What Each NBA Team Should Do With Its 2022 1st Round Pick

Welcome to the Sports Hub’s 2022 NBA Draft Manifesto. Below you will find a mock draft based on what each team should do in the first round of the NBA Draft on Thursday night. The picks are based on the Sports Hub’s Big Board (linked here) – which is the ranking of the best 68 players in the class – and teams’ needs. Each pick in the mock is followed by a scouting report of the player and how he would fit into the team he is selected to.

Again, this mock is based on what each team should do on Thursday night given the cards they are dealt.

No. 1, Orlando Magic: Jabari Smith Jr., Auburn

The case for Jabari Smith Jr. as the best player in this class over Paolo Banchero comes down to this: he’s the better defender and the better shooter.

Those are the two skills that not only are the foundation for a star, but for someone who will play in the NBA for a long time.

Yes, Smith Jr. is the safer pick, but that doesn’t mean he has a lower ceiling.

Smith Jr. isn’t just a good shooter because he can shoot over everyone at 6’10 – the guy is truly a sniper from everywhere on the court. He can hit tough ones, too. This is an unimpressive comparison for the player destined to go No. 1 overall, but think of the ways that players like Steve Novak, Mike Miller and late-career Ray Allen were used. Smith Jr. is on that level as a marksman and can be simply plopped in the corner and be ready to fire without needing a screen. 

The difference with Smith Jr. is that most shooters of his caliber can’t get it done on the other end of the floor. A 6’10 with incredibly fluid legs, Smith Jr. glides laterally and is able to be a lockdown defender on the toughest wing assignments. Switching is no problem either, and his length makes up for the times that he can be late getting around a screen.

Smith Jr. has taken a lot of crap in the pre-draft process for his perceived inability to create for himself, as indicated by his poor two-point percentage. It is a concerning metric, but Smith Jr. created plenty of shots for himself that he made last year. In that department, Smith Jr. likes to hang around the elbow and use a quick couple dribbles before shooting. It’s a neat, quick and efficient shot that is incredibly hard to stop given his size, and one that should have been utilized more if not for Auburn’s super poor guard play.

Smith Jr.’s handle is not as pristine for someone who is supposed to have the ball in their hands to take big shots, which could limit his ability to create beyond the three-point line. The Magic do have a stretch center in Wendell Carter Jr. who would pair well with Smith Jr. in the front-court, allowing Smith Jr. to operate in the paint area while Carter Jr. remains open for threes. Of course, in non-late game scenarios, Orlando could easily run a five-out system with both bigs as shooters.

Orlando desperately needs a star, as they’ve put together a pretty impressive group of young role players. Smith Jr. is the guy that can take them over the top, and thankfully he’ll have the guards at hand to help him out.

No. 2, Oklahoma City Thunder: Paolo Banchero, Duke

Banchero is far and away the second-best player in this class, and Oklahoma City’s lottery luck finally pays off with this selection.

Banchero is a bit of a complicated evaluation, but he brings a lot to the table in the short and long-term.

At worst, the former Duke big is an intriguing roll man who can score inside, pop to the midrange and throw impressive dimes elsewhere if the defense recovers or switches fast enough. He also has the ability to create for himself in isolation situations, using his large, muscular frame to bully players down low or create in the high post and pull up. 

His ceiling depends on multiple factors all coming together. Banchero is not a supreme three-point shooter at this stage of his career, and he missed a lot of outside shots last year at Duke, suggesting it wasn’t a sample size problem. That limits his efficiency greatly, and he already plays a style of basketball that doesn’t lend very well to analytical models with his heavy midrange dosage and slow, methodical operation in the post.

Defense from an all-around standpoint is also a major question mark. Banchero doesn’t have the best quickness laterally, although he does move quite well overall. His effort also wanes on that end, which limits confidence that he will actually work and try to get better. He’s too small to be a rim protector, which means he’ll be tasked with chasing around wings and navigating tough switches against guards – without improvement, he’s the exact type of defender teams will target late in games and in the playoffs. Banchero does bring down boards, and in certain schemes that possess potent offensive players, he can probably get away with playing the five in small-ball looks. But that is all predicated on the situation.

That situation could present itself in Oklahoma City, with Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander among other scoring guards in tow. But it remains to be seen how Banchero will immerse himself into the situation he’s drafted into. He’s said on record that he provides a team with “a star,” but that star has to be willing to develop his game in multiple ways. If Banchero does, he’s going to be that, and that player comes away as one of the best in this class.

No. 3, Houston Rockets: Shaedon Sharpe, Kentucky/Dream City Christian (AZ)

In this mock, the Rockets get the short end of the stick.

The board drops off dramatically after Smith Jr. and Banchero, and puts Houston in a tough situation.

Jaden Ivey is supremely the better prospect compared to Shaedon Sharpe, who essentially back-stabbed Kentucky and transferred high schools multiple times, trying to find a situation that put him first. But Ivey and Jalen Green are a really tough fit, for reasons that will be more clear below.

So that lands the Rockets Sharpe, who, for all the criticism just levied, probably has the third-highest ceiling in the draft. At 6’4, Sharpe plays bigger and longer than his height. It feels like he can shoot over anyone thanks to his wiry wingspan, which also helps swarm defenders when he feels like it.

His shooting stroke and defensive potential are just scratching the surface, though. Sharpe might be the best pure shot creator in the entire draft, as he uses his wiry frame, craftsmanship shooting and impressive handle to get by anyone. At times in high school, this led to some tunnel vision and ball-hog-like play, but at times it was justified, just because Sharpe was good enough. Additionally, Sharpe had plenty of impressive playmaking possessions throughout his high school and travel ball games – he’s a very good passer, and at times is willing to really serve as a facilitator for his team. He has the potential to run pick and roll in the way that other big wings do late in games in the NBA.

It’s hard to tell whether any of this translates to the big leagues, though. Sharpe was playing against guys that either are close to the level of prospect he is or well below, and it’s not like he learned anything at Kentucky that would help him greatly. 

But at worst, the Rockets need wings, and Sharpe provides the ability to shoot and play off of Green while also defending at a high level. Assuming there isn’t a tug-of-war for the keys to the offense, the two could be a dynamic scoring punch and really elevate Houston in a flash.

No. 4, Sacramento Kings: Jaden Ivey, Purdue

The Kings just got out of a log jam with their guards, and adding Jaden Ivey to the mix would only bring that scenario back. But Davion Mitchell wasn’t a favorite of the big board’s last year, and didn’t display anything that should stop the Kings from making this pick in 2022.

Ivey brings incredible athleticism and potent shot creation to the table, something that not even Ja Morant has been able to really tap into yet. The Morant comps feel lazy, just because of the recency bias of it all, but there is some sense to it. Morant’s probably a better athlete, but Ivey isn’t much worse, and combining Ivey’s hops with the pure shot creation skills we wish Morant had creates a beast of a player. Ivey with De’Aaron Fox, another athletic marvel, would make the Kings incredibly hard to stop – imagine Domantas Sabonis throwing passes to those two whipping around the court, in addition to the pure off-the-dribble bounce each would have getting to the rim.

Ivey’s jump-shot has come into question in the pre-draft process, and understandably so. But if we’re wanting to compare it to Morant’s, it’s leaps and bounds better. Ivey has a nice stop-and-pop game inside three point line – it’s just from range where he struggles. But he’s a tenacious player who works quite hard in all facets of the game, and one would think it would improve over time. Ivey also hit jumpers in huge spots during his at Purdue – from three and inside. The lacking shot will probably hurt him more when he’s off-the-ball rather than on it early in his career, which is why playing with Green in Houston seems like a bad idea. At least Sharpe can really shoot when playing alongside Green.

Ivey’s defense is not great, which would add to a troubling trend in Sacramento. But shot creators of his level don’t come around very often – the Kings have the chance to add a player who could be the best guy on a very good team (at least) someday. With that skill set, you simply deal with the consequences later.

No. 5, Detroit Pistons: Bennedict Mathurin, Arizona

Bennedict Mathurin ranks one spot below AJ Griffin on the big board, but the idea of a Pistons backcourt that features Cade Cunningham and either Ivey or Mathurin is too hard to pass up on.

While his potential is higher thanks to his size and defensive potential, the floor for Griffin is much lower than Mathurin. Injuries are a huge concern, and it’s very likely he ends up getting drafted well below his big board position.

It may not seem like it, but the Pistons are under some pressure with Cade Cunningham. Huge strides should be expected from the second-year guard in 2022-23, and Detroit might find itself closer to becoming competitive than they originally thought. They cannot afford to miss out on high picks like this – surrounding Cunningham with guaranteed talent should be the goal, because he is good enough to elevate them if needed.

Mathurin would give the Pistons a sick duo of shot creators in their backcourt. He hit the tough shots at Arizona, and really excels with the ball in his hands. But that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of playing off another high-caliber player – Mathurin is one of the best shooters in the draft, and it’s his No. 1 skill, making him a safe bet whether the shot creation translates or not.

During his freshman year, Mathurin practically played point guard. The role tanked his draft stock, but some refinery could allow him to emerge as a real facilitator in his career. Regardless, the resilience Mathurin showed taking on different roles that he didn’t overwhelmingly succeed at was impressive, and displays his work ethic in a real way.

Mathurin has gotten the “Three-and-D” label, helping him be pegged as a safe bet in this class. The defense isn’t quite there, but he has the frame and athleticism to be a force on that end. If everything hits, Mathurin has the chance to be an absolute star, and Detroit shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to put him and Cunningham together if Ivey is gone.

No. 6, Indiana Pacers: AJ Griffin, Duke

The Pacers could arguably go anywhere here, which usually results in taking the best player available. In this case, that’s Griffin.

No matter which path Indiana takes this offseason, Griffin fits. If it’s trying to be competitive next season, Griffin offers insurance for TJ Warren and brings defensive potential that Buddy Hield doesn’t possess. Additionally, the Pacers benefit from adding someone with star potential and shot creation upside to the mix.

If Indiana is looking at blowing things up at the draft and into free agency, Griffin is the perfect complement next to Tyrese Haliburton and Chris Duarte long-term.

Griffin is fifth on the big board because his ceiling is incredibly high. Right now, he’s a lights out shooter in a massive 6’6, 222-pound frame. For someone labeled by most as a “three-and-D” player, his defense isn’t ideal, as his size and injury history limits how fluid his frame can be. But there remains potential for him to emerge as a big, strong stopper who can switch any pick and roll at the top of the key with his size.

Griffin’s potential is even higher on the offensive end of the floor. He was kind of Duke’s third cog in the machine last year, and his late start to the 2021-22 college season due to injury was likely the result of that. But it hurt his ability to showcase everything he could do offensively. At 6’6, if Griffin can develop his isolation game more to pair with his in-place shooting stroke, then a team could be getting a special player. It’s why he’s ranked ahead of someone like Mathurin, who’s smaller and has similar flaws, on the big board.

Keegan Murray could make a lot of sense here for the Pacers too – he’s their type of cat in the sense of his ability to contribute immediately on boths ends in year one. But at some point, Indiana needs to hit a home run and not a single.

No. 7, Portland Trail Blazers: Keegan Murray, Iowa

It’s an absolute home run for Portland landing Jerami Grant without trading this pick. A trade involving No. 7 that put Grant on the Trail Blazers was a little too rich without further compensation. Now, Portland is ready to put a win-now young player from the draft and a veteran in Grant around Damian Lillard.

There’s no better choice than Keegan Murray. He’s a rare prospect in the sense that he still has a high ceiling at 22 years old.

At worst, Murray can join the Blazers and defend practically anyone. There’s a world that can see him guard both the ball-handler and the roll man in pick-and-rolls thanks to his impressive footwork and immense size. He can effectively close out on shooters thanks to his length, and has lockdown potential in one-on-one situations. He’s not guarding traditional fives, but if opponents go small, it’s very likely Murray will be able to survive against that team’s biggest player. 

On the offensive end, Murray is yet again a jack-of-all-trades. At Iowa, he was the Hawkeyes’ No. 1 offensive option, and got buckets in virtually every way. That was against typically slower, less athletic Big Ten defenses though, where his craft and technique mattered and not his lack of athleticism. In the NBA, the lack of athleticism and burst offensively may not allow Murray to play the same way and be the 6’8 mismatch nightmare who can score all by himself. 

But even if that trait doesn’t translate, Murray has ways to be effective. His big frame allows him to be a roll man at the next level, which ups the likelihood of him being a true small-ball big greatly. Murray’s also a fantastic and selfless player off-the-ball, which is a rare quality for a small-ball big. 

Murray’s shooting off-the-ball and from three-point land remains to be seen, but if he’s used largely as a big at the next level offensively, it should be mitigated by Lillard and Grant, the latter of whom can be his Detroit self and not be asked to take on the role offensively that he did in Denver. Murray should be more than happy to play his part, while also giving Portland offensively upside that combines well with Grant.

No. 8, New Orleans Pelicans: Dyson Daniels, G-League Ignite

It’s really hard to pinpoint an exact type of player the Pelicans should target this offseason, but if there are two skills they could use, it’d be passing and defense.

Fittingly, not only does Dyson Daniels bring both of those to the table, but he’s also the best player available on the board, which is the exact direction one should go without a true need.

Daniels is nearly a carbon copy of fellow Aussie point guard Josh Giddey, who OKC took No. 6 overall last year and scored big on. Daniels can throw any pass in the book, which is extremely valuable at his size of 6’8. He’s less of an athlete and fluid mover than Giddey is, which limits his offensive profile and ability to drive and kick, but it doesn’t bother him on the defensive end at all, which is an area that Giddey did and still does struggle at. He also struggles, at this point, as a shooter, which is another trait that’s in lock-step with Giddey.

But the defense Daniels brings to the table is real. He’s got strong legs and is super attentive, making him capable of defending 1-3 at the next level. Depending on the matchup, that could be stretched to four-men, but he may be a little undersized for certain guys.

New Orleans seems destined to have CJ McCollum and Zion Williamson be its main facilitators next year. While it worked with just McCollum at point guard late in 2021-22, there are reasons to be concerned as to whether those two can get the job done, especially while making reads in PNR. While his lack of shooting makes him a bit of a concern off-ball, Daniels would be extremely dangerous as a secondary ball-handler next to either McCollum or Williamson next year. He’s a very selfless player on offense overall, and that translates to his cutting and off-ball movement. The passes he’d be able to throw off cuts could allow the Pelicans to run an offense similar to Golden State’s if it chooses with Daniels in the mix.

No. 9, San Antonio Spurs: Malaki Branham, Ohio State

The Spurs have three picks in the first round, and while it makes sense for them to take as many shots as possible in an attempt to find a future star player, it could also make sense for them to package everything together and move up. A trade-up for practically anyone in the top six of the board would make a lot of sense, if they can find a partner.

But if they get stuck with all their picks – including No. 9 – going for the highest ceiling player is the next best choice.

Center is understandable here, and there’s a really good case that this is where Chet Holmgren should land, but Malaki Branham ranks higher on the board, and center is less of a need for the Spurs than a star is.

That said, this is where a large drop-off occurs in the “star-hunting” search. Branham has a lot of potential, but his shot is a bit of a question mark, which makes the label of “Three-and-D” a little overzealous. 

But Branham can score, and he can defend. He’s only 6’4, but doesn’t play like it defensively. He should be equipped to guard most wings thanks to his tenacity on that end.

Offensively, Branham is very similar to 2021 Spurs draft pick Joshua Primo, who they reached for in a ghastly way. But the idea made sense: San Antonio knew it needed someone who could emerge as a real shot creator, and Primo had a lot of those skills. There wasn’t much pop in Primo’s first year, although his G-League time was impressive at times. Selecting Branham is more of the same for San Antonio, but they don’t really have anywhere else to go. If he hits, there’s a good player in the works.

No. 10, Washington Wizards: TyTy Washington, Kentucky

This is a lot higher than consensus, and it’s not perfect by any means.

If the Wizards know they can land someone like Malcolm Brogdon via trade or Tyus Jones via free agent signing later this summer, then they would be best off selecting someone like Ochai Agbaji with this pick to help improve their defense. But the Hub is operating with much less knowledge than that.

Washington is one of the more underrated prospects in this draft regardless of how much sense it makes or not for the Wizards to take him this high. Few point guards are equally good at creating and passing as he is, and he deserves more credit for both skills.

Washington signed Spencer Dinwiddie last summer thinking he’d be the perfect fit next to Bradley Beal, with his ability to make fundamental passes and still create for himself. The latter got out of control, leading to his midseason trade to Dallas and the Wizards without a point guard again.

Washington should be able to bring the best of both qualities to the table for the Wizards. He’s a really good passer in all kinds of different sets, although questions about his threat in the PNR will linger thanks to his poor shooting. Still, Beal could figure to be the Wizards’ main operator in that look, limiting teams’ ability to continually go under on Washington possession after possession.

At 6’3, Washington’s ability to create for himself is very intriguing. He’s got a really good pull-up shot in the midrange, which he knocked with ease this past year. He has length and sliminess getting to the rim, which makes up for a lack of burst. While he won’t improve an already porous defensive backcourt, his length could allow him to develop into a competent defender down the line.

In Washington, the Wizards would get another fire-powered guard to pair with Beal, and this time, there won’t be worries about whose ball it is, or the efficiency either player is churning out.  

No. 11, New York Knicks: Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga

This is obviously not where Chet Holmgren will go on Thursday, and the big board is obviously much lower on him than consensus.

Let’s explain.

There has never been anyone who’s had a successful career in the NBA who looks anything like Chet Holmgren. 

It’s honestly impressive that he can move as well as he does in his frame – players that are as skinny and tall as him tend to move robotically and can’t shuffle their feet well at all. Holmgren is surprisingly fluid in that department, but it’s relative to his frame.

Holmgren’s high hips, hunchback posture and overall frailness is the biggest concern, and that affects him in multiple ways. The first is simply his ability to stay healthy and hold up against the strength of NBA players. Holmgren fell down a lot at Gonzaga, whether it be from a result of just getting bumped or as a result of hard contact. He didn’t miss any time due to injury, but the physicality only increases in the NBA, and if he’s going to be in more of a role than just a rim runner – which some feel he is capable of – it’s highly concerning how thin he is. Not only does it hurt his ability to create mismatches with his size, but it puts him in a liable state for the defender he’ll be matched up with.

