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?
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.
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.
Washington Wizards, center Daniel Gafford agree to 3-year, $40 million extension
He played well off the bench for the Wizards, averaging 10 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 68% from the field in just under 18 minutes per game.
Gafford is slated to begin the season as Washington’s starting center while Bryant continues to recover from ACL surgery.
Power Rankings, projections, breakout stars and storylines for all 30 teams
The 2021-22 NBA season is here!
Less than three months ago, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks were hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy after winning Game 6 of the NBA Finals over the Phoenix Suns. After somehow squeezing in the NBA draft, free agency, summer league and preseason into another truncated offseason, the league is ready to roll for 2021-22.
Are the Bucks on the road to a repeat, or will the star-studded Brooklyn Nets exact revenge? How will the Ben Simmons saga end for the Philadelphia 76ers? Are the reloaded Miami Heat Finals contenders again?
Speaking of moves, the Los Angeles Lakers made a few.
This summer, LeBron James and Anthony Davis welcomed in Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony and welcomed back Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard. After a disappointing seventh-place finish and first-round postseason exit, are the Lakers destined to return to glory this season? The rest of the West — the conference is as stacked as ever — sure hopes not.
The Utah Jazz and the reigning conference champion Suns, owners of the two best records in the league last season, are running it back with their cores intact, while contenders such as the LA Clippers (Kawhi Leonard) and Denver Nuggets (Jamal Murray) are without key stars for the majority of the season.
What will 2021-22 bring? Our experts are breaking down the stars and storylines you need to know.
Note: ESPN’s NBA Power Rankings are based on which teams our panel (Tim Bontemps, Jamal Collier, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin, Kevin Pelton and Ohm Youngmisuk) thinks belong higher heading into the 2021-22 season. Title odds and over/under wins totals were provided by Caesars Sportsbook.
When we last saw them … Kevin Durant‘s foot was on the line, turning what looked like a series-winning 3-pointer in Game 7 vs. the eventual champion Bucks into a Nets loss in overtime.
Nets in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Signing Patty Mills
Adding the longtime San Antonio Spurs guard could prove crucial on multiple fronts. Not only is Mills one of the NBA’s most respected veteran teammates after winning a title in San Antonio, he remains a useful source of shooting and scoring off the bench. Having Mills looks more important now that Brooklyn will be without Kyrie Irving indefinitely because of New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, pushing Mills into a bigger role than initially expected.
Breakout candidate: Jevon Carter
Acquired as part of the Nets’ draft-day trade sending Landry Shamet to the Phoenix Suns, the fourth-year guard could find more opportunity in Brooklyn after falling out of Phoenix’s rotation in the playoffs. Carter’s playmaking has been a limitation, but the Nets have plenty of that and will ask him to focus on two of his strengths: pressuring opposing ball handlers and knocking down open 3-pointers.
Stephen A. Smith doesn’t hold back his criticism of Kyrie Irving after the Nets announced he can’t practice or play until he’s eligible under the local COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Will Kyrie play?
In an ideal world, we’d be talking about how second-year coach Steve Nash rebuilds a rotation with newcomers in the backcourt and in the frontcourt, where LaMarcus Aldridge returns after a brief retirement and former All-Star Paul Millsap and defensive specialist James Johnson replace departed stalwart Jeff Green. Instead, the realities of a pandemic intervened.
As opposed to using Irving as a part-time player only in road games, the Nets have decided he will not play at all until he cooperates with the New York City mandate. From the outside, and perhaps even inside the organization, it’s impossible to say when Irving might revisit his decision and rejoin the team.
Brooklyn doesn’t need Irving to win the title — after all, the Nets nearly beat the Bucks last season with Irving missing the last three games of the series and Harden playing on a severe hamstring injury — but his absence complicates matters for what looked like the clear championship favorite throughout the offseason. While injuries can change this calculus, for now it’s title or bust for Brooklyn after dealing picks for Harden and committing to pay a luxury tax bill pushing $100 million.
One game you can’t miss: Oct. 19 at Bucks (TNT)
Last year’s Bucks-Nets series proved Milwaukee’s toughest test en route to the championship. Now the consensus top two teams in the East will start the season against each other.
