Peltzman’s NBA Playbook: Full 30 team preview & awards

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NBA Graphic. - Multimedia Editor / Drew Peltzman

Welcome to the 78th season of the NBA! I’m Drew Peltzman, your NBA column writer this year, and as we embark on another 82-game marathon, I am delighted to provide an in-depth yet digestible coverage of the most drama-filled sport in the country, no matter your team. In my first column, I preview all 30 teams, including key acquisitions and departures, and award predictions.

Let me get you caught up to speed. Two key changes will affect the viewing experience come tip-off for your favorite NBA team.

First, the In-Season Tournament was implemented with the goal to increase the stakes of regular-season games. All 30 teams were divided into six groups of five teams, three in each conference, with every team playing four group stage games within the month of November; two at home, and two on the road. These games are implemented into the regular season schedule, with eight teams (the six group winners plus two ‘wild card’ teams) advancing to the knockout round. Played in the first week of December, three single-elimination rounds will determine the winner of the first In-Season Tournament and the winner will be awarded the NBA Cup. Every game but the championship will count towards regular season records. Players in the knockout round receive compensation as follows (via NBA.com):

Second, the Player Participation Policy was enforced to prohibit teams from resting more than one-star player for any given game. With a “star player” being defined as anyone who made the All-Star Team or All-NBA Team in any of the last three seasons, many teams will be required to request approval from the league with the risk of being fined more than $1 million for multiple offenses. With a new Media Rights Deal looming, the NBA office needs to display its best talent as often as possible to make its best pitch to networks. This policy is not the only way the league is making this point crystal clear, but we will get to that once we get to awards. For now, let’s hop into the team previews.

Atlanta Hawks (1st Round Loss vs. Celtics)

Key Acquisition(s): Kobe Bufkin

Key Departure(s): John Collins

Head coach Quin Snyder got a full offseason with the Hawks’ roster after going 13-11 following his hiring in late February. The early quarter of the regular season will likely determine the direction Atlanta takes moving forward. A hot start could see them hold on to trade targets like Clint Capela and help soften the narrative that Trae Young is not well-liked by teammates. A slow start could only aid in snowballing that narrative, as sometimes it is often hard to miss. Young’s extremely ball-dominant style of play is immaculate when he’s on, but derailing when he’s off. The dismissal of John Collins should free up space inside the arc for Young’s pick-and-roll and Dejounte Murray’s mid-range jumper, but betting on a shooting trio of DeAndre Hunter, Bogdan Bogdanovich, and rookie Kobe Bufkin is a risk to take for catch-and-shoot opportunities when facing tougher defense in the playoffs.

Boston Celtics (Eastern Conference Finals loss vs. Heat)

Key Acquisition(s): Jrue Holiday, Kristaps Porzingis, Lamar Stevens

Key Departure(s): Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon, Robert Williams

Boston has to win a championship in the Tatum/Brown era, right? Right? Well, the departure of Marcus Smart entices questions about chemistry, but none that cannot be answered by Jrue Holiday. The intangibles Holiday brings over from Milwaukee might heighten the ceiling of both Tatum and Brown, especially as playmakers. Derrick White should continue to to be a pivotal piece, but the volatility of the Celtics lies within the Porzingis, Tatum, and Horford fit. On paper, it makes logical sense if Porzingis is able to carry over the same 23 points per game output that he produced for the Washington Wizards, as it will make their half-court offense that much more daunting. Replacing a rim-running big in Williams with a shooting big man could be exactly what Boston needs to get over the hump and win the franchise’s 18th title.

Brooklyn Nets (1st Round Loss vs. 76ers)

Key Acquisition(s): Lonnie Walker IV

Key Departures(s): Joe Harris, Seth Curry, Yuta Watanabe

The Brooklyn Nets once again find themselves in a spot they often succeed in, the middle of the pack. On the back end of their super-team experiment, general manager Sean Marks does not have the rights to any of the Nets’ first-round picks until 2028, meaning there is no incentive to tank, even though they are clearly not equipped to be championship contenders. I expect them to be a very scrappy and annoying team to watch your favorite team play against, a la the Nets in 2018-19. Wing weapon Miles Bridges and guard Cam Thomas are poised to have remarkable seasons, and I would expect to see Nic Claxton make one of the All-Defensive teams. The Nets are the perfect embodiment of a League Pass team, as you will only see them on primetime three times this season, but will be fun to watch on a random Monday night in January.

