10 NBA Teams You'll Low-Key Love to Watch in 2017-18
You don't have to be a diehard NBA aficionado to figure out which teams everyone will be watching during the 2017-18 season.
The Golden State Warriors, with their ever-growing supply of talent, will be busy defending their title just about every other night on national television. With or without Kyrie Irving, the Cleveland Cavaliers will be all over your screens, thanks to LeBron James and his supporting cast. The Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves will draw plenty of eyeballs with their superstar additions of the summer.
And don't forget about the Los Angeles Lakers and their legions of fans all across the globe. If you thought it was crazy that the Purple and Gold attracted more than a million viewers to a Las Vegas Summer League game, just imagine the numbers they'll put up with Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram when the games actually matter.
The Association, though, is much stronger than the handful of teams at the top. Of the 25 not already mentioned, these 10 should be worth your precious viewing time, based on playing style and upside, even if they aren't necessarily among the most buzzworthy clubs going into the fall.
In terms of playing style, the Boston Celtics of today (and tomorrow) aren't all that different from the team Brad Stevens coached to 25 wins in 2013-14. They still play fast (12th in possessions per game), move the ball (second in passes made last season) and shoot a ton of threes (third in three-point attempt rate).
What's changed is the substance—that is, the talent Stevens can plug into his system. Two-and-a-half years ago, Isaiah Thomas arrived by way of a deadline deal to serve as a focal point for the team's frenetic offense. Last year, Al Horford infused the frontcourt with an all-around dose of skill and savvy. This time around, it will be Gordon Hayward who breathes new life into his old college coach's thoughts and schemes.
Those three, along with a slew of shooters accumulated by general manager Danny Ainge, have helped Boston convert those high-percentage looks created by Stevens' machinations into actual scores. This fall, though, the C's will return to action without two of their top perimeter threats, in Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk.
Still, between Thomas' late-game heroics, Hayward's all-around abilities, Horford's super-glue-guy routine, the antagonistic antics of Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris, and the growth of youngsters Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum, Boston should be an entertaining watch for basketball fans inside and out of New England.
Throw in Gang Green's pursuit of LeBron James' Eastern Conference throne, and the Celts become appointment viewing on League Pass.
In terms of sheer structure and approach, the Brooklyn Nets of today aren't all that different from the Celtics of three years ago.
Like that Boston squad, before those Brooklyn picks became golden tickets to Willy Wonka's draft factory, the Nets have been hard at work laying the foundation for a style of play that should inspire some wins once the talent catches up. Last season, Brooklyn led the league in pace (103.6 possessions per game) and finished in the top 10 in passes made and three-point attempts per 100 possessions, but it still finished outside the top third in points per game—with an offensive rating that registered as the Association's third-worst.
Even without full control over their own first-round picks the past two drafts or the one coming up in 2018, the Nets have stockpiled enough talent to start resembling a bona fide NBA roster.
Perhaps D'Angelo Russell will be to Brooklyn what Isaiah Thomas has become in Boston: a pariah at previous stops turned into a talented (and undervalued) scoring savior. Maybe Allen Crabbe, whom the Nets tried to sign in restricted free agency last summer, will deliver on the promise they previously saw in him. Timofey Mozgov and DeMarre Carroll landed in the team's cap space as salary dumps but may yet prove to be useful players beyond their cap numbers.
And that's to say nothing of the youthful promise of Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the fading phenomenon of Jeremy Lin, the new-found shooting range of Quincy Acy or the sheer Brooklyn-ness of local product Isaiah Whitehead.
Brooklyn remains light-years away from playoff contention, let alone a shot at a title. But if head coach Kenny Atkinson can keep developing the young guys and convince everyone to continue going full bore at both ends, the Nets should be worth watching in the interim.
Rick Carlisle is the MacGyver of NBA coaching. Give him a ball of twine, a few paper clips and a Dirk Nowitzki, and he'll fashion a competitive club for you.
The Dallas Mavericks still don't have playoff-caliber materials for him, especially in the stacked Western Conference. But that won't stop Carlisle from finding creative ways to work with a roster that is steadily improving.
Last season, he cobbled together a thrilling backcourt out of an undrafted rookie (Yogi Ferrell) and a Curry (Seth). This time around, those two might both be coming off the bench behind Dennis Smith Jr., the No. 9 pick in the 2017 draft. Smith Jr. is raw, but his tools remind many of a young Baron Davis—the one who was a two-time All-Star for the Hornets.
Smith Jr. will have some weapons to work with when he's not busy soaring to the hoop. Harrison Barnes emerged as an near-20-points-per-night scorer during his first season in Dallas. Wesley Matthews' all-around game may never fully recover following his Achilles tear, but his three-point shot (36.2 percent from three as a Mav) is plenty passable. When (or if) Nerlens Noel re-signs, he'll be in line for more than a few high-flying finishes as a young, athletic pick-and-roll partner for Smith Jr.
