NBA Playoffs: Who Are the Dark Horse Teams?

 Jason Miller/Getty Images
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The NBA generally doesn’t enjoy the parity that other leagues, specifically the NFL and MLB, have on a year-to-year basis. While the majority of the MLB goes into Spring Training with a realistic shot at winning the World Series in October, that just isn’t the case in the NBA. At the start of the 2015-16 season, many assumed that either the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, or Cleveland Cavaliers would be crowned champions next June.

Now, with March just around the corner, the same assumptions hold true. The Warriors are chasing down the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ 72-10 record, and at 53-5, they are well on their way (actually on pace to win an insane 75 games). People would be talking more about the Spurs — who are actually on a pretty nice 69-win pace themselves — if it weren’t for how dominating the Warriors have been. The Cavs aren’t that close to these top two teams, but because they stand tallest in the Eastern Conference, they earn their place in the discussion.

But could a team take out at least one of these heavyweights in the playoffs? The prevailing thought is that the playoffs may be a waiting game; entertainment that delays the inevitable (the Spurs and Warriors will face off in a glorious Western Conference Finals battle to take on the Cavs in the NBA Finals). But that assumption overlooks a few emerging storylines.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder experienced injuries over the last several years, with point guard Russell Westbrook and then-forward Kevin Durant having health-related problems that doomed the team’s title chances before they even got off the ground. But this year, Westbrook and Durant are both healthy and performing at their peak. Durant is averaging 27.9 points and 8.1 rebounds, with Westbrook racking up 24.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 10.2 assists per game. They’re the best tandem this side of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

The problem for the Thunder — who have a 41-18 record (third-best in the Western Conference) — is their path to the NBA title. Should the Thunder find themselves in the NBA Finals against any opponent from the East, they’d be the heavy favorite to win. But to get there they need to take on the Spurs in the second round, and then they’d face the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder are worth a mention as a dark horse because they’re talented enough to hang with those teams, as evidenced by their 121-118 overtime loss on Saturday night to Curry’s Warriors.

Another interesting dark horse: the surging Portland Trail Blazers. After starting the season 11-20, the Blazers have experienced a 20-8 run since Christmas. They’ve gone from completely out of the playoff conversation to tying with the Dallas Mavericks for the sixth spot in the West. The Clippers are eight games ahead of them and likely out of reach, but they could rise as high as the fifth seed by the time the playoffs start. That could mean a second-round date with the Warriors if things go well.

With a backcourt that features Damian Lillard and Most Improved Player frontrunner C.J. McCollum, there’s a lot to like about Portland. They have one of the youngest teams in the NBA, with Lillard, McCollum, Al-Faroug Aminu, Allen Crabbe, Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard, Maurice Harkless, Noah Vonleh, Tim Frazier, and Cliff Alexander all coming in at 25 years old or younger. A playoff appearance and the ability to measure up against either the Warriors, Spurs, or even the Thunder would go a long way for this team.

Jason Miller/Getty Images
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Over in the East, there’s less to challenge the Cavs. With LeBron James still performing like one of the best players on the planet and Kyrie Irving getting back in the swing of things after missing the first 24 games of the season, Cleveland has a lot going their way. The Toronto Raptors have ascended to second place in the Eastern Conference, though, and look like the best bet to take down the reigning conference champions.

Toronto is receiving the best year of point guard Kyle Lowry’s career, seeing him setting career highs in points (21.4), shooting (43.6%), three-point shooting (39%), and minutes per game (37). Add in the facts that DeMar DeRozan is having one of the best years of his career and Luis Scola provides calming leadership and occasional scoring off the bench, and the Raptors have one of the better defenses in the game. There’s reason to hope they could not only reach the Eastern Conference Finals, but give the Cavs a run for their money.

Last, we have the Chicago Bulls. Prior to the season, many fans and experts expected this team to actually challenge the Cavs in the East. So far, a mix of adjusting to a new coach and some major injuries have derailed the Bulls to the point where they’re fighting for a playoff spot. They currently hold a slight half-game edge over the ninth-place Detroit Pistons with a 30-28 record. As it stands, they’d face the Cavaliers in the opening round of the playoffs.

Jimmy Butler Chicago Bulls #21
Getty Images

But the Bulls’ injuries have sculpted their entire season. Jimmy Butler is still out for a few more weeks with a knee sprain and Nikola Mirotic should be back in about two more weeks post-appendix removal. Joakim Noah is lost for the season with a separated shoulder, but Mike Dunleavy has returned to the team after missing several months after back surgery.

The Bulls have been a nightmare, but Derrick Rose — who has also missed 10 games due to some nagging injuries and needed rest — has been a bright spot. Rose is slowly returning to form as an All-Star-caliber guard. If Butler, Rose, Dunleavy, Mirotic, Pau Gasol, and Taj Gibson are healthy for the playoffs, you have to give the Bulls a chance at making it to a series with the Cavs.

The Bulls played Cleveland tough in the playoffs last season, with Rose banking a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer in Game Three to give them a 2-1 edge. The Bulls nearly took a 3-1 series lead before James stole Game Four with a buzzer-beater of his own. The Bulls probably won’t take the Cavaliers out in the first round, but if there’s any first-round matchup that scares James, this is probably it.

Even if the most likely scenario is that the Spurs, Warriors, or Cavaliers hold the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season, it doesn’t mean other teams don’t have an outside shot. These teams are proof that there’s always a chance — even if it’s low.

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