As we embark tonight on the NBA’s 78th season, there are hundreds of expectations, but one nagging question:
Who has more pressure to deliver – Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal, and Devin Booker? Or Damian Lillard now that he’s joined forces with Giannis Antetokuonmpo and Khris Middleton?
And if all of the above can deliver, will we see a retooled, fortified rematch of the 2021 NBA Finals?
I believe the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets, among others, might have a say or two in that narrative.
Tonight tips off with only two games, but must-see-TV:
Los Angeles Lakers
Golden State Warriors
I’ll take the Nuggets and Suns tonight … and here’s how I see 2023-24 shaking out:
|The addition of Kristaps Porzingis is still a wild card add at best – until KP proves himself. He improved from a slumping Dallas Mavericks stint, averaging 22.9 points per game as a Washington Wizard; but he only played 82 games over two seasons. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown got there without him, so Porzingis has to prove himself a worthy addition.
|The Milwaukee Bucks will go as Damian Lillard goes. Granted, the addition of Lillard got Giannis Antetokuonmpo to sign a three-year, $186 million extension after he spent the summer hinting otherwise. Trouble is, Lillard hasn’t played a full season since 2014-15, his third season in the NBA. He played 58 games last year and half that the year before.
|Cleveland added the likes of Max Strus, Ty Jerome, Georges Niang, and drafted Emoni Bates, a player head coach J.B. Bickerstaff is high on. They need to finish strong to keep Donovan Mitchell interested in staying in Cleveland.
|The Miami Heat feel like they have unfinished business – for the last three seasons, to be honest. They’ll be hard-pressed to say that Jaime Jaquez, Jr. is an adequate replacement for the departed Max Strus, who went to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Gabe Vincent, who signed with the Los Angeles Lakers … and Tyler Herro had his bags packed for the better part of the summer throughout Miami’s failed pursuit of Damian Lillard.
|New York Knicks
|The New York Knicks put the (championship Villanova Wildcats) band back together with the addition of free agent Donte DiVincenzo to reunite with Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson. They moved on from Obi Toppin and added his brother, Jacob. Julius Randle needs to become a dialed-in beast for the Knicks to get over the proverbial hump.
|James Harden disappears in the playoffs every year, without fail. But then couldn’t make himself vanish from the 76ers’ roster – nobody wanted him for his perceived value. He will be a distraction all season long until he gets out of the way of his sixth man self and relegates himself to being someone’s sixth man.
|The Hawks continue to be a .500 team no matter what coach is to blame or who falls on the sword. This is Trae Young’s year to prove his worth or to continue settling to be a talented journeyman. Part of that is the hope that the other Hawks can stay healthy and that head coach Quin Snyder can work the kind of magic he worked in Utah.
|This team has too much talent to be playing for a play-in spot, but they seem destined to be on that track again this year. Another year without Lonzo Ball and more mediocrity may see Marc Eversley having to make a hard decision or two come late January/early February.
|This is my dark horse team, and they could be a surprise team come playoff time. The reins belong to Tyrese Haliburton, though the addition of NBA champion Bruce Brown and the blue-collar athleticism of Obi Toppin may give the Pacers an edge that people won’t see coming until it’s too late.
|If Jordan Poole’s body language translated to Washington’s success, you might think the Wizards would finish 3-79. But if you watched Poole ball out in pre-season, there’s hope for at least 35 more wins. They also landed Landry Shamet and Tyus Jones, and have resurrected Taj Gibson.
|The league’s biggest question mark, Toronto seemed to be in the thick of a few trade conversations, but nothing ever seemed to materialize beyond the drafting of Kansas’ Gradey Dick. Looks like a youth takeover with Dick, Jalen McDaniel, and Scottie Barnes.
|If they could ever get and stay healthy, the Hornets might have a chance. Charlotte has a couple of killers in Brandon Miller and Miles Bridges, but this is LaMelo Ball’s team if he can stay healthy; he’s only played 36 games last season, 75 in 2021-22, and only 51 games his rookie year. Pick a shoe, son, and stick with it … and it ain’t BBB.
|I’d love to give Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson some love, but without help, I can’t see just those two getting Brooklyn over the hump … and I’m not talking about the one in Ben Simmons’ back (or whatever is ailing him this week.
|Monty Williams has his hands full … of talent. And now, how to cultivate that talent and get out of Cade Cunningham, Jalen Duren, Jaden Ivey, Auser Thompson, Killian Hayes, and James Wiseman what he couldn’t get out of Deandre Ayton in Phoenix. Difference is, none of these kids are the quitter that Ayton is. Neither is Monty … but it’ll be a process.
|Now that Paolo Banchero’s rookie season and Cole Anthony’s contract extension are out of the way, it’s Jalen Suggs’ year. At least Joe Ingles has a place to take his wife and kids as his career winds down.
|If the pre-season is any indication, the concoction of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Bradley Beal is going to possibly go down as the best ‘Big Three’ ever assembled. Expectations are through the roof for this trio and team to deliver the ever-elusive NBA Championship in the Valley of the Sun. Anything less will be considered a failure. No pressure, boys.
|The defending champions could build a 2-3 season in a row dynasty if the could get Michael Porter, Jr. untracked. During the 2023 NBA Finals, it seemed MPJ watched more than he played – even when in the game(s). Losing Bruce Brown hurt, as he was the energy and scoring Porter wasn’t.
