The 2023-24 NBA season is fast approaching.
The league will reconvene for training camp Monday, kicking off a nearly nine-month odyssey to determine who will hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June.
The offseason was dominated by chatter surrounding two disgruntled superstar guards: the Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard and Philadelphia 76ers' James Harden, both of whom remain with their respective teams with four weeks until opening night.
But while nothing has happened yet in those sticky situations, plenty of changes have rocked the NBA over the past couple of months, as 29 teams attempt to catch Nikola Jokic and the reigning champion Denver Nuggets.
To assess what's taken place this summer and what lies ahead this season, ESPN polled 15 scouts, coaches and executives from across the NBA on the battle for the mantle of league's best player, offseason winners and losers and championship predictions.
Nikola Jokic: 13 votes
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 2 votes
Over the first four seasons ESPN conducted this survey, Jokic didn't receive a single vote in this category.
The Serbian center's run through the playoffs to lead Denver to its first NBA title emphatically changed that, as the 2023 Finals MVP erased any lingering doubts about his ability to win at the highest level.
"Who else could win?" asked a Western Conference scout.
Antetokounmpo, the leading vote-getter in each of the past two surveys, came in a distant second but remains the only player to receive at least one vote in this category each of the past five years.
Luka Doncic: 6 votes
Anthony Edwards: 3 votes
Nikola Jokic: 2 votes
Victor Wembanyama: 2 votes
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 1 vote
Jayson Tatum: 1 vote
Antetokounmpo and Doncic carried all but two votes in this category ahead of the 2022-23 season, while Tatum finished third as the only other player selected. This year, six names -- notably not Antetokounmpo's -- grace the list.
Doncic doubled any of the other five players to receive a vote, even after his Dallas Mavericks finished 11th in the West to miss the play-in tournament. That couldn't erase all that Doncic has accomplished thus far, nor his immense potential as he enters his age-24 season.
"He'll be at his peak age-wise [in five years]," said an Eastern Conference executive, "and what he's done so far is historic."
Coming in second was emerging Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards, who was fantastic with Team USA at the FIBA World Cup despite the group's fourth-place finish and has set himself up for what could be a massive fourth season in the NBA.
"He enjoys the game," a West scout said. "He's a pure hooper, and now I like the trajectory he's showing in his maturity. I've seen things I really like from his competitiveness. He really cares about winning. If he keeps this up, I'm very excited."
Jokic's combination of size, durability and a play style that doesn't require much athleticism earned him some votes, while two voters took the plunge and picked the 19-year-old Wembanyama, the French phenom selected by the San Antonio SpursNo. 1 overall in June's draft.
"It's just [the] unique combination of size, skill and competitiveness," another West executive said of Wembanyama's game.
Nikola Jokic: 9 votes
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 2 votes
Jayson Tatum: 2 votes
Devin Booker: 1 vote
Donovan Mitchell: 1 vote
After Jokic narrowly missed being the first player in four decades to win three straight MVPs this past season, finishing second behind Joel Embiid after placing ahead of the 76ers star big man each of the prior two seasons, the panel expects Jokic to regain the throne in 2023-24.
"It's just how he's good," an East scout said of Jokic. "It's sustainability."
But while the reigning MVP from Philadelphia didn't get any votes, the other four players who did were backed by similar reasoning: picking stars leading teams projected to rack up wins.
Scoot Henderson: 11 votes
Amen Thompson: 3 votes
Ausar Thompson: 1 vote
With the assumption that Wembanyama, one of the most-hyped prospects to ever hit the NBA, would be considered the top player from this class down the road, we chose to frame this question slightly differently:
If you had to take someone else, who would it be?
The heavy winner was Henderson, the No. 3 overall pick to the Blazers. The only other players to get votes? The Thompson twins: Amen, who went No. 4 to the Houston Rockets, and Ausar, who went No. 5 to the Detroit Pistons.
"There's a real toughness to him," an East executive said of Henderson. "That will translate to the NBA."
