Evergreen stars and emerging talent promise a blockbuster NBA season

In just about a week, the NBA season will get underway after a long and yet another interesting off-season.

Every indication is that 2023–24 will see multiple contenders in line with the trend of the past five years, which has seen a new champion every year: the Toronto Raptors (2018–19), Los Angeles Lakers (2019–20), Milwaukee Bucks (2020–21), Golden State Warriors (2021–22), and Denver Nuggets (2022–23).

This trend has been unlike what we saw in the early to late 2010s, where there were two givens. Superstar LeBron James was almost always in the Finals—he reached eight straight summit clashes —and the Warriors were invariably the favourites to win it all from 2015 to 2019.

Combination of factors

But a combination of factors — an ageing James, Kevin Durant’s leaving the Warriors and later the Nets, and the emergence of new superstars in the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, and Jayson Tatum from the Boston Celtics, among others — has introduced a level of competition that was last seen before the emergence of the “superteam” concept in the early 2010s.

The NBA today has a landscape where a gutsy team like the Miami Heat remains in contention due to excellent coaching helping a team headlined by the hard-working Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Along with the aforementioned teams, there are the Durant and Devin Booker-driven Phoenix Suns, the LeBron and Anthony Davis-helmed Los Angeles Lakers, the perennially injury-riddled but competitive Kawhi Leonard and Paul George-led Los Angeles Clippers, and upstarts in the Memphis Grizzlies, New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, and Minnesota Timberwolves who think they can upset the apple cart of the favourites as well.

The burst in competitiveness at the highest level is a blessing for the NBA, which expects a significant revenue boost due to new television and digital deals that promise a larger bounty for teams’ owners and players alike.

Impact of luxury tax

The league has strived to maintain its competitive balance despite the skews in market sizes across teams and their geographic locales in the U.S. Measures like teams paying luxury taxes on spends exceeding a salary cap limit were put in place to assure competitive balance.

Teams like the Warriors managed to retain their core despite paying high salaries and consequently a high luxury tax as they got record viewership numbers and spectator visits to their brand new arena. Others, such as the Los Angeles Clippers, also had hefty luxury tax payments, which were made possible because of an uber-rich owner in ex-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who was willing to do so.

The league has noted this trend of big market teams being able to treat luxury tax payments as a minor inconvenience and has made changes in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that have made trades more onerous for such teams and payment penalties that are steeper if teams strayed beyond the salary cap.

The Warriors had to, for example, trade up-and-coming guard Jordan Poole for ageing point guard specialist Chris Paul, partially because of the ballooning luxury tax payments going forward.

And the Clippers seem to have finally realised the futility of relying on a high-paying roster without accountability on the spends — there won’t be any “load management” for its two superstars, Leonard and George, in 2023–24, and any extension of their contracts will be only possible if they remain in championship contention this year.

Other big-spending teams include the Bucks, the Celtics, and the Suns. Milwaukee and Boston are desperate to contend again after disappointing ends to their 2023 campaigns. The Bucks prised superstar point guard Damian Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers, the only team he had played for in a stellar 11-year career, in exchange for defensive-minded point guard Jrue Holiday.

Lillard’s trade will make the Bucks’ owners dip further into their pockets to pay a hefty luxury tax going forward, and the team is out of meaningful draft assets for the medium term.

Lillard offers a stronger pick-and-roll threat in partnership with Antetokounmpo and an offensive repertoire only bettered by Steph Curry as a guard. Lillard’s sharpshooting and playmaking catapult the Bucks to become one of the favourites and also push Antetokounmpo to sign a contract extension that will make him remain with the small-market team.

Richest contract

The Celtics meanwhile had to provide the richest contract in NBA history ($304 million over the next five years from 2024) to their shooting guard Jaylen Brown, even though Brown and other superstar Tatum came up short in the last two seasons.

In order to give them a ballast, the Celtics traded for sharpshooting centre Kristaps Porzingis from the Wizards and landed Holiday to form a potent starting five in Holiday, Derrick White, Brown, Tatum, and Porzingis, besides a strong bench that includes veteran centre Al Horford.

The Celtics and the Bucks are now the clear favourites in the East. All eyes will be on the 76ers, who are carrying a disgruntled James Harden and are expected to trade him for a meaningful replacement. Miami Heat returns with a diminished squad but can never be written off.

In the Western Conference, the Nuggets have a head start over the others on account of currently fielding the best player in the NBA — Jokic. His unique style of play — methodical, intellectual, discerning, and skilled to go along with his preternatural passing abilities — has made him an MVP contender without peer except for Embiid, Antetokounmpo, and Curry. With his running-mate Jamal Murray returning successfully from injury and a bevy of role players providing the due thrust, Jokic and his team are primed for yet another championship run.

The Suns have never won a championship in their more than 50 years of existence as a team. After falling short agonisingly in 2021, the team had regressed, but an ownership change, with Matt Ishbia taking over, brought about fresh investments and changes in the team.

