NBA 2023-24 Season Preview: Picks for NBA Finals, Win Totals, MVP, and Victor Wembanyama

By Scott Kacsmar

The NBA tips off Tuesday night with the Denver Nuggets beginning their title defense against the Los Angeles Lakers. Our NBA 2023-24 season preview looks at Denver’s chances to repeat as well as other contenders for the NBA Finals like Milwaukee’s super team with Damian Lillard in town and a new-look Boston team.

We also are looking at betting odds for the MVP contenders, and if rookie Victor Wembanyama is a lock for the Rookie of the Year award. He is the most-hyped player to enter the league since LeBron James 20 years ago, so there will be a lot of attention paid to him this season even if the Spurs only have a preseason win total of over/under 28.5 wins. We’ll have some picks on his season as well.

NBA Finals Contenders

The NBA is a league that does not produce many surprise champions. Going back to 1985, you would fare much better if you just bet on last year’s champion to repeat than if you made any bets on teams not in the top 5 odds or with longer than +2000 odds to win it all.

The championship team with the longest odds to win it all since 1985 was the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors, before we knew they’d become a dynasty when they were +2800 (ranked No. 8). Last season, Denver was tied for the 9th-longest odds at +1800, so that makes last year’s Nuggets another one of the most improbable NBA champions going back to the 1980s.

For that reason, we are only focusing on the top 12 teams in NBA Finals odds with teams that are all +3000 or better, and we have included our over/under win total pick for each of these teams based on current odds from FanDuel.

If anyone else comes through and wins this championship besides this dozen, then consider it the greatest upset in over four decades.

1. Boston Celtics (+400 at BetRivers)

  • Last Season: 57-25 (lost Conference Finals in 7 games)
  • Pick This Season: Over 54.5 wins (-122 at FanDuel)

The Celtics are a slight favorite over the field, and we know this team has been knocking on the doorstep of a championship for years without yet finding a way to break through. Boston has appeared in 5 of the last 7 Eastern Conference Finals, but it has only made it to the Finals one time, losing to Golden State in 2022.

But the Celtics are going to look different this year. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown remain together but surrounding them now will be Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis. Al Horford and Derrick White return as solid depth, but Marcus Smart and Robert Williams are gone.

This could certainly work out better as Holiday, who helped Milwaukee to a championship in 2021, is an improvement as an overall player over Smart. Porzingis averages just under 20 points for his career (19.6), but he can be maddeningly inconsistent, especially as a rebounder.

Tatum is still an MVP candidate, but he will have to make up for the bad shooting in the series against Miami where he shot 23.4% from 3-point territory Boston relies on the 3 more than almost every team. Brown was even worse as he shot 16.3% from 3 in that series.

Maybe Holiday and Porzingis are the missing pieces for Tatum and Brown, but the Eastern Conference will be a tight battle between the elite teams.

2. Milwaukee Bucks (+400 at Caesars Sportsbook)

  • Last Season: 58-24 (lost 1st round in 5 games)
  • Pick This Season: Over 53.5 wins (-104 at FanDuel)

It is still hard to believe the Bucks lost in 5 games to the No. 8 seeded Heat the way they did last year. Yes, Giannis Antetokounmpo was injured in Game 1, but the Bucks still won Game 2 without him, and the Bucks were minus-16 with Giannis on the court for over 90 minutes in the series.

On the bright side, Grayson Allen won’t have the ball in crunch time this year. He is gone, and the Bucks made a blockbuster trade to land Damian Lillard while giving up Jrue Holiday.

This new Big 3 in Milwaukee will be very exciting to watch. Lillard provides superior shooting and scorer over Holiday, and he can still facilitate with 7.3 assists per game last year. Lillard averaged a career-high 32.2 points per game last season for Portland, but for the first time since his earliest seasons, he won’t have to be his team’s top scorer.

