Midnight struck on the Boston Celtics’ season in the late evening hours of June 16, when the Golden State Warriors began to celebrate on the TD Garden floor after riding Stephen Curry’s individual brilliance and some suffocating defense to another title.
In many ways, it was hard to be surprised by the Warriors’ fourth championship and sixth trip to the NBA Finals in the last eight years. This was, after all, a team that’s had the greatest shooter of all time since the early days of the Obama administration and for three years employed the most talented living embodiment of Ron Swanson’s reaction to being offered vegan bacon.
But once Kevin Durant left the Bay Area to partner with Alex Jones’ last remaining ally, the Warriors had to build things back up. After winning at least 57 games during each season amid its five consecutive trips to the Finals, Golden State bottomed out with a league-worst 15-50 record in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.
Durant was gone, the Splash Brothers were hurt and suddenly Eric Paschall was the go-to scorer for a franchise that found itself chasing a very different sort of holy grail: the No. 1 pick in the draft.
The Warriors wound up picking second, missing out on one potential franchise player in Anthony Edwards and passing on another in LaMelo Ball.
Golden State’s riches to rags and back again journey is a recent NBA exception, but it managed to spend time on both ends of the spectrum without settling into the one place that nearly every organization (finally) knows is untenable: the middle class.
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’ll say it anyway. Nobody here should go to Vegas with the thought of betting on us to win the championship. And I know somebody will say, ‘Gosh, what a Debbie downer. There’s a chance. What if they work really hard?’ It’s probably not going to happen.”Spurs coach Gregg Popovich during his opening press conference on media day in September.
Popovich will most likely retire at the end of a season in which San Antonio has the lowest over/under win total (22.5 at DraftKings as of Monday) in the league. If things go as Vegas thinks they will, it could be a chance for one of the greatest coaches of all time to go out the way he came in – leading one of the worst teams in the NBA.
Popovich took over early in the 1996-97 season after David Robinson suffered a season-ending injury, and it turned out he got in on the ground floor of what would become one of the league’s longest stretches of sustained greatness. The Spurs went 20-62, landed Tim Duncan despite the Celtics having the best odds to do so heading into the lottery, and have won nearly 200 more games than the second-best franchise in the league – along with five championships – ever since.
Duncan was considered one of the surest things at the top of the draft in decades, and there’s another (very) big man already projected to go No. 1 next June: 7-foot-4 phenom Victor Wembanyama, who has GMs booking Air France flights to spend as much time as possible in a 4,000-seat Parisian gym over the next six months.
It’s not just Wembanyama who has teams salivating at the prospect of being at the top of the lottery. G League Ignite’s Scoot Henderson would be the favorite to go No. 1 overall in most other drafts – “If I was never born, I think he would deserve the first spot” is an actual quote that came out of Wembanyama’s mouth when the two squared off in a pair of exhibition games near Las Vegas earlier this month. Twins Amen and Ausar Thompson of Overtime Elite are both 6-foot-8 with explosive athleticism. Arkansas guard Nick Smith Jr. is a five-star recruit and special scorer. The flattened lottery odds only give you a 14% chance at Wembanyama even if you finish with the worst record, but you can’t drop below fifth in what could be one of the more talented lotteries we’ve seen in years.
Perusing over/under win totals heading into the 2022-23 season offers up a pretty disparate picture of where the league is competitively. At the top, it’s as impressive as it’s been in quite some time. Seventeen teams are tightly packed between 44.5 wins (New Orleans) and 53.5 (Boston).
You aren’t going to find outlandish win total projections this season – the Warriors’ over/under was 66.5 in 2016-17 (they eclipsed that one) and 67.5 the next season – as teams place even greater emphasis on rest and health.
There also isn’t a slam-dunk title favorite like the days of those Golden State teams. The Warriors were -125 to win the title heading into Durant’s first season in Oakland, and only the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio were better than +3000 to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
This season, there are 12 teams between Boston’s +600 and Memphis at +2200.
Let’s flip it the other way.
