Biggest questions for the remainder of the 2022-23 NBA Season
After whatever the heck that NBA All-Star weekend was, the league returns Thursday for the final 20-25 games! Let’s ask — and subsequently answer — the biggest questions I have for the remainder of the season! Let’s jump into it!
Question No. 1: Do the Sacramento Kings have enough to contend?
Light the beam!
I guess it’s fair that the first place we jump into is the wild Western Conference, which turned into a powerhouse overnight with the Kyrie Irving to Kevin Durant transactions to only bolster the talent discrepancy from West-East. Plenty of West teams are contenders, namely the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns with even some holding stock in the Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and the Kawhi Leonard-led Los Angeles Clippers.
But what about the Kings?
Sacramento was fairly quiet at the deadline, adding Kessler Edwards from the Brooklyn Nets for cash considerations in their only acquisition. They quietly remain the No. 3 seed in the West with only a 4.5-game difference between them and the Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. Sacramento’s beam has been lit for most of the season, but there’s going to be no easy out in the West. It might possess the NBA’s second-best offense, but its in the bottom-third of the NBA defensively, which will only hold them back in a seven-game series.
The standings will rearrange over this final stretch, but the Kings would currently be looking at the Mavericks — who are tied with Sacramento (T-22) in defense — in the first-round of a playoff series. While 260 combined points might be scored by both teams every game, the winner would likely face Memphis in the second-round followed by Denver/Phoenix/Clippers in the West Finals.
That’s a steep hill for any team — let alone the 22nd-ranked defense — to climb, no matter how potent an offense a team has.
Regardless, the Kings have had a remarkably successful season relative to how their last two decades have fared. And anything that happens in the postseason is fair game, but I’m curious to see how they eventually matchup against the West’s best from mid-April onward. I’m uncertain of their standing as “contenders,” but I’ve seen crazier things happen before. If any team deserves a surprise playoff push, it’s the Sacramento Kings.
Question No. 2: Can Phoenix and Denver’s stars remain (mostly) healthy?
The biggest risk with the Kevin Durant trade to Phoenix revolved around the collective health of its newfangled triumvirate.
Chris Paul has suffered multiple lower-body injuries late in the season throughout his career; Durant is 34, has dealt with multiple knee injuries this season and is years removed from tearing his Achilles; Devin Booker, for the most part, has been healthy in the postseason, but has dealt with a bad groin — causing him to miss 27 games this season.
On the surface, when they’re fully healthy, the Suns are practically impossible to guard. They don’t have many who can pressure the rim, but they have three of the league’s top mid-range masters with perhaps the most collective ball handling and playmaking that the league has ever seen. Oh, and did you forget that Deandre Ayton — a double-double machine who’s currently averaging 19 & 10 — exists, too?
Denver, the top team in the West, has also dealt with its fair share of injuries outside of Nikola Jokic; Michael Porter Jr. has suffered back injury after back injury and Jamal Murray‘s missed the last two postseasons after tearing his ACL. The Nuggets were swept by Phoenix in the West Semis two seasons ago and were bounced in five by Golden State last year; if they were healthy, who knows how they would’ve done. Jokic was very good in those two series, but it ultimately didn’t amount to anything.
Every team is usually banged up in some sort of fashion at this time of year. Injury luck in any prolonged postseason run isn’t an uncommon occurrence, contrary to popular belief. Both organizations are prime candidates to make it out of the Wild Wild West. It’s just a matter if all of their stars can remain somewhat healthy.
Question No. 3: Who has the edge to make it out of the East? Boston or Milwaukee?
There is just a half-game that separates the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference.
Milwaukee’s season has been mired by the injury bug, especially to Khris Middleton, who’s only played 17 games. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s playing at an MVP-level (again), and Jrue Holiday have also missed time with respective injuries, as have Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis, who have been crucial to their past success.
The Celtics have dealt with injuries — not to the same extent — with Robert Williams III missing 36 games, the reigning defensive player of the year Marcus Smart missing 19, Al Horford missing 14 games and Jaylen Brown missing 10.
It hasn’t seemed to matter that much; Boston has their eight-man rotation figured out to a T and they’re the only NBA team who are top-5 in both offense and defense. Boston’s second in 3-point makes per 100 possessions, in the top-5 in true-shooting percentage and the seventh in 3-point efficiency. Milwaukee’s offense has struggled when Middleton’s been absent, but they still have the No. 6-best NET Rating with the second-best defense.
I’m giving the slight edge to Boston; it’s not very easy to bet against Antetokounmpo, who went toe-to-toe without Middleton against Boston in seven games last season. Antetokounmpo will miss some time post-All-Star break with a wrist injury, so I’m not expecting the Bucks to overtake the C’s in the standings by the end of the regular season, which could prove large if they meet again in the postseason.
Question No. 4: Are we sure there’s not a third team in the East?