And then, of course, there's Dirk. The 39-year-old inked a new two-year deal with the Mavericks in July, though there's no telling whether he'll play past this season. No matter how good (or bad) Dallas may be, tuning in to see Nowitzki shoot one-legged fadeaways is reason enough to keep his squad in your League Pass rotation.
As currently constructed, the Denver Nuggets have the goods not only to make the playoffs in the West, but also give fans in the Mile High City—who ranked last in attendance during the 2016-17 season—real reason to turn out to the Pepsi Center.
It all starts with Nikola Jokic. In a league replete with young unicorns, Jokic might be the best of the bunch—on offense, anyway. The 6'10" Serbian is a passing savant, with six triple-doubles and 4.9 assists to go with his 16.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per game last season. Once head coach Michael Malone put Jokic back into his starting lineup in mid-December, the Nuggets became the most efficient offensive team in the NBA, scoring 113.3 points per 100 possessions.
Granted, Denver also sported the league's worst defense (111.9 points allowed per 100 possession) from that point on, and that might not change much with a young backcourt of Gary Harris and Jamal Murray joining Wilson Chandler on the perimeter. But, from an entertainment perspective, what's wrong with a high-scoring, fast-paced game, especially if Kenneth Faried is getting after it on the glass?
Paul Millsap, the biggest free-agent signing in franchise history, should bring his defensive savvy to bear on this young squad, along with his career-high 18.1 points per game from last season. And if the Nuggets can flip some of their assets—say, Murray, Harris, Chandler and a first-round pick—into Kyrie Irving, their games would really become appointment viewing, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe noted:
"Irving is a superstar offensive player. Tilt his game a little bit more toward passing -- an evolution that might happen naturally with Jokic and Paul Millsap flinging the ball around -- and maybe he becomes one of the league's half-dozen or so best offensive players. He would also sell tickets in market that badly needs a jolt."
And what a jolt that would be for a franchise that hasn't sniffed the postseason since 2013, when a miraculous 57-win campaign gave way to a first-round flameout against the then-underdog Golden State Warriors.
Los Angeles Clippers
There's still so much to be determined about this year's Los Angeles Clippers—so much that even they don't know yet. But at least one thing is clear: They'll be a very different ballclub without Chris Paul running point.
"We'll have ball movement," head coach and team president Doc Rivers said at a recent press conference. "That's one of the things, for the most part, that I've always preached."
Indeed, Rivers stressed the importance of passing and cutting time and again during the 2016-17 season. Yet, the Clippers offense too often stalled out, despite what its top-five efficiency ranking would suggest, with Paul pounding the ball.
In his wake, L.A. has restocked its roster with playmakers to complement (and unburden) Blake Griffin. Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Austin Rivers have all demonstrated an ability to create for themselves and their teammates at the NBA level. Milos Teodosic, arguably the best player in Europe during the 2016-17 season, should add to that cache for the Clippers with his YouTube friendly passes and sharp shot.
Whatever stale air filled Staples Center during Lob City's waning days figures to be refreshed by the hustle, energy and attitude of Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell.
The lobs, though, should be as plentiful as ever. With a flashy passer like Teodosic around and frontcourt finishers like Griffin, Harrell and DeAndre Jordan ready to catch, the Clippers could be fun to watch again, even if they're no longer a lock to win 50 games.
Giannis Antetokounmpo alone is worth the price of admission (or a click over) to a Milwaukee Bucks game. At nearly 7'0", with the all-around skills and physical tools to put Inspector Gadget to shame, the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo has already established himself as one of the NBA's most exciting players.
The Greek Freak has the stamp of approval from at least one former MVP: Kevin Durant.
"Congrats on MIP, this dude is a specimen that we've never seen before and it's guaranteed that he will be an MVP one day!," Durant wrote on YouTube in congratulating Antetokounmpo on his Most Improved Player Award, per Bucks.com. "In fact, I called out this years MVP years ago so you gotta respect my knowledge for the game lol."
The Bucks have done well to surround Antetokounmpo with young, unorthodox talent. Malcolm Brogdon, the reigning Rookie of the Year, is a big, smart guard who can defend, pass (4.2 assists per game), shoot (40.4 percent from three) and throw down on LeBron James. Khris Middleton and Tony Snell bring plenty to the table as 3-and-D threats. Thon Maker (37.8 percent from three as a rookie) has the makings of a stretch 5, if not the strength to hang inside.
D.J. Wilson, the No. 17 pick in this year's draft, could add to that collection of Monstars in Milwaukee. Jabari Parker (hopefully) will once he returns from his latest knee injury.
That collective length and athleticism across positions should make scoring on the Bucks a daunting task. And while defense may not be the sexiest selling point, the run-outs and dunks that result from those flying limbs and deflections should bring more than enough excitement to the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
The Process isn't over in Philadelphia. It's merely entering its next phase.
For the first time in years, the 76ers spent substantial money on free agents this summer. JJ Redick will earn $23 million this season to shoot and spread the floor. Amir Johnson will take home $11 million to rebound, defend and run the floor.
But those two wouldn't be in the City of Brotherly Love—and, frankly, the Sixers wouldn't be on this list—without the young talent that constitutes the core of the East's most interesting team.
Joel Embiid, who finished third in Rookie of the Year voting this past season, looked like a readymade superstar at center during his 31 games. Dario Saric, this year's ROY runner-up, showed the sort of skill, savvy and intensity to man multiple positions on both ends of the floor.
The intrigue on this club, though, stems largely from the two unknowns taken No. 1 overall: Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. Neither has logged a single minute in a regular-season NBA game. Simmons missed all of 2016-17 with a foot injury, while Fultz will be coming in as a rookie—or, perhaps, hobbling in after injuring his ankle at summer league in Las Vegas.
Per Embiid, that quartet already has a nickname: FEDS, as in Fultz, Embiid, Dario and Simmons. After four years of futility, Sixers fans will be clamoring for that kind of intervention. As for the rest of the hoops world, all eyes will be trained eagerly on the fruits of Sam Hinkie's labors to see if his master plan might be one worth pursuing elsewhere.
Portland Trail Blazers
"...the guy would help the Blazers immediately. He'd make them a legitimate top-five seed candidate. He'd raise the NBA city's profile. And fans would love him once they got to know him, especially if they heard what I heard about him as a father on Sunday."
With or without Anthony, Portland has the makings of a squad that should be, if not one of the West's elites next season, a thorn in all of their sides.
They'll rain threes and score tons of points, as is their wont with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. That backcourt combination, while a sieve defensively, entertains to the hilt with vicious rack attacks from Lillard, old-school tricks from McCollum and heat checks from both.
The real game changer in Rip City, though, is Jusuf Nurkic. The team went 14-6 with the burly Bosnian in the lineup last season before a leg injury knocked him out for all of April, save for a short stint in Game 3 against the Golden State Warriors. When healthy, Nurkic can act as a perfect complement for Lillard and McCollum, from setting jarring screens and rolling to the hole, to sucking defenders into the low post and offering resistance at the rim on the other end.
If the Blazers can squeeze some value out of Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard—all of whom got paid last summer—they should have enough talent to put a scare into the Golden States, Houstons, San Antonios and Oklahoma Citys of the world.
And maybe, just maybe, draw a star's wondering eyes (along with ours) to PDX.
San Antonio Spurs
Some of you might object to seeing the San Antonio Spurs on this list. Maybe there's a faction that doesn't find a team that's won at least 50 games in every full season since 1997-98 to be "lowkey." Maybe there's another group that thinks the Spurs are "boring."
To the former, you have a point, though it's undercut by the latter, who are just...wrong.
Does sound, fundamental basketball count as boring? Do pinball passing sequences qualify as boring? Is there anything boring about Manu Ginobili coming back for his age-40 season or Dejounte Murray finding his way at what will be age 21?
What about Kawhi Leonard? Sure, he may not be Mr. Personality, but have you seen what that dude can do on the court? If not for Leonard's ankle injury, his Jordanesque-ness might've give the Spurs a realistic shot at upending the Golden State Warriors during this year's Western Conference Finals.
And, really, what could ever be boring about Gregg Popovich berating players, officials and (occasionally) media when he's feeling grumpy?
If you enjoy the Warriors' brand of team basketball, the Spurs, from whom so much of Golden State's ethos emanates, deserve your attention as well.
Gordon Hayward's departure to Boston dealt a crippling blow to the Utah Jazz, but it didn't kill basketball in Salt Lake City. Far from it, actually.
Even before Hayward made his decision, the Jazz were stocked with perimeter scorers, from the veteran Joe Johnson to the young duo of Rodney Hood and Alec Burks to rookie Donovan Mitchell. That group still has Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors manning the front line and Joe Ingles launching threes and making smart plays on the wing. Perhaps Dante Exum, a 2014 top-five pick going into the last year of his rookie deal, will make his long-awaited leap ahead of his restricted free agency.
What could make this Utah group even more of a joy to watch than before is the addition of Ricky Rubio. The 26-year-old Spaniard should fit perfectly with the Jazz's style of play. He's one of the best defenders at the point in basketball, with the brilliant passing skill to lift up his teammates in the half court and get the ball up the floor in a hurry on the break.
Like the Clippers club they felled in the first round of the playoffs, the Jazz will be hard-pressed to sniff 50 wins without Hayward this season. But the cupboard in the Beehive State is far from bare and might still have enough provisions to push Utah into the postseason on the strength of some fun, physical basketball.