The Suns traded for Durant mid-season last year in a desperate manoeuvre, but it was not enough to make a mark in the playoffs. They went all in on a high outlay by trading for guard Bradley Beal from the Wizards and have surrounded the trio of Durant, Booker, and Beal with a good set of role players. Fresh squads take a while to gel, but Durant and Booker have transcendent talent and that should keep the Suns in contention.

Impact of Curry

The Warriors will be in contention as long as Stephen Curry remains fit. The all-time best shooter in the NBA remains a headache for opposing coaches as he retains his ability to fire it accurately from any distance and from any angle on the court with barely any load-up time. His ability to play off-the-ball or as a ball-handling traditional point guard with equal success has meant that the gravity of the court shifts when he plays on it.

His understanding with teammates Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, honed over more than a decade, provides the team with the heft and know-how to tackle any form of opposition, and the addition of the cerebral Chris Paul is bound to extend this advantage for the Warriors. Golden State does not have too many young legs, and that could be its failing, but if it manages to get into the post-season without injury setbacks, the team would be a hard nut to crack for any contender.

James has to fight not just the players guarding him but also ‘Father Time’ as he enters his 21st season as the oldest player in the current NBA. His partnership with the versatile forward/centre Anthony Davis and intriguing role players such as Austin Reaves was good enough to upend the Warriors in the 2022–23 season. We can expect the Lakers to provide a robust challenge to the Nuggets this season as well.

Arrival of ‘Wemby’

The contenders apart, 2023–24 also promises the dawn of a new epoch in the NBA, with several young stars expected to make their mark, none more significant than 7’4” Victor Wembanyama of the San Antonio Spurs.

‘Wemby’, as he is now affectionately called, brings a combination of skills and physical attributes that has hitherto been rarely seen in the NBA, and his progress into a star will be watched with great interest across the league and by basketball aficionados.

Giving him a tough fight for the rookie of the year (ROY) trophy would be another 7-foot sharp-shooting centre in Oklahoma City Thunder’s Chet Holmgren.

The other young talent who shone in the FIBA World Cup earlier this year, such as Frank Wagner of the Orlando Magic and his teammate and reigning ROY Paolo Banchero, are also expected to take the next leap to herald a new corps of NBA stars.

The Gist

Lillard’s sharpshooting and playmaking catapult the Bucks to become one of the favourites

Nuggets have a head-start over the others on account of currently fielding Jokic, the best player in the NBA

The new in-season tournament is also expected to raise interest among aficionados

The NBA’s new in-season tournament to go along with the regular season — similar to the FA Cup or Copa del Rey in English and Spanish football — is also expected to raise interest among aficionados.

All-in-all, 2023–24 promises a more competitive basketball season, and that could perhaps herald a new era.

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LeBron James and Billie Jean King lead tributes to American journalist Grant Wahl | CNN


The death of prominent journalist Grant Wahl at the World Cup in Qatar has led to an outpouring of shock and grief across the sports world, with NBA star LeBron James and tennis great Billie Jean King leading the tributes to the American.

Prominent American journalist Grant Wahl has died in Qatar after collapsing while covering the World Cup, sparking an outpouring of shock and grief across the sports world. He was 49.

King said Wahl’s death was “heartbreaking.”

“A talented journalist, Grant was an advocate for the LGBTQ community & a prominent voice for women’s soccer,” King tweeted Saturday. “He used his platform to elevate those whose stories needed telling. Prayers for his family.”

On Friday in Philadelphia, basketball star James said he had been “very fond of Grant.” While Wahl was at Sports Illustrated, he did a cover story on James when James was in high school.

“I’ve always kind of watched from a distance even when I moved up in ranks and became a professional, and he went to a different sport,” said James, speaking at a postgame press conference. “Any time his name would come up I’ll always think back to me as a teenager and having Grant in our building … It’s a tragic loss.”

Tyler Adams, the captain of the US men’s national soccer team, which was knocked out of the World Cup by the Netherlands in the last 16, sent his “deepest sympathy” to Wahl’s wife, Celine Gounder, and to those who knew him.

“As players we have a tremendous amount of respect for the work of journalists, & Grant’s was a giant voice in soccer that has tragically fallen silent,” Adams wrote on Twitter.

Qatar’s World Cup organizers said on Saturday that Wahl “fell ill” in the press area, where he received “immediate medical treatment on site.”

He was then transferred to Hamad General Hospital, said a spokesperson for the Supreme Court Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the body responsible for planning the tournament.

Wahl was treated in the stadium “for about 20-25 minutes” before he was moved to the hospital, Keir Radnedge, a columnist at World Soccer Magazine, told CNN Saturday.

“This was towards the end of extra time in the match. Suddenly, colleagues up to my left started shouting for medical assistance. Obviously, someone had collapsed. Because the chairs are freestanding, people were able to move the chairs, so it’s possible to create a little bit of space around him,” Radnedge said.