This is also going to be a change for Giannis, who averaged a career-high 31.1 points per game last season, his first season averaging over 30 a night. If he and Lillard can share some of the scoring burden together, that should help keep them fresh for the stretch run.

The Bucks also have a rookie head coach Adrian Griffin replacing Mike Budenholzer, who did not survive that first-round playoff exit. Griffin started his career as an assistant coach in Milwaukee in 2008 and has plenty of experience in that role with the Bulls, Magic, Thunder, and (most recently) Raptors.

A rookie coach winning a championship is far from unheard of in the NBA, but there will be pressure on this team to perform well right away as Lillard and Giannis are not getting any younger.

3. Denver Nuggets (+550 at FanDuel)

  • Last Season: 53-29 (Won NBA Finals in 5 games)
  • This Season: Under 52.5 wins (+100 at FanDuel)

Denver’s run to the championship involved another MVP-caliber performance from Nikola Jokic, who nearly averaged a triple-double in the regular season. He welcomed Jamal Murray back from injury, and Denver’s No. 2 player averaged 20 points per game before shining in many of the playoff wins for the team.

The Nuggets did not load up their roster like we’ve seen many teams do in the NBA to win championships. They just had a few weaknesses and a roster that could have a couple of role players (Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) go off on any given night.

But it would also be valid to say that Denver got through an easier-than-usual slate of opponents in the playoffs as none of Minnesota, Phoenix, Lakers, or Miami won 50 games last year.

The Nuggets have kept the band together for this year’s run, but without any significant additions, it might be hard for the team to improve on last year’s record. Also, it became a meme with the way Jokic did not seem to care about basketball the moment the season was over. Now that he has a ring they can never take away from him, Denver’s best player may not have that maniacal drive of a Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant to empty the tank to win another.

I think Denver finishes slightly under the 52.5-win total in a conference where Phoenix, Golden State, Dallas, and both Los Angeles teams could be stronger than they were last year due to additions and positive injury regression.

4. Phoenix Suns (+650 at BetMGM)

  • Last Season: 45-37 (lost Conference Semis in 6 games)
  • This Season: Over 52.5 wins (+100 at FanDuel)

While the Suns traded for Kevin Durant last season, injuries again limited his impact and the team only won 45 games. With Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton underperforming, the Suns were exposed by a deeper Denver roster in the semifinals.

Durant and Devin Booker provided some incredible shooting performances in the playoffs, but when they weren’t superhuman, all it did was make the Suns look like a 2-man team, which isn’t enough anymore.

The Suns needed change, and they replaced coach Monty Williams with Frank Vogel, who has had previous success with Indiana, and won a championship in the bubble in his first season with the Lakers.

With Paul and Ayton gone, the Suns will look different with Bradley Beal, Jusuf Nurkic, and Grayson Allen joining Booker and Durant. Beal is only 30 years old and provides another big-time scoring guard for this team. He had to carry some underwhelming Washington rosters, but in Phoenix, he may only need to be the team’s third-best player.

While Paul setting up Ayton for easy dunks was a staple of past Phoenix offenses, these Suns will have a trio of players who can create their own shot, Booker is an underrated passer, and Nurkic could improve the team’s rebounding more than Ayton did.

Having three players who could drop 25 or 30 points on any given night together makes the Suns interesting again. Will the defense still be good enough to win a championship? That’s a big question mark, as is Durant’s ability to stay healthy as he just turned 35 and has not played more than 55 games in a season since 2018-19.

5. Los Angeles Lakers (+1400 at BetRivers)

  • Last Season: 43-39 (lost Conference Finals in 4 games)
  • This Season: Under 46.5 wins (-114 at FanDuel)

The Lakers did a great job in turning a 2-10 start into a season where they reached the Western Conference Finals. But the Lakers were swept by Denver despite having a shot to win each game in the fourth quarter. Denver just always seemed to make the wildest shots in the most crucial times, and LeBron James and Anthony Davis were unable to consistently deliver big performances for the Lakers.

