5 NBA Teams Built to Shock in 2022-23

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRFeatured Columnist IVAugust 24, 2022

5 NBA Teams Built to Shock in 2022-23

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    De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Seeing young or previously underperforming teams make the leap is one of the most enjoyable parts of being an NBA fan, whether you're a fan of that franchise or not.

    We saw the Minnesota Timberwolves, Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers make huge jumps last season, with all three either doubling their previous win total or coming close to it.

    With the Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks losing key players to trade or free agency this offseason, the bottom of the West could be a prime spot to see teams rise up the standings.

    Thanks to successful offseasons, players returning from injury or just a vast amount of internal improvement, these are the five teams that could shock us the most in 2022-23.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

    2021-22 Record/Standing: 24-58, 14th in the West

    2022-23 Best-Case Scenario: Competing for a play-in spot

    While it may be a bit aggressive to say that OKC will make the 2023 playoffs, this team could have play-in hopes in the final weeks of the season.

    The Thunder started out last year 13-22 overall before actively tanking the rest of the way (and being rewarded for it with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft). Despite finishing just 27th overall in wins, OKC showed the ability to stop opposing teams by ranking tied for 16th in defensive rating.

    Young, mostly unproven talent still dominates this roster (11 players on guaranteed contracts are 23 or younger), but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort are now on their second contracts while veterans Derrick Favors, Kenrich Williams (who just signed a four-year extension) and Mike Muscala are still around.

    This should finally be the year that Gilgeous-Alexander makes his first All-Star Game, as the only six players to match or exceed his averages of 24.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists (LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, Ja Morant, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry) were voted in as All-Star starters last season.

    With Chet Holmgren making a defensive impact from the minute he steps on the court, as well as the additions of Jalen Williams and Ousmane Dieng and a second-year leap from Josh Giddey, this Thunder team could hover around .500 and challenge for a play-in spot.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

    2021-22 Record/Standing: 27-55, 13th in the West

    2022-23 Best-Case Scenario: Top-6 seed, avoid play-in tournament

    With Damian Lillard playing just 29 games due to abdominal surgery and the roster gutted via trade, the Blazers missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2013.

    If Lillard is healthy (he is), Portland could easily shock teams by returning to prominence after a one-year reset.

    "I feel 100 percent healthy," Lillard said via Sean Highkin of The Rose Garden Report. "I got a break from playing and going out there knowing I didn't feel good, and the burden of, 'We have to win. I have to perform well.' That's a little bit stressful. So the last seven-and-a-half, almost eight months without having to think about none of those things, it kind of cleared my mind. Physically, I feel great."

    A healthy (and presumably motivated) Lillard is a superstar and top-10 player in the NBA, even now at age 32. The rest of the roster may need to wear name tags during training camp, but this is a much-improved defensive unit.

    The additions of Jerami Grant and Gary Payton II will do wonders for Portland's 29th-ranked defense, and getting Jusuf Nurkic back on a four-year deal solidified the center position after the 28-year-old posted an elite swing rating last season (plus-15.2, 98th percentile).

    For the Blazers to hit their ceiling, however, Anfernee Simons will need to continue his trajectory towards star status, and No. 7 overall pick Shaedon Sharpe has to at least become a reliable rotation member at some point this season as well.

    There's probably not enough depth on the roster to get home-court advantage in the West, but don't be surprised if a healthy Lillard leads the Blazers to a top-six seed.

New York Knicks

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    2021-22 Record/Standing: 37-45, 11th in the East

    2022-23 Best-Case Scenario: 8th seed and playoff spot

    Whether or not the Knicks end up trading for Donovan Mitchell (how is five first-round picks, Obi Toppin and Evan Fournier not enough?!), New York could be a sneaky-good squad in the East this season.

    To start, moving Kemba Walker alone has made this a much better team.

    The Knicks had a net rating of minus-0.1 last season, yet when just counting lineups without Walker, this number jumped to plus-3.0. That net rating would have been good for ninth overall in the NBA, ahead of the ratings of the Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets.

