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Revisiting Preseason Predictions
I made 20 unlikely (but plausible) predictions before the season... did any work out?
Before the 2022-23 season began, I made 20 wild predictions. I didn’t expect most of them to pan out. Instead, I wanted those to be a springboard for discussion on where the league was heading.
But unlike most writers, I believe going back and revisiting predictions is important, informative, and entertaining (in a “how could I possibly have thought that was a good idea?” kind of way).
I made most of these projections like Markquis Nowell taking a three: I called my shot with irrational confidence and walked away without waiting to see if the ball went in.
Let’s see what I hit, what I missed, and what we can learn from each.
1) Minnesota wins the West
2) Philadelphia wins the East
I’ve already talked about what went wrong in Minnesota enough, and for Philly, we still don’t know what happens when Joel Embiid is healthy in the playoffs (will we ever?).
Even at their best, though, neither team looked capable of winning their conference.
It’s early, but I’m already talking myself into a Timberwolves comeback next season (I’m a sucker). Better health, growth from a young core, and a clearer hierarchy should smooth the path.
Philly’s situation is a little more tumultuous. I don’t trust Harden but don’t see how Philadelphia can upgrade over him, either. Teams aren’t lining up to pay for a hard-living almost-34-year-old who tends to melt in the playoffs like ice on a summer sidewalk.
I’m quite confident I won’t be picking either of these teams to make the Finals again (and I’m mostly saying this on record so I won’t fall for Minnesota when I make new predictions in a couple of months).
3) League-wide offensive rebounding hits 30%
Last season, the average team rebounded 26.8% of their misses. 30% was a pretty aggressive guess, as it hadn’t been done since 2005. But with several teams sporting bigger frontlines and a few coaches starting to lean away from the “all transition defense, all the time” approach, I figured there was at least a tiny shot of it happening.
But 26.8% was an increase over the previous year’s 26.2%, and the highest number since the 2014-2015 season saw a 28.0% rate. We’re trending the right way!
4) We see a massive number of big trades
It was a frantic and fun trade deadline (I graded each move here), and every kind of player, from superstar to scrub, was traded. Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Jakob Poeltl, D’Angelo Russell, Josh Hart, Mike Conley, Mike Muscala… the list of notable names is long.
Trades are how almost all the big players are moved nowadays, since superstars can only sign the supermax extension if they stay with their incumbent team. There’s a significant financial incentive to sign and then just demand a trade later.
Even the teams with significant cap space aren’t willing to throw the bag at sub-star players anymore. There aren’t many terrible contracts being handed out even before a new media deal that’s anticipated to raise the salary cap significantly in the coming years.
5) Detroit makes the play-in
Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking here. Detroit was too baby-faced to compete last year, and the injury to Cade Cunningham sank whatever slim hopes they might’ve had.
Detroit likely still has one more year of being terrible, but they have a lot of cool young players. A pecking order needs to be established, however. Rookie Ausar Thompson, second-year guard Jaden Ivey, and third-year Cunningham all have overlapping skills and weaknesses (namely, an inability to shoot).
Scouts I talked to in Las Vegas still believe in Cade Cunningham as the alpha dog and lead ballhandler of the trio, but he also projects to be the most reliable off-ball shooter. Thompson is a better passer than Ivey, but he’s a better off-ball cutter, too, and has the least reliable jumper. Ivey is the quickest with the ball and the best at drawing free throws.
Incoming coach Monty Williams’ most important task will be figuring out how to maximize his three young ballhandlers. It’s not a bad problem to have, but it’s still a problem.
6) Charlotte will be the worst team in the East
Okay, so they were only second-worst behind Detroit, but I still think this was spot-on. Miles Bridges’ horrifying domestic abuse charges meant that he didn’t play a game all season, and LaMelo Ball’s injury shredded whatever thin hopes they still had.
Depth matters in the NBA regular season, and Charlotte had almost none. The absences of Charlotte’s two best players left them aimless.
Next year should be marginally better. The queasy return of Bridges (on the low-value, one-year qualifying offer) is imminent. Ball’s health, second overall pick Brandon Miller, and a cleaner path to playing time for center Mark Williams should make the Hornets a much more watchable team, at least, although I still don’t think they’ll rack up many W’s.
7) Warriors keep Draymond… but they don’t pay him
At the time of this writing, the Warriors were in a tumultuous state. Green was fresh off punching Jordan Poole in the face. His future was very uncertain, particularly in light of a Finals in which Green’s offensive struggles came to a head. In my write-up, I mentioned that Draymond was looking for near-max money from the Warriors.
Well, they did keep him (and shipped out Poole), forking over $100 million on a four-year deal that feels very fair for both parties. I’m sure Draymond wanted more; Golden State did well here. The Warriors did keep Draymond, and they did pay him, but it’s hardly an overpay. Let’s call this one a push.