— Kevin Pelton
When we last saw them … The Bucks brought home the NBA championship for the first time since 1971 after an all-time dominant performance from Giannis Antetokounmpo. With 50 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks in Game 6 against the Suns, Antetokounmpo sealed the championship with one of the great statement games in Finals history.
Bucks in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Losing P.J. Tucker
The Bucks are bringing back virtually everyone on their roster and keeping a championship core intact, but they did not re-sign Tucker, who they acquired at the trade deadline last season. Tucker moved into the starting lineup for the final three rounds of the playoffs, and while he didn’t provide much offensively, he was the team’s answer to the question, “Who guards Kevin Durant in a playoff series?” Without him, it’s unclear where the Bucks will turn against their biggest rival in the East.
Breakout candidate: Donte DiVincenzo
An ankle injury during the Bucks’ first-round playoff series against the Heat forced DiVincenzo to miss the rest of the postseason and robbed him of his chance to show his skills on a national stage. Having him back in the lineup could be a huge boost for the Bucks. DiVincenzo will be sidelined for the start of the regular season while he recovers from ankle surgery to replace a torn ligament, but once he gets back into the lineup he adds to the mix another player capable of creating his own offense.
Giannis Antetokounmpo says all he cares about is getting better heading into the next season with the Bucks.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Are the champs flying under the radar?
It’s rare to see a team win a championship, bring all of its key pieces back in their prime and still not be the favorite to even win its own conference. Yet, there are plenty of questions surrounding the Bucks as they prepare to defend their title. They barely squeaked past the Nets during their playoff series last season despite Brooklyn being hampered by injuries to Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Milwaukee then caught the Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals and Suns in the NBA Finals, two surprising opponents that arrived ahead of schedule.
The Bucks should apologize for none of this. They also were not at full strength for stretches of the playoffs but managed to be the last team standing anyway. Antetokounmpo finally delivered a playoff run worthy of a two-time NBA MVP, including one of the dominant Finals performances in history. The banner the Bucks will raise on opening night at Fiserv Forum will fly forever, and it was well earned.
The path to repeating might look tougher this season, but armed with the confidence of last year’s playoff run, Milwaukee will be out to prove that this was no fluke.
One game you can’t miss: Jan. 7 at Nets (ESPN)
Every matchup between these two teams will be a must-watch, including opening night in Milwaukee. But this game in Brooklyn about two months later should provide an even better measuring stick of where these two teams stand and just who, exactly, is available to play at Barclays Center.
— Jamal Collier
When we last saw them … After adding a fourth championship to his résumé in 2020, LeBron James experienced a first-round exit for the first time in his storied career as an encore. The Suns ousted the injured Lakers in six games, prompting the franchise to swing big in the offseason.
Lakers in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Adding Russell Westbrook
L.A. completely overhauled its roster by acquiring Westbrook in a massive five-team trade that cost it Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and its 2021 first-round draft pick. The 2017 MVP has averaged a triple-double in four of the past five seasons and gives L.A. another playmaker to take some of the pressure off the 36-year-old James. The question is, with the Lakers getting rid of their two best wing defenders in Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso in the process of accommodating Westbrook’s massive $44.2 million salary, will this team get enough stops to allow Westbrook to consistently attack in transition to be at his best?
Breakout candidate: Talen Horton-Tucker
Horton-Tucker went from playing surprise spot minutes in the 2020 playoffs against Houston to registering a handful of points/assists double-doubles with the defending champs last season and re-signing with the Lakers for three years, $32 million in the offseason. And he’s not even old enough to drink (he turns 21 on Nov. 25). While suffering a slight setback from thumb surgery during training camp, Horton-Tucker is still set to make a leap this season, with the Lakers’ coaching staff conditioning him to use his broad shoulders and long arms to become a defensive stopper, while still flourishing on offense where his game is far more polished than his age would suggest.
Stephen A. Smith encourages Laker fans to relax about Russell Westbrook’s turnovers, and he still has the Lakers making the Finals.
Pivot point for 2021-22: How well can this new team fit together?
