Peaks and Valleys: This Season’s Most Unpredictable Teams

Last year 14 teams didn’t make the playoffs. Which ones have the greatest potential for success – and the greatest potential for failure?

Every season starts with deep reservoirs of potential for each NBA team. If things break their way, they could reach the stars. If things don’t, then the fall could be hard. Injuries, player development, trades, and just plain luck all can lift a team up, or bring them crashing down.

Some teams are so stacked with so much talent and coaching that they have a high floor; even if things go poorly for them they have a baseline of wins in place. When the Oklahoma City Thunder suffered injuries to every major rotation piece in the 2014-15 season, they still won 48 games.

Other teams have a glass ceiling, one they can look past but not realistically push through. Last season the Lakers talked about grandiose plans for the playoffs, but in reality they simply didn’t command the talent or coaching to reach 35 wins even in a best-case scenario.

Entering this year, 14 teams left out of the playoffs last season have hopes and dreams. For most, the playoffs are still a reasonable goal, if only one with slim probabilities. For a handful, simply taking a step forward is all they wish for. A few clubs stand out as having the widest range of finishes. They could put things together and make a leap up into the playoffs, or they could fall apart and drop to the bottom of the standings. This season has a number of unpredictable teams, but here are the three worst offenders.

The League’s Darlings: Minnesota Timberwolves

No team in the NBA is more beloved by media and non-Minnesota fans than the Timberwolves. With a core of incredibly young and talented stars who genuinely seem to have formed a close bond, the Timberwolves are fun to watch and root for.

Last season Karl-Anthony Towns turned in one of the best rookie years this century, earning consideration for All-NBA teams while handily winning the Rookie of the Year award. If he takes another leap in his second season, he could be the league’s best center by year’s end. He can score from anywhere on the court, protects the rim, and runs the floor. If Anthony Davis was the prototype for the new NBA big man, Towns is the real model.

The wide range of possibilities for the Wolves comes from the talent around him. Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine have proven they can score, and LaVine developed his passing skills during his stint at point guard. With two other elite passers at the point in Ricky Rubio and rookie Kris Dunn, there is every reason to expect this team to take a huge leap forward on offense.

But defense is the question mark for a squad that finished 27th in defensive efficiency last season. Tom Thibodeau is one of the league’s best defensive minds, and everyone expects this team to make a huge improvement on defense. But in only one offseason, can this squad really improve to top-10 levels? The talent, length, and athleticism are there, as well as the coaching. How far can this team go?

The Valley: If the young talent on this team develops slower than hoped, a modest improvement on last year to a win total in the low 30s is the low bar.

The Peak: If Towns makes the leap, Dunn is immediately the impact player he looks to be, and Thibs coaches the defense up from the start, the sky’s the limit for this group of players. Following the model of the Oklahoma City Thunder of a few years back, they could immediately make a leap to 50 wins. The talent is there.

Swagger and Doubts: The New York Knicks

If the NBA were entering a time machine and heading back to 2010, the Knicks would be among the preseason favorites to win the title. Minnesota would have peak Kevin Garnett surrounded by 15 year-olds, the Lakers’ head coach would also be suiting up for them, and the Warriors would be trying to figure out how to keep Steph Curry’s ankles intact. The Knicks would be winning a lot of basketball games.

The problem is that it’s not 2010, and the Knicks have an old and fragile roster. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah both have plenty of talent, but injuries have sapped them both of athleticism and offensive ability. While there’s the chance the two former Bulls reignite the flame, it certainly can’t be declared likely.

The Knicks’ true hope for a dream season is the development of Kristaps Porzingis. The 7-0 tower from Latvia had an outstanding rookie year and could be ready for more. If he takes another leap forward, the Knicks have two stars to start with – Carmelo Anthony and the Zinger – without considering Noah or Rose. That gives them the chance to be good.

Behind their top four is a variety of interesting depth pieces. Lance Thomas has the versatility to play swing forward, and Brandon Jennings is on a one-year “prove it” deal. At backup center Kyle O’Quinn has shown flashes of being a solid piece. If the starters are really good, the bench then has the freedom to not be so bad either.

But the potential for abject failure is brewing beneath the surface of this team. Signing Noah forces Porzingis to play at power forward, which he can do but isn’t his best position. Derrick Rose demands the ball while on the court, which takes the ball out of the hands of other playmakers in Anthony and Noah. Add in aging and some injuries and this team could fall quickly.

The Valley: It’s almost a given that Noah and Rose will miss time, and Anthony hasn’t made it through a full season himself in quite some time. If the pieces don’t come together, Porzingis doesn’t make the leap, and new coach Jeff Hornacek is hamstrung by the presence of Phil Jackson’s man Kurt Rambis still being on the staff, disaster could be the end result. A win total in the low 20’s is not out of the question.

The Peak: If Porzingis makes another leap, this team can realistically raise their expectations. Rose showed last season he can still score at a rate resembling efficiency, and Noah will almost certainly make their defense better. Courtney Lee is an underrated piece on the wing able to defend the other team’s best perimeter player. Health and the establishment of a strong pecking order could see this team fight to 45 wins and a trip to the playoffs.

The All-Rookie First Team: Philadelphia 76ers

For years the 76ers have deliberately tanked, losing games and fielding barebone rosters to store up draft capital and restock the roster with young, cheap talent. This season marks the turning point, when Philadelphia actually begins putting things together and making the climb back to the top.

By themselves, Philadelphia could field an entire All-Rookie team. The first overall pick from this year’s draft, Ben Simmons, is a point-forward who already has an NBA body. He will put up serious numbers in the counting categories running the offense for Brett Brown.

On the wing, the 76ers will display a pair of European talents. Dario Saric comes over after two seasons ready to make an impact in the league; he has the size to play stretch-4 and the playmaking skills to slide up to the 3. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was touted by some as a top-5 pick, a versatile 3-and-D player with upside.

Their final talented rookie will be Joel Embiid, 2014’s no. 3 pick. Multiple surgeries have derailed his career to this point, but every return thus far suggests he is healthy and ready to make his mark. If he is everything he was hinted to be, he can score inside and out while destroying anyone (small children included) trying to score at the rim.

With veteran additions such as Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez and young players such as Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, this team has depth at every position. That isn’t to say they will be good at every position – this team has a lot of growth yet to do. But Brett Brown is a well-respected coach and has been preparing for this moment since arriving in Philly.

The Valley: There is no guarantee Embiid will be healthy, that Saric and Luwawu will be any good, or that Simmons can overcome his lack of a jump shot. This team could easily be the worst in basketball next season.

The Peak: After the three or four top teams, no one in the East should scare anyone until they prove something on the court. With elite talent at every position, the 76ers could put something together. If Embiid has a rookie year like Towns or Porzingis did last season, Simmons immediately makes a mark on the league, and their collection of wings can play an elite level of defense, this team could immediately make a move up the standings. Is the eighth seed out of the question?

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