The new NBA season is in full swing with everyone out to chase Milwaukee after their historic run to a memorable title last year. All 30 franchises will enter the season with some form of optimism about what they can achieve over the 82 game slate, but regardless of the “glass-half-full approach”, a lot of different elements will determine whether their stint is a successful one or not. While one major factor can’t define what each squad is out to accomplish in 2021–22, there is still a significant question hanging over every ball club.
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Q. How can they replicate their Eastern Conference Finals run?
Atlanta overachieved in the eyes of most last year, falling just two wins short of an improbable NBA Finals berth. Now, the Hawks will be out to prove their success was no flash in the pan. Following Nate McMillan’s promotion in March the team caught lightning in a bottle going on a 27–11 surge to end the regular season with their depth amongst the wing positions a huge area of strength. We know what Trae Young is going to give Atlanta each night, but the production from Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish will dictate a lot of their success this season. If those players can stay healthy and defend at a high level, we may see the Hawks capture a top-4 seed in their conference.
Q. Will we see a Dennis Schroder revenge tour?
Whether Dennis Schroder did turn down a four-year, $84M extension from the Lakers or not, I can guarantee you that he didn’t expect to be signing a one-year deal worth just $5.9M in free agency. Ironically though, landing in Boston might be the best thing that could have happened to Schroder, with a chance he can aid the Celtics’ quest to be one of the best teams in the conference. In his last full season with the Thunder before he joined L.A., Schroder averaged a career-best 18.9 PPG and the floor general will be doing everything he can to make sure he secures a bigger payday next off-season. If he can recapture the form he displayed as an OKC member, then both Boston and Schroder should benefit greatly.
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Q. How many games does Kyrie Irving play?
I’d be shocked if Kyrie Irving missed the ENTIRE season due to his unvaccinated status, but the Brooklyn star is still poised to miss at least a chunk of games to begin the season. With or without Kyrie in uniform, the Nets are still set to be a force out East with Kevin Durant and James Harden bound to steer them towards one of the best records in the NBA. Still, without the third member of their Big-3, their chances to pull off a title run are no doubt hampered. My prediction is Irving will be back on the court somewhere between Christmas and the All-Star break, but every game he misses will cast more doubt over this franchise and their championship aspirations.
Q. Can Gordon Hayward stay healthy?
With a number of teams rising in the Eastern Conference, Charlotte will have their work cut out to make sure they don’t get lost in the shuffle. At one point last season they were sitting as high as 4th in the standings, clawing their way to a 27–24 record by early April. However, it’s no coincidence that a Gordon Hayward injury derailed that momentum as the Hornets ended the season 6–15 and they were swiftly taken care of in the play-in game against the Pacers. Hayward has struggled to strings games together ever since he signed with Boston in 2017, and while his health won’t be the only factor that determines Charlotte’s success this season, a healthy Hayward will certainly boost their chances of finishing with a half-decent record.
Q. Can the Bulls play defence?
The well-documented addition’s Chicago made the off-season have Bulls fans giddy in anticipation of the new season. Landing Lonzo Ball in free agency and then acquiring DeMar DeRozan has Chi-town primed to make a run at their first postseason berth since the 2016–17 season. While there’s plenty of reason for optimism, there are still questions that need to be answered regarding their defence coming off a season in which the Bulls finished 23rd in opponent field goal percentage, 28th in steals and 27th in blocks. Their latest arrivals in DeRozan and Ball coupled with big man Nikola Vucevic, whom they acquired before last year’s trade deadline, aren’t stud defenders either. If Chicago really wants to make the season count they’ll need to produce more stops rather than try to outscore their foes on a nightly basis.
Q. Can they fetch ANYTHING on the trade market for Kevin Love?
While the Cavaliers are in the process of nurturing their young players who they hope can develop into stars, there is still a Kevin Love sized problem clogging up the roster. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Love has proven he can contribute to a winning team, but unfortunately, those days are a long way in the past. Complicating any potential trade involving the 5x All-Star is his massive contract with Love owed $60 million over the next two seasons. He may thrive next to Ricky Rubio in a reserve role and re-inflate his trade worth; however, that’s still an extremely steep price for another franchise to pay to take him off Cleveland’s hands. A buyout in the future seems inevitable, but the Cavs will be doing everything in their power to net something in return for their long-time stretch four.
