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Twenty Increasingly Bold Predictions for the 2023-24 NBA Season

The NBA is in an ephemeral era; getting to the top of the mountain is more realistic than staying there. The new collective bargaining agreement and all its financial penalties help explain this, as does a deep pool of talent that gives nearly a quarter of the league a realistic shot at the title. Tomorrow was never promised to anyone, but that never meant NBA organizations ignored it. Now, long-term planning seems comatose. It’s all about the present, which doubles as a thrilling crapshoot.

To set the stage for this season, here are 20 increasingly bold predictions. There’s a decent chance none will come true. (As was basically the case in the column I wrote last year.) But all are possible in a league that’s more inclined to stump its audience until the very end than it’s been in a very long time.

1. Nikola Jokic will win his third MVP in four years.

The case here is easy. Jokic is (still) the best player alive, about to log huge minutes on a strong title contender with a young bench that’s still likely to crumble when he sits. Nobody makes their teammates better. Nobody is more efficient at a high volume. Nobody more closely resembles a bored father breezing through his toddler’s pop-up book while reading complex defensive schemes. He’s a walking triple-double with a transcendent skill set, model temperament, and understated defensive chops that were on display throughout Denver’s run to the Finals.

Jokic has already won this award twice and (controversially to some people, a.k.a. me) was last year’s runner-up. Three MVPs will separate him from every player in his generation, which is how it should be. To raise the stakes and make this prediction a bit more interesting, in winning another MVP, Jokic will also become the first player in NBA history to lead the league in rebounds and assists per game.

2. Joel Embiid will win his third straight scoring title.

It’s fair to give James Harden plenty of credit for Embiid’s MVP season, one in which the 76ers center averaged an astounding 33.1 points per game while making nearly 55 percent of his shots. As a pick-and-roll playmaker, few manipulate the game better than Harden, and Embiid was less efficient last season when they weren’t together. But whether Harden is on the team, sitting at home, or wearing a different jersey this season, Philly’s most important player will still eat.

Embiid averaged 48.3 points per 100 possessions when Harden was on the court last year and 47.2 when he was not. A marginal slide. His free throw attempts went up by 2.8 per 100 possessions, too. If Harden stays true to his word and never plays for Daryl Morey ever again, it’s fair to assume some of the 14.5 shots he averaged last year will be reallocated to Embiid. Tyrese Maxey can replicate some of those pocket-pass dimes that feed the big man right in his sweet spot, while Nick Nurse should cook up some actions that foreground his franchise center.

In last year’s first-round series against the Nets, Jacque Vaughn designed an oppressive scheme that forced the MVP to pass. As far as limiting his scoring opportunities, it worked. In three games, Embiid scored only 60 total points. But executing something so complicated and distinct in the regular season isn’t realistic. And until the NBA figures out how to slow Embiid down from October to April, the 29-year-old will still score more points than anybody else—especially if Nurse’s tendency to ride his starters carries over from his time in Toronto.

3. The Celtics will win the inaugural in-season tournament.

I don’t entirely understand how this tournament works and haven’t spent any time anticipating what it’ll take to win. But Boston still feels like a safe pick, poised to finish with a top-five offense and a top-five defense for the second straight season. The Derrick White, Jrue Holiday, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kristaps Porzingis lineup that started the Celtics’ past couple of preseason games looks unfair. The floor is impossibly spaced when they have the ball and claustrophobic when they don’t.

Assuming that starting five stays intact through the next few months, Al Horford is overqualified as a big off the bench, Payton Pritchard might be the most complete backup point guard in the league, and Joe Mazzulla can unleash a rotation that always has two of Tatum, Brown, Holiday, or Porzingis on the court. So, again, I don’t really understand how the in-season tournament works and my eyes glaze over whenever someone tries to explain the rules. But Boston is the most talented team, so Boston is my pick.

4. The Warriors will have a positive net rating when Steph Curry rests.

Since he was drafted, the only time Golden State outscored opponents with Curry on the bench was 2018. The margin was plus-0.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s once out of 14 seasons!

Draymond Green’s injury puts this prediction behind the eight ball, but Steve Kerr should be able to find a balanced rotation once his roster is whole. When Curry rests, the Warriors have intriguing options. Sticking Chris Paul with Klay Thompson—who’s never really functioned beside a pass-first point guard—makes a lot of sense, as does throwing out an all-bench mob that lets the Point God lead some bouncy, adaptable groups that include Dario Saric, Brandin Podziemski, Moses Moody, Gary Payton II, and Jonathan Kuminga (the preseason’s scoring leader).

