Six NBA Teams That May Surprise This Year

We identify three teams from each conference that may end taking the league by surprise this season.

Moke Hamilton profile picture
Updated 1 year ago on

10 min read

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For good reason, a select few NBA teams have dominated the headlines this offseason.

In the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers received a lot of attention after committing a whopping sum of money to retain their core. LeBron James, Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova were all re-signed earlier in the summer, and Tristan Thompson recently agreed to a deal that will pay him in excess of $80 million over the next five years.

Out West, it is the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs that have turned the most heads. The Clippers have seemingly fortified their core by adding Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith to their roster, while the Spurs managed to come away with LaMarcus Aldridge, David West and a re-signed Kawhi Leonard.

The Clippers and Spurs join the Golden State Warriors as the teams to fear in the West, while the Cavaliers maintain their status as the East’s frontrunners “on paper.” The Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards expect to make a deep run, as well, but the truth is that these teams are flying under the radar a bit. It’s very possible that Chicago or Washington is closer to contending than most realize.

Still, at least they’re in the conversation. Here’s a look at six teams that could really surprise people throughout the course of the 2015-16 NBA season.

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Miami HEAT

There’s no doubt that losing LeBron James to the Cavaliers set the HEAT back significantly, but with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem still around, the HEAT still have championship DNA. What’s more important to realize about the team from South Beach is that they had a wildly productive offseason, which was a resounding success thanks to the re-signing of Goran Dragic and the drafting of Justise Winslow. With Hassan Whiteside’s continued progression and Luol Deng back with a year of experience under head coach Erik Spoelstra, the HEAT look more formidable than last year’s 37 wins indicate.

The acquisition of Amar’e Stoudemire wasn’t discussed heavily, but with his newfound dedication to playing with his back to the basket and his ability to finish at the rim still apparent, running with Dragic and Wade could make him a valuable addition to the HEAT, especially since Whiteside should be able to help protect him on the defensive side of the ball. Gerald Green gives the team some more depth on the wing as well.

Of course, everything rides on the health of Wade and Bosh, but if those two can give the HEAT 70 high-caliber performances, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see these guys walk away with the Southeast Division title.

Memphis Grizzlies

Okay, so we admit it, the Grizzlies seem to be the modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks — a mediocre bunch that can’t seem to fully get over the hump. However, where the Grizzlies differ from those Hawks is in their dedication to defense. Despite being coached by the somewhat inexperienced Dave Joerger, the Grizzlies still have the same identity that they maintained under Lionel Hollins and are being led by Mike Conley and Marc Gasol—two of the better players at their position in the entire league. The Grizzlies may have been undone by the Warriors in last season’s playoffs, but a team that is dedicated to defense and plays team ball will always have an opportunity to win in the NBA.

The addition of Matt Barnes gives the Grizzlies another solid two-way wing player who will make life even tougher for some of the better perimeter scoring threats in the Western Conference. Brandan Wright was an underrated addition as well. The deck may be stacked against the Grizzlies in the West, but they may legitimately be one more piece away from rising up and scaring every other contender. And as the season rolls along, there will certainly be an impact player or two that finds themselves on the market.

Oklahoma City Thunder

While we admit that we are not 100 percent certain of what to expect from Kevin Durant, the irrefutable truth is that Russell Westbrook took his game to another level last season. Over the course of the 2014-15 campaign, Westbrook showed an improved ability to control the game and create opportunities for his teammates.

With the drafting of Cameron Payne, the Thunder have fortified one of the few weak spots on their roster by finding themselves a young floor general with tremendous upside. How steep the learning curve turns out being for him could make a ton of difference for the ball club. Still, in it all, Enes Kanter may ultimately prove to be what was missing in Oklahoma City.

For as long as we can remember, the Thunder have often struggled to score easy baskets. The team relies heavily on Durant and Westbrook to create plays off the dribble for them, and recall that the Thunder made a full-fledged effort to sign Pau Gasol last summer before losing him to the Chicago Bulls. General manager Sam Presti knew that his team needed a low-post threat to pair with Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams in the front court, and the thrifty Thunder opting to match the four-year, $70 million offer sheet that the Portland Trail Blazers signed Kanter to underscores their belief in him.

Then, of course, there’s Durant. If he is anywhere near 100 percent, the Thunder could very well end up being the rarest of rare—a team that goes from the lottery to the championship podium in one year.

Charlotte Hornets

While the Hornets haven’t necessarily done enough to start including them in the conversation with East contenders like the Cavaliers or Bulls, they are a team that has been completely forgotten about entering this season. Few projections have Charlotte in the postseason, even though this team is just one year removed from a playoff appearance. We are not reading into their 7-1 preseason record too much, but it could be a good sign.

We should remind you that one year ago, these Hornets were coming off of a 43-39 regular season and were believed to be taking a major step forward after having acquired the services of Lance Stephenson. Obviously, that failed experiment contributed to the derailment of their 2014-15 campaign, but so did the injuries to Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The trio missed 24, 20 and 30 games, respectively.

Heading into this season, Kidd-Gilchrist is already expected to be sidelined for the gross majority of the regular season, but it is with respect to the supporting cast that the Hornets have improved tremendously.

Frank Kaminsky is a big man who most scouts feel can contribute immediately. In Charlotte, he will have an opportunity to prove just that, and he will serve as a good insurance policy in the event that Jefferson goes down again. Meanwhile,  Nicolas Batum was a huge pick up and he should help to fortify the talent base of Michael Jordan’s team. The Frenchman has long been considered one of the more underrated small forwards in the game. As a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, Batum made a name for himself by showing flashes of brilliance in a wide array of areas. With Tyler Hansbrough, Jeremy Lamb, Spencer Hawes and Marvin Williams surrounding Batum, Steve Clifford has a deep rotation full of quality NBA players.

Toronto Raptors

Since Masai Ujiri took over the helm in Toronto in May 2013, the team has made steady and marked improvement. In each of their past two seasons, the team has set single-season franchise records by winning 47 games in 2013-14 and 48 games in 2014-15.

In such a short amount of time, the Raptors have come such a long way since entering the 2013-14 season with thoughts of tanking for Andrew Wiggins on everyone’s minds.

Under Dwane Casey, the Raptors have developed the identity of a team that plays hard-nosed, gritty basketball and one that plays for each other.

While it is totally fair to point out that the Raptors have only advanced out of the first round once in their franchise’s history (and that was way back in 2001, mind you), it also should be acknowledged that Ujiri has added some pieces to the core of the team that should help them continue to maintain their status atop the Atlantic Division. Although Luis Scola’s best days are behind him, he can still contribute and still has a soft touch in the post.

With Cory Joseph, the Raptors have added a young point guard who has championship DNA and experience and once whose true potential has also been scratched. And, of course, with Anthony Bennett signed in Toronto, the first overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft gets to return home to try to fulfill the potential that helped the Cavaliers decide on drafting him.

To top it all off was the unexpected signing of DeMarre Carroll. In short, Carroll is a true difference maker. He competes hard every night, contributes on both ends of the floor, and has proven to be a plus-contributor over the course of an entire season. He is the type of player who helps a team get to the next level. He proved it in Atlanta and will likely have a similar effect on the Raptors.

With Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan each showing marked improvement over the past few years, the Raptors will enter the 2015-16 season thinking “Why not us?”

That happens to be a question for which we do not have a good answer.

Sacramento Kings

It seems that the Kings have an interesting social experiment brewing.

George Karl has never been a coach to accept anything less than what he has wanted from his players, while Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins do not have reputations for being model citizens. That trio has already given us some interesting material, and we will certainly be watching to see how they develop over the course of the season.

What cannot be denied, though, is the caliber of the core that Vlade Divac, Karl and the rest of their staff have at their disposal. Rondo and Cousins are two of the better players at their positions, while Rudy Gay, at least in spurts last season, showed an ability to move the basketball and be a tad more efficient than in years past.

Kosta Koufos, Marco Belinelli and Caron Butler each represent quality NBA pieces and, of course, Willie Cauley-Stein should make a difference from day one.

The Kings may not look like a contender in the Western Conference, but of things break right this season, they will certainly cease being a doormat in the Pacific Division.

* * * * *

Whether any of the aforementioned teams can crash the party that will be the battle for the conference title remains to be seen. Certainly, toppling the Cavaliers out East or the Warriors out West will be a formidable task, no matter the team.

Of all teams entering the 2015-16 season with grandiose expectations, though, these are a few who actually have a puncher’s chance of surprising the masses. Consider yourself warned.

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Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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