SI.com periodically panels its NBA experts to ask a pressing question about the league. The start of the 2015–16 NBA season is less than two weeks away. With several younger teams knocking on the door of respectability and a number of older clubs fighting to stay in contention, we asked our NBA staff to pick a surprise team.
Who will be this season's surprise team?
Lee Jenkins: Magic
This isn’t a Finals prediction or anything but the Magic have too many good players to win 25 games again, and they are going to make a significant jump in the East, possibly pushing for a playoff spot. The Magic are still very young but their core—Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris—is entering its third year together. Elfrid Payton is coming off a strong rookie season. Aaron Gordon is healthy after an impressive summer. Scott Skiles, Orlando’s new coach, is known for turning up defense and transforming poor teams into relevant ones. The Magic, for the first time since Dwight Howard left, are going to be in the mix.
Ben Golliver: Jazz
It might be easy to misread their 38 wins from last year, their gaping hole at point guard, and their offseason inactivity and conclude that the fuss isn’t warranted. Indeed, Las Vegas projects only modest improvement, setting their over/under at 41.5.
I think the Jazz will beat those expectations with ease. Utah closed strong last season, posting a 19–10 record and the No. 1 defense after the All-Star break. No question, trading Enes Kanter and his Easter Island statue defense was definitely a game-changer from a lineup standpoint. That said, the real drivers of Utah’s upward momentum—Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors—are all back and still improving. Also returning this year: scoring guard Alec Burks, who missed 55 games in 2014–15. Quin Snyder can coach, Rodney Hood looks like a draft steal, and GM Dennis Lindsey has the flexibility and assets to go shopping for an upgrade at point guard in advance of the deadline. With Dallas and Portland taking steps back, the table is set for the Jazz to end a three-year playoff drought.
Rob Mahoney: Pistons
I’m not sure this year’s crop has a surprise on par with the Hawks’ 60-win explosion; injuries aside, most of the league seems to fit rather neatly into their respective tiers. One squad with some distinct upward mobility, however, is the Pistons—winners of just 32 games last year with a cluttered, confused roster. Stan Van Gundy took that mismatched group and improved its offense to around the league average while running a defense that shaved 3.3 points off the average Detroit allowed per 100 possessions relative to the season prior. Year two takes those designs and improves them further, as the Pistons' roster is now better suited to guard on the perimeter, space the floor, and play toward Van Gundy's on-court ideals. Andre Drummond is poised for a monster season playing alongside stretch fours full-time. When Reggie Jackson (who was acquired midseason) was on the floor for the Pistons last season, they actually posted a positive net rating (+3.0). In the lineups most representative of how the Pistons hope to play this season—those featuring Drummond and Jackson without Greg Monroe—that margin launched well into the double digits. Detroit won't set the league on fire but there's something at work there that could earn the Pistons a playoff berth at the expense of a more widely regarded team.
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DeAntae Prince: Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks have everything working in their favor. They trended upward in the 2014–15 season behind the smarts of head coach Jason Kidd and the play of Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The young team managed to snatch a playoff spot in the shallow Eastern Conference and push the veteran Chicago Bulls to a sixth game. The Bucks did all of this without a featured star or No. 2 pick Jabari Parker, who missed 57 games due to an ACL tear. With Greg Monroe on the roster and Parker in good health, Milwaukee can now check off both boxes. That's a scary thought, because neither gap in the roster slowed Kidd's club at any point last year. One has to assume Michael Carter-Williams will continue to learn the point guard position—with help from new acquisition Greivis Vasquez—and John Henson will take steps to become a bigger defensive presence around the rim. And while it's not exactly a secret that growth is abound for the Bucks, the degree to which they succeed this upcoming season could prove surprising.
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Matt Dollinger: Heat
You can’t have a discussion about contenders in the Eastern Conference without mentioning LeBron James, but I’m surprised his former team hasn’t come up in conversations about the East’s elite more often. Health permitting, Miami will boast one of the best starting lineups in the entire league with Hassan Whiteside, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic. All five of those players earned spots on SI.com’s Top 100 list this summer and four have made All-Star appearances. Add in Erik Spoelstra, a two-time NBA champion and one of the best coaches in the league, and you have the makings of a heavy hitter in the East. Pat Riley also made smart moves to fortify Miami’s bench, drafting Justise Winslow, signing Amar’e Stoudemire and Gerald Green, and keeping Josh McRoberts. If the Heat can stay healthy—which is asking a lot with the amount of injury-prone players on the roster—they could face their former leading man in a conference finals showdown.
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Jeremy Woo: Pelicans
It's not so much that anyone will be surprised if the 45-win Pelicans return to the playoffs, but the thought they could morph into a contender ahead of schedule that has me intrigued. Anthony Davis is evolving in unprecedented fashion, the whole core of the team returns, and Alvin Gentry’s loose approach and added freedom should benefit their personnel right away. Health is already a question with Jrue Holiday on a minutes restriction and Omer Asik dinged up, but with the right breaks—and it'll take some in a deep conference—New Orleans should be able to stay the course in the meantime and hope to peak toward the back end of the season.
We always expect greatness from players of Davis’s caliber, but we never really know when or how quickly the playoff results will come. New Orleans isn't quite title-ready, but a jump into the West's elite is within reach (for context, LeBron at AD’s age took the Cavs to the Finals, though they got swept). I'm willing to wager another leap from Davis, as his skills expand and he continues to adapt to the league, makes this a 50-plus win team good enough for a top-four seed right now. The future could be here a lot sooner than we thought.
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Jared Dubin: Magic
They’re not going to be title contenders or anywhere close, but I think the Magic will surprise people. Their biggest issue in the post-Dwight Howard era has been their lack of an identity, but like him or not, Scott Skiles’s teams always have one—defense. On average, his teams have improved their defensive efficiency ranking by 12 spots during his first season. Considering the kind of athletes he has to work with—Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon and more—a similar leap could be in the offing this year. That kind of jump would take Orlando from 25th to 13th in defensive efficiency, which should be worth a few extra wins all by itself. If they can nudge themselves toward league average on offense with internal improvement from Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris, better shooting from Channing Frye and the presence of rookie Mario Hezonja, they could even make a run at a lower-rung playoff spot.