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Ranking the best players for 2021-22, from 5 to 1

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Our NBArank countdown is back for its 11th season. And after unveiling players Nos. 100-51, Nos. 50-26 and Nos. 25-6 throughout the week, we’ve finally reached the top five.

We’ve already stated the cases for each superstar, but who was voted in as the league’s best player?

Will LeBron James retain his throne? Will Giannis Antetokounmpo add the No. 1 spot to his list of accolades? Could 22-year-old Luka Doncic leapfrog them all? Here are the very best players for the 2021-22 season.

To get the final NBArank prediction, we asked our expert panel to vote on pairs of players: Kevin Durant vs. James Harden, Luka vs. Zion Williamson, Giannis vs. Stephen Curry, LeBron vs. Nikola Jokic … and the list goes on.

We asked, “Which player will be better in 2021-22?” Voters had to predict what they expected from each player during the season.

Note: Because of knee injuries that will sideline both for most of the 2021-22 season, the LA ClippersKawhi Leonard and the Denver NuggetsJamal Murray were excluded from this season’s rankings.

MORE: Debating LeBron’s spot and the biggest NBArank surprises


Golden State Warriors | PG
2020 NBArank:
No. 8

His legacy is secured no matter what happens this season, but Curry and the Warriors are confident that they can vault themselves back toward the top of the Western Conference if he has another MVP-like season and Klay Thompson returns to form. As usual, the sky is the limit for Curry.

One big question: Can Curry play at an MVP level again? The two-time MVP led the league in scoring last season with 32.0 points per game. He did everything for a Warriors squad playing without Klay Thompson that struggled to find consistent offense outside of Curry’s brilliance. Curry believes he can stretch his prime out a little longer, but he’ll be 34 in March and, aside from a fluke tailbone injury, stayed relatively healthy. If the Warriors want to return to the top of the West, Curry will need to have another huge season — even with Thompson expected to make his return.

Swing skill: Curry is widely regarded by many peers and former players as the greatest shooter of all time. He is a career 43.3% 3-point shooter and shot 48.2% from the field last season. If he puts it up, the expectation is that it’s going in, and his mere presence on the court creates the gravity that allows his teammates to shine.

One thing to watch for: Curry enters the season just 141 3-pointers behind Ray Allen for the top spot on the all-time list. Given that Curry made 337 3s last season, he figures to eclipse Allen before the All-Star break.

— Nick Friedell


Dallas Mavericks | PG
2020 NBArank:
No. 4

At 22, Doncic has already established himself as one of the NBA’s elite. He’s been a first-team All-NBA selection the last two seasons, a feat only Kevin Durant has accomplished at such a young age since the ABA-NBA merger. It only seems like a matter of when — and how many times — Doncic wins MVP. He’s finished fourth and sixth, respectively, in the last two MVP votes.

One distinction Doncic doesn’t want: He has the most career postseason points (436) of any player without a series victory, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

One big question: Can Doncic carry the Mavs to postseason success? It would be wrong to blame Doncic for the Mavs’ failure to get out of the first round, considering he’s averaged an efficient 33.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game in a pair of first-round exits against the Clippers. However, it’s fair to say that Doncic faded in the fourth quarters of last season’s series, shooting only 34.9% from the floor with almost as many turnovers (9) as assists (12) in the final frames over the seven games. Those struggles are likely in large part due to his astronomical usage rate (40.4%, the highest in the playoffs), which is why the Mavs attempted to add another playmaker this offseason.

Swing skill: Doncic staked a claim as the most dominant driver in the NBA last season. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Doncic led the league in points off of drives (804) and ranked third in assists (150). He shot 59.2% from the floor in those situations, tied for second behind Giannis Antetokounmpo among the 48 players with at least 600 drives. Doncic isn’t an explosive leaper, but he excels as a finisher due to his rare combination of size, strength and savvy — and he has mastered a pivot into a one-legged fadeaway for the occasions when he can’t get all the way to the basket. The Mavs’ offseason additions of shooters should give Doncic wider driving lanes this season.

One thing to watch for: There is a good chance that Doncic will rank among the top 10 all-time in triple-doubles by his 23rd birthday on Feb. 28. Doncic has 36 triple-doubles through his third season (plus three more in the playoffs), putting him seven behind Fat Lever for the 10th most in NBA history. (Doncic is only two shy of Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles before turning 23.) Doncic has scored at least 30 points in 17 of those triple-doubles. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, only seven players have as many or more 30-point triple-doubles: Robertson, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, James Harden, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

— Tim MacMahon


Los Angeles Lakers | SF
2020 NBArank:
No. 1

In two out of the last three seasons since arriving in Los Angeles, James has suffered a major injury that sabotaged his and the Lakers’ chances. In the other: James finished second in MVP voting and led the Lakers to the championship. Will it be triumph or tribulations in 2021-22?

One big question: Can James help a Lakers team with 10 fresh faces coalesce into a championship team from the jump? James has four titles under his belt already and has long cemented his legacy as one of the true greats to ever play the game, but adding a ring at age 37 would certainly boost his quest for universal GOAT recognition.

Swing skill: James averaged a career best 2.3 3-pointers made per game last season and shot 36.5% from deep, which accounted for his fourth most accurate season from deep of his career. With Russell Westbrook added to the mix as another playmaker, it will be interesting to see if James’ aim can benefit from the type of looks he’s usually creating for others.

One thing to watch for: James enters the season just 1,562 points away from passing Karl Malone for No. 2 on the league’s all-time scoring list. If James averages the 25 points per game that he did last season — and plays in every game — he would be in range to pass Malone in L.A.’s 63rd game on the schedule (which just so happens to be a primetime ABC matchup against Curry and the Warriors).

— Dave McMenamin


Milwaukee Bucks | PF
2020 NBArank:
No. 3

What do you do to top the epic NBA Finals-winning performance Antetokounmpo turned in last year? The easy answer is to repeat. The real answer — which is downright scary for the rest of the league — is for Antetokounmpo to improve the few areas of his game he can still work on. He’s still just 26 years old, which means we probably are just now getting to Antetokounmpo’s prime years. He’ll enter them with the confidence of a two-time MVP and an NBA champion.

One big question: History will always remember Antetokounmpo’s 50-point masterpiece in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to close out his first championship and Finals MVP. Social media will always remember the 50-piece at Chik Fil-A he ordered afterward. But it was the 17-for-19 performance at the free throw line in Game 6 that really stood out. Giannis was so unstoppable at times during the Finals that fouling him and forcing him to hit free throws (he hit just 54% of them in the three road games during the Finals) seemed like the best way to stop him. Giannis is a career 71.7% free throw shooter, but he dipped to 63.3% in 2019-20 and 68.5% last year.

Swing skill: Antetokounmpo was the first player to average 20 points and shoot 65% in the paint in a single postseason. In the Finals he was even more lethal in the paint, shooting 75%. Simply put, he is virtually impossible to stop once he gets inside. But there’s even room for improvement there, too, if he works on his back-to-the-basket post moves like LeBron James did at a similar juncture in his career.

One thing to watch for: Antetokounmpo is already second on the Bucks all-time scoring list after passing Glenn Robinson last season. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (14,211 points as a Buck) is in sight this year. Antetokounmpo (12,319 points) needs 1,892 this year to become Milwaukee’s all-time leading scorer. He’s averaged 1,895 points over the past four seasons (the last two were shortened to 72 games) so he could easily pass Kareem sometime in April.

— Ramona Shelburne


Brooklyn Nets | SF
2020 NBArank:
No. 6

NBA moments are ripe for hyperbole, but with what happened in 2021, there’s a grounded case to make for the championship coming down to Durant’s toe. That devastating turnaround jumper in Game 7 against the Bucks — the thunderous left-foot pivot and lightning-quick rise-and-release over P.J. Tucker is downright legendary — was almost on the list of biggest shots in NBA history. Instead it was the longest 2-pointer possible and the topper to an incredible playoff series that verified Durant’s complete recovery from a torn Achilles. Then, by the way, he laid waste at the Olympics and carried the Americans to gold. Yeah, um, look out, 2021-22.

One big question: Durant’s game is almost untouchable, so the real question is: Will everyone stay on the floor? Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden all had moderate injuries during the shortened season, and, combined with Irving’s leave of absence, the Spencer Dinwiddie injury and the transition after the Harden trade, they made last season a mess for Brooklyn. If they get even half of those events eliminated, it’s not hard to see why the Nets are the preseason title favorites.

Swing skill: It’s probably foolish in these times to say anyone is the “greatest” at anything, so let’s avoid that nonsense. Let’s leave it at: Durant is one of the most skilled players to ever take up basketball, and his height, release and accuracy make him one of the most undefendable players in history. It’s remarkable that Durant doesn’t shoot every time down the floor because, frankly, it would almost always be considered a good shot no matter the circumstances.

One thing to watch for: The Nets protected Durant as much as they could last season — he averaged his fewest minutes per game during the regular season and he skipped some back-to-backs. With the team deeper this season after signing a host of veterans, the inclination will be to protect Durant some more. The inactive list may be the only thing that stops him. How that may affect the MVP race could be a topic as the year unfolds.

— Brian Windhorst

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Debating LeBron James’ spot and the biggest surprises of the 2021-22 countdown

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NBArank 2021 has reached its thrilling finish, with Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant edging out the Milwaukee Bucks‘ reigning NBA Finals MVP and champion Giannis Antetokounmpo for the No. 1 spot in Friday’s countdown of the top five NBA players for the upcoming season.

Overall, there was a ton of movement within our top 100 list, including Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, New York Knicks forward Julius Randle and Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball vaulting into the top 50 after missing our countdown completely in 2020-21. Which players could take a similar leap next season?