As a collective, the bench’s lack of shooting, size, and scoring punch isn’t ideal, but pretty much all of these players are able to guard up a position; a majority are willing passers who know how to cut, screen, and make themselves useful without the ball. They have athleticism and untapped potential, too, creating several lineup combinations for Kerr to explore when his best player isn’t on the court. (As one example: Kevon Looney, Andrew Wiggins, Saric, Moody, and Chris Paul would be a big problem for opposing benches.)

My hunch is these groups will discover their own structure without losing some of the random qualities that make Curry’s minutes so lethal. Unlike last year, everyone on the Warriors appears to be rowing in the same direction. They’re a contender for a reason.

5. The Suns will unleash the most efficient offense of all time.

This idea tracks closer to rational than hyperbole. The Suns have three bucket-hunting assassins on their roster, each as comfortable moving off the ball as they are effective with it. When Kevin Durant and Devin Booker shared the court last season, Phoenix generated 121.7 points per 100 possessions in 180 minutes—most of them with Chris Paul on the court. Now, Bradley Beal (more on him here) fills that role; any team that runs with someone who twice averaged more than 30 points per game as its third option should probably win the title.

The Suns were a 2.5-man team in last year’s postseason. Their offense is now significantly more talented, versatile, and athletic, with reputable 3-point shooters, midrange maestros, and downhill drivers to boot. New arrival Eric Gordon spaces the floor well behind the 3-point line and isn’t shy about bowling his compact body into the paint.

It’s fine to be down on Jusuf Nurkic as Deandre Ayton’s replacement, but as someone well versed in how to execute a tight dribble handoff with a superstar partner—who accepts and understands how and why his role needs to be tapered—it’s OK to think he makes sense on this team. The Suns can drop the ball into Nurkic at the elbow and then scurry around. Imagine Booker and Durant split cutting off this setup:

Or Beal deciding to put the defense in a blender by running a pass and chase that’s similar to what’s seen below:

Even if the initial action hits a speed bump, these sequences—and so many others that are launched in a related way—will be virtually unstoppable when conducted in space, involving two or three of the best scorers alive.

The lack of hype is odd. Maybe it’s the fact that Durant, Booker, and Beal have relatively reserved personalities. Maybe it’s because, for a Big Three, the positional overlap is unsightly with an anachronistic shot chart. But what’s the plan to slow this offense down? Bradley Beal is their third-best player! This is pure luxury that compares nicely to what the 2021 Nets could have been. All three sizzle in isolation with as much room to attack as they’ve ever known. They can all draw two defenders and find the open man. They can all get to the free throw line (and make pretty much all of their attempts, too).

Grind their movement to a halt and force a contested fallaway with three seconds on the shot clock … and it’ll probably go in. Point guards matter, and not having one can lead to unwanted hiccups—Grayson Allen plus a second-round pick for either Monte Morris or T.J. McConnell makes sense for everyone—but even without one, this offense has multiple players who are comfortable running a fast break, navigating a pick-and-roll, or piercing into the paint off a wide pindown.

Phoenix’s offense was snappy in 2022, when it was also one of the most efficient units in the league, coming off a Finals collapse that could at least partially be explained by its dogged pace and enthusiasm to get easier looks against playoff defenses. That advantage slipped last year, when they were at their slowest with Paul at the helm. Without him, they registered a blistering tempo, one that should easily be recreated all year, assuming that’s the goal.

The talent here, regardless of what speed they adopt, will shine. The shotmaking will be an eruption. Even teams that are smart enough to know what’s coming won’t be able to stop it. That doesn’t mean the Suns are a lock to win it all (defense matters), but, for most teams on most nights, hoping they miss may be the only way to come out on top.

6. Jamal Murray will make his first All-NBA team.

Anyone who witnessed Murray’s contributions during the Nuggets’ dominant championship run should see him as one of the six best guards in basketball. In 20 games, he averaged 40 minutes, 26.1 points, 7.1 assists, and 5.7 rebounds and drilled 39.6 percent of his 3s and a whopping 50.7 percent of his postseason-high 138 pull-up 2s. The degree of difficulty, on the sport’s grandest stage, under constant pressure? Murray overcame it all. The two-man game he ran with Nikola Jokic was seamless punishment. Even before the Nuggets’ title, he was the league’s best player who’d never made an All-Star team; if he stays healthy enough to appear in 65 games, with more confidence than he’s ever had and a massive financial incentive spurring him on, Murray will solidify himself as one of the very best guards in the world.

