Welcome back from the 2023 NBA All-Star break everyone! It’s time to hit the ground running.
Roughly one-quarter of the regular season remains. And in this time, there’s still much that needs to be settled.
Chief among the league’s crowning storylines, of course, is the postseason picture. But defining issues don’t stop there. Many of the most pressing matters will spill into the playoffs, the ending to which will dictate what happens this offseason and beyond.
We’re here, as a family, to plow through the biggest, most important plots that will unfold between now and the end of the NBA Finals. And remember: The entire point of this exercise is to steer into the uncertainty. That’s what makes every team and player and situation we’re about to thrust under the microscope so compelling: They engender more questions than answers.
Nearly every spot is up for grabs. The Denver Nuggets have a chokehold on first place, but that’s about it. Everything else is definitively unsettled.
This race is shaping up to be particularly chaotic from fourth place on down. Entering play on Thursday, just four losses separate the No. 4 L.A. Clippers from the No. 13 Los Angeles Lakers.
That is, unequivocally, bonkers. Margin for error is nonexistent—for basically everyone.
Top-six squads are in imminent danger of tumbling to play-in territory. The third-place Sacramento Kings are just four losses up on the No. 7 New Orleans Pelicans and one rough patch away from turning their first postseason appearance since 2006 into a relative crapshoot. Foregone conclusions like the Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks can still technically drift outside the top 10 altogether.
And it all sets us up for a wild, wacky, unpredictably anarchic close to the regular season.
The Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers have the top-four seeds all sewn up, in some order. And there isn’t enough time for the Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat and New York Knicks to fade from the top seven. They will duke it out among themselves, in all likelihood, for the last two non-play-in slots.
Things get more interesting looking at the race for eighth, ninth and 10th place. Just five losses separate the No. 8 Atlanta Hawks from the No. 13 Orlando Magic, and nobody in between has shown signs of punting on the rest of this season.
Still, while it would be pleasantly gnarly if the Magic or No. 12 Indiana Pacers could displace a handful of the more win-now squads ahead of them, this cluster resonates mostly because of what it means for the teams that didn’t fancy themselves ending up here.
Assuming Miami claims a top-six spot or safely exits the play-in tourney, three of the Hawks, Chicago Bulls (No. 11), Toronto Raptors (No. 10) and Washington Wizards (No. 9) won’t make it to the meaningful part of the postseason. And that failure could have large-scale implications on how each franchise carries itself over the summer.
Do the Hawks triple-down or look at taking a step back if they miss the playoffs? Will the Raptors be inclined to pay all three of their marquee free agents—Gary Trent Jr. (player option), Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet (player option)—and keep the band together if they bow out before
Make no mistake, the East’s play-in race and the tournament itself should be entertaining as hell. But what follows for those who don’t make or survive it will be just as riveting.
Is this the last stand for the Warriors as we know them?
This probably depends on how the season ends. And that’s not very clarifying. The range of outcomes for Golden State is perhaps the widest in the NBA, spanning a lottery appearance to a second consecutive title and everything in between.
Stephen Curry’s return from a lower left leg injury will determine both the Warriors’ ceiling and floor. Regardless of when he rejoins the rotation, they should be guaranteed a play-in spot. Whether they can scrape their way into the top six is more debatable. Curry’s return might prompt a run of dominance the Dubs have hinted at but never sustained. They will still need help, in the form of underachieving, from some combination of the Minnesota Timberwolves (No. 8), Pelicans (No. 7) and Dallas Mavericks (No. 6).
Let’s just assume the Warriors bag a certified playoff spot and first-round appearance. How dangerous will they be upon getting there? The defense has lacked its usual shutdown oomph for most of the year, and many of their stingiest units have come at the expense of the offense.
Golden State will also amble into the postseason fairly, if significantly, dependent on one or both of Jonathan Kuminga and Anthony Lamb (two-way must be converted). And this says nothing of its non-negotiable reliance on the slumping Andrew Wiggins and the turbulent turnstile Jordan Poole.
What if the Warriors’ flickers of exceptionalism are just that—fleeting glimpses into what used to be and no longer is? Will they more aggressively work the blockbuster-trade market over the summer, dangling Kuminga, Poole and picks? Will Green be more likely to leave in free agency (player option)?
If the season ends in anything less than at least a convincing second-round advancement, can Golden State reasonably navigate the summer without making at least one material change, be it an addition or subtraction? Especially when it’s on course for a team-salary-plus-luxury-tax-bill totaling anywhere between $450 and $620-plus million next year?
Awkward questions will be asked of any Western Conference postseason hopefuls if and when they fail to make it out of the first round. The Lakers, Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers are unique in that, despite internal expectations, none of them are guaranteed—or even likely—to see the first round.