It’s hard to see Holmgren adding weight to his frame too – part of what actually makes him intriguing is the mobility the frailness gives him. Adding weight could slow him down even more. He might be better off just having tight skin.

The ceiling for Holmgren that some project seems a little unreasonable as well. He doesn’t have a great handle, although the fact that he has as good of one as he does at his size is quite impressive. The shooting seems legitimate, although you’d like to see a little more volume before committing to the idea that he’ll be a shooter at the NBA level.

He also had his best performances against Gonzaga’s WCC opponents, and struggled early in the year when the Bulldogs faced tougher, non-conference opponents. Fellow draft classmates Jalen Duren and Paolo Banchero also throughout played him in their matchups this year.

Now for the positive elements of Holmgren, which, yes, do exist. 

If he can stay healthy, Holmgren has the potential to be a generational shot blocker. That’s very different from being a rim protector, which Holmgren still may struggle to be generationally good at unless his body changes drastically. But his ability to block shots all over the court and from all different types of angles is pretty much unprecedented at any level, and it’s not a skill that his body will inhibit him from using in the NBA.

Holmgren is also a very good passer. His ball-handling still needs some work for him to be truly unlocked as a facilitator, but Holmgren makes the right reads and can get the ball to the next player if his look isn’t good.

The Knicks need a star and a center. While it seems unlikely that Holmgren can truly blossom into what some project him as, he would give New York a potential dominant force down low defensively while displaying upside as a shot creator and a purely unstoppable player.

No. 12, Oklahoma City Thunder: Jalen Duren, Memphis

After what feels like years of taking guards, the Thunder finally round out their front court in this year’s draft with Banchero and Duren, and land some of the highest pedigree prospects in the draft as a result.

Duren ranks ahead of Holmgren on the big board mostly because of the safety he provides. The Memphis product is a massive human being with a threatening frame – guards are not going to even want to venture into the paint with him down there. Duren grabs every board, and is super explosive, making him an imposing lob threat and hard to stop on pick and rolls. Betting on him to be a scorer a team feeds down low feels unlikely, but he has a knack for getting the ball to go down. There aren’t many bigs in the NBA that can physically match him on post-ups.

Defense is where Duren will make his money. As mentioned, he’s just a force in the paint with his shot blocking and vertical rim protection. His leaping ability should allow him to limit fouls, though that was a struggle point at Memphis. In the NBA, he’ll be dealing with bigger, stronger players, which should limit the intensity of the collisions he has in the air (Duren sent tiny dudes FLYING in college – in the NBA, not many of those guys exist).

A Banchero-Duren front-court works defensively, as Duren can clean up for the anticipated Banchero mistakes. Offensively, the spacing is tight, but Duren could shoot at some point, and the Thunder have plenty of guards to run PNRs or pick and pops with – the PNP should be a go-to with Banchero in the fold, which will keep the floor spaced well for Duren down low.

No. 13, Charlotte Hornets: Ochai Agbaji, Kansas

The Hornets could go many different directions here, as they are building for the long-term around LaMelo Ball.

Neither Gordon Hayward nor Terry Rozier figure to fit that plan, so replacing their spots in the rotation down the line should be Charlotte’s goal with its two first round picks.

A trade up for anyone in the top seven of the board would make a lot of sense, as the Hornets will have a bit of a roster crunch of players who need minutes if they make both selections on Thursday. But for now, Charlotte gets a steal in Ochai Agbaji at No. 13.

We’ll have the Hornets going center with their next pick, but Agbaji is arguably the safest player in the draft. He got better all four years at Kansas, which led to some emergence of him being more than just a typical “Three-and-D” wing in 2021-22. 

Agbaji put on much muscle with the Jayhawks, as he now possesses a chiseled frame that allows him to handle bigger, tougher assignments defensively. He was a near non-shooter his freshman year, and now hits shots at an acceptable rate. He’s not the nastiest defender or the most complete creator, and at 22 years old there may not be much upside left, but the strides he showed at Kansas made it clear he’s not afraid to work hard on his game.

No. 14, Cleveland Cavaliers: Ousmane Dieng, New Zealand

Cleveland is in a spot where it can kind of do whatever it wants with this selection. The Cavaliers should be running things back as much as possible next season, which for now should include trying to re-sign Ricky Rubio, who’s pairing with Darius Garland had Cleveland playing its best basketball of the entire year before injuries ripped them apart. Still, Rubio probably isn’t the long-term partner for Garland in the backcourt, and even with their enormous starting lineup of Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, Cleveland could probably still use some traditional wing defenders – it’s also unlikely Markkanen is around in the far-on future, making the addition of Dieng in this draft logical.

Dieng has some pretty special qualities. For someone as tall and as skinny as he is, he moves very well. This enables him to defend at an extremely high level, which he excelled at with the New Zealand Breakers. It remains to be seen how effective he can be switching onto multiple types of guys, but Dieng is a fantastic help and off-ball defender who rarely misses spots or a rotation.

It’s an addition that can add value to Cleveland immediately, but that’s hardly all Dieng brings to the table. Even at this early stage of his development, he’s somewhere between a primary and secondary ball-handler. In the future, point guard might be a stretch, but there’s a world where he becomes a glorified second facilitator that can really manipulate defenses.

Dieng’s also a very quick reactor when playing off the ball. When guards swing it to him, it makes a defense extremely off balance, given that they have to account for Dieng and the team’s point guard both being able to facilitate. He’s always reading and reacting to the court.

His jump shot and scoring ability has a ways to go, but any development of either skill could really turn him into a star. For now, the Cavs get needed defense, and get a long-shot play at Garland’s back-court counterpart.

No. 15, Charlotte Hornets: Mark Williams, Duke

Here is where the Hornets circle back and grab their center. This does feel a little redundant after they took Kai Jones at No. 19 last year, but he hardly got any time on the court, and that’s saying something considering the play down low in Charlotte.

Williams is another good bet to be the safest player in this draft. He’s massive, and his presence alone is enough to deter penetrators from driving to the rim. He’s an extremely fluid athlete for being so large, which bodes well for his ability to rim run in the NBA, and potentially switch. That area of his game may not ever develop, but some speed training could benefit him.

On offense, Williams won’t space the floor, but he’s a very good passer for a rim-runner. He’ll be a fun weapon in dribble-handoffs and pick and rolls, and the idea of lobs from Ball to him will make defenses bend their minds.

No. 16, Atlanta Hawks: Tari Eason, LSU

The Hawks could plain and simply use more defenders, and while this would seem like the perfect fit for Jeremy Sochan given Atlanta’s needs, Tari Eason is a bit safer of a pick.

We’ll get into Sochan shortly, but the main ingredient that Eason brings to the table that Sochan doesn’t is capabilities on offense. At LSU, Eason was a scoring machine off the bench, using his almost 6’7 frame to get to the rim off the dribble constantly. That went hand-in-hand with a chaotic but impactful defensive presence.

In some way, Eason will be able to fit in offensively. If all he becomes is a simple roll man at the four or five, he has the touch and size to put the ball in the basket – him rolling would not be a fun thing to guard. He’s also got a really good sense for passing, which is rare for someone in his frame and with his game. With Eason, Atlanta would get a swiss-army knife defender and not fret about whether teams will guard him on the other end of the floor.

No. 17, Houston Rockets: Kennedy Chandler, Tennessee

Like Washington for the Wizards, this is high, but there’s a real lack of true point guards in this class, and Houston can afford to miss given that they have three first round picks. A potential trade up for Daniels using this pick and No. 26 would make a lot of sense given that they selected four first-rounders last year.

But if they can’t move any of them, including this pick, then Chandler makes the most sense.

The Rockets don’t have anyone close to a point guard on their roster. When Kevin Porter Jr. actually plays, he’s shown more interest in creating for himself than others, and keeping him on the court has been a struggle. While Jalen Green has shown some signs of being an instinctive passer, he’s probably best equipped focusing on scoring, which Chandler can help him do.

Houston has shown zero interest in building a competent defense. While Sharpe may help with that, Chandler will struggle to survive at 6’1 on an NBA court. But the Rockets need him for his passing and frankly that only considering the roster they have built. 

Chandler may be capable of more – his size actually helps him get to the rim because he is smaller than most defenders, but his lack of height and pure athleticism could result in those shots getting blocked at a high rate. At Tennessee, Chandler was a good creator off-the-dribble as well, but it’s hard to bet on those skills coming to fruition at the next level given his frame.

No. 18, Chicago Bulls: Jeremy Sochan, Baylor

The Bulls need defense, and Sochan has a case to be the best defender in this draft. His value falls because of what he projects to be on offense. There’s not a lot of promise for him to become a jump-shooter, and while his passing skills are impressive, Sochan needs to hit Draymond Green levels of effectiveness on both ends to justify taking him as high as he’s projected to go in the draft.

That said, the fit for him in Chicago is fantastic. The Bulls can afford to have a player left alone by defenses with all that they have at disposal, which includes Nikola Vucevic, who’s no slouch of a threat offensively. Sochan can play center on that end of the court with Vucevic stretching. It’s a niche role that Sochan has to fill for the Bulls – essentially, the “Who’s guarding an opponent’s best wing player?” role – and he’s perfectly capable of doing so, even at such an early stage of his career. Sochan’s that special defensively, and it’s a shame that his flaws push him so far down the board.

No. 19, Minnesota Timberwolves: Johnny Davis, Wisconsin

This is strictly a best player available pick for the Timberwolves. D’Angelo Russell is seemingly on the market for other teams – his absence would leave Minnesota devoid of playmaking and shot creation talent. Even with Russell in the fold long-term, his inconsistency on the offense end has left Minnesota at times in trouble. Davis is a decent bet to aleve some of those issues.

Davis comes in much lower than consensus on the board. That’s because of the boom-or-bust potential of his game. Davis was an excellent scorer in college, but he doesn’t bring much else to the table at the NBA level. It takes a special player to be successful in the pros when that’s your only skill set – even Jalen Green in last year’s draft had his athleticism be potent enough that one could consider it a skill. Davis doesn’t have anything besides scoring on his scouting report at the NBA level, and his three-point shot is a serious question.

That’s the justification for Davis being so low on the board. Even though he was a good defender at Wisconsin, Ivey types are not that common in the Big Ten, and Davis is quite frail at 6’4.

Still, in the long or short-term, the Wolves could use someone to replace some of the firepower Russell brings to the table. The search for a good facilitator at the top of the offense remains, but it seems likely that Russell is around for longer than most Minnesota fans probably hope. Additionally, Davis would enjoy what is essentially a hometown crowd in the Twin Cities. It seems unlikely that Davis is the star some project him to be in the NBA, but he’s worth the pick at this stage of the draft, and could be a productive sixth man in his career.

No. 20, San Antonio Spurs: Christian Koloko, Arizona

Here is where the Spurs go for the center that they could use but don’t really need.

Koloko is a menace of a man, and he moves impressively well given his large size. He’s a force on defense – guards do not want to drive against him in the paint, and his size makes him tough to box out for rebounds. While he’s not incredibly switchable, he does have a chance against certain players on the perimeter – he’s not the liability other centers are out there.

Offensively, Koloko will never shoot from a distance in the NBA – even the midrange seems a bit far out – but a team can easily run four shooters around him. He’s not going to post people up, but is available for easy buckets down low and lobs.

Jakob Poeltl’s future has come into question via multiple reports since the playoffs began, and Koloko would represent a solid short-term and long-term replacement for the Spurs down low.

No. 21, Denver Nuggets: Jabari Walker, Colorado

Arguably the pick that is the biggest reach in this entire mock, Walker comes in way higher on the big board than consensus. 

The Nuggets biggest need heading into 2022-23 is to surround their core with competent players. While injuries were taking their toll, the 2022 playoffs displayed that Denver had close to zero depth on its roster, as back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic had zero help without his co-stars in tow.

Denver simply needs guys who can come in and play right away. With a sweet shooting stroke, some ability to create for himself and a long frame capable of defending, Walker fits the bill well. 

Walker had games with the Buffaloes where he simply couldn’t miss, and defenses were forced to either guard him tight or double team. Yet, Walker would still hit tough shots from deep. Walker would be a welcomed replacement for Jeff Green’s minutes in the Nuggets’ rotation.

No. 22, Memphis Grizzlies: Josh Minott, Memphis

The Grizzlies split the pie of approval in last year’s draft, as they traded up to No. 10 in search of a star (good thinking) to select Zaire Williams (wasn’t a fan). Williams had moments during his rookie year, but ultimately didn’t earn minutes you would expect from a top-10 pick, which limits belief that he showed Memphis that much regarding what he could do.

At this point in the draft, star hunting is extremely hard to do, but it’s really the only need the Grizzlies have. They could also use a player who’s ready to contribute now – one who can play defense, hit shots and play unselfishly on offense. 

Minott does two of those three things at this point in his career. He’s a hard-working defender who makes the right rotations more often than not, and he uses his long, athletic frame to stay with dribblers but also be a threat off-the-ball as a cutter. Minott stays busy on the court, and Memphis could use someone like that given the up-in-the-air future of Dillion Brooks.

Minott has serious upside offensively though. If he can hit jumpers at some point, the Grizzlies could have a future star on their hands. Minott is also an impressive passer for someone of his size, which ties into his unselfish play offensively. In a 6’8 frame, someone who is able to make cuts and be a facilitator from anywhere on the floor is a dangerous weapon, especially with Ja Morant a tough player to stop when cutting. 

No. 23, Philadelphia 76ers: Wendell Moore Jr., Duke

Only invigorated by Danny Green’s injury, the 76ers desperately need defensive-minded wings. 

Wendell Moore Jr. has one the most all-encompassing skill sets in this draft class, but the thing that should translate fastest is his defense. He’s only 6’4, but has a thick frame and a willingness to work hard defensively. The 76ers can deploy him against any opponent 1-4.

That’s not all Moore Jr. brings to the table though. The Duke product can shoot, pass and handle on offense. While he’s not the scorer other similar prospects are in this draft class, his ability to make passes out of drives or be a secondary facilitator from the wing is potentially very valuable. Being able to hit a three or make a guard-like read puts a defender in hell, and Moore should be able to bring that to the table, unlike some of the other wings the 76ers currently possess on their roster. 

No. 24, Milwaukee Bucks: Marjon Beauchamp, G-League Ignite

Going for a center here would make a lot of sense for the Bucks — Walker Kessler would make for a pretty terrifying defensive quartet with Giannis Antentokoumpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday while serving as insurance to an aging Brook Lopez. But if the Bucks are to play any center next to Antetokounmpo, that player needs to be able to space the floor.  As impressive as he is, Kessler will likely never do that in his NBA career.

Like Denver, a lack of depth seemed to plague  Milwaukee after injuries stuck in the playoffs — it could simply use one or two more competent role players on its roster. Enter Beauchamp.

At the end of the play, Beauchamp is a winning player. He’s a smart, high flying and physical defender who has a very long frame. He has great feet and can stay with almost anyone defensively. 

On offense, Beauchamp is still a ways away as a jump-shooter, but he still makes an impact offensively by trying to find open holes in a defense. He’s a willing cutter, and uses his athleticism to get put-backs and steal easy baskets.

Beauchamp should clock in higher on the board and among the consensus, but there have been some questions about his passion for the game, which feels odd considering that he wasn’t a chucker with the G-League Ignite. He’s not a selfish player at all. A winning environment like the Bucks would be a perfect fit to keep Beauchamp on track on and off the court. 

No. 25, San Antonio Spurs: Ryan Rollins, Toledo

With their third first round pick, the Spurs go back to star hunting after taking Branham and Koloko earlier.

Rollins is one of the most fun players in the draft. He’s reminiscent of Bones Hyland from last year, where he can simply score from everywhere in every way. But even if Rollins’ small-school experience doesn’t translate, he still should be a solid shooter from deep at the NBA level. Rollins also showcased some impressive passing ability for someone as gifted of a scorer as he is, but MAC defenses are not what NBA defenses are, which makes one queasy regarding his potential there. Still, Rollins is a sick shot maker, and the Spurs are best off continuing to take swings in that department. 

No. 26, Houston Rockets: Dalen Terry, Arizona

If Houston can’t trade up, continuing to take players that are either lengthy wing defenders and/or can pass is the way to go. Dalen Terry does both.

Terry is an incredible passer for a 6’6 off-ball wing. There were times throughout the past two years that both he and Mathurin played point guard, and it shows in both of their games. While Terry is not the shooter or shot maker Mathurin is, he’s a much better defender, giving him immense value.

Terry plays like a guard offensively, setting up players in spots and using his size to penetrate the lane. His usage in the PNR remains to be seen because of his faulty jumper — teams will have all the reason in the world to continuously go under screens for him. But landing a player who can do the two things Terry does well at this point in the draft is a steal.

No. 27, Miami Heat: Jake LaRavia, Wake Forest

If a team is trying to improve its efficiency on both sides of the ball, there is arguably no player in the draft who is more likely to help with that than Jake LaRavia.

He might be the smartest player in the draft.  During review of his game tape, there was one single possession where he missed a defensive rotation and another where he didn’t exert effort on a close out. LaRavia simply cares and doesn’t make mistakes. 

On offense, it’s more of the same. LaRavia finds open spots or open teammates. He always makes the right decision on whether to shoot or pass, and he always makes the right pass. He’s never taken a bad shot, and fits perfectly into the modern NBA.

The downside is that his ability to shoot is a little sketchy — his numbers were very much up and down throughout college. That could lead to him being an absolute zero on offense in the future. 

As impressive as Gabe Vincent and Max Strus’ development was last year, it did get to the point where we were questioning whether Miami was actually going to go to war with these guys in the playoffs. LaRavia has a chance to be more impactful than either player. 

No. 28, Golden State Warriors: Trevor Keels, Duke

It’s weird when the team that wins the NBA Finals is legitimately one guy short, but that’s basically what the Warriors were able to pull off a week ago.

Trevor Keels would give Golden State someone who isn’t going to kill it on either end of the court. 

Keels’ weight for his size is a bit concerning, but he uses it to his advantage. On offense, good luck stopping Keels when he’s going to the rim. At times at Duke, he looked like a mini Zion Williamson battering himself to the rim, leveraging his size against everyone. This skill could also make him an intriguing off-ball cutter in his career — who’s the defender you put on someone like him?

