After yet another summer filled with Woj-Bombs, trades, drama, and more, the NBA is poised for a riveting 2018/19 season. As much as we like to think we know who will succeed and who won’t, all we’re really doing is making educated guesses. Except that the Warriors will win the championship. That might as well be written underneath the third commandment. Ugh. Anyways, be on the lookout for these five teams who may surprise you this season.
The Grizzlies tied the worst season in franchise history since moving to Memphis last year, with a disappointing record of 22-60, ending a streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances in the process.
However, Mike Conley played just 12 games last year, dealing with left Achilles issues before undergoing surgery on that same heel to smooth a bone protrusion. Players that played at PG after Conley’s injuries include; Andrew Harrison, Kobi Simmons, Mario Chalmers, Briante Weber, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Marquis Teague, etc. You get my point. And hopefully my pun.
Conley is a massive upgrade over all of the above, and when reunited with Marc Gasol, they form one of the best small/big duos in the league. Pair those two with No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr, and you’re talking about three quality starters. Jackson was electric in summer league, scoring 29 points with 8 threes in his debut, to go along with almost 4 blocks per game. He’s a perfect modern day big, who can shoot, run the floor, and block shots. With a former Defensive Player of the Year in Gasol mentoring him, you have to think he’ll become an even better defender.
The Grizzlies front office were looking to improve during the offseason, as most teams do, so they said: “Hmm, how can we add talent while getting rid of our bad contracts, and keep our best assets all in one trade?” And Vlade Divac practically sprinted to Memphis and rang the doorbell. Yes, the annual fleecing of the Kings occurred when the Grizzlies sent Ben McLemore and his $5.4M contract (doesn’t seem so bad of a contract, but then you remember he played 56 games, broke his foot, averaged 7.5 points in 20 minutes, and had a -3.6 plus/minus), along with Deyonta Davis to the Kings for Garrett Temple.
I mean McLemore was just so good for Sacramento the first time, they just had to bring him back! Meanwhile, Temple is a lanky 6’6 who shot 39% from deep last year and will add a veteran presence on a relatively young team. Other under the radar acquisitions include Kyle Anderson, Omri Casspi, and second-round pick Jevon Carter. Picked 32nd overall, Memphis might’ve found another quality NBA player in the second round, after stealing Dillon Brooks last year at 45. All these new acquisitions have one thing in common; they’re all decent NBA players!
As Grizzlies media member Chris Vernon always says, ‘I want guys who don’t suck’, and none of the new Grizzlies do. The playoffs might be a stretch, given the bloodbath that is the Western Conference but don’t be surprised if the Grizzlies are knocking on the door of the 8th seed.
San Antonio Spurs
With all the mayhem that surrounded the Spurs last season, all the drama, all the uncertainty surrounding Kawhi’s injury, his future, his relationships, etc, the Spurs still managed to win 47 games! Kawhi only played 9 games, so for the Spurs to pull out a 47-win season without their best player, surely they can win the same, if not more games with DeMar DeRozan.
Since Kawhi was basically out for the season last year, the Spurs rolled out a starting five (for most of the year) of Dejounte Murray, Danny Green, Kyle Anderson, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Pau Gasol. That group won 47 games, so you figure a lineup of Murray-DeRozan-Gay-Aldridge-Gasol could replicate it at the very least.
The Spurs added some quiet reinforcements, bringing back sharpshooter Marco Belinelli who shot over 40% from three in his first two seasons with the Spurs, as well as drafting Lonnie Walker 18th overall. Jakob Poeltl was the secondary piece in the Kawhi trade, but will flourish under Pop and his staff; he is a European big after all. DeRozan will come in with a vengeance this year, and will hopefully reach his full potential under Popovich.
Unlike most teams in the league, the Spurs don’t beat themselves. Yes, they are less talented than other teams in the league, but they won’t make the same mistakes as say, the Lakers, who will lose games this year due to inexperience. The Spurs will pounce on young teams like a cat does a mouse and will outsmart their opponents. It is very possible that this team will win 50 games this year, and in a conference where the 3-12 seeds is as hazy as ever, the Spurs could end up in the middle of the playoff picture.
With all the attention in the East going to Toronto, Boston, and Philly, the Bucks are quietly edging closer and closer to the top tier. While most people (including me) think that those four teams will finish with home court in the first round, the majority of people would put the Bucks fourth. Which is fair. I would too. But, I think it is certainly plausible that they sneak into the three seed. Who knows if Embiid stays healthy, or if Kawhi decides to try this year.
Milwaukee hired Mike Budenholzer this summer, and if you recall, in just his second season in Atlanta, Bud led the star-less Hawks to 60 wins and the top seed in the East. Well boy, does he ever have a star this time. Giannis Antetokounmpo is an unquestionable top 10 player in the league, and arguably the best player in the East. Bud should substantially improve the Bucks this year, and with Giannis getting better each day, the other Eastern teams should indeed, fear the deer.