Charlotte Hornets (14th in East)

Key Acquisition(s): Brandon Miller

Key Departures(s): Kelly Oubre Jr., Kai Jones

If there was a coffee stain on the league, it would be the Charlotte Hornets. Their organizational-wide ignorance of the actions of Miles Bridges is extremely disappointing for a hoops fan, and will make it extremely hard to watch them without believing the ten-game suspension the NBA handed him for his actions is extreme malpractice. With the second overall selection in the 2023 draft Brandon Miller remaining in legal trouble for actions in college, LaMelo Ball and Mark WIlliams will need to have a full season of highlights to overshadow the darkness that lay in North Carolina. That said, Ball has the chance to carry the Hornets into a play-in spot due to a weak bottom half of the Eastern Conference.

Chicago Bulls (Play-In loss vs. Heat)

Key Acquisition(s): Torrey Craig

Key Departure(s): Patrick Beverley, Derrick Jones Jr.

The Bulls are another team whose first quarter of the season will likely determine how their team looks at the end of the season. The decision to resign center Nikola Vucevic is a head-scratcher as the trio of the big man, Demar DeRozan and Zach LaVine has not proven to be fruitful since Chicago acquired him via trade with the Orlando Magic in 2021. They have yet to finish with a winning record, but the front office is still putting in their chips on this roster. With the defensive help of Alex Caruso and a looming return of Lonzo Ball, it will be the Bulls’ offense that has to take a major step up from last season. They finished second worst in the league in percentage of shots taken being three-pointers, despite shooting about average from three. If they want to make any headway in the Eastern Conference, they are going to need to get more shots up. If they don’t, expect to see DeRozan trade rumors as we get closer to February.

Cleveland Cavaliers (1st Round Loss vs. Knicks)

Key Acquisition(s): Max Strus, Georges Niang

Key Departure(s): Cedi Osman, Lamar Stevens

The Cavaliers also find themselves in a make-or-break season, as Donovan Mitchell has been reported as not wanting to extend with the team further than the two years left on his current contract. Since he has a player option following that last year, the Cavaliers risk losing the All-Star guard for nothing in return. Although it might happen after the season ends, keep an eye out for Mitchell to be moved by February. Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff might be on the hot seat if the team fails to make strides in the playoffs, following a disastrous series against the Knicks last season. Evan Mobley, the 22-year-old forward, is one of my favorite players, yet his development appears to have stunted. The pairing of Garland and Mitchell puts a lot of pressure on Mobley and center Jarrett Allen defensively, as both guards have shortcomings when guarding other perimeter players. This hole in their game becomes glaring when they are not hitting shots, which could be the catalyst for a major change in The Land come next offseason.

Dallas Mavericks (11th in West)

Key Acquisition(s): Grant Williams, Seth Curry

Key Departure(s): Reggie Bullock, Christian Wood

After eliciting stellar draft pick maneuverability by tanking the last two weeks of their season, the Mavericks will be looking not only to make the playoffs but make some noise. I believe Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic will look more comfortable with one another after a full training camp, even though they are obviously the only two scoring threats on the team. When you look past the two stars on their roster, however, you see a string of streaky shooters in Seth Curry and Tim Hardaway Jr. and not a lot in terms of rim protection. The Grant Williams signing was a massive acquisition for Dallas, as their defensive shortcomings will be aided by the hustle player that Williams is. I would enjoy seeing Doncic complain less to the referees, especially if he has any desire to win an MVP trophy. If another poor ending plagues Dallas, the Doncic trade rumors will get louder, but I would expect the Mavs to attempt one more head coach to pair with the Slovenian sleuth before he considers asking out.

