The 2023-2024 NBA season is right around the corner, and parity has its grip upon the entire league. Almost every team in the West seems to be intent on making the playoffs, creating one of the deepest conferences in a long time. With the rest of the teams chasing the defending champion Nuggets, here are the realistic hopes of each franchise, along with a player to watch for the season.
Realistic Outlook: Become the first repeat champion since the Golden State Warriors in 2017-2018. Denver returns the starting five that dominated the playoffs with very little resistance, and although they lost Bruce Brown to the Indiana Pacers, they expect young players such as Christian Braun, who was in the rotation for the championship team last season, to make a big step forward and fill the void. The only real question for the future the Nuggets will have going forward is whether Nikola Jokic considers an early retirement in favor of his horses in Serbia.
Player to Watch: Peyton Watson. The second-year forward didn’t get many opportunities to shine with Brown and Braun ahead of him in the rotation. But with Brown gone, Watson will be asked to take on a much bigger role as a backup to Micheal Porter, Jr. and Aaron Gordon. How he performs in his expanded role could be the difference between back-to-back championships or falling just short.
Realistic Outlook: The Timberwolves are among the most volatile teams in the league. They went all-in on the twin towers look of Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, but barely got a look at them together last year as Towns missed 53 games. They did give the eventual champion Nuggets a fight in the first round with Towns and Gobert playing together, but they bowed out in five games. With Anthony Edwards seeming to have officially taken the reigns as the star of the team, Gobert and Towns must hold up and support Edwards on the way to contention. If they don’t, massive changes could be in store, starting with moving Towns.
Player to Watch: Shake Milton. The Timberwolves signed him in free agency hoping he can provide some pop off the bench when Edwards sits. Along with Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid, Milton has the potential to be a key cog in one of the best bench units in the league if he can keep his efficiency as high as it was during last season.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Realistic Outlook: After years of a brutal rebuild, the Thunder seem to be on the verge of something special. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has established himself as one of the premier guards in the NBA, and their hoards of draft picks over the past four years seem to be bearing fruit at last, with studs Josh Giddey and Jalen Williams proving they can be valuable role players, and Chet Holmgren promising to be a force down low after having his rookie season delayed by a Lisfranc injury. And with 16 first round draft picks still in the treasure trove over the next seven years, a big move for a disgruntled star is absolutely in the cards.
Player to Watch: Isaiah Joe. Joe broke into the Thunder rotation last year by shooting 40.9% from three, on an impressive 5.4 attempts per game. He provided a massive amount of spacing, which allowed Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey to punish defenses with their drives to the basket. If Joe can prove last year’s shooting was not a fluke, he could see heavy rotation minutes once again.
Portland Trail Blazers
Realistic Outlook: If there is one team in the West trying to tank, it is the Trail Blazers. They finally traded away Damian Lillard after failing to build around him for over a decade, and received a haul of young players in return for him and their subsequent Jrue Holiday trade. With 2022 No. 7 overall pick Shaedon Sharpe flashing star potential, and 2023 No. 3 overall pick Scoot Henderson in line to take over Lillard’s lead guard spot, the future is bright. However, the now may be a bumpy ride while the youngsters find their footing.
Player to Watch: Deandre Ayton. Portland’s biggest piece received from their two recent blockbusters is the 2018 No. 1 overall pick. Ayton has been solid, but outside of a stellar 2021 postseason has not lived up to the billing of the max contract the Phoenix Suns gave him last summer. Will a new situation in Portland with more freedom offensively finally unlock his potential?
Realistic Outlook: This is a team that is solidly in the Play-In race. Lauri Markennen and Walker Kessler make up a formidable frontcourt, but outside of Jordan Clarkson, there is very little backcourt depth. Markennen and Kessler should be enough to keep the Jazz relatively competitive, but there is not enough high-end talent on the roster to expect a deep playoff run. With a large war-chest of picks and players such as Clarkson potentially lending the more if traded, Utah is straddling the line between competing and tanking, and Danny Ainge will likely make a decision to go in one way or the other sometime this season.
Player to Watch: Collin Sexton. The young guard seemed destined for stardom in his first few years at Cleveland, before an injury took away his 2021-2022 season, forcing him to watch fellow young guard Darius Garland blossom in his stead. Sexton’s destiny has instead brought him to Utah as a piece of the Donavan Mitchell trade last year. It was a relatively quiet year as he got back into the flow after his injury, playing behind Clarkson and Mike Conley. But with Conley now on the Timberwolves, Sexton’s role could expand if he takes the opportunity. And since he is still relatively young, he could secure a spot as a piece for Utah’s future.