We also saw Los Angeles Lakers legend LeBron James lose his NBArank throne, dropping to No. 3 behind KD and Giannis. James’ All-Star teammate, Anthony Davis, also fell in our latest rankings, slipping to No. 9 after an injury-filled season. How did that sit with our panel?

What did we get right this year? What did we get wrong? Our experts are diving into the results as we close the books on the 11th installment of NBArank.

The full NBArank list: Nos. 100-51 | Nos. 50-26 | Nos. 25-6 | Nos. 5-1


1. What was the biggest surprise from our 2021 top 100 rankings?

Bobby Marks: Klay Thompson at No. 32. We have not seen Thompson on the court since June 2019, when he tore his left ACL in the NBA Finals. A year later he suffered another significant injury with a torn right Achilles. While the Warriors recently gave a medical update that Thompson has been progressing and that we will see him during the 2021-22 season, his exact timeline is still unknown. Even with all that uncertainty, Thompson still ranked ahead of a group of players including Zach LaVine, De’Aaron Fox, Deandre Ayton and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Andrew Lopez: Thompson at No. 32. He hasn’t played competitive basketball in 834 days. If his return comes around Christmas time, as ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported last month, Thompson would miss two months at the start of the season and he surely will have some time off on back-to-backs. There’s no doubt a healthy Klay would make an impact this season, but No. 32 seems high.

Kevin Pelton: Anthony Davis at No. 9, a seven-spot fall after ranking No. 2 last year. It’s not surprising he dropped after an injury-plagued season, and last year’s ranking might have involved a bit of recency bias after Davis’ strong contributions to the Lakers’ title run. Still, this is the lowest AD has ranked since 2013. I expect he’ll move back up next year.

Tim MacMahon: Myles Turner at No. 44. With all due respect, what did Turner do to jump 30 spots into the top 50? He’s an elite shot-blocker, but it should take much more than that to occupy a spot in that territory. There is no reasonable explanation for Turner (12.6 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.4 BPG, .557 eFG) being ranked several spots ahead of Clint Capela (15.4 PPG, 14.3 RPG, 2.0 BPG, .594 eFG).

Jorge Sedano: Bradley Beal at No. 11. It hurts me to say this, because I love his game. He has been an incredible player throughout his career, especially the past two seasons, but the players above and slightly below him all have a modicum of playoff experience or success. I believe that would likely be the case with Beal if he had a better roster around him. Sorry, Bradley! I had to pick someone!

MORE: These superstars just missed top-five NBArank status


2. Who’s one player currently outside the top 100 who will be inside next year?

MacMahon: Tyler Herro. Falling from No. 59 to unranked is an overreaction to a somewhat disappointing sophomore season for the Heat guard. He’s too talented — and has too much swagger — not to be included among the NBA’s top 100 players. It’s barely been a year since Herro lit it up for 37 points in a conference finals game. I’ll bet on Herro getting back in the top 100 next year and staying there for the next decade or so.

Marks: Blake Griffin. Griffin ranked No. 23 in 2019, a result of a career year in Detroit that saw him earn All-Star and All-NBA honors. Last year, Griffin fell 42 spots to No. 65. Now, Griffin has failed to crack the top 100. Prior injuries and a reduced role could certainly be blamed for the fall, but the 26 games (and also 12 playoff games) in Brooklyn last season proved that Griffin can once again compete at a high level. While it is unlikely that we see his name on an All-Star roster this coming season, Griffin should be in the top 100 next year.

Lopez: RJ Barrett. The Knicks guard quieted some of his critics with his sophomore season, averaging 17.6 PPG, 5.8 RPG and 3.0 APG while shooting 40.1% from deep. The Knicks went 11-2 in the regular season when Barrett scored at least 24 points. If New York finds more success in 2021-22, Barrett should see his name on next year’s list.

Pelton: Gary Trent Jr. If Trent simply submits a repeat of his 2020-21 (15.3 PPG with 2.8 3-pointers at a 39% clip), I suspect he’ll establish himself as one of the league’s better 3-and-D role players. And at age 22, Trent has a chance to continue developing during his first full season with the Toronto Raptors.

Sedano: De’Andre Hunter. I loved his game in college and felt he would translate right away to the NBA as a 3-and-D guy. I believe he has shown more than that in a small sample size. If it weren’t for injuries derailing his early career, he would likely be in the top 100. If he stays healthy and Atlanta continues to ascend, he’ll be in there next season.

Top breakout candidates for 2021-22


play

1:27

Kendrick Perkins and Dave McMenamin analyze who has the higher ceiling between Anthony Edwards and Cade Cunningham.

3. Which player currently outside the top 50 has the best chance to be inside the top 25 next season?

MacMahon: Anthony Edwards. He came close to making the top-50 cut this year, and he certainly has star potential and averaged 23.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG and 3.8 APG after the All-Star break as a rookie. Edwards should benefit from having a training camp under Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch and playing off of a hopefully healthy Karl-Anthony Towns.

