2023 NBA Predictions for Finals, Trade Demands, Wembanyama, and More
With 2022 in the books and 2023 underway, here are 13 NBA predictions about what will happen in the new year. From award projections to superstar trade demands that may be on the horizon, so many possibilities are on the table in a league that’s never felt less, well, predictable.
1. The Brooklyn Nets will get revenge against the Milwaukee Bucks.
We should never stop talking about how the Bucks outlasted the Nets in the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals. It was special to watch, yes. Kevin Durant elevated to a different plane of basketball existence in games 5, 6, and 7. But the series also generated several ripple effects that are felt to this day across the league. A different result from that instant classic would have led to a very different NBA.
The Nets were a looming dynasty coming off a first-round dismantling of the Celtics. They had the most efficient offense in the league’s history and boasted three scorers who couldn’t be stopped without a double (or triple) team. But they lost to the Bucks by a centimeter, and injuries, a pandemic, and Kyrie Irving’s self-destructive impulses derailed what that specific iteration of the Nets could have accomplished.
Now, James Harden is in Philly, Ben Simmons is in Brooklyn, and the supporting cast around Durant is far more competent than any he’s had since leaving Golden State. If the season ended today, the Nets and Bucks would be on a collision course to meet in Round 2 again. Two years removed from that initial showdown against Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday, a sequel may have even bigger consequences for the loser.
There’s still a lot of basketball to be played, but as of today the Nets are the superior team in almost every way. Since Jacque Vaughn became the head coach on November 1, the Nets are top five in both offensive and net rating while also owning a top-10 defense.
What would happen to the Bucks if the Nets were to beat them? Middleton will turn 32 in August and Brook Lopez is a few months away from 35. Both can become unrestricted free agents this summer. Would the Bucks really give Middleton over $200 million? How would all this affect Giannis, who already owns the eighth highest usage rate since 1968 while sporting his lowest true shooting percentage since his first All-Star season?
The Bucks have about $80 million committed to Antetokounmpo and Holiday alone next season. They’re the oldest team in the league, have very few attractive trade assets, and little reason to believe internal improvement is an option. (The Pelicans own Milwaukee’s first-round picks in 2025 and 2027, with pick swaps in 2024 and 2026. Yikes.) Even if they bring Middleton and Lopez back, all they’ve done is lock in a very expensive team that’s suddenly unable to get out of the second round. How will Giannis feel about that?
2. The Nets will re-sign Kyrie Irving on a two-year deal.
A couple of months ago it looked like Irving’s career was over. Since his return from an eight-game suspension, Irving has averaged 25.9 points per game with 50/40/90 shot splits. Not bad. He could average 35 points on 70/50/100 splits and Brooklyn would still be wise to avoid a long-term commitment. But without any way to replace his production—and so long as they’re winning games and not a total disgrace to the NBA—the Nets are better with Irving than without.
3. Either the Utah Jazz or New Orleans Pelicans will win the lottery (with another team’s pick).
There’s not much to say here because the lottery is, by nature, unpredictable. But with the Timberwolves and Lakers struggling through seasons that have no light at the ends of their tunnels, the Jazz and Pelicans are sun-kissed at the exact right time.
If Victor Wembanyama ends up in Utah, the Rudy Gobert trade will go down as the worst deal in recent history. (Also, in the event this happens, please give us at least 10 minutes of Wemby sharing the court with Kelly Olynyk, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Walker Kessler.) If New Orleans gets him, all bets are off. Wemby and Zion will be a full-blown catastrophe for the 29 other franchises.
4. Nikola Jokic will win his third straight MVP.
Jokic’s campaign for a third straight MVP isn’t just alive and well, it’s thriving. In December he averaged 29.2 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 10.1 assists per game on 67 percent true shooting. His team has one of the best records in the league even though its second- and third-best players are in and out of the lineup.
Dominance is key. Winning is awesome. Jokic checks off both of those boxes. He’s highly efficient in the face of any defensive coverage (he’s first in true shooting percentage among players averaging 30 minutes per game), he can score behind the arc and from the midrange, and he has an aesthetically breathtaking post game that no one has yet to figure out. (Last month I wrote a story about how Domantas Sabonis was more efficient on post-ups than pretty much any player in Second Spectrum’s entire database. When I asked Sabonis’s teammate Malik Monk if anyone was better he immediately said, “The Joker.”)