7. The Pacers will be the 21st century’s fastest team.

The 2019-20 Bucks logged the fastest overall pace since 2000. They had Giannis Antetokounmpo (and Eric Bledsoe) to thank. The quickest offensive pace over that span goes to the 2018-19 Thunder, a cannonball packed by Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

The Pacers are built to top them both. Last year, they finished fourth in transition frequency, despite ending the season ranked 30th in defensive rebound rate. “To run, you have to have the ball,” Rick Carlisle recently said. “It’s pretty simple.” (They finished second in pace after a made basket, which helped.)

Assuming they make a more concerted effort to box out and corral missed shots (with offseason additions helping), the Pacers can be a jet pack. Tyrese Haliburton has 20/5 vision in the open floor. Bennedict Mathurin doesn’t shy away from coast-to-coast drives (even when he has no advantage). Bruce Brown, Obi Toppin, and Jarace Walker are here to push, dunk, and run lanes. Carlisle’s face may melt, but it’s exactly how Indy should play.

8. Two of these players will make their All-Star debuts.

Evan Mobley
Desmond Bane
Scottie Barnes
Paolo Banchero
Franz Wagner
Tyrese Maxey
Jalen Brunson

9. Jerami Grant will end up on the Lakers.

I mentioned this possibility in a recent column. Maybe it won’t happen. Maybe the Blazers will find a different trade partner or the Lakers won’t be willing to meet Portland’s asking price. But ever since Damian Lillard’s trade request went public, Grant to the Lakers has felt like a fait accompli.

He can make somewhat of a difference on both ends for a team that, aside from Taurean Prince, has no wing stoppers who can simultaneously enhance an offense. Grant averaged 20.5 points per game and made over 40 percent of his 3s last season. He has fast hands and long arms, and he can stick point guards and power forwards—a presence that would let the Lakers defend more ways than they can right now.

On one hand, Grant’s contract—a five-year, $160 million deal—is prohibitive for a team that will want to maintain flexibility as it shifts into a post–LeBron James era. On the other, Grant is represented by Klutch, and the Lakers should absolutely be all in to win it all.

No deal is likely to happen until at least January 15, when all potential participants become trade eligible. But D’Angelo Russell’s $17.3 million salary could be tied to Gabe Vincent’s $10.5 million and be a near-perfect match. The Lakers wouldn’t have point guards on their roster, but ambivalence toward positional norms is far from a deal-breaker when trying to win a championship; James, Austin Reaves, and Grant should be fine assuming all meaningful ballhandling responsibilities.

From there, Portland and L.A. would go back and forth over draft compensation. And if the Blazers can get an unprotected first-round pick, they should hang up the phone before Rob Pelinka changes his mind and then pat themselves on the back. It’s a logical win for both sides.

10. Five of these players will be traded.

Pascal Siakam
OG Anunoby
Gary Trent Jr.
Malcolm Brogdon
Rob Williams III
Spencer Dinwiddie
Kyle Kuzma
Tyus Jones
Gordon Hayward
Buddy Hield

11. The Bucks will have a below-average defense.

Milwaukee’s defense has been a staple of its identity since 2018-19, when Brook Lopez signed as a free agent and Mike Budenholzer was named head coach. Protecting the paint at all costs raised the Bucks’ floor in every regular season—short of 2021-22, when Lopez appeared in only 13 games and they finished 14th in defensive rating.

Say what you will about their commitment to drop coverage in the playoffs: All that size was a problem. The scheme worked. Giannis Antetokounmpo won Defensive Player of the Year in 2020. The following season, Milwaukee traded Eric Bledsoe (an on-ball pest in his own right) and three first-round picks for Jrue Holiday, who’s made an All-Defensive team every season since. The Bucks then won it all.

Even before Holiday arrived, Khris Middleton was dependable on the wing, and supplementary pieces like Donte DiVincenzo, Wesley Matthews, and Malcolm Brogdon battled in a disciplined scheme that funneled prey toward predators lying in wait at the rim. It worked like a conveyor belt. Until last season, 3s were fine, so long as attempts at the basket turned into long 2s and contested floaters. Milwaukee was also routinely incredible in transition against teams that knew their only hope was to attack in the open floor every chance they had.

Now, Bud has been replaced by Adrian Griffin, Holiday has been replaced by Damian Lillard, Middleton doesn’t have the same lateral quickness, and Lopez—who logged more minutes than Jokic and Embiid last season—will turn 36 in April. Antetokounmpo is still one of the most intimidating help defenders in NBA history, but, coming off a knee operation over the summer, he will be asked to do more on that end than ever before.

