It might feel like just yesterday that Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors took the final three games against the Boston Celtics to polish off their 2022 Championship run. Somehow, NBA preseason games will kick off on September 30, which is how NBA basketball junkies tend to realize the long summer is finally over.
There are some givens heading into the 2022–23 season. The teams who played in the Finals, the Celtics and the Warriors, both bring back loaded rosters, which is why they’re each at the top of the list of favorites in the Eastern and Western conferences, respectively. We know that two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic is likely to put up a spirited defense of that award. And while we know lots of things, I thought it’d be fun to make some predictions about things we don’t know — or that are harder to predict, anyway.
The Cleveland Cavaliers Will Finish 3rd in the East
This is probably my hottest take, so I’ll lead off with it. After the Donovan Mitchell trade, the Cavaliers, in my opinion, are the third best team in the Eastern Conference, and I think the regular season standings will reflect that new reality.
Let’s be clear about what, exactly, this prediction means. The Celtics and Bucks — in some order — are the best two teams in the conference in a way that feels pretty undeniable at the moment. Most people would have the 76ers and Nets as the next two teams, followed by the Heat, the Raptors, the Hawks and the Cavaliers in some order. I’m bumping the Cavs over all those teams save the Celtics and the Bucks.
In part, this is about a belief that the 76ers and the Nets are slightly overrated, but let’s leave that aside for the moment and focus on the Cavs. Last season’s roster, with Evan Mobley still a rookie and no Donovan Mitchell, had a 31–20 record after 51 games and had the best point differential in the Conference by nearly a full point per 100 possessions. The simple story is that they then suffered a bunch of injuries and we forgot how good they were.
The more complicated story? The league-wide feeling that there was something a little fluky going on with the Cavs in the first half of last season. They were overachieving in a league where lots of teams were dealing with wonky rosters due to COVID-19 absences, maybe.
I don’t agree with that perception. I think this Cavs team was legit — and is legit now, too. I think in Mobley and Jarrett Allen, they’ve got a gigantic and versatile defensive frontcourt to rival the vaunted Celtics duo of Al Horford and Rob Williams. And in Darius Garland and — now — Mitchell, they’ve got two unguardable shot-creators in the backcourt.
As I wrote earlier this summer, some factors, including what they’re going to do on the wing between Isaac Okoro and the rest of the less-than-perfect options, remain to be seen. But sometimes teams are a lot more ready than we think they are, and this particular iteration of the Cavaliers seems a whole lot like one of those teams to me.
The Portland Trail Blazers Will Finish in the Top 6 in the West
Last season, the Blazers went 27–55 and finished 13th in the West. It was an incredibly disappointing season for the Blazers, who got only 29 games out of their superstar guard, Damian Lillard, due to injuries.
More alarming, the Blazers actually had a negative point differential even when Lillard was on the court — their opponents outscored them by 1.8 points per 100 possessions — for the first time since Lillard’s rookie season. It’s fair to look at that and conclude that Lillard, at age 32, might not be equipped to carry a team to the playoffs anymore.
However, as far as I’m concerned, there are major reasons for optimism. Lillard and Anfernee Simons, who just signed a long-term contract that should keep him in Portland for the foreseeable future, will give the Blazers at least one potent offensive force to keep on the floor at all times — so long as they remain healthy. When those two shared the court last season, the Blazers scored over 116 points per 100 possessions — a rate that would have been near the top of the league had Lillard not contended with injuries.
What really killed them was their defense, but the Blazers made meaningful upgrades in that area heading into this season. Supersized wing Jerami Grant arrived in a trade from Detroit, and Gary Payton II — maybe the best perimeter defender alive right now — was picked up from the Warriors in free agency. In Josh Hart, Nassir Little and Justise Winslow, the Blazers have more wing defender options than they’ve had in years.
It’s going to take some luck with health, but a starting lineup of Lillard, Simons, Hart, Grant and big man Jusuf Nurkić should be one of the elite five-man units in the NBA this season. Little and Payton II are unquestionably meaningful bench pieces. It gets a little thin after that, but rookie shooting guard Shaedon Sharpe and super athletic wing Keon Johnson loom as potential revelations given some opportunity.
The oddsmakers have the Blazers as something like the 10th best team in the West at the moment, but I don’t think people are talking enough about this team, and I won’t be surprised if they sneak into the top 6 in the West before the season’s over.
The Memphis Grizzlies Will Miss the Playoffs
The 2021–22 Grizzlies won 56 games, second most in the entire NBA. There were all kinds of things that were impressive about that — first and foremost, the ascension of point guard Ja Morant as one of the NBA’s elite individual talents. However, it flew under the radar a little that the Grizzlies, in many ways, are still trying to be patient with their young roster.
Prior to the season, they traded key offensive piece Jonas Valanciunas away in part for the talents of defensive anchor Steven Adams, but also to move up seven spots in the 2021 draft, where they took Ziaire Williams out of Stanford. Trading up in the draft is, generally speaking, not something teams do when they’re trying to win games in the present. Rookies generally don’t help you win.
Keep that in mind when you look at this season’s roster. Veteran options like De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson are gone, and in their place we’ve got a bunch of — you guessed it — rookies: Jake LaRavia out of Wake Forest, David Roddy out of Colorado State and Kennedy Chandler out of Tennessee. It’s not that these guys aren’t promising rookies, especially given Memphis’ stellar record when it comes to the draft. It’s that Melton and Anderson were two key rotation players, and they’ve been replaced by question marks.
