Top Teams to Look Out for This NBA Season

In a league full of superteams just a few seasons ago, the NBA now has more title-contending teams than ever before, with several organizations making key changes to reach “the promised land” of a championship.

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The 2022-2023 NBA offseason is proving to be one for the ages as massive changes continue to occur in various teams around the league. With regular season disappointments, such as the Los Angeles Lakers missing the playoffs, and other letdowns, like the top-seeded Phoenix Suns losing in seven games to the Dallas Mavericks, unlikely teams are now looking to capitalize and become title contenders. Among the various teams in the league competing for a title, three stand out among the rest as dark horses: the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Clippers.

After reaching the playoffs last season for the first time since 2018, the Minnesota Timberwolves lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies in six games. Led by All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns and head coach Chris Finch, the Timberwolves performed drastically better than their previous season, with a 26-win increase. The most pressing problems with the team, however, were their insufficient inside rim protection and depth at the wing spot. These issues are in large part due to Towns, who has often been criticized for his lack of defense in the paint with a defensive rating of 110 and 1.1 blocks per game, among the lowest of the starting centers this season.

In order to fix this issue, the Timberwolves recently engaged in a blockbuster trade with the Utah Jazz. Minnesota gave away guards Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, and Leandro Bolmaro, as well as 2022 first-round draft pick Walker Kessler, for starting center and three-time Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) Rudy Gobert. Gobert, who was in the running for DPOY this season as well, had the best defensive rating in the league and averaged 2.1 blocks, the third most among starting centers this season. It is likely that with this addition, Towns will move to the power forward position to engage more on his perimeter-centric offense, while Gobert will protect the paint. In a league full of “small ball” teams, Finch has decided to go against the grain. “When [...] Towns is one of your most talented offensive players […] you’re not gonna go small,” he said. The improved rim protection “allows [the defense] to be more aggressive, take chances, smart chances, on the perimeter.”

In the playoffs, Gobert has infamously been benched in key games as teams were able to run small ball lineups in order to have him defend on the perimeter, thus allowing for easy drives to the rim. The Timberwolves have solved this issue with increased wing depth of their own, with perimeter defenders and scorers such as former Grizzlies forward Kyle Anderson and former Nuggets guard Bryn Forbes, as well the re-signing of forward Taurean Prince. With former number one pick Anthony Edwards improving as well, the Timberwolves are definitely a team to look forward to this season.

Looking at other teams in the Northwest division, the Nuggets have been one of the most affected by injuries this past season, losing two stars in point guard Jamal Murray and forward Michael Porter Jr. Despite these losses, starting center and reigning two-time MVP Nikola Joki​​ć has taken over both the offensive and defensive responsibilities of the Nuggets, leading the team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals, as well as being the first person in NBA history to have 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 500 assists in a single season. Nicknamed “The Joker,” Joki​​ć led his team to the sixth seed with a 48-34 record this past year before losing to the eventual champion, the Golden State Warriors, in the first round. On top of Jokić’s abilities, when healthy in the 2020-2021 season, Murray and Porter Jr. averaged 21.2 and 19.0 points per game, respectively. Denver’s president of basketball operations Calvin Booth said that both Murray and Porter Jr. “look promising” and are “in good places,” leaving optimism for a return this season.

Along with the hope that both players return to help Jokić on the offensive end, the Nuggets made various adjustments to improve their perimeter defense. They gained former Washington Wizards shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in a trade. The 6’5’’ frame of “KCP” allows for him to be a switchable defender in the backcourt with Murray. The additions of forwards Bruce Brown and Christian Braun also hope to aid Denver’s perimeter defense and hustle. With these key pieces, the Nuggets are a dark horse team to watch out for in the playoffs.

After a disappointing playoff run in 2020 and the loss of star forward Kawhi Leonard to injury in 2021, the Los Angeles Clippers are hoping to make a push toward a finals appearance and a championship. The biggest problem the Clippers needed to solve this offseason was the addition of a ball-handler and scorer. Without Leonard and after an early injury from star forward Paul George as well, the Clippers averaged 108.4 points per game, the seventh worst in the league.

The Clippers hoped to fix both these issues with the signing of point guard John Wall. While injuries may have derailed Wall’s all-star play that he showcased on the Washington Wizards, he has demonstrated that he is a valuable piece on any team, averaging 20.6 points, 6.9 assists, and 3.2 rebounds per game in his last full season on the Houston Rockets. Wall will prove to be a valuable asset as one of the premier playmakers in the league, as well as a third scoring option to the dominant duo of George and Leonard, though the latter is still uncertain about his availability for the beginning of the season.

“I know the things I’ve worked on, especially being able to knock down catch and shoot shots, because I probably won’t have the ball in my hands as much,” Wall said in an interview on his role in LA. “But at the same time, they still want me to be myself, be aggressive, be able to break down the defense for those guys and get them open shots.” With the addition of Wall and a possibly healthy Leonard and George, the Clippers hope to finally end their drought of never winning a conference or league title.

In a league full of superteams just a few seasons ago, the NBA now has more title-contending teams than ever before, with several organizations making key changes to reach “the promised land” of a championship.