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Behind-the-scenes, David just predicted every one of the NBA season’s 1,230 games. These are his findings.
BY DAVID THORPE
Title odds: 20 percent
After winning a title by pivoting to paint dominance in the postseason, my spidey sense suggests this might—ironically—be the season Giannis Antetokounmpo improves his jumpshot. It might be more from the free-throw line area than the 3-point line, but being money from either or both would turn this team into a dominant favorite. Winning the ring can “free” him up, so to speak, to try some things. Also, I have a hunch we will see Jrue Holiday’s career season. He has now walked the path to being a pivotal force for an NBA championship AND a gold medal at the Olympics. What could top that as a confidence builder?
Title odds: 18 percent
I hope the Nets can emerge from their dramatic phase and into a smooth-passing machine, which we saw glimpses of last year and these past two weeks. Relying on Kevin Durant’s and James Harden’s brilliance night in and night out is a recipe for playoff fatigue. Teamwork can deliver fresher stars to the playoffs—and to the defensive end, where of course the whole team must compete harder. If the stars do that, the rest of the team will follow. They will not win rings being barely average on defense.
Title odds: 15 percent
Like Jrue Holiday, Devin Booker had a hell of a summer. He was terrific in leading the Suns to the Finals, then immediately flew to Tokyo and by the end of the Olympics he was a key starter on Team USA. He was confident BEFORE that great run, now I see him as a dark horse MVP candidate. It’s Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton, though, who have potential to really grow. Bridges can be more like Khris Middleton, his smooth jumpers can give Booker a break as the offensive dynamo, and Ayton has massive potential as a two-sided sledgehammer inside. Getting so close to a title and losing tends to be among sports’ best motivators.
Title odds: 12 percent
Donovan Mitchell has a little Dwyane Wade in his offensive game. Now it’s time to see it on defense. The Jazz were eliminated by the smaller Clippers because their primary offensive players struggled to contain the Clipper drivers. Mitchell isn’t the team’s best player, Rudy Gobert is, but now that Wade’s an investor in the Jazz, Wade himself, can attest, what matters is all the superstars have to show up on offense and defense to claim championships. Mitchell has the athleticism and power to be a plus defender, with Wade to whisper guidance it’s now or never to show he’s an All-League player.
Title odds: 16 percent
With LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the roster, anything is possible. But the potential for improvement is down with the NBA’s oldest rotation. Old guys tend to make the right play, have healthy lifestyle habits, and … break down more often. The Lakers are mostly incredibly old, which will only work if their young players like Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk, and Talen Horton-Tucker can both bring the energy and deliver efficiently. Surrounded by old guys who know how to play, there’s every chance they’ll all have career years. Once the Lakers hit the postseason, youthful energy would be a lifesaver—without that trio in the rotation and contributing, it’s hard to see how the Lakers can win the four straight playoff series required to take the title.
Need nothing more than internal improvement to contend
Title odds: 7 percent
Tyler Herro is showing maturation as a decision-maker this preseason. If that keeps up, it would turn him into a far more consistent offensive force. In combination with Kyle Lowry’s arrival, there’s potential the Heat’s 18th ranked offense could fly up the charts. If Herro is an All-Star or close, the Heat will compete to win the East. As Zach Lowe states often, this team is built for the postseason, but seeing more success in the regular season can deliver much-needed home court advantage then. I’m excited to see Bam Adebayo too, fresh off the gold medal game this summer.
Title odds: 6 percent
Tyrese Maxey can’t be Ben Simmons, not this year and not ever, but he can be Kyle Lowry, or close. I envision him as a more weaponized version of one of the more impactful primary guards we’ve seen in the NBA this past decade. He’s a more devastating scorer who needs to learn how to shoot better, just like young Lowry. Significant progress from Maxey, and a decent return in a Simmons trade could make them a real contender. Development from Maxey also gives expert deal-maker Daryl Morey more time to find the deal he wants most.
