*Disclaimer: This was written before the season started and not posted until now due to technical issues*
Alright! The newest expansion team on the block is Owl Eats Basketball, and we’re here to scrap our way to an unlikely playoff berth.
What will that look like? Well during the NFL season it will probably look like 1-2 articles a week that talk about big picture ideas and opportunities to take advantage of (i.e. hot teams, overlooked moves, interesting matchups). Come February, this will transform into three or four article a week looking at specific matchups, best bets, and stellar fantasy plays.
So, as you find yourself easing into the NBA season, allow this plucky up-start to be the place that lets you dip a toe in the water. By the time you’re ready to dive in fully, you’ll have your pile of money from the NFL season just waiting to be doubled on the hardwood.
To get us started, this first article is going to be a look at four different teams who are not being talked about enough and who I believe will exceed expectations (whether by winning 30 games or reaching a Conference Finals). Lace up your Jordans, toss up the round the ball, and get ready to walk back on D – Owl Eats Basketball is live!
Team 1 – A sleeping giant
The Dallas Mavericks
For the terms of this site, I am not a fan of any team, but rather am an unbiased observer sent to relay everything I see to you. But there are somethings it is impossible to shake fully, so I must admit that I was a Dirk stan for his entire career. I was there when the refs took away his first championship against the Heat; I was there when he was bounced in the first round as a one-seed; I was there for the MVP, title, and 20,000th point. Those are hard things to forget.
And since talent is so hard to forget, it boggles my mind why the Mavericks are not being considered for the Western Conference finals. Yes, it is a crowded conference, but Dallas has the best young player in the league (I said it) in Luka Doncic and a potential MVP caliber player in Kristaps Porzingis.
Outside of those two, Dallas has filled their roster with young, competent, heady players who can control the ball and hit from deep. Jalen Brunson flashed last season and ended up with a line of 9-2-3 (pts-reb-asst) in just 21 minutes a game. If he can make a jump he might be the perfect point guard compliment to a Doncic’s point forward – a la Malcolm Brogdon with Giannis last season.
Weirdly, the most important other player on the Dallas roster might be Seth Curry. The better shooting of the two brothers (check last season’s stats!) offers legitimate shot maker who can keep the defense honest 100% of the time. Tim Hardaway Jr. also joined the squad in the Kristaps trade last year and managed 15 points in 30 minutes, offering a scoring spark when the team ran low. Justin Jackson and JJ Barrea, although very different ages, also offer offense in a pinch, and Boban is lurking in the wings to step in and play a role defensively along with the explosive Dwight Powell.
But the X factor in all of this is Rick Carlisle. Much like my Kyle Allen v Gardner Minshew name paradox over on Owl Eats Football, I think Carlisle is vastly underrated because he does not have the name recognition of a Popovich or a Kerr. But unlike those two, what Carlisle has a combination of players that has never been seen before and the X’s and O’s acumen to do something with it.
In Porzingis, Carlisle will be able to deploy a 7’3” big man who averaged 22.7 points 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks and can shoot from outside alongside of Doncic who averaged 21 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists AS A ROOKIE!!
If he can find ways to leverage their skills against each other and make defenses commit to stopping one, then the other is going to have a field day. Already this preseason Dallas has shown funky pick and pop motion that allows Prozingis to run to the rim for a lob after darting outside. Teams will either have to overplay the 3-point line, clog the lane, or let Doncic gain a head of steam on his way to the basket.
Whatever they choose, it seems like Dallas has the capability to beat anyone, which makes them a Conference Finals contender in my book.
Vegas Over/Under Win Total: 40.5 – 9th in Western Conference
My Projection: 52 wins – Western Conference 3/4 seed
Teams 2 and 3 – More of a contender than you think
The Orlando Magic
I’ll be up front here, too: I’m a sucker for length.
Show me a front court full of wingspan and I’ll show you the bet I just placed on that team to win.
So it is no surprise that I am all over this Orlando Magic team. They feature a roster highlighted by Aaron Gordon, Mo Bamba, Nikola Vucevic, and Jonathan Isaac. I don’t have the official numbers, but I am hard pressed to think of a more athletic, long, big man rotation than that.
And it translated last season, as the Magic were the best defensive team in the league post-All Star Break. Specifically, Jonathan Isaac began to flash the potential that made him the 6th pick for the Magic. Now in his third season, this preseason has been a master class on how to grow into a body and then use that body to destroy opposing players. In a game against the Celtics, the Magic stuck Isaac on Jayson Tatum and didn’t look back.
Perhaps more importantly, Isaac embarked on a quest this off-season to turn his body into a “giraffe’s that plays like a lion”. Unicorns are all the rage in the NBA these days, but give me a giraffe-lion any day of the week.
Joining Isaac in the ‘growing into potential club’ is Mo Bamba. The combine darling showed moments in his first season that made it clear why a player with an eight-foot wing span who can hit from outside might be a valuable prospect. In just over 16 minutes he averaged 5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks (!!!). His per 36 averages were 13.7 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Plus, he shot 30% from three.
If those two projects turn into finished products this season, they will be joining a solid core of size in Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic. Last season was Gordon’s coming out party as he averaged a line of 16-7.4-3.7 while hitting 35% from three and playing a larger portion of minutes on the wing. Meanwhile Vucecic was the second best Nikola in the league, but not by much as he posted a 20-12-3.8 season.
