It’s October. Football season is in full swing, but the NBA is around the corner. Who are the players that could change the league this season, whether it’s the title race, the trade market, or the course of their franchise? Here are seven of them as we begin to preview the 2022-23 season:
1. Can Christian Wood provide what Kristaps Porzingis couldn’t?
Porzingis was meant to be a reliable second option for Luka Doncic. But the Mavericks rightfully dumped him last season after he proved he couldn’t stay on the floor, and underwhelmed when he was on it. This summer, the Mavs added Christian Wood hoping he can be everything they wished Porzingis had been.
At 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Wood can shoot, create off the dribble, dunk, and block shots. Much like KP, Wood has never really put it all together. But he’s also never been in an environment as good as the one he’ll be in now in Dallas. And he’s trending up after a disastrous start to his career, which included his rookie season on the 10-win Process Sixers, a short stint in China, and time in the G League.
Over the past two years with the Rockets, Wood averaged 19.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and a block per game, and shot 38.4 percent from 3. Wood originally signed there expecting to play with James Harden, but Harden pushed his way out, and John Wall, another potential star backcourt partner, was exiled. Instead, Kevin Porter Jr., Eric Gordon, and Jalen Green have been the ones passing him the ball in the pick-and-roll. Luka is quite the upgrade.
Wood represents a huge boost over Porzingis on the perimeter as a shooter. He’s also more capable handling the ball out there, which could end up being one of his most important skills in Dallas. Luka can’t and shouldn’t handle all the perimeter creation. Spencer Dinwiddie and Tim Hardaway Jr. will absorb some of Jalen Brunson’s responsibilities, but the Mavs need something from the frontcourt to be better balanced. Last season, Wood was one of only 17 bigs to log 200 isolation plays, and he ranked sixth among them in scoring efficiency, according to Second Spectrum. Wood shot 50.4 percent on those chances, which isn’t on par with the league’s best guards, but is pretty solid and far exceeds the 36 percent posted last season by Porzingis.
A lot of NBA people still think of Wood as a lazy player, a narrative that’s hovered over him his entire career. Too many mistakes on defense. Too selfish on offense. Not a winning player. Sure. An argument can be made. But his year-to-year growth is undeniable. And circumstances matter. Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd says Wood will start the season off the bench, but that doesn’t matter. JaVale McGee, who will get the nod at the 5, has averaged 17 minutes per game in his career. Wood will play, and likely be the one finishing games—with Luka as his point guard, with guaranteed minutes, in a contract year, on a winning team that traded a first-round pick to get him. The Mavs swung and missed with Porzingis. But now they have a player who’s been waiting for the type of chance he’s about to receive. “I want to become an All-Star and I want to win,” Wood told me two years ago. He won’t get a better opportunity than this one.
2. Will a more aggressive Bam Adebayo emerge?
Bam Adebayo has averaged 18 points and five assists over the past three seasons. That’s pretty good, especially coming from one of the NBA’s most supreme defensive talents. But Heat fans always have been left wanting more from him on offense—particularly as a scorer.
This offseason, Pat Riley said he wants Adebayo to attempt at least 15 shots a game, and at media day, Adebayo said he wants “close to 18 shots a game.” That’d be a big leap from his average of 13 last season, but it’s definitely doable.
A good place to start for Miami would be putting Bam in more positions to attack the basket. Second Spectrum tracking data say 128 players have logged at least 500 drives to the rim since 2019. Bam ranks 15th in scoring efficiency, but logs only three drives per game. For comparison, Giannis Antetokounmpo logs 7.5, and even Julius Randle averages 5.4. Just a handful more downhill attacks could allow him to score more in the paint, or create more for teammates.
“We want him to be more aggressive, and he’s going to,” Jimmy Butler said about Bam on media day. Butler could use the scoring assistance, too. Kyle Lowry looked old in his first season with the Heat. Now at age 36, what will he have left? And after winning Sixth Man of the Year, Tyler Herro will need to take another leap and translate his success into the playoffs, especially after signing a four-year, $120 million extension. It’s a group effort, but all of them are perimeter-position players. Adebayo is the guy, at 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, who can pound mismatches from all over the court—at least in theory.
If the Heat don’t see the type of development they want out of Adebayo and Co., there will be more pressure on the front office to find a superstar through a trade to keep their championship window open. They couldn’t pull off deals for Kevin Durant or Donovan Mitchell, but they chose to avoid being hard-capped this summer to retain flexibility for future trades. Could the Trail Blazers determine it’s in their best interest to move Damian Lillard and tank? Might Bradley Beal demand a trade six months into his new five-year max contract? What if the Lakers collapse and LeBron James develops a wandering eye? It’s the NBA, you never know.
Those trades might sound like pipe dreams. But Miami’s best-case scenario starts with the development of the players currently on its roster, led by Adebayo going from good to great.
3. How will Rudy Gobert enhance the Wolves?
Gobert’s offensive limitations are undeniable. He can’t dribble. He can’t shoot. And he can’t create for others—at least not with the ball in his hands.
Gobert pulverizes opponents as a screener. He set the most off-ball screens in the NBA last season (1,375) with the Jazz. For reference, the Timberwolves set the seventh-least off-ball screens as a team (3,710 total), according to Second Spectrum.
A dominant screener has been a missing dimension for Minnesota in recent years. Gobert can free up shooters like Karl-Anthony Towns or cutters like Jaden McDaniels. And in the pick-and-roll, he can generate better chances for ball handlers like D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards.
Gobert is a hate-him-or-love-him-type player but he’s always been an incredible defensive force, and now with Minnesota his offensive contributions could be more apparent than ever. The Jazz had Donovan Mitchell, who is a somewhat limited creator, and a past-his-prime Mike Conley running the show. Neither possesses Russell’s playmaking chops or Ant’s brute-force attacking style. Gobert is the best screener in basketball. He will make his new teammates’ lives easier. And he’ll give them a lob target like they’ve never had in their careers.
Towns, in addition to being the team’s leading scorer, has been Minnesota’s primary screener throughout his career. With Gobert in tow, the Timberwolves will still heavily utilize Towns in screening actions, but they can now diversify their looks. And with Gobert rolling to the basket as an elite vertical threat, that means defenses will need to protect the rim. If Russell is handling the ball, KAT could receive countless open catch-and-shoot 3-point chances, whether he’s spotting up from the top of the key or even in the corner. Expect Gobert’s presence to unleash KAT on offense.
Feel how you want about the high price Minnesota paid for Gobert. In a vacuum, sure, it’s a lot to spend on a player who doesn’t create shots with the ball in his hands. But what he’s the best at can help the players on this roster. Quality of life will improve for Russell. Edwards will now have more support around him to help spark his development. That’s why the Timberwolves paid the bounty for Gobert. They wanted everything they’ve been missing in recent years. Now they’re in position to be a playoff force for years to come.
4. Can Jerami Grant help Dame contend again?
As great as Damian Lillard is, he’s a smaller guard who has long been a liability on defense. Building around such players and having consistent postseason success requires surrounding him with long-armed, versatile defenders. The Trail Blazers haven’t had too many of those types of supporting players over their eight-year postseason run. Allen Crabbe? Evan Turner? Al-Farouq Aminu? How could you be Moe Harkless?
The Neil Olshey era in Portland is over. Joe Cronin has quickly acquired the type of players at wing and forward that Dame needs. Gary Payton II plays bigger than his body. Shaedon Sharpe is unproven but has the right qualities to play versatile defense. Right now, the job belongs to Josh Hart and the newly acquired Jerami Grant.
In recent years, Grant has shown the potential to become one of the league’s best defenders. Few players can inhale Luka Doncic drives like he can:
The clip above is from the 2019-20 season, which was Grant’s only year in Denver. It was routine for him to defend the opponent’s best player and alter their shots using his long arms. Since 2019-20, which includes his two past seasons with Detroit, Grant has allowed the fewest points per isolation play as a defender, according to Second Spectrum. Grant has also switched 56 percent of the screens he was involved in. So, he’ll fit right in with Chauncey Billups’s defensive scheme that puts a heavy emphasis on switching.
Grant’s versatility can help take the Blazers from terrible to solid, and maybe even great on defense. And on offense, he can provide something Lillard has never really had with his on-ball scoring ability from the forward position. The Pistons featured him as a scorer for the first time in his career and he averaged 20.9 points per game. Though his volume may dip with the Blazers, he could be used in a hybrid role incorporating some of his more efficient actions (spot-up 3-point shooting, cutting, rolling to the basket) that were previously highlighted in Denver and Oklahoma City.
The Blazers aren’t Finals contenders. FanDuel lists them as having the 19th-best odds, tied with the Knicks. That feels slightly too low; they should be competitive. If they are, it’ll mean Lillard isn’t on the table for trades and the Blazers will instead be looking to add pieces to become a more formidable contender. But the only way for that to happen is for Grant to become what Lillard has always needed.
5. Can Michael Porter Jr. stay healthy?
Denver made it all the way to the Western Conference finals just two years ago. Now, after enduring an injury-ravaged season, the Nuggets will be returning both Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray to go with a refurbished roster around two-time MVP Nikola Jokic.
Porter underwent lumbar spine surgery last season, abruptly ending just a nine-game campaign in which he played the worst basketball of his pro career. Porter averaged 9.9 points on 49.1 percent shooting from 2 and 20.8 percent from 3, way down from 19 points on 62.8 percent from 2 and 44.5 percent from 3 the year prior. In his second season with Denver, he looked like a 6-foot-10 Klay Thompson with some pizazz off the dribble. Then he lost his superpowers last season, moving like you’d expect a player to when they have a serious back problem. During Nuggets training camp this year, though, he’s looking a lot more like that guy slashing to the basket and hitting stepback 3s.
A couple really great clips of Michael Porter Jr knocking down shots (stay for the last one ) pic.twitter.com/eYo9g2k68u— Katy Winge (@katywinge) October 1, 2022
Without Porter, Jokic’s assist opportunities primarily went to Aaron Gordon, Monte Morris, Will Barton, Jeff Green, and Austin Rivers. Morris, Barton, and Rivers are gone, and the returning Murray will replace their production. And Green will have a diminished role now that Porter is back. This should be a boon for Denver’s offense, though Porter’s injury history doesn’t leave much room for optimism that he can stay on the floor.
All the Nuggets really need is for Porter to be healthy in April and May to get a chance in June. That’s why they paid him the big bucks. To have a shot at a title. Porter’s upside is immense. He can help Jokic take this team further than it has ever been in franchise history. If he’s healthy.
6. Could SGA actually be traded?
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been wrapped up in trade rumors for more than a year now, so The Athletic’s Andrew Schlecht asked him about the ongoing speculation. Here’s SGA’s full reply:
“Obviously we have lost more than we’d like to the past couple years and it’s not fun. With that being said, I know what I signed up for and I signed a five-year extension. And I don’t think we’re gonna be losing for much longer, so it’s not like I signed up to lose or anything. I believe in this team. I believe in the players we have on this team and I think we’re headed in the right direction, and we’ll be where we want to be soon.”
Good answer. He’s 24, the best player on a Thunder team with a ton of young talent. Russell Westbrook became a basketball god in Oklahoma. Why not stay, and try to reach even greater heights than Russ to become a living legend in a passionate sports town?
There’s no obvious reason OKC would move Gilgeous-Alexander. SGA is a good young player, and certainly one of the league’s best drivers attacking the basket. He makes over 40 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, so he can play off another playmaker like Josh Giddey. When locked in, he’s a good defender with size.
But he’s not yet a bona fide star, and he has missed time due to injury, so maybe he’d provide more value to another team ready to compete now.
During the 2021 draft, Oklahoma City reportedly made a strong trade offer to the Pistons for the first pick (Cade Cunningham), which Yahoo’s Jake Fischer says included SGA. And now that the rest of the trade market has settled with Mitchell in Cleveland and KD staying put, a lot of execs around the league wonder whether SGA is the best player on the market, given the fact he’s signed to a five-year max and OKC isn’t winning anytime soon. My impression is teams just want to wrangle him out of OKC since no other obvious stars will be available. Could there be an offer too good for Sam Presti to refuse?
Maybe, just maybe, the Thunder could reset the clock and deal SGA for a high-level player still on their rookie contract, plus even more picks or players. But who makes that offer: Portland with Shaedon Sharpe, Anfernee Simons, and future picks? Sacramento with Keegan Murray and a whole lot else? San Antonio making a desperate push to give Gregg Popovich a playoff roster? It’s a stretch to find a deal that works, but not impossible. Or maybe Oklahoma City should hold on to him and use him in another offer for the first pick if the Thunder don’t land it themselves. With the amount of talent and picks the Thunder have, anything is possible.
7. Can Malcolm Brogdon lift the Celtics over the top?
Brogdon was acquired this summer for a package headlined by a 2023 first, which could go down as one of this offseason’s most vital additions if he’s able to stay healthy. Over the past four seasons, Brogdon has the league’s highest shot quality on isolation shots, according to Second Spectrum. Brogdon isn’t a score-first player but he’s one of the league’s most efficient at hitting 3s or getting to the basket. Now in Boston, he’ll be playing with better talent than he was with the Pacers, meaning he’ll get opportunities to pick on weaker defenders.
The Celtics made the Finals last season but Brogdon adds a much-needed component to their offense, which stagnated at inopportune times throughout the playoffs. Scoring isn’t even Brogdon’s best skill. Passing is. He makes speedy decisions, limits turnovers, and tosses bull’s-eye darts to cutters and shooters. On a team with many ball handlers, Brogdon could end up being the guy new Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla turns to when it’s time to steady the ship.
If there’s any reason to be worried about Boston this year it’s the possible chemistry issues following the Ime Udoka suspension, and the ripple effects that’ll have on the coaching staff’s ability to make swift strategic changes. But from a roster standpoint the team is even more loaded.
During Boston’s preseason debut against Charlotte on Sunday, Mazzulla unleashed a new lineup featuring Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Derrick White, and Brogdon. One of the keys to making a lineup like that work is the added presence of Brogdon: a skilled playmaking presence who can also excel without the ball as a shooter, while also offering size on defense.
So, the Celtics have increased their lineup flexibility and their ability to create quality shots against set defenses. We’re a long way from another potential Finals run for Boston, but even in preseason Brogdon looks like someone who can take the Celtics all the way.