Every year a team or player rises from nowhere to take the NBA by storm, or a rookie emerges from the late lottery or later to shift a team's fortunes. Last year, Victor Oladipo replaced Paul George on the Indiana Pacers and emerged as an All-NBA player, pushing LeBron James to seven games.
Showing rapid growth, Donovan Mitchell went from 13th pick in the draft to out-dueling Russell Westbrook to push the Utah Jazz past the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs.
The game of basketball is so fluid and chaotic it can spring a butterfly effect where the slightest changes can give a team or player new meaning. With that in mind, our staff has a few predictions for this year's surprise teams and players.
1.) Which team to you expect to make an unexpected leap this season and why?
Brady Klopfer: A year ago, the Charlotte Hornets finished with a net rating of 0.0. The other two teams to finish with that rating were the Detroit Pistons, who finished four games below .500, and the Los Angeles Clippers, who finished two games above .500. The Hornets were 10 games below .500.
Two years ago, the Hornets finished with a net rating of 0.3, good for seventh in the East. But, like last year, they were 36-46, and it earned them the 11th spot in the conference.
One year felt like bad luck. Two years feels like a trend. But it's a trend that feels reversible and the implementation of a more modern coach should allow the net rating and record to align more properly. The Hornets will also benefit from the subtraction of Dwight Howard.
Howard is still a fine player but not only did he cause chemistry issues, he blocked Cody Zeller, a center who is arguably better and inarguably a better fit in Charlotte. Add in some exciting young pieces and the likelihood at least one of them develops into a quality player and the Hornets are poised to make a run for the playoffs. They're in much better shape—for now—than most people give them credit for.
James Holas: To say the Fred Hoiberg era in Chicago has been uninspiring would be putting it kindly. Chicago is 110-136 in Hoiberg's three seasons and last year (27-55) was the Bulls' worst since 2003-04. Despite the pleasant rookie performance of Lauri Markkannen and the front office shelling out almost $120 million to enigmatic young talents Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker, there are more question marks than optimism around one of the NBA's flagship franchises.
Have no fear, Bulls fans, this should be the season where you can FINALLY see a silver lining. Much of last season's early turmoil was kicked off by resident hot-head Bobby Portis thunder-punching Nikola Mirotic back to the Jurassic era (more like Nikolai Mi-ROCK-tic, right?). The stink of the dust-up lingered until Mirotic was traded on Feb. 1.
This season, with a revamped roster and two potential offensive dynamos in LaVine and Parker, Markkannen, and rookie big man Wendell Carter Jr in the fold, the Baby Bulls should be fun and fast.
Hoiberg came to Chicago expected to implement a wide open modern offense but was handed clunky rosters and a grinding, ball-dominant star in Jimmy Butler. This iteration of the Bulls has athleticism and versatility across the roster. Combo guard Kris Dunn and Portis provide a bit of grit while Lauri, LaVine, Parker, and Carter bring tantalizing offensive potential to the floor.
There are still tons of question marks: is LaVine lead guard material? Can Parker defend enough for his offense to matter? Is Cam Payne an NBA player? Can Denzel Valentine be resurrected after being destroyed by D-Leaguer Frank “Nitty” Sessions this summer? But for once, there should also be some excitement in Chicago. The doldrums are done. They may not win a ton of games but this should be the year the Chicago Bulls go from a joke to young franchise on the rise.
Jesse Blanchard: The Memphis Grizzlies aren't a team on the rise but they are one that deserves more respect than to be written off after an injury plagued season.
Mike Conley might not deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to health but if he can make it through enough of the season, he and Marc Gasol have always created the sort of dynamic that allows a team to be greater than the sum of its parts.
When on his feet, Conley is the sort of point guard who can get wherever he wants on the floor with the vision and understanding to know where he should go. Gasol is losing his punch but retains his wits. As a defender, he's always been the sort who preempts offensive actions by shading a few steps before it can develop. Last season, injuries and roster turnover eliminated the structure in which he operated and the leaks sprung beyond his capacity to adjust for.
There's a chance for some revival of his defense if JaMychal Green, Jaren Jackson jr., Garrett Temple, Kyle Anderson, Conley's return, and rookie Jevon Carter can shrink his responsibilities.
The Grizzlies don't have a high ceiling but in Conley, Gasol, and new additions Anderson and Temple, Memphis has the sort of skilled, high IQ players who can steady a ship past younger teams. And in Jackson and Dillon Brooks, there might be enough youthful variance to give Grit and Grind one last run.
2.) Who is this year's Victor Oladipo/surprise breakout season?
Brady Klopfer: This feels like the year everything comes together and clicks for the Denver Nuggets. And while part of that will come from the development of Jamal Murray, it's also cyclical; the clicking of the team makes Murray's development that much easier, as the offense becomes even easier to run, the shots become more open, and the defense grows.
