Programming note: I got too excited writing this article, and it became a behemoth. I don’t think you all need 4,000 words all at once, so I decided to tweak it and split it into teams and individual players. So today, we’ll start with the teams, and next time we’ll talk about some players I’m curious about.
The league has as much competitive balance now as it has ever had. Like last season, at least a half-dozen teams enter the 2022-2023 season with real championship aspirations, and hope lingers like a skunk’s spray on a handful that really should know better. The playoffs feel reachable for all but a small handful of teams, and even those cities have a loaded 2023 NBA draft to look forward to and a bevy of exciting young players to develop.
I cannot wait for the start of the season. The league has never been in a better place on the court — dangerous squads abound, young stars are on the rise, the big man is back, stylistic diversity is rampant. I legitimately am pumped to watch every team this season.
But there are some groups I’ll be whipping out my notebook and scrutinizing with an especially close eye in the first few weeks of the season. We’ll start with an obvious one.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans made the playoffs and put a scare into Phoenix last season without Zion. How good can they be with him in the mix?
We still don’t know what a fully-formed Zion looks like. At the least, he is a generationally effective offensive player, Shaq, with a handle. A quick clip of Zion in action, for those who forget:
But, for all his offensive dominance, he can’t shoot from the outside, can’t defend, and can’t rebound well enough to play much at the five.
Presumed center Jonas Valanciunas knows his role: the Pelicans’ underrated mountain man last season ramping up his three-point volume in preparation for Zion’s eventual return. But he still shot just over two attempts per game — not enough. The Pelicans’ other bigs, Jaxson Hayes and Willie Hernangómez, are solid in different aspects, but neither can shoot or defend well enough to be a seamless fit next to Zion in the frontcourt, either. Larry Nance is a solid passer and defender, but a Zion/Nance frontcourt would get eaten alive on the glass.
All of those players are talented, though, and Zion might be so good offensively it doesn’t matter. Marvel at the defensive attention he commands here as Zion draws in three defenders (and the eyeballs of the other two), fakes to the corner to look off a defender, and then delivers a one-handed pass to Brandon Ingram, who has never been so wide-open in his life:
Ingram and C.J. McCollum are All-Star caliber players at wing and point guard, respectively, and the Pellies have plenty of solid role players. It’s a talented roster, but it could take time to gel around Zion. McCollum and Ingram are used to captaining the offense, and it will take some adjusting to figure out the new pecking order.
Zion evolved during his historic 2020-2021 campaign, assuming more ballhandling and playmaking duties as the season progressed while transforming into “Point Zion.” With his lack of range but surprising on-the-ball juice, he might be the Pellies’ best choice to initiate the offense. McCollum and Ingram can zip around off-ball (a McCollum specialty) and take advantage of defenses forming a wall in the paint to fend off Zion’s cannonball drives.
Ingram-Zion-McCollum should be a wonderful offensive trio in any permutation. None of those guys are plus defenders, however, and Herb Jones can’t guard everyone by himself (though he’ll try!), so we’ll have to see if coach Willie Green and his staff can conjure up something to keep the defense juuuuust afloat enough to compete. I am skeptical, but stranger things have happened. Zion was a solid defender in college, and Ingram has been a plus on that end at points in his career. A return to form for those two, unlikely as it seems, would be a game-changer.
(I haven’t heard any chatter about this, but I can’t help wondering what Myles Turner, the prototypical floor-stretching rim-protector, would look like on this team. His shooting would open up the floor for Zion, and his help-defense instincts could cover up a lot of mistakes from his teammates.)
Outside the addition of a few rookies, like point guard Dyson Daniels, the Pelicans brought back largely the same roster. They’re hoping the addition of Zion gives them a top-five offense and enough juice to compete with anyone in a playoff series. Ingram is fresh off averaging an eye-opening 27/6/6 against the Suns’ ace defender Mikal Bridges in the postseason, so we know he can bring it.
This team was already decent, and it’s adding Zion. Does that raise their ceiling enough to make noise in a crowded Western Conference? Honestly, I’m not confident in their chances, but Zion has already tested my belief in physics. Anything is possible.
Any quality you want in a team, Chicago has in spades. Talented bucket-getters in their prime? Say hi to MVP candidate DeMar DeRozan and bastion of consistency Zach LaVine. Up-and-coming players whose development is critical to long-term improvement? Hey there, Patrick Williams and Ayo Dosunmo. Critical injury returns? Welcome back, Lonzo Ball (hopefully!).
The Bulls were sneakily one of the most aesthetically pleasing teams on both sides of the ball last year. I’ve never seen a quality defense built quite like theirs: horrible wing and interior defenders bolstered by relentless, hounding perimeter bulldogs (Caruso, Dosunmo, Ball) determined to snuff out plays at the point of attack and hassle opposing ballhandlers like that crew of blue jays across the street who harass my cat every day. It’s considered impossible to build a winning defense without a wing stopper and a rim-deterring big man, but the Bulls proved that superlative guard defense alone could be disruptive enough to overcome those deficiencies.