Realistic Outlook: This team will go as far as Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving are able to carry it. The dropoff from those two superstars to the third best player on the roster (which at the moment is a toss-up between Grant Williams and Tim Hardaway Jr.) is precipitous. If one or both of Doncic and Irving are hurt or disgruntled, the hopes of the Mavericks could crash and burn fast. But if the offensive potential of the duo is fully realized, Dallas will be able to score with anyone, regardless of how their defense performs.
Player to Watch: Maxi Kleber. Kleber is far and away the best defensive player currently on the Mavericks roster, and was a huge reason for the Mavericks’ 6th ranked defensive rating in the 2021-2022 season, the same year they reached the Western Conference Finals. However, an injury-riddled 2022-2023 campaign held Kleber to 37 games last season, and Dallas’s defensive rating plummeted as a result. Healthy coming into this season, Kleber will be tasked with lifting that rating back to at least respectable levels in order to support Doncic and Irving’s offense with a much less defensively-adept cast.
Realistic Outlook: An offseason of spending has completely changed the complexion of this Rockets team. Dillon Brooks, Fred VanVleet and Jeff Green come to a team that desperately needed veteran leadership last year, with a fresh face at head coach as well in disgraced former Celtics coach Ime Udoka. The Rockets are hoping these moves supplement jumps from young cornerstones Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. as they finally begin to play competitive basketball for the first time since the trade of James Harden almost three years ago. However, in a loaded Western Conference, nothing is guaranteed, and the handsomely paid veterans in no way promise the accelerated end to a rough rebuild.
Player to Watch: Alperen Sengun. The third-year center had many excited with a sophomore leap last year, securing his spot as one of the young stars the Rockets are building around. But with a lot more mouths to feed than last year, and an entirely new scheme from the new coaching staff, can Sengun maintain, let alone build upon, his promising breakout last year?
Realistic Outlook: Marcus Smart was brought in to be a hard-nosed enforcer who could help keep the young Grizzlies focused through the ups and downs of the grueling 82-game season, especially after Memphis lost Dillon Brooks. Smart will have a lot on his hands as he attempts to do so. Superstar guard Ja Morant will be out for the first 25 games of the regular season after several ill-advised social media posts featuring him brandishing firearms. Starting center and calming locker room presence Steven Adams was recently announced to be having season-ending knee surgery. The adversity has begun before the season even has. When fully healthy and available, this Grizzlies team is a force to be reckoned with. Can Smart help Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. keep the ship upright until Morant can return?
Player to Watch: Xavier Tillman Sr. The 24-year-old will be asked to play a much more significant role with Adams out for the season. He provided burst off the bench last year, and the Grizzlies will count on him being able to provide that same push when in the game for more prolonged stretches this season. If he can find success in his expanded minutes, the Grizzlies will feel less pressured to trade a crucial piece trying to find a replacement for Adams down low.
New Orleans Pelicans
Realistic Outlook: Outside of the Los Angeles Clippers, no team has had more potential squandered by injuries than the Pelicans. Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum are a lethal top three that complement each other extremely well. However, it is difficult to win with them when they play a grand total of 172 minutes together throughout the season. Williamson in particular has drawn the ire of many for his inability to stay healthy, playing only 114 total games in his four-year career. When healthy, New Orleans has the potential to be one of the best in the league. The issue is that the word “healthy” has seemed to elude them up to this point.
Player to Watch: Herb Jones. In his first two seasons in the league, the young forward has established himself as one of the best defenders in the league, drawing the opponent’s best wing player every game. Jones has yet to develop a consistent offensive game to complement this defensive prowess, but with all the offensive firepower the Pelicans have, he doesn’t need to do much. If he can develop even a league-average three-point shot, his abilities on the other end will ensure he will be an elite role player for years to come.
San Antonio Spurs
Realistic Outlook: Enjoy the first season of the Victor Wembanyama show, no matter where that might lead them. If his preseason highlights are any indication, this is a show no one wants to miss. The 7-foot-4-inch French phenom seems poised to take the league by storm, and the Spurs by extension. While their are other talented players such as Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell surrounding Wembanyama, it seems San Antonio is at least one or two more years from truly competing with their current core. Until then, the prerogative is giving Wembanyama the experience and teammates to maximize his gifts, something coach Greg Popovich has experience accomplishing with his last No.1 overall pick, Tim Duncan.
Player to Watch: Jeremy Sochan. The second-year forward was most widely recognized for his colorful hairstyles that were reminiscent of Dennis Rodman’s once-famous cuts, but he also showed significant promise on the court. Popovich has experimented with making him the lead ball-handler for the offense in the preseason, and he drew acclaim from his teammates in that role. Though his jumpshot is far from reliable, his passing and driving make him a potent point forward, and the Spurs hope to see him evolve into a reliable playmaker with the ball in his hands moving forward.
