Every NBA season there are a few teams that make huge leaps and surprise everyone. Last season, Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers won 48 games and took the Cleveland Cavaliers to Game 7 in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Portland Trail Blazers had a breakthrough season and landed the No. 3 seed before flaming out against the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round.
Will this be the year Giannis and the Bucks take a step forward? Will the Nuggets evolve into a Western Conference juggernaut? Or will a rebuilding team like the Mavericks catch everyone off guard and make noise?
The Crossover asked its NBA experts to identify their biggest surprise team for the 2018-19 season.
Ben Golliver, Denver Nuggets
Denver has straddled the West’s playoff bubble for the last two years, held back by a nasty case of multiple personality disorder. On many nights, the Nuggets have looked like an offensive juggernaut, with Nikola Jokic orchestrating some of the most aesthetically pleasing basketball in the league. On many others, though, they’ve come undone due to inconsistency, injuries, imbalanced rosters, apathetic defense and poor road play.
This is the year that the Nuggets finally perform like a focused and well-organized group of adults. Their chief strength will again be firepower: Denver’s starting lineup includes multiple ball-handlers, multiple shooters, multiple play-makers, multiple lead scoring options, and five capable scoring threats. Jokic’s passing ability will be put to full use by a pair of energetic wings in Gary Harris and Will Barton. Meanwhile, Jamal Murray, a strong candidate to win Most Improved Player, should continue to feast on defenses caught off guard by Jokic’s unconventional offensive role.
Throw in a healthy Paul Millsap and a reasonably versatile and athletic bench, and there’s good reason to believe that Denver should enough have to climb out of the NBA’s bottom-10 defenses. If things play out according to plan, the Nuggets won’t just snap a five-year playoff drought, they’ll make a strong run at home-court advantage. Don’t be surprised if Jokic gets real traction as a first-time All-Star candidate and Michael Malone trades longstanding “hot seat” talk for some late-season Coach of the Year buzz.
Chris Ballard, Bucks
This feels like the year of Giannis. Two seasons ago, he was growing into his talent. Last year, he made the superstar leap. Now he’s 23, understands how the league works, and is already essentially unguardable. It feels like just a matter of time until, like LeBron, he sands off every rough edge and everyone else will just be waiting out his reign (he’s already as good a bet as any for MVP this season). Any opposing coach who saw the clip of his first preseason made three—calmly dribbling into a pull-up—has to be praying that was a fluke. A Giannis who can hit even 35% from deep is a nightmare.
He’s finally got back-up, too. By hiring Mike Budenholzer and acquiring a combination of smart veterans (like Brook Lopez) and floor-spacers (like Ilyasova), Milwaukee should finally look like a real team on both ends of the floor. In 2017-18, the Bucks were 25th in threes attempted, 22nd in 3-point percentage, and middle of the pack in assists; too often it was Antetokounmpo or bust. Budenholzer will increase the ball movement and encourage launching (the Bucks hoisted 45 threes in their first preseason game). With Middleton playing the Scottie Pippen sidekick role, and Eric Bledsoe providing a third top-60 talent, expect 50 wins or more.
Rob Mahoney, Grizzlies
A healthy Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are, at bare minimum, a means to competence. That’s substantially more than the Grizzlies could manage last season, when Memphis had more players log minutes (24) than they did wins (22). Restabilizing the rotation means leaning less on the likes of Jarell Martin (now with the Magic) and Andrew Harrison. The addition of rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. doesn’t just bring excitement, but dynamism; there’s a real chance that, even in year one, Jackson is equipped to handle some of the quicker, rangier matchups that give Gasol cover. Kyle Anderson, for all his limitations, is a more capable player than the vast majority of the wings to shuffle in and out of Memphis over the past half-decade. Count on the Grizzlies to be in the mix. Their roster might not be perfect, but there’s something to be said for a team of professional ball movers who understand how to solve problems at the NBA level.
Jeremy Woo, Nuggets
You had to feel for the Nuggets after they missed the playoffs by a lone game last season, but the good news is that they’re due for a big step forward. Nobody will be stunned if they make the post-season, but what might surprise you is how entertaining the journey could be. This is a young team that returns every key offensive piece, revolving shooters and intelligent cutters around Nikola Jokic, who has become must-see TV as the best-passing big in the league. Jamal Murray is just 21 and offers some additional ceiling, and Isaiah Thomas is back with a chip on his shoulder. The continuity factor and development of their young stars should have Denver ready for a breakthrough.
