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Nineteen Increasingly Bold Predictions for the 2022-23 NBA Season

We start with a relatively tame title prediction and end with a completely unreasonable trade proposal. Basketball is officially back.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s hard to oversell the 2022-23 NBA season. The world’s best basketball league is finally back in an exhilarating, entirely unpredictable form, highlighted by numerous stars who missed all or most of the 2021-22 campaign—Kawhi, Zion, Murray, Simmons, Dame … Sexton!—now healthy enough to participate in what promises to be a fascinating year.

The chase to the Finals is stacked with more serious contenders than normal, including some impatient franchises (Minnesota, Cleveland, Atlanta) that may have preemptively pushed all or most of their chips toward the middle in the hopes of making a playoff push.

And then we have every front office still slack-jawed after watching Victor Wembanyama reset the laws of physics earlier this month in Las Vegas. The race to the bottom for at least a third of the league will be swift, ugly, and, for one lucky loser, rewarding beyond measure. Taken as a whole, the range of possibilities is unusual in the absolute greatest way, from individual awards to regular-season standings, and everything beyond.

To prepare for such a spectacle, here are a slew of increasingly bold predictions, starting with downright tame and escalating all the way to completely unreasonable. Let the games begin!

1. The Los Angeles Clippers will win it all.

Let’s start with a championship pick that, if not self-evident, should at least be understandable. No team is better built to thrive in the regular season and endure a deep playoff run than the Clippers. Much of my optimism admittedly comes from the belief that we’ll see a motivated and ferocious Kawhi Leonard return to form, which, given that we’re talking about one of the most successful and scrupulous players of all time, shouldn’t be viewed as a stretch!

Leonard’s copilot, Paul George, is one of the 15 best players alive. The two have learned how to complement each other and enter this season surrounded by one of the more fashionably flexible supporting casts in recent NBA history. The Clippers can go five out, attack in transition, execute in the half court, and flex their muscles with some bully ball all in the same quarter. They can switch everything or play a more conventional pick-and-roll defense.

The lineup possibilities are just silly. There are myriad two-way players who can create for themselves and others (on and off the ball) while guarding several positions. There’s continuity. There’s speed, space, and veteran guile. (Here’s one possible *all-bench* unit: John Wall, Terance Mann, Norm Powell, Nicolas Batum, and Robert Covington. That is ridiculous, and doesn’t even include Luke Kennard, who oh by the way led the NBA in 3-point percentage last season.)

Ty Lue is the West Coast’s answer to Erik Spoelstra. A bold outside-the-box thinker and master motivator who squeezes out everything he can from whatever type of roster he has. His ability to cultivate a collective buy-in from a team that may be “too talented” is no small challenge. Lue is on the short list of leaders who won’t be fazed by the pressure that comes with a gargantuan payroll and championship expectations.

The vibes aren’t what they were in the bubble; most of these players experienced the Western Conference finals together in 2021. (Had the underrated and essential Ivica Zubac never gotten hurt they might’ve won.) Now add Leonard, Powell, Covington, and Wall to that core group. The Clippers also have a shrewd front office and the league’s wealthiest owner. Midseason tinkering is always possible in the form of a consolidation trade, and their first-round pick in 2028 can be added as a sweetener.

On the flip side of all this positivity, health issues for Leonard and George (who has yet to cross the 55-game barrier in a Clippers jersey) can’t be ignored, and we technically haven’t seen how Wall’s iffy outside shot will fit next to everybody else. But the Clippers’ depth should lessen the normal weight those first two superstars would have to carry in just about any other situation. Just because this organization hasn’t reached the Finals yet shouldn’t disqualify it from a front-running status. The Clippers have answers to every issue an opponent can throw at them. And then some.

2. The Philadelphia 76ers’ starting five will rule.

Philadelphia’s new starting five has more than enough talent, and is complementary in ways that the city hasn’t seen since … well, it’s been a very long time. Boasted within: an unstoppable MVP candidate who can spend months-long stretches as the most dominant offensive and defensive player in the sport; a three-time scoring champ whose playmaking brilliance will shine beside so many other capable options; a 21-year-old franchise-altering star on the rise; a grimy 37-year-old who chews on sandpaper when bored; and an uncommonly overqualified fourth option.

