For every NBA team to realise their goals next season, there are some players who are more important to their success than most. You won’t find Giannis or Jokic’s name on this list, with some lesser-known ‘swing’ players the important cog that can help their team thrive. On the other hand, if they are to underperform or miss time, then you can expect the squad to crumble around them. Injuries to star players aside, here are the crucial players for every NBA team in 2022-23.
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Trading three first rounds picks for San Antonio star Dejounte Murray in the offseason was a move that most NBA fans didn’t see coming. There’s no doubt that the deal improved the Hawks on paper and the fit in the backcourt next to Trae Young will go a long way in determining their fate next season. If the two All-Star guards can gel alongside one another, then there should be faith around Atlanta repeating a run reminiscent of their 2021 Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
It became evident in last year’s NBA Finals that Boston should go after another playmaker in the summer who is capable of creating his own shot when need be. No offence to Payton Pritchard or Derrick White, but landing Malcolm Brogdon fills that void with his leadership set to give the reigning East champs a boost on and off the court. With Ime Ukoka banned from the sidelines, a lot of NBA casuals are jumping off the Celtics bandwagon, although, a fit and firing Brogdon should keep them right near the top of the pecking order.
Turmoil has been synonymous with the Brooklyn Nets for the better part of two years and as we prepare to kick off a new campaign we could finally see this team live up to the hype that has been promised. The presence of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant makes them a potent offensive threat each night and if they can throw a healthy, engaged Ben Simmons into the mix then there is the potential for greatness. Career averages of roughly 16/8/8 should be well within reach, but the ability to utilise Simmons as a small-ball-5 and still have his playmaking talents on the court for the Nets is a massive plus.
I was high on P.J. Washington taking another step in his development last season, but instead, the 3rd year forward regressed. Miles Bridges’ breakout saw Washington demoted to the bench unit although now that he’s out of the picture there are more minutes up for grabs in the frontcourt for Charlotte. Needing growth from their current players to make a leap forward and emerge as a perennial playoff team, P.J. is a prime candidate to make that jump and put forth a career-best season in 2022-23.
Ongoing knee issues look like they are going to rob Lonzo Ball of some significant time in the upcoming season, and without him, it’s hard to see the Bulls truly competing. There are others who can step up in his absence in the form of Coby White and offseason addition Goran Dragic, but if Chicago is to make this campaign worthwhile then they need their star forward to look like an MVP candidate again. In his first season with the Bulls, DeMar DeRozan produced his best year scoring the ball and they’ll need him to maintain that form if they’re going to make any noise.
A dramatic trade helped the Cavaliers strengthen their backcourt in the offseason, with Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell looking to form a lethal tandem. However, for Cleveland to continue trending upward, they’ll need Jarrett Allen’s help after he proved he can be a difference-maker on both sides of the ball a season ago. When healthy, the Cavs were on track to be a 60+ win team with Allen in the lineup and while that lofty number of wins isn’t a viable target, Cleveland should be aiming for a top-6 finish. A budding nucleus with the aforementioned pieces and Evan Mobley gives optimism to the fan base, but Allen’s importance in the middle of the paint can’t be understated.
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Tim Hardaway Jr
A fractured foot saw Tim Hardaway Jr miss a significant chunk of time last season and rough shooting performances before he went down weren’t pretty to watch. Dallas was able to cope without him in the lineup by making a charge all the way to the West Finals and if they want to get back to that stage it’s important that THJ is performing at his apex. Adding Christian Wood over the summer is important for their cause, but Hardaway Jr’s production as a secondary scorer next to Luka will be a crucial factor for the Mavs.
Michael Porter Jr
Battling his way to a mere 125 career games after four years in the system, some hoop heads have already given up on Michael Porter Jr. It’s no secret that injuries have been prevalent in MPJ’s journey so far, but a walking 20 PPG when healthy, he remains the key that could unlock Denver’s potential. Already buoyed by the return of All-Star calibre guard Jamal Murray, the Nuggets will be relying on Porter Jr to remain on the court if they’re going to finally live up to the hype as genuine title threats.
There were times last season when ‘Beef Stew’ looked like the best big man on the court and as a result, he proved to be a problem for the opposition. Unfortunately for Detroit fans, those times were few and far between thanks to his continual foul trouble and his inexperience at the NBA level. Still, entering year three and with promising backcourt pair Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey to support him, there’s a chance that the Pistons center can keep his foul numbers down to emerge as a nightly double-double and swing some games in Detroit’s favour.
Golden State Warriors
A lot is being made about the relationship between Draymond Green and Jordan Poole at Dub Nation, and rightly so. While there’s still hope that the team can move on from these issues, Green’s absence and speculation around his future opens the door for Jonathan Kuminga to carve out a bigger role in the rotation. While he is still extremely raw, the athletic forward has all the tools to succeed in the future and while he’ll still need time to develop, we could see Kuminga materialise into a crucial part of the Warriors’ lineup.
