It’s never too early to look ahead to the 2023 NBA Finals, and history shows it’s going to be difficult for the Celtics to repeat as Eastern Conference champions. It may be just as arduous a task for the Warriors to win the West. There will be several teams coming for their crowns, beginning in October.
Here are the teams that will be ramping up this summer to push the Celtics and Warriors. Oddsmakers already have made those two the favorites to return to the Finals, but don’t count on a rematch.
Milwaukee Bucks — The Bucks will enter next season with essentially the same core but healthier, with Khris Middleton recovered from his knee injury. The offseason work begins with trying to re-sign key contributors Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton. But there’s always Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday to join Middleton. Center Brook Lopez will return for the final year of his contract. The Bucks will have to improve their bench as the Celtics exposed Grayson Allen in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Miami Heat — There’s a sense of urgency in Miami because the Heat are getting older. Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler are well past 30, and Bam Adebayo showed hesitation in being the second offensive option. P.J. Tucker has a player option for next season that he’s likely to exercise. But the Heat will have to figure what to do with Duncan Robinson, who lost his role to Max Strus and has four years left on his contract. There have been rumors about Robinson being an offseason Celtics target.
Brooklyn Nets — The Nets’ No. 1 issue surprisingly is not Kyrie Irving, who has an opt-out in his contract. Brooklyn will have to determine if it wants to bring him back on a likely short-term deal. Next comes the status of Ben Simmons, who is recovering from back surgery. The Nets will also get a healthy Joe Harris back, along with Seth Curry and Patty Mills. Andre Drummond is a free agent, while Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge are likely gone, too. Nic Claxton showed promise and will likely assume a starting role.
Philadelphia 76ers — The 76ers won’t enter next season as anybody’s favorites, not after the abysmal playoff performance of James Harden. Harden has a $47 million opt-in in his contract, but the 76ers could sign him to a long-term deal for less per year. Tobias Harris is due nearly $77 million over the next two seasons, and he’s the No. 3 option at best. The 76ers are going to try to trade Harris in the offseason, but it will be difficult. They’ll have to relinquish assets to unload that contract.
Chicago Bulls — The Bulls looked like they were destined to make a deep playoff run before injuries and inconsistency took over. DeMar DeRozan carried the team at times, but the Bulls will have to figure out what to do with Zach LaVine, who is a free agent. Can Nikola Vucevic play productively in this offense? Will Lonzo Ball ever stay healthy? The Bulls could be a sleeper in the East if all goes well and LaVine returns.
Toronto Raptors — The Raptors suffered a disappointing first-round loss to the 76ers, but they’ll return the same core and Nick Nurse will get the best out of this roster. Free agents are never easy to get to Toronto, but the Raptors will play good enough defense and will return Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes to form a contender.
Other Eastern Conference teams to watch: Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers.
In the West, there will be several teams vying to knock off the Warriors, whose core will be older but will implement prospects Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga, and James Wiseman.
Phoenix Suns — The Suns were stunned by the Mavericks in the conference semifinals as suddenly all of their weaknesses were exposed. Chris Paul is aging. Devin Booker finds himself in a similar situation as Jayson Tatum, a standout player who needs to prove more in the postseason, Deandre Ayton is a restricted free agent and teams such as the Pistons, Trail Blazers, and Hawks may try to make sign-and-trade offers. The Suns are still a prime contender, but there has to be a win-now mentality considering Paul’s age, several impending free agents, and Ayton’s status.
Los Angeles Lakers — Any team with LeBron James and a healthy Anthony Davis has to be considered a contender, but new coach Darvin Ham will have to figure out what to do with Russell Westbrook and an aging roster with little salary-cap space. Kendrick Nunn should return healthy along with Talen Horton-Tucker and Austin Reaves. But the Lakers have so many moving pieces and questions that it will be difficult to envision a run to the title.
Los Angeles Clippers — Kawhi Leonard will return from missing the season with a torn ACL, and Paul George and the rest of the core should turn the Clippers into one of the favorites in the West. The Clippers have their contributing players signed after bringing back Robert Covington with an extension. The only thing that may separate the Clippers from a spot in the Western finals is health.
Dallas Mavericks — The Mavericks reached the Western finals in a stunning run, and just added Christian Wood as a rim protector. The hope is they can re-sign Jalen Brunson and Tim Hardaway Jr. returns healthy. There isn’t much cap space available with Luka Doncic’s extension kicking in, so the Mavericks will have to go deep into the luxury tax to bring back Brunson.
Other Western Conference teams to watch: New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves.
Curry no doubt an all-time great
If you didn’t consider Stephen Curry one of the top 15 players of all time, this season had to change your mind. At 34, Curry turned in one of the better seasons of his career, being named All-Star Game MVP, Western Conference finals MVP, and NBA Finals MVP with a brilliant performance (sans Game 5) against the Celtics.
Curry does not take the Warriors’ fourth title in eight years for granted. The Warriors were considered an afterthought when Klay Thompson tore his ACL during the 2019 Finals and Kevin Durant left via free agency. The Warriors won 15 games the next season — with Curry missing all but five with a hand injury — and then were beaten in the play-in tournament last season.
“These last two months of the playoffs, these last three years, this last 48 hours, every bit of it has been an emotional roller coaster on and off the floor,” Curry said after the Warriors clinched the title Thursday night in Boston. “And you’re carrying all of that on a daily basis to try to realize a dream and a goal like we did. And you get goosebumps just thinking about all those snapshots and episodes that we went through to get back here, individually, collectively. And that’s why I said I think this championship hits different. That’s why I have so many emotions, and still will, just because of what it took to get back here.”
