(click play to have the song playing as you read the blog for the full effect)
Exactly one month from today, there will be real NBA basketball on our televisions again. No Team USA FIBA World Cup games, no preseason games, the real deal. I'm so excited I don't even really know what to do with my hands considering I've been waiting since May 29th for this moment.
So with Media Day and training camps opening up for business in about a week, I wanted to dive into the 2023-24 a little bit and talk about pressure. You could make the case that the league has never been as wide open as it is entering this upcoming season, and with that comes varying degrees of expectations and pressure for each team. In my opinion, there are really only two groups of teams that enter 2023-24 pretty much pressure-free.
1. The Denver Nuggets (as defending champs they are playing with house money)
2. Tanking teams who want to lose on purpose/are in the early stages of their rebuild
Everyone else? The upcoming season brings a certain degree of pressure. I've gone ahead and broken down the different pressure groups and who I feel fits in each as we prepare for what should be another incredible NBA season
The Future Of Your Franchise Depends On Competing For A Title
This is pretty self-explanatory. The teams in this group can't just have a "good" season. They can't win a round or two in the playoffs and consider things a success. No no, teams in this group could potentially be facing franchise altering decisions based on how things shake out.
Milwaukee Bucks - I mean, duh. When your franchise player comes out not once but twice and says unless his current team is competing and winning an NBA title, he's not signing his extension and will be taking his talents elsewhere as soon as he's able to. Another first round exit for the Bucks would certainly make that way more possible not to mention the team may decide to not extend Jrue Holiday, which could also have huge ramifications when it comes to Giannis. I know the Bucks won the 2020 title, but we're about to enter 2023-24 and they haven't even made the ECF since. Huge pressure season in MIL.
Philadelphia 76ers - Nobody gets more regular season hype only to fall short every year quite like the Sixers. Every year we hear them mentioned next to the word "contender", as if winning 1 playoff round makes you a contender in the NBA. While we still wait to see what happens with the Harden trade and what type of assets come back, that doesn't really change the expectation for their season. How many more years is Embiid going to stomach not even making the ECF? There's already rumblings that he could be the next start to demand out. If they have another 2nd round exit, at what point does Embiid say enough is enough and demands out?
You Better Win The Title Or Else It's A Gigantic And Inexcusable Failure
This section differs from the one above because coming up short may not have drastic reprucussions in terms of the future of that specific franchise, but there is no excuse for these teams to not win. If they don't, I think you could put it in the disaster category.
Boston Celtics - Sorry, the time for excuses is over. Losing in the Finals in 2022 was tough, but it was finally a step to get over the ECF hump. To then back that up with what we saw in 2023, yeah, you could say the Celts enter the league with some of the most pressure of any team in the NBA. They traded Marcus Smart for a player Brad Stevens feels gets them over the hump. Their two young stars are getting even closer to their NBA prime years. The talent is there to win the whole thing. We have firmly entered "title or bust" expectations for this group, and the clock is certainly ticking for this team to reach the top of the mountain before Tatum's supermax kicks in. Personally, I say embrace the pressure and use it to fuel you, but we'll see.
Phoenix Suns - Their owner basically said fuck the salary cap and any other CBA penalty for spending an insane amount of money on their roster. You make win now trades for Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant, you can't just make a deep run. You have to win the whole thing. Given the age of their core, the Suns' window to win their title is right now. They already wasted a postseason run with Durant, you can't make a habit of that. They brought in a championship caliber coach, have pretty good depth considering everyone was willing to take the minimum to join this superteam, and frankly there's no excuse for the Suns this time around. They spent the money, they made the trades, now they have to win
Miami Heat - I am only putting the Heat here because I am still operating under the assumption that Damian Lillard will be heading to South Beach. A Butler/Dame/Bam trio comes with raised expectations, especially given how well MIA has performed without such elite talent over the last 4 postseason runs. If for whatever reason they don't bring in Dame, their expectation/pressure obviously adjusts pretty substantially.
The Clock Is Running Out
This section is sort of a combination of the two above. Teams that I consider good enough to win the title, but may not have the same amount of pressure to win as the teams mentioned above. This group is more about the fact that time is running out on their current rosters both due to age and pending free agents
Golden State Warriors - At some point the Warriors Dynasty is going to end, and as everyone gets older and older I imagine there are most likely only a few seasons left with this core. The pressure for GS this upcoming season mostly revolves around Klay Thompson. He's up for an extension and can leave next season for nothing, so the clock is certainly ticking. Granted the Warriors just won their 4th ring so if this is actually the end then so be it, but for a team that is going to have to make some tough financial calls fairly soon surrounding a core piece, there's a good amount of pressure for them to get the most out of this group while they still have it
Los Angeles Clippers - Same situation over with the LAC. Both Kawhi and Paul George have 1+1 left on their deals and both are eligible for extensions, neither of which has been signed. The clock for them isn't only running because of those contract situations, but also the age. Injuries have killed this team in recent years, and with Kawhi and George not getting any younger, the Clippers only have so many swings to take.