Keels is also a very good passer, which make his drives lead to kicks. That said, Keels is probably not a point guard in the NBA, and given his overall poor shooting from three, makes him a potential zero without the ball in his hands. 

Still, the Warriors can get around this by involving Keels in their chaotic movement offense. With his size, he could offer some potential as a roll man, though his height could present a problem against large roll defenders. 

Keels is worth a shot for the Warriors given how they can make anyone work who has perceived flaws. Golden State could have a simply bigger Gary Payton II on its hands with this pick. 

No. 29, Memphis Grizzlies: Walker Kessler, Auburn

While Memphis is mostly in search of players who have star upside or can contribute immediately, it’s fair to wonder whether they could attempt to upgrade down low over Steven Adams, who feels like the next big to get played off the court in an important playoff series.

Kessler may not offer that much more switchability than Adams, but he does have really good feet, giving him a shot. He’ll also be a much better rim protector in general than Adams, as Kessler’s block numbers at Auburn were completely obscene.

It remains to be seen whether Kessler can effectively score as the roll man in the PNR, but it may not matter as his size makes him a more-than-viable lob threat. With a passer like Morant at the helm, that should work out alright.

No. 30, Denver Nuggets: Christian Braun, Kansas

Denver circles back here and takes another player who can help it now in Christian Braun. Braun is a stud defender, which will come in handy given that the Nuggets’ three best players all struggle in some regard in that department. Braun should be able to man a “Three-and-D” spot in the Nuggets’ rotation immediately, and could develop into a secondary ball-handler down the road. With rumors about Monte Morris being on the outs in Denver, Braun brings much potential yet sturdiness to the Mile High City.


The Big Board:

SPORTS HUB 2022 NBA DRAFT FINAL BIG BOARD:

  1. Jabari Smith Jr.
  2. Paolo Banchero
  3. Jaden Ivey
  4. Shaedin Sharpe
  5. AJ Griffin
  6. Benn Mathurin
  7. Keegan Murray
  8. Dyson Daniels
  9. Ochai Agbaji
  10. Jalen Duren
  11. Malaki Branham
  12. Chet Holmgren
  13. TyTy Washington
  14. Tari Eason
  15. Mark Williams
  16. Ousmane Dieng
  17. Johnny Davis
  18. Jabari Walker
  19. Christian Koloko
  20. Walker Kessler
  21. Wendell Moore Jr.
  22. Josh Minott
  23. Marjon Beauchamp
  24. Kennedy Chandler
  25. Dalen Terry
  26. Jake LaRavia
  27. Jeremy Sochan
  28. Trevor Keels
  29. Christian Braun
  30. Ryan Rollins
  31. Andrew Nembhard
  32. Alondes Williams
  33. Keon Ellis
  34. JD Davison
  35. Jalen Williams
  36. Isaiah Mobley
  37. Julian Champagnie
  38. Jaylin Williams
  39. Ismael Kamagate
  40. EJ Liddell
  41. Bryce McGowens
  42. Tyrese Martin
  43. Blake Wesley
  44. Peyton Watson
  45. Max Christie
  46. Nikola Jovic
  47. Jared Rhoden
  48. Gabriele Procida
  49. John Butler
  50. Justin Lewis
  51. Jaden Hardy
  52. Caleb Houstan
  53. Mateo Spagnolo
  54. Marcus Bingham Jr.
  55. Dominick Barlow
  56. Jamaree Bouyea
  57. Moussa Diabate
  58. Trevion Williams
  59. David Roddy
  60. Hugo Besson
  61. Harrison Ingram
  62. Patrick Baldwin Jr.
  63. Yannick Nzosa
  64. Michael Foster Jr.
  65. Kendall Brown
  66. Jean Montero
  67. Khalifa Diop
  68. Deron Seabron

2022 NBA Finals Preview

This has a shot to be the best NBA Finals since 2016. In terms of making a pick, this was the hardest call since then. Last season’s matchup between Phoenix and Milwaukee was difficult as well, but that had more to do with the injury status of Giannis Antentokoumpo than anything else.

Here’s three big things to look for in these Finals between Boston and Golden State from an Xs and Os standpoint.

Boston’s lockdown D vs. Golden State’s chaos O

This exact matchup in these Finals has the chance to define how we think about building teams in the 2020s. A Golden State win likely sees teams try to be more patient and do a “middle build” that mixes youth with a veteran core and implements mid-2010s Warriors offensive schemes. A Boston win likely shifts the mindset to one that believes that defense is what truly wins championships, even though last decade proved that wrong.

The Boston defense is a beastly brick wall. Trying to win 1-on-1? Good luck against their feisty guards, lengthy athletic wings and switchable but sturdy bigs. Trying to get a good switch? Ditto. Trying to run a well-crafted set? Take all of those athletes mentioned in a 1-on-1 setting, give them Ime Udoka as their coach and watch them crank the effort up to 10.  The Celtics are built for nearly everything you throw at them.

But Golden State doesn’t run any of those offenses. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has received criticism throughout his tenure for the lack of pick and rolls he runs when conducting Golden State’s offense. At times, it’s been a fair criticism – perhaps the only one you can make during his time there – but the Warriors have never really needed to run offense like that.

Golden State has never really had a truly dominant PNR combo at its disposal. They’ve never possessed a big interior presence who could score easily at the rim, and it’s not like Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson or even Kevin Durant ever needed a screen to get a shot off. Those three are pull-up maestros. 

Durant gets into the second reason as to why Golden State has never ran an offense that Boston is built to defend: who needs any sets when you have Durant and Curry creating off the dribble? 

Thus, you get a ridiculous array of actions that look sets but are really just a bunch of smart players trying to get the best shot. It’s a free-flowing river of flare screens, pin-downs and unselfishness that is impossible to guard. Throw in a playmaker like Draymond Green and now you have two-to-three passers to try and stop, depending on Jordan Poole and Curry’s presence on the floor.

The difference between the Golden State offense and ones that rely on sets is that there’s no structure or ability to predict anything. You just have to guess, help and recover or switch as fast as possible. Boston has smart defenders, but even the wittiest cookies struggle to crack this.

The Celtics video coordinators are in hell attempting to break down the Warriors. A lot of trust will be placed in Boston’s players to attempt to nail down the spots every Golden State player likes, and then execute that on the court. But trust only gets one so far without prayer. Udoka will be pressured heavily in this series – the Celtics’ true defensive fundamentals, like whether they’ll switch every off-ball action or help hard and recover fast, have to be nailed down in stone heading into Game 1. Every player has to know what to do on each action they may see from the Warriors.

What could be most viable for the Celtics in this series is to force Golden State into isolations if they lock up the off-ball movement. But even that has its drawbacks and worries.

The firepower

Most playoff series come down to one question: who has the best player?

It’s the question front offices ask themselves every offseason. Do we have a player that’s the best one on a championship team? What about a third round team? A playoff team?

This series, we’ll get answers to a couple questions we’ve had either for years or for months. How good is Tatum really? Is Jaylen Brown a viable sidekick? Is Thompson still that guy? Should we tempt down our expectations for Poole?

We’ve already covered how troublesome Golden State’s offense is for the Celtics. But that’s assuming that Thompson is hitting shots, and that Poole is on the court.

There hasn’t been a ton of consistency to Thompson during these playoffs, which was expected considering what we saw in the regular season. Still, 0-7 games from behind the three-point line – like what we saw in Game 4 against Memphis – are impactful this time of year. But so are games like his incredible Game 5 performance versus the Mavericks, when he sunk eight of 16 threes attempted.

At this point, how Thompson plays is a matter of luck for both sides. Boston has defenders to throw at him if it wants to in Tatum and Brown, both of whom’s wingspan can close out better than Marcus Smart’s or Derrick White’s. But does Boston really want to commit either of those two to a potential non-threat? It’ll likely be a matter of seeing how the early stages of the game play out for Udoka to make that call – it’s a simple question of whether Thompson has it or not in a given night.

For the Warriors, the stroke of luck in Thompson is just as volatile. Golden State has been hesitant to play Poole as many minutes as it did in the regular season during these playoffs, as opponents have smartly attacked Poole and his stature in PNR. But if Thompson can’t find his shot in this series, the Warriors may have their hand forced to play Poole, who brings a more dynamic and full offensive presence to the court.

How much Poole hurts defensively depends on what Boston can do offensively.

At times, Golden State can be fresh meat for the Celtics. Boston’s offensive strategy in this series will be more traditional – it’ll seek out the Warriors’ weakest defender and pound the mismatch, ideally with creators like Tatum or Brown trying to get a good look.

In Curry, Thompson and Poole, Golden State is at a disadvantage defensively. Curry’s probably a better defender than given credit for, but a lot of his success on that ends comes from measurable indicators like steals. Thompson’s a shell of himself from where he was pre-injury, and we’ve seen Poole’s size work against him already in these playoffs, hence the lessened minutes load.

But the Warriors didn’t have the league’s sixth-best defensive by defensive rating this year by accident. They still possess Wiggins and Green – inputting Wiggins there as a positive is still such a weird thing to do – and Looney has unlocked his 2019-self during these playoffs.

Whichever Boston wing Wiggins isn’t on throughout the possessions of this series is a win for the Celtics. Golden State likely doesn’t want Green on either Tatum or Brown because 1) it’s a lot to ask for someone of Green’s size at this point of his career and 2) he’s best deployed as a roaming help threat.

This leaves the Warriors with yet another predicament. If they want both Wiggins and Green out there, but not Poole, then who’s the other option? Otto Porter Jr. has been dealing with an injury the past couple weeks, and while Gary Payton Jr. returning to the lineup, it’s unclear how he helps solve Golden State’s problem as a small guard. Even if Porter Jr. is healthy, attaching him to either Brown or Tatum is risky.

Moses Moody or Jonathan Kuminga emerge, but then the Warriors are relying on rookies they’ve been reluctant to truly deploy in these playoffs. Either could get the job done, but it’s a big risk to give it a try in such a high stakes series.

The Celtics stars with viable switches just might top what Golden State can bring to the table. If Poole is given a more limited role, a lot of the brunt falls on Curry for the Warriors offense.

While the Warriors have their lethal offensive scheme to rely on, playing the guys that unlock that may give Boston the series’ overall edge thanks to what it allows the Celtics to do offensively.

And that’s not accounting for the bigs, either.

The Celtics’ size advantage

Boston as we know it does not possess a small-ball lineup.

If the Warriors force them to go to it in this series with their chaos-inducing offense, then it would mean that the Celtics are in serious trouble.

In any other scenario, Boston will have a serious size advantage over the Warriors, whether it be its typical look of Al Horford and Robert Williams III, just Horford or just Williams III at center – the latter of which Boston has deployed five times during the Playoffs, according to NBA.com.

Of course, this is all very dependent on Williams III’s health, which is anyone’s guess at this point.

Golden State would like for Boston to play one big as much as possible. In a scenario with both Horford and Williams III on the floor, the Warriors have to deal with Williams III on Looney and Horford trying to post-up Green. While Golden State will try to make the Celtics’ bigs work hard defensively, Boston has done a good job of protecting their bigs against unfavorable switches or actions. Williams III would likely hang on Green, as he’s the most sturdy cog in Golden State’s offensive machine. If Looney is on the floor, Horford should be able to hold his own.

If the Celtics play one big, it favors Golden State, allowing them to go small and put as much offense on the floor as possible. If they commit to allowing Boston’s wings to get what they want, then matching that output is their only option.

We’ll know early in the series how Golden State wants to dance. Regardless, the threat of Boston supersizing is there – and extremely threatening.

The pick

It’s funny how writing things out can change a mind sometimes. Going in, this pick was going to skew the Warriors’ way.

The bottom line in this series is this: As good as Golden State is offensively, and as problematic as their scheme is for Boston, the Celtics will likely figure it out. It might take awhile – perhaps Boston drops Game 1 in San Francisco on Thursday – but the Celtics are just too good from a fundamental and talent standpoint on the defensive end to let the Warriors torch them for four games. There’s a reason why the Celtics are discussed the way they are on that end of the floor, and being able to shut the door on an attack like this is why.

Additionally, Boston’s wings have the ability to put a lot of stress on a talented but still-lacking Golden State defense. Green will likely have to end up on one of Tatum or Brown, as Thompson just doesn’t have the legs and the rookies don’t have the experience to handle something like that. The Warriors then have to deal with the mismatch hunting Boston will try to do, and Golden State just isn’t switchy enough 1-5 to effectively deal with that, unless Moody or Kuminga 1) actually get minutes and 2) actually perform at the high level. Those both seem unlikely to happen.

Finally, Golden State going small against Boston just doesn’t seem like a viable plan in this series, which is when the Warriors are at their best. Multiple factors come into play there – the Poole in/Green at the five lineup being fresh meat for the Celtics’ hunting strategy and the size that Williams III and/or Horford bring to the table. It all seems like a lot for the Warriors to overcome.

That said, picking against Curry is terrifying. He’s still probably the best player in the series. Tatum doesn’t need to emerge ahead of Curry on the “guys you want in a playoff series” rankings for Boston to win this series. With the construction of each team, the Warriors can lose with Curry’s best, and Boston can win without Tatum’s. It’s not that Curry’s not up for it – it’s that the Warriors as a whole aren’t.

Prediction: Boston in 7

Super Bowl 56 Preview

Destiny is not supposed to be a fickle thing.  

The case for both the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams to reach it either this year or in the future was there. The Rams went all in on the 2021-22 season, once again setting fire to future draft picks to upgrade at quarterback with Matthew Stafford and create an even more fearsome defensive line with the addition of Von Miller. They added wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. when they seemingly didn’t need to, although Robert Woods’ nearly immediate injury afterward negated that talking point. Los Angeles was living up to the town they’re headquartered and will be playing Sunday’s game in: lavish, and unforgiving about it.

Cincinnati has gone about things in a very different way. It’s also embraced a mentality similar to the city it plays in – one that’s a semi-circle away from the Rams. It’s invested in the draft, and most importantly has made the right picks. The Bengals spent money, but not to bring in high-end talent on nine-figure deals. They spent it where they had to, and did nothing more.  

They also nailed the quarterback position, which sort of fell into their lap. But there is something to be said – and respects to be paid – to the Bengals for taking advantage of the gift that has been Joe Burrow.  Not everyone gets a generational quarterback – let alone makes the most of him. Cincinnati has, and as a result, they’re a win away from reaching the pinnacle no one – and perhaps even themselves – thought they could so soon.

But for the Bengals and the Rams, the path to destiny this season hasn’t been so smooth. No one actually thought Cincinnati would be here – it was the type of team you threw a futures bet on before the season at 500-1 to win or make the Super Bowl. At best, the Bengals were what this site pegged them as: a team that probably wouldn’t win, but one you couldn’t give a zero percent chance of doing so either.

Then the season hit, and nobody, including both of the teams playing Sunday, was that good. The Rams underwhelmed despite Cooper Kupp’s MVP-caliber season and their starry acquisitions, mostly in part due to stagnant offensive performances led by Stafford. The former Lions quarterback looked, at times, like the player he was in Detroit: good, but not quite good enough to elevate a poor-to-average surrounding cast. Those performances cost the Rams dearly – a lot of times entire games. He killed their offense in ways Jared Goff used to during the regular season. 

Meanwhile, the Bengals looked a year away, thanks to a still shaky offensive line, simple lack of experience and the aforementioned case of of people just not shaking their preseason projection.

That means something has to give on Sunday.

It could be wise to just roll with the least likely negative thing that could happen in Super Bowl 56, given how this NFL season has gone. Matthew Stafford seems due for a meltdown game, similar to what happened in Weeks 9, 10, 16 and 18. That favors the Bengals. Cincinnati’s offensive line gave up nine sacks in its Divisional Round game against Tennessee, and now has to go up against the best defensive player in the league in addition to Miller and Leonard Floyd on the Rams front. That favors the Rams.

There’s also each team possessing a dominant wide receiver, and a No. 2 pass catcher just as capable of taking over or causing problems for the other’s defense. Then there’s the difference of one team having a dominant cornerback to place on the former receiver, countered by the potential unwillingness of that corner to move around the field.

So what’s the path of least destruction? 

Stafford, Cooper Kupp, JaMarr Chase and Cincy’s offensive line are the true game-breakers on Sunday. If Stafford throws four picks out of sheer poor decision-making, it’d be incredibly hard for the Rams to emerge victorious. If Kupp simply runs past everyone in the Bengals’ secondary, scores three touchdowns and is purely unstoppable, it’d likely take the same type of performance from Chase on the other sideline to give Cincy a chance. Conversely, the same can be said for Chase’s effect on the Rams and Kupp.

But Los Angeles might have ways of mitigating Chase that Cincy doesn’t possess with regard to Kupp. 

If a team is selecting anyone across the league to shut down Chase for a single game, it’s probably taking Jalen Ramsey. He’s long, physical and while aggressive, doesn’t let the trait lead to penalties.

Just the skills you need against Chase.

The rookie receiver from LSU is a yards-after-catch beast though. Ramsey letting his anxious side take over is likely a death wish for the Rams’ secondary, currently backed by Eric Weddle, who was retired just a month ago.

Cincinnati should hope Ramsey gets selfish and doesn’t care to be moved around as much, while the Bengals should experiment with Chase’s positioning. It could be of benefit for Cincy to line Chase up in the slot for most of Sunday, considering Ramsey’s played the least amount of snaps there during the regular season, his aggressiveness being more potentially more problematic in that area of the field and Tee Higgins’ vertical presence on the outside still existing. The downside is the swap of Tyler Boyd, a pure slot receiver, to the outside for Chase. But perhaps a heavy dose of 11 personnel – even with a banged up C.J. Uzomah at tight end – makes up for that loss.

Still, Ramsey is a weapon the Bengals don’t have. It’s more likely he doesn’t allow Chase to expose him, putting much more pressure on Higgins to get open quick, thanks to what’s likely going to be a limited amount of time for Burrow in the pocket.

No one has more to deal with in this game than Burrow, but no one may be more even-keeled and equipped to handle it than him, either.

