Under the Radar

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As the adage goes, there are certain inevitable facts of life. We’re born, we die, we pay taxes in-between, and (my own profound addition), as fans of the NBA we’re inevitably inundated with major network coverage of the Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, Bulls, and other big-market teams.

Although the NBA is better than most at promoting their superstars, regardless of the size of the market they play in (Durant and OKC for example), there is still a heavy promotional emphasis on the big-market teams. You’re far more likely to catch a Lakers game on ESPN or TNT, than you are to see the Indiana Pacers—whatever their respective records happen to be.

And that’s all fine and dandy for most. Many fans are happy with a heavy dose of the successful, historic franchises—or histrionic, in the case of the Knicks. There are multiple reasons why even the neutral fan should take an interest in their successes and failures.

There will be no shortage of drama with the big-market teams next season. The Lakers (on paper, at least) might have the best team ever assembled, the championship window remains ajar for the captivating Boston Celtics, and it’s now-or-never for Carmelo Anthony and a highly combustible Knicks team.

But if you’re an NBA neutral like myself, and you simply want to see some great basketball—sans the off-court drama and overhyped national media sensationalizing—you may want to check out some of the underrated small-market teams. You won’t see a lot of them on the major networks (unless you live in those particular areas, of course), they won’t garner much mainstream attention, and they may not even make the playoffs, but they will be tons of fun to watch.

Do yourself a big favour; sign up for NBA League Pass (No, I’m not being paid commission by David Stern) and play close attention to the following five teams. And don’t worry; you’ll see plenty of Dwight Howard and LeBron James come April.

5. Cleveland Cavaliers

Admittedly this pick is less about following the Cavaliers and more about following one player in particular: Mr. Kyrie Irving. That guy is damn good. Irving’s rookie season with the Cavs was nothing short of phenomenal—averaging 18.5 points and 5.4 assists per game. Compare those numbers with Derrick Rose’s rookie-year stats and you’ll see why people are very excited about Irving’s future.

Perhaps even more impressive than his stats was Irving’s composure under pressure. The Rookie of the Year hit game-winners on more than one occasion and displays a calmness that belies his young age. Irving continued to shine in the off-season, this time during Team USA scrimmages—making elite veteran players look a little foolish and even challenging the Black Mamba to a one-on-one game. All before he broke his hand, of course.

Irving oozes natural charisma (check out the ‘Uncle Drew’ video on YouTube for reference) and has the potential, in the years to come, to be the premier point-guard in the NBA. But appreciate him now, while he’s playing loose and free, for a raw, talented Cavs team—before the inevitable burden of expectation begins to weigh on his shoulders.

The Cavaliers have an exciting young core of talent, including Canadian Tristan Thompson, and this year’s 4th pick overall, Dion Waiters. The Cavs aren’t likely to make the post-season next year, but with Irving on deck, they should make many highlight reel compilations.

4. Golden State Warriors

What more can be said about the luckless Warriors that hasn’t been mentioned already? One of the league’s most passionate fan bases has been starved of success since that Ricky Barry-inspired championship way back in 1975. In recent years the team has dealt with mediocrity, major injuries, and no shortage of major disappointments.

In the past couple of seasons, however, the Warriors have been very entertaining to watch. Defense has been a secondary concern, of course (never conducive with winning basketball games), but the team has averaged its fair share of points on the offensive end, making those late-night West Coast tip-offs worth staying up for.

This season the Dubs have the talent to combine that free-flowing, run-and-gun style offense, with some solid match-winning defense. That combination should make Golden State one of the most compelling teams to watch come November.

Last year’s rookie, Klay Thompson, made an immediate impact on Mark Jackson’s team, looking calm and composed bringing the ball up-court, and displaying natural playmaking abilities. If (and it’s a big IF) an injury-free Stephen Curry can join Thompson in the backcourt, the Warriors could be a daunting prospect for any team in the West. The exciting Harrison Barnes should walk into the starting line-up in his rookie year, while the frontcourt of David Lee and Andrew Bogut (again, if healthy) round out what could be a very promising starting-5.

If past history with the Warriors is anything to go by, Bogut and Curry will miss the entire season with recurring injuries and Bay-Area hoop fans will quickly fall back into a collective depression. However, if the Dubs can miraculously avoid the injury-bug, they are well worth an outside bet for a playoff berth. They will be lots of fun to watch regardless.

3. Utah Jazz

One of the surprise teams of last season, the Jazz seemingly came out of nowhere to make the playoffs as the 8th-seed in a highly competitive Western Conference. That they were swept out of the playoffs at the hands of a transcendently awesome Spurs team did little to dampen the optimism of the rabid fans in Salt Lake City.

