Every year in the NBA, some team proves the experts wrong and becomes the darling of basketball heads that buy League Pass the year long. Teams that were supposed to be tanking suddenly become playoff contenders and, while they rarely compete to win a championship, they become darlings for trying so hard just to reach the Playoffs and hit mediocrity.
Surprise can be a powerful motivator for rooting interests.
Last year, that team was undoubtedly the Phoenix Suns.
Despite losing Marcin Gortat and figuring out life without Steve Nash under first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek, the Suns became a fun bunch of players mixing the old-style seven seconds or less Suns with something else. Goran Dragic emerged as a capable starting point guard who could dish the ball and score for himself. Eric Bledsoe stepped comfortably into a new role once he got healthy. Channing Frye and Markieff Morris helped spread the floor as stretch-4s.
This was just a fun bunch of players defying the odds and coming just a game short of making the Playoffs (a loss to the Grizzlies in the penultimate game ended that dream).
The Suns certainly could be a candidate to make it to the Playoffs this year (provided they resolve their contract issues with Bledsoe). Some other team now may have to take the mantle of sweetheart of the league. Who could it be? Here are our suggestions:
The Timberwolves could be in store for a very interesting year. Built around Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic with Andrew Wiggins (trade pending) in the wings, this is a team that could be released from the shackles of the Kevin Love mystery before the season begins by that rumored trade.
Expectations for the Timberwolves are extremely low. Minnesota will be asking for a lot of players to step up in addition to having Andrew Wiggins to make any kind of Playoff run. It could be a rough year in Minneapolis in the tough Western Conference.
The Suns found a lot of success last year thanks to Goran Dragic’s emergence as a featured option offensively. Ricky Rubio is not the shooter Dragic is but could be every bit the playmaker. Rubio will surely be featured more as a driver of the offense with Love out of the low post. That could create a more free-flowing offense with Wiggins running the wing on fast breaks. Flip Saunders has a young roster but does have some option.
This team does not quite have playoff talent. A lot of the season’s success will depend on Nikola Pekovic’s health and whether Thaddeus Young can take a step forward out of Philadelphia, should that part of the trade go down.
Everyone will be sleeping on the Timberwolves this year after trading Love. It could easily be the kind of team to catch lightning in a bottle.
Greg Monroe‘s contract situation appears finally to be resolved. Monroe appears set to agree to the qualifying offer and enter unrestricted free agency next summer. That could make Monroe a very dangerous player this year as he enters a major contract year.
The Pistons have talent. A lot of people thought they might be a Playoff contender last year. And it does not take a lot in the East. It just will take a lot of players buying into new roles — particularly veterans Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith, who have never been known as the best team players.
Getting Stan Van Gundy on the sideline will help. Van Gundy is largely recognized as one of the best coaches in the NBA after he masterminded the Magic’s championship window from 2008 until 2010. Those Magic teams were monstrous defensively thanks to Dwight Howard and lethally efficient offensively with the way they could spread the floor.
Van Gundy is not married to a system. He cannot be. This Pistons team is not going to be as good as a 3-point shooting team. Maybe Andre Drummond will be a player similar to Dwight Howard. That has yet to be determined. He brought in some shooters like Jodie Meeks to be a 3-point shooter and put pressure, perhaps, on sophomore Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to extend his range.
Detroit can certainly put things together and make noise in the East. They have the talent. Putting it all together is the tough part.
New Orleans though faced some crazy injuries last year. Really strange injuries hit the team. Holiday missed virtually all the season. Ryan Anderson has a freak back injury that knocked him out midway through the season. Eric Gordon was inconsistent (and probably unhappy too).
The Pelicans are an interesting team. They are very young and could be on the verge of making the leap. Remember Holiday was an All Star just two years ago.
They have a great starting lineup, but in that difficult Western Conference. . . the Playoffs seem a long way off.
If one team could capture that young talent and excitement of that Suns, the Pelicans have the ability to surprise everyone and grow up very quickly if things fall right.
Here me out on this. I do not think I am crazy.
The Bucks entered last year with Playoff dreams. They spent some money to get O.J. Mayo to spearhead the offense. They traded away ball-hogging Brandon Jennings for a quieter Brandon Knight. They banked on Larry Sanders continuing his Most Improved campaign and become a defensive stopper.
In the East, that sounds like a Playoff team right?
It turned into a disaster. Mayo took too many shots. Sanders could never find himself on the floor thanks to suspensions and injuries. And the team imploded from there. Really imploded. Disastrously imploded.
The law of averages says they should bounce back. So should the talent they have added to the roster since setting those expectations. Second overall pick Jabari Parker is NBA-ready and the favorite to win Rookie of the Year could be a big deal for the Bucks in propelling them forward.
Then you add in the continued growth of rookie sensation Giannis Antetokounmpo plus continued (hopeful) development from young players like Knight and Sanders. You might have something.
Of course, it will not be easy. I am not ready to put money on the Bucks finishing anywhere above 13th or 14th in the East. That is where simple money would go. But if they catch lightning in a bottle and Jason Kidd can get them to believe . . .
Why not the Suns again?
Yes, it is hard to come out of nowhere two years in a row. And the Suns became a League Pass favorite of basketball heads. But why can’t they surprise us all again and actually make the playoffs this time?
Goran Dragic is fantastic as a lead point guard. He could very well have a full season with Eric Bledsoe at his side (or whatever asset Phoenix can get for him in a trade or sign-and-trade). The Morris twins are continuing to grow and Markieff Morris will have a much larger role with Channing Frye moving on to Orlando.
This is a balanced squad that buys into its system and plays at an extremely high level. There is no reason not to believe the Suns can repeat the success of last year, aside from a return to the mean. Maybe last year was their mean though. Maybe we should stop doubting this team and place them in the Playoffs this year at someone else’s expense.
What do you think?