Added a West coach: "If you have that kind of speed, you'll adapt quickly."
The Thompson brothers, meanwhile, both impressed after entering the NBA draft process as relative unknowns playing for Overtime Elite, rather than more traditional routes such as college or G League Ignite. Despite questions surrounding both brothers' jump shots, there was plenty of excitement about the Thompson twins' potential.
"You put [Amen Thompson] on an NBA floor today," an East scout said, "and he might be the best athlete. Great passing and playing in transition. He rebounds, he defends."
"I liked [Ausar Thompson's] poise," a West scout said. "I wasn't aware he had that kind of explosiveness. He got to the rim with ease."
All-Star: 10 votes
MVP-caliber: 3 votes
All-NBA: 2 votes
Where will Wembanyama's game be entering the 2028-29 season, when he'll still be just 24 years old?
While the most popular answer was Wembanyama will "only" be at an All-Star level at that point, many voters stressed that he would all but certainly be in the MVP conversation seven or eight years into his NBA career.
"His body will need time, and it'll take time to adjust to the NBA's physicality," an East executive said. "His peak will be a little after [five years]."
Others were curious about how Wembanyama handles the spotlight.
"It'll be harder than expected," a West executive said. "He has to live up to expectations in a way we haven't seen before.
"But if it all clicks, and he's 80 percent of what people think? He'll be unlike any other."
Portland Trail Blazers: 9 votes
Miami Heat: 6 votes
The disgruntled point guard section of the program begins in the Pacific Northwest and Lillard's still-outstanding trade request.
Throughout the voting process this offseason, the split broke two ways: those who believe Portland will eventually accede to Lillard's wishes and move on, and those who think the Blazers will wait and see if a trade materializes during the regular season. (After this survey was conducted, Andscape's Marc J. Spears reported the Toronto Raptors have emerged as a contender to trade for Lillard.)
Philadelphia 76ers: 13 votes
LA Clippers: 2 votes
And then there's Harden, who turned the temperature way up on this situation with his comments about 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey last month. Still, the consensus was that after Morey repeatedly said he's only going to trade Harden if it brings back a star, or the pieces to bring back a star, it would be unlikely for him to get moved.
"I don't think [Morey] wants to trade him, and I don't know if someone is willing to give enough for him to move him," an East executive said. "He has to win this year, so it's only a trade that helps you do that. And what other team is doing that?"
Still, Harden's comments last month sparked some votes for the Clippers to ultimately be where Harden is by the time the season is underway Oct. 24.
"This will get ugly enough to where James gets himself out of there," a West executive said.
San Antonio Spurs: 4 votes
Boston Celtics: 3 votes
Golden State Warriors: 2 votes
Los Angeles Lakers: 2 votes
Milwaukee Bucks: 2 votes
Memphis Grizzlies: 1 vote
Phoenix Suns: 1 vote
In an offseason dominated by two players -- Lillard and Harden -- who want to be traded and haven't been, it's not a surprise that the voting in this category was mixed.
The Spurs received four votes largely for having the pingpong balls fall their way in May, allowing them to walk away with a generational talent in Wembanyama. Boston, on the other hand, was praised for dealing guard Marcus Smart for not only big man Kristaps Porzingis, but a lot of future draft equity.
"There was a ceiling with Marcus there," a West scout said, "and Porzingis quietly had a great year last year."
Golden State received multiple votes for retaining Draymond Green, adding Chris Paul and trading Jordan Poole, while the arguments for the Bucks and Lakers both came down to retaining key free agents.
"[Austin] Reaves on that contract alone is a good offseason," a West scout said of the Lakers' summer. "[Gabe] Vincent is a solid player ... but when you get a guy that good on that contract, that's huge."
Toronto Raptors: 5 votes
Philadelphia 76ers: 4 votes
Miami Heat: 2 votes
Chicago Bulls: 1 vote
Houston Rockets: 1 vote
Phoenix Suns: 1 vote
Washington Wizards: 1 vote
The voters were split into two categories: those who didn't like teams that stood pat, and those who didn't like the moves that teams did make.