Title odds: 5 percent
Can Stephen Curry carry a so-so roster like LeBron did in Cleveland? Maybe. For starters, this Warriors roster is better, and Curry looks as competitive and hungry as any star has ever been. His coach and team have proven to be able to defy odds, from winning 73 games one regular season to being a top-five defense last year without a shot blocking center. Together, the Warriors are primed to push Curry even higher up the “best of all-time” ladder. Lots of wins will follow. If Jordan Poole (more likely) or James Wiseman (less likely) can have a big year, the Warriors have a real chance
Title odds: half of one percent
So many key Hawks have potential to improve mightily. John Collins showed what he means to the Hawks when he is a two-way force. And De’Andre Hunter, along with Cam Reddish, represent big scoring wings who can add more versatility to a Hawks defense that can jump into a top 10 unit if they stay healthy and hungry. If any of them make that leap, this is a great team. If all three do, well, you already know how much we love this group.
Title odds: half of one percent
Robert Williams III already has my favorite nickname in the league, and he’s the player whose improvement could nudge the Celtics into real contention. Can the Timelord become Deandre Ayton of the East? It would change the team’s whole outlook if so. More discipline on defense from the Celtics starting center means less fouls, which equals more minutes, allowing Al Horford to excel in a limited role as his backup. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and that Timelord are a contending trio.
A player away
I’ve been trying to write something optimistic about every team and for this one it has been tough. I don’t see them making a key trade that pushes them into top-four status, and I don’t see Damian Lillard being happy with anything less. They will win their share of games. But will they ever be Finals-worthy? Doubtful. I know new coach Chauncey Billups expects major strides on defense, but I don’t like his mix of ideas and roster. Every loss will bring more potential for drama. It’s absolutely possible the team rallies to find something that works on defense, and we know this team can score like crazy. Will flirting with the top four in the West be enough to keep Dame happy?
Michael Porter Jr. showed us his offensive potential two seasons ago, then last year he proved he could be counted on to be a star on that end. With Jamal Murray out for perhaps the entire season, we will see MPJ give a run towards being a top-10 scorer in the league. A different question: will he consistently play defense with passion and purpose? We’ll have no way to know until he does it. If he does, the Nuggets can jump into the West’s top four—everyone on this deep team is better playing alongside the incredible Nikola Jokic. A top-10 defensive unit (12th last season) only happens if Porter Jr. does what we’ve seen another elite scoring forward with great athleticism, Kevin Durant, do some years at MPJ’s age. He doesn’t have to be great, just good to very good, for Denver to survive Murray’s absence.
What’s Jason Kidd gonna do? Armed with a team of shooters and one of the best players in the world, he has claimed he wants fewer 3s and more attacking plays, which he thinks will deliver in the postseason. He also hopes to inspire a more forceful defensive presence. The Mavericks had the best offense in the preseason and ranked third on defense—both big improvements over last year. His messaging got through in early October. Now we get to see if it can stick. The Mavericks rode a pragmatic head coach and Luka Doncic to competitive first-round losses the past two seasons, maybe Kidd’s tough-minded voice is what they need now. I’m skeptical but open to the idea, always, that coaches can get better just like players do.
How good is Terance Mann? Last season he was the team’s best rim attacker, an energizing force in the Corey Brewer mold. But Mann was a point guard when he arrived at the NBA and hasn’t had too much run at that spot up to now. As good as Reggie Jackson was last postseason, Mann has the better chance to become the third star the team needs to eventually partner with Paul George and (when healthy) Kawhi Leonard. It will take some growing pains, to be sure, but Tyronn Lue, who outcoached everyone to get his team to the West Finals, proved he knows how to be patient in developing players. Mann isn’t so similar a player to Jrue Holiday but he can have a similar impact if he gets his chances.
Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. could one day be the top duo in basketball. Or they could be just two exciting players who don’t win enough games to merit special mention on any lists. The Grizzlies are built around them, but won’t go far without a significantly increased effort on the defensive end. Morant is challenged due to his slight build and size, Jackson because he’s been injured a lot. No matter. Memphis has an exciting future as an offensive machine, and worked well to hide Morant’s issues on defense, finishing sixth overall last season. JJJ has been a bad defender but has the talent to be an all-league defender. Like Michael Porter Jr., this year will tell us a lot about who JJJ is going to be.