Pelton: Anthony Edwards. I wrote about the candidates earlier this week. Top 25 is a bit aggressive for the current rookies and unrealistic for older players, so I think the 2020 draft class is the right place to look, and Edwards has the best chance.

Sedano: It’s easily Anthony Edwards. He was the third-youngest player in NBA history to score 40 points in a game. He is as dynamic a scorer as we have seen at that age. The wild part is he has allegedly grown two inches in the offseason, according to Finch. Look out for Ant Man in 2021-22.

Lopez: Christian Wood, but it will take a healthy season, as well as a big jump by his teammates. In 41 games last season, Wood averaged 21 PPG and 9.6 RPG while shooting 51.4% overall and 37.4% from deep. Of the nine players who averaged 20 points and either 10 rebounds or 10 assists last season, four are in the top 10 and six are in the top 30. All nine are ahead of Wood. If he hits those numbers — and maybe if Houston can string together some wins — he could make a massive jump.

Marks: I am going to rewind the clock and say Gordon Hayward. The Hornets forward played at an All-Star level last season, but a sprained right foot ended his season in early April. Hayward’s impact on the court is immeasurable. At the time of the injury, Charlotte was two games over .500 and on pace to finish in the top six of the East. The Hornets finished the season six games under .500 and lost in the play-in game to the Indiana Pacers. Prior to the injury, Hayward was averaging 19.6 points and shooting 41.5% from 3-point range.

Lessons from a decade of ranking the NBA’s best players


Note: Due to knee injuries that will sideline both for most of the 2021-22 season, Leonard and Murray were excluded from this season’s rankings.

MacMahon: Leonard is without a doubt a top-10 player if he’s healthy. Maybe top five. Is there another player in the league capable of scoring an efficient 45 points and bothering Luka Doncic defensively down the stretch in a road Game 6 as Leonard did to extend the Clippers’ season? Murray is top 30 with the potential to rise. He’s a cut below Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell among the league’s best young guards.

Marks: Leonard entered the 2020-21 season at No. 5 in the ESPN Top 100 and would fall two spots back to No. 8 if he were healthy this season. The drop is more of a result of the MVP play of three players in front of him: Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid. If Murray were healthy, I would put him at the same spot that he occupied last year: No. 21. Jumping into the top 20 is not easy, considering that there is separation between Kyrie Irving (No. 20 this season) and a healthy Murray.

Pelton: If Kawhi had been healthy the entire postseason, he might be No. 1 after leading the Clippers to a title. If his playoff injury had been less serious and he were back healthy now, I’d say probably No. 4. Because he’s less established and there’s less clarity in the rankings outside the top 10, Murray is tougher to place, but I’d guess somewhere between No. 28 and No. 33. That puts him in the same group as Ben Simmons, Russell Westbrook, CJ McCollum and Ja Morant.

Sedano: Kawhi would be at No. 4 for me. When healthy, he is arguably still the best two-way player in the NBA. His game has actually expanded in his time in Los Angeles as he has become a much better facilitator. There’s no way I wouldn’t have a two-time Finals MVP in my top five. Murray would be at No. 22 for me. Jrue Holiday (the current No. 22) is a more complete player due to his defense. Murray, however, has to carry a larger burden overall — and certainly on offense — for his Nuggets team. Murray has also become a must-watch in the fourth quarter of any close game.

Lopez: Leonard’s impact is hard to rank because he doesn’t play a full season anymore. But even taking load management days into account, he’s probably No. 7 for me because a healthy Leonard-Paul George combo is special for the Clippers. Likewise, a healthy Murray-Nikola Jokic-Michael Porter Jr. trio would do damage in the Western Conference. Murray is a top-30 talent and I’d slot him in at No. 27 on this year’s list. Anyone averaging 21 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds per game on 47/41/87 shooting percentage splits is a pretty good player no matter what.

What does Kawhi’s ACL surgery mean for the Clippers?


5. Fill in the blank: LeBron James’ No. 3 ranking is _____.

Sedano: A bit too low for me. I still think that he is the most complete player on the planet when he’s healthy. Yes, Durant is a more natural scorer and Antetokounmpo is more athletic at this stage, but LeBron still puts up equally jarring scoring stats and makes the guys around him better. At least more so than the aforementioned players. We are splitting hairs here.

MacMahon: Fine. I’m sure King James will consider it an insult, and I don’t blame him for believing he’s still the league’s best player as he enters his 19th season, but a reasonable case can be made for any of the top three players. Should Giannis Antetokounmpo be offended that he isn’t No. 1? All he has done in the past three seasons is win a pair of MVPs and a Finals MVP.

Marks: Justified. This is not a knock on James, but more about how Durant and Antetokounmpo have elevated their games. In the playoffs, Durant almost carried a wounded Brooklyn team to the Eastern Conference finals by himself. He duplicated that performance in the Olympics, leading Team USA to the gold medal. As for Antetokounmpo, the Finals MVP put to bed any talk that he is a regular-season player and could not close games.

Pelton: Understandable. Could LeBron win MVP, lead the Lakers to a title and make us look bad for having him anywhere but No. 1? Of course. Something similar happened in 2019-20. Still, the injury that marred James’ 2020-21 campaign is the kind of thing that becomes more likely as he ages. So I think No. 3 is about right.

Lopez: Appropriate. James was limited to a career-low 45 games last season as he dealt with the high ankle sprain. If James was guaranteed to be healthy for 82 games and the playoffs, you could make the argument he belongs back at No. 1, where he was last season. But for now, having James as the top player in the Western Conference feels about right.

Why LeBron — and the entire top five — has a case for No. 1

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Which NBA teams and players could disrupt the home-court and award races in 2021-22?

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Which NBA teams and players could disrupt the races for home-court advantage and awards during the 2021-22 season?

After the New York Knicks‘ surprising run to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference last season, could head coach Tom Thibodeau’s crew pull off that feat again in an improved East? Are Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball and the Charlotte Hornets real threats to make a leap? Are the Toronto Raptors, back north of the border after playing their entire home schedule in Tampa, Florida, last season, primed for a bounce-back campaign?

Despite Kawhi Leonard‘s injury absence, are our Western Conference projections sleeping on the LA Clippers? Are Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers due for another run up the standings?

And are there sleeping giants lurking outside the favorites for the races for MVP and Rookie of the Year?

With less than two weeks until opening night tips off, our NBA insiders are breaking down who could alter the landscape of the new season, and also how one recent rule change could disrupt the league in a far different way.

Lowe’s NBA tiers: Every team, from the top to the very bottom


1. Which West team outside ESPN’s top-six projections has the best chance to disrupt the race for home court?

MacMahon: The LA Clippers. After Kawhi Leonard went down last season, the Clippers closed out the Jazz in the second round and were competitive against the Suns in the West finals. Paul George is a perennial All-Star with something to prove, and he has a supporting cast of quality veterans around him. Terance Mann could be a Most Improved Player candidate after his breakout postseason. There’s also the possibility of Leonard coming back for the stretch run.

Sedano: The Clippers. I feel like we’re sleeping on them. George showed us in the playoffs that he can still be an elite two-way player and carry a team. Granted, the Western Conference is a slog and absurdly deep, but I think PG can thrive again being the No. 1 option. This Clippers team reminds me of a more modern version of the Pacers teams he played for.

Bontemps: The Portland Trail Blazers. Unlike the East, where the top six teams appear to be pretty defined, the West could go in a lot of different directions. But of the teams projected to finish outside the top six, Portland has the best bet to jump up. Damian Lillard is one of the league’s elite players, and is always healthy. The addition of Larry Nance Jr. could be a huge boost, as he gives Portland the ability to play small with him at center as a versatile defender who can hit 3-pointers when healthy. If CJ McCollum can regain his form from the beginning of last season before he got hurt, the Trail Blazers will be a dangerous team in the regular season.

Pelton: The Trail Blazers. If Portland’s bench additions, a full season from Jusuf Nurkic and scheme changes by new head coach Chauncey Billups can get them to merely average on defense, a return to the top four is well within the realm of possibility.

Snellings: The Trail Blazers. Portland has the talent to compete for a top-four seed in the West, especially if Damian Lillard remains locked in and the team can stay healthy. The Trail Blazers finished third in the West in both 2017-18 and 2018-19 and made the conference finals in the latter, built around the triumvirate of Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. During the past two seasons, McCollum (29 games) and Nurkic (101 games) have missed a combined 130 to injury. When all three are healthy, Portland has 50-plus-win potential.


2. Which East team outside ESPN’s top-six projections has the best chance to disrupt the race for home court?

Tim MacMahon: The Charlotte Hornets. Can LaMelo Ball make the leap from Rookie of the Year to superstar in his sophomore season? If so, the Hornets might have sleeper potential. Any hopes they have of making the jump into the middle of the East playoff pack would also require a full healthy season from Gordon Hayward, which isn’t a great bet given his recent track record.

Tim Bontemps: The New York Knicks. Not only did the Knicks finish fourth last season, but by adding Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, they helped shore up their biggest weakness: an offense with a tendency to get bogged down in the half court. Walker’s knee troubles from last season could be a problem, but if he’s able to stay relatively healthy, head coach Tom Thibodeau’s long track record of success with smaller scoring point guards should continue. Also working in New York’s favor is a fairly deep roster, which should guard against injury issues derailing its season.

Kevin Pelton: The Knicks, though they don’t feel particularly disruptive since they were in this spot last season. In all likelihood, the bar for home court in the first round will be set higher, but New York could get there with offensive upgrades in the backcourt. My real surprise pick? The Raptors, back home in Toronto.

