What time is it? That’s right … it’s time to make some outlandish statements that people will look back on next spring and cackle hysterically.
OK, that’s not actually the goal, but it is certainly an occupational hazard. Prognostication makes fools of us all; there are just too many things we can’t possibly have seen coming. Thank goodness for that, actually, as sports would be pretty boring otherwise.
That won’t stop me from trying, though. With the regular season starting next week, now is the time to gaze into my extremely hazy crystal ball and make some calls for what will happen in the coming months. In particular, the goal is to make some calls that might go against the tide and are actually, y’know … bold. For instance, “Nikola Jokić will make the All-Star team” is a defensible prediction that likely will come true but doesn’t really clear the bar for this particular exercise.
A bolder prediction, on the other hand, would be something unusual or unexpected. Like, say, predicting that something that hasn’t happened in two decades might happen this season. That would be a rookie — a true rookie — making the All-Star team. The last rookie to make it was Blake Griffin in 2011, but he was in his second season under contract with the LA Clippers after missing his entire first campaign. A fresh-from-the-draft rookie hasn’t made the squad since Yao Ming was voted in as a starter in 2003.
We can qualify that even further because Yao only averaged 13 points a game that season and was voted in despite production that clearly paled next to the other potential options. (To be clear, Yao deserved his next six selections. Just not that year.)
The 24 biggest questions for the NBA season: Nuggets repeat? Wembanyama not ROY?
To go back a bit further, to the last time a just-drafted rookie both made the All-Star team and had numbers that truly warranted his inclusion, one would need a full quarter-century. And, what a coincidence … that player happened to be Tim Duncan, in 1998, in his first season as a San Antonio Spur.
Well, 25 years later, I’m going to go out on a limb and say a top overall pick of the Spurs will once again make the All-Star team … and will make it on merit.
Don’t let one bad summer league game get you twisted: Victor Wembanyama is as unique a basketball player to ever enter the league, a rim-denying giant at one end with a guard’s mentality and skill set at the other. You thought Kristaps Porziņģis was a unicorn because he could shoot 3s at his size? Well, picture the same package except with genuine ball skills and the ability to play out of the pick-and-roll.
I watched Wembanyama twice in Vegas last year and announced several of his French games for the NBA app; in every single one, he did something absolutely mind-blowingly unique, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody do that before” type stuff. He was far and away the best player in a good overseas league at the age of 18.
Here’s the crazy part: His preseason has been way better than that. Wembanyama seems to have made significant improvement both in his capability as a ballhandler and in his end-to-end speed (it helps when you can Eurostep to the rim from the 3-point line without needing to dribble), producing cascades of easy baskets for himself and those around him.
While his French tape showed flashes of this, he’s been able to do it with greater consistency in the more open floor of the NBA and shown marked improvement in his reading of the court and playmaking. Through two preseason games entering Wednesday night (I know, but humor me), the top pick in the draft has averaged more than a point per minute on 71.4 percent true shooting, blocked four shots and dissuaded countless others from being attempted and compiled a 33.9 PER.
I had thought Wembanyama might need a year to get his NBA sea legs before we really saw his impact. To hell with that. He’s already quite clearly his team’s best player and is likely good enough to lead the Spurs to a win total that may make them slightly uncomfortable. It’s becoming more and more apparent that he’s going to end up with an All-Star-caliber stat line that could, at the very least, put him on the short list for selection.
Here’s the other part: The Western Conference is laden with star talent, but as a frontcourt player, Wembanyama should have an advantage. Other than Jokić, all of his main rivals for those spots have the words “if healthy” permanently attached as suffixes to the end of their names. Between LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Zion Williamson and Kevin Durant, surely at least one and possibly several will miss the festivities in Indy this February.
Other players will be in the mix too, of course — Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. and Utah’s Lauri Markkanen made it last year, for instance, and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns is still here — but between the shock and awe value of Wembanyama’s play and the likelihood of injury replacements on the West roster, he has a great chance of making the team even if he isn’t voted in as a starter.
