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The Next Wave of NBA Contenders Is Upon Us

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 2, 2016

Mar 26, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) dribbles the ball in the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. the Jazz won 93-84. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

If you had to peg a season-defining sentiment for the upcoming 2016-17 NBA campaign, you'd probably arrive at something like predestination.

With the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers (again) standing out as unimpeachable favorites in their conferences, it's hard to get past the feeling that their third straight Finals matchup is a foregone conclusion—which is why we need to celebrate the league's upstarts and rising forces more than ever.

The members of this ascendant new wave probably aren't ready to knock off the established ruling class just yet. But if those superpowers falter eventually, don't be surprised if it's one of these teams doing the toppling. In the meantime, watching them grow is half the fun.

  

Utah Jazz

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 8:  Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz and Gordon Hayward #20 of the Utah Jazz talk during the game against the Atlanta Hawks on March 8, 2016 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowl
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images
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Let's start here: The Utah Jazz posted the fifth-best net rating in the Western Conference last year. While that plus-1.6 points per 100 possessions suggests they should have been marginally better than .500 instead of marginally worse (the Jazz finished 40-42), this is not a team we should expect to spend another season trying to break even.

Though the four-man unit appeared in only 45 games last year, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert produced a net rating of plus-five points per 100 possessions when they played together. Forget where they ranked in the conference; that figure would have been sixth-best in the entire league.

While there's reason to expect much better health (mainly because it would be hard for it to get any worse) and room for organic growth in that quartet—all of whom are still young enough to improve—the real reason for optimism comes from the talent Utah is adding to that core.

Dante Exum will be back, and Alec Burks should be healthy. That's two rotation-level talents with potential to be much more. Utah's rim protection makes it a lock to finish among the top five on defense. Imagine what'll happen when Exum reinjects perimeter speed like this into the equation.

Then there's George Hill, a backcourt fit almost too good to be true. He can play with or ahead of Exum, defend either guard position and hit open threes if he's off the ball on offense. He'll join Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson to form the veteran core the Jazz have recently lacked.

Don't forget Trey Lyles' development as a floor-stretching 4, or the value of continuity in yet another year with head coach Quin Snyder and the same main talent base.

No one should be surprised if the Jazz easily surpass the 50-win mark this season. The fact that a victory total like that would represent a step toward the team's full potential (and not a pinnacle) makes the Jazz the most exciting members of the league's new wave.

   

Boston Celtics

BOSTON, MA - JULY 8:  Al Horford poses for a portrait as the newest member of the Boston Celtics on July 8, 2016 at the Boston Celtics Practice Facility in Waltham, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading a
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics might or might not be objectively better than the Jazz, but they're certainly in a better situation. Because while there are a handful of established powers blocking Utah's in-conference climb, the Cavaliers are the only one obstructing Boston's.

The Celtics belonged on this list last year, too. Built around young talent and primed for a big season after a strong finish in 2014-15, Boston delivered with 48 wins. But now things are different: The upside is even greater.

Al Horford changes the Celtics. He fills in the gaps on both ends of the court—particularly on offense, as Scott Rafferty explained for Sporting News:

Horford's biggest impact on the Celtics will be felt in the pick-and-roll, where 24.7 percent of his offense came from last season. The only players to attempt more shots as the roll man were Brook Lopez, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. Horford was more efficient than each of them, too, with an average of 1.13 points per pick-and-roll possession (78.5 percentile). The Celtics, on the other hand, saw only three teams convert shots on the roll at a worse rate, while the Hawks were on the same page as the Thunder and Rockets near the top.

Head coach Brad Stevens told Michael Pina of Vice Sports, "One of the reasons we went after Al really hard on day one was because we thought that he fit in really well with how we play."

The logic checks out there.

It's hard to gauge the impact of having an unquestioned star reorganizing your team hierarchy, but that's what Horford does. He's Boston's top option, its best player. Everyone else can fall in line and fill roles behind him. With him around, you don't have to ask Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder or anyone else to do more than they're capable of.

In addition to adding the difference-maker they've needed since the breakup of the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen core, the Celtics have also preserved a longer-term contention window. They didn't give up any assets to land Horford, and drafting Jaylen Brown means that even if this version of the team goes bust, the C's could have another crack at contending whenever Brown's ready to lead.

If something goes wrong with the Cavs—injury, LeBron James' inevitable decline, a post-title swoon—Boston could establish itself as the East's new overlord right away.

    

Minnesota Timberwolves

Apr 13, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) dunks the ball in the second half against the New Orleans Pelicans at Target Center. The Timberwolves won 144-109. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

You've got to suspend the very rational skepticism you'd normally harbor toward a team this young, but the Minnesota Timberwolves belong here.

Karl-Anthony Towns is the main reason, of course. If you're even casually acquainted with his growing legend, you're aware he's inspiring "2015 Anthony Davis" levels of hype, which is no small thing. The excitement is justified.

Only five other rookies have ever matched or exceeded Towns' averages of 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

Rookies Who Have Matched Towns' Per-Game Averages
PlayerAgeHall of Fame?
David Robinson24Yes
Tim Duncan21Inevitable
Shaquille O'Neal20Yes
Hakeem Olajuwon22Yes
Ralph Sampson23Yes
Basketball-Reference.com

And just one of them, Shaquille O'Neal, posted those per-game marks while topping Towns' effective field-goal percentage of 55.5 percent.

Towns is also gifted with uncommon length, coordination and speed, which lets him do incredible things like this on defense:

A guy entering his age-21 season with that statistical profile, who also has the makings of a true defensive force, who will now play for noted defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau, who is surrounded by a legion of similarly young and promising talents...well, a guy like that is essentially a holy vessel for basketball enthusiasm.

Minnesota jumped from 16 wins to 29 last year. With Thibs on board to mold the defense, Towns blossoming and the duo of Andrew Wiggins and Kris Dunn filling out a down-the-road dominant trio, it wouldn't be out of the question to expect another 13-win bounce.

And from there, the climb will only continue.

   

Honorable Mention

Milwaukee Bucks

Consider this a provisional next-wave nod for the team that was supposed to grow last year and promptly wilted. You had your chance, Bucks. Now, you'll have to prove you belong on this list.

Giannis Antetokounmpo turning into some kind of oversized Jason Kidd clone during his second-half stint as a starting point guard is a big deal. Jabari Parker regaining full athleticism in his second year back from a torn ACL might be even bigger.

Still, after last year's heartbreak, this is a wait-and-see situation.

    

Denver Nuggets

Place your basketball soul in Nikola Jokic's hands. They are supple and strong. He will nurture it, and you will not regret your decision to trust him.

Also, Emmanuel Mudiay shook off one of the ugliest half-seasons a rookie has ever had and managed to finish strong. With him, Jusuf Nurkic, Jamal Murray and the theoretically healthy returns of Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, there's a lot to like about the Nuggets as rising playoff threats this season.

But mostly, it's about Jokic.

    

Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.

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