When we throw around the word “sleeper” in reference to an NBA team, it doesn’t really say much other than we think Team X will surpass expectations. Some sleepers could win championships, a la the Dallas Mavericks of a year ago. Others, such as the Memphis Grizzlies of last season, will slip into the playoffs and make a deep run after they weren’t expected to amount to anything.
So in picking the top five sleepers for the 2011-12 NBA season, there’s going to be some good teams that turn out to be super good and some bad teams that might surprise us by not completely floundering about. There’s a few prerequisites to being a sleeper, however. A sleeper must have a competent-to-solid head coach. They’ve got to have a versatile roster. And at the very least, sleepers must have a borderline NBA All-Star on the roster.
The big guns – Los Angeles, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, New York – get all the headlines, but here’s some teams that you might want to keep an eye on heading into the season. We ranked them one through five, with one being the most surprising sleeper and five being the least surprising sleeper.
5. Dallas Mavericks
Seriously. Shawn Marion, though a bit boisterous about it all, was correct in telling the media that they were overlooking his Mavericks.
With all eyes on the Lob City Clippers, the bad luck of the Lakers, an amped-up Knicks squad and the Miami Heat, we are indeed forgetting that Dallas won some award called the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. Don’t know what that is, but it sounds important.
In all seriousness, Dallas will again be a wall to climb in the West. With a slightly revamped roster, don’t think Rick Carlisle won’t have a plan. Mark Cuban certainly has one, and while it didn’t provide an answer to replace the defensive identity they lost to free agency, he did manage to reload with some more offense (Vince Carter, Delonte West). Even though the loss of Tyson Chandler to the Knicks should be a big concern, Cuban reloaded by copping Lamar Odom from the Lakers.
Heck, they don’t need Tyson anyway. Ian Mahinmi to the rescue.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Potential might indeed be the keyword when it comes to Philadelphia, but like water from a sponge, coach Doug Collins could squeeze that potential out of his team in his second season.
We know that Andre Iguodala‘s potential is probably tapped, as is that of Elton Brand, but their veteran leadership meshing with breakout seasons from Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young or Evan Turner could propel an already stellar defensive team through the Eastern Conference.
Turner, like James Harden of the Oklahoma City Thunder, could become the playmaker off the bench and along with a more aggressive Young, will give the Sixers go-to scorers that Iguodala never developed into. Collins is a players coach, and that means he’ll get the most out of a talented roster following a brief, yet successful playoff appearance last season.
3. Indiana Pacers
Indiana won 37 games last season despite relying too much on Danny Granger to produce on offense. As it was last year, youth is the name of the game for the Pacers. Not only do they have a fresh-faced roster, but Indiana will make waves with an up-and-coming head coach in Frank Vogel. But the biggest reason for foes to become wary is thanks to President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird stealing forward David West from the grip of the Boston Celtics. With that, the Pacers are all of a sudden a force in the Eastern Conference.
Young players like Darren Collison, Roy Hibbert and Paul George are more comfortable under Vogel now, and the Pacers have the roster to defend anyone. Adding another offensive weapon in West helps them get over the hump and into relevance.
2. Denver Nuggets
That whole Carmelo Anthony thing? If I’m a Nuggets fan, I’ve already gotten over it. The pieces Denver received in return for ‘Melo make this team a dangerous middle-to-lower seed in the Western Conference. Coach George Karl has two very capable point guards in Andre Miller and Ty Lawson, lockdown defenders in the paint and on the perimeter in Nene and Arron Afflalo, and the firepower of Al Harrington and Danilo Gallinari.
The bench is deep, too. The Nuggets can run out wings Corey Brewer and Rudy Fernandez along with rookie forward Kenneth Faried (who’s already begun his dunking tour in the preseason). To think what this team could’ve looked like with potentially re-signed Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin not stuck in China would blow opponents minds if they weren’t so busy getting Mozgov‘d.
1. Minnesota Timberwolves
I know, I know. The Timberwolves won a lousy 17 games in 2010-11. But that means there’s room for improvement, and why shouldn’t there be a little optimism? David Kahn‘s point guard collection aside, the Wolves have an inviting roster on paper. Kevin Love and Michael Beasley are a year older, and their maturation is probably going to come in the form of more wins.
The J.J. Barea pick-up was nice, and adding that to rookies Derrick Williams and Ricky Rubio, Minnesota has a solid foundation with depth. This may be pushing it (OK, it’s a big stretch), but under new head coach Rick Adelman, this team just might become the 2.0 version of the Sacramento Kings of Divac, Webber and White Chocolate fame. Barea and Rubio act as Jason Williams, Love is Webber and Darko Milicic is, well, Darko.
OK, I’m getting ahead of myself. Either way, the T-Wolves will drastically improve upon their 17-65 season and they’ll no doubt be fun to watch.
Who do you think will be the most surprising team in the league this season?
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