Q. Is this Kristpas Porzingis’ last chance?
Since arriving at the New York Knicks back in 2015, Kristaps Porzingis has flirted with stardom and even as a member of the Mavericks the 7' 3' Latvian has had his moments. Staying on the court is Porzingis’ biggest issue, missing almost 40% of his total possible games during his six-year career to date and Dallas will need him to feature on a much more consistent basis if he is to emerge as “Robin” to Luka Doncic’s “Batman”. There is plenty of buzz around the somewhat frayed relationship the Maverick’s two stars have and if we don’t see Porzingis excel as second-fiddle next to the MVP favourite, it could be curtains for his career in Dallas.
Q. How big a leap can Michael Porter Jr take?
Denver fans saw their title hopes take a serious blow when Jamal Murray injured his ACL last April and the Nuggets playmaker isn’t expected to return to court anytime soon. Not all hope is lost though, with smooth-stroking sophomore Michael Porter Jr able to step up in Murray’s absence last year, averaging over 23 PPG on nearly 55% shooting over the final 22 games of the regular season. Now entering his third season, there is plenty of hope surrounding a breakout for Porter Jr, with the talented forward the favourite for a lot of betting markets to claim Most Improved honours in the new season. If he can stay on the court and come close to being a nightly 25/10 guy, not only will he likely take home that trophy, but MPJ can keep Denver alive in the hunt for an elusive title.
Q. Who can be Cade Cunningham’s running mates?
The ping-pong balls that determine the draft order can often haunt franchises with the Detroit Pistons well accustomed to bad luck on lottery night (see 2003). Luckily for the franchise, 2021 was different, with Detroit landing the №1 overall pick and opting to draft dynamic point guard Cade Cunningham; providing a starved fan base with a jersey worth buying and someone to plaster on banners outside the stadium. For the Pistons to succeed though, they’re going to need more than one uber-talented guard to right the ship and there aren’t a lot of desirable players currently on their roster. Jerami Grant surprised most with an uptick in scoring last year and Killian Hayes needs more time before we determine his fate, but who else can step up to support their star rookie?
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Golden State Warriors
Q. What version of Klay Thompson will we get?
This question will not only determine the Warriors’ season, but it will likely have ripple effects around the entire NBA. Golden State qualified for five consecutive NBA Finals before Klay Thompson went down, first with an ACL injury during their battle with the Raptors, then tragically with Achilles tear in the 2020 off-season. With the All-NBA calibre shooting guard robbed of two straight seasons, there is understandable scepticism over what type of player will return when Thompson does eventually suit up for Dub Nation. If he can still operate at 80–85 per cent of his former self and fluidly move around the court, making life miserable for opposing guards in the process then the sky’s the limit for this Warriors team.
Q. Do they already have a core group to build around?
If you look at this Houston team on paper it’s fair to assume they won’t be winning a ton of games in the upcoming season. And yet, I’m a fan of the inexperienced nucleus they have at their disposal. Entering the new campaign as the youngest team in the entire league, there is certainly promise in their backcourt with the discarded Kevin Porter Jr already showcasing his worth late last year and №2 overall pick Jalen Green poised to become a 20-point fixture as early as year one. In the frontcourt, Christian Wood is hardly a junior, but he’s only featured in 154 career games with plenty of room still to grow as a big man that can impact both ends of the floor. A year centred around player development will undoubtedly lead to a lot of L’s, although, it should also provide the Rockets with a chance to add one more top draft pick to this promising core.
Q. How quick can Rick Carlisle find success?
Most casual NBA fans are predicting the Pacers to improve with Rick Carlisle at the helm, but he’ll certainly have his work cut out for him. The last Indiana head coach Nate Bjorkgren lasted just seven months before getting the boot and following 13 successful seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, Carlisle will now look to elevate this franchise to the next tier of contenders. The competitive Eastern Conference isn’t full of easy beats anymore and there are a number of teams in a similar position to the Pacers looking to propel themselves upwards and out of a play-in game scenario. Getting T.J. Warren and Caris LeVert healthy will certainly help, but a defence-first approach and a philosophy shift that Carlilse will hopefully provide can both instantly help Indiana turn their fortunes around.
Q. Can Paul George recapture his MVP form?
It was only three short seasons ago that Paul George finished 3rd in MVP voting, averaging a career-best 28.0 PPG playing alongside Russell Westbrook as a member of the Thunder. Entering this season, the Clippers will need to see PG-13 perform at that same level if L.A. is going to survive without Kawhi Leonard and make their season worthwhile. George is seemingly on the right track after exorcising his postseason demons last year with Kawhi in street clothes, joining Kevin Durant and Michael Jordan as the only players ever to score 20 points or more in at least 19 playoff games. If George can keep adding himself to lists that only contain Durant and MJ, then the Clippers will be just fine.