Lineups featuring James Harden, Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris outscored opponents by 17.6 points per 100 possessions in 464 minutes last season. And P.J. Tucker is the perfect rugged role player to round them out. He can knock down open corner 3s (he quietly hit a career-best 41.5 percent of them last season), bum-rush the offensive glass, switch, ignite defensive communication, and, most importantly, set an emotional and physical tone while holding his teammates accountable every day.

The Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll is both their setup and knockout punch (it yielded 1.25 points per possession last season, which ranked first out of 26 tandems that ran at least 600 pick-and-rolls together, according to Second Spectrum), but it’s hardly all this group can do with the ball. Embiid post-ups are a death blow. Harden isolations are still plenty efficient. Give Maxey a runway and it’s easier to catch a butterfly with chopsticks than slow him down. Harris can punish smaller defenders and remind opponents who’re so overly focused on the first three options that he’s one year removed from almost joining the 50/40/90 club.

How they hold up in the playoffs is another story. In the regular season, this quintet is a steamroller.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

3. Don’t expect much from the Los Angeles Lakers.

With no shade, let’s start here: L.A.’s third-best player is … Patrick Beverley? The Lakers starting five is up in the air. Their closing five is TBD in an even more concerning way. Outside of Pat Bev, and maybe Kendrick Nunn, they don’t have any knock-down 3-point shooting role players who are respectable on the other end—a minor problem when trying to accentuate LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Now, this criticism will look silly if Davis rediscovers his jump shot and resembles the world-obliterating two-way force he once was. But after missing 42 games last season and enduring a tight back during the preseason (a few days after needlessly declaring his plan to suit up for all 82) it’s fair to hold reservations. LeBron is greatness personified but also will turn 38 in December and is understandably no longer expected to be a reliable defensive presence. It feels sacrilegious to doubt him, but this is more an indictment of supplementary talent than what the King is still capable of. Darvin Ham is a rookie head coach. Russell Westbrook has been relegated to the bench, but that won’t fix the fact that he’s an atrocious fit.

The Lakers have two first-round picks they can tie to Westbrook’s contract (more on that later!) but, regrettably for them, Rob Pelinka (fresh off a legendary contract extension) will lead any negotiation. No front-office executive inspires less confidence in their ability to make sensible decisions.

Meanwhile: The West is going to be brutal. Utah is seemingly the only playoff team from last season that’s about to plummet. When it comes to the play-in, there are more reasons to be exuberant about the Blazers and Kings—a pair of lower-middle-class inhabitants that spent the offseason feeding their respective fan bases a spoonful of short- and long-term optimism—than the purple and gold. Neither Sacramento nor Portland is built to advance in the playoffs, but they’re better suited for an 82-game journey than these Lakers.

4. Steph Curry will make a dominant return to form.

There’s not too much to analyze here. Curry will lead the league in 3s made and attempted for the eighth time (!) while also seeing his accuracy off the dribble and from catch-and-shoot tries tick back above 40 percent. Last year he was below that mark in both categories for the first time in a full season since 2016-17.

Curry doesn’t need to prove anything. But his confidence should be at a different peak, coming off a title run that can accurately be labeled his crowning achievement, with a band of healthy teammates who make his life easier on both sides of the ball. From Day 1, Steve Kerr can tinker with lineups that feature Steph, Klay Thompson, and Jordan Poole, groups that will melt the iPads opposing coaches use to make in-game adjustments during timeouts. Curry will never be an afterthought, but loading up to slow him down won’t be an option, either.

5. The Denver Nuggets will win at least 60 games.

In the past 25 years, only 28 teams have won 61 games or more, the most recent being last season’s 64-win Suns. Despite fierce competition, a healthy, hungry Nuggets squad is well positioned to join that list. They not only have a 27-year-old two-time defending MVP, but one who tangibly makes everyone around him about 15 percent more dangerous than they’d otherwise be.

A small example: The incoming Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will score approximately 2,000 points leaking out off of makes and misses because of Nikola Jokic. If someone else kicked the ball ahead like he does, it’d be their defining trait. For the Joker? It’s a dollop of frosting on the cake. Last year there were 118 players who threw at least 200 passes defined as an outlet or pass ahead, according to Second Spectrum. The shot quality from looks sparked by Jokic ranked first out of those 118 players.