Golden State Warriors
Realistic Outlook: The core three that has become synonymous with the team has managed to stay together for at least one more season, with Draymond Green signing a four-year, $100 million deal to stay with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. However, after extension talks with Thompson stalled, it’s fair to wonder if this may at last be their final ride together. In what may be the last quest for a championship of the iconic trio, the supporting cast has once again changed, swapping the streaky shooting of Jordan Poole for the steady hand of Chris Paul, who, while diminished physically with age, is still a master of the psychology of the game. Will that be enough to add a fifth championship to the legacy of an already-incomparable dynasty?
Player to Watch: Dario Saric. The 6-foot-10-inch forward is a perfect fit for the Warriors’ free-flowing offense. His passing and shooting ability will slide seamlessly into the rhythm that Steve Kerr has developed around his stars over the past nine years. It is not a stretch to believe Saric could become the center that Kerr chooses to close with because of how well his offensive game fits, despite his deficiencies on the defensive end.
Los Angeles Clippers
Realistic Outlook: Another year, another set of do-or-die expectations for the current iteration of the Clippers. This is the fifth and potentially final year of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in Clipper uniforms, and they have a single conference finals appearance to show for it. Injuries have plagued them, but that fact has become accepted as a feature rather than a bug. The question now is whether or not they can work with those injuries during the regular season so that they are able to go into the postseason healthy. History is not on their side, especially with Leonard and George’s past with serious injuries, but all it takes is a stroke of good luck in the playoffs for them to be one of the most dangerous contenders for a title.
Player to Watch: Russell Westbrook. While Leonard and George are almost guaranteed to miss time during the regular season, Westbrook has been the benefactor of remarkably clean health throughout his career. Once Leonard and/or George miss decent chunks of games at a time, Westbrook will be looked at as one of the main pieces to carry the load until they are able to return.
Los Angeles Lakers
Realistic Outlook: LeBron James is now officially the oldest player in the NBA, and yet somehow is still producing at a remarkable rate. He has become injury prone, but the fact that he is still capable of carrying his team to the postseason and beyond is something the Lakers should be thanking their lucky stars for. However, it is clear that their time is running short. Anthony Davis turned in his most dominant and complete season since the Lakers won the 2020 championship in the NBA Bubble last year, but injury concerns still riddle his reputation. Can he and James stay healthy enough to capture a second title together with a revamped supporting cast?
Player to Watch: Rui Hachimura. Hachimura broke out in last year’s postseason, scoring over 12 points per game while shooting nearly 50% from three. Although the three point percentage is bound to drop in the regular season, the Lakers desperately need him to maintain his scoring at an efficient clip. If he is able to keep that proficiency, the hopes of banner number 19 for the Lakers could be rewarded.
Realistic Outlook: The roster is unrecognizable from the beginning of last year, with Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges and DeAndre Ayton being replaced by Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant and Jusuf Nurkic, along with a nearly complete overhaul of the bench. The constant: Devin Booker, who now is part of likely the most dangerous big three in basketball with Durant and Beal. Add in Frank Vogel, who brings an esteemed defensive system and a championship pedigree along with him, and the new-look Suns appear to be one of Denver’s biggest threats in the West. Phoenix’s biggest question will be their big three’s health, as the trio has all dealt with their fair share of serious injuries that kept them out for extended periods of time.
Player to Watch: Jordan Goodwin. Included in the trade that sent Bradley Beal to Phoenix from Washington, Goodwin was an under-the-radar defensive menace in Washington last season. Now playing in Vogel’s heralded ball-stopping system on a competitive team, Goodwin’s versatility and length could earn him a good amount of minutes in the rotation as Vogel attempts to find the best combination around the main three players.
Realistic Outlook: The curse has finally been broken, and all it took was Lighting the Beam. After a long 16-year playoff drought, DeAaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis finally delivered in a huge way, leading the Kings to the third best record in the Western Conference and providing an entertaining seven game series against the then reigning-champion Warriors. In doing so, they also captured the record for the best offensive efficiency in league history. With Malik Monk coming off the bench as a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate and second-year forward Keegan Murray seeming poised for a sophomore leap, there is hope in Sacramento for the first time in over a decade and a half.
Player to Watch: Sasha Vesenkov. The forward from Bulgaria won the EuroLeague MVP last year, and has been one of the best players in Europe for quite some time. He is a flamethrower from deep, and adds another potential sharpshooter for Fox to pass to off drives and Sabonis to hand off to for off-the-dribble long-balls.