As the 2021-22 NBA season begins, here are my predictions for what will inevitably be another wild season around the league.
1. Champion Bucks will fly under radar, but charge for repeat
The last team to repeat out of the East was the 2012-13 Miami Heat, a team that got over the hump in the previous season after one of failure. Miami went from enduring all the questions about the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade fit and Erik Spoelstra’s pulse on his team to being validated and subsequently dominating the league the next season.
Remember that 27-game winning streak that was obscene?
Not saying the Milwaukee Bucks will follow in those precise footsteps, but a cloud has been lifted over the franchise, its coach Mike Budenholzer and star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo is now unassailable as a superstar and rivals Kevin Durant for top status.
But hardly anyone believes they’ll repeat, much less get back to the Finals. They’ve returned all their key players sans P.J. Tucker and don’t have any lingering contract issues. It feels like a recipe for a dominant season that will remind folks just how great this team is, even if the focus is rightfully elsewhere due to drama and nonsense.
And they are free.
Assuming health — considering Game 6 of the Finals took place on July 20, 91 days ago — it wouldn’t be shocking to see them run away and hide from a good chunk of the East for the majority of the season.
The Los Angeles Lakers reminded anyone who would listen they had 71 days off after their win in the bubble to last season beginning. In most cases, champions usually get around 120 days off, so the Bucks are trending more toward Laker territory than normal champions even with the season starting a bit earlier recently.
But that corporate knowledge is something, and Antetokounmpo’s thirst hasn’t been quenched with just one title. He wants more and probably has a mental note that they’re flying under everyone’s radar — just the way they like it.
2. No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham is better long-term bet
Houston Rockets rookie Jalen Green has let anyone who was willing to listen know that he believes he was more worthy of the No. 1 pick than Cade Cunningham, who went first to Detroit.
Cunningham has the polish to be the best player in this draft and perhaps even better than the projections. Carrying himself with the maturity he does makes him worthy to handle being the franchise player as well as navigating a locker room that has far more experienced players — walking the line of having to grow into leadership while also respecting teammates isn’t quite easy and is truthfully underrated because it’s hard to measure.
But Green will have more opportunity to be in the one role that suits him best — a scorer — and will have free rein with Houston on a team that isn’t going anywhere. You get the feeling Detroit was more sold on Evan Mobley than even Green, and if Green has wind of that, it’ll be another chip on his shoulder that can lead to some pretty explosive nights.
The box scores will be kinder to Green than Cunningham, if for no other reason Cunningham will play different roles this season. Cunningham will share playmaking duties with second-year guard Killian Hayes, then shift to off-guard to take advantage of his scoring ability. It’ll be more of a crash course for Cunningham on the fly than it will be for Green, who can embrace his pro skill and hit the ground running.
Cunningham’s ankle injury has limited him in training camp and the Pistons will bring him along at an appropriate pace, even though it doesn’t feel like anything long term. Green will come out the gate sooner, but Cunningham feels like the better long-term bet.
3. Jaren Jackson Jr. will be Most Improved Player
Jaren Jackson Jr.’s extension hours before the buzzer for the 2018 draft class certainly took some sting out of this selection but it validates the thoughts: Recovery from his torn meniscus — which cost him all but 11 games and then a five-game playoff stint — was an aberration and not indicative of greater issues that will prevent him from being a running mate to Memphis Mayor Ja Morant.
He should be the league’s Most Improved Player this season.
He’s almost a unicorn of sorts: a big man who can handle the ball beyond just dribble handoffs, hit the three at a better than average clip, defend the rim as well as switch out on the other two levels of the floor and rebound.
It’s hard to take last season’s production at face value when he shot just 28% after approaching 40 in his second year. But he rebounded at a higher rate in shorter minutes, a sign of having a better nose for the ball and confidence in his body to push off those knees.
His stats won’t jump off the page, but he’ll wreak havoc for teams trying to matchup with him when he runs screen-roll with Morant, and teams will have to decide whether to leave that crease open for the explosive point guard or play off Jackson Jr. just enough to unleash that awkward-looking but effective perimeter shot.
If Memphis will take the leap into a solid playoff team, it will have to be the draftees leading the way as opposed to external moves. The $100 million contract proves the franchise believes in Jackson, and he won’t have the contract issue being over his head like say, someone in Phoenix. All Jackson has to do is continue on the trajectory he’s been on, and that deal will be looked at as a value one or two years from now.
It’s easy to put Tyler Herro in this space or even Keldon Johnson after the experience in the Summer Olympics, especially with the runway he’ll be given in San Antonio with the veterans gone.
But Jackson Jr. will be dynamic for a team that needs him to be.
4. Undervalue Kevin Durant at your own peril
Kevin Durant made his presence known in last season’s playoffs, putting together historic performances in the Nets’ second-round loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. It seems so long ago, considering all the nonsense that’s gone on in Brooklyn since.
