Nuggets won the 22-23 title and did so handily vs. a good Miami team. That series wasn’t about Miami’s lack of talent or shooting or size, but rather about the comprehensive impact Nicola Jokic has on games when they really matter.
The Nuggets are a lot more than Jokic of course, but he’s what makes everyone else fit into their roles. His ability to manipulate opposing defenses to his team’s advantage … very few players in history have been masterful at it in the way he’s become. And he’s only getting better. The Nuggets lost a big piece however, and while the loss of Bruce Brown may be partially offset by the addition of Reggie Jackson, it’s unlikely that they’ll have the same kind of surprise off the bench they had during their 22-23 championship run. Brown was amazing, but Porter Jr. will likely continue to improve as will Braun, and with Jokic in charge the teamwork will only get better.
So IMO Jokic is the main story going into this regular season. That’s a remarkable thing to think, and even if it’s not true by consensus it’s remarkable that he’s reached this sort of prominence as he’s just starting into his prime. And with the league stacked with both veteran and young talent like we’ve never seen (at least SIX current players are likely to be consensus top 20 all time?), he’s moved demonstrably beyond all of them in terms of his current impact on the game.
Regardless, while Jokic is the main story going in there are significant changes and many huge improvements leaguewide. The Suns with new ownership (starting early 2023) appear to have made a mockery out of the free agent market – topping off their already offensively talented roster with the additions of Bradley Beal, Eric Gordon, Jusef Nurkic and Grayson Allen while shedding the apparently unmotivated weight of the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Deandre Ayton who was shipped off to the Blazers. With the additions of Nurkic, Allen and Nassir Little the Suns become a larger and likely much better defensive team making up for the loss of Mikhal Bridges early in 2023.
Many teams are better, and one needs to see how to season plays out before appointing the Suns as the leagues best chance at becoming the Jokic Killers. The Celtics are brewing up major changes at both ends of the court, albeit with the loss of their emotional backbone comprised of Smart and Grant Williams and their outstanding rim protector/rebounder in Robert Williams III. By adding Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingas they may very well have improved at both ends. Big time pressure is on Porzingas to deliver however, as the best teams in the league have gotten taller and physical inside play appears to be returning to the sport. Boston has a tall task this year as they need to prove they can consistently win battles vs. Jokic, Giannis, Nurkic, Looney, Davis, Sabonis, Valanciunas, JJJ and Holmgren (to name only some). If Horford and Porzingas can make it through to the playoffs while allowing the Celtics to deliver as is expected … we will see!
The Bucks gave up a lot to land Damion Lillard in a trade. They still have depth, but the replacement of Holiday and Allen with Lillard in the starting lineup … how they defend the perimeter now becomes a big question. Portis is a big part of the answer, but will his increased minutes (my guess) be enough to make the Lillard trade worth the big changes in their chemistry? Lillard will be a big part of deciding how quickly they all come together, and he may be able to succeed early and often in the East which clearly lacks the overall talent and expertise of the West.
Staying in the East it’s surprising (to me anyhow) that relative to the West there’s only one other team that is likely to be vastly improved over who they were in 22-23: The Detroit Pistons will add not only their young leader (and SHOULD have been ROY) back into the roster (Cunningham) but also drafted a solid ball moving and defensive minded stud in Ausar Thompson. They’re a young quick and potent team that, on paper anyhow, look to be the future of the East or at least contenders alongside the Celtics going forward. Other teams have improved in the East (Orlando comes to mind especially) but the off season wasn’t especially kind to many other teams that for one reason or the other appear to be standing pat with what they have currently. Miami, Cleveland, Chicago, Indiana, Philly, Knicks, Raptors all come to mind here. That’s a startling contrast to what’s happening in the West with almost just as many teams making great improvements, in many cases by pulling from talent originating in the East.
I have no comments about Charlotte because that team appears to be cursed. I don’t know what goes on there, and not sure ownership cares about winning. Bridges might not play this year. Hayward is past his prime. I don’t like their draft pick. They have Ball and Rozier and that appears to be it. It all seems like a big fail – they will need to trade Ball if he’s ok with that.
The Brooklyn Nets might deserve special recognition here as they appear to have a solid foundation. They’ve added Lonnie Walker and are poised to make more big changes in the near future, but it will likely take some time as they need to flesh out their front court and possibly find a solid leader among the ranks. Bridges and Dinwiddie seem unlikely to take on that role, and Simmons seems unfit in this regard.
I should also give more respect to the Knicks who added DiVincenzo to what is already a very scrappy team that plays hard at both ends and has one of the best floor generals in the league in Brunson. But the Knicks lack size and shooting from their best players. Expect them to be better this year because all their young players will be better, but how they can beat the top teams in the league that have size AND shooting … it’s a lot to ask.
Wizards. There. I wrote the word just to indicate that I didn’t forget them.
Now, where to start in the West now that the Nuggets and Suns have already been covered? I think you have to look at three teams that are going to really shake things up making it difficult for all the other contenders: Warriors, Kings and Thunder. It’s unfortunate that Dray Green isn’t ready to go in the season opener, but there are big reasons to expect big things out off the Warriors this season. The addition or Dario Saric brings a new look for them in the frontcourt and a question to be answered is how he and Looney might create some chemistry to become the league’s top rebounding front court. Dray can play any position, but how often will Kerr want him on the court at the same time as Looney and Saric? I think it’s only a question about injury risk if you play those three together, but it’s going to be something to watch when it happens even if only on given nights because of matchups.
