Sleeper teams for each conference in 2017-18 NBA season

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Eastern Conference

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets finished a disappointing 36-46 last season, but they were never as far off as it appeared. Despite that dismal record, they still outscored opponents, and point difference tends to better predict future success than record.

Charlotte’s big problem last year was center depth. The team went 3-17 without Cody Zeller.

The Hornets corrected – maybe overcorrected – that by trading for Dwight Howard. Howard will start over Zeller for now, and there’s certainly value in having both players provide depth. But Zeller has proven to be the effective fit in the starting lineup. If Howard’s ego allows a move to the bench, Charlotte is definitely better off with that option in its back pocket. If not, this could get tricky for Steve Clifford.

I’m not sure whether Nicolas Batum‘s injury makes the Hornets more or less of a sleeper. They’re obviously worse without him, but a couple-month absence isn’t nearly enough to write them off. The setback might help them fly further under the radar.

Batum’s injury will put more pressure on Michael Carter-Williams, Julyan Stone and Malik Monk to cobble together effective point-guard minutes offensively and defensively when Kemba Walker sits. That was another, smaller, sore spot last year.

Still, Charlotte is well-coached with a fairly cohesive rotation full of players who’ve developed chemistry together. The Hornets are a highly likely a playoff team, not the borderline outfit many have treated them as. After all, they play in the East.

Western Conference

Utah Jazz

The Jazz will feel the loss of their second-best player.

That’s right. Second.

Rudy Gobert was Utah’s best player even before Gordon Hayward left for the Celtics. Gobert is appropriately touted defensively, the best traditional rim protector in the game right now. But he’s quietly an offensive force – a screener, rebounder and finisher.

The Jazz will miss Hayward, to be sure. But much of that is long-term. The 27-year-old will remain in his prime for multiple years and would’ve pushed Utah’s ceiling much higher.

This season, the Jazz rebounded with enough veterans – Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh – to fortify a deep rotation. The newcomers and returning players like Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson just know how to contribute to winning.

Regression to the mean would make Utah healthier than last season. Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors can take steps forward, though Favors is a tough fit with Gobert. First-round Donovan Mitchell looks like a steal.

For too many, last year was the baseline, and Hayward is simply being subtracted. Make no mistake, his offensive creativity will be missed. But this team should take steps forward in other facets and remain elite defensively behind Gobert.

The middle of the Western Conference is tough, and the Jazz are by no means a playoff lock. But they have the talent and savvy to at least hold their own in that very competitive environment – even without Hayward.