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Los Angeles Lakers
Q. How often will we see Anthony Davis at the 5?
It’s no secret to any hoop head that there will be an adjustment period for the Lakers now that Russell Westbrook is in town and we can expect to see Los Angeles experiment with their rotation a ton during the regular season. As long as their Big-3 are healthy once mid-April rolls around, this team will be squarely in the frame to contend, but the positioning of their All-NBA force known as Anthony Davis could also determine their end of season fate. There are bound to be times when LeBron and Melo log heavy minutes at the 4 and Davis plays center; still, I don’t think the Lakers can rely on that pair to perform at an elite defensive level into their late 30’s, especially when the going gets tough come playoff time. L.A. could prove me wrong and utilise Davis heavily as a 5 in the upcoming season, but after showing reluctance his whole career to be the man in the middle, I do wonder how much we will see it happen throughout the new season.
Q. Can Jaren Jackson Jr stay on the court?
There’s no denying the fact that Jaren Jackson Jr has the capability to become a force in the NBA, with the stretch big showing glimpses of his potential to the Memphis faithful in his short career thus far. His biggest roadblock at the moment is his inability to stay healthy, with JJJ plagued by injuries and a lengthy MCL rehab last season that restricted him to just 11 games. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that the former Michigan State product is still only 22 years old and there is time for him to shake the dreaded injury-prone label and continue to help Memphis surge up the standings alongside teammate Ja Morant. It’s also fair to point out that the Grizzlies won’t be able to reach their full potential until Jackson can become a feature in their nightly rotation.
Q. Are we in for a Tyler Herro breakout season?
The arrival of Kyle Lowry has reinvigorated Miami’s championship chances, with a well-rounded, deep group ready to make another improbable run through the East. Lowry, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo give the Heat All-Star talents at each important position, but there are still doubters who wonder how they’ll put a winning score on the board each night. Enter Tyler Herro; the flamethrower in training who came alive during the 2020 playoffs only to have his next season interrupted by neck and foot problems. A source of instant offence could be just what this Miami team needs to keep themselves in touch with the upper echelon in their conference and following Herro’s claims that he is on the same level as Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Ja Morant, it’s time to let his basketball do the talking.
Q. Could we witness a historic season from Giannis Antetokounmpo?
It’s hard to fathom the idea of Giannis Anteokoumpo getting even better in the upcoming season, especially after his historic run last postseason that helped Milwaukee capture their first championship in 50 years. At just 26 years old, the “Greek Freak” already has a HOF worthy resume and throughout the off-season Antetokounmpo’s jump shot may have improved and appears to be more fluid; which is a scary thought for the rest of the NBA. After tasting success last year, the Bucks will be out to defend their crown and prove they aren’t a one-hit-wonder and if Giannis’ jumper really has improved the reigning Finals MVP may be on the brink of producing a season we tell our grandkids about.
Q. Will Karl-Anthony Towns rebound from a tough year?
Ever since the COVID-19 shutdown interrupted league proceedings every player has been affected in a number of ways. However, it wouldn’t be farfetched to say that Karl-Anthony Towns has had the toughest time since then, losing his mother to the deadly virus and dealing with a spat of health issues that have ruined any chance of the T-Wolves big man refinding consistency in his game. Towns missed 22 games last season and 29 games the season before that, which is uncharacteristic given he was absent for just five matches over his first four pro seasons. Although, that didn’t affect his on-court production with the dual All-Star still posting impressive averages of 25.5 PPG and 10.7 RPG across a pair of injury-affected seasons. He seems due for some good karma and Minnesota fans aren’t the only ones hoping they see KAT feature in all 82 games while driving the franchise towards some much-needed success.
New Orleans Pelicans
Q. Can the franchise provide Zion Williamson with stability?
Another off-season filled with fluctuation means the Pelicans will once again start the season trying to restore order. The 2021–22 campaign looms as a crucial one for NOLA with their prized power forward Zion Williamson on the verge of having his rookie contract expire. Luckily for the Pelicans, they can offer Zion significantly more money than any of their rivals, but if there is more turnover and turmoil in New Orleans there may be no amount of cash that keeps the №1 overall pick in town. He will be a restricted free agent in 2023 and if he chooses to sign the one-year qualifying offer at that time, there’s a scenario where Williamson can walk in the summer of 2024 while the Pels are left wondering how they allowed things to spiral out of control. There’s still a long time before we reach that point; however, if more rapid changes occur, Zion may go down the Anthony Davis route and demand the franchise moves him elsewhere.
