All 30 NBA teams start the season with expectations. And while experts and pundits might shoot beyond the mark on predictions for some, there are others for whom they aim too low. Because there is no exact science behind predictions, this routinely happens without fail. With that thought in mind, we charged writers from Sports Illustrated's The Crossover with picking a surprise and flop team for the upcoming NBA season.
Lee Jenkins: Heat. It’s hard to go from the No. 3 seed to the lottery, especially in the East, where few teams made significant off-season gains. But that’s what will happen in Miami. Expectations for the Heat are rightfully low, with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh gone, and a flop really isn’t such a bad thing. Tanking has never been in the franchise DNA, but the Heat need a reboot, and they could sink low enough this season to wind up with a difference-making draft pick. After a sterling era, highlighted by two big trophies, that’s not an embarrassment. It’s an opportunity.
Ben Golliver: Bulls. Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo have combined to earn 18 career All-Star nods, an eye-popping figure that might trick casual fans—and apparently Bulls management—into thinking that they can form a foundational trio for a contending-type team. That seems awfully unlikely. While that threesome’s perimeter shooting woes have been discussed ad nauseam in recent months, there are other fit questions to consider: all three expect to have the ball in their hands, Rondo (-0.59 DRPM) and Wade (-1.78 DPRM) are not consistent night-to-night defenders, and the three have missed an average of 14 games each over the last two seasons.
As if offense, defense and health weren’t enough to worry about, the three have come together at three totally different stages of their careers: Butler is a prime-age franchise-level two-way star who was reportedly shopped by the Bulls over the summer, Wade is riding a golden parachute after falling apart with the only franchise he’s ever played for, and Rondo is on his fourth team since 2014 after scorching bridge after bridge at his previous stops. The potential landmines are endless: Butler could reasonably feel that his new teammates don’t cater to his strengths and that he’s being forced to play out of position, Wade could reasonably feel like everyone should get in line behind him because he’s had the most decorated career, and Rondo could unreasonably continue to do his own thing, despite how poorly that worked out for him in Dallas and Sacramento. None of the three, by the way, is a particularly obvious fit—stylistically or personality-wise—with second-year coach Fred Hoiberg, who replaced Tom Thibodeau in an alleged attempt to modernize Chicago’s attack.
There are other concerns: Hoiberg’s major lineup moves last year were met with serious internal resistance, the departures of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol leave Chicago thin at the five behind Robin Lopez, there’s one too many power forwards in need of minutes, and the team’s latest addition—Michael Carter-Williams—will serve as a nice piece of insurance in the event of a Rondo implosion but otherwise reinforces Chicago’s major backcourt weaknesses. The saddest part in all of this is that the Bulls’ decision to trade Derrick Rose before the draft was sound and well-executed. Instead of setting the table for a clear direction in a retooling effort around Butler, Rose’s exit enabled Chicago’s management to settle for a retread band-aid in Rondo and a short-term splash in Wade. Those mistakes will prevent the Bulls from climbing in the standings and could have enormous backfire potential if ego conflicts and/or health problem flare up.
Rob Mahoney: Heat. The bottom didn’t fall out in Miami—the roster’s infrastructure did. Dwyane Wade’s departure and Chris Bosh’s health problems leave no clear successors in terms of shot creation or leadership. That sort of void can send what was a hopeful conference contender a year ago deep into the lottery. Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic will have every opportunity. It won’t likely be enough; for all of the young, supporting pieces Miami has to offer, it remains painfully short on scorers. The court will be cramped. Operations will be strained. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will make the most of matters, but the limitations of his group leave them primed to struggle.
Andrew Sharp: Blazers. The Blazers will be fine. They should make the playoffs, they'll be as entertaining as any team in the league, and Damian Lillard should make it back to the All-Star Game. I love the Blazers. The problem is expectations.
Had Chris Paul been healthy through the first round of last year's playoffs, Portland was all set to lose that Clippers series in a gentleman's sweep. Obviously, CP3 got hurt, and the Blazers went on to win that series and push the Warriors (with a half-healthy Steph) more than anyone expected. It was a great run, and now they've got Evan Turner to add his midrange adventures to the mix. I'm just not sure they're that much different than the team that was about to get bum-rushed out of the first round last year. There's a solid foundation in Portland regardless of what happens this year. But if the goal is progress, or even making it back to where they were, there's a good chance this season will look like a step back.
Rohan Nadkarni: Raptors. The Raps didn't have a particularly interesting off-season, but losing Bismack Biyombo could definitely be an issue for this team. Biyombo was a menace off the bench, and he gave the team a new defensive gear when he was in the game. The Raptors also have to be a little jaded after their cycle of regular season success and postseason disappointment, right? Toronto finally broke through the first round last season, and after narrowly avoiding upsets in Rounds 1 and 2 the Raptors were creamed by the Cavs in a forgettable East finals. I wonder if Toronto can maintain the same level of focus this season and win a high number of games. Toronto should still finish relatively high in the soft East, but the Celtics are certainly better, and another team or two could surpass Toronto as well. None of this matters, because DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will still shoot only 39% in the playoffs.
