NBA season has potential to be most competitive since at least 2015
A team with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook might not even be one of the top eight teams in the Western Conference.
A team with Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. might not be a top-six team in the Eastern Conference.
Those statements illustrate just how deep the NBA is this season with the Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto Raptors possibly reduced to bystanders by the second round of the playoffs.
This is as deep as the NBA has been in recent seasons, with multiple teams capable of reaching the Finals.
It is wide open. Or at least it seems that way.
No one would be surprised if any of these teams from the West – Golden State, Dallas, Memphis, Phoenix, Denver, Minnesota, New Orleans, the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers – and any of these teams from the East – Boston, Milwaukee, Miami, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Chicago and Toronto – reach the conference semifinals.
There’s a good chance that this season’s Finals won’t be a rematch of last season’s Boston-Golden State.
The 2022-23 campaign has the potential to be one of the deepest, most competitive seasons in league history, reminiscent of when the Warriors won an NBA-record 73 games in 2015-16 but didn’t clinch the No. 1 seed until late in the season because San Antonio finished right behind them with 67 victories. And Golden State still didn’t win the title, falling to Cleveland, which came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Warriors in the Finals.
This season could rival 2007-08 when 48 wins wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs in the West and all eight playoff teams from the West won at least 50 games – seven games separated the top seed from the eighth seed. It was a similar situation in 2009-10 with all eight West playoff teams registering at least 50 victories. In 1994-95, sixth-seeded Houston won the title, beating a 62-win team (Spurs) in the conference finals and East top seed Orlando in the Finals.
HARDWARE: Who wins NBA MVP? Nikola Jokic could enter rare air
TOP 10 STORYLINES: Who can dethrone Warriors in West? More Nets dysfunction?
SPORTS NEWSLETTER: Sign up now for content delivered to your inbox
Part of the deep league stems from the recent trend of teams “going for it” while they sense a window to win a championship. Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota and New Orleans are among the teams that have done this in the past two seasons, making blockbuster trades and aggressive free agent decisions to improve and compete now.
‘This is probably one of the deepest seasons you’ve ever gonna see with everybody coming back healthy,’ seven-time NBA champion Robert Horry told USA TODAY Sports. ‘You think about all the teams who made major moves that are trying to get better … That’s headache right there.’
In the West
Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Steve Kerr – enough said. The Warriors have a shot to repeat and win their fifth title in nine seasons.
Phoenix doesn’t believe its window is closed after a franchise-record 64 wins last season, and a core of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges makes a run at a title possible.
Dallas reached the conference finals and is just getting started with Luka Doncic.
Speaking of getting started, Memphis has the best young team in the league led by Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane.
A healthy Leonard and Paul George, a deep roster and coach Ty Lue make the Clippers a solid (and underrated) contender.
Not only does Murray return for the Nuggets, but they get back Michael Porter Jr., who played only nine games last season, to go alongside two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokic.
If things line up perfectly, a Lakers team with James, Davis and Westbrook can be dangerous.
The Pelicans were a solid 33-30 after a 3-16 start and that was without Williamson and with CJ McCollum for just a portion of the season.
Minnesota added Rudy Gobert to a lineup that features Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell and is ready to take the next step.
In the East
The Ime Udoka situation hurts the Celtics, but this is a team of veterans (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford) who should be able to overcome that.
The continued absence of Lonzo Ball isn’t good, but the Bulls are still solid with Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nik Vucevic.
Cleveland was among the top teams in the East until injuries put a damper on last season. But adding Donovan Mitchell to a roster that features Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley and Kevin Love is intriguing.
Miami needs its younger players, Bam Adebayo in particular, to carry more of the load for Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry, but the Heat can’t be discounted with their brand of basketball.
The Bucks were just a game from beating Boston in the conference finals without Khris Middleton and it would be unwise to think Giannis Antetokounmpo will play in just one Finals in his career.
Joel Embiid is an MVP-caliber player, and with a healthy and motivated James Harden, the Sixers are capable of a deep run.
Brooklyn has several issues to work through, but if somehow Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Simmons are all on the same page, the Nets have the talent to contend.
The Raptors are well coached by Nick Nurse, and with VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby and Barnes, they are talented and just the kind of team to surprise the rest of the league.
Atlanta had a disappointing 2021-22 but still, the Hawks are just two seasons removed from a trip to the conference finals with Trae Young, John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic, and they acquired Dejounte Murray in the offseason.
The league is deep as the older generation continues to star while the next group and the younger generations carve out their space among today’s great players. There is no shortage of talent, and multiple teams in each conference have a legitimate shot at winning the title.
Follow NBA columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt