Happy 2023, basketball fans. The calendar has flipped over, and the 2022-23 NBA season is in full swing with someone scoring 40 or more points seemingly every night and wide-open races for both the title and MVP. With the holidays behind us, it’s time to look ahead at what the new year might bring. So let’s get right into the 10 most intriguing NBA storylines to watch throughout 2023.
1. LeBron James chasing history
Entering play on Monday, James is just 528 points shy of breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record (38,387). If he were to maintain his current pace of 28.5 points per game, LeBron would need fewer than 20 games to pass Kareem, and he is currently on pace to do so against the Thunder on Feb. 7. If it takes him a few extra games the league certainly won’t mind; the Lakers play the Bucks on Feb. 9 and the Warriors on Feb. 11, both on national television.
2. Here come the Nets
Brooklyn is the biggest story in basketball right now, having won 11 straight and 15 of its last 16. Kevin Durant, even by his own lofty midrange standards, is having an all-time shooting season from inside the arc. Kyrie Irving is more quietly scoring a career-best 125.3 points per 100 shot attempts, per Cleaning the Glass. And Ben Simmons is creeping closer and closer to his own All-Star form every night, defending all over the floor, pushing in transition and serving as a Draymond Green-like connector in the half court, facilitating offense for his lethal teammates with and without the ball in his hands. The optimal vision of this team is coming into focus. Will the good times keep rolling?
3. Will Golden State put it together?
Golden State ended 2022 on a great note, winning four straight without the services of Stephen Curry and Andrew Wiggins, both of whom should be back relatively soon. Pessimist’s note: all four of those wins came at home. The Warriors have to figure something out on the road, where they have a rancid 3-16 mark so far, the worst in the league.
The Warriors open 2023 with four home games, all very winnable, particularly the first three against Atlanta, Detroit and Orlando. A seven-game winning streak is in sight as Golden State, currently sitting as the West’s No. 9 seed, tires to climb out of the play-in group and solidify its postseason spot over the next three months. Are the Warriors still the team we all think they are when healthy and clicking? Time for the defending champs to start showing it on a consistent basis.
4. Crowded MVP race
As the calendar turns, you can make a strong case for at least six players as the current MVP frontrunner: Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant. Zion Williamson and/or Ja Morant could become a factor, as could Stephen Curry if the Warriors start climbing the seed ladder. Donovan Mitchell would be tough to deny if the Cavs were to win the East’s top seed. This MVP class is obscenely stacked, and the margins are miniscule. It will be fascinating to watch it play out.
5. Trade season heats up
Teams have until 3 p.m. ET on Feb. 9 to make trades. Who will be the biggest name moved? If it were up to me, it would be Anthony Davis … but the Lakers don’t have the guts for that, so I digress. Nikola Vucevic? John Collins? I would categorize both those guys as likely to be traded, but that’s been true of Collins for a while and nothing has come through yet. Same for Myles Turner and the Pacers.
Kyle Kuzma is a lock to hit free agency this summer (no way he’s picking up his $13 million option), so might the Wizards move him before potentially losing him for nothing? Obi Toppin is a possibility to be moved out of New York. Bojan Bogdanovic is perhaps the most intriguing addition for a contender. Over the next five weeks, the NBA wires are going to be buzzing with rumors. We’ll all try to sort out which ones might have the biggest impact on the postseason races.
6. All-Star arguments
Western Conference: There are seven locks at the moment: Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry (assuming he gets back relatively soon), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. Devin Booker‘s status will depend on how long he remains out, but if he gets back in early February and picks up where he left off, he’s almost a lock. Damian Lillard is in if he stays healthy. That’s nine.
One of the Kings, either Domantas Sabonis or De’Aaron Fox, has to get in with how they have played. My bet is on Sabonis, if only because it’s easier to fill a front-court spot without manipulating positions. That’s 10 players, and we haven’t even mentioned Paul George, Anthony Davis, Lauri Markannen, Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane (who was looking like a lock prior to his injury and is back now), Mikal Bridges, Jerami Grant, Anthony Edwards or Deandre Ayton.
7. Wemby Watch
Presumed 2023 No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama recently said that he finds tanking for a better shot at a top draft pick to be a “weird strategy,” going so far as to call it “unreasonable.” It’s the exact opposite. There’s nothing weird or unreasonable about losing in the short term to put yourself in better position to win in the long term.
Frankly, until they do more that flattening the lottery odds a little bit to discourage teams from strategically stinking, the only “weird” strategy for a team like, say, the Hornets, Spurs or Rockets would be to win six more games at the expense of a shot at a player like Wembanyama. Nobody wants to say the word tank, but rest assured that as the season progresses, these teams near the bottom of the standings will be speaking quite loudly with their losing actions.
8. Can Kings keep it going?
Entering play on Monday, the Kings are in the playoffs. Not the play-in. The playoffs. They’re 19-16 with an offense that is decimal points outside the top five. Sacramento has’t been to the playoffs since 2005-06. That’s 16 years, the longest drought in the league. This is one of the most fun teams to watch with two All-Stars in Domantis Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox (whether they both actually make the team is another conversation — see above — but they both are All-Star players).
Unfortunately, the Warriors and Suns are currently beneath Sacramento. Holding those teams off will be quite the challenge. To me, the best bet for Sacramento is Dallas falling off and one of Warriors/Suns suffering more injury setbacks. But this is a good team. It isn’t out of the question they they just outplay those teams over the next three months and hold onto a top-six seed. It will be a lot of fun to watch them try.
9. Sorting out the Sixers
Does Philadelphia belong among the top-tier Eastern Conference contenders? Is the defense as stout as the numbers have looked? Will Tyrese Maxey’s return be the jolt it should be on paper? There’s a lot to like here, but I still don’t love the shots the Sixers get in the tight possessions (their late-game numbers reflect this).
My confidence in James Harden teams is shaky at best. My confidence in a Doc Rivers team is shaky period. I really don’t know what to make of this team beyond Joel Embiid being awesome, which is not a small thing. I love De’Anthony Melton and give me PJ Tucker in the playoffs all day. If Tobias Harris and Georges Niang are going to be this reliable from 3, that’s a big deal. I’m still in wait-and-see mode. We’ll know more over these next few months.
10. New Western powers
Entering play on Monday, the top four West teams are Denver, New Orleans, Memphis and Dallas. Is this the changing of the guard we’re always waiting to talk about, or will the Warriors, Suns and Clippers eventually reassert themselves as the powers everyone expected them to be? Personally, I think these Pelicans, Nuggets and Grizzlies will finish 1-3 in some order. That doesn’t mean they will be the teams to beat in the playoffs, but they’ll be right there and the home-court advantage will be a big boost.
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