19 unlikely -- but plausible! -- predictions for the 2023-24 NBA season
Zach Lowe used to do an annual column featuring his “Crazy Predictions,” which were exactly what they sounded like. He stopped doing that column several years ago after deciding that the NBA had gotten too crazy for crazy takes (oh, Zach; so naive), so I’m here to pick up where he left off!
I don’t want to hit on more than a handful of these — if I did, that means I wasn’t bold enough. It’s no fun playing it safe. But I think they are all feasible, and it gives you an idea of what teams, players, and trends I will be watching early on. Let’s do it.
1) Tyus Jones averages eight assists per game
Tyus Jones is finally a starter! After years of being one of the league’s best backup point guards, Jones was traded from Memphis to the Washington Wizards, where he’ll be part of the new-look backcourt with former Warrior Jordan Poole.
Jones has averaged 6.9 assists per game as a starter for his career, but the Wizards will likely play a fast-paced game with ample opportunity for a true table-setter to rack up assists. Poole and forward Kyle Kuzma are flexible volume scorers, and presumed starting SF Corey Kispert is rapidly becoming one of the best shooters in the league. There will be plenty of mouths for a talented chef to feed.
“He is a professional point guard, and he is a professional set-up guy,” Kispert said just a few days ago.
Jones will also play big minutes since the Wizards don’t have any other true helmsmen on the roster. I love Delon Wright, but he’s a defensive ace, first and foremost. Poole and Johnny Davis are score-first guys, not traditional point guards. Ryan Rollins will be playing a few minutes per game.
The other thing working in Jones’ favor is that the Wizards will be horrific defensively. Jones will be in a lot of shootouts, which should aid his counting stats (don’t sleep on the Wizards for fantasy basketball purposes!).
Jones isn’t an elite athlete or highlight machine. He just makes smart reads and puts accurate passes right where shooters want the ball:
Eight assists per game is a lot — it would’ve been the seventh-most in the league last season. But Jones will have ample opportunity to make his mark.
2) Leaguewide offensive rebounding hits 30%
Okay, this one is cheating a bit since I used it last year. And it remains highly improbable. But 2022-23’s 26.8% average offensive rebounding rate was the highest we’ve seen since 2014-2015’s 28.0%, and we’ve been trending up for several years. The league hasn’t seen a 30% average offensive rebounding rate since 2004-2005, one of the darkest periods of NBA offense.
It’s long been believed that offensive rebounding comes at the expense of transition defense, and in general, that’s held. Houston was the best offensive rebounding team but the worst transition defense team, and out of last year’s top-10 offensive rebounding teams, only one (Memphis) was also top-10 in transition defense (although two others, Phoenix and New Orleans, were 11th and 12th).
But the pendulum is swinging back. There are plenty of players with a nose for the ball who just need an opportunity. Coaches are adjusting, trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They’re directing corner shooters to drift toward the free-throw line after a shot in case there’s a lucky bounce instead of just sprinting right back. Watch the Pelicans’ Trey Murphy (#25 in the top corner) as he swoops toward the nail and grabs the friendly rebound:
Just a few years ago, Murphy wouldn’t have been allowed that opportunity.
The league is faster than it used to be, so perhaps quicker players are more easily able to crash the glass and sprint back in transition. Smaller lineups (in beef, if not height) aren’t filled with box-out artists, leading to more offensive rebounding opportunities. Teams are emphasizing the O-board more because shots generated after an offensive rebound have a much higher expected point value than an average half-court possession.
The Athletic’s Fred Katz just did a podcast in which he described how Mitchell Robinson has been coached to immediately throw the ball to a corner three-point shooter as soon as he gets a board outside the restricted area, which often catches a scrambling defense in box-out mode off guard. Here’s an example of Robinson not even looking at the rim in his haste to make the pass:
Offensive rebounding is fun, and I hope it continues to climb.
3) Trae Young makes an All-NBA team
Trae Young didn’t make the All-Star team last season despite averaging 26 points and 10 assists, and he was also snubbed for the US World Cup Team despite publicly pining for it.
So after a full offseason to concoct some wickedness with coach/supervillain Quin Snyder, Trae will come out firing.
His three-point shooting percentage was strangely down last season, but the Hawks will have better spacing around him. Coach Snyder loves the three-ball, and Trae will likely bump his average from last year’s six attempts per game to previous seasons’ eight or nine. It’ll be much easier to find space if Snyder implements his early Jazz systems of whirling screeners and whizzing cutters.
