NBA 2021/22 Projections: Stats Insider's Championship Contenders
The 2021-22 NBA season is upon us and the Stats Insider Futures Model has done the hard work and provided us with projections for all 30 teams.
No surprises at the top: The Nets, Lakers and Bucks will all be there or thereabouts at the pointy end of the season. There is an appealing group of possible smokies behind them, all of whom can be talked up and into contention if you're feeling optimistic.
The one-percenters have potential to be big movers, but for the rest, it's all about the future whether it be next year or beyond.
The Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks top the list heading into the 2021-22 NBA season.
Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving only played eight games together last season. That number may not increase at a decent rate any time soon either. The Model can't account for Irving doing whatever it is he thinks he's doing or the impact that will have on the team whether he plays or not. If he can get on the floor and steer his focus towards basketball, then the Nets are worthy championship favourites at 17.9%.
Regardless, this team will have no problem piling up points. While they will want to improve on their 23rd-ranked defence of last season, they did flick a switch and perform a lot better on that side of the ball in the playoffs. Durant proved last season that he is still that guy who can drag a team deep into the playoffs and a bit more luck in the injury department will provide him with the supporting cast to go at least one series better in 2021-22.
Predicting the fortunes of this Nets team shouldn't be so difficult, but the Irving situation could break a few different ways.
So too can the Russell Westbrook situation in LA.
Questions over his value with their season on the line late are valid. Nobody will sit comfortably if Westbrook is bringing the ball up late in a close playoff game. However, he is going to provide energy all year and that is something the Lakers lacked while Anthony Davis and LeBron James combined to miss 60+ games. We're not going to know whether this trade was the right move or not until closer to April.
In the meantime, Westbrook, James, Davis, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard may share the floor on the same team at some point this season. The 2021-22 season...
The Lakers had nothing outside of James and Davis last year so have handed out one-year minimum deals to any veteran they can in an attempt to 'hopefully' land on a championship-winning rotation by playoff time (17.6%). They have a lot of players that will want minutes throughout the year and Frank Vogel's toughest job, outside of improving their 24th-ranked offence, will be keeping everybody happy.
There is a little bit of the 2004 Lakers about this group, but James can be trusted to drag them deep into the playoffs at this stage. Davis ensures their capabilities in defence while it's safe to expect an improvement on their 24th-ranked offensive rating of last season.
Strangely, the defending NBA champions aren't generating too much press. The model has the Bucks up with the Nets and Lakers at 14%, but there is little talk in general about possible back-to-back titles.
Well, the league is in trouble if defending NBA champion and Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to start doing this...
They've not added a lot to get excited about, but a championship-winning team linking up to do it all again the following season while Antetokounmpo is still getting better should be more of a talking point.
You can talk yourself into any of these nine teams hitting the right notes and putting themselves into championship contention this season if you really wanted to.
Clippers: Kawhi Leonard is out to start the year but has signalled a desire to return from his ACL injury this season. Why can't Paul George, Reggie Jackson, Eric Bledsoe and Terance Mann keep this team treading water until Leonard returns?
Warriors: Steph Curry and Draymond Green will keep the Warriors above water until Klay Thompson returns. That may not be until early 2022, and it's not until then that we will know the ceiling of this team. Steph, though...
Jazz: They're deep, dominated on both sides of the ball to finish in the top four in offensive and defensive rating last season, and no team performed better from beyond the arc. A bonafide playoff team, they have the chance to trial a few things throughout the regular season too. Perhaps they find their winning formula for small-ball moments?
76ers: One turned down dunk could prove to be one of the biggest turning points in franchise history, but for now, Ben Simmons is a 76er and, as far as we know, in the building. How he embraces his possible return to the playing group or the haul Philly collects in a trade will have a massive bearing on their season. So long as Joel Embiid is in the MVP and DOPY conversation, the 76ers can dream of a championship.
Suns: This team won the Western Conference and made the NBA Finals last year. What more convincing do we need? Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton are a championship-contending quartet.