Even though their stars have dealt with injuries and underperformance in playoff situations, I’m not counting out the Philadelphia 76ers … yet. Since the start of December, the Sixers have *checks notes* the NBA’s best-record at 26-9!
Over that span, they’re No. 2 in offense and No. 12 in defense with the fourth-best NET Rating. The playoff flameouts of head coach Doc Rivers, James Harden and Joel Embiid — who’s playing at an MVP level — have been rightfully documented. And the pair of teams above them hold greater weight, so they’re clearly not my favorite, but I see the vision if they can *finally* put the pieces together.
I’m also keeping a firm eye on the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have a historically productive playoff scorer in Donovan Mitchell with currently the NBA’s best defense. Their length and connectivity could easily give Boston, Milwaukee or Philadelphia trouble in a seven-game series, even if their core doesn’t have much playoff experience outside of Mitchell.
Question No. 5: What about the West?
If you haven’t heard, the West is wide open.
I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the top-6 make the West Finals, though I’d lean towards Denver, Phoenix and Memphis as my top-3.
Denver and Phoenix would currently be slotted to meet in the second-round, making Denver’s path to the Finals even that much tougher. I don’t think it’s going to end up that way, but that’s how the playoff picture currently shakes up.
The Clippers are 19-9 in games when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George play with a 10.5 NET Rating when they’re both on the court together, per PBP Stats. The Grizzlies’ preferred starting lineup of Ja Morant–Desmond Bane–Dillon Brooks–Jaren Jackson Jr.-Steven Adams have only played 11 games together (128 minutes), but have been a very formidable unit when they’re on the floor. The Kings have been a very fun feel-good story with two deserving All-Stars in De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. We know what type of firepower Phoenix and Dallas have.
This door is as open as open can get. I’d lean towards Denver or Phoenix, but that’s going to be a steep, snowy, rocky mountain for anyone to climb.
Question No. 6: Can LeBron James lead the Lakers to a play-in spot, at the very least?
Over the All-Star break, James commented that these final 23 games are “23 of the most important games of my career,” in regards to the regular season.
The Lakers are two games back of the play-in with the NBA’s sixth-easiest schedule the rest of the way — per Tankathon — and a better roster than it was pre-trade deadline. There’s a window to at least grab a No. 10 seed, but LA will need both James and Anthony Davis fully healthy — which could be a lot to ask — considering 14 of their final 23 games are against West teams No. 3 thru 11 in the standings.
James and the Lakers need to play with their hair on fire in order to earn it.
Question No. 7: Who will be the most impactful trade deadline acquisition who isn’t Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving?
O.K., what’s the pick here: Cash considerations or second-round picks? I’m having a hard time deciding! Could we get a poll started?
Jokes aside, my immediate gut instinct: Josh Hart.
We’ve seen glimpses of what Hart’s capable of already with his 27-point performance against the Nets; if Tom Thibodeau will allow Hart to let it fly, the ceiling for what he can produce might not be reachable (only slightly kidding).
Hart is the perfect Thibs player and he fits seamlessly into that squad as a sixth- or seventh-man who can rebound, screen and defend. He’s also a player that Thibs can close with, though that becomes tricky with Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, R.J. Barrett and Jalen Brunson all vying for those closing minutes.
It’s a good problem to have, but I love the Hart acquisition as the New York Knicks are competing with the Miami Heat for the No. 6 seed. Other candidates to make an impact could be Mikal Bridges (Nets) — involved in the Durant trade — Jakob Poeltl (Raptors), Thomas Bryant (Nuggets), Jarred Vanderbilt (Lakers) or Jae Crowder (Bucks), among others.
Question No. 8: Which team that doesn’t currently have homecourt pose a threat?
Phoenix is the easy answer here, right? Right?!?
It’s fair to assume they’ll climb their way up the standings, so let’s pose some other teams.
The easiest answers are the Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Miami because of their previous playoff pedigrees. The Mavericks have Irving and Doncic — that helps. Miami has a bottom-five offense with the NBA’s third-worst 3-point percentage, but have at least a puncher’s chance in any playoff series with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
The Warriors, the reigning champs, currently in a play-in spot, have struggled away from home and aren’t healthy — and won’t have Stephen Curry back for at least another week as he recovers from a left leg injury.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Knicks — No. 7 in offense, No. 15 in defense — gives teams a push. The Pelicans have looked to have gotten back on track with Brandon Ingram back in the mix, even though there’s a cloud of concern surrounding Zion Williamson‘s health.
Final verdict, that isn’t Phoenix: Dallas.
Question No. 9: Who wins the MVP?
Give me Jokic or give me death.
But seriously, he’s spearheading the top team in the West, averaging 25-12-10 on 63.1/39.1/82.2 shooting (70.3 TS%!!!) splits, and whenever he’s not on the floor, the Nuggets crater. But the arguments for Antetokounmpo and Doncic are incredibly valid, too.
Question No. 10: Last, but not least — who wins the NBA Finals?
Celtics over Suns in 7.
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