Milwaukee finally has a capable center in Brook Lopez, so they won’t have to rely on John Henson, Thon Maker, or Miles Plumlee to play thirty minutes a night. Unless they get into a massive brawl; in that case they should rely on Maker. His jump-kick is a million times better than his jump shot (Youtube ‘Thon Maker fight’). Lopez will be able to stretch the floor, as well as bully smaller centers down low. Speaking of stretching the floor, Milwaukee finally realized, “hey, Giannis can’t shoot, perhaps we should surround him with shooters!” What a revelation! They brought back Ersan Ilyasova, as well as drafting rookie Donte DiVincenzo.
Milwaukee has lots of options when it comes to lineups, giving Bud the creativity to throw out numerous looks throughout a game/series. They could go long, with Brogdon-Middleton-Giannis-Maker-Henson. They could have a shooting lineup of Giannis-DiVincenzo-Middleton-Ilyasova-Lopez. They could go athletic and put Bledsoe-Brogdon-Giannis-Snell-Maker. The possibilities are endless, and if anyone is up for the task of managing them, it’s Budenholzer. I would not be surprised if they end up in front of Philly, Boston, or Toronto. Like I said, I don’t think it will happen, but I wouldn’t be shocked.
After finishing 9th in the West each of the last two seasons, the Nuggets seem to be ‘playoffs or bust’ this year. Coach Mike Malone’s future was uncertain after falling just short the last two years, he has remained on board for the upcoming season.
A small market team like the Nuggets are not accustomed to big-time free agents, so when Paul Millsap signed in the summer of 2017, it was a big deal for Nuggets fans. His first season in the Mile High City didn’t go so well, as he only played 38 games due to left wrist surgery. A healthy Millsap will help tremendously, especially defensively, as the Nuggets are definitely an offense first team. Signing Isaiah Thomas for the minimum is practically risk-free; even though he has been known as a wild card in the locker room, he will be reunited with Malone, whom he played for during their time in Sacramento.
Like Millsap, Thomas is finally healthy, after undergoing right hip surgery at the end of last season. If Thomas can embrace his 6th Man role like he has done in the past, then Denver will be a scary offensive team. Nikola Jokic is the best passing big in the league, and with Jamal Murray showing vast improvements from his rookie year, the Nuggets will be a threat to score 120+ points a night. We haven’t even mentioned Michael Porter Jr, the 14th pick in the draft, who Denver scooped up after team after team passed on him due to injury. Who knows if he’ll play this year (unlikely, considering he underwent a second back surgery in eight months), but if he joins the team come March/April, he could seriously help this team get into the playoffs.
After all, he was ranked #2 on the ESPN Top 100 for the Class of 2017. With Will Barton and Jokic locked up for the foreseeable future, Denver is all in on making the playoffs. It will be as challenging as ever this year, considering how loaded the West is, but don’t be surprised if the Nuggets find their way into the 8th seed.
While the Raptors may not seem like a team that could surprise you, I think they might be the most surprising team of the year. Kind of like the Rockets last year; we all knew they’d be really good, but very few people saw them being that good. Like coming one Chris Paul hamstring injury away from beating the Warriors good. I think the Raptors could have a similar season. All this depends on whether Kawhi buys it or not.
As of now, it appears he is still set on L.A, but after reportedly having a great first meeting with head coach Nick Nurse who said they could’ve “gone on forever”, it seems he is slowly warming to the idea of playing in Toronto. Not literally though, as he apparently hates the cold. Weather aside, Kawhi automatically becomes a top-two player in the East (depending on if you think Giannis is better) and makes the Raptors a monster defensive team. Of the top ten guys in Nurse’s rotation (my guess: Lowry, Green, Leonard, Ibaka, Valanciunas, Anunoby, Wright, VanVleet, Siakam, Miles), eight of them are above average defenders (Valanciunas and Miles are the others).
The Raptors had the second-best defense last year. Now replace DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Yowza. Imagine facing a lineup of Wright-Green-Leonard-Anunoby-Ibaka. All 6’5 or taller, and can guard 3-5 positions. Or Lowry-Wright-Anunoby-Leonard-Siakam. The defensive potential is off the charts for this team, which is why we shouldn’t pencil in Boston to lose to the Warriors in the Finals. The Raptors are a legit threat to lose to the Warriors as well!
From a matchup standpoint, Toronto has the perfect players to stop the Celtics. I feel more confident in Leonard locking up Jayson Tatum than I do Tatum stopping Kawhi. Anunoby is a great matchup for Brown. Same with Green. And Siakam. That’s the thing with this roster; they can throw out five guys to guard a Tatum, or a Giannis during the course of a series, which is why I think it is very likely that a healthy Raptors team could be down 120-92 to Golden State come June. In all seriousness, a Finals appearance is no joke, especially for a franchise like the Raptors. Here’s to hoping they can pull it off.