Before every drop back, he’s got to find Ramsey and see if he’s stationed on Kupp. Then he has to process how that could affect where he goes with the ball. Next, he has to make sure his offensive line is in as best a position possible to deal with the Rams’ front, which it probably won’t have a chance against anyways.

That’s a lot to ask for a quarterback who’s hardly in his second year as a starter and has never played in the Super Bowl before. While he might be able handle all of it, he still has to go out and execute after doing so.

That’s not all Cincinnati has to deal with in this game, either.

Kupp is a nightmare. The Bengals’ secondary has held as strong as it could this postseason, with the first half against Kansas City being an exception. In the second half, the Bengals dropped back an extra defender, exposing the Chiefs’ early season problems of not having a reliable second receiver once again. That’s just not a problem the Rams have.

Sure, it’s a big responsibility on the plate of Odell Beckham Jr., who hasn’t exactly been the best pressure-handler over the years, to step if the Bengals show Kupp heavy attention. But he’s been excellent for Los Angeles since signing with it in November, and the Rams aren’t here without him in the absence of Woods.

It’s hard to think Kupp won’t be himself on Sunday. He only had one game this year where he had below 92 yards receiving and zero touchdowns. The Bengals have to hope for that type of performance, and then ensure that every talking head will be leading their show on Monday morning with “Where was Odell?” Higgins then turning in the performance we talked about earlier likely gives the advantage to the Bengals, but the odds of all of that occurring seem to be favoring the Rams.

Plus, Higgins’ big game is predicated on whether Burrow can get the ball to him. The Bengals gutted out their nine-sacks-allowed win against Tennessee by getting a Tannehill meltdown, which is in the cards with Stafford but is a tough thing to count on. By simple proportions, if the Bengals allowed nine against the Titans, Sunday’s number could clock in at 15.

Of course, that’s an unreasonable projection, but you get the point. Cincy’s offensive line could ruin every drive and every spark of momentum the Bengals light. The mismatch is that big, and Aaron Donald is that good. It’s quite easy to see him hoisting an MVP trophy postgame after turning in a game-wrecking performance.

The last thing the Rams have in their favor, even if it’s slightly so, is home-field advantage. That’s not to say SoFi Stadium is going to be packed full of die-hard Rams fans on Sunday – it certainly won’t be, and it’s not like the Bengals have the following a team like San Francisco or Pittsburgh does. But, the Super Bowl is about being comfortable and settling nerves. Typically, teams walk into unfamiliar environments during Super Bowl Week and during the game itself.

Not the Rams. They’ve been practicing in their own facility all week, sleeping in their beds at their homes, and will go through their normal routine on the morning of the game in their stadium and locker room. 

Super Bowls are not supposed to be comfy. For the Rams, that is certainly not the case, and if anything, their home-field advantage inside SoFi will be amongst their best all season, thanks to the small market and fanbase that Cincinnati is. 

Regardless of the outcome Sunday, it will perhaps be the perfect cap on what’s been a chaotic, confusing season. It’s very plausible that the Bengals or Rams could win. It’s also very easy to imagine one losing, and looking like they never belonged here in the first place.

This season has largely been about trust, consistency and safety when it came to hitching oneself to a team. Neither of the two teams playing on Sunday possess much of that, but certain scenarios and outcomes certainly seem more likely to occur than the other. Kupp dominating? Likely. Donald doing the same? Mhm. On the other side: Ramsey getting cooked? Eh. Higgins being the best player on the field? Hard to believe. One of the worst Super Bowl performances ever from a QB? Stafford would never be able to recover.

It certainly wouldn’t be surprising if Cincinnati won on Sunday, but it does seem like the future is brighter for them. Destiny can wait, and will be for the taking again soon.

But this is the Rams’ time. This is what they have been building for all along.

Prediction: Rams-23 Bengals-13

The “Who You Got?” 2021-22 NFL Playoff Rankings

This may not be the year to write a column like this.

But it also might be the best chance we have at projecting what could happen this postseason.

In a season where almost no team stood out and almost everyone sucked, trying to guess what happens in the playoff feels near pointless. So, to mitigate that randomness and variability a little, we’re going to try and attack this postseason based on heart, confidence and trust.

Below is a definitive guide to who seems like the most likely team to win the Super Bowl, starting with the team that’s been there the past two years.

  1. Kansas City Chiefs

The epitome of this season is the Chiefs’ clocking in at No. 1 on these rankings.  The best team in the league entering these playoffs didn’t have some starry, magical season that it cruised right through.  It didn’t have a real MVP candidate, or have anyone declaring how unstoppable they were.  Kansas City was, at one point, just as down in the dumps as every other team on this list this year.  They were perhaps more so than others, too.

That said, the Chiefs might have done what no other team has: pulled out of those doldrums, get themselves back in shape and mostly importantly – make everyone fear them again.

When Patrick Mahomes threw for 406 yards and promptly slaughtered the Raiders in Week 10, it was clear the Chiefs were back.  The funk that had them a game behind .500 early in the year thanks to horrible turnover luck, a completely inadequate defense, pass catchers simply not getting open and Mahomes’ ultra aggression as a result was so clearly over, and a big win over Dallas the next week made sure of it.

Sure, the Bills overcame some midseason adversity, and even defeated Kansas City in Week 5, adding misery to the Chiefs’ plate.  But Buffalo has arguably had worse losses since, and hasn’t gotten past Kansas City in the postseason before.  If that Week 5 game was anything, it was the kick in the butt to the Chiefs, and was the one that has them ranked here now.

  1. Green Bay Packers

The Packers have turned into the Utah Jazz of the NFL.

Every regular season they win a ton of games, probably don’t get enough credit for it and then can never convert that success into postseason value.

It’s the only reason they’re not ranked No. 1.

Green Bay turned in a near flawless year. It had one real loss – dropping a contest to the Vikings 34-31 in Week 11.  Their defense was surprisingly the best element of their team, finishing sixth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA, while the offense placed around average at 15th.  That didn’t stop quarterback Aaron Rodgers from turning in a MVP-worthy campaign – if not for all of the off-field antics (one sticks out in particular), he’d probably be in the running for an unanimous trophy, just because no one else fits the bill this year.

But until Green Bay at least makes the Super Bowl, it’s hard to put them over the Chiefs, who’ve been there the past two years and have taken home one Lombardi.

  1. Buffalo Bills

The Bills have it similar to the Packers.  We kind of need to see it to believe it with them.  While it could be counted for or against them, Buffalo doesn’t necessarily have the years of experience or disappointment under their belt that Green Bay does. Despite everyone having their flaws this year, nobody seemed to sink lower than the Bills, who at times watched Josh Allen morph back into the inaccurate version of himself while also being dealt one of the more embarrassing losses of the season.

The Bills redeemed that Week 13 loss to the Patriots in Nee England during Week 16 though, and they have a chance to do it again on Saturday. However, it won’t be that outcome that makes this postseason a success for Buffalo, it’ll be what lies ahead, and whether demons of the past don’t strike back.

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This year’s Buccaneers are extremely reminiscent of last’s.  At times, they’re unstoppable thanks to a powerful offense and a fearsome defense.  Yet, times of mysterious offensive stagnation and questioning Tom Brady’s ability to still do it appear.  Now, thanks to a lack of foresight by Tampa Bay’s front office and Chris Godwin’s ACL tear, the once vaunted Bucs offense is now down to just Mike Evans in the receiving core.  That’s not ideal for Brady, who, despite having a firm MVP case, has still looked at times this year like a 44-year-old trying to play quarterback.

Maybe these concerns about the Bucs are overblown though.  Despite the offensive’s occasional struggles, they did finish the season ranked No. 1 in offensive DVOA.  Still, two of the three key pieces that made that happen no longer exist on the roster, and plenty of those off days throughout the year came when the team was at full strength.

Additionally, Tampa Bay doesn’t have the same defense backing it up as last year.  Though they still finished ninth in defensive DVOA, the run defense is worse, and the secondary is a shell of itself due to multiple injuries.  The defensive backfield has overcome those in 2021 – playing competently for the most part – but every little advantage and disadvantage can rear its head in the postseason.

The Bucs overcame a bad start in last year’s playoffs against Washington to win the Super Bowl.  While they shouldn’t have much of a problem against the Eagles this week, it shouldn’t be shocking to see them going home the next weekend.

  1. Dallas Cowboys

The biggest detriment to the Cowboys’ postseason chances was Michael Gallup’s season-ending knee injury.  Sure, it might seem odd that Dallas’ third-best wide receiver going down knocked them down a spot or two in these rankings.  But Gallup was the icing on the cake for what was an unstoppable Cowboys offense – accounting for him, perhaps the best No. 3 receiver in the league, took just one more defender off of CeeDee Lamb or Amari Cooper.

Now, Dallas’ offense is just really good, and not quite great.  Gallup made it a group that could have gotten hot, torched defenses all through the playoffs and remained borderline cataclysmic all the way to the Super Bowl.  Now, it’s just a smidge worse, and with a shaky kicking situation, Mike McCarthy on deck to do something dumb and the cruel history of Dallas’ recent playoff appearances, things don’t bode quite as well for the Cowboys moving forward.

  1. Tennessee Titans

The Titans aren’t the “Nobody believes in us” team of these playoffs, but they are the “Don’t forget about us” team.

Tennessee came in much higher on these rankings than expected, despite being the No. 1 seed in the AFC, which grants it a bye in the Wild Card Round and allows them to have home-field till the Super Bowl.  But its case – and potential path – make sense.

Derrick Henry actually isn’t the starting point for it, either.  It’s what they did when the superstar running back was out instead.

Mike Vrabel may have the best case in the NFL for Coach of the Year this season.  As soon as Henry went out, Tennessee’s offense cratered thanks to injuries at wide receiver and the removal of quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s safety net at running back.

It was clear the lessened effectiveness of the play action scheme due to Henry’s injury hurt Tannehill’s ability to make tough throws.  Yet, Vrabel got the Titans to finish 12th in defensive DVOA, making up for ranks of 20th in the offensive and overall category.

While Tennessee has had some clunkers for losses this year, almost everyone else has as well, and now they’re getting Henry back.  His presence could run the Titans right to the Super Bowl, and put Tannehill back in his old role of passing only when needed, with a sneaky play action attack at the base of it.  If Henry shows no signs of rustiness from his foot injury, then watch out.

7/8. Los Angeles Rams

8/7. Arizona Cardinals

We’re grouping these two teams together because they couldn’t be more alike.  All year, each has either looked equally unstoppable, been equally disappointing, tormented bettors, pushed the boundaries of what was possible on a football field for better or worse and subsequently dominated the other on the opponent’s home turf.  The Rams and Cardinals are so perfectly matched that it makes it impossible to determine which has a better chance of making the Super Bowl, so we’re going to let Monday night’s matchup between the two determine that.  How fitting.

The two get placed here because their ceilings are higher than any team below them, yet, the frustration each has caused fans and analysts throughout the year can’t put them above any team already listed.  Consistency has been virtually nonexistent amongst everyone this season, but these teams have hit lows that no one ranked above them has.  There’s a certain benchmark that has to be crossed to gain trust entering the postseason.  Neither Arizona or Los Angeles has checked it yet.

9. Cincinnati Bengals

If one is trying to find the Cinderella candidate to make the Super Bowl this year, look no further.  The Bengals fit the shoe perfectly.

The case?  First, everyone believes they’re a year away.  Joe Burrow is too young and doesn’t have the playoff experience yet.  JaMarr Chase’s ability to break games will get shutdown in the postseason.  The offensive line won’t hold up.  They’re a below-average team according to DVOA.

Those are all fair points.  It’s why they’re ranked ninth as opposed to seventh or eighth.  Arizona and Los Angeles, despite their faults, are older, more experienced teams, even if the playoff reps are about equal between the three.

But the difference with the Bengals is that Burrow and Chase have already went toe-to-toe with many of the teams ranked ahead of them, and in some cases, came out on top.  If not, then they kept right up, with a single possession being the difference.

The pressure is really on now.  Whether Cincy can maintain their regular season success when that’s the case remains to be seen.  But don’t be surprised if nothing changes.  If anyone is going to remain calm under chaos, it’s Burrow.

10. New England Patriots

The Patriots are the Bengals without the higher ceiling.  If there’s any game-breaking element to them, it comes from the sidelines and not on the field.

That shouldn’t be underestimated though.  Bill Belichick concocting a defense to shut down the league’s most potent offenses isn’t a far-cry at all these playoffs, and New England hounding time of possession with its running game and key throws from Mac Jones could give them a Titans-like path to go deep this postseason.

The counter is obvious.  Jones is not only a rookie, but isn’t the type of quarterback that scares you with his arm and accuracy.  That limits the heights New England’s offense can reach, and makes any possession without points a tough swallow.  Additionally, the inexperience has reared its ugly head at times, including against teams ranked ahead of them on this list.

If we’ve learned anything, it’s to never, ever rule out the Patriots.  Tenth feels like we’re giving them enough credit, while not trying to be too smart either.

11. Las Vegas Raiders

There’s a case that the Raiders are the team that is least deserving of being here, or at worst, have no business playing any more football this season.

Yet, it’s hard to rule them out completely.

That’s because Derek Carr can play like he did before the Raiders dealt with numerous off-the-field distractions or because he could play like he did for the most part after those occurred.  There’s really no way of knowing what you’re going to get, which has been the Carr experience essentially until Jon Gruden and Henry Ruggs III entered the building.  Now, they’re both gone, leaving Carr and the Raiders hanging, still searching for the next level of success.

Carr could get hot this postseason, and string together a couple of good games to ignite the Raiders offense.  But almost all of it falls on his shoulders now — there isn’t exactly a great defense to back him up.  Las Vegas and Carr have been resilient all year, as this postseason berth proves.  But a run in January and February would be a story almost too good for Hollywood to script. 

12. Philadelphia Eagles

One of the feel good stories of the year, the Eagles are simply happy to be here.  

That’s okay and good for them.

They probably won’t get far, especially with Tampa Bay as their Wild Card opponent, but Philadelphia likely wasn’t expecting such success in its first year with Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts at the helm of their respective positions.

The Wild Card Round is a fantastic opportunity for the organization though.  As good as Hurts has been, he certainly has some drawbacks that have come to light quite intrusively this season.  Those getting illuminated, and likely sending the Eagles out of the playoffs, might be the best thing to happen for them, as Philly’s front office can then use its three first round picks in the 2022 Draft to re-tool the roster around Hurts.  If the Eagles make a miracle run, then it forces the team into fourth gear in the offseason in terms of trying to build a contender.

Philly has already hit every objective it could have on this season.  Nothing that happens from here on out is a disappointment.

13. San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco is a team that feels like it doesn’t quite belong here, much like the last team in these rankings (see below).  But the 49ers have endured brutal quarterback and secondary play, an almost gimmick-like offensive scheme built around Deebo Samuel and losses to almost every quality team they’ve played to still finish at 6th in total DVOA.  Despite some well deserved criticism, Kyle Shanahan does deserve credit for keeping this team afloat, and especially for sweeping the flawed-yet-frightening Rams in the regular season.

But San Francisco isn’t too scary in the postseason for all the reasons mentioned above.  It’s going to take an epic slew of defensive performances to drag an either obviously injured Jimmy Garrapollo or a still very raw Trey Lance deep into the postseason.  Despite a defense that somehow finished seventh in DVOA, opposing teams should be able to throw on the 49ers, and San Francisco as currently constructed isn’t exactly the type of team destined to perform well in shootouts.  

14. Pittsburgh Steelers

It feels pretty miraculous that the Steelers are even here for a myriad of reasons.  First, two teams could have easily tied on purpose with each other to make sure they both made the playoffs instead of one of them.  Second, they almost ended up doing so, until the Chargers reneged on the Raiders, breaking the truce between the two in the prisoner’s dilemma and forced Las Vegas to do what they didn’t want or mean to do and boot the Chargers out of the playoffs.

(Brandon Staley’s decision to call timeout is another column in its entirety that’s not getting addressed here, but in short, let’s just say it didn’t seem too smart, then or now.  Bring on any of the counterpoints you want – that opinion won’t change).

And third, the Steelers just aren’t very good.  They’re ranked 24th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, have a quarterback on his last legs who’s in a stage of his career that is even later than the one Peyton Manning was in when the Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2016, and don’t have a defense good enough to drag the putrid offense along (DVOA has the defense ranked 14th and the offense ranked 25th – a defense capable of getting Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl likely needs to be No. 1 or No. 2, and/or a historic one, a la Denver in Manning’s last year).

The case would likely be a defensive hot streak and Najee Harris running rampant, giving Pittsburgh a massive edge in time of possession and effectively suffocating offenses with good defense and limited opportunity.  But the Steelers have to go up against the team atop these rankings in the Wild Card Round, making an appearance next weekend unlikely.

What A Successful Season Looks Like For The Rest Of The Western Conference

To preview the 2021-22 NBA season, we’re taking a big picture look at what this year means to each team in the league. Part 1 on Monday consisted of the Eastern Conference, while Tuesday consisted of just the two teams in the Western Conference that opened their season. Wednesday, we round out the Western Conference and take a look at what they need to do in order to be successful by reasonable standards this year.

Dallas Mavericks

Let the offseason moves marinate and regroup

One of Dallas’ biggest problems last season was that they didn’t make enough shots.  That sounds way too simple and almost like a cop-out, but in so many games last year, the Mavericks started out shooting poorly and put themselves in a hole, leaving Luka Doncic to try his best to clean up the mess.

Dallas smartly attempted to fix the problem, bringing in sharpshooter Reggie Bullock from the Knicks on a three-year deal.  While Bullock doesn’t do much for Dallas’ defense, he almost automatically becomes their most potent wing, and reduces Dorian Finney-Smith’s role to a bench one, where he should excel.

The bigger question for Dallas going forward is whether the actual solution to becoming a true championship contender is finding Doncic a ball-handler to pair with.  Doncic’s passing is special, but the Mavericks’ roster is built for quite literally everything to run through him from a scoring, shot creation and passing standpoint.  It’s a huge load, and as good as Jalen Brunson is, his small stature and inexperience just doesn’t make it viable for the Mavericks to give him long run in games.  Dallas’ roster became even more reliant on Doncic after bringing Bullock in this summer.  Does a potential trade for or signing off a buyout of Goran Dragic elevate the Mavericks ceiling?  If Doncic does in fact need help, it could be a good idea.