The health of Davis is always a concern, but it’s not like things are going to get better in that department for James, who turns 39 this season. Still looking elite at times last year like when he set the all-time NBA scoring record, James is slowing down and cannot do it as consistently as he used to. It’s Father Time. He still averaged 28.9 points per game last year, but his 3-point shot was awful in the playoffs (26.4%).

The Lakers did not go out of their way to enhance the roster. It’s mostly the same players who helped last year’s turnaround, including Austin Reaves (great postseason run), D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, and Jarred Vanderbilt.

If you could promise a full season from Davis and James, then this team could win 50 games. But given it is likely they will be without one or both for different stretches, it is hard seeing this team finishing as well as it did last year.

6. Golden State Warriors (+1400 at FanDuel)

  • Last Season: 44-38 (lost Conference Semis in 6 games)
  • This Season: Over 47.5 wins (-112 at FanDuel)

Golden State’s best days are behind them, but when you have the shooting of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, you are never out of a game. That was how the Warriors came back to beat the Kings in Game 7 in a rare series for this team to not have a home-court advantage. However, the Warriors were no match for the Lakers in the semifinals.

We know the Warriors are a great home team, but last year took things to absurd extremes:

  • 2022-23 Warriors at home: 33-8 (.805), 5th in Net Rating (+7.7)
  • 2022-23 Warriors on road: 11-30 (.268), 23rd in Net Rating (-4.2)

A split like that should not be possible, but it was why the Warriors were only 44-38 and had to go on the road so much in the playoffs. Adding Chris Paul and his $30 million salary while losing Jordan Poole, even if he was too inconsistent, does not feel like a big win for Golden State. Paul is going on 39 and clearly slowed down last year in Phoenix. He may not play huge minutes for this team either.

But a 35-year-old Curry is still going to be effective. Last year, he had his third-best season in terms of FG%, eFG%, and points per game. Steve Kerr returns as coach, Draymond Green is still there, and Paul does give the team a closer option in the fourth quarter.

But these are not the mid-2010 Warriors anymore.

7. Dallas Mavericks (+2500 at Caesars Sportsbook)

  • Last Season: 38-44 (missed playoffs)
  • This Season: Over 43.5 wins (-112 at FanDuel)

You could argue Dallas was the most disappointing team in the league last year. Even with the play-in tournament, a very tight Western Conference race, and a stellar season from Luka Doncic, this team still missed the playoffs entirely.

After trading for Kyrie Irving in February, the Mavericks were only 8-12 in the 20 games he played for the team. It would be wild to see this team not make it work with this duo, but the supporting cast (Tim Hardaway Jr., Grant Williams, Richaun Holmes, and Maxi Kleber) remains underwhelming in Dallas.

A return to the playoffs should be in the cards for Dallas, but a run to the championship would require something even more special from Doncic than what we’ve seen Giannis (2021) and Jokic (2023) do for their teams.

8. Los Angeles Clippers (+2700 at FanDuel)

  • Last Season: 44-38 (lost 1st round in 5 games)
  • This Season: Over 45.5 wins (-106 at FanDuel)

The Clippers were another one of those teams last year where we kept wondering how good things could be if their best players were healthy. Even in losing to Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs, the Clippers played well without Paul George and also without Kawhi Leonard for the final games.

Tyronn Lue returns as one of the best coaches in the NBA. George and Leonard enter the season 100%, but whether it is through load management or just good luck, this team needs to make sure it can get into the playoffs with those guys available.

There have been rumors of the Clippers trading for guard James Harden from Philadelphia. That would certainly bolster the Clippers as a bigger contender this year, but no trade has been made yet.

9. Philadelphia 76ers (+2800 at Caesars Sportsbook)

  • Last Season: 54-28 (lost Conference Semis in 7 games)
  • This Season: Over 47.5 wins (-120 at FanDuel)

Joel Embiid finally won his first MVP award after leading the league in scoring again (33.1 PPG), but the 76ers again failed to advance past the semifinals of the playoffs, losing Game 7 in Boston in an underwhelming performance.