Jabari Smith Jr
There isn’t a lot to like about this year’s Houston Rockets team. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve got the pieces and players in place to suggest they’ll be a force in the future, but expect them to lose a ton of games in 2022-23. One player who might change their fortunes if he pops is the 3rd overall pick Jabari Smith Jr, who averaged 17 points with 7 rebounds in college while making 42% of his 3-point tires. Should he put forth a Rookie of the Year calibre season, this Houston team could overachieve in the eyes of most.
Let’s be honest, Indiana doesn’t want to win a ton of games this year. Budding guard Tyrese Haliburton is the odds-on favourite to be the best player in a Pacers uniform each night, although there isn’t a lot else that will excite the fans. Myles Turner has shown his worth in the past and his presence could lead to a few more wins for the ball club. There’s a world where he forms a solid pick-and-roll partner with Haliburton, however, after being mentioned in trade rumours for the better part of two years, we may see Indiana deal him away to fast-forward their tanking process.
The Clippers will go as far as Kawhi Leonard can take them this season. Paul George himself addressed the media this week and declared that “Kawhi is the No. 1 and I am totally fine with that” as the 2019 Finals MVP gears up for a return to the hardwood after missing the entire previous year. The last time we saw Leonard on the court in the 2021 playoffs, he was busy torching teams for 30+ a night and if he is back to full strength, there’s no reason why he can make an MVP push as L.A. charges towards a No. 1 seed out West.
Los Angeles Lakers
You could argue that the biggest swing player for the Lakers’ season isn’t on their roster yet with Russell Westbrook’s name constantly in trade rumours with a hoard of others linked to Los Angeles. At 37 years old, we can still expect LeBron James to produce at a high level, but if they’re going to return to the postseason then the Lakers need to get a dominant year from Anthony Davis. The 8x All-Star only appeared in 40 games a season ago and unless he can overcome his persistent injury problems, the franchise may be staring down the barrel of another lost season.
Jaren Jackson Jr
Backcourt bandits Ja Morant and Desmond Bane will help to keep Memphis flirting with home-court advantage by season’s end and sound role players littered throughout the roster only aides that cause. For this team to exceed expectations and push themselves into the ‘true’ championship mix though, Jaren Jackson Jr needs to be clicking on all cylinders. His shooting percentage has slipped in all of his four pro seasons, although JJJ only missed four matches last year and led the NBA in total blocks. He’s expected to return sooner rather than later after undergoing surgery on his right foot and his presence will be a handy boost for the Grizz.
Year one in Miami didn’t exactly go according to plan for Kyle Lowry, with the veteran floor general declaring personal issues “derailed my whole season”. As a result, Lowry recorded his lowest points average in over a decade and recorded a measly 7.8 PPG in 10 playoff games. There is optimism that the Heat’s lead guard can refind his mojo and return to his best early on in the year, but if he continues to battle issues off the court, it’ll likely limit the impact he has when he’s on the floor.
One could argue that the Bucks were one Khris Middleton injury away from entering the season as back-to-back champs. Aiming to recapture the throne in 2023, a healthy Milwaukee team is once again poised to be the best team in the East. After Bobby Portis gave them a shot in the arm by starting a huge chunk of games during their last campaign, the squad will happily welcome back Brook Lopez for a full season. His ability to stretch the floor as a capable shooter and provide rim protection alongside Antetokounmpo will be an unrivalled asset for the Bucks in their quest for another ring.
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Everyone is enamoured with how the Timberwolves will deploy their new twin towers Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, but there’s another player in my sights who could launch the franchise to a new level. The odds on favourite to claim Most Improved honours in the upcoming season, everyone in the Minnesota franchise is hopeful Anthony Edwards carries over his postseason form from a year ago as he continues to evolve into a modern-day star before our eyes. Entering season No. 3, the sky is the limit for Ant-Man and should he establish himself as a 25 PPG scorer, the T-Wolves will be understandably excited.
New Orleans Pelicans
No player in the entire league will have more of a say in how his team performs than Zion Williamson. A non-factor last season, Zion was forced to watch as his teammates drove the Pelicans to a postseason berth and a hotly contested stoush against Phoenix. It helped that they made the move to acquire CJ McCollum before last year’s trade deadline and strengthen their roster, however, if Williamson is in uniform there’s reason to believe this New Orleans team will challenge for a top-4 finish out West.
New York Knicks
While RJ Barrett managed to top a 20 PPG average last season, it’s important to highlight his percentages. Finishing his sophomore season with shooting numbers of 44/40/74, the Knicks young gun struggled mightily shooting the rock in 2021-22, producing 40/34/71 splits in his 70 games. There are reasons to believe New York can fight their way through the play-in games following the addition of Jalen Brunson, but more importantly, they’ll need Barrett to keep trending in the right direction and fix his shooting woes.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Now that Chet Holmgren is set to don street clothes for the entire season, the excitement around OKC has gone down a notch. Expected to be amongst the league’s worst teams once again, the Thunder will need their backcourt duo of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey to do a lot of the heavy lifting. The second-year guard in particular intrigues me, with Australia’s own using his high IQ and elite passing skills to wow fans during his rookie campaign. Working with elite shooting coach Chip Engelland will help Giddey to improve his percentages and as long as he doesn’t get sidelined by Oklahoma City, he’ll be a huge factor in determining their final record.
