2021-22 NBA season projections
John Kalemkerian | Monday, October 11, 2021
Fans everywhere love to disagree on the smallest things, but one opinion that is all but universally shared is this: October is the best month of the year for sports. Football is in full swing. High-stakes playoff baseball is on every day. And last but not least, the NHL and NBA are both starting back up. With less than two weeks until the Nets and Bucks tip-off the 2021-22 NBA season, it’s as good of a time as any to look ahead to what the standings will look like by the time the playoffs roll around.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (Vegas over/under 54.5 wins)
The reigning NBA champs didn’t see much roster turnover, returning their top six scorers from last year’s run. With Mike Budenholtzer at the helm and Giannis Antetokoumpo poised to have another strong MVP-caliber season, the Bucks are the safe bet to remain atop the East. Besides the championship hangover, the only thing that may hold the Bucks back is resting players down the stretch to stay healthy for the playoffs.
2. Brooklyn Nets (Vegas over/under 56.5 wins)
Between the strong possibility of Kyrie Irving missing home games due to his vaccination status and the constant turmoil of having three alpha players on the roster, the Nets certainly won’t be short on drama this season. Their talent is undeniable and I see Brooklyn as potential Finals favorites if their Big 3 are healthy, come playoff time, but due to the number of games likely to be missed by their stars during the regular season grind, I have them finishing behind Milwaukee.
3. Miami Heat (Vegas over/under 48.5 wins)
Miami needed to make a change after being swept by the Bucks in Round One of the playoffs last season, so they went out and signed long-time Raptor point guard Kyle Lowry in free agency. Lowry should mesh well with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and once Victor Oladipo returns from injury rehab, the Heat have as much star power as anyone in the East outside of Milwaukee and Brooklyn. They figure to roll through the regular season.
4. Atlanta Hawks (Vegas over/under 46.5 wins)
With all due respect to Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson, Trae Young may be the most exciting young player in the league. The sharpshooting, lob-throwing 23-year-old is the clear leader of this young Hawks team and, after reaching the Conference Finals last season, expectations will be high in 2021-22. They’ll play well enough to host a first-round series for the first time since 2016.
5. Philadelphia 76ers (Vegas over/under 50.5 wins)
Vegas is high on the Sixers. I’m not. Much of the Sixers hopes this season rest on Ben Simmons, who has been mysteriously out of contact with the entire organization since the end of the playoffs, leading to some unpleasant tweets by frustrated teammates. If Philadelphia can keep Embiid relatively healthy, Simmons’ absence shouldn’t matter too much but even so, I don’t see them coming anywhere near repeating as the one seed.
6. Chicago Bulls (Vegas over/under 42.5 wins)
The Bulls were one of the most active teams in free agency, bringing in both DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball. The front office has made quite a few win-now moves in the past calendar year, including trading two first-round picks and other players for All-Star center Nikola Vucevic. High expectations for new-look teams often don’t turn out well, but the Bulls should easily make their way into the playoffs in the weaker East.
7. Boston Celtics (Vegas over/under 46.5 wins)
8. Indiana Pacers (Vegas over/under 42.5 wins)
9. New York Knicks (Vegas over/under 41.5 wins)
10. Charlotte Hornets (Vegas over/under 38.5 win)
1. Utah Jazz (Vegas over/under 51.5 wins)
Last season, Utah came out of nowhere to finish first in the West. The duo of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert leading the high-octane offense and suffocating defense, respectively, should be more than enough to repeat as regular-season Western Conference champs. The real test for this team will come in the postseason, where this Quin Snyder-led squad has failed to advance to the conference finals in five straight playoff appearances.
2. Los Angeles Lakers (Vegas over/under 52.5 wins)
Health, and more precisely load management, will be key for the Lakers, who have the oldest team in the NBA this season. Vets Russell Westbrook, Kent Bazemore and Carmelo Anthony join LeBron James and Anthony Davis on a quest for a ring, coming through the regular season relatively unscathed will be vital to their championship aspirations. This team will only go as far as LeBron can lead them, and I don’t see him regressing much even if he will be 36 this season.
3. Los Angeles Clippers (Vegas over/under 45.5 wins)
Perhaps the most disappointing team in basketball, the Clippers finally broke through to the conference finals for the first time in their 51 years of existence … only to lose 4-2 to a Suns team that entered as a moderately heavy underdog. Kawhi Leonard’s absence while rehabbing a torn ACL will be key, but their roster is deep enough to stay near the top of the standings, even in a tough conference. Paul George returning to the MVP discussion will be imperative to success for the Clippers.
4. Phoenix Suns (Vegas over/under 51.5 wins)
Monty Williams coached the Suns to new heights last season and even though they ended up falling short of a ring, this team had a lot to be proud of after ending a 10-year playoff drought. Chris Paul and Devin Booker now have experience playing together, and with one of the deepest rosters in the league, Phoenix should have no trouble securing a high seed again this season.
5. Dallas Mavericks (Vegas over/under 48.5 wins)
So much of the Mavs success will rest on the 22-year-old shoulders of Luka Doncic, who is a frontrunner for MVP this season. A phenomenal creator and scorer, Doncic will need help from co-star Kristaps Porzingis to keep a weak Dallas roster alive in the West. The Mavericks would be smart to get Doncic some help before the trade deadline, even if it means dealing out future first-round picks to stay in contention.
6. Denver Nuggets (Vegas over/under 47.5 wins)
Another MVP frontrunner operating as the hub of Denver’s offense, Nikola Jokic will be in a similar position as Doncic and Paul George. With star point guard Jamal Murray out rehabbing an ACL injury, Jokic will be counted on more than ever to lead a young Nuggets team to success. The defense will be a problem for Denver, as it won’t matter how many triple-doubles Jokic can rack up if they can’t stop anyone at the other end. I expect Denver to stay safely out of the play-in picture, but any time missed by Jokic will be enough to tank their playoff hopes.
7. Golden State Warriors (Vegas over/under 47.5 wins)
8. Memphis Grizzlies (Vegas over/under 41.5 wins)
9. Portland Trail Blazers (Vegas over/under 44.5 wins)
10. New Orleans Pelicans (Vegas over/under 39.5 wins)
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.