The NBA playoffs are starting to take shape following All Star weekend. There are the contenders like the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics, and Cavs; but there are teams lower in the standings that could make some noise and push some of the contenders to their limits. Here are some of those teams.
Led by the spectacular play of first-time All-Star Victor Oladipo, the Pacers have surprised quite a few people thus far this season. Following a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder that sent Paul George who was/is a top-20 player in the NBA, expectations were pretty low coming into this season. The players acquired for George, Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, were thought to be far inferior which led to outcry by Indiana fans. But the Pacers believed in themselves and have been one of the NBA’s better stories this year. Oladipo has taken charge on both ends of the floor, averaging 24.4 PPG (11th in NBA) and 2.1 SPG (3rd in NBA) and has embraced the role of leader in the locker room. It is pretty shocking that Oladipo has been putting these numbers up on a consistent basis considering his career average for points is 17.1 PPG. Plus, the fact that Oladipo really has never been considered the number 1 option on any team he’s played on. Not only has Oladipo shined, but Sabonis has played just as big a role off the bench. His 12.2 PPG and 8.2 RPG on the year are way above his career averages, and his ability to put up numbers off the bench are imperative to Indiana’s success. Franchise cornerstone Myles Turner has also played pretty well this season. The big man who can hit the outside shot hasn’t seen a boom in his averages like Oladipo and Sabonis, but he can hoop with the best of the centers in the East. I think he could be groom into an Al Horford type player, and if he can attain that, watch out teams in the East.
If you watch Nikola Jokic’s highlight tape, you will know all you need to know about this Nuggets team. They’re just plain fun and fearless, things you need to beat the juggernauts on top of the conference. Their core of Jokic, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, and Will Barton gives the Nuggets a valuable mix of 3-pt shooting, explosive playmakers, and skilled big men. They are hungry, young, and have grown up as a group, that chemistry is vital to being a championship contender. It also doesn’t hurt that they have one of the NBA’s best home court advantages due to that high altitude in Denver. They are well coached by Mike Malone, and they have surprisingly good depth. The only real issue I see with this team is that they are at the bottom of the league defensively, although some of that blame could go to Paul Millsap being sidelined with a wrist injury, but even so with him they are middle of the pack defensively. Some solutions to this could come through the buyout market, maybe somebody like Tony Allen. But this Denver team has most the pieces needed to make some noise. I mean just look at this ridiculousness…
Or look at this…
10 straight wins is no joke. Only the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics, Cavaliers, and Jazz have won 10+ games this season. They are currently the NBA’s hottest team and look as if they are hitting their stride at the right time. Rudy Gobert patrols the paint in a way we haven’t seen since primetime Dwight Howard, Donovan Mitchell makes buckets left and right, Derrick Favors has been feasting on those trying to guard him in the low post, and Joe Ingles hasn’t missed a 3-pt shot in the past month (we think). Trade deadline acquisition Jae Crowder has excelled in Quin Snyder’s offense focused on moving the ball and playing tough basketball on both ends of the floor, as expected. Everything just seems to be going right in Utah. But, questions about long-term success still linger. Can Donovan Mitchell keep putting up unbelievable numbers against playoff-caliber competition? Can the supporting cast/bench provide enough punch to keep up with the West’s tougher teams? We still do not know answers to these questions, but with what the Jazz have right now, they should be able to make things interesting, at least for a little while.
Trust the Process! The Sixers have slowly but surely become one of the NBA’s talented teams. They took a chance on talented, but injury prone Joel Embiid back in 2014 at number 3 overall, and he has shown the NBA his incredible talent. He’s skilled, charismatic, and tough; all things needed to be a successful superstar. The first time all star has elevated his game since making his debut last season, averaging a double-double with 23.7 PPG and 11.1 REB. After Embiid you have a second budding superstar in Ben Simmons, continuing to put up fantastic numbers as a rookie, averaging 16.4 PPG, 7.8 REB, and 7.3 AST. They have a solid supporting cast that includes Dario Saric, TJ McConnell, J.J Reddick, and Robert Covington. And if Markelle Fultz can come back to play up to his potential, this 76ers team has the makings of a top contender for years to come. Their combination of youth and experience should prove to be invaluable during playoff time. It is crazy to think that just two years ago, this team could hardly crack 20 wins on a season. They have 30 wins already this season and they still have about 30 games left to play. This Sixers team has the ability and opportunity to show why they belong among the NBA’s elite.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans would have been number one on this list had star big man Demarcus Cousins not sustained a heartbreaking achilles tear. The duo of Anthony Davis and Cousins provided the star power needed to possibly knock off some of the West’s powerhouses. But Cousins tore his achilles and will be out until at least next season. Cousins has continuously gotten the bad rep for not being able to show his skills in a playoff environment, and this year was finally his chance to do that. The Pelicans rebounded from the injury the best they could, trading for disgruntled big man Nikola Mirotic to help fill some of the void. I would’ve liked them to upgrade at the guard position a bit, but Anthony Davis who is a top 10 talent in this league could put the scare in some Western juggernauts.