The calendar has turned to 2023, and the NBA schedule is nearing its midpoint. It's high time to predict the season's stretch run, starring Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and the most loaded MVP race in league history.
Who will win the NBA championship?
In the Western Conference, the difference between a home playoff seed and facing single elimination in the play-in tournament is currently a two-game margin. The past two winners of the West, the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors, would be favorites for the seventh and eighth seeds if the postseason started today. The LA Clippers are in sixth place, half a game from falling into the play-in fray, along with the only other teams in the conference with NBA Finals experience. That could mean a bloodbath in the first round.
Whoever wins the West must navigate three rounds against opponents on a fairly equal playing field. Nikola Jokic could climb to a tier all to himself and lead the first-place Denver Nuggets to the Finals, and we would still have questions about their inexperience at that level and their 25th-rated defense. There are similar concerns about the ability of the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans and Dallas Mavericks skipping the usual steps to a championship. And the teams that have been there before, the Suns, Warriors and Clippers, are all vulnerable to the volatility of their collective health. Every West contender has its flaw.
The Eastern Conference playoff picture is clearer. The past two winners of the East, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, are the most dangerous playoff teams in the NBA, no matter what rough patches they face over the course of the season. Giannis Antetokounmpo is so relentless a force that he alone can will a competitive series against Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and a loaded depth chart built to contain him.
The Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers are the top candidates to prevent what seems like an inevitable conference finals showdown, and the Miami Heat are always a threat to unseat anybody. All three teams are also flawed. Do you trust Kevin Durant to stay healthy, Kyrie Irving to stay grounded and Ben Simmons to stay confident in Brooklyn? Can Donovan Mitchell really elevate Cleveland from the lottery to a Finals berth in a single season? Are Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry still built to survive three rounds of brutal basketball?
Milwaukee and Boston are not without questions, either. Khris Middleton cannot stay healthy, and the Bucks' half-court offense is two-dimensional without him. The Celtics continue to vacillate between an overabundance of confidence and a lack of it, and their composure in close games suffers from both.
Still, Boston's ceiling is higher than that of any other team on either end of the floor. Their defense dominated the final two months of last season, and their offense dominated the first two months of this season. They have yet to reinsert Robert Williams III into the starting lineup, which feels like the next step toward meshing their best on both sides of the court. If you ask me which team has the best chance of putting it all together, answering every lingering question and playing the best basketball come playoff time, it is the Celtics.
Prediction: The Celtics will win the 2023 NBA championship.
Which non-favorite could win the title?
BetMGM features the following championship odds: Celtics (+350), Bucks (+500), Nets (+800), Clippers (+900), Suns (+900), Warriors (+1000), Nuggets (+1300), Grizzlies (+1300), Philadelphia 76ers (+1600), Cavaliers (+2000), Pelicans (+2000), Dallas Mavericks (+4000) and Heat (+4000). I cannot imagine any other team winning the title this season, and even a handful of these teams will need help to seriously contend.
I have no idea how six teams have better championship odds than the Nuggets, who boast arguably the best player in the league and inarguably the best record in the West. Denver is also far from playing its best basketball. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are still finding their footing after extended injury absences. The sooner they fall in step behind Jokic, the sooner a complementary blend of competent role players — Aaron Gordon, Bones Hyland, Bruce Brown and Kentavious-Caldwell Pope — lines up behind them to form a playoff rotation that is one backup big away from being the best balanced lineup in the West.
Can we even call the Nuggets non-favorites? They are neck-and-neck atop the West with the Grizzlies and Pelicans, both of whom could realistically win the title, despite the odds. Memphis, as the No. 2 seed, went toe-to-toe in the conference semifinals with the eventual champion Warriors before Ja Morant suffered a series-ending injury. New Orleans added Zion Williamson to a team that could already score with anyone.
On the other side of the bracket, I do not trust Joel Embiid and James Harden to stay healthy, conditioned and composed enough to win four playoff rounds for the Sixers. The addition of Mitchell gives the Cavaliers someone who can take the fight to any superstar opponent, and Cleveland has the weapons around him to keep every series competitive. Winning all of them would require a monumental leap from the entire roster.