Plus, for what it’s worth, Trae tried noticeably harder on defense after Snyder took over last season. He will never be even a below-average defender, but he can’t be an absolute zero. He has to fight. If he does, a little effort will go a long way toward building a redemption narrative that voters love to reward.
And if you think this is a bridge too far, don’t forget that there’s a new 65-game cutoff for qualifying for All-NBA. Last year, of the six All-NBA guards, two played fewer than 60 games and would have been eliminated from consideration, opening up two more spots. Trae played 76 and 73 games in the last two seasons and has a more robust recent health history than several guards typically ranked above him.
Motivation, upward potential, and health are a potent mixture. If Trae isn’t at least an All-Star next season, I’ll be floored.
4) Wembanyama shoots 45/25/80, still wins ROY
Expectations for Wemby are all over the place, but it’s important to remember he’s still very raw. The outline of a superhero is comic-book bold, but it will take time to color him in.
Last year, in 34 overseas games, the teenage Wembanyama shot 47% from the field, 28% from beyond the arc, and 83% from the free throw line. That’s with a closer three-point line, too.
The shot looks pure, and it should develop nicely. But it has to incubate for a while. Rookies typically struggle from the distant NBA three-point line, even proven college or international sharpshooters. There’s no shame in adjusting and evolving.
In the meantime, there will be a lot of studio space for Wemby to explore the boundaries of his game. That’s a good thing, but it could lead to some ugly shooting performances.
People like to talk about how much easier it is for interior players to play in the NBA compared to overseas, thanks to the NBA’s greater spacing, but the Spurs don’t particularly exemplify that. If Wemby starts at power forward, the Spurs rotation is littered with non-shooters and non-spacers like Zach Collins, Jeremy Sochan, Tre Jones, and Keldon Johnson. Only Devin Vassell, Devonte’ Graham, and Doug McDermott are truly scary threats from beyond the arc, which will gum up the interior for Wemby’s forays into the paint.
Despite that, Wembanyama will be the team's focal point on both sides from Day 1. He should make an immediate defensive impact, particularly as a nightmarish help-side defender, and it wouldn’t shock me to see him near the top of the league’s blocks leaderboard as a rookie. I’m particularly interested in his passing, which flashed during Summer League far more than overseas.
Despite poor efficiency, Wembanyama will put up massive counting stats and have a discernible defensive impact. And besides Scoot, there aren’t many other rookies who will have the runway Wemby will. He shouldn’t face much competition.
5) Jason Kidd and Steve Clifford will be the only coaches replaced this cycle
There are too many teams hungry for success and not enough win-cookies to go around. That’s usually a bad recipe for coaches.
However, coaching in the NBA has never been better from an X’s and O’s perspective. The average coach now would’ve been hailed as a tactical genius even 15 years ago, and there aren’t as many straight-up curmudgeons as there once were. The idea of the player’s coach has won out (with a few notable exceptions), and many of the worst coaches just signed recent extensions. It’s hard to find obvious candidates for replacements.
The Mavericks, however, are more desperate than most to have a good season. Jason Kidd has a long track record of initial success followed by disappointment, which held true with last year’s debacle (even if it wasn’t all his fault). As Luka Doncic enters his prime, the pressure on the superstar to compete for championships is mounting. If Dallas can’t deliver on that, heads will roll — and Kidd’s might be first.
Doncic and Kidd reportedly have a close relationship, but that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. If the Mavs look like they’re scuffling toward a lower play-in seed around the All-Star break, don’t be surprised if Kidd is offered up as a sacrificial lamb.
Steve Clifford is in a different situation. He’s a well-respected, if not particularly innovative, coach on a young team. But he wasn’t exactly the Hornets’ first choice, and with new ownership moving in and GM Mitch Kupchak in the final year of his contract, it feels like a major overhaul of the staff is coming unless the Hornets shock the world. He’s virtually guaranteed to be gone by the start of next season.
When you look around the league… there aren’t many other coaches obviously on the hot seat. There are six coaches in their first year with a team and five more in their second (including Clifford, but he’s a special case). The Damian Lillard trade takes Chauncey Billups off the hot seat — almost nobody gets fired in the first year of a rebuild, when expectations are low and losing is a virtue. Washington’s Wes Unseld and Chicago’s Billy Donovan were recently extended, granting them at least a modicum of armor. Minnesota’s Chris Finch is highly regarded internally. The only other coach who may face trouble is J.B. Bickerstaff in Cleveland, but he’s well-liked by players, and the Cavs are shaping up to be regular-season juggernauts.
The odds are that plenty of coaches will be replaced, and historically speaking, it’s more likely we'll see six new faces on benches next year than two. But right now, the coaching ranks feel as stable as they’ve ever been.
6) The Kings miss the playoffs
I’m not saying the Kings are going to be the 11th seed. But Sacramento falling to seventh or eighth in the West and losing a couple of play-in games seems eminently possible.
I think it was Seth Partnow for Dunc’d On (I can’t find the link, but I’m 95% sure that’s right) who noted that the Kings were not only one of the luckiest teams in the league last year in terms of their own health, but they were also one of the luckiest teams in opponent health. If their best guys miss a few more games (and yes, I’m aware of Sabonis’ thumb injury), that might be a couple of L’s; if the other team’s best guys play a few more games, that might be a couple more L’s; and suddenly, the Kings go from a high-40s win total to a low-40s win total and are playing for their life.
I predicted in this column last year that the Kings would be a top-five offense and a bottom-five defense, and I was pretty close (they were first on offense and sixth-worst on D). But I underestimated how good their offense would be and how many wins that would translate to, defense be damned. This year, defenses will have had ample time to prepare for them, and they won’t be catching anybody off guard. A little less injury luck could spell immediate trouble in a crowded and competitive Western Conference.
(For the record, I hope I’m wrong. The Beam Team was a remarkable story last year, and Sac fans deserve something nice.)
7) Jamal Murray averages 25 points per game
Murray has never done better than 2020-21’s 21.2 points per game, but that undersells him as an offensive player. He’s averaged exactly 25.0 points per game for his playoff career, a not-insignificant 53 games. Murray is one of the fabled few who increases his volume and efficiency in the playoffs.
Additionally, there isn’t a lot of scoring on this roster, particularly from the bench. Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., and Nikola Jokic can drop 20 or more on any given night. But the bench is filled with unproven youngsters, and Murray will carry the scoring load when Jokic rests. When they share the court, I have a hunch Jokic will be ceding even more of his scoring burden (and for Jokic, it really does seem like a burden) to Murray.
Riding high off an exemplary championship performance but still seeking his first All-Star game, Murray will have the perfect triptych of confidence, opportunity, and ambition to set a new career high in scoring.
8) Jaden McDaniels wins Defensive Player of the Year
I’ve talked about Jaden’s defense last year and his offense this summer, so you are probably sick of seeing his name come out of my keyboard.
But I can’t help myself. His outrageous snub from the All-Defensive Teams last year should serve as motivation, and he has one obvious, clear path to improvement: foul less. If he can simply stay on the court more often, he is in line for a Jaren Jackson Jr.-esque bump in performance and narrative — and we know how that worked out for the reigning DPOY.
Nobody in the league can envelop the other team’s best player quite like McDaniels, and it’s a battle between him and Draymond Green to be the best non-big-man rim protector in the league.
If he can get a little stronger and not resort to fouling so often, he will be the most impactful perimeter defender in basketball.
Of course, big men have traditionally won this award, for good reason. They are involved in more defensive plays than perimeter players just by sheer proximity to the basket, and it takes a truly special defender for me to overcome that positional bias toward bigs. McDaniels is that kind of player.
(Bonus prediction: There’s a reasonable chance Utah’s sophomore center Walker Kessler makes the final ballot.)
9) O.G. Anunoby gets four years and $160 million
I have no idea where Anunoby will end up at the start of next season. But as a 26-year-old soon-to-be unrestricted free agent with the prototypical 3-and-D skillset, Anunoby will get paid by someone, particularly if he’s traded (the trading team will have sent out assets for him, giving Anunoby significant leverage). He’s one of the best one-on-one defenders in the league and possesses a ridiculous defensive motor.
I’ve never forgotten this play from the Raps’ very first game of the season when he flew down the court from the opposite corner for an outrageous chasedown block:
Anunoby is also a proven high-volume shooter, and he’d fit almost any team like a tailored suit.
The max the Raptors could extend him for is $112 million over four years. That’s not going to come close. Four years will allow him to hit free agency again before he hits 30 to lock in another massive long-term deal.
Legitimate 3-and-Ds get paid, and nobody personifies the role quite like OG. His contract will pop eyes, whether it’s a sign-and-trade or as a straight-up free agent.