Denver Nuggets

In the meantime of Jamal Murray, let Michael Porter Jr., Bol Bol and Bones Hyland cook

We never will know what the upside was of the Nuggets after they traded for Aaron Gordon at last year’s trade deadline.  Denver seemed to be hitting its peak when the move was made, as Nikola Jokic’s MVP case turned into reality and Jamal Murray’s play was ascending once again.

But then Murray went down with a torn ACL, an injury that not only cost him last season and the Nuggets’ title hopes, but could very well cost him all of 2021-22 as well.

Denver only has to tread water if and when Murray comes back, but it’s very real that a return for Murray – whether it be late in the regular season or for the playoffs – is only a feel-good story, and that he won’t return to true form until 2022-23.

And even if Murray comes back full strength, it’s still no gimmie that Denver would have enough to be taken seriously as title contenders.  That’s why the Nuggets need to use Murray’s absence as an opportunity.  Up until this point, Denver’s perimeter shot creation has yet to slot in at a level that was Finals worthy.

The Nuggets have at the very worst test cases for that role.  Michael Porter Jr. just got paid like someone who has already proven he can be that guy, but to this point he’s only provided his value as a shooter while being a lost cause defensively.  It’s quite clear Denver gave him the money with projection in mind.

Bol Bol might be a bit of a gimmick at this point, but the Nuggets selected him in the 2019 Draft knowing he’d be a flyer and a project.  It’s highly unlikely he blossoms into a star, but with not much to play for given Murray’s unknown timetable, Denver would be smart to confirm what they have and what they don’t in him.

Then there is Bones Hyland, who Denver selected 26th overall in July.  Hyland was an absolute bucket-getter in college at VCU, and at the worst projects as a Kent Bazemore-like player.  Without Murray in the fold, the Nuggets would be smart to let Hyland hold a high usage rate throughout the season.  While his energy can get the best of him, it’s hard to rule out anything from a guy that plays as hard as he does.

Houston Rockets

See what you have in your youth

It’s Year 1 of a rebuild for the Rockets, which puts them in a similar position as teams like the Pistons, Hornets, Magic and Thunder (to an extent… more on them soon).  They just need to play all of the guys that have potential and see what they can do.

There’s a lot of players that need those minutes in Houston – it makes sense as to why they simply told John Wall to not show up and still get paid (Eric Gordon will also probably find his way out as well at some point, as could Christian Wood). 

It figures to be the Jalen Green show this season for the Rockets, which is not a bad thing considering concerns about his ceiling as a truly great player.  Letting him show those weaknesses – or overcome them – allows the Rockets to simply build better around him moving forward. 

Kevin Porter Jr. is surprisingly slotting in as a point guard this year, which seems a little far-fetched given some of his habits as a scorer.  The move for Porter Jr. does open up a sixth man type-role for another rookie in Josh Christopher, who’s ceiling as a NBA player is likely that.

Houston spread its wealth equally with its four first round picks, going with two in the back-court and two in the front-court in July.  There’s a log jam in the paint, with Wood, newly-signed Daniel Theis, No. 16 overall pick in 2021 Alperen Sengun and No. 23 overall pick in 2021 Usman Garuba all needing minutes either for development or financial reasons.  Wood and Theis occupy a around a $21 million cap hit between the two of them, which is quite a lot for a team that’s seemingly in a rebuild. 

It wouldn’t be shocking to see Wood moved this year – he was signed under the assumption that James Harden would be a Rocket and would be highly coveted around the league if Houston shopped him.  It’d open up a slot for Sengun to show everything he’s capable of, as the two’s skillsets are kind of similar.  At this early stage in his career, and with Theis seemingly in front of him, Garuba might be worth trying out on the wing or at the four, but it’s most likely he’s a super switchy five at the NBA level.

The Rockets shouldn’t have any expectations this year, except to be fun as hell.

Los Angeles Clippers

Treat Paul George like he’s Kawhi Leonard

It has been widely speculated that Kawhi Leonard will not appear in a game for the Clippers this year – regular season or playoffs.  That shouldn’t be shocking. First, it’s Kawhi, who has sat out a whole season because of angst before.  Second, his ACL tear is no joke, and it was sustained quite late in the year last season.  That’s an injury that typically takes a year to come back from.

If Leonard is indeed out for even a deep Clippers playoff run, then Los Angeles should take this year to evaluate his counterpart Paul George.

George overcame a lot of demons in the playoffs last year, leading the Clippers as far as he could after Leonard went out.  Los Angeles still came up short, but George didn’t choke or shy away from the moment – which was almost a first for him.

Getting that over the course of a whole regular season is probably a little unreasonable, but anything less than George’s prior regular season’s – even with a heavier load – should be cause for concern for the Clippers as to whether George is the right running mate for Leonard long-term.

Los Angeles’ offseason was certainly interesting in terms of how they surrounded George.  For a team that desperately needed a point guard to run the show, Eric Bledsoe was a curious answer.  He’s never been the most instinctive passer, and tends to play above his qualifications when it comes to creating shots.  The Clippers would have been almost insane to not bring back Reggie Jackson after the show he put on in the playoffs, but the contract he signed and the playoff production still seems streaky and unsustainable.  Terrance Mann is a good, all-around player, but some of the scoring performances he had in the spring aren’t likely to resurface either. All of those concerns has the Clippers then pivoting to the likes of Luke Kennard and even Brandon Boston Jr. for minutes and production, both of which are tedious bets.  

There’s certainly a level we shouldn’t expect George to hit with the Clippers this year, given his ceiling as a player and the seemingly lack of help around him.  However, there’s no reason he can’t bring Los Angeles to at least a favorable position in the Play-In Tournament or better.  If he can’t, the Clippers may be forced to reevaluate the viability of their star duo when Leonard returns. 

Memphis Grizzlies

If he doesn’t go up another level, find Ja Morant’s running mate

It’s hard to doubt anything when it comes to Ja Morant, who plays as hard as just a handful of players the past decade have.  But while the third-year point guard’s athleticism, penetration ability and passing is superb, it’s questionable as to whether he’s the No. 1 shot creator on a great or better team.

If Morant improves his isolation game and jump-shooting, then that’s great for him and for Memphis.  It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone.  But little evidence exists thus far that he’ll develop into that type of player.

The Grizzlies seem decently aware of this.  They just paid Jaren Jackson Jr. a ton of money, which could pay off nicely if he expands his pull-up shooting game a bit more.  Desmond Bane seems destined for a bigger role this season after he flashed massive potential in 2020-21 as a rookie.  Memphis also made the ultimate home-run swing by selecting Ziare Williams No. 10 overall in the 2021 Draft.  Williams, who checked in at No 55 on the Hub’s board for the draft, came into his freshman season at Stanford as a top prospect thanks to a highly intriguing skillset as a long, 6-foot-8 shot creating wing, but fell after a tough season thanks to both basketball and non-basketball reasons.  While Williams was not highly regarded by this site (it was certainly disappointing to see him come in that low on the board), it is easy to see why the Grizzlies still believe.  If he hits his full potential – finally – the Grizzlies quickly go from frisky and fun to a serious playoff team or better.

Minnesota Timberwolves

New Orleans Pelicans

Portland Trail Blazers

Sacramento Kings

Surprise us, just a little if you can

None of these teams are in particularly great places, but some are in more dire situations than others.  

Minnesota, New Orleans and Portland all have superstar players that are likely less than thrilled to be there.  Two have made serious threats, with Damian Lillard issuing a memo to Portland’s front office that the team must improve, while multiple reports have came out about Zion Wiliamson’s disapproval of how his tenure with the Pelicans has gone.

Nothing at that level of seriousness has been reported about Karl Anthony-Towns’ discontent, but it’s hard to see why he would be ecstatic about playing in Minnesota, even with his best friend D’Angelo Russell on the team.  Years of losing and mismanagement at the top could force Towns out at some point, which would obviously be a devastating blow for the Timberwolves and their future.

Then there’s Sacramento, who doesn’t have anyone’s unhappiness to worry about except Buddy Hield’s, who is a bit lower on the totem pole than everyone else.  The Kings’ objective this year should simply be to compete and show that progress is being made toward fielding a winning team.  A Sacramento team that makes the play-in tournament? That would be surprising, and a positive step for the franchise. A team that at least doesn’t suck, is entertaining and maybe uses this year as a catapult for elevated success next season?  At the least, that should be the Kings’ goal.

The same goes for New Orleans, Minnesota and Portland, just on perhaps a different standard.  

Portland solved almost every issue it had this offseason except for one.  They brought in Larry Nance Jr. to sure up some of the defensive leaks and added even more firepower around Lillard and CJ McCollum with Tony Snell.  But it didn’t make a big, drastic change that seems to necessary for them to make the leap into true contender status. That could change if Ben Simmons gets moved this year (McCollum for Simmons might be the best deal for both sides in the NBA right now, given the health and safety risk that Kyrie Irving is).  A move like that could be the last-ditch effort needed to keep Lillard in town, because even with the offseason moves, and as Lillard said himself, it just doesn’t seem like quite enough.  If the Trail Blazers can emerge as real Finals contenders this year, it might be a natural way of fending off the inevitable.

Minnesota enters this season in chaos after its President of Basketball Operations was ousted a couple weeks ago.  On paper, the Timberwolves look like they should be decent, but D’Angelo Russell has turned himself into a negative value player, defense no matter what the personnel is has been a challenge over the years and there’s a lot riding on the play and development of young players like Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels.  

The Timberwolves turning the page this year and showing that they at least have something must be the goal with the clock on Towns ticking.  Whether Russell is able to flip his value around thanks to the presence of a truer point guard in Patrick Beverley, or the import of Leandro Bolmaro provides a much needed boost to Minnesota’s isolation game, or whether Towns turns into the player we’ve hoped he’d be on both ends, the Wolves need something to break this year, even if it is a late-seed playoff berth.

Finally, there’s New Orleans, which is on its third coach in three years and has struggled to field a competitive team around Williamson.  This season seems to be among their best chances in recent memory, as they relieved some of the clutter at the guard position by sticking to newly-signed Devonte’ Graham, Tomas Santoransky, Kira Lewis Jr. and Nickeil Alexander Walker.  Three of four of those players can play together, with Lewis Jr. potentially being a spark-plug sixth man.  Graham’s a potent guard to pair with Brandon Ingram and Williamson, which should give the Pelicans enough offensive juice.  

The biggest question is defense and health.  Williamson has been a force when healthy, but with him set to miss the beginning of this season due a foot surgery that secretly took place over the offseason, it’s fair to wonder whether someone with his size and skills simply works at the NBA level.  The former No. 1 overall pick has also failed to live up the hype he had at Duke on the defensive side of the ball, which doesn’t bode well for a team already playing Ingram and the 6-foot-1 Graham.  Additionally, while Jonas Valanciunas is certainly a better fit on both sides of the ball than Steven Adams was, he’s not a switchable, athletic big.  Jaxson Hayes fits that mold, but he’s shown serious signs of rawness since being drafted, and the Pelicans just extended Valanciunas’ contract.

New Orleans needs to prove to Williamson that it has something going for it this year.  The problem is that there’s three other teams that are wanting to do the same with their respective superstars, and the Western Conference, even in a diluted state, is still loaded.  It will likely take a big step up from Williamson himself or Graham to get the Pelicans where they need to be in 2021-22. 

Oklahoma City Thunder

Get anyone to pop, or get in position to get someone who will

The Thunder are an incredibly difficult evaluation since their long game appears to be endless.  With a bounty of future draft picks, Oklahoma City is in position to get whoever it wants via a trade or trade-up in the draft.  Until that guy becomes available or is eligible (he seemingly did this past draft in Cade Cunningham, but Oklahoma City either passed on the price or Detroit told them No. 1 wasn’t available), the Thunder are in a holding pattern with their roster, which means that incase the opportunity never comes to land the guy, it better come from within.

The options for Oklahoma City internally are a little scarce.  Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is really good, but his role now seems a little questionable with the drafting of point guard Josh Giddey.  The No. 6 overall pick in 2021 has the superstar qualities that the Thunder seek, but a lack of a jumper and sturdy frame could hold that development back in the long-term.  Giddey can get to the rim with ease thanks to his 6-foot-8 frame, which makes any ability of his to create a shot down the line incredibly valuable.  At this stage though, he’s still a bit of a raw project, and may never reach that next level the Thunder hope he will.

Then there’s Aleksej Pokusevski, who on some nights last year looked like he’d never played basketball before and others looked like a future All-Star. Pokusevski is a whole other level of raw, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll be out of the league in five years or not.  Regardless, Oklahoma City banking on the former first rounder to emerge as a cornerstone for them is probably unrealistic.  This year provides a good test-run for him and all the other young talent now that not as many veterans are in the way, but something has to come along eventually for the Thunder – you can’t spend the entire timeline of the picks just waiting to make a move.

Phoenix Suns

Run it back and prove them wrong

Like the Bucks, the Suns have endured a lot of criticism and skepticism after their run to the Finals last season, with most of it being very valid.

To prove that last year was not a fluke, Phoenix doesn’t need to get back to the Finals again.  Encouraging outings against full strength Nuggets and Clippers rosters – during the regular season or playoffs if viable – would suffice.  But it’s unlikely either of those come to fruition, thanks to the very injuries that helped out the Suns in the 2021 playoffs.  

The Lakers are a tough evaluation for Phoenix when it comes to proving their worth.  It’s a completely new Lakers team first of all, but is also a team the Suns beat more fair and square than any other matchups last spring – LeBron James’ claims about his ankle after the loss fail to be taken seriously when he said he was 100 percent before the series started.  Anthony Davis’ injury is a legit excuse, but the James and the Lakers had multiple chances to fight harder against the Suns and never did so.  It wasn’t a matter of Phoenix being better – it was one of the Suns giving more effort.

Phoenix should strive to win the whole thing in 2021-22, whether it’s unattainable or not.  An at least respectable effort to do so should validate much of the playoff run last year.  The Suns roster is only better this year, with Landry Shamet and multiple backup centers (that includes Jalen Smith, hopefully) in the fold.  If the Suns flop, the critics will rightfully be calling.  If they shine, then the rest of the league better watch out.

San Antonio Spurs

Play survival of the fittest with the youth

The Spurs are in better shape than given credit for.  They sneakily have a boatload of young talent.  But at this stage in that collective’s development, they’re all complimentary pieces, or project to be that.

Higher ceiling options could be in the fold.  Keldon Johnson has been a completely different player since San Antonio sent him to the G-League during his rookie season – the former sharpshooter now uses his frame to get to the rim and still shoot over people.  Joshua Primo, as ghastly as that Spurs draft pick was, could have some untapped shot creation in him given his loose, vivacious style of play.  Dejounte Murray – their gifted point guard – just needs a jump shot to elevate his game, and Lonnie Walker Jr. remains a bit of an enigma in that department.

But none of these names are guaranteed to breakout or have their ceilings reach to the height the Spurs need them to.  If San Antonio can get a real feel for everyone this season, they can then move some of the spare parts elsewhere and potentially use them to make a splash.

Utah Jazz

Prove that a big shakeup isn’t necessary 

This mandate for Utah has nothing to do with the regular season.  The Jazz are likely to win a bunch of games, place high in the Western Conference and have a bunch of people going “Look out for Utah when the playoffs start!” only for it to come crashing down underwhelmingly early in the postseason.

The Jazz need that to not happen if they don’t want to ask and answer hard questions.  They’ve got to either make the Conference Finals, or give a good team a sweat on the path to getting there. But even that still feels like a disappointment.

Getting there will be hard, but if Donovan Mitchell can have a bit more of an impact on winning and if Rudy Gay proves to be viable as a small-ball five, allowing the Jazz to go small and switch every position of defense when Rudy Gobert isn’t on the court, then Utah would have at least made progress toward figuring out a solution for a roster that seems to be in denial about iself.

West projected standings:

  1. Phoenix Suns
  2. Los Angeles Lakers
  3. Utah Jazz
  4. Golden State Warriors
  5. Dallas Mavericks
  6. Portland Trail Blazers
  7. Denver Nuggets
  8. Los Angeles Clippers
  9. Memphis Grizzlies
  10. New Orleans Pelicans
  11. Minnesota Timberwolves
  12. San Antonio Spurs
  13. Sacramento Kings
  14. Houston Rockets
  15. Oklahoma City Thunder

A paragraph on the rest of the conference: The Suns prove their run to the Finals was no joke by using chemistry to top the Lakers.  Utah continues its regular season dominance but doesn’t pass the eye test as much, leading to another playoff collapse.  Dallas improves but not quite enough, and begins to think hard about what the right team around Doncic looks like.  The Blazers play well but ultimately not well enough, causing demons of the past to surface again.  Denver and the Clippers sneak in despite their banged-up rosters, but don’t pose much of a playoff threat.  Memphis makes the cut due to typical hard play and a step up from Bane and Morant, while the Pelicans are the last team in thanks to Minnesota’s youth and defensive shortcomings.  The Spurs still fail to get one of their young guys to elevate their game high enough, causing them to investigate upgrades league-wide, while the Kings have a disastrous season and reboot.  Houston and Oklahoma City expectedly round out the West, each having their own ways of entertaining but experience none of it translating to actual wins.

What A Successful Season Looks Like For The Lakers And Warriors

To preview the 2021-22 NBA season, we’re taking a big picture look at what this year means to each team in the league. Part 2 on Tuesday consists of just the two teams in the Western Conference that open their season today, and what they need to do in order to be successful by reasonable standards. Look for the rest of the Western Conference teams on Wednesday.

Golden State Warriors

Make it known and feared that you’re back

This is the year the Warriors have been waiting for.

It’s been a lost past two seasons thanks to injuries sustained by Klay Thompson for Golden State.  Now, Thompson will be back, and the roster is fitted perfectly for how the Warriors want to play.

It’s all built around Stephen Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green, who in some way could resemble their 2015 selves.  Curry is clearly still at the top of his game after nearly winning MVP last season, while Green and Thompson’s abilities are less clear.