Denver Nuggets (NBA Finals Winner)

Key Acquisition(s): Julian Strawther

Key Departure(s): Bruce Brown

The reigning NBA champions will be reloaded coming into the season, as all five of their starters are returning. Out of the seven players who played more than 20 minutes in game five of the finals, six will be returning. A Bruce Brown-sized hole is difficult to fill but should be manageable for coach Michael Malone.

Detroit Pistons (15th in East)

Key Acquisition(s): Ausar Thompson, Joe Harris

Key Departure(s): Hamidou Diallo

The Pistons have a stock of interesting young players but have not been able to put any cohesive season together. Coming off a season-long shin injury, guard Cade Cunningham should be poised for a strong comeback campaign, yet do not be surprised if a larger step is made by backcourt mate Jaden Ivey and center Jalen Duren. The eighth-youngest team in the league should remain patient and use this season as a prove-it year for the three core players I mentioned, yet evaluate a timeline that fits with rookie Ausar Thompson and his development. Cunningham will have the largest microscope, as he will be eligible for a rookie-max extension following the season, but his limited time on the court could hamper those prospects.

Golden State Warriors (2nd Round Loss vs. Lakers)

Key Acquisition(s): Chris Paul, Dario Saric, Brandin Podziemski

Key Departure(s): Jordan Poole

I believe the Warriors made the right choice by deciding to keep Draymond Green over Jordan Poole. To be able to manage a return of Chris Paul, whose basketball IQ surpasses the threshold needed to play in Golden State’s movement-centric offense, is respectable deal-making. Paul should help them claim a top seed in the West early on, even as Green recovers from a left ankle injury. Steph Curry as a “dark horse” MVP pick is favorable considering he has another playmaker who can get him the ball as effectively as Green, and his off-ball shooting should be a consistent strength for him this season, even more than it typically is. The Warriors have a strong punchers chance at another championship.

Houston Rockets (14th in West)

Key Acquisition(s): Fred VanVleet, Dillon Brooks, Reggie Bullock, Jeff Green, Amen Thompson

Key Departure(s): Kevin Porter Jr.

The Rockets likely had the best draft of any team outside of the San Antonio Spurs. Amen Thompson (4th overall pick) was not as surprising as Cam Whitmore falling to 20th overall, allowing the Rockets to draft two top-ten prospects. I am curious to see the effect VanVleet has on Jalen Green’s off-ball shooting, and whether Dillon Brooks can be ejected in less than ten games this year. Ownership has been clear that playoff basketball is the goal this season, and the hiring of Ime Udoka as their head coach reflects that direction, but I do not see this team getting out of the Play-In Tournament in a congested Western Conference.

Indiana Pacers (11th in East)

Key Acquisition(s): Bruce Brown, Obi Toppin, Jarace Walker

Key Departure(s): Chris Duarte, James Johnson

Will Tyrese Haliburton take another step forward? The young superstar signed a max extension worth $260 million over five years on July 1, and he will need to likely beat his averages from last season, 20 points and 10 assists if the Pacers are going to break through in the playoffs. Rick Carlisle is one of my favorite coaches in the league, and I expect him to utilize their key acquisitions to bolster their rotation. The Pacers are another star away from being real championship contenders, but if you get a chance to watch this team play, it is usually an entertaining time.

Los Angeles Clippers (1st Round Loss vs. Suns)

Key Acquisition(s): Kobe Brown

Key Departure(s): Eric Gordon

The Clippers remained in a holding pattern this offseason for the most part, as ownership eyes are set on moving out of their current roommate situation, and into their new $2 billion stadium set to open for the 2024-25 season. I expect the Clippers to offer both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George guaranteed money contracts like the one Giannis Antetokounmpo just received from the Bucks, even though it is not a max contract, it benefits the Clippers in having some maneuverability in free agency, instead of having none. Now that the Clippers understand that the regular season is important, maybe we can see a better matchup for them in the playoffs with them achieving better seeding. A lot of people point the blame at Leonard and George for the new Player Participation Policy because of their severe lack of games played the last two seasons, yet lingering leg injuries have always been a problem in the NBA and will continue to be, so we will see how teams will try to find loopholes in the policy.

