Last season, everyone fully expected that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors would meet for the third-straight year in the NBA Finals.
And they did.
However, a number of other teams quietly had outstanding campaigns in the process. The Boston Celtics went 53-29 and were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Toronto Raptors went 51-31 (identical to Cleveland) and were the third seed. In the West, the San Antonio Spurs (61-21), Houston Rockets (55-27), Los Angeles Clippers (51-31) and Utah Jazz (51-31) all won over 50 games, but weren’t regarded as true contenders to the Warriors, who infamously added Kevin Durant to their championship-level team the summer before.
This season is already shaping up to be incredibly different. Although the Cavaliers (17-7) have gotten on a roll and are in the midst of a 12-game winning streak and the Warriors (19-6) have been an offensive juggernaut, there are clear flaws on both teams.
The Cavaliers’ defense has been suspect all season long and they have a number of veterans past their prime on the roster. The Warriors have seemed to adopt a “bad boy” persona and their emotions have gotten the best of them at times, resulting in technical fouls and costly ejections. Both teams also have not seemed to completely figure out their rotations and have dealt with some crucial injuries to start the year.
Therefore, it may be wise to start paying attention to the Celtics (21-4), Raptors (15-7), and Pistons (14-9) in the East as well as the Rockets (18-4) and Spurs (16-8) in the West as true challengers to the reigning champions.
In addition to those teams that have gotten off to hot starts, here are three unexpected squads that have a major chance to create a surge and become recognized as legitimate contenders before the start of 2018.
Utah Jazz (13-12)
Although the Jazz blew a 17-point lead to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a Tuesday night loss, they have a lot of reasons to be optimistic about their squad this season. First and foremost, Rudy Gobert is back and seems healthy. The All-Star caliber center is one of the elite rim protectors in the league and fits in perfectly to Quinn Snyder’s system.
Although they lost Gordon Hayward to the Celtics in free agency, the Jazz didn’t lose their identity as a defensive-minded club. As of Tuesday night, they ranked sixth in the NBA in defensive rating (101.0), second in steals per game (9.6), eighth in blocks per game (5.3), third in fast-break points allowed (8.0) and were tied for first with just 39.3 points in the paint allowed per contest.
Remember that Gobert missed 11 games due to his injury. Those numbers will likely all improve with him back on the court.
In Gobert’s absence, Derrick Favors and rookie Donovan Mitchell took on expanded roles for the club, thus allowing coach Snyder to fill the scoring void that Hayward left. Mitchell in particular has been outstanding and has become a go-to volume shooter, averaging 17.2 points per contest.
Although Utah's overall record hasn’t been outstanding, they will have an opportunity to turn heads on their upcoming road trip. They will embark on an absolutely brutal six-game stretch in which they’ll take on the Bucks, Chicago Bulls, Celtics, Cavaliers, Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder before hosting the Spurs, and Thunder at home immediately after that.
If they can break even during that wildly-tough slate of opponents, they will gain a massive amount of respect around the league. Based on their alternative, slow-paced style of play, they might catch some of their tough opponents off-guard.
Indiana Pacers (13-11)
The Pacers have quietly gone 7-3 in their last 10 games and have suffered three of their 11 losses by five points or less. As one of the best offensive teams in the entire NBA, Indiana ranked seventh in the league in points per game (108.9) as of Tuesday night, fourth in field goal percentage (48.2), second in three-point percentage (39.8) sixth in offensive rating (107.9), second in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.63), and sixth in true shooting percentage (56.9).
Ranking ninth in pace (101.29), the Pacers have made a gigantic leap from last season’s 18th-ranked pace mark of 98.15 based on the strengths of their new personnel.
Victor Oladipo is in the midst of a breakout and resurgent season for the club in his first year with the team while Bojan Bogdanovic, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young, Domantas Sabonis and Darren Collison are all averaging double-figures in points. Lance Stephenson and Cory Joseph, along with Sabonis, make up one of the most dangerous second units in the NBA.
While there are defensive concerns with the club, they have proven to be one of the most deadly offensive teams in the league so far, and there’s no reason to assume that will change. They have already recorded quality wins over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Spurs, Cavaliers, Pistons and Raptors.
Over their next eight games, Indiana will play four teams with winning records and four teams with losing records. If they can pull off additional victories against teams like the Pistons and Cavaliers in that stretch, they might find themselves near the top of the Eastern standings heading into 2018.
Milwaukee Bucks (12-10)
Although Milwaukee’s ultimate chances at contending in the East rely heavily on their ability to acquire a proven rim protector, they will likely emerge as a team to watch as the season rolls along.
We all know Giannis Antetokounmpo is already an All-World player, but the NBA community is now aware of his supporting cast. Khris Middleton has proven to be a true stat-stuffing, multi-dimensional wing. They’ve gone 8-4 since acquiring Eric Bledsoe, who adds another layer of length and athleticism in the backcourt.
Although the Bucks rank in the middle of the pack when it comes to defensive rating (17th as of Tuesday night), they are the NBA’s best team in denying fast-break opportunities, giving up just 6.5 of those kind of points per game. To add, they rank eighth in the league in steals per game (8.2) and seventh in blocks per game (5.4).
Therefore, if they’re able to land someone like DeAndre Jordan or Tyson Chandler, who they’re rumored to be interested in, they could end up being the Jazz of the Eastern Conference — a defensive-minded powerhouse with offensive upside.
With previous victories over the Celtics, Spurs, Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers, the Bucks are embarking on a 10-game stretch in which they will take on five teams at or above .500 and five teams below .500. Therefore, they have an opportunity to move up in the standings over that stretch, especially if they can match up with the presumed playoff-bound teams on the schedule.
While the Cavaliers and Warriors still have legitimate shots to meet once again in the Finals, it appears as though parity is back in the NBA, which only enhances the overall product. While both of those teams will likely be in the conversation at the end of the year, it will be fascinating to see what other teams emerge and who falls off.
The three teams above have major potential to make some noise.