If you’re wondering who is going to handle the ball, that is an issue, but Markelle Fultz is another player with a long wingspan who is full of potential. Even if he can’t score the way many expected him to coming out of college, he has the athleticism and ball handling to compliment the front court dominance of this team nicely. Alongside him is unimpressive but consistent Michael Carter-Williams and DJ Augustine, both of whom can offer guard play on a semi-consistent basis.
As the rest of the league goes small, the Magic are going big, and there is something to be said for zigging when everyone else is zagging –it is a classic Popovich/Belichick move. Perhaps it won’t work out, but the pieces are in place for the Magic to cash in on their tremendous potential and surprise the rest of the NBA this season.
They certainly have the length to earn my bet.
Vegas Over/Under Win Total: 41.5 – 7th in Eastern Conference
My Projection: 46 wins – Eastern Conference 5 seed
The running joke in my head (and probably elsewhere on the Internet) is that the Kings are the best college team ever assembled. Whether it is a conscious strategy or not, they have assembled a stable of blue chip college players to compete on the pro-level.
And it just might be working.
A season after they shocked the NBA and flirted with .500 while briefly competing for a Western Conference playoff, they return a core of young but seasoned players who have the potential to push the ball and win some games.
All of this starts with their motor – De’Aaron Fox. In his second year, the lighting-quick guard scored 17.8 points per game while also averaging 7.8 assists and 1.4 steals. That defensive number may be his most valuable contribution as he ranked 16th in the NBA in steal percentage for a team that needs all the defensive help it can get.
Alongside Fox, the Kings trotted out two of the sharper shooters around in Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic. The former averaged 20 points per game and shot 42% from three. The later 14 points 36% from three and 3.8 assists. They are entering their fourth and third years respectively, are playing on a team that loves to push and shoot the ball, and are capable of cashing in on all the space created by Fox.
Speaking of cashing in on Fox’s manipulation of defenses, let’s give it up for Marvin Bagley! After being panned as the second pick in the draft, Bagley’s rookie season was one of the bright spots in the NBA. He played 62 games and averaged a robust 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds. His per 36 numbers were practically off the charts for what was expected of him at 21.2 and 10.8. He even displayed the ability to hit from outside, further complimenting the pace and space Kings’ roster.
Defense will always be the issue for this team, as everyone but Fox is a minus defender, but if the team can rely upon veterans like Trevor Ariza and Harrison Barnes to at least set some sort of tone, this team will be scoring enough to put the rest of the league under the gun.
Maybe this is the year that the college all-stars make the NBA Playoffs.
Vegas Over/Under Win Total: 37.5 – 11th in Western Conference
My Projection: 42 wins – Western Conference 8 seed
Team 4 – The bad that’s not so bad
Sometimes the best asset in overcoming a poor roster is the youth to not know how bad you’re meant to be.
In other words, The Grizzlies might be too young to know that not much is expected of them.
After the departure of Mike Conley, the Grit and Grind era has finally come to a close, and the next phase appears to be a lot more exciting. May I suggest the “Score and Soar” era. It may not encapsulate the Memphis identity quite as well but it might end up posting better results.
All of this starts with Ja Morant. There are no NBA stats that can support this case outside of the preseason where he averaged 11 points and an ungodly 7 assists in just 21 minutes. He showed the ability to make people miss and then use that advantage to find his teammates. I can’t fully quantify how much I believe in him as a player who will make his teammates better, but I see a scenario where he can average double-digit assists and lift the rest of the offense to their potential.
Speaking of the rest of the offense, I also love this team because of their young big men. The 6’11” Jaren Jackson Jr. is a basketball nerd favorite, and his rookie season did not disappoint. He averaged 13.7 points, shot 36% from three and 50% from the field overall, and blocked 1.4 shots per game. With a player like that, who can score inside and out, Morant should be an almost unguardable compliment. If defenses commit resources to stopping Morant on a pick and roll, Jackson will have his choice of popping to an open three point line or rolling to an open rim. If the rotation commits three players to stopping all of these possibilities, then there are shots to be had on the wing for the likes of Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder, and Andre Iguodala. Not a murder’s row, but certainly some players capable of hitting shots.
More likely, though, is that the remaining Grizzlies big man will be open for a lob underneath the basket. This could be veteran beast Jonas Valanciunas, who essentially averaged 20-10 after joining Memphis last season. More excitingly, however, it could also be Brandon Clarke. The 6’8” Gonzaga product is springy and athletic in just the ways the Grizzlies might need as a change of pace to Valanciunas.
Overall, though, this team is brutally flawed as it is currently constituted and it lacks reliable wings. Memphis will be playing Josh Jackson, which has rarely worked out for NBA teams and they have a glut of mediocre players across the board.
What is also true, however, is that there are units within this roster that could impose their will on other teams and force them to scramble to keep up with their explosive, athletic players.
This is not a playoff team. But it is a team that is better than terrible, and that gives us an opportunity to capitalize.
Vegas Over/Under Win Total: 27.5 – Last in Western Conference
My Projection: 35 wins – Western Conference 13 seed