The NBA is not a fair league. Many teams have no chance of hoisting the Larry O’Brien over their heads in any given season and have to plan for the future instead; because even though it seems like Golden State may be an unstoppable juggernaut, their reign will come to an end.
There will be teams that have breakout years this season; either through smart drafting, solid pickups in free-agency and trades, or – if you’re particularly lucky – on the whim of the best player in the world. Here are some of the teams who will see the biggest improvement.
5. Dallas Mavericks
2017-2018 Starters: Dennis Smith Jr, Yogi Ferrell, Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki
2018-2019 Starters: Dennis Smith Jr, Luka Doncic, Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan
Luca Doncic has the potential to be the European LeBron. Sure, he’s noticeably less athletic, but his shot is miles ahead of where LeBron’s was at the same age, and both have similar size and otherworldly passing ability.
Doncic seems like a gift from the basketball gods for Dallas, who now have the ability to hand the keys to the team from one transcendent European talent – Dirk Nowitzki – to another. Doncic will be paired in the backcourt with Dennis Smith Jr., who projects to be much more consistent with a year under his belt. Dallas also signed DeAndre Jordan in free agency, who averaged 12.0 points and 15.2 rebounds last season as a clipper and who should flourish with playmakers like Smith Jr. and Doncic throwing him lobs.
Harrison Barnes has also turned himself into a multifaceted go-to scoring option. Dirk’s last season could end with a bang.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-2018 Starters: Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams
2018-2019 Starters: Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams
Not many teams can say they improved by getting rid of a 10-time All-Star, but OKC did exactly that by trading away Carmelo Anthony for Dennis Schroder. Carmelo was abysmal last year, refusing to take a smaller role to help the team while averaging only 16 points on 40% shooting and providing nothing else for the team. Not only did OKC immediately improve by dropping Anthony, but they actually got a solid pickup in the trade by acquiring Dennis Schroder.
Schroder will most likely play the sixth-man role behind Russell Westbrook, but he will provide an excellent playmaker off the bench that OKC sorely missed last year. Apart from that, OKC draft pick Hamidou Diallo showed flashes of excellence in Summer League, and the signing of Nerlens Noel provides some depth to a team that was noticeably lacking it last season. Paul George re-signing against all odds and Andre Roberson returning from injury could transform this team into a defensive powerhouse.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
2017-2018 Starters: Tyreke Evans, Ben McLemore, Dillon Brooks, Jarrell Martin, Marc Gasol
2018-2019 Starters: Mike Conley Jr, Wayne Selden, Kyle Anderson, Jaren Jackson Jr, Marc Gasol
The Memphis Grizzlies could see the biggest improvement from last season. Disregarding the draft, Memphis would still see a vast improvement with the physical return of Mike Conley Jr., their all-star point guard; and the mental return of Marc Gasol, who checked-out part way through the past season due to a squabble with management over their differing views on tanking for high draft picks.
Management won that squabble, and they picked Jaren Jackson Jr. with the fourth pick in the draft. Jackson looks like a player who can affect the game on both ends of the floor as soon as the season begins, with his ability to block shots and stay in front of guards on the defensive end while running the floor and knocking down threes on the offensive end. Their second-round pick, Jevon Carter, is also an instant boost for the team with his ferocious defense. Memphis added some depth with the additions of Kyle Anderson and Garrett Temple in free agency.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
2017-2018 Starters: Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Brook Lopez
2018-2019 Starters: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, LeBron James, JaVale McGee
Anywhere the King goes becomes an instant title contender, just ask the 2014 Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James is without a doubt the best player in the last few generations, and you could make a strong argument that he’s the best player ever.
Last season he dragged the 600lb dead body that was the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers roster – minus Kevin Love - through the eastern conference playoffs to once again meet Golden State in the finals. This Lakers team, although young, are much better than the Cavs were last season.
They have a myriad of youthful talent who should show significant growth: Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram to name a few. On top of that, LA signed some veteran role players to add experience to the team, with playmakers like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson, and lob-specialist Javale McGee filling in the roster. If the rookies and sophomores on this team grow up fast, expect a strong push for the title.
1. Phoenix Suns
2017-2018 Starters: Elfrid Payton, Devin Booker, TJ Warren, Marquese Chriss, Tayson CHandler
2018-2019 Starters: Brandon Knight, Devin Booker, Trevor Ariza, Josh Jackson, Deandre Ayton
An example of patiently waiting for your stockpile of young talent to finally be enough to stop tanking. Phoenix has tanked for years, wisely knowing their own limitations and not trying to push for a title. This year is the end of that. With the #1 overall pick, the Suns selected Deandre Ayton and center who has the body of prime David Robinson despite being 19 years old. He will be the cornerstone of the franchise for the next two decades, with unparalleled athleticism and a deft touch around the rim and from 3pt range.
Pair Ayton with star guard Devin Booker – himself only 21 years old and already averaging 25 points – and Phoenix has the best young guard – center combo since Shaq and Kobe in Los Angeles. If second year Josh Jackson can carry over his late season success from last year, he could emerge as a force on both sides of the floor. Phoenix went from one of the worst teams in the league to a team that’s only real weakness is at the PG position, where Brandon Knight will start. Free agents Trevor Ariza and Richaun Holmes help make this an up and coming team that is set to contend in 5 or 6 years.