NBA 2023-24 predictions: a wild West and Wembanyama fever

What I’m most looking forward to …

The fact that every time Jimmy Butler’s name appears in line-up graphics or his stats are displayed mid-game, it’ll be accompanied by his headshot with the “emo” hairstyle and facial piercings he showed up with at media day. After he did the same with his dreadlocks-and-clean-shaven look last year, his commitment to the bit is almost as impressive as his postseason heroics. RB

The Los Angeles Lakers haven’t had a drama-free off season in LeBron James’ entire tumultuous tenure – until now. While they didn’t make any blockbuster acquisitions this summer, they quietly retained the core of their Western Conference-finalist team and filled out the fringes of the roster with promising talent. Very much looking forward to seeing what this LeBron-led Lakers team looks like with a solid supporting cast, a few months of peace and immaculate vibes. CDL

Tournament play, an elegant solution to two problems that have long beset the league: near toothless rivalries and regular-season games that don’t really matter. Theoretically, the format gives teams more to play for and provides grist for juicy grudges. AL

The in-season tournament. The most intriguing aspect of the tournament is that it has an opportunity to mirror the chaos of March Madness, where upsets abound. With fewer games than a normal NBA playoff series, it could provide opportunities for lesser teams to defeat championship contenders. AS

Biggest offseason development …

The West getting wild. The Denver Nuggets are the clear top dogs, but the pack is incredibly strong this year. The Golden State Warriors have added Chris Paul to their dynastic core, the Lakers have strengthened and the Oklahoma City Thunder have the best group of young players in the league. At least of couple of good teams – Dallas Mavericks? New Orleans Pelicans? Los Angeles Clippers? Minnesota Timberwolves? – will miss the playoffs. RB

The Damian Lillard saga. Yes, this was partially due to the dog days being a notoriously slow news time, but Lillard is an outstanding talent who more than a few contenders could sorely use the services of at point guard. Milwaukee won the Lillard sweepstakes, and suddenly the Bucks are the favorites in the East once more. CDL

Now that Lillard has finally been shipped from Portland to Milwaukee (!), we finally get to see if he really is the cure for what ails the Greek Freak’s East beast. AL

The Bucks’ acquisition of Damian Lillard vaulted Milwaukee to the top tier of NBA title favorites.
The Bucks’ offseason acquisition of Damian Lillard vaulted Milwaukee to the top tier of NBA title favorites. Photograph: Morry Gash/AP

The fight for dominance in the Eastern Conference became a bit more intense with the trades that led to Lillard joining Milwaukee and Jrue Holiday joining Boston. Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo will combine forces to become the NBA’s most formidable duo. However, Holiday’s journey to Beantown could lead to one of the best Celtics rosters of all-time. AS

The surprise package will be ...

The Indiana Pacers. Bruce Brown Jr, although expensive, was a great pick-up. He’ll add ball-handling relief, positional versatility and championship experience. Obi Toppin is a nice addition, too. If Tyrese Haliburton stays healthy, I think he’ll make an All-NBA team and the Pacers will reach the playoffs for the first time since 2020. RB

People will be really surprised by how good the New York Knicks are this year. Sure, they may be a superstar away from being a real contender, but they retained their very solid core from last year and who’s to say who could demand a trade (cough cough, Joel Embiid) by the deadline. CDL

The chemistry move the Warriors made by trading reserve Jordan Poole to the Washington Wizards. In DC, he becomes the bucket getter in chief with Bradley Beal shipped off to Phoenix – and he’ll have Tyus Jones (another frustrated benchwarmer who arrives from Memphis) feeding him the ball to prove his own point, too. AL

The Houston Rockets only won 22 games in 2022-23, but expect them to be significantly better this season. The addition of feisty veterans Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks will help future stars Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr and Amen Thompson. With direction from new head coach Ime Udoka, a defensive guru, opponents will no longer mark Houston as a night off. The Rockets will earn the league’s biggest win increase and be rewarded with a play-in game or two. AS

Victor Wembanyama is ...

a whole lot of fun, if preseason is any indicator – from nutmegs, to 17-foot dunks while barely jumping, to ridiculous rim protection. LeBron is right: Wemby is an alien. RB

worth every last bit of the hype. In one preseason outing, he dunked a ball from beyond the free-throw line and his arm looked exactly like that scene from Space Jam in which MJ goes Inspector Gadget. CDL

The Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama has been hailed as the best NBA prospect since LeBron James.
The Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama has been hailed as the best NBA prospect since LeBron James. Photograph: Loren Elliott/AFP/Getty Images

… like nothing the game has seen, a one-man fast break who apparently can also block shots from the three-point line. If Phoenix Suns great Shawn Marion was nicknamed the Matrix for his tweener versatility, call Big Vic the Glitch in the Matrix. AL

something we have never witnessed before. At 7ft 4in, the Frenchman handles the basketball with the agility of a point guard, shoots with the soft touch of a shooting guard, and blocks shots as if he’s playing against kids. The Spurs hit the jackpot by landing Wembanyama. He is the centerpiece of the Spurs’ next dynasty. AS

One bold prediction

A rookie will make the All-Defensive team. No first-year player has done so since Tim Duncan in 1998. A quarter-century on, that’s about to change, and it’ll be another Spurs superstar big man who’ll do it. Wembanyama’s eye-catching offense at 7ft 4in is great for highlight clips, but he’s still raw on that end. Defensively, he’s already elite and a true game-changer. RB

