The top stories rolling into the new season …
Kyrie may or may not play this year – the latest reason having something to with (paraphrasing) “getting the vaccine or not is about being true to yourself”, or something like that, but it’s really not possible to know for sure. He probably will play, but right now by NYC mandate he can’t play in NYC. Regardless he’s made it clear that he’ll just up-n-quit if the Nets try to trade him and KD says he’s backing his friend and won’t allow a trade. Meanwhile KD has been playing at an incredible level consistently through end of season last year, the playoffs and the Olympics. While it’s almost impossible to say who’s the best in the league going in KD has to be at least tied for first, and with Harden being just as good on any given night, a good if not great supporting cast and excellent coaching and management, the Nets are an easy pick for Eastern Conference Finals action next summer.
Giannis somehow became a better player in the finals series vs. the Suns. He wasn’t that player in the first 2 games of that series, but afterward he became perhaps the most dominant player in the playoffs that the league has ever seen. The stuff of legend. LeBron, Russell, Jordan, Kareem, Oscar, Wilt, Bird … Giannis was as good or better for at least 3 out of the final 4 games and arguably played the best game of any player ever in the final win over Phoenix. Can he sustain that improvement? It’s clear he has the drive, but will it be needed to win games and stay atop the East with an also-improved Jrue Holiday and a seemingly more assertive Kris Middleton? Bucks lost Tucker to FA, but other players stepped up for them in the playoffs and also seem improved. How good will they be this season? We’re going to find out – COVID isn’t as likely to dominate results throughout the season this year and it seems very unlikely to affect the 2022 playoffs. But the Bucks aren’t favorites to win it all going in … that billing goes to the Lakers and Nets. As if Giannis needed more motivation to get back to the finals again.
Steph Curry didn’t win MVP last year, but he could have and likely would have if the ball bounced the Warriors’ way once or twice more last year. He was phenomenal, and every bit deserving of the best player in the league status right there with the others on that short list. How good will the Warriors be when a healthy Wiseman suits up to play alongside rookies Kuminga and Moody (both will be works in progress)? Looney will continue his improving swing upward, Poole has to be the most underrated in the league. The Warriors are hungry and ready to get back to the finals, and can do just that even without Klay who’s expected back later this season.
Jokic … MVP who did it after losing weight and developing a stronger work ethic last year. How much better can he get? No one knows, but if he gets better at both ends he’s right there with the others above as best in the league. Even so, the Nuggets have holes to plug with a sort of revolving lineup with their smaller guards and wings and Murray out indefinitely with the ACL tear. They’ll need more than just MPJ and Barton coming to the rescue. Hard to see where they’ll get it early on.
Kawhi had surgery for the partial ACL tear and will be out for at least half the season, but the Clipps were a force and arguably the best team in the West before he went out in the playoffs. Even then Reggie Jackson and the rest almost got by the Suns in the playoffs. No reason to count out the Clippers and in fact maybe the best bet to come out of the West or at least right there with a handful of other teams.
LeBron has a problem this year, or maybe several of them. He may still be the best player in the league right there with KD and Steph and Giannis and Jokic and Embiid, but what does Westbrook actually do for his chances to go for another title? And beyond that all the older guys on the roster? Early on it’s very hard to see why the Lakers would be favored to win it all this year, but then … he *is* LeBron so foolish to not include him atop this list.
Embiid has a lot to prove this year. If he had played just a few more games he would likely have been named MVP. Instead Jokic was so consistent and reliable that he was the more deserving. Now Embiid gets to run it back without Ben Simmons who almost certainly won’t be part of a Sixers playoff season this time. But who will be for that matter? Jury is still out as the Sixers shore up their roster with Simmons being disruptive early on.
Are the Suns for real? No one expected them to be that good last year. CP3 is another year older, but Ayton and Booker should be in their primes. It’s almost impossible to tell how well they’ll do this year, but they should be better with their young guys all improving at both ends. Ayton especially who could be an all star this year or will at least get votes. Cam Johnson has already shown signs of being among the most consistent and reliable scorers in the league albeit on fewer shots than most others of that ilk, but is Mikal Bridges the right guy for them as their ironman yet undersized defensive wing? The Suns have lacked playmaking and size, and Bridges doesn’t help at all in those departments. It’s hard to see how he’ll be able to anchor the defense alongside Ayton with the likes of LeBron or Kawhi or George backing him down. The good news is that the Suns won’t need to worry about Giannis or KD until the finals should they get there.
The Jazz … so hard to say how good they are since Mitchell wasn’t near 100% in the playoffs last year. They showed signed of brilliance going in though, and it seemed Mitchell’s role had changed somewhat as Clarkson and Conley took over the playmaking and some of the scoring. Jazz are deep and loaded and healthy and have plenty to prove. No one will be surprised to see them atop the West again this year.
The Heat … they’re also stacked with talent and now have Kyle Lowry at the helm adding both toughness and and a winner to the composition. Will this be the year for Tyler Herro to be a consistent force? I doubt anyone will take them lightly, as they should be a top 4 defensive team that can score. A work in progress at least for the first part of the season, but a lot of reasons to be optimistic about their chances this year. Only problem: Nets, Bucks and Sixers … can the Heat somehow get past them en route to the conference finals? Can they get past the Hawks and the Celtics and the Knicks for that matter? What about the Bulls who appear to be stacked and ready for a deep playoff run if they can come together quickly.
The East looks great. At least on paper going in.
And then there’s the rest of the league where there’s simply way too much to comment on here without getting too speculative. Suffice to say there are a handful of teams that could rise to the top and few would be surprised to see it as the league is now absolutely loaded with young talent almost across the board: Zion, Morant, LaMelo, Edwards, Trae, Doncic, Tatum. And will any of the rookies help to push their teams into the playoffs? Really hard to see who and which team that might be early on, although three teams with zero expectation for success yet great potential to spoil the fun for others are the Rockets, Pistons and Thunder. That’s how deep the league is now with most teams having multiple talents able to dominate on any given night. There are only a few exceptions, but hard to see which ones early on.