All the off-season power-rankings are out (including those by yours truly), and it seems everyone who thinks they know anything about basketball is prepared to hitch their wagon to one of a number teams in contention for a shot at the 2019-20 title.
It’s of course no secret that the Lakers, Clippers, 76ers, Bucks, Nuggets, Rockets and Jazz are all popular picks to populate the top of the conference standings and potentially win it all. That’s all well and good. The real fun lies, though, in being that one person in your group of friends who can say “Ha! I told you so!” when a team like the Bulls comes from nowhere to cling on to the 8th spot at the end of the April.
Now you can be that person. Here are Sportstips.com’s (way too early) Dark Horse Playoff Contenders for 2019-20.
5. Dallas Mavericks
Sure, the Western Conference is a minefield. Only so many teams can make the playoffs, and if you take it as read that the Lakers, Clippers, Jazz and Nuggets will definitely be in there, that leaves only four spots left to be filled.
But, why not Dallas?
Despite not hitting on all of their offseason targets (Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton and Julius Randle were all sizable misses, but Delon Wright and Seth Curry do ease the pain), for all intents and purposes the Mavericks go in to next season with one of the biggest additions of any team in the league; Kristaps Porzingis.
The 7-foot Latvian is yet to play a game in Dallas since moving from the Big Apple, and, despite some slightly concerning off-field whispers, is the calibre of shot-blocking, three-point-shooting big man capable of changing the course of a franchise.
Oh, and there’s also the small matter of Luka Doncic. If the 20 year-old Slovenian can improve even slightly from his outrageous Rookie of the Year campaign (in which he became just the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in his rookie year) then he and Porzingis have the potential to vault themselves in to the “Best Duos in the League” conversation. Sure, they might not be Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but who’s to argue they can’t be better than, say, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
PG: Luka Doncic (Delon Wright)
SG: Tim Hardaway Jnr (Seth Curry, Courtney Lee)
SF: Justin Jackson (Dorian Finney-Smith)
PF: Kristaps Porzingis (Dwight Powell)
C: Maxi Kleber (Boban Marjanovic)
The upside is endless with nearly every player on that roster. If Dallas can put it together behind their two-pronged force of nature, look out.
4. Sacramento Kings
We (along with almost anyone else with even a passing interest in basketball) LOVE what the Kings are building. From being one of the most incompetent franchises in sports earlier this decade, to now at a point where making the playoffs with a young, exciting squad is probably a pass-mark, their turnaround has been spectacular.
Unfortunately for our purposes though, Sacramento as a franchise are at the point in their re-build where it’s becoming a little uncool to pick them as an outsider. True “dark horses” generally need to come from a lower base than the 39 – 43 record former coach Dave Joeger’s squad finished 2018-19 with. In reality, the Kings choked in the last month of the season and really should have squeaked in to the postseason ahead of the Spurs, Clippers or Thunder.
We all know Sacramento are good, and it now feels like just a question of “When?” not “If?” they’ll become bona fide NBA contenders. That viewpoint is borne out by the roster additions made by GM Vlade Divac over the offseason; Cory Joseph, Trevor Ariza, Dewayne Dedmon and a massive extension to Harrison Barnes are not the moves of a team content to sit back and wait for De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley to reach mega stardom before making a run.
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
PG: De’Aaron Fox (Cory Joseph, Yogi Ferrell)
SG: Buddy Hield (Bogdan Bogdanovic)
SF: Harrison Barnes (Trevor Ariza)
PF: Marvin Bagley III (Harry Giles, Nemanja Bjelica)
C: Dewayne Dedmon (Richaun Holmes)
Go on. Make a case why that team won’t be in the playoffs. We dare ya.
3. Chicago Bulls
Yep, those Bulls. The same Bulls that went 22 – 60 last season to barely beat out the Cavaliers and Knicks for 13th spot in the conference.
Chicago’s rebuild has been a long time coming, but the fruits of their labor (or lack thereof) are finally starting to shine through.
In Zach LaVine, Otto Porter and Lauri Markaanen they have a trio of genuine young stars to build around. In Kris Dunn, Wendell Carter Jnr and Denzel Valentine they have untapped potential which could amount to nearly anything. In Antonio Blakeney they have a heat-check guy, in Ryan Arcidiacono they have heart and hustle, and in Coby White they have perhaps the steal of the 2019 draft.
