By now, you know the drill. I’m here to say something nice about the final 10 teams.
Detroit Pistons — Someone is about to pop
I’m unsure who it is, but one of the young Pistons is about to explode.
The Pistons have a bit of an awkward roster. The team’s last three first-round picks, Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, and Ausar Thompson, are best with the ball in their hands. They also have a glut of big men with various strengths and weaknesses and only two proven shooters on the entire roster in Bogdan Bogdanovic and the possibly-washed Joe Harris.
But there’s too much talent here not to see marked improvement from someone.
Most people would tab third-year Cade Cunningham as this season’s most likely breakout performance. Cunningham looks like a veteran out there. He plays solid defense, rebounds and passes superbly, controls the pace, and makes the right reads. But despite having a reputation as a shooter, Cunningham hasn’t been able to hit from deep or finish at the rim yet, and injuries haven’t helped his athleticism.
However, a healthy offseason and a position on the USA Select Team (which scrimmages with the official USA World Cup team) should position him better to make his mark this year.
If Cade succumbs to injury or still can’t find his shot, perhaps sophomore Jaden Ivey can rise to the occasion. Ivey zaps around like ball lightning, and he dramatically improved his point guard skills as his rookie year went on. He has shades of young Derrick Rose in his game (although he’s not quite the passer Rose was at this stage), and if the shot isn’t falling, he’s adept at getting to the rim and drawing free throws.
I love rookie Ausar Thompson. He’s 6’7”, even more athletic than Jaden Ivey, and probably a better passer. An even jankier jump shot and the usual rookie learning curve could make him the third man on the totem pole, but the sky is the limit.
Last year’s other rookie, Jalen Duren, is already a shotblocking and rim-rolling machine. He’s still the youngest player on the team, despite looking like a Greek statue, and he’s got a better passing touch than his stats would indicate:
With so many pedigreed guards on the roster, Duren and Detroit’s other big men aren’t likely to be featured enough in the offense to really dominate. Still, Duren has the potential to turn into a bigger Bam Adebayo.
Detroit also has several intriguing role players who could become stars in their niche, like Isaiah Stewart and Isaiah Livers (and perhaps rookie Marcus Sasser, fresh off an excellent Summer League performance).
In short: Detroit is bubbling over with talent. The pieces aren’t quite a jigsaw fit, and new coach Monty Williams will have his hands full trying to create a pecking order, but at least one of these players will look like a future superstar by the end of the season. I’m pumped to find out who.
Chicago Bulls — Coby White, quietly improving
Lost in all the handwringing over the Nikola Vucevic re-signing and the constant chatter about trading Zach LaVine: Coby White has improved every year of his four-year career. He’s become a steady contributor who will be fighting for a starting point guard spot this season.
White started his career as a shot-hungry gunner whose defense vacillated between “uncaring” and “nonexistent.” But even as he’s refined both his shot and shot selection (he shot a career-best 55.1% effective field goal percentage last season), he hasn’t stopped putting in work on the defensive end.
White dramatically cut down his fouls and finally figured out how to use his 6’5” frame to impede ballhandlers. Bball-Index had him in the 95th percentile for screen navigation and 98th percentile for off-ball chasing — elite marks that show how much he’s grown on that end.
White is big enough to defend some wings and quick enough to keep up with guards. While he’ll never be a star, two-way players with efficient shooting and strong defense fill the most valuable role-player archetype. By staying patient with White for four years, the Bulls have steadily developed one all on their own.
Milwaukee Bucks — The core is back
Khris Middleton is back on an expensive but reasonably short three-year contract (although the third year is a player option). Brook Lopez, my pick for 2023 Defensive Player of the Year, is also back on a two-year contract. Giannis is healing up just fine, and Jrue Holiday is still here. Everyone’s favorite whipping boy, Mike Budenholzer, is gone, replaced by a promising but untested new coach in Adrian Griffin.