It almost obscures the fact Durant reestablished himself as the best player in the game, even with Giannis putting up a 50-ball in the title clincher. Because of Kyrie Irving’s absence, Durant and James Harden will be counted on to do more for the Nets. Usually having top-heavy stars disqualifies one from MVP consideration (see, Durant and Stephen Curry), but the tone has changed on Durant recently and it’ll be viewed as appropriate to give him his flowers and eschew the usual MVP rhetoric.
Even last year when he played only 35 games because of the maintenance from his Achilles injury, his splits were otherworldly (54-45-88), and he put up a routine 27 points, seven rebounds and nearly six assists. His shooting efficiency was a career high, besting his time in Golden State.
He’s not the rim protector he was in Golden State’s scheme, but it’s not a noticeable difference because he’s still aware and uses his length to cover space on a team that isn’t as dedicated defensively, if we’re being honest.
Harden was finding his groove before his hamstring popped on him last spring, and he’ll certainly eat up possessions and compile statistics in Irving’s absence. Antetokounmpo will look like a monster, as well, along with Luka Doncic, considering he has to do everything in Dallas.
But it feels like it’s Durant’s time, and especially with so many eyes on the Nets for reasons beyond basketball, Durant will remind many who’ve forgotten over a short period or even since his MVP season in 2014 how this should go.
The players who’ve won MVPs in an eight-year span or longer: Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain. Of course, they each had MVPs in between those years, so Durant doing it this way would be historic by itself. (He's +700 to win MVP at BetMGM.)
It’s not fair to say Durant has been disrespected, but he’s definitely been undervalued in his career, for whatever reason.
This season should end the nonsense.
5. The West is wild
Nobody — seriously, nobody — will run away with the West this season. Too many question marks for even the best teams. Kawhi Leonard is out. Klay Thompson is recovering from two serious lower leg injuries. Jamal Murray won’t be around for a while. The Lakers are the Golden Girls (shoutout to Blanche, one of TV’s greatest characters).
It leaves plenty of space for the incumbents, Utah and Phoenix, to do damage through continuity while everyone else is finding their way. The Suns’ refusal to take care of Deandre Ayton will come back to bite them, especially for an organization that has done things right since James Jones and Monty Williams came aboard.
The West won’t be mediocre by any stretch, but the 20-plus-year dominance of everything west of the Eastern time zone will finally come to an end — much to the delight of the folks monitoring TV ratings on Fifth Avenue who’ve yearned for the East to come back to prominence in that first doubleheader window.
The game’s best two teams might reside in Brooklyn and Milwaukee, but they won’t meet up in the Finals. The Warriors have the third-best title odds at BetMGM and employ Stephen Curry — who cannot be slept on even as he’ll turn 34 this season — but threading that fine needle of relying on veterans while grooming the babies to take over seems a little too ambitious to result in big-time winning.
Unless, that is, Curry does more than surpass Ray Allen as the 3-point king and goes Super Saiyan Steph again. It feels like there are a lot of solid teams but squads with question marks, teams that won’t find their way early in the season.
It should make for a better finish to the regular season, though, as the expectation from here is the Lakers make a late run to at least get to the 3-4-5 spot after some early struggles with LeBron, AD and Russ.
The East will be better, but there will be some quality games due to the jockeying for position and playoff berths on the line out West.
6. Tyronn Lue is the best coach in basketball
Speaking of the West, the Los Angeles Clippers will be better than expected. Leonard is out and based on his history with injuries, making sure he’s all the right before returning, it doesn’t seem like he’ll be back this season.
Even that playoff run without Leonard doesn’t seem to resonate much confidence in the Clippers franchise and probably for good reason considering its history.
But Tyronn Lue is the best coach in basketball. Perhaps Gregg Popovich held the mythical title, or even Spoelstra in Miami working wonders. Spoelstra was voted in the general manager survey as best coach (55%).
And there’s no argument against Spoelstra or how the Heat will crash the expected Brooklyn/Milwaukee party this season, it should be said.
Lue, though, seems to be the best at adjusting on the fly and throwing opponents off. He held off Dallas in the playoffs after falling behind two games to none. The Leonard injury seemed to be a death blow, but he adjusted to the point of playing Rudy Gobert off the floor in the Game 6 thrilling clincher in the West semifinals. Lue finished second in voting for best motivator of people, tied with Popovich, Steve Kerr and Spoelstra and first in in-game adjustments (37%).
The Clippers ran out of gas against the Suns, but that shouldn’t be much of an issue this season. Lue will deploy Paul George to max capacity and use a deep enough roster to not only keep the Clippers afloat but to cause hell for everyone in the West.
And if Leonard actually does come back … beware.