Whenever Antetokounmpo and Lopez shared the floor without Holiday over the past three seasons, Milwaukee’s defense was slightly below average. It sounds batty to suggest that Jrue’s value or impact on that end was underrated, but it might have been. According to Second Spectrum, the only player who defended more ball screens than Holiday since 2020 was Mikal Bridges (who never missed a game).

There’s so much subtlety to what makes Holiday great. In this play against the Bulls, watch how he gets up into DeMar DeRozan to ice the initial drag screen before sliding over Nikola Vucevic’s pick to keep the ball from going middle. Chicago’s first option is neutralized because Jrue decided to take it off the table. That’s special.

Milwaukee’s defense at the point of attack was a bear trap when Holiday harassed the ball. Now, with Lillard in his place, resistance is more like a spritz of vapor. Whether he is cross-matched in transition or switches a ball screen, strain is thrust onto everybody else. Look at how aggressively Anfernee Simons has to help in the paint after Lillard checks Jaren Jackson Jr. below. Desmond Bane skips the ball to Ja Morant, and Memphis gets a wide-open 3.

Giannis and Lopez are mobile brick walls, but it’s not hard to see the potential for routine breakdowns along the perimeter that will be exacerbated when one of them isn’t in the game.

It’s harder and harder to find a spot to hide in today’s NBA. Offensive lineups are increasingly varied and creative; the days of diminished specialists are nearing an end. That applies to Lillard and also Malik Beasley, who may be Milwaukee’s fifth starter. Griffin will have to scheme around his team’s weaknesses, be it with more aggressive pick-and-roll coverage or some zone. But there’s only so much he can do with this roster.

12. The Bulls will host a playoff series.

Philosophically, I still don’t like how myopic Chicago’s front office is. Its vision has a low ceiling, which is an injustice to fans who understand that this era is unlikely to end with a single playoff series victory. But that doesn’t mean this iteration of the Bulls won’t be competitive or even pretty good.

They enter this season as a fascinating test case for the value of continuity in a league full of change. Last year, they tied the Bucks and Pelicans for the second-most minutes rolled over from the previous year (a whopping 87 percent). This year, pretty much every integral member is back: Chicago re-signed Nikola Vucevic, Ayo Dosunmu, and Coby White, while Zach LaVine and/or DeMar DeRozan have somehow not been traded. Instead of doing reconstructive surgery on a roster that didn’t make the postseason, over the summer, Chicago added Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig, two auxiliary pieces who can up this team’s 3-point rate and fit nicely into its aggressive defensive scheme.

When you separate big-picture nausea from the actual roster Billy Donovan will coach, what’s there is OK! The Bulls have a bunch of good players who make sense next to each other! Their best five—Alex Caruso, DeRozan, LaVine, Patrick Williams, and Vucevic—outscored opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions in 200 minutes last year. Swap White in for Caruso—their expected new starting lineup—and they were at plus-11.5 in 81 minutes.

Chicago had the best defense in the NBA after the All-Star break last year, a stat that might be fool’s gold considering the lethargic competition, but it shouldn’t be ignored entirely. This team finished 13th in net rating for the entire season and 29th in win differential—which means their overall record had 4.2 fewer wins than was expected based on their point differential. Related: They won only 39.5 percent of their clutch games, the fourth worst. That will probably be better in 2024.

A commitment to more 3-point shots will put math in their favor, too. Chicago’s primary shot takers love the midrange, but all of them can drill spot-up jumpers from the outside, too. Targeting 3s was a clear mandate during the preseason, and we’ll see how long it lasts. But if the Bulls are even just slightly below league average in 3-point frequency—instead of dead last—their offensive rating will rise.

Unlike last year, the Bulls finally have some clarity on Lonzo Ball’s status. They’re better constructed to fill the void he left last year, swarming the floor with three-guard lineups (Caruso, Carter, and Dosunmu are a bed of scorpions) that can create turnovers and speed up the game’s tempo.

There’s always a chance Chicago will start slow and finally acquiesce to whoever calls with the best offer for LaVine or DeRozan. But finishing with a better record than the Sixers (a mess) or the Heat (down two starters from last year’s Finals run and also not that much better than Chicago during last year’s regular season) isn’t out of the question. Don’t sleep on this team’s talent, cohesiveness, and room to grow in a conference that’s competitive, albeit top-heavy.

