 10-15 wins; and with Nikola Pekovic tied to a new long-term deal, Minnesota has one of the scariest 4-5 combos in the league.
 
 

Rubio looked healthy towards the end of last season, and although I’m not quite as high on him as some (partly because he can’t shoot) he has the potential to be a very dynamic point-guard. Of course, for the Spainard to be truly effective, he needs shooters around him to take advantage of his fantastic passing abilities. The T-Wolves were one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the NBA last season, but partially addressed that weakness with the signing of Kevin Martin, who shot 42% from 3 last year.

Of course, if Minnesota had managed to re-sign Andrei Kirilenko in the summer (I guess it’s not their fault that Mikhail Prokhorov has such an…umm…persuasive manner), I’d be even higher on them then I already am. But regardless of the loss of AK-47 the T-Wolves still have a team good enough to challenge for that 7th or 8th seed in the West.

Portland Trail Blazers
(2012-13 Record: 33-49)

The Trail Blazers will probably enter the 2013-14 season as many people’s dark horse to make the playoffs—they’ll be that sexy pick, like the T-Wolves were last season (let’s hope that events don’t transpire the same way). And there’s good reason to feel optimistic about the team in Rip City and their chances of bouncing back from a couple disappointing seasons. The luckless Blazers have done a really good job bouncing back and rebuilding on the fly after the doomed, and somewhat tragic, Greg Oden-Brandon Roy era; and the plain farcical, and mercifully brief, Crawford-Felton-Wallace era.

 
 
Of course, it helps when you select a future superstar, in Damien Lillard, with the 6th pick in the draft—a steal in retrospect. Lillard confounded expectations last season to win Rookie of the Year, and showed the kind of maturity that comes with spending 4 years in college. Lillard should be even better in the coming season (he’s been working on his defense with the legendary Gary Payton) and if LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum play at the near-all-star level that they’re capable of, the Blazers have an exciting and dangerous core.

 

The main problem for Portland last season (they actually played well early on) was their complete lack of depth—they simply had no bench, unless you consider the likes of Joel Freeland, Sasha Palovic, and Luke Babbitt, to be NBA-caliber players. General Manager Neil Olshey has gone some way to addressing that problem this summer. The Blazers picked up last year’s 5th overall pick, Thomas Robinson, from the Rockets (despite his issues, it’s far too early to give up on such a high selection), essentially replaced J.J. Hickson for the much more competent Robin Lopez, and snared the very useful (as long as he’s paid correctly) Mo Williams to back up either guard position. On top of that, the Blazers have the promising Meyers Leonard to challenge Lopez for the centre position, and the rookie C.J. McCollum—a very good-looking prospect who can play either guard position.

Don’t sleep on the Blazers next season.

Dallas Mavericks
(2012-13 Record: 41-41)

It feels strange to refer to the Mavericks as a lottery team from last season, in part because last year was the first time they missed the playoffs since the 1999-2000 season (quite the run!), and also because their record would’ve been more than good enough to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference—but we’ll stay off that potential tangent.

Last season Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson signed a whole bunch of so-so players to one-year deals and the team did its best to hold the fort until Dirk Nowitzki returned. They made a late playoff push, but it was a case of too little, too late.

 
 

This summer, after whiffing on Dwight Howard, Cuban did his best to plaster over the cracks and the result is a team that’s going to be very competitive, but probably won’t be better finish higher than 6th. Monta Ellis is decent value at around $8.5 million a year, and Calderon should provide the perfect pick-n-roll partner for Dirk. But really, it made little sense for Cuban to sign Ellis and Calderon to long-term deals, since neither is likely to push the team closer to championship contention.

 
 

The fact remains, however, with Dirk Nowitzki still more than capable of winning games on his own, the Mavericks should be a team that bounces back from last season’s disappointments, to make a serious run at the playoffs this year. Whether finishing in the 6-8 range is beneficial to the Mavs’ long-term future, remains to be seen.

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