Jorge Sedano: The Indiana Pacers. They have a nucleus built around Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner that should keep them afloat in the playoff picture. I love the Chris Duarte pick. And if Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren are healthy, Indiana will be quite formidable. Plus, bringing back Rick Carlisle gives the Pacers a head coach with a championship pedigree.

André Snellings: The Pacers technically had home-court advantage in the 2019-20 bubble playoffs but struggled with injuries and the fallout from a coaching change. They brought in Carlisle this offseason to right the ship, and when healthy, they have one of the strongest starting lineups in the East. They could definitely disrupt the East race.


3. Which player has the best chance to disrupt the MVP conversation?

Snellings: James Harden. With apologies to Paul George and Jayson Tatum — both of whom I expect to have monster seasons that could enter them into the MVP conversation — the answer is Harden. Harden is a proven MVP-level producer who finished top three in the MVP vote every season from 2016-17 through 2019-20. With major questions about Kyrie Irving‘s availability this season, Harden could end up carrying the playmaking load for a Nets team favored to contend for a championship. Durant will also receive credit, but Harden has the game to play himself right back into MVP consideration this season.

Pelton: Harden. The Beard played at an MVP level after being traded to Brooklyn last year. I think Durant would probably need to miss a substantial portion of the season to allow Harden to get MVP buzz. But if so, he has shown he can keep the Nets in contention as the team’s primary star.

MacMahon: Harden. He was a top-three finisher in MVP voting in five of the previous six seasons before he successfully pushed to be traded to the Nets, and there haven’t been any signs of decline in his game. Can he emerge as a legitimate MVP candidate when most believe that he isn’t Brooklyn’s best player? That probably depends on how often Durant actually suits up during the regular season.

Bontemps: Anthony Davis. There are a surprising number of possibilities here, but AD feels like the answer. If he plays the majority of his minutes at center — throughout which his production and team success have increased — and he gets back to the level he was playing at in the Lakers’ run to the 2020 title, he could easily be the engine that drives the Lakers to the best record in the West and put himself into the MVP conversation. His biggest impediment could be playing alongside LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, who will command plenty of touches in L.A.’s offense.

Sedano: Davis. Despite AD not being among current MVP favorites, the Lakers’ chances to win a championship rest on his shoulders. People forget that the Lakers were 21-6 last season prior to his injury. I think he comes into this season with a huge chip on his shoulder (between that chip and the Lakers’ championship hopes, clearly his shoulders will have a lot on them). Lakers head coach Frank Vogel immediately noted the incredible shape Davis was in upon arriving at camp. Also, I was a fan of Davis’ evolving leadership in the Lakers’ preseason loss to the Nets: He called out himself and his teammates for their lack of focus on defense in a preseason game? I like this version of AD already.


MacMahon: Davion Mitchell. The Sacramento Kings have a crowded backcourt, but it seems like he is too good not to play a lot of minutes right away. Mitchell, the co-MVP of the NBA summer league after leading the Kings to championship in Las Vegas, won’t be a primary offensive option, so it’s unlikely he’ll have the kind of statistics that sway Rookie of the Year voters. But he might be one of the best on-ball defenders in the league. And if that helps the Kings end the league’s longest playoff drought, it would be difficult to ignore.

Sedano: Mitchell. I covered almost all of his summer league games and came away more impressed every time. Sure, there were games where he carried the scoring or the playmaking burden. However, his defense was elite from the tip of every game he played, and I believe he’s a future DPOY. I was fortunate enough to chat with his college head coach, Scott Drew, who raved about Mitchell’s skills, leadership and competitiveness. He added that the latter was a driving force for those Baylor teams. I saw a similar reaction in Vegas. Plus, he’s got the greatest nickname I’ve ever heard for a rookie: “Off Night.”

Snellings: Mitchell. He is an unorthodox contender because he isn’t known for big box score contributions, but he is a known winner whose defensive mindset and leadership could have an organization-level impact. In the summer league, Mitchell spearheaded a stifling defense that led the Kings to the championship. In his first preseason game, he finished with a team-high plus-20 in the win. Sacramento has been a perennially poor defensive team, but if the rookie is able to come in and motivate a defensive culture that translates to wins, he could get in the ROY conversation.

Bontemps: Mitchell. I could see a world in which Mitchell plays incredible defense, adds some scoring and finds the Sacramento Kings a way into the play-in mix, leading to some surprising Rookie of the Year buzz.

Pelton: Alperen Sengun. He already has disrupted the odds, ranking among the top contenders alongside the top five picks despite sliding to 16th on draft night. That reflects oddsmakers taking notice of his strong production in his native Turkey and during the summer league. It would probably take an injury to one of the Rockets’ frontcourt starters (Daniel Theis and Christian Wood) to give him a real chance, but Sengun has produced any time he has been on the court.


