In the 2017-18 Western Conference, there could be as many as 12 teams that reach the 40-win mark, a total that any respectable team should be able to cross. Even in the most pessimistic projections, there isn’t likely to be less than nine teams to reach 40 wins.
Out east, it’s a much, much different story. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, and Toronto Raptors are all virtual locks to be comfortably above .500. After that, however, things get a little rough.
The Milwaukee Bucks could see as many as 50 wins if all things go right, but they’re also a young team lacking in any sort of veteran depth. They saw multiple young players have career years last season, so if they regress instead of progress, it wouldn’t be jaw-dropping to see them end the year 38-44.
Then you have five teams in rebuilding mode, basically guaranteed to win less than 30 games. Then five more teams in the middle who can hardly be relied upon.
That gives the league at large a major issue: the Eastern Conference still needs to field eight playoff teams. So even if you generously pencil in the Bucks, the Charlotte Hornets, and the Miami Heat into those five, six, and seven spots, that leaves one gaping sinkhole at the eighth seed.
The race will likely come down to three teams: a young team on the rise, a 2015-16 playoff team who took a major step back last year, and a team of misfit toys seemingly stuck in perpetual rebuild. Let’s take a look at their chances.
2016-17 record: 28-54
Last playoff appearance: 2012
Key to success: Health
No team has gotten a more favorable look in pre-season projections than the Philadelphia 76ers. They are routinely being penciled in to a playoff spot, and some Vegas sportsbooks have set their over/under at 40.5 wins or higher.
The Sixers have the most upside of any team in the NBA, long-term. They have two number one overall picks just starting their respective careers in guard Markelle Fultz and forward Ben Simmons, and a third young player who likely would have been the number one overall pick in 2014 if it wasn’t for his untimely foot injury, Joel Embiid.
While that’s the exact reason to be excited about the Sixers, it’s the very same reason to not project them as a playoff team this year. The Sixers’ three best players have played a combined 31 games in the NBA. They have two quality veterans in guards Jerryd Bayless and JJ Redick, but the rest of their veterans are a trio of borderline unplayable mentor bigs in Amir Johnson, Kris Humphries, and Emeka Okafor, who hasn’t played in the NBA since 2014.
Unless you believe Embiid is both going to be healthy and have a greater impact in his first full season than Karl-Anthony Towns or Anthony Davis have had in their careers, it’s pretty mysterious where this team’s wins will be coming from. Young teams simply don’t win games, especially not a team this lacking in depth and reliable veterans.
Verdict: Unless 34 wins or less can earn you the eighth seed, the Sixers are out.
2016-17 record: 37-45
Last playoff appearance: 2016
Key to success: Chemistry
The Detroit Pistons were in good shape once upon a time.
They made an impressive run to the playoffs in 2016, ending the season 44-38, a solid mark for a young team bursting into the playoff picture for the first time. They got swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round — as any eight seed would — but they played competitive ball against LeBron James and the squad that would go on to win the title. They looked like they belonged.
Last year, they looked completely lost. They were significantly worse with their two most important players — point guard Reggie Jackson and center Andre Drummond — on the floor. Jackson had the excuse of injury, but Drummond just looked plain uninterested. It’s become clear that coach and team president Stan Van Gundy doesn’t want to build around Drummond or Jackson, and is looking to trade them sooner rather than later.
Unfortunately, their stock is lower than ever, and no team is looking to bite. Now, they’re entering another season with only modest changes to their roster, letting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope walk in favor of Avery Bradley. They also said goodbye to Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris, and welcomed in point guard Langston Galloway.
Hypothetically, this team could come into the season healthy and happy, ready to get back on track. More realistically, they are looking at a worse version of what happened last year. They lost their starting power forward and their backup center, who both provided them strong minutes last year, and brought in a backup point guard, flanking one of the few strong points in their rotation last year.
Overall, this is a messy, bad team that is more likely to be underselling assets at the trade deadline than making a playoff push.
Verdict: Unless they have multiple guys turn their careers around, the Pistons are out.
2016-17 record: 29-53
Last playoff appearance: 2012
Key to success: New pieces clicking
They’ve tried a lot of different players, a lot of different coaches, and a few different GMs — nothing has gotten them close to a successful rebuild yet.
Last year was one of their low points by any measure. They brought in head coach Frank Vogel, who proved himself to be a good coach during his tenure in Indiana. And they brought in former Oklahoma City Thunder big man Serge Ibaka, sadly the clear best player they have had post-Howard.
But the roster overall was a strange mess, with three expensive players who should all be playing center. This moved forward Aaron Gordon, the most important player on the team, out of his natural position of power forward over to small forward. When Gordon was at the three, the Magic were great defensively, but couldn’t score against a crash test dummy. When Gordon was at the four, the Magic found their ability to score, but looked like they were playing defense four-on-five.
This year, the roster makes much more sense. Ibaka is now in Toronto, clearing the way for Gordon at the four. Small forward Jeff Green — who was paid $15 million by the Magic to extend his six-year streak of being the worst player in the league — is now in Cleveland. They brought in San Antonio Spurs export Johnathon Simmons, number six overall draft pick Johnathan Isaac, and competent vets like Shelvin Mack, Arron Afflalo, and Marreese Speights.
The Magic are a flawed team with an uncertain future. But in the desolate wasteland that is the bottom half of the Eastern Conference, they could be good enough for this year.
Verdict: Unless another team can find competency, the Magic are in.