Get ready! The 2023-24 NBA season will be here before you know it. And with training camp less than a month away, it’s time to prepare for what should be another season of intense competition.
There are plenty of storylines to follow since the Denver Nuggets beat the Miami Heat for the NBA title in June. Players seeking trades before the season kicks off? Hello, James Harden and Damian Lillard. MVPs entering the final year of their deals? That’ll be Giannis Antetokounmpo. Legends wanting perhaps one last title shot? LeBron James and Chris Paul, here we go.
Every team is getting ready to take their shot at the title, and there’s no shortage of star-laden squads looking to knock off Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets. We know about the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics — not to mention sleeper picks like the Minnesota Timberwolves. But what teams just need to put together a solid season? (Looking at you, Dallas Mavericks.)
There are a lot of questions surrounding the landscape of the 2023-24 season, and our experts broke down the biggest ones ahead of the preseason. Let’s dive in.
1. The Nuggets are heavy favorites to repeat (according to us). Which team is in the best position to knock them out in a best-of-seven?
Jamal Collier: I’m going with the Suns, who had a strong offseason to give Kevin Durant and Devin Booker some help after they were not able to carry the team past the Nuggets by themselves last playoffs. The acquisition of Bradley Beal and some smart additions to fill out the roster this offseason — Keita Bates-Diop, Yuta Watanabe and Jordan Goodwin — gives Phoenix a reputable bench to surround their stars. Beal should thrive in his new role, and being a third option will make a lot of people remember how talented of a scorer he is. Phoenix looks like Denver’s best challenger in the West.
Tim MacMahon: The Milwaukee Bucks had the NBA’s best record last season before flopping in the first round, and the core of a recent championship team remains intact. It’s reasonable for Antetokounmpo to question whether Milwaukee can remain a contender for the foreseeable future with Brook Lopez, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton all aging, however. The Bucks’ window might not be open much longer, but it certainly is this season.
Kevin Pelton: The Celtics. The strongest case for Boston’s offseason trade, swapping defensive stalwart Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porzingis, was the equation Denver highlighted in the playoffs: Success is about how much shooting you can put on the court without sacrificing size. The Celtics can now match the Nuggets on both fronts, and Denver would be challenged to match up with Boston wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum after losing Bruce Brown in free agency.
Tim Bontemps: I’ll say the Warriors, because as dominant as Denver was in last year’s playoffs, there is one type of opponent they didn’t face: one with a devastating pick-and-roll guard to take advantage of Jokic. And there isn’t a more devastating option in that respect than Stephen Curry. None of that is meant to knock Denver’s title run, which was very impressive. But it will be fun to see a Denver-Golden State matchup if one comes to fruition.
Andrew Lopez: The Bucks — but only if they can manage to stay healthy. A healthy Milwaukee squad would prove formidable to the defending champs, but there are plenty of questions. Antetokounmpo missed 19 games last season, Holiday missed 15 and Middleton missed 49. As long as Antetokounmpo continues to play at his current level, the Bucks will always remain in the conversation to be among the league’s top teams, but the overall health will determine if Milwaukee can once again become NBA champions.
2. Forget about the Finals. Which team just needs to make the playoffs or show some marked improvement?
Tim Bontemps: After the disaster that was last season, this has to be the Mavericks. The franchise is on the clock to convince Luka Doncic this team can contend for championships over the long-term. If this team misses the playoffs again — or somehow misses the play-in tournament again — the pressure in Dallas is going to intensify next summer, when Doncic only has two years left on his contract before he can be an unrestricted free agent.
Jamal Collier: The Timberwolves. Karl-Anthony Towns got injured so early in the season that the Wolves didn’t get much of a chance to see their two bigs in action, but the early returns were not encouraging. Getting off to a strong start would help quell any early trade speculation for Towns and inspire faith in a trade that would be hard to argue Minnesota should make again if they had a do-over. The Wolves recovered to make the playoffs last year, but being a play-in team again could lead to another shakeup in Minnesota.
Andrew Lopez: In the four years since Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram joined the New Orleans Pelicans, the team has made just one playoff series (a 4-2 loss to the Suns in the 2022 first round) and lost in the play-in tournament’s 9-10 game the following season. Williamson’s health aside, the Pelicans have struggled to break through in recent years. Since trading for CJ McCollum at the deadline in Feb. 2022, McCollum, Williamson and Ingram have played in just 10 games together for a total of 172 minutes. The Pelicans need those numbers to go up to find more success.
Kevin Pelton: Chicago Bulls. This is year three of the DeMar DeRozan era and also the final year of his contract. With an aging core of DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls are on the clock to show some kind of returns from giving up three first-round picks to add DeRozan and Vucevic after getting quickly eliminated in the 2022 first round and missing the playoffs entirely last spring.
Tim MacMahon: The Mavericks can’t afford a repeat of last season’s catastrophe. I don’t think Doncic will look for reasons to leave Dallas, but logic would be smacking him in the face if the Mavericks miss the playoffs in the first two seasons of his supermax deal. The front office has felt that pressure, which is why the team has given up their 2029 first-round pick and unprotected 2030 swap rights over the last year to make significant upgrades to Doncic’s supporting cast.
3. Whether it’s winning a title or bouncing back from an off-year, predict which superstar faces the most pivotal season?
Jamal Collier: Ja Morant. A year ago, Morant and the Grizzlies were one of the hottest young teams with one of the brightest futures in the league. Morant looked like a future MVP. Now after a 25-game suspension, I’ll be curious to see what Morant can make of his season. Will the Grizzlies be able to salvage anything this year and look like a team still trending upward? The situation in Memphis is in a perilous state.