Oddly enough, it was James Harden who shined in the team’s wins in that series as Embiid, who was not 100%, was not very effective in the postseason.

The 76ers have replaced Doc Rivers with coach Nick Nurse, who has just as many championships on his resume after winning one with Kawhi Leonard in Toronto. That was a good move, but now the team is in a messy situation where Harden is upset and there could be a trade.

With Nurse coaching a team with Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Tyrese Maxey, the potential for over 47.5 wins is certainly there. But even if Harden and the 76ers kiss and make up this week, do you really see this team leap-frogging the Bucks and Celtics to get out of the Eastern Conference?

10. Miami Heat (+3000 at FanDuel)

  • Last Season: 44-38 (lost NBA Finals in 5 games)
  • This Season: Over 44.5 wins (-106 at FanDuel)

Miami’s run to the Finals as a No. 8 seed was nothing short of remarkable last year. Coach Erik Spoelstra and Jimmy Butler are legendary playoff performers. But the problem with a No. 8 seed who ranked dead last in scoring in the regular season is that sooner or later, they were going to be exposed.

Yes, for as great as Butler was in the playoffs, the Heat did play a Milwaukee team that lost Giannis to an injury in Game 1 that altered the series, and Miami relied on more than a handful of double-digit comebacks to pull off series wins against the Bucks, Knicks, and Celtics.

Miami came dangerously close to blowing a 3-0 lead over Boston, but the Heat came through in Game 7 on the road. But that relief was short-lived as Miami really struggled to score in the Finals against Denver. The Heat did not score more than 95 points in 4-of-5 games, losing 94-89 in an ugly Game 5.

While several other contenders made big moves, the Heat are largely running it back with the same contributors. Hopefully, Tyler Herro will be healthy for the playoffs this time. With Butler and one of the game’s best coaches, the Heat will be that team no one wants to play come playoff time. They have the mental toughness to pull off upsets.

But do they have enough to get over the hump and win it all? That does not feel like a good bet.

11. Memphis Grizzlies (+3000 at Caesars Sportsbook)

  • Last Season: 51-31 (lost 1st round in 6 games)
  • This Season: Under 46.5 wins (-158 at FanDuel)

Expectations have been tempered for Memphis since star guard Ja Morant has to serve a 25-game suspension to begin this season for his off-court conduct. We have seen the Grizzlies excel without Morant before, but this puts a lot of pressure on Desmond Bane, newcomer Marcus Smart, and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. to carry the team while Morant is out for situations he could have easily avoided if he had any maturity.

The Grizzlies were 12-10 without Morant last season, which is a better record than a lot of teams would have without their No. 1 start. But things were a bit stronger in 2021-22 when Morant was out.

Memphis was already No. 2 in Defensive Rating last year and adding Smart from Boston should only help that side of the court. But the Grizzlies may lack the leadership to go the distance unless this suspension is finally the turning point for Morant to wake up and not throw away his talent.

12. (+3000 at Caesars Sportsbook)

  1. Last Season: 51-31 (lost 1st round in 5 games)
  2. This Season: Over 50.5 wins (-114 at FanDuel)

The Cavaliers feel like one of those Atlanta or Indiana teams from the 2010s that would have good records in a weak Eastern Conference, then get knocked out by LeBron James (sometimes with the Cavaliers).

That’s not to say Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland do not combine for a strong duo of guards that helped this team win 51 games last year. But the opening-round playoff loss to the Knicks in five games was very underwhelming. New York’s Jalen Brunson outplayed both Mitchell and Garland.

Cleveland brought in Max Strus from Miami for another shooter, but this is largely the same team from last year with Evan Mobley, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen joining Garland and Mitchell.

The Cavaliers could win another 51 games and maybe a playoff series, but this team will not get past the Bucks or Celtics in the playoffs.

