You know when you’re sitting on your couch, angrily screaming at your television screen after your favorite team has just lost its fifth in a row, and the person next to you asks why you put yourself through the agony?
You respond (as you should) by saying that, as a fan, it is your sworn duty to stick with your team through thick and thin. Regardless of how much it makes you wish you never started rooting for the team in the first place.
You do that because there is nothing, and I mean nothing, more satisfying than having your team return from a disappointing season with a massive bounce-back campaign.
And given that we are right on the precipice of the start of the 2023-24 NBA season, now is right around the time when every downtrodden fanbase is praying that their team will do that very service for them this year.
So, in honor of the occasion, here are five teams that will gift their fan bases a breakout season.
Identifying Breakout Candidates
As we did with our analysis of potential breakout NBA players, we are going to identify breakout teams by looking at ones that find themselves in similar situations right now to the teams that saw massive improvements in their win total from 2021-22 to 2022-23.
After all, as the old adage goes, “history often repeats itself.” Now, without further ado, here is our list.
1. Charlotte Hornets
The Comp from Last Year: Sacramento Kings (18-win improvement)
The Case: Every year, there is always one team that comes out of absolute nowhere and takes the entire league by storm. In 2020-21, it was the New York Knicks. In 2021-22, it was the Chicago Bulls. And last year, it was the Sacramento Kings going 30-52 in 2021-22 to 48-30 in 2022-23. Heading into last season, the Kings had a polarizing point guard with athleticism who had the urge to play with pace (De’Aaron Fox), a rookie who people believed was drafted too high (Keegan Murray), and a head coach with an eye tilted toward defense (Mike Brown). And lo and behold, the Hornets have all that coming into this season. Unlike Fox at this time last year, LaMelo Ball already has an All-Star nomination under his belt (although it was as a replacement). But even then, his injury-riddled 2022-23 campaign has made some people forget just how good he can be. Don’t let recency bias get the best of you. Ball is a modern-day Magic Johnson (96th percentile in transition volume, per NBA.com) who can raise the floor of an entire offense on his lonesome (Hornets were 6.1 points better per 100 possessions when he was on the floor last season). We’ve already talked about how Brandon Miller may be able to prove his naysayers wrong the way Murray did. And head coach Steve Clifford has this team all the way bought in defensively, as evidenced by the fact the Hornets were seventh in defensive rating after the All-Star break. It won’t look the exact same way the Kings did it last year (they’ll probably be a little better on defense and a little worse on offense), but the Hornets seem poised to be the Cinderella team of this regular season.
Honorable Mention: Houston Rockets
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Comp from Last Year: Cleveland Cavaliers (7-win improvement)
The Case: I always think about a story in ESPN after the young Tennessee Titans (guided by Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariota) came back to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs in an AFC wild-card matchup back in 2018 (the last game before the Patrick Mahomes era officially began). The opening line of that article was, “The kids grew up on Saturday.” That’s how I think of this category. Last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers – powered by their fiery young trio of Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley – went from being a cute, up-and-coming team to a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. This year, that team looks like it will be the Thunder. Their three-headed monster of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams and Josh Giddey came within one win of the playoffs last year. And while they didn’t add Donovan Mitchell in the offseason, internal improvements from the three musketeers, coupled with the additions of Chet Holmgren and Cason Wallace (a pair of rookies who could make an immediate impact), should be the jolt they need to take the next step in their maturation.
