NBA

Four underrated teams ready to take the league by storm

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It may not seem possible, but the 2020-21 NBA regular season is less than one week away and after the most unpredictable, chaotic and historically short NBA offseason that has ever existed, everyone is still trying to get caught up to speed.

So which teams took a significant step forward and are ready to take the league by storm? Which organizations pushed their chips to the center of the table looking for a taste of success?

Let’s dive in.

Portland Trail Blazers

No team took such a meaningful step towards contention quite like the Portland Trail Blazers did.

Entering the offseason, they were without ways to immediately improve their roster through free agency or the draft. They had the 16th pick in the draft, which rarely leads to a productive role player in their rookie season, and were operating as an above-the-cap team, which dramatically limited their ability to sign players in free agency. Armed with just one non-lottery first-round pick and only the mid-level exception as their ways to address roster needs in free agency, Portland turned to the trade market in order to make improvements.

The Blazers began to retool their roster with their biggest move of the offseason by trading two first round picks along with Trevor Ariza to the Houston Rockets who sent Robert Covington to Portland in return. While two first round picks may seem like a slight overpay for a player like Covington, he is the idealistic forward for the Trail Blazers roster regardless of whether he is playing with the starting unit or reserves.

Covington is a career 35.6 percent shooter from three-point range and provides the rare ability to legitimately cover four positions regardless of opponent. While his shooting can be sporadic and he has issues dealing with injuries, his fit as one of the premier ‘three-and-D’ forwards in the league on a Trail Blazers roster that badly needed help defending on the perimeter is a massive move for Portland, but they did not stop there.

They continued to utilize the trade market to address their need for more front court depth by sending Mario Hezonja away in a three-team deal that netted Portland Enes Kanter, who wore a Trail Blazers uniform just two seasons ago.

From there, Portland did its best to maximize its ability to sign free agents. First, the Blazers used their Mid-Level Exception to sign Derrick Jones Jr. who has shown flashes over his first four years in the NBA. His offensive skill set is still very much so a work in progress, but what Jones can add in terms of athleticism and versatility around the likes of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is truly exciting. If his three-point shot ever becomes remotely passable while with the Trail Blazers, his two-year contract worth just under $19 million could end up looking like a bargain.

In addition to signing Jones, Portland also brought in Harry Giles, who could be a strong center option down the line. After a brutal injury history prior to being drafted and struggles getting on the floor for the Sacramento Kings, Giles has a chance to finally show off all of the skills that made him one of the most exciting prospects of the past few years before injuries sapped his playing time. Lastly, Portland retained both Carmelo Anthony and Rodney Hood to further fill out wing depth.

Now, Portland has a starting lineup that can hang with almost any team in basketball. Being able to start the likes of Lillard, McCollum, Jones, Covington and Jusuf Nurkic who is finally back healthy, is incredibly exciting and provides a ceiling beyond what the Trail Blazers have had over the past few seasons. Their quality of depth is still up for debate, but they have a plenty of options who could pan out such as Anfernee Simons, Rodney Hood, Giles, Kanter, Gary Trent Jr., and Anthony. Oh, and they should be getting Zach Collins back healthy in January as well just to further add more talent to the roster.

Portland has not had a collection of players who fit so well and is as talented as this group since it drafted Damian Lillard all those years ago. The Blazers now have the roster flexibility to play big or small, they have enough depth to overcome potential adversity entering this chaotic NBA season, plenty of three-point shooting, and a defensive group that can slow the game down and get stops. 

The Trail Blazers are for real and they are ready to take their first real step towards title contention. 

Dallas Mavericks

While Dallas did not have a flashy offseason, it’s coming for the rest of the league and there is no getting around that fact.

Luka Doncic is arguably already a top-10 player in the world and is growing with each minute of playing time. Everything to do with the Mavericks revolves around him and he is ready to take that official step into superstardom. But no team has won with one player. While Doncic is the engine pushing the Mavericks forward, they now have the rest of the roster set up to put together one of the more exciting teams in the NBA.

First, Dallas made the choice to trade Seth Curry and the 36th pick in the draft to Philadelphia for Josh Richardson, who now fits like a glove alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Richardson might not be a lethal three-point shooter, but his versatility on both ends of the court is why Dallas valued him over Curry and his fantastic outside shooting. Now Richardson can take on the task of defending the best perimeter player on opposing teams while still providing some three-point shooting and playmaking to take some pressure off of Doncic.

Dallas did not stop there in terms of finding additional creators. The Mavs also traded for James Johnson, who is one of the more unique power forwards in basketball. Johnson shot a career-best 36.3 percent from three-point range while also averaging 3.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in just 19.3 minutes of action last season. He is 6-foot-7 and is a strong 240 pounds. His versatility could be more impactful this season than people think.