The Warriors were hardly favorites to return to the Finals. The Suns, Lakers, Clippers, and Jazz were all considered contenders. The Warriors entered the playoffs as the third seed, knocked off the Nuggets and upstart Grizzlies, before beating the Mavericks in the conference finals. Thompson returned healthy, as did Draymond Green, and they returned to their pre-2019 form.
Curry sees and remembers everything. A number of NBA analysts predicted last year that this Warriors group would not win another title.
“The fact that when we started this season, the conversations about who we were as a team and what we were capable of, clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero of how many championships we would have going forward because of everything that we went through,” he said. “So we hear all that, and you carry it all and you try to maintain your purpose, not let it distract you, but you carry that weight and to get here, it all comes out. It’s special.”
Iguodala filled valuable role
Andre Iguodala may never have become the cornerstone expected in his Philadelphia days, but he became part of the Warriors’ championship core, winning his fourth title Thursday night against the Celtics, coming in his second stint at Golden State.
Iguodala is not the staunch defender or freakish athlete of his younger days, but he provided leadership, especially for young defender Gary Payton II.
“This one holds a lot of weight just because of all the shots, each championship, they threw at us. Particularly they threw at Steph [Curry]. Finals MVP in the first one, and [Kevin Durant], best player in the world, trying to say that was unfair,” Iguodala said. “And then you go a year where you win, what, 15 games? And last year, not being able to get to the playoffs, and for everything to come back together the way it did, with me leaving and then coming back and different role, different capacity, and then having amazing teammates and a different set of like supporting cast.
“This guy right here [Payton] was huge for us. Earned himself a big payday this summer.”
Payton, the son of the Hall of Famer Gary Payton, was waived four times before catching on with the Warriors this season, and he has turned himself in a premium defender with the ability to score at the rim. Payton had been on the waiver wire many times and toiled in the G-League, and this summer he should be rewarded handsomely for his effort and improvement.
“It’s just crazy. You know, just a journey,” Payton said. “It’s been a big learning experience for me. I appreciate every moment I had, all the falls, just to help me build on, just sticking with it and just keep going.
“So I’m still speechless right now. It’s just crazy right now.”
There were several good stories with the Warriors, but Payton’s may be the most improbable. Iguodala served as his mentor, coming back to the Warriors after two seasons with the Heat. At 38, this may be his last NBA season, but he accepted a role that didn’t require him to play extensive minutes. The Warriors had younger players for that. But Iguodala was able to impart wisdom on youngsters such as Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, and James Wiseman.
Iguodala, Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson are the lone players remaining from the 2015 that won Golden State’s first title in 40 years. And their return to the Finals seemed highly unlikely when the Warriors went through injuries, roster changes, and two seasons when they didn’t even make the playoffs.
“You talk about the fabric of this team throughout the last eight years, and I’ve been saying this over and over, those three guys [Curry, Thompson, Green] have had this league in a choke hold, in a headlock, for a good period of time,” Iguodala said. “You go historically, there aren’t too many teams that have been able to do that. It’s a handful. The Celtics obviously a few times, the Lakers, the Bulls. The Spurs were a little bit more spread out … they did an amazing job as an organization. But there’s only a few of those, and this falls right in line with that.”
Iguodala said the chemistry built by Curry and Thompson, the sons of former NBA standouts, and Green, a four-year player at Michigan State who had a chip on his shoulder because he fell to the second round of the draft.
“And that’s probably the most beautiful thing, you need to have a certain type of fabric,” Iguodala said. “And Draymond was the balance between two guys who grew up in the NBA, they are not enamored by the world we live in as professional athletes, the glitz and the glamour, and our culture with the Warriors is a little bit more carefree, and loose, and sometimes that can take you out.
“And I think Draymond, his discipline, his hunger, his focus, his tenacity, is a great balance to those two guys. It’s the yin and the yang. And he doesn’t get enough credit for his brain and the IQ he brings to the game of basketball.”
Iguodala and Green formed an uncanny bond over the years. They were once two of the game’s elite defenders. Green responded from a difficult Game 3 against the Celtics to sparkle for the rest of the series, especially hitting two key jumpers in Game 6.
“I wasn’t worried about Draymond,” said Iguodala. “Game 4, they said he didn’t play well. How many points  did he have in Game 4? He had nine rebounds, eight assists.
“He’s brash and he is who he is, but when you need him, he shows up.”
The Trail Blazers have enough salary-cap space to acquire a major free agent, but they will also have to sign rising prospect Anfernee Simons to an extension as a restricted free agent. The Blazers will be in play for several players because they have enough cap space to facilitate a sign-and-trade. Injured forward Joe Ingles as well as burly center Jusuf Nurkic could come off the books, and the Blazers will have to decide whether they want to sign Nurkic to a new deal, likely in the $80 million to $100 million range. The Blazers will also add another top prospect with the seventh pick in the draft. The rebuild needs to occur quickly with star guard Damian Lillard turning 32 in July … The Rockets made a stunning move this past week by trading center Christian Wood to the Mavericks for four players and a first-round pick. That means the Rockets have likely decided on their pick — third overall — and will give more minutes to second-year center Alperen Sengun, taken with the pick the Celtics originally sent to Oklahoma City in the Kemba Walker deal. Sengun averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds in 72 games this season, 13 as a starter. Wood gives the Mavericks the quality big they have been seeking as Dwight Powell’s lack of rim protection and scoring was exposed in the playoff series against the Warriors … The Magic have the No. 1 overall pick and appear focused on Auburn swingman Jabari Smith, who would give the Magic the small forward they have been seeking to pair with Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs. Chet Holmgren, the former Gonzaga standout, is likely leaded to the Thunder, allowing Duke’s Paolo Banchero to land in the laps of the Rockets.