To be fair they had most of those pieces last season, but by adding experienced, proven NBA-calibre veterans in Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky in free agency, Chicago have clearly taken a step forward in their evolution. They evidently believe they’re ready to compete, and so do we.
Thanks to Kawhi Leonard’s departure; Indiana’s continual state of flux and the perennial mediocrity of the Pistons, Magic, Heat and Hornets; the East is wide open behind the Bucks and 76ers. Who will fill spots 4 – 10 in the standings is anyone’s guess, and we give the Bulls as much chance as any of those aforementioned teams.
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
PG: Tomas Satoransky (Kris Dunn, Coby White, Shaq Harrison)
SG: Zach LaVine (Denzel Valentine, Antonio Blakeney)
SF: Otto Porter (Thaddeus Young)
PF: Lauri Markaanen (Luke Kornet, Cristiano Felicio)
C: Wendell Carter Jnr
While depth certainly isn’t their strength (yet), that starting 5 is plenty good enough to compete with that middle-bracket of teams in the East.
2. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are reaching the point where they’re almost too good to ignore. Dark horses generally don’t score 120 points per game in the post-All-Star period. That’s not the behaviour of a team that’s building; that’s an indicator that Atlanta might already be here.
The Hawks added top draft prospects De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish to their already stacked-with-young-talent roster, and topped off their offseason with the handy addition of former lottery-pick Jabari Parker on a below-value deal, shrewd veteran additions in Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner and took a flyer on the off-chance Chandler Parsons is still an NBA level player.
Trae Young might be an All-Star as early as this year, John Collins is about to put up a 20/10 season sooner rather than later and Kevin Huerter’s rangy, long-range game suits the modern-day NBA perfectly. We’re fully on board the Hawks, but the only worry is that by now it might be too late to jump on the bandwagon.
Projected Opening-Day Lineup:
PG: Trae Young
SG: Kevin Huerter (Allen Crabbe, Cam Reddish)
SF: Evan Turner (De’Andre Hunter, Chandler Parsons)
PF: John Collins (Jabari Parker)
C: Alex Len (Damian Jones)
Clearly there is an issue with their point-guard depth, but with Trae Young set to play even more expanded minutes (he averaged 31 per game in his rookie season) it may not end up being such an issue. In the gapingly-wide open East, Atlanta are every chance to hover around .500 and contend for the 8th playoff spot.
1. New Orleans Pelicans
Not since the 1999 San Antonio Spurs (led by the twin towers of Tim Duncan and David Robinson to the 5th seed in the West) has a team gone from having the number 1 draft pick in the preceding season to genuine dark horse contention status the next year, but the Pelicans are poised to do exactly that.
New GM David Griffin has done a truly masterful job at rebuilding this franchise in the wake of Anthony Davis’ departure, aided of course by a king’s ransom from the Lakers and the unbelievably good fortune of winning the draft lottery with odds of just 6%.
The net effect of the Pelicans’ offseason is that that they’ve lost Anthony Davis and Julius Randle as regulars from last year’s 33 – 49 squad, but gained Zion Williamson, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker in the draft; Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart in the Lakers trade and JJ Redick and Derrick Favors in free agency.
If you haven’t yet seen what Jaxson Hayes can do, get ready for some of this:
It’s a strange world where a team can lose a 26-year-old perennial MVP/All-NBA/DPOY candidate and actually improve exponentially, but that’s exactly what the Pelicans have done. They now have the one non-negotiable element for a playoff team; depth.
The more we look at their roster the more it makes sense that New Orleans could conceivably go something in the range of 45 – 37 and steal the 7th or 8th seed in the West.
Projected Opening-Day Lineup:
PG: Jrue Holiday (Lonzo Ball)
SG: JJ Redick (Josh Hart, E’Twaun Moore, Nickeil Alexander-Walker)
SF: Brandon Ingram (Darius Miller)
PF: Zion Williamson (Derrick Favors)
C: Jaxson Hayes (Jahlil Okafor)
That rotation has flexibility (e.g. small-ball with Zion at the 5 and Favors at the 4) creative ball-handling with Holiday and Ball, shooting with Redick and Hart and scoring with Ingram. If the Pelicans aren’t already on your radar to make the postseason, put them on there.
Written and produced for Sportstips.com by Eddie Dadds
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Image by: Andrea Ciambra