5 Dark-Horse NBA Teams That Can Still Contend This Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 18, 2021

5 Dark-Horse NBA Teams That Can Still Contend This Season

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    It still seems early in the 2021-22 NBA season, but much more is already settled than you might think.

    As The Athletic's Seth Partnow noted, recent trends suggest that the standings today, roughly a third of the way through the year, are a surprisingly accurate predictor of what they'll look like at season's end.

    That's not great news for teams currently outside the contender class, which is typically restricted to the top three seeds in each conference. Just two teams in the last 10 seasons, the 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers and the 2020 Miami Heat, reached the Finals after starting the playoffs seeded lower than third.

    That's why our search for dark-horse contenders has to start outside the top three in each conference.

    We'll pick out five squads that recent history says are long shots to contend, highlighting numbers or narratives that suggest maybe they'll be exceptions to the top-three rule. The Miami Heat aren't going to be involved, by the way. They're outside the top three, but just barely, and it would hardly be a surprise if this gritty, experienced group wound up as one of the last couple of teams standing.

    These teams aren't the cream of the crop right now, but they've all got chances to put together deep runs.

Atlanta Hawks

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The first point to make on the Atlanta Hawks' sneaky contender status is a glib one, but: they've been there before.

    Last season, Atlanta heated up at the right time, surging down the stretch of the regular season under Nate McMillan (getting healthy helped) and making it within two victories of the Finals. The eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks dismissed that upstart Atlanta team, but all the principals are back and a year wiser for the experience.

    The Hawks have underwhelmed so far, sitting ninth in the East and sporting a .500 record through 28 games. Injuries have again been a factor, with De'Andre Hunter sidelined by wrist surgery 11 games into the season and Bogdan Bogdanovic out nursing a sprained ankle since Nov. 27.

    Hunter is Atlanta's best defensive option against top-tier wings, and Bogdanovic's secondary playmaking has been key to the team's attack. The Hawks' offensive rating is 8.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor this year.

    Atlanta also owns a plus-2.5 point differential that indicates its record ought to be closer to 16-12. If not for some tough luck in tight games, the Hawks would be much closer to that coveted top-three status in the East than they are right now.

    Don't forget about Trae Young's ongoing adjustment to this year's officiating points of emphasis. It shouldn't be a surprise that a player of his talent is finding ways to score without relying on the foul-baiting tricks he perfected in years past. Young's free throws are down, but he's shooting better than ever from three-point and two-point range. Despite fewer freebies, his scoring average is up nearly two points per game this year.

    Add all that up, and the Hawks, currently ticketed for the play-in, have a real chance to replicate last year's postseason run.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Cavaliers won 60 games combined over the last three seasons, which makes the fact that FiveThirtyEight has them on pace for 48 victories this year all the more stunning.

    This is one of the greatest, most improbable turnarounds in recent memory, and it could conclude with the upstart Cavs pushing this out-of-nowhere transformation all the way to May or June. Obviously, we shouldn't expect a team led by a trio of 23-and-under studs to go from the lottery to, say, the conference finals overnight. But we should at least prepare for the possibility.

    Cleveland's defense is legit. Led by All-Star candidate Jarrett Allen and future multi-time DPOY Evan Mobley, it ranks second in the league when you filter out garbage time on the strength of unmatched rim protection. It's been a struggle to find consistent scoring when breakout point guard Darius Garland goes to the bench, but Mobley has immense amounts of untapped potential on offense, and Isaac Okoro has been heating up lately, scoring 20 points in two of his last three games and looking more comfortable than ever on corner threes.

    If the Cavs have a weakness on the roster, it's wing depth. But with Okoro making strides and Lauri Markkanen continuing to get the job done as a grossly oversized small forward, that hole in the rotation is shrinking.

    Cleveland is fourth in the East with an 18-12 mark that actually undersells its performance to date.

    Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System considers margin of victory and schedule strength. By that measure, the Cavs have been the fourth-best team in the league so far. As they go forward against an easier slate of opponents, the wins will pile up.

    This might be the last time we get to call the Cavs a dark horse for a while. They could be poised to expectedly contend for years to come.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Winners in seven of their last 10 games, the Los Angeles Lakers have climbed all the way to (checks standings; then checks them again) sixth in the West.

    Sixth? That's it?