What becomes of Minnesota’s experimental setup if this season goes belly up? The team was on something of a roll entering the trade deadline but then flipped soon-to-be-free-agent D’Angelo Russell for age-35 Mike Conley. Karl-Anthony Towns’ return from a right calf injury, which has sidelined him since Nov. 28, should be a stabilizing bright spot. What if it’s not?
The Timberwolves offense has so far sucked it up whenever he shares the floor with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards. Is the combination of Conley’s addition and Edwards’ ascent into primary-engine stardom enough to glitz up those minutes? And if it’s not, will there be repercussions? An attempt over the offseason to trade Towns? Gobert? Or will Minnesota merely chalk up this season to growing pains and injuries and soldier onward, mostly unchanged?
Few expected the Lakers to ever become a playoff formality. But lowered bars don’t eradicate implicit urgency. LeBron James is 38, and the Lakers just traded a loosely protected 2027 first-round pick. You don’t make that move to plan ahead for next season.
If they fail to bridge the gap separating them from play-in territory, are they less likely to re-sign Russell? More likely to try actualizing the LeBron-Kyrie Irving reunion? Does escaping the play-in even give them a license to run it back? Are they speeding toward a “deal the 2029 pick or risk LeBron asking out” situation? Are Anthony Davis trade murmurings on the table?
Finally, what in the actual hell are the Blazers doing? They pretended to be buyers at the trade deadline and then effectively sold. Their path to substantively leveling up is unclear. Do they have the assets to enter the market for the next available star? And the guts to actually go for said star if they do? Are they even guaranteed to re-sign Jerami Grant if they can’t crack the play-in as currently constructed?
At least one of these organizations won’t see the first round. It’ll probably be more than that—two, if not all three. And the pressure each will face in the absence of a playoff berth, let alone play-in cameo, would be nothing short of gargantuan.
Impromptu tank jobs will not feature prominently during the NBA’s closing kick. The bottom four, in some order, is basically etched in stone. The Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs will have the best odds at winning the 2023 draft lottery.
There is more runway for change in front of them—at the top of the bottom, if you will.
Orlando emerges from the All-Star break with the league’s fifth-worst record. Thirteen teams are within five losses of that spot. Seven squads are fewer than five games ahead of the Magic, period.
That opens the door for surprise entries into the, shall we say, big-picture sweepstakes. One team is already flirting with the pivot. The Utah Jazz might be too good to bottom out without a wave of shutdown shenanigans, but they made their commitment to the future clear by flipping Malik Beasley, Mike Conley and Jarred Vanderbilt at the trade deadline.
Will anybody else join them? History says yes—that flattened lottery odds and virtually zero chance of nosediving into the bottom four won’t prevent organizations in transition from prioritizing the math behind the draft lottery. Which squads will that be? Now, that we don’t yet know.
Chicago would be a great guess…if it didn’t owe a first-rounder to Orlando with top-four protection. Washington is forever obsessed with maintaining its place in the bottom of the middle, so the Wizards are probably out. Toronto was an excellent candidate until it acquired Jakob Poeltl at the deadline, implying polar-opposite priorities.
Indiana is a good choice. It just tanked last year and isn’t in the business of plumbing rock bottom, but the prospect of heading into the summer with Tyrese Haliburton, Myles Turner, Bennedict Mathurin, another top lottery prospect and a boatload of cap space would position the team for a monster turnaround.
Portland should be thrust into this conversation by virtue of its patently unspectacular, Damian-Lillard-who trade deadline. Oklahoma City is officially too good for late-season hijinks, though I wouldn’t put anything past general manager Sam Presti. Minnesota has no incentive to tank; its pick is headed to Utah. Golden State isn’t about-facing into a gap year. New Orleans is a sneaky candidate if Zion Williamson can’t return from his hamstring injury.
And speaking of which…
Zion Williamson suffered a setback during his recovery from a right hamstring injury that has sidelined him since Jan. 2. His timeline for return, like usual, is shrouded in mystery; he’s expected to be out at least another few weeks.
But what if a few weeks turns into longer? Like, for the rest of the season?
This isn’t outside the realm of possibility. It might even be par for the course. Zion has dealt with a litany of lower body injuries to his right side, and each one has seemingly been accompanied by uncertain timelines that last longer than expected.
Losing him for the season would, predictably, be catastrophic. The Pelicans are 7-15 with a bottom-feeding offense and net rating since he last played.
They can be—and should be—better without him when Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Jonas Valanciunas are all available, and when Trey Murphy III is lighting it the F up. But even the most idealistic version of New Orleans sans Zion is nothing more than a postseason afterthought. His continued absence would open the door for other squads while forcing the Pelicans to confront painfully wholesale questions about their future and how to properly invest in and outfit a roster that can’t count on its best player to appear in even half of the team’s games.