Nuggets: The Nuggets have the pieces to contend but are relying on Jamal Murray returning well from an ACL injury and Michael Porter Jr. taking on the challenge as a consistent number two to Nikola Jokic. Maybe Aaron Gordon adding some more value, too.
Heat: Nobody wants to play the Heat in a seven-game series. They can defend anywhere on the court. Their best defenders are also their most important offensive weapons. Somebody is getting off lightly in defence most nights (except, maybe, against the Nets with Irving) leaving that guy to shoulder the load on offence. They have options on both sides of the ball and few coaches can maximise those options on a nightly basis better than Erik Spoelstra.
Mavericks: Luka Doncic is an MVP candidate and the favourite for the award in the eyes of some. If Kristaps Porznigis can play like somebody being paid just over $31 million this season, then the Mavericks will all of a sudden have two star players and a deep squad around them. That's a recipe for success.
Celtics: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are close to an ideal duo to build around. Every team wants a top tier to elite level wing, and the Celtics have two of them. Find some supplementary playmaking to take some of the burden off Tatum and see how far the natural development of their young stars can take them.
Trae Young, Zach LaVine, Julius Randle/Kemba Walker (whoever you want to put here), Damian Lillard and Pascal Siakam can all lead an NBA team to relative success.
What goes on around them, especially in defence, will determine whether or not any of the Hawks, Bulls, Knicks, Trail Blazers or Raptors rise out of the 1% level of the rankings.
The Hawks played a lot better after Nate McMillan took over last season and he has had an offseason to leave his fingerprints on their offensive and defensive schemes. They're the most likely to rise after finishing 5th in the East last season.
There is plenty of excitement around the Bulls, though. Flush with talent, it's going to take a minute for it all to gel. Whatever happens, LaVine playing alongside DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Nikola Vucevic is must-watch TV.
Doubts around the Knicks are justified. While capable, they need to do it again now that people see them coming. The Raptors couldn't do it after winning the title. Although, they lost a key part in Kawhi Leonard. So much depends on Randle and Siakam - two guys that are very good, but very questionable 1A players.
Damian Lillard, on the other hand, is unquestionably a top-level player and would be an MVP candidate if the Blazers could find the W's to get him into the conversation. He has insinuated that he wouldn't mind being moved. Expect that discussion to heat up again if the Blazers start slowly.
Fun, but not great
These teams aren't going anywhere. Not this season, anyway. Still, there is an interesting element to each.
It's difficult not to be concerned about Zion Williamson and the Pelicans. Foot issues so early in his career for somebody his size is a worry. The Pels are being coy on the seriousness and potential return date which doesn't help.
The Pacers have been in this spot for a long time. They can't seem to jump off the treadmill of mediocrity but a healthy Caris LeVert might help. With so much talent on half-decent contracts, there is a good chance this team looks a lot different by the end of the season.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies have their sights set on significant improvements. They're young, deep, and the most likely of this group to catch fire and excite. Ja Morant's development will be an intriguing and perhaps season-defining narrative early on. So too will that of Lamelo Ball. The Hornets picked their guy and moved Devonte' Graham which will put more of the focus onto Ball. It's not so much about how much his individual numbers improve, but how much he can improve the numbers of those around him.
The Bradley Beal show will continue at the Wizards. Depending on how much Spencer Dinwiddie and Rui Hachimura can contribute, they could well sniff around the playoffs and earn themselves another first-round exit this season.
Strangely, the assumption that the Spurs will figure it out and be relevant late in the season is long gone. It's finally time to embrace the rebuild and see what they have to work with moving forward.
It's ridiculous that the Timberwolves and Kings are STILL in this level of conversation, but bad front offices have a big impact on the on-court product. Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards is a trio that should be towards playoff contention. Similarly, De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield can do the same in the West.
The Cavaliers proved last season that they can play some good basketball when it all comes together. It didn't last long, but it happened. This group should be adding some separation between themselves and the Thunder, Magic, Pistons and Rockets who are undoubtedly deep into the rebuilding process.
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