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John Schuhmann

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The youthful Bobcats might be on the cusp of an inaugural playoff berth this season.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Five teams stand out among future playoff hopefuls

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Jul 27 2009 12:16PM

It may seem like the same teams make the Playoffs every season, but there's actually a good amount of turnover from year to year. Over the last 10 seasons, there has been an average of 3.6 new teams in the Playoffs, and every team except the Bobcats has made the postseason at least once in the last six years.

Last season, the Bulls, Heat and Blazers went from lottery team to playoff squad. Chicago was bolstered by Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose, Miami had a healthy Dwyane Wade and Portland -- the worst team in the league three seasons ago -- returned to the Playoffs.

Who will make the leap this year? Here are the top five candidates, with last season's record in parentheses.

1. Phoenix Suns (46-36)

Yes, the Suns missed the Playoffs for the first time in five years this April. They also did little to improve their roster. But who else in the West can move up if the Rockets, as expected, take a dive without Yao Ming, Ron Artest and Tracy McGrady? The Suns are the only lottery team that seems close to supplanting Houston.

Only seven games separated the Suns and Rockets in the West standings and the West's six other non-playoff teams would have to make a 20-game jump (or more) in wins to get in.

If you're a glass-is-half-full type, you might believe that the departure of Shaquille O'Neal should allow Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire and Jason Richardson more offensive freedom. It's no guarantee, but there is a chance that Phoenix can improve, or at least stay in the 45-win range. Don't forget, too, that Stoudemire missed 29 games last season.

So while it's tough to reward a year and a half of bad transactions with the top spot on this list, Phoenix belongs here.

2. Washington Wizards (19-63)

The Eastern Conference is going to be very competitive this season. The Wizards and Raptors seem primed to improve greatly, and none of the eight teams that made the Playoffs this spring look like an obvious candidate to fall off.

Improving by 20 wins isn't easy, but the Wizards look quite a bit like last year's Heat, who went from 15 wins to 43. Washington is getting back Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood, while adding Randy Foye and Mike Miller.

But Washington has lost some frontcourt depth (gone are Etan Thomas, Darius Songaila and Oleksiy Pecherov. That means it will need Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee to improve -- McGee is much more likely to do so -- in order to truly be a contender. But the amount of talent they have now is worthy of the top four in the East.

In addition, coach Flip Saunders looks to be a good fit on the bench. He should get the most out of the Wizards offensively, and isn't as bad a defensive coach as people have made him out to be. Hindsight tells us that he did a much better job in Detroit than he ever got credit for.

3. Toronto Raptors (33-49)

Bryan Colangelo can probably recite the Collective Bargaining Agreement as well as he can recite the alphabet these days. He worked some CBA magic to acquire Hedo Turkoglu through a sign-and-trade deal that also netted the Raptors a solid wing in Antoine Wright. In addition, the deal allowed Toronto to add Jarrett Jack and Rasho Nesterovic, and perhaps bring back Carlos Delfino.

It's yet to be seen how well Turkoglu will fit in with Jose Calderon and Chris Bosh and if he peaked with the Magic over the last two seasons. Regardless, the Raptors' two-year run of underachievement should be over.

It will likely take more than 41 wins to reach the postseason in the East this season, but Toronto should get there. Even with the addition of Turkoglu, how far Toronto moves up the standings will depend on the continued improvement of former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder (23-59)

If the Rockets collapse and Suns continue to fade, one of the six teams in the West that last season couldn't win 30 games would have to show great improvement. The Thunder are the most likely of that group to do it.

Kevin Durant is the NBA's next superstar, and with several other young talents around him, Oklahoma City has a bright future. General manager Sam Presti chose not to use his cap space this summer to make immediate improvements, but instead stood pat with his team. That may be the best plan for Oklahoma City's long-term future.

That plan may keep it from gaining more than 10 or 12 wins this season. While everyone is high on the Thunder (and rightfully so), asking them to bring the postseason to OKC in 2010 may be a little unrealistic.

5. Charlotte Bobcats (35-47)

After a 7-18 start last season, the Bobcats went 27-22 from the middle of December to the end of March, before fading in April. Coach Larry Brown likes to break 'em down and build 'em back up again and he has now had a year to acquire the kinds of players he likes. Which means it isn't inconceivable to think Charlotte could have a winning record this season.

The roster is still relatively young, and the Bobcats have improved their win total every season they've been in the league. A few more could net that elusive playoff berth, but they seem to a piece short of putting them higher on this list.

If you have a question or comment for NBA.com's John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on twitter.

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