Still, that's four teams — the Nuggets, Grizzlies, Cavaliers and Pelicans — that could win as longer shots than 10-to-1 favorites, and my money is on Denver's top-to-bottom talent advantage taking the reins from that group. If you are looking for an even longer shot, do not count out Dallas. Doncic is a generational talent who carried his team to the Western Conference finals at age 22. He needs only so much help to compete with any contender, which perennially makes the Mavericks a move away from beating them all.
Denver, however, is built to win now, and the betting odds are bound to reflect that sooner than later.
Prediction: The Nuggets are the best value bet to win the title.
Who will win the MVP?
Since I made the case to consider Jokic for a third straight NBA MVP award in mid-December, he has averaged a 28-12-11 on 58/50/81 shooting splits, won seven of nine games and led the Nuggets into first place. There is little advanced statistical argument against Jokic, and nobody raises the level of everyone around him better than he does. He is the right choice for MVP as we approach the season's midway point.
Except this is not about the right choice but, rather, who will win, and I am of the belief that the voting panel will tilt toward another option if the race is close. And Doncic is making it close. He is averaging a 34-9-9 on 51/36/74 shooting splits and gathering momentum. He has three 50-point games in his past six outings, including a 60-point, 20-rebound triple-double. He is now the league leader in player efficiency rating, value over replacement player, real plus-minus and several other all-encompassing advanced statistics.
Meanwhile, Doncic's Mavericks have won seven straight games — albeit against a light schedule — to vault into fourth place, two wins shy of Denver's West-leading 24 victories. It is not much of a leap to say, Hey, Doncic has done more with less, and the statistical case for him is compelling, so a fresh face it is.
Tatum, Durant, Antetokounmpo and Embiid are all stating their own cases in the East. One will be left off of every five-man MVP ballot in a brutal judgment call. Tatum needs to be more consistently dominant. Durant must stay healthy. Antetokounmpo has to find the level of efficiency he sustained the past four seasons. Embiid better keep his Sixers in the hunt. The award is within reach for each of them down the stretch.
Narrative always plays a role in the ultimate outcome, and I am afraid the Jokic actually could win another one storyline could run cold by voting time. Durant can spin a fascinating yarn. He has not won the award since 2014 for myriad reasons, not the least of which was a career-threatening Achilles injury in the 2019 Finals. He returned to elite form by the 2021 playoffs, piled up numbers for a mediocre team last season, requested a trade this past summer and got his coach fired two weeks into this season. Since then, the Nets own the NBA's best record (21-5), offensive rating (117.7 points per 100 possessions) and net rating (+6.8). Durant is averaging a 29-7-6 on 58/37/93 shooting splits and playing top-flight defense in that span.
You could write The old man's still got it MVP case for Durant right now, but there is still time for the narrative to come full-circle back to Doncic. He was the preseason favorite, and he is doing everything the voters could possibly ask of him. Voters can't wait to get in on the ground level for the This guy's got next narrative, and Doncic will be the face of the league in the near future. It is way too early to make an MVP call, but if you are asking me to predict how the conversation will play out, my best guess leads to Doncic.
Prediction: Doncic is your 2023 MVP.
Which team will be the biggest surprise not to make the playoffs?
The Warriors and Suns, two teams commonly picked in the preseason to emerge from the West, are currently in danger of having to win their playoff seed in the play-in tournament. They have respectively played without Stephen Curry and Devin Booker since mid-December and Christmas Day. Both teams should have enough firepower to stay afloat until their All-NBA guards return in the second half of the season. Either missing the postseason would be a shock, but it is a stretch to make so hot a take.
In the East, the Heat are in eighth place, just a game out of a guaranteed playoff seed, like the Warriors and Suns. The Toronto Raptors, another preseason media darling, are six games below .500, owners of an identical record to the Oklahoma City Thunder (16-22) and firmly in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. That is a surprise, for sure, but the Raptors have been teetering toward a shakeup for three seasons now.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, on the other hand, took their swing this past summer to make a leap from frisky seventh seed to the West elite, trading three rotational players and a decade's worth of draft assets for three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. The deal was immediately panned as an overpay, but not many people figured the partnership between Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns to be this disastrous.