Wemby on the All-Star team is my first bold prediction, but it’s not the only one. Here are some more for the coming season:
No coaches will be fired before the All-Star break
Any prediction involving job security in the NBA coaching profession is a daring high-wire dance above a fiery lava pit, but this might be the season to pull it off. The league’s coaching roster looks as stable as it has in some time; while you can imagine seats getting hot in a few places with a slow start, there’s also the undeniable fact that recent turnover has been so high that there are relatively few long-tenured coaches remaining to get the ax.
Do you know how many coaches have been on the job since before the pandemic year? Four! That’s it! Those are the league’s four “made men,” championship-winning coaches Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, Steve Kerr and Michael Malone, who have a combined 59 seasons with their current teams. They’re not going anywhere.
Meanwhile, 13 teams have a coach in either his first or second season, which would make them unlikely to be dismissed so quickly. Five others are in Year 3, when the pressure normally increases, except four of those clubs are rebuilding and have limited expectations this season. Add it up and, for 21 of the league’s 30 teams, an early-season coaching change seems hugely unlikely.
Again, this profession isn’t exactly renowned for its stability — last season’s first coaching change (the Nets’ Steve Nash) happened on Nov. 1! — so this prediction may end up looking hilarious come February. For the moment, however, we seemingly enter the season with almost unprecedented stability in the league’s coaching ranks.
Minnesota will win a playoff series for the first time in 20 years
That’s right, I have a second thing that hasn’t happened in 20 years that I’m predicting will happen in 2023-24. Good things to happen to the Timberwolves? Have I lost my mind?
Thus far, the preseason focus has been on other West locales — the world champion Denver Nuggets, the reloaded Phoenix Suns and the recent champions in Golden State and L.A. — while the Wolves haven’t garnered nearly as much attention. However, they quietly played well over the second half of last season, going 26-19 after the turn of the new year, and I’m projecting them to land one of the top four seeds in the West.
If that happened, it would be the first time since their conference finals run with Kevin Garnett in 2004. In the only other three playoff appearances for the Wolves since then, they’ve been first-round roadkill as the West’s seventh or eighth seed.
While it’s a little early to pencil in who might be their first-round playoff opponent, the Wolves would have home-court advantage in the first round based on their projected finish, and, particularly if they get the No. 3 seed or higher, would be in a historically strong position to advance.
Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be any particularly compelling reason to bet against Minnesota once it reaches the postseason; the Wolves have the requisite inside-outside weapons in Anthony Edwards and Towns, their potential top-seven playoff rotation looks strong and, besides Towns, the team has strong individual defenders. Will this be the season we see Minnesota play in May?
Jayson Tatum will beat Nikola Jokić for MVP…
Because he’ll be the only player eligible for the award! I kid, slightly, but the league’s new 65-game requirement for most of the major awards may knock some fringe MVP candidates out of the running. (Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo finished third last season with 63 games played; Memphis’ Ja Morant finished seventh while playing 57 in 2021-22; and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid finished second while playing just 51 of the 72 games in the shortened 2020-21 season.)
More seriously, and in keeping with the theme of bold predictions and not regurgitating chalk, I expect the award to come down to Jokić and Tatum in April. There’s an obvious risk in my saying Tatum will win since Jokić enters the season as an overwhelming favorite, which is the blowback from a league-wide sentiment of mea culpa for not giving him the trophy a year ago.
However, Tatum’s durability may give him a leg up in MVP voting despite the fact that he’s not perceived as the best player in the league. He nearly led the league in minutes a year ago and is young enough at 25 to again take on a big playing time load. Additionally, Boston could easily end up with the best record in the league and may do so by several games. As the team’s best player, Tatum almost automatically becomes a leading candidate.
Finally, it’s entirely possible Jokić treats the regular season with a bit less urgency — much as he did in the final month last season — while he tunes up for the games in May and June that truly matter. (On the flip side, Denver’s bench may be so bad that he doesn’t have the luxury.) A Nuggets finish in the middle of a crowded West pack would also dampen his quest for MVP No. 3, and that’s definitely in the cards too.