He added that the medical team were there “pretty quickly and were able to, as best they could, give treatment.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reacted to Wahl’s death on Saturday, adding that senior State Department officials were in touch with Qatari officials and Grant’s family.

“Grant Wahl was an inspiration to many. Our thoughts are with his wife Dr. Céline Gounder and all those who loved him. State Department officials are in touch with Grant’s family and with senior officials in the government of Qatar to ensure his family gets the support they need,” Jean-Pierre wrote on Twitter.

“Only some days ago, Grant was recognized by FIFA and AIPS (the International Sports Press Association) for his contribution to reporting on eight consecutive FIFA World Cups,” said FIFA President Gianni Infantino in a statement.

Infantino and FIFA media director Bryan Swanson were at the hospital on Saturday to offer any kind of support needed for the family, friends, and the journalists who were also his housemates in Qatar.

The co-editors in chief of Sports Illustrated, the publication where Wahl spent the majority of his career, said in a joint statement they were “shocked and devastated at the news of Grant’s passing.”

“We were proud to call him a colleague and friend for two decades – no writer in the history of (Sports Illustrated) has been more passionate about the sport he loved and the stories he wanted to tell,” said the statement.

It added that Wahl had first joined the publication in November 1996. He had volunteered to cover the sport as a junior reporter – back before it reached the heights of global popularity it now enjoys – eventually becoming “one of the most respected soccer authorities in the world,” it said.

The statement said that Wahl also worked with other media outlets including Fox Sports. After leaving Sports Illustrated in 2020, he began publishing his podcast and newsletter.

Other current and former US soccer players, including Ali Krieger and Tony Meola, shared their condolences, as did sporting bodies such as Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League.

Wittyngham, Wahl’s podcast co-host, told CNN on Saturday the news of his death had been hard to fathom.

“For Americans, Grant Wahl is the first person you read covering soccer. He was kind of the only person for a while … Grant was the first person who really paid genuine attention to this sport in a meaningful way,” Wittyngham said.

Several journalists shared stories of reporting alongside Wahl, and having encountered him at multiple World Cups over the years.

“Before he became the best covering soccer he did hoops and was so kind to me,” wrote famed broadcaster Dick Vitale.

Timmy T. Davis, the US Ambassador to Qatar, tweeted that Wahl was “a well known and greatly respected reporter who focused on the beautiful game.”

“The entire US Soccer family is heartbroken to learn that we have lost Grant Wahl,” US Soccer said in a statement on its official Twitter account.

“Grant made soccer his life’s work, and we are devastated that he and his brilliant writing will no longer be with us.”

US Soccer praised Wahl’s passion and “belief in the power of the game to advance human rights,” and shared its condolences with Wahl’s wife, Celine Gounder, and his loved ones.

Gounder also posted the US Soccer statement on Twitter.

“I am so thankful for the support of my husband Grant Wahl’s soccer family and of so many friends who’ve reached out tonight. I’m in complete shock,” wrote Gounder, a former CNN contributor who served on the Biden-Harris transition Covid-19 advisory board.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the department was in “close communication” with Wahl’s family. The World Cup organizers also said they were in touch with the US embassy “to ensure the process of repatriating the body is in accordance with the family’s wishes.”

Wahl wearing a rainbow-colored t-shirt while working at Qatar 2022.

Wahl had covered soccer for more than two decades, including 11 World Cups — six men’s, five women’s – and authored several books on the sport, according to his website.

He had just celebrated his birthday earlier this week with “a great group of media friends at the World Cup,” according to a post on his official Twitter account, which added: “Very thankful for everyone.”

In an episode of the podcast Futbol with Grant Wahl, published days before his death on December 6, he had complained of feeling unwell.

“It had gotten pretty bad in terms of like the tightness in my chest, tightness, pressure. Feeling pretty hairy, bad,” Wahl told co-host Chris Wittyngham in the episode. He added that he sought help at the medical clinic at the World Cup media center, believing he had bronchitis.

He was given cough syrup and ibuprofen, and felt better shortly afterward, he said.

Wahl also said he experienced an “involuntary capitulation by my body and mind” after the US-Netherlands game on December 3.

“This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve done eight of these on the men’s side,” he said at the time. “And so like, I’ve gotten sick to some extent at every tournament, and it’s just about trying to find a way to like get your work done.”

He further described the incident in a recent newsletter published on December 5, writing that his body had “broke down” after he had little sleep, high stress and a heavy workload. He’d had a cold for 10 days, which “turned into something more severe,” he wrote, adding that he felt better after receiving antibiotics and catching up on sleep.

Wahl had made headlines in November by reporting that he was detained and briefly refused entry to a World Cup match because he was wearing a rainbow t-shirt in support of LGBTQ rights.

He said security staff had told him to change his shirt because “it’s not allowed,” and had taken his phone. Wahl said he was released 25 minutes after being detained and received apologies from a FIFA representative and a senior member of the security team at the stadium.

Afterward, Wahl told CNN he “probably will” wear the shirt again.

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