Offensively, at least, DeRozan had the best season of his career last year at 32. It’s hard to imagine him replicating last year’s 28 points on 50% shooting, but even a slight step backward should more than be made up for by the youngsters’ improvement. LaVine is a proven three-level scorer who gets buckets at will and is fresh off inking a max contract keeping him in Chicago for the foreseeable future. These two were the highest-scoring duo in the NBA last season (give or take a James Harden trade), and there’s nothing to suggest they can’t repeat that feat.
Dosunmo was a revelation as a rookie, playing the aforementioned rugged defense while stepping up in unexpected ways after injuries to Chicago’s guards. Although a point guard in college, there were concerns about Ayo’s ability to shoot and make advanced passing reads. He answered those questions and then some, converting an excellent 52% from the field (and 38% on low volume from deep) while routinely finding teammates for easy buckets:
Standing 6’5” tall with a V12 motor, Dosunmo naturally thrived in transition, but he performed well in a variety of offensive settings. He was a sharp pick-and-roll player, hit a surprising number of spot-up shots, and even cooked in isolation — something young players are rarely able to do. Dosunmo’s ability to carry bench units and be a complementary playmaker and scorer next to LaVine and DeRozan will go a long way toward determining Chicago’s ceiling.
Patrick Williams, entering his third year, is the other pivotal piece. Expectations were high for him after a promising rookie season, but the athletic power forward succumbed to a wrist injury early in the season. As a result, we didn’t get to see much of him, and he looked tentative at times upon his return as he tried to re-acclimate to the NBA.
Williams ended his season on a strong note, scoring 20+ points in the Bulls’ last two playoff games against the Bucks. For the season, he shot lights-out on his few deep attempts despite a slow, high-arcing shot, and he was an above-average shooter from literally every area on the floor. Williams has more flexibility on both ends than perhaps anyone else on the roster and reportedly was the sticking point in Chicago’s trade negotiations for Rudy Gobert. He’ll need to assert himself more aggressively this season to reach the promise he’s shown, but the Bulls believe he has All-Star two-way potential.
Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso were the best defensive backcourt in the league last season, but Ball’s troubled return from a bone bruise and meniscus tear raises the hair on the back of my neck. Just last year, we saw Kendrick Nunn miss an entire season thanks to a bone bruise that didn’t heal properly. Ball has emerged as one of the best complementary pieces in the league, an unselfish and talented passer who rebounds and defends excellently at his position while bombing away from deep (an astonishing 42% on more than seven triples per game — one of the best combinations of accuracy and volume in the entire NBA last season!). Lonzo is the exact kind of player you want next to guys like LaVine and DeRozan, the lanky skeleton key unlocking the best version of the Chicago offense.
People are sleeping on the Bulls, and I get it. They fell apart down the stretch last year and performed about as bad as you’d expect against the Bucks, who were a nightmare matchup for them. But Chicago can still make a run for home-court advantage even in a loaded East. They were a top-10 offense and defense on Christmas Day before injuries devastated them, and they have that potential again.
Now, if only they could turn Nikola Vučević into a center with the teeniest bit of defense (and no, Andre Drummond doesn’t count)…
An absolute must-watch. Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, two legit big men with zipper-like skillsets, playing in a league that hasn’t seen twin towers like this since…Duncan and Robinson? Yes, please.
KAT is an uber-efficient seven-foot sniper. Gobert is one of the best defenders of all time. Add Anthony Edwards’ explosive scoring (he’s a lock for MIP this year — bet the house*), D’Angelo Russell’s underrated playmaking, and a hodgepodge of interesting role players, and Minnesota should be a dominant regular season squad fighting for a top seed in the West.
Since Gobert became a full-time starter for Utah in 2015-2016, the Jazz have only finished outside the top 10 on defense once, in 2020 (they were 13th). He single-handedly guarantees at least competency and at most dominance on that end.
And Rudy’s no slouch on offense, where he’s the most effective pick-setter in the NBA. Could we see some Rudy/Karl-Anthony pick-and-roll this season to try and get the slower big on KAT or free up the dunktastic Gobert? I sure hope so! Visions of the Boogie Cousins to Anthony Davis alley-oops from 2017 are dancing in my head:
Gorgeous. Just gorgeous.
This team should be an elite unit on both sides of the ball, which traditionally has been a recipe for postseason success. But we don’t know! The NBA hasn’t seen a team built like this in decades, and it’s unclear how the Wolves would do against more guard-oriented teams in the playoffs (I can’t wait till Minnesota plays Golden State for the first time, on Thanksgiving weekend). Rudy has, famously, had limited success in the postseason, and KAT is a defensive liability who has faced questions about his mental toughness throughout his career. How he holds up under increased scrutiny will be an uncomfortable but important subplot.
This team is absolutely a Finals contender, but they may be more matchup-dependent than other squads. The Suns might brutalize KAT with infinite pick-and-rolls, but the Warriors and Dallas, among others, could be susceptible inside to the Wolves’ sheer size. How the seeding shakes out could go a long way toward determining Minnesota’s ability to win more than one playoff series.
New players + high expectations + intriguing lineups + sweet new duds = major basketball catnip. The Minnesota Timberwolves are the team I’m most excited to watch this season.
*Don’t do that.
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