Denver is coming off a miraculous 48-win season, which shouldn’t be overlooked. Behind Jokic, here were the other eight Nuggets who logged more than 1,000 minutes: Will Barton, Aaron Gordon, Monte Morris, Bones Hyland, Jeff Green (who started 63 games!), Austin Rivers, Facundo Campazzo, and JaMychal Green. It was a lean troop of backups, journeymen, and one-dimensional role players.

Entering this season, their robust rotation will feature healthy versions of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. (two rising stars on max contracts), Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown (a seamless and critical addition), Zeke Nnaji (who “had a great camp—not a good camp, a great camp,” according to Michael Malone), and a version of Gordon who better fits the role Denver originally envisioned when it acquired him.

Jokic is everything, though. He’s why the Nuggets will humiliate defenses with a nightly wave of back cuts and inverted pick-and-rolls, havoc-inducing movement that’s as graceful as it is devastating. And when he isn’t picking opponents apart with ingenious vision never before seen at the center position, Jokic can bully just about every big man who’s asked to stop him one on one. It’s a nightmare matchup that teams found no solutions for, forcing them to throw the kitchen sink at him every night. Imagine what he’ll do this year, vying for a third straight MVP that some voters won’t allow no matter how overwhelming his case may be. Though if the Nuggets do actually win 60-something games, it’ll be hard to knock Jokic off that pedestal.

6. The Orlando Magic will become a League Pass darling.

The original headline for this prediction was “Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero, Wendell Carter Jr., Jonathan Isaac, and Mo Bamba will share the floor at one point.” I’m not sure whether this is the largest five-man unit in NBA history, but I am nonetheless prepared to go out on a limb and declare it the largest five-man unit in NBA history. Dear Basketball Gods: All I ask is that these five players walk on the court at the same time. (Bol Bol is an acceptable—and even longer—replacement until Isaac is healthy enough to return.)

The Magic won’t win a ton of games but they will do fun, strange things with their offbeat collection of impressive young talent; it’ll be hard not to embrace them with open arms. This team represents the future of basketball: big, long, and positionless. Paolo and Franz can handle the ball, score, and run some offense. Carter can shoot. Skill and size is everywhere. (Orlando’s guards—Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs, and Cole Anthony—are pretty compelling, too!)

7. Luka Doncic will finish with the highest usage rate in history.

Doncic already has led the NBA in this category the past two seasons. In 2021-22, he finished 4.3 percent below the record-setting mark Russell Westbrook submitted during his MVP season back in 2017. With Jalen Brunson in New York and both Spencer Dinwiddie and Christian Wood coming off the bench, Luka finds himself in an environment that’s going to be heavy on shooting (Tim Hardaway Jr., Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith) but light on creation.

For those who have Luka on their fantasy team, this is utopia. If the ball is in his hands for at least 10 minutes every night—Doncic led the league in time of possession last year at 9.3 minutes per game last year—he’ll regularly flirt with a 30-point triple-double. All this helps explain why he’s the odds-on MVP favorite. But the Mavericks may take a step back this season. And if they drop into the play-in (which is possible, if not likely), it’s hard to see Doncic lifting his first Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Instead …

Grizzlies guard Ja Morant
Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

8. Ja Morant will win MVP.

Morant ripped a hole in the 2021-22 season, establishing himself as the most alluring and electric player in basketball. Nobody captures hearts, minds, and souls quite like he does. When stuff like this happens in a meaningless preseason game it’s OK to respond by wishing the guy who did it was your best friend.

Morant’s fearlessness is unparalleled in a league full of bravado. He’s an apex predator with a bottomless appetite. How all this translates to an MVP race is fairly straightforward. Morant probably won’t stuff the stat sheet like Doncic—given how Memphis’s offensive system tilts more toward random ball movement and isn’t dependent on individual genius—but he also won’t be short on impressive nights, particularly while Jaren Jackson Jr. recovers from foot surgery.

He’s also the only All-Star on a team that should once again be extremely good, coming off a season in which he won Most Improved Player and absolutely obliterated the rim on a regular basis. Morant averaged 16.6 points per game in the paint. That not only led the league, but hasn’t been seen from a guard in the past 25 years. It’s hypnotizing when he turns the corner off a ball screen or sets off in transition after catching an outlet pass. When driving downhill, Morant moves like the tip of a raging flame; it may be easier to guess where a lightning bolt is about to strike than to slow his progress. And that’s before he leaves the ground.