8) Chicago reasserts itself as a top-4 seed
Sigh. Chicago briefly led the East two seasons ago before injuries to starting guards Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso sank their hopes (they were essentially last year’s New Orleans Pelicans), so I hoped that a return to health and another year of seasoning for Patrick Williams might lead them to success.
Unfortunately, the injury to Lonzo Ball never healed; he missed all of last season and will miss all of the upcoming season. His career is in doubt. Chicago was dead in the water without him, with the offense devolving into a your-turn, my-turn slog for Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.
Chicago made several nice moves on the margins this offseason, and they won’t be a pushover. However, it’s clear that the team’s best players simply aren’t good enough to make them a competitive team.
I like watching Chicago more than most, but it’s hard to imagine them earning homecourt advantage anytime soon.
9) Four players crack 30 points per game
The league hadn’t seen at least four players hit 30 points per game since the 1961-1962 season, so this was a bolder take than it might seem now!
As I expected, the reduction of the take foul helped increase pace and jumpstart an offensive explosion, but players also shot the lights out of the ball.
An astonishing six players hit 30 points per game — Embiid, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jayson Tatum — something that hadn’t been done since… well, ever.
I’m not sure if we’ll see that many guys crack that mark again; given its historical rarity, it seems unlikely. But offenses keep getting better and better, so who knows?
10) Zion leads the league in scoring
Well, you’ll notice that I didn’t mention Zion Williamson in the six players above.
Zion was awesome when he played, averaging 26 points per game while briefly leading the New Orleans Pelicans to the top of the Western Conference standings. Unfortunately, yet another injury derailed his season, and the Pelicans dropped like a rock without him.
He has 30+ point potential, but how many more hurts can his body sustain before he starts to lose some effectiveness? He’s already noticeably less explosive than he was at Duke; it can’t be good for those knees and feet to support a moving mountain.
11) The Lakers dump Westbrook at the trade deadline and lose just one first-round pick
Got this one!
Rob Pelinka resisted temptation all year before finally offloading Westbrook and a first for a bevy of helpful role players in D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Malik Beasley. The Lakers almost immediately went on a run and clinched a spot in the playoffs, where they surprised everyone by dispatching the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors in short order.
However, this was primarily addition by subtraction. Although much was made of the increased depth of this Lakers team in the regular season, almost none of the returned pieces made a positive impact in the playoffs. Rui Hachimura, acquired in a separate transaction, was the Lakers’ most valuable mid-season acquisition.
Regardless, the Lakers had a nice offseason, re-signing Austin Reaves to a team-friendly deal (gotta love that restricted free agency!), retaining Hachimura, and adding solid depth pieces like Gabe Vincent (fresh off a major role in the Finals for the Miami Heat), Taurean Prince, and Jaxson Hayes.
LeBron is slowing down, and Anthony Davis’ health and play remain unpredictable, but the team’s roster construction finally makes sense. The Lakers now have a case as the deepest team in the league; who could have seen that coming a year ago?
12) Phoenix loses a 2-7 matchup against the Lakers
Well, this one was a very specific augury that didn’t quite pan out, although the Lakers did upset not one but two teams during their surprising playoff run.
A much-changed Phoenix squad ended up the four seed and beat a crippled Los Angeles Clippers team before falling in six to the Denver Nuggets.
The Suns have reinvented themselves yet again, swapping perpetually-injured Chris Paul for Bradley Beal and a bevy of interesting minimum-contract guys. I’ll have more on Phoenix later, but I really liked what they’ve done so far this offseason.
13) Shaedon Sharpe wins the dunk contest
Mac McClung put on a hell of a show in the contest, winning with some of the best dunks in recent memory.
But I still believe Sharpe would’ve won if he hadn’t withdrawn prior to the contest. Sharpe descends from the heavens, delivering divine retribution upon sinful defenders; he smites the net with holy basketballs, sending it to a fiery demise.
I’ve never seen anything or anyone quite like Sharpe, and I hope he atones for his peccadillo by participating this year. If not, at least McClung will likely be back to defend his crown.
14) Brooklyn keeps their core together
Couldn’t have been more wrong here. These were unlikely predictions, after all. Kyrie’s anti-Semitic comments and subsequent move to Dallas spurred Kevin Durant to demand (for a second time) a trade, and this time he was routed to Phoenix.
Not much else to say here.
15) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gets to play the whole season
Shai has a history of being shut down for the season following injury. Depending on who you ask, the injuries were either very serious or a thin facade for tanking purposes.
