The new year is fast approaching and while 2022 was quite memorable, especially for the Golden State Warriors, the new one could be a historic chapter for the NBA.
A record that was previously thought to be untouchable could be broken within a few weeks of 2023, a three-time NBA Most Valuable Player could be crowned–unless one of a handful potential first-time winners can spoil the party–and the changing of the guard may be in full swing this coming year.
There are many intriguing storylines around the NBA heading into 2023, but these have been narrowed down to seven (2+0+2+3=7) specific ones below that are more likely than not to shape the year into one for the books.
Can Paolo Banchero secure the Rookie of the Year trophy?
The Orlando Magic rookie has been clearly the best first-year player so far this season with per-game averages of 20.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.9 assists. He stands to become the 22nd number one overall pick to win the NBA Rookie of the Year award since it was first handed out in 1953 and will join a prestigious list that includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Then known as Lew Alcindor), LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, and Elgin Baylor.
The all-around game that Banchero has shown so far has exceeded even the lofty expectations that come with his status as the top pick of the 2022 NBA Draft. It finally looks like the Magic have a cornerstone to build around for the first time since Dwight Howard’s departure in free agency back in 2012.
Which team will land Victor Wembanyama?
The “Tankathon” is on for the 7’2 phenom Victor Wembanyama and things will only get crazier over these next few months.
The Detroit Pistons currently have the worst record in the league as of this writing at 9-28 and the Charlotte Hornets are right behind them with a 9-26 record. The Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and Orlando wrap up the cast of bottom five teams so far.
The Washington Wizards and Oklahoma City Thunder are likely to begin playing more “experimental” rotations in the coming weeks and threaten to usurp one of these five teams. The struggling Toronto Raptors could barge into this group as well and it will not come as a shock if the remaining members of their 2019 NBA title team are dealt before the February 9, 2023 trade deadline.
One interesting storyline here is the Los Angeles Lakers’ first round pick. The Lakers own the sixth worst record in the league and it is highly likely that their disappointing season continues to go south which will boost their lottery odds. The New Orleans Pelicans, the first seed in the Western Conference, have the option to swap first round picks with Los Angeles in this upcoming draft via the Anthony Davis trade. This will only boost the budding juggernaut in New Orleans and rub even more salt to the wounds of the flailing Laker organization.
Will we see the first three-peat NBA Most Valuable Player since Larry Bird?
Coming into this season, it was believed that a third consecutive NBA MVP award was unlikely for Nikola Jokic. The return of his high-scoring teammates Jamal Murray and Michael Porter, Jr. were expected to eat into his statistics and voter fatigue was expected to dampen his cause.
However, Jokic has continued to impress and recovered from a “slow” start to this campaign with a dominant December where he has averaged 30 points, 12.3 rebounds, 10 assists, and 1.7 steals in 13 appearances.
It speaks volumes of Jokic’s MVP campaign that the only legitimate knock against him is that he has won it the last two years. If he does win a third consecutive MVP trophy this season, he will join an elite group that includes only Bill Russell (1960-63), Wilt Chamberlain (1965-68), and Larry Bird (1983-86).
The biggest obstacle in his way is his predecessor as back-to-back MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 28-year-old Greek forward has carried an even larger load this season with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday both missing quite a number of games. Despite their absences, the Milwaukee Bucks are still running third in the Eastern Conference and Antetokounmpo is the biggest reason for that.
Jayson Tatum, Ja Morant, and Luka Doncic have also made notable cases for what could be their first MVP award and if their teams can end the regular season with a strong record, it will be difficult to count them out. Tatum’s MVP push seems to be the strongest among these three players at the moment given that the Boston Celtics are in first place in the East.
2014 MVP Kevin Durant looms large as a potential winner too with a case that gets stronger by the day, especially if the Brooklyn Nets can continue their recent turnaround.
What’s in store for LeBron James’ future?
Lebron James, who just celebrated his 38th birthday, is still in the tailend of his extended prime. The Lakers though have not been able to capitalize on this and have been in a tailspin since winning the NBA title in 2020. The losses seem to have taken a toll on James who recently made curious comments that hint that he could be considering retirement.
This comes a few months after James signed an extension with Los Angeles that will keep him with the team until 2025. The Lakers have not been willing to trade away future draft capital to improve their current roster which is likely to have contributed to James’ melancholic move.
One consolation prize for James is that his scoring average of 27.8 points per game this season means that he only needs 21 more games to catch Abdul-Jabbar for the most regular season points in NBA history. While this is a historic feat, it is unlikely that it can take the edge off from yet another losing season for one of the greatest players in NBA history.
Where will Russell Westbrook end up this offseason?
Westbrook’s contract that pays him $47 million this season will finally expire in the summer. It will be interesting to see what kind of interest he will receive from teams and what the market deems is fair value for his next deal. His play since arriving at Los Angeles has tanked his market value and further complicates matters for him.
It is clear that Westbrook can still contribute, especially in a reserve role like in the one that the Lakers have deployed him in this year. What remains to be seen is which teams are willing to take a gamble on his strong locker room presence and desire to remain ball dominant despite the clear decline in his play.
Can the Kings end the longest playoff drought in NBA history?
The Sacramento Kings are currently 18-15 and seventh in the Western Conference standings which means that If the season ended today, this puts them in the play-in tournament.
Sacramento has not made it to the NBA playoffs since their first round exit in 2006 and this team bannered by Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox gives them their strongest chance in years to end this drought.
Which team will win the championship?
There is no clear cut favorite in this year’s NBA title race which makes these next few months even more exciting. The Boston Celtics, last year’s runner-up, currently have the best record in the league, but their route out of the Eastern Conference will not be an easy one.
The Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, and Philadelphia 76ers have shown strong form over these past few weeks and it is only a matter of time before the Miami Heat figure things out and join the fray. The Cleveland Cavaliers could be ready to take the leap as well with Donovan Mitchell using his experience with the Utah Jazz to guide their young core.
The picture in the West is even murkier as the defending champion Golden State Warriors are struggling to find their footing. Stephen Curry’s recent injury further complicates matters for them, but recent history proves that the Warriors can never be counted out, especially in the postseason.
The Denver Nuggets could make a realistic run at the Finals as well if their core can remain healthy while the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies are raring to prove that they can take the leap behind their young superstars.
The Los Angeles Clippers and the Phoenix Suns remain legitimate contenders as well, though the health of their stars may ultimately be the key factors that determines their fate.