- Can an under-the-radar team surprise the rest of the league in the Superteam Era? The Bucks and Clippers headline our teams most likely to exceed expectations this season.
After debating which teams will be the biggest flops in 2017-18, it's only fair we also examine the potential surprises.
With so much movement this summer, it's tougher than usual to predict the pecking order heading into the new season. The defending champion Warriors obviously enter the new campaign as the undeniable favorites, but Nos. 2-30 are a bit tougher to nail. Will teams like the Thunder, Rockets and Celtics be rewarded for moving mountains to improve their squads? Will teams like the Bucks, Wizards and Spurs quietly benefit from another year of continuity and catch people off guard? Or perhaps there's a youth movement that speeds through the many stages of rebuilding?
With that in mind, The Crossover asked its NBA experts to identify their biggest surprise team for the 2017-18 season.
Ben Golliver: Milwaukee Bucks
As new superteams formed and numerous playoff squads splintered this summer, the Bucks essentially sat on their hands, content to pursue a steady ascent driven by newly-minted superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. In this case, doing virtually nothing counted as doing something, given that Indiana, Chicago, and Atlanta are all set to crash and burn out of the East’s playoff picture. Thanks to that attrition, no second-tier team is better positioned to crack the conference’s top four than the Bucks, whose mediocre 42-40 record last season was submarined by a long-term injury to Khris Middleton, their second-most important player.
The Bucks aren’t as proven or as experienced as the Wizards and Raptors, but they deserve to be viewed as potential playoff spoilers because they can field long, athletic and versatile lineups that accentuate Antetokounmpo’s prodigious playmaking talents. Milwaukee pushed Toronto much harder than most people realize in the 2017 playoffs, and Antetokounmpo was clearly the best player in that first-round series. With Paul George and Jimmy Butler now in the West, the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo is ready to take the next step by solidifying his standing as the East’s top all-around player besides LeBron James.
But the Bucks are more than just a one-man band. When Antetokounmpo and Middleton shared the court last year, Milwaukee posted a 110.1 offensive rating and a +5.2 net rating, both of which were equivalent to top-five marks league-wide. With the benefit of strong year-to-year continuity, natural improvement from the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo, and better injury luck, the Bucks could win 48 to 50 games, which would represent the organization’s best season since 2001. Don’t be surprised if Milwaukee winds up giving Cleveland or Boston fits in a tight second-round series.
Lee Jenkins: Los Angeles Clippers
There is little room for upstarts in the Western Conference. No one is challenging the Warriors at the top or the Thunder/Rockets/Spurs below them. But there is a gap in the middle, as the Clippers inevitably tumble without Chris Paul and the Jazz without Gordon Hayward. Both of those teams would surprise the league if they simply limited their falls. This is a vote for the Clippers, who lost Paul, but gained a playmaker in Blake Griffin, a small forward (finally) in Danilo Gallinari and an intriguing point guard duo in Milos Teodosic and Patrick Beverley. If chemistry matters, theirs can only improve, and not because of anything Paul did wrong. One side of the locker room had to take ownership. Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Clips before Lob City, have been groomed long enough for the job.
Andrew Sharp: Detroit Pistons
There were good days once. When Isaiah Thomas won his titles, when Rasheed Wallace brought out the championship belts, when Stan Van's Pistons cut Josh Smith and it saved their season. Remember the "Form a Wall" speech? I don't. Last year's Pistons were so mediocre and depressing that they eclipsed all the fondness I ever had in my heart for Detroit basketball. Which is to say, the bar for success is low right now.
Detroit entered last season with great expectations and a nucleus full of players entering their prime at the same time. It ended with 37 wins and a month of trade rumors swirling around Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, just before Kentavious Caldwell-Pope left in free agency. This year, I think most people looking at the league forgot the Pistons even exist.
But look: Reggie Jackson can't possibly struggle more than he did a year ago. Andre Drummond's game has been so thoroughly nitpicked that he might be underrated at this point. Avery Bradley will be super productive in Van Gundy's offense. And ... that's it. I'm not going to stan for Jon Leuer and Tobias Harris to make my case. But an improved Jackson, rejuvenated Drummond, and motivated Avery Bradley (contract year!) could definitely be enough to make this team a surprise six-seed in a terrible Eastern Conference.