Thompson is coming off of two of the worst injuries an athlete can suffer in a torn ACL and torn achilles.  He hasn’t played basketball in 2.5 years, and could be a shell of his former defensive self. Green has seemingly forgot how to shoot and space the floor over the years, complicating his offensive role.  But he’s still found a niche acting as a screener and passer at the elbow, unlocking a lot for the Warriors’ offense when it needed to give Curry a break.  Defensively, Green is still very good and proved a lot of people wrong last year.  Steve Kerr has mentioned how he plans to implement Green as a small-ball center again this season, which only advances the notion that the Warriors plan to get back to their roots. 

But the Warriors also have other people to take care of.  It’s clear James Wiseman needs as many minutes as possible to gain his bearings in the NBA, or Golden State will quickly be looking at a scenario where they drafted the worst possible player with the No. 2 overall pick in 2020.  His role is reduced significantly if Green is to play at the five late in games.  The same can be said for 2021 No. 7 overall pick Jonathan Kuminga, who could very well be the last wing in the rotation on Golden State’s roster depending on how washed Nemanja Bjelica is (it was pretty rough last year for him).  

Golden State has the right formula and plan to contend this year.  Now it just needs to execute it. It has well-fitting players – off-ball wings – around its big three.  If they fail to live up to the stakes, supplementary scorers like Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins stand by to help.  There’s the perhaps scary variance of what Kuminga and Thompson could bring to the table, but there’s also stability in Moses Moody and Juan Toscano-Anderson.  Ultimately, things come down to Curry again, which probably isn’t what the Warriors totally wanted for him and themselves.  But with a better surrounding cast, a performance like last year’s from the former MVP is all the more meaningful.

Los Angeles Lakers

Don’t let the Russell Westbrook trade crater your chances

It would be one thing for the Lakers to come up short of winning the NBA title this year for the following reasons. 

The Nets or Bucks – two loaded teams – could take them down.  LeBron James could finally show some signs of not being as dominant.  A lengthy injury to Anthony Davis cannot be out of the question given his medical history.  

But the one thing Los Angeles can’t afford this season is chemistry issues brought on by the addition of Russell Westbrook this summer.  As a result of that move – a valid one in the sense of boosting the win total if James plays like a 36-37-year-old should or if Davis does go down – the Lakers’ roster is much worse.  Out went flawed but quality players like Dennis Schroder, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and in came almost exclusively washed veterans like Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony and Wayne Ellington. All of that was done to accommodate a very high usage, volatile presence in Westbrook who has proved that he plays best when he believes he’s the only player on the court.  If James is still capable of playing up to his previous standard, and Davis is healthy, Westbrook’s presence could very well become a liability.

The Lakers must fine-tune his role when the games start to matter this season.  Houston reached a decent level of efficiency with regard to Westbrook’s role in the 2020 Bubble, playing him almost like a center in the paint and allowing him to drive to the rim whenever he wanted.  This role eliminated Westbrook’s low percentage jumpshots and isolations and instead utilized his incredible athleticism.  

It might be tough for the Lakers to do the same with Westbrook this year though.  Davis is best utilized in the same area of the court Westbrook is, though his ability to isolate and create from outside the paint is underrated and is probably worth developing more.  That said, Westbrook’s presence conflicts directly with what makes the Lakers a dangerous postseason threat.  Unless either James is a shell of himself or Davis is out, Westbrook stands to be a liability once again.  After an overhaul geared directly toward him, a poor ending to this season due his selfishness is a disaster of epic proportions.

Projected standings in the Western Conference for both teams:

2. Los Angeles Lakers

4. Golden State Warriors

Some sentences about the two: Despite concerns about their postseason viability, the Lakers should be able to roll through most of the Conference during the regular season without Westbrook causing too much disruption and destruction. The Warriors don’t enter the playoffs as favorites per se, but strike fear into every opponent they face and get enough from Thompson and Moody to be taken seriously.

What A Successful Season Looks Like For Each Eastern Conference NBA Team

To preview the 2021-22 NBA season, we’re taking a big picture look at what this year means to each team in the league. Part 1 on Monday consists of every team in the Eastern Conference, and what they need to do in order to be successful by reasonable standards. Look for the Western Conference teams on Tuesday or Tuesday and Wednesday, time-permitting for the 26-credit college student author.

Let’s go!

Atlanta Hawks

Find an extra source of offensive oomph

As written in the 2021 Mock Draft, the Hawks could come into the offseason with almost a blank check.  Last season was dream-like for them, and Atlanta really only had two things to take care of heading into this year.

They did one of them.  While they’re still not totally equipped to take down Giannis Antetokounmpo (like most teams, to be fair) – the main reason last year’s run came to end – they did attempt to acquire even more offensive starpower in Jalen Johnson with the No. 20 pick in July’s draft.

Johnson’s offensive game is very boom or bust at the NBA level.  This site was incredibly high on him, but there’s no guarantee his style will ever translate.  But the Hawks aren’t solely reliant on him to provide that offensive boost this season.  Trae Young went up a level in 2020-21, and nothing seems impossible with him anymore after the masterpiece he painted in the playoffs.  The Hawks will also have Bogdan Bogdanovic to their use for the entire regular season, which could propel the offense to unseen heights, and DeAndre Hunter will also be back healthy – he’s someone who has developed nicely at the NBA level, but still hasn’t hit the ceiling he was projected for out of Virginia in 2019.

The Hawks were no fluke in 2021, but to be considered true title contenders moving forward, they’re going to have to get a step up from someone with the ball in their hands.

Boston Celtics

Bask in the glory of the righted ship

For the second time in three years, everything that could have gone wrong seemingly did for Boston last season.  The Celtics had no bench at all, underperformed, didn’t get enough offense from their star wings and point guard, dealt with a brutal stretch of COVID-19 absences and lost confidence in their head coach, who is now their General Manager in Brad Stevens.

Boston fixed as many of these issues as they could.  It added substantial depth, with Josh Ricardson, Dennis Schroder, Al Horford and Juancho Hernangomez all in the fold.  It swapped out Stevens for Ime Udoka, who was atop any list of best head coaching candidates the past five years or so.  The Celtics should also have COVID-19 be much less of a factor this year, but still need at least one or two players to step up.

The loss of Kemba Walker can be debated, but even in his diluted state he provided shot-creation the Celtics just didn’t replace in the offseason.  Dennis Schroder came on the cheap, but while bringing different liabilities to the table, he still brings the same quantity of them.

Boston needs one of their two star wings to make up for that loss.  Jaylen Brown has seemingly gotten better every season – it may be hard to keep asking him to do that given how far he has come and without starting to have serious conversations about how underrated he is in the league.  

Jayson Tatum is the X-Factor.  While Brown only blows us away, Tatum has yet to exceed expectations.  Perhaps the depth and flexibility in the lineup takes some of the pressure off him, but plenty of teams in the league have the back of the rotation taken care and forget the top.

Brooklyn Nets

Win the title, and cash in on what is still an embarrassment of riches

When the Nets signed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in 2019, they knew they would be immediate contenders in 2020-21, when Durant was back and fully healed from his achilles tear.  When Brooklyn traded for James Harden early on that season, the Nets assembled what could be considered as of the greatest collections of offensive talent ever.  When Harden and Irving sporadically missed time that year, the duo of Durant and one of the guards was still good enough, and when Durant was left to fend for himself in June’s second round playoff series against the Bucks, the Nets still came just inches away from moving on and being favorites to win the championship.

The bottom line is that an absence even to the degree of Irving’s for the whole season is overcomable for the Nets.  While it is certainly not preferred or acceptable for Irving to seemingly miss the entire season due to his reluctance to get a COVID-19 vaccine – a dose that is required for him to play home games in Brooklyn and forced the Nets to not allow him to play only on the road this season – the Nets should be okay, and to be in that position is one the Nets should relish, not feel bad about.

Would Irving’s presence make the Nets more likely to dominate and win the title? Undoubtedly yes, especially if the Bucks prove that last year’s second round win wasn’t as flukey as we believed it to be or if another Eastern Conference team rises up to an unexpected degree.  But the Nets still have arguably the best player in basketball on their team in addition to another top ten player, and have the potential return of an Irving trade looming.  While it’s entirely plausible that no NBA team would want Irving’s circus – and potentially not want an unvaccinated player in their locker room – selling low on Irving could still bring valuable pieces back to Brooklyn, and even more value to a team in search of an upgrade to its current shot creation situation.

In the doomsday scenario of no Irving himself or no Irving, Brooklyn still holds the crown as the title favorite. It brought in better depth around its two stars, and took pressure off of poor Bruce Brown – a point guard who played center a lot last season. With Patty Mills running the show without Irving in the fold, Harden and Durant can light the world on fire, and let the wins instead of the guy who isn’t there do the talking.

Charlotte Hornets

Let LaMelo’s progress dictate the next steps of the rebuild

The Hornets won the lottery in ways no one saw coming with LaMelo Ball’s breakout rookie season in 2020-21, and now they get to sit back and rest in the wake of it.

Charlotte doesn’t have to rush into anything yet.  Ball figures to make yet another leap in his second year, and the Hornets should be able to get a good sense of his true ceiling as a player with that.  How high he ascends either accelerates the Hornets’ timeline – in-season or next offseason – or allows them to go fishing for an even better player to pair with him for the future. Around Ball, there’s a lot of young talent to let grow as well. A below-average season from the Hornets shouldn’t be unexpected, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, either.

Chicago Bulls

Make the offseason moves look more than worth it 

Everything Chicago did this summer is understandable from a business perspective – the team has not been relevant as a serious playoff or title contender since Derrick Rose’s MVP season.  But the moves put a cap on the success the Bulls can have this season and beyond.

Is anyone in their starting lineup – Lonzo Ball, Zach Lavine, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Williams, Nikola Vuecevic – a No. 1 option on a great team?  Forget championship team – “great” doesn’t have to mean a Finals winner – are the Bulls suited to get past the second round?

Lavine made somewhat of a leap last season as an efficient scorer and passer, but he’s still far off from All-NBA consideration.  DeRozan is probably a little underrated just because of the role and lack of success he had in San Antonio, but the contract handed to him was still quite hefty and all he did in Toronto was come up short.  Patrick Williams is the one guy that could emerge with the high-upside skill set the Bulls need – Chicago certainly felt that way when it took him No. 4 overall on draft night in 2020 when consensus had him as a late-lottery to mid-first round pick.  But this is only Williams’ second season – his first in a normal year – and he showed many bouts of rawness (which was to be expected) in 2020-21.  Additionally, he’s coming into this year with a newly-healed high ankle sprain, which is an injury that can hang around longer than expected.  

The Bulls banking on Williams to elevate them to new heights this season is a really tough bet.  Sprinkle in a team that is defensively challenged aside from Wiliams and Lonzo Ball, and Chicago will probably feel like its spending left them hungry for a little more at the end of the season.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Give off any notion that you have a plan or know what you’re doing

The Koby Altman-led front office in Cleveland has been a roller coaster ride since LeBron James left in 2018.  The drafting of Darius Garland in 2019 and trade for Andre Drummond early in 2020 was the first sign that the Cavaliers rebuild would be unorthodox.  The selection of Isaac Okoro in the 2020 Draft and the acquisition of Jarrett Allen two months later rounded out the rest of roster around Garland and Collin Sexton, but still presented limited upside.  Using the No. 3 pick in the 2021 Draft on Evan Mobley also made sense, but the move was countered by the strange sign and trade for Lauri Markannen late in free agency.

Cleveland enters the 2021-22 season in a state of purgatory.  It possesses a team that has too many players and is too expensive for what it is.  They lack a quality, 1A offensive option – or even one that projects as that someday.  Mobley very well could be a superstar, but he likely isn’t turning into a dominant, post-scoring big man or perimeter shot-creator, sooner or later.

Altman needs something to pop this year.  Whether it’s a big step up from either player or both in the ‘Sexland’ duo or an indisputable Rookie of the Year campaign from Mobley, the Cavaliers need some semblance of progress in 2021-22, or else big changes will be in store.

Detroit Pistons

Let Cade show you what he is capable of 

Detroit is in a similar spot as Charlotte, although with much lower expectations.  While the Hornets could easily find their way into the playoffs this year, Detroit can sit back and relax this year and watch the talent on the court tells them.

The Pistons sneakily have one of the best young cores in basketball with with Cade Cunningham coming in from Oklahoma State and after Saddiq Bey proved his readiness during his rookie year.  Cunningham is the crux of everything the Pistons do going forward – he’s one of the best prospects the game has seen this century.  How good he is right away – or how good he shows the Pistons he can be – dictates the next steps and how soon those steps need to be taken.  All 2021-22 is about is seeing what they consist of.

Indiana Pacers

See if Rick Carlisle is the saving grace before making a big move

Indiana is locked into a similar roster as Chicago, where many quality players exist but a high floor and low ceiling does as well.  With Malcolm Brogdon being a steddy-eddy at point guard and Caris LeVert probably topping out as a No. 1 option on a mediocre team when healthy, the Conference Finals are probably going to be a reach for this group now and going forward.

That does not mean Indiana is bad.  TJ Warren is just as potent as LeVert offensively, and for all of its faults, the Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner frontcourt is fearsome.  But defense is a real challenge here.  Perhaps Rick Carlisle – the team’s new head coach – can round the team into shape with some new schemes and elevate one of its five starters’ games, but Indiana, with plenty of depth and good players, should probably have their eye on a bigger fish at some point this season.  They are not too far off at all.

Miami Heat

Rekindle the Bubble spark

Miami made it clear with the sign and trade for Kyle Lowry this offseason that it was going for it once again.  The Heat also completed a hard overhaul of its wings, which was a necessity after their performance in the playoffs.

The Heat clearly have title aspirations in 2021-22. To hit that benchmark, they’ll need to find what they had in the 2020 Bubble again: Elite two-way play from Jimmy Butler, hot three point-shooting and perhaps a higher level of offensive play from someone else.

All of those things are possible this year.  Butler was incredible down the stretch of last year’s regular season – the rest of the team just fizzled out on him.  The Heat brought in Lowry – albeit an old Lowry – to help take some of the load off and boost the shot creation.  Duncan Robinson is back on a massive contract, and P.J. Tucker is – even in a reduced offensive state – an upgrade over almost anyone they had on the wings last year (Looking at you, Trevor Ariza and Andre Iguodala) – Markieff Morris will play a role too.  The Heat can also deploy Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo at some point this season, with Herro likely spending his time as the backup point guard and Oladipo slotting in as the sixth man, if/whenever he returns to the court.  The two backup guards are perhaps the biggest X-Factors for the Heat.  Combining both of them with Bubble-level Butler and Lowry creates a dynamic, scary offense for any defense to try and stop.

Milwaukee Bucks

At least give Brooklyn a good fight and lay to rest the 2021 asterisk title case

There’s no way to sugar-coat it: both teams in last year’s NBA Finals received huge breaks along the way, and the 2021 title – just like the 2015, 2019 and 2020 (and even 2016 to an extent) ones – are asterisked, even though nothing in the Finals series itself dictated that.

So Milwaukee, even as the reigning champions, still has some things to prove.  The best way the Bucks can rid themselves of the takes and accusations is not necessarily to beat Brooklyn in next year’s playoffs, but at least go toe-to-toe and make it as close as the Nets did (or really, as close as Durant did) in that second-round series.  Defeating the Nets would be huge for the sake of validating the 2021 championship, but there will never be any proof one way or the other.  If Milwaukee can put together an effort that makes Brooklyn sweat or worse, then it should be enough to shut some of the critics up.

New York Knicks

Squeeze as much as possible out of Kemba, and prove 2020-21 wasn’t a fluke

Almost irregardless of his play, the Knicks got an upgrade at point guard this offseason when they signed Kemba Walker off his buyout from Oklahoma City.

Walker was not able to serve as the guy Boston needed him to be the past two seasons.  Without Kyrie Irving – and all of his subsequent problems – the Celtics just couldn’t get Walker to replenish the missing star power, and didn’t get the massive leap needed from Tatum in addition.

The Knicks don’t need that from Walker.  They need any shot creation and star power they can get, as the first round playoff matchup against the Hawks proved – Julius Randle just has no business being a playoff team’s No. 1 offensive option, and Immanuel Quickley is likely best served as an energy guy who can hit shots.  Assuming Walker can be better than Randle was if the Knicks make the playoffs, and assuming that the duo is as potent as it projects to be during the regular season, New York should be in decent shape to be as successful as it was last year, or least have people as excited as they were.  If the Knicks manage to do that, then a return to title contender status in the near future shouldn’t be far-fetched if the league’s stars and future stars get over playing for James Dolan.

Orlando Magic

Play all of the four guards and see what pops 

The Magic are in about as embarrassing a state as an NBA team can be in right now by rebuilding after a failed rebuild.  That said, they do have some things to work with.

For a team that plateaued so harshly with almost no promise, the talent at the two guard positions is incredibly impressive.  It starts with Jalen Suggs, the Hub’s No. 2 ranked player on the 2021 Draft big board who miraculously fell to No. 5 overall and has the potential to immediately become Orlando’s best player and take it to unforeseen heights fast.  The Magic could very well have a No. 1 player on a good team already on their hands, and building around him and his skillset allows for the quickest way for Orlando to gain relevance.

Even if Suggs plays out at the high-floor player most had him projected as, Orlando still has a lot of hope on the roster.  Cole Anthony is certainly not a bust and figures to be at least a rotation player in his career – his ceiling’s range is still quite high at this point.  RJ Hampton was another pick in the 2020 Draft that had high praise from the Hub’s board and others, but slipped due to multiple fair concerns.  Finally, the Magic paid Markelle Fultz big money two offseasons ago, and clearly believe in him as one of the most important pieces toward a good team in central Florida.  That contract and bet still seems a little too rich, but it’s almost guaranteed he’ll provide more value than we thought he would during his last days in Philadelphia.

Orlando is incredibly deep in the back-court, and has a lot to learn from its players, but it’s not a bad thing to have a lot of hope when you’ve been stuck at the bottom for so long.  There’s more hope now than ever on the Magic’s roster, and for the first time in awhile, it might actually be worth getting excited for.

Philadelphia 76ers

Resolve the Ben Simmons situation before next year

This season was destined to be a perhaps messy, off-track one for Philadelphia as soon as it lost to Atlanta in the second round of the playoffs in the spring.  In a perfect world, Ben Simmons would have been traded away as soon as he was eligible to be, and the 76ers would have gotten pieces back that may not have solved all their problems, but at least would have put them in a better position to win the championship.

