This time last year, five current playoff teams--the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers in the East and the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Hornets in the West--were busy preparing for the lottery rather than worrying about how to upset an opponent in the opening round. That number is somewhat on the high side, and tied for the most turnover among playoff teams in the last three decades, but an average of exactly four teams per season have jumped from the lottery to the postseason in the last 10 years.
Which teams are most likely to pull off the feat next season? From most to least likely, here are our five picks, and reasons why they will--or won't--make it to the postseason in 2012:
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Why they'll make the playoffs: The Bucks were battered by injuries this season. They lost more games due to injury (277) than any other team in the NBA. Given average health, the Bucks should be improved.
Why they'll stay in the lottery: Even when they were healthy, veterans like Drew Gooden and John Salmons were not especially effective. Milwaukee needs more from them.
The Bucks are the most likely non-playoff team to reach the postseason next season for a few reasons. First, we've seen this Milwaukee group achieve such success; the Bucks were the No. 6 seed a year ago. Teams a year removed from a playoff run get out of the lottery 40.7 percent of the time, as compared to 27.3 percent for all other teams. Second, while the 2010-11 campaign was disappointing, bad luck was a major factor. In addition to the injuries, Milwaukee's point differential was more typical of a 39-win team instead of a 35-win one. The big X Factor for the Bucks next season is the development of point guard Brandon Jennings. Jennings was unable to build on his promising rookie campaign, but his talent is obvious. If Jennings steps forward, so will Milwaukee as a team.
2. Houston Rockets
Why they'll make the playoffs: Not only did the Rockets have the best record of any non-playoff team, they went 17-8 after the All-Star break but were unable to make up enough ground on the last playoff spot in the West.
Why they'll stay in the lottery: How much of that success can be traced to Rick Adelman? Houston's head coach won't return by "mutual" agreement, the team announced Monday.
In general, teams like the Rockets with above-.500 records are naturally the best bests to get back in the playoffs. That's been a 50-50 proposition over the last three decades. Houston also should return the lineup that finished out the season strong virtually intact. Chuck Hayes becomes a free agent, but the Rockets figure to have plenty of room to re-sign him. Someone in the Western Conference will have to slip to make room, but Houston is poised to take advantage in that scenario.
3. Golden State Warriors
Why they'll make the playoffs: With Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, Dorell Wright and David Lee in the starting lineup, Golden State went a respectable 28-30.
Why they'll stay in the lottery: Because of their questionable depth, the Warriors dropped to 8-16 when at least one of their four core players was sidelined.
Other than Milwaukee and Houston, the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz were the other non-playoff teams with a better point differential than the Warriors, and both of them seem headed for a rebuilding project. Golden State has built a decent core, but must improve its depth via the draft and free agency. Look for Ekpe Udoh to emerge as the fifth starter next season. The Warriors were much more effective with him at center alongside the four core starters than veteran Andris Biedrins, outscoring opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions, per BasketballValue.com.
4. New Jersey Nets
Why they'll make the playoffs: With a full season of Deron Williams, the Nets figure to make major strides.
Why they'll stay in the lottery: New Jersey finished 13 games out of the postseason, and it's rare for teams to improve that dramatically. Over the last three decades, an average of fewer than three teams per year have made that kind of leap in wins.
The Nets are an intriguing wild card for 2011-12 as they try to have enough success to convince Williams to stick around with a new long-term contract. Because of Williams' impact on his teammates' shooting, the offense improved after his arrival despite the fact that Williams himself was dealing with an injury to his shooting wrist that ultimately required surgery. Besides Williams, New Jersey's other avenue for improvement is to use cap space to plug up a gaping hole on the wing. Collectively, the Nets' small forwards (Stephen Graham, Damion James, Travis Outlaw and Quinton Ross) rated an incredible 8.7 wins below the contributions of a replacement-level player, per Basketball Prospectus' metrics. In terms of PER, 82games.com's team production stats show just one position in the league was worse for its team than Nets small forwards (9.1)--Lakers point guards (8.8).
5. Los Angeles Clippers
Why they'll make the playoffs: Two words: Blake Griffin.
Why they'll stay in the lottery: The Clippers face an even bigger deficit to overcome than the Nets, having finished 14 games out of the playoffs and 11 behind the Rockets.
Certainly, the Clippers are a long-shot, but there is too much talent on hand to entirely rule out the possibility that they develop ahead of schedule. Between their 1-13 start and Eric Gordon suffering a bone fracture in the wrist on his shooting hand, the Clippers were better than .500 (16-13). Meanwhile, Mo Williams is a more reliable option at the point than Baron Davis. The downside is the Clippers are unlikely to add much to their lineup this offseason. They dealt their first-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Davis-Williams trade and will probably forego free agency in order to keep their salary cap clean for the summer of 2012, when they could be substantially below the salary cap.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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