Though the Golden State Warriors look like near locks for an effortless cruise to Finals victory once again, the scuffle just below them should be an intriguing follow. The West appears even more crowded than ever with the introduction of LeBron James and the battle royale set to commence for a playoff spot promises must-watch basketball, despite the Warriors unparalleled dominance.

And though the Eastern Conference disintegrates under the massive weight of weak rosters and mediocrity, the playoff race may emerge as more dramatic than anticipated. Though the Celtics, Raptors, and 76ers have probably clinched the top three seeds already, the sheer amount of godawful squads duking it out for the final five seeds could equal the frenzy in the West, just with far inferior basketball on the court.

So to map out the dark horses in these upcoming blitzkriegs, we take a look at four clubs primed to throw their hat in the ring for the first time and take the next step.

Los Angeles Lakers

Sometimes to take the next step to contention, a team’s young core years in the making finally mature enough to make a little noise. Other times, a league-altering free agent decision tips in their favor and they miraculously land the top name on every free agent rankings. For the Lakers, it’ll clearly be both reasons fueling the hype in Hollywood. Without the LeBron signing, the Laker might have cracked some honorable mentions in breakout candidates with the pieces they had but residing in the West would have done them no favors.

But now they boast a player fresh off dragging a far thinner roster to the Finals. Adding a player of LeBron’s caliber to borderline any squad in the NBA, maybe with a couple of touch-ups, will be on championship watch and the Lakers lucked out with their inherent prestige wooing LeBron enough to don the iconic purple and gold. For the rest of the lineup, the Lakers could have been in surprisingly fine shape even without LeBron.

Despite all the slandering he receives from the fans and the media, whether directly or indirectly from his father, Lonzo Ball had an unquestionably sound rookie year. Injuries may have sucked over thirty games out of him but a notably balanced stat line of 10.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 7.2 assists flew deeply under the radar. With some tune-ups to his shot, he will have a vastly sharpened sophomore year. As an unorthodox point guard who prefers not to handle the ball excessively and always looking for the pass, he should fit nicely next to LeBron.

Alongside Ball, the notoriously slight Brandon Ingram looks to finally earn the second overall pedigree. He improved on nearly every major statistical category in his second season, boosting his points per game from 9.4 to 16.1, his rebounds per game from 4.0 to 5.3, and his field goal percentage from 40.2 percent to 47.0 percent. With a developing jumper and underrated court vision, the lengthy forward will be a popular breakout pick for the Lakers.

Mixing in the offensively crafty Kyle Kuzma, a tremendously undervalued Josh Hart, and a solid steal in Michigan product Moritz Wagner, the scrappy Lakers might have been capable of keeping up in the West sans LeBron. But after the seismic pickup, the Lakers will be a threat in the West no doubt.

Detroit Pistons

Though very little roster additions occurred for the Pistons, a change-up at head coach will be what gives this team a loud wake-up call. Landing the reigning coach of the year Dwane Casey instills a stone-cold win-now mentality that potentially solves the Pistons worst issues as a club. You see, it always felt as if the Pistons never desired to achieve their full potential. Perpetually settling for harsh mediocrity, Detroit has sat around picking at the grass since the 2004 championship regime dissolved.

The absent-mindedness is wasting a downward-trending Andre Drummond, a player who does have an All-NBA berth under him and when laziness doesn’t dictate his play could be one of the most dominant centers in the league. It seemed as if the Pistons snapped out of it with the imprudent Blake Griffin deal but the All-Star pick-up couldn’t even fuel a playoff appearance, finishing four games out of the eighth seed in the East, insinuating the apathetic dilapidation.

But that all stands to change with the hiring of Casey. Flaming playoff failures aside, he has consistently been one of the finest regular season coaches in the league, leading the Raptors to five straight seasons with at least 48 wins. Now taking the reigns of a hapless Pistons team, the win totals should soar, especially in a weakened East.

The continued growth and implementation of sharpshooter Luke Kennard will be a huge lift to the team and whether or not former top ten pick Stanley Johnson can fit the pieces together will be pivotal in the season’s success but the new coaching will be the catalyst of a near-certain playoff run.

Chicago Bulls

After moving on from resident superstar Jimmy Butler in the 2017 draft, the Bulls sent themselves tumbling in harsh rebuild mode. However, by sheer virtue of the anemic East, the rebuild may come to fruition slightly earlier than anticipated. Despite finishing last years’ campaign with only 27 wins, the Bulls had plenty of ups to build around and, if enough goes right, could accidentally wind up in the playoffs.

