Seven under-the-radar NBA title contenders

The 2016-17 NBA season is officially set to kick off. Unlike in any of the other three professional sports in North America, there’s only a handful off teams with legitimate shots at the title.

Fresh off a 73-win season that saw them lose in heartbreaking fashion in the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors are set to defend their conference championship with former MVP Kevin Durant in the mix.

Back east, the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers hope to continue their domination in a conference that looks to be vastly improved from a season ago.

These are the two favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. Though, there promises to be some under-the-radar contenders prepared to prove skeptics wrong.

We’re not talking about the San Antonio Spurs of the world. We know Pop will have his team among the Association’s best. The same can be said for Brad Stevens and his up-and-coming Boston Celtics.

Instead, it’s all about young teams looking to take that next step towards contention. In this, we look at seven such squads that have to be considered under-the-radar title contenders.

1. Portland Trail Blazers

Courtesy of Adam Hunger, USA Today Sports

Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum represented the second-best scoring backcourt in the NBA last season, behind only the Splash Brothers in Oakland. For his part, McCollum ended up winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award last season. Meanwhile, Lillard and his 25.1 points per game had to be considered a top-10 candidate for MVP.

If both find ways to improve this season, Portland will be a force in an ultra difficult Pacific Division. After all, here’s a team that took out the injury-ravaged Los Angeles Clippers in the first round last year before ultimately falling to Golden State in the conference semifinals.

The biggest question here is upfront. Can one player out of a group that includes Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh step up into a scoring role? Will Evan Turner be the scoring wing Portland has been missing or will he prove to be a high-priced bust? Should things work out in this regard, there’s no reason to believe Portland can’t finish as a top-three seed. If so, watch out.

2. Chicago Bulls

This year’s version of the Bulls promises to be vastly different than we saw in the past. Trading away a former MVP in Derrick Rose for pennies on the dollar will definitely do that. Though, there’s little reason to believe the Bulls didn’t improve their roster after a majorly disappointing 2015-16 season.

Dwyane Wade shocked the NBA world by leaving the Miami Heat for their conference rival. Meanwhile, Chicago added a tremendous backcourt partner in Rajon Rondo, who led the Association in assists last season. Some may point to just how bad this starting backcourt is from a shooting perspective. And that’s more than justified.

That’s going to be the primary issue in Chicago. Can the Bulls find any outside shooting at all? The good news here is that Rondo’s superior passing ability, in comparison to Rose, should allow for more open shots. If so, the likes of Jimmy Butler and Doug McDermott should improve from beyond the arc.

Equally as important for the Bulls, Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic need to step their games up with Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol no longer on the team. Should this happen, Chicago will definitely be in a good place back east.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

Based on the Clippers’ struggles against the Golden State Warriors in the Pacific Division, it’s hard to take Doc Rivers’ squad seriously here. After all, here’s a team that’s lost seven of eight against the two-time defending conference champs over the past two years.

Though, there’s definitely some reason to believe the Clippers can be more competitive in 2016-17. After missing 47 games to injury last season, Blake Griffin is 100 percent healthy. That’s absolutely huge, especially when looking at potential playoff matchups against the aforementioned Warriors as well as the San Antonio Spurs.

While injuries sure did mar the Clippers’ chances last season, they also helped under-the-radar performers step up. Now slated to play off the bench, the likes of Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford makes depth a major strength. Add in the acquisitions of Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton and Brandon Bass, and this is definitely a strength for the Clippers.

4. Atlanta Hawks

Dwight Howard. It all starts with the All-Star big man. Should he perform up to the level we saw prior to last season’s struggles in Houston, the Hawks will definitely be in a good position back east. Also important to note, Atlanta will be starting Dennis Schroder after trading Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers. That’s huge. Schroder was simply the better player last season.

These are the key dynamics in Atlanta. If Howard plays well and Schroder steps up into a starting role, it will help the likes of Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore shoulder the load. In reality, the talent is most definitely here for the Hawks. It just all needs to come together.

5. Orlando Magic

Mario Hezonja

Untapped talent. And a lot of it. Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja are all under 25 years old. They all have their best days ahead of themselves. This is the young core Orlando plans to build around moving forward. And it’s a darn good one.

Fournier put up the best performance of his career last season, averaging 15.4 points while shooting 40 percent from three-point range. And in increased playing time, Payton handled the point extremely well, dishing out over six assists per game. There’s definitely reason to believe these two will up their games even more in 2016-17.

Though, it’s really going to be about the continued progression of Hezonja. The former top-five pick didn’t see a whole lot of action as a rookie, averaging less than 18 minutes per game. He did, however, find a way to impress the brass in Orlando down the stretch. The young Croatian averaged 10 points while shooting 55-plus percent from the field over the final 10 games of the regular season.

The main thing here is going to be how well these youngsters buy into Frank Vogel’s system. There’s little doubt Vogel himself is an upgrade over Scott Skiles. It’s now all about bringing this together. Adding veterans such as Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo should help in that regard, as should the continued presence of skilled big man Nikola Vucevic.

6. New York Knicks

Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis

It seems a bit absurd to have the Knicks on this list. After all, here’s a team that lost 50 games last season and really wasn’t competitive throughout most of the year. Though, it’s also important to note that Phil Jackson and Co. did one heck of a job adding talent to what had been a talent-stricken core.

The big-name addition here is obviously Derrick Rose, who played pretty well with the Chicago Bulls last season. The former MVP averaged 16.4 points and 4.7 assists per game. It’s not up to the level we’ve seen in the past, but he’s still a major upgrade over what New York had at point guard last season. If Rose is able to build off this and remain 100 percent healthy, he could really be a boon for the Knicks.

With all that said, Rose and fellow All-Star Carmelo Anthony must have career seasons in order to help New York compete with the big boys back east. If they can coexist on the court, that could possibly happen.

It’s definitely an interesting dynamic to look at in New York. Rose and Anthony are obviously the well-known veterans that will bring more attention. However, neither one can be considered the face of the franchise. Instead, that title goes to 21-year-old big man Kristaps Porzingis, who had a stellar rookie season. The former No. 4 overall pick averaged a solid 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in his first year in the states.

Much like Rose and Anthony, the Knicks need their young big man to perform at a higher level. He shot just 42 percent from the field as a rookie and slowed down a great deal as the season drew on. If Porzingis can get his average up to 20 points while shooting closer to 50 percent, the Knicks will definitely be in a good position.

7. Utah Jazz

A young team just oozing with talent, Utah has an opportunity to take that next step in 2016-17. More than anything, the biggest key here will be the team’s backcourt. We already know bigs such as Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert will eat. That’s not the issue.

Can the team’s young wing players up their game from a season ago? We’re looking at a ton of talent in Trey Lyles, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood and Trey Burke.

With young phenom Dante Exum returning from injury and George Hill coming over from the Indiana Pacers, there’s definitely a lot to like here. If just two of these players can step into secondary scoring roles behind Gordon Hayward, the Jazz will be in business out west.