The West will regain dominance over the East
The East had a better record than the West for the second straight season in 2022-23, ending up with 22 more wins. That’s been a rarity over the past three decades; the West has been vastly superior nearly every season since Michael Jordan retired, culminating in the 2013-14 season in which identical 48-win seasons got Toronto the No. 3 seed in the East and earned Phoenix a ticket to the lottery in the West.
The NBA’s three best records also belonged to the East last year, and that part may hold up … partly because the depth of the West is so strong that it will be difficult for any individual team to push its win total much into the 50s. Nonetheless, the unusually tame regular seasons from expected West powers last season are unlikely to be an enduring feature; the Lakers, Warriors, Wolves, Clippers and Suns all figure to add several wins compared to 2022-23, while at the bottom of the conference, the 60-loss Rockets and Spurs could both be vastly improved. Only Portland will take a step back in the West.
In the East, the opposite trend holds. While Boston and Milwaukee look as strong as ever and Cleveland is on the rise, Washington, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Chicago will have a difficult time matching last year’s win total. The flows of All-Star talent are another indicator: Damian Lillard went East, but since the last trade deadline, Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Fred VanVleet and Marcus Smart have all gone West, and James Harden might be next.
The Clippers will re-evaluate everything
OK, this prediction needs a bit more time to breathe and might not really come to fruition until next summer. Still, watch the Clippers, especially if they start slowly. Yes, LA is still all-in on winning and will cut another massive luxury-tax check to the league (their estimated penalty right now is a cool $100 million), and the Clippers could easily add to that figure if they end up trading for Harden.
Nonetheless, this season is a clear pivot point for the team, thanks in part to a new CBA that makes life much harder for teams that spend past the second luxury-tax apron, where the Clippers currently reside. After this year, teams in that position can’t aggregate salaries in trades or take back more money than they sent out. They also can’t use cash in trades, use their midlevel exception, sign bought out players or wear sneakers. Staying over the second apron next year would also result in their 2032 first-round pick being frozen and, if the payroll didn’t come down in future years, ultimately pushed to the back end of the draft.
All this is happening right at the point when Steve Ballmer is surely questioning his ROI on the huge luxury-tax checks; over the past two seasons, his team is 86-78 and has won a single playoff game.
Two other timeline items stand out: First, the Clippers’ new Intuit Dome arena is set to open next year, and second, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard can become free agents this summer. You’ll note that you’re not hearing much about contract extensions for either player right now.
The Clippers still owe future draft picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder through 2026, so it’s not a blow-it-up scenario as much as a scaling back. They have scenarios in which they could bring back Leonard and George while still skirting the second apron … or perhaps, dare we say it, even staying below the first apron and using their entire midlevel exception to balance out the roster.
Still, this looks to be a tricky dance. Ballmer is willing and able to pay virtually anything for a winner, but the league has never punished expensive rosters like this. Waiving Eric Gordon this June seemed like the first salvo in an organizational rethink about the merits of blasting money out the firehose under the new CBA.
Tyrese Maxey will win Most Improved Player
Consider this partly a bet on Tyrese Maxey’s talent and partly a bet against Harden playing a significant role in Philly this season. If Harden is going to either be traded or behave so badly that the Sixers wish they had traded him, then Maxey should be the obvious beneficiary in terms of touches and shots.
Maxey averaged 20.3 points per game last season, but the number ballooned to 24.8 in the 13 games he played and Harden didn’t; that latter average would have placed him 15th in the league.
His other arrows are pointing up too. Maxey won’t turn 23 until November and is still figuring out how to weaponize his proficient 3-point shot (41.4 percent career) with more off-the-dribble attempts and how to parlay his blazing first step into more free-throw attempts. He’s an 85.8 percent career foul shooter but only attempted 3.8 free throws per game last year. That number should only rise as he gets more on-ball reps and figures out the dark arts of foul grifting.
