In a few weeks, the Brooklyn Nets will play in their first playoff game since 2015.
At the time of this writing, the Nets are 39-39, seventh in the Eastern Conference. That’s major progress from the team’s 28-54, 12th-place finish last season.
But the Nets are hardly alone. Every year, we see a team (or multiple teams) rise from the ashes to make the NBA playoffs.
Below, I rank 12 teams eliminated from the playoffs from most to least likely to make the postseason in 2020. (Miami and Orlando and are vying for the eighth spot in the East as of this writing.)
Free agency and the NBA draft will give us further clarity on these teams. But here’s how things stand now.
TIER 1: LIKELY PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Los Angeles Lakers
There’s no way LeBron James will allow the team to miss the playoffs in 2020 after missing his first postseason since 2005.
Los Angeles was overrated entering the year, but many have overreacted to their recent play. James played in just 55 games this season, and Lonzo Ball, who’s been out sinceJan. 19, is more critical to the Lakers’ defense than some realize.
The Lakers managed a 106.3 defensive rating through 47 games, sixth in the NBA. They’ve dropped to 16th as of this writing.
Los Angeles should improve without even accounting for roster upgrades. If the Lakers trade for Anthony Davis, he and James would create one of the league’s scariest duos. Even that doesn’t happen, the Lakers who will have enough cap space to sign at least one max-contract player.
The Lakers historically are the most attractive franchise in the NBA for free agents, so expect the franchise to attract talent again this summer.
TIER 2: GREAT CHANCE TO COMPETE FOR AN EIGHT SEED
2. Dallas Mavericks
Mavericks fans are excited to see the Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis pairing.
Doncic is the likely NBA Rookie of the Year. He’s still just 20 years old and can continue to get better.
Porzingis will be coming off a torn ACL. I’m guessing he’ll be the same player, even if it takes him half the season to return to normal.
The Mavs possess the fourth-most cap space going into the offseason, and should be able to convince some quality players to join the Doncic/Porzingis duo.
The Mavericks traded a top-5 protected 2019 draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks on draft night last year as part of the deal that led to the team drafting Doncic. In other words, the team will not have a first-round pick if its selection falls outside the top 5.
Dallas’ current odds of holding a top-5 draft choice are better than 35 percent. Expect an aggressive tanking effort in the season’s final games.
3. Atlanta Hawks
If the Mavs don’t strike it big on draft night, the Atlanta Hawks will have two top 10 picks, a rarity in the NBA.
Even if the Hawks don’t land the top pick and draft Zion Williamson, there’s a quality list of next-tier players that can instantly improve the team.
Jarret Culver, projected to go fifth in several mock drafts, could give Atlanta a solid “3 and D” player. That’s just what the Hawks need, as the team ranks 25th in defensive efficiency.
Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and John Collins are growing young players. I didn’t understand the Hawks’ strategy when they moved up to draft Young, but he’s been incredible since the All-Star break.
Trae Young has averaged 25.8 ppg, 9.0 apg and 4.4. rpg in 18 games since the All-Star break. That’s absurd for a rookie that few respected early.
Atlanta enjoys the seventh-most cap space and should be able to find some very solid role players to help improve the defense.
4. Sacramento Kings
Imagine what this team would look like if it had drafted Doncic at No. 2 overall last year instead of Marvin Bagley III.
The DeMarcus Cousins-Buddy Hield swap looks smarter now than it did when it happened.
De’Aaron Fox had a pretty disappointing rookie year, but may have been the most improved player in the NBA this season and looks like a future All-Star.
Harry Giles, the former Duke player who struggled with knee injuries, turned into a solid NBA player, and Bagley III, while limited in his overall game, contributed plenty of scoring and rebounding.
The Kings really wanted to make the playoffs, but had to settle for their highest win total since 2005-06.
Desperate for a solid wing player, Sacramento acquired Harrison Barnes during the season, and his methodical, isolation style has not been a perfect fit with the Kings’ wide-open tempo. If the young frontcourt continues to develop, and the team can better incorporate Barnes, it’s possible this team returns to the playoffs next season, even in a brutal Western Conference.
TIER 3: SHOULD MAKE MAJOR STRIDES
5. New Orleans Pelicans
Expect Anthony Davis to leave in a trade, but the Pelicans should get a lot in return. The haul that Davis commands should be enough to make this a solid team.
Add that to holdovers Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle and New Orleans will at least be competitive.
6. Washington Wizards
The Wizards have been consistently average. In the Eastern Conference, that’s usually enough to compete. Bradley Beal gives the team a chance.
7. Chicago Bulls
Ignore the Bulls’ record this season.
Zach LaVine, a pure scorer, is one of the most underrated players in the league. Otto Porter, a wing who can shoot and defend, didn’t join the team until the trade deadline.
Porter, LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, have played just a handful of games together, but the early results are promising.
Rookie Wendell Carter Jr. is looking like an asset. Chicago also holds a 50 percent chance at a top-3 pick. Though Duke’s Williamson would make Bulls fans happy, adding Murray State’s Ja Morant to be the team’s point guard might be perfect.
TIER 4: DON’T EXPECT A MIRACLE
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Wolves rank this high because of Karl-Anthony Towns. Hopefully Andrew Wiggins can find at least a little love for the game to pair with his talent.
9. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies will rank lower on this list if they trade Mike Conley this summer. However, you can do much worse than a team with Conley, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas and this year’s draft pick.
TIER 5: NOT A CHANCE
10. Charlotte Hornets
I’m assuming Kemba Walker will leave this summer. It’s time for him chase rings. Even if he stays, this team doesn’t have enough pieces around him, nor is Charlotte an attractive free agency destination.
11. New York Knicks
The talk is that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are going to team up with the Knicks this summer. I don’t see that happening. James Dolan does not run the Knicks well, and if a player wants to go to the New York market, why not go to the Nets?
Even if New York lands Williamson, the team doesn’t have enough complimentary pieces to make the playoffs.
12. Phoenix Suns
DeAndre Ayton, Devin Booker and others make for nice individual pieces. Phoenix presumably will add to that through the draft. But there’s something seriously wrong with this team collectively.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers
Rookie point guard Collin Sexton played much better near the end of the season. But void talent and strapped for cap space isn’t the recipe for success. The Cavs have no chance to make the playoffs in 2020.