It’s boom or bust this season for a Lakers team that is up there in age by NBA standards. L.A.’s collection of potentially six future Hall of Famers in Westbrook, James, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo is impressive, yet it comes with the caveat that their championship dream could be dashed if their bodies give out over the course of the 82-game grind.
Beyond revamping the roster with the Westbrook deal, the Lakers addressed their spotty outside shooting by bringing in marksmen such as Wayne Ellington and Malik Monk, and high-level scorers with range in Anthony and Kendrick Nunn.
The vision for coach Frank Vogel’s group is to be staunch defensively — getting stops, generating steals and deflections, and securing long rebounds that can launch an accelerated attack in transition, led by two of the best ever in the open court in James and Westbrook. Their ultimate success will come down to how quickly they can come together while avoiding the injury bug.
One game you can’t miss: Christmas Day vs. Nets (ABC)
It could be an NBA Finals preview, but it’s also just a ton of high-level basketball players sharing the court while several of them also share some history as former teammates.
— Dave McMenamin
When we last saw them … The Suns ripped through the Western Conference playoffs with a 12-4 record to make the NBA Finals. But after taking a 2-0 lead in the Finals, the Bucks rattled off four wins in a row to send the Suns home in disappointment.
Suns in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Signing Chris Paul to an extension
Paul was pivotal to Phoenix’s success a season ago, so the team gave him an extension. Paul was considered a lock to opt-in to his player option, but after his play last season, Phoenix rewarded him with a four-year extension worth up to $120 million.
Breakout candidate: Cameron Johnson
A lot of Phoenix players became household names during the team’s playoff run, but it could be a big season for Johnson — especially if his playoff shooting becomes the norm. Johnson shot 39.0% from deep during his rookie season, but that dipped to 34.9% last season. During the Suns’ playoff run, however, Johnson shot 44.6% from deep.
Adrian Wojnarowski examines the impact of Deandre Ayton and the Suns failing to reach a contract extension.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Deandre Ayton‘s future
Phoenix is out to prove last season was not a fluke. Injuries riddled several teams during the Suns’ playoff run — including the Suns themselves — but Phoenix still proved it was a good team. The Suns finished with the second-best record in the league (51-21) in the regular season and carried that momentum into the Finals.
The biggest looming question for Phoenix remains the status of Ayton’s extension. Discussions on a rookie contract extension for Ayton ended ahead of a Monday deadline with no agreement. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Sunday the Suns signed Mikal Bridges to a four-year, $90 million rookie contract extension.
Reserve big Dario Saric tore his ACL in the Finals and will miss significant time. Jalen Smith, the Suns’ first-round pick a year ago, could be in line for minutes at the backup 4 spot and could play next to Ayton or JaVale McGee. But Smith could also be used as a trade chip if Phoenix wants a more proven option.
The Suns will continue to lean on their 1-2 backcourt punch of Paul and Devin Booker. Cameron Payne returns to sop up the backup point guard minutes, while offseason addition Landry Shamet gives the bench a boost.
One game you can’t miss: Feb. 10 vs. Bucks (TNT)
There won’t be a Finals rematch until February, when Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks return to Phoenix for their only game there this season.
— Andrew Lopez
When we last saw them … After posting the NBA’s best record during the regular season, the Jazz failed again to get out of the second round, which is as far as they’ve advanced during their streak of five straight postseason appearances.
Jazz in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Signing Rudy Gay
The Jazz used their taxpayer midlevel exception to sign Gay in hopes that the 35-year-old forward will be a significant upgrade over Georges Niang, who left for Philadelphia in free agency. Gay is recovering from offseason heel surgery that is expected to sideline him for at least the first few weeks of the season, but he’s a proven scoring threat whose defensive versatility can provide coach Quin Snyder lineup flexibility that he has lacked in recent seasons — specifically the option of playing small ball.
Jordan Clarkson puts the moves on two Pelicans defenders en route to a soft floater.
Breakout candidate: Jared Butler
Can a second-round draft pick crack a contender’s rotation as a rookie? Butler just might. He was widely considered a mid-first-round talent, but the Baylor guard fell to the 40th overall pick because of concerns about a heart condition and knee problems. Butler has consistently impressed since arriving in Utah, displaying a blend of athleticism, skill and feel for the game. The Jazz need to carefully manage the workloads of Mike Conley and Joe Ingles, so there should be opportunities for Butler to seize.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Can Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert elevate?
