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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Four NBA teams that could surprise this season

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The birds are singing, the bells are ringing, and the memes are swinging, which can only mean one thing: the NBA season is officially upon us. What’s beautiful about basketball is that there’s a little something for everyone. Perhaps watching the Golden State Warriors firebomb the court from all five positions doesn’t quite tickle your fancy. Maybe you’ve grown tired of seeing LeBron James take a dump on the heads of everybody else in the league. Perhaps you believe that there’s more to life as a fan of the sport than bearing witness to Chris Paul executing the perfect pick-and-roll, the San Antonio Spurs catapulting the ball harmoniously from side to side, the Chicago Bulls attempting to find enough space to convert oxygen into carbon dioxide, or Russell Westbrook making it his personal mission to rip the entire rim clean off the backboard and offer it as a blood sacrifice.

To all you hoops non-comformists, I say touché and present to you these four NBA teams who are almost certain to duck underneath the radar in 2016-17, but are nevertheless well-equipped to climb up your League Pass rankings and surprise a few cynics in the process.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Much has been made of Minnesota’s juicy nucleus of young talent, and for good reason. Last year, they satisfied our collective hunger by giving us delicious treats in bursts. Sometimes, it was pulling a big-time upset out of a hat and becoming the only team in the West to defeat the Warriors at Oracle Arena in the regular season. Other times, it was Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine getting out in the open floor to jelly and jam on some poor fellas. Oh and not to forget, they taught us once and for all that Karl-Anthony Towns is an alien invader from outer space.

Karl-Anthony Towns doesn't play like your average center.

A video posted by Sports Videos (@houseofhighlights) on

A 20-year-old seven-footer, folks.

But nevertheless, the facts don’t lie: Minnesota hasn’t had a winning season since 2004-05 (back when the immortal Latrell Sprewell was their starting small forward), and no matter how many scintillating young pieces they acquire, it always seems like Groundhog Day whenever we see them back in the draft lottery year after year after year. That should begin to change though in 2016-17 now that the baritone-voiced Tom Thibodeau is back from his season-long exile and ready to coach these whippersnappers into form.

In case you missed it, Thibodeau has built something of a name for himself as a defensive architect, and he should transform the Timberwolves into a more disciplined and cohesive battalion on that end. It’ll be particularly worth keeping a cornea on to see how Thibs develops Wiggins, who has the physical attributes but neither the polish nor the consistency to be a top-tier defender.

Towns needs some chiseling done on him as well with his middling 49.6 opposing field goal percentage allowed at the rim last season ranking him a notch below the likes of Channing Frye, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marreese Speights, and Darrell Arthur. But Minnesota’s new free agent signings should have Thibodeau licking his chops. Cole Aldrich represents a quality third big man who converts around the basket and defends well both in space and in tight quarters. Minny should also benefit from the quiet signing of Brandon Rush, who is a championship-experienced wing stopper and has found the bottom of the net on 40.3 percent of his career three-point tries.

In the end, Thibs and the Wolves still have a lot of question marks to address. Are Towns and Gorgui Dieng a viable post pairing in the long haul? Does Ricky Rubio finally get dealt if rookie Kris Dunn plays well enough to usurp his starting position? Can Thibodeau resist the urge to give significant ball-handling duties to LaVine? Is Shabazz Muhammad even still alive? Maybe Minnesota doesn’t have the answers just yet. But it will be exciting as heck to watch them dig, and a return to the postseason could very well be in store if they do end up finding them.

Indiana Pacers

Two-and-half-years ago, the Pacers had the best record in the Eastern Conference and looked poised to contend for a long time to come. But then Lance Stephenson combusted, Paul George broke his leg, Roy Hibbert went missing, David West started hunting for rings, and just like that it was all over. But now running it back under new head coach Nate McMillan, 2016-17 could represent Indiana’s best chance to recreate the glory days when toppling the LeBron-era Miami Heat in a seven-game series was very much a possibility had they gotten a couple more breaks to fall their way.

McMillan is attempting to institute a faster-paced attack in Indy, and in doing so has injected a shot of Red Bull into the entire team. In fact, McMillan has already gotten them to buy in to the point that George actually thinks the Pacers can score 115 points a night this season. An offensive leap to that extent is probably a bit airy-fairy, especially considering how McMillan’s Portland teams in the 2000s were among the great tortoises of the Association. But at least the George Karl disciple is playing to the strengths of his roster.

The Pacers will be well-suited to play up-tempo now that Jeff Teague and his volatile play style are taking over the reins of an offense that became almost too predictable with George Hill running the show at point guard for so many years. Similarly, Thaddeus Young equips them with a nimble combo forward who can blow by slower squirts on the block and can gallop the floor in transition for easy deuces. And second-year big Myles Turner is a cult hero and a straight menace, watering mouths with his stalwart pick-and-pop game and showing the tools necessary to be the long-term anchor of Indiana’s defense. He also enjoys faking guys right out of their Nikes down low.

Indiana, historically amongst the best defensive units in the league, could struggle to cobble together a passable perimeter-sealing bunch in front of Turner this season, particularly when Teague splits time in the backcourt with the glorified traffic cone known as Monta Ellis. The losses of Solomon Hill and Ian Mahinmi to free agency will hurt them in subtle but impactful ways as well. But when he’s not asking Congress for a declaration of war on analytics, George, their resident three-time All-Star, remains an elite option to lock down the top scoring weapons of other teams. And as a 23.1-point-per-game scorer last season, he’s pretty good at giving you the business on offense too as one of the marquee pull-up shooters in the game.

It’s a new dawn in the Hoosier State, and who knows what it will ultimately bring. But a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference and a renewed interest in Indiana Pacers basketball would not be at all unrealistic.

See the other two on Page 2

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