Every year there are teams that surprise the NBA in the playoffs with their unexpected playoff run. Teams will even win the championships, and looking back on it, it still doesn’t make sense. Teams like the 2004 Pistons beating the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, or the 2011 Mavericks beating the Miami big three, take the league by surprise. It’s been quite some time since that’s happened, but it’s bound to happen again eventually. This season is a great call for that possibility. The superteam era, at least for now, has vanished and has been replaced by dynamic duos, such as: LeBron and Davis, or Kawhi and Paul George. Although they are all great talents, it is not the same as the Warriors mega team or the Miami big three. Although the playoffs are a completely different ballgame, throughout the regular season, the top teams in the league have all shown that they can be beat. A few under-the-radar teams could surprise the Lakers or Bucks in the playoffs. Teams that no one would consider to be championship threats. Here are the three teams that might just shock everyone this season and win the championship:
1. Denver Nuggets
Last year, Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets surprised everyone by claiming the second seed in the West, the first time they had made the playoffs since 2013. Denver is currently repeating that process as they, once again, currently sit in second place, a half game ahead of reigning Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers, however they’re still not getting even 1/3 the attention that the Clippers are.
Part of the reason Denver isn’t getting as much attention as they should is because that are a small-market team. Small-market teams already start out at a disadvantage because they don’t tend to draw many free agents, meaning the media doesn’t care as much about them. The other main factor for their lack of acknowledgement in the media is that they lost to Portland in the second round next year. During the postseason, many were quite excited to see how the Nuggets would contend. They made the playoffs for the first time in six years, and claimed home court advantage for the first two rounds while doing so. Jokic’s passing along with Murray’s promising future made a great story for the organization and the league. Entering the playoffs with high expectations, Denver had a competitive matchup with Greg Popovich and the 7-seeded San Antonio Spurs where they took the series in seven games. They then faced Damian Lillard and the 6-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. This series also went to seven games, however, the Nuggets were on the losing end of it. After their fall in the second round, the average NBA fan and the media moved on pretty quickly from the Denver hype.
Denver has lost even more media attention since this season has come into full swing. Both Jokic’s and Murray’s stats have dropped this year. With both of them being quite young, this is seen as a disappointing season for both of them.
Despite the drop in production for their two best players, Denver is still winning a lot of games. They are currently four games behind LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. This is because Denver has been playing a lot more like a team this year. Even though Jokic is clearly their best player, he’s not a superstar that’s carrying this team every night. Obviously, the team would a lot be worse without him, but he’s not scoring 20 points per game the way other superstars would. As a matter of fact, no one in Denver is scoring 20 or more. Everyone in Denver is pulling their weight and more, which is evident in the fact that they rank fourth as a team in assists per game.
Denver’s bench is pulling their weight as well. Lead by Monte Morris and rookie Michael Porter Jr, Denver’s bench is one of the best in the league. Joining the bench standouts are the young Malik Beasley, big man Mason Plumlee, and swingman Torrey Craig. Their bench is is full of talented scorers, just like their starters. The Nugget’s team has been gelling together as one. They’re looking to really compete for a ring this season and they may just be able to slip past the Los Angeles Lakers, or whoever is in the Conference Finals and make it to the championship.
2. Miami Heat
Miami’s hot start to the season initially drew the eyes of the media. Key word being ‘initially.’ While the Heat continue to have success, the media doesn’t seemed to stop caring. Miami’s attention in the media, unless you count the Jimmy Butler/T.J. Warren beef, has been next to zero lately. Like the Nuggets, Miami is also second in their Conference, but is overshadowed by teams like the Milwaukee Bucks or the struggling Philadelphia 76ers. Unlike Denver, the Heat have only gone one season without the playoffs. Despite being a playoff team most years, they just haven’t drawn the same interest since LeBron James left.
After the departure of the King, the Heat still resigned Wade and Bosh, so they were still looking like they were going to be a solid playoff team for several years. That was, unfortunately, not the case after Bosh suffered a career-ending injury and father time starting to catch up to Wade. This sparked a minor rebuild for South Beach. During that rebuild, they managed to acquire talented young players like Bam Adebayo and Justise Winslow. They also signed undrafted free agents Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, and developed them in the G-League for a season.
During the offseason, Jimmy Butler surprised everyone when he signed with Miami. Miami acquired him in a sign-and-trade that sent Josh Richardson to the Philadelphia 76ers. The acquisition of Jimmy Butler gave Miami a superstar to help with the young players.
