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Bold Predictions for the NBA Season: Wembanyama Emerges as an All-Star, Celtics Secure the Title

What time is it?

That’s right … it’s time to make some outlandish statements that people will look back on next spring and cackle hysterically.

OK, that’s not actually the goal, but it is certainly an occupational hazard. Prognostication makes fools of us all; there are just too many things we can’t possibly have seen coming. Thank goodness for that, actually, as sports would be pretty boring otherwise.

That won’t stop me from trying, though. With the regular season starting next week, now is the time to gaze into my extremely hazy crystal ball and make some calls for what will happen in the coming months. In particular, the goal is to make some calls that might go against the tide and are actually, y’know … bold. For instance, “Nikola Jokić will make the All-Star team” is a defensible prediction that likely will come true but doesn’t really clear the bar for this particular exercise.

A bolder prediction, on the other hand, would be something unusual or unexpected. Like, say, predicting that something that hasn’t happened in two decades might happen this season. That would be a rookie — a true rookie — making the All-Star team. The last rookie to make it was Blake Griffin in 2011, but he was in his second season under contract with the LA Clippers after missing his entire first campaign. A fresh-from-the-draft rookie hasn’t made the squad since Yao Ming was voted in as a starter in 2003.

We can qualify that even further because Yao only averaged 13 points a game that season and was voted in despite production that clearly paled next to the other potential options. (To be clear, Yao deserved his next six selections. Just not that year.)

GO DEEPER

The 24 biggest questions for the NBA season: Nuggets repeat? Wembanyama not ROY?

To go back a bit further, to the last time a just-drafted rookie both made the All-Star team and had numbers that truly warranted his inclusion, one would need a full quarter-century. And, what a coincidence … that player happened to be Tim Duncan, in 1998, in his first season as a San Antonio Spur.

Well, 25 years later, I’m going to go out on a limb and say a top overall pick of the Spurs will once again make the All-Star team … and will make it on merit.

Don’t let one bad summer league game get you twisted: Victor Wembanyama is as unique a basketball player to ever enter the league, a rim-denying giant at one end with a guard’s mentality and skill set at the other. You thought Kristaps Porziņģis was a unicorn because he could shoot 3s at his size? Well, picture the same package except with genuine ball skills and the ability to play out of the pick-and-roll.

I watched Wembanyama twice in Vegas last year and announced several of his French games for the NBA app; in every single one, he did something absolutely mind-blowingly unique, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody do that before” type stuff. He was far and away the best player in a good overseas league at the age of 18.

Here’s the crazy part: His preseason has been way better than that. Wembanyama seems to have made significant improvement both in his capability as a ballhandler and in his end-to-end speed (it helps when you can Eurostep to the rim from the 3-point line without needing to dribble), producing cascades of easy baskets for himself and those around him.

While his French tape showed flashes of this, he’s been able to do it with greater consistency in the more open floor of the NBA and shown marked improvement in his reading of the court and playmaking. Through two preseason games entering Wednesday night (I know, but humor me), the top pick in the draft has averaged more than a point per minute on 71.4 percent true shooting, blocked four shots and dissuaded countless others from being attempted and compiled a 33.9 PER.

I had thought Wembanyama might need a year to get his NBA sea legs before we really saw his impact. To hell with that. He’s already quite clearly his team’s best player and is likely good enough to lead the Spurs to a win total that may make them slightly uncomfortable. It’s becoming more and more apparent that he’s going to end up with an All-Star-caliber stat line that could, at the very least, put him on the short list for selection. Victor Wembanyama could very well flex his way right into the All-Star Game this season. (Sarah Phipps / Associated Press)

Here’s the other part: The Western Conference is laden with star talent, but as a frontcourt player, Wembanyama should have an advantage. Other than Jokić, all of his main rivals for those spots have the words “if healthy” permanently attached as suffixes to the end of their names. Between LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Zion Williamson and Kevin Durant, surely at least one and possibly several will miss the festivities in Indy this February.

Other players will be in the mix too, of course — Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. and Utah’s Lauri Markkanen made it last year, for instance, and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns is still here — but between the shock and awe value of Wembanyama’s play and the likelihood of injury replacements on the West roster, he has a great chance of making the team even if he isn’t voted in as a starter.

Wemby on the All-Star team is my first bold prediction, but it’s not the only one. Here are some more for the coming season:

  1. No coaches will be fired before the All-Star break

Any prediction involving job security in the NBA coaching profession is a daring high-wire dance above a fiery lava pit, but this might be the season to pull it off. The league’s coaching roster looks as stable as it has in some time; while you can imagine seats getting hot in a few places with a slow start, there’s also the undeniable fact that recent turnover has been so high that there are relatively few long-tenured coaches remaining to get the ax.

Do you know how many coaches have been on the job since before the pandemic year? Four! That’s it! Those are the league’s four “made men,” championship-winning coaches Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, Steve Kerr and Michael Malone, who have a combined 59 seasons with their current teams. They’re not going anywhere.

Meanwhile, 13 teams have a coach in either his first or second season, which would make them unlikely to be dismissed so quickly. Five others are in Year 3, when the pressure normally increases, except four of those clubs are rebuilding and have limited expectations this season. Add it up and, for 21 of the league’s 30 teams, an early-season coaching change seems hugely unlikely.

Again, this profession isn’t exactly renowned for its stability — last season’s first coaching change (the Nets’ Steve Nash) happened on Nov. 1! — so this prediction may end up looking hilarious come February. For the moment, however, we seemingly enter the season with almost unprecedented stability in the league’s coaching ranks.

  1. Minnesota will win a playoff series for the first time in 20 years

That’s right, I have a second thing that hasn’t happened in 20 years that I’m predicting will happen in 2023-24. Good things to happen to the Timberwolves? Have I lost my mind? 

Thus far, the preseason focus has been on other West locales — the world champion Denver Nuggets, the reloaded Phoenix Suns and the recent champions in Golden State and L.A. — while the Wolves haven’t garnered nearly as much attention. However, they quietly played well over the second half of last season, going 26-19 after the turn of the new year, and I’m projecting them to land one of the top four seeds in the West.

If that happened, it would be the first time since their conference finals run with Kevin Garnett in 2004. In the only other three playoff appearances for the Wolves since then, they’ve been first-round roadkill as the West’s seventh or eighth seed.

While it’s a little early to pencil in who might be their first-round playoff opponent, the Wolves would have home-court advantage in the first round based on their projected finish, and, particularly if they get the No. 3 seed or higher, would be in a historically strong position to advance.

Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be any…

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