Ranking returns: Which round 1 defeated teams will be back in 2018?
Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo drives against Toronto Raptors' Jonas Valanciunas, left, during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
The first round of the 2017 Playoffs is over and done with, and now only eight teams are left standing to contend for the NBA title. And while it's extremely tempting to dissect each second round matchup right now, I'd like to do something a little unique. Let's look at the eight playoff teams who have fallen by the wayside and gauge their chances of returning to the postseason in 2017-2018.
Here is my ranking of the likelihood of the eight first-round exit teams returning to the playoffs next year. They are listed here from "most likely to return" to "least likely."
#1 Milwaukee Bucks
Progress — that was the name of the game for the Milwaukee Bucks this season, and I fancy that we'll see more of the same from them in 2017-2018. At the forefront was Giannis Antetokounmpo, who flat-out blossomed into no less than an All-Star starter and one of the leading candidates for the season's Most Improved Player award. One may even argue he was the best player in the Toronto-Milwaukee series, though the Bucks' inexperience proved to be critical, especially in games five and six. Still, there's a lot to make Milwaukee fans pine for next season, especially when it comes to up-and-coming talents. In particular, rookies Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker morphed from neophytes to major impact players as the games went by. And with Jabari Parker's return, this could be a legitimate top four contending team in the East.
#2 Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are far from being the trendiest or coolest team in the league, but their noteworthy last stand against the Washington Wizards shows that though they don't have the sheen, they do have the skill to contend. A big part of their playoff future, however, hinges on how consistently Atlanta native Dwight Howard can play well, or at least well enough to complement the talents on the Hawks' roster. Let's see fewer back-to-the-basket post-ups, please, Dwight? More of the basics that we see from the likes of DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert instead? Run, jump, dunk, block, rebound — that's it. Dwight has to learn to more constantly maximize having a borderline star ball-handler and playmaker in Dennis Schroder, and in doing so, the young German floor general's game should see a spike again next season. Of course, re-signing high scoring forward Paul Millsap will be key along with keeping rising star Tim Hardaway, Jr. If the Hawks can do those things — and maybe fill the void left by sharp-shooter Kyle Korver — then we'll see more playoff games at The Fortress in 2018.
#3 LA Clippers
Yes, they flamed out yet again, but does losing in the first round to an upstart Utah Jazz squad automatically merit blowing up the Clips? Maybe not. And, sure, their two biggest stars — Blake Griffin and Chris Paul — are going to be among the hottest commodities in free agency, but, at least in fiscal terms, it makes less sense for both players to leave. If I were the Clippers' owner, I'd break the bank to make sure these two stay, and then blow things up IF and only IF they fail to make the West Finals in 2018. By all intents and purposes, though, even if they maybe lose a few members of their supporting cast in the offseason (JJ Redick and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute are free agents, too), the Clips can tread water and make a postseason return just because of their core.
#4 Oklahoma Thunder
Russell Westbrook may or may not win this season's MVP plum, but he will certainly still be a beast next season. For a team like OKC, that's enough to make them contend for a playoff spot again. Heck, nobody expected them to be in the hunt this season, and we found them in sixth place out West. With some of their young guys hopefully improving next year (play some D, Enes Kanter), and maybe by adding a marque name or two in the offseason, OKC may continue to be more solid than people give them credit for. Of course, keeping studs like Andre Roberson and Taj Gibson will be huge, too.
#5 Memphis Grizzlies
This is maybe the playoff franchise that gets even less hype than Atlanta, and yet, time and again, the Grizz manage to hold our attention and put a scare into even the most seasoned title contenders. They gave San Antonio a good run in the first round, and who knows what would have happened had Tony Allen been healthy, right? Sure, some will say the Grit 'N Grind chapter should be closed and Memphis needs to rock the boat, but I say just get rid of Chandler Parsons. Sure, they made a bonehead move locking up the 6'10 28-year-old forward, but if they can find a way to maneuver a deal that won't blow up their core while letting go of "lost cause" Parsons, things may look up. There is some worth in going against the grain, and in this era when everyone and his uncle is busy chucking three bombs, it's strangely refreshing to see the Grizz slow things down and dump the rock to their 90s-throwback frontline.
#6 Portland Trailblazers
Portland has one of the top five backcourts in the league (at least scoring-wise), and that alone may just be enough to propel them back into the Playoffs next season. But with teams like the Timberwolves and the Pelicans maybe moving up the ladder, the Blazers have to make some moves to better build around Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum. They don't have marquee free agents to try and woo back, so it stands to reason Portland will make some calls and maybe pull the trigger on some deals. It's crucial to keep Dame, CJ, and promising big man Jusuf Nurkic, but everyone else should be fair game.
#7 Indiana Pacers
Does Larry Bird's exit signal the beginning of the end for the Paul George era in Indy? PG isn't a free agent this year, but many expect him to exercise his player option in 2018, especially if things go awry for the Pacers and they fall short of the postseason. Some key guys who may jump ship before 2017-2018 even starts are free agents Jeff Teague, CJ Miles, and Rodney Stuckey, and having only Myles Turner as a truly promising young talent may not be enough to prevent Paul George from demanding a trade, so Indiana's front office cannot be faulted if they are on pins and needles now. Will they lose PG for nothing in 2018, or accept that this iteration of the team has reached its ceiling and trade away their biggest draw? Either way, it's fathomable seeing Indiana miss the playoff cut next year.
#8 Chicago Bulls
I like Jimmy Butler, and I love Dwyane Wade returning to his hometown, but neither presents a strong argument for having Chicago return to the Playoffs next year. Many expect that Wade may exercise his player option this year, but I personally think there's little incentive to go elsewhere unless he's willing to chase rings in the Land with bestie LBJ. I expect he'll be allergic to returning to Miami also. Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic will probably return as well, though that only means the needle won't move that much. And with clubs like the Heat, the Pistons, the Hornets and maybe the Sixers making a playoff run in 2018, having more of the same may not be enough for the Bulls.
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