The consequential portion (sorry, preseason) of the 2022-23 NBA season begins tonight.

To commemorate this occasion, we fancied it time to preview some of the most fascinating overarching themes and questions heading into this brand-new year of basketball. 

1. A Sleeping Giant in Minnesota?

The Minnesota Timberwolves were at the forefront of one of the biggest trades of this offseason, sending four players, four first-round picks, and one pick swap to the Utah Jazz in exchange for Rudy Gobert.

So far, much has been made about the perceived defensive limitations of Gobert and his new big-man running mate, Karl Anthony-Towns. However, the naysayers are not giving enough credit to Gobert (a three-time Defensive Player of the Year) and his new coach, Chris Finch.

Last season, Finch’s creative defensive scheme (one predicated on communication and aggressive ball-screen tactics) led a suboptimal defensive roster to an above-average finish (13th in the league) in our adjusted defensive rating metric.

And Gobert led the NBA in defensive DRIP (plus-2.5), which projects a player’s contribution to a team’s plus-minus per 100 possessions on defense.

Defensive DRIP leaders

A more fascinating potential outlook for this group exists when you venture into the past.

Remember when the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks paired offensive pegasus Dirk Nowitzki with defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler? Sure, Nowitzki was a better offensive player than Towns is now. But one could also posit that this version of Gobert is superior to the iteration of Chandler that anchored the Mavericks all the way to the NBA title. 

The similarities don’t end there. One could argue that third-year Anthony Edwards is a souped-up, two-way version of Jason Terry. That the metronomic D’Angelo Russell is a condensed-down version of Jason Kidd. And that the ever so tantalizing Jaden McDaniels can match the production of an age-32 Shawn Marion in his third NBA season. 

Historical comparisons aside, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Timberwolves ended up being the beneficiary of a deep playoff run this spring. 

2. Length Rules the Day

Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors exceeded expectations primarily thanks to their push towards mobility and length. The Cavaliers regularly fielded a lineup featuring three 7-footers. Meanwhile, the Raptors were responsible for uber funky lineups that sometimes featured four, or even five, players standing 6-foot-7 or taller. 

The up-and-coming Orlando Magic spent some of this preseason experimenting with 6-foot-9 Franz Wagner playing shooting guard. Along with Wagner, the roster houses Paolo Banchero (6-10), Wendell Carter Jr. (6-10), Mo Bamba (7-0), Bol Bol (7-2), and hopefully soon, Jonathan Isaac (6-11). 

These teams could be the template for the future of NBA roster building. 

Think about it this way: All physical traits are a double-edged sword. If you are a bigger, sturdier big man, you are likely prone to getting blown by faster players. If you are a smaller, speedy guard, you are likely susceptible to being matchup hunted on defense by players that are stronger than you. 

With these longer, more agile players – a la Scottie Barnes – you get the best of both worlds. On one hand, you have someone long enough to challenge bigs on the interior. On the other hand, he’s also quick enough to keep most players in front of him. 

Now, these types of players still have unfavorable matchups, but by being so versatile, they stack the deck in their favor. It will be interesting to monitor how successful these lineups are and what kind of counters teams deploy against them. 

3. Are Championships Won at the Trade Deadline?

The Boston Celtics ultimately didn’t win the championship last year, but their deadline acquisition of Derrick White did vault the already surging unit to the NBA Finals.

When the Celtics swapped Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford and a couple of first-round picks for White, they sat at a pedestrian 31-25. 

After White traded his black and white for some Boston green, the team rallied and finished 20-6 in the regular season before besting the formidable Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat en route to the Finals. White was not the engine of this voyage, but his blend of point-of-attack defense, screen navigation, and secondary ball handling gave the Celtics the necessary backcourt depth to help the engine get started. 

Best records since the trade deadline

This season, Eric Gordon, Jakob Poeltl, Myles Turner and Mike Conley all play for teams that could be (potentially) tanking this season in pursuit of international prodigy Victor Wembanyama. 

As it stands, all of those players sit in the top 125 in our DRIP ratings leaderboard. Remember, there are 150 starters in the NBA, so that means each of these guys is contributing starter-level production. At the very least, all four of them can crack an eight or nine-man postseason roster. And who knows, maybe shift a series in the process. 

4. New Orleans Pelicans: Next Up or Spacing Nightmare?

After a horrid 3-16 start, the Pelicans closed out the season 33-30, sneaking into the play-in tournament, winning both games, and pushing the top-seeded Phoenix Suns to six games in the first round.

They managed all of this without young phenom Zion Williamson suiting up for a game the entire season. In 2020-21, Williamson averaged 27.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists on a bonkers 64.9 true shooting percentage (nearly 8.0% above the league average).

When healthy, it’s safe to say that the 2022-23 Pelicans are stacked. Including Williamson, New Orleans touts seven players in the top 130 in DRIP. That’s seven players who are at least starter level. 

The glaring weakness for this team in the space-ball era of hoops is their spacing (or lack thereof). Last season, the Pelicans ranked 24th in 3-point attempts and 27th in 3-point percentage. And that’s without Williamson (a career 33.3% 3-point shooter) playing significant minutes.

Poor spacing makes it easier for defenses to pack the paint and shrink the floor against New Orleans, which could lead to the team bleeding efficiency on offense (the great teams are the efficient ones!).

The saving grace here is that sweet-shooting Trey Murphy III – who shot 44.3% on 3.8 3s per game after the All-Star break – portends to also see an increase in minutes this year and could help remedy the spacing concerns that currently persist within this roster. 

5. The Last Dance Reincarnated

When the Chicago Bulls entered the 1997-98 season, the expectation was that this hoorah was likely to be their last. Scottie Pippen was frustrated with his contract. Michael Jordan didn’t want to tango without his two-way co-star. There was a rift between management and coach Phil Jackson. And Dennis Rodman was 36 (and didn’t exactly observe the healthiest lifestyle).

While they didn’t win six titles in eight seasons, four in eight is still quite the accomplishment for the Golden State Warriors. They’ve cemented their legacy as the dynastic team of their era, but one cannot help but wonder if the empire is on its last legs.

Both Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins recently signed new four-year extensions, which puts the team in a suffocating bind financially.

This hefty tax bill, the Warriors’ bevy of young prospects who will likely seek increased playing time moving forward, and the recent ‘altercation’ between Poole and Draymond Green leaves the team with some questions after 2022-23. 

Green is seeking an extension of his own. And while he was arguably the team’s second-best player last season (No. 1 on the team in defensive DRIP), there is some worry that his game won’t age well as he enters his mid-30s (he’ll be 33 at the start of next season).

Klay Thompson stands to make over $40 million dollars in each of the next two seasons. Unfortunately, he’s also getting up there in years (he’s a month older than Green). And considering he missed two whole seasons due to injuries, there is reasonable concern that his best days are behind him.

With two key cogs of The Victory Machine potentially out the door after this season, what does this team look like moving forward? Will the Warriors use the controversy surrounding their future as fuel to power their fifth title in less than a decade? 

It’ll be interesting to see how this, and all of our other storylines for that matter, unfolds.

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