21 Unlikely (But Plausible) Predictions
You heard it here first.
Folks, two really exciting plugs before we get to the usual programming.
First, I was thrilled and honored to host a podcast with NBA analyst nonpareil David Thorpe, formerly of ESPN and currently of TrueHoop. It’s an incredibly candid conversation, and he has a bunch of fascinating thoughts about why Steve Kerr can’t trust Draymond Green anymore, how he thinks Victor Wembanyama is being miscast, why players don’t respect LaMelo Ball, and why he thinks NBA coaching is at an all-time low. Heck, we even got aggregated! Exciting stuff.
Search for “The Unrestricted Area,” available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and more. Make sure to subscribe, as I’ll be regularly co-hosting with my partner Ray LeBov, and we’ll be bringing on more awesome guests in the future.
Second, I did a large feature for Hoops Habit detailing my 2022-2023 NBA League Pass Rankings. It’s a look at the teams I think will be most and least watchable this season, and it was a lot of fun to write. Check it out for more detail than you ever realized you needed about each team.
Thanks all! Now back to the usual Tuesday goodness.
Zach Lowe used to do an annual column called his “Crazy Predictions,” which were hot takes with a veneer of plausibility. 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!
The NBA season is officially one week away, and I cannot contain my enthusiasm. The offseason gives so much time to look at any minute reasons for hope that it becomes far too easy to project role players becoming stars, stars becoming megastars, and every team making the playoffs (except the Spurs, who rightfully might win zero games in their quest for Victor Wembanyama).
I decided to channel that excitement into a bunch of exuberant predictions. I don’t believe I will hit on more than a handful of these at most — 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) Minnesota wins the West
Take the best-shooting big man of all time, a musclebound rocket of a shooting guard just entering orbit, and the greatest defensive player of his generation. Surround them with a bunch of defensive and/or shooty role players, and add a promising young coach. Sounds like a recipe for success, no?
I am very confident in Minnesota’s regular-season bonafides despite their inability to play together in the preseason (KAT’s recent throat infection does scare me; I hope he’s able to make a full recovery). In a West where many top teams will be focusing on managing workloads, I think Minnesota will be gunning for every win to put themselves on the map.
2) Philadelphia wins the East
Daryl Morey has assembled a well-rounded cast of characters at least as good as any of the Houston teams he architected. Harden and Embiid form an unstoppable offense by themselves, Maxey and Harris provide plenty of secondary scoring, and PJ Tucker, Danuel House, De’Anthony Melton, and Montrezl Harris provide the depth they’ve never had. The top of the East is loaded, but Milwaukee is thin, and Boston is in turmoil over the Udoka scandal. The 76ers should be able to out-talent everyone else in the regular season.
3) League-wide offensive rebounding hits 30%
Offensive rebounding has been declining for years. Coaches generally believe a team has to choose either offensive rebounding or transition defense, and since the latter is more consistent and controllable, most teams have shied away from attacking the boards. As a result, the league hasn’t had a 30% rate of recovering its misses since 2004-2005 (the dark nadir of NBA offenses).
But the pendulum has swung too far. Last year, the league was at a 26.2% offensive rebounding rate, the first time at that level since 2015-2016. Several teams will sport larger frontlines than we’re used to seeing (Minnesota, Cleveland, etc.), and several more have decided offensive rebounding will be a big help to potentially stodgy halfcourt offenses (Memphis and Toronto were the only two teams to hit 30% offensive rebounding last year and may have set a trend). The return of Zion will almost single-handedly push the Pelicans above 30%, as well.
This prediction is extremely unlikely to happen, but I do think we’ll see a resurgence in teams getting after their misses, and at the least, I’m confident offensive rebounding will continue to rise.
4) We see a massive number of big trades
Last year was a busy year at the trade deadline, and this year will be at least as crazy. So many teams start the year with playoff and championship dreams, and by the midpoint, some of those squads will have fallen back to Earth while others will be desperate to gain an edge. Combine a deep and talented draft class with a parity-driven league, and some stratification will be necessary.
Many teams will take an honest look at themselves at the deadline and decide to jettison talent to the numerous remaining would-be contenders. With a thin free agency class on the horizon, I expect a flurry of talent consolidation across the league as top teams continue their never-ending arms race.
5) Detroit makes the play-in
Detroit is brimming with young talent that’s probably a year or two away from truly making noise, but this is TAKE SZN, so here it is. Cade Cunningham seems like a future star, their two rookies (Jalen Duren, dunking machine, and turbocharged combo guard Jaden Ivey) are perfect fits next to him, and the newly-added Bojan Bogdanovic addresses Detroit’s desperate need for shooting. It’s surprisingly easy to see Detroit beating out five other teams, even in a stacked conference.
