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Though every NBA squad will enter the 2018-19 season carrying expectations, not all of those expectations are equal.
The world knows the Golden State Warriors will start the year as the overwhelming favorites to defend their back-to-back titles. It expects big things of the Los Angeles Lakers now that LeBron James has joined the fray, and recent successes by the Houston Rockets mean another finish near the top of the pack wouldn’t register as even a remote surprise.
In the Eastern Conference, three teams are widely perceived as being above the pack. The Boston Celtics have one of the Association’s deepest rosters now that Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are returning from knee and ankle injuries, respectively. The Philadelphia 76ers feature a youthful core capable of climbing to the top of the ladder. And, the Toronto Raptors could be even more talented after swapping DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, even if they’ll play differently with a new head coach (Nick Nurse) and leading star.
But those won’t be the only noise-making squads in 2018-19. And if you’re sleeping on any of these five teams, the alarm could raise you from your slumber with blaring levels of success.
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The Denver Nuggets missed the playoffs last year when they lost a de facto play-in game to the Minnesota Timberwolves on regular season’s final day, but they’re poised to rise quite a bit higher up the Western Conference standings.
Not only do they boast a bona fide star in Nikola Jokic and a host of quality starters (Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Paul Millsap), but the numbers also indicate they played better than your typical lottery team. According to Basketball Reference.com’s simple rating system, which looks at margin of victory and strength of schedule, the Nuggets served as the league’s No. 11 outfit last year.
With a healthy Millsap ready to complement Jokic, covering up for his (overblown) defensive flaws and giving the Mile High City residents the league’s best big-man passing tandem, Denver could improve. Though injuries prevented the power forward from gaining a rhythm during his inaugural Nuggets season, the team still outscored its foes by 9.4 points per 100 possessions when he and Jokic shared the floor, per PBPStats.com.
Better still, the net rating climbed to—please, take a seat so you don’t hurt yourself—an astronomical 35.7 when Jokic, Millsap, Harris, Barton and Murray all played—albeit during just 65 minutes. Small-sample alerts are in play here, but that’s a positive sign.
All this is before factoring in expected improvement from Murray, who looks the part of an elite scoring threat with his dual ability to rain in spot-up jumpers and create open looks off the bounce. Those attempts might not have fallen in 2017-18, but his form, the quality of the shots and the confidence with which he rises and fires all indicate future gains.
And what if Isaiah Thomas proves a perfect fit off the pine, giving Denver the ability to remain an offensive juggernaut with the starters out? What if Michael Porter Jr. gets healthy after spinal surgery and proves a draft-day steal during his rookie season? What if Trey Lyles continues his upward trend?
The Nuggets, even if they stagnate, are a contender for home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. But they can still get so much better—a scary statement after they played the NBA’s best offensive basketball (with room to spare) following last year’s All-Star break.
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For the Indiana Pacers, everything hinges on Victor Oladipo’s continued development after he blossomed into a legitimate star last season. Denying his status as a top-20 player should be even tougher as we move into the 2018-19 season and he builds upon a year that saw him finish No. 6 in real-plus minus (RPM) and No. 15 in total points added (TPA).
But even as Oladipo leads the scoring charge and hinders the efforts of every opponent he’s assigned, the Pacers are so much more than a one-man wrecking crew. After a quietly effective offseason, they’re a deep bunch with versatile talents at every position.
Aaron Holiday’s addition via the draft gives the Pacers a third quality point guard to combine with Darren Collison’s efficient offense and Cory Joseph’s defensive chops, as Holiday looked the part of an immediate-impact rookie throughout summer league.
Tyreke Evans will become another primary playmaker used either in conjunction with Oladipo or as the leader of the second unit. He’s also fresh off a dominant season as the injury-created leader of the Memphis Grizzlies. Doug McDermott adds shooting to the bench, while Kyle O’Quinn is an ever-underrated big proficient at rim protection, frontcourt passing and shooting touch inside the arc.
Those newcomers don’t come at the expense of incumbents, either. Trevor Booker, Al Jefferson, Glenn Robinson III and Lance Stephenson are the notable departures, but none of the removed elements are irreplaceable.
During a first-round loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Pacers often looked like the superior squad; they wound up winning the net-rating battle despite the early exit, outscoring LeBron James and Co. by 4.4 points per 100 possessions but losing too many close contests. They’re already a high-quality outfit, and they’re bringing back the quintet of Collison, Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Myles Turner, which posted a 16.1 net rating in the playoffs, per PBPStats.com.
Except this time, that lineup is supported by the aforementioned additions and developing versions of Domantas Sabonis, TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu in the frontcourt. Indy is ready to thrive on both ends, proving the three-headed Eastern Conference monster may need a fourth dome.
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As talented as DeMarcus Cousins may be, the New Orleans Pelicans will be fine without him.
That’s not an indictment of his brief tenure with the bayou-based franchise; the Pels were rolling just before he went down with a ruptured Achilles midway through the 2017-18 campaign, figuring out how to maximize the fire-and-ice combination that kept opponents fearful of offense coming in so many different manners. But Anthony Davis is fine operating as the lone frontcourt star, and the rest of the squad is getting better.