As Orlando gears up for another season, they already have injury issues hanging over their backcourt rotation. Markelle Fultz can’t manage to string 10 games together before getting hurt and Jalen Suggs has no timetable to return after suffering a left knee capsule sprain and bone bruise last week. Enter Cole Anthony, who was the Magic’s leading scorer a year ago as he started 65 games and thrived in a larger role. Ideally, Anthony would be a spark off the bench or a spot starter, but if he continues to begin games at PG, his production will be all kinds of important for this young Orlando squad.
Just what type of James Harden are we going to get next season? It seems as though the former MVP has his sights squarely set on winning at all costs, sacrificing more money this offseason and entering training camp in ripper shape. However, we’ve seen Harden become a shrinking violet in big moments before and the Sixers can’t afford for him to go missing in big games. Tyrese Maxey is poised for the best year of his young career and Joel Embiid will be out to avenge a pair of 2nd place finishes in MVP voting, however, it will matter little to Philadelphia’s success if James Harden isn’t playing at the peak of his powers.
This season may be the last chance Phoneix has to compete for a ring with their current core. Devin Booker, Miles Bridges and Deandre Ayton are tied to the franchise for the foreseeable future and you can expect that trio to keep the Suns around the mark, but they’ll need Chris Paul healthy at the pointy end of the season to realise their title dreams. Look no further than Game 6 against the Pelicans last postseason for an example of what Paul is still capable of (14-14 from the field for 33 points) with his presence as their lead guard pivotal to Phoenix’s quest.
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The Blazers had a year from hell in 2021-22, with a revolving door of players featured in their lineup as superstar Damian Lillard managed to appear in just 29 games. Entering this season, there is an expectation for them to somewhat right the ship and for that to happen they’ll need to get production from their newest addition. In two seasons with Detroit, Jerami Grant was able to post 20.9 PPG and his defence combined with a nice scoring punch will be beneficial for Portland. If he struggles and can’t find his niche in a new city, then expect the Trailblazers to linger near the bottom of the conference once again.
This feels strange to say, but I’m excited about the Sacramento Kings this season with new coach Mike Brown looking to steer this squad to the postseason and potentially end their 16-year playoff drought. To do that, the one-two punch from De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis will do a lot of the heavy lifting and rookie Keegan Murray may quickly establish himself as another important factor. The 4th overall pick turned heads at Summer League by claiming MVP honours with 23.3 PPG and 7.3 RPG while shooting 50% overall and 40% on 3-pointers. Look for him to make his presence felt right away in Sactown.
San Antonio Spurs
As it stands right now, over half of the current Spurs are under the age of 23 and they aren’t projected to chalk up a ton of wins this season. One of the many teams with half an eye on the race for the No. 1 pick, San Antonio won’t be one of the popular League Pass options on a nightly basis. The development in Keldon Johnson’s game is one reason to tune in though, with the versatile forward a bright spot on this otherwise bleak roster. Having battled a shoulder issue in the preseason, Johnson could return to the lineup and emerge as a leader of this squad who is capable of becoming their lead scorer.
Boasting a ton of depth and length on their list, the Toronto Raptors will be out to take another step towards championship contention in the new season. The hype around last year’s Rookie of the Year is real and Scottie Barnes will be an important element in just what their ceiling is in 2023, although the play of Pascal Siakam can be the real difference-maker. Fresh off an All-NBA season, Siakam will be the focal point for opposing defences each time out and if he can shoulder a large portion of the work while others improve around him, this Raptors team could be scary good.
The team in pole position to commence ‘Loseorama for Wembanyama’, the Jazz will be gross to watch this season. A surplus of shoot-first combo guards makes it hard to predict their starting lineup, although it’s fair to assume Collin Sexton will be at the top of the 2-guard depth chart. The former Cav will be out to repair his reputation after being labelled as a ‘good stats, bad team’ guy in his last fully healthy season. There’s a chance he maintains that moniker given Utah’s expectations this year, but look for Sexton to prove his worth as someone that Jazz fans can get excited about.
It was only a limited sample size, but the early returns on Kristaps Porzingis were positive in DC. The lanky Latvian scored in healthy bunches for Washington, although he was able to dominate possessions due to Bradley Beal’s absence following his arrival. Staying on the court has been one of Porzingis’ biggest flaws in recent times, but should he remain healthy, he could be the missing ingredient that helps the Wizards record their first winning season since 2018.