Thu. Feb 22nd, 2024

The 78th season of the National Basketball Association starts Tuesday night when the Denver Nuggets host the Los Angeles Lakers. Here are 10 things you need to know about the 2023-24 season.

1. The Western Conference is loaded

The Nuggets are defending champions. The Warriors won in 2022, and added Chris Paul this summer. Phoenix added Bradley Beal to play with Kevin Durant. Dallas has a full season of Kyrie Irving playing with Luka Doncic. The Clippers still have Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook and might add James Harden. The Lakers have a retooled supporting cast for LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Other teams got healthier. The Timberwolves are looking at a full season of Karl-Anthony Towns with phenom Anthony Edwards. The Thunder’s first-team All-NBA guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gets last year’s No. 2 pick Chet Holmgren back. Even the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson looks explosive and healthy this preseason.

That’s not even mentioning the 2022-23 No. 2 seed Memphis Grizzlies and No. 3 seed Sacramento Kings, who also made moves to improve their teams this summer. Even the bottom teams added players, with Houston signing Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks, Portland flipping Damian Lillard for three players and drafting Scoot Henderson and Utah adding three first-round picks to All-Star Lauri Markkanen. Oh, and the Spurs added a guy named Victor Wembanyama.

While some teams might decide to tank down the stretch, there are really no nights off in the West. Expect to see some very compressed standings and relatively low win totals, with 10-12 teams who could reasonably expect to make the playoffs.

2. The Eastern Conference is loaded…at the top

The Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics engaged in some point guard one-upmanship late in the summer. First, Milwaukee traded Jrue Holiday for Lillard. Then Boston turned around and traded Malcolm Brogdon and Robert Williams to get Holiday themselves. Now Milwaukee has Lillard, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, while Boston has All-Star MVP Jayson Tatum and $300 million man Jaylen Brown.

Beyond those two, there’s a big drop-off. Cleveland had the league’s No. 1 defense, three current and former All-Stars and shored up its small forward position. But Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell aren’t a perfect fit together, nor are big men Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. The New York Knicks had their best season in a decade, but are lacking a true superstar. 

The East could well have the NBA’s two best teams, but top-to-bottom, it’s nowhere near the West. In part because…

3. The 76ers are a mess

The Philadelphia 76ers traded one headache for another when they swapped Ben Simmons for James Harden in 2022. They had an All-Star point guard who soured on the franchise and refused to play for the team, and now they have a different All-Star point guard who soured on the franchise and threatened not to play for the team. Now Harden has been away from the team for nearly a week to protest team president Daryl Morey’s refusal to trade him.

This can’t be great for the team’s relationship with reigning MVP Joel Embiid, who has to wonder how long management is willing to play hardball with unhappy players during his prime. Or during whatever time 38-year-old forward P.J. Tucker has left. The Sixers weren’t good enough to get past Boston last year in the playoffs, and aside from new coach Nick Nurse, there’s little reason to think they got better.

4. The in-season tournament is a big gamble

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has long wanted a European-soccer-style tournament to goose interest in the regular season — and add more content for television and advertisers. His solution is the new In-Season Tournament, which culminates in a “Final Four” playoff weekend in Las Vegas the first weekend of December.

The new event is integrated into the regular season — qualifying for the final round is based on select regular-season games — and the winning teams get $500K per player. But it’s still unclear why fans should care about it. Rooting for your team’s players to get a big financial bonus and hoist the “NBA Cup” doesn’t sound particularly compelling.

5. The NBA MVP will likely be a familiar face

For the past three seasons, the same three names have been at the top of the MVP vote: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Only Steph Curry’s third-place finish in 2021 has broken the NBA’s big man hegemony — and Antetokounmpo was a close fourth that year. Oh, and he also won the NBA title.

This year, while there’s still buzz for Doncic, Jokic/Giannis/Embiid is still the trio to beat. In the NBA’s annual poll, 63 percent of NBA general managers thought Jokic or Antetokounmpo would win MVP, while the incumbent Embiid also got votes. The dark horse? Boston’s Jayson Tatum, especially if the Celtics finish with 60 wins.

6. Injuries will determine the champion

Nearly every contender has concerns about age or injuries. Consider the Lakers. Since coming to Los Angeles, LeBron James has played more than 56 games just once. His teammate Anthony Davis averaged 35 missed games the last three years. No matter how the Lakers changed their supporting cast, their title chances depend on their stars’ health.

The Suns have the oft-injured Durant and Beal. Every important member of the Warriors has had extended injury absences the last few years. Boston added injury-prone Kristaps Porzingis, the Bucks’ playoff changes hinge on Antetokounmpo’s health and in four years, the Clippers’ George and Leonard have played only 142 games together. The champion will be determined on the court, but also in the training room.

7. Victor Wembanyama is great, but he’ll take it slow

Aside from a disappointing first game of Summer League, the Spurs No. 1 pick, 7-foot-4 French teenager has been very impressive. It’s not just his shot-blocking ability and eight-foot wingspan that are turning heads. It’s his shooting touch and surprisingly diverse blend of dribble moves, like when he “nutmegged” Reggie Bullock last week.

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