In his second year, Murray bumped his three-point percentage to 37.8 percent (while increasing volume), and his free throw percentage to 90.5 percent, solidifying himself as one of the top young shooters in the game.
Just 21 as he enters his third go-around, we should expect to see another jump from Murray. Considering his 16.7 points per game on 57.6 true shooting percentage last season, another step forward would firmly put Murray in the emerging star category. He still needs to make improvements as a playmaker but with Isaiah Thomas in Denver to teach a few tricks, it should only be a matter of time.
Murray will likely never be a star passer, but he can be a quality one; that, combined with the elite scoring ability that may reveal itself as early as this season, means the Nuggets have a lot of things to be excited about this year.
James Holas: Caris LeVert was so talented at Michigan he was nicknamed Baby Durant until three surgeries on his left foot cut his college career short and caused his draft stock to slide.
In his first two seasons, the Brooklyn Nets took their sweet time bringing the 6-foot-7 swingman along, carefully monitoring his minutes and sitting him with even minor dings. This season should be LeVert's coming out party.
LeVert has all of the tools in his bag to be a top shelf NBA scorer; a crafty handle and twitchy counters to attack slower defenders off the bounce, a whip-quick jumper he flashes off the bounce going either way, and the prerequisite derring-do to take and make tough shots under duress. Statistically, his numbers (12.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game on 43.5 percent shooting) didn't blow anyone away last year, but extrapolated out and his per-36 stats (almost 17-5-6) look promising.
Is this the season that the Nets stop giving Caris the kid gloves treatment? Brooklyn is chock full of guards and wings but leVert has the size, athleticism, and playmaking chops (Since 2013, LeVert is one of 11 players 6'7″ or taller to average over four dimes a night) that should keep him on the floor.
Jesse Blanchard: The San Antonio Spurs are all in on Dejounte Murray and Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford aren't the sort to make outrageous gambles.
In his first season as the full-time starter, Murray helped to craft the Spurs' identity by setting the tone defensively–a rarity for a point guard. But Murray is a rare point guard. Standing 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Murray has the length, athleticism, and temerity to be an elite defensive player regardless of position; earning All-Defense Second-Team last season.
His flaws all reside on the offensive end.
Murray is gifted with the natural tools to be a threat on offense but lacks the understanding and one or two skills to get there. Fortunately for him, the Spurs have crafted the perfect developmental system for point guards, getting significant leaps from Tony Parker, George Hill, and Cory Joseph around the same stage of their career Murray now enters.
3.) Which rookie selected out of the top five will prove they should've been taken sooner?
Brady Klopfer: The concept of drafting based on potential is a good one. But at some level, the skills a player has actually proven are often overlooked in the draft process.
Enter Wendell Carter Jr., a big man who, while lacking the hyper athleticism of DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III, showed a lot more offensive polish. Carter has a wide array of post moves and an offensive fluidity that Ayton and Bagley cannot match. Carter averaged 20.1 points per 40 minutes at Duke while scoring with a 62.8 true shooting percentage.
Bagley and Ayton's athletic ceilings may end up proving worthy of their draft pedigree. But one of the most skilled players in the draft (who is also a very nice athlete) falling to seventh will come back to bite a team or two.
James Holas: All eyes are on the new-look Lakers but for this question, let's turn our eyes to the squad across the hall to the Los Angeles Clippers. Los Angeles nabbed what they hope to be their backcourt of the future, bringing in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a slithery 6-foot-6 point guard (via Charlotte) and Jerome Robinson, a stout 6-foot-5 swingman with a sweet jumper.
Gilgeous-Alexander is an intriguing prospect. Long armed and ultra athletic, the 20-year-old put up over 14 points, four rebounds, five assists, and 1.5 steals a game while shooting over 40 percent from three in college. Not much is expected of this year's Clippers, so with veteran defensive stalwart Patrick Beverley and passing savant Milos Teodoscic to show him the ropes, here's hoping Shai get's plenty of opportunities to show his stuff.
Jesse Blanchard: I'll stay in San Antonio with Lonnie Walker IV. Rookies don't often get opportunities with the Spurs but with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili gone, Gregg Popovich and company need to find a dose of perimeter creation when DeMar DeRozan is off the court.
There will never be another Ginobili but the Spurs can slide Walker into a similar role Manu had in his rookie year, providing slashing and chaotic energy off the bench in limited minutes.
“The one thought that went through my head when (Walker) would use some of that athleticism and do something a little off the cuff, I started to think about Manu when he was young,” Popovich told the Express-News.
San Antonio lost most of its remaining corporate knowledge this summer. It'll be interesting to see how it remakes itself, leaning heavier on its defense and athleticism, creating turnovers to get out into transition to offset its lack of offensive firepower. Walker supplies the latter in spades. At worst, given the Spurs' track record for player development (especially with guards), Walker should eventually be a viable rotation player with enough spark to change a quarter, half, or game. Not bad for the 18th pick in the draft.