The NFL is the league that is always associated with parity, but the NBA isn’t that far behind. Take the playoffs: while the good teams will stay good (we’re not expecting the Cavaliers or the Warriors to miss the postseason, for example). As is natural in any sports league, the playoff teams cycle from season to season. In the NBA a large portion of the teams stay the same, but there are always a few new teams. In the offseason, there have been several teams that have improved in a big way, meaning there will almost certainly be some turnover in the playoff picture. In the Eastern Conference alone there are a few new teams in the top eight. But if those new teams are in, who is out? Here are five playoff teams that are in danger of not making it next season.
1. Miami Heat
The Heat had an interesting offseason. It started well, with them bringing back center Hassan Whiteside on a multi-year deal. But Dwyane Wade left to sign with the Chicago Bulls, Luol Deng signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, and Chris Bosh’s career is unfortunately in question because of recurring issues with blood clots.
While Miami still has Goran Dragic to pair with Whiteside, and some good young players in Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, they probably overachieved last season, when they won 48 games with Bosh sitting out, and now losing Wade and Deng — two prominent veteran players who played big roles the last two seasons — makes their return to the playoffs next season somewhat unlikely in an improved Eastern Conference.
Who will make it instead: The Chicago Bulls
The Bulls were close to making the playoffs last season but missed the mark. In the post season they went out and added Wade and point guard Rajon Rondo to a roster that already featured Jimmy Butler — one of the best two-way players in the game. Chicago may not be one of the top teams in the East, but they probably are the fourth or fifth best in their conference.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s hard putting the Thunder on this list, but losing one of the 10 best players in the NBA to free agency will do that. Take, for example, the 2014-15 season when Durant was limited to 27 games because of a foot injury. The Thunder still won 45 games behind the play of Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and a cast of role players. But that wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs in the West that year, and with Durant and Ibaka replaced with a still-developing Victor Oladipo and an inconsistent Ersan Ilyasova, it’s very possible they’ll be on the outside looking in next year.
But the Thunder does still have Russell Westbrook, their star and team leader. But with a reasonable chance that he could be bolting in free agency next summer, the situation in Oklahoma City will be worth watching all year. If the Thunder get off to even a reasonably bad start, or are clearly not a serious contender, the Thunder may even go as far as to deal Westbrook mid-season to get some assets in return for a player they likely won’t be able to re-sign, anyway.
Who will make it instead: The Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves haven’t made wholesale changes to their roster, but they drafted promising guard Kris Dunn to go along with their youthful and entertaining core of Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine, and Gorgui Dieng. They also added Tom Thibodeau, who may in fact work them to death, but he’ll get this group to the playoffs.
3. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks actually did make some nice offseason moves, but that may not save them in 2016-17. Dallas made the postseason by the skin of their teeth last year with a 42-40 record. The team was led by a 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki and a 31-year-old Deron Williams — who had a nice bounce-back season after being let go by the Brooklyn Nets.
Adding Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut will help, but the fact is that a lot of the Mavericks’ best players are on the backside of their career. Continuing to rely on Nowitzki as the best player on the roster is a mistake. Trusting that Williams will repeat his solid season is, as well. And Chandler Parsons, who has been very good for the Mavs the last two years, now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies. Dallas is at major risk of missing the playoffs next year.
Who will make it instead: The Utah Jazz
Utah missed the playoffs by a single game last season, and they’ve added veterans George Hill and Joe Johnson to their young core of improving players. Barring disaster, the Jazz will be in the postseason once again.
4. Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets had a good year under defensive-minded head coach Steve Clifford, winning 48 games in a tightly bunched Eastern Conference. They had a breakout year from point guard Kemba Walker and excellent production from sixth man Jeremy Lin and mid-season acquisition Courtney Lee. The Hornets lost in the first round of the playoffs, but they were an exciting team to watch in 2015-16.
But, unfortunately for Hornets fans, they didn’t do a ton to improve their roster in the offseason. The signed Nicolas Batum to a long-term deal and locked up veteran forward Marvin Williams, but they also watched Lee, Lin, and center Al Jefferson leave town. With the improvement of current playoff teams, such as the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks, it’s hard to envision the Hornets making the cut next season.
Who will make it instead: The New York Knicks
The Knicks added Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee, and others to a core that already has Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. New York isn’t a ‘super team’, but they’re certainly a playoff team.
5. Houston Rockets
Much like the Mavericks, the Houston Rockets barely qualified as a playoff team last season as it is. They finished right at .500 with a 41-41 record and were completely overmatched by the Golden State Warriors in the first round, save for the single game that they won. The Rockets then watched center Dwight Howard leave to return to his hometown of Atlanta.
The good news is that they did bring in sharp-shooting stretch forward Ryan Anderson and shooting guard Eric Gordon. So you could argue that they didn’t really downgrade the roster with the loss of Howard, but the problem with that is that they really didn’t improve a ton either.
Who will make it instead: The New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are somewhat of a dark horse, but they had a ton of injury issues last season and have one of the most dynamic young players in the league in Anthony Davis. Another bad season from New Orleans is no sure bet.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanDavisBP