"Stolen Thunder": Three teams currently flying under the radar that will make noise come Playoff time
With the Heat and the Lakers grabbing headlines and most of the buzz around the league with their high-profile acquisitions, there are more than a few NBA teams that aren't being given the same amount of hype durng the offseason that have the potential to surely make a lot of noise in the Playoffs, and will be tough outs even for LeBron and Kobe’s super-stacked squads.
Here are three of them:
11-12 regular season record: 36 wins – 30 losses
Key Additions: O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman, Darren Collison, Dahntay Jones, Elton Brand, rookie draft pick Jae Crowder
Lost: Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Ian Mahinmi, Yi Jianlian, Brian Cardinal, Brendan Haywood
Projected starting lineup:
C - Chris Kaman
PF - Dirk Nowitzki
SF - Shawn Marion
SG - O.J. Mayo
PG - Darren Collison
With only Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion left from their championship squad, Mark Cuban has retooled his Mavs after going old last season, and hardly putting up a fight in defending their 2011 NBA Finals crown. They were swept by the Thunder, who went all the way to the Finals losing in five games to the Heat, and looked far from the team they were a year prior after losing key players Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson in the offseason.
Cuban addressed their problems by upgrading the Mavs’ lineup with similar and younger versions (with the exception of Kaman) of players from their championship team, and are now starting to look more like a Rick Carlisle squad.
The Mavs acquired point guard Darren Collison from the Pacers, who can step in seamlessly to replace the aging Jason Kidd as the Mavs’ starter for years to come. There’s a lot of upside for the 25-year-old Collison after being hobbled by injuries in Indiana. Collison has more than proven that he can run a team, evidenced by the turnaround the Pacers enjoyed while he was at the helm. He will have to improve on his three-point shooting, however, to help ease defenses from collapsing on Dirk, and to open up Carlisle’s penetration and post plays.
The Mavs are also putting an emphasis on one of the biggest reasons why they won the title in 2011: Their defense. Dahntay Jones is a hard-nosed defender who is far from reluctant in roughing up the opposing team’s top scorer (see duels with Kobe), while O.J. Mayo and Collison have been two of the top pickpockets since entering the league. If healthy, Chris Kaman can be a serviceable center, while Elton Brand provides toughness and added experience in the frontcourt.
Watch out for rookie draft pick Jae Crowder, who I think was a steal as the no. 34 pick overall. The 6'6" Crowder is ready to contribute after posting numbers of 17.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game in Marquette as a senior, while shooting the ball at a 49.8 percent clip. His athleticism, shooting and defensive ability will keep him in Carlisle’s rotation.
11-12 regular season record: 42 wins – 24 losses
Key Additions: D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green, Ian Mahinmi, rookie draft pick Miles Plumlee
Lost: Darren Collison, Dahntay Jones, Leandro Barbosa
Projected starting lineup:
C – Roy Hibbert
PF – David West
SF – Danny Granger
SG – Paul George
PG – George Hill
The Pacers, simply put, is a squad filled with solid players. With no true superstar, this is a team that relies on their depth, defense and tenacity to win games. Danny Granger leads by taking on the dirty work, often tasked to guard the opposing team’s best player. Their front court is stacked with rugged post players like David West and Tyler Hansbrough, and with the additions of rookie pick Miles Plumlee and offseason acquisition Ian Mahinmi, Pacers coach Frank Vogel won’t be abandoning their tough, physical defensive style any time soon.
Third-year guard Paul George is projected to have a breakout season, and should take on the reigns as the Pacers’ primary offensive option soon enough. George is a two-way player with incredible athleticism, and improved on his shooting during his sophomore year connecting 90 times from behind the arc (49 more compared to his rookie year) while upping his three-point percentage to 39 percent. For the Pacers to address their offensive lapses, George needs to take his game to the next level. The addition of high-flying Gerald Green, who is coming off a big year with the Nets, should provide an offensive kick from the bench (not to mention entertaining intra-team scrimmage games).
D.J. Augustin provides leadership to an already formidable bench, and will keep George Hill on his A-game if he intends to keep his starting role.
By keeping the main components of their team intact, the Pacers only prove to benefit after giving the Heat a scare in the Eastern Conference semi-finals last season. With Derrick Rose’s injury leaving a big question mark for the Bulls, the Pacers are the favorites to come out on top of the Central Division, and one of the biggest threats to the Heat in the East.
Oklahoma City Thunder
11-12 regular season record: 47 wins – 19 losses
Key Additions: Hasheem Thabeet, rookie draft picks Perry Jones and Hollis Thompson
Projected starting lineup:
C – Kendrick Perkins
PF – Serge Ibaka
SF – Kevin Durant
SG – Thabo Sefolosha
PG – Russell Westbrook
The 2012 NBA Finals runners-up will be parading the same faces, and in my opinion, will still be the team to beat in the West. The fact that their nucleus gained another year of experience together, a taste of success, and a sense of what still needs to be done to take that final step forward, can only make this already dominant team even a lot better. Remember the Heat a year ago? Same story.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook still make up the most explosive offensive tandem in the league, and with James Harden in his contract year, the 2012 Sixth Man of the Year will be looking to outdo his stellar ‘11-12 campaign. Harden will also have a chip on his shoulder after disappearing in the Finals, which left a big hole in the Thunder’s offense, and played a big role in their demise.
As the saying goes: “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke”. It’s the Lakers’ jobs to break them in the Playoffs.
Honorable Mention: Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers, LA Clippers, San Antonio Spurs.
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