5. What will be the impact of the league’s 3-point foul changes: Nothing, something or everything?

Bontemps: Hopefully it’s something. No one likes watching guys fling themselves into defenders to get calls, moves that would get them laughed out of a pickup game. The NBA’s competition committee approved these changes, and the league’s head of officiating, Monty McCutchen, has gone on a media blitz to make sure everyone knows they are coming. Here’s hoping those plays are removed from the game permanently. However, it isn’t going to dramatically impact the game in terms of the number of free throw attempts players get; the elite guys (like Harden and Trae Young) will still get to the line all the time. But, it’s a welcome, and hopefully lasting, change.

Sedano: It’s definitely something. There are plenty of players who have made this an art form, and it will be an adjustment. I do worry about the subjectivity to the rule. NBA officials are the best in the world, but making these calls in real time won’t be easy. There’s likely going to be a lot of chatter about this rule throughout the season.

MacMahon: Something. I’m not sure how much of an impact it will have on specific stars’ production, but the introduction of common sense into the officiating of these plays will certainly improve the NBA’s product. Nobody wants to watch players shoot free throws awarded for non-basketball movements.

Pelton: Everything for our viewing experience, but closer to nothing in terms of impact on players and teams. The whole reason some star players were able to take advantage of these rules as previously enforced is that they were talented and crafty enough to exploit an edge. Those same factors will allow them to adjust now that the game is being called differently.

Snellings: Something … if it lasts. The NBA has a history of making offseason proclamations that don’t last until the All-Star break. (I’m looking at you, flopping-will-lead-to-technicals rule.) If the league really does stop calling the pump-and-jumps, it could change outcomes in a noticeable way. The 4-point play used to be rare, but seemed to happen in every game last season. Analytically, this rule could allow defenders to be more aggressive while simultaneously lowering the efficiency of the 3-point shot, thus changing the way team offenses operate. But again, only if it lasts.

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Behind the scenes from Brooklyn Nets training camp in San Diego

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SAN DIEGO — Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap and Joe Harris were all trying their best, but this was not their night.

On the plush, manicured lawn of Brooklyn Nets owners Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai’s picturesque La Jolla, California, home, the Nets’ four veterans were no match for the Tsais’ two sons at bocce ball.

“Didn’t go great for us,” Griffin said. “But they were pretty good.”

A little over a week ago, the Nets were the Tsais’ guests at their home while the team was holding training camp at the University of San Diego. The Tsais have never hosted this many people at their Southern California home, so they wanted to make sure the 60-plus members of the Nets’ traveling party would be entertained and well fed.

There was a golf simulator for those who didn’t get to nearby Torrey Pines to hit some golf balls, not to mention cornhole and Jenga.

And in case the Nets wanted more court time, there was a light blue basketball half court perched not far from an oceanside cliff where Griffin and a few players did get some shots up.

“Beautiful house,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “… And the view.”

Perhaps the only thing more spectacular than the sight of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean from the Tsais’ house was that of Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and the Nets’ collection of title-contending players spending time together, eating, laughing and playing games.

With Irving’s vaccination status and inability to play games in Brooklyn hanging over the Nets’ championship aspirations (Caesars Sportsbook has the Nets favored at +225 to win the 2022 NBA championship), this night of bonding at the Tsais’ home and week of training camp in San Diego could end up being more vital than the Nets ever anticipated.

In their lone season together so far, the Nets’ Big Three of Durant, Harden and Irving played a grand total of 14 games together in the regular season and playoffs combined. After logging a shade over two hours of court time together in the postseason because of injuries, the star trio needs more time and more reps. And the more games in Brooklyn that Irving spends away from his teammates, the more valuable the time spent in San Diego becomes.

Irving practiced the entire week with his teammates at the Jenny Craig Pavilion. When the team returned to practice in Brooklyn last week, it did so without its starting point guard for four practices and a preseason home game due to New York’s COVID-19 protocols that require local players to get at least one vaccination shot to enter an indoor gym, including Barclays Center. But on Friday, ESPN’s Tim Bontemps reported Irving will be allowed to practice at the team’s HSS Training Center after the city determined it is a “private office building” as opposed to an indoor gym.

Irving rejoined his teammates at an outdoor event at Brooklyn Bridge Park on Saturday before practicing with his team again on Sunday at HSS. But the Nets’ star point guard will not play in Monday’s preseason game in Philadelphia.

“We recognize he’s not playing in home games,” Nash told reporters after Irving practiced Sunday with the team in Brooklyn for the first time this preseason. “We are going to have to for sure play without him this year. So it just depends on when, where and how much.”

In San Diego, the Nets didn’t have to worry about any city ordinances disrupting their cohesiveness. The time spent together on the bus to and from practices, the cross-country flights, the golf outings at Torrey Pines and the dinner with the Tsais were all opportunities for the Nets to enhance their chemistry.

“It was great,” Harden said of dinner at the Tsais’ house, which included steak and fish on the menu. “Kind of team bonding, organization bonding, getting to know each other. It was just beautiful, man. I think the more we can be around each other, the more we get to learn each other off the court, that makes it easier on the court.”