Picking a Winner Today

As much as I’d like to bet on Dallas for Doncic to be the next superstar to win his first ring, that roster just does not look complete enough to get the job done, and Irving is always a wild card to deal with.

The Clippers should have a better shot at jumping past the Lakers and Warriors to challenge Phoenix. Look how well the Clippers played them with such a short roster in the first round.

My take on Denver is that the team will essentially be the same as last year, but the changes in both new players and players returning from health on the other contenders will change the playoff outcomes to where Denver does not return to the Finals. Jokic still is playing basketball at a higher level than anyone right now.

The West still looks deeper than the East, but the talent of those top East teams looks like the real race for the Finals between Boston and Milwaukee. In the end, I still trust Giannis over Tatum, and the swap of Holiday for Lillard also goes Milwaukee’s way. Lillard will finally get to play with another superstar after devoting most of his career to Portland. His clutch shooting and playmaking will open things up for Giannis, and they still have Khris Middleton, who starts the season healthy, unlike last year.

It could even be a rematch from the 2021 Finals between the Suns and Bucks, but my pick today would be Giannis and Milwaukee to get it done again.

NBA Pick: Milwaukee Bucks to Win 2023-24 NBA Finals (+400 at Caesars Sportsbook)

The NBA MVP Race in 2023-24

While 76ers center Joel Embiid edged out Denver’s Nikola Jokic to win his first MVP, it felt like some voters had remorse after such a disappointing postseason for Embiid while Jokic won Finals MVP honors with Denver.

It is a regular-season award, but a Jokic three-peat MVP while winning his first championship would have been legendary. But he’ll just have to settle for two MVP awards followed by a Finals MVP. If only Jokic cared about basketball, he’d realize how incredible this run has been.

But it is a new year and here are the top players in the odds to win MVP in 2023-24 via FanDuel:

  • Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (+430)
  • Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (+550)
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (+600)
  • Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (+750)
  • Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (+850)
  • Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (+1400)
  • Kevin Durant, Phoenix Suns (+1900)
  • Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns (+1900)
  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder (+1900)

What do we know about the MVP award in the NBA?

It practically always goes to a player on a team who won at least 57% of their games, which is 47 wins in an 82-game season. That alone could eliminate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander if the Thunder (O/U 44.5 wins) are not very good this year.

Many MVP winners are on 50 and 60-win teams, which also could make it hard on Doncic if Dallas does not have a huge bounce-back season. Just winning 45 games with huge volume stats on a bad team does not do much to sway voters. We saw that with Kobe Bryant in 2005-06 when he averaged 35.4 PPG for a 45-37 Lakers team. Steve Nash won MVP instead.

Playing with another superstar does not necessarily disqualify you from winning MVP. When LeBron went to Miami to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he still won MVP in 2011-12 and 2012-13. However, when Kevin Durant joined Steph Curry’s Warriors, he never finished higher than 7th in MVP award shares after he was annually a top 5 MVP vote-getter with the Thunder. Durant and Booker likely cancel each other out here.

Steph Curry could be a dark horse winner, but he has not played 70 games in a season since 2016-17. Last year, Embiid played only 66 games, the first time the MVP did not play at least 70 games in an 82-game season since Bill Walton played only 58 games for the Trail Blazers in 1977-78.

Speaking of Embiid, after he publicly complained about the MVP not going his way in past years, he’s unlikely to get any sympathy from voters after his no-show performances in the playoffs. A repeat is unlikely.

The arrival of Lillard should be good for Giannis’ efficiency metrics in Milwaukee, but it may also take away from his volume. The Bucks would probably have to win 60-plus games and claim the No. 1 seed for him to win this with a great, efficient season. We know he has the talent to do so.

Tatum finished 6th in MVP voting in 2021-22 and a distant 4th last year. He is a good player but he’s never been MVP-worthy in his career. If Holiday and Porzingis cut into his offensive output (volume) as better scorers than Smart and Williams, then there may not be a special angle to his season that gets voters interested.

