The NBA season is a quarter of the way in the books and things are starting to take shape.
The Eastern Conference looks to have three teams that can contend for the right to play in the NBA Finals, while the Western Conference has some new blood at the top.
The Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and the Golden State Warriors are all out of the top 6, while the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Oklahoma City Thunder are two of the top three teams in the West.
Let’s dive into the 12 teams that would currently be locked in for an NBA playoff spot if it started today and what to look for as the calendar turns to 2024.
Boston Celtics: Keep Kristaps Porzingis healthy
The Celtics have been in the Eastern Conference Finals five of the last seven years and made it to the NBA Finals in 2022. And yet, the success has yet to lead to a championship.
Boston has not won a title since 2008 but made moves in the offseason in hopes of taking the final step.
Kristaps Porzingis will need to stay healthy – something the big man has been unable to do throughout his career – in order for the Celtics to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference and get over the hump in June.
Milwaukee Bucks: Improve the defense
Milwaukee needed to make a move after losing as a one-seed in the first round of the 2022-23 NBA Playoffs. The Bucks went out and acquired Damian Lillard in exchange for Jrue Holiday, adding much-needed firepower to the offense but having a negative impact on their defense.
The Bucks are 20th in the NBA in defensive rating after ending last season with the fourth-best defensive rating in the league.
Philadelphia 76ers: Find a third star?
It was a bizarre offseason for the Sixers as James Harden forced his way out of town.
Despite no longer having the 10-time All-Star, the Sixers haven’t skipped a beat, sitting at 22-10 and holding the third-best record in the East. Philadelphia is just 3.5 games out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference a third of the way through the NBA season.
Despite the good start, Philadelphia does seem to be one player away from being on the same level as the Celtics.
“I believe we’re good enough,” Joel Embiid told ESPN earlier this month. “[Boston and Milwaukee], those teams are great. They got good players on paper. Like you guys [in the media] have said, they’re better than us,” he continued, tongue firmly in cheek.
“Whatever happens, happens. If we add whoever, that is good. If we don’t, we’re still gonna go out and fight and try to win. But I believe in what we have. And we’re gonna do the best job possible.”
The NBA trade deadline is Feb. 8.
Miami Heat: Prove people wrong again
The Miami Heat continually make “experts” of the NBA eat their words.
Last year, the Heat squeaked into the NBA Playoffs via the Play-In Tournament, only to upset the one-seed Bucks in the first round.
After beating the New York Knicks, Miami managed to win a Game 7 on the road in the Eastern Conference Finals after blowing a 3-0 lead.
The Heat just don’t die, and after striking out on Lillard and Jrue Holiday during the summer, the Heat are 19-13 and tied for the fourth spot in the East.
Orlando Magic: Stay ahead of schedule
It was just two years ago when the Magic finished 22-60 and secured the first pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Orlando selected Paulo Banchero first overall and now have a true franchise player moving forward, along with a legit second option in Franz Wagner.
The Magic are ahead of schedule and are looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2020.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Figure out what to do with Donovan Mitchell
When the Cavaliers made the big trade for Donovan Mitchell before last season, they were taking a calculated risk.
Cleveland was never Mitchell’s top choice, but the Cavaliers gave him a chance to compete for a championship. Through the first 32 games of the 2023-24 season, it’s apparent that the Cavaliers are not a championship-caliber team as they’ve dealt with numerous injuries.
With Mitchell set to be a free agent in 2025, many have floated the idea of the four-time All-Star being traded before this year’s deadline or during the offseason. However, the Cavs have “maintained a commitment to this core of four All-Star talents,” according to Yahoo Sports.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Translate regular season success to the postseason
When the Minnesota Timberwolves traded for Rudy Gobert prior to the 2022-23 NBA season, most felt they gave up too much for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Last season, the fit alongside Karl-Anthony Towns was rough as Minnesota was bounced from the playoffs in the first round.
So far in 2023, the Timberwolves sit atop the Western Conference with a record of 24-7.
Minnesota is first in defensive rating (108.1) and have a legitimate star in Anthony Edwards. Getting the top seed and home-court advantage would be huge for Minnesota.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Add a piece or stick it out?
The Oklahoma City Thunder are really good.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an MVP candidate and Chet Holmgren is probably going to be the Rookie of the Year.
While the Thunder are certainly ahead of schedule, they are very young, which could show come playoff time.
With a treasure trove of draft picks at their disposal, the question is whether OKC adds a piece or decides to stay put.
Denver Nuggets: Just get to April
The Nuggets are defending NBA champions and are still the team to beat come playoff time.
Denver very well could end up without the best record in the West, but all that matters is that they’re healthy for the playoffs. The Nuggets know who they are.
Los Angeles Clippers: Pray the Big Three is healthy come playoff time
The James Harden trade is working. The Clippers won nine straight games to kick off December and are fourth in the West.
As is always the case for the Clippers, the health of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will determine how far they can go in the spring.
Leonard has missed the last several games with a hip contusion but has played in 27 of 31 games this season.
Sacramento Kings: Make a move?
The Kings were the best story in the league last season, making the playoffs for the first time since the 2005-06 season, “lighting the beam” after every win.
The Kings finished with the best offensive rating in the league last season but have taken a step back in 2023, now sitting at 12th in the league.
The Athletic’s Sam Amick jumped on Sactown Sports 1140 after a recent loss to the Portland Trail Blazers and said the Kings need to be open to making a move in order to be considered contenders.
“I’ve said for a while, if this team wants to contend, they got to be pretty open to significant moves at the trade deadline,” Amick said. “That was the type of loss, that to me is, now you know. And if something’s not there, you can’t force it. So it doesn’t mean something is definitely going to happen. But as far as the ceiling on this team, I thought that was a pretty bad sign.”
Dallas Mavericks: See how far Luka Doncic can take you
Luka Doncic has somehow gone up a level in his sixth NBA season.
The four-time All-Star is averaging 33.7 points (a career-high) and 9.2 assists (also a career-high) as the Mavericks have been without Kyrie Irving since early December.
Doncic went off on Christmas Day, scoring 50 points while adding 15 assists, six rebounds and four steals.
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