NBA teams ready to make a splash
Basketball : Who can dethrone the Golden State Warriors?
Is the conclusion to the 2017-18 NBA season already scripted? Probably. The Golden State Warriors are heavy favourites to repeat as champs, and as long as the Cleveland Cavaliers employ LeBron James, they'll be expected to escape the East.
But last year's Finals were locked in from the opening date, and the season still surprised on multiple levels.
Here are a few teams that can make a splash for the upcoming season.
The Denver Nuggets haven't had an All-Star since 2010-11 (Carmelo Anthony), but health permitting, they'll have two compelling candidates this season. That's the basic requirement to jostle for a top-four seed in the Western Conference, and if the Nuggets are doing that in April, they'll have surprised even people who expected a step forward.
Nikola Jokic is one of the Association's hottest stocks. Defensive flaws and all, the Joker held top-10 ratings in the most commonly cited catch-all categories—sixth in real plus-minus, eighth in player efficiency rating.
But once the switch was made, his numbers erupted (19.2 points on 58.7 percent shooting, 10.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists) and Denver's offense climbed atop the efficiency rankings. The slick-passing center tallied six triple-doubles, putting him behind only Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James.
Jokic isn't Denver's only top-notch distributor in the frontcourt. That's also the best part of Mason Plumlee's game and an underrated weapon for perpetually underrated All-Star Paul Millsap. The latter's addition in free agency not only signals the Nuggets' intent to win now, it's also the biggest hope for repairing their 29th-ranked defense.
Gary Harris is a two-way stud. Jamal Murray has breakout potential due to his range and off-the-dribble shooting. Depth is an obvious strength and could be enhanced by one or more wild-card youngsters emerging.
If the Nuggets have any clear weaknesses, they can hit the open market and address them with trade chips like Emmanuel Mudiay and Kenneth Faried.
Sports fans and analysts often find themselves in endless searches for the next "insert transcendent talent here." But the real excitement comes from uncovering an unprecedented star, or what the Milwaukee Bucks seem to have in 22-year-old superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo makes other do-everything players look limited. He's spent more than 10 percent of his career minutes at each of the 1 through 4 spots, and he can play small-ball 5 in a pinch. Last season, he became the first player ever to post top-20 finishes in total points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals—and he paced the Bucks in all five categories.
Milwaukee isn't a one-man team, although it could be a one-star squad. That's probably why most projections have the Bucks battling for no better than a mid-level playoff spot. However, because Antetokounmpo's impact is so great and the supporting cast fits so snugly around him, they could have the best chance to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy.
Milwaukee needs plenty of breaks to reach that point.
Khris Middleton needs to return to the form he found in 2015-16 (20th in real plus-minus). Jabari Parker has to hit the ground running whenever he returns from his second ACL tear. Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker need another leap forward, while Tony Snell and Greg Monroe can't fall back. If Rashad Vaughn is ever going to prove his NBA worth, this is the time.
Get Antetokounmpo to an MVP level and enough support around him, though, and the Bucks could be a team no one wants to face in the second season.
Hype came a year early for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who were doomed by dreadful defense and growing pains during a 51-loss 2016-17 campaign.
But reinforcements came early and often this summer, starting with All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler. The 28-year-old became a Tom Thibodeau favorite at the defensive end, but his offensive improvements (career highs of 23.9 points and 5.5 assists last season) put him in the discussion of NBA elites.
Point production was already a Timberpups' strength. Karl-Anthony Towns dominated inside and out as a sophomore, en route to averaging 25.1 points, 2.7 assists and 1.2 triples (on 36.7 percent shooting). Andrew Wiggins wasn't too far behind, tallying 23.6 points and showing his most perimeter promise to date (1.3 makes, 35.6 percent).
Butler's arrival relieves pressure on the youth. He and Taj Gibson, another Thibodeau disciple, will help start righting the many defensive wrongs. Between the toughness, experience and firepower added (hello, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Teague), Minnesota should be better prepared for the late-game situations it couldn't handle in 2016-17, when it blew 22 double-digit leads and had the 25th-ranked clutch efficiency rating.
The Timberwolves could use more shooting. Depth looks like an issue. Maturation is a must, specifically playing both ends.
But if everything falls right, Minnesota has the weapons needed to make that Bay Area-based juggernaut sweat.