Can the Jazz get even more from their pair of franchise cornerstones? Specifically, can Mitchell and Gobert make significant strides in facets of the game that haven’t been strengths for them?
Mitchell has been so magnificent as the Jazz’s go-to guy — increasing his scoring and assists averages each season and often raising his game to an even higher level in the playoffs — that it’s easy to forget he was considered a potentially elite defender as a draft prospect.
Through four years of his career, while carrying a much heavier offensive burden than anticipated, Mitchell has been average at best defensively. He’s being challenged to make the commitment to be impactful on that end of the floor, much like his mentor and minority Jazz owner Dwyane Wade was during his Hall of Fame career.
The Jazz’s perimeter defense was exposed by the small-ball Clippers during the Western Conference semifinals, when Mitchell was hampered by a sprained ankle and Conley missed all but the series finale due to a hamstring strain. Gobert, the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, consistently found himself in the impossible predicament of needing to protect the rim to prevent dunks and layups and then recover to the corner. Utah’s defense was bad with Gobert on the floor (121.9 rating), but a whole lot worse when he rested (135.1).
It’s not fair to blame Gobert for the Jazz’s struggles to defend small lineups, but it’s a big problem he couldn’t punish them offensively. Utah needs Gobert to establish deep position and finish when guards switch onto him. He displayed that ability during France’s silver-medal Olympics run. The Jazz need to see it in the playoffs.
One game you can’t miss: Nov. 16 vs. 76ers (TNT)
The Jazz and 76ers only meet a couple of times per season, but it has developed into a fun quasi-rivalry. Utah fans’ animosity for Ben Simmons, who may or may not still be a Sixer by then, has run strong since Mitchell’s unsuccessful NBA Rookie of the Year campaign against him.
— Tim MacMahon
When we last saw them … The Heat got swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Bucks. After refilling their roster with gritty veterans like Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris, Miami is hopeful it can roll back into the Finals just a couple of years after that unbelievable bubble run.
Heat in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Adding Kyle Lowry
The former Raptor has a strong relationship with Heat star Jimmy Butler and will be counted on to help lead his new organization to playoff success. On top of what he figures to provide on the floor, the 35-year-old point guard is expected to fit in nicely with the culture that president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra have built.
Breakout candidate: Tyler Herro
The Kentucky alum had a terrific run as a rookie in the bubble, struggled with injuries and inconsistencies in his second season and now has a chance to help the Heat regain momentum while carving out an even larger niche for himself at the age of 21.
Tyler Herro finishes the preseason strong with a game-high 29 points off the bench in the Heat’s win over the Celtics.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Can the Heat rise to the top of the East again?
As great as Butler and All-Star center Bam Adebayo have been at times over the past two seasons, the Heat know that their supporting cast has to be able to provide even more support.
The onus of that improvement falls on players such as Duncan Robinson, who signed a $90 million dollar contract over the summer, Herro, Tucker and Morris — but maybe most importantly on Lowry. The Heat are also hoping to get a lift from rehabbing former All-Star Victor Oladipo, who remains out with a quad injury.
If Oladipo is able to get his career back on track and regain the form he had a few years ago, the Heat not only have one of the most talented rosters in the East, it will be one of the deepest as well. The mix of veterans and younger players gives Spoelstra a nice balance to work with and should be a force if it can stay healthy once the postseason rolls around.
One game you can’t miss: March 2 at Bucks
The Heat will get a late-season look at the defending champs in a game that could be another playoff preview between the same teams that have squared off in each of the past two postseasons. It will also be a nice homecoming for Tucker — who helped earn the Bucks a ring during his brief stint in Milwaukee.
— Nick Friedell
When we last saw them … Nikola Jokic‘s MVP season fizzled out in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Suns in the conference semifinals. Without Jamal Murray, the Nuggets were no match for the Suns. Now Denver waits to see when Murray will be able to return from a torn ACL suffered in mid-April.