If there’s any criticism to make of Jokic’s approach on offense it’s that he’s, on occasion, too reluctant to shoot. (His field goal attempts per 100 possessions haven’t been this low since 2019.) But it’s doubtful any of his teammates would even agree with that. Jokic ranks sixth in assist rate this season (at a career-high number) and some of his best passes don’t even show up on a box score.
Aaron Gordon looks like a borderline All-Star largely because he’s always on the court with the most selfless superstar of his generation. Jokic has assisted 62 of Gordon’s baskets at the rim, which leads the league for any two teammates this season. Bruce Brown’s effective field goal percentage is 73.8 when he shares the court with Jokic and 32.6 when he doesn’t.
For some, his spotty defense is large enough a blemish to go in another direction. Giannis, Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, or last year’s MVP runner-up Joel Embiid all have a tangibly positive effect on that side of the floor. So the criticism is fair. The easy rebuttal is that Jokic is not a bad defender, just one who’s forced to make some concessions (and who doesn’t care that kick balls are illegal).
Overall, the Nuggets allow only 1.08 points per possession when he’s the screener’s defender guarding a pick-and-roll. That’s the same as Brook Lopez. When Jokic is up to touch—which is how Michael Malone prefers to use him—opponents generate only 0.91 points on direct possessions. That’s stout. He’s also beloved by catch-all defensive metrics and Denver has a top-10 defense when Jokic is on the court. So he’s not Bam Adebayo and will never win Defensive Player of the Year. But he’s no sieve, either.
And when your offense is as overwhelming as Jokic’s is, sometimes individual defense just doesn’t matter as much. Overall value does. When he won the MVP two years ago, his net point differential was plus-6.4. Right now it’s plus-23.6.
There’s always a chance that voters will decide they don’t want to give Jokic three straight trophies because it would distort history or put someone who’s never even made the Finals in rare air. Maybe Steph Curry comes back and rips the Western Conference to shreds. Or Embiid averages 45 points per game. Or Luka Doncic somehow manages to top his 60-point triple-double. Or Tatum cements himself as the sport’s least flawed individual on its most dominant team.
But here’s a bet that Jokic’s case will outshine them all. Again.
5. The Boston Celtics will soon have the NBA’s best offense and defense with Rob Williams III.
When you have an elite starting five, it’s a good idea to play that card as often as possible. Since Rob Williams III made his season debut a couple of weeks ago, only 6 percent of his minutes have been shared with Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford, a quintet that was an NBA-best plus-218 last season.
The Celtics don’t need Rob Williams in the middle to be the best team in the NBA. But he stretches their margin for error in more ways than one, as the fierce rim protector, second-chance creator, and game-changing acrobat who allows Boston to puff its chest out further than it otherwise can.
He’s still a step slow defending from the weak side, but that timing will come. And when it does, there may not be any game plan to slow this Celtics team down. Right now they’re first in offensive rating and seventh in defensive rating. They’ll eventually be at the top in both categories.
6. Danny Green will win a playoff game for the Memphis Grizzlies.
While it’s just as likely that we see the Grizzlies combine Green’s expiring contract with a draft pick to pursue a meaningful upgrade, Memphis is good enough to win the title with what they have…especially if they’re about to add a three-time champion who can still hit threes and stay in front of his man. It feels like a long time ago, but Green actually played pretty well in last year’s postseason. He shot 40.8 percent behind the arc and drilled 10 from deep in Games 3 and 4 against the Heat. Even if he can’t move too well, the Grizzlies (and Ja Morant) will appreciate having that type of gravity on their side in a playoff series.
7. Joel Embiid will demand a trade in July.
After a playoff flameout in Round 1, the Sixers will be in shambles. Harden will sign with the Rockets, and Embiid will ask out. But, just as Brooklyn managed with Durant, Philadelphia won’t deal their perennial MVP candidate and the chaos will eventually blow over, with Embiid remaining on the only team he’s ever played for. (Bonus prediction: Embiid will not be an All-Star starter.)