Integrating those pieces would have taken time, and therefore created perhaps a slow start to this year, or even somewhat of a lost year.  Under different circumstances, the 76ers are in position to do just that as of now.

Which makes the current situation with Simmons somewhat tenable.  Things are uncomfortable and different for simply a different reason than expected.  What Philidelphia cannot do is go into next year with the same problem on its hands.  Simmons must be dealt – no matter for what package – by the end of next Summer.  The 2022-23 season has to be go-time for the Sixers, as a healthy and still young Joel Embiid must be taken advantage of.  Two years of waiting around cannot be allowed.

For now, the Sixers can wait for the situation to be resolved.  As long as his unhappiness doesn’t reach the levels James Harden’s did last year, then playing the season out and trying new things with regard to Simmons’ role shouldn’t be a bad thing.  Philadelphia is right to hold out for a bigger fish to want out elsewhere, but is also right to not accept an offer not worthy of what is left of Simmons’ value.

Toronto Raptors

Decide what direction you’re actually going in

For what feels like the third year in a row, the Raptors have one of the most confusing rosters in the league.

That does allow them some freedom, though.  If Toronto wants, it can be a decent, competitive team this year, which is what they’ve tended to be in the wake of Kawhi Leonard’s departure.

But that type of team has shown its ceiling the last two years – they went out sad in the Bubble in 2020, and though last season certainly had its challenges as the Raptors were forced to play in Tampa Bay, there was less grit than ever shown before from a Nick Nurse team.

The current depth chart seems to have the low ceiling and high floor that teams of the past have had.  Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are all quality players, but ultimately need a better shot creator in the fold to really shine.  There’s been a lot of hype about Anunoby’s evolution as a player, but him emerging as the true type Toronto needs seems unlikely this year and in the future.  The same goes for rookie Scottie Barnes, who was one of the safest players in the 2021 Draft but would be a massive surprise to produce the offense the Raptors need.  The book seems out on Siakam as that guy – he is just not good enough of a shooter to assume that role.

With their re-signing of Gary Trent Jr. this offseason, it seems like the Raptors are attempting to remain competitive.  That’s fine, and they figure to be decent in 2021-22 whether Goran Dragic is bought out or not, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see a bunch of pieces exchanged for one bigger fish at some point this year or in the future if they choose not to tear it down and start totally over.

Washington Wizards

Go all in

The Wizards are the most underrated team in the Eastern Conference entering this season.  Washington is deep.

It has three capable point guards in Spencer Dinwiddie, Aaron Holiday and Raul Neto.  It has a top-25 player – at least – in Bradley Beal, who’s a good bet to make his second All-NBA Team this year now that he has the best group of players in his career around him.  The Wizards have a bevy of wings that include Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Davis Bertans, Kyle Kuzma, Rui Hachimera, Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert and Isaiah Todd.  To cap it all off, they have rim protection taken care of too, with Daniel Gafford ready to take his success from last year and spread it over a larger sample and Thomas Bryant coming back from injury.  And why not add some energy to the mix with Montrezl Harrell?

The Wizards are loaded without the top end talent that a team with that description usually has.  But don’t underestimate Beal with a good supporting cast.  This is the best team ever constructed around him in his career.  We’ve seen Beal be one of the 15 best players in the league before with worse.  What does his ceiling look like this year?

That’s why Washington’s motto this year should be to go all in.  Whether it’s trading some of the ridiculous depth to bolster the top end of the roster more and turn the team into a contender, or whether it be staying with the current construct to lessen the load on Beal as much as possible, the Wizards are ready to be the most relevant they’ve been in years – and not let anything screw it up.

Eastern Conference Projected Standings:

  1. Brooklyn Nets
  2. Milwaukee Bucks
  3. Atlanta Hawks
  4. Miami Heat
  5. Boston Celtics
  6. Philadelphia 76ers
  7. Washington Wizards
  8. Chicago Bulls
  9. Indiana Pacers
  10. New York Knicks
  11. Toronto Raptors
  12. Charlotte Hornets
  13. Detroit Pistons
  14. Orlando Magic
  15. Cleveland Cavaliers

A paragraph on the conference: Brooklyn gets it done without Irving because of the already present star power.  Milwaukee will be right there if injuries hit or if the Nets are conservative about their stars’ playing time.  The Hawks cash in on their run-it-back strategy and are still loaded with offensive options, while Miami raises its ceiling with much needed depth and roster upgrades.  Boston improves for the same reason, while the 76ers slip a bit due to chaos and potential new players coming in.  The Wizards’ decked-out roster gets them into the Play-In Tournament, with their ceiling rising higher if they make a big move.  The Bulls underperform but at least gain some relevance – which seemed to be the goal of everything anyways.  Indiana is a tough-out for its opponent every night under Carlisle, but still come up short.  The Knicks’ record takes a hit due to regression, but morale improves inside the franchise once again and sets them up to be a big fish’s destination via free agency or trade.  The Raptors continue to bite teams in the butt like Indiana, but no one emerges from the dust as a star and forces hard questions to be answered.  Charlotte unfortunately finds itself on the outside looking in, mostly because the conference is sneakily loaded but also because of the amount of youth they’re relying on.  Detroit, Orlando and Cleveland are the bottom feeders, with Cunningham and Suggs surprising everyone with their impact while the house gets cleaned out in Cleveland after a disastrous season.

Finishing Off The Teams That Probably Can’t Win The Super Bowl

This column serves as part three of the NFL preview. Yes, we’re once again a day behind, but both the Cowboys and Buccaneers have been covered.

Now to finish off the rest of the league: the remaining teams that have a case to win the Super Bowl. Again, these teams are listed in no particular order.

Ravens

The reason they can: Whatever he may be now, Lamar Jackson was and maybe still is an MVP, and now he’s got three legitimate weapons in Marquise Brown, Mark Andrews and Rashod Bateman (who will be out to begin the season just like every other Raven, it seems). The defense, despite the loss of Marcus Peters, is still stacked at every level, with the front seven being the highlight.  Baltimore needs to rekindle some spark to get there, but if it can, they’re right at the top of teams to look out for.

The reason they can’t: There’s now been some foresight bought by publishing this post-Thursday, which saw Baltimore’s already ammargoden-like offseason only get worse.  The Ravens have lost three running backs (including their No. 1 starter and his replacement) and their top cornerback to torn ACLs, and now have to operate with two washed-up veterans in Devonta Freeman and Le’Veon Bell in the backfield. Latavius Murray’s presence should help, as he’s not as ineffective as the other two have been, but is ultimately not someone who is getting 20 carries a game at this stage of his career. The losses at running back put a huge burden on Jackson, whose shine as a passer could have been a one-year fluke during his MVP season.  With receivers now in haul, it’s on Jackson to return to form, or else Baltimore may be a team fighting for the playoffs while being carried by its defense.

49ers

The reason they can: They shouldn’t have the injury year they did in 2020, plain and simple.  And San Francisco now has an upgrade at quarterback if they need it.  The rest of the roster is stacked, just as it was when the 49ers made the Super Bowl in 2019-20.  If Trey Lance is truly not ready for NFL regular season snaps, the defense (which is among the best in football aside from some once again shaky cornerback play) can carry Jimmy Garoppolo and company, and Kyle Shahanan can make due just as he did two years ago with Garrapolo’s averageness throwing the ball.

The reason they can’t: It wasn’t enough two years ago to win it all, the NFC West is a hellscape and the book is out on Garoppolo, even if Shanahan can work some magic.  While the upside in Lance exists, he’s still a wild unknown and could be completely overwhelmed if inserted in as San Francisco’s starter.  Also, the 49ers’ safety play should help, but their cornerbacks have serious burn potential on a game-to-game basis.

Browns

The reason they can: Cleveland’s roster is another that easily ranks among the top ten in the league, and is perhaps one of the best.  The Browns have incredible one-two punches at running back and wide receiver, with football’s best offensive line in the middle.  All of that, in addition to a defense that could carry any average offense to the playoffs, should be more than enough for Baker Mayfield to succeed.  If he can elevate his play just a tad higher, and breach the elite boundary, Cleveland should win the AFC North with ease.


The reason they can’t: Can Mayfield really do it?  Is the Cleveland Browns franchise legally allowed to win a title?  Are the Browns really better than the Chiefs or Bills?  Cleveland is set up for perhaps its most successful season ever in 2020-21.  At the same time, it’s understandable as to why the Browns front office is holding out on giving Mayfield an extension.  The passing game should not be as flaccid as it is given the weapons on hand.  Health from everyone is needed, but Mayfield should be able to make due.  Until he elevates even a smidge, he’s going to be the loser in a duel between him and Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen.

Chargers

The reason they can: Justin Herbert looks on-pace to be one of the best quarterbacks in football after an explosive rookie season, and Los Angeles is doing the opposite of not giving him enough weapons with Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Jared Cook all to play with.  LA’s biggest controllable holes have been fixed – the offensive line is the best it has been in years (with the guard spots still a little iffy, but alas) and Anthony Lynn is no longer in charge.  The Chargers’ defense should be one of the best in football, with a wealth of talent at almost every position group.  The Chiefs being in the division is a problem, but if things break right, LA should be right among the top teams in the loaded AFC.

The reason they can’t: Because they’re the Chargers and can’t stay healthy, can’t make kicks and can’t execute when it matters, for whatever reason.  Maybe it was Lynn’s lack of preparedness for late-game situations, or a slew of bad luck, but there’s no way to be certain that the Chargers won’t Charger this season, even with a bit of a culture change in place.  Constant injury issues also won’t be rerouted by Brandon Staley’s presence, nor will a change in kicker performance.  It’s in the Football Gods’ hands, and who knows what wrath they will lay down this year.

Washington Football Team

The reason they can: This is, essentially, the blueprint for the Broncos of this year and of 2015-16: a very average, mediocre or worse quarterback held up by a fierce defense and plenty of weapons on the offensive end.  The defense will need to do a lot, but with perhaps the best defensive line in football and reliable defenders elsewhere, all Ryan Fitzpatrick needs to do is not have them on the field the entire time.  That should be viable, as Antonio Gibson is primed for a breakout season at running back and four-to-five viable pass-catchers exist for Fitzpatrick when the team is at full strength.  It’s unlikely, but similar things have happened recently – the parallels to the 49ers in 2019-20 are strong.

The reason they can’t: In no way is it conceivable that Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to win the Super Bowl.  The Nick Foles case exists, but at least he had shown multiple flashes at multiple points of his career.  In addition, Fitzpatrick is not along the lines of “knowing of what you’re getting” average – he’s actually the complete opposite, where four touchdowns in a game is just as likely as three back-breaking interceptions.  The variance is just too tough to bet on, and the loss of Curtis Samuel to short-term IR hurts deep.

Bengals:

The reason they can: With a fixed offensive line and good core of weapons, Joe Burrow should be ready for ascension, and that ceiling is limitless.  Burrow was the revelation we expected him to be before a devastating knee injury last November ended his season. He was on pace for a season – and projected ceiling – as good as Herbert’s.  If he can come back from it with no hiccups, then anything is possible for Burrow and the Bengals.

The reason they can’t: The defense is nowhere near good enough – with linebacker needing a complete overhaul – and issues still exist offensively with JaMarr Chase seemingly struggling to adjust to the NFL’s level of play and the offensive line still dealing with holes.  The AFC North is pretty open, but a lot else needs to go right for Cincinnati aside from Burrow being Burrow.

Jaguars:

The reason they can: Like Cincinnati, this is an upside play.  Jacksonville has a generational quarterback at the helm of its offense, and with that, anything is possible.  Trevor Lawrence walks into a better situation than given credit for with the Jaguars.  Despite the loss of fellow Clemson rookie Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville has a reliable running back in James Robinson, whose presence made the original drafting of Etienne Jr. a little confusing.  Jacksonville has given Lawrence weapons to work with up front in his career – D.J. Chark Jr. finally has a quarterback, Marvin Jones Jr. is a steady-eddy and Laviska Sheanault Jr. is a complete wild card in the best sense possible.  The offensive line has struggled but has some talent, and the Jaguars’ defense has a lot of versatile talent in the front seven, which will help make up for a questionable secondary.

The reason they can’t: It’s just a lot to ask for from a rookie quarterback – even one as decorated and seemingly destined for as Lawrence is.  Peyton Manning’s rookie season tells us all we need to know – even for the greats and the highly-anticipated ones, it takes time.  The culture in Jacksonville already seems certainly shaky, which is not ideal for a rookie quarterback.  It was never going to be about whether Urban Meyer can coach, it was always going to be about whether he could lead.  High-end success for him and the Jaguars would be quite a turnaround in a short amount of time.

Patriots

The reason they can: It’s the Patriots, who have completely reloaded, solved all their problems except one, and still have the best coach in football at the helm in Bill Belichick.  Absolutely nobody should be surprised if this happens.  New England gets back a lot of personnel that opted out in 2020, including stud linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who leads a stacked group in the middle.  The secondary is great, and that’s even without Stephon Gilmore, who will miss the beginning of the season and could see himself traded afterwards.  Additions were made up front too, with Matt Judon leading a stout defensive line.  The Patriots finally invested in the wide receivers Tom Brady begged them too – rookie Mac Jones now has four reliable targets and plenty of depth behind them in addition to a talented backfield.  The offensive line is loaded too, and as we’ve learned over the years, roster holes are almost non-existent with Belichick in charge.

The reason they can’t: They’re going to be starting a rookie quarterback who projects to be just average, not only this season but in the future as well.  That’s putting a lot of pressure on the other parts of the defense – a la what’s happening in Denver, Minnesota, Miami and Washington this season (among other teams).  Jones simply has to not suck for the Patriots to be successful this year – assuming Belichick’s heavy spending offensively pays off.  For all the talk about New England’s mediocre pass-catchers, they sure didn’t upgrade as significantly as one would hope.  A lot of money went to injury-prone, drop-heavy players.  Jones should love Jonnu Smith though – the ceiling of that duo, in addition to Damien Harris’ running ability, might be what New England’s success hinges on this season.

Eagles:

The reason they can:  For all the issues, turnover and drama, there’s still a lot of talent on this roster.  The defense, outside of linebacker, is a formidable group that needs the secondary to play up to its potential.  The offensive line still has four solid starters, and two competent depth options in Andre Dillard and Landon Dickerson.  In terms of scoring, Philadelphia has revamped its attack, with Carson Wentz out the door for Jalen Hurts.  Hurts had his struggles late last season, but there was a sense of rejoice and freshness breathed into the Eagles offense.  Now, with rookie DeVonta Smith in the fold and Jalen Reagor having a full offseason to get up to speed, Hurts has legitimate weapons around him, not to mention the tight end duo of Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz.  Miles Sanders can help balance things out, especially if concerns about Hurts’ arm come to fruition.  It would be wild to see Hurts’ rise in such dramatic fashion, but don’t underestimate the power of a new face.

The reason they can’t: Like Atlanta and the Chargers, the Eagles just seem to have bad things happen to them every season when it comes to injuries, and it usually happens to a degree that it decimates the roster. If injuries occur, it could devastate certain weak areas of the roster – linebacker is banking on being supported by the rest of the squad, and cornerback is already a little suspect.  The same can be said for Hurts’ receivers, as demonstrated the past two seasons.  Additionally, counting on Hurts’ to deliver in a big way is a tough bet.  While he semi-ignited the show last year, Hurts wasn’t a first-rounder for a reason, and needs a serious boost from his supporting cast to produce this year.

Steelers

The reason they can: The roster – outside of the offensive line and quarterback (which are admittingly important) – is loaded.  Pittsburgh’s defense is the type that can carry an average offense (which might describe the Steelers’ this year), with impressive linebackers, a ferocious pass rush and a talented secondary.  If Ben Roethlisberger can just hang in, his weapons and defense might be able to take care of him.

The reason they can’t: Roethlisberger was simply bad last year, and there is a shell of an offensive line to protect him this season.  Even with Najee Harris in the fold, the combination of Roethlisberger’s deficiencies and the lack of help up front could very well make the offense even worse than it was last year.

Titans

The reason they can: The Titans added the firepower they desperately needed to their supposed Derrick Henry-led offense, although that could change now that former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith is the head coach in Atlanta.  Julio Jones’ addition becomes even more impactful if the Titans rely less on Henry and let Tannehill air it out more – it’s a shift that could probably be used given that the Titans have still felt short of destiny the past two years.  The defense is surprisingly talented, and aside from Jonnu Smith, there were no big losses anywhere aside from the coaching staff.

The reason they can’t: A potentially new offense that relies on Tannehill more and Henry less may not be something that Tannehill is equipped for, as we’ve seen dating back to his Miami days.  Additionally, there is not much depth at receiver if either Jones or AJ Brown go down, and cornerback is a little suspicious.  It still seems like it’d be asking a lot of Tannehill to take the Titans this far.

Saints

The reason they can: Jameis Winston got a change of scenery and eye surgery.  It’s as simple as that.  If he can just be average, and not mess things up to the degree that he was used to doing in his career, the Saints have a chance – the defense is good enough to pull of a carry-job.  Wide receiver is obviously very suspect, which is not something that bodes for helping out a quarterback who needs every ounce of support he can get, but New Orleans always is able to seemingly pump guys out of their system and turn them into reliable players.

The reason they can’t: It’s Jameis Winston, and everything that comes with that.  The perfect situation doesn’t exactly exist with this roster, thanks to just a steaming pile of uncertainty at pass-catcher.  Winston could even have the best situation possible and still not produce to an acceptable level – Tampa Bay is almost proof of that.  It is more likely that not that the Saints will be looking for their next franchise quarterback after this season – Winston is more likely to tell them that than the Saints deciding it for themselves.

The 6 Teams That Can Absolutely Win The Super Bowl

This column serves as part two of the NFL preview. Yes, we’re a day behind, but both the Cowboys and Bucanneers have been covered. Look out for part three either Friday or Saturday.

Now for part two: the real contenders.

Chiefs

The reason they can: It’s almost easier to just discuss why they may not.  The Chiefs fixed what they needed to this offseason: the offensive line, which arguably single-handedly cost them back-to-back Super Bowl wins when they lost to Tampa Bay in February.  Even though some youth exists, all projected contributors were good players in college, and veteran help will come if needed in Kyle Long, Andrew Wyile and Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff.

