We’re in the midst of our longest offseason in a few years, with the NBA schedule finally back to some sort of normalcy following the pandemic. Unfortunately, that leaves us with little to do at this point but wait and see if some more trade dominos will fall in Utah and Brooklyn.
But while the superstars and trade drama get all the shine, there are plenty of teams that don’t receive the headlines and national media attention and have improved tremendously over the offseason.
Let’s take a look at a few under-the-radar teams that could surprise the league this year.
New Orleans Pelicans
Up until the last few months of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans seemed like a disaster waiting to happen. Zion Williamson was injured, reportedly overweight, and unhappy in the Bayou. Brandon Ingram was excelling, but the team was faltering, and it looked like the rebuild of the post-Anthony Davis era was already leading to another teardown.
Then something weird happened - they started winning.
Bolstered by the acquisition of CJ McCollum at the trade deadline, rookie head coach Willie Green’s squad turned things around and made the playoffs, even taking the 1st-seed Phoenix Suns to 6 games in the first round.
Now, a hopefully healthy and fit Zion Williamson joins a team that seemingly has a lot of depth all-of-a-sudden, following the emergence of young perimeter defensive stalwarts Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado to go along with Ingram, McCollum, and Jonas Valanciunas. Plus, all rumors of his discontent in New Orleans have been put to rest following Williamson’s freshly-signed contract extension.
Many of America’s best online sportsbooks are sleeping on New Orleans, with FanDuel only giving them the ninth-best odds to win the western conference. They should at least make the play-in tournament, and if Zion can return and mesh with his new surroundings, they could do a lot more damage.
It’s not often that a 1st overall pick is underrated, but it’s fair to say Cade Cunningham was last season. In 64 games, the combo guard averaged 17.4/5.5/5.6, all while carrying the load on a pretty bad team.
With a very strong rookie class, he finished a distant third in Rookie of the Year voting, behind Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes. With a season under his belt, one could easily imagine Cade improving and potentially even reaching All-Star status in his sophomore year.
The rest of the roster has more question marks than the main man himself, but there is a bunch of young talent there. In the draft, the Pistons were able to nab a perfect backcourt partner for Cade in Purdue prospect Jaden Ivey and got a potential steal at #13 with Memphis center Jalen Duren.
These rookies join some more proven young talent in Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, and Hamidou Diallo - all of whom are still very much developing and could take a step forward themselves this year. There’s a reason why JJ Redick recently said that he thinks the Pistons will be “one of the best teams” in the East in the next couple of seasons.
With Cunningham growing into a star, Detroit presents a glut of intriguing young talent that should fight for a play-in spot.
Outside of baseball’s Seattle Mariners, the longest playoff drought in sports belongs to the Sacramento Kings. The Kings have spent most of the time since their last playoff appearance (in 2006) being more of a punchline than an NBA team.
But hope springs eternal, and there is a real chance they could break that streak this year.
While trading young stud Tyrese Haliburton for big man Domantas Sabonis may not have been the smartest long-term decision, the team certainly fits much cleaner than before. De’Aaron Fox, in particular, benefitted from the move, with his stats skyrocketing across the board.
Now, the combo of Fox and Sabonis leads the way with role players like Harrison Barnes and the newly acquired Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk there for support. In the Draft, they chose forward Keegan Murray over Jaden Ivey with the 4th overall pick, which, like the Haliburton move, may not have been the right long-term pick but is a much better fit right now and will improve the team.
I’m not guaranteeing it, but this might finally be the year that the Kings crack the playoffs.