Everyone loves a good underdog.
Underdog teams can come in all shapes and sizes. It can go from the younger team who are counted out, to the overrated perennial contenders – and everything in between.
Next year the consensus favourites have been laid out. But what about those who aren’t getting as much shine?
Golden State Warriors
What a difference a year can make. The Golden State Warriors have gone from being a predicted overall NBA Champion last year to underdog status this year. I’ve even seen some takes where they’ll struggle to make the playoffs. Many have written the Warriors off for many reasons – whether it be KD’s departure, Klay Thompson’s injury or questioning DeAngelo Russel’s fit in the team. But most of the valuable assets remain.
Steph Curry will have the room to shine as their #1 option, and the last time we saw that he was league MVP. Draymond Green will also have a much bigger role, and given his contract extension this week, his main goal now is cementing his legacy. The Warriors have never had a great supporting cast, and next year will be no different, but having a Kevon Looney/Willie Cauley Stein centre rotation is above average at best. If DeAngelo Russel fits right in and continues his All-Star form – the Warriors could be a dark horse in the West.
Off the bat of an NBA Championship – the Raptors probably deserve underdog status. It’s never easy to go back-to-back with title wins, especially when you’ve lost your franchise key in Kawhi Leonard. A lot of the old faces will return for next year, but it will very much look like a new team as a Raptors fan. Nonetheless, I feel like the Raptors are being slept on in the West, at least for a solid regular season performance alone.
Pascal Siakam is coming off a Most Improved Player year, and his improvement is expected to continue. The Raptors also welcome back OG Anunoby who started most of his rookie season – and let’s not forget the playoffs that Fred Vanvleet had too. Throw in the old building blocks of Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka – and this is a pretty well rounded team. The last few years they have put in strong regular season performances, and this year should be no different.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Things have been turbulent over the past few years for OKC, to say the least. From losing Paul George, to longtime franchise player Russell Westbrook, to accumulating one of the worst contracts in the league in Chris Paul. As time goes on, it looks increasingly unlikely that the Thunder will move on from Paul, but that may not be a bad thing in the short term. The Thunder have sneakingly retained a lot of their core rotation, as well as building up a plethora of draft picks on the side.
They’ll look towards big performances from the likes of Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams – who are well able to be a strong supporting cast to any star. Paul will have a point to prove himself after a lot of negative contract chatter. Sophomore Shai Gilgeous Alexander is touted for further improvement, and they still have the likes of Schroder, Ferguson and returning Andre Roberson for their rotations. It’s not a bad team by any stretch. Their upside isn’t huge, but they could sneak into the playoffs if things go right.
I feel like we have this discussion every year with the Portland Trailblazers. Last year, however, I really believe it was a defining season for the core Portland duo of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. Much talk had circulated around the league on their ceiling with the two guard standouts playing together. Last year, they really stepped it up a gear in the playoffs, falling short to the Warriors in the Western finals.
Lillard was ice-cold at important moments in games. McCollum stepped up when Lillard was having off nights. It was the perfect combo – and the best that Portland could ask for from the duo. Jusuf Nurkic looked improved before his season ending injury, and performances from the likes of Rodney Hood and Zach Collins have spelled optimism for next season. Don’t sleep on the Trailblazers next year.
The Eastern Conference has become more open after the departure of Kawhi, and the Pacers will be hoping to capitalise on it. Their season ended abruptly when All-Star Victor Oladipo suffered a season ending injury – but despite this they still made a decent showing making the playoffs as 5th seed. Domantas Sabonis continued his upward trajectory as a versatile big man, and Myles Turner will be hoping to make a leap next year too.
What highlights their sleeper ability coming into this season is how their offseason additions have gone under the radar. Adding Malcolm Brogdon, who looked like the #2 option on the Bucks for stretches last year, will be huge for them. T.J Warren and Jeremy Lamb will be consistent offensive pieces – and we haven’t even factored in the returning Oladipo to the fold. If they all gel, and continue some of what we saw last year, they can make a run in the Playoffs in the East.