10) The Suns have two 50/40/90 players
This is exceedingly unlikely, but I feel good about it. Shooting 50% from the field, 40% from deep, and 90% from the free throw line remains basketball’s triple crown of efficiency, and few players have done it. In the last five years, out of players with at least 200 field goal attempts, only three have accomplished the feat: Malcolm Brogdon, in 2019; Kyrie Irving, in 2021; and Kevin Durant, last year. (The fact that Durant did it last year on absurdly difficult attempts at the age of 34 is preposterous).
But Durant, Bradley Beal, and Devin Booker should all theoretically receive less defensive attention than they did a year ago. Booker and Beal were both right around 50% from the field; an uptick in three-pointers and slightly better free-throw percentages could get them there.
No team has ever had two 50/40/90 guys before, but if Durant can replicate his feat from last year, just one of either Beal or Booker needs to have a career year from deep to have a fighting chance.
11) Chris Paul solves Golden State’s turnover problem
Golden State plays the most exhilarating basketball in the league, but that wildness comes with a price: turnovers. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Warriors finished 29th in turnover rate last season, 29th the season before, and 23rd, 20th, and 16th over the three preceding seasons. That’s bad!
Chris Paul’s teams, across a wide variety of playstyles and personnel groupings, have finished 10th, 3rd, 4th, 7th, and 8th. That’s good!
It remains to be seen how much Chris Paul gets to control the offense, although we know he’ll captain the ship in the 15 minutes per game Curry rests. Not only will those be low-turnover stretches, but Paul will be constantly haranguing Steph, Draymond, and everyone else to stop being so careless with the ball during their minutes, too.
Last year, the difference between 29th and 15th was roughly two turnovers per game. I think the Chris Paul effect can make up that gap, and despite all historical precedent, I’m predicting the Warriors finish in the top half of the league in turnover rate.
I’m not sure what to make of the CP3 addition — I’m lower on Paul as a player than most people, but I like his fit on the team in a sixth-man role — but I am convinced that he will single-handedly defeat the Warriors’ longest-standing bugbear.
12) There’s a fistfight within the Rockets
Man, this team is going to be wild.
I don’t understand what they’re doing. The theory is that signing Fred VanVleet, Dillon Brooks, and now Reggie Bullock will instill some defensive mentality and veteran leadership into a team that wasn’t just rudderless last season, they were tillerless and engineless, too. I get the idea.
But the reality is that Brooks and VanVleet are low-efficiency shot-first guys (see all the weird Media Day grumbling in Toronto about selfishness last season if you don’t believe me) on a team filled with more promising shot-first guys. VanVleet is notoriously hard on youngsters (he and Scottie Barnes spent parts of last season taking thinly veiled shots at each other), and while Brooks doesn’t seem to have any problems with teammates, his style of play and attitude could become grating.
Even without the execrable Kevin Porter Jr., there aren’t enough shots to go around. Poor Amen Thompson, the fourth pick in the draft and arguably already Houston’s best table-setter, will most likely begin the season coming off the bench. Alperen Sengun is a tremendous passer who has had the passing (and will to live) beaten out of him by the ball hoggery of his guards and wings. Jabari Smith. Jr, the promising second-year player, is a lot of things, but one of them isn’t a ball-mover. Same with Tari Eason.
(Jae’Sean Tate is an underrated passer, but I’m not sure he will be given enough minutes for it to matter).
The mixture of cranky veterans and rookie-scale guys fighting to prove themselves for second contracts smells like a broken gas line: combustible. New coach Ime Udoka should do wonders for this team, but he’s a confrontational personality who is not afraid to call out his players.
The Rockets feel like a powder keg, and it only takes one bad practice to start a scuffle.
13) The Hornets will be an above-average defense
The Hornets were not a good defense last year; let’s start there. But the emancipation of Mark Williams began on February 10, 2023, when he finally was given his first starting role. From that date forward, the Hornets finished 8th in defensive rating.
It’s pretty much that simple. Sure, statistics down the stretch of the season can be weird as various teams rest starters to tank or prepare for the playoffs. And point guard LaMelo Ball, a noted non-defender, missed most of those games.
But Ball aside, the wing defenders should be stouter and more athletic this season with the addition of rookie Brandon Miller and the return of domestic abuser Miles Bridges. And Williams has a full season of experience under his pant-holder-uppers. It’s a little easier to goose a defensive rating in an Eastern Conference without many powerhouse offenses, too.
Is this likely? Hell no. Is it plausible, even with a lame-duck coach? Absolutely.
**Paid subscribers can see the remaining six unlikely — but plausible! — predictions below!**