8. The Indiana Pacers will be buyers this summer.
Indiana is one of this season’s most pleasant surprises, going from an obvious tank candidate to a respectable young team whose budding star point guard has transformed the club’s trajectory. As of today, they have max cap space to spend this summer and it’s unclear why they shouldn’t make a run at someone like Middleton, Jerami Grant, or Cam Johnson. Maybe they absorb talent into their cap space via trade. None of it would accelerate their timeline in a way that threatens the future. This is gravy time thanks to Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin.
They probably won’t win the lottery and land Wemby, but they should try their luck overpaying for talent in free agency, something they’ve historically been reluctant to do. Now is a sensible time to spend.
9. Whoever coughs up a first-round pick for Alex Caruso will not regret it.
Here’s a role player every contender should be tripping over themselves to acquire before the trade deadline. In a season with no prohibitive title favorite and nearly a third of the league believing they’re good enough to win it all, Caruso would be a savvy addition for literally every playoff team.
Any time you can add an intuitive, tenacious, all-around defender who always knows where he and his teammates are supposed to be, ranks second in defensive estimated plus/minus, possesses championship experience, hits nearly 40 percent of his spot-up threes, is a deflection machine, and on an absolute steal of a contract (that was too rich for the Lakers’ blood), you should probably do it.
The Nuggets already have Bruce Brown, but they also can’t surround Jokic with too many defensive-minded guards. The Mavs would love having him (Jason Kidd coached Caruso in Los Angeles) and he fits on both ends next to Luka Doncic (just as he did with LeBron a few years ago).
I know I just said Green would win a playoff game for Memphis, but his contract plus a lightly protected future first-round pick for Caruso is the exact type of move the Grizzlies should make—both as a way to boost their immediate championship odds and a way to give themselves some insurance in case Dillon Brooks’s asking price as an unrestricted free agent soars out of their price range this summer.
Elsewhere, go on down the line. Warriors? Yes. Celtics? Their rotation is set, but if they want to get off Danilo Gallinari’s contract, sure. Pelicans? Of course. Nets, Cavs, Sixers, or Heat? You betcha. Suns? Absolutely positively. Any other team I haven’t mentioned? I don’t see why not.
10. Kawhi Leonard will win his third Finals MVP.
If you don’t think Kawhi Leonard looks exactly like the best player from the 2021 playoffs (which he was), that’s fair. He’s still working himself back to form in several ways, be it the frequency at which he drives to the basket or how often he’s asked to initiate a pick-and-roll (12 fewer per 100 possessions compared to what he did in his first season with the Clippers, per Second Spectrum).
But if you don’t think he’s moving well or able to completely take over a game in his current physical state, you’re wrong. Opposing head coaches know a hungry carnivore when they see one. In recent games against the Celtics and Raptors, neither defense was particularly keen on testing Leonard’s scoring ability. Here he is isolated on the wing against OG Anunoby, a rugged wing who will make an All-Defensive team, when Pascal Siakam decides to abandon Marcus Morris for a double-team:
It’s a wild decision but also understandable. Leonard is shooting over 50 percent from the mid-range and on pull-up twos. Soon enough, stuff like this will be a semi-regular occurrence against teams that think playing Kawhi straight up is something they can get away with:
With the Western Conference wide open, Leonard rounding into form, Paul George’s All-Star poise, a title-winning coach, and a roster built for the playoffs, it’s natural to feel optimistic about the Clippers making their deepest playoff run in franchise history. If that happens, please don’t bet against Kawhi. He’s focused, unfazed, and starting to treat every possession with the air of a man who’s not willing to negotiate. The T-1000 is coming.
11. The Wizards will continue their “middle-build” strategy.
This isn’t strictly a prediction for 2023 so much as one that’s relevant until hell freezes over. The Wizards are an abomination and the phrase “middle build” belongs in a barf bag.
12. Jimmy Butler will win the inaugural Clutch Player of the Year Award.
While all the attention right now is on Tyler Herro, who most recently took down the Jazz with a buzzer-beater on New Year’s Eve, it’s Butler who better resembles Mr. Clutch this season. In the last two minutes of games where the scoring margin is within five points, Butler is shooting 64.3 percent, with more makes and attempts than anybody else.
13. The Minnesota Timberwolves will trade Karl-Anthony Towns.
Towns is coming off an All-NBA season and unfairly condemned playoff performance. His decision-making wasn’t great, from preventable offensive fouls to telegraphed passes out of double teams. But on a lower-seeded team, his mere presence forced the Grizzlies to cycle through different lineup combinations and rendered Steven Adams (a major part of Memphis’s identity) unplayable.