13. Jordan Poole will lead the league in two statistical categories!

After Poole landed on the Wizards, the general expectation was that he would become the NBA’s next great gobbler of empty calories. That may be true. He dropped 41 in a preseason game and does not lack an imagination for getting all sorts of shots up from different angles and areas. But contrary to popular belief, the last time I checked, you still had to be good to score a ton of points. Opportunity does not always yield favorable results, as was the case in Washington’s preseason finale, when Poole shot 1-for-15 from the field (a week after he went 2-for-13 against the Hornets).

Expect that trend to continue. Last year, Anthony Edwards missed a league-high 834 shots. My first prediction is that Poole will sniff that number. My second: Coming off of a season in which he recorded the second-most dead-ball turnovers in the entire NBA—he lost the ball out of bounds 34 times, which was 10 more than anybody else—Poole’s turnover rate will peak at 35 percent in Washington, which would be the highest mark ever recorded.

Right now, the Wizards are the least relevant team and the only tanking organization sans a clear franchise building block. Instead, they have a jittery, selfish guard who will lead the league in self-inflicted body blows. In Washington, where losing is acceptable, all those chances to show how unreliable he can be can work as the organization’s greatest strength.

14. Victor Wembanyama will win Defensive Player of the Year.

In Wembanyama’s very first preseason game, Gregg Popovich told his 19-year-old franchise everything to guard Thunder wing Jalen Williams, an experimental gambit that required only a few moments of acclimatization before it became one of the more terrifying developments in recent NBA history.

A few minutes into the game, Wembanyama found himself backpedaling in transition as Williams came at him. The shifty 6-foot-5 sophomore drove right off a Lu Dort screen and then crossed over behind his back, spinning Wembanyama the wrong way and seemingly removing him from the play. But as Williams drove middle for what would 99 percent of the time be an uncontested left-handed layup, Wembanyama showed why he is the 1 percent everybody in the NBA needs to worry about.

He turned his hips, extended his left arm, and, while both of his feet were still on the opposite side of the restricted area, reached out and swatted Williams’s layup out of bounds. From there, he did a bunch of other stuff that pretty much nobody else can do—swiping at Cason Wallace to force a steal as he drove into the paint while standing damn near the 3-point line was surreal. Wemby’s spindly legs, impossibly long arms, twitchy speed, and advanced instincts all combine to create an interference that’s unlike anything basketball has ever really seen before. Modern NBA offense is about creating space. Nobody can take it away like Wembanyama can.

There will be teams that try to bruise the rookie in the post and take advantage of his thin frame. He still looks a bit awkward on an island 25 feet from the basket and will pick up some cheap fouls while contesting jumpers. But if Pop constantly plays Wembanyama beside another center and lets him roam off the other team’s worst shooter (or just, like, shut down a score-first guard), San Antonio’s defense will be an obstacle course when he’s on the court. That’s what happens when blocks like this are the norm, or when he looks like Mikal Bridges navigating a pick-and-roll, or when he’s casually making Klay Thompson skittish behind the arc.

The league’s new player participation policy may create a roadblock for Wemby to win Defensive Player of the Year. Voters will also hesitate to congratulate a rookie on (what will probably be) a losing team. But Victor’s impact should be immediately massive in ways no other player can duplicate.

(Sidebar: If Bam Adebayo goes his entire career without winning this award, it’ll be a basketball tragedy. He’s 26 years old, he’s in his physical prime, and he deserves it. If Wembanyama does not meet the 65-game threshold, it’ll be Bam’s time. Nothing against Giannis Antetokounmpo or Draymond Green, but the fact that Bam finished third for most versatile defender on this year’s general manager survey makes zero sense. He epitomizes defensive versatility! End rant.)

15. The Timberwolves will finish with a top-three record.

Here’s how I see the Timberwolves: Thanks to the leg injury that sidelined Karl-Anthony Towns for four months last season, this year will be what 2022-23 should’ve been. Remove everything that’s on the periphery of actual basketball—the lopsided Rudy Gobert trade, ego-based questions about whose team it is, an über-expensive payroll and a need for draft capital that puts Towns’s name in trade rumors—and it’s not hard, even in a brutal Western Conference, to like what Minnesota has cooking. The pieces are in place for it to dominate regular-season competition: All-NBA talent, so much size, depth, veteran guile, youth, shooting, inventive coaches, some of the best defenders, and explosive athletes who can take over a game.

Anthony Edwards is an ascending star. Towns has a 50-40-90 season in him. Gobert’s defense still changes offensive strategies. Jaden McDaniels can legitimately shut down the world’s top offensive players and is primed to mature with the ball in his hands. Everything about Mike Conley, including his 36 years of wisdom, was designed in a lab to make him this roster’s ideal point guard. They’re bringing Kyle Anderson, Naz Reid, and (the underrated) Nickeil Alexander-Walker off the bench.