In all honesty, for a team with four lottery picks all under the age of twenty-four, there seems to be a level of disparagement towards to Bulls exclusively for the perception they still trudge through rebuilding and the glaring lack of a big name required to truly contend in the NBA. It feels odd to say the Bulls might just be getting slept on but with some optimism, the lineup could be in far better shape than foreseen.

Zach LaVine only played in twenty-four games in his first season as a Bull but, when finding his stride, will be a twenty point scorer at the minimum. In his last season in Minnesota, he dropped 18.9 points a night until the ACL tear took him out of the race. And considering he scored twenty or more in nearly half of the games he played in while on a strict minutes cap (over ten minutes per game less than the previous season), he should have expectations as a primary scorer.

Kris Dunn should be a solid defensive ace, doubling his steal totals with not a large bump in minutes in his second season. Projected as a potential lockdown defender coming out of Providence, this season could finally see him emerge as just that. The trendy Lauri Markkanen blew past expectations in his rookie year, landing a First Team All-Rookie bid with 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds a night. He should be the go-to player for Chicago this season, with all the tools to be a top-tier offensive big man in the league.

To round out the key pieces, the rookie Wendell Carter Jr. couldn’t have been a better selection. Already surprisingly polished, the Duke product comes into this league immediately ready to aid the weak paint defense of the Bulls, especially if the Summer League is any indication. While he won’t explode into a headliner, he will a key role player for the entirety of his career.

Now while risky, the Jabari Parker signing could work out leaps and bounds better than we may think. The hometown hero still has the slinky skill set that had him selected second overall in 2014, bringing silky creativity around the rim and valuable off-ball moves. Whether or not the athleticism returns will decide if he lives up to the precedent hype but he will have immediate contributions either way. Grabbing him will also be a very low risk-very high reward pick-up, especially with the team option in play for the second year.

Obviously, the Brutus to the potential Bulls kingdom will be and has always been the injury concern. Last season understandably fell apart for the sake of the tank but it really didn’t have to. LaVine, Dunn, and Markkanen missed a combined 102 games and the season may have finished a little prettier if that total hadn’t climbed as high as it did. Missing out on Carter Jr. may not have been worth the extra wins but it does point to the enormous upside that may be in store for the Bulls.

In the event the trio stays healthy (I.E seventy or so games each), mixing in Carter Jr. and Parker could almost guarantee a playoff spot in the East. The raw talent will have to blossom as hoped but there may be a lot to like out of Chicago this upcoming season. The Bulls management usually receives a ton of backlash for generally poor decision-making but pulling off a rebuilding period ending after a single season deserves some kudos if the Bulls take that leap.

Dallas Mavericks

With the parity between conferences so incredibly distant, individual breakout seasons will be near impossible to properly judge. Since a team in the East may be a middle seed but a team in the West of similar record failed to qualify at all, discerning between luck of the draw and genuine growth will be tricky, especially when taking schedule strengths into account. Teams in the East will naturally have it much easier in terms of record improvements and with the West so incredibly brutal, breakout teams in the West cannot be judged by purely a record or a playoff berth.

The Mavericks should be a team that falls under this category. Though they may not qualify for a playoff spot or see their win count balloon, Dallas will be in for a giant leap forward in their own regard. Longtime superstar Dirk Nowitzki may have hit the end of the line but thanks to a couple of stellar drafts, the Mavericks have set up shop to be a much-updated squad this season.

Swiping a total prodigy in Luka Doncic from the Hawks in exchange for a polarizing Trae Young could come back to become one of the greatest draft day deals in NBA history. As the youngest MVP in the second-best basketball league on the planet, Doncic might as well be the most talented player in another potentially historical draft.  Doncic, a six foot seven point guard, has all the crafty moves and court vision combined with brilliant scoring touch to orchestrate an offense.

The uber-athletic Dennis Smith Jr. should take over the primary scoring role in his sophomore year after a rookie season saw him average fifteen points a night. Point guards generally have a very large learning curve when coming into the NBA and with shooting woes cursing his first season, finally adjusting should smooth out the low field goal percentages and his scoring will explode as a result.

After years of teasing and slightly ridiculous will-they-won’t-they drama, the DeAndre Jordan-Dallas Mavericks love finally came to a satisfying close. The two-time rebounding champion should supplement the middling defense and solve the rebounding problem. After a career-high 15.2 rebounds per game, his rebounding prowess will be a perfect addition to a team placing 27th in rebounds per game last season.

While the win total won’t climb the ranks nor will Dallas be serious contenders for at least a few more seasons, the Mavericks will see serious improvements this upcoming year nonetheless. After a couple of phenomenal drafts and a solid free agent pickup, Dallas looks to be in the best shape for the future they have been since Dirk’s rookie year.

 

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