Perhaps Zion returns with plenty of time before the playoffs. That begs an entirely separate, infinitely more palatable question: Is New Orleans a conference finals threat, if not more?
It sounds ridiculous now, with the Pelicans threatening to circle the drain. But it wasn’t long ago they were the darling powerhouse of the West. They owned a top-three net rating and were tied with the Memphis Grizzlies for the conference’s second-best record entering the New Year.
New Orleans has the chance to raise hell and warp the landscape of the West if Zion is healthy. It also has the potential to bow out with a whimper, on a collision course with an offseason of self-reckoning, if he’s not.
Worrying about the offensive fit between Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving is a waste of time. They are going to figure it out.
It’s actually already a non-issue. The Dallas Mavericks have an offensive rating north of 131 in the time they’ve played together—and that’s just while working it out on the fly. Irving’s arrival is likewise already serving its other purpose: optimizing the non-Dončić minutes. Dallas has outscored opponents by more than seven points per 100 possessions during Kyrie’s solo stints, a stark departure from the minus-4.8 net rating the Mavs are posting without Luka on the season.
Surviving on defense will be a different story. Lineups featuring Luka and Kyrie, while a net plus, are hemorrhaging points—particularly at the rim. And that’s without a ton of reps alongside Christian Wood. Maxi Kleber’s return from a hamstring injury will help a great deal, but the Mavs’ ball containment will need consistent boons from Reggie Bullock, Josh Green and newcomer Justin Holiday.
This is doable for the regular season. It is more harrowing if and when Dallas reaches the playoffs. Postseason basketball has never differed from the regular season more, and the Mavs have a bunch of discernible weak points upon which opponents can poke and prod and pummel over the course of a seven-game series.
Dallas is too invested in the Dončić-Irving setup to place profound stock in how the playoffs (or play-in) unfolds. The Mavs are prepared to let Kyrie walk in free agency, according to NBA reporter Marc Stein, but you don’t fork over Dorian Finney-Smith, Spencer Dinwiddie and an unprotected 2029 first-rounder without being somewhat married to the player you’re bringing back.
Failing a surprise conference finals or NBA Finals push, negotiations between Irving and Dallas are bound to be fascinating. Will Kyrie shop around? Flat-out leave, even if the Mavs are offering the full boat? Are they prepared to tether that much of their long-term livelihood to the league’s most mercurial player?
How does Dallas go about building the rest of the roster if Irving stays? It will have two first-round picks to trade after this season. Does it prioritize rim protection? Wing defense? Who’s the best player it can realistically add?
What happens if the season ends poorly? And if the Dončić-Irving synergy isn’t as intended when it matters most? Do the Mavs have the stomach to show Kyrie the door? Can they capitalize on his departure via sign-and-trade? What does their contingency plan actually look like? And how will Luka react if this experiment goes poorly?
Most of these answers won’t reveal themselves until over the summer. But the Mavs’ journey into the offseason and all the tea leaves it leaves in its wake will be among the NBA’s most watched and dissected topics.
If the tippy top of the Western Conference holds firm, the Clippers, Grizzlies, Kings and Denver Nuggets will all snare home-court advantage playoff spots. That would make for among the most diverse mix of top-four-seed finishers in recent memory. (Phoenix Suns fans will, rightfully, bet against this quartet enduring the stretch run.)
All of these teams are at different stages of their postseason windows. And yet, none of them are entering a footnote phase of their playoff window. The ending to the season, for all of them, will act as as a referendum that evokes an inflection point.
Doubters will take insufferable victory laps should the Nuggets not get it done in the playoffs—particularly if Nikola Jokić, as expected, wins his third MVP award. Sure, the last time Denver was healthy for the playoffs (2020), it won two series. And yes, the Nuggets are eighth in points allowed per possession since Dec. 1. But they were ousted in five games by the Lakers during the 2020 Western Conference Finals, and the defense, for all its undeniable strengths, is benefiting more than most from colder opponent shooting at the charity stripe and beyond the three-point line.
Does Denver keep on keeping on if it doesn’t get back to the conference finals? Does it look to shake up the core (non-Jokić division)? Will it figure out how—and be willing—to take a massively scaled swing on the trade market?
Right now, the Kings are in their honeymoon phase. And deservedly so. But there will eventually be a discussion about how they transition from solid playoff team to, at the very least, a more menacing fringe contender.
That conversation will begin in earnest after the season, with Harrison Barnes hitting free agency and Domantas Sabonis one year out from doing the same. The manner in which the Kings’ (presumed) entry into the playoff pool ends will be telltale, a measuring stick for how far they must still go and the feasibility behind doing so before next year. The search for what’s missing gets infinitely harder and more complicated if they bag a top-four seed and don’t put up the fight expected from one.
