The 2023-24 NBA season kicks off Tuesday night, and while there's always a part of me that hesitates to make predictions of any kind, there's an even bigger part that can't help it. It's part of the fun.
So I've made some guesses here. They're educated guesses, but guesses nonetheless. Well, one actually isn't educated in any way. You'll see which one, but it's based on nothing more than a hunch, and, in fact, there's little evidence to support that hunch.
The rest I believe are going to happen, which means maybe one or two of them actually will, but this is how I see a few things going down at this moment.
These are my 10 bold predictions for the upcoming NBA season.
1. Victor Wembanyama wins historic DPOY
Admittedly, I was overthinking the Rookie of the Year race for a minute, reasoning that Scoot Henderson is going to get the best opportunity to shine every night with the ball in his hands. But that was a very dumb thought. If Wembanyama stays healthy, ROY is a wrap.
But Wemby won't stop there. I honestly believe he's going to become the first player in the 41-year history of the award to win Defensive Player of the Year as a rookie.
The guy's length is brain-breaking. He's able to dig down and disrupt drivers at the free-throw area without leaving the 3-point line. He blocks 3-point shots. He stays with guards and wings off the dribble, and even when he doesn't, he can still recover to block or at least alter their shots from multiple feet behind.
We're talking about a 7-foot-4 human skyscraper with an eight-foot wingspan who moves like someone a foot shorter. Combine that with his elite instincts, and it changes offensive geometry in the way that Steph Curry changed defensive geometry. There is just so much more space an offense has to account for when gauging whether Wemby is within a reasonable range of impact.
The fact is, he can be on the other side of the court and you still have to worry about what he's doing, same as Curry on offense. It's going to create legitimate paranoia in the minds of would-be creators. Where the hell is Wemby at? And can I possibly get this shot off fast enough, or high enough, to avoid him? The answer: probably not.
2. Stephen Curry wins second scoring title
This is a matter of necessity. Klay Thompson might be past giving the Warriors 20-plus points a night on good efficiency. Chris Paul is certainly past his scoring prime; to me, he looked like he had a difficult time separating at all for his patented mid-range jumpers in the preseason. Golden State is going to be at a size deficit most nights and, therefore, fighting an uphill battle on the boards.
It all adds up to Curry having to produce a big-time scoring season if the Warriors are going to secure a playoff spot in the loaded West, let alone a top-four seed. Personally, unless Jonathan Kuminga seriously pops, I think the Warriors are going to spend much of the season right on the play-in line, putting Curry in an elevated state of scoring urgency for the bulk of the schedule. Thirty-plus points a night is definitely in play, and that should win Curry his second career scoring crown.
3. Nikola Jokić wins third MVP
Only eight players in NBA history have won at least three MVPs, and Jokić is about to become the ninth. Frankly, this should be his fourth. Last year's was his, too. But three will do, and the reason he gets it is simple: he's the best player in the league and the Nuggets are the best team.
It's not quite the same as Golden State in 2015-16 when they won 73 games after everyone was trying to discredit their first title, but with all the talk about Lillard going to Milwaukee and everything the Celtics did and whatever this one-sided Lakers war of words is, pretty much nobody is talking about the Nuggets yet again.
The Nuggets don't strike me as the vengeful type (Mike Malone does, but not the Nuggets), but don't be totally fooled into thinking Jokić really does only care about his horses. The guy is a competitor, and this team has something to prove again, I believe. I think it motivates them to get near 60 wins. If that happens, Jokić has to be MVP, as you can already lock in the necessary stats.
4. Damian Lillard will shoot 40% from 3
This might not sound like too bold a prediction, but the fact is Lillard has only topped the 40% mark from 3-point land once in his career, in 2018-19, when he was 40.1%. He's only topped 39% twice, and he's 37% overall for his career. You're going to argue that Lillard's mediocre percentages -- relatively speaking for a guy who is pretty widely considered to be one of the most lethal marksmen in history -- are a product of his necessarily difficult shot diet over the years, and I would agree with you.
As opposed to his time in Portland, when he was by far the most tracked player by opposing defenses, it will be impossible to devote a disproportionate amount of attention to Lillard in Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo rolling to the rim and shooters all over to space the floor. It should lead to a lot of open looks, which, in turn, should lead to the best 3-point shooting season, from a percentage standpoint, of Lillard's career.
