NBA 21/22 season: Who are the top 5 teams in each conference?

·11 min read
Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrates in the final seconds before defeating the Phoenix Suns to win the 2021 NBA Finals.
Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrates in the final seconds before defeating the Phoenix Suns to win the 2021 NBA Finals. (PHOTO: Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Fittingly, the National Basketball Association (NBA) will return to its 82-game regular season on its upcoming 75th anniversary, after the past two seasons were shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2021/22 season will thus tip off on Wednesday (20 October, Southeast Asia time) with two blockbuster, star-studded match-ups - Brooklyn Nets vs Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors vs Los Angeles Lakers. 

So which of the 30 teams have the talent and depth to negotiate the seven-month regular season? Here are the top five teams from each conference to look out for:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Milwaukee Bucks

KEY PLAYERS: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday.

WHY THEY WILL BE GOOD: Uh, because they are the defending champions? 

In all seriousness, the Bucks have retained the core of last season's title-winning squad, and that means they will continue to be one of the best defensive units in the NBA under coach Mike Budenholzer. With size, length, quickness and tenacity in abundance, this will be one of the hardest teams to score against.

Then there is the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo has been astonishing fans for a few years now with his extraordinary athleticism and intense will to win. His 50-point final-game performance to win the NBA title in June this year will become the stuff of legends in years to come, and the scary part is that he is just starting to impose his dominance.

WHY THEY COULD STRUGGLE: Mainly because other teams have had significant upgrades.

While last season's title win was undoubtedly well-deserved, the Bucks had the benefit of other teams weakened by significant injuries. Not anymore this season, with the likes of Brooklyn Nets and LA Lakers having strengthened their squads to make a run at the Bucks.

And that's the biggest question surrounding this talented squad: do they have the belief and hunger to do it all over again? 

Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets during the 2021 NBA playoffs.
Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets during the 2021 NBA playoffs. (PHOTO Elsa/Getty Images)

2. Brooklyn Nets

KEY PLAYERS: Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving?

WHY THEY WILL BE GOOD: Undoubtedly, this is the best team assembled for this new season.

Durant, Harden and Irving are the main stars - all capable of scoring at will, and with enough veteran savviness to negotiate all the ups and downs of the gruelling season. But that's not all for the Nets: look down their roster list and there is unbelievable depth with proven veterans at every position - Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills, Joe Harris and Paul Millsap. 

If they could mesh together into a cohesive unit, this side have everything they need to clinch their first-ever NBA title.

WHY THEY COULD STRUGGLE: That big question mark over Irving, who will not play until he gets vaccinated to comply with New York City's vaccine mandate. 

If he continues to insist on not getting his jab, then the Nets will have a huge void to fill. Without Irving, Durant and Harden could encounter more double-teams and find it harder to score in abundance. Irving's superb playmaking skills will also be sorely missed by his teammates.

Granted, they will still be a very good team without Irving. But could they overcome the Bucks without him? It seems highly unlikely.

Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks during the 2021 NBA Eastern Conference Finals.
Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks during the 2021 NBA Eastern Conference Finals. (PHOTO: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

3. Atlanta Hawks

KEY PLAYERS: Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela

WHY THEY WILL BE GOOD: If there is an exciting, up-and-coming team to watch out for this season, this is the team.

The Hawks had a breakthrough 2020/21 season, especially in the playoffs where they dispatched top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers and gave a tough fight to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals. Young has emerged as a streaky scorer, capable playmaker and inspirational leader of the team, while the other Hawks players ably support him by doing everything else needed to win.

It will be fun to see how this once-unfancied side can make further inroads with veteran coach Nate McMillan at the helm.

WHY THEY COULD STRUGGLE: They are fun to watch, but they do have flaws.

Right now, there is no one who could be the Robin to Young's Batman role. Collins is a solid big-man presence, but has to be a better scoring threat should Young have an off-day. 

The Hawks also lack veteran players with the know-how to lift the squad quickly should they hit a slump during the season. And now that the Hawks have a target on their collective backs after their stellar playoff run, can they respond positively?

Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat during an NBA match against the Charlotte Hornets.
Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat during an NBA match against the Charlotte Hornets. (PHOTO: Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

4. Miami Heat

KEY PLAYERS: Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo

WHY THEY WILL BE GOOD: If they can get going, they might be the best team in the East. But that's a big if.

Butler and Adebayo have been the linchpins for the Heat in the past two seasons, offering both scoring threat and defensive presence from their positions. Adding Lowry - a six-time All-Star and a key reason for the Toronto Raptors unlikely 2019 NBA title triumph - looks like an inspired choice, as he should provide some smart playmaking to complement the squad.

As the Heat showed during their run into the 2020 NBA Finals, once they heat up, they will be hard to stop.

WHY THEY COULD STRUGGLE: Injuries may hurt them badly due to lack of depth. 

Outside of the top trio, the Heat squad consist of either ageing veterans or untested youngsters. Whether they can become useful role players will be a question mark through the season. The joker in the deck may be former All-Star Victor Oladipo, whether he has fully recovered from a bad quadriceps injury in 2019 to regain the heights he achieved with the Indiana Pacers.

Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2021 NBA Eastern Conference semi-finals.
Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2021 NBA Eastern Conference semi-finals. (PHOTO: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

5. Philadelphia 76ers

KEY PLAYERS: Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons?

WHY THEY WILL BE GOOD: Don't forget, they were the top-seeded Eastern Conference team last season.

Embiid is as scarily unstoppable as Antetokounmpo, and he is arguably better in defence than the Bucks' star. Harris is solid presence at power forward, and Simmons is one of the most unique playmakers and slashers to the net that the NBA has seen. 

