Before the season started, I doubt anybody was too excited when looking at Tuesday night's Philadelphia-Memphis matchup on the schedule. As it turns out, it's the best game of the night, featuring two likely playoff teams that much of the nation has been slow to warm up to.
Don't sleep on these guys, however. Not only are Memphis and Philly young, improving teams that are poised to keep rising if they don't screw it up, but each is a pretty darned good team at present as well. Each ranks in the top half of the Power Rankings, with Philly moving up to No. 8 after blasting Atlanta earlier this week and the Griz locked in at No. 11 -- a perch they've more or less held for more than a month.
Although the Griz are one game behind Denver for the eighth spot in the West (file this possibility under scenarios nobody envisioned: Denver keeping Carmelo Anthony and missing the playoffs anyway), they've played more road games than any other team in the West and have a closing schedule tilted in their favor. Philly, meanwhile, leads Charlotte by 2½ games for an Eastern playoff spot. Today's playoff odds gives Memphis a 66.5 percent chance of making it and sees Philly as a near lock at 96.2 percent.
As a result, these probable playoff party crashers are two of the four teams I'd like to look at Tuesday -- young teams on the rise that are playing better basketball of late and have yet to grab much national attention.
For that, blame the Bulls and Thunder. Clearly any discussion of teams on the rise needs to focus on those two -- both seem poised to win 50 games and survive at least a round in the playoffs, and the sky's the limit for each in terms of the future.
These next four teams aren't anywhere close yet, but they're showing flashes and battling to get into that conversation. A year from now, if they make the right moves, we could be talking about any one of them the way we speak of the Bulls and Thunder now.
Let's take a closer look:
The story: The Grizzlies have quietly become the league's most fascinating NBA League Pass squad, from the Rudy Gay aerials to the Tony Allen box of chocolates to the "He did WHAT?" in-game decisions from Lionel Hollins. The Grizzlies somehow transitioned from an offensive team last season to a defensive team this season, even though they kept all the same players.
With owner Michael Heisley periodically parachuting in to sabotage the franchise, the parallels between the Grizzlies and the movie "Major League" are growing difficult to ignore. Zach Randolph is definitely the Wild Thing. Gay is Roger Dorn, the guy who put up good stats for years and is finally playing defense. Mike Conley is Willie Mays Hayes. Allen, of course, is Cerrano; nobody would be shocked if he sacrificed a chicken in the locker room. We're still casting Tom Berenger's character, but the other parallels are there.
If this were the movie, right now would be the part when the guys at the construction site say, "These guys aren't so @#$%& bad." Memphis is 16-7 in its past 23 games, roughly coinciding with Hollins' discovery that Allen was on the team, and could end up seeded as high as sixth in the West.
The good: Memphis leads the NBA in forcing turnovers and has cracked the league's top 10 in defensive efficiency as a result. Allen, the lone addition from the offseason, has been a huge factor, but the bench in general is much stronger -- Darrell Arthur's emergence has solidified the frontcourt rotation, and Sam Young has shown strong improvement in his second season. Meanwhile, Gay watched his Team USA teammates this past summer and realized he couldn't play just one end of the floor, Conley has improved as a floor general, and Randolph remains a beast on the blocks.
The bad: The Grizzlies would be a lot more "up and coming" if they'd taken Stephen Curry instead of Hasheem Thabeet with the second overall pick in 2009 and not locked themselves into an extension for Conley this past offseason. Recent draft picks Xavier Henry, Greivis Vasquez and DeMarre Carroll aren't exactly lighting up the league, either.
Although the rest of the team is young, Randolph is 29 and about to be a free agent; without him, it's back to Lotteryville. Finally, Heisley still owns the team and periodically inflicts his bizarre judgment on the franchise, with the Thabeet pick being a prominent example.
The story: They looked terrible after a 3-13 start, but the Sixers are 23-15 since and 9-3 in their past 12 -- with seven of the wins by double figures. Like Memphis, they very well could grab their conference's No. 6 seed.
As with Memphis, a rapid defensive improvement is the cause. The Sixers were tied with the Grizzlies for 23rd in defensive efficiency last season; with largely the same personnel this season, they're ninth. Philly remains a devastating open-court team with athletic finishers like Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Jrue Holiday, but under the exacting Doug Collins, they're a lot more solid in other phases than they were last season.
The good: Philly doesn't have a go-to star but an ensemble cast. Iguodala and Elton Brand are the headliners, with Brand having a retro season at the offensive end, but the reasons for long-term excitement in Philly are Holiday and Young. The latter has quietly been among the league's most effective reserves while rotating between the two forward spots and has a strong case for the league's sixth man award.
Meanwhile, Holiday could be truly special. He has been inconsistent from game to game, but the big-picture result is that The Jruth is a solid NBA starting point guard at just 20 years old. He's big, athletic and a better shooter than advertised; he just needs to figure things out. Defensively, especially, his potential is enormous.
The bad: Like Memphis, the Sixers have a second overall pick who is struggling. Evan Turner has been brutal thus far but is averaging 24 minutes per game anyway. Although he's shown some mild signs of improvement lately, the Sixers would have a few more wins if they'd gone in a different direction.
Also like the Grizzlies, Philly is hampered by ownership's lack of deep pockets and a coaching question. In the case of Doug Collins, it's not his short-term impact -- he'll be near the top of the coach of the year voting this year -- but his history of burning out in two to three years. Hopefully an older, wiser Collins can ease up on the nitpicking just enough to keep this team's attention for longer.