Note that Maxey should also be highly motivated to produce this season, as the Sixers have held off on signing him to a contract extension to preserve 2024 cap space. With a good year, he’ll be able to sign for the Maxey-mum (sorry) next summer.
Two other players will make their first All-Star team: Jalen Brunson and Jamal Murray
Denver’s Jamal Murray might be the most obvious first-time All-Star pick in a while, coming off a fabulous postseason that signified his full recovery from a torn ACL in 2021. He posted a 21.6 PER in 20 playoff games, or about a quarter of an NBA season (or half of one if you’re a Clipper); those numbers alone would get him in range of selection, and keep in mind they were posted against playoff defenses. Presumably, life will get easier for him when we add some Blazers and Wizards back into the mix.
As for Brunson, he missed the team a year ago while fellow Knick Julius Randle made it, but the playoffs may have been the tipping point in a swap of leading men in New York. Yes, Randle’s injuries were a factor, but Brunson averaged 27.8 points in the playoffs while taking by far the most shots on the team (over 20 a game). Moreover, those playoff stats were a continuation from the second half of the season: After a slow start, Brunson averaged 27.8 points per game after Jan. 1. Entering his age-27 season, Brunson, it would seem, is primed for a career year.
The Knicks are likely to get one rep in the game if they’re again among the top seven teams in the East when the voting happens, and if so, it seems more likely the choice would be Brunson this time around.
While we’re here, apologies to the Grizzlies’ Desmond Bane and the Nets’ Mikal Bridges, two other players I think will post strong resumes that get them serious All-Star consideration. It’s hard for me to pull the trigger on predicting them to make it unless there is a rash of injuries to elite backcourt players in each conference, especially with Brunson and Murray claiming spots.
The Bulls will blow it up
Consider this a prediction in two parts: First, that the Bulls won’t be good enough to justify keeping the DeMar DeRozan–Nikola Vučević–Zach LaVine band together any longer, and second, that they’ll break out the dynamite at the trade deadline. The key here is timing: DeRozan is a free agent after the season, so the Bulls need to either cash in their stock on the high-scoring 34-year-old forward or sign him to an extension.
Moving off him would be the necessary first step in a process that would likely see the Bulls deal LaVine and Vučević as well, although LaVine has four years left on his deal and thus might be shopped more profitably at the draft in June.
Historically, the Bulls haven’t been fans of tanking, and their first choice will (and should!) be to see how many games this nucleus can win. However, this particular decision might already have been made for them, as the endgame has seemed apparent ever since the seriousness of Lonzo Ball’s knee injury became clear. Chicago can either forge ahead with an expensive, not very good team with limited flexibility, or the Bulls can start over and hope they get lucky in the loaded 2025 and 2026 drafts.
Taylor Jenkins will win NBA Coach of the Year
This has nothing to do with who I think the best coach is (Spoelstra, duh) but rather my reading of the trend lines of the history of this award, which skews heavily toward the biggest surprise in the top third of the standings.
Based on my projections for the coming season and the comparative amount of buzz about the teams I have slated for winning records, the three most likely candidates would seemingly be Jenkins in Memphis, Darko Rajaković in Toronto and J.B. Bickerstaff in Cleveland. (Grizzlies alumni represent!) Boston’s Joe Mazzulla would be a strong candidate too, especially if the Celtics end up with the league’s best record by several games, as I suspect they might.
Nonetheless, Jenkins has the best ingredients in his favor for winning: Nobody is expecting all that much from his team, the Grizzlies are actually pretty good, and there’s a built-in narrative (“Didn’t have Ja Morant for the first 25 games and still …”) ready and waiting. Additionally, the margins in the West are tight enough that the Grizzlies don’t really need to overachieve much to get people’s attention, as I’m projecting a 50-ish win total might be enough to top the conference.
Phoenix won’t have the West’s best record but will make the NBA Finals
I would take the field over any individual team in the West, and there’s a risk in making any prediction at all given that several contenders will likely make in-season moves to reshape their rosters. Seven teams have at least a somewhat realistic shot of advancing out of this pool, and that number could expand if a team in the middle class decides to get frisky with an all-in trade.
