Making the leap: Evaluating the Wolves, Sixers and Nuggets as playoff hopefuls
Can Butler and Millsap lift their new Western Conference teams? Are the young Sixers ready already?
Few teams should be happier about how the summer has gone than the Minnesota Timberwolves , Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers . Of the 14 that didn't make the playoffs last season, they have done the most to help their chances in 2017-18. Let's take a look at what they've done and whether it will be enough to get them into the postseason party.
Timberwolves | SportsLine: West No. 5 seed
What they did this summer: They decided it is winning time. While the front office could have sat back and waited for the trio of Karl-Anthony Towns , Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine (coming off a torn ACL) to eventually lead this team to the playoffs, it instead chose to acquire Jimmy Butler to shepherd them there. Butler is coming off the best season of his career, and he knows exactly what coach Tom Thibodeau wants because of the four years they spent together in Chicago. Signing Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford also indicates this club is serious about getting out of the lottery next season (they also replaced point guard Ricky Rubio with Jeff Teague ).
SportsLine data: Before the June 22 draft, Minnesota was projected as the 12th-best team in the West with 38.1 wins. After all the moves this summer, SportsLine makes the Wolves the No. 5 seed in the stacked conference, with 46.5 wins, a 8.4-win improvement (and a dramatic 19.6 percent increase in their chance of making the postseason to 88.5 percent).
What would get them into the postseason: They should have been a playoff team last season, but were dragged down by inconsistent defense and awful crunch-time execution. But with Butler and Gibson on board, they're going to be 10 times tougher. If Towns continues to make progress as a team defender -- he was much better at the end of last season than the beginning -- and Wiggins can follow Butler's lead, then this group will be scary. Minnesota had a top-10 offense last season, and there's no reason it can't have a decent defense now, too.
What could stop them: While this is a modern team in terms of defensive versatility, what about spacing? Simply having more offensive firepower does not mean that this is going to be an improved offensive group. In fact, there might need to be more tinkering in order to maximize the stars' abilities. Butler's play-making from the perimeter and Towns' low-post game are borderline unstoppable if the floor is spread, but there aren't many reliable 3-point shooters. Since Teague isn't prolific from deep and Gibson has never been comfortable shooting 3s, there will be pressure on Wiggins and reserve forward Nemanja Bjelica to keep opposing defenses honest.
X-factor player: Wiggins. There is less pressure on him to be a play-maker with Butler around, but you could argue he has more responsibility than before. The Wolves count on him as a super-3-and-D guy -- score efficiently, move the ball and limit mistakes defensively. If he does that, they will be hard to beat. The concern is that he was expected to become a better team defender last season under Thibodeau, and it didn't happen.
Verdict: They most likely will make the playoffs, which would be momentous because they haven't done so since 2003-04, when they made the conference finals and Kevin Garnett won MVP. The road will not be easy because the Western Conference could be the strongest it has ever been, but no one should be shocked if Butler and Towns make All-NBA next season. They are that good, and they should make each other better.
76ers | SportsLine: East No. 7 seed
What they did this summer: Oh, not much. They just acquired the No. 1 pick in the draft, used it to select a player who filled their biggest need, signed one of the best shooters of all-time and a big man who consistently makes his team better. And in addition to bringing in Markelle Fultz , JJ Redick and Amir Johnson , they should finally have last year's No. 1 pick, Ben Simmons , in the lineup. All of a sudden, this is a balanced team with depth and incredible upside. No big deal.
SportsLine data: Before the June 22 draft, Philly was projected as the 12th-best team in the East with 36.9 wins. After all their moves this summer, SportsLine makes the Sixers the No. 5 seed in the weak conference, with 41.5 wins, a 4.6-win improvement (and a significant increase of 45 percent in their chance of making the postseason to 50.6 percent).
What would get them into the postseason: Look at the Eastern Conference. It is wide open. Are you sure the Miami Heat , Pistons and Charlotte Hornets are better than the 76ers right now? If not, then the Sixers have a chance. Philadelphia performed like a playoff team when Joel Embiid was on the court last season, and now it is better in most every area. Most young teams that receive similar hype struggle because they can't get stops, but there are a bunch of plus defenders on the roster -- Embiid, Robert Covington , Johnson and Redick -- plus a bunch of versatile young players who could be solid on that end.
What could stop them: Injuries. If Embiid gets hurt again, there is no defensive anchor or offensive focal point. All of the excitement surrounding this team must be tempered by the fact that its most important player has played only 31 games since being drafted in 2014. Sorry about being a downer.
X-factor player: Simmons. He is one of the league's most fascinating players because of his superstar potential and the glaring holes in his game. Unless he has transformed his jump shot in the past year, teams are going to dare him to shoot from the perimeter. How he handles that, as well as how he grasps nuances of team defense, will go a long way in determining Philly's ceiling in the short term. There's a chance he wins Rookie of the Year, but there's also a chance it takes him a while to find his place.
Verdict: They most likely will make the playoffs in the weak East. Everyone loves their starting five, but just as important is the fact that the guys who often started last year -- Dario Saric , Richaun Holmes , T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskas , Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot -- will look much better as reserves. If they stay healthy, this could be the beginning of something special.
Nuggets | SportsLine: West No. 6 seed
What they did this summer: After years of trying, they added a star to the collection of young players. The best part is they didn't have to surrender any of those young players or future assets to do it. Nikola Jokic will love playing next to Paul Millsap in the frontcourt, and the loss of Danilo Gallinari in free agency shouldn't hurt much because Wilson Chandler and Juan Hernangomez are still around.
SportsLine data: Before the June 22 draft, Denver already was projected as a postseason team -- the dreaded No. 8 spot and a matchup opposite Golden State with 42.6 wins. With their their moves this summer, SportsLine makes the Nuggets the No. 6 seed in the stacked conference, with 43.1 wins.
What would get them into the postseason: After Jokic was placed in the starting lineup last season, the Nuggets became the best offensive team in the league -- yes, even better than the Golden State Warriors . They were also atrocious defensively, but Millsap helps there and internal improvement will be expected from the young guys. This team is pretty deep, and if guard Emmanuel Mudiay and forward Trey Lyles make leaps, watch out.
What could stop them: Their defense and the strength of the Western Conference. Even if Denver manages to become a league-average defensive team (which seems like a long shot), it might not be enough. Millsap surely makes the Nuggets better, but it's unclear if he makes them better than the Los Angeles Clippers , Utah Jazz , Memphis Grizzlies or Blazers. And if the Wolves take one of those spots, then Denver will need to win more games than two of those teams.
X-factor player: Jamal Murray . He showed flashes of star potential in his rookie season, but he only shot 40 percent. If he's ready to play 30-plus minutes and improves his efficiency, then he'll be the type of guard who can thrive around play-making big men like Jokic and Millsap. If he's not, the Nuggets must figure out how to help him and Mudiay develop while winning games.
Verdict: Denver has a chance to make the playoffs, but will need some luck. It still feels like the front office would like to make more moves (perhaps involving Chandler, Kenneth Faried or Darrell Arthur ) and the depth leaves questions. There's versatility, but also a bunch of similarly skilled players, some of whom won't get the minutes they want. The Nuggets might need another playoff hopeful to have injury problems or chemistry issues to qualify.
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