5. Mikal Bridges won't be an All-Star
It will be impossible to deny Bridges an All-Star spot if he repeats his post-trade numbers from last season, but I don't think he quite gets there and there just aren't enough spots available. The way I see it, there are three spots for sure available, and maybe four, with Jrue Holiday, Julius Randle and DeMar DeRozan all on the bubble from last year's team, and Kyrie Irving having headed West.
Let's say all four of those spots open up. One goes to Damian Lillard. Another goes to Jalen Brunson, and I think a third goes to Trae Young as I quietly expect a big season from the Hawks, as you'll see below. That leaves one spot, and I think given how much Jimmy Butler is going to have to do for Miami this season, he gets it. This is a bubble call. Bridges could easily make it. So could his teammate Ben Simmons, who has looked pretty damn good in the preseason. But, ultimately, there's just not enough spots. Bridges gets squeezed.
6. Hawks will be a top-five seed
I'm going out on a limb here. I have long expressed my hesitance to trust Trae Young, whose shooting is wildly overrated in addition to him being a defensive target, but Atlanta is going to play faster and shoot a bunch of 3-pointers under Quin Snyder. It should stretch the floor and create easier half-court looks, and, quietly, I like the competence of the defensive parts of this team outside of Young.
I won't be surprised if Atlanta still ends up relying too heavily on the my-turn-your-turn creation of Young and Dejounte Murray and ultimately can't score enough to make up for what will still only be a mediocre defense, but there's a mess in Philadelphia and both Cleveland and the Knicks could regress (though I believe Cleveland is also set for a big year after addressing their small-forward shooting issues with Georges Niang and Max Strus).
In the end, I'm betting on a big Young year with, hopefully, solid shot selection and good 3-point efficiency (the shooting talent has never been questionable, only the selection), and there are a lot of other capable shooters on this roster in addition to the potential for a big offensive-glass advantage with Clint Capela (if he's not traded) and Onyeka Okongwu.
If nothing else, the Hawks' win total sitting at 41.5 is an over lock. Assuming relative health, I can virtually guarantee that much.
7. OKC will be a top-six seed
I'm not ready to jump on the top-four-seed wagon, but I do think OKC finishes above the play-in this year. Chet Holmgren makes the Thunder a different animal. The spacing he'll provide will be critical for a team in short supply of threatening shooters. The defense will be stout. This team plays hard and with force every night. Shai Gilgeous-Anlexander will be in the MVP conversation. Trades are obviously there to be made. Buddy Hield, anyone? Perfect fit. Either way, OKC is ready to be a serious problem. No more waiting.
8. Zion Williamson will play 60-plus games
This is the only prediction I have on this list that isn't based on anything other than an old-fashioned guess. Some injury luck is bound to go Zion's way. All the talk about his career being on the verge of derailment is too much. He looks to be in good shape. He's starting healthy. Nobody is asking for 75 games. Sixty is not some unreasonable number. Let's cross our collective fingers, because we all want to see what Zion, and the Pelicans, can be with a run of good health and luck.
9. Grizzlies will be in the play-in
Ja Morant is suspended for the first 25 games. Assuming he misses at least a handful more for injuries or rest, Memphis will be without its best player for more than a third of the season. That is significant.
Now Steven Adams is out for the season, as is Brandon Clarke. There goes the offensive rebounding that has compensated so much for Memphis' middling half-court offense.
Say what you want about Dillon Brooks, but he was a big part of Memphis' defense and overall energy. He's gone, too.
Marcus Smart is not going to cover for all this. Memphis will likely be in the market for a big man; perhaps they'll talk to Portland about Robert Williams, whom we'll talk about in a minute. But, as it stands right now, the Grizzlies are behind the eight ball in a Western Conference that allows no room for error. A top-six seed is a tough ask under these conditions.
10. Blazers will trade multiple players
I think Malcolm Brogdon goes for sure, and probably Robert Williams, too. Portland will be trying to get off Jerami Grant's contract, but five years and $160 million for a sub All-Star is a tough sell. Portland may surprise a lot of people in the early going. There are a lot of solid NBA players on this roster with two stars in the making in Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe. But eventually Portland will go into tank mode. If they're in a position to collect more draft picks for Brogdon and Williams, which should be the case, they would be foolish not to do it.