5 NBA Teams That Will Be Better Than You Think
By: Khaqan Khan
The NBA is back in full swing, and here are five teams that will be better than you think.
1. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are my favorite team this year. Scottie Barnes is a special rookie. They still have key players from the championship run from two years ago, and they also still have one of the best head coaches in the league in Nick Nurse. Last year's season in Tampa Bay was a season from hell for the Raptors, a valid reason why they underperformed. Back in Canada, the void left by Kyle Lowry's departure is being filled by a youth movement. Newly acquired Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa, and Dalano Banton provide an electric energy to this Raptors team that's going to be so fun to watch. The Raptors have shot makers in Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, have switchable defense talents, and improved their center position by resigning Khem Birch after a solid showing last year late in the season. The Raptors have way too much firepower under the control of Nick Nurse for me to think they won't be good. Don't be surprised if Scottie Barnes becomes the heart of this team by the All-Star break.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
The assumption is that without Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers are bound to miss the playoffs. That assumption overlooks the importance of the playoff run they had last year after Kawhi went down. The Clippers managed to close out the Jazz, then took the Suns to the brink behind the stellar play of Paul George. Paul George's redemption song was backed up by the emergence of other key role players like Reggie Jackson, Terrance Mann, and the occasional big shot from Luke Kennard. All credit due to Ty Lue for instilling trust and belief in the locker room. The Clippers seemed to play for each other. Ty Lue has proven he knows how to push all the right buttons as a head coach (way better than Doc Rivers). The result was a newfound spirited identity that I think will carry over. The depth I like better than others. Isaiah Hartenstein is showing real flashes in the preseason, Luke Kennard seems more comfortable in his role, and Eric Bledsoe's role should free him to be a difference-maker on defense. The ceiling of this team without Kawhi falls below championship contention, but the identity of selflessness and trust built by Ty Lue and carried by Paul George provides a unique connectedness that gives an advantage over other teams that makes me believe they'll find their way back into the playoffs as a lower seed.
3. Dallas Mavericks
Early returns of the Mavericks in the preseason have been all positive. From glimpses, the offense seems to have more variety. Luka Doncic is operating from various positions on the court and seems to have been working on his post-game. All the role players like Tim Hardway Jr. seem more empowered to play to their strengths. Perhaps the most important note is that Kristaps Porziņģis seems way more comfortable as opposed to last year. Last year looked like Porziņģis was laboring with the lower half of the body. Though not completely back to his pre-injury Knick days, Porziņģis' movement seems light to the benefit of the rest of the Mavericks team. There have been a good amount of defensive highlights out of preseason of Porziņģis protecting the rim. It remains to be seen if the Mavs can expect an entire season of high-level play from Porzingis, but it surely helps that his vibe and the vibe of the team as a whole seems a lot more 'free.'
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
If it wasn't for the Gersson Rosas scandal, the Timberwolves would finally be heading into the season with a quiet offseason. The unusual mid-season head coach hire of Chris Finch rubbed people around the league the wrong way, but there's no doubt the immediate impact Finch had replacing Ryan Saunders. Having roster and coaching continuity for this young team will go a long way to showing some life in the western conference. The case for the Timberwolves exceeding expectations starts with Karl Anthony-Towns, who is really-really good. The fit is yet to be determined, but Anthony Edwards and D'Angelo Russell can each average +20 ppg along with Towns. Scoring isn't the issue; it's the defense. None of those players are difference-makers on defense, and that's why the additions of Patrick Beverly and Taurean Prince are so crucial. Just bringing that mentality and emphasizing that side of the ball should help the young wolves improve on that end. Naz Reid and Jaden McDaniels are interesting options alongside Town to help on defense. Continuity around Towns and competency from the coaching staff should unlock some of the upside of this team, which could very propel the Timberwolves into the play-in conversation.
5. Boston Celtics
The off-season [kind-of] ushered in a new era for the Boston Celtics, with Danny Ainge replaced by Brad Stevens who was replaced by Ime Udoka. Steven's first move was telling. He moved off the Kemba Walker contract and took back Al Horford. Then brought back Enes Kanter, traded for Josh Richardson, and landed Dennis Schroder. This Celtics roster has more flexibility than last year, and new Head coach Udoka is restoring the energy that felt so flat in years past. Tatum and Brown have proven they are good enough to lead the team into the playoffs. The Celtics have more interesting pieces after their young players showed life in last year's playoffs. Peyton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, Romeo Langford, and newly acquired Juancho Hernangomez should provide more bench depth this year, but it goes back to Tatum and Brown. Coming into this year, Tatum seems determined to take his game to the next level. Last year Brown proved he could be a 25 PPG scorer, and this year he needs to improve on playmaking. Behind Tatum, Brown, and whatever they get from Robert Williams, this refurbished Celtics team should be back in the playoff mix.
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