Matt Dollinger: Washington Wizards
The Wizards started last season 2-8, beginning the Scott Brooks era with a slight sense of panic. Here's guessing that Washington makes up for last year's stumble and starts this year ablaze. While the Wizards were one of the few NBA teams not to bust out all the stops to upgrade talent-wise this summer, they do have a slew of trends that make me feel upbeat about their 2017-18 prospects.
For starters, I'm not sold on the Celtics. The arranged marriage of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward doesn't scream chemistry to me and even Brad Stevens will have a tough time making so many new pieces gel on the fly. Boston benefited last season from being arguably the most cohesive team in the East, but I now give that distinction to the Wizards, who might have the conference's most stable five-man lineup. While other teams are still feeling each other out, the Wizards should be lockstep from day one.
In addition to that unit, the Wizards made a few small moves to address their bench this summer, which should go far considering last year's paltry group. Tim Frazier, Mike Scott and Jodie Meeks are all capable players in the right role. Mix in the rising Kelly Oubre Jr. and a (finally?) healthy Ian Mahinmi and the Wizards shouldn't get exposed so nakedly every time they have to turn to their bench.
Then there's John Wall, who is still using every interview to remind anyone who will listen that he's the best point guard in the conference. Well, Isaiah Thomas is sidelined until February. Kyrie Irving no longer has LeBron James next to him. And Kyle Lowry is another year removed from his prime. Wall is coming off a career year, is peaking in almost every way, and has his most talented cast of teammates yet. The stars are aligned for the Wizards to make their first conference finals trip since Andrew Sharp was born. (Or maybe I just put the SI jinx on them. Either or.)
DeAntae Prince: Memphis Grizzlies
The quintessential Grit N’ Grind years are behind us. As weird as it may look on paper, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen will be on different teams this year, leaving Mike Conley and Marc Gasol to carry the torch in Memphis. The outside cooling on this team has been interesting, mostly because the hallmark of its consistently has been its ability to play closely with more talented teams, to make games ugly and to never give up no matter the opposition.
I’m willing to concede that a large chunk of that attitude likely left with Allen and Randolph. They were the spirit of the team, but Gasol and Conley were the talent. Look at The Crossover’s Top 100 players for 2018 and you’ll see both Conley and Gasol front and center. I mean, if Kanye West can see that Conley is underrated it must be pretty apparent.
Here’s another admission: the new talent around them isn’t up to snuff, not in the super team era. Chandler Parsons hasn’t lived up to his big contract, Tyreke Evans is an enigma and Ben McLemore is out with a broken foot. Get past JaMychal Green and Mario Chalmers and there are serious flaws with this roster. Still, the expectations are so low for this group that I can’t help but assume they’ll end up surprising us all. The West is in a souped-up state, but a team with a healthy Gasol and Conley should be better than 37 wins, which is their over/under for the season, according to Vegas. They might not have the original grinders in town anymore, but we’ll soon see if Memphis can still grit out a season.
Jeremy Woo: Denver Nuggets
It's kind of tough to get too excited about the West's No. 8 seed race when the title itself means death-by-Warriors, but the Nuggets have what it takes to charm the pants off attentive viewers. And maybe, just maybe, that'll translate to 40-something wins. It's common knowledge at this point that Denver ran one of the league's best offenses after unleashing Nikola Jokic last season, with the right types of versatile players around him and an improving young cast. Then they went out and got Paul Millsap, one of the league's more underappreciated and highly consistent secondary stars. Millsap and Jokic's distinct strengths could be a perfect match, allowing the Nuggets to ping-pong the ball around to shooters and set League Pass accounts aflame. If nothing else, it'll be entertaining.
A breakout year could also be on the horizon for Emmanuel Mudiay, who's looking much-improved and is still just 21. His size and strength have always made him a mismatch, and he's got a clear opportunity to win back opinion on a talented team. Gary Harris is extremely solid and Jamal Murray should provide the shooting element in one of the league's more youthful, exciting backcourt trios. I have no idea how, but Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried are still here. The arrow is pointing upward in Denver, and here's betting they're a year ahead of schedule.