In addition to trading for both Richardson and Johnson, Dallas signed Willie Cauley-Stein for front court depth with Kristaps Porzingis still out after tearing his meniscus, and Wes Iwundu to add yet another wing while also retaining Trey Burke.

Again, the offseason was not a spectacular success, but it was productive. Dallas can now surround Doncic with lots of shooting or lots of defense or some combination of both. Their versatility is their second-strongest weapon and when paring that with the all-world talent of Doncic, that is a recipe for success.

Phoenix Suns

While Portland and Dallas made sizable moves to address specific needs, the Phoenix Suns went all in and reconfigured a good portion of their rotation to take the step from bottom-feeder of the Western Conference towards becoming a playoff team.

Their first move was unequivocally their biggest when they traded Kelly Oubre, Ricky Rubio, Jalen Lecque, Ty Jerome and a 2022 first round pick to Oklahoma City for Chris Paul. Now, Phoenix has the ideal point guard to pair with their superstar in Devin Booker. Paul will be able to take care of the majority of point guard responsibilities while also being able to flex off the ball and still be impactful. His playmaking and isolation play will take incredible amounts of pressure off Booker’s shoulders — which have been holding up the Suns’ entire offense for the past few years — while also providing his typical seller defense. Oh, and to make matters even better Paul is still a threatening three-point shooter. Really, there is not a better fit for a point guard to play alongside Booker than Chris Paul.

But Phoenix knew that just adding Paul would not be enough to lead the Suns back to the playoffs. Phoenix needed grit, size on the perimeter, additional shooting and more versatility. They found all of that in Jae Crowder who is coming off a fantastic season for the Miami Heat. With Crowder in the fold, they have a battled-tested wing who knows what it takes to win. He will provide endless energy, streaky shot making, defensive intensity, and the ability to either start or come off the bench.

To finish off their free agency acquisitions, Phoenix also signed the likes Langston Galloway and E’Twuan Moore, who both can provide playmaking and shot making with or without the ball in their hands. To round out their roster, the Suns retained Dario Saric who could end up being impactful as a playmaking center with shooting range while also bringing back defensive stalwart Jevon Carter.

The Suns will not be contending for a title, but for the first time since Steve Nash was playing basketball — not coaching the Brooklyn Nets as he is now — the Suns are looking at the possibility of being a playoff team.

Atlanta Hawks

Like the Suns, Atlanta went all in on retooling its roster to be ready to not only compete for a playoff spot, but to make noise in the postseason once it arrives.

While exciting, the Hawks were nowhere near ready to compete for a playoff berth last season but now that is all going to change. With the outstanding offensive force that is Trae Young leading the charge and a whole new host of veterans ready to contribute, the Hawks are ready to return to the postseason.

There are three particular veterans who Atlanta signed in free agency who signal the shifting of perspectives for the Hawks organization: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari and Rajon Rondo. Unless a team is looking to dive headfirst into competing for the postseason, it does not make moves like that with so much young talent on the roster.

Let’s start with Bogdanovic, who is the presumed starting shooting guard alongside Young. His inclusion in the starting lineup takes a lot of pressure off of Young to carry the shooting and ball handling duties. Bogdanovic is a fearless shooter, underrated passer with above average vision, and one of the most clutch players in basketball. He is neither scared of the moment nor looking to blend in. He is a dynamic offensive threat who will complement Young’s skill set beautifully.

Next up is Gallinari, who could either start or come off the bench. It seems more realistic that DeAndre Hunter or John Collins starts instead of him, but that does not diminish just how massive Gallinari is to the Hawks chances of success. He will likely be included in their closing lineup, provides shot making and intelligence that is rarely seen in people 6-foot-10, and is still an endless bag of offensive tricks. Gallinari’s ability to space the floor, get to the foul line and acting as a secondary or tertiary creator will go far in terms of opening up the game for Young and the rest of the roster.

Rondo, while not the same player he was during his days with the Celtics, is still one of the smartest basketball players of all time. His shooting is questionable, but his defensive impact, ability to create in the pick and roll, and on-court leadership is a massive boost for the young Hawks.

Still, even with those three significant signings Atlanta was not done. They also signed Kris Dunn as a defensive stopper on the wing as well as Tony Snell and Solomon Hill to provide perimeter depth and three-point shooting off the bench. Oh, and they also drafted arguably the most talented player in the 2020 NBA Draft in Onyeka Okongwu.

The Hawks are not playing games this upcoming season and all of their decisions this offseason point to their dedication to winning right now. While the jury is still out on how effective such an offensively-focused group will be, there is no denying that the Hawks are itching to prove themselves and get back to the postseason.

T.J. McBride is a writer, reporter, and podcaster who grew up in Southern California, but now resides in Denver, Colorado where he covers the Denver Nuggets and the rest of the NBA.