The offense isn’t without cause for concern. It really struggled to score even when its best players were on the floor last year. Whether Edwards ran pick-and-rolls with Gobert or Towns, both partnerships were a mess when the other big shared the floor. But their new starting five played only 75 minutes in seven games. Complementary talent, spacing, and creative coaches will help carve a path for Minnesota to be more efficient this season.

Edwards will get even more reps as a playmaker and will have more opportunities to launch catch-and-shoot 3s. The Timberwolves will ultimately go as far as his development takes them. (One big-picture takeaway from this preseason that may ultimately be meaningless: The Timberwolves rank first in location effective field goal percentage, mostly because they’ve abandoned long 2-point jumpers.)

Most of my own optimism, though, springs from the other end. Gobert is still an elite, floor-raising paint protector who did more to lift Minnesota into the top 10 than anyone else on the roster last year. Opponents took 35 percent of their shots at the rim—not a great number—but Gobert’s on-off differential defending the basket was the league best.

More importantly, in 360 minutes, lineups that featured Gobert, Edwards, McDaniels, and Towns held opponents to just 102.9 points per 100 possessions—the third lowest out of 150 four-player combos that logged at least 350 minutes. When Towns and Gobert shared the court, their defensive rating was 105.6, the same as Brook Lopez and Jrue Holiday. They didn’t foul, took care of the glass, and got back in transition.

This roster may not be ideal for postseason basketball, but it’ll be a problem through the winter, against teams that aren’t comfortable handling such a singular, explosive, humongous group that can win in several different ways. The more time they have together, the better they’ll be.

16. The Rockets will make the play-in—and the Mavericks won’t.

Picking against Luka Doncic is stupid, so if that’s the first word that comes to your mind when reading this subhead, fair. But this prediction has more to do with Houston’s offseason overhaul and some real on-court concerns in Dallas than anything Doncic can or can’t do. The man deserves an individualized Ennio Morricone score.

Let’s start with the Rockets, an organization that spent the past three seasons embarrassing itself on and off the court. It’s almost impossible to demolish old cultural principles and then fertilize and benefit from new ones in just a few months’ time, but Houston brought in a few commanding personalities who will try to do just that. In the door: a no-nonsense head coach, a businesslike veteran point guard, and an elite on-ball defender whose bravado toes the line between reckless and brilliant.

Ime Udoka, Fred VanVleet, and Dillon Brooks will make a difference alongside serviceable veteran additions like Jeff Green, Reggie Bullock, and Jock Landale. But more important than those names alone is the effect they’ll have on the blue-chip talent that’s potentially ready to bloom in a more structured environment. Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Alperen Sengun, Tari Eason, and Amen Thompson have as much potential as any other young core.

The Rockets aren’t reliant on any of those names to make a gigantic leap, but gradual all-around improvement—particularly as it relates to how each player can contribute to a winning situation—would do wonders for a team that finished 29th in net rating, defensive rating, and assist rate last year, with the worst half-court offense. (Kevin Porter Jr.’s exit is addition by subtraction in all those areas.)

Even though outside shooting is a question mark, VanVleet, Green, Brooks, Smith Jr., and Sengun could be a pretty explosive, multidimensional starting five, especially if Green tightens up his shot selection and makes smarter decisions when the ball is in his hands. Putting Sengun at the top of the floor and utilizing his vision might be the safest bet. He should also be able to run a mean pick-and-roll with VanVleet, either setting a screen or running it himself. Brooks will obviously do his own hunting, whether it’s in transition, relocating along the perimeter, driving closeouts, or taking his man one-on-one when the situation calls for it (and definitely when it does not).

There are plenty of options for Udoka to churn through, but a path to competent, regulated offense is visible. The Sengun-Green dribble handoff generated 1.27 points per possession last season, running more actions than every tandem except Domantas Sabonis and Kevin Huerter. There’s real chemistry between these two, but the Sengun-Green dribble handoff can be even more lethal when inverted. Green is more likely to dribble the air out of the ball than set a screen for Sengun. If that changes, look out.

Defense will be an issue, even if it’s all the new head coach cares about. There’s reason to think they’ll be much improved from last year, particularly if Smith Jr. grows a bit and the commitment that Brooks and VanVleet exude rubs off on everybody else. But Boban Marjanovic is the closest thing to a rim protector on this roster. And even if they sell out to take away the paint in a switch-heavy scheme, they’ll leave themselves vulnerable behind the 3-point line (where Houston’s defense was absolutely decimated a year ago).

