With the NBA All-Star break passing and most teams resuming games on Thursday, the 2022-23 NBA season has entered its final stretch. Most teams have just over 20 games left. With many teams using this last stretch to solidify their positioning in the standings, other teams are taking time to acclimate new roster members. With the final stretch of the season beginning, there are many questions to be asked and predictions to be made about the end of the 2022-23 season.
Bulls Embrace the Tank
For a team with high expectations after a first-round exit, the Bulls have easily been the most disappointing NBA team this season. Currently sitting at 26-33 and 11th in the East, the Bulls finished 0-6 prior to the All-Star break. Chicago has many issues ranging from the players to coach Billy Donovan and Bulls Management. The Bulls are at a crossroads right now. They are within reach of the play-in tournament but are closer to the bottom of the East. Chicago could try for a late-season push towards the play-in but could also put more effort into their young stars including Ayo Dosunmu, Coby White, Patrick Williams, and Dalen Terry. Chicago currently owes Orlando their 2023 first-round draft pick (part of the Nikola Vucevic trade), which is top-4 protected. According to tankathon, the odds of Chicago landing a top-4 pick are currently 32.0%. While they have aging stars in DeMar DeRozan and Vucevic and a lot of decisions to make this summer, embracing the tank may be the smartest option looking toward the future of the organization.
Despite Injuries, Boston and Milwaukee Both Win 50+ Games
In the Eastern Conference, there are no better teams than the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks. Boston sits at 42-17 and Milwaukee sits at 41-17, half a game behind Boston. Prior to the All-Star break, Milwaukee was on fire with a 12-game win streak. In their last game before the break, Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo injured his wrist. No serious damage occurred, but Giannis is currently listed as day-to-day. The Bucks were also missing several key players for stretches before the break including Khris Middleton. Even without Middleton, Milwaukee remained dominant. The same can be said for Boston. The team missed Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart for short stints prior to the break. All three players are back as Boston looks to finish strong this season. Looking at their final stretch of games this season, both teams have rather easy schedules mainly against lower-tier teams. With both teams dominating right now, a strong finish is likely. Both teams can easily finish winning 50 or more games. The question that will be asked is who finishes first and second.
Lakers Barely Miss the Play-In
The Los Angeles Lakers have had another rough NBA season. The team switched up things prior to the trade deadline, moving off of Russell Westbrook’s contract while other moving players including Patrick Beverly, Juan-Tuscano Anderson, and Thomas Bryant. The team went 2-2 in their four games prior to the break but have a tough schedule ahead of them. In their first eight games coming off the break, the Lakers have two games against the Warriors, two games against the Grizzlies, and a game against Dallas. While the Lakers have to deal with contenders, they also have to deal with teams right around them in the standings. The Warriors, Thunder, Jazz, and Trailblazers are one or two games ahead of the Lakers. With the season in its final stretch, there’s no telling the Lakers stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis will start to sit games more games or make one last push for the play-in. Even though they did make improvements to their roster, it may not be enough for the Lakers to push into the play-in by April.
San Antonio Out-Tanks Houston
While the race for the top of both conferences is important, the race for the bottom of the standings this season is just as important. In the West, San Antonio and Houston are at the bottom of the NBA standings. San Antonio sits in 14th in the West with a 14-45 record while Houston sits at the bottom of the West with a 13-45 record. Both teams (along with Detroit) currently have a 14% chance of claiming the first overall pick in this year’s draft. With France’s Victor Wembanyama being dubbed as a generational talent, the tank race is at its most pivotal between San Antonio and Houston. The Rockets have gone 3-7 in their last 10 games while the Spurs have lost 14 games in a row. Houston has proven that their young core has potential with several impressive victories over good teams this season. With San Antonio getting worse at the trade deadline and playing their key players fewer minutes, the odds of San Antonio finishing with the worst record in the West are high. It may almost be guaranteed that the Spurs get a top-four pick, Wembanyama is the goal for the Spurs.
Nuggets Dominate the West, Jokic Threepeats as MVP
No team in the West has dominated in the Western Conference like the Denver Nuggets have. The only team to win 40+ games in the West so far this season, the Nuggets hold a 41-18 record. The closest team to the Nuggets is the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, five games behind with a 35-22 record. Denver’s strong season has been led by back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic. Jokic is having another tremendous season, averaging a triple-double as a center. Looking at the rest of Denver’s season, they have 23 games left with 12 against conference rivals and the other 11 against Eastern Conference teams. Denver is 29-11 against the West and 12-7 against the East. Looking at the Grizzlies in second, they have had a rough stretch. After an 11-game winning streak, the Grizzlies have gone 4-9 in their last 13 games. Missing Steven Adams for a chunk of games prior to the All-Star break has not helped the young Grizzlies team going into the final stretch of the season. With the odds of any team in the West surpassing the Nuggets being low, Denver very well could finish the season at the top of the West. If the Nuggets can finish atop the Western Conference, there is no argument that can be made against Nikola Jokic threepeating as NBA MVP.