Critically, Denver opens the season with Paul Millsap and Gary Harris healthy, which will go a long way toward fixing the defense. When Jokic is on the floor, there will always be some challenges covering for him, but Millsap’s versatility in particular should help split the difference. The Nuggets were sixth in offensive efficiency last season, but a pitiful 26th on the other end. Factoring in the likelihood of both numbers regressing to the mean, Denver could push for 50 wins if things break their way, particularly with Minnesota, San Antonio and New Orleans all working through off-season changes. The bottom of the conference has gotten better, but the Nuggets’ depth and wealth of scoring threats in addition to the safety net of Jokic’s production should help them stave off less-talented teams.
Rohan Nadkarni, Nuggets
The Nuggets went from League Pass gem to frustrating last season. Injuries tanked what could have been a big year. Paul Millsap—arguably the kind of big best suited to play alongside Nikola Jokic—missed a significant chunk of the season. And Gary Harris—a two-way stud—was absent for much of the crucial stretch run. As a result, the Nuggets missed the playoffs, and we missed out on watching Jokic trying to switch onto the Rockets’ guards in Round 1. This year, however, with better health, I think Denver is lurking as a potential conference finals sleeper.
The five-man group of Jamal Murray, Harris, Will Barton, Millsap, and Jokic played scant minutes together in 2018 (65 across 16 games), but it had a 32.7 net rating. That’s unsustainable, surely, but Denver’s starting five has potential to be one of the best units in the league. Trey Lyles is a nice shooter off the bench, and Isaiah Thomas could offer a much needed solution at backup point guard. Defense has been an issue here, but there’s hope. When Millsap and Jokic shared the court last year, the Nugs’ had a defensive rating of 106, which is middle of the pack. Overall, Denver had a net rating of +8.0 with the Millsap-Jokic duo, which means their health will be very important.
Murray is another person to keep an eye on. He flashed All-Star potential last season, and if he takes another big step forward, Denver could have one of the most explosive backcourts in the league. Him and Harris are both already marksmen from three, and they could become lethal as they round out offensively. Mix in Barton’s wild forays at offense and energy and effort from Torrey Craig, and I think the Nuggets could be a top-four team in the West.
Jake Fischer, Nuggets
Don't be surprised when the Nuggets are hosting a first-round playoff series this spring after missing last postseason all together. A season with typically-healthy Paul Millsap, with a high dosage of improvements from Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, could turn Denver into this season's Utah Jazz of two seasons ago, ready to crash the Western Conference's elite party.
Mike Malone is sitting on several intriguing lottery tickets, too with a rehabbed Isaiah Thomas and first round picks Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez and Michael Porter Jr. all harboring swing factor. Denver boasted the league's sixth-best offense a season ago even with battling a slew of injuries. Now that they've finally shed Darrell Arthur and Kenneth Faried's contracts, can they be healthy enough to soar to another level, offering more playing time to intriguing young talent? I think the question then remains: Just how high can Denver's ceiling be?
Michael Shapiro, Mavericks
In the bloodbath that is the Western Conference, finding a diamond in the rough is difficult. None of the eight playoff teams from 2017-18 scream a regression outside of Minnesota (assuming Tom Thibodeau doesn’t get his way and Jimmy Butler is dealt), and the Nuggets and Lakers are expected to work their way into the postseason. It’s shame the NBA still deals in anachronistic conferences. We could have 11-plus playoff teams come from the West.
One intriguing pick to crash the Western playoff race: Dallas. Rick Carlisle is one of the top coaches in the league, and has shown a consistent ability to grind every ounce of talent out of his roster. And the Mavericks have some quality pieces, too. Dennis Smith Jr. is an outrageous leaper and showed some point-guard instincts at the tail end of 2018, and DeAndre Jordan will draw significant lob attention despite diminished athleticism. Harrison Barnes is underratedly reliable and just 26, looking increasingly comfortable as Dallas’ go-to-scorer last season. J.J. Barea is a 6’0” ball of fury and one of the headier pick-and-roll leaders around.
Oh, and Dallas added the most-accomplished international prospect ever. It’s never too early for Luka Mania. Luka Doncic was mature beyond his years with Real Madrid, winning EuroLeague MVP in 2018. He’s 6’8” with an NBA-ready body, adding the mind of a grizzled vet. Doncic is an elite floor general with top-flight vision, and he’s a silky shooter to boot. Atlanta fans will spend many winter nights shaking their head as Doncic stuffs stat sheets and Trae Young launches ill-fated triples. Ditto for Sacramento and Marvin Bagley.
The Mavericks’ path to a playoff berth is murky, filled with perennial contenders and an impressive collection of starpower. But bet on Carlisle to harness the potential of Doncic and Smith, and send Dirk Nowitzki into the sunset with one final playoff berth.