An organized offense should improve their transition defense (which also ranked last in 2022-23) and give them the look and feel of a professional basketball team. And if they’re willing to fork over a first-round pick for Udoka’s old pal Robert Williams III, they might actually sneak up on some people.

Until then, increased buy-in and selfless contributions from just a few of their young talents—keep an eye on Eason, who didn’t miss a game last year and finished with a higher offensive rebound rate than any non-center—will result in a teamwide jump that could turn them into what last year’s Thunder were.

Circling back to Dallas, if Doncic sprains his ankle, strains his calf, or suffers any type of injury that sidelines him for a week or two, everything will fall apart. Kyrie Irving, by himself, is not a reliable plan B. They have more than enough shooting and will regularly score over 120 points, but their roster is so small and overly reliant on rookies that those outbursts may not result in as many wins as they should. Grant Williams is helpful, but in Boston, he functioned beside elite defensive figures. Dallas’s two highest-paid players don’t exert maximum effort on that end. In other words, it’s reasonable to think twice about a team that’s this excited after adding another organization’s eighth man.

17. Zion Williamson will finish top 10 in assists.

Last year, I predicted that Zion would win his first scoring title. It was tempting to run that back. As I type this sentence, he’s healthy, which means he’s unguardable. But knowing he’ll have an opportunity to play at the 5 in a spaced-out floor against defenses that will throw the kitchen sink at him to protect the paint, Williamson should be able to pick opponents apart another way. Lost in the turbulence of Zion’s first few years as a tantalizing NBA star is just how awesome he is at passing the ball.

Before last season was cut short, he averaged 4.6 assists per game and was in the 96th percentile for assist rate at his position. Those numbers could be jolted in James Borrego’s system. It’s Williamson’s most understated skill, and when surrounded by capable outside shooters and active motion, whatever offense he’s steering is impossible to stop.

18. The Nets will have the best defense in the NBA.

With a full understanding that great team defense needs more than just a collection of great individual defenders, here’s my argument: Mikal Bridges, Nic Claxton, and Ben Simmons. Does any other organization claim three players who’ve all heard their name in a recent Defensive Player of the Year conversation? Now add Dorian Finney-Smith, Royce O’Neale, and Cam Johnson. That’s over half of Brooklyn’s rotation!

Last year, the Nets’ post–trade deadline starting five allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than the top-ranked Cavaliers. They switched a ton and induced more one-on-one basketball than any team in Second Spectrum’s entire database: 23.2 isolations per 100 possessions. It all came without Simmons, who, if physically right, brings size and a degree of on-ball muscle few players can muster.

After the trade deadline, they had the second-lowest defensive 3-point rate leaguewide and were one of three teams that forced more shots from the midrange than behind the arc. Simmons pretty much didn’t play in any of those games. For the entire season, only 60.3 percent of their opponents’ points were scored within 5 feet of the rim. Again, good for second best. The Nets will probably commit a bunch of fouls, are still thin at center, and may have a tough time on the glass. But units deployed without any individual weak links for the offense to target are at such an advantage in today’s NBA. Brooklyn has several to tinker with.

19. The Clippers will make the Finals.

I can’t quit this team. My belief in Kawhi Leonard is firm enough to make cement feel like a plum. Paul George is still a premier all-around player, and there aren’t five head coaches more bold or resourceful than Ty Lue.

Their depth and rotational versatility are more clear than last year, when Leonard spent his offseason rehabbing a torn ACL, they didn’t have a viable backup center, and pressure was on John Wall to make a difference running point. Russell Westbrook, flaws and all, has shown that he’s a workable (if not good) fit who does not, in fact, suck blood. In 21 games with the Clippers, Westbrook’s true shooting percentage was a career high. More importantly: The team’s transition frequency was 3.1 percentage points better with Russ on the court, an impact that placed him in the 97th percentile last season.

He’s there to push the pace, find open teammates, crash the offensive glass, and get Los Angeles into coordinated half-court sets that let Leonard and George function off the ball. The turnovers and negative gravity are still there, but even though their offense wasn’t very good when Russ shared the floor with those two stars, the Clippers are better equipped to absorb his defects than most teams are, so long as Westbrook’s defensive energy and downhill athleticism don’t fall off a cliff. Mason Plumlee is back as an ideal reserve big man who works well with starters or bench units. Kenyon Martin Jr. joins Terance Mann and Bones Hyland to splash in some youth and above-the-rim athleticism. Norm Powell is still a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. And while everyone is focused on their need to acquire another ball handler—be it James Harden, Malcolm Brogdon, or whoever fills their most glaring need come February—a power forward could be even more necessary.

