These are teams who, no matter the circumstances, will not let you take a night off. Their coaches won't allow it. Yes, the Lakers, Celts, Magic and Heat are the consensus cream of the crop; however, these teams are nipping very much at their heels —hungry, determined, ready to take the next leap.
No, they are not championship ready just yet; but, overlook them at your peril.
As Aristotle stated in his tome Metaphysica “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” If nothing else, the emergence of these teams should serve to put the league on notice.
Undermanned and overmatched for much of the last two years due to injuries plaguing their 7'6" centerpiece Yao Ming, the Rockets have done remarkably well adjusting on the fly. Just two short years ago, they took the eventual world champs to seven games. However, this is not that team—it's better.
Despite losing Ron Artest and the ever injured and unable to make it past the first round Tracy McGrady, Coach Adleman and GM Darryl Morey have assembled some very formidable talent.
The recent move of Trevor Ariza to the New Orleans Hornets for Courtney Lee results in improved wing defensive versatility and frees up considerable cap space ensuring them future flexibility. Moreover Martin, Brooks, Battier, and the return of Yao make this team scarier than it’s been in a long time.
4. Milwaukee Bucks - Two words—Scott Skiles. Equal parts taskmaster and teacher, Skiles has managed to do the seemingly impossible—make the Bucks relevant again. This pint sized, no nonsense, defensive minded coach has created an environment that is very much a reflection of his personality—one that the team is clearly buying into.
Individually, these players more than most on this list, do not inspire fear in anyone.
Skiles, however, is getting the most out of his developing players, and this team is the very definition of synergy. To be perfectly honest, everyone, including me, was surprised when the term Fear the Dear actually developed substance in the 2010 playoffs.
Despite losing their best player, a newly revived and defensive minded Andrew Bogut, to season ending injury, the Bucks created a considerable amount of noise. Spearheaded by developing phenom, Brandon Jennings, John (I play well after the initial trade) Salmons, and a cast of feisty in the mold of the coach role players, the Bucks put real fear into the heart of the Atlanta Hawks during the postseason.
A returning Bogut and much improved Jennings should bode nicely for the upcoming season. That is, if Salmons plays to his capability.
3. Portland Trailblazers – This team is young, long, and talented. Mikhail Prokhorov’s advertisement notwithstanding, they were the original blueprint. The Blazers assembled a team replete with youth, athleticism, length, shooting, and defense. It appeared there was nothing in their future short of upside…
Then the injury bug bit. No less than seven members of the team suffered major injuries, none more debilitating than the loss of their overall number one pick Greg Oden. Since his arrival to the NBA, Oden has been injured limiting the Blazers ability to truly see what they are capable of.
During the 2009-2010 season, the injury bug seemingly ran roughshod through the organization: Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Joel Pryzbilla, Travis Outlaw, Rudy Fernandez, and Nicolas Batum were just a few players out for significant periods of time. And lest we forget, Coach Nate McMillan suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon.
Is this the year they are finally inoculated against injury and turn the corner?
If so, they are one of the most complete and deep teams in the league. Despite having hardly any of their most important parts, they gave the Phoenix Suns a considerable fight in the playoffs.
As a Sonic, Coach McMillan was a defensive minded player. He brings his grit, toughness, and attention to detail to the team. Refuse to play defense and ride the pine. Play out of the system and ride the pine. McMillan does not suffer fools lightly and many have found out the hard way (see Jerryd Bayless and the recently fined Spaniard looking to exit, Rudy Fernandez).
Additionally, the natural born leadership of Brandon Roy helped to propel this team to one of the top 10 offenses in the league last year. The recent addition of former Jazz player Wesley Matthews will only bolster this athletic and talented roster. This year, Roy returns rested along with big man Oden who has a mountain size chip on his shoulder and the desire to prove doubters wrong.
Should this be their first healthy season in years, teams are going to have their hands full.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder – If the Blazers designed the Blueprint, the Thunder perfected it. After taking the two-time champion Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the 2010 post season, I was nearly tempted to list this team as my number one. Having the youngest player to ever lead the league in scoring on your side doesn’t hurt either.
If Kevin Durant, as many have said, is the future, the future is now. At 6’11" with a wingspan of 7’5", a silky smooth stroke, and an unerring desire to improve, Durant, at the tender age of 21, appears poised to lead this team to great heights. Not only did he prove his commitment to the team in a small time market by re-signing to little fanfare, but Coach Krzyzewski’s appointment of Durant as Team USA’s go to guy in this summer’s FIBA tournament further serves to bolster the point.
In fact, many like TNT analyst Kenny Smith consider Durant to be the consensus number three in the NBA behind only Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
The Thunder are the youngest team in the league from top to bottom and already remarkably good. It helps that they have a solid pool of talent where each and every player knows his role and plays it well.
Point guard Russell Westbrook has emerged as a crucial component of this rapidly developing team. During the first round of the playoffs, Westbrook demonstrated his improvement as one of the league’s top guards by using his quickness to regularly carve up the Lakers defense. His inspired play, along with the hustle and commitment of his teammates, presented a number of challenges for the defending champions. The sooner he can figure out his jump shot, the sooner the team will make believers out of everyone.
The chemistry, as well as the rate of maturity, of this young team can be directly attributed to Coach Scott Brooks and the unselfish beyond his years leadership of Durant. This is an ego free environment and a team that enjoys playing together, so it should come as no surprise that this team has experienced such a meteoric ascension.
Despite being the youngest team in the NBA, the trio of Durant, Westbrook, and Jeff Green combined for over 5000 points—more than any other trio in the league. Now that’s scary.
1. Chicago Jazz – Yup. The Chicago Jazz. Maybe they should swap names. Surely there has got to be more Jazz music in Chicago than in the Mormon dominated state of Utah; and, I’m willing to bet there are more bulls in Utah than in Chicago (though the ranchers of the great state of Illinois might beg to differ).
Their uniforms say Bulls, but they are not the Bulls as we knew them. They are much more than that. Shakespeare said it best,
What's in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet;
Perhaps William Shakespeare was referring to Chicago’s number one draft pick and 2009 consensus NBA rookie of the year, Derrick Rose. If so, things are looking very sweet indeed.
Rose is a year older and a year wiser. He’s quietly improving his game and becoming increasingly more comfortable with the mantle of leadership. Moreover, with the experience he’s surely gaining as Team USA starting point guard this summer, many would argue he’s going to be better.
The fact that Rose continues to be surrounded by mainstays Luol (it appears I’m finally healthy) Deng and Jakim (my motor never stops running) Noah can only bode well for this dramatically improved team. And they still have Taj (I’m only getting better) Gibson, who will likely now come off a very deep bench.
Management deserves nothing short of a huge pat on the back for assembling what has to be considered one of the strongest and most complete teams in the league post free agency.
They literally grabbed several of the most potent pieces of the Utah Jazz while retaining the best assets of what made them the Bulls.
These are players who have defined roles and come from a system built on toughness, hustle and discipline.
Chief among them is Carlos Boozer. Boozer gives Chicago a consistent (unlike Deng) low post presence guaranteed to put up 20 and 10. While sharpshooter Kyle Korver dramatically improves the team’s ability to stretch defenses with his outside touch, slasher Ronnie Brewer ups the ante on the team’s athleticism. Chicago did exceptionally well to snatch up a trio of talent groomed under notorious workhorse Jerry Sloan.
Finally, the addition of Keith Bogans (no doubt a selection of Thibs), gives Chicago a Bowen-like defender to harass athletic wings whether or not they come from South Beach.
In truth, Chicago has acquired representatives from some of best defenses in the league having mined the Celts chief defensive architect, players from the Jazz and the Spurs.
Sure losing, Heinrich to speculative gambling was an obvious bump in the road, but far from debilitating. From top to bottom, the combination of speed, power, athleticism, defense, rebounding, shooting, youth, and savvy make this team ridiculously scary.
No they are not proven in the way the Celtics or Magic are. And no, they are not as sexy as the Heat. However, they most definitely leapfrogged the overrated and clearly one-dimensional Hawks. More importantly, they are a matchup nightmare for nearly anyone.
Chicago finished 10th in defensive efficiency last season, and that was before the improvement in personnel. While not world beaters just yet, Chicago has the makings of a team that will cause many to have sleepless nights.
If newly anointed Coach Tom Thibideau and his defensive prowess travels, this will be a very scary team that no one will be happy to face for many years to come.