By: Andrew Porter
What do the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies, and the Portland Trail Blazers have in common? They are what I like to call, “The Sleepers.”
“Sleeper” is the term I am using to describe teams that people are sleeping on. These are teams that didn’t necessary have high expectations coming into the season, but are currently making a huge mark.
Some of these teams are sleepers to make noise in the playoffs. Others are being slept on to potentially win it all.
If I told you before the start of the season that less than two weeks shy of the All-Star Game the Hawks would be 40-9, you would call me crazy. Well, call me crazy, because up to this point, the story of Atlanta Hawks has been just that.
The Hawks boast the NBA’s longest win streak of the year with 19 games and are soaring high as the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
No one on the team averages more than 20 points a game. There is no superstar and there is no selfishness. The effortlessness with which the Hawks move the ball rivals that of the San Antonio Spurs and the teams are very similar in one aspect: They both play basketball the right way.
The Hawks play tenacious defense and are extremely underrated on that end of the ball. They jack up three’s and they make them—a lot.
With all these assets then, why are the Hawks a sleeper? It’s because there are too many other sexy picks like the Cavaliers and the Bulls. The old adage is that when the going gets tough late in a playoff game, you need to have a guy you can tell to go get a bucket.
The Hawks may not have a superstar, but they do have solid mid-range/ low post scorers in the form of Paul Millsap and Al Horford. Millsap is confident in his team regardless of the age-old- superstar theory.
“Give me four or five really good players over one superstar. I will take that any day,” he said.
I’m not saying the Hawks are a sleeper to win the championship, but they are definitely primed to make some noise in the playoffs. You can’t lose when you share the ball, play good defense, and commit to a system.
And by the way, the Hawks aren’t just a bunch of scrubs either. When they usually put five players on the floor, they are putting out five guys who can pass, shoot, and operate out of the pick and roll.
These are invaluable assets to have in your players. I think the Hawks will shock a lot of teams come playoff time; however, I can’t pick them to get all the way to the Finals yet.
The Wizards have the pieces to go far into the playoffs this year. John Wall has really emerged as a top tier point guard. Wall is averaging over 10 assists per game and leads a very balanced Wizards attack.
The front court of Nene and Gortat is pretty formidable and poses problems for almost any team they face. On the wings, Bradley Beal is slowly finding his stride, Paul Peirce knows his role as the closer, and Rasual Butler has turned into a solid pickup.
The Wizards have a lot of depth that you don’t usually hear about, and that is what makes them a sleeper to make a deep post season run.
The Wizards are a balanced team, so when teams play them they can’t just focus in on Wall. Wall’s development shows at his ability to get his points and set up his teammates as well.
For the Wizards to go deep into the postseason though, Nene and Gortat have to carry more of the scoring load. As fast as Wall is, in the playoffs, he can’t keep the game from slowing down. Having a two headed monster to throw the ball into the post for buckets is a huge asset and is demoralizing to opponents.
If the Wizards draw the right postseason matchups and remain healthy, we could see them in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Over the past four seasons, the Grizzlies have been a brooding giant in the Western Conference. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph provide the best frontcourt tandem in the league, Michael Conley is probably the most underrated player in the association, and Tony Allen will take your lunch.
The Grizzlies are a bunch of junkyard dogs. Their play style is gritty, tough, and old fashioned. Opponents leave games against the Grizzlies tired, worn out, and bruised.
I really like the role both Courtney Lee and Vince Carter play on this team. Lee is a solid wing player who plays both ends of the floor, and I could see the Grizzlies using Carter similar to the closing role mentioned with Pierce.
Why are people sleep on the Grizzlies? Because, once again people say they don’t have a legitimate player who can score at will. That may be true, but they have a lot of guys who can go out and get buckets.
When it comes down to it, two things stand out about the Grizzlies: 1) the fact that they allow the fewest points per game and 2) that no one has proven to be able to consistently stop Gasol and Randolph.
The team will go as far Conley can take them, which I think could be the Western Conference Finals or more depending on the matchup.
The Portland Trailblazers are one of my favorite sleepers. LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. In case you didn’t know, there aren’t many players who are doing that these days.
I really love Aldridge’s game. He can score both inside and out, and has proven that he can take the likes of Dwight Howard to school on the block.
Oh, and that other guy, Damian Lillard is damn good too. The previous three teams I talked about don’t have a go-get-me-a-bucket guy. The Blazers have two.
They also have Wesley Matthews, who is a solid shooting guard in a league where the position is becoming very deflated. Matthews also plays solid defense, along with his running mate on the wing, Nicolas Batum.
I really like the offseason addition of Chris Kaman. Big bodies will come in handy come postseason time.
Because of defense and lack of depth on the bench, people still remain sleep on the Blazers. Defensively the Blazers have drastically improved from the start of the season when they were ranked 20th in opponents points per game.
As a team they will have to figure out how to matchup with all the great Western Conference teams. If they can figure it out, I think we could see the Blazers playing into June.