As a team, the Grizzlies should be awesome enough for Morant to steer this conversation. Even as several other stars make their return around the Western Conference, Memphis’s internal growth, raw athleticism, and physical relentlessness can keep it near the top of the standings. If no consolidation trade is made—potentially involving either Danny Green or Dillon Brooks’s expiring contract—they have continuity and the league’s tightest locker room on their side. But if the front office opts to shake things up, bet that a talent upgrade won’t hurt.

It’s fair to be skeptical about Morant’s health. He’s a daredevil. Those around him hold their breath whenever he launches himself into the air. But he’s also resilient and feisty, someone who’s bounced back from injuries faster than Memphis’s training staff initially thought he could.

Morant’s tepid on/off numbers last season also didn’t accurately reflect his impact. The Grizzlies outscored opponents when he was on the bench but that’s mostly because Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke, and the rest of Memphis’s bench mob were a battering ram. Over the course of an entire season, Memphis is nothing without Ja. With him, it’s a serious title contender that can push for the 1-seed.

9. The Atlanta Hawks will win at least one playoff series.

I love everything about this basketball team, partially thanks to my willingness to overlook all their flaws and see nothing but a best-case-scenario version of everyone on their roster. If “Offensive Player of the Year” were an award, Trae Young would win three or four of them before he retires. His ability to read a set defense is second to none, and more attention should be given to the darts he threw from the midrange last season, where despite a significant dip in free throw rate Young posted the highest true shooting percentage of his career.

Dejounte Murray has established himself as one of the sport’s most complete non-superstars, yet still competes as if fighting for scraps. De’Andre Hunter, if you squint really hard, looks slightly like a young Kawhi Leonard. The frontcourt is skilled, complementary, and has significant upside. Any team that finishes 26th in defensive rating has a lot to answer for, but the Hawks should force more turnovers this season and enjoy a healthy, blossoming Onyeka Okongwu from opening night. (Okongwu missed 32 of Atlanta’s first 35 games last season, and when he played the Hawks had a top-7 defense.)

They probably won’t reach the conference finals again, but Atlanta addressed some of its biggest issues last season. Roles are more clearly defined. If this offense clicks like it should and individual leaps are made by Young, Hunter, Murray, Okongwu, and even someone like Jalen Johnson, the Hawks may be even better than they were after the All-Star break two seasons ago. That’s the bet here, at least.

10. Scottie Barnes will crack his first All-Star team.

The reigning Rookie of the Year may just be the next Magic Johnson. It’s hard to overstate his skill, impact, and trajectory, making an All-Star prediction within the realm of possibility (especially knowing he’ll qualify at multiple positions). That said, in a conference that’s overflowing with talent, the 21-year-old needs to make a noticeable statistical leap on a Raptors team that’ll likely have to own one of the four or five best records by the time votes are due if he wants to be recognized.

As an innate playmaker who can get where he wants with a live dribble, run offensive sets, and assertively defend (and score against) all five positions, Barnes deserves preseason consideration, even in a crowded field that already has a couple of dozen strong candidates (Don’t be shocked if after tallying zero triple-doubles in Year 1, Barnes stumbles into a boatload this season.)

11. Ben Simmons will lead the league in assists.

This might sound outlandish given [nods at everything that’s happened in the past 16 months], but if Simmons isn’t afraid to attack the basket knowing defenders are more than happy to send him to the line, he’ll spend this season drive-and-kicking his way to the easiest dimes of his life. The structural excuses no longer exist. Instead of Joel Embiid clogging the paint and desiring a slower tempo, Simmons will finally spend lengthy stretches as his own team’s point-center. He can push when he wants and needs to, with an open paint, surrounded by some of the greatest shooters who’ve ever touched a basketball.

Steve Nash also has the option of leveraging Simmons’s vision the same way Golden State has with Draymond Green. Let him initiate and then make plays out of a dribble handoff, diving into the paint, collapsing help defenders, and then finding the open man. Or how about he surveys the entire floor from the high post as teammates cut and screen their way into a discombobulating frenzy? There’s just too many priorities here for most defenses to handle.

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are the most obvious concerns for opposing defenses: two otherworldly offensive threats who won’t mind filling lanes when Simmons gallops in the open floor. But there’s also Joe Harris, Seth Curry, Patty Mills, and Royce O’Neale (who made 40.4 percent of his wide-open 3s last season) now having more than enough time to set their feet and line up their shoulders to the rim. Nic Claxton was born to cram lobs. It’s an ideal setting for a preternatural playmaker who naturally enjoys setting others up more than ending plays on his own. We should see silly assist numbers from Simmons once this offense finds itself.

12. Fifty players will average at least 20 points per game.

Ten years ago, only 11 players averaged at least 20 points per game. Eleven! In 2020-21 (a 72-game season) that number nearly quadrupled when a new league record was set at 43. Injured stars stalled that growth last season but the game’s accelerating pace and stubborn deference to the 3-point line will continue to push offensive output in ways that make lofty stats seem less meaningful than they used to be. There are more important things to worry about in this world, but what does it even mean to average 20 points per game if, say, Lu Dort and Gary Trent Jr. cross the threshold this year?

Pelicans forward Zion Williamson
Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

13. Zion Williamson will win the scoring title.

Yes, Zion rolled his ankle last week in Miami and is currently day-to-day. Yes, he missed the entire 2021-22 season with a foot injury. All of this is true. Zion’s unprecedented body makes it hard to mention him positively in any meaningful preseason forecast. But life is short, so I’m going to ignore all that and instead focus on what happened two seasons ago. To refresh: a 20-year-old Williamson averaged 27 points per game (eighth best) with the NBA’s 13th-highest effective field goal percentage. He became the second player in league history, behind Charles Barkley, to score that many points on 17 or fewer field goal attempts per game.

Without a jump shot against defenses that did everything they could to pack the paint, he shot 67 percent at the rim and New Orleans lived at the free throw line when he was on the court. It was like watching Lewis Hamilton top 115 mph in a cement mixer. Every night, Zion would do something that made more sense if filmed in front of a green screen.

The case for him being even better in 2023 is easy. Williamson rumbled into the paint and basically did whatever he wanted despite having Eric Bledsoe as his point guard while playing in an offense that finished 28th in 3-point frequency and 26th in 3-point accuracy that year, per Cleaning the Glass. There was very little room to move.

Now, Zion will walk into lineups that feature shooters like CJ McCollum, Trey Murphy III, and Devonte’ Graham, who actually demand attention on the perimeter. Brandon Ingram obviously can’t be ignored either and Jonas Valanciunas will be launching a few deep ones himself while garnering his own type of gravity when pummelling the offensive glass.

The Pelicans have more weapons than they did a couple of years ago, which may ultimately lower Zion’s touches and shot attempts. But let’s not overthink this. We’re talking about a generational scoring talent, a bone-crushing sledgehammer who’s virtually unstoppable and hungry to prove he’s better than ever. It’s terrifying to think about.

14. The Minnesota Timberwolves will have a top-five defense.

The aggressive, chaotic defensive scheme that Chris Finch deployed in his first full season as Minnesota’s head coach wasn’t installed with consistent results in mind. This was a high-risk, high-reward outlook, more reliance on athleticism and pressure than needing all five defenders to rotate on a string.

Instead of dropping back, Finch wanted Karl-Anthony Towns higher up on the floor when guarding a ball screen. The goals were to (1) keep Towns engaged and out of foul trouble and (2) force the ball to ping around from player to player. The more passes that are made, the greater likelihood the Timberwolves could get their hands on the ball. All that scrambling killed them on the glass and led to a ton of unnecessary fouls and corner 3s. But Minnesota also finished second in opposing turnover rate and posted an above-average defensive rating for the first time since 2014.

Now Rudy Gobert, the walking embodiment of a human brick wall, is in Minneapolis. He simplifies everything by single-handedly creating environments where the only open shots regularly allowed are off the dribble and from the midrange. It’s the ultimate luxury. Throw in Jaden McDaniels, who (once he stops committing fouls) has all the physical tools to make several All-Defensive teams, an engaged Anthony Edwards (who blocked a KD turnaround on Friday night), a less culpable KAT, and a supporting cast of solid vets like Kyle Anderson and Taurean Prince, and scoring on Minnesota will not be easy.

15. The New York Knicks are bound for the play-in (and maybe further).

It’s easy to poke fun at New York’s offseason. From draft night (when, as a 37-win team, they said thanks but no thanks to adding a lottery pick) to their unhealthy obsession with Jalen Brunson (which ended in a four-year, $104 million pact) to watching the Cavs swoop in from out of nowhere to acquire Donovan Mitchell (while they were haggling with Utah for the three-time All-Star).

But with the dust settled and their rotation set, the Knicks … look like a decent basketball team! RJ Barrett was wisely locked up on a four-year extension and has made notable improvements on a monthly basis. Julius Randle should level out somewhere between his second-team All-NBA campaign in 2021 and the abysmal meltdown that occurred last year. Brunson is the crafty release valve that Dallas will miss.

NBA Twitter treats Isaiah Hartenstein like he’s a young Bill Walton, but that’s only because it’s entirely true. Derrick Rose is still kicking. Quentin Grimes and Obi Toppin would be fawned over even if they didn’t live in the league’s largest market. The Knicks have a clear ceiling, but their floor is higher than most think, with a coach who’s one year removed from claiming the highest award in his profession.

The Knicks quietly have enough skill, youth, and experience to make noise, now with a real point guard and the potential to recapture the defensive identity that catapulted them into a shocking playoff series two seasons ago.

16. The Phoenix Suns will trade Chris Paul.

Phoenix very well might already be a team in transition. That doesn’t mean they’ll blow everything up and join the Wembanyama sweepstakes. But for a team that reached the Finals two years ago and was a heavy favorite to return last spring, high expectations make identifying the right decision a challenge.

Paul’s contract isn’t super onerous unless he falls off a cliff. He’s due $28.4 million this year and then only half of next season’s salary is guaranteed before no guaranteed money in 2024-25. But one of these days, Paul’s game, as brilliant as it was shepherding a 64-win team and leading the league in assists for the fifth time, may indeed fall off that cliff.

Take his activity in the preseason with a grain of salt, but Paul is kinda starting to look like the 37-year-old that he is, particularly on defense. This isn’t a total revelation for anyone who watched the playoffs and remember Paul devolving into an iso target against the Mavs, but if he does in fact lose a significant step on that end and becomes a weak link … that’s an issue. Mikal Bridges can’t guard everyone and Devin Booker’s offensive responsibilities aren’t shrinking. For a reeling organization that may find itself wanting to prioritize its future instead of the present day, moving on from Paul before his contract becomes a negative asset makes sense.

Not every team will be interested but a few would bite, the Lakers being one—they have Russell Westbrook and, of course, those two unprotected first-round picks in 2027 and 2029. Things could get even more intriguing if a third team gets roped in. Let’s say Los Angeles gets Paul and Jae Crowder; the Hornets get Westbrook, Cam Payne, and an unprotected Lakers first in 2029; and the Suns get Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, and an unprotected Lakers pick in 2027.

The Suns don’t value the draft, but they still exist in a marketplace that does, so owning a future first from the Lakers makes it easier to make another trade to enhance their depth. The Hornets would do this because they’re not good and morally obligated to tank. Speaking of …

17. Kelly Oubre Jr. will be the Charlotte Hornets’ leading scorer.

If this happens it will mean that the Hornets are in the conversation for worst team in the league, and that isn’t at all a bad outcome. Anything that gives us a shot at a universe where LaMelo Ball and Wemby are together is a beautiful thing. Until that daydream comes true the Hornets will very likely fall on their face, even with Steve Clifford doing his damndest to install cogent defensive principles. (Another improbable prediction: Lonzo Ball will play more minutes than his little brother.)

18. Bradley Beal will be traded to the Portland Trail Blazers or Damian Lillard will be traded to the Washington Wizards.

This is wishful thinking—both organizations are just under the tax and won’t make any moves that’ll push them into it—for two stars who have mirrored each other in all the most frustrating ways for far too long. Each is a franchise player trying to elevate a franchise that’s been far too content jogging on the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity.

Heat forward Jimmy Butler
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

19. The Miami Heat will “quietly consider offers” for Jimmy Butler.

All right, let’s close with something truly unhinged.

A quick caveat before we dive in: I will not blink if the Heat stay healthy (which they weren’t last season) enough to elbow their way into home-court advantage in the first round. Spoelstra is the league’s best coach. Bam Adebayo is the league’s most dynamic defender. Tyler Herro has his bag, and in a starting role could be even better than his Sixth Man of the Year–winning season.

This team knows what it is. Every player treats every possession as if his career will end if anyone is a step late on a help rotation. The Heat are smart, obedient, and plucky, with at least one player on their opening-night roster you’ve never heard of who will inevitably end up earning more than $100 million.

But just to play devil’s advocate in the spirit of an intriguing thought exercise: In a loaded Eastern Conference, there’s a chance the wheels finally start to wobble in Miami. While so many other teams spent the offseason upgrading their rosters, the Heat curiously (or confidently, depending on who you ask) stood pat.

Kyle Lowry will turn 37 in March. Tucker fled to a conference rival and wasn’t replaced by any proven commodity. Duncan Robinson is coming off a postseason where he wasn’t in Spo’s regular rotation. If they’re fighting for a play-in spot near All-Star Weekend, does it really make sense to hold what they have together? Maybe. But if not, Butler might be the parachute who can bring back enough goodies to keep this organization afloat in the present while transitioning it into the future.

Herro is 22 and Adebayo is 25, 11 and eight years younger than Butler, respectively. If he actually became available, it’d be interesting to see how the four years left on Butler’s deal would be viewed by potential buyers: Is that long-term certainty with someone as weathered (Butler is 33 and missed 45 games in the past two seasons), temperamental, and undeniably amazing at basketball a feature or a bug?

Is it embarrassingly too soon to think about fake trades involving one of the most stable franchises in basketball? Of course. Am I about to engage with a couple that have rattled in my brain for the past week even though I know this will look idiotic in a few months when the Heat are 30-12? You bet!

Atlanta trades John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, and AJ Griffin: The Hawks are light on draft capital and driven by a sense of urgency to win sooner than later. The Heat star would provide established postseason chops, two-way excellence, and a degree of arrogance that’s required to win four straight playoff series. Butler and Dejounte Murray might overlap a bit too much, particularly in how they’d negatively affect Atlanta’s spacing. But both are selfless and intuitive enough to make things work with amazing upside on the other end. (The Hawks would go from barely forcing any turnovers to stealing the ball on every other possession.)

Alongside Young, they’d form a legitimate Big Three. Meanwhile, Miami gets a couple of very good pieces who better fit Adebayo and Herro’s timeline, along with a high-upside knockdown shooter who’s still only 19.

Golden State offers Draymond Green, Jonathan Kuminga, and an unprotected first-round pick in 2028: Adebayo is a younger and more athletic, dynamic, and productive version of Draymond. On paper, they don’t make a lot of sense together. Spacing will suffer and the offensive juice that Butler’s in-between game provides will dry up. Sure. But the collective brainpower can make up for it. It’s fun to think about how they’d coexist, ensuring the Heat of at least one versatile 5 in small-ball lineups that could swarm and suffocate opponents. Draymond is a tempo-pushing dribble handoff maven who makes sense within the confines of Heat Culture.

Of course, Green can enter free agency next summer, making Kuminga the real jewel in this deal. If Miami fast tracks his development, the Heat have three core pieces and a clearer path to some financial flexibility. Meanwhile, if Golden State is finally prepared to move on from Green, exchanging him for a superstar like Butler feels like a pretty sound exit strategy.

Denver offers Michael Porter Jr., Ish Smith, and Christian Braun: Part of me doesn’t think the Nuggets can ever get where they want to go until Porter either becomes a competent defender or they cash out via trade. Watching Jokic’s body language in the preseason every time MPJ isn’t where he’s supposed to be makes me think the latter may be more realistic. The age difference, spacing issues, and total unknown of how Butler would affect Denver’s locker room make this a difficult risk for the Nuggets to assume. But how would they not be the favorite to win it all with Murray, KCP/Brown, Butler, Gordon, and Joker as their best lineup?

To reiterate: Butler isn’t getting traded unless something dramatic happens and Miami has a nightmare season that includes several debilitating injuries. But keep in mind that if for whatever reason the Heat feel a need to move on and kick-start their future, the haul they’d get in return may not look like what the Jazz and Spurs received for Gobert and Murray. Pat Riley has no interest in starting over.