Jeremy Woo: Hawks. As much as I respect what the Hawks have built, this feels like an obvious square-peg/round-hole situation with Dwight Howard. Atlanta under Budenholzer has consistently showcased strong passers all over the floor and relied on playing inside-out thanks to the skill sets of Paul Millsap and the departed Al Horford. Going on age 31, Howard is neither/nor, still insisting upon catching the ball on the block to mixed results. He’s not a stud in pick-and-roll, which is where new starter Dennis Schröder thrives. I love Schröder more than most, but if those transitions aren’t smooth, these guys could be staring down .500 with Millsap set to hit free agency. It’s a pivotal season.
Biggest surprise of the NBA season
Lee Jenkins: Wizards. The Timberwolves and Jazz are the popular picks in this category, but there will be so much congestion out West. There’s more opportunity to surprise in the East. With Miami, Atlanta and Charlotte all likely to regress—Indiana possibly, too—a non-playoff team has a chance to vault as high as fourth. The Wizards didn’t make any flashy moves, but their backcourt is too potent to finish .500 again, whether the guys love each other or not. Scott Brooks will provide a bump in Year 1 and the Wiz will look more like the squad that saw the Eastern Conference Semis in ’15.
Ben Golliver: Jazz. The secret is out on the Jazz thanks to a strong off-season in which GM Dennis Lindsey addressed his roster’s major positional weaknesses (starting point guard, wing creator, stretch four) in methodical and cost-effective fashion. Even so, I think Utah has even more upside than even many optimists are ready to concede. Aside from the fact that they lack an alpha dog, the Jazz check every box necessary for success in the West: they have a clear identity and style of play, they have quality players at all five positions and depth to withstand injuries, they have enough lineup versatility to shift between traditional and spread looks, they have a clear pecking order and a core that fits well together, they have good defensive players at the point of attack and at the rim, they have long and interchangeable wings, they have young players who can be expected to improve and multiple new veterans who should be helpful come April, and they have what should be a strong homecourt advantage.
After a disappointing 40-win season, Utah not only adds George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw but also welcomes back Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Dante Exum, who missed a combined 174 games due to injury last year. Given Gobert’s transformational impact defensively and the huge hole at point guard that Hill should ably fill, there’s a strong case to be made that Utah should be the Northwest Division favorites. I’d go one step further than that. The preseason consensus suggests that the four conference finalists will come from a group of six teams: The Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors. If any team outside that group is going to party crash the NBA’s Final Four, I think it will be the Jazz, who haven’t won a playoff series since 2010 and haven’t made the postseason since 2012.
Rob Mahoney: Nuggets. Denver, by force of its own internal development, should finally rejoin the playoff hunt. Actually qualifying for the postseason out West is a tall order; beyond the eight playoff incumbents fairly likely to return, the Nuggets will have to contend with the Jazz and Timberwolves as they look to break through. There's enough talent there—between better-than-you-think veterans, promising prospects, and upstart Nikola Jokic—to at least make things interesting.
Andrew Sharp: Heat, Bulls. It's tough to pick a real “surprise” team in the modern era, because every preseason sleeper in the world is celebrated on the Internet starting in, like, August. So let's set aside the Wolves, the Jazz, the Rockets, the Pacers, the Nuggets, and the Pistons.
I have two nominations instead. First, the Miami Heat. Everyone expects them to tank, and they might, but they also have more pieces than you might think. Goran Dragic should be better without Wade, and Hassan Whiteside will put up monstrous numbers win or lose. Dion Waiters is going to surprise people, I swear this is true. And if Justise Winslow takes a step forward while Josh Richardson builds on last year's shooting and defense, they will be obnoxious to play against every night, and could very well steal a spot at the end of the playoffs. They're the best candidate in the league to be this year's Blazers.
Candidate number two: THE BULLS. Just as everyone was writing stories about sleepers around the league, everyone has spent the past four months trashing Chicago's off-season. I'm not here to say any of it was wrong. Adding Wade was puzzling, adding Rondo was even crazier. But there's still a ton of talent in Chicago. Jimmy Butler is elite, Taj Gibson is still very good, and if Mirotic is hitting threes to space the floor, the offense won't be quite as disastrous as it seems. Just saying: they can win 44 games and steal a sixth seed. I'm not expecting the Bulls to contend at the top of the East, but if the rest of the basketball world is expecting a full-on trainwreck, they might be surprised.
Rohan Nadkarni: Rockets. Guys, I'm all in on the Rockets. In my opinion, James Harden has the best chance for the scoring title outside of Russell Westbrook, because he will be given carte blanche to shoot as many early shot clock threes as his heart desires. Houston will have so much offensive firepower this season, they will roll weary teams during the regular season who simply don't want to put up with that kind of bull—-. Eric Gordon is going to let 'em fly, as will Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza. The defense will be a huge question mark, but if Houston can somehow stay in the middle of the pack in defensive rating, the Rockets are going to be a really good team. Let's end with a hot take: Houston will grab the four seed in the West.
Jeremy Woo: Rockets. Surprises are all relative given this year’s consensus two-team inevitability, but I kind of have a feeling the Rockets are going to work together on the right wavelength and have some success. It won’t be a defensive wavelength by any means, but I expect Houston to fully commit to pushing a breakneck pace and quite possibly the most three-point attempts in the league. If they can empower James Harden enough to consistently out-possess opponents—and Mike D’Antoni’s history suggests they can—this is probably a playoff team again. After last season ended in total frustration, that’s surprise enough for me.