Towns has been sidelined since late November, when he strained his right calf, and is still reportedly weeks from a return. The Wolves are 8-10 in his absence, owners of a slightly below zero net rating, almost identical to what they were with their All-NBA stretch big man in the lineup. His return will not resolve their issues as an average team on both sides of the ball. It will be just another chemistry problem to navigate.
The trade for Gobert was a bet on 21-year-old Anthony Edwards, who is averaging a 29-8-5 on 48/36/77 shooting splits in his past 10 games, and perhaps this stretch serves as the wake-up call Minnesota needs to recalibrate its offense around its highest-ceiling player. Except Edwards appears no more prepared to command a consistent winner than when the Wolves made the trade. They prematurely pushed all their chips into the middle, and they went all-in for the wrong player, so maybe we should've seen this coming.
Even if Minnesota discovers an identity with Towns, Gobert and Edwards all on the floor together by the All-Star break, it will not be easy to climb from the hole they have dug, even if they are a half-game out of the final play-in berth, trailing a Utah Jazz team that could embark on a tanking mission at any time. The nine other teams ahead of them have clearly distinguished themselves as more viable playoff teams.
(That the Los Angeles Lakers, the surprise pick to miss the playoffs when we did this exercise last season, are fully expected to be a lottery team at this point is a sad commentary on their state of affairs.)
Prediction: The Timberwolves will miss the playoffs.
Who will be the best player traded by the deadline?
There is no shortage of stars who could request trades by the deadline. Rival executives reportedly suspect Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young is next in line. The Washington Wizards are lottery-bound again, and everyone might be on the table, including Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. Towns or the Timberwolves might decide to end their partnership if the Gobert pairing shows no signs of improvement by early February.
One wild card: Middleton. He can enter free agency at season's end. He is 31 years old. He missed most of Milwaukee's playoff run last season due to a sprained MCL in his left knee, did not return from offseason wrist surgery until December and is back on the shelf with a sore right knee. All of that will limit the Bucks' ability to find equal value in return, so a move is unlikely, though not out of the realm of possibility.
Toronto and the Chicago Bulls, both mired in mediocrity, feature a handful of far more likely candidates.
The Raptors could lose Fred VanVleet to free agency this year and Pascal Siakam the next unless they pay a massive price to keep this sub-.500 core together. Trade either or both, and Toronto can improve its odds of adding another high lottery pick and expediting a rebuild around Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby.
The Bulls keep their first-round draft pick only if it falls in the top four, and they are running out of time to chase anything better than a 42.1% chance to avoid handing a lottery selection to the Orlando Magic as a result of the woeful trade for Nikola Vucevic. It still does not make much sense for Chicago to hold on to Vucevic or DeMar DeRozan, who can become free agents this year and next, respectively. Both are entering their mid-30s, and neither will be around whenever (or if ever) Chicago seriously contends again.
More pressing for the Bulls might be the matter of Zach LaVine, who is reportedly questioning his role in the organization. Trading DeRozan might help clarify that for LaVine, but to what end? Chicago gifted LaVine a five-year, $215 million contract this past summer, as he rehabbed from a second surgery to his left knee. He is now owed $49 million for the 2026-27 season, despite winning a single playoff game in his nine-year career. If I were the Bulls, I would look to move his contract at the first opportunity, especially if any team is willing to trade a considerable package of picks and prospects to acquire the 27-year-old two-time All-Star.
Then I would deal DeRozan and Vucevic, too. Start over from scratch, even if there is a high likelihood the team loses its first-round pick. It is not like they are going anywhere anyhow. Now, it is up to general managers everywhere to decide whether a 33-year-old DeRozan or the oft-injured LaVine is the more desirable player.
Prediction: DeRozan and LaVine will be traded by the deadline.
– – – – – – –