Four Teams to Watch in 2023
The new year brings plenty of storylines to watch as the NBA season continues. From All Stars to award season, there is no shortage of headlines that will fill social media feeds for the next few months.
However, one aspect of this season to look for is the teams looking to hold their own in two tough conferences. Sure, there are the regular contenders (e.g. Milwaukee, Denver, Boston, etc.), but there are also some that have either quickly risen to the top or are fighting their way to get there.
Here are four squads to keep an eye on for 2023.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have remained near the top of the West for a few months now, at one point taking the top spot before being dethroned by the Denver Nuggets.
Zion Williamson, a season removed from a foot injury and subsequent surgery, has returned to dominate for NOLA this year, averaging 26 points, seven rebounds and 4.6 assists per game on 61–37–71 splits. He had a career-high 43 points against the Timberwolves on Dec. 28. Additionally, he has scored 30 points or more in nine games this season. Defensively, he has averaged 1.1 steals and 0.6 blocks per game, tallying a season-high four steals on Nov. 30 and Oct. 19. Williamson has led the charge for the Pels this season, but there are other factors that make the team worth watching.
CJ McCollum has thrived since being traded to the Pelicans at last year’s trade deadline, averaging 20 PPG, 4.7 RPG and 6 APG on 42–39–81 splits this season. He has been particularly helpful with Brandon Ingram being sidelined due to a toe injury, putting up a season-high 42 points with 11 threes on Dec. 30. Even when Ingram returns, McCollum will still have a prominent role on the offensive end with his floor-spacing and ability to create for others.
Additionally, young players such as Trey Murphy, Jose Alvarado, Herb Jones and Naji Marshall have begun taking on prominent roles in head coach Willie Green’s rotation. Each of them bring desired skill sets that fit Green’s system to a tee, and them starring in their roles is a key component of why the Pelicans are 24–14 right now.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Coming off a tenacious win where they scored 150 on the Boston Celtics (without their best player, by the way), the 11th-seeded Thunder are looking to make some noise in the new year.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been on a tear this season, averaging 31 PPG, 4.8 RPG and 5.7 APG on 50–35–91 splits. He has dropped 19 30-bombs this season and has had three games with 40 or more points. Aside from his scoring, though, Gilgeous-Alexander has also been an effective facilitator for the Thunder, dishing five or more assists 24 times this season. On the other side, SGA has put up career numbers defensively — 1.1 steals and one block per game. His contributions on that end are a key reason why OKC is 12th in defensive rating so far. His performances are more than enough for him to be considered an All-Star in February.
Other Thunder who have stepped up this year are Josh Giddy, Lu Dort, and Jalen Williams. Giddy has been an effective backcourt partner for SGA, averaging 15 PPG, 8 RPG and 5 APG on 47–34–78 splits. Dort has turned into a standout 3-and-D guard/wing, leading the Thunder in three-pointers made (1.8) and averaging 1.1 steals per game. Rookie Jalen Williams, a 6'6" guard from Santa Clara, has made an impact in the rotation, averaging 11.5 PPG, 3.6 RPG and 2.8 APG on 51–28–74 splits.
The Thunder are young and hungry for a chance to compete in the Play-in. Though SGA can keep scoring 30 or 40 every night, it will be up to the rest of the roster to step up just as they did against Boston if they want a fighting chance in the wild west.
After Donovan Mitchell dazzled his way to a historic 71-point game, the Cavs have entered 2023 with momentum on their side. Currently 25–14 fourth in the East and on a three-game winning streak, all looks good in The Land.
Donovan Mitchell has averaged 29 PPG, 4 RPG and nearly 5 APG on 49–41–87 splits. He has scored at least 30 points 17 times this season and has notched three double-doubles. His impact on the Cavs this season cannot be overstated. He’s still doing his thing in a new environment, and his teammates have been equally pivotal to his (and Cleveland’s) success.
Darius Garland has thrived next to his new backcourt partner, averaging 21.4 points and leading the team in assists per game (7.8). He is also shooting a career-best 40% from deep and has had three 40-point games this season. He and Mitchell have been consistent offensive threats, making the Cavs all the more dangerous against opposing backcourts.
Additionally, the Cavs frontcourt will be one to look out for as well. Rookie Evan Mobley, who hit the game-winning jumper against the Suns yesterday, has averaged 14.3 points, nearly nine rebounds and 1.2 blocks a game. Likewise, Jarrett Allen has put up a team-best 10.1 rebounds per game to go along with 13.6 points and 1.2 blocks. The two-way play of their bigs has made life easier for everyone else, and it’s an underrated aspect of the Cavs’ success that will benefit them in the months to come.
The Indiana Pacers have survived the barrage of offseason trade rumors and have begun to prove themselves to the rest of the league. Sitting at 21–18 and seventh in the Eastern Conference, the Pacers have a solid core of players who could keep them afloat in hopes of their first playoff appearance since 2020.
For starters, Tyrese Haliburton has continued to be “the guy” for Indy. The 22-year-old has benefitted greatly from a change of scenery, leading the team in points per game (20.6) and assists per game (10.2) while shooting on 49–41–88 splits. His play is arguably All-Star worthy, there’s a good chance he lands on the first-timers list in February — we’ll have to wait and see.
Aside from Hali, however, Buddy Hield and Myles Turner have also shown out for Indy. Hield has averaged 18 PPG, 5 RPG and nearly 3 APG while shooting 43% from deep. He has scored 20 or more points 15 times this season, and though he has yet to crack the 30-point mark, his three-point shooting has stayed sharp. Turner is leading the team in rebounds per game (7.9) and currently leads the league in blocks per game (2.2). He is also averaging 16.7 points per game while shooting a career-best 39.8% from deep (in addition to 55% from the field and 78% from the stripe).
Additionally, there are young Pacers who are quickly making impacts for head coach Rick Carlisle. Bennedict Mathurin has climbed the ranks of the NBA’s Rookie Ladder with his play, putting up 17.4 PPG while shooting 42% from the field, 34% from three, and 81% from the free-throw line. Fellow rookie Andrew Nembhard is averaging 8.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG and 3.7 APG while shooting an impressive 37% from deep. There are also Aaron Nesmith and Jalen Smith, who have made cases to be regulars in the rotation. Nesmith, a third-year wing, is averaging 9.5 PPG while shooting 36% from deep. Smith, a second-year power forward, is putting up 10.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1 APG and 0.9 BPG on 46–28–78 splits.
These four teams have caught fans’ attention as of late, and their postseason hopes will certainly be monitored as the season goes on.