Every year a team in the NBA shows they have a little more firepower in the chamber than anyone expected. It can be because of the addition (or subtraction) of a player or coach. Or it can just be lightning in a bottle; a team jelling at the right time in the Association. Regardless, we see it all the time and this season is no different.
The New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns are the best examples of this from this season. New York sits fifth in the East at 19-18 thanks in no small part to the addition of head coach Tom Thibodeau. For Phoenix, it was the Point God, Chris Paul, who has them as second in the ever-tough West with a 24-11 record.
Different needs and methods, similar results.
Which Team is Next to Break Out in the NBA?
Just A Piece Away
New Orleans Pelicans
The first group is made up of teams that are a player or coach away from being a threat and the first team in that group is the New Orleans Pelicans. A predicted team on the rise in 2020, they finished 13th in the West.
Part of why it didn’t work is they were a roster (and organization) in transition. Now with the team firmly Zion Williamson’s (sorry Brandon Ingram) they need to retool it to his strengths.
Ingram and Lonzo Ball fit well enough but center Steven Adams doesn’t. He isn’t a great rebounder or defender so he’s basically just clogging the paint.
New Orleans needs a modern, stretch big (looking at you, Chris Boucher) to take advantage of what Zion does and maximize the talent around him.Josh Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker can platoon at guard but Jaxson Hayes does nothing to alleviate the problems an Adams-Williamson pairing causes. Too bad they extended Adams upon trading for him.
Much like with New Orleans, we thought we’d be getting a much-improved version of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2020-21. So far they’re in the same spot they finished last season in, ninth in the Western Conference standings. But they’re five games better through 33 games than they were at the same point in 2020-21.
Ja Morant missed time earlier in the year with an ankle injury, but it’s Jaren Jackson Jr. that’s missed the entire campaign while recovering from meniscus surgery. Imagine this unit at full strength.
The problem for them is the West is just as tough a conference as it’s been for the majority of the last 20-plus years. Even with all hands on deck, Memphis would still have to contend with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs of the world.
While Kyle Anderson and Dillon Brooks are nice players, they need a wing that can get his own to fully realize their potential. Demar Derozan would be a nice addition if his Spurs weren’t fighting for the playoffs themselves.
Something’s Not Right
Dallas has a once-in-a-lifetime talent and MVP candidate on the wings in Luka Doncic. They also have a big man in Kristaps Porzingis that’s so unique he was given the nickname “the Unicorn”. And they have one of the best coaches of his generation. So how are they eighth in the West?
They arguably have a better duo than a couple of the teams ahead of them. But Doncic and Porzingis have only played in 78 of a possible 192 games together. They’d naturally lose some to rest and Prozingis missed an entire season recovering from a knee injury.
Since he returned to the court in 2018 it’s actually 78 out of 110 games. That’s much better and still not enough.
Dallas could also use a player on the wing to take some of the pressure off of Doncic. It would help the team as a whole honestly since they can’t rely on Porzingis to be available.
Trae Young was dubbed the next Steph Curry while still in college at Oklahoma. It’s not a bad comp. But in hindsight, while we got the Curry-esque individual numbers from Young in his sophomore season, we have yet to see the type of leadership that makes Steph so unique. It’s that ability that made Kevin Durant joining the Splash Bros. work.
Young hasn’t shown that per se and has even shown signs of going the other way in terms of leadership. Earlier this season he was called out by John Collins for being too ball-dominant. His response was to shoot fewer than ten times (the Hawks are 1-2 this season when he hits that mark).
Teammates fight and get over it all the time though. The concerning part was the role Young reportedly played in the dismissal of Lloyd Pierce as head coach. Nate McMillan is a good and deserving coach but Pierce had made himself a fixture in the community.
That doesn’t buy a reprieve from going 16-20 to start the season. Pierce’s firing wasn’t all on Young (and goes back to last season) but if he wanted him there, he’d still be there.
Finding the Next Breakout NBA Team
This could have been titled “What Happened…” given the expectations each of these teams had before the season started. They all have the potential to be the next breakout story. But they’re all missing one thing or another that would put them over the top.
Will they get that one piece, be it player, coach, or moment in time that will get them to the promised land? Who knows. But if Dallas or Memphis grab a wing, New Orleans figures out center, or the Hawks jell we will be speaking of them as we have the Knicks and Suns this season.