The NBA ball started bouncing in Tokyo on Friday as the American professional basketball league continues its drive to win over audiences around the world by scheduling two preseason games in Japan and another two in Abu Dhabi. The regular NBA season begins on October 18 with games featuring the 2022 champion and runners-up, the Golden State Warriors and the Boston Celtics. When the competition begins in earnest back on US soil, Warriors star Stephen Curry will attempt to prolong the reign of the most dominant NBA team over the last decade. The other favorite among sportsbooks is a more mature Celtics team who have though been left without the coach who took them to the NBA Finals last season, Ime Udoka, who has been suspended by Boston for a year for violating team policies after a consensual romantic relationship with a Celtics employee emerged.
The Warriors face the Washington Wizards in a double-header in Japan, where Golden State won the opener 96-87 with the second game taking place in Saitama on Sunday. The NBA preseason runs until October 14, with 65 games on 15 consecutive days before the regular season begins with two classic NBA match-ups: the Celtics against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Warriors against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Along with the Warriors and Celtics, the Los Angeles Clippers are being heavily tipped this season on the back of a triumphant return for Kawhi Leonard after the five-time All-Star’s ACL injury, which caused him to sit out the whole of last season. The Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks, who both contested the 2021 NBA finals, are also expected to make a challenge while the 76ers and the Brooklyn Nets are among those who may spring a surprise.
In Curry, the reigning NBA champions have both a conductor and their finest soloist. His three-pointer and game-control recital in the 2022 Finals make the Warriors an obvious choice to reach the latter stages of the playoffs again, although the question remains whether Curry will be able to extend his dominant heyday into a season in which he will turn 35. Golden State have been involved in six of the last eight NBA Finals, winning four of them. Along with Curry, Klay Thompson (who was absent in the two seasons the team failed to reach the finals) and Draymond Green form a fearsome trio, guided by the golden touch of Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
The maturity of the Celtics
Boston provided the biggest surprise of last season. Although historically the Celtics, together with the Lakers, have the most NBA titles with 17, they had failed to reach a finals series since 2010. After a solid regular season, the Celtics exploded in the playoffs, seeing off reigning champions Milwaukee and the Miami Heat on their way to the NBA Finals, where they carved out a 2-1 lead over the Warriors but fell apart when the chips were down. With that lesson learned, and with Jayson Tatum now a bona fide star, the Celtics will lean on All-Star Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon, who can be a key player if he avoids injuries, to launch another challenge. However, Udoka’s suspension has left the Celtics without their leader and he has been replaced by Joe Mazzulla on an interim basis.
Western Conference contenders
The Clippers missed out on the playoffs last year and yet they are shaping themselves as candidates to end the Warriors’ dynasty. Much of the Clippers’ hopes depend on whether Leonard can become the player he was before his knee ligament injury. “The Claw” was an NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and with the Toronto Raptors in 2019, being named MVP in both series. The Clippers will also welcome back their other star, Paul George, who missed most of last season as well. The bulk of the team that reached the Play-in tournament last season remains intact and the addition of point guard John Wall strengthens the Clippers’ cause.
The Suns topped the Western Conference last year but fell in the seventh game of the Conference Semifinals against Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks. However, Phoenix’s preparations off the court have hardly been ideal after the franchise’s owner, Robert Sarver, was handed a $10 million fine and a one-year suspension for harassment, sexism and racism, with the team currently up for sale. The Suns also lost one of their key players, Deandre Ayton, but they managed to retain the rest of a solid and reliable block led by Devin Booker and are odds-on to reach the playoffs again. Dallas, meanwhile, seem overly dependent on Doncic and even when the three-time All-Star is at his very best he cannot guarantee a deep run in the playoffs on his own. The Lakers have revamped their team considerably but after last season’s catastrophe, not even LeBron James seems to have the energy to turn them into genuine contenders anymore and they are not even a shoo-in just to make the playoffs.
Eastern Conference contenders
The Celtics are clear favorites in the East, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks will be looking to take revenge for their elimination by Boston in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Bucks, 2021 NBA champions, were hampered last season by a series of injuries, but if they click they are capable of winning the Eastern Conference and reaching the NBA finals. The Bucks’ main signing of the summer was veteran Joe Ingles, a good shot-maker who reinforces their outside line.
The 76ers are another franchise looking to recapture their lost greatness, and they have the tools to do so. Joel Embiid posted the highest points-per-game average in the NBA last and 2018 NBA MVP James Harden is also on board in Philadelphia while Tyrese Maxey is a rising star. If they manage to retain Tobias Harris and the new signings play their part, the Sixers can cause an upset. The Heat, who topped the Eastern Conference lasy season, cannot be ruled out while the Cleveland Cavaliers have added three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell to a roster already including Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, although they may lack the punch necessary to derail the favorites. The same is true of the Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons could take the Nets into the playoffs and beyond if they are all performing at their best, but few expect that they will.
LeBron James needs 1,326 points to overtake Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the player with the most points scored in NBA history.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 17, 2022
If he mantains his career average, LeBron would only need 49 games to break the record. pic.twitter.com/LOxkNoPcKW
The legend Lebron James
The Lakers have few expectations again this year but their star player, LeBron James, who turns 38 on December 30, has an historic challenge ahead. The four-times NBA champion has the opportunity to become the all-time leading scorer in the NBA this season, surpassing the 38,387 points racked up by the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a record which has stood since 1989. LeBron is 1,326 points short of beating Adbul-Jabbar’s mark and last season he managed 1,695 in a misfiring Lakers team that never looked like making the playoffs.
The performance of the rookies will be another focal point of the season. As governed by the rules of the NBA Draft, the best prospects in the college system were selected by teams who finished at the wrong end of the conferences last season and among those to keep an eye on are Paolo Banchero, the number one overall pick, who will attempt to revive the Magic’s fortunes, and Jabari Smith, the third overall pick for the Houston Rockets. Chet Holmgren, who was selected second by the Oklahoma City Thunder, is expected to miss the entire season after suffering a Lisfranc injury in his foot.