Prove That You Are Actually Legit
These teams may not be true "title contenders", but that doesn't mean there aren't expectations or pressure for a big year. There's also a group of teams that enter 2023-24 as a "prove it" season. Show us that what we saw last year was real, and not just a one-season anomaly. These teams won't be catching anyone by surprise this time around, so we'll get a good sense of just how good they really are.
New York Knicks - These are not the same old Knicks. They're actually being smart when it comes to roster construction, the defense is legit, and I think most were surprised by their 47-35 record. Well now let's see if they can do it again. You generally get one surprise season when you're a new team that finds itself in the 45+ win range, so we're going to see if the Knicks success last year is actually legit or if they were just mostly a regular season team that tried really hard during the year, but once we got to the playoffs where everyone tries hard, suddenly they didn't look so hot. They aren't the only team that might have this issue, but there's pressure for NYK to actually back up what we saw last year to the point where they probably need to make the leap into a homecourt team next sesaon.
Cleveland Cavaliers - This isn't too different from the Knicks. They were a young team that was maybe a year early in terms of their progress. They traded for Donovan Mitchell, won 51 games, but then flamed out big time in the playoffs. Was what we saw during the year smoke and mirrors or is there actually something there? You can only play the "young" card so many times, and after winning 51 games and losing in the 1st round, I'd say there's a fair amount of pressure for CLE to prove they're for real. Not just for the fans, but to Donovan Mitchell as well. He's another guy that chose to not extend early, so another down year or early playoff exit may change how he views that team's ceiling.
Sacramento Kings - Ah yes, the Beam Team. Everyone loves the Beam Team and their awesome 2023-24 season. Well, just like the teams above, they enter 2023-24 with real expectations. They are another team that isn't sneaking up on anyone, and while the reality may be a non-top 3 seed finish, for them I think it's more going to be something where you know it if you see it. One thing that really helped their season last year was the fact that pretty much all of their best players basically never got hurt. That went a long way when it came to their 48-34 record. But I'm someone who thinks you can't spend all year talking about how things are now different and how the culture is different, only to take steps backward this season.
Los Angeles Lakers - It was a little hard to evaluate the 2023-24 Lakers given the fact that they changed their entire team at the deadline. As a result, we saw them make a run to the WCF before getting run out of the gym by the Nuggets. This offseason you have ESPN saying they've had the best summer of any team in the NBA. That this collection of talent to start the year is way more balanced and much better than the Lakers team we saw start last season. OK, so prove it. Show us that how you finished last season is truly who you are and not a flash in the pan. When AD and LeBron have been healthy, I think you had to put the Lakers firmly in the "legit" category. Unlike the 3 teams above, the Lakers do enter this season with title expectations, but only if their new talent can actually sustain the success we saw for a few months last year.
Either Shit Or Get Off The Pot
At some point these teams actually have to break through and make some legit postseason progress. Enough talking about it and more being about it. That doesn't exactly have to mean winning a title, but it does mean after a few years of being an elite team you finally back it up with your postseason play
Memphis Grizzlies - No team in the NBA talks more shit than the Memphis Grizzlies. Even without Dillon Brooks on the roster, I imagine that's still going to be the case this season. A whole lot of talking from that group without the winning to back it up. After back to back seasons of being a 2 seed and winning over 50 games, this is another team that can no longer really play the "young" card. It's time to either shit or get off the pot as far as I'm concerned when it comes to the Grizzlies. We enter Year 4 of this group not even making the WCF, so you could make the case they're just the West Coast Sixers. Lots of hype, lots of shit talking from their best players, little postseason success. That's not exactly where any team should want to be.
Dallas Mavericks - The way people talk about Luka Doncic, you'd think he had 5 rings by now. You could make the case that no star player gets to skate more for his team's underachievement quite like Luka. Well, since arriving in DAL, the Mavs have made just 1 WCF. They've lost in the first round twice and missed the playoffs entirely (including the Play In) despite trading for Kyrie Irving. Yet for whatever reason it feels like Luka gets off scott-free, with people making excuses about how he doesn't have enough talent to win or something along those lines. Sorry, if you're being talked about as a generational talent and an MVP favorite, you have to at least make the freaking playoffs. Now that they'll have a full year of the Kyrie/Luka backcourt, there's definitely pressure for them to get back into the Top 6 at a minimum.
Chicago Bulls - On paper, the talent is there. On the court, that talent hasn't exactly translated to wins. Part of that isn't their fault, the Lonzo injury really boned the Bulls in terms of their roster construction, but they do enter the season with 3 All Star talents. This is a franchise that has either missed the playoffs or lost in the first round every season since 2010-11. Either they need to actually make the playoffs and win a round or two or you may as well blow it all up and start over. DeRozan is getting older and is a UFA this summer, and at some point you need to determine if it's better to be stuck in the middle or just unload the LaVine/Vucecvic deals and begin the rebuild process.
Are You Ever Going To Actually Make The Leap?
Teams in this section are ones that I feel like we've been waiting for years for them to make some sort of leap as a team, and it just never happens.
Toronto Raptors - Yeah, they won the title in 2019, but it's been a bit of a disaster since. The Raptors may be the poster child for being stuck in NBA purgatory, and at this point, I think it's fair to wonder if the Raptors ever break through and get back to that level where they were winning multiple playoff rounds. Since that Finals win, they've lost in the 1st round, lost in the 2nd round, and missed the playoffs twice. All while refusing to tank or refusing to unload assets for big win-now players. Now, if they actually do trade for Dame that's going to shift where they are in terms of their pressure group, but if not then who knows if that ever happens.
Atlanta Hawks - Was 2020-21 real? After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, that team broke through and made the ECF. Since then? Back to back seasons where they play around .500 basketball and lose in the first round. They paid Trae Young, traded for and then extended Dejounte Murray, not to mention bringing in a new coach. So the question is, will any of it actually matter? The Hawks always feel like a team that people like on paper, but then they actually play true contenders and they look a few pegs behind. Eventually, they have to get back to that ECF level or what's even the point of sinking all that money into their backcourt?
Charlotte Hornets - Are the Hornets good? Not really, but they probably should be much better than their 27-55 record indicates. There's legit talent on that roster, so what's the deal? How many more years are we going to wait for the Hornets to make any sort of progress only for them to be in the lottery every year? This team hasn't made the playoffs since 2015-16. They just gave LaMelo a max rookie extension. At some point things have to translate to the court, and that most certainly has not happened.
On The Verge Of Disaster
Title basically says it all. Teams in this section have to show they've figured their shit out, or disaster is on the horizon
Minnesota Timberwolves - Look, for whatever reason the Wolves decided it was a good idea to mortgage their entire future on Rudy Gobert. I don't know why they did that, you don't know why they did that, shit I don't even think they know why they did that. Year 1 of that experiment is not something I could consider "good", and given the assets they gave up and the money Gobert is owed, Year 2 has to be a legit step in the right direction. Another around .500 season where you find yourself in the Play In/early playoff exit is not going to cut it. At that point you now enter all the potential trade KAT drama, you wonder about Anthony Edwards and his future, all that shit. The Wolves simply have to show that they have an actual plan of how to make this roster work or else things will get dicey rather quickly. Nobody is saying win the title, but how about finishing in the Top 6?
New Orleans Pelicans - Including the Pelicans here is solely around Zion. On paper, the Pelicans are loaded with talent. While Zion was on the floor last year, they had one of the best records in the league. Then they sank like a rock. At some point if the Pelicans have to deal with another brutal injury season from Zion, you wonder if they finally decide to bite the bullet and move him for what would probably be a pretty substantial return given his age.
Back Up Your New Found Hype
Teams in this group don't really have the same amount of "win now" pressure as some of the contenders and want to be contenders above, but they do enter the year with the pressure and expectation of tangible growth
Oklahoma City Thunder - Find me a more hyped up young team right now than the Thunder. You can't. Granted it's for good reason given how their 2022-23 went and the fact that they finally get to add Chet to the mix. But with that hype comes new expectations, and the pressure is on to back up what looked like the start of a legit rise up the West standings. There are those out there who consider OKC a legit playoff team next year which is a pretty big jump. Just like the Knicks/Cavs, you only get one season where you "surprise" everyone else, which is what I felt like the Thunder's 2022-23 was. Now the book is out on them, opposing teams are now going to respect their talent and no longer consider OKC an easy win. How they handle that is going to tell us a whole lot in terms of where they are in their rebuild.
Orlando Magic - Is there hype around the Magic this year? Maybe not, but I certainly think they should continue to make forward progress. I'm very intrigued by the young talent on that roster and I think it's fair to suggest they should be somewhere in the conversation for Play In contention. Is it crazy for them to flirt with 40 wins (won 34 last year) and get in as a 9/10 seed?
Indiana Pacers - Same thing here with the Pacers. People forget the Pacers were a top 6 seeded team with Haliburton on the floor. They were one of the early surprises of the season last year. Well now let's see what they can do to back that up. Part of this might revolve around what they get back for Buddy Hield, but I'm interested to see if they can separate themselves and get into that 7-10 seeded range.
Utah Jazz - The Jazz are still very early in their rebuild considering last year was Year 1, but if you come out and win 37 games when everyone thought you were going to drive the Wembanyama sweeptsakes, I'd say there's a decent amount of pressure to show that your hype is real. Given how stacked the West is I'm not saying this is a team that needs to make the playoffs, but another competitive season feels like another solid benchmark.
This is where I'd put the tanking/not anywhere close teams. That would be your Pistons/Rockets/Spurs/Wizards/Blazers/Nets of the world. Outside of the Nuggets who won the title, I don't see any of those teams having all that much pressure next year.