(Approximately) 30 Thoughts On 30 NBA Teams, 2022-’23 Edition
Not so fast – To focus on the “sudden” rush to the bottom for Victor Wembanyama and, especially after their recent matchup on national TV, Scoot Henderson is to overlook what lies directly before us this NBA season. In what was bound to be a year of questions surrounding contenders, we’ve returned to another slate full of them.
In any case, we return, steeled to run directly into the fire. Who knows what awaits this caravan? New stats, new players, a continuous flow of publicly-available scandals: it isn’t all here, but we’ll make do. Forget STOCKS, or AST:TO ratio. The new way to identify player efficacy is assists+steals+blocks divided by/turnovers. Get used to it, identify your new Point Gawd, and get ready for tip-off.
Atlanta Hawks: It begins with Trae Young, but it ends with everything else around him: in the wake of an Eastern Conference Finals appearance two seasons ago, the Hawks regressed, ever so much. In response, they traded for Dejounte Murray, recently and perhaps on multiple occasions the league’s most-coveted combo guard. His defense will drive much of what the Hawks can become, and he is Young’s age. Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari were great, but replaceable. Between picks and players, they have enough to flip for a difference-maker at the deadline, if not sooner.
In momentarily ignoring the legions of public figures kneeling before Nia Long in the midst of the horrid Ime Udoka situation, the Celtics should be the 1A or 1B favorites in the Eastern Conference. Fresh off a magisterial charge in the playoffs, one that led to a Finals appearance and was a crowning achievement for among others but especially Jayson Tatum, Boston should be working to prove that the triumvirate of Tatum-Brown-Smart can win a title without an all-world big, and having just faced the Warriors in the Finals, they had first-hand experience with how it can happen.
(Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are both pursuing some form of The NBA Libertarian, but it’s already a problem when their personal choices affect each other, and, seemingly most importantly to them individually, the way the public views them. Introducing Ben Simmons into this mix, like introducing James Harden before him, seems like a great idea and may very well be, but this is the team with the widest window between championship contention and whatever its sill is. Oh, yes, I’m convinced that head coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks are in everybody’s good graces now, but even if they aren’t, a title is a good way to keep everybody together).
Charlotte Hornets: LaMelo Ball is the obvious main draw here and the reason most non-Hornets diehards will tune into any given Charlotte game. While the team won 43 games and made the play-in a season ago, there should be some regression for various reasons. Do note, though, that Steve Clifford has returned, four years after his exit and six years after Charlotte’s last top eight playoff appearance. They’re not immediately ripe for a tank job yet in a slightly down East.
Chicago Bulls: Prepare for a regression from the best DeMar DeRozan season ever, but aside from that, the Bulls have something serious cooking for the first time in almost a decade. The Bulls took the most midrange shots in the league last season, a recipe for mediocrity – but they converted those shots at the fourth-best rate in the NBA. Their varied shot diet is a virtue, and though Lonzo Ball’s knee casts a pall on the beginning of the season, the return of Patrick Williams will be a spark, with a light pointed directly forward.
Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs managed to put together a promising core, with Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen setting the stage for an incendiary rookie campaign from Evan Mobley. Adding Donovan Mitchell should juice this offense to unexpected highs, some of which had better be enough to overcome the many holes currently available to poke on defense. Kevin Love remains, the lone holdover from half a decade spent battling the Warriors in the Finals.
Dallas Mavericks: Losing Jalen Brunson will hurt; the point guard’s departure leaves holes in shooting and playmaking that the Mavs’ biggest acquisitions – JaVale McGee and Christian Wood – will not readily cover. Wood, at least, has grown into an equitable shooter, hitting 39% of his threes on almost five attempts per game a season ago in Houston. May we see point-center Luka Doncic dictating terms from the elbow and passing out to Wood, lurking as an offensive free safety in spots?
Denver Nuggets: We’ve seen Nikola Jokic dominate confused opponents to the tune of two straight MVP awards. Now we want to see him get a team back to, and perhaps through, the Western Conference Finals. Jamal Murray’s return from injury should help. Michael Porter Jr. may be the biggest x-factor in the NBA with regard to a player’s team succeeding; let’s hope Denver views that as an opportunity.