Two of their young players, Nunn and Robinson, worked their way into the starting lineup. Nunn in particular has been stellar for Miami. Although Ja Morant seems to be a lock for Rookie of the Year, Kendrick Nunn will likely make an All-Rookie team this season. Nunn played himself into the starting lineup over the one-time All-Star, Goran Dragic.
Dragic has been an above-average starting Point Guard for the majority of his career. This is his fifth full year with Miami, but his first year coming off the bench. He hasn’t gotten as much love for Sixth Man of the Year as Lou Williams or Derrick Rose, but he definitelly could be a top five candidate this season. Joining Dragic off the bench, is rookie Tyler Herro, both of whom are averaging double digits in scoring. Derrick Jones Jr and Kelly Olynyk also come off the bench making one of the most dangerous offensive benches in the NBA.
With one of the most talented all-around rosters, Miami is currently in the top half for points scored per game, and points allowed per game. They also rank ninth in assists per game, showing that they’re one of the more team-oriented rosters. They also have quite the young roster, so they’re less likely to burn out as the season goes on.
Jimmy Butler’s work ethic has played a huge role in Miami’s success. His extreme work ethic rubbed off on the young core. During the offseason this year, Butler woke up and went to practice at 3:00 AM, and inspired many of his teammates to do the same. Their hard work is driving Miami through the Regular Season. The dedication the team has been playing with is evident in their play. The Heat will likely be much more than under-the-radar contenders in the following years.
3. Utah Jazz
Utah is currently fourth in the stacked Western Conference. Utah has been on a hot streak lately. Over their last 14 games, Utah has gone 13-1, including a win against the Clippers in Staples Center. Utah is one of the hottest teams in the NBA right now and they are trying to fight back into the top three after a slow start to the season.
The Utah Jazz mirror the 2004 Detroit Pistons. The team has a lot of above-average players, none of whom have been all-stars (yet). It is difficult to say exactly who their best player is, but most would likely say Mitchell, however, Gobert, and even Bogdanovic, could make their own cases for being the best player on the team as well. Gobert’s defense and Bogdanovic’s scoring have been vital for the Jazz. The signing of Bogdanovic in the offseason may have been the best low-key move this offseason.
Both Mitchell and Bogdanovic are putting up over 20 points per contest. They’re the offensive catalysts for Utah and are showing off the numerous ways they can score. Donovan Mitchell’s dunks are one of his staples as an NBA player, while Bojan is shooting the lights out from deep, shooting 41.7% on over seven attempts.
Rudy Gobert is one of the best defensive players in the league. Currently averaging 1.8 blocks per game, Gobert makes it very difficult to score in the paint. Gobert’s defense and rebounding ability allows his teammate to stay more on the perimeter since Gobert doesn’t need help defending inside too often. Gobert alone makes this team dangerous with his mere presence.
The Jazz also made a move a few weeks ago, sending Dante Exum and two second-round picks to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Jordan Clarkson. Clarkson is the spark off the bench that Utah was missing in the beginning of the season. Clarkson is currently putting up 13.4 points per game since getting traded, while playing 24.3 minutes a game. His per 36 minutes stats show him averaging 19.9 points per game. Clarkson has been absolutely crucial to their bench and could be a major part of a playoff run with them.
Along with Clarkson, Emmanuel Mudiay and Tony Bradley have been major supporters off the bench. Mudiay has been averaging 7.8 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists. He does a little bit of everything on the offensive end. Him and Clarkson make a dangerous back-up backcourt duo. In addition, Tony Bradley and Georges Niang have been solid big men off the bench. Bradley is showing that he can be a solid player in this league at the age of just 22, while Niang is providing plenty of floor spacing, shooting 46.4% from three on 2.7 attempts.
Utah may well be the best put-together team in the league. There are concerns about them being undersized at the four, but aside from that, there are very few flaws with this team right now. They would easily win catching the Lakers or Clippers on a bad day, and may just surprise them in the first or second round of the playoffs.
These three teams have been underappreciated all season. The better put-together teams without a major superstar always tend to be the “tier II” contenders. Don’t be surprised if one of these teams end up in the finals. These teams don’t have the same superstars as the Lakers or Clippers, but their teams are more put together and don’t need to rely on just one or two players to win. These three organizations have built great, unselfish teams over the past few years without relying heavily on free agency, and every so often, that pays off.
Source for preview picture: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Via: Denver Stiffs