6. Orlando Magic
The Magic haven’t whiffed the mainstream’s attention since Dwight Howard left town via trade in 2012. And while the current 15-29 version of the team hasn’t changed that, they’re a steadily improving young squad with a collection of fascinating players who’ve quickly made them a top watch for hardcore NBA followers. Rookie point guard Elfrid Payton is a stormy, aggressive player who can often turn the task of guarding other ball-handlers into a sort of mid-court wrestling match. The monstrous Nikola Vucevic is one of the best post scorers in the game. And sophomore stud Victor Oladipo — the smooth complement to Payton’s rough-and-tumble approach — is blossoming in the Magic’s increasingly uptempo offense. Look for the Magic to enter the Eastern Conference playoff picture next year.
5. Sacramento Kings
Despite hitting a frustrating rough patch after ownership prematurely canned beloved head coach Mike Malone, Kings fans have cause for optimism. It’s hard not to hold hope when you’ve got DeMarcus Cousins on your roster. Cousins, a dominant 24-year-old center, is arguably the best offensive big man beast this side of Shaquille O’Neal. At 6’11” and 270 pounds, he can knock over just about anyone who defends him — but he can also dance around most matchups with ease. Cousins is fleet of foot and has quick hands and an accurate shot to boot. His nickname, “Boogie,” is a result of his uncanny movement for someone his size. Paired with a rejuvenated Rudy Gay, DeMarcus looks to be in position to take the league by storm. As soon as Vivek Ranadive gets out of the way, expect the Kings’ ascension to continue.
4. Utah Jazz
The Jazz have quietly piled up the best assemblage of young big men in the game. The emergence of freakishly long, crazily athletic French rim-protector Rudy Gay has turned Turkish center Enes Kanter into a luxury asset, as has the best season of power forward Derrick Favors’ career. There aren’t a ton of openings coming up in the stacked Western Conference, but the Jazz might grab one with force if they keep building what they’re building with shrewd first-year coach Quin Snyder. And if lightning-quick Australian rookie point guard Dante Exum begins to blossom behind Gordon Hayward on the wing next year, their seizure of a playoff spot might happen sooner than expected.
3. New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis has been heralded as the next big NBA superstar, and for good reason. The Unibrow is as long as anyone in the sport, and also as skilled. But that doesn’t mean the Pelicans should be much above their .500 mark yet — Davis is still 21 years old. As far as 21-year-old centerpieces go, New Orleans couldn’t do better. But they’ve still got a lot of work to do. For now, the Pelicans are about where they should be: still looking for the right complementary pieces to put around Davis he continues to improve year after year. Soon enough, he’ll be so good that whoever’s around him will be better by virtue of his proximity. That’s the greatness Davis is headed toward.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Through injuries, youth, the enigma of Larry Sanders and a new regime under coach Jason Kidd and fresh ownership, the Bucks have been very impressive. At 21-20, they’re bound for the Eastern Conference postseason, and way ahead of the development curve many analysts had laid out for them. Multi-talented “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo has a lot to do with Milwaukee’s success, but so does their undersung leading scorer, Brandon Knight. The rest of it is a strong system, bought into by Kidd’s spry roster. Under his tutelage, they’re the third-most efficient defense in the league. Who said you need lots of experience to defend well as a team?
1. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons remain one of the most curious stories of the NBA season. After struggling out of the gate to a 5-23 record, Detroit amazingly turned things around after sending struggling forward Josh Smith — their highest-paid player — out the door on waivers. Motor City basketball is 11-3 in the exciting post-Smith era, rallying around coach Stan Van Gundy’s vision and the breakout of Brandon Jennings, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. As quickly as it happened, the Pistons might have already moved out of the “up-and-coming” category. These days, it looks like they’ve already arrived.
— John Wilmes