Ranking the NBA's Top Sleeper Teams for 2022-23
The basketball world is buzzing as the 2022-23 NBA campaign creeps closer.
The defending champion Golden State Warriors sit atop the throne, but their list of challengers is as daunting as it is long. The Boston Celtics regrouped from their Finals loss and added Malcolm Brogdon. The Philadelphia 76ers brought in James Harden's old running mates to team with him and Joel Embiid. The Milwaukee Bucks loom as potential juggernauts and may maintain that status throughout Giannis Antetokounmpo's prime.
That's not all. Far from it. Imagine what the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets can do with a clean bill of health. Or what about the Brooklyn Nets after deciding not to blow the whole thing up? The Cleveland Cavaliers could make serious noise with Donovan Mitchell on board. The Phoenix Suns should continue to cruise at high altitude following a franchise-record 64-win season.
Those teams all have people talking, but they aren't the only ones who could shape next season's narrative. The following five clubs—subjectively ranked by the size and scope of their opportunity to exceed expectations—might be flying under the radar for now, but each has a significant opportunity to surprise.
5. Portland Trail Blazers
Sure, the Blazers were a mess last season, but most of the damage done during their 55-loss marathon was self-inflicted. With a lottery-protected pick on the line and limited opportunity to impress in the postseason, they pulled the plug early, traded away CJ McCollum and shut down their top talents to embrace the tank.
After protecting the selection (No. 7 overall) and investing it in the wildly intriguing Shaedon Sharpe, Portland has a chance to erase all memories of its unsightly second half and race back up the Western Conference ladder.
The upside starts with the return of a healthy Damian Lillard (abdominal surgery in January), who spent the previous two seasons competing for the label of best offensive player on the planet. If that rings even a touch hyperbolic, just peep the production: 29.4 points and 7.8 assists per game, plus a 45.7/39.6/90.7 shooting slash. For context, only 11 players have ever averaged 29 points and seven assists in a single season.
Lillard has a new running mate in Jerami Grant, a lanky, athletic wing who can operate as everything from a three-and-D support player to a featured scorer. Plus, Portland brought in Gary Payton II, who might be the Association's stingiest backcourt stopper. And don't forget about the returning tandem of Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkić, both of whom can shift the outcome of games on their own.
If Portland sprinkles the right amount of developmental pixie dust on Sharpe, Nassir Little, Keon Johnson, Greg Brown III and Trendon Watford, this supporting cast could be formidable. The Blazers probably fall short of championship contention in even their best-case scenario, but making an opponent seriously sweat in the conference semifinals is absolutely on the table.
4. Atlanta Hawks
Normally, if a team traded three first-round picks (and a pick swap) for an in-prime All-Star, it would generate far too much chatter to even approach the sleeper conversation. However, the Hawks' acquisition of Dejounte Murray might be the exception to that rule, since it came during the same summer as the Utah Jazz's fire sale and the Brooklyn Nets' near-destruction.
There are some expectations for Atlanta, but nothing huge: Vegas set the over/under at just 45.5 wins. That would be a fine season, but the Hawks could engineer something far greater.
Remember, this group is all of one season removed from a trek to the Eastern Conference Finals. The key contributors from that run are mostly still in place—including Trae Young, Clint Capela, John Collins, De'Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanović—plus the Hawks have added Murray, Justin Holiday, Frank Kaminsky, Maurice Harkless and rookie first-rounder A.J. Griffin. Don't discount how big of a role Onyeka Okongwu could command, too.
The theme for Atlanta's offseason was defense, as that's where most of the newcomers do their best work. It's also where the Hawks needed the biggest lift. Despite having last season's second-most efficient offense, they couldn't rise above mediocrity as they were dragged down by their 26th-ranked defense.
That's why trading for Murray made sense. Well, that and his ability to ease some of the offensive burden shouldered by Young, potentially resulting in more efficient versions of both players. If they find their chemistry early and the defense can enter even the midsection of efficiency rankings, then Atlanta just might strike the two-way balance needed to navigate another conference finals run.
3. Toronto Raptors
No, the Raptors didn't win the Kevin Durant sweepstakes or swing big for a new starting center, but maybe they didn't need to. Toronto's roster already looks stacked, and that's before accounting for all of the internal paths to growth and development.
With head coach Nick Nurse calling the shots, and president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri always ready to pounce on any missing puzzle pieces, perhaps there's a sleeping dragon (dinosaur?) resting just north of the border.