|Golden State Warriors
|Hard to believe I’m saying this, but the difference in the success between Golden State and Phoenix may be who signs Dwight Howard. Though Golden State says Howard is “just another workout,” they may want to weigh the possibility since Draymond Green is hobbled, and Howard brings a similar hustle, physicality, and intensity. That being said, I never count Stephen Curry out of anything.
|This season will tell if 2022-23 was a flash in the pan or the foundation of something special in Sacramento. The addition of JaVale McGee could be key in second chance points for this hot-shooting, high-intensity squad.
|Los Angeles Clippers
|The league’s crackdown on load management will be felt by its two biggest offenders – Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. At 15 years in, Russell Westbrook’s boundless energy and athleticism won’t always be able to make up for two AWOL superstars, so hopefully Bones Hyland can be the difference-maker that Terance Mann was when he was a new Clipper.
|Los Angeles Lakers
|The Lakers continue to get better on paper for LeBron James; but they need to look beyond James while still accommodating his need and will to win ball games. The additions of Christian Wood, Gabe Vincent, and Cam Reddish will be nice, but it’ll be about the continued maturation of Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves, while Anthony “Mr. Glass” Davis could be and should be the team’s MVP.
|The 25-game suspension of Ja Morant is going to only have one silver lining – the integration of Derrick Rose’s leadership in the locker room and on the court until Morant returns. Also gone is Dillon Brooks, who’s mouth got him and the Grizzlies into more trouble than they truly wanted or could handle. Also, with Steven Adams undergoing season-ending surgery, the onus is on Jaren Jackson, Jr. to deliver. Hey, Dwight Howard hasn’t signed anywhere yet, guys …
|I felt Luka Doncic was the next face of the NBA. Love his talent, his smile, his love of the game. But all of that is fading fast as the Dallas Mavericks become the league’s poster children for underachievement. Doncic can change that, but it’s hard to imagine that happening with Jason Kidd as a coach or Doncic launching up three after three. The team did nothing to nab a solid center – they had their chance at Deandre Ayton – and could still likely pry Jusuf Nurkic from the Phoenix Suns for, say … Kyrie Irving … but Dereck Lively II will have to dance in the fire his rookie season until something like that happens.
|San Antonio Spurs
|It’s Wemby’s World in San Antonio, and while head coach Gregg Popovich has a fantastic track record grooming bigs (see David Robinson, Tim Duncan), Victor Wembanyama is not your typical big. The addition of Cedi Osman may help form a pseudo-twin tower attack, but Jeremy Sochan is going to have to become more than dyed hair in his sophomore year.
|New Orleans Pelicans
|Underdog dark horse of the West, the Pelicans have to start living up to the expectations they put out on paper. That starts and ends with Zion Williamson, who has been nothing more than another iteration of Oliver Miller three years in. The Nike Paul George shoe didn’t blow out in college because of poor shoemaking … and he needs to quit messing with extortion-minded hoes and focus on the gift God bestowed upon him. He could and should be an MVP.
|Oklahoma City Thunder
|General Manager has a roster chock full of young talent and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was arguably the best player in the summer’s FIBA tournament. But he has another complete two-and-a-half teams on paper in his back pocket with 15 first-rounders and 20 second-round picks from now through 2029. With the referendum of a new arena on voters’ minds in OKC, it may be time to cash a few of those in.
|2023-24 (or more likely, February 2024) is make or break time for the Minnesota Timbverwolves. This is inarguably Anthony Edwards’ team. Rudy Gobert is a shell of his Utah Jazz self, and it’s time to try and get what you can for Karl-Anthony Towns. Mike Conley isn’t getting any younger, either. We may see more Shake Milton than Conley. Christmas or bust, if the Wolves can’t be .500 or better by the time Santa comes.
|This team is bubbling over with animus and intensity, and add Dillon Brooks, and now it’s boiling over. It’s Jalen Green’s team and hopefully Brooks respects that. But the addition of Fred VanVleet should bring the kind of stability these young Rockets need. And Reggie Bullock and Jock Landale will bring the right kind of hustle and muscle. Keep your eye on these Rockets – they could launch at any time.
|Lauri Markkanen had a breakout season last year and Jordan Clarkson is the consistent athlete that he is. But in the end, Utah became the NBA’s dumping ground of roster cuts and throwaways for Will Hardy to handle. This year will be very similar to their 37-45 finish in 2022-23.
|Sadly, my hometown team lost their longtime icon as Damian Lillard was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. They got Jrue Holiday in the swap, but traded him to the Boston Celtics … to go head-to-head with Lillard and Giannis Antetokuonmpo in the East. Portland ended up with Deandre Ayton and Malcolm Brogdon as a result, and drafted Scoot Henderson, a G League sensation … but no Dame Lillard. It’s Scoot Time doesn’t have the same ring. At least they’ll have a shot at the 2024 No. 1 pick.
Tracy Graven is the Senior NBA Analyst for BackSportsPage.com.
He has written the NBA, done NBA Radio, and appeared as a guest for the last 24 years for HoopsWorld, Swish Magazine, HoopsHype, the Coach Scott Fields Show, NBARadioShow.com, and is also tackling the NFL, NCAA, and will be pinch-hitting on some Major League Baseball coverage for BackSportsPage.
He’s spent 21 years in locker rooms in Orlando, Boise (CBA, G League), San Antonio, Phoenix, Denver, Oklahoma City, and Atlanta.
A corporate trainer by day, he currently resides in SEC Country near Knoxville, Tennessee.
Reach him on Twitter at @RealTMoneyMedia