This is the fourth year of the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George era for the Clippers. They have added and augmented at every turn, through both their peaks and valleys. Will that mindset sustain into the summer if they don’t return to the conference finals? Does a second-round—or even first-round—exit force them to reconsider their window and star pairing? Or are they more likely to seek out a nuclear addition, even if it costs their 2028 and 2030 first-round picks?
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, are trying to justify building at their own cadence. Many have implored them to make a bigger move that addresses spotty half-court creation and three-point volume and accuracy. They have resisted. Acquiring Luke Kennard was their big midseason move.
Perhaps that’s enough. The Grizzlies will be vindicated if they win two playoff series. Anything less, though, will open them up to more “Should they chase a blockbuster trade?” scrutiny. That debate won’t be unfair. Memphis has reached a level of notoriety that mandates brutal, uncompromising expectations. This season is a relative failure if the Grizzlies don’t play like a certified title contender when the stakes rise to 11.
A case can be made that three of the four most likely NBA champions reside inside the Eastern Conference. That’s a wild notion unto itself. It gets more prickly when framed this way:
At least one of the Celtics, Bucks and Sixers won’t make it to the conference finals.
So what? That doesn’t sound like a big deal on its face. Good teams get bounced before the conference finals all the time. But having three teams this good is a rarity for the East. And not one of them is purely a happy-to-be-here contender.
Milwaukee’s core won a championship in 2021 and has Jae Crowder, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton (player option) entering free agency. Boston is fresh off an NBA Finals appearance last summer, and its luxury-tax bill is about to exceed $64 million. Philadelphia has James Harden (player option) hitting free agency, again, and needs to start concerning itself with Joel Embiid’s happiness if another season ends without a conference finals cameo.
Significant changes will likely follow a second-round exit for any of these teams.
Do the Bucks look at letting Middleton, BroLo or both walk if they’re dismissed more than a heartbeat away from the Finals? Do they have the stomach to pay everyone, knowing the core around Giannis Antetokounmpo is aging? Can they finagle a bigger-time move on the trade market?
Will the Harden-to-Houston rumors grow louder if the Sixers lose early and he doesn’t adequately pad his playoff-reliability resume? What becomes of Embiid if The Beard leaves?
The Celtics seem most inoculated against change if this postseason doesn’t go according to plan. But next season’s luxury-tax bill could easily be just as steep as this year’s receipt if they re-sign Grant Williams (restricted). How long of a financial leash will team president Brad Stevens have to keep upping the ante? Or will Boston simply consider moving some combination of its top-seven or -eight players in search of upgrades?
Watch the East’s heavyweights closely. Two of these teams seem fated to deliver an epic conference finals showdown. (Cleveland, of course, would like a word.) The other will have to grapple with the very real fallout of returning home waaay sooner than they’ll believe they’re supposed to be.
Kevin Durant is expected to make his debut for the Suns on Wednesday in a road tilt against the Charlotte Hornets. The Western Conference—the entire NBA, really—may never be the same.
Worrying about how Durant fits into the larger context of the Suns offense is forced concern. He and Devin Booker are among the two most scalable superstars in the biz—players who can work anywhere, off anyone, in a variety of modes. The offensive fit between them, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton will be divine.
Harping on the defense is fair game. At the same time, the Suns aren’t the Mavericks. A Durant-Ayton frontcourt can more than hold its own and allows for different approaches, and Phoenix has two “If they’re hitting threes, they’re golden” stoppers to move around the perimeter in Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie.
Durant’s arrival is more polarizing for its immediate and long-term implications on the rest of the league. Did Phoenix just wheel-and-deal its way to a title favorite? Or will there actually be some sort of learning curve?
What’s more, how much do the Suns actually take away from this season? They will have fewer than 20 games to go before the playoffs following Durant’s debut. If they come up short of a championship, does the urgency of their timeline necessitate exploring significant changes? Or do they futz and fiddle on the margins and let this core roll into next season?
Complacency in the aftermath of a non-title run feels unlikely. Durant turns 35 in September and hasn’t played through a season unscathed since 2018-19. Paul turns 38 in May and is already showing signs of decline. The Suns can’t afford to prioritize continuity without hardware.
But what does another shake-up look like? Is CP3 and his partially guaranteed 2023-24 salary ($15.8 million) a trade candidate? Or do all roads to another recalibration lead through an Ayton deal?
There’s a chance none of this matters. The Suns have the star-power depth to loosen their dependence on CP3’s age and health curve. Ayton doesn’t have to worry about getting paid anymore and could be content to play-finish his way to 20-plus points per game while spitting out defensive-anchor performances so mission critical to Phoenix’s past two years of success.
This team may be a juggernaut above needing change. Or this could be the first stage in a multi-step metamorphosis. The rest of this season will tell.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Thursday’s games. Salary information via Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes.