Surprise NBA Teams You'll Love to Watch Next Season
The NBA just went through a makeover that would make daytime television jealous.
Six of the 15 All-NBA selections from 2018-19 changed teams. According to NBA.com's John Schuhmann, eight teams lost over 50 percent of the minutes logged by players who were on the roster this past season. Another 10 lost at least 40 percent. The turnover this summer was mind-blowing.
Now, we have to exercise a little patience. The 2019-20 season is going to be a blast, featuring all kinds of intriguing matchups between overhauled teams throughout the regular season. The way the talent spread out should make every round of the playoffs fun.
But we're around three months away from the official start of all that, which gives us plenty of time to examine rosters and decide the squads about which we'll feel the most hyped.
Some are obvious (more on that shortly). It's pretty easy to say the Los Angeles Lakers will be fun to watch, and national broadcasts will certainly give them plenty of air time. What we're searching for here are the teams that are a little less conspicuous and won't get quite as much exposure.
The Obvious Choices
These teams will be fun to watch, but there's nothing surprising about that:
Dallas Mavericks: Reigning Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic is set for his encore. This time, he'll bring Kristaps Porzingis back on stage with him.
Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic is fresh off a playoff run in which he averaged 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks. He posted a top-20 single-postseason box plus/minus. Oh, and he's 24 years old. Development from Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris should make the Nuggets even more fun. Wild card Michael Porter Jr. adds a ton of intrigue, as well.
Houston Rockets: There's some familiarity between James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but these two are significantly different players than they were when paired up on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Seven years later, Harden and Russ have worked their way up to 10th and second place, respectively, in career usage. Westbrook has the highest single-season usage of all time. Harden is in second.
Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard can become the first player in NBA history to land three Finals MVPs on three different teams. Having Paul George around will help in that quest.
Los Angeles Lakers: Even at 34 years old, LeBron James could have a chance to reassert his claim to the title of world's best player. Last season on a team loaded with young talent, LeBron averaged around 27 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. With Anthony Davis around, he will face far less defensive attention.
Milwaukee Bucks: As long as Giannis Antetokounmpo is around and in his prime, the Bucks will probably be a perennial #LeaguePassAlert.
New Orleans Pelicans: We've never seen anything quite like Zion Williamson's combination of size and explosiveness. And new team president David Griffin surrounded him with a strong supporting cast including Derrick Favors, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and incumbent Jrue Holiday, among others.
Philadelphia 76ers: Philly appears intent on playing a little more old-school this season, signing Al Horford to play power forward alongside Joel Embiid. Ben Simmons remains must-see TV in transition. Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson round out a jumbo (both in terms of size and price tag) starting five.
When former Golden State Warriors executive Travis Schlenk took over the Atlanta Hawks and drafted Trae Young and Kevin Huerter, there was a lot of speculation that he was trying to create his own version of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
As Tim Bontemps wrote for the Washington Post in the wake of the 2018 draft:
"Few people spent more time watching the development of Curry and Thompson than Schlenk, who spent more than a decade with the Golden State Warriors before taking control of the Hawks last summer. Now, thanks to his moves Thursday night, Schlenk is banking on Young and Huerter becoming the foundation of their own winning formula in Atlanta — Splash Brothers East, if you will."
That may still happen, at least to an extent. But the closer comparison may be Young and Hawks forward John Collins to Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire.
Young is a magician with the ball, zipping one-handed passes off the dribble and probing the paint in a way that evokes images of a young Nash. His patience as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll belies his age. If he comes anywhere near Nash's level of efficiency as a shooter, he'll be one of the game's top offensive players.
He was already top-40 in offensive real plus-minus as a rookie, per ESPN.
As for Collins' side of this, check out how similar the numbers from his first two seasons are to those of Stoudemire:
- Collins: 19.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 blocks per 75 possessions, plus-6.6 relative true shooting percentage, 1.5 box plus/minus
- Stoudemire: 19.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.5 blocks per 75 possessions, plus-1.5 relative true shooting percentage, minus-1.1 box plus/minus
Throw in the size (they're both 6'10") and athleticism, and you can start to see a modern version of Stoudemire who shoots threes. Collins hit 34.8 percent on 2.6 attempts per game last season.
If Huerter and Cam Reddish can be modern versions of Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson, and De'Andre Hunter can eventually provide Shawn Marion-like contributions, this is going to be one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA.
The Memphis Grizzlies are right there with the Atlanta Hawks in terms of loaded young cores.
This year's No. 2 pick, Ja Morant, is "about to change the game," according to NBA veteran Rudy Gay. His monster sophomore season at Murray State suggests Gay could be onto something.
Because of his speed and vertical athleticism, Morant has drawn comparisons to Russell Westbrook. But Morant shot 36.3 percent on 4.8 three-point attempts per game in 2018-19. He was also at 81.3 percent from the line on 8.2 attempts.
Similarly, Westbrook left college after his second season. His three-point percentage was 33.8 on 2.0 attempts. His free-throw percentage was 71.3 on 3.8 attempts.
Russ with a chance at a solid NBA jumper? If Morant hits that ceiling, Memphis will be a bear (I'm sorry).
And Morant might not even be the most analytically intriguing young player on the roster.
College Basketball Reference tracks box plus/minus back to the 2010-11 season. Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. rank second and 11th, respectively, in single-season box plus/minus. And that's coming from a huge sample of 20,183 individual seasons of at least 500 minutes.
Zion Williamson's 2018-19 campaign is the only one ahead of Clarke's. Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Victor Oladipo, Denzel Valentine, Sindarius Thornwell, Delon Wright, Ethan Happ and Gary Clark are the players between Clarke and JJJ.
If you limit the group to only freshman seasons, the top five reads: Zion, AD, KAT, JJJ and Embiid.
The length, athleticism and defensive awareness of a Clarke/Jackson frontcourt is tantalizing. With Morant piloting, they'll show plenty of flashes of their top-tier potential in 2018-19.
For much of Quin Snyder's tenure as head coach of the Utah Jazz, he led a team that had to grind for wins.
- 2014-15 Jazz: 17th in offense, 14th in defense, 30th in pace
- 2015-16 Jazz: 16th in offense, seventh in defense, 30th in pace
- 2016-17 Jazz: 12th in offense, third in defense, 30th in pace
- 2017-18 Jazz: 16th in offense, second in defense, 25th in pace
- 2018-19 Jazz: 15th in offense, second in defense, 13th in pace
Utah's slowed-down, defense-first-last-and-always approach was mostly born of necessity.
Two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert was the team's best player over the last five years. Other than George Hill's 2016-17 campaign, Utah has struggled for positive point guard play. And Derrick Favors gave it a traditional defensive frontcourt that rebelled against the modern convention of a stretch 4.
It's not that the rosters over the last five seasons were bad. Utah finished 14th, 10th, fifth, fourth and fourth, respectively, in simple rating system (point differential combined with strength of schedule). It was just heavy on defense.
This summer, the Jazz went all-in on offense without giving up their best defenders inside (Gobert) and out (Joe Ingles).
After the Jazz traded for Mike Conley and before they even added Bojan Bogdanovic, The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor called the team "an instant Western Conference contender."
"The Jazz will remain one of the NBA's best defenses, and now they'll have a point guard who can take them from good to great on offense," O'Connor wrote. "This trade may not generate headlines like the Lakers' acquisition of Anthony Davis, but it could end up being one of the most important transactions of the offseason."
Utah now has a Conley/Donovan Mitchell/Ingles/Bogdanovic/Gobert lineup at its disposal that is more balanced and modern than any Snyder has had to date.
Throw in a solid bench with Royce O'Neale, Jeff Green, Ed Davis and wildcard Dante Exum, and you can see why this organization's offseason has been so hyped.
Behind a breakout second season from point guard De'Aaron Fox, the Sacramento Kings came just two wins shy of breaking a 12-year streak of sub-.500 campaigns.
That dubious run now stands at 13 years, but Sacramento should have a good shot to end it in 2019-20.
Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Harrison Barnes are all back. The average age of that foursome is right around 25. And 20-year-old Marvin Bagley III really started to figure things out after the All-Star break when he averaged 18.5 points and 9.2 rebounds in just 27.8 minutes over 19 appearances. He also shot 39.0 percent from three in that stretch.
Add a little passing and Sacramento could have a full-fledged playmaking 5 to set up the shooting of the four mentioned above.
As Bagley continues to develop, the Kings have brought in some veterans who should push this team to a few more wins this season. Cory Joseph has been a staple in "best backup point guard in the league" conversations for a few years, and Dewayne Dedmon was a hidden gem for the Atlanta Hawks.
"Dedmon's transformation into a three-point shooter is real. He canned 38.2 percent of his threebies on close to five attempts per 36 minutes." Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote on the eve of free agency. "... Oh, and just for kicks: Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player who rivaled Dedmon's defensive rebound, steal and block percentages while making at least 25 three-pointers."
Dedmon doesn't have the top-end athleticism Bagley does, but he can teach the youngster a thing or two about transitioning to the modern game.
Put it all together and the Kings have youth, experience, depth and some history to exorcise. That's a dangerous combination.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference.