There’s no overwhelming favorite to win the championship in the 2023-24 NBA season. Four teams sit at the top via Caesar’s Sportsbook odds — the Bucks, Celtics, Nuggets, and Suns all have at least a 13 percent implied probability of taking it all down.
Those preseason odds should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Last year’s Nuggets were substantial long shots to win the championship, opening the preseason at +1800 or around 5 percent odds via Sports Odds History. The underlying takeaway here is that the NBA is in a period of parity, where a number of different teams could be in the mix.
That type of environment makes predictions more challenging, but that’s part of the fun of making them. Here are my picks for awards, seeding in each conference, Finals picks, and a championship winner.
Before we get to the predictions, a reminder that NBA games will once again be spread across ABC, ESPN, NBA TV and TNT. You can stream games on Watch ESPN and Watch TNT, both available on desktop and by downloading the mobile apps. You can also stream games on Sling TV.
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MVP: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
Jokic was the front-runner to win his third straight MVP last season before he and the Nuggets took their foot off the gas toward the end of the year. One of the most compelling arguments against his outstanding season in which he averaged 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 9.8 assists per game was that he wasn’t good enough to be in the hallowed three straight MVPs club housing Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird. With that argument dead in the water, this is Jokic’s award to win again.
Even though Embiid took home the hardware last year, Jokic proved without a doubt in the playoffs that he was the best player in the league. His own apathy for awards is the only thing holding him back. But after losing Bruce Brown in the offseason and other Western Conference teams around them getting better, the Nuggets are going to have to go full bore to get the No. 1 seed this season. At age 28, Jokic should continue to dominate the rest of the league.
Rookie of the Year: Victor Wembanyama, Spurs
Don’t count Chet Holmgren out for this award. He could give Wembanyama a run for his money, particularly given that the expectation seems to be for the Spurs to limit Wembanyama’s minutes as a rookie.
Holmgren aside, Wembanyama is the clear favorite here. He’s a generational prospect and based on how defensively dominant he’s been in every league he’s played in, he should be an immediate plus on that end of the floor. It may take a little longer for him to find a groove offensively, but he will do things on both ends of the court that haven’t been seen before from a player of his 7-foot-3 size.
Defensive Player of the Year: Evan Mobley, Cavs
Mobley was close to winning this award last season, finishing in third place behind Brook Lopez and DPOY winner Jaren Jackson Jr. He’s still only 22 years old and improving, so it seems like only a matter of time before he gets his first trophy.
This award generally goes to the best defender on a top five defense, making Mobley a great bet. The Cavs led the league in defense last season and are returning most of their team. Mobley and Jarrett Allen are the key to the defense, anchoring the paint. They’ve added some stability at small forward with the acquisition of Max Strus, who is a capable defender as well. That personnel gives Mobley the ability to use his unique gifts of protecting the rim and getting out to the perimeter to chase down jump shooters or guard in space.
Sixth Man of the Year: Chris Paul, Warriors
It’s unclear if Paul will come off the bench to start the season. He’s not even on the board for this award at most betting sites. But by year’s end, it wouldn’t surprise me if he found his place as the best sixth man in the league.
Starting Paul and Steph Curry together would be very tough to do from a defensive standpoint. Both are undersized players, and Paul isn’t the point-of-attack defender that he once was. Kevon Looney would be the natural player to go to the bench, making the Warriors even smaller.
The team has asked stars like Curry and Draymond Green to come off the bench in playoff games — Kerr will probably do the same for Paul eventually.
Paul would be a great point guard off the bench. The Warriors could maintain their motion-heavy offense with Curry and allow Paul to run his preferred style of slower, ball-dominant play. The team’s issues have always been that they have collapsed when Curry has sat. Paul was still a great point guard for the Suns last season and could fix that longstanding issue.
This has been a narrative-driven award in the past. Paul sacrificing his starting spot for a chance at his first Sixth Man award would make a great story.
Coach of the Year: Steve Kerr, Warriors
The addition of Paul is going to be a tough job for Kerr to manage. That is a big ego being added to the locker room. It will also be hard to adjust from a stylistic point given that Paul is a pick-and-roll specialist and the Warriors have been one of the least pick-and-roll heavy offenses in the league during Kerr’s tenure.
Kerr should be up to the task. He has gotten players to sacrifice consistently throughout the team’s dynastic run, finding ways to incorporate new pieces. If he can do that with Paul, then this Warriors team has a chance to win it all.
NBA Playoff Predictions 2023-24
Eastern Conference playoff teams
- Boston Celtics
- Milwaukee Bucks
- New York Knicks
- Philadelphia 76ers
- Cleveland Cavaliers
- Miami Heat
- Toronto Raptors*
- Chicago Bulls*
- Atlanta Hawks*
- Indiana Pacers*
After trades to bring Damian Lillard to the Bucks and Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis to Boston, the East is a two team race at the top.
Both of those teams are relatively shallow, but the Celtics easily have the best top six in the league. It is quite possible that they field four All-Stars in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Holiday, and Porzingis. Their starting lineup should be completely unguardable given that they have shooting all over the floor, making it difficult to bring help. And all four of those players are good-to-great shot creators who can take matchups one-on-one.
The Celtics were already one of the best defensive teams over the past few seasons and have improved on that end. Porzingis is a great rim protector, and a case can be made for Holiday as the best perimeter defender in the league. They should be able to switch 1 through 4 and fight over screens to allow Porzingis to stay back near the rim. It would be shocking if this weren’t a top three defense by season’s end.
The Bucks should likewise be a great offense behind the pick-and-roll of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lillard. And Giannis should have much more space to work on his drives with Lillard spacing the floor.
There are defensive concerns with the Bucks though. The dropoff from Lillard to Holiday on that side of the ball is massive, and the team also lost its second-best point-of-attack defender in Jevon Carter during the offseason. How effective can Lopez be as a drop center with subpar guards unable to recover back into plays on pick-and-rolls?
The Sixers, Knicks, and Cavs are in the next tier down. They should fight to be the last two home court advantage teams in the East.
The Sixers are the dark horse of the conference. Doc Rivers was the scapegoat for many of their previous collapses, although he did everything he could in last year’s playoffs in terms of adjustments. Nick Nurse should be an upgrade from a tactical standpoint. If they can get Harden back on the same page, then this is a tough team.
The Knicks were a completely different team after trading for Josh Hart, going from 30-27 before his addition to 17-8 after it. And Donte DiVincenzo was a great free agent acquisition. They should improve from their 47 wins last year.
The Cavs benefited from fairly good health last season en route to 51 wins and the fourth seed last year. They’ve added some good shooting in Max Strus and Georges Niang. They should also get internal improvement from their young starting core.
After those five teams, there is a morass of teams in the middle. It includes the Heat, Bulls, Hawks, Raptors, and Pacers. Those five could finish in any order. All have reason to believe that they could improve from last season.
The Heat who missed on a potential Lillard trade, will take a step back. The Bulls added some desperately needed shooting with Carter and Torrey Craig. The Hawks will benefit from a full season of Quin Snyder coaching the team. The Raptors looked at their best after the trade deadline with Jakob Poeltl, and they’ll have him for a full season. And the Pacers were terrific with Tyrese Haliburton, also adding Bruce Brown in free agency.
Western Conference playoff teams
- Denver Nuggets
- Golden State Warriors
- Phoenix Suns
- Minnesota Timberwolves
- Sacramento Kings
- Los Angeles Lakers
- Los Angeles Clippers*
- Memphis Grizzlies*
- New Orleans Pelicans*
- Dallas Mavericks*
The Nuggets got worse with the loss of Bruce Brown, but they maintained the rest of their starting lineup. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t repeat as the one seed again.
I’m very bullish on the Warriors. Paul potentially fixes their non-Curry minutes, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody should be ready to contribute more, and most importantly, Curry is still one of the best players on the planet.
The Suns have a ton of star talent on paper with Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant, and Devin Booker, but their bench is an issue and Jusuf Nurkic is a downgrade from Deandre Ayton. They should be better in the playoffs than in the regular season.
The Wolves should be much better this year. Anthony Edwards continues to improve rapidly, they should (hopefully) have better health, and they finally started to hit their groove in last year’s playoffs.
The Kings benefited from great injury luck in their 48-win campaign last season. They’re running back mostly the same roster and should be a dynamite offense again that may have some defensive issues.
It may be surprising to have both Los Angeles teams so low, in the sixth and seventh spots. The Western Conference is going to be a bloodbath though. Both of these teams have stars that have been impacted by injuries over the past few years. It will be tough to squeeze out a ton of regular season victories without 70+ games from Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George. That hasn’t happened for any of them since the 2018-19 season.
The Mavs, Grizzlies, Pelicans and Thunder should also be in the mix for playoff spots. The Grizzlies were poised to be one of the best teams in the West, but Ja Morant’s suspension along with season-ending injuries to Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke have decimated their team.
The Pelicans and Mavs are impossible to predict because Zion Williamson and Kyrie Irving have been total wildcards.
The Thunder are running back most of their 40-win team from last season. While I like their talent, their starting lineup doesn’t fit as well as I’d like with two below-average shooters in Lu Dort and Josh Giddey. They’re the odd team out for me.
Eastern Conference champion: Celtics
There are some good teams in the East, but it seems fated that it’s going to come down to the Bucks and Celtics in the Conference Finals.
These two teams have a ton of history, with the Celtics generally having the edge. The Celtics knocked the Bucks out of the playoffs in 2018 and 2022 and held a 2-1 edge in their three regular season games last year.
The Celtics have good personnel to match up against the Bucks. Holiday has guarded Lillard very well, most notably during the 2018 playoffs in which he held Lillard to a miserable 35 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3. Derrick White is also an excellent option against Lillard, and Tatum and Brown can do a reasonable job too.
The Celtics don’t have quite as many options against Giannis. Losing Grant Williams in free agency will hurt there. But Al Horford has defended Giannis about as well as anyone could expect, and Porzingis should be able to at least slow him down a little bit on his rim attempts.
While the Celtics don’t have a weak spot on defense, the Bucks have several. Lillard is going to be targeted relentlessly in the playoffs. Middleton has lost a step. Bobby Portis isn’t much of a rim protector as a backup to Lopez. And if Malik Beasley becomes a rotational player, his defensive issues have always kept his minutes limited.
The Celtics have fewer weak spots on paper, so they should take this matchup down.
Western Conference champion: Warriors
It would not be a surprise at all to see an upset in the Western Conference. The four favorites are the Nuggets, Suns, Lakers, and Warriors, but only three games separated the fourth through ninth seeds last season and I fully expect the same outcome this season.
Of those four favorites, the Nuggets already took out the Suns and Lakers in last year’s playoffs without too much struggle. Beal makes the Suns better, but they still have no one who can credibly guard Jokic.
The one question mark with the Nuggets is what would happen if they played the Warriors. If the Nuggets do have one weakness, it’s with teams that can put maximum stress on Jokic defensively. That’s exactly what the Warriors did two seasons ago, knocking the Nuggets out in five games.
The Warriors have also upgraded their biggest weakness from last season. When they won their most recent championship, they were buoyed by a strong bench led by Nemanja Bjelica, Otto Porter Jr., and Gary Payton II. Their young players could not fill that void last season. They’ve replenished that bench with veterans Paul, Dario Saric, and Cory Joseph. They are of course led by their stars, but that bench should give their guys the rest needed to get back to the Finals.
NBA champion: Celtics
The Warriors prevailed in this matchup two years ago, but this is a different Celtics team that has addressed its biggest weaknesses. They have more weapons to throw at Steph Curry, who was brilliant in the 2022 Finals. Curry has called Holiday one of the three best defenders he’s ever faced in an interview on The Today Show, and White is also an excellent option to throw at him.
Curry would also have to play both ends of the court. He’s a solid defender but does lack the size to hold up in certain matchups. He wouldn’t have as many places to hide because of the sheer depth of weapons that the Celtics have offensively.
The Celtics have the ability to play multiple different styles successfully in the playoffs. They can play a two-big lineup with Porzingis and Horford, size down with a big rim protector in Porzingis, or switch everything with Horford. That versatility gives them a huge advantage in making adjustments against any of their playoff opponents.
Ultimately, there’s not a team out there that would match up evenly on paper against this group. This is the Celtics’ title to lose.