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The Celtics, NBA favorites in the first season of the Wembanyama era

The Frenchman with the San Antonio Spurs is big news in the League, but his team is far from playing at the level of the teams like Denver, Phoenix, Milwaukee, and especially Boston

NBA Celtics Wembanyama
San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama in the opening jump with Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry last Friday.Jeff Chiu (AP)

The defining image of the NBA preseason was the opening jump of the game between the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs last Friday. Stephen Curry, the point guard who has turned the Warriors into the most successful team of the last decade, faced Victor Wembanyama, the league’s newest sensation. At 6′2″ Curry was dwarfed by the Frenchman, who is over 7′3″ tall. But the sight of them facing off could also be interpreted as a symbol of going from one era to the next. Although both will attract attention in the season that begins this Tuesday, Curry’s best years seem to be behind him and Wembanyama’s may still take some time to make a splash. With permission from Nikola Jokić, who led the Denver Nuggets to their first title in June, 2023-24 has been presented as the Celtics’ year — they are the favorites of pundits and punters alike — but the team has not won the ring since 2008.

The NBA has had five different champions in the last five seasons (Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors, and Denver Nuggets) and none had been the best in the regular phase. Without a clear dominator, any prediction runs the risk of being derailed, but the preseason games, with all their limitations, have allowed us to glimpse the power of the Celtics’ signings.

Newcomers to Boston, center Kristaps Porzingis, and point guard Jrue Holiday, are good three-point shooters, as is the team’s star, Jayson Tatum, his teammate, Jaylen Brown, and the other two who aspire to a place in the starting quintet: Al Horford and Derrick White. This gives them great versatility in attack that makes up for their rocky defense. And although they have lost Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, Malcolm Brogdon, and Robert Williams, the team still has a strong and capable base.

The survey of general managers of NBA clubs places the Celtics as favorites along with the champions, the Denver Nuggets with Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray. The bets are on Jokić as a candidate for player of the season. He also tops the list of those the other teams would want to sign if they could.

The second on that list is the Frenchman, Victor Wembanyama, number one in the draft, called to mark an era in the league. The center stands taller than 7′3″ and has the agility of a point guard. In preseason games, he has shown himself to be a relentless blocker, with a good scoring average and a decent 3-point shot. In attack he has felt more comfortable playing as a tall forward than as a post player. The San Antonio Spurs haven’t given him a team with many options. But what he can aspire to is to be the first new draft pick to play in an All-Star game since 1998, when Tim Duncan, another Spurs player, did just that.

Wembanyama is the most notable addition to the NBA, but the star signing of the summer was Damian Lillard. The 33-year-old, seven-time All Star, with a long career with the Portland Trail Blazers, has come to the Milwaukee Bucks to be able to fight for a title. With Antetokounmpo as leader, the Bucks are the third in contention among the favorites after a disappointing end to the season in which they finished as the best in the regular phase to fall in the first round of the playoffs against the Miami Heat. In fact, with the signing of Lillard, they looked like the favorites, but the consequence of that transfer was that their player Jrue Holiday, given to Portland as part of the price, ended up in Boston.

In addition to Lillard and Holiday and Porzingis (Boston), the other notable signing is that of Bradley Beal for the Phoenix Suns, the main alternative to Denver in the Western Conference with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker at the helm. Bradley Beal leaves the Washington Wizards (who have also lost Porzingis and in which Jordan Poole will be their star). Beal now aspires to make the leap with the Suns, who may miss Chris Paul (Warriors), DeAndre Ayton ( Portland), and Cameron Payne (Bucks).

The options for those four leading teams are fewer, especially in the east, which looks more like a question of two. The Philadelphia 76ers have James Harden in rebellion (a last-minute transfer is not ruled out), so Joel Embiid, named the NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 2023, would be left very alone. The Miami Heat were the surprise last season thanks to their coach, Erik Spoelstra, considered the best in the championship, and their star Jimmy Butler, who is growing in the playoffs, but few trust that they can even be finalists again. Cleveland and the New York Knicks have a few things to say, but they are far from the level of Boston and Milwaukee. The rest would have to get into the top eight to reach the playoffs.

In the west, the Warriors and the Lakers continue to rely too much on Stephen Curry and LeBron James, but they are candidates to get into their conference finals if the Nuggets or the Suns slip up. The signings from Los Angeles finished in shape last season and have barely been renewed, while the Warriors, joined by the Spaniard Usman Garuba, have transferred Jordan Poole and signed Chris Paul. With Curry up front and Andrew Wiggins, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green in the starting five, they can’t be ruled out early.

The Memphis Grizzlies have strengthened their defense with Marcus Smart, but they start the season with a suspended Ja Morant and have lost their center Steven Adams for the entire season due to a knee injury. Sacramento, who have taken on barely any new signings, will try to emulate their exploits from last year under Domantas Sabonis. The Clippers have barely changed their roster either, and it doesn’t seem like it’s enough for them with what they have. A big unknown is what the Dallas Mavericks will do with Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, who mixed badly with each other last season. The team has added Grant Williams from the Celtics, who has gone from being the best sixth man with Boston to the undisputed starter in Dallas.

The Spanish players will have less weight than ever in recent years. Garuba has signed for the Warriors, but with a dual contract that also allows him to play for their affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors. Ricky Rubio is still on the Cleveland Cavaliers roster, but he temporarily left the game to take care of his mental health. Santi Aldama, meanwhile, has made good use of his preseason minutes and is crying out for more opportunities in the Memphis Grizzlies.

A new cup tournament

This year, for the first time, the NBA is introducing a new tournament that it has shoehorned into its busy calendar. Part of the regular season matches will simultaneously serve as a group stage: six single-game leagues between five teams (three groups in the Eastern Conference and three in the Western Conference) that will be played from November 3 to 28. The first in each group and the best second in each conference will be classified. After the group stages come the quarterfinals, semifinals and the final, with cash prizes for players and teams and the NBA Cup. With the exception of the final, all of these matches count simultaneously for the Cup and for the regular phase of the league, in a scheme that aims to make the start of the season a little more exciting without overloading the calendar even more. With 82 regular season games, interest in the competition in the first months has declined compared to the last phase of the season and the playoffs as the moment of truth.

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