Unless you’re a fan of the Golden State Warriors or the Cleveland Cavaliers, your team probably isn’t winning the championship this year. But there’s still plenty of reasons that this season will excite basketball fans, especially if you’re following Dominican talents Al Horford and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Born in Puerto Plata, Horford has been one of the league’s best big men during his professional years. He has four All-Star games under his belt, including selections in the last two years. He played a key role in the teams that revitalized basketball in Atlanta. Before Horford’s rookie season in 2007, the Hawks hadn’t made the playoffs since 1999. Post-2007, the team hasn’t missed a playoff. Horford entered the league after winning back-to-back NCAA championships at the University of Florida. This year he’ll be further in the spotlight than ever before. He left Atlanta in free agency and became the best player on the NBA’s most historic franchise, the Boston Celtics. Crucially, Boston’s most famous Dominican has already accepted him.
The clear power in the Eastern Conference is Cleveland, and Toronto should finish in second place. Beyond that, the path is clear for Boston. In the 2015 season, it finished as the fifth seed based on a tiebreaker after having the same record as Miami, Atlanta, and Charlotte. The Celtics are led by Brad Stevens, one of the best young coaches in basketball. Of course, the presence of LeBron in Cleveland creates a ceiling for other Eastern teams. Boston, however, has enough draft picks and young players that it can be competitive in a trade for any star that becomes available. Boston’s ceiling drastically changes if a DeMarcus Cousins suddenly shakes loose.
Before Horford’s rookie season in 2007, the Hawks hadn’t made the playoffs since 1999.
Standing pat, Boston can realistically aspire to challenge Toronto for the second seed and make a playoff run that lasts until at least the Conference Finals. Horford’s Hawks only reached that round once, before capitulating to Cleveland in four games.
Crucial to that pursuit is Horford, a highly intelligent center who can provide spacing and defense. Horford’s main offensive weapon is his mid-range shot. However, last season – adapting to a new NBA where the three-point shot is king – Horford attempted 257 from beyond the arc. He made 88. In his entire career before that he’d only attempted 65 threes. His expanding range and the fact that he has never relied on extraordinary athleticism means Horford should age gracefully. Boston should be getting several years of his prime. If Stevens can develop the young talent on the roster and General Manager Danny Ainge can add one more star, Horford can be a key piece that helps the Celtics capture an 18th championship.
Karl-Anthony Towns, on the other hand, is much further away from contending for a championship. He’s also much further away from the prime of his career. That’s frightening because Towns can already do shit like this:
At 20 years old, Towns – who the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted after he played for the University of Kentucky for one year –has already proven himself a capable three-point shooter. Last season’s unanimous Rookie of the Year is also a force defensively. He had the sixth most blocks in the league and picked up the fourth most rebounds. It’s hard to guess what his ceiling might be, because it’s rare for someone to be so good so early. In fact, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton called Towns the best prospect since LeBron James.
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton called Towns the best prospect since Lebron James.
Unlike Boston, Minnesota’s best case scenario doesn’t involve a deep playoff run. A run at one of the final playoff seeds in the Western Conference is enough to consider the season a success. But what Minnesota does have is a collection of young and exciting players, combined with a proven and excellent head coach in Tom Thibodeau. Andrew Wiggins, the top pick in 2014, is 21 and should take another step forward this year. Two-time dunk champion Zach Lavine is also 21, and there’s more to his game than just dunks. Even veteran Ricky Rubio only just turned 26. Teams stacked with good young players don’t always work out (see: early 2000s Los Angeles Clippers) but it’s hard to see a team failing with a player as talented as Towns as its centerpiece.
Towns, whose mother is Dominican, represents the DR in international play. As long as he remains committed to playing basketball for his mother’s country, there is hope that the team can qualify for the Olympic Games for the first time ever. After all, not many countries can claim it has someone on their team with best-player-in-the-NBA-level potential.
Basically, you want to watch as many Celtics and Timberwolves games as you can. Luckily, Boston plays 22 games on national TV and Minnesota plays 19. The mini Dominican takeover is as good as reason as any to watch the NBA.