Detroit Pistons: [Cautiously amping myself up for a Cade Cunningham-led charge into the play-in that is much more exciting than that idea suggests on the surface]
Golden State Warriors:
The defending champions came off looking like the favorites in the West, at the very least, and possibly repeat contenders. Recent history suggests something different, and that the culture is slightly different from what we all thought, but if any team is equipped to navigate through this period, it is most likely these Golden State Warriors, complete with a coach who once was a player punched by an all-time great in practice. The problem is – allegedly – there is no video of that.
Houston Rockets: State Farm has a monopoly on endorsements with Rockets players. Chris Paul, James Harden, and now, Boban. The red-and-white synergy is strong, but the brand equity won’t save this team.
Indiana Pacers: Tyrese Haliburton should have all the time and space in the world to expand his game, particularly if and when Indiana decides to trade Myles Turner and/or Buddy Hield. Bennedict Mathurin has shown serious promise as a tweener type, but he’s likely a couple of years away from being more than a League Pass oddity. Still, I’m inclined to never underestimate Rick Carlisle, and if Indiana decides not to trade anyone valuable…no, no, this is a top of the lottery team. Unless…
Los Angeles Clippers: Probable favorites in the West, assuming health. That last part is going to be doing a lot of lifting if they want to be title favorites, but Paul George and Kawhi Leonard each have spotted medical histories. If they top out at around 60 games apiece, though, it shouldn’t be a problem: the Clippers are the deepest team in the league on paper…
Los Angeles Lakers: …which does not reflect their in-arena rivals. The arrival of Pat Beverley and the return of Dennis Schroeder will help with ball movement and defense in the back court, long keys to unlocking LeBron James-centric teams, but beyond that, the question marks are enormous: will Anthony Davis remain healthy enough for long enough? Is Russell Westbrook meant to be here, or is he merely a means to facilitating an underwhelming trade featuring draft picks half a decade away? Is Thomas Bryant needle-moving in any sense?
Miami Heat: Losing PJ Tucker was going to hurt anyway, but losing him to the Sixers, a prominent conference rival, is especially painful. Expect a quietly monstrous campaign from Jimmy Butler – Heat culture and all that – but a perhaps even better one from Bam Adebayo, covering more ground defensively than he’s ever had to before, and doing it with aplomb. The latter may very well end up claiming his first Defensive Player of the Year award at season’s close.
Milwaukee Bucks: They didn’t get a full title defense, at least in the minds of people who suggest bubble championships are different from others (theirs wasn’t the bubble title; injuries naturally happening in the course of the season deserve a similar measure of attention, though, within the context).
Minnesota Timberwolves: This is the big move, right? When Steve McQueen initially explains his side of the gambit in The Great Escape – not unlike when someone explains a natural center next to a player we thought could be a natural center – you’re inclined to think that, yes, this can work. In this case, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert are each in the conversation for the greatest offensive and defensive bigs of their generation, respectively. Anthony Edwards’ stratospherism suggests that Minnesota is here to stay for the foreseeable future, but what about now? He’ll have to hone his jumper and know when to defer, but he only just turned 21. How those three mesh will end up telling the story of these Timberwolves, likely regardless of whatever D’Angelo Russell does.
New Orleans Pelicans: Watch them every chance you get, so long as they’re healthy. Zion is here to remind you of why people name their pets and/or professional colleagues after him.
New York Knicks: It isn’t catastrophic that they didn’t get Donovan Mitchell, nor is it preemptively season-ending that Julius Randle remains in front of Obi Toppin. Jalen Brunson was the big offseason score that everyone predicted, and he should shore up a lot of the offensive burden that Randle and RJ Barrett have each had to shoulder over the past two seasons. Barrett’s development, though, remains paramount, particularly after he and Mitchell Robinson, among others, featured heavily in trade machine rumors this summer. Of course, both received large-if-not-monumental extensions in the wake of some of those uncomfortable scenarios; money remains green. Tom Thibodeau’s rotational choices are going to say a lot about what this team is, and suggest plenty about what it could be.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Despite the ongoing blooming of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort next to the emergence of Josh Giddey, OKC has already lost first round pick Chet Holmgren for the entire season and, with a gaggle of youths hanging around to soak up minutes, will likely be in the hunt for another high lottery pick. One note: ex-Spurs shooting guru Chip Engelland has signed on with the Thunder, a team that finished dead last in three-point shooting percentage a season ago. It will take time, but Engelland should help some of these guys immensely.
