David Thorpe predicts the regular season
A fight like never before
BY DAVID THORPE
If I had to pick right now, I’d predict that this season will end with the Bucks emerging with the championship after a close-fought Finals against the Clippers. But there’s no way this season will go as predicted; with so incredibly many contenders, one thing we know for sure is there will be a hailstorm of moves to come, with teams going all-in to pull away from the pack. There are literally dozens of Finals possibilities.
And in the meantime, every game matters. On Tuesday, the 76ers visit the Celtics to kick off the 2022-2023 season, and it matters who wins. In my 20 seasons covering the NBA, I have never felt that fall wins mattered more. Every team is either in the Victor Wembanyaya tankathon or a standings dogfight. A team sitting comfortably in fifth place in March could easily end up a 10-seed with a road play-in game a month later—that’s how bunched up I think both leagues will be.
This season, some teams will fail to rest their stars for fear of losing these games and risk losing them for longer stretches instead. Other teams will do the smart thing: Protect their most valuable players and risk losing some of those games as well. TrueHoop will be tracking all these key decisions because, in a league this equal, those decisions will carry even more weight. Much of what will decide playoff series has yet to happen: a new acquisition, a young player stepping up, or a role player coming into his own.
Last season, the East had just 10 games separating the top-seeded Heat from the Hornets at 10—but no one thought the Hornets could manage anything. If this season plays out as I expect, the Bulls will be sitting at the 10 spot, but only nine games below the Sixers. By then, the Bulls could be armed with a healthy Lonzo Ball and a far more seasoned Patrick Williams (who had a terrific preseason). That match-up could be a six-game battle—of course, that’s if the Bulls manage to get past one of my other play-in teams: the Nets, the Cavs, and yes … the New York Knicks. No matter the opponent, the East’s top seed won’t be cruising to a first-round win.
It’s even a bigger contrast out West—especially compared to last year, when Phoenix’s 64 wins was 30 more than the 10-seed Spurs. This year, I see a mere eight wins between the top seed and the last play-in spot, and the intense battle to get to the six-seed could last until the final game of the regular season.
My process has changed slightly: Instead of literally going through each team’s schedule, I considered what some Vegas oddsmakers are predicting for each team. Then, I examined the rosters—returning starters, improved young players, potential trade acquisitions, and where I think changes could occur.
My math was off after the first pass: I came up with 1,220 total wins (10 short of the 1,230 possible wins). Upon another look, I realized that I’d punished one team too harshly for their past 15 years. And so, after awarding them eight more victories, I now have the Kings at 41 wins—good enough for a play-in seed out West. Sacramento will have its best team in years. And with only 53 wins, the Clippers would have the lowest league-leading wins total since 1977, when the Lakers had 53 (and the Blazers won the title after winning 49 regular-season games.
If you’re surprised by some of these projections, you’re not alone … some of them shocked me, too. (Things are looking up, Knicks fans!) Let’s all agree on one thing: If teams are separated so few wins, we are in for a treat. This season should be one for the ages.