Towns’s ability to dominate single coverage on the block and confound opponents behind the arc pushed him front and center on Memphis’s scouting report. Down 2-1, his 33-point, 14-rebound Game 4 was an absolute monster.
There are plenty of people around the NBA who disagree with such a bright assessment. They instead believe the Wolves should’ve shopped him after the playoffs and not offered a supermax extension. I’m not in that camp. Towns is only 27 years old and can do things at his position nobody ever has before. But I also would not have disrupted my chemistry, upset Anthony Edwards, and set my future on fire by trading for Gobert.
So when I say Minnesota should trade Towns, it’s not an indictment of his skill or impact on winning. What it is, instead, is an act of desperation that’s born out of a cataclysmic deal that never should’ve been made.
Having just signed an extension, Towns can’t be traded until the summer. But if the Wolves either fail to qualify for the play-in or lose before the second round, expect deafening chatter around Towns’s future. There’s always a chance Minnesota turns things around by tightening up its three-point defense and finding a better way to space the floor around its three stars, but I’m not counting on it.
Towns’s calf strain has kept him out for more than a month. Before he went down though, the Wolves had, for the first time in KAT’s career, a relatively pedestrian offense with him on the court. Lineups featuring Gobert, Towns, and Edwards straight up could not score. Here are a few potential trade partners should Minnesota decide to move on:
- The Knicks need/want a superstar. Towns is exactly that (on one side of the ball). The issue here is how much they would be willing to surrender, and whether it’s the best offer Minnesota can get. RJ Barrett isn’t the blue-chip asset he would’ve been before he signed a $120 million extension, but the Knicks can also replenish Minnesota’s bare cupboard of draft picks by forking over several of their own.
- A challenge trade with the Hawks that would swap KAT and Trae Young is one popular hypothetical. But what about KAT for John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, AJ Griffin, and a lightly protected first-round pick in 2029? It would be expensive for Atlanta, but as a team at a crossroads, what choice does it have? Trae, Dejounte Murray, and Towns is a complementary trio worth investment, particularly if Onyeka Okongwu and Clint Capela remain in the picture. For the Wolves, here are three good-to-very-good players who make sense around Edwards and Gobert, with room for internal growth.
- What if the Magic want to get frisky and offer Jonathan Isaac, Jalen Suggs, a player selected in this year’s lottery, their own unprotected first-round pick in 2024, 2026, and 2028, plus Denver’s top-five protected first in 2025. Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner, and KAT is … formidable.
- The Suns! More on them below.
14. The Suns will make a King-sized splash.
The Suns have a new owner who in all likelihood will want to do everything in his power to keep the team’s current championship window open as long as possible. Armed with all their own draft picks, a superstar in his prime, and several principal characters who’ve won 71 percent of their games since 2020 and are under contract for the next couple seasons, Phoenix is already pretty good. But stasis would also be their worst enemy. Big things could be on the horizon.
If a star becomes available, some combination of Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Johnson (in a sign-and-trade) and those picks would be an attractive package for any team that isn’t looking to bottom out. Think about Towns. What if the Suns offer Bridges, Landry Shamet, and as many unprotected picks and swaps as the CBA allows? Minnesota may be able to find a better offer, but that one is damn good.
How about the Heat and Jimmy Butler? Or the Raptors and Siakam? Or (slow drumroll) what about the Lakers and LeBron James? The last one is a face-melter that’s not outside the realm of possibility. With his family rooted in Los Angeles, flights to and from Phoenix are only an hour. James Jones is a teammate he won three championships with. LeBron would finally get to play with Chris Paul, a long-time close friend, and Devin Booker, a pure scorer whose on and off-ball fit makes plenty of sense.
Would pushing multiple future assets all in on a 38-year-old be the wisest decision? Probably not. How badly would their defensive identity take a hit without Bridges and/or Ayton? Quite a bit. If they’re somehow able to keep Bridges, these Suns might even be the favorite, especially if they’re able to bring in a big like Nikola Vucevic, Brook Lopez, or Jakob Poeltl at the mid-level. LeBron is more likely to stay in L.A. than not, but if he asks out this summer the Suns are a convenient place for him to end his career without losing face.
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