Regardless, it felt like the Thunder needed to start trying to win. A third-straight shut would’ve been unseemly at best and malpractice at worst. Luckily, Shai had the best season of his career by far, garnering a fifth-place MVP finish and a First Team All-NBA nod as he played 68 games and the Thunder made the play-in tournament.
The Thunder have a chance to be really good as soon as this season, and curious onlookers are excited to see how the proto-Wembanyama, Chet Holmgren, looks in real league action.
16) San Antonio has the worst record in the league
Easily the coldest take I had, and directionally correct, as only the Detroit Pistons finished lower in the standings. San Antonio, of course, landed the #1 pick in the draft and drafted Victor Wembanyama to be the spiritual and literal successor to Tim Duncan, so they’re okay with how it turned out.
17) Sacramento has a top-five offense and a bottom-five defense
I came pretty close to nailing this, as Sacramento finished the year with the league’s best offense and sixth-worst defense.
However, I can’t give myself any credit; I also wrote that I thought Sacramento was a play-in team at best. I vastly underestimated how incredible their offense would be and how much winning that could drive. The Kings finished the year third in the West, and although they lost in the first round, they took the defending champion Golden State Warriors to seven games.
I’m not sure how to feel about the Kings going into this year. Some things, like the team’s incredible health, will be difficult to replicate. And it seems unlikely that their offense can be that incendiary a second time. But it’s easy to project the defense being at least a little better, and it’s been largely ignored that Domantas Sabonis played through a broken thumb for most of the year.
I haven’t gotten close to my season preview, as too many variables are still unknown, but I’m not going to get burned by the Kings again.
18) Bennedict Mathurin is Rookie of the Year
I fell in love with Mathurin after a strong Summer League showing, and I wanted to swerve from the popular (and eventually correct) Paolo Banchero consensus.
Mathurin looked like a strong contender out of the gate. During his first 20 games, he averaged 20 points per game on 42% shooting from deep and took nearly six free throws per game, an awesome number for any rookie, much less a guard. Mathurin was a frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year on an Indiana team that was fighting for playoff positioning behind Mathurin, fellow rookie Andrew Nembhard, revitalized big man Myles Turner, and the sensational Tyrese Haliburton.
The wheels didn’t just fall off, though. They exploded into bits as the Mathurin train crashed into the dreaded Rookie Wall. Mathurin forgot how to shoot, and defenses realized that he was incapable of anything but the simplest passes.
Mathurin still made All-Rookie First Team (barely). As a freshman, he still showed a lot: the free throws kept coming, and he made some ballhandling strides toward the end of the season. His struggles are typical rookie things: finishing, finding the right pass, and team defense. He will improve. I’m keeping all my Mathurin stock.
19) Toronto makes a big trade
Technically, I think I got this one right. The Raps traded a first-rounder, two seconds, and Khem Birch for once former, now current center Jakob Poeltl.
That wasn’t quite as big a splash as I’d been expecting in the preseason, however, and as of this writing, both OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam remain on the roster.
The team was demonstrably better with Poeltl’s elite rim protection on the floor, but the loss of Fred Van Vleet — the team’s only capable point guard — should offset whatever improvements Poeltl brought.
The Raptors are an interesting team because they are so obviously stuck in no-man’s land, and I suspect they have another move in them. I’m just not sure if they’re buying or selling.
20) Kyle Kuzma and Dillon Brooks get $80 million this offseason
I saved the best for last! Neither of these seemed all that likely to start the year, although Kuzma had a better chance.
But Kuz set career-highs in points, assists, and free throw attempts as he upped his usage in Washington. While the efficiency left something to be desired, he’s squarely in his prime (Kuzma turns 28 next week), and he’s proven he can be a plus rebounder and adequate defender.
Brooks had an up-and-down year that ended in humiliation. Still, the league has always been a bit higher on Brooks than the average fan: he’s an elite perimeter defender with no fear of shooting the ball (it would be better if he had at least a dose of healthy fear, but alas).
The final tally: Dillon Brooks received $86 million guaranteed over four years, and Kuzma got $90 million over the same length (before incentives).
This still feels like a slight overpay by Houston, but they had plenty of cap room available (which makes their sign-and-trade for Brooks a bit of an oopsie, as detailed in excruciating detail by John Hollinger at The Athletic). Kuzma’s contract is fine in a vacuum, although it’s a bit weird that he’s returning to a Washington team that everyone expected to bottom out after the Beal trade.
Both salaries are reported to be decreasing in annual value over time, and nothing gets a blog boi like me more excited than deteriorating salaries (after all, both players will likely be in decline by the end of this deal; shouldn’t they be paid more for their best years and less for worse ones?).
I’m not sure either player is a great fit for their respective teams, but I’m pleased as punch that these fellas got paid.