"The Raptors don't have one of the five most talented teams in the East," Celtics Blog's Adam Spinella wrote. "But what they have is a top-tier coach, an overwhelming amount of length and a young star in Scottie Barnes who can take the next leap."
If Toronto times enough of its leap-years just right, it could easily qualify as one of the conference's five most talented teams by season's end.
Barnes, the reigning Rookie of the Year, has very few weaknesses for a 21-year-old. Give him a consistent three-ball, and it might be game over. But don't forget about OG Anunoby, a potential Kawhi Leonard clone who shows perpetual improvement. Gary Trent Jr. and Precious Achiuwa have similar trajectories pointing all the way up.
Pascal Siakam has been an All-NBA selection in two of the past three seasons. Fred VanVleet has some of the best numbers of any of the league's non-All-Stars. Chris Boucher just played the most complete season of his career, and that was without a reliable three-ball (29.7 percent), which he had the previous year (38.3).
Toronto may not have a tier-one superstar at the moment, but it could have multiple All-Star selections and several other players in that discussion. There aren't many other teams that can claim the same. You might be surprised if the Raptors made a conference finals push, but you wouldn't (or at least shouldn't) be shocked.
2. Dallas Mavericks
Wait, weren't the Mavericks just conference finalists? How on earth could they qualify as sleepers just a few months later, right?
Well, people weren't exactly thrilled about their offseason—they didn't bother replacing Jalen Brunson—and their postseason success wasn't at all expected. The fourth-seeded Mavericks went six games in the first round and all seven in the second. And their triumph over the top-seeded Phoenix Suns was far more often painted as Phoenix's failure rather than Dallas' triumph.
The simple truth behind the Mavericks' standing as sleepers is this: They could be scary good, and they simply aren't regarded that way.
Christian Wood was a good get, and his ability to serve as a pick-and-roll (or pick-and-pop) screener could make him a better fit with Luka Dončić than Brunson was. The return of a healthy Tim Hardaway Jr. might be huge; he averaged 16.6 points and shot 39.1 percent from three in his last full season. Former first-round pick Josh Green has a chance to expand his role. Jaden Hardy was a draft-night dart worth throwing, even if the returns on that investment could take some time.
Dončić is the real key here, though. He's a basketball magician—fourth player ever to tally 6,000 points, 2,000 assists and 2,000 rebounds in his first four seasons—who might have new tricks up his sleeve. Mavericks governor Mark Cuban told B/R's Taylor Rooks that Dončić is working on an "insane" shot, meaning one of the game's most unguardable players could be even harder to handle now.
1. New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans could win the West this season. No, that's not the most likely scenario, but if you don't think it's at least a possibility, then you haven't paid enough attention to the Big Easy.
Last season could've been a lost year since Zion Williamson missed all of it following foot surgery, but New Orleans had other ideas. After stumbling out to a 3-16 start, the Pelicans went 33-30 the rest of the way and posted the 10th-best net rating once deadline acquisition CJ McCollum debuted (plus-3.4). They won a pair of play-in games to secure their playoff spot, then pushed the top-seeded Phoenix Suns to six games in the first round.
Again, all of that happened without Williamson. And all of it was overseen by a first-year coach in Willie Green. With Williamson appearing ready to go, and Green positioned to build on a successful debut, New Orleans has a not outlandish path to the top.
This roster boasts an ideal blend of in-prime performers (McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valančiūnas and Larry Nance Jr.) and ascending prospects (Herbert Jones, Jose Alvarado, Trey Murphy III and No. 8 pick Dyson Daniels). It just lacks a focal point, and Williamson, if healthy, has everything needed to thrive in that role.
He has played more than 25 games in a season once in his career. During that campaign, he averaged 27.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 61.1 percent from the field. Care to venture a guess as to the last time the Association had seen someone put up 27/7/3 on 60 percent shooting? Never. Williamson is the only one to reach those marks.
Now, he's about to join forces with Ingram and McCollum, a tandem that averaged a net-shredding 116.9 points per 100 possessions across 386 minutes last season. Those three will be surrounded by a deftly crafted supporting cast that offers size, speed, athleticism, shot-making and feisty defense. Oh, and if this roster winds up lacking anything, the front office has the trade chips to fill in any gaps.
Consider this an early warning: The Pelicans could be coming for the crown.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.