There are always a handful of teams that consensus is simply too low on, and this year will be no different.
Last season, the Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Suns, Raptors and Timberwolves all outperformed their preseason Vegas win totals by double-digits. I’ve got three teams pegged as my most likely outliers for this year.
Here’s the case for why the 76ers, Hawks and Pelicans could break out.
NBA PLAYER RANKINGS:
PG | SG | SF | PF | C | Bench | Top 30
The 76ers are better than ever in the East
I believe in the Sixers, and I believe that James Harden can find a way back into the top-15 discussion of the NBA.
There’s no getting around the fact that Harden looked bad for parts of last season. He lost a step on offense, his defensive effort was embarrassing even for his standards and he disappeared from games when it mattered in the NBA Playoffs.
Despite those very legitimate criticisms, he was still an All-Star. His averages of 22.0 points, 10.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds conservatively put him somewhere in the top 25 players in the league.
Harden isn’t getting back into MVP form, but there is some low-hanging fruit available for him to lessen that decline. His conditioning problems should hopefully be somewhat mitigated this year. He already appears to be in way better shape.
it’s a long story I been busy working pic.twitter.com/s67ob6x5Cm
— James Harden (@JHarden13) August 25, 2022
Harden has also put his money where his mouth is to show that he’s more committed to winning than ever. He took a $15 million pay cut in order to help the Sixers field a better team.
De’Anthony Melton is the perfect complement to the pieces already on the roster. He gives the team a defensive bulldog on the perimeter, and his career 36.1 percent 3-point shooting means that teams can’t sag off him like they do with Matisse Thybulle. Danuel House Jr. provides similar skills behind Melton.
The big improvements, though, come in the frontcourt. The Sixers posted an awful minus-7.4 net rating in the minutes that Doc Rivers played safety blanket DeAndre Jordan. Simply removing Jordan from the roster would have provided a boost.
But the team also got solid players to fill those minutes in proven veteran P.J. Tucker and regular season minutes-eater Montrezl Harrell. Those two, along with continued development from the promising 23-year-old Paul Reed, will give the team the best options it has ever had when Joel Embiid is off the floor.
The Sixers have traditionally fallen apart in those minutes, and last year was no exception. They had a minus-4.0 net rating in the regular season with Embiid off the floor and a plus-7.5 net rating when Embiid was checked in.
It’s fair to doubt the Sixers after so many flameouts in the postseason. But they’ve addressed their biggest weaknesses, and they were already a really good team last year. It’s their time.
These aren’t last year’s Pelicans
The Pelicans essentially had two seasons in 2021-22. They started a horrendous 2-14, found their footing toward the middle of the season and then surged after remaking the roster near the trade deadline.
Because of that slow start, those changes to the roster and the addition of a healthy Zion Williamson, that 36-win total from last year is not indicative of what this team will be.
The CJ McCollum deal ended up giving the Pelicans the push that they needed to get into the NBA Playoffs. McCollum averaged a career-high 24.3 points per game after the trade. He also gave the Pelicans a long-distance bomber that they desperately needed given that they were in the bottom third of the league in both attempts and makes from 3-point range.
The Pelicans also have a ton of promising young players that should improve with age. Herb Jones was already one of the best perimeter defenders in the league last season. Trey Murphy hit 38.2 percent of his 3-pointers and earned more minutes as the season progressed. Jose Alvarado proved himself as a gritty backup that could get into opposing guards.
All three were rookies, and Dyson Daniels, taken eighth in this year’s draft, should add another tough-minded defender.
Williamson is the big difference-maker here, though. He looks much more fit coming into this season. Everyone has seemingly forgotten that, when he was last on the floor two years ago, he was averaging 27.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.
Zion last season vs this season pic.twitter.com/IKufgl7Hje
— HoodieBev (@HoodieBev) September 26, 2022
The Pelicans made teams feel them last year. They were the No. 3 team in offensive rebounding and No. 8 in free throws after the McCollum trade. Adding Williamson will bring those numbers up even higher.
Nobody is going through New Orleans without a few bumps and bruises.
The Hawks’ fit concerns are overblown
There has been plenty of hand-wringing about the Hawks’ offense, specifically how new addition Dejounte Murray will fit in with the ball-dominant Trae Young. To me, those concerns are extremely overblown.
The Hawks quietly finished with the second-best offense in the league last year. They have plenty of runway to drop off on that end of the floor and still be an elite offense.
They did lose some firepower with Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter’s departures, but they got more balanced two-way players in Justin Holiday and Murray, who shot a respectable 34.5 percent on his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season.
That roster turnover addressed the team’s biggest problem — defense. The Hawks couldn’t stop anyone last year, as was evidenced by their No. 26 ranking on that end of the floor.
Holiday is a veteran that knows where to be on the floor defensively. Murray is a strong defender with a nose for the ball. De’Andre Hunter was the team’s best perimeter defender last season, and his absence in 29 games was felt.
And Onyeka Okongwu, a promising mobile big man who missed much of last year with injuries, gives the Hawks some defensive versatility behind Clint Capela.
The Hawks now have the plus defenders to hide Young’s horrendous defense. They followed that formula two years ago, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. They also closed last year strong, finishing 15-9 after the All-Star break.
With better health and a more balanced roster, they have the tools in place to make another deep playoff run.