The story: The Pacers have won seven of eight since Frank Vogel replaced Jim O'Brien as head coach and now project as a strong bet to make the playoffs -- today's Playoff Odds gives them a 76.5 percent probability. The theme under Vogel has been younger and more offensive-minded -- Josh McRoberts, Dahntay Jones and Paul George are in the rotation; James Posey and Solomon Jones are out. Notably, Vogel has been more consistent, too. O'Brien would change his rotation from game to game and at times from quarter to quarter depending on matchups; Vogel has kept the same 10-man mix thus far.
The biggest difference has been Roy Hibbert's resurrection. He had a great first month but was awful the next two, triggering Indy's slide and O'Brien's exit. Hibbert scored 24 points in the first game under Vogel, the first time he'd had more than 20 in two months, and 29 in a crucial win over Charlotte that gave the Pacers breathing room in the standings.
The good: Those of you who follow the Future Power Rankings of Professor Ford and me know that Indiana is in pretty decent shape going forward. It's as deep as any team in the league, it'll have a bunch of cap space after this season, and it has a lot of solid, young players who should keep improving: Hibbert, McRoberts, George, Tyler Hansbrough, Brandon Rush, Darren Collison and A.J. Price all are 25 or younger, and go-to guy Danny Granger isn't exactly a fossil at 27.
Additionally, Indy's precipitous slide -- a 6-17 stretch in December and January after a solid start -- was largely due to an offensive meltdown. The Pacers have the size and talent to defend; they just need a headliner who can carry the mail offensively.
The bad: Only one of the seven teams that Indy has beaten in the Vogel era had a winning record; the list includes four of the six worst records in basketball. And of course, we don't want to get too giddy about a short-term bounce under a new coach.
But the biggest question mark with the Pacers is the simplest one: Who's the star here? Granger is a nice No. 2 but out of his depth as a leading man. Otherwise, the Pacers have a lot of decent young players who would form very good complementary pieces around a superstar. Unfortunately, this isn't New York or Miami, so although the Pacers have cap space, it's not clear how they can lure a difference-maker to the Heartland. Without such a player, this team's ceiling is a first-round speed bump for the East's elite.
The story: After being shed of the bumbling ownership of Chris Cohan, the Warriors have embarked upon a plan to end a pathetic 16-season streak in which they have not finished in the top half of the Western Conference standings once. The best they finished was eighth in a 15-team conference in 2007.
The Warriors won't finish among the top eight this season, but they are 15-11 in their past 26 games. At 24-29, with 17 of their final 29 games on the road, any playoff talk is absurd, but one can see the pieces coming together. Stephen Curry is a devastating offensive player with his shooting and passing ability; David Lee has been more of a factor now that a gruesome elbow injury has healed; Dorell Wright was the free-agent steal of the summer; and Monta Ellis has improved both his shot selection and accuracy. If the Warriors could just rehabilitate The Guy Who Used To Be Andris Biedrins, they'd have a really good starting five.
The biggest weaknesses now are a lack of defenders and a paper-thin bench. But the core pieces are in place, and those are the hardest to find.
The good: The Curry-to-Lee pick-and-roll is something to behold, as Curry's shooting ability and Nash-like ability to fire one-handed bounce passes off the dribble make him among the league's most potent operators. Lee is the perfect complement. He's a phenomenal finisher with either hand, and as a dive man, he throws in the added threat of jump-stopping for a 15-footer that he also reliably makes.
Around them are other strong pieces. Ellis anguishes with his shot selection and wandering mind on defense, but he also devastates with his end-to-end speed and steady midrange jumper. Rookie Ekpe Udoh is still fairly clueless on offense but provides the type of versatile frontcourt defender this team hasn't had in ages. And second-year pro Reggie Williams is another in a series of great finds from the D-League for the Warriors -- amid all the other turmoil, they've scouted the minors better than any other team in basketball.
The bad: Golden State still doesn't play any defense, and its best players are the worst offenders. Curry can't guard anybody, Ellis usually gives up several inches at the 2 and spends most of his time gambling and floating, and Lee provides no resistance whatsoever inside. Golden State ranks 28th in defensive efficiency, a stat that will sound familiar to Warriors fans, and until the organization's Don Nelson era mindset on defense changes, it will remain a lottery team.
But the biggest concerns remain the big-picture things. We know the new ownership group has to be better, simply because it can't be any worse, but worrying signs remain. As an organization, the Warriors are still prone to being more rah-rah than realistic, and there's the worrying fact that former Cohan consigliere and current team president Robert Rowell -- the man most famous for getting played into a contract extension by Stephen Jackson -- has yet to be shown the door.
We'll know a lot more in the offseason, when the Warriors presumably change coaches and the owners make hard decisions on Cohan era holdovers like Rowell and general manager Larry Riley (who, it must be said, has done solid work thus far). The other big-picture decision looming is whether to keep the Curry-Ellis combo together or to trade Ellis for a more traditional 2 and, perhaps, some frontcourt help.
In other words, as with the other three teams on this list, the pieces are there ... we just don't know yet whether the skill and resources exist to put them together correctly. That's why these four teams aren't in Oklahoma City and Chicago's orbit yet. But they're knocking on the door.