Andrew Lopez: I’ll stick with the Pelicans on this one and focus on Williamson. Williamson played in just 29 games a season ago after a hamstring injury ended his season on Jan. 2. There was hope Williamson could come back around the All-Star break, but he never made his return. Williamson has been around the Pelicans’ facility more this season as he begins the first year of his five-year, $194 million extension. He has taken steps to improve his body heading into the year but will that translate into playing more than 60 games in a season for only the second time? That remains to be seen.
Tim Bontemps: After his recent comments to the New York Times about his future, this upcoming season is massive for Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Like with Doncic in Dallas, the Bucks are clearly on the clock with Antetokounmpo, who said he isn’t going to extend and will have one year left before he can be a free agent next summer. If he and the Bucks don’t win a title this season — or at least reach the Finals — all eyes will be on what he and the organization will do.
Kevin Pelton: We never got a real look at Minnesota’s frontcourt of Towns and Rudy Gobert last season because Towns’ calf injury limited him to 29 games. It’s possible the Timberwolves develop the necessary chemistry and make a deeper playoff run since 2004 — the only time in franchise history they’ve won a playoff series. It’s also possible things go poorly and Towns emerges as the most tradeable player as Minnesota retools around budding star Anthony Edwards.
Tim MacMahon: Joel Embiid turns 30 this season, has never made it out of the second round of the playoffs and has dealt with a series of sagas involving the 76ers front office and his co-stars. Would anyone blame Embiid if he asked out after this season? It’s up to Daryl Morey to figure out a way to wiggle out of the Harden mess with a roster that’s good enough to convince Embiid that he doesn’t have to leave Philadelphia for a real chance at a ring.
4. Harden and Lillard could be traded to new teams. Which other star players could make a move before the season’s end?
Andrew Lopez: The Donovan Mitchell to the New York Knicks rumors still haven’t gone away despite the Cleveland Cavaliers trading for Mitchell instead of the Knicks last season. Mitchell is extension eligible this offseason, and if Cleveland thinks there’s even a chance that Mitchell may bolt, perhaps they look into seeing what value they can get for the player they just dealt three players — including Lauri Markkanen — three first-round picks and two pick swaps for.
Jamal Collier: It seems that the writing is on the wall for Towns. Edwards looks ready for a breakout season and the fit of Towns and Gobert still has so many question marks. If Minnesota gets off to anything less than a stellar start, the speculation is going to begin ramping up about their next move to shakeup the roster, and Towns could be the odd man out.
Tim Bontemps: I’ll be curious to see what happens with DeRozan in Chicago. He’s only got one year left until he’s an unrestricted free agent, and the Bulls are unlikely to be a contender for anything more than a first round exit this season. Perhaps that will lead to DeRozan changing teams between now and February’s trade deadline.
Kevin Pelton: I don’t know if Paul still fits into this category, but I’d peg him as the most likely to be dealt midseason after a pair of trades this summer landed him with the Warriors. Although Paul fills a need for the team by anchoring their offense with Curry on the bench, perhaps his greater value is financial flexibility. Golden State could trade Paul for a younger player on a longer contract if that’s worth paying additional luxury tax in future years.
Tim MacMahon: It makes sense for Minnesota, with Edwards establishing himself as the face of the franchise, to explore Towns’ value in the trade market. Minnesota made major investments in big men the last two summers with the Gobert trade and Naz Reid contract. It’s an awkward fit at best with all three on the roster. The Wolves gave up a ton of draft capital in the Gobert deal, which clearly didn’t vault the franchise to contender status. It did make Minnesota much more expensive, and Towns’ supermax deal kicks in next season.
5. Which notable signing, extension, or trade will be deemed a success by the time Christmas Day games roll around?
Tim Bontemps: Not that there was much of a doubt about the Austin Reaves contract when it was signed, but with the way he’s played with Team USA this summer, it’s quickly proven to be not just the best value of the deals signed this offseason, but the single-best non-max contract in the entire league — especially as the cap starts to skyrocket. The Los Angeles Lakers are incredibly fortunate no one tried to pry him away, and therefore were able to get him for the next three years.
Jamal Collier: I’ll go with Beal again here. Phoenix might have him slightly miscast as a lead ball handler, but his addition is going to remind fans just how good he is as a scorer. Durant, Booker and Beal will be an elite offensive trio, and as long as they stay healthy and get to play together, I think all three will generate a ton of production. Even if Durant has to miss some time again, having Beal ready to take on a larger role will pay huge dividends. If Phoenix looks like a legit contender come Christmas time, it will because the Beal addition has paid off.
Andrew Lopez: My instinct here was to go with Porzingis moving to Boston. But if his plantar fasciitis bothers him in the early part of the season, that could slow how quickly he gets integrated into the flow of the team. Also, I definitely think both Max Strus (Cavaliers) and Gabe Vincent (Lakers) will prove the big deals that took them away from Miami worth it.
Tim MacMahon: Reaves’ deal was a massive success by the time the ink dried and instantly became one of the best contracts in the NBA. He’s proven himself as a high-caliber starter and secondary playmaker in the playoffs and is just entering his prime. He’s a $100 million player who is being paid a little more than half of that because the Lakers benefited from some fine print in the collective bargaining agreement.
Kevin Pelton: Since most of the biggest signings won’t be judged until the postseason, let’s go with Fred VanVleet signing with the Houston Rockets. If VanVleet’s leadership and skill can get more out of the Rockets’ recent first-round picks (Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun and Jabari Smith Jr.) than they were able to accomplish playing without a veteran point guard, his short-term max deal will easily be worth it within the first few months.