Top 5 breakout teams in 2011-12

Grizzlies, Knicks, Trail Blazers, Clips and Wolves on the rise

Originally Published: December 23, 2011
By Chris Palmer | ESPN The Magazine

There's already been a noticeable shift in the battle for the upper echelon of the NBA. Right now, the league is a mix of super teams, aging powers and upstart contenders all vying for a chance at the crown. While glory in June is a far-fetched dream for most, many teams have stockpiled plenty of talent to make a serious run. But there are those that may not quite contend or are rebuilding that are poised to have breakout years. Let's take a look at five teams that will take a leap forward.

1. Memphis Grizzlies

Why Memphis: Perfect opportunity to build off the momentum that the Grizzlies accrued from their surprise playoff run last spring. They have arguably the best combination of team speed and size in the league, with skilled big-bodies Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph anchoring the frontline complemented by rangy athletes like Rudy Gay and Tony Allen on the perimeter. Their ability to turn the pace up to frenetic levels will be too much for the aging giants of the west, as they clearly showed the Spurs, and will allow them to keep pace with the Thunder and Clippers.

What to watch for: The loss of key sub Darrell Arthur hurts big -- he was terrific at guarding the pick-and-roll -- but expect a smothering defensive intensity and for the Grizzlies (15.7 fast-break ppg last season, sixth) to push whenever possible.

Key player: Though he was their second leading scorer last season, shoulder surgery in February meant that Gay played no role in the Grizzlies playoff run. With O.J. Mayo likely in a reduced role and Gay healthy, it's time for him to take the leap from All-Star caliber to All-Star. He can accomplish that by continuing last season's defensive improvement and mixing up his looks by relying less on his midrange game and putting the ball on the floor to get to the basket to earn more trips to the line.

Predicted record: 48-18