Toronto led the way after losingFred VanVleet to the Rockets in free agency. "You can't lose Fred for nothing," an East executive said.
Philadelphia lost Georges Niang to Cleveland, has made minimum-level moves and is now dealing with the Harden situation, while Miami lost its starting backcourt from last season's run to the NBA Finals inVincent and Max Strus and is waiting to see how the Lillard situation shakes out.
The choices of Houston and Phoenix, on the other hand, were votes against the Rockets' adding two more high-volume, low-efficiency shooters in VanVleet and Dillon Brooks,and the Suns'Bradley Beal trade, as a top-heavy team became more so.
The Smart-Porzingis trade: 7 votes
CP3 to the Warriors: 4 votes
Houston's signings: 4 votes
After a yearslong rivalry between Paul and the Warriors, the two sides joined forces after CP3 was rerouted from Washington to Golden State in a deal for Poole in June.
"I just wondered if they would go with the older group or mix it up," an East executive said. "They have clearly decided to go with the older group until the wheels fall off."
There was a similar level of shock when it came to the Smart-Porzingis swap in June, as the Celtics -- after reaching at least the East finals in five of the past seven seasons -- moved on from the heart and soul of their team.
But tying it in the voting was the combination of the VanVleet and Brooks signings in Houston. In the case of Brooks, it was him getting a far bigger contract -- at four years and up to $90 million -- than anyone expected. For VanVleet, it was not only the deal he got from Houston, but that Toronto wound up losing him for nothing.
"They're stuck in the middle," an East executive said of the Raptors.
The "second apron": 10 votes
New extension rules: 2 votes
New salary floor rules: 2 votes
In-season tournament: 1 vote
The runaway choice was the collective bargaining agreement's new second apron, specifically the draconian penalties to hit teams that repeatedly surpass it. Among voters, there was a nearly universal belief that those, in particular the freezing of future draft picks, will have a real impact on violating teams.
"You can't just outspend anymore," a West executive said. "It's not just a financial penalty. Now it's impacting picks and future flexibility, too."
Two voters pointed to the new salary floor rules, which starting in 2024-25 will force teams to reach the floor by the start of the regular season -- as opposed to never having to get there at all. Several teams, including the Jazz, Spurs and Thunder, made moves this summer to take on money they wouldn't have had to in previous years.
"Teams can't just wait around to see what to do with their space anymore," a West coach said. "It forced a lot of stuff to happen."
Voters referred to the larger latitude given to the extension rules, a change some argue will further dilute the free agent pool and give teams more chances to keep their current players.
"It's a big deal we made these extension rules so lax," an East scout said. "I think it could really lock out free agency, and just have guys changing teams in trades."
One East coach chose the in-season tournament, saying it's likely to have a big impact.
"I think it's going to be one of the best things they've done," the coach said. "It brings attention and meaning to a part of the season that, historically, no one cares about.
"I think over time, people will really care about it. But, even if I'm wrong, there's no harm in trying it. Great change."
Boston Celtics: 9 votes
Milwaukee Bucks: 6 votes
Denver Nuggets: 10 votes
Phoenix Suns: 3 votes
Golden State Warriors: 2 votes
Boston Celtics: 6 votes
Denver Nuggets: 5 votes
Milwaukee Bucks: 2 votes
Phoenix Suns: 2 votes
This category has had a checkered track record of success, to put it mildly, over the past few years:
This season, the heavy expectation among voters is a Denver-Boston NBA Finals next spring.
"This is their window," a West executive said of the Celtics, citing the massive deal for Jaylen Brown and a looming extension for Tatum, who is eligible to sign one next summer.
Jokic and the defending champs, meanwhile, remain in the driver's seat in the West despite conference rivals loading up around them.
"They have the best player in the world, continuity and their young guys will keep getting better," an East scout said. "I don't see anyone beating them if healthy."