Every season, there are a handful of teams that are underrated for a variety of reasons. Perhaps there were injuries or chemistry problems that slowed them down. Either way, there are always a handful of franchises that are very dangerous and could make some real noise in the playoffs.
Are we saying these teams are in a prime position to win a ring? Of course not, but they can give some heavyweights a real scare, and for the higher-ranked squads on this list, a potential Finals run isn’t out of the question.
Take last season, for example. Nobody expected the fifth-seeded Heat to make the NBA Finals. But thanks to upsets of the top-ranked Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics, that's exactly what Miami did.
To qualify for this list, teams need to be ranked fourth or lower in their conference as of April 8.
Without further ado, here are five teams that could surprise come playoff time.
5. Charlotte Hornets
We know what you’re thinking: What?! The Hornets have recently lost Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball to injuries, play two stone-aged centers and will likely crumble under the spotlight of the playoffs. And while that may very well be true, there’s a hidden potential in this group that actually isn’t so secret.
Before all the injuries came raining down on the Hornets, they were playing some lethal basketball. After years of having no identity other than “we hope Kemba Walker channels his NCAA Tournament Run," Charlotte has been one of the most exciting teams in the league thanks to their passing, shot-making and ball movement.
While Charlotte can’t rival the high-end talent some rival squads have, very few teams in the league have the offensive firepower of a lineup featuring Ball, Hayward, Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham. In fact, when those four shared the floor, the Hornets blitzed teams by 22 points per 100 possessions, posting record offensive and (gasp) defensive numbers.
While the saying "defense wins championships" might be true, sometimes the best defense is an insane offense. If the Hornets wanted to lean all the way into small-ball, they could plug in Malik Monk as the fifth player in their offensive-heavy group. That lineup wouldn’t be able to guard its shadow, but it could be one of the most deadly offenses in league history, with five players who can all drain from deep and attack the basket.
The hard part about all this? It’s far from a guarantee that Ball and Hayward return in time for the playoffs. Ball has a fractured wrist while Hayward is out at least four weeks with a sprained right foot, which is a timetable that bumps right into the start of the playoffs.
The worst case for the Hornets is they will be back on this list next season, or maybe they won’t because they’ll be too good.
4. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers are playoff stalwarts by now, having made the playoffs for what is about to be a league-leading eighth consecutive season. No one underestimates Damian Lillard at this point, but this is the best squad he’s ever had if everyone can stay healthy thanks largely to the addition of Norman Powell at the trade deadline.
When he was a member of the Toronto Raptors, Powell shouldered a greater scoring responsibility and still remained efficient. Now that he’s next to two of the most crafty and explosive perimeter weapons in the game, he’s perfectly transformed his game into more of a super sub.
Through five games in Portland, (four of which the Blazers have won) Powell has averaged 15.2 points per game, but he’s drained over 45% of his three-point attempts and recorded 2.4 steals per game, making him the only player in the league to achieve both feats. And don’t be fooled by his relatively short 6-foot-3 height for a small forward, his sprawling 6-foot-11 wingspan more than compensates, allowing him to legitimately contest lots of shots most players his height couldn’t dream of.
The Blazers also finally have a modern frontcourt, with Robert Covington serving in a swiss-army-knife role who can clean up some potential perimeter defensive mistakes. And while Jusuf Nurkic is working his way back from injury, he’s still one of the most physical bigs in the league.
Portland’s new starting lineup has destroyed opponents by 24 points per 100 possessions. It will be fascinating to see what they’re capable of if Nurkic is played off the floor and they’re forced to play Derrick Jones Jr., a lineup swap that could make them even more dangerous.
3. Boston Celtics
The Celtics have been a massive disappointment all season, there’s no getting around that. Even Danny Ainge, their own president of basketball operations (and king of “almost trading for someone”) admitted Boston was not playing up to par.
All season, the Celtics have dealt with injuries to their top two guards and recently revamped their roster at the trade deadline after acquiring Evan Fournier and Mo Wagner while shipping out Daniel Theis and Jeff Teague.
But despite all the mishaps this season, Brown, Tatum and Smart, and to a smaller extent, Walker, all have plenty of playoff experience. Plus, inserting Robert Williams into the starting lineup has served as the perfect connective tissue this team needed.
Williams is no ordinary rim-runner who catches lobs and defends the rim at a high rate. He also is a slick passer and has averaged four assists over his past seven games, a very impressive number for a low-usage big man.
When Williams shares the court with Boston’s core four, the group has creamed opponents. If they lean into it more, watch out for the Celtics.
2. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks had one of the worst starts in the league. They were near the bottom of the West standings after about 20 games. The offense was unimaginative and not nearly as efficient as it was last year while Kristaps Porzingis was looking like he was walking on stilts.
Fast forward to now, and the Mavericks are absolutely humming, coming off an impressive win against the Utah Jazz. Luka Doncic has been phenomenal, averaging 29.3 points, seven rebounds and 6.3 assists on 44% from deep over his last 10 games. That 44% number is good for even standstill shooters, but considering the degree of difficulty on a good chunk of Doncic’s shots makes that mark even more unbelievable.
Over their past 15 games, the Mavericks have ranked fourth and eighth in offensive and defensive rating league-wide. Those are contender-level numbers. They even beat the Jazz with two of their starters both scoring zero points.
Even though everything revolves around Doncic, the Mavs surround him with willing shooters in Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith and Josh Richardson. And when Porzingis has been on the court the last month, he’s looked more like his old self.
Even though their slow start was alarming, the Mavericks have all the elements (superstar player, solid supporting cast, explosive offense) to scare anyone.
1. Miami Heat
The Heat made it all the way to the Finals last season, but they’ve dealt with a storm of injuries, sluggish play and roster churn. Not to mention, they had the shortest turnaround of any squad this season other than the Lakers, who retooled their roster before the season.
The Heat fall back on their elite defense, which has been a top-six unit all season thanks to their aggressive style and Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler causing havoc. Their problem has been on the other side of the ball, where lack of consistent dribble penetration has led to a stagnant offense.
When Miami is in full swing, Adebayo and Butler are holding court at the top of the key, using their brute force to create opportunities while Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson fly around picks and proceed to dribble handoffs that make real dents in a defense.
After trading for Victor Oladipo, Miami hopes they've acquired another player who can put real pressure on a defense and get buckets in the playoffs without relying on handoffs or screens. Add Goran Dragic, a crafty veteran guard who was a human flamethrower last postseason, and the Heat have the perfect combination of veteran smarts, defensive acuity and offensive firepower.
Sprinkle in some grizzled postseason veterans in Andre Iguodala, Trevor Ariza and the energetic Kendrick Nunn, and that is one team you do not want to see in the playoffs. Miami is built to grind out wins, which is exactly how most playoff games are won.
In a small sample size, their new starting lineup has outscored opponents by 19 points per 100 possessions. After a slow start, the Heat were looking pretty ordinary, but as they round into shape, they could be even better than last season.
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