“[The dinner] was our first kind of bonding experience,” Harden said the day after. “… So best believe that I’ll try to get guys together for dinners, hangouts and things like that more often. We’ve got a fairly quiet group. Most of the guys are to themselves, they stay in their own little shells. It’ll be nice to get them out, open up a little bit, even myself.”


THE DOORS TO the court at the Jenny Craig Pavilion were closed, and the windows on the doors were covered by paper. But the energy of the Nets’ practices could be heard and felt through the doors as players shouted, communicating and encouraging one another during practices.

With a star-studded collection of talent that includes 44 combined All-Star appearances among Durant, Irving, Harden, Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Millsap, the Nets spent their first week together getting in shape, getting accustomed to Nash’s concepts and getting used to one another.

“Intense,” Millsap, the 36-year-old veteran who joins Brooklyn after spending the past four seasons in Denver, described the team’s practices. “Intense.

“[But with] all the accolades in the locker room, nobody has an ego. Everybody is in there to win.”

Back in Brooklyn before the Nets left for San Diego for camp, Irving couldn’t participate in the team’s media day because of New York’s COVID-19 protocols.

Irving had to do his media session remotely via videoconference and asked for respect for his privacy while also saying he did not want to be a distraction to the team.

That, though, did nothing to quell the attention surrounding Irving. The Nets’ point guard became a hot topic not just nationally but around the globe. While Hall of Famers such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal were critical of players not getting vaccinated, Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, discussed how some NBA players won’t get vaccinated during a recent parliament session.

In San Diego, however, Irving wasn’t a distraction to his team.

There were only a handful of reporters at practice daily at USD. Had the Nets held camp in Brooklyn, there would have been double the number of reporters and cameras on some days.

“I didn’t even know CNN [was] talking about us,” Harden said in San Diego. “I didn’t know Kareem and Shaq talked about us. I don’t even pay attention to stuff like that.

“Obviously, I know [the vaccination attention surrounding] Kyrie, but I don’t know who’s talking about him. … Kyrie gonna handle that stuff, and I just focus on training camp and preparing for a great season that we are about to have.”

Irving did not talk to reporters in California after practices or the Nets’ preseason opener against the Los Angeles Lakers, in which Irving and several other key players sat out. Irving was allowed to keep his focus squarely on basketball.

“​​He had a great camp in San Diego,” Nash told reporters on Sunday. “He looked great.”

The Nets’ social media team posted practice videos that showed Irving converting a nifty reverse layup and the point guard and Durant doing their elaborate handshake. One of the videos also showed Harden setting up his teammates several times with his playmaking, which is perhaps a foretelling of the Nets’ future during home games in the absence of Irving in New York.

Durant liked the competitiveness, experience and veteran basketball brains he saw all around him in the camp practices. The Olympic gold medalist and two-time NBA champion has experience playing with a collection of All-Stars and understands he won’t truly know what this Nets squad can do until the regular season.

“We’re still building,” Durant said. “Obviously, practices, shootarounds and all that stuff are great. Until you get real game action, then we start to gauge to see where we are as a group. But we got high-IQ guys and we are looking forward to building — that’s something special as we step out on the floor.

“But we need them game reps under our belt in order for us to really, really feel comfortable with each other.”


ON THE LAST day of camp, Irving darted to and from five different spots behind the arc on a court at the far end of the Jenny Craig Pavilion. Building a good sweat well after practice ended, Irving focused on catching and shooting 3-pointers while working on his conditioning.

Until he was allowed to practice with the Nets again this past weekend in Brooklyn, the sight of Irving catching and shooting 3s was the last time the media got to watch the point guard work on the court. He and several veterans didn’t play against the Lakers in the preseason opener.

That did not dampen Tsai’s excitement. The Nets’ owner sat next to his wife — who was wearing a T-shirt with “Spread Love. It’s the Brooklyn Way” on it — and his family across from the Nets bench at Staples Center and enjoyed seeing some of the team’s younger players get playing time.

The Nets then got on their flight home to New York, where Irving could not practice for four straight days. Barring an unexpected change, it also appears the Nets will not have Irving on the floor for a single preseason minute.

But some 2,764 miles away from the Barclays Center, the Nets had one mostly sunny week together when they all practiced, bonded and even got in some bocce ball by the Pacific Ocean.

“I mean, it definitely helps,” Durant said when asked how the time spent together in San Diego helped the team’s chemistry. “When we all at home, we all have our own lives and families and we’re kind of separated when we’re not at the gym. But here, we’re all in the same bus, going back to the same hotel and we have conversations.

“Guys are starting to understand each other’s lives and what they’ve been through,” Durant continued. “We’re asking questions about where guys come from, so that stuff helps a lot. It’s good to be on the road with a new team, with new teammates. Hopefully that [leads to] a good start to the season.”



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