Nonetheless, right now, I like the playoff version of the Suns better than anyone else in a warty contender field. By the spring, Phoenix will hopefully have figured out some of the balance in its three-headed Bradley Beal-Devin Booker-Kevin Durant monster, and it’s quite possible the Suns will have used another trade chip or two to get more size and depth.
Ultimately, it will come down to Phoenix and Denver, most likely, regardless of which round they end up meeting — much like last year when their conference semifinal series was effectively for a place in the NBA Finals. This time around, I like the Suns’ answers off the bench much more than the ones they came up with a year ago, and I like the Nuggets’ quite a bit less. At the margins, I think that tilts the advantage slightly Phoenix’s way … even with Denver undoubtedly having the best player.
Boston will outlast Milwaukee in the East
The thing about Milwaukee getting Lillard is that it also allowed the Celtics to turn Malcolm Brogdon into Jrue Holiday. Holiday, of course, is about the best antidote to Lillard that mankind has come up with so far, dating to the 2018 series with the New Orleans Pelicans when Holiday harassed Lillard into 35 percent shooting in a four-game sweep.
That said, the Bucks present some real problems for Boston. The Lillard-Antetokounmpo two-man game threatens to be the best in the entire league, and the Bucks certainly can surround it with enough shooting. Dealing with Antetokounmpo might require heavy doses of an aging Al Horford, especially with Robert Williams gone to Portland, and Milwaukee’s dynamic duo also is one that could expose Porziņģis defensively.
There’s also some risk in choosing Boston here based on how the past few postseasons have gone, where the offense too easily degenerates into isolation-heavy slogs with Tatum and Jaylen Brown playing your-turn my-turn. (The Celtics also seem to lose all their mojo at the mere sight of Miami Heat jerseys, but that might not be a factor this season.)
However, that’s where Porziņģis can really help. His ability to punish switches by posting up shorter players is an option that Boston simply didn’t have last year, and it could be a real factor against the postseason switching defenses that have tended to gum up Boston the last few years.
I’m excited just thinking about this series … but I think the Celtics will prevail slightly in the end, much as they did in the second round two years ago.
Boston will beat Phoenix in the NBA Finals
Boston vs. Phoenix would be an incredible Finals because it would involve the Suns’ eternal quest for a first crown against the Celtics’ hope of raising an 18th banner, which would once again give them a leg up on the Lakers on the all-time list. Of course, it would be a first of sorts for Boston as well, as the Celtics haven’t won since 2008 and the current Tatum-Brown-Horford core has yet to get over the final hump.
It seems risky to pick Boston to win four straight playoff series despite the Celtics’ imposing defense and impressive top-seven rotation for the postseason. Historically, the postseason has been about having That Dude, and only a few teams have managed to get to the mountaintop with more of an ensemble cast. Tatum is one of the best players in the league, but he hasn’t yet shown himself to be a playoff cheat code on the Jokić/Curry/Kawhi level.
On the other hand … Boston just has so many ways to hurt you that Tatum doesn’t have to play at an exalted level for the Celtics to win the title. Two years ago, they were up 2-1 on Golden State in the Finals, for instance, before succumbing in six games. Curry was the best player in that series and Tatum only shot 35 percent, yet the Celtics were still in it.
Again, the Porziņģis acquisition potentially looms large, especially if he can hold up on defense, because it allows the Celtics to punish some of the switching schemes that so badly stagnated them in previous postseasons. At the other end, Boston is also one of the few teams with enough elite perimeter defenders to not sweat matching up against Beal, Booker and Durant at the same time. In the end, the Celtics’ defense is good enough that I worry less about the offense.
So, book your hotels for Boston in June, print this out and file it away and prepare to laugh uproariously when 50 things we couldn’t possibly have imagined reshape the season in totally unexpected ways. That’s the beauty of sports, but I’ll keep trying to get this hazy crystal ball to give me a few tips.
(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Maddie Meyer, Paras Griffin, David Dow / Getty Images)