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Which NBA teams are under the most pressure entering 2023-24 season?

Which NBA teams are under the most pressure entering 2023-24 season?

With the 2023-24 NBA season fast approaching, discussions are beginning to ramp up surrounding team expectations. Which teams are the early favorites and contenders? Which teams are just wishful thinkers? These topics are debated often, usually leading to a select number of teams facing win-or-bust expectations. 

But, of course, there can only be one team in June that hoists the Larry O’Brien. 

Entering a season with championship expectations isn’t easy, as Basketball News’ James Posey highlighted in this recent article. Which teams fall into the win-or-bust category for the 2023-24 season? Let’s look at two teams – one from each conference – who qualify. 

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

The Los Angeles Lakers have dealt with championship aspirations and expectations maybe more than any other team in NBA history. With 17 championships, which is tied with the Boston Celtics for the most all-time, it's clear why. This franchise is used to collecting hardware by season’s end, and did so as recently as 2020, defeating the Miami Heat to win the championship in the midst of a global pandemic and in the wake of the passing of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. 

So, how can a team that won a title in recent years already be facing pressure to win again?

The Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, are heading into this season fresh off a clean sweep in the Western Conference Finals by the eventual-champion Denver Nuggets. While seemingly negative on paper, the season was largely viewed as a success, as nobody expected this squad to make a Conference-Finals run after starting an abysmal 2-10. 

How did they turn their season around? By ending the Russell Westbrook experiment, the Lakers landed D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt in a trade, in addition to trading for Rui Hachimura. These three, along with a blossoming Austin Reaves and a rejuvenated James and Davis, brought the Lakers to familiar heights – defeating the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round and taking down the then-defending-champion Golden State Warriors in round two. 

It was clear that the Lakers fixed their mistakes and were back on course. Even the naysayers had to tip their cap after the team’s surprising Western Conference Finals run.

Now comes the familiar pressure. 

This offseason, Lakers were able to keep last year’s core together, re-signing Russell, Reaves and Hachimura, while adding quality role players in Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince, Jaxson Hayes and Cam Reddish. This is really the first time in the LeBron-Lakers era that the team has been given the green light to try again for a second season. Seeing as the team didn’t come together until late last season, it would have been very much in the Lakers’ nature to come into this year with a completely different-looking team. Instead, the front office chose to run it back, aside from some changes on the margins. This decision is what puts them in the win-or-bust category. 

With LeBron entering his 21st NBA season, that sentiment is stronger than ever. The Lakers have to take advantage of the fact that James is still playing at such a high level so late in his career. Being a sports team in Hollywood (especially one with 17 championships) you need to not only have the stars, you need to win. If the Lakers have stars but aren’t winning, then they are essentially just becoming their neighbors, the Angels. The Lakers have the script ready for them, but we’ll have to wait and see if they can top the box office.

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

With the Philadelphia 76ers coming off their second-round exit in the 2023 NBA Playoffs courtesy of the Boston Celtics in seven games, there’s pressure to take the next step and win a championship. This pressure isn’t new; they’ve been feeling it for several years. 

Superstar center Joel Embiid won his first Most Valuable Player award last season, giving the 76ers two MVPs on the team, with James Harden being the other. While the duo has looked good in the short time they’ve been together, they haven’t looked like two MVPs playing side-by-side. This is especially true in the postseason, with Embiid and Harden both known for sometimes regressing in playoff series compared to the regular season.

The fact that Doc Rivers was the team’s head coach, a man who has coached three teams that all lost a playoff series after being up 3-1 and someone who has a 6-10 record in Game 7s, certainly didn’t help. There's no question that he also deserves his fair share of blame for the team’s issues. All of this, along with the lingering effects of the Ben Simmons debacle, came to a head last season. 

This offseason, the team parted ways with Rivers, and Harden requested a trade. While Harden has yet to be traded and it is possible he remains with the team, the Sixers obviously aren’t in an ideal state. It remains to be seen what kind of pieces they can get back for Harden.

In the meantime, the Sixers hired former Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse to replace Rivers. Nurse is a great coach who won a championship in 2019 and the NBA's Coach of the Year award in 2020. But if the team begins to underperform, a new coach – especially one who’s known for previously incorporating a rougher defensive style when it came to guarding Embiid – could become an easy target for blame for the Philly faithful. 

The 76ers might have more pressure on them than any other team this upcoming season. The reigning MVP, a former MVP (or the trade package they can get for him), a former Coach of the Year and a solid supporting cast mean this team is built to win now. This team is no stranger to win-or-bust expectations, but this may be the most pressure they’ve faced yet. 

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