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.