Los Angeles Lakers (Western Conference Finals Loss vs. Nuggets)

Key Acquisition(s): Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince, Christian Wood

Key Departure(s): Lonnie Walker IV, Malik Beasley

The Lakers would love to see a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals, as the tension between them and the Nuggets grew over the offseason. With LeBron James reported to be on a minutes restriction during the regular season, Anthony Davis will have to remain healthy, as a stretch without him could empty the tank of James before the playoffs. If the Lakers can get to game 82 locked-and-loaded for a championship run, I would be terrified of the defense they could replicate from last postseason.

Memphis Grizzlies (1st Round Loss vs. Lakers)

Key Acquisition(s): Marcus Smart, Derrick Rose

Key Departure(s): Dillon Brooks

The news that Steven Adams will miss the whole season to recover from knee surgery is perhaps more impactful than Ja Morant missing the first 25 games. Adams’ injury and Brandon Clarke’s Achilles injury leave Memphis thin in the frontcourt. Jaren Jackson Jr. was unimpressive from a rebounding standpoint in the FIBA World Cup this summer, so with both of his fellow big men down and out, the same expectations are riding on the reigning Defensive Player of The Year in the NBA. I would be surprised to see them make it out of the first round this season, even if they finish with an impressive record.

Miami Heat (NBA Finals Loss vs. Nuggets)

Key Acquisition(s): Jaime Jaquez Jr., Thomas Bryant, R.J. Hampton

Key Departure(s): Gabe Vincent, Max Strus

Erik Spoelstra, likely the best coach in the NBA, has yet to win a Coach of the Year award. If the Heat, with a slightly weaker roster, make the same kind of noise they did in the playoffs in the regular season, the trophy will be express-delivered to Spoelstra’s residence. The reality is that Jimmy Butler remains the sole superstar on the team, and he understands when to put forth his maximum effort. In the regular season, Butler is dormant, but during the playoffs, he is a dangerous volcano ready to erupt on your favorite Eastern Conference team. The killer mindset he displays is always a treat to watch, and the Heat mindset seems to always provide winning basketball. With the absence of Gabe Vincent and Max Strus and a swing-and-miss on the Damian Lillard sweepstakes, Miami will once again be a scrappy team.

Milwaukee Bucks (1st Round Loss vs. Heat)

Key Acquisition(s): Damian Lillard, Malik Beasley

Key Departure(s): Jrue Holiday

With new head coach Adrian Griffin and a new closer in Damian Lillard to pair with the force of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Eastern Conference should be on lookout. As the season gets older, we will see a more consistent Giannis/Lillard pick-and-roll package that is virtually un-guardable no matter the defensive personnel. The only hole in the Bucks’ lineup is their perimeter defense, as Lillard and Beasley are not known for their defensive prowess. The gamble Milwaukee has taken is that Lillard’s fourth-quarter heroics will make up for any defensive shortcomings. Will Lillard’s leadership fill the void left by Jrue Holiday? If the answer to these questions is yes, the Bucks could be on their way to their second championship in four years.

Minnesota Timberwolves (1st Round Loss vs. Nuggets)

Key Acquisition(s): Shake Milton

Key Departure(s): Matt Ryan

The Timberwolves will have to live with the reality of being a luxury-tax team following the extension of Jaden McDaniels (five years, $131 million), as it creates financial strain with three max players on the roster. Out of the three max players; Anthony Edwards, Rudy Gobert, and Karl Anthony-Towns, it will likely be Towns if any of them are traded at the deadline. Yet personally, the growth Edwards displayed in the FIBA World Cup gives me all the confidence in the Wolves making noise once they get into the playoffs. In their sole playoff victory last season (Game 4 vs. Nuggets), Edwards put up one of the best games of his young career. 34 points, six rebounds, five assists, two turnovers, two steals, and three blocks in 45 minutes is one hell of a performance, and I am excited to see Edwards string a few of these games together to get the Wolves into the next round. They will go as far as he will take them. A matchup against the Warriors would be fun!

