After a postseason bubble and an abbreviated 2020-21 campaign, the NBA is back to a normal schedule. While some unusual storylines are still floating around — thanks, Kyrie Irving — fans around the globe are ready to get back to 82 regular-season games, packed arenas, and all the fun that comes along with basketball in the Association.
A full season will also produce plenty of storylines, which inspired us to pull Sportscasting’s NBA section together for some predictions ahead of opening night. Read on to get their takes on the upcoming campaign.
Who will win the 2022 NBA Championship?
David Wysong: The Lakers will win it all this season. Yes, many of their players are old enough to be my grandpa, but they have too much talent not to win. If healthy, who can actually beat them? Definitely not a Kyrie Irving-less Brooklyn Nets team. I also think LeBron James feels like he has something to prove this year, and a motivated LeBron is a scary LeBron.
Andrew Hanlon: I’m going with Milwaukee to repeat. Giannis Antetokounmpo figured something out when he was forced to go toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant during the Eastern Conference semifinals last year. It feels like he and the Bucks shook some demons off last season.
Tim Van Straten: No one thinks Giannis Antetokounmpo is only going to win one ring, right? The Milwaukee Bucks are in prime position to repeat, with nearly their entire roster back and their two biggest Eastern Conference competitors, the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, both preoccupied with superstar drama. The next NBA dynasty is on the verge of forming in Wisconsin.
Martin Fenn: I’m with Andrew and Tim. The Bucks should feel a sense of motivation with an abundance of eyes on the Nets and Lakers. The same goes for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who might play like he’s had a burden lifted from his shoulders. Jrue Holiday should only grow more comfortable during his second season in Milwaukee. Don’t forget, the Bucks have good bench depth and get Donte DiVincenzo back after he missed most of last season’s playoffs.
Phil Watson: There’s never been a season in which the battle of attrition is likely to be as pronounced as this one. Two consecutive microwave offseasons will leave the paper contenders (the Nets and the Lakers) vulnerable because of age. Younger cores such as the Atlanta Hawks have a larger window than ever. But at the end of the day, Giannis is still Giannis, and he’s hungry to repeat. Milwaukee gets it done.
Mike Thomas: One title isn’t enough for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. This team is hungry for a repeat and talented enough to make it happen. With Kyrie Irving’s absence making Brooklyn’s Big Three a Big Two, the path is clear for the Bucks to return to the NBA Finals.
Jack Dougherty: The Nets are probably the most talented team in the East, with or without Kyrie Irving. They should get revenge over the Bucks in the playoffs even if Irving doesn’t play the entire year, but it won’t be easy for him to sit around for seven months watching from the couch. Don’t be surprised if Kyrie eventually gets the vaccine and the Nets cruise to a title like they should have last season.
Bob Garcia IV: I don’t blame Jack one bit for going with the Nets as they certainly have the star power to get the job done with or without Kyrie Irving. However, it’s hard to choose any other team aside from the Lakers. Yes, Russell Westbrook’s fit alongside LeBron James will be a pivotal factor, but Anthony Davis’ health will determine the team’s fate. When healthy, he’s a game-changing force on both ends of the floor. The roster will also need time to gel, but Los Angeles has the pieces to earn its 18th NBA championship.
Who will win the 2021-22 NBA MVP Award?
David: This is the year Joel Embiid gets the MVP. He put up MVP-worthy numbers last season (28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game), and the Sixers will likely rely on him more in 2021-22. Whether Ben Simmons plays or not, Embiid will just take yet another step forward this year.
Andrew: I’m going with James Harden. The Nets are going to be contending for a championship, but with no Kyrie (at least for now) and with all the minutes Kevin Durant played last season, someone is going to have to carry one of the best offenses in the league every night during the regular season. When Brooklyn is at home against the Detroit Pistons on a Tuesday night in March, is KD going to be the one to take over the offense and score 35? Harden has already proven he can — more than willingly — do that.
Tim: He’s only 22, but it’s honestly a surprise Luka Doncic hasn’t won the MVP yet. You know he’ll be good for a 28/8/8 stat line (at least), and given his age, we likely haven’t seen the best of him yet. I’m putting faith into Hall of Fame point guard and new Dallas Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd to transform Luka from a budding star to a full-fledged MVP.
Martin: This is Kevin Durant’s award to lose. Some might argue playing with James Harden isn’t conducive to winning the MVP, but Durant has no shortage of experience putting up numbers alongside other superstars and could have a chip on his shoulder after almost singlehandedly powering a depleted Nets team to the Eastern Conference Finals last season.
Phil: Unfortunately, the MVP voting has taken on the characteristics of a political campaign. No one waits to see how the season actually plays out; instead, the soundbites start flowing in July and August to create the best narrative. Kevin Durant is the media favorite, so he’ll have to do something to lose it.
Mike: Joel Embiid has been close, and this year he edges Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP. LeBron James finishes third and then holds a nine-minute press conference to rant about the fact he only received 14 first-place votes. During it, he says the words “I” and “me” a combined 56 times.
Jack: Kevin Durant returned from a devastating Achilles injury last year and put up one of the best statistical seasons of his career. With another offseason under his belt, we might see KD explode for 30+ points per game for the Nets. You da real MVP this time, Kevin.
Bob: This is an extremely difficult decision, but Kevin Durant is already positioned to make a strong bid for his second regular-season MVP. If his performance in last season’s playoffs was any indication of what’s to come, it’s his award to lose.
Who will be the surprise of the 2021-22 season?
David: The Cleveland Cavaliers will surprise some people in the East. Will they make the playoffs? That’s hard to say because the conference is so stacked, but they could make things interesting. The Cavs have two talented guards in Collin Sexton and Darius Garland (Stephen Curry’s favorite young player) and a ton of height in Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley, and Lauri Markkanen. They should be a fun team to watch and might even turn into Lob City 2.0.