Although some of Milwaukee’s depth was lost in the offseason, the key pieces are back, and second-year player Marjon Beauchamp may be ready for a bigger role. If Middleton is healthy, this team should still chew up the regular season and enter the playoffs as one of the favorites. The big four plus Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, and some combination of Grayson Allen/Beauchamp/Malik Beasley (an underrated addition who should have a bounceback year)/Jae Crowder should be one of the best rotations in basketball.
Last year’s playoff debacle against Miami doesn’t look quite as bad in retrospect, given Miami’s continued success and Antetokounmpo’s injury. A new coach and a healthier Giannis and Khris will make the Bucks a popular pick to come out of the East.
Cleveland Cavaliers — Flexibility is here
The Cavs had a fantastic regular season that ended with a brutal series of kidney shots from the New York Knicks, who decimated and demoralized a stunned Cleveland team.
Cleveland learned a valuable lesson that many other teams (most notably, Milwaukee) have learned the hard way: flexibility matters in the playoffs.
While people decried the Cavs’ inability to find an adequate fifth starter to pair with scoring guards Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland and tall, thin defenders Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley (after that Knicks series, it’s hard to call them “big” men), that was only one part of a multifaceted problem: that Cavs had no ability to change personnel or strategies.
That has seemingly been fixed this offseason with the additions of Max Strus (who can play the two, three, or even short stints at the four) and Georges Niang (who can be a stretch-four or spacing three when needed and mayyyyybe play a tad bit of five).
Now, the team has some ability to mix and match lineups to take advantage of another team’s weaknesses. They can go bigger or smaller, and Strus and Niang are confident gunners who should provide more room for the offense to breathe in the playoffs.
While the Cavs’ four best players aren’t overflowing with positional versatility, there is some hope that Evan Mobley can play a bit more center in his third year when needed, too.
Some would argue that the Knicks, filled with physical bruisers at every position, were just a particularly bad matchup for the more finesse-based Cavaliers, and that’s true. But in the NBA playoffs, good teams have to adjust to bad matchups. The Cavs weren’t equipped to do so before; they will be now.
Indiana Pacers — This team will fly
The Pacers will not be contending for a championship this year, but they will be competing for the top spot on my League Pass rankings.
It’s true that Indiana still hasn’t entirely solved its most significant need, wing-sized wings, outside of rookie Jarace Walker, who looks the part defensively. But they have a bunch of turbocharged guards and fleet-footed big men, and they should be a permanent fast-break team.
People will be surprised by how much secondary playmaking and shooting this team has around ascendant point guard Tyrese Haliburton. Bruce Brown, still smelling like championship champagne, is here to go coast-to-coast with every rebound. Second-year player Bennedict Mathurin bull-rushes to the hoop at every opportunity, and Andrew Nembhard will throw up alley-oops to Indiana’s exquisite athletes. Aaron Nesmith, newly-acquired Obi Toppin, and Isaiah Jackson can all get up with the birds, and even center Myles Turner (who had a monster year last year) has some nasty dunks in him.
This will not be a team that can buckle down and force 24-second violations, but they should create a ton of turnovers. Every game with the Pacers will be an up-and-down affair with more than a few highlights.
While the Pacers will likely need one more year of seasoning before they can make serious noise, they are already one of the most watchable teams in the league.
Boston Celtics — There’s finally something fresh about this team
You can’t knock the results. The Celtics have ridden their core guys to immense playoff success, even if it hasn’t yet ended in the championship they desperately want.
But this team had started to feel stale, the definition of insanity. New options were needed, and the Celtics were able to generate offensive flexibility in the offseason without taking a downgrade in talent.
I have much more about the Celtics’ offseason coming Tuesday, so keep an eye out for that!
Brooklyn Nets — Drama-free fun
The Nets are back in a familiar place: the fun, up-and-coming young team whose ceiling is hazy but just high enough that fans can get excited for the future.
No Durant, no Harden, no Irving. While the Nets have dropped in overall talent, they had been a joyless bunch for a long time. Without the burden of mercurial superstars and heavy expectations, the Nets can test the boundaries of their young players.
