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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Brooklyn Nets
- Milwaukee Bucks
- Atlanta Hawks
- Miami Heat
- Boston Celtics
- Philadelphia 76ers
- Washington Wizards
- Chicago Bulls
- Indiana Pacers
- New York Knicks
- Toronto Raptors
- Charlotte Hornets
- Detroit Pistons
- Orlando Magic
- 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.