Last year saw the landscape of power in the NBA turn west toward the Rocky Mountains, where the Denver Nuggets and their world class big man Nikola Jokic won their first NBA championship over the Miami Heat. But there are other teams such as the Lakers and Heat who also exceeded expectations and are poised to build from last year’s success. Teams who went out in disappointing fashion like the Bucks and Celtics are reloaded and ready to make another title run. But despite the presence of these other teams, the Nuggets kept most of their championship core intact and are primed to repeat even if Jokic is more interested in his horses than basketball.
With that being said, here are my biggest takes going into this NBA season.
1. The Los Angeles Lakers Will Win Their 18th Championship
Even with future Hall of Famers LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers' season looked like a lost cause as they stumbled into the trade deadline with a mediocre 25-30 record. But with a series of midseason acquisitions the Lakers went 17-9 after the deadline despite missing James for a large portion, and advanced to the Western Conference Finals. Although they got swept, the Lakers have established a new foundation that should carry over into next year.
At the center of this team is LeBron James. At 38, James continues to play at an All-NBA level, averaging 28 points, eight rebounds, and six assists while shooting 50% from the field. In the playoffs, James sometimes looked like he was drinking from the Fountain of Youth, throwing down reverse dunks and chasing down opponents.
Alongside James is Anthony Davis who might be the second option, but is fully capable of thriving as the number one option. This was seen multiple times last year such as his scorching hot start, and later keeping the team in the playoff hunt for much of March without LeBron.
In addition to James and Davis, Austin Reaves showed lots of improvement in his second season, where he started to blossom into a playmaker during the playoffs. D'Angelo Russell and Rui Hachimura are also two players who can step up if James and Davis are having an off night. All of these players will be sticking around as the Lakers managed to retain them in free agency with reasonable contracts with the most being Reaves' 56 million.
The Lakers also signed players who can thrive with James in different ways. Jaxon Hayes is a solid pick & roll threat, Tareun Prince can take on the role of a catch and shoot player, and Christian Wood is another big man who can space the floor.
For the Lakers to reach the promised land, it's essential that Davis stays healthy during the year. James is going to miss a decent amount of time given his age, but with Davis being just 30 years old, he should be counted upon to play a large portion of games. Davis clearly has plenty left in the tank and the Lakers need him to build off his resurgent 2023 campaign in order to reach the ultimate goal.
2. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be a Top Four Team in the West
Although many believed last season would be a rebuilding year for the Thunder, they surprised many experts and came within one game of clinching the eighth seed. They boost a young, homegrown roster that will be on everyone’s radar this season.
Leading the way is point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who absolutely looks like the real deal. He was always a rising star, but this year saw him make the full transition to stardom. Last season, Gilgeous-Alexander averaged a career high 31 points along with five assists on 51 percent shooting from the field. He also made notable strides on the defensive end, finishing in the top five for steals and deflections. This breakout season resulted in Gilgeous-Alexander earning first team All-NBA at the end of the year.
Yet even after his breakout year, Gilgeous-Alexander didn't hesitate to praise his teammates. "None of that stuff matters without the team," he said following the season.
Fortunately for Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder have slowly constructed an effective supporting cast to complement his abilities. Lu Dort is arguably the team's best defender as he'll take on the opponent's top scoring option on a nightly basis. Josh Giddey gives the Thunder another good playmaker at guard, and small forward Jalen Williams finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. The team will also get a significant boost with their 2022 pick Chet Holmgren returning from a foot injury that kept him out all of last year.
3. Jayson Tatum Wins MVP
Since becoming the face of the franchise for the Boston Celtics in 2019, Jayson Tatum has quickly ascended to one of the NBA's premier players. The last two years have seen Tatum make the leap into the prime of his career, making All-NBA in back to back seasons while leading the Celtics to the 2022 NBA Finals.
Offensively, Tatum has averaged 27 points in the last three years but he is so much more than a scorer. Defenses also have to respect his ability to facilitate just as much as his scoring.
"He's an unbelievable playmaker," said his teammate Peyton Prichard after Tatum's Finals debut. "We know he can score at the highest of levels, but when you can score and pass like he did, it's a game changer."
In addition, Tatum is a solid defender who takes advantage of his length when guarding some of the game's other premier players. The Celtics have boosted a top five defense in the last two years and Tatum's improvement on that end is a major reason why.
This offseason saw the Celtics reload their roster with the acquisitions of Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis - two players who also will command attention from opposing defenses along with Tatum's fellow all star Jaylen Brown. Although these moves did come at the cost of cutting ties with some of the players that made the Finals, this might be the best roster in Tatum's years as the lead option. Tatum will have even more opportunities to excel at a high level, and if the Celtics play up to expectations or even exceed them, Tatum will be a huge reason why.
4. Joel Embiid's Tenure In Philadelphia Will End
If there's any reason why the Philadelphia 76ers have regularly appeared in the playoffs throughout the last six years, it’s because of Joel Embiid. This year saw him continue to establish himself as the best thing to come out of the Trust the Process phase, with Embiid winning his first MVP award.
Embiid is practically unstoppable in the post thanks to a bevy of savvy moves he's mastered over the years. To complement his inside game, Embiid has developed a respectable outside game where he can either drive or shoot with ease.
He's also a strong defender which is evident from his three second team All-Defense selections. Whether it's in the paint or on fast breaks, it always seems like he's lurking somewhere as seen in game five of the semifinals against Boston.
However, the 76ers have failed to build a sustainable team around him. Most of the all stars he's played with have weaknesses that become untenable, such as Ben Simmons' unwillingness to shoot, or James Harden's frustrations with management. They've also made poor personnel choices, such as trading Mikal Bridges after drafting him, and re-signing Tobais Harris instead of Jimmy Butler. The best player besides Embiid as of now is an unhappy James Harden who has no intention of repairing his relationship with the front office.
Eventually one has to wonder how much longer Embiid can put up with the team’s shortcomings. Last summer, Embiid said that he wants a shot at a title even if it might mean potentially leaving Philadelphia. While he later backpedaled on these comments, no one would be surprised to see him want out if the 76ers fail yet again to make a deep playoff run.
If Embiid does request a trade, one realistic option would be the New York Knicks, who won their first playoff series in a decade and are building a strong foundation. Embiid also has ties to team president Leon Rose, as he used to be Embiid's agent. The Heat would also be a possibility since Embiid won't have contemplated the what-ifs of keeping Butler.