New Orleans Pelicans (Play-In Loss vs. Thunder)

Key Acquisition(s): Matt Ryan

Key Departure(s): Devonte Graham

The Pelicans will be praying for a full season of Zion Williamson, as the success of their team has been directly correlated to his availability. They are 57-57 with him playing, and 82-112 without him playing. They were 17-12 last season before his hamstring injury ended his season prematurely. He was averaging 26 points, seven rebounds, and over four assists for the then two-seeded Pelicans squad. Safe to say if he remains healthy, the supporting cast of ballers that includes Brandon Ingram, Jose Alvarado, Herb Jones, and Jonas Valanciunas could be a tough out in the spring. The Trey Murphy III injury is a bummer that could be a moment to rally the team around him, as a return could be a vital boost for a surprise title run.

New York Knicks (2nd Round Loss vs. Heat)

Key Acquisition(s): Donte DiVincenzo

Key Departure(s): Obi Toppin

The Knicks are betting on growth, similar to the Nuggets’ and Kings’ strategies, but could also be strategically holding out for the next big star to ask out with a random Keith Pompey report hinting at a potential Joel Embiid trade to New York, but Knicks’ reporter Ian Begley quickly silenced this rumor with a quote from the Sixers not taking the trade offer seriously. What’s up with the reporting gymnastics? The Knicks offensive struggles in the playoffs yield questions about personnel or coach Thibodeau’s lackluster game plan. If the Knicks hold off on Towns, Siakam, DeRozan, or other potential trade targets, we might see a Thibs removal if the Knicks get bounced in the second round once again. Jalen Brunson will be an All-Star this season no matter what.

Oklahoma City Thunder (Play-In Loss vs. Timberwolves)

Key Acquisition(s): Cason Wallace, Davis Bertans, Keyontae Johnson

Key Departure(s): Dario Saric, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl

The Thunder are the youngest team in the league and have the highest ceiling of any team in the Western Conference, in my opinion. With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander running the ship, he will need two of the ballers on this list to take a decent step forward into being second and third-best players on a contender. They could secure home court in the West: Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams, Chet Holmgren, Isaiah Joe, Lu Dort. Pick any two to take a step forward and they could graduate into contender status. Not to mention they still have eight first-round draft picks for the next two rookie drafts (protections vary), making them one of the easiest bandwagons to hop on before they reach their maximum strength. General manager Sam Presti will have to make an interesting decision soon, however, as there are not even close to eight more spots open for players in coach Mark Daigneault’s rotation, meaning a consolidation trade could be on the horizon, trading a few role players and picks for a superstar level player. We could see a bidding war between OKC and the Knicks for the next batch of superstars deemed available.

Orlando Magic (13th in East)

Key Acquisition(s): Joe Ingles

Key Departure(s): Bol Bol

The Magic have been an intriguing team to follow since the franchise-altering move to finally get out of the dreaded, good but not good enough tier in the NBA. Getting prospects like Franz Wagner (a Most Improved Player candidate) and Paolo Banchero is promising, but those moves are filling their backcourt with multiple guards with shooting woes, and they continued the trend with Anthony Black who only shot 30% from three at Arkansas. It is pretty evident their ceiling is a play-in team, but they will most likely end up back at the bottom of the East once again.

Philadelphia 76ers (2nd Round Loss vs. Celtics)

