We’ve all heard the statement before. You could be discussing the record-setting amount of All-Stars moving teams in the NBA offseason (11 players!), hyping up your favorite player as the next superstar-in-the-making, or even sitting around playing NBA 2K on your couch with your friends. As sports discussions are apt to do, the conversation may get a bit heated as different opinions are brought up and counterpoint after counterpoint are raised, but eventually one person will end the discussion with a single statement:
“It doesn’t matter. It’ll be Warriors-Cavs in the Finals again, anyway.”
It’s a single statement that can end all NBA arguments. Whether you’re discussing Russell Westbrook and James Harden’s neck-and-neck race for last season’s MVP, the Boston Celtics’ recent acquisition of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, or the most recent NBA draft class, all discussions seem to be moot compared to the seemingly pre-determined Cavs-Warriors Finals matchup.
The point of this article isn’t to pick the teams with the strongest chance of knocking off the Warriors or to point out the glaring holes in the newly re-constructed Cavs’ roster, but rather point out three NBA teams that may or may not end up being the most successful teams in the league, but will surely provide entertainment value regardless of their season outcome. Without further ado, I’d like to introduce the three most strangely interesting teams for the 2017-18 NBA season.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder made headlines this summer with two shocking trades in the offseason. Their acquisitions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony came at such shockingly low expense that questions began to arise whether Thunder GM Sam Presti had incriminating evidence on other general managers around the league. A 47-win team a season ago, the Thunder are sure to increase their win total after bringing in George and Anthony to pair with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook; their supporting cast did not take too much of a hit in the trades as well.
However, the Thunder’s choice in superstars is the interesting part of this team. Last season, Westbrook, George and Anthony all finished in the top-20 in usage percentage — a statistic that measures the percentage of a team’s possessions that end in the hands of a certain player. This could be through taking a shot, getting to the free throw line or turning the ball over. The concern around NBA circles is that the Thunder’s superstars don’t fit together as well as a team like the Golden State Warriors.
That’s not to say that the Thunder are structured incorrectly, though. There will be games when the Thunder are completely unstoppable on the floor. Russell Westbrook is the most electrifying player in the NBA, George is an A- to B+ version of Kevin Durant — Westbrook’s old teammate — who can score with ease while also stopping the other team’s best wing players and Anthony is a certified “bucket-getter” who is capable of dropping 40 points on an opposing team on any given night. Problems will arise in games where one of the three hits a cold streak or when Westbrook decides to revert to his ball-dominant ways that won him an MVP a season ago. All in all, though, I believe that this Thunder team will be, at the worst, a very interesting experiment in building a “super-team” or, at best, a very strong contender capable of giving the Warriors a run for their money.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans made the biggest move of the NBA trade deadline a season ago trading for seemingly always disgruntled star, DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins to pair him with their franchise cornerstone, Anthony “The Brow” Davis. Davis and Cousins, both 6-foot-11 behemoths who average around 25 points and 12 rebounds a game, were thought to be the solution to the growing trend of NBA teams turning to shorter players with shooting ability. As the rest of the NBA was zigging, the Pelicans decided to zag.
However, in one half-season together, “Boogie and The Brow” proved to be little more than a potential name for a failing NBC sit-com. Although Cousins and Davis continued to produce at an other-worldly rate, the Pelicans did not see a return on their investment. When they acquired Cousins on February 20, the Pelicans were grid-locked at 11th place in the highly competitive Western Conference. By season’s end, the Pelicans only rose a single spot in the standings despite sending away a future first round pick, shooting guard Buddy Hield, and other pieces to the Sacramento Kings for Cousins.
Now, after letting Davis and Cousins spend an entire offseason together working on their chemistry, the Pelicans have doubled-down on their strategy. After acquiring the disgruntled Cousins last February, the Pelicans decided to sign the equally perpetually-peeved Rajon Rondo this offseason as well. For reference, there are multiple ten to fifteen minute long YouTube videos dedicated to both Rondo and Cousins’ angriest and most annoyed moments.
Additionally, in an attempt to create the most frustratingly good team imaginable, New Orleans also decided to sign Tony Allen, a lockdown defender who has an innate ability to get under the skin of every player he guards. There are also multiple ten to fifteen minute YouTube videos dedicated to Tony Allen shutting down and annoying the best players in the NBA.
While the Pelicans may not be the best team in the Western Conference or even make the playoffs, I do believe that they will be one of the most entertaining teams to watch all year. Fans will come for the dominant and overpowering post play of Davis and Cousins, but stay for the theatrics of Rajon Rondo deciding to stop playing defense in the second half — like he supposedly did for his entire, brief career as a Dallas Maverick –, DeMarcus Cousins literally body-slamming a player to the floor — like he did to Marcus Smart in 2016 — or Tony Allen playing relentless defense and demoralizing a star player — like he did to Kevin Durant in the 2014 playoffs.
The Denver Nuggets are another team that has taken a creative route toward solving the rising “super-team” trend in the NBA. Led by Serbian big man Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets are one of the most unique teams in the Western Conference. Last season, Jokic, a six-foot-ten center, put together one of the best seasons for a center in NBA history at the ripe age of 21 years old. His unique ability to pass and shoot like a guard while also rebounding and defending the post like a traditional big man has allowed the Nuggets to experiment with different team structures as they figure how to correctly utilize their prized big man.
By signing power forward Paul Millsap to start next to Jokic this offseason, the Nuggets paired together two of the most versatile and creative players in the NBA. Millsap, a former Atlanta Hawk, shares a very similar skillset with Jokic in terms of passing and shooting ability. In contrast to Cousins and Davis who rely more on brute strength and outsizing their opponent, Millsap and Jokic are more crafty and rely on their finesse and passing skills to create opportunities for themselves and their teammates.
While Jokic and Millsap are bona fide stars who the Nuggets feel comfortable building around, the key to the Nuggets’ success will be in their young pieces surrounding their big men. One or both of swingmen Gary Harris and Will Barton will need to make a leap this year to a consistent starting role and guards Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay are interesting pieces in the Nuggets’ roster building puzzle.
The intrigue in the Nuggets lies in the method in which they are building their team. Analysts have called for a revolution of sharp-shooting big men to take over the NBA and, in Jokic and Millsap, the Nuggets have two of the very best at doing so. There will be a lot of experimentation with different starting lineups for the Nuggets this year and they have been listed as a very strong trade candidate for a superstar player. For the time being, however, the Nuggets remain an interesting experiment. Can a team really start five players whose sole purpose is to shoot and facilitate? If the Nuggets can achieve their goals this year, it may be the first step toward a team with a “position-less” starting lineup.
While these three teams are the specific franchises I chose to dedicate column space to this week, I believe that the NBA has never been in better shape with interesting story lines and teams trying experimental techniques. While the outside fan may only see the NBA season as an appetizer for a Warriors-Cavs final at the end of the year, more dedicated fans may find that each team has their own interesting players and storylines to follow in 2017 and 2018.
Questions, comments, accusations that I am biased against your favorite team? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org!