The Grizzlies and Timberwolves are just two of the NBA playoff teams that took major leaps this season. Which teams can follow next year? Chris Mannix and Howard Beck weigh in.
Mannix: All right, Beck, one of the most compelling series this postseason is Grizzlies-Wolves. And neither team made the playoffs last season? Putting aside the Clippers—because at full strength we both know they are a title contender—which team outside the conference’s top eight do you like to take a Grizz-Wolves–like leap next season?
Beck: It’s gotta be the Pelicans, right? Zion Williamson will presumably be healthy and in uniform. CJ McCollum will be running the point from Day 1. Brandon Ingram will keep doing Brandon Ingram things. They might have a Big 3 in the Big Easy! And the supporting cast is looking stout, with Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance Jr., Jaxson Hayes and rookie defensive ace Herb Jones. We’ve seen how tough this group is in their first-round series against the Suns. Give them a little time—and, you know, a full season of Zion—and the Pelicans could be a problemas the kids say.
Mannix: Pels are a safe bet. I loved the McCollum trade for New Orleans. He averaged 24 points in 26 games for the Pelicans. That would have been a career high over a full season! That team needed a lead guard (check), veteran leadership (check) and consistent three-point shooting (check, check, check). He’s an ideal complement to Brandon Ingram and, hopefully, Zion.
I’ve got another easy one: Cleveland. Think about it. If the Cavs were not ravaged by injuries in the second half of the season, they had a shot at a top-four seed. Darius Garland and Evan Mobley are only going to get better. Isaac Okoro, too. And Caris LeVert will have a full season to integrate himself into the offense. I don’t know what Cleveland does with Collin Sexton, but they will either bring him back or get something for him in a sign-and-trade. I could make an argument—perhaps a shaky one—that the Cavs could win the conference next season. They could be that good.
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Beck: The Cavs are interesting, because they sorta just had their breakthrough season, going 44–38 after a three-year slog in which they won 27% of their games. They just couldn’t finish it off, largely because of the late-season injury to Jarrett Allen. But I agree: They’re poised for a serious breakthrough season.
A few other candidates: The Hawks (who had their breakthrough last year, then backslid) could make another leap with better health, or a three-for-one-type trade to get Trae Young a co-star. The Blazers, with a healthy Damian Lillard and an offseason roster overhaul. And uh, well, the Lakers, if they can jettison Russell Westbrook and find a few decent role players to support LeBron James. That guy’s still pretty good.
Any potential dark horses out there? The Pistons? The Thunder? The Pacers? The Kangz?
Mannix: detroit is kinda interesting. Cade Cunningam looked like a star in the second half of the season and there was a mid-February/early March stretch when everyone was healthy that they looked like a budding playoff contender, but I still think the Pistons are another year away. Thunder, too, unless they can offload a few of their bazillion picks for veteran talent. And Sacramento has teased us with its potential for years.
I think it’s the Pels and Cavs. I think both are threats to be in the upper half of the playoff bracket seeds next season with the potential to do a lot more.
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