6) Charlotte will be the worst team in the East
I mentioned this briefly in the pod with David Thorpe, but I see a very real scenario where Charlotte is one of the league’s dregs. LaMelo Ball might be the only above-average player on the roster, and they have few NBA-caliber rotation players outside their starters. LaMelo is probably enough to keep the offense afloat, but this team should have one of the worst defenses in the league again, so if the offense drops from sixth last year to, say, sixteenth this year, we could be looking at a 24-win team.
Honestly? That’s almost certainly the best thing for Charlotte, anyway, as getting a top-four pick in the draft this year would be a blessing to a team with few exciting young players outside of Ball.
7) The Warriors keep Draymond… but they don’t pay him
Maybe this isn’t that hot of a take, but I just don’t see Golden State trading Draymond. They are still a frontrunner for the championship this year, and it’s virtually impossible to see a scenario where trading Draymond returns equivalent value to Golden State.
But just because they keep him doesn’t mean they will be keeping him happy. Draymond has been agitating hard for a massive contract extension, as he should. He’s been an indispensable part of four championship squads. That said, he’s also cost them at least one with his antics, and the video of the Jordan Poole punch is damning.
For a player on the wrong end of the aging curve and with a tumultuous locker room history to begin with, this incident could well be the death blow to his hopes of getting another near-max contract, at least from Golden State.
9) Chicago reasserts itself as a top-four seed
I can’t quit the Bulls. There are so many things to pick at on this team, both large and small, but I can’t stop thinking about when Chicago led the East two months into last season. They desperately need A) Lonzo Ball to return in a meaningful manner and B) much-ballyhooed third-year player Patrick Williams to make a leap. Both of those look shaky, but I still believe! Sort of.
10) Four players crack 30 points per game
This has only happened once in NBA history, all the way back in 1962, when five players made it: Wilt (averaging 50.4 ppg!!!), Walt Bellamy (second in the league with 31.6 ppg), Bob Pettit, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson.
But I’m hoping that the removal of the “take” foul will lead to more fastbreak points, which could slightly juice the numbers. Last year, Embiid was the only player to crack 30, but LeBron and Giannis were right on the cusp. I think players like Anthony Edwards, Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis, Trae Young, Jayson Tatum, or Devin Booker may be able to approach that number, as well, with an outside shot for guys like Steph Curry, Jalen Green, and Zach LaVine.
11) Zion leads the league in scoring
He’s lean(er), mean, and dominating dudes in preseason. He feasts at the free-throw line and rebounds all of his own misses. He combines volume and efficiency in ways that almost nobody in league history ever has. Despite having just the ninth-best odds, Zion will be the NBA scoring champ in 2022-2023.
12) The Lakers dump Westbrook at the deadline and lose just one first-round pick
I think the Lakers will wait as long as possible to move Westbrook to make sure that their core of LeBron and AD are still championship-caliber. Then, if they decide those two players are still among the elite, they can move Westbrook at the trade deadline for complementary parts and at a cheaper cost since the receiving team will only have to pay half of Westbrook’s $47 million salary at that point.
13) Phoenix will lose a 2-7 matchup against the Lakers
If the above comes to pass, the Lakers will shock someone. Kendrick Nunn has looked fantastic in the preseason after missing all last year, Thomas Bryant is a center that can space the floor a little (even if he is atrocious on defense), and Austin Reaves can really play on both ends. If Lonnie Walker can provide anything at all, I like the Lakers as an upset pick.
I especially heart them against Phoenix in a replay of the 2020 playoff series that the Lakers might’ve won without injuries to Davis and LeBron. Despite all the offseason drama, Phoenix will remain a regular-season juggernaut (consecutive 60-win seasons is not out of the question), but I expect them to flame out spectacularly in the playoffs once again.
14) Shaedon Sharpe wins the dunk contest
Rookie Shaedon Sharpe is an unknown. He sat out the 2021-2022 collegiate season at Kentucky, yet somehow, his draft stock kept rising. Portland took a gamble on him with the seventh pick, and he’s looked equal parts tantalizing and lost in the preseason.
But one thing is for certain: Sharpe can fly.
I’m generally bullish on Portland, who I expect to overperform in the regular season, but I expect a very up-and-down season for the rookie Sharpe as he gets used to full-speed basketball again. The dunk contest often features a rookie, and it would be the perfect place for him to showcase his talents on a national stage.
15) Brooklyn keeps their core together
Despite all the smoke and hoopla, I don’t think Brooklyn moves any of their significant pieces. Owner Joe Tsai has made it clear he won’t bow down to contractually-obligated players’ whims, and at this point, I think he’ll force this team to play together out of principle more than anything else. You won’t see me predict Brooklyn’s actual production levels, though, because how could anything related to Brooklyn’s play be considered “unlikely?” Anything is possible for this group.
16) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gets to play the whole season
After being shut down for ostensible injuries the last couple of seasons, I think Sam Presti will allow SGA to play out the string this year. I’m not 100% sure any team in the NBA is THAT excited about drafting Victor Wembanyama (the NBA doesn’t have too many 7’4” guys who have stayed healthy), and I kind of think that if you put a water pistol to their head, most would admit they’d rather have the surer thing in presumed #2 pick Scoot Henderson, who has a much higher floor. The Thunder also already have Chet Holmgren, who’s basically an Aldi version of Wembanyama.
Bonus Thunder wild prediction: Josh Giddey averages damn near a triple-double.
17) San Antonio has the worst record in the league
Ok, this take is polar-bear-in-winter cold, but San Antonio has so little proven NBA talent on its roster. You can talk about Coach Pop’s greatness all you want, but he’s merely a sculptor, and if you give him mud instead of clay, you’re going to get a mess.
18) Sacramento has a top-five offense and a bottom-five defense
De’Aaron Fox tore it up after the Kings traded for multifaceted big Domantas Sabonis, who has had a full offseason to learn how to further the pick-and-roll chemistry with Fox. Rookie Keegan Murray should provide an immediate boost on that end, and the additions of Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter surround Fox with excellent floor spacing (and Huerter is an underrated on-ball playmaker).
But the Kings don’t have a single above-average defender in the rotation except for point guard Davion Mitchell, who is undersized and not particularly flexible, and they will give significant minutes to several players who are actively terrible. The Kings should routinely play in exciting 132-129 shootouts and be a great watch without many wins to their name.
19) Bennedict Mathurin is Rookie Of The Year
Indiana projects to be a bottom-five team in the league, and they have a dearth of NBA scoring talent.
Enter Mathurin, who may already be Indiana’s best ball-putter-inner despite having played zero NBA games. Early indications are that coach Rick Carlisle may feature him as a sixth man, but it seems unlikely he can keep the beast leashed for long.
Mathurin is a three-level scorer with excellent athleticism, reminiscent of a rookie Anthony Edwards in many ways. Indiana will actually have a decent amount of floor spacing on the roster, which could open the lane for Mathurin’s powerful straight-line drives. Rookies traditionally struggle with efficiency, but there should be a lot of volume available for the taking. If we see the higher-touted rookies like Paolo Banchero and Jabari Smith Jr. struggle out of the gate, there’s room for Mathurin to come charging into the race.
20) Toronto makes a big trade
I like Toronto, and I’m hopeful that one of their home-grown stars (Pascal Siakam, anyone?) can make the leap into true alpha-dog territory. But I have to acknowledge that there’s a substantial risk they stay in good-not-great territory, and if that happens, GM Masai Ujiri will not hesitate for a consolidation trade.
There are loads of attractive players on the Raptors, and they would be ideal partners for any team that wants to trade a superstar and get players, not picks, in return (looking at you, Brooklyn!). I’ve already said I think the Nets stay together, but what if Washington’s Bradley Beal decides he wants out just months after signing his mega-super-duper-max contract? What if James Harden gets sick of the 76ers like he has every other team he’s been on (Harden would be a low-key fantastic fit on the Raps, even though I can hear my Canadian friends’ gasps of horror from 2000 miles away). What if Devin Booker, consumed with guilt over how he treated the Raptor, wants to make amends to the city of Toronto?
Any of these are unlikely in themselves, but recent history has shown us there’s always a star who wants out midseason. Toronto is well-positioned to take advantage when that happens.
21) Kyle Kuzma and Dillon Brooks are getting $80 million this offseason
Washington’s Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season, which would be way too little for a two-way power forward who turned himself into a rebounding monster last year. His jack-of-all-trades game would be a perfect fit on nearly any contender able to move some money around, and I expect him to be in high demand next year in a weak free agency class.
Brooks is a weird dude. He gets tunnel vision at bad times, loves to foul people, and plays dirty as hell. Advanced stats absolutely adore him, however, and Dillon brings an undeniable energy and edge to a tough Grizzlies squad. The max he can get in an extension is a hair over $60 million in 4 years, but he might be the best defender on the market, and for all his warts, Memphis has always been substantially better on both sides with him playing.
Recent contracts from the Celtics’ Marcus Smart (4 yrs/$78M), Thunder’s Lu Dort (5 yrs/$88M), and Spurs’ Keldon Johnson (4 yrs/$80M) are the closest analogs, and both Kuz and Brooks could credibly claim to deserve at least as much as KJ and Dort, given a more demonstrable impact to winning. There will be a lot more money than talent available next offseason, so don’t be shocked by some of the contracts given out — it could be 2016 all over again.