Empire of the Suns: NBA storylines, fun players and award picks

Oct 19, 2022, 11:24 AM | Updated: 3:11 pm

Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors and Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets look back ...

Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors and Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets look back at the Nets bench in the first quarter at Chase Center on January 29, 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Kavin Mistry/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kavin Mistry/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns tip off the season against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday. Both teams sit in a tier of hopeful title contenders but come with their recognized flaws.

Who is above them? What else are we keeping an eye on in the NBA? What players should we be watching for entertainment purposes? And who could be in line to take home the annual awards when it’s all said and done?

Empire of the Suns co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman dive into the NBA and attempt to answer those questions in their preview of the 2022-23 season.

Tune to Arizona Sports 98.7, the Arizona Sports app or ArizonaSports.com for the Mavericks-Suns opener at 7 p.m. MST.

How do you currently evaluate the NBA landscape at the top and the Suns’ chances of contending again?

(Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Olson: When looking at best-case scenarios across the West, I count nine teams that could win it. Yes. You heard me. Nine. The Los Angeles Lakers will likely torpedo into an explosion that rivals the best grand finale of fireworks you’ve ever seen that we can’t help but take some glances at. They also have Anthony Davis and LeBron James.

The Dallas Mavericks have Luka Doncic. The Minnesota Timberwolves had the NBA’s best offense in the last 4 months of the regular season and now they have Rudy Gobert’s automatic top-10 defense. The New Orleans Pelicans with a healthy Zion Williamson enter the conversation too.

It’s wishful thinking and quite optimistic but I really believe they all have that ceiling. To go into the more realistic group, there are the goliaths at the top with the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors that sit above the “if everything goes mostly right” trio of the Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns.

Now, let’s say the fireworks go off in LA before Draymond Green’s nuke in the bay, Kawhi Leonard, Michael Porter Jr. and Williamson can’t stay healthy, the Mavericks can’t make up for the loss of Jalen Brunson, Memphis doesn’t have enough help for Ja Morant, Gobert gets played off the court in the postseason (again) and Phoenix’s depth proves to be an issue (again). Those are the worst-case scenarios!

The West will finish somewhere in between that worst-case scenario, which is still an absolute bar brawl to sift through. And that’s before getting to the East, where unstoppable forces like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant or Joel Embiid will come from.

What were you asking again, mysterious narrator roundtable question person? Ah, the Suns’ chances. Pretty slim!

Zimmerman: Playoff windows close as players age, strong chemistries break apart over contract grievances and role players depart for bigger roles elsewhere. The Suns could arguably check all of those boxes! But the playoff window is slamming shut in a hurry because after a wide-open title for the taking last year, the list of contenders runs deep this year.

The Clippers, who know how to hang with Phoenix, now have Kawhi Leonard and a wing-heavy rotation to throw at the Suns. The Golden State Warriors are using big tech types of money to keep their championship team together.

Denver will be a force, and so will New Orleans. Dallas’ roster around Luka Doncic reminds of the Philadelphia one around Allen Iverson way back when — built to bully and defend and fight while leaning way too much on a future Hall of Famer.

Memphis is grit and grind still, led by a modern Russell Westbrook with a jumper. The Timberwolves have … a weird but fun roster! I guess!

We’ve hardly touched on the Eastern Conference.

Maybe Boston’s title run is like Phoenix’s from two years back, where there’s not enough oomph to return and their loss of a head coach suddenly changes their trajectory. Milwaukee always has a shot with Antetokounmpo. The Heat will always be lurking, waiting for people to slip up. The Nets either do the thing or blow it up. Even if we disrespect the Lakers (Editor’s note: This was written before their debut Tuesday), we’re still left with legitimately 10 teams who in theory have the talent to win it all.

Give us one team you are higher on than most and one lower.

(AP Photo/Darren Abate)

Olson: Listeners of the podcast will know that Kevin and I have a ton of stock in the Pelicans. After covering them up close in the first round last year, I’m buying everything about what Willie Green is doing. There’s tons of good juju within the program and the roster is loaded with 25-and-under talent.

Brandon Ingram was phenomenal in his playoff debut, C.J. McCollum at point guard works because of Herb Jones (sound familiar?) and they present a unique offensive dynamic with perimeter scoring options plus real size down low. Keep an eye on Jones. He’s going to be much more than an awesome defender. Dude can play. All those guys now have an edge and boost from seeing the real deal against a contender like Phoenix. I really think they could make the Finals and they will win 50-plus games.

To stick out West for what team I’m most worried about, I’m gonna get a 3-for-1 bundle on the teams that I have below Phoenix in the pecking order.

I know this is a cop-out answer but I just need to see it when it comes to Denver, Memphis and Minnesota as conference finals teams. I need Porter to be healthy, Morant’s lovable supporting cast to give him meaningful help in the postseason and positive indicators in the playoffs for the Gobert experiment.

Zimmerman: Give all the hype to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland will form one of the top-three backcourts in the league, and the pieces around them give that team so much balance.

Evan Mobley taking a big step forward and pairing him with Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro will carry the defensive load. Caris LeVert has a shot with his injury history hopefully in the rear-view mirror to give a lot as a third scoring option. Kevin Love, Robin Lopez and Ricky Rubio (if he gets healthy) are huge vet presences who could also contribute.

On the other side of the spectrum, I’m not sure if I’m buying Minnesota stock.

The Gobert-Karl-Anthony Towns fit just doesn’t do it for me. The reason Towns is believed to be one of the best bigs is because he does something so unique at center. Why move him to power forward?