Jokic is always a good bet these days, but it felt like his numbers tapering off from a triple-double last year hurt him as Embiid’s case grew. It will also be hard for him to do better than a .632 FG%, which was his first season above .600. The career-high 9.8 assists per game also could regress to his mean.

But Jokic is usually reliable with his health. Last season was the first time he played fewer than 70 games in a season and he still finished with 69 games. He also has largely the same cast around him, which is not loaded with All-Stars, so he will have that in his favor as well as the publicity of being the reigning Finals MVP.

Maybe voters recognize they made a mistake last year and give this one to Jokic too. But Giannis would be my hedge vote on this right now.

NBA Pick: Nikola Jokic to win NBA MVP (+430 at FanDuel)

Best Bets for Victor Wembanyama

Finally, we just wanted to highlight what could be a special rookie season from Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio’s No. 1 pick in the draft and the most hyped basketball prospect in 20 years.

If you didn’t know by now, Wembanyama is the 7’4” sensation from France. There have been taller players before like Yao Ming, who was 7’6” and only ranked 69th in total rebound percentage in NBA history. But Ming was also built more like an offensive lineman in football while the one they call Wemby is 100 pounds lighter and looks closer to a taller Kevin Durant.

Wemby will shoot 3s as well as be an excellent shot blocker and rebounder. There have been some videos on social media already suggesting the Spurs should miss the second free throw on purpose this year so Wemby can pull down the offensive board and gain another possession. His impact with that athleticism at that height could be revolutionary, and this is why he is such a highly-anticipated prospect.

Naturally, you can find Wemby as the favorite to win the NBA Rookie of the Year award at many top-rated sportsbooks. Going to San Antonio, he will have one of the best coaches in NBA history in Gregg Popovich to get him on track. The roster around him will not be great this year, but he has a chance to lead the team in many statistical categories.

The main competition for Wemby in Rookie of the Year is Chet Holmgren (+380 at FanDuel), another 7-footer who was injured last year and technically still qualifies as a rookie in the NBA. The No. 2 pick in the 2022 draft, expectations were relatively high for him too before last year’s injury. He’ll play with a better roster in Oklahoma City, but that could be a blessing and a curse for this award. We know Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will dominate the stats on that team this season, making it harder for Holmgren to stand out.

With the hype, coaching, and skillset that Wembanyama possesses, Rookie of the Year should be the easiest bet to make on him this year in San Antonio.

NBA Pick: Victor Wembanyama to win NBA Rookie of the Year (+100 at bet365)

But we have other bets on him as well. In watching Wemby block 5 shots in limited playing time in Friday night’s preseason game against Golden State, you have to love his prospects of leading the league in blocks.

This is not an overreaction to one preseason game either. He had 10 blocks in his last 3 preseason games where he only played 21 minutes per game. He’ll get more playing time in the regular season than that. With his height and athleticism, you can expect to see a ton of highlights of him blocking shots this year.

There are good odds available for Wemby to lead the NBA in blocks per game, and that is another bet worth making on him.

NBA Pick: Victor Wembanyama to Lead NBA in Blocks per Game (+500 at bet365)

Finally, if the kid can shoot relatively well, pull down offensive boards at a higher rate than usual, and make the most blocked shots in the league, then that is going to help the Spurs improve their record. Maybe even significantly if he is the real deal.

The Spurs were only 22-60 with poor numbers on both ends of the court last season. Now with Wemby, this team might get to 30 wins if he is as special as the hype and early tea leaves in summer league and preseason show.

I’m fully sold on this one right now. Let’s go with the over on San Antonio’s wins, enjoy the blocks, and enjoy his Rookie of the Year season as the backstory to this year’s race to the championship.

NBA Pick: San Antonio Spurs Over 28.5 Wins (+104 at FanDuel)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *