NBA Predictions 2011-12: Dark Horse Teams Poised to Make a Splash
The NCAA tournament sets the stage for David and Goliath battles pitting stacked and storied programs against mid-major, prospective Cinderellas.
Now while the victor is usually predetermined, our assumptions can sometimes be met with the surprising and inspirational news of an upset. Fans and media members foam over and thrive on these kinds of instances. They keep spirits and interest in the sport high.
The chances of these kinds of situations arising in the NBA are limited by the extensive season and seven-game series, but every now and then we find a team with a strong enough cast to stir up the NBA landscape (similar to that of the '99 New York Knicks who reached the NBA Finals).
The Memphis Grizzlies were the most recent team to make a surprising and deep run in the playoffs by defeating the San Antonio Spurs and giving the Oklahoma City Thunder a run for their money last postseason.
I don't see any team providing NBA viewers with that kind of excitement or bewilderment, but I do see several dark-horse teams poised to make a run at the playoffs.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
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Whether or not the drafting of Derrick Williams and the signing of Ricky Rubio are transformational moves for this franchise are yet to be seen, but they definitely put the team on the right track.
Williams is an extremely athletic and versatile player and should prove to be another matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. The drafting of Williams gives the Wolves one of the deepest and scariest frontcourt trios in the league with Michael Beasley, Williams and Kevin Love, especially if they are all on the floor at once. If Williams can continue to put up impressive numbers like those from his days in a Wildcats uniform, the Timberwolves will be in good shape.
Ricky Rubio should provide Minnesota with an above-average point guard who has a knack for playmaking. With Rubio orchestrating this powerful offense, which should be headlined by the pick-and-roll (don’t forget Love’s tweets, via Yahoo!, about the pick-and-roll earlier this year), they could make a run at a 40-win season.
Side note: Picking up Brad Miller flew well under the radar this offseason, but the seasoned veteran could prove to be the most influential addition to this young cast. He gives the team even more frontcourt depth, as well as leadership and experience.
4. Sacramento Kings
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I hesitated on this one. The Kings' success is contingent on whether or not we see the Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans or the injury-prone, ineffective one we saw last season.
This team is young, but surprisingly deep and very promising.
They have a solid backcourt led by Evans who will be complemented primarily by the always-exhilarating, fan-favorite Jimmer Fredette, as well as Marcus Thornton who just signed a four-year contract.
Thornton is looking to continue his stellar play from the end of last season, which was defined by averages of over 20 points and four rebounds a game.
DeMarcus Cousins, J.J. Hickson and Jason Thompson will headline Sac-Town’s paint crew. If the Kings aren’t able to re-sign center Samuel Dalembert, there could be a hole in the middle of the lane this upcoming season.
Cousins is coming off a solid rookie season, although he will need to improve his efficiency and level-headedness to propel himself to the upper echelon of bigs.
Even more promising than Cousins might be power forward J.J. Hickson, who is primed for a breakout season.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
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The City of Brotherly Love is patiently awaiting the second coming of Allen Iverson. Whether or not this player is the man with the same initials as “The Answer” is yet to be seen.
Andre Iguodala will have to return to his ’06-09 form in order for the 76ers to make any real impact on the Eastern Conference landscape. He is a long, athletic defensive stud who has an aptitude for scoring as well.
Jrue Holiday showed signs of greatness after posting a solid line of 14 points, 6.5 assists and four rebounds a game last season. He seemed continually poised and showed signs of a hope for future leadership.
Guards Lou Williams and Jodie Meeks are solid additions and have proven their prolific scoring and playmaking abilities, but their lack of size worries me against larger guards.
The re-signing of forward Thaddeus Young was a great first step for the team, but they will also need to instill and foster a hunger and passion for success in him to push him to his full potential.
Shooting guard and No. 2 draft pick Evan Turner will have to improve drastically to live up to his Ohio State hype. The 76ers are expecting him to develop into an exceptional scorer, or at the very least, a solid role player.
Elton Brand and Marreese Speights anchor this squad, albeit a light anchor. Brand is an aging power forward who has somehow gotten the job done on the low block, while Speights is a solid-at-best center. Philly will have to make a play for an additional big to improve their frontline.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
With news emerging earlier today that Chris Paul may be "clipped" from another chance in Los Angeles, it seems that this roster is relatively set for the upcoming season. (Unless the new rumors from ESPN prove to be true.)
Blake Griffin is obviously the cornerstone and future of this franchise. His numbers of 22 points, 12 rebounds and nearly four assists a game were unrivaled by any other rookie last season. He was arguably the most entertaining and explosive player in the league last year, and may have a bid for MVP if he can throw the Clippers in Kevin Durant’s backpack and carry them to the top of the Western Conference.
At least for now, shooting guard Eric Gordon will be wearing the red, white and blue next season in Staples Center. He is an up-and-coming scorer and playmaker who has made huge strides each year. If he can stay healthy and continue his prolific scoring ways, he will be a huge complement on the perimeter to Griffin’s presence in the paint.
Point guards Mo Williams and Eric Bledsoe round out the Clippers backcourt. They may not be the best replacement for Chris Paul, but they should be able to limit their turnovers and provide stability.
Caron Butler hasn’t had very much media exposure aimed at him because of the ensuing Chris Paul debacle, but he is a huge signee for the club and his importance can’t be overstated.
He could be the missing link on a team lacking a third option and defensive stalwart.
Butler is a proven veteran and the only thing that that may cause hesitation on the behalf of Clipper Nation is the knee injury which he is still recovering from.
DeAndre Jordan and Chris Kaman round out a solid supporting cast and should complement Griffin well. Jordan is always good for one or two electrifying dunks and/or blocks a game, while Kaman brings experience and interior scoring to the Clips’ repertoire.
Side note: The next step for this team is the playoffs. They are over five years removed from the postseason and need to make a return to stay relevant in a city expecting consistent success under the bright lights of extensive analysis and scrutiny.
1. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are my favorite team to make a splash in the NBA this next season.
This team has the perfect combination of youth, athleticism and depth.
The Pacers made an impressive run in the playoffs this past postseason, and were a couple fourth quarters away from a first-round upset of the Bulls.
Since the season’s end, they’ve made moves for George Hill and David West, who recently signed a two-year deal. Hill adds more depth and complements a backcourt of Darren Collison and Paul George, while West adds leadership, experience and another low-post scoring threat.
The continual development of Roy Hibbert and the emergence of Tyler Hansbrough during the Bulls series is a sign of hope for this young frontcourt.
Point guard Darren Collision didn’t live up to the expectations that he had created for himself in New Orleans two years ago, but is looking to bounce back now that he has been familiarized with this organization.
Lastly and most importantly, Danny Granger is this team’s foundation, and however he plays will determine their fate over the next 66-plus games. He is undeniably an emerging star in this league despite his dip in production last season. If anything, the fact that his numbers took a slight dip last season is indicative of a strong and developing supporting cast.
The only question mark presiding over this team is whether or not they can maintain the intensity and composure that they developed over the course of last season.
Side note: The team has been tied to trade rumors that would land O.J. Mayo in the Hoosier State, although those rumors have been swirling for months and it is unclear whether it is a realistic possibility.
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