Now that he has a clean bill of health, Jrue Holiday seems bound and determined to prove he’s one of the NBA’s most overlooked contributors. He played at an All-Star level throughout the second half of this last go-around, averaging a scorching 19.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.0 blocks per game after the midseason break while shooting 50.8 percent from the field, 37.6 percent from downtown and 78.1 percent from the stripe.
With him and Davis alone, the Pelicans would be a playoff threat in the stacked Western Conference.
Except they’re not operating alone.
A full season of Nikola Mirotic’s spacing the floor as a legitimate stretch 4 will prove advantageous. In addition, per PBPStats.com, the Pelicans already topped opponents by 9.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the court alongside Davis and Holiday. Yes, that happened even as the trio was building chemistry following the trade that brought in the then-bearded power forward from the Chicago Bulls.
And that’s still not it, since Elfrid Payton is in New Orleans to function as a Rajon Rondo simulacrum, while Julius Randle gives the team a bullying, basket-attacking presence capable of either starting or leading the second squad’s frontcourt attack.
The Pelicans may not be as deep as many postseason contenders in the NBA’s stronger half. Instead, they’re relying on a star ready to challenge LeBron for individual supremacy during the 2018-19 campaign and surrounding him with complementary talents who can thrive within their specialized roles.
New Orleans doesn’t have the ceiling of a true title contender yet. But ruling it out of the playoff hunt would be foolish.
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- With Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams on the floor, the Thunder outscored their opponents by 6.6 points per 100 possessions during 1,894 minutes.
- With Westbrook, George and Adams on the floor but Carmelo Anthony riding the pine, the Thunder outscored their opponents by 15.3 points per 100 possessions during 213 minutes.
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Let’s dive back into the PBPStats.com rabbit hole—this time examining two lineup combinations used by the Oklahoma City Thunder throughout the 2017-18 season. The lineups illustrate one reason OKC is in fantastic shape as a Western Conference dark-horse contender:
The Thunder were good when Anthony, now with the Houston Rockets, was logging minutes. But even when he tried to buy into schemes that minimized his time of possession and attempted to mask his defensive warts, he was holding the team back from realizing its lofty potential.
Losing Andre Roberson midway through the year to a ruptured patellar tendon didn’t help, either. Though the swingman functioned as a spacing nightmare who could be neglected in the corners, his Defensive Player of the Year-caliber work on the preventing end helped cover for both Anthony’s shortcomings and Westbrook’s incessant, often ill-advised and unnecessary, gambles.
Anthony is gone. Roberson should be healthy. And best of all, the Thunder are getting stronger after the offseason additions of Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel—not to mention expected improvement from youngsters such as Terrance Ferguson and shots in the dark on Hamidou Diallo and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot.
The defensive potential of lineups featuring Westbrook, George, Roberson, Noel and Adams is, approximately, off the charts. Schroder, so long as he buys into a bench role, can lead a second unit that struggled last year to a 104.7 offensive rating (No. 17) and minus-0.1 net rating (No. 13) while playing the second-fewest minutes of any bench mob.
Oklahoma City has star-fueled firepower. It boasts defensive bodies all over the rotation. Plenty of men can take over as scorers. Useful rotation members give a new layer of depth that wasn’t there before.
Maybe the Thunder aren’t ready to compete with the Golden State Warriors yet, but George’s decision to return may be immediately justified when he could play at home in Southern California four times in the opening round of the playoffs.
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If you need more confidence in the sustainability of Donovan Mitchell’s success, consider this: FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO model pegs Gilbert Arenas, Ray Allen and Stephen Curry—three men with remarkable offensive peaks—the players with the most comparable years to the Louisville product’s rookie campaign.
Even if the Utah Jazz hadn’t added a single piece to their coffers and simply built upon their first-round victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, they’d be a deadly squad in the Western Conference. So let’s operate under that assumption, which ignores the incoming assistance from Grayson Allen and further developments created by youth and/or rising chemistry levels.
Interestingly, this argument doesn’t hinge on Mitchell.
Talented as the first-year 2-guard may have been—thriving as a go-to scorer while finding time to contribute on the less glamorous end—he wasn’t the best player in Salt Lake City. That honor still belongs to Rudy Gobert, who could only suit up in 56 contests during the 2017-18 season. We’ll focus on just the last 38, though.
Not only was Gobert excellent as an individual, playing stifling defense while averaging 14.4 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game on 63.1 percent shooting from the field, but his foreboding presence on the interior also allowed the Jazz as a whole to flourish. They posted a net rating of 10.8 (No. 1 in the league during that span) after he returned for a Jan. 19 contest against the New York Knicks, and that number swelled to 13.8 when he was on the floor.
Defensively, they were even better. Allowing only 97.5 points per 100 possessions, they outpaced the No. 2 Philadelphia 76ers (101.1) by such an extent that the gap between them was larger than the rift separating the Sixers and the No. 10 Portland Trail Blazers (104.4).
Stop and think about that. Seriously. Do it.
The Jazz didn’t lose anyone more significant than Jonas Jerebko or Joe Johnson from last year’s roster, and they were operating like the best team in the NBA prior to the two-round postseason foray. Now, they’ll only get better.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.