Orlando Magic: Paolo Banchero is one of the best offensive players to come out of college in recent memory, though his defense will need some *ahem* adjusting. Franz Wagner is poised to be a breakout star if enough goes according to plan, and even if it doesn’t.
Philadelphia 76ers: You don’t want to say it’s getting to be put up or shut up time for the Joel Embiid-fronted Sixers. So much of Philadelphia’s recent playoff shortcomings have not been on him, but replacing Ben Simmons with James Harden resulted in some proof of concept games rather than a full-on cultural shift last season. Expect Embiid to be his dominant self – health willing, this may finally be his MVP year – but this team will rely on Harden out of necessity. Trader beware.
(Deandre Ayton’s heart being entirely out of it, even and probably especially right after signing a contract extension, spells some remaining doom for the Suns, in the wake and remaining shadow of the revelations surrounding Robert Sarver’s tenure as governor. Whispering at a pitch only dogs can identify: Ayton may end up the most coveted trade piece in the league come January 15th.)
Portland Trail Blazers: Re-tooling around Damian Lillard was necessary, and it’s possible Portland waited too long to do that capably. Still, Dame Time is appointment TV, and he felt good enough about things that he inked a two-year max extension over the summer, leaving him in the Pacific Northwest until 2027. Nassir Little, another recent extension recipient, has enough versatility to be able to unlock a different dimension from the rest of the team, but he has to make that jump himself.
Sacramento Kings: Domas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox will continue to work out their own chemistry on offense while trying to keep the team’s pervious defense afloat. Late of Atlanta, Kevin Huerter’s shooting should help with spacing, and Trey Lyles was at his best as a pro once he came over from Detroit in the Marvin Bagley trade last year. The Kings – dare I say it? Yes, I dare – WILL, all caps, be in the play-in tournament this year. Rejoice!
San Antonio Spurs: Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell and Tre Jones may represent a (bleak, but only for now) look into the future of this team, but the former standard bearers of sporting franchise excellence in North America are now decidedly a cellar-dwelling entity. Any year now could be Gregg Popovich’s last, and with the all-time coaching wins record in hand, this may actually be his swan song.
Toronto Raptors: In some respects, the Nets are the Bizarro Raptors in that the gap between floor and ceiling is massive, and also in that Toronto always seems like it is a move – or a breakout – away from returning to true contention. That many of these players remain from the championship team is helpful, as is that Nick Nurse’s lone losing season as head coach begat Scottie Barnes. If the long-awaited Pascal Siakam kingmaking moment never arrives, it may not matter strictly because of Barnes, who, along with OG Anunoby, will shoulder a lot of the off-the-ball burden when Siakam and Fred Van Vleet are cutting or playing decoy. Throw in Otto Porter for flavor, and Toronto is a team readily equipped to battle for top-four positioning in conference once again.
Utah Jazz: It was clear from about 2018 onward that the Mitchell-Gobert Jazz were never going to do what their regular season record suggested. With this draft class on the horizon, and after trading both of their would-be franchise pillars, this may be an extreme act of tanking, complete with the possibility of being the middleman in title-chasing deadline deals. There’s a Zeller here, and also poor Jordan Clarkson, who might fuck around and get a bench scoring record one night if he feels like it. #FreeMikeConley campaigns start now; #FreeRudyGay campaigns will start whenever he wants.
Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal headlines a gaggle of dudes who, apart from him, you remember being elsewhere and do not remember going to Washington: Kristaps Porzingis, Taj Gibson, Will Barton, Kyle Kuzma and Monte Morris are here to soak up those good, sweet national TV minutes, but coach Wes Unseld should keep them in contention most nights. The Wizards’ ceiling isn’t terribly high, but their floor does not nearly compare to those of others in the East. Expect a playoff push, even brushing against the top six seeds if certain things break their way.