The Miami Heat proved to be the biggest surprise of the 2019-20 season, surpassing all expectations previously laid out for them, which resulted in a trip to the NBA Finals for the first time since LeBron James was wearing his No. 6 jersey in South Beach. Although their season didn't end in hoisting up the Larry O'Brien trophy, it was still a success as the Heat put the league -- and the rest of the Eastern Conference -- on notice that they are a team that could be a contender for years to come with the exciting core of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson.
It also makes us wonder what teams will have similar success next season. Although the NBA Draft and free agency have yet to happen, we can still look at where teams stand today and try to predict which squads could take the crown from the Heat as the most surprising story for the 2020-21 season. Each of these teams could carve out a path that results in a surprising run in the postseason, and while it will be an uphill battle for each of them, it's not inconceivable to think it could happen.
The Pacers have hired a new head coach in Nate Bjorkgren, who previously served as an assistant under Nick Nurse in Toronto for the past two seasons. Bjorkgren has worked his way up through the ranks of G League head coach, to NBA assistant, to now getting his first shot at a head coaching gig, and could really make an impact with the Pacers. After studying under Nurse since 2007, Bjorkgren will be able to take the knowledge he's learned from the reigning Coach of the Year and apply it to a Pacers team that is chock-full of potential.
Indiana had a disappointing showing in the postseason, but it was in part due to injuries that were too much to overcome against a persistent Miami Heat team. Victor Oladipo was still trying to find his way back after rupturing his quad during the 2018-2019 season, and only played in 13 games this season before the NBA restart. The stoppage of the season back in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic greatly impacted his return, and he was never really able to find his footing inside the bubble.
Indiana was also without its All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis, who didn't even play inside the bubble due to plantar fasciitis, and Jeremy Lamb, who suffered gruesome season-ending left knee injuries back in February. The Pacers haven't had a full, healthy season with this iteration of their roster yet, and next season will be their first shot at seeing what this core is capable of.
If Oladipo, who will be in a contract year, can put up the numbers he was averaging two seasons ago (23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.4 steals), when he made his first All-Star game, then Indiana should be in a good position to be an under-the-radar team -- similar to the Heat -- next season. The Pacers are already one of the best defensive teams in the league, ranking sixth behind the Clippers in defensive rating (107.5), and under Bjorkgren, who just came from a team that ranked second in the league in that category, it could potentially get even better. It's their offense that needs a boost, which should come with Oladipo's first fully healthy season in two years, and Sabonis' return.
Aside from those two stars, though, Indiana has a wealth of depth at their disposal. T.J. Warren put on an absolute show in the bubble, averaging 31 points, six rebounds and two assists on 57 percent from the field and 52 percent from deep. Even before the bubble, Warren was having a career year, proving that the Pacers were right in trading for him last offseason. Then there's Malcolm Brogdon, who also had a career-best season in his first year with the Pacers after leaving the Bucks last summer. Brogdon stepped up in Oladipo's absence throughout the regular season, and in the postseason averaged a double-double with 21 points and 10 assists.
The fit between Oladipo and Brogdon still needs to be smoothed out, as the Pacers were outscored by 4.9 points per 100 possessions when the pair shared the floor together, but with both players struggling with injuries this season, these numbers aren't the best indicator to determine if they can coexist together or not.
Health will go a long way in solving a lot of Indiana's issues for next season, and if this team can stay on the floor long enough to establish some chemistry, they could be surprising some of the top teams in the East when the postseason rolls around.
Luka Doncic led the Mavericks in a hard-fought first round series against the Clippers, which included one of the most electrifying game-winning shots in recent memory. Dallas has to be feeling incredibly good about next season, especially since this team is way ahead of schedule with Doncic still being just 21 years old. Taking a look at their roster, the Mavs have plenty of shooting depth with guards like Seth Curry, Tim Hardaway Jr., Doncic and Trey Burke, who Dallas could re-sign in the offseason. Not to mention, Dallas will return Jalen Brunson and Dwight Powell after both were out with injures, and who played significant roles in this team's rotation this season.
The biggest question mark that exists for the Mavs going into next season is Kristaps Porzingis' health, who recently had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee. K.P.'s health will always be a concern for Dallas given his previous injury history, but when he's on the floor he's an ideal fit next to Doncic, and played incredibly well in the postseason before being shut down with the meniscus tear. He's been able to bounce back from every injury he's endured, and Dallas will have to hope he can build more durability as he continues in his career.
Porzingis aside, though, this team begins and ends with Doncic. The Slovenian guard will be entering his third year, after completing yet another historic season where he was selected to the All-NBA First team, named an All-Star starter and finished in the top five of MVP voting. He's already an odds-on favorite to win MVP next season, and one way he could do that is by leading the Mavericks even further into the postseason.
He will need some help, though, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Dallas had the second-worst defensive rating (121.4) in the postseason ahead of only the Brooklyn Nets, and during the regular season, it wasn't much better, ranking 18th in the league (111.2). However, this team just came off a season where they ran the most efficient offense in league history (115.9), and with the majority of the same roster returning next year, a similar performance on offense could be expected again.
Dallas could make small moves in the offseason to incrementally improve on both ends of the floor, but as this roster stands right now, it's already in good shape to improve upon the success it had this season. If Porzingis hadn't torn his meniscus in Game 1 against the Clippers, perhaps the Mavs could've pulled off a shocking upset and advanced to the second round. Looking ahead to next season, though, if K.P. is healthy and Doncic continues to improve, the top of the West should keep an eye on Dallas.
Two seasons ago, the Trail Blazers were playing against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals after upsetting the Thunder in the first round, and shocking the Nuggets in the conference semifinals. This team is no stranger to surpassing expectations, and they did it again this year as Damian Lillard willed his team to the postseason inside the bubble after entering the NBA restart 3.5 games back of the final playoff spot.
The 2019-20 season was filled with injuries for the Trail Blazers, but heading into next season this team should be at full strength again. Jusuf Nurkic made his triumphant return inside the bubble and looked impressive while doing so (17.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and four assists). Zach Collins returned, although he had season-ending ankle surgery which made him inactive for the postseason. CJ McCollum played through a fractured back, and did so admirably, but should be ready for next season. Rodney Hood, who hadn't played since December 2019 due to rupturing his Achilles, will also be returning. Not to mention Carmelo Anthony, who revitalized his All-Star career in Portland, who hopes to return to the team where he said he's "found a home."
Then there's Lillard, who could go shot-for-shot with just about anybody in the league. His range is limitless from beyond the arc, he's a master technician at getting to the rim, and he averaged a career-high eight assists this season, showing that he's continuously improving at putting his teammates in a position to get good looks.
Lillard is cut from the same cloth as Jimmy Butler, in that they both have chips on their shoulders for being overlooked, will outwork everyone in the room to get ahead and have an endless motor to keep going, which explains why Lillard led the league in minutes per game this season (37.5).
As much as Lillard and Butler mirror each other in regards to work ethic, though, the same can't be said for them being on the same level defensively, or really Portland as a whole. The Blazers ranked 27th in defensive rating during the regular season (114.3), and in the postseason allowed the Lakers to score 117.2 points per game, which ranked third-worst among teams in the playoffs.
Defense is the Blazers' most glaring weakness entering next season, and it's something that will continue to be a problem as Portland doesn't have a ton of cap flexibility. However, the return of Hood, who is a serviceable wing defender, as well as Nurkic and Collins in the interior, could help the Blazers slightly. But on most nights they will have to hope they can outscore the other team by a wide margin, which they've been able to do in previous years.