After Jerry Sloan ended his long tenure as coach, and Deron Williams was unceremoniously traded to the Nets, a long rebuild seemed likely. However, Kevin O’Connor (now Executive V.P. of Basketball Operations) and Coach Tyrone Corbin have fashioned a young, uber-talented, and extremely exciting team that can challenge in the playoffs for years to come.

For the Jazz it all starts with their deep core of frontline talent. Al Jefferson leads the team at centre—an extremely underrated star who can scrap inside with the best of them, but can also deliver that scoring touch. At power forward, Paul Millsap, although under-sized for the position, is an extremely effective scorer and rebounder, and has seemingly been on the cusp of an all-star call-up for the past two seasons. The Jazz have the luxury of front-court talent on the bench too, with the ever-improving Derrick Favors and promising young big-man Enes Kanter, waiting in the wings.

Although front-heavy, the Jazz do possess some exciting back-court talent. Mo Williams should prove a useful pick-up from the Clippers at point-guard, while swingman Gordon Hayward is one of the most underappreciated players in the league, especially in terms of the entertainment-value he brings to the table. Honestly, check out Hayward next season and he’ll become one your favourite NBA players.

And actually, the Jazz might just become one of your favourite NBA teams.

2. Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves, despite their depressing lack of recent success, and apparent infatuation with the bottom of the NBA standings, will be one of the most compelling teams to watch in 2012-13.

Until Ricky Rubio went down with an ACL tear last year, the T-Wolves were hanging on to the 8th-seed in the Western Conference—no mean feat. In-fact, despite their small-market status, Minnesota was quietly becoming one of the must-see teams in the NBA. That was thanks in large part to Rubio and his ability to throw down jaw-dropping dimes, a skill that’s become rare in a league that’s gradually moved away from an emphasis on great passing. If Rubio can get healthy and quickly get back into the playmaking grove of last year, the Timberwolves could be the surprise package of the coming season.

Of course, in Kevin Love, Minnesota possesses the best power forward in the game today, but they’ve also added complementary pieces to the puzzle that should make them even better this year. Andrei Kirilenko returns to the NBA after some fantastic performances for Russia in the Olympics, while young two-guard Alexey Shved, who also impressed on that bronze-medal winning team, will begin his rookie season with much expected of him.

Most compelling of all perhaps, is the return of 3-time all-star Brandon Roy, who has defied all odds to make a return to the NBA. Coach Rick Adelman won’t want to risk overplaying Roy too early in the season, but if the former Trailblazer can rediscover anything close to his old form, Minnesota will be in a good place come April.

Expect this Timberwolves group to be many people’s 2nd favourite team next year.

1. Denver Nuggets

If a cadre of aliens came down from outer-space and were interested in seeing one basketball game, just to get a sense of why us humans enjoy the sport so much (for whatever reason, these aliens are more interested in our banal recreational habits, than in carrying out intergalactic warfare), you might not do better than taking them to a Denver Nuggets game. Sure, you could probably see better individual players elsewhere, and even better overall teams, but for sheer unbridled entertainment, you won’t beat George Karl’s boys.

Speed, athleticism, and highlight-reel plays; this Nuggets team has it all in abundance. In last year’s first-round playoff series, Denver gave the Lakers all they could handle by playing an up-tempo ‘push-push-push’ style of basketball. Playing against the Nuggets in the high-altitude, energy-sapping Pepsi Center won’t be an enticing proposition for any team.

Denver’s biggest piece of business in the off-season was bringing in all-star forward, and recent Olympic champion, Andre Iguodala, as part of the four-way trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers. The Nuggets lost Arron Affalo to the Magic in the deal, but Iguodala is an upgrade in every sense. A swingman who might just be the best perimeter defender in the NBA, Iguodala fits perfectly in the Denver system.

Along with Iggy, the Nuggets will field explosive talents such as Ty Lawson (probably the fastest player in the NBA), last year’s hugely impressive rookie Kenneth Faried, and the immensely raw, but immensely talented JaVale McGee. Throw in Danilo Gallinari, a player who played like an all-star in the first half of last season, and the Nuggets will be a real Western Conference dark horse in the coming season.

The Nuggets did a fantastic job rebounding from the Carmelo Anthony fiasco a couple seasons ago, and continue to be extremely competitive despite not possessing that marquee player that many teams build around. They are a team that achieves success by committee, and are well worth following next year.

 

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