Honorable Mention: Indiana Pacers
3. Dallas Mavericks
The Comp from Last Year: Los Angeles Lakers (10-win improvement)
The Case: No one has, and probably no one ever will orchestrate the midseason turnaround that the Lakers managed in 2022-23. Los Angeles was five games under .500 through 55 games. Then the trade deadline hit, and the team that looked dead in the water completely reshaped its roster in 24 hours, finishing the regular season winning 18 of its last 27 games. As we said, the Mavericks probably can’t replicate that. But they don’t need to. The Lakers missed the playoffs altogether in 2021-22 before beating the Minnesota Timberwolves (play-in), Memphis Grizzlies (first round) and Golden State Warriors (second round) before falling to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals in 2022-23. The Mavericks missed the playoffs last year (some would argue intentionally), and they have the upside to mimic the Lakers in 2023-24. Like the Lakers post-deadline, this current Mavericks roster abides by the two stars plus great depth model for team building. The unit is headlined by a perennial MVP candidate in Luka Doncic and an All-NBA level talent in Kyrie Irving (both finished in the top 20 in our DRIP rankings last year). And those two stars are flanked by a cavalcade of players who could contribute minutes in a playoff series. Players like Josh Green, former Boston Celtic Grant Williams, Maxi Kleber, Dereck Lively (hopefully), Seth Curry, Jaden Hardy, Dwight Powell, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Derrick Jones Jr. (Dante Exum may also have some juice) all can fill various needs for your team based on the climate of the series. As we saw with the Lakers last year, this roster model is great for deep playoff runs because it gives you the top-end firepower to hang with opposing teams’ stars and the versatility to handle different styles. Don’t be surprised if the Mavericks leap from a lottery team to a title contender in just one season.
Honorable Mention: Minnesota Timberwolves
4. Atlanta Hawks
The Comp from Last Year: New York Knicks (10-win improvement)
The Case: We mentioned the 2020-21 Knicks earlier. After an impressive 2020-21 season, New York fell to 37-45 and 11th in the Eastern Conference in 2021-22. That offseason, the Knicks made a splash by adding free agent Jalen Brunson, prioritized the development of their youth (namely Immanuel Quickley, Mitchell Robinson and Quentin Grimes), and built an ecosystem more conducive to their All-Star’s success (Julius Randle). They returned in 2022-23 a better team, and their record and place in the standings showed it (47-35 and fifth place in the East). Who will be the team this year that redeems itself through a blend of improvement from its youth and established veterans? That would be none other than the team that knocked them out of the 2021 playoffs: the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks looked like they were up next after surging to the conference finals in 2021. But alas, that moment of triumph was followed by two straight seasons of mediocrity. However, their fans can rest easy knowing they are primed for a breakout. They didn’t add a marquee guard in the offseason (that was last year with Dejounte Murray). But they do have a sneakily good arsenal of young players who could take significant leaps this season (AJ Griffin, Onyeka Okongwu, Jalen Johnson, Saddiq Bey and Kobe Bufkin). And if a couple of those guys hit, that could provide the team with the shooting and defense it needs to mask Trae Young’s weaknesses and let his playmaking strengths be on full display (he was Atlanta’s top scorer and led the team in assists and 3s). On top of that, with the Philadelphia 76ers in a tailspin, that leaves an opening in the upper echelon of the conference for them to swoop on.
Honorable Mention: Toronto Raptors
5. San Antonio Spurs
The Comp from Last Year: Orlando Magic (12-win improvement)
The Case: This category is for the kids the year before they grew up. The Thunder fell in this group as well, but we figured we’d throw NBA Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero and the Magic some love for what they accomplished last season. When you enter a rebuild, the idea is that you accumulate assets to someday turn them into players that can be good and win you enough games that you no longer need to rebuild. Almost every team that transitions from rebuilding to contending has a season in which it shows that its young players are more than just theoretically good. They’re functionally good. That’s what happened to the Magic (and Thunder last year). And that’s what we think could happen with the Spurs this year. First overall pick Victor Wembanyama is only going to be in his rookie season. But he’s also the most hyped rookie we’ve seen since LeBron James, and his defensive ability alone should mean that he’s at least a solid player on day one (our NBA Draft model projects him to have the second-highest DRIP score of any rookie next season). He’s not the only promising piece on this team, though. Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell have improved every year since they entered the league. Last season, they both had positive offensive DRIP scores last year (Johnson a 1.6, and Vassell a 0.7). It was the lack of defensive infrastructure that was holding them back. Wembanyama gives them stability on that end. Jeremy Sochan is a tenacious rebounder and shaping up to be the Swiss Army-knife player you find on every contender (think Aaron Gordon). That’s a lot to look forward to, and that’s before we talk about the upside of teammates Tre Jones, Malaki Branham, Dominick Barlow, Sidy Cissoko and Blake Wesley. Head coach Gregg Popovich may have one great run left in him after all.
Honorable Mention: Detroit Pistons