Miami are still going to be really good. A lot of people appear to be writing off the Heat after they lost Gabe Vincent and Max Strus in free agency and failed to pull off the Tyler Herro for Lillard trade. But Miami are the epitome of “greater than the sum of their parts”, and in Jimmy Buckets we trust. CDL

Zion Williamson plays the whole year. Don’t laugh! He opens the season with a listed weight of 284lbs, well under the three-plus bills he reportedly tipped the scales at his worst. With a trimmer Williamson in the fold, the Pelicans’ prospects are virtually limitless. AL

The Mavericks had high hopes of making a strong playoff push last season when they traded for Kyrie Irving to pair with Luka Doncic. Positioned as the No 4 team in the West before the trade, the Mavs would finish the season at No 11 (their new duo going 5-11 in games together). Irving re-signed with the Mavs in the offseason giving the duo more time to develop chemistry. But while Irving and Doncic will thrill with dazzling highlights and high-scoring games, they will struggle to win consistently. Doncic will become more frustrated, forcing the Mavs to make another rash decision to keep their star player happy. AS


While Embiid was a worthy winner, “voter fatigue” was Nikola Jokić’s main opponent in the running for MVP last season. Now, with a championship under his belt, there is little dispute over who is the best player in the world. If the Nuggets are once again the best in the West, I think Jokić gets the vote. RB

There was pretty much no way, deserved or not, that media-averse Jokić was going to be awarded the league MVP three seasons running. Embiid certainly had an amazing season, but I think voters had some buyers’ remorse after watching Jokić bulldoze his way through the postseason, and I suspect they’ll look to course correct by giving him the award again this year. CDL

Jokić. Now that there’s no longer a threat of him upsetting the order of things by winning the award three years on the go, the proceedings can resume their regularly scheduled service. Embiid, who I like a lot, can only suffer from the unrest between James Harden and 76ers GM Daryl Morey. AL

The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić and the Lakers’ LeBron James could be on another collision course in the Western Conference playoffs.
The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić and the Lakers’ LeBron James could be on another collision course in the Western Conference playoffs. Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images

Jayson Tatum may not have a better statistical season than Embiid and Jokić, but his path to the award will be easier. Under the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, players will only be eligible for end of season awards if they play 20-plus minutes in at least 65 games. Tatum has proven his durability by playing more than 65 games in all but one of his NBA seasons. He will also have an opportunity to increase his offensive productivity now that he’s playing alongside Holiday – a more consistent facilitator who averaged 7.4 assists last season. AS

Eastern Conference playoff teams

Celtics, Bucks, 76ers, Knicks, Cavaliers, Pacers, Heat, Hawks. RB

Bucks, Celtics, Heat, Knicks, 76ers, Hawks, Cavaliers, Raptors. CDL

Bucks, Celtics, Heat, 76ers, Knicks, Nets, Hawks, Pistons. AL

Celtics, Bucks, 76ers, Cavaliers, Heat, Hawks, Knicks, Bulls. AS

Western Conference playoff teams

Nuggets, Lakers, Warriors, Suns, Thunder, Kings, Clippers, Timberwolves. RB

Nuggets, Lakers, Suns, Warriors, Kings, Thunder, Mavericks, Timberwolves. CDL

Nuggets, Suns, Lakers, Clippers, Thunder, Warriors, Pelicans, Spurs. AL

Suns, Nuggets, Lakers, Clippers, Warriors, Kings, Grizzlies, Thunder. AS

Eastern Conference final

Boston Celtics 4-2 Milwaukee Bucks RB

Milwaukee Bucks 4-2 Miami Heat CDL

Milwaukee Bucks 4-3 Boston Celtics AL

Boston Celtics 4-3 Milwaukee Bucks AS

Western Conference final

Denver Nuggets 4-1 Los Angeles Lakers RB

Los Angeles Lakers 4-3 Denver Nuggets CDL

Denver Nuggets 4-2 Phoenix Suns AL

Phoenix Suns 4-2 Los Angeles Lakers AS

NBA finals

Boston Celtics 4-3 Denver Nuggets. Nobody is stopping Jokić, but the addition of Jrue Holiday has made Boston the most complete and defensively versatile team in the league. They can tame Jamal Murray and the rest of Denver’s supporting cast. Plus, with Kristaps Porzingis and Holiday, they’ve upgraded their scoring and playmaking. Celtics in seven. RB

Los Angeles Lakers 4-3 Milwaukee Bucks. When a hobbled Milwaukee were confronted with the tenacious Miami Heat in the ‘23 playoffs, they were sorely lacking in one department: half court offense. Enter stage right: Damian Lillard, among the best distance shooters the league has ever seen. But LeBron James is as aware as anyone that this is his last real chance at ring # 5, and I don’t think he will let it pass him by. CDL

Milwaukee Bucks 4-2 Denver Nuggets. Big Game Dame not only proves to be just the fix for the Bucks, he and Giannis announce themselves as the league’s strongest one-two punch and knock out Jokić and Murray on the way to Dame’s long sought NBA crown. While we’re at it, mark him down for the series MVP and a celebratory rap song to go with it. AL

Boston Celtics 4-2 Phoenix Suns. In June 2024, we’ll look back at offseason trades that shifted the dynamics of the league. Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis to the Celtics, and Beal to the Suns will be the most significant as both will be the final teams standing. The Suns’ big three of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Beal will present enough firepower to oust their Western Conference foes. However, the Suns will come up short against the Celtics, who are finally equipped to get over the championship hump. Led by MVP candidate Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the addition of Holiday and Porzingis will prove to be the factor that brings the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Boston. AS