Nuggets in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Michael Porter Jr.’s extension
The Nuggets secured a big part of their future by signing Porter to a five-year designated maximum extension that could be worth up to $207 million. With Murray out, Porter displayed his scoring and rebounding prowess and the potential that many thought would have made him a top-three pick had it not been for his back injury. In his second season, and first as a starter, Porter averaged 19 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 44.5% from 3. He’s poised for another step forward with Murray out indefinitely.
Breakout candidate: Bones Hyland
Hyland could be the next gem the Nuggets found in the draft. Taken 26th overall out of VCU, the rookie point guard has been impressive. Fearless and full of confidence, Hyland looks the part. With Murray on the mend and Monte Morris now in the starting lineup, Hyland has the opportunity to provide a spark off the bench for coach Michael Malone.
“I think it’s undeniable,” Malone told reporters of Hyland recently. “I think Bones Hyland has been outstanding in the preseason.”
Check out the top plays from Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. during the 2020-21 NBA season.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Jamal Murray’s return
Last September, the Nuggets were a team on the rise. They had just lost in five games to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals, and Murray and Jokic looked like they were a couple of pieces away from reaching the Finals. Last season, Porter began to emerge and Denver traded for Aaron Gordon. But then Murray went down a few weeks later with a devastating torn ACL on April 12.
The Nuggets will once again rely heavily on the reigning MVP, who had a magical season with 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists last season. While Jokic is primed for another big season, Denver’s title aspirations rest with Murray’s return. Denver will take it slow with the star guard, but the Nuggets will need him if they are to make it out of the second round.
One game you can’t miss: Nov. 18 vs. 76ers (NBA TV)
There was much ado last season about not only who the MVP should be, but also who owns the title of best big man in the game. Jokic and Joel Embiid get their first crack at each other in Denver come November.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
When we last saw them … The Hawks made believers out of many in the NBA last postseason with their run to the conference finals. After taking out the Knicks in five games, they defeated the Sixers in seven and were tied 2-2 with the eventual NBA champion Bucks before bowing out in six games.
Hawks in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Removing the interim tag on Nate McMillan
Atlanta’s biggest offseason move was securing their coach to a long-term deal after he led them on a playoff run many didn’t see coming. Once McMillan took over as the interim coach in March, the Hawks finished the regular season with a 27-11 mark. It was a no-brainer for Atlanta to secure McMillan for the near future, especially after he connected with superstar point guard Trae Young.
Breakout candidate: De’Andre Hunter
Hunter only played 23 games in last year’s regular season and made it through the five-game Knicks series before having to sit for the rest of the playoffs. Hunter’s field goal percentage jumped from 41.0% to 48.4% last season because his 2-point percentage shot up from 45.4% to 58.2%. He improved at the rim, in the paint and in the midrange. If his 3-point percentage climbs back up, he could be a nightly 20-point threat.
The Debatable crew is impressed by John Collins climbing Jarrett Allen for a poster, and one panelist already is calling it the dunk of the year.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Was their playoff run a fluke?
The Hawks shocked the basketball world with their conference finals run, but there’s reason to believe it wasn’t just a one-time appearance. A wiser, hungrier Hawks team returns to try to spoil the Eastern Conference party once again.
Things changed last season once the Hawks switched coaches from Lloyd Pierce to McMillan, and the team responded immediately. Young’s scoring dipped by more than four points in the regular season compared to the previous season, but it turned into wins for the Hawks. Young ramped things back up in the playoffs, averaging 28.8 points and becoming a go-to threat when the Hawks needed him.
The Hawks return nine of their top 10 and 11 of their top 13 players last in terms of minutes played. They also added Delon Wright and draft picks Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper — the latter of whom might be one of the best two-way contracts in the league.
One game you can’t miss: Oct. 30 at 76ers
While Young made his biggest impact against the Knicks, Atlanta still eliminated the Sixers (and helped set off quite the chain of events for Philadelphia). This is their first trip back to the city of Brotherly Love.
The last time we saw them … Ben Simmons was passing up a wide-open dunk in the waning moments of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, a moment that not only helped cost the 76ers their season but also set up everything that has transpired since.