Maybe it’s paradoxical, but making a leap AFTER already making one is harder than that first one. In other words, it will be harder for RJ Barrett to jump into All-Star territory than it will be for Obi Toppin to help his team win the way Barrett did last year. As the Knicks form into one of the NBA’s better cultures, I’d love to see both players move towards their prodigious upside and push the Knicks into a contender in the making starting next season.
I’m obviously very fond of Scottie Barnes, but it’s the return of Pascal Siakam that will really move the needle this year. After a terrible bout with COVID, the resulting weight loss and just a miserable season overall, Siakam appeared to regain his All-League form late in the season. Once he returns from some off-season surgery, we get to see if he is still getting better at 27 and can be the top player of a contender, or is it time to trade him and rebuild around Barnes and the young guys. Based on what I’m hearing, Siakam will come back better than ever.
I’m one of the few who likes the Pacers’ old-school post tandem of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, who look like they are from the 1980s. It’s a zig from the zag of small-ball units that are so popular. If they can get a healthy T.J. Warren back, the Pacers, under a great coach like Rick Carlisle, can push their way toward 50+ wins. Also, this team represents one of the better trade partners for any team looking to enhance their chances this season, with good players at fair salaries all over the roster. The Pacers have the most elascticity of any team in the East.
From the day I met him in a team interview at his pre-draft combine in Chicago, I had Zach LaVine pegged as a Jamal Crawford clone, at best. A pure scorer off the bench who could not think the game well enough to run first-unit playoff teams. I feel good about being wrong. His mature, clutch, focused play for Team USA this summer blew me away. LaVine is, right now, better than I ever thought he could be based on what I saw in Chicago and his first few seasons in the league. If that Olympian brings the same mentality to the season, which I expect will happen, he’s making a run to All-NBA first- or second-team status.
When a team's identity is basically just their stars, it’s hard to build something special. With a new head coach and no Russell Westbrook, we get to see how this version will compete. Loaded with improving players, the Wizards are good enough, with Bradley Beal, to be a .500 team that has upside to mine once Beal is traded (which I expect). Seeing the team fight to be a top-12 defense is a great start, not doing so portends a darker future.
Zion Williamson has the game to push the Pelicans into the playoffs and himself into the MVP conversation. But does he have the body? When last seen he looked very heavy, as in 300+ pounds heavy (to my eyes), and is out once again to a lower-body injury we don't know much about. Steph Curry once had ankle injuries that seemed to permanently prevent him from growing into an elite player. He chose to train differently and we know what happened. Zion is far better than Curry was before that change, and younger too. Team Zion seems not to realize the importance of adjusting to these realities. I hope they and the Pelicans know that only the most fit and committed athletes reach an MVP level of success. That lean, trimmer Zion will destroy the league, and the Pels have the talent and a great “player whisperer” in new coach Willie Green to ride him towards their best season in years.
The Clippers’ Terance Mann is a portrait of a role player who can become a catalyst for big playoff success. Maybe Terence Davis can be that for the Kings. The Kings have loaded up with lotto picks for years and always pretty much wasted them because they never put anything special together. De'Aaron Fox is a special talent. Tyrese Haliburton is a solid prospect who plays the right way. Rookie Davion Mitchell is very very tough. But maybe Davis can help the Kings shake their nearly two-decade playoff drought. He had an excellent preseason, scoring 15 points a game on 39 percent shooting from 3, and he’s the kind of athlete whose defense can change games. He was solid as a rookie in Toronto two seasons ago, less so in Sacto last year. If he keeps playing well it’s a good sign the Kings as a franchise are building something solid.
Like Washington, this is a team in need of identity beyond LaMelo Ball's amazing passing. They were in the bottom half of the league on defense last year and bottom third on offense. This preseason it got worse on both ends, finishing 29th on offense and 26th on defense. I don’t care which side is where they make their mark, only that it happens. The team has too good of a coach and too much talent to be bad.