In the NBA, we know top-end talent generally wins out, so it’s tempting to say that Morant’s greatness is going to paper over all this stuff, but the Grizzlies won last year with endless depth — an incredibly deep rotation of positive-value players getting just the right amount of minutes. Ziaire Williams, for example, goes from someone who was basically a bonus option on the fringe of the rotation to an essential need on the wing.
We haven’t even discussed the fact that the team’s best defensive player, Jaren Jackson Jr., will miss at least the first month or so of the season after having offseason surgery to address a stress fracture in his foot. There’s just a lot of question marks here in a conference where other teams have fewer things up in the air, and all of that makes it somewhat surprising that the Grizzlies are currently the favorites to win the Southwest Division. Memphis overachieved last season, and my guess is that they’ll do a little of the opposite this time around.
Keldon Johnson Will Win Most Improved Player
Most Improved Player (MIP) is, by far, the toughest NBA award to predict, which is why basically any bet you make on it is a longshot. Of course, that’s also what makes it the most fun to consider.
Traditionally, the award has gone to players making the leap from really good to great, specifically in the service of helping good teams get better. Last year’s winner, Ja Morant, is a perfect example — Ja went from being a borderline All-Star candidate to All-NBA Second Team and finding himself in MVP discussions throughout the season.
That said, it’s not easy to predict which player is going to reach that level. Nobody thought Julius Randle — winner of the prior season’s award — was going to have an All-NBA season for the Knicks in 2020–21 until it was happening, and the fact that Randle’s game crashed back down to Earth last season is proof that this stuff is really fickle sometimes.
Okay, so all of that preamble aside, I’ve got Keldon Johnson as my best bet for this season’s award, despite the fact — or maybe because of the fact — that he finds himself on a San Antonio Spurs team that seems to be primed to be one of the worst teams in the league this season — in part because the team just traded away its heavy-usage point guard, Dejounte Murray, to the Atlanta Hawks.
Still, Johnson did a few things last season that have me thinking he’s on the verge of a breakout. He carried a heavier load on offense with even greater efficiency while also somehow turning the ball over less frequently. Even more encouraging is that he improved as a playmaker as the season went on, boosting his assists per game from 1.8 before the All-Star break to 2.9 after. His month-by-month splits are even more encouraging: 2.1 in February, 2.8 in March and 3.8 in April.
The most valuable player type in basketball is a wing who can score on his own, create shots for his teammates and guard multiple positions on the defensive end. Johnson is blossoming into that type of player, and with Murray gone, more of the offensive load is about to fall on Johnson’s shoulders. He signed a long-term deal with the Spurs this summer that takes him through the next five seasons, but that was an upside bet for the Spurs. I’d encourage you to make the same upside bet on Johnson for MIP this season.
Bones Hyland Will Win Sixth Man of the Year
You may find yourself wondering why I seem to be avoiding the biggest individual award — Most Valuable Player (MVP) — in this piece. I’ll tell you here as a bonus prediction: Luka Dončić is the betting favorite for that award, and I think he’s going to win it. Not much drama there. And I think the teams that are the favorites to win the title — the Celtics, the Warriors, the Bucks, the Clippers and maybe the Nets — are actually the five teams most likely to win it.
Okay, maybe I’d actually sub in the Nuggets for the Nets on that list, and my pick for Sixth Man of the Year is a big reason why. When the Nuggets traded point guard Monte Morris and wing Will Barton to the Wizards for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith this summer, some folks thought maybe they’d miss Morris’ steady hand in the backcourt, even with Jamal Murray coming back from injury. I don’t think they will, and, in my opinion, Bones Hyland is the reason.
Bones showed up as a rookie last season with an incredible amount of confidence for a guy who almost wasn’t even drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft. The overall numbers — right around 10 points, three rebounds and three assists per game in 19 minutes — might not blow you away, but where Bones was way ahead of the game was in his confidence. For a team that really needed him, he came in with all kinds of boldness. He pushes the ball in transition, he creates shots for teammates, and — most importantly — he creates shots for himself.
The Nuggets in recent years have relied on their MVP center Nikola Jokić for basically all of their offensive creation. Jamal Murray is certainly capable of creating shots, but even as a rookie Bones nearly matched Murray’s most recent season in terms of usage rate and percentage of shots at the rim. And Bones is an absolute flamethrower from 3-point range. He’ll shoot off the catch; he’ll pull up; Bones doesn’t care. He’ll shoot any shot you give him.
That confidence serves Bones well on the offensive end, and the offensive end is where Sixth Man of the Year awards are won, but I think it has the potential to serve him well on defense, too. Here’s a fun stat: at the NBA Draft Combine in 2021, Bones measured out with the longest wingspan — 6’9.25” — of any player under 6’3” in height. For a point guard, he’s got decent size, and while he’s not a leaper, he was absolutely elite in the agility drills, grading out with the best lane agility of any player who was drafted in the first round.
Quietly, the oddsmakers have taken notice. Bones’ odds of winning Sixth Man of the Year have climbed quite a bit in the past month or so, to the point where he’s now considered to be in the group just below the favorites. To me, he’s the best bet on the board, especially since he’ll probably be the leading scorer off the bench for one of the best teams in basketball.