The Jazz may be an ideal trade partner here. Kelly Olynyk makes some sense, and depending on how John Collins looks in Utah’s humongous frontcourt—expect his trade value to be a lot higher now than it was when the Hawks actually moved him—the Clippers can attach a protected first-round pick to some expirings and bulk up for a postseason run that may require additional size. Or, in a pipe-dream hypothetical that almost definitely won’t happen but may be explored, the Clippers can offer two unprotected first-round picks, two second-round picks, a pick swap in 2029, Mann, Robert Covington, and Brandon Boston Jr. for Lauri Markkanen.

There’s no need to explain why the Clippers would want to do this. And while there’s no indication Utah would be motivated to move on from a 26-year-old All-Star who just won Most Improved Player, it’s reasonable to wonder if they see Markkanen’s looming max contract and are evaluating how good they can actually be before it expires. Jazz fans will rightfully wonder if this is the best offer Markkanen could get if he’s foisted on the open market, but adding that type of draft capital (plus Mann, who effectively ended the Rudy Gobert–Donovan Mitchell era and is very good) isn’t nothing!

Back to reality for a moment: Regardless of what changes the Clippers make, the fact that they still have two future first-round picks and some sizable expiring contracts to attach them to is major. Even if they’re in first place before the trade deadline, the ability to upgrade matters.

Until then, a Clippers campaign that begins with everyone healthy, motivated, and feeling just enough pressure to take the regular season seriously is cause for optimism. Leonard, George, and Lue are all working for contract extensions. The league’s desire to keep its stars on the court can only help this organization. They have enough talent, experience, and skill to win it all.

The roster is well balanced and has the potential to dominate on both ends, with a brand-new starting five, featuring Mann and Westbrook, that never saw the court last season. Their ceiling is as high as any other team’s, and Leonard’s absolute peak still tops just about everyone else’s on the planet. Fully acknowledging that he last ended a season healthy in 2020, the 32-year-old is too strong, smart, unbothered, methodical, and intimidating to not sit on top of the league once again. Since 2019, when he won his second Finals MVP, no player in the NBA has a higher individual net rating (plus-10.2).

Reasonable minds can think this is absurd. I get that. When their best players aren’t good enough to reach All-NBA heights, I’ll hop off the bandwagon. But injuries aren’t enough to make me skeptical about a team that can go the distance with a dash of luck.

20. The Sixers and Heat will make a trade that changes everything.

Miami gets: Joel Embiid
Philadelphia gets: Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, two unprotected first-round picks, and a future pick swap

This prediction is at the end of an “increasingly bold” predictions column for a reason. And since there’s a near-zero chance it will happen before the trade deadline, we’re proposing it based on the fact that this season technically does not end until July 1, 2024. It involves two teams that aspire to win it all in a conference that, at the moment, feels owned by two rivals that made foundation-altering upgrades over the summer.

To be clear, this trade won’t go down before another taste of postseason disappointment. It won’t happen unless the Heat feel stuck and Embiid’s patience with Philly runs out. But under those circumstances, it’s easy to see how this makes sense for both sides.

For Miami, the rationale is obvious, albeit extremely painful. Adebayo might be the best defensive player on the planet. Since the Heat drafted him, he’s been an essential contributor on two Finals teams (the first might’ve won it all had he not gotten hurt early in that series) and, in taking the baton from Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, has become a cultural linchpin in a place where that sort of thing really matters.

Bam is only 26 years old. He plays with no ego and priceless intensity. In the oft-frenzied conditions of NBA life, this dude is not about the bullshit. Embiid just so happens to be one of the two or three players the Heat would even consider moving him for. It’s an irresistible upgrade that would thrill Jimmy Butler and devastate a league that prefers a world where Embiid languishes in dysfunction. Imagine what he’d be under Erik Spoelstra, in a no-nonsense, no-excuses environment.

If Embiid demands a trade this summer, what offer would be better than this one? There are teams that can package more picks and younger building blocks, but assuming the Sixers want to stay competitive and not backslide into the lottery, nothing realistic comes close to Miami’s best offer. It would let them build around Adebayo, Tyrese Maxey, Robinson, max cap space, and four tradable first-round picks. That’s a pretty great place to be!

Daryl Morey won’t make a deal like this unless Embiid asks out, but, in all honesty, if you frame it as the return for a perennially injured 30-year-old who can hit unrestricted free agency in 2026, maybe it’s worth doing regardless.


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