    Currently ranking outside the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, the Lakers absolutely do not have the profile of a contender. Despite this recent run, which has been fueled mostly by an improved defense, Los Angeles has still been outscored overall this season.

    FiveThirtyEight has the Lakers finishing at 41-41, the eighth-best mark in the West. No team seeded lower than sixth has ever won a title, and we haven't seen an eighth seed reach the Finals since the New York Knicks in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.

    LeBron James has missed significant time already, Anthony Davis can't make a jumper to save his life and Russell Westbrook remains one of the most difficult pieces to integrate into a functional offense.

    But...LeBron, right? That's really the beginning and end of the argument for why the Lakers can buck virtually every historical trend. As long as he's healthy, James just finds ways to get his team where it needs to go. Obviously, if he's not at full strength when it matters, the Lakers have no chance. But that's true of every other contender, dark horse or not.

    The Lakers are seemingly crippled by roster inflexibility. They're short on ways to improve, but no team has more will to get better via trade or buyout signing. James' career is winding down, and the front office has to do whatever's possible to augment the team—even if that means mortgaging every future asset it can. There is no tomorrow for the Lakers.

    Desperation, an all-timer's decadelong tradition of figuring out how to win with suboptimal support and the fact that Davis and Westbrook simply have to be better than they've been to date—flimsy pieces of evidence to be sure. But you can't be a dark-horse contender if the path to a deep playoff run is easy to see.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Nikki Boertman/Associated Press

    When a team goes 9-1 in the 10 games immediately following the loss of its star, two explanations present themselves.

    First, that said star—Ja Morant in this case—was actually much less of a star than he seemed.

    Second, that the supporting cast was actually capable of much more than it had shown.

    Let's go with door No. 2 for the Memphis Grizzlies, who've been one of the hottest teams in the league since Morant went down with a knee sprain. What they've shown in this shorthanded state could portend a more prolonged run for the rest of the season, followed by something special in the playoffs.

    Jaren Jackson Jr. is making that $105 million extension he signed look like a bargain. He's putting up 19.8 points and 1.9 blocks per game since Morant hit the shelf while flashing more off-the-bounce zip than he'd shown in the past. Desmond Bane is striping it from deep at a 47.0 percent clip on high volume, and Dillon Brooks is posting 18.4 points per game while pissing off every opponent in his orbit with relentlessly intense defense.

    Tyus Jones, slotting in as a starter for Morant, is quietly handing out 6.4 assists against just 1.3 turnovers per game.

    The Grizzlies are still just 19th in defensive efficiency, but they've been stifling during this surge. Their 96.6 defensive rating over their last 10 games is tops in the league by a mile.

    If Morant comes back at full strength and all the rotation pieces that have thrived in larger roles with him out keep up their end of the bargain, nobody's going to want to see these guys in a playoff series.

    Like the Cavs, it's probably a little too early to take the young Grizz seriously with a capital S. But unlike Cleveland, this group has tasted the playoffs. This recent run suggests Memphis is ready to eat.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia 76ers finished first in their conference last year and, well...had some difficulty against the Hawks in the East Finals, mostly because a certain someone said "thanks, but no thanks" to shooting the ball in fourth quarters.

    Ben Simmons has yet to play for the Sixers this season, and it'll be an axis-tilting stunner if he ever suits up in Philly again. The teamwide inability to throw Joel Embiid a post-entry pass is just one of the many ways his absence has hurt the team. A dramatically downgraded defense and a decline in transition frequency are two other notables. Both issues were to be expected with the subtraction of an All-NBA defender and elite grab-and-go threat.

    Philadelphia is fighting just to stay above the play-in mix.

    With Simmons out, Tyrese Maxey has taken a step forward. And Embiid, if he could ever get the ball, theoretically has more space in which to operate. In their reduced state, the Sixers are still hanging around the break-even mark against a schedule that has been among the 10 toughest so far.

    That's not so bad, and the potential addition of a difference-maker (if Philadelphia ever swings a Simmons deal) could quickly vault this team back into the East's top tier. Remember, Embiid is an MVP-caliber force when he's healthy, and whomever the Sixers bring back in a Simmons trade will fit better with the big man by default.

    The Sixers' place here depends entirely on a transaction that may never happen. If they get the right package back for Simmons, this dark horse will turn back into a thoroughbred.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through Dec. 15. Salary info via Spotrac.