Every year there is a team that comes out of nowhere to shock the NBA world with their success. They are overlooked and underrated in all the preseason prognostications.
They are undervalued by the national audience. A lot of times they even begin slowly out of the gate and analysts begin to feel secure in their predictions of mediocrity before they emerge as a team to be reckoned with.
Last year, this team was the Denver Nuggets. While they were not generally predicted to be a bad basketball team, most preseason previews had them finishing without making the playoffs or with another early round defeat.
Of course, NBA fans are familiar with the success the Nuggets enjoyed in the 2008-2009 season, coming within two games of their first franchise NBA Finals appearance and giving the eventual champs all they could handle in the Western Conference Finals.
With the start of the 2009-2010 NBA season less than two weeks away, I would like to offer my prediction on three teams that I believe have the potential to surprise everyone and compete for a playoff spot.
The Grizzlies made some surprising moves this offseason when they brought in Allen Iverson and Zach Randolph, two notoriously isolated and inaccessible teammates.
This to me suggests a “win now” attitude, but it also reeks of desperation.
However, that being said, the composition of this team just might be crazy enough to work.
The Grizzlies are unquestionably a more talented team this year and have a six-man rotation that is as capable on paper as just about any in the league.
They have the potential to be near the top in scoring average, but the questions surrounding their defense and their depth remain.
O.J. Mayo is well on his way to being a superstar at the two spot. His numbers as a rookie rivaled those of Dwyane Wade, Ben Gordon, Ray Allen and Brandon Roy. Pretty decent company to say the least.
Rudy Gay has already proven himself a top flight wing player, and has been the team's best player since being selected in the draft.
Zach Randolph is a question mark, but if he displays any sort of commitment and fortitude, has the potential to be a top 10 power forward capable of putting up 20 and 10.
Iverson is one of the most gifted basketball players to ever walk this earth, but he tends to be an offensive black hole.
If he can avoid using half of the shot clock on every possession, and if he can take that chip on his shoulder and use it to lift up his teammates, this could be a good fit.
Mike Conley has had ups and downs since his rookie season in ’07, but he has the makings of an All-Star point guard.
Once Lowry was traded to Houston last year, and Conley was reinserted into the starting lineup, he averaged 14.8 points and 5.7 assists per game.
His scoring output might take a hit this year, but you should see improvements in his assist numbers with the scoring threats surrounding him.
Marc Gasol trained vigorously over the summer to shed 25–30 pounds to improve his agility, which was the biggest knock on him last year. He is set up to have a breakout season.
The selection of Hasheem Thabeet at number two in the draft this year certainly came as a surprise to some, with Gasol having already established himself in the paint.
However, Thabeet is a once in a lifetime defensive talent, and has more upside than perhaps anyone else in this draft. The Grizzlies were wise not to pass him up.
So far, in the preseason Thabeet has 10 blocks in six games, clearly demonstrating the shot-blocking ability that made him a top five pick. He will clearly make a shaky defensive team better.
If Lionel Hollins can work some magic on this team and get them to tame their egos and play as a team, the Grizzlies have the potential to push for that final playoff spot.
Assuming they can avoid utter implosion, they have all the talent to be a team to watch.
The Clippers were a trendy pick last year to have a breakout season with the additions of Baron Davis, a perennial All-Star, and Marcus Camby, fresh off of his Defensive Player of the Year award.
Sure the loss of Elton Brand would hurt, but the signing of Zach Randolph was supposed to account for some of that lost productivity.
Things didn’t quite work out as expected for L.A.’s red headed step-child. They usually never do.
The Clippers have historically been good at only one thing, and that is losing. They certainly didn’t disappoint in that respect, finishing behind only the Kings for the worst record in the NBA.
However, with losing comes better draft picks, and while the Clippers have made some of the worst picks in NBA history (please see Michael Olawokandi, Darius Miles, Yaroslav Korolev), I think they have found a can’t miss prospect in Blake Griffin.
Griffin is big enough to battle at the four spot, but versatile and athletic enough to be successful at the three.
He has enough range to be a respectable three-point threat, and enough size and strength to battle inside with the bigs. He should be an instant double-double player and gives the Clippers something they sorely missed last year, toughness.
Baron Davis had a disastrous season in ‘08, playing in only 65 games and battling through injuries and shooting difficulties.
Davis will be the X-Factor this year, and if he can return to form, penetrating at will, dishing to open teammates, and stepping back to nail the three, this team can really surprise some people.
Eric Gordon is a scoring machine and should be on the receiving end of many of Davis’s assists.
Al Thornton is a versatile small forward with unlimited potential. If he can harness his talent and stop forcing shots, he can develop into a quality NBA starter.
The Camby/Kaman duo at the five spot should be a solid force in the middle.
The bench is decent with Rasual Butler, Ricky Davis, and Brian Skinner all possessing the necessary tools to be good role players, if they buy into that role that is.
The Randolph trade was not only what many thought to be addition by subtraction, but ultimately landed them Sebastian Telfair and Craig Smith to further improve their depth.
The Clippers will have to shed their losing persona if they are ever going to have any success.
Based on talent alone, this team should be able to push for a playoff spot, but there remain a lot of unanswered questions.
Watch for a vast improvement over last year’s team and expect these Clippers to be in the hunt.
The Warriors are loaded with extraordinarily athletic and talented players, but it is starting to seem like none of them actually want to be on this team.
Stephen Jackson has made it known that he wants out. Monta Ellis doesn’t want to play nice and share his backcourt with Stephen Curry.
With the unstable nature of this team, who knows who will be the next to demand out.
The potential for dysfunction is seemingly as great as the potential for success. However, if the stars can somehow align themselves and the gods of cordiality can impose their will on the Warriors egos, this team has unlimited potential.
The Warriors are as offensively potent as any team in the league, and were second only to the Suns last year in scoring. However, they were also dead last in points allowed per contest.
Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry are both lethal scorers, though neither are traditional point guards. Curry is still unproven, but seems to be a lock to succeed at this level.
Kelenna Azubuike is a marksman from long distance, and should see time at the two guard and in the three spot.
Anthony Morrow has an incredible knack to score at this level, and was a remarkably efficient .558 shooting from the field last year.
Stephen Jackson is solid, but assuming he pulls a disappearing act, Maggette will be available to pick up his productivity at the three, moving Randolph to power forward.
Randolph is freakishly athletic for his size, and gives the Warriors the type of versatile big man that they haven’t seen in years, possibly since the first Don Nelson era.
In the middle, Biedrins is a solid NBA player with potential to become great. He is good for a nightly double-double, and should be an improved defender this year.
With Turiaf now available off the bench, the Warriors have a veteran presence in the middle with a defensive focus. This should help bring their points allowed average down.
There are perhaps more IF’s associated with the Warriors than any other team in the league. The unknowns certainly outweigh the known commodities.
But, IF things start to fall into place for this team, and IF Nellie can get them to buy in to his coaching style and minute distribution, watch for them to compete for the six or seven seed in the playoffs.