As the 2023-24 NBA season approaches, these are the biggest storylines in the association to keep a close eye on.
Chet v Wemby
There was always going to be a rivalry manufactured by media members on TV and online, but Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama have taken it to the court themselves already.
The pair met in the preseason and both put up nice numbers. Holmgren, drafted with the 2nd pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, dropped 21 points and reeled in nine rebounds in 16 minutes. In response, Wembanyama scored 20 points with five rebounds in 19 minutes. They both clearly have each other on their minds, though.
WEMBY FLEXED ON CHET HOLMGREN AFTER THE AND-1 💪 pic.twitter.com/HeYCV7aVVA
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 10, 2023
Wembanyama is a generational prospect. He’s the most exciting and hyped-up player since LeBron James. However, he’s going to feature on a bad team this season. Opposing teams will circle him on the scouting report and ask a lot of him in his rookie year given the lack of star quality around him. Holmgren, on the other hand, will benefit from playing alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Not only will SGA place high-percentage shots on a plate for him, but he is one of many who demands the attention of the defence.
Wemby is a freak with what he can do as a scorer. Holmgren’s playmaking ability will add another dimension to the Thunder offence. Both are already top-shelf rim protectors.
We don’t have a lot of genuine player rivalries in the NBA right now but the contrasting styles of the two giants could create one of the greats. They next meet in the middle of November when we’re going to have a slightly better idea of how their rookie seasons might pan out.
Lillard Turns Up In Milwaukee
“We can do this all night.” – Damian Lillard
“I’ll be very honest: I’ve never been this open.” – Giannis Antetokounmpo
It’s all sounding pretty, pretty, pretty good at the Milwaukee Bucks right now.
Everybody assumed Lillard would end up with the Miami Heat. After all, Lillard said he wanted to go there, and with how much player power dominates the NBA, most assumed the two franchises involved would do a little dance and the Portland Trail Blazers would ultimately have to send him to Miami for next to nothing. Instead, he’s in Milwaukee and already linking up very nicely with Antetokounmpo.
It’s only preseason. It’s way too early. Damian Lillard played only 22 minutes, Giannis only played 15.
The Milwaukee Bucks are going to *ruin* opponents this coming season.
— Mitchell Maurer (@Mitchell_NBA) October 16, 2023
There is a fair assumption that the Bucks might be a little bit slow to get going; the Under has shortened on their 53.5 into $1.81. It will take time for two ball-dominant players to work things out between them while also playing under a new coach. Antetokounmpo hasn’t played over 68 games since the 2018-19 NBA season. Lillard is the same. The regular season will be a time to tinker and iron out the kinks. That won’t always translate into wins and some will be left on the table in the name of experimentation.
However, this is a championship-contending team. The Bucks are alongside the Boston Celtics as $4.50 favourites for a reason and will be in the mix come finals time even if it doesn’t all present very well early on.
Harden, Embiid and the 76ers
James Harden will make things uncomfortable for as long as he remains with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Whether he forces an exit soon or things keep bubbling away all year, there will be a constant unease around the franchise. It’s in his best interest financially to turn up and play, but we’ve seen how he can act and play when he’s disinterested. That version of Harden isn’t the sidekick Joel Embiid needs to take the Sixers to another level.
Being told by one source tonight that with Clippers still unwilling to include Terance Mann or additional draft capital during talks with Philadelphia in recent days, it’s increasingly likely James Harden will be on the Sixers’ roster to start the season next Thursday vs. Bucks. https://t.co/GnP47kg9BR
— Jake Fischer (@JakeLFischer) October 18, 2023
Even with the allegedly interested Harden the 76ers fell short in the Conference Finals last season. His return doesn’t guarantee anything for Philadelphia, but he would be a big contributor to a roster that boasts more depth and the reigning Most Valuable Player, Embiid.
Embiid must be wondering what he has done to deserve this situation. He’s already sat through similar with Ben Simmons who was traded away for Harden. There is a good chance he comes out of this one better off, though.
While dodging barbs from Harden, Daryl Morey has hired a proven NBA championship head coach in Nick Nurse while adding a few more contributing pieces in the form of Danny Green Patrick Beverley, Kelly Oubre and Mo Bamba. The expectation is for this group to compete for the championship regardless. Whether it be with Harden or with the assets that are returned for him, the 76ers should be among the top teams in the Eastern Conference at the very least.
Is Phoenix The Last NBA Super Team?
The NBA Super Team era might be coming to an end with this version of the Phoenix Suns. Those before them performed to varying degrees of success, but the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement has rules in place that make expensive and top-heavy teams a lot less appealing.
Scoring won’t be a problem for this group. Kevin Durant is one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, Devin Booker averaged a career-high 27.8 points per game last season, and Bradley Beal averaged over 30 points per game in back-to-back seasons not long ago. As we’ve seen already throughout the preseason, the Suns run hot. They’re going to be a team that piles up points and builds a lead in the blink of an eye.
But how will it all come together overall?
Similar to the Bucks, the Suns are integrating new – high-usage players – into a new team being led by a new head coach in Frank Vogel. Monty Williams was fired after the Suns lost to the eventual NBA champions in the conference semi-finals last season. In fact, Booker is the only player that remains from Phoenix’s run to the 2021 NBA Finals. This isn’t only a new-look team at the top end, but a whole roster that lacks cohesion and time together on the court.
"I think the development of our team, and seeing where we are and seeing how we can come together – how quickly can we come together, I think that’s the most important thing. We'll see what happens."
– Kevin Durant
— Jason (@SportsJO13) October 18, 2023
Despite the Denver Nuggets coming in as defending champions and playing with a fairly cohesive team with the majority of their biggest contributors returning, the Suns are alongside them on the third line of betting to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy at $6.50.
It’s a price on potential.
A lot needs to go right for the Suns. First, they need to work things out on the court somewhat quickly. Second, they need to remain healthy in order to develop that chemistry and be healthy at the right time to put it all together throughout the post-season.
While their place in the Western Conference Finals seems like a formality, their path there is worth watching all season.
Now is the time for Zion
This has to be the year Zion Williamson puts himself and the New Orleans Pelicans in the best position to succeed.
He’s not spent enough time on the court since being taken with the #1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. With only 114 games to his name since then, we’ve seen glimpses of what he’s capable of producing, but that is another problem again. Injuries have played their part; bad luck is a factor. However, he hasn’t put in the work required to return to the court ready to fire in the past.
Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin had some interesting comments at Media Day.
“This was the first summer where we’ve seen Zion really take his profession seriously like that,” said Griffin.
It’s a quote that is as damning as it is encouraging.
How has it taken this long to take his profession seriously?
Whatever the reason, the early signs of this new and improved Williamson are promising.
Welcome back Zion Williamson 💪pic.twitter.com/m6skk6jeeb
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) October 11, 2023
Williamson can be one of the best players in the NBA if he can stay on the court. His ability to score down low is unquestioned and his playmaking is underrated. He’s incredibly dynamic for somebody his size and, strangely, one benefit of playing so few games is that the defence still hasn’t figured out how to stop him. There is still a lot of improvement to come on his 26 points, 7 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 29 games last season.
If we can get 70 wins from Williamson, the Pelicans will be an exciting team to watch all season. If C.J. McCollum and Brandon Ingram can do the same, then the Pelicans’ 44.5 won total (Over – $2) looks too small and their $26 to get out of the West appeals.