    Adding a proven guard in Jalen Brunson to stabilize this offense is going to do wonders for the rest of the roster, as RJ Barrett and Julius Randle don't have to worry about getting others involved as much and can focus on their own scoring. The 25-year-old Brunson has the perfect laid-back, even-keel personality to play in a city like New York as well.

    Barrett is entering his contract year, with this being his last chance to prove he's worth a max deal next offseason. There's also a lot of young talent on this roster (Toppin, Quentin Grimes, Cam Reddish, Immanuel Quickley, Miles McBride) that should only be getting better after an offseason of work.

    While Mitchell Robinson will retain his job as the team's starting center after agreeing to a four-year, $60 million deal, newly signed backup Isaiah Hartenstein is good enough to eat into his minutes and create a two-headed defensive monster in the paint.

    Getting Mitchell from the Utah Jazz would help create some buzz, but offering more than five first-rounders is way too high of a price. The Knicks would be better off rolling with the current roster, one that could be playoff-worthy already by swapping Brunson in for Walker.

Sacramento Kings

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    AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

    2021-22 Record/Standing: 30-52, 12th in the West

    2022-23 Best-Case Scenario: Above .500 finish, 8th or 9th seed

    After pairing two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis with De'Aaron Fox at the trade deadline, the challenge for Sacramento this offseason was to add enough wing help between them to make this a playoff team.

    With the additions of No. 4 overall pick Keegan Murray, Malik Monk in free agency and Kevin Huerter via trade, Sacramento may have done just that.

    Murray was a perfect fit for this roster and showed us he's more than NBA ready after putting up 23.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.3 steals en route to winning Summer League MVP honors. He'll thrive as a cutter off passes from Fox and Sabonis and is a terrific three-point shooter already with real chance at taking home Rookie of the Year.

    Getting Monk from the Los Angeles Lakers after he averaged 17.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and shot 42.2 percent from three in 37 starts was a great pickup, and Huerter is a 6'7" scorer and playmaker who should thrive as a starter or reserve.

    If Fox can play the way he did after the trade deadline (29.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 50.2 percent shooting), the sixth-year guard will be an All-Star for the first time.

    Mike Brown is an elite defensive mind who led the Cavaliers to a top-seven finish in defensive rating in three of his final four years during LeBron James' first Cleveland stint. His experience as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors for the past six seasons should bring a lot of championship habits to this young(ish) Kings team as well.

    Don't expect Sacramento to make the playoffs outright, but finishing with a record above .500 for the first time since 2005-06 is a real possibility.

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    2021-22 Record/Standing: 36-46, 8th in the West

    2022-23 Best-Case Scenario: Top-4 seed, dark-horse title contender

    We know New Orleans will be better following a strong end to the season and the news that Zion Williamson will be playing on opening night, but with so much talent in the West, just how far can the Pelicans soar?

    For starters, this roster now carries a ton of versatility with the return of Williamson and addition of No. 8 overall pick Dyson Daniels. The Pelicans already possessed the sixth-best net rating in the NBA after the All-Star break (plus-4.7, tied with the Miami Heat) without either player and can now roll out a supersized starting five of CJ McCollum, Herbert Jones, Brandon Ingram, Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas.

    After previously playing next to Derrick Favors and Steven Adams, Williamson now gets more room to operate in the paint with Valanciunas' three-point shooting (36.1 percent on career-high 158 attempts in 2021-22) spreading the floor. With Jones, Larry Nance Jr., Jose Alvarado and now Daniels, there's enough defensive pieces to make this at least an above-average unit to go along with what could be the best offense in the NBA.

    Willie Green will soon be viewed as one of the league's top coaches and should be given his flowers already given the turnaround this team underwent by reaching the playoffs last season.

    While there's plenty of competition at the top, these Pelicans could shock everyone as a first-round home-court advantage team that could win a round or two and become one of the title favorites as early as next year.

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