New York Knicks
Q. What is R.J. Barrett capable of in year three?
He showed flashes throughout his rookie campaign, he started to turn heads in his second season, and if things go according to plan in year three, R.J. Barrett should be trending towards fringe All-Star contention. There is still plenty of time for the former №3 pick to live up to his potential and taking another huge stride this season will boost New York’s chances of remaining in the postseason picture. What fills the Knicks with the most optimism was Barrett’s improvement as a shooter, soaring from a 32% three-point shooter in his first season to bury an impressive 40% of his attempts last year and nudging his free throw percentage from a dull 61.4% to a much more respectable clip of 74.6%. Continued growth should see Barrett’s number make another climb as he helps keep the Knicks on track.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Q. Which of their young players are ready to flourish?
Thunder GM Sam Presti has orchestrated trade after trade to help them secure an unhealthy amount of future draft picks, with the franchise now sitting on 18 first-round and 18 second-round picks in the coming years. Sooner or later though, these picks will need to become players and those players will need to contribute on the court to turn this perennial loser into a true contender. There are pieces on the current roster that excite fans with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander the crown jewel as an emerging young star and fellow budding prospects Lu Dort and Darius Bazely ready to take another leap in their development in year three. Recent draftee Josh Giddey and others such as Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon will take time to find their feet. Should one or a number of OKC’s junior talents be able to increase their output though, they’ll be in a position to slowly pull away from the bottom of the standings.
Q. Is Orlando the worst team in the NBA?
No offence to Orlando, but I do wonder how they’re going to win games this season. The youth movement is in full swing with the majority of their significant players under the age of 25 and first-year coach Jamaal Mosely set to focus on further developing those talents over the 2021–22 campaign. Unfortunately, inexperience is often coupled with a hefty pile of losses, with the absence of Markelle Fultz and Jonathon Isaac only making it more difficult to stockpile victories in recent times. Drafting Jalen Suggs and getting their youthful prospects healthy will help make this team more competitive; although, it’s still difficult to see a scenario in which they win more than 25 games. If their important pieces can keep a clean bill of health though, they’ve got every chance to prove me wrong.
Q. How the hell will they handle the Ben Simmons situation?
What an absolute shitshow. In less than six months, Ben Simmons has seen his trade value and overall popularity take a dramatic hit with postseason shortcomings and childish behaviour derailing his career in Philadelphia to the point where the former Rookie of the Year may never suit up for them again. Every NBA enthusiast has thrown Simmons in one or more trade scenarios and with every practice mishap, the returns the Sixers can fetch continue to diminish. From Damian Lillard rumours to now settling for whatever young pieces/future draft picks they can get; this isn’t exactly how we envisioned the Simmons saga unfolding and it doesn’t appear like there’s a clear answer to the 6' 11' sized problem. Finding the Aussie gun a new home seems like the best decision for all parties involved, but Elton Brand and Daryl Morey don’t appear to be in a rush to relinquish and give in to Simmons’ trade request. Buckle up, this could drag on for a while.
Q. Does DeAndre Ayton deserve the max?
Following a strong performance in the NBA Finals a max extension for DeAndre Ayton seemed like a formality; and yet, we’ve commenced the season and the Suns’ big man remains unsigned. All those in Ayton’s camp are pointing to how stingy owner Robert Sarver has been in year’s past; however, I can understand he and Phoenix’s hesitancy in simply handing Ayton a five-year, $172M bag given their financial commitments to the likes of Chris Paul, Devin Booker and now Mikal Bridges. That doesn’t mean a rival team won’t try to pry away the former №1 overall pick next summer, with anyone able to put forth a max offer sheet and force Phoenix’s hand to either pay their man or let him walk. Not agreeing to an extension has bought the Suns some time, but players like Ayton don’t grow on trees and if he can follow up his promising postseason with a stellar season, he’s bound to get paid serious dough by someone — even if that’s not by the Phoenix Suns.