Interesting stat here: Looney seems to have crushed it in the category of “offensive rating” – look at his number of games played vs. others atop this category. Big Time Studliness …
The Warriors added CP3 which should be an improvement over Poole, and they’re likely to be right there with the Celtics, Thunder and Knicks as the scrappiest in the league at both ends. But they lack size and we’ll need to watch to see how they can win vs. the many much bigger teams. There are many things to watch for starting with Klay’s continued improvement at both ends and Kuminga’s ability to stay under control during his quicker athletic “power drives” to the hoop. How many minutes will he get per game? I assume this is something Kerr is trying to figure out as well. As always it will be hard to decide to take Wiggins out when he and Dray have become such anchors defensively. Kerr’s got one of his biggest challenges ahead now that the Warriors appear to be back to contending status after the disappointment of their Wiseman mistake.
The Sacramento Kings are in many ways the opposite team to the Warriors. Big huge dude in Sabonis in the center who can be the focus offensively on any given night. His passing game has improved and the chemistry with Fox appears to have clicked almost right off the bat. Also unlike the Warriors, the Kings’ formula appears to be founded on having the ball in Fox’s hands on every play, mostly to allow him to try and penetrate the defense with his drives to the hoop while always threatening the harm. Fox has become much better and looking around for his guys though, and he has plenty to choose from. Murray, Heurter, Monk, Barnes and Mitchell. That’s a more physical bunch that can shoot and score than most PGs have to choose from. They’ve also added Duarte who can help to shore up their defense. If Fox improves on his already much improved game by patiently looking for his guys rather than choosing to drive first then the Kings will be a top team in the league and right there with the Nuggets and Celtics in their ability to end the regular season with the best record.
The OKC Thunder will be the new kids on the block this year. Last year it was the Kings with the Thunder making some noise along the way. In addition to SGA hitting his prime and being a top 5 MVP candidate, every guy on the roster improved over the course of last season. They have arguably the most physical and scrappy wings in the Williams’s, a continually improving and big physical scoring PG in Giddey and are now adding a top 2 or 3 shot blocker in Holmgren who can also score and rebound and make plays. The Thunder are a team to watch for upsetting contenders, and they’re only getting started assuming Holmgren’s body holds up. Loaded with draft picks they’re unquestionably one of the top teams of the future, and it starts with SGA who might be the most difficult player to stop going to the basket. Not that he doesn’t have a lot of competition starting with Morant.
I don’t know what to write about the Lakers other than that Reaves is a very likely top MIP candidate already going in. I admit to being worried that he’ll take over the LeBron role on a team with LeBron on it. He doesn’t touch the ball nearly enough IMO and seems like one of the leagues best threats at drawing fouls on drives to the rim a la SGA, Doncic and Tatum. Gabe Vincent is a nice replacement for Lonnie Walker. Still, can’t really write or predict much without knowing how many games AD will be at his best, and LeBron really needs to let his other guys run the show if he’s not going to load manage. I don’t know if he will though, but IMO they’re in the playoffs regardless as I don’t expect much from the Grizz or Pels or Wolves relative to the rest of the crowd in the West.
Pels … sooo disappointed in watching what appears to be a downturn in Ingram’s quality of play this summer in FIBA championships. That he was probably the weakest member of that team is a sad statement for Pels fans. Zion or no Zion, Ingram needs to be the player he was 2 years ago. Who knows what happened to him since then.
Dallas appears to be such a wild card with this new lineup. They could be the surprise of the league if Doncic figures out how to play alongside Kyrie. This looks like a well built roster now impressive even albeit not as deep or as big as many in the West.
Kyrie, Curry, Morris, Kleber and Grant Williams mean serious fire power if Doncic finds them regularly. I think this will be the year that we discover just how smart he can be without throwing those baby tantrums. Time to grow up kid – he’s had his fun and it needs to be about contending now but they’re thin in the front court.
I won’t write much about the Grizzlies only because it’s impossible to say how they’ll look this year. Marcus Smart is there now and will start alongside Bane – a VERY tough two-some at both ends. But without a solid and consistent leader and floor general they’re likely to appear lost early this season. Stephen Adams is out for an indefinite amount of time to start the season. Luke Kennard is likely to be a bright spot for them, but without some consistency it just doesn’t look good for the Grizz with so many other teams moving forward while they appear to be pedaling backward.
Big Jazz Fan here. Big Kessler fan. Not enough depth to make a noise in the playoffs, but wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the play in. Clarkson continues to be the most underrated – seems like I keep saying that every year. Not sure how Ainge is going to flesh out this roster – OKC and Houston are leaps and bounds ahead of them while on a similar timeline. In any case, I fully expect Kessler to become a story this year. Another sign that the Big Man is back in the NBA.
Much like the Grizz, the Clippers will stay in the TBD category until we see otherwise. The load management rule change will mean something to them, but maybe it just means that Balmer pays the most in fines. I don’t know what to think about the Clipps other than that I know Kawhi can be the best player in the league on any given night. If that’s what he wants, and who knows what Kawhi wants.
I have almost nothing to write about the Wolves because I simply think they are the worst franchise in the league management and ownership wise. They just don’t seem to know what they’re doing, and it wouldn’t surprise me if as Edwards improves he sees more clearly the dead end he’s stuck in. They’ll win games and he may be an MVP candidate but they aren’t and probably won’t be contenders for a great many years to come.
Houston and Spurs fans should be hell of excited, and they’ll both be fun to watch as they’ll undoubtedly win big games against top teams this year. Having never seen a team quite like Houston I won’t rule out a play-in berth though. It’s good to be an NBA fan in Southern Texas again.
Blazers … I seriously doubt they know what they’re doing. I think the owner is playing fantasy league or is just drunk a lot of the time.