My favorite bad team. Also the most likely to move solid veterans for young players and picks, as their guards (Derrick White and Dejounte Murray) and newly signed wing shooter (Doug McDermott) can help nearly every team. I love young picks Devin Vassell (21) and Joshua Primo (18!!), and Olympian Keldon Johnson, who only turned 22 last week after being drafted 29th overall in 2019. Primo and Vassell have star talent, to my eyes, KJ is a potential two-way glue guy who brings great energy to his games. I hope Coach Pop can see trading some key veterans in the name of leaving the next Spurs coach with a roster loaded with experienced and talented guys who are ascending. If not, they can still compete for a play-in spot.
Zach Lowe and Kevin Arnovitz annually do a podcast about the most confusing teams. Minnesota is on my short list. They are always terrible, right? Awful on offense and defense last year, but were sneaky good on offense the final 15 games, going 8-7 with a top 10 offense. They have the talent to be a middling team on defense and one better than that on offense. If those two things happen they will rise to the level of average, a huge step for them. Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell have to show up on defense, and both are experienced enough to know that now. If they enhance their efforts, KAT can be a great defender and Russell can be average at best, but it will push Anthony Edwards to be more like them, and he has elite defensive talents if he chooses to pursue them. That would be a game changer for the T Wolves.
I ranked Evan Mobley as this year’s top prospect, which says a lot considering how high everyone is on Cade Cunningham and how sure I am that Scottie Barnes is a future star. It’s OK if guys struggle as rookies, but it isn’t pre-ordained. Mobley has the talent to be an average NBA player this year. Not great, average. I hope to see him narrow his options on offense and make simple plays, instead looking to assert his physical talents around the hoop and in the occasional mismatch, using that size, skill, and length to earn dunks, tip ins, and easy buckets. Chris Bosh, a simple and accurate model for him as a former skinny and skilled lefty big, was just that in his rookie year as a 19 year old. Mobley is 20 and has the excellent Jarrett Allen to soak up lots of minutes next to him at center. So there is reason for optimism that we will see the player I think Mobley will be sooner rather than later, which would be huge for this franchise.
The Pistons youth movement isn’t just rooted in Cade Cunningham. Guys like Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, and Saben Lee can all be core parts of an excellent team. I’m high on Luka Garza too, drafted this season in the second round. So now I’m excited for Jerami Grant, who appears to be better than ever as a scorer and chaos creator on defense, to get to play a key role on a contender. On this list there are teams in need of one more player to be contenders—I see Grant as being good enough to push multiple teams into that upper echelon. It should be a matter of when, not if, as Detroit has the makings of a future contender if Cunningham is what everyone thinks he is (I’m not so sure they are right—a topic for another day).
I'm a Stephen Silas fan. He has a challenge ahead of him, as his team is surging with young guns who have incredible offensive potential. But they are mostly clueless now. His goal should be to get his team searching for great shots and protecting the ball, stuff that comes with increased IQ and discipline. The Rockets showed neither in the preseason, 26th in true-shooting percentage and 28th in turnover percentage. Teaching his team to play fast but smart will take years. But if we see signs of growth this year it means very good things are in store for him and his team in 2023 or 2024.
If ever a team was in need of some good luck it’s the crew right down Interstate 4 from my office. With a healthy Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac, along with what Mo Bamba could become, they’d be on their way back to relevance after adding super solid point guard Jalen Suggs. But they are not healthy and we don’t know when they will be back or how good they will look, so Bamba, who looked like he’s ready to emerge this preseason, and Suggs, who struggled, will get tons of time to gain needed experience. If they actually have their future quarterback and center in tow, at least the Magic will have a foundation that is solid. They have not even had that lately thanks to those injuries.
A terrible team with an All-Star level player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. It makes me curious—if he has a spectacular start, will the team look to trade some of their picks and young players for immediate help? Or might they trade him for even more picks? I’d guess the former is more likely, and with rookie Josh Giddey and young but experienced Luguentz Dort looking promising, moving just a few of their players and picks could return enough to make this team appear to have a bright future. Otherwise that trio will lose 60-65 games, not a good vibe for one of the best cultures in the NBA and one who would not want SGA to seek a better place to play.
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