Q. Is it time to ‘blow it up’?
Rolling into the new campaign, the Blazers are the proud owners of the longest active postseason streak in the entire NBA, having made the playoffs for eight straight seasons dating all the way back to 2014. On the surface that’s an impressive feat, but once they got there, Portland has reeled off a modest 22–40 record with five first-round exits. Appearing in playoff basketball for such a long stretch can’t be viewed as a failure; although, it’s tough to envision a lot of improvement out of this group to the point where they are truly in the mix to contend for a championship. With first-time head coach Chauncey Billups taking over from Terry Stotts, now might be the perfect time to usher in a new era with backcourt buds Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum consistently mentioned in trade rumours and a divorce potentially on the horizon. All good things must come to an end…
Q. Who wants Buddy Hield?
We nearly saw Buddy Hield freed from the clutches of Sacramento over the summer and I’ll be surprised if he plays out the season as a member of the Kings. There’s no denying that Hield can play, with the backcourt bomber becoming the franchise leader in made three’s in just four and a half seasons with Sacto. His ability to stretch the floor could certainly aid a team with title aspirations and it appears as though the front office is content with letting him go, with Hield packing his bags in a proposed trade to the Lakers last offseason only for the deal to fall through at the last moment. Having drafted guards Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell in the lottery for the past two seasons the Kings have the flexibility to flip Buddy and his $22M contract to another franchise, but who’s willing to take him off their hands?
San Antonio Spurs
Q. Is this the final year of Gregg Popovich?
Half of the San Antonio roster wasn’t even born when Gregg Popovich took over as Spurs coach back in 1996. Let that sink in for a moment. Arguably the greatest coach the hardwood has ever seen, Pop needs just 26 more W’s this season to move to №1 for the most regular-season victories and if you combine his postseason record, the San Antonio legend has more total wins than any NBA sideline mentor ever. At 72, we all know the days are numbered for the five-time champion coach and there were murmurings that Tim Duncan or Becky Hammon were going to succeed Pop in the near future with well-respected assistant Will Hardy also in the mix. As it stands right now, I doubt even Popovich knows what he plans to do after this season, but don’t be shocked if he moves into the solo role of team president or simply rides off into the sunset to make wine full time.
Image from yahoo.com
Q. Does Scottie Barnes have Rookie of the Year potential?
The Raptors are one of the hardest teams to predict rolling into the new season with some expecting a return to form and playoff contention while others see them as a cellar dweller in their conference. Their fate will rely heavily on the contributions they get from their developing players with 4th overall pick Scottie Barnes the leader of Toronto’s youth. A do-it-all forward, Barnes will have a lot of opportunity early in the season thanks to a Pascal Siakam injury and if he thrives thanks to his versatility, we could see him throw his hat into the ring for ROY honours. He won’t be handed the keys to the franchise like Cade Cunningham or Jalen Green, but strong contributions across the board could help aid his case as the best first-year player from the class of 2021.
Q. Will Utah rely solely on the three-point shot again?
The real question for the Utah Jazz resides around their postseason aspirations. Five straight playoff appearances and three 50+ win seasons are yet to culminate in anything substantial come playoff time and you can understand why fans are starting to lose patience. The core of their playing group remains intact from the last few seasons and we’ve seen Quinn Snyder turn the Jazz into a three-point shooting juggernaut, with the franchise leading the league for attempts last season, converting those shots at the 4th highest clip. While they maintained their hot shooting in the playoffs, leading all teams in made 3’s (18.0 per) and shooting percentage (41.3%), it ultimately failed again and saw Utah go home early to ponder their future. Showing some offensive diversity could boost their chances of extending their annual postseason stay with this ball club facing a defining season.
Q. Will Bradley Beal relent on his no-trade stance?
You have to admire Bradley Beal’s loyalty in a time where there is so much emphasis on player empowerment and their ability to up and leave, whenever they want. However, there is only so long you can stay on a sinking ship. After a sole season of the Russell Westbrook experiment, Washington appears once again set to feature in the middle of the road and at the age of 28, time isn’t exactly on Beal’s side. You have to admire his loyalty to the Wizards and there’s no reason why the All-NBA calibre scorer won’t keep that faith and play out his days with the DC franchise. Even if their new additions can help contribute to a passable season, there’s still a long way to go before we see Washington in the mix to genuinely contend for an NBA title. Unless they make drastic personnel changes, fighting for a play-in spot appears to be the Wizards’ fate this year, but how long will it be until that’s not enough for Beal?