The NBA ball starts bouncing Thursday in Abu Dhabi where the preseason kicks off with a doubleheader between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks. Before traveling back to the United States, the Slovenian player will return to his former home next Tuesday for a friendly against Real Madrid. After more than 60 preparation games in less than three weeks, a championship full of novelties will officially begin on October 24 with a game between last season’s NBA title-winners the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers. Nikola Jokic’s team is aiming to retain the title and will face the strongest challenges from the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics, who have been reinforced in the flurry of trades in recent weeks. The undoubted star addition of the 2023-24 season, however, is rookie Victor Wembanyama, selected as the number one overall pick in the draft by the San Antonio Spurs.
Aware that the 82-team regular season games don’t have the same appeal as the drama of the playoffs, this year the NBA has come up with a new intermediate tournament, the NBA Cup, to add a little spice to the months leading up to the decisive stage of the championship.
This NBA Cup will consist of 30 teams formed into six groups of five, three groups in the Eastern Conference and three in the Western Conference and will be staged from November 3 to 28. The three pool winners from each group and the best runner-up in each conference will qualify for the knock-out stage, with cash prizes on offer for players and teams. Given the heavy schedule, the NBA has designed the new addition so that the games played in the in-season tournament will still count as part of the regular season, which defines the teams and seedings for the NBA Playoffs next spring.
Beyond the new in-season tournament, the big new addition to the league is that of Frenchman Wembanyama, whose official height continues to vary (the NBA now lists him at 2.24 meters (7 ft 4 in) tall on its website despite registering him at just over 2.22 meters in June). The 19-year-old has been training and gaining muscle and weight since arriving in San Antonio and is poised to mark an era in the NBA, given his talent and natural ability, a unique case in someone of his size. Wemby, as he has been baptized in the U.S., will have to adapt to a far more demanding league than France’s LNB Pro A and has been drafted by a struggling team that will try to rebuild around his leadership. However, it will be a surprise if the Spurs are able to mix it with the NBA heavyweights in Wembanyama’s rookie season.
At the start of every season, the NBA champions are naturally among the favorites for the title. The Nuggets, led by Jokic and Jamal Murray, gave a masterclass in solidity during last season’s playoffs. They swept the Lakers 4-0 in the Western Conference finals and claimed the ring with a performance of unquestionable superiority (4-1) in the finals series against Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat (4-1), last season’s surprise package. They have retained the core of the team and are clear favorites in the West, ahead of the Phoenix Suns, the only team that took more than one game from the Nuggets in the playoffs (4-2).
The Golden State Warriors, led by Stephen Curry, and LeBron James’ Lakers seem well of the pace of the Suns and Nuggets. The Sacramento Kings and the Grizzlies, who were both beaten in the first round of the playoffs, will aim to improve in the postseason. Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving will seek the chemistry they failed to find last year at the Dallas Mavericks, who threw in the towel early in one of the major disappointments of the 2022-23 season.
Despite Denver being champions, the current betting favorites are the Celtics, who will be looking to erase the disappointment of last year’s home loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Boston have revamped their roster in search of a championship team and have the most complete starting five in the league, albeit with somewhat fewer resources on the bench. They have made two big-name signings: Kristap Porzingis, almost as tall as Wembanyama, a skilled ballhandler and a good three-point shooter, and injury-prone point guard Jrue Holiday, a veteran who comes over from the Bucks in a roundabout way. Holiday was brought in to cover the defensive flank left by the departure of the charismatic Marcus Smart (who went in the opposite direction in the Porzingis trade), but the 33-year-old is a more prolific scorer and the third All-Star on a team led by ambitious power forward Jayson Tatum and his brilliant wingman Jaylen Brown. Rounding out the luxury five is the colossal Al Horford. The team has it all: powerful offense, aggressive defense, three-point shooting, inside game, rebounds, height…
The Celtics big rival in the East will be the Bucks, who pulled off a major coup by landing Damian Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers. Lillard, 33, a seven-time All-Star, will provide the outside shooting to complement Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the NBA’s best. The Bucks, who were last year’s favorites, suffered a heartbreaking loss to Miami in the playoffs after Antetokounmpo picked up a knee injury.
The Philadelphia 76ers are attempting to emerge from a crisis period due to the desire of their one of their star players, James Harden, to secure a trade after seeing his career hit the buffers. Last season, alongside reigning MVP Joel Embiid, the 76ers put up a fight but it was insufficient. Miami will again be an outsider to make the playoffs but if they do, they have already proven that with Jimmy “Playoff” Butler on their side they can cause plenty of upsets.
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