WHY THEY COULD STRUGGLE: The ongoing trade demand by Simmons is threatening to sink this team.

Simmons was fingered as one of the main reasons why the Sixers choked against the Hawks in last season's playoffs. Angered by the lack of protection by both Embiid and coach Doc Rivers, he has declared that he would not play for the side anymore, in a bid to force a trade. 

Such off-court drama is obviously unwanted, and so far the Sixers have refused to budge to Simmons' demand. It could fester into an ugly atmosphere within the squad, so all eyes are on the next moves by both the club and player.

Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns during the 2021 NBA Finals.
Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns during the 2021 NBA Finals. (PHOTO: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Phoenix Suns

KEY PLAYERS: Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton.

WHY THEY WILL BE GOOD: Their swashbuckling run into last season's NBA Finals should give enough confidence for the youthful side to press on.

The addition of Paul last season proved a masterstroke for the young Suns, as his veteran leadership meshed perfectly with rising talents Booker and Ayton amid their spirited run to the Finals.

So it seems appropriate that free-agent Paul has chosen to re-sign for the Suns for another shot - maybe his last shot - at finally winning an NBA title. Good luck.

WHY THEY COULD STRUGGLE: The Suns' brash youthfulness could be a double-edged sword.

Their meteoric rise over the last two seasons was refreshing for a franchise that had struggled for much of the past decade. Now that they are legitimate contenders, however, opponents are sitting up and no longer viewing the Suns as pushovers.

The element of surprise is no more, and the Suns would have to respond by becoming savvier and tougher to beat. Can they manage it this season?

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James during the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James during the 2021 NBA Playoffs. (PHOTO: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)

2. Los Angeles Lakers

KEY PLAYERS: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook

WHY THEY WILL BE GOOD: Have you seen the ridiculous squad the Lakers have assembled?

Besides James, Davis and Westbrook - three sure-fire future locks for the Basketball Hall of Fame - the Lakers have assembled a slew of former All-Stars as role players: Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard. 

Had this squad been formed in early- or mid-2010s, there would be no arguments on the favourites to win the NBA title. As it is, their wealth of experience will come in handy in dealing with all sorts of opponents during the regular season, making them contenders for clinching the top seed in the West.

WHY THEY COULD STRUGGLE: Can their battle-worn bodies carry them past the regular season and playoffs to land the NBA title?

As good as the team look on paper, the blunt truth is that there is already a lot of wear-and-tear among all these former stars. Can they last an entire 82-game season without a major injury crisis? It would require plenty of game management by coach Frank Vogel to steer them through the gruelling season. 

This is obviously a team built to win a title immediately, if everything goes right. Right now, however, it does seem like they would need a large slice of luck with injuries to do so.

Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz.
Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz. (PHOTO: Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

3. Utah Jazz

KEY PLAYERS: Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Bojan Bogdanovic.

WHY THEY WILL BE GOOD: They are the resident "defensive monsters" of the league.

With Gobert, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, guarding the paint, the Jazz have been the NBA's elite defensive unit in recent years. Coupled with the explosiveness of Mitchell, and they have tore through the previous regular season for the league-best record.

With most of their team retained for this season, there is no reason why the Jazz cannot be as intense and tough-to-beat as they were last season. 

WHY THEY COULD STRUGGLE: An over-reliance on Mitchell on offence may not be a good strategy.

The Jazz could certainly have tried to trade for an additional proven scorer to ease Mitchell's burden, and keep him fresh for the playoffs. That they could not make it happen means that, while the Jazz might still be potent force in regular season, their lack of versatility may hinder them during the playoffs.

Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors in action during the preseason.
Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors in action during the preseason. (PHOTO: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

4. Golden State Warriors

KEY PLAYERS: Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson?

WHY THEY WILL BE GOOD: Three years ago, everyone was talking about a Warriors dynasty after their three NBA title triumphs. 

Then Durant left, Curry and Thompson got badly injured, and it looked as if the Warriors are done. But this season could be interesting, as Thompson tries to make a comeback after his two-year injury hell. 

With Curry the reigning scoring champion, a revived Thompson - coupled with Green's defensive brilliance - could push the Warriors back into the title-chasing picture.

WHY THEY COULD STRUGGLE: Two years out with serious injuries on both legs is no joke.

Thompson is likely to be afforded all the time to regain his sharpness and shake the rust off his basketball skills. Even so, he is unlikely to ever return to his peak powers as an extraordinary shooter and elite defender.

Curry needs the younger teammates such as Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and James Wiseman to step up and be counted, but this will again take time. 

Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks during the 2021 NBA Western Conference playoffs.
Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks during the 2021 NBA Western Conference playoffs. (PHOTO: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

5. Dallas Mavericks

KEY PLAYERS: Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr.

WHY THEY WILL BE GOOD: It all boils down to one player - Doncic, by far the most exciting young player of the past three seasons.

The 22-year-old Slovakian is a triple-double threat whenever he plays, and has single-handedly propelled the Mavericks into prominence again following the retirement of their previous European great, Dirk Nowitzki.

Doncic's brilliance should be enough to ensure the Mavericks top the mediocre Southwest Division, even though they are still a work in progress.

WHY THEY COULD STRUGGLE: After Doncic and Porzingis, they are dreadfully short on proven talents.

To say that the Mavs are a one-man team is not really far off the mark, with questions of durability surrounding the oft-injured Porzingis. Can Doncic stay as healthy as he had been in the past three seasons? It will be crucial to the fortunes of the team.

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