Key Acquisition(s): Kelly Oubre Jr., Patrick Beverley, Danny Green

Key Departure(s): Shake Milton, Jalen McDaniels, Georges Niang

The Sixers once again find themselves in a precarious situation with their second-best player not wanting to play for them but not having a great reason for it. Harden’s hiatus only adds to the chaotic nature of the Philadelphia basketball team in the past decade. Not once have fans looked at the team and gone, “yeah, this feels normal.” Only on the Sixers could the romance between Daryl Morey and James Harden end in a breakup so disastrous, that one party resorts to publicly calling the other a liar, and that “lying” party still wants to mend things and “make it work.” Then when they get together to maybe make things work, Daryl turns his back and does not let Harden join them on a plane trip to Milwaukee, and leads the NBA to open an investigation into what the hell is going on. Is this not the weirdest breakup of all time? Imagine the cops investigating a celebrity breakup that was strictly verbal and done through public embarrassment. The Sixers’ actions speak to the fact they don’t want anything to do with Harden, yet their words infer they want him back and playing well. Harden’s words sound like he doesn’t want anything to do with the team, yet his actions speak to the exact opposite. Thankfully, Nick Nurse will have the team playing high-paced basketball, ensuring condition will be less of a worry come round one, and Maxey’s smile will be leaned on to help fans forget this episode of “Sixers in Purgatory” until Harden gets traded. Golly!

Phoenix Suns (2nd Round Loss vs. Nuggets)

Key Acquisition(s): Bradley Beal, Jusuf Nurkic, Eric Gordon

Key Departure(s): Deandre Ayton, Chris Paul, Ish Wainwright

Welcome to the NBA, Mat Ishbia. He is looking at the new luxury tax rules and giving it the figurative finger, by blowing through the second apron and trading for Bradley Beal to pair with the lethal duo of Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. With few resources to fill out the rest of the roster, Ishbia and GM James Jones issued masterfully crafted deals with role players with a lot to prove like Damion Lee, Josh Okogie, Yuta Watanabe, Keita Bates-Diop, Chimezie Metu, and Drew Eubanks all within two hours of one another. They are my pick for the team with the best chance of getting past the Nuggets. They have just enough defensive personnel to handle Jokic but it will be their unrelenting scoring that has the best potential to topple the reigning champions.

Portland Trail Blazers (13th in West)

Key Acquisition(s): Scoot Henderson, Deandre Ayton, Malcolm Brogdon

Key Departure(s): Damian Lillard

What a successful offseason it ended up being for Portland, likely getting the best package possible for Damian Lillard while also sending him to a contender in the Bucks. With no expectations, I will be intrigued to see how coach Chauncy Billups will alter his scheme to a more interior scoring guard like Scoot. Do not forget about Shaedon Sharpe, who could continue to shine with more playing time without Lillard and Simons (UCL injury). Ayton could also have a nice comeback season after his locker room drama in Phoenix. Fresh start for everyone in Portland, only time will tell where it goes.

Sacramento Kings (1st Round Loss vs. Warriors)

Key Acquisition(s): Chris Duarte, Javale McGee

Key Departures(s): Chimezie Metu

Reigning Coach of the Year Mike Brown has pretty much his entire rotation returning in 2023-24, equipping a stay-put-and-grow strategy I mentioned earlier with the Nuggets and Knicks. Domantas Sabonis’ contract extension will aim some expectations his way, after getting toughened up on the glass in their playoff series against Golden State. If Fox never hurt his pinky for Game 7, who knows what the result would have been? Do not be surprised if the Kings secure another top-four seed and get past the first round just off of stability alone. Light the beam?!

San Antonio Spurs (15th in West)

Key Acquisition(s): Victor Wembanyama, Cedi Osman

Key Departure(s): N/A

I understand you might be sick of the hype, but when you have the top national reporters at a loss for words for what you are seeing on a court, you know you are watching something special. That is Victor Wembanyama. At 19 years old, he is doing things unseen by humans on a basketball court, most evidently his defensive range is more keen to Spiderman than it is to any player before his time. He is making up ground to block shots faster than any of the best defenders in the NBA, and he is not just doing it at the rim. He is contesting jump shots from players that he is not manned up against, adding a whole new meaning to the term “help defense.” The worries coming out for Wembanyama’s game were on offense, as his frame does not appear to be one to hold up well against NBA physicality. His counter is a way more dynamic offensive game than anyone expected, looking more like Kevin Durant with pull-up jumpers and off-the-catch threes that have a very nice touch and dribble package. As he gets deeper into the season we should see more post touches, but seeing him work on the perimeter at 7’4″ is an indescribable experience. Mark the Spurs’ national TV games on your schedule, trust me. There is no way, as long as he stays healthy, that he isn’t making both All-Rookie and All-Defensive teams.

Toronto Raptors (Play-In Loss vs. Bulls)

Key Acquisition(s): Dennis Schroder, Jalen McDaniels

Key Departure(s): Fred VanVleet

When will Masai Ujiri realize this Raptors team is not a contender? If it is this season, then be on the lookout for both O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam to be on the market and shake up the league around the trade deadline. It has been rumored for about a year now, yet the Raptors’ front office is more worried about losing a trade than they are about moving the team in a strategic direction. New coach Darko Rajakovic could be Ujiri’s last chance before getting a boot but, may help them earn another scrappy Play-In appearance. If anything, they are my pick to win the In-Season Tournament and act like it is the equivalent of a championship.

Utah Jazz (12th in West)

Key Acquisition(s): John Collins, Taylor Hendricks, Josh Christopher

Key Departure(s): Rudy Gay

The Jazz are set up to make a step forward in the standings and be a tough defensive matchup for an unlucky Play-In team. Will Hardy is one of the best young coaches in the league, and a top-six seed could get him Coach of the Year recognition. Walker Kessler and Lauri Markannen are hoopers, but I would like to see them play in some high-stakes playoff games. That is when we will learn more about the direction this team needs to take. Until then, Utah should be a very fun league-pass team.

Washington Wizards (12th in East)

Key Acquisition(s): Jordan Poole, Bilal Coulibaly

Key Departure(s): Bradley Beal

The Wizards are finally in tank mode and will be hoping to secure a top-three pick to acquire a franchise-altering player in the draft. Until we see that, expect 30-point games from Poole on at least thirty shots per game. He could be the league leader in scoring while the Wizards have the worst record in the NBA, should be fun.

Award Predictions

Players will only be eligible for awards if they played a minimum of 65 games in the regular season.

Most Valuable Player – Nikola Jokic

The narrative supporting a Jokic MVP is too strong to not have him as the prediction. Barring an injury, every NBA voter who chose Embiid over him last year will be extremely quick to switch back following a historic title run that ultimately proved them all wrong. Jokic is the best passing big man of all time, no question, and there is no defense that can stop him consistently, if at all. He walks into 25 points, 11 assists, and 11 rebounds like it’s a walk in the park.

Rookie of the Year – Victor Wembanyama

Easy pick here, although Chet and Scoot will have tremendous seasons, it will be Wemby who captivates the voters with his novel ability. See my Spurs preview above for more information on the rookie.

Defensive Player of the Year – Chet Holmgren

Holmgren has the team and ability to get him a nice defensive statline of around four blocks, two steals, and above 12 rebounds a game once he gets into the consistent swing of the season. I believe once he hits his stride, he will be more consistent defensively than any of the other candidates.

Sixth Man of the Year – Norman Powell

Tons of options to choose from here, but with a hole in offensive production from the Clippers guard spot, I could see Powell getting up a lot of shots. Hitting them at a good percentage could get him into this conversation and win it if the Clippers end up being a top-three seed.

Most Improved Player – Tyrese Maxey

As long as Harden is not on the team, Maxey will have a great amount of freedom to take control of the Sixers’ offense. In minutes with Embiid, he will have to be more of a playmaker, but without Embiid he can focus on scoring. He has shown stretches to be able to do both at a high level, and he has the perfect opportunity to put it all together. If so, we could see his first All-Star selection this season.

Coach of the Year – Erik Spoelstra

Another narrative-driven award, as they will likely reward Spoelstra for last season’s playoff run if he is able to get the Heat to a top seed in the East. He doesn’t have one of these awards in his career, so voters might be more willing to vote for him.

Clutch Player of the Year – Damian Lillard

Giannis has given up fourth-quarter responsibilities to Lillard, who was built in a lab for the clutch moments. Expect to see Dame Time in almost every close game the Bucks find themselves in this season. If this award were not named after Jerry West, it would be named after Lillard once he retires, so he has to win it at least once (was created last year, won by De’Aaron Fox).

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