Implementing the full play-in tournament in 2020-21 (the league experimented with an 8 vs. 9 seed format in the 2020 bubble) was done to add late-season intrigue (read: additional revenue) and to keep teams from tanking down the stretch. Perhaps it’s worked – the truly awful 33-49 Los Angeles Lakers played meaningful games until last season’s final days (they also didn’t have their own pick and, thus, no incentive to tank).
Teams may accidentally find themselves in contention for the play-in come March, but almost no one is heading into opening night telling their fans they think they can be the ninth-best team in the conference if things shake out right.
So that’s 17 teams that plan on being in the playoffs (sorry, at least one of you), six who are in the tank for Victor and seven who are potentially hanging in NBA limbo.
Three of them consider themselves playoff contenders. The Chicago Bulls had the East’s best record as of late February before injuries caught up with them, and now we know that Lonzo Ball’s left knee was actually a donation from an 87-year-old carpenter. The New York Knicks successfully
tampered with signed Jalen Brunson to a four-year, $104 million deal and Tom Thibodeau will play him for all but seven minutes to ensure they get their money’s worth. Damian Lillard recommitted to the Portland Trail Blazers because the kids are still in school and they’re trying to make it work.
That leaves us with four teams, though one’s direction is clearly defined. The Detroit Pistons’ backcourt of Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey should be a highlight factory for the next decade. Going over their projected 29.5-win total would represent a seven-win improvement from last season, a solid first step for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game (0-12 in three sweeps!) since the 2008 Eastern Conference finals.
You know who laughs at a dry spell like that? The Sacramento Kings, who haven’t even been in the playoffs since the days of Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic and Metta World Peace in 2006 – the longest drought in NBA history. The Kings’ win total is set at 34.5, a number they’ve eclipsed once in the past 14 seasons, but with a core of De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis and rookie Keegan Murray, there’s rare optimism in Cow Town.
So there you have it. Seventeen surefire playoff or play-in hopefuls. Six who will spend the next seven months identifying the right front office member, former player, or toilet-paper hoarding fictional character to sit on the draft lottery dais. Three who think they can contend. Two whose ineptitude can’t last THAT much longer.
And two who have zero identity or path forward.
That’s right, we’re looking at you, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets. The Wizards have actually been to the playoffs in four of the past seven seasons and have one of the 20 or 25 best players in the league – albeit one who now costs $251 million and has a no-trade clause for some reason. Beyond Bradley Beal there’s…Kristaps Porzingis? Kyle Kuzma? This isn’t a dreadful roster, but it’s not one that has a prayer of contending in an Eastern Conference that runs 10-11 teams deep at the top.
And, oh, the Hornets. After going from 23 wins in 2020-21 to 33 the next and 43 last season, the arrow was pointing way up in the Queen City. Six months later Webster’s had to rewrite the entry for “tumultuous” to include a blow-by-blow of Charlotte’s offseason.
Coach James Borrego, who led that turnaround? Fired! Kenny Atkinson, Warriors assistant and former Brooklyn Nets coach? Hired. Until he decided he’d rather stay in the Bay for a chance at another ring. Steve Clifford? One-time Hornets coach who spent three unsuccessful seasons in Orlando? Welcome home!
Most improved player candidate Miles Bridges was arrested on a felony domestic violence warrant. Charlotte turned the No. 13 and 15 picks in a deep draft into only Duke center Mark Williams. Gordon Hayward went to a blind barber. LaMelo hurt his ankle. James Bouknight was found unconscious in a parking deck and was arrested for DWI. Baker Mayfield played football.
The Hornets’ win total has plummeted from 38.5 in late September to 33.5, which still seems laughably high. Even if Ball’s ankle is OK, it’s hard to see this team hanging around the fringes of playoff contention. They have a road-heavy schedule until Christmas and things don’t really ease up until after the All-Star break. If this team’s heading into January looking at something like 9-28, well…let the tank begin.
That’s the NBA right now. The big trophy at the end isn’t the only prize worth playing for. The sooner you identify what you’re seeking, the better off you’ll be. There’s only one rule.
Don’t get stuck in the middle.