76ers in NBArank
Joel Embiid (7)
Ben Simmons (28)
Tobias Harris (46)
Seth Curry (88)
Most impactful offseason move: Ask again later
What’s going to happen with Simmons? Perhaps the 76ers’ biggest move will be Simmons showing up and being part of the team. More likely, however, is Philadelphia eventually finding a trade for him that allows the Sixers to remain a championship contender. Until that deal materializes, this standoff will continue.
Breakout candidate: Tyrese Maxey
The potential absence of Simmons could create a massive opportunity for second-year point guard Tyrese Maxey, who would be the clear choice to replace Simmons as the team’s floor general; coach Doc Rivers joked it was “obvious” Maxey would get that chance on media day. Like many young guards, Maxey will make some mistakes. But he’s an explosive, talented player who is going to get the chance to prove he is a starter.
Adrian Wojnarowski shares the latest on talks between Ben Simmons and the 76ers.
Pivot point for 2021-22: The next move in the Simmons saga
It’s impossible to think about the Sixers right now without taking into account the Simmons situation and trying to figure out both when it’s going to be resolved and what the team is going to look like after. From Maxey’s play, to waiting to see if Simmons will be traded, to what Philadelphia can get for him, to simply seeing whether the Sixers can survive as this drags on will all merit attention.
In the meantime, there are two things to follow in Philly: Can Tobias Harris finally break through and make an All-Star Game, and can Joel Embiid stay healthy enough to contend for MVP? Harris has had a couple of near-misses for All-Star in the past, including last season. If he can help Philly stay in the top four in the East without Simmons, he’ll have every chance to get there this time around.
Meanwhile, Embiid might have won the MVP award last season if he hadn’t gotten unlucky and landed awkwardly in Washington in March. Not only could his hopes of winning that award this year hinge on whether he can miss, say, 10 games instead of his usual 20, but those 10 games could determine whether Philadelphia is a top-4 seed.
One game you can’t miss: Nov. 1 vs. Trail Blazers
For all of the attention on Simmons, there will certainly be plenty of eyes on Damian Lillard‘s lone trip to Philadelphia, a night when fans can dream about what a potential Lillard-Embiid pairing might look like.
— Tim Bontemps
When we last saw them … The Mavs’ drought without a playoff series victory was extended to a full decade after a first-round loss to the LA Clippers, despite Dallas going up 2-0 with a pair of road wins and jumping out to an 18-point lead in Game 3. Luka Doncic was brilliant, but his one-man show wasn’t enough.
Mavericks in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Hiring Jason Kidd
Mark Cuban’s coaching search focused on one candidate from the start: Jason Kidd, who returns to Dallas with a Hall of Fame résumé as a point guard and mixed reviews as a head coach. Kidd replaced Rick Carlisle, whose resignation after 13 seasons was an acknowledgment the expiration date was nearing on his relationship with Doncic, as well as other players on the roster. Kidd, who is 183-190 in brief coaching stints with the Nets and Bucks, inherits a team expected to win immediately.
Breakout candidate: Jalen Brunson
The Mavs only have two rotation players who are 25 or younger. Doncic, a two-time first-team All-NBA selection, is an established superstar at the ripe old age of 22. That makes Brunson, 25, the closest thing to a breakout candidate on the roster. It can be argued Brunson already had his breakout campaign, finishing fourth in Sixth Man of the Year voting after averaging 12.6 points and 3.5 assists per game last season. But he struggled in the playoffs, leaving a lot to prove in his contract year.
Mavericks coach Jason Kidd joins First Take to discuss the relationship between Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Can Porzingis be Luka’s “co-star”?
Kidd has made pumping up Kristaps Porzingis a priority, declaring that the oft-injured “Unicorn” is a “perfect co-star for Luka” and predicting Porzingis will return to All-Star form. The Mavs really need Kidd to be right.
The hope is that the 7-foot-3 Porzingis is as healthy — physically and mentally — as he’s been since arriving in Dallas while rehabbing from a torn ACL. His mobility was limited last season coming off a surgery to repair the meniscus in his other knee, and he struggled to accept what he considered a restricted role in Carlisle’s offense.