Point Mikal Bridges? It’s a great way to explore the studio space.
Cameron Johnson shooting 15 times per game? Gotta figure out how high he can fly.
Nic Claxton, post hub? Let’s see if he’s got the playmaking chops.
A healthy, engaged Ben Simmons? We can dream.
A freed Cam Thomas? LOL, let’s not get crazy.
Frankly, I don’t know exactly what to expect from the Nets this year. They have pieces to make a big trade for the next disgruntled star, but they also have enough intriguing young players that they may want to see what their development arc looks like before making a big swing.
Following this team for the past few years was largely exhausting and dispiriting. This year’s group is a breath of fresh air.
New York Knicks — Jalen Brunson is underpaid and improving
Remember last year, when Knicks fans were losing their minds over paying Jalen Brunson $100 million over four years? He was set up to be the latest in a long Knicks history of laughable contracts.
Turns out, that contract wildly undervalued Brunson.
Here are some players who will earn more next year than Brunson: Jordan Poole, Tyler Herro, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul, Michael Porter Jr., C.J. McCollum, Tobias Harris, Fred VanVleet, Bradley Beal. Brunson was better than all of them, and his contract declines in the future.
On the court, Brunson pulled off the feat of becoming a much bigger part of the offense while improving his efficiency. Playing in cramped lineups with few other offensive playmakers, Brunson proved to be one of the best shotmakers in the league. He averaged 24 points per game while shooting nearly 42% from deep on a high diet of difficult shots.
Brunson upped his game in the playoffs, where the already-struggling Knicks offense completely disintegrated anytime he stepped off the court. He averaged nearly 28 points against two of the league’s best defenses in Cleveland and Miami, routinely torching defenders with his trademark blend of leaning, twisting, stop-and-start floaters:
The best part? Brunson is just 26. We haven’t seen him peak yet.
Philadelphia 76ers — Upgrading from a Doc to a Nurse
While the reasoning made sense on paper, pairing the NBA’s foremost playoff choker in Doc Rivers with two stars who haven’t exactly showered themselves in postseason glory did not give 76ers fans much cause for optimism. (Rivers’ repeated postseason flameouts overshadow his excellent job putting Joel Embiid in position to earn an MVP, but at some point, the playoff results speak for themselves).
Nick Nurse’s championship shine had worn off by the end of his Toronto tenure, but Nurse is a creative basketball mind. The 76ers may or may not have James Harden on the roster by the time the playoffs roll around, but there are still plenty of fun toys for him to play with, particularly fourth-year scoring dynamo Tyrese Maxey.
Nurse hasn’t had offensive pieces as talented as Maxey and Embiid since Kawhi Leonard (sorry to bring up bad memories, 76ers fans). The Sixers have plenty of two-way depth, too.
Much depends on the Harden situation, but as long as Embiid stays healthy, this team will easily maintain a playoff spot. And for once, 76ers fans can look forward to holding a series lead instead of dreading it.
Toronto Raptors — Gradey Dick will be a perfect fit with Scottie Barnes
The Raptors are still in a maelstrom of uncertainty and rumors. We don’t know what this squad will look like in February, but two things seem virtually certain: franchise cornerstone Scottie Barnes and first-round pick Gradey Dick will be on the team. Luckily for Raptors fans, they’ll be perfect complements.
Toronto has struggled with shooting for so long. Barnes is a talented Swiss Army Knife of a player, but he needs to operate in more space to be effective. Dick is one of the few players on the roster who can provide that.
Dick’s Summer League shooting numbers didn’t impress, but everything else I saw did. He ran hard, held up defensively and athletically, and generally took the shots he was supposed to take. Although he’ll never be a defensive stopper, at 6’8”, he’s big enough to provide some versatility.
Rookies generally don’t contribute to winning right away, but Dick fills a desperate need for the Raptors, and his shot should translate immediately. As Barnes fully comes into his powers, the Raptors would be wise to keep Dick on the floor with him as much as possible.