As many storylines as there will be going on this postseason, between the Heat’s title defense, OKC’s efforts to get over the hump, potential last stands for the veteran likes of the Spurs and Knicks and bids for a shot at the throne from previously second-tier teams like the Clippers, Nuggets and Pacers, there’s one semi-crucial ingredient missing from the playoff picture: The young, exciting team making their postseason debut, who gives you a sort of glimpse of the future. The teams that could’ve fit that qualification — mostly the Timberwolves, Wizards, Hornets or Cavaliers — all succumbed to overwhelming injury at one point or another throughout the season, leaving the postseason picture an assemblage of mostly known quantities.
Of the 16 teams expected to be around this postseason, only Golden State comes close to the Young Exciting Team archetype, a franchise absent from the postseason for the last six years built mostly around players in their 20s. But there’s kind of a sense of a reached ceiling with that squad. Nobody seems to be expecting that this is GSW’s first step towards ascension to contender status, as they may have with, say, Derrick Rose’s first playoffs with the Bulls four years ago or Kevin Durant’s first with the Thunder a year later.
So if you’re looking for new faces to add some extra oomph to this postseason, you’re going to have to squint a little harder to find them. Still, they’re there between the cracks, and here are the 10 that I’m most looking forward to, in roughly descending order:
10. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls.
A mid-season League Pass favorite, Jimmy Butler definitely has the chance for a breakout postseason. I could easily see him having one game in a series against the Heat or Knicks where he makes noise for his late-game defense on LeBron or Carmelo, and maybe throws in a highlight dunk or two to go with it. And the way the Bulls have been dropping like exhausted flies recently, Butler may be getting far more of an opportunity to make an impact these playoffs then he or anyone else could’ve imagined in the preseason.
9. Ed Davis, Memphis Grizzlies.
Assuming the Grizz get healthy enough in time, Ed probably won’t get a ton of minutes this postseason — stuck behind Zach Randolph and even Darrell Arthur, he’s only cracked 20 minutes once in the last eight games he’s played — but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s one game where he makes some big shots in the fourth quarter and ends up playing down the stretch. Coming off the best statistical year of his career (and one that seems to validate his lottery-pick status), and with one season to go after this one until he hits restricted free agency, he could make himself some real money with a strong postseason — and make himself a very valuable trade chip for Memphis.
8. Jordan Crawford, Boston Celtics.
Nick Young set the bar with the Clippers last postseason for late-game explosions by bench heat check guys who came up with the Washington Wizards and it’s not hard to see Crawford being the next in line in that legacy. That’s certainly what the Celtics were hoping for when they traded for him, right? Just one super-hot quarter that ends up winning them a game they otherwise wouldn’t have won. That’s about all you can ask of Jordan Crawford, and there’s a pretty decent chance he gives it to the C’s this postseason.
7. David Lee, Golden State Warriors.
Lee’s sort of solid, fundamental-based game doesn’t really lend itself to postseason excitement, but it’s hard not to be happy for David Lee, seeing him play meaningful basketball for the first time in his fairly illustrious eight-year NBA career. By the way, as long as we’re talking about long-suffering lottery-bound dudes, shoutout to Chris Wilcox, who should be playing in the postseason for the first time in his 13-year career (!!) these playoffs, assuming he can stay healthy enough, which, with his own injury history and that of Celtics big men of the last few years, is certainly no sure thing. If I were him I’d be staying in a padded, secured room where nothing could possibly injure me, like Ali Larter in the opening scenes of “Final Destination 2.”
6. Robert Sacre, Los Angeles Lakers.
Are you excited to see the NBA’s best new bench-scrub cheerleader going absolutely bonkers on the Lakers sideline with every Dwight dunk and Kobe three this postseason? Just as long as he doesn’t have to actually play, of course.
5. Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City Thunder.
I’ve totally fallen in love with this guy over the last few weeks, and he seems destined to be this year’s Eric Bledsoe — the change-of-pace guy off the bench that wows people who have never really paid attention to him before for one or two games a series, setting up major excitement for his further development in the season to follow (and a good deal of his name being thrown around at the upcoming trade deadline). Unless Scotty Brooks gives all his minutes to Derek Fisher because EXPERIENCE and CLUTCHINESS, which is a very real possibility.
4. Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks.
Remember that breakout game JaVale McGee had against the Lakers last postseason? You gotta figure that even if he only gets four chances (all against the Heat), SANDERS! probably manages to rack up one of those games, where he posts like an 18-12 with a resounding block on Dwyane Wade and maybe a dunk over Chris Bosh on the fast break. If so, I’m also excited to hear him in a postgame interview for the first time. I bet he’s got a fair bit of weirdo in him.
3. Mikhail Prokhorov, Brooklyn Nets.
No Cubes in the postseason this year — well, probably not, anyway, though I guess it’s still a possibility — which would leave the crazy owner attention-hogging responsibilities to Prokhorov. Hopefully he issues a direct to complaint to David Stern over some shady foul calls, or starts a beef with Dahntay Jones or Kyle Korver’s mother or something. You can throw in Jay-Z (and Beyonce) here as well, who should hopefully show up courtside to most or all of the Nets’ home games. Guarantee he and LeBron would get up to some shenanigans if the Heat and Nets met in the second round.
2. Jeremy Lin, Houston Rockets.
A season too late, sure, as we were robbed of the proper climax to Linsanity when knee issues knocked him out of the Knicks’ first round series against the Heat in 2012 — though in all likelihood, even a healthy Lin would’ve been fairly well stymied by the likes of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, who really gave Jeremy hell in his only regular-season start against the Heat last year. Still, not too late for him to capture some of that old magic with a big shot this postseason, and you’d think he’d get at least one opportunity at a buzzer-beater-type moment over the course of a Rockets playoff series. If that happened, the passion of his postgame embrace with Chandler Parsons would be just too much.
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors.
OK, the Warriors aren’t a team likely to continue their ascent, and they don’t have a Rose/Durant-type player who you could see being a key figure in every playoffs for a decade to come. But they do have Stephen Curry, and that’s pretty damn good for the postseason. Curry showed in MSG what he can do with the bright lights on him, and even though few (if any) pundits will be calling for a Warriors upset against whoever they end up facing in the first round, every game Golden State plays this postseason will be a must-watch in case that’s the game where Curry explodes for 10 three-pointers and ends up hanging 50 on someone. And if he did it at Oracle? The Warriors might finally be able to escape the shadow of the 2007 We Believe campaign after all.
Honorable mention to old faces returning for the first time in a while: Kevin Martin (last made postseason in ’06 with Kings), Monta Ellis (that ’07 Warriors team), Andray Blatche (’08 with Wizards), Tayshaun Prince (’09 with Pistons) and Antawn Jamison (’10 with Cavaliers). Also, it feels like Jarrett Jack and Chris “Birdman” Andersen have both been gone from the postseason forever, even though they were both somehow involved with the playoffs just two years ago.