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Heading into this season, the pecking order at the top of the NBA standings seems largely set in stone - the Bucks and Sixers look set to dominate the East, while the Clippers, Lakers and Rockets are favourites in the West.
With that being said, an off-season filled with drama and multiple blockbuster trades has resulted in the gap between the NBA’s top tier contenders and those next in line has slimmed somewhat.
Of course, the above favourites are there for a reason, but nothing is guaranteed in the NBA
Keeping that in mind, here are five teams who could emerge as surprise contenders in the 2019/2020 season, which gets underway on October 23.
1. Miami Heat (39-43 last season)
All you need to know about Miami’s off-season can be boiled down to one name - Jimmy Butler.
The 30-year-old has bounced around the league after acrimonious exits from both the Chicago Bulls, where he made his name as a star, and the Minnesota Timberwolves, who unloaded a disgruntled Butler to Philadelphia after a memorable pre-season saga 12 months ago.
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Fortunately for Butler, he continued to produce despite the drama and despite being traded twice in three years. His four-year, $140 million contract cements him as the go-to guy in Miami for the foreseeable future, as the Heat look to build their next dynasty following the retirement of club great Dwyane Wade last season.
A do-it-all wing with a bit of a nasty streak and a penchant for hitting clutch shots, Butler’s fiery personality should, at least on paper, mesh will with the famously high standards enforced by Heat president and NBA legend Pat Riley.
There’s more to be excited about than just Butler though. Third-year centre Bam Adebayo looks set to play more minutes than ever before after the Heat traded starting five Hassan Whiteside to the Portland Trail-Blazers. Adebayo is a fast, long centre who pushes the pace and can finish around the rim like few others can in the NBA. =
Point guard Goran Dragic will be ready for a fresh shart after an injury plagued campaign last season, and should relish a lessened role with Butler able to handle the ball as well.
First round draft pick Tyler Herro also looms as one to watch. He might not get a ton of minutes to start the season, but has shown there is plenty of sauce to his game in the Summer League and pre-season.
2. Utah Jazz (50-32 last season)
Utah’s big moves (trading for veteran point guard Mike Conley, signing Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency) weren’t the flashiest of the off-season, but they were crucial for a Jazz team that has struggled to score.
The Jazz have been able to hang their hat on their defence throughout the regular season for a number of years now, but a lack of scoring punch has kept them from mixing it with the Western Conference’s elite.
Jeff Green says the Utah Jazz can be special defensively. Find out why, here pic.twitter.com/QqhX2k4api
— Tony Jones (@Tjonesonthenba) October 6, 2019
By replacing Ricky Rubio, a good passer and defender but a poor shooter, with Conley, the Jazz will be hoping a steady veteran presence at point guard will assist third-year dynamo Donovan Mitchell, who has been relied upon as an individual scorer.
Between Mitchell, Conley, Bogdanovic as well as returning stars Rudy Gobert (who was Defensive Player of the Year last season) and Joe Ingles, the Jazz will be hoping their juiced-up roster can take them over the top in a crowded Western Conference.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (49-33 last season)
Once franchise cornerstones Russell Westbrook and Paul George were traded away, many (fairly) presumed the Thunder would take some time to re-tool about the king’s ransom worth of future draft picks.
While that part of the rebuild is no doubt coming, the Thunder have wound up with a surprisingly competitive group of players that could outperform initial expectations.
Central to all of this is second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who starred for the LA Clippers in his rookie season before being part of their trade package for George.
A taller and longer than average guard with good passing touch and impressive defensive ability for a young player, the only question-mark on Gilgeous-Alexander’s game is his outside shot. Fortunately, thanks to the position OKC find themselves in after the end of the Westbrook era, SGA has plenty of time to find his feet.
Thunder coach Billy Donovan will hope All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who was part of the deal that sent Westbook to the Houston Rockets, will be a capable mentor to Gilgeous-Alexander.
There is also a strong mix of capable veterans (Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari) and young talent (Terrence Ferguson) which could help OKC surprise a few teams this season.
4. Indiana Pacers (48-34 last season)
The Pacers have been very good for a couple of years now, but they haven’t quite been able to break through to the Eastern Conference’s top tier.
Injuries to superstar shooting guard Victor Oladipo have largely been to blame, but the Pacers have typically continued their effective, no-nonsense brand of basketball in his absence.
They won’t have Oladipo back until December at the earliest as his continues to recover from a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee, has kept him from the court since January.
In the meantime, they’ll continue to rely on promising frontcourt stars Myles Turner and Damontas Sabonis, and have added depth with backcourt signings Malcolm Brogdon (Milwaukee Bucks), Jeremy Lamb (Charlotte Hornets), and TJ Warren (Phoenix Suns).
#3 Indiana Pacers- Victor Oladipo and Brogdon can compete with ANY backcourt in the NBA. You add a paint roamer in Myles Turner who continues to evolve offensively, TJ Warren is as solid as they come, and Sabonis is better than advertised. You’ve been warned! #Yoda pic.twitter.com/FLQVMIizVr
— Rashad Phillips (@RP3natural) October 10, 2019
With the Eastern Conference weakened somewhat thanks to the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors losing talent, if the PAcers can tread water until Oladipo returns, they could emerge as a dangerous prospect come playoff time.
5. Sacramento Kings (39-43 last season)
I’ll say this at the start - for all that could go right for the Kings this year, things will look really bad if they go wrong. Sacramento narrowly missed the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference last season, taking a big bet on young point guard DeAaron Fox instead of drafting Euporean wunderkind Luka Doncic with the second pick.
After being lampooned mercilessly for that decision, Fox and the Kings set about proving everyone wrong last season. Like many young sides, their moments of brilliance were tempered by some inconsistent play and ultimately, one too many poor losses.
Despite that, Fox, sharpshooter Buddy Hield, European wing Bogdan Bogdanovic and explosive big man Marvin Bagley III are well-placed to throw their hat into the playoff ring this season.
Check out Bogi's TOP 10 plays of 2018-19!
To watch @LeaderOfHorde live at the #NBAIndiaGames, visit https://t.co/yqtOzd6EFT and book tickets on @bookmyshow.
(Video courtesy: @SacramentoKings' YouTube) pic.twitter.com/4IFakAfFeI
— NBAIndia (@NBAIndia) September 22, 2019
They re-signed former Golden State wing Harrison Barnes, and added veterans Trevor Ariza, Dwayne Dedmon and Cory Joseph to the roster in an effort to iron out their inconsistencies.
New coach Luke Walton will be under a lot of pressure to get results quickly with such a small margin for error in the West, but if the Kings can maintain their fast and furious style while tightening up their defence, they could emerge as the real wildcard of the season.
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