Andrew: The Toronto Raptors are being slept on. Masai Ujiri is one of the best team-builders in the league, and Nick Nurse is one of the best coaches. The Raptors could be scary on defense too as Nurse could run out a lineup of Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Precious Achiuwa, and Chris Boucher. That’s a ton of athleticism and length to play against, and that’s not counting the value Goran Dragic and Fred VanVleet bring to the backcourt.
Tim: I am a big believer in Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets. Or better yet, LaMelo Ball’s Charlotte Hornets, as the 20-year-old Rookie of the Year has all the makings of a future star. Buzz City has a pair of consistent 20-point scorers in Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier, athletic forwards like Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington, and a head coach in James Borrego who comes from the Gregg Popovich tree (that’s still a good thing, right?). They are easily one of the top eight teams in the East.
Martin: FiveThirtyEight hates the Chicago Bulls. A lot of people seem to be down on the DeMar DeRozan signing. Not me. DeRozan gives Chicago — a team that ranked last in free-throw attempts last season — a necessary slasher and secondary playmaker. Lonzo Ball takes additional pressure off LaVine to create everything on the offensive end, and both he and Alex Caruso should help Chicago’s perimeter defense tremendously. Oh, and LaVine should be hungry to have a monster season in a contract year.
Phil: I am with Andrew here. I mentioned to someone else recently how implausible it now seems that 60 draft spots came and went with Fred VanVleet remaining on the board. He’s the new face of the franchise in Toronto, and they are going to surprise a lot of folks.
Mike: I’m not sure if picking a team with two young All-Stars can be considered a surprise, but I’m picking the Boston Celtics to make a run at the Eastern Conference title. They had Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown last year but managed a highly disappointing 36-36 mark. This team is much deeper, and everyone is getting all the COVID-19 issues out of the way early this year. Boston won’t touch Milwaukee, but look for 50-plus wins.
Jack: The Timberwolves have been an afterthought in the West for the last three seasons, but this is the year they turn it around and sneak into the postseason. Anthony Edwards is primed to make a second-year jump, and Karl-Anthony Towns is too talented to only have one playoff appearance in six seasons. Minnesota is going to surprise a lot of people in 2021-22.
Bob: I’m with Martin here. The Bulls had a busy offseason that saw them bring aboard several key players. DeMar DeRozan brings a much-needed veteran presence along with his proven scoring ability. The Lonzo Ball-Zach LaVine backcourt pairing has already brought many exciting moments in preseason action. Meanwhile, Alex Caruso has quickly endeared himself to Bulls fans behind the hustle and grit that made him a fan favorite with the Los Angeles Lakers for years. All that should position the Bulls for a legitimate playoff push.
Who will be the biggest disappointment of the 2021-22 campaign?
David: This probably isn’t that much of a hot take, but I’m going to say the Brooklyn Nets here. They formed their Big Three to try to win a championship, but I don’t see them doing so without Kyrie Irving. If Irving does come back, his ability to stay healthy still worries me. They obviously still have a good team, but I don’t see the Nets accomplishing their ultimate goal of winning a title in 2021-22.
Andrew: The Philadelphia 76ers are going to end up sixth or lower in the East, which is a disappointment for that team. (Apologies to David and Mike’s MVP pick). I’m not sure what kind of Ben Simmons Philly is getting, and if Joel Embiid has to play more minutes to carry the offense, his injury history would become even more concerning. And Doc Rivers is still going to have the same offensive issues that plagued the Sixers last year.
Tim: It might be cheating to pick a 31-41 team to disappoint. But I’m expecting the worst of the worst for the New Orleans Pelicans. Willie Green is their third head coach in three seasons, showing a clear lack of organizational direction. Losing Lonzo Ball and replacing him with Devonte’ Graham is a downgrade. Brandon Ingram is good, but he’s a poor defender and hasn’t played more than 62 games since his rookie year. And oh yeah, Zion Williamson is hurt again and is allegedly unhappy with the organization. Anyone else starting to get Kawhi Leonard/San Antonio Spurs vibes?
Martin: The Dallas Mavericks finished fifth in the West last season, but they hardly made any moves this summer. Reggie Bullock is a nice 3-and-D guy, but Dallas lacks a reputable playmaker to complement Luka Doncic. I’m not sold on the Kristaps Porzingis preseason hype, and there’s no telling how the Jason Kidd experiment works out. The Mavs could take a step back this season, especially in a loaded conference.
Phil: Take your pick between Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and the Lakers. You have age and drama with the Nets, drama galore for the Sixers, and age galore in LA. The Lakers couldn’t get through the preseason without two major injuries, including to one of the youngsters in Talen Horton-Tucker. The back-to-back short offseasons are going to take a toll on the Lakers in February and March.
Mike: How can a team with Kyrie Irving and James Harden not be a disappointment? Expectations will be high even with Irving unvaccinated and unable to play. They will continue to disappoint, just as they did a year ago.
Jack: Everyone loves the Lakers this season, and I understand why. But there’s some massive bust potential written all over this team. LeBron is gonna LeBron, but Anthony Davis simply cannot stay on the court, and Russell Westbrook’s ball-dominant playing style doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the roster. They won’t miss the playoffs, but the Lakers could be in for another early exit this year.
Bob: As a couple of the guys already pinpointed, the Philadelphia 76ers are set up for a rough season. The entire Ben Simmons drama only spews negativity and a lingering cloud over the franchise. If the front office allows this situation to spill deep into the season, it could create much internal friction. The 76ers will be a playoff team, but until the Simmons drama is resolved, don’t expect much more than that.
There you have it. Make sure to check back in to Sportscasting throughout the season to keep up on the latest NBA news and see how our picks panned out.