There’s turnover every season in the NBA, and not just the dribble-off-the-foot kind.
The more meaningful turnover — a change in playoff teams from one season to the next — manages to capture the imagination much more. And it’ll be fascinating to observe in 2022-23 because a handful of teams that didn’t make the playoffs in 2021-22 are returning healthier or, simply, better.
It won’t be easy. Both conferences are deep, and almost all of the 16 returning playoff teams are still intact with players in their prime.
So who’ll extend their season this time: the LA Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards… or someone else? Here are four non-playoff teams from 2021-22 who are most likely to rebound and crash the party this season.
This is, in the basketball vocabulary, a layup. But of course the Clippers are destined for the postseason assuming — fingers crossed, legs crossed, eyes crossed — all the key components get (and remain) healthy. And by “key” this is about two stars: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Remember those two? Yes, their actual time spent on the court together remains somewhat foggy in the brain, but yeah, Kawhi and PG13 need to stay out of street clothes. Leonard hasn’t played since the spring of 2021, when he hurt his knee in the Western Conference semifinals and eventually needed surgery that cost him all of 2021-22. As for George, he missed a month last season with an elbow injury, limiting him to 31 games. (He also missed the team’s Play-In loss to New Orleans due to Health and Safety Protocols.) It’s really not that complicated. Health equals wealth in Clipperville.
Speaking of wealth, team owner Steve Ballmer is all-in on building a contender by any means necessary and simply laughs at the luxury tax. You can do this when you’re worth roughly $75 billion, give or take a few, and are building your own arena with the pocket change between the sofa. That’s why the Clippers did as much as possible within the constraints of the salary cap to make sure they’ll have all the necessary pieces around Leonard and George. An example: Nicolas Batum declined his $3.3 million option because he knew the Clippers would actually give him a raise — and a two-year extension at that. Most other teams would’ve let the 33-year-old declining swingman, who’ll probably command no more than 10 minutes a night on the Clippers, take a walk. He’s a role player the Clippers probably don’t desperately need, but, what the hell.
The Clippers actually also received a discount of spells to fatten their rotation when John Wall agreed to a two-year, $13 million deal. Mind you that Wall “played” last year while making $44 million but after his buyout with the Houston Rockets, he became a marked-down asset. Remember, the last time Wall was healthy — there’s that word again — he averaged 20.6 points and 6.9 assists (in 40 games) in 2020-21 with Houston. Before that, he was an All-Star and All-NBA-level point guard in Washington. Wall will be 32 this season and had Achilles and knee issues in his past. But by all indications, he has regained some if not all of his zip and is surely restless.
Therefore, with Leonard, George, Wall, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Marcus Morris, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Terance Mann, the Clippers are bringing star power along with maturity and depth in 2022-23. Oh, and Ty Lue is a proven championship coach. They’re set for spring.
This team went into the All-Star break in 2021-22 (held in Cleveland, coincidentally) as one of the league’s uplifting stories after finally emerging from the rubble of LeBron James’ departure with a respectable group. At the time, Evan Mobley was front-runner for Kia Rookie of the Year honors and paired with All-Star center Jarrett Allen to give Cleveland a size advantage. Plus, Kevin Love had rolled back the clock and Collin Sexton began to mature as a point guard.
But then: Allen got hurt, Sexton was lost for the season, Ricky Rubio was lost for the season (and later traded to Indiana), Mobley hit the rookie wall and the Cavs were 9-15 after the All-Star break. The only real bright spot was the emergence of Darius Garland, who became an All-Star after taking over for Sexton. The Cavs were eliminated in the Play-In Tournament by the Atlanta Hawks, which left a sour taste.
In 2022-23, all the major pieces of their rotation return … we think. The Cavs still haven’t come to terms with Sexton, who went all summer without an offer on the market as a restricted free agent. It’s assumed the Cavs and Sexton will eventually settle on the qualifying offer and do this dance again next summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. In any event, Sexton was leapfrogged at point guard by Garland — who did get an extension — and faces a battle for minutes once his rehab is finished.
Just by virtue of making the Play-In Tournament, and assuming their young players take another step in their development, the Cavs figure to be in the hunt for one of the last few playoff spots (which could require another Play-In appearance).
Portland Trail Blazers
Here’s where it gets interesting: Portland added some needed pieces and will certainly be improved over last season’s 27 wins. But, will it be enough?
Here’s what’ll work in Portland’s favor: Damian Lillard is healthy again (so, too, is Jusuf Nurkic), newcomer Jerami Grant brings scoring and defense, Anfernee Simons is a noticeably better player, Gary Payton II will supply backcourt defense and Josh Hart is at his peak. That’s a very good rotation, enough to pacify Lillard if nothing else.
Here’s the issue: The West is brutal. Even if you assume that, among the playoff eight last year, the Utah Jazz fail to reach the playoffs after trading Rudy Gobert (and all the questions surrounding Donovan Mitchell), the Clippers will take that spot. Which means the Blazers must be better than the New Orleans Pelicans with a healthy Zion Williamson or the Timberwolves with Gobert. Minnesota and New Orleans grabbed the last two spots in the West last season and, based on the respective impact Williamson and Gobert should have, those teams figure to be even better.
And that’s not including competition from the Lakers, who missed the playoffs but now have a healthy Anthony Davis.
Of all the teams in the West that didn’t make the postseason, however, the Blazers improved the most (the Clippers just got healthier). So that’ll give them an edge if some contender in the West underachieves and stumbles.
New York Knicks
We must include the Knicks in this conversation if only to put their suffering fan base at ease. Besides, at the very least, you figure the Knicks will be in the Play-In Tournament after they added Jalen Brunson in free agency. Plus, there’s hope youngsters RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Obi Toppin and Quentin Grimes will be improved based on what they showed in the final months of last season.
Normally there might be a smidge of apprehension regarding Brunson, who never had to lead a team (that was Luka Doncic’s job in Dallas) and is walking into a potentially difficult situation (given the expectations of him by desperate big-city fans and an anxious franchise). However, Brunson is built tough. He’s high character, competitive, prideful and starred in the 2022 playoffs when Doncic was hurt. He might not be ready for stardom. But if he flops, it’ll come as a surprise for those who coached him and played next to him.
The Knicks flamed out last season because Derrick Rose was hurt and they didn’t get the leadership they needed. And, most of all, Julius Randle fell to Earth with a thud. With Brunson aboard, there’s no need for Randle to handle the ball as much. That will allow Randle to become more of a finisher, a role which could reverse his tailspin.
Sure, it’ll be suspenseful; it always is with the Knicks. They’ve given themselves a chance, though, by getting Brunson.
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