Kidd has given Porzingis the green light to “be a basketball player,” giving him permission for the post-ups and midrange shots that Carlisle tried to eliminate from Porzingis’ shot diet, often turning him into a maximum-salaried, supersized floor spacer. It’s worth noting, however, that Porzingis had his most efficient season (.582 true shooting percentage) while averaging 20.1 points per game last season.
But the Mavs believe Porzingis is capable of much more. He has certainly flashed that potential, averaging 26.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in his final 21 games of the 2019-20 season. (Porzingis played center full-time during that stretch but will start at power forward next to Dwight Powell to begin this season.)
The biggest problem with Porzingis last season was his defense. That was in large part due to his physical limitations, but a lack of motivation was also likely a factor. The Mavs are making sure Porzingis feels featured again, and Doncic and Porzingis appear determined to improve a chemistry that was awkward at best last season.
The Mavs need Porzingis to be a high-caliber co-star to have a clear path to being legitimate contenders.
One game you can’t miss: Oct. 21 at Hawks (TNT)
Why look past the season opener against the Hawks? It’s a fun matchup of two young superstars who were traded for each other on draft night. Doncic has the more impressive list of individual accomplishments, but Young has led the Hawks deep into the playoffs.
When we last saw them … The Warriors got hot at the end of the season and earned their way into the play-in tournament, but two close losses to the Lakers and Grizzlies ended their season. Stephen Curry & Co. come into this season with high hopes that the group can vault itself back to the top of the Western Conference with a healthy Klay Thompson back after two grueling years of rehab.
Warriors in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Adding vets to the bench
While much of the focus in the long-run centers around lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, the short-term leap for this team could come on two fronts. First, a reworked bench centering around Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica gives coach Steve Kerr the type of veteran presence and big man shooting that he has been looking for. Secondly, a revamped player development staff led by former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson gives the organization a new way to develop its young talent.
Breakout candidate: Jordan Poole
The third-year guard is drawing praise from teammates and coaches for the way his game continues to evolve — especially on the offensive end. With Thompson out for at least the first two months of the season as he continues to rehab an Achilles injury, Poole will be asked to shoulder some of the offensive load as the Warriors wait for Thompson to return. Poole’s confidence is growing seemingly each game and his importance to this year’s team appears to be moving at the same rate.
Domonique Foxworth, Pablo Torre and Sarah Spain debate how much Steph Curry will have to alter his game to adjust to the NBA’s new rules.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Klay Thompson’s return
Are the Warriors still the championship-caliber Warriors? This is what the organization must answer this season as it tries to figure out its future.
Curry will be 34 in March and it remains to be seen whether he has the core around him to get this team back to the NBA’s mountaintop. While so much of the season, and the future, revolves around what kind of player Thompson can still be after two career-altering injuries, it will also be crucial that the Warriors develop 2020 No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman after an up-and-down rookie season that was truncated because of a meniscus injury. If Wiseman returns and can give the group a boost while Kuminga and Moody continue to develop, the Warriors will have reason to have more hope for the future.
One game you can’t miss: Christmas Day at Suns (ABC)
The Warriors love the stage that Christmas Day games provide, and it’s always interesting to see Curry face off against Chris Paul — especially with a Suns team that fell two games short of winning a title last season. While it remains unclear exactly when Thompson will return, there is a chance he’ll be ready for this showdown.
When we last saw them … With an injured Kawhi Leonard watching, the Clippers reached their first Western Conference finals and fell two wins short of the Finals. They enter this season with tempered expectations, though, as Leonard is expected to be sidelined for much of the season after surgery to repair his partially torn right ACL.
Clippers in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Re-signing Reggie Jackson
Putting aside Kawhi Leonard re-signing as a free agent since he is injured, the Clippers keeping Jackson will be impactful on and off the court. Coming off his big postseason run, Jackson could be the Clippers’ second-leading scorer this season after Paul George. With Leonard out indefinitely, Jackson will look to match or top the 17.8 points per game he averaged in the postseason. Off the court, Jackson and George are best friends. George has consistently talked about how much he loves playing with this group, and his happiness has shown in his play.
Breakout candidate: Terance Mann
Last postseason, Mann gave outsiders a glimpse