Lottery Teams Most likely to Make the Playoffs in 2017-18
Eastern Conference: Miami Heat
The Miami Heat are the most likely Eastern Conference team that missed this season’s playoffs to make it next season. The Heat somehow finished 41-41 despite a record of 11-30 at this season’s midway point. They just missed out on the postseason on the final day of the regular season, but that doesn’t negate the team’s incredible turnaround. Miami’s 30-11 record over the 2nd half of the season had the Heat on a 60-win pace when extrapolated over a full season. That would have placed the Heat one game behind the Spurs for second-best record in the entire league. Erik Spoelstra has proven to be one of the top coaches in the league, leading a team mainly composed of castoffs, 2nd round picks, and D-Leaguers to a .500 record.
The Heat will have a lot of flexibility in adding to their roster this offseason. Miami has the 14th pick in the draft (unless they have the amazing fortune to jump into the top 3 on lottery night) and could have enough cap space to sign two max contracts. Dion Waiters and Willie Reed will likely decline their player options, while Josh McRoberts is a near lock to accept his. Unfortunately, at this point Chris Bosh seems unlikely to ever play another NBA game. If Miami waives Bosh and doctors examine him and agree that he is not healthy enough to play, they will be able to erase his salary from the cap. This would free up $25.3 million in cap space this summer. Miami can add an additional $6.3M in cap room if needed by waiving Wayne Ellington since his contract doesn’t become guaranteed until July 12. Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder, and Okaro White also have non-guaranteed deals for 2017-18, but it’s hard to imagine the Heat waiving any of these players since they are each due to make under $1.5 million. Depending on how all of these situations are resolved, the Heat could have around $40 Million in cap room this summer. Part of this cap can be used to re-sign Dion Waiters and/or James Johnson. Both players have had inconsistent careers, but they each had their best pro season in Miami. If Miami re-signs both then all key pieces from last year could return with an additional $10M (depending on the contracts of Waiters and Johnson) in cap room for another piece. Plus, the Heat will have a new rookie contributor with the 14th pick and should be boosted by the return of Justise Winslow, who missed the final 64 games this season due to injury. Miami is more than poised to compete for a playoff spot in 2017-18. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine the Heat with home-court advantage in a first round playoff series next season.
Also in consideration: Philadelphia 76ers
Western Conference: Denver Nuggets
Similar to the Heat in the east, the Nuggets were in contention for one of the final playoff spots until the last week of the regular season. The Nuggets finished the season at 40-42, one game behind the Trail Blazers for the 8th seed in the west. The Nuggets should be better next season simply by playing an entire season realizing that Nikola Jokic is the team’s best player. Denver started the season 9-16 with Jokic as more of a role player. In Denver’s first 25 games Jokic only started 8 times and played more than 28 minutes just four times. Over the final 57 games Jokic started every game he was healthy and commonly played 30+ minutes. As a result the Nuggets were 31-26 over this period. Jokic is a stud and has become the face of the franchise. He is already arguably the best passing big man in the NBA and one of the better bets in the league to make his first All-Star Game next February. The Nuggets have more than just Jokic with plenty of depth at every position. Jameer Nelson had a resurgent year and is a great leader and veteran presence for this young roster. He can serve as an elite backup point guard or an acceptable stopgap starter. Emmanuel Mudiay had a disappointing overall season, but he did seem to somewhat get back on track with some positive outings in April. Jamal Murray had an impressive rookie year as a combo guard off the bench, and Gary Harris is a quintessential 3-and-D player worth debating as the league’s most underrated player. The Nuggets also have a solid group of forwards in Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, and Kenneth Faried who each bring different valuable skill-sets to the table. Juan Hernangomez and Malik Beasley could also be larger contributors in their respective sophomore seasons. Denver has two key free agents: Danilo Gallinari ($16.1M player option) and Mason Plumlee (restricted free agent). If Gallinari declines his player option and Denver waives Mike Miller’s unguaranteed $3.5M contract, the Nuggets could have more than $40M in cap room. The Nuggets can use this space to retain Gallinari and/or Plumlee and add more talent to the roster. Denver will also have the 13th, 49th, and 51st selections in this year’s draft to reinforce their young talent. A full year of Jokic as the focal point, continued progression from young players, cap space to re-sign or bring in new talent, and more draft picks should mean a path to the 2017-18 postseason.
Also in consideration: Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans