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Summer league is over, most free agents have found a new home, ESPN has released new power rankings, and the start of the new season is only about three months away. That means it is time to make some predictions for the 2023-24 NBA season.
So, let’s look at three teams that are destined to improve next season and could drastically increase their win total.
The Pacers started the 2022-23 season with a 23-18 record and looked like a legit playoff team. Unfortunately, injuries then derailed their season. Miles Turner only played 62 games and first-time All-Star Tyrese Haliburton was only available for 56. Without their point guard and lone All-Star, the Pacers fell out of playoff or play in contention. They ultimately finished 11th in the East with a 35-47 overall record.
Even though the season took a disappointing turn, there were still plenty of bright spots. Haliburton, for example, made his first of many All-Star appearances, ranked second in assists behind only James Harden, and became the first player in league history to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, and shot 40 percent from three. Note that he did all that in only 56 games. If Haliburton plays at least the majority of next season, the rest of the league better watch out.
Rookie Bennedict Mathurin followed suit and put together an impressive first season. He finished second in scoring, first in free throw makes, and fourth in rebounds among all rookies and deservedly made the All-Rookie First Team. The sixth overall pick acclimated to the NBA quickly, broke several records, and for a while he was even in the running for both Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year. Towards the end of the season, he slowed down a little, but it is fair to assume that he will be a strong contributor again next season and maybe even take a leap already.
Having a healthy Haliburton and a strong year from Mathurin could already be enough for the Pacers to take another step forward but they also had a busy offseason, bringing in some reinforcements. The biggest signing was unquestionably snagging Bruce Brown away from the Denver Nuggets. Brown was a vital part of the Nuggets’ title team. He is a winning role player and will give the Pacers championship experience, competitiveness, defense, and offensive contributions. Bringing him on board was a great move that could easily help take them to the next level.
In addition to Brown, the Pacers also brought in Obi Toppin who makes for an interesting fit. He can do much more than he had the chance to show in New York, they needed someone at the four, and he seems to be a great fit alongside Haliburton to profit from his passing. Last but not least, the Pacers drafted Jarace Walker with the eighth pick, bringing in an athletic and interesting prospect.
In the 2022-23 season, they already won ten more games than they did in the previous season, and I strongly believe that this year will bring another step forward for the Pacers. They have great talent and solid pieces around them. All they need is health and injury luck.
The East still has some strong teams – The Cavaliers loaded up on shooting, the Bucks kept the band together, and the Knicks have the momentum to start the season well – but there are also many question marks in the conference. The new-look Celtics, for example, have plenty to figure out, the Heat lost two starters and didn’t secure Damian Lillard yet, the Nets only made the playoffs because of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving who are gone now, and no one knows what is going on in Philadelphia. Furthermore, the Pacers should well be able to compete with the Bulls, the Raptors, and the Hawks, and play their way into playoff or at least play in contention.
Last season, the Rockets looked like an AAU team playing against grown men in the NBA. Not surprisingly they finished 14th in the West with a 22-60 record. Now, they have entered phase two of their rebuild. They brought in a new coach and added some veterans that could very well unlock all the young potential on their roster.
Fred VanVleet will organize the offense, and provide a winning mentality and competitiveness to guide the Rockets’ young talent onto the right path. Dillon Brooks’ shot selection may be questionable, and he may have a history of making the wrong enemies, but he plays hard night after night and will allow them to finally play some much-needed defense.
The Rockets’ play last season was messy and unorganized, but their potential still shined through. Jalen Green still looks like a future top-scorer in the league, Alperen Sengun has shown flashes of a certain “jokicness”, and Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason both made the All-Rookie Second Team.
Their supply of young, talented players seems to be inexhaustible. In the most recent draft, the Rockets added Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore to their squad. Thompson is a big point guard with athleticism and IQ who can learn from VanVleet and run the second unit without any pressure other than that of being a number four draft pick. Whitmore, on the other hand, will most likely outperform his draft pick. Falling all the way to 20, he might be the biggest steal of the draft.
While the Rockets have masses of intriguing talent and now added some veterans to the mix and I truly believe that they will win more than 22 games, they will not take the league by storm. Their young guys still have ways to go until that can happen, but they have the chance to build a strong foundation for the future now and win some more games. The West is still strong, after all. Denver remains a title favorite, the Grizzlies are shifting gears towards a more mature approach, the Kings kept their playoff team together, the Suns assembled three superstars, the Warriors have plenty of veteran star power, the Mavericks will actually try to win, the Lakers made some good offseason moves, the Thunder are rising, and the Timberwolves and Pelicans could finally be healthy. It would take a miracle for the Rockets to get into the mix in the first season of the next phase of their rebuild.
Contrary to the other two teams, the Mavericks do not only have the possibility to increase their win total compared to last season. They have to. Luka Doncic wants to compete, and Dallas cannot afford to make their star point guard wonder if he is in the right place to do that. They cannot have another 38-44 season and miss the playoffs, especially not after signing Kyrie Irving.
The problem was never the scoring. Irving and Doncic did not have much time to build chemistry together right after the trade, but they are two of the most gifted scorers in the game. Together, they are almost unstoppable. The problem last season was that they couldn’t stop anyone. Their defense was almost non-existent.
Accordingly, the front office decided to address the matter this offseason and they acquired defensive reinforcements in the form of Grant Williams. Together with Josh Green and Maxi Kleber, he should be able to give the Mavericks a solid boost on that end of the floor. Hopefully Dereck Lively, the lottery pick that they missed the playoffs for, can also contribute defensively when he sees the court.
The West looks tough right now, but Dallas has the firepower to be one of the most efficient scoring forces in the league and if they can get their act together defensively, the playoffs should not be out of reach. They might not be contending for a title but with a whole season of Doncic and Irving playing together, better defenders around them, possible leaps from Josh Green and Jaden Hardy, and the pressure of having to deliver a successful run should be good enough to lead to more than 38 wins.