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.
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.
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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