The reason they may not: The pass-catching talent outside of Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill is extremely problematic.  If one of those two go down for a significant amount of time, the Chiefs may be in serious trouble even with Patrick Mahomes under center.  Additionally, the interior defensive line is a little weak, and cornerback has zero depth.  Kansas City has four playable safeties, so that could allow it to get creative with its packages, but playing nickel with an extra corner might be a scary proposition. 

Buccaneers

The reason they can: Like the Chiefs, it might just be easier to say why they may not.  Also, they did so last year, and quite literally everyone that made it happen is back.

The reason they may not: Tom Brady is 44 years old and at some point this nonsense has to come to an end?  Because Aaron Rodges is extremely pissed off?  Because Sean McVay finally has a quarterback?  In all seriousness, it’d be surprising if the reason the Bucs don’t repeat came off of this roster, because a lack of cornerback depth does not matter for Tampa Bay this year.  The Buccaneers still have the best roster in football and it’s not close.  The only way this is truly their fault is if Brady is not the same player, which should not be surprising whenever that time comes. 

Packers

The reason they can: They have Aaron Rodgers, who is even more pissed off than he was last season, when he won MVP.  He’s throwing to one of the best wide receivers in football in Davante Adams, and can rely on a very good running back in Aaron Jones.  Green Bay also has a stacked defensive line and secondary, although that side of the ball has given them more problems that one would think the past couple years.

The reason they may not: This exact formula hasn’t worked for years, and Rodgers knows it.  While Green Bay did finally draft another wide receiver and traded for Randall Cobb to help Rodgers out, Amari Rodgers doesn’t move the needle like a Tee Higgins or Chase Claypool in 2020 or a Rondale Moore – per se – in April’s draft would have.  Rodgers has a foot out the door, and it’s fair to wonder if he mails it in considering the current state of affairs between him and the franchise.  Additionally, linebacker is a massive problem, and the offensive line is the worst Rodgers has had in front of him in years thanks to the loss of Corey Linsley in free agency and David Bakhtiari’s injury.

Buffalo

The reason they can: The Bills might have the second-best roster in football.  The defense could be the best in the league, as Buffalo, like the Chiefs, fixed the one thing they desperately needed to in the offseason: the pass rush.  The Bills have a group of five defensive ends they can rotate in and out on downs, including rookies Carlos (Boogie) Basham Jr. and Greg Rousseau and second-year player AJ Epenesa.  The back seven is loaded, the offensive line is great and Josh Allen still has plenty of weapons.

The reason they may not: Can Allen really do it?  Even though he broke out onto the scene last year and was in the MVP conversation, it still feels like he has to take another step forward.  Whether it’s the sometimes bone-headed decisions or the high variance of relying on downfield throws, the high-end side of his game still doesn’t feel possible.  The Bills really have no weaknesses aside from a questionable run game – how much that should be relied on could come to the forefront this season.

Rams

The reason they can: Sean McVay has a real quarterback now, and it could be scary hours for the rest of the league because of that.  The loss of Cam Akers hurts when it comes to making this offense a balanced, cataclysmic threat.  But it could also lead to the Rams to airing it out at an unprecedented rate, and subsequently unleashing holy hell on opposing secondaries.  The defense has arguably the two best defensive players in football and a dynamite secondary to help keep things in front of it.

The reason they may not: This is not exactly last year’s defense.  Even with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, holes exist in the front seven.  The line probably doesn’t need help with Donald, but an extra edge rusher wouldn’t hurt.  Linebacker is relying on a couple unknown guys, although Donald should plug up the run and the secondary should have their back.  Additionally, the defensive coordinator who made it all work last year is now the Chargers’ head coach.  Offensively, this is the time for Stafford to show who he truly is.  Are we sure he just needed a better support system?  McVay and Co. will be the ultimate test.

Seattle

The reason they can: Seattle is probably the biggest surprise in this top category of teams.  A lot of it has to do with the Seahawks, like Buffalo and Kansas City, fixing their two or so biggest problems over the offseason.  The offensive line is the best it has been in years, with Gabe Jackson’s addition at guard likely to do wonders.  Damien Lewis is a young, talented player opposite of him, and Duane Brown is a stable hoss.  That’s at least three quality linemen, and in a new offensive scheme, Russell Wilson should have to do less while getting beat up less as well.  Seattle’s defense features two awesome safeties and Bobby Wagner in the middle – giving them an impressive array of athletes to send flying all over the field.  Other areas are a little suspect, but if the o-line holds up, there’s no reason the Seahawks’ offense shouldn’t look like it did to begin 2020.

The reason they may not: A lot rests on Wagner and those safeties’ shoulders.  Cornerback is a weak, depth-lacking position.  The pass rush and defensive line is still quite bad.  The offensive line also has its holes despite upgrades.  Wilson strangely declined even after regressing back to the mean from the hot start last year.  Hopefully Seattle’s new offensive coordinator draws up advanced protections and quick, easy throws for Wilson, or else there might be another scare of the quarterback wanting to play elsewhere again this offseason.

The 8 Teams That Can’t Win The Super Bowl, And 6 More Who Probably Can’t


Welcome to the Hub’s 2021-22 NFL season preview. To preview the upcoming year, we’re breaking all 32 NFL teams down into three categories: those that can’t win the Super Bowl, those that probably can’t get there and those that absolutely can.

To start, let’s kick it off with the eight teams who don’t have any shot at winning Super Bowl 56, with reasoning to follow. Note: The following teams are listed in no particular order.

Colts

The reason they can’t:  While the Colts have overcome their preseason injury bug to a degree, there’s still not enough talent here overall.  Indianapolis’ offense and coaching is an upgrade from what Carson Wentz had in Philadelphia, but with T.Y. Hilton out, the Colts really lack a true No. 1 wide receiver that Wentz can rely on.  Additionally, left tackle is a big question mark with Eric Fisher out for part of the season and Sam Tevi out for the year.  Those two question marks do not bode well for a quarterback whose ability to handle pressure has seemingly fallen off a cliff in recent years.

The defense has holes at every level – most notably at linebacker, where Darius Leonard has a lot on his shoulders.  It’s not a group that’s going to carry the offense, even if Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack are the best backfield in football.

Bears

The reason they can’t: It was tough to not elevate the Bears into the next category, just because their ceiling with Justin Fields under center is so much higher than it is with Andy Dalton.  But there’s no way to know when that day will come – it certainly won’t be Sunday, at least to start out.

In addition, even with Fields in the mix, problems are present.  The offensive line on paper may not look like a disaster, but the center position is a question mark, and Germain Ifedi was let go by the Seahawks of all teams for a reason.  Even with Fields’ running ability and some underrated weapons, rookie QBs should be as comfortable as possible.  Chicago will not make Fields feel that way.

In years past, this was a defense that could overcome the troubles of the offense – specifically quarterback play.  It’s how the Bears went 12-4 and made the playoffs in 2018-19.  This group isn’t quite as ferocious, though.  Cornerback is an extremely thin position, and the talent is concerning behind Jaylon Johnson.  A lot rests on Roquan Smith at linebacker, although the fearsomeness of the defensive line still exists with Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn.  Even so, Smith and Chicago’s safeties – Eddie Jackson (who oddly declined last year) and Tashaun Gipson Jr. (who’s kind of been a journeyman himself since the year he led the league in interceptions) – have a lot to make up for, and that’s just on their side of the ball.

Giants

The reason they can’t: It would simply be too much of a step up to expect Daniel Jones to make this year.  Elevating from a well-below average quarterback to an above-average quarterback, which is what would be necessary given New York’s good-but-not-great defense, is almost unprecedented in NFL history (Yes, Josh Allen is a very recent example, but one could debate how below average he truly was before last year), and Jones has shown zero flashes that suggest he could do that (Unlike Allen, who was initially seen as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2018 Draft).

That said, Jones should be better this season.  The Giants invested heavily in weapons over the offseason.  Aside from a still shaky offensive line, there’s no more excuses for Jones.  If he still struggles, the Giants are looking at a player who needs a near perfect situation, on both sides of the ball, to succeed.  Better QBs, and therefore easier tasks for a front office, can be found.

Jets

The reason they can’t: It’s hard to slam the Jets for their defense, but some of it was avoidable.

Season-ending injuries to Carl Lawson and Jarrad Davis are brutal, but cornerback was the team’s second-biggest weakness entering the offseason, and not much was done to correct it.  New York has good safety play in stud Marcus Maye and LaMarcus Joyner, but there will be a lot of responsibility on those two, especially with CJ Mosley being more of a run-stuffing presence than a cover linebacker.

The offense comes down to how much one believes in Zach Wilson.  The offensive line is as good as it has been in years, and the weapons core is better than former quarterback Sam Darnold ever had it.  But there’s no clear No. 1 option in the pass-catching corps, and Wilson being totally overmatched as a pro shouldn’t come as surprising.

Lions

The reason they can’t: This roster makes it quite clear how the Lions feel about Jared Goff as their starting quarterback long-term.

There is just no real support system for him here, which is what he will need to be successful.  Detroit’s receivers are awful.  The defense, especially the secondary, has many holes.  It’s not a group that is strong enough to carry a bad offense to .500 (or, now with 17 games, around .500) or the playoffs.  Goff’s offensive line is quite good, which could lead to a productive season for D’Andre Swift and the rest of the Lions’ young running backs.  But we’ve seen Goff flame out in the past in a scheme built around a strong running game and play action.  In his favor then was a much better head coach, and one of the league’s best defenses.  The Lions don’t possess either of those.

Texans

The reason they can’t: Not going to lie about it – the Texans received consideration for the next group of teams up.  

In no way are the Texans Super Bowl – let alone playoff – contenders.  But Houston doesn’t have the worst roster in football, and in that particular superlative, they aren’t even close.  

The offensive line is the best it has been in years.  With whatever underwhelming quarterback they throw out there in DeShaun Watson’s absence, that will pay dividends. To help overcome QB deficiencies, the Texans have two solid lead running backs in Mark Ingram and Phillip Lindsay, a third in David Johnson if he’s healthy, and a perfect complimentary back in Rex Burkhead.  At the worst, one of those four can be flipped at the trade deadline for a late-round pick.

The defense is not very good, with holes aplenty.  The biggest reason why there’s no case for the Texans to be in the next bunch is because their quarterback will likely be career backup Tyrod Taylor or rookie third-rounder Davis Mills throughout the season.  But while Houston should be picking in the top five of 2022’s draft, it wouldn’t be shocking if they were closer to No. 10 than No. 1.

Panthers

The reason they can’t: This Panthers field the best surrounding roster Darnold has had in his NFL career.  That doesn’t mean he’ll take advantage of it, or that it will be enough.

While he has a weapons core that has high potential, the line in front of Darnold is still suspect.  Matt Paradis and Taylor Moton are the only starters who can be penciled in to hold their own.  The rest of the line is filled with journeymen and low-end starters.  That’s bad news for Darnold, who already struggles to make decisions even with a clean pocket.  A flustered Darnold, even with better weapons, will not lead to less turnovers.

Carolina’s defense is good, especially up front.  The defensive line will have to make up for the presence of only one true linebacker, and the secondary has some holes as well.  It could be a good defense that gets Carolina to the playoffs, but that’s an iffy bet, and with Darnold being a complete unknown, it’s hard to make a case for Carolina being a contender.

Falcons

The reason they can’t: It was a surprise to place Atlanta in this group of teams. It has been a sneaky sleeper team since the drafting of Kyle Pitts, which was for seemingly good reason.  But it’s not the offense that’s the issue, it’s the defense.

The secondary is a mess, with Duron Harmon probably slotting in as the only projected average player in the group.  Deion Jones is Atlanta’s only bankable linebacker, and his health is a massive wild card every season (as is everyone’s on this Atlanta team).  The line is perhaps the defense’s best position group, but there’s no dominant pass-rusher who can single-handedly wreck games.

The Falcons are going to score a lot of points.  A key stop that they will need here and there though may be hard to come by.


Now, let’s partially dive into the next category: Teams that probably won’t win Super Bowl 56, but have a case that could be made for them to do so. Again, these six teams are listed in no particular order. Note: Part 2 of this category will be released tomorrow, and the final category will be released on Thursday.

Cowboys

The reason they can: This was arguably the most unstoppable offense in football in 2020 before Dak Prescott’s horrible, gruesome ankle injury.  If Ezekiel Elliot is still ‘Zeke’ and Prescott is the same player, then they should be able to outscore anyone – other issues be damned.  There’s no better trio of wide receivers in football with Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, and the offensive line still has two studs in Zack Martin (who will be out in Week 1 due to a breakthrough positive COVID-19 case) and Tyron Smith.

The reason they can’t: Well, it’s the Cowboys.  Mike McCarthy had his issues early last season, and his ability to guide an elite offense still seems suspect.  Prescott had his ankle pointing the other direction less than a year ago, and it’s fair to wonder whether that should be talked about more.  He also has what’s been described as a “baseball-style” injury somewhere in his upper-body.  Elliot has teetered on the elite label the past two seasons, and the defense, particularly the secondary, has numerous holes.  Dallas might also be giving up bomb after bomb down the field. Case in point: It’s the Cowboys.

Broncos:

The reason they can: This season and situation is going to be the tell-all test for Teddy Bridgewater and what his status and legacy really means.  How far can situation and non-below-average quarterback play get you?  Well, this year’s Broncos will be the answer. 

The Broncos did it before, when Peyton Manning was on his last legs in 2015-16.  There was no way Denver got as far as it did without the defense and weapons core it had in place – Manning was arguably below average that year.  Denver’s defense this season is one of the best units in the league, with a front that can wreck teams’ offenses.  Bridgewater has a good offensive line in front of him and more weapons than he seemingly needs.  Every piece is in place for Denver to make a miracle run.  It just comes down to whether Bridgewater is the guy we think he is or not.

The reason they can’t: The defense isn’t perfect, which is what it might take.  Linebacker isn’t very talented nor is it deep – Denver will be relying on rookie Baron Browning heavily at that spot.  The secondary and front will have his back, but most dynamic defenses have at least one stud in the middle.  Even with the offense being set up the way it is, asking Bridgewater to do enough to win the Super Bowl (versus making the playoffs) is a whole different ball-game, and Denver may need a more offensive-minded head coach to get them there.

Raiders

The reason they can: The offense had its moments last year, with Henry Ruggs III occasionally looking like Tyreek Hill when he was healthy and forcing Derek Carr to throw the ball deep.  In a perfect world, Carr has two high-impact targets in Ruggs III and tight end Darren Waller, with plenty of depth behind them in Hunter Renfrow, Zay Jones and Willie Snead IV.  Josh Jacobs also exists, which gives Las Vegas a potentially lethal attack offensively.

The reason they can’t: The other end of the ball, which has plagued Las Vegas for years no matter what it looks like on paper.  This is perhaps their best unit in that regard, with the back seven hole-free.  But the Raiders’ secondary has been a turnstyle year after year, and the defensive line needs a couple different players – most notably Yannick Ngakoue and Gerald McCoy – to step up. Additionally, Carr turning into an elite quarterback seems like a stretch at this point in his career, which lowers the Raiders’ ceiling and puts even more pressure on a defense that’s shown no evidence that it can handle it.

Dolphins

The reason they can: It’s simply about Tua Tagovailoa and whether he’s the guy we thought he was out of college or not.  That player was someone who could make any throw within 25 yards thanks to pristine accuracy and awareness in addition to having the ability to make plays with his legs.  Last year, Tagovailoa was coming off of a devastating hip injury, a subdued training camp and no preseason all while playing in an offense that was designed specifically for Ryan Fitzpatrick and not him.  The offensive line is a little suspect, but Miami has one of the deepest receiver rooms in football.  Tagovailoa should be able to elevate them, and if he can’t, then they can do the reverse instead.

The reason they can’t: The defense just may not be good enough if Tagovailoa is the type of quarterback who needs substantial help.  The Dolphins have one of the best secondaries in football, but the front seven is young and only possesses one or two impact guys (that’s including rookie Jaelen Phillips, who is hard to bet on because of his youth).  Additionally, expecting Tagovailoa to emerge as an above-average-to-elite QB might be unreasonable – even with his injury and all the other complications he faced, his lows were quite low last year.

Vikings

The reason they can: The defense should be a lot better, with the potential to be a load-carrying group if Kirk Cousins is the reason the offense is held back.  If he can be average or better, then the Vikings should score plenty.  Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook is about as good of a one back, two receiver set up that a team could ask for.  The offensive line has gotten better, although right tackle and center are both still a big question mark.  Minnesota has the potential on both sides of the ball.  On the margins is where concern lies.

The reason they can’t: If Kirk Cousins is in his best form, is that enough?  Or what if he is and the line sucks?  If he’s worse than his best, it’s over for Minnesota.  Additionally, the defense isn’t as loaded as you’d like it to be – cornerback has no one guaranteed to be successful as it’s a group of flyers.  The safeties help, but there’s also a hole at one of the linebacker positions.  Cousins is just a little tough to bet on after such a large lack of improvement last decade, and even if Minnesota is serious about putting pressure on his starting role, all Kellen Mond did in college at Texas A&M was underwhelm.

Cardinals

The reason they can:  The offense has the chance to be special.  Arizona alleviated any concerns about not having enough wide receivers by adding AJ Green and Rondale Moore over the offseason.  They pivoted full-time to Chase Edmonds as the starter at running back instead of relying on underqualified or washed up players to assume a high-volume starting role.  That would lead one to believe that the Cardinals are ready to air it out this season, and put head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense on full display with perhaps the largest dose of Kyler Murray’s legs we’ve ever seen, because when he runs, the Cardinals’ offense clicks.

The reason they can’t: As smart as Kingsbury is, the stars just haven’t aligned for him quite yet as he enters his third season at the helm, and if they don’t this year, then he’ll be out of excuses for the reasons above.  Additionally, cornerback is a complete mess for Arizona, with Malcolm Butler’s surprise retirement putting them in a tough spot less than two weeks before the season-opener.  Jordan Phillips to the IR hurts as well, although the Cardinals have gotten used to him not being available as his free agent signing looks like a total disaster.  Arizona also plays in a division that has at least two contenders, if not three.  The Cardinals are trying to be the fourth, and that will not come easy.