Fortunes rise and fall quickly in the NBA. Sometimes an injury can push a playoff team into the lottery, while other times a great offseason pickup can help push a struggling organization into the postseason.
Last year we saw five non-playoff teams from the 2019-2020 season jump into the postseason. In the Eastern Conference, three perennial losers, the New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, and Washington Wizards, made the playoffs for the first time in what feels like forever. In the Western Conference the Phoenix Suns stomped into the postseason for the first time in more than a decade, and the young Memphis Grizzlies beat out Stephen Curry and the Warriors in the play-in tournament to claim the eighth seed.
This season we will predict less playoff turnover. Still, three are poised to change their 2020-2021 fortunes and jump into the postseason.
The Eastern Conference
Which Teams Could Be Out?
The Philadelphia 76ers
On the surface, the 76ers look like a lock to make the playoffs. Dig deeper, though, and you’ll see they’re on the brink of disaster.
Last year the Houston Rockets were in a similar situation as the 76ers. Former MVP James Harden wanted out of Texas, so he missed most of the 2020 training camp, and when he did finally make an appearance, he was ten pounds overweight, angry, and unmotivated.
A decent Houston Rockets team with new imports, Christian Wood and John Wall, along with returning players, P. J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, Danuel House, and of course James Harden flopped the first nine games of the season, going 3-6. Prompting Houston management to finally trade “The Beard.” In the end, the Rockets slumped through the season, finishing last in the Western Conference.
Fast forward one year, and an angry, unmotivated, and out-of-shape Ben Simmons wants desperately to start over in a new city. After recent developments, this situation seems to be a matter of "when" instead of "if."
We’re not saying Ben Simmons has the same impact for the 76ers as James Harden had for the Rockets. Simmons isn’t even the best player on his team; that honor goes to Joel Embiid. Here’s the thing though, 76ers MVP candidate Joel Embiid has played in 260 out of a possible 555 career games. Embiid missed many of those contests during his rookie and sophomore seasons when he didn’t suit up once. Still, he’s never played an entire season, and taking away his first two years in the league, he’s played in only 75 percent of his possible contests.
According to my math: an unhappy Ben Simmons + a likely Joel Embiid injury + a much deeper eastern conference + heckling 76ers fans = a disastrous season for Philadelphia.
Things could work out in Philadelphia, but don’t simply look at the 76ers 49-23 record from last season and think they’re guaranteed a playoff spot. Two years ago, the Lakers won a title. The injury bug hit the next season, and they finished seventh in the west, forcing LBJ and company to contend with the Warriors in the play-in tourney. The Purple and Gold were down in that game against Golden State with one minute to go before LeBron heaved in a (miracle) three-pointer from five feet beyond the arc. The 2020 champs were inches away from potentially missing the 2021 postseason.
Daryl Morey’s always focused on statistics and discounted things like culture and chemistry. Now we’ll see how important the intangible aspects of basketball are because everybody knows Ben Simmons wants no part of Philadelphia, which has to affect team morale. Perhaps Joel Embiid’s talent and Tobias Harris’s midrange game can gloss over the chemistry problems that are sure to ensue. But, when the eventual Embiid injury occurs, the 76ers season could quickly spiral out of control.
The Washington Wizards
It’s easy to see the Washington Wizards missing the postseason in 2022.
Last year, they finished the regular season with a 34-38 record. They were essentially written off for the playoffs until Russell Westbrook went nuclear over their last 15 games averaging 23.8 PPG, 14.4 APG, and 13.5 RPG, helping Washington go 10-5 over their last 15 contests and make the play-in tourney. The Wizards got handled easily by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the play-in and then eked out a win against a Pacers squad that wanted nothing more than to get away from the soon-to-be-fired Nate Bjorkgren and his crazy mood swings.
The eighth-seeded Wizards were predictably dominated by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs ending their season. Now, Russell Westbrook’s off in Hollywood, replaced by Spencer Dinwiddie, who missed all but three games last season with a torn ACL. Former Lakers players Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Montrezl Harrell are also in, but after spending last season playing under the bright lights in LA with LeBron James, nobody knows if they’re really IN.