2021 NBA season preview: Teams on the rise

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A new season is upon us—the NBA’s 2021-22 campaigns tips off Tuesday night in Milwaukee, where the defending champion Bucks will host Brooklyn in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference semis. And while top-heavy juggernauts like the Lakers, Nets and Bucks will continue to drive the narrative, the NBA’s middle class, inhabited by the likes of Charlotte, Memphis, Minnesota, New Orleans, Sacramento and Toronto, is no less interesting. Though postseason success has so far eluded them, each fit the mold of promising up-and-comers oozing with potential.

Are any of these flawed but talented squads capable of upsetting the league’s established hierarchy, graduating from the frustrating purgatory of fringe playoff status to national relevance? It’s a big ask, but far from unprecedented. The Hawks and Suns made similar leaps last season, erasing years of mediocrity by emerging as legitimate title threats.

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Ultimate Insider Season Preview 2021 - NBA Edition
NBA Preview: Teams ON THE RISE with Ryan McDonough & Locked On Experts: Pelicans, Hornets, Grizzlies, Raptors, Wolves, & Kings
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Can the Grizzlies, Timberwolves and Pelicans, all led by widely-recognized stars (Ja Morant, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zion Williamson), follow the same blueprint, setting aside years of disappointment and heartbreak in pursuit of playoff glory? Or will they spend another season toiling in obscurity, unable to shed the “afterthought” label that has plagued them for so long?

It’s the subject of Thursday’s episode of the Ultimate Season Preview 2021, a podcast exclusive featuring analysis from a deep roster of league insiders including Ben Beeken, Shawn Coleman, Connor Dunning, Matt George, Josh Lloyd, Jake Madison, Ryan McDonough, Walker Mehl and Sean Woodley. To hear previous installments in the Ultimate series including Wednesday’s discussion of teams with the biggest question marks (with a cameo from former NBA champion Brian Scalabrine), make sure to click on the following link. Below, you can find full breakdowns of the Grizzlies, Timberwolves and Pelicans, all teams poised to make noise in the Western Conference this year.

Memphis Grizzlies

Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant
Photo credit Alex Goodlett, Getty Images

“Covering the Grizzlies, obviously they did make the playoffs last year, but a team that certainly is trying to transition out of the version that they were over the past two years under Taylor Jenkins to a new team really focusing on the young guys. The key is our young star point guard, Ja Morant, and him taking the next step to be in the All-Star conversation. Obviously the next narrative is can Jaren Jackson Jr. take that next step, being a most improved candidate or perhaps being in the All-Star conversation? But one thing that really steps up this year, in my opinion, is the young core besides Ja and Jaren to support them. The Grizzlies are going all in, betting on that young core, really wanting to emphasize winning by their defense and letting the three go more. So the playoffs are still the goal, playing a style of basketball that can let us reach the playoffs and advance in the playoffs is that next step we’re really hoping to see with Memphis this year.” – Shawn Coleman, Locked On Grizzlies

Minnesota Timberwolves

Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns
Photo credit Hannah Foslien, Getty Images

“In terms of how the Wolves take the next step, if we’re setting aside health, which I think is always fair to do, it’s improving defensively. Frankly the difference between terrible and average is as big, usually, as average to great, and that’s really all we need to see out of Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. If those guys can compete defensively, there were some signs of life late last year and so far in preseason, dare I say that. Adding Patrick Beverley to the group, the defense is going to improve. More minutes for Jaden McDaniels, more minutes for Jarred Vanderbilt. I think that’s how this team makes that next step and goes from the .500ish team that they were at the end of last season when they were mostly healthy to a legit [playoff threat]. And honestly here, [the] play-in tournament is probably the only way that the Wolves are going to sniff the playoffs.”– Ben Beeken, Locked On Wolves

New Orleans Pelicans

Pelicans All-Star Zion Williamson
Photo credit Sean Gardner, Getty Images

“The Pelicans were one of the most active teams this offseason. They parted ways with coach Stan Van Gundy, replacing him with Suns assistant Willie Green. New Orleans also shuffled point guards, they sent Lonzo Ball to Chicago and Eric Bledsoe to Memphis while bringing in Devonte’ Graham in a sign and trade with Charlotte. They replaced frontcourt bruiser Steven Adams with another physical center in Jonas Valanciunas. They also added veterans Garrett Temple and Tomas Satoransky from Chicago. The Pelicans’ ceiling will be determined by their young talent, especially athletic phenom Zion Williamson, who's been one of the most dominant forces in the paint when he’s been healthy, but he has missed the playoffs in his first two seasons. Brandon Ingram was an All-Star in 2020. Josh Hart is a talented perimeter rebounder, so the Pels have some young talent around Zion. But they need Zion to get healthy. He’s been injured in the preseason and they also need this team to come together quickly if they want to get back into the playoffs.” – Ryan McDonough, Audacy

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