The pickups of Kyle Anderson and Bryn Forbes around a decent role-player core of Jaden McDaniels, Jaylen Nowell and others is all good, but I’m not sure there’s enough elsewhere to make much sense in terms of identity unless the defense is that elite — and that means Gobert isn’t getting played off the court. Anthony Edwards taking an All-NBA leap is something that would change my thought. It’s possible, but it’d be a year or two early.

Toss out some fun players! Who are some interesting swing guys for you across the league?

(AP Photo/Raul Romero Jr.)

Olson: Quick roll call on gigantic X-factors in the West to round out our discourse on what will be an incredibly fun year of hoop to follow.

Edwards is, as the kids say, him. He could make the star leap this year and be so good that my worries about Towns in the playoffs wouldn’t matter. To cast aside Porter on the Nuggets and his health, I’m doing the salute emoji thing for a second unit led by Bones Hyland. He’s super fun. We need more microwave heat-check scorers.

I’m going to mention Williamson once more. He averaged 27 and 7 in his second season as a 20-year-old. He’s top-20 in the league when on the court. One of Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks or Jaren Jackson Jr. needs to leap a level for the Grizzlies. Maybe it’s one of the other 63 young guys they have.

In the East, I mentioned Garland last year and I will now too because I don’t think the common NBA fan knows how good he is. He sort of plays like Steve Nash, and once you see it, it rules. I am going to be the “Ben Simmons is fantastic at basketball” guy. We haven’t seen him in his best role as a point center yet. Now we will.

I think Tyrese Maxey is ready in all the ways James Harden isn’t. Lastly, watch out for Toronto. Scottie Barnes is the truth and the Raptors are sneaky deep (Christian Koloko Hive assemble!)

Zimmerman: Sticking with our pro-Arizona theme: Indiana might be worth watching as a team wanting to unload vets. That’s because it has tons of fun guards. If Bennedict Mathurin is a rookie of the year candidate next to Tyrese Haliburton and Chris Duarte, then guys like T.J. McConnell or even Buddy Hield could be trade bait.

Beyond that, local Arizona product Jalen Williams looked like he had “it” playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Summer League. Even with No. 2 pick Chet Holmgren out, they remain intriguing as a watch with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey running things and Lu Dort bulldozing things.

De’Anthony Melton might get his roses bolstering a talented backcourt in Philadelphia. Toronto’s draft-dudes-with-arms strategy will remain fun and competitive, too, with Barnes coming off a strong rookie year and a frontcourt including Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa and now Koloko.

Isaiah Hartenstein was the lowkey fun pickup by the New York Knicks — if Tom Thibodeau doesn’t botch how to use him. In Chicago, Ayo Dosunmu steps into Lonzo Ball’s starting point guard role — Ball’s knee apparently does not work — with a unique non-point guard background.

And yes, even the Utah Jazz have one fun addition if Collin Sexton having all the shots that are not Jordan Clarkson’s isn’t your thing. They signed a 26-year-old rookie forward out of Italy named Simone Fontecchio. He shoots, a lot. What you do when the forward makes a bucket is yell: PIZZA! PASTA! FONTECCHIO!

Award and playoff picks, you cowards!

Kellan Olson

(AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Most Valuable Player: Bucks F Giannis Antetokoumpo

Last year’s pick: Joel Embiid (Nikola Jokic)

Rookie of the Year: Pacers G/F Bennedict Mathurin

Last year’s pick: Jalen Green (Scottie Barnes)

Sixth Man of the Year: Warriors G Jordan Poole

Last year’s pick: Patty Mills (Tyler Herro)

Defensive Player of the Year: Suns F Mikal Bridges

Last year’s pick: Joel Embiid (Marcus Smart)

Most Improved Player: Timberwolves F Anthony Edwards

Last year’s pick: Michael Porter Jr. (Ja Morant)

Coach of the Year: Willie Green, Pelicans

Last year’s pick: Monty Williams – Correct!

Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Clippers

Last year’s pick: Suns over Nuggets (Warriors over Mavericks)

Eastern Conference Finals: Bucks over Raptors

Last year’s pick: Nets over Bucks (Celtics over Heat)

Finals: Bucks over Warriors

Last year’s pick: Nets over Suns (Warriors over Celtics)

Kevin Zimmerman

(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

Most Valuable Player: Bucks F Giannis Antetokounmpo

Last year’s pick: Kevin Durant (Nikola Jokic)

Rookie of the year: Magic F Paolo Banchero

Last year’s pick: Jalen Green (Scottie Barnes)

Sixth Man of the Year: Celtics G Malcolm Brogdon

Last year’s pick: Jordan Clarkson (Tyler Herro)

Defensive Player of the Year: Suns F Mikal Bridges

Last year’s pick: Mikal Bridges (I will accept any perimeter player, just so we can rethink the voting here) – (Marcus Smart)

Most Improved Player: Spurs F Keldon Johnson

Last year’s pick: Terance Mann (Ja Morant)

Coach of the year: Willie Green, Pelicans

Last year’s pick:  Steve Nash (Monty Williams)

Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Clippers

Last year’s pick: Warriors over Nuggets (Warriors over Mavericks)

Eastern Conference Finals: Bucks over Celtics

Last year’s pick: Nets over Bucks (Celtics over Heat)

Finals: Warriors over Bucks (Warriors over Celtics)

Last year’s pick: Nets over Warriors (Warriors over Celtics)

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