NBA playoff sleepers: Why Knicks, Mavericks and Pelicans are in position to crash the contender party

Written by on April 11, 2024

It’s just about NBA playoff season and the race for the 2024 title feels relatively wide open. Denver and Boston are clear favorites, but beneath that it’s a free-for-all. We all have opinions on which teams have realistic shots at crashing the contender party, and below I’m going to share mine. 

Teams you will not see: The Lakers, who are probably going to have to win two play-in games just to face the Nuggets in the first round. Ditto for the Warriors. The Clippers are a borderline sleeper as people have forgotten how great they were for a large chunk of this season as they’ve flattened out post-All-Star and Kawhi Leonard has been out, but that’s a high-profile team with three Hall of Famers. Nobody is sleeping on that. Ditto for the Suns, who I assure you are not going anywhere meaningful this postseason. 

The Timberwolves, Thunder and Bucks joined Denver and Boston as my top-five title contenders last week. (I’m already feeling stupid about putting the Bucks on that list.) 

The Sixers could be called a sleeper with Joel Embiid back, but I’m way too cynical to think Embiid can just jump back into the lineup and lead a Finals charge when he’s never been out of the second round to begin with, even if this is as a rested as he’s ever gone into a postseason. The Miami Heat are the very definition of a sleeper, but I’m going to make the mistake I make every year and just say they’re not good enough. 

Having said all that, below are the three teams that I consider to be the biggest sleepers in the upcoming postseason. Here we go. 

New York Knicks

Some air went out of the New York balloon with the news that Julius Randle was out for the playoffs. Big name, big team, there’s an instinct to let go of the highest hopes for what was starting to feel like the makings of a dream season. Not so fast. 

Yes, the Knicks, who had won 12 of 14 preceding Randle’s injury, have barely been a .500 team since he went out (17-15). But OG Anunoby has played in only six of those games 32 games, and the Knicks have won five of them. 

With Anunoby back and Jalen Brunson solidified as one of the most reliable shot creators in the league, New York, even without Randle, possesses the four most vital characteristics of a contender: superstar individual scorer, elite rim protection for 48 minutes with Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson back, defensive versatility with Anunoby capable of taking the tallest scoring tasks to himself, and of course, shooting. 

The Knicks are a top-10 team with over 13 made 3-pointers per game. Donte DiVincenzo has been a certified Kevin Harlan flamethrower all season. Brunson is 40% from deep. Anunoby is a plus shooter. Same for Miles McBride, who comes in at over 41% from deep. Bojan Bogdanovic has struggled since being traded to New York, but that can change quickly, and the spacing he creates remains real.

Randle’s shot creation will be missed. There probably isn’t a more valuable tool in the postseason kit. Having said that, the Knicks have a real path to the conference finals. Entering play on Thursday, they would face Indiana in the first round and either Milwaukee, Philadelphia or Miami in the second. Most importantly, Boston would be on the other side of the bracket. 

Now, if the Knicks were to make it to a conference finals matchup with the Celtics, the road likely comes to an end. They are 0-4 against Boston this season. But who knows … maybe the Celtics get upset by Miami or Philadelphia or Cleveland (I wouldn’t sleep on the Cavs, either, if they recommit to heavy minutes for the lineup that was a world killer with Donovan Mitchell, Jarrett Allen and shooting even though Darius Garland and Evan Mobley are back). 

It’s not likely, but by avoiding Boston as long as possible, the Knicks at least have the hope of an upset, and with the way both teams have looked this season, New York has every right to believe it can beat the Bucks should they match up. If you get as far as the conference finals, you’re a contender. And the Knicks have a real path that far. 

Dallas Mavericks

It’s getting harder and harder to call the Mavericks a sleeper as they continue to play like one of the best teams in the league. Dallas has won 16 of its last 18 games. Over that span, they have the league’s best defensive rating, fourth-best offense rating and second-best net rating. 

Still, if the playoffs started today, the Mavericks wouldn’t even have home-court advantage in the first round. That constitutes a sleeper. 

As well as they’re playing, the road for Dallas is looking brutal. They’re likely to face the Clippers in round one, who are a title contender with a healthy Kawhi Leonard, and if they get past that, they’ll probably be rewarded with a second-round date with Denver, which all but locked up the No. 1 seed on Wednesday. 

I don’t think anyone is beating the Nuggets, but I’d give Dallas as good a shot as anybody. Luka Doncic has literally been one of the best postseason players ever, and the great season Kyrie Irving is having isn’t being talked about nearly enough. Irving is a potent postseason force as a No. 2 option who can take over games for big stretches. Shot creation trumps pretty much all in postseason settings. 

Beyond that, the moves Dallas made at the deadline have taken their playoff prospects to another level. Assuming Dereck Lively II makes it back for the start of the playoffs, the Mavs now have 48 minutes of rim rolling and protection with the addition of Daniel Gafford. P.J. Washington changes the defensive calculus and stands to be a major X-factor with all the open 3s he stands to see courtesy of Luka’s super-deep drive-and-kicks and the ball rotations that result. Irving draws plenty of attention, too. 

Had Minnesota knocked off Denver on Wednesday, I would’ve felt a lot better about the Mavericks being in a position to avoid the Nuggets until the conference finals. But even with a potential second-round date with the defending champs looming, and a hell of a tough first-round series with the Clippers, the Mavericks are about as dangerous as a non top-four seed can be at the moment. 

New Orleans Pelicans

There was a time this season when virtually everyone viewed New Orleans as a sleeper contender. Three weeks ago they were knocking on the door of the No. 4 seed, but then Brandon Ingram got hurt and the .500 record they’ve posted since (5-5) has largely muted the collective enthusiasm. 

But Ingram is going to come back, and if New Orleans can simply avoid the No. 8 seed, either by staying at No. 6 or winning their first play-in game to claim No. 7, they can put themselves on the opposite side of the bracket from Denver. 

From there, a conference finals run feels plenty plausible for a high-pressure team with supreme depth, two top-shelf shotmakers in CJ McCollum and Ingram, and, when he’s clicking, an unstoppable downhill force in Zion Williamson

Pretty much everyone outside Williamson can be classified as a shooter, which creates the spacing for Williamson to bulldoze. Herb Jones, who doubles as one of the best defenders in the league, is at 41% from deep. Trey Murphy III is a high-volume logo launcher. McCollum has adapted to the high usage of Williamson and Ingram by stretching his famously brilliant midrange game beyond the arc and shooting more off the catch. 

But when New Orleans needs it, McCollum can still go get a bucket as consistently as anyone. That is an invaluable ace up the sleeve of a team that doesn’t have to over-rely on that individual creation, as was often the case during McCollum’s time in Portland. 

If New Orleans is going to make a run, Ingram will have to hit the ground running upon his return and Zion will have to play like a superstar. He has shown he can do that. New Orleans puts the ball in his hands as something of a de facto point guard, and when he’s making quick decisions and getting off the ground to the rim before teams can wall him off, he’s absolutely dominant as a paint scorer and a playmaker of that gravity. He’s even defending now. 

While most teams are cutting their rotations in the playoffs, New Orleans can make a real dent in games with its bench led by Jose Alvarado and Naji Marshall, who are in Energizer Bunny mode every second they’re on the floor. Alvarado can, and I believe will, swing at least one playoff game. Collectively, New Orleans’ depth could swing a series. They can go big with Jonas Valanciunas or small with Larry Nance. Options is the word, and New Orleans has more of them than they have ever had. Watch out for this team. 

Looking for more NBA coverage? John Gonzalez, Bill Reiter, Ashley Nicole Moss and special guests dive deep into the league’s biggest storylines daily on the Beyond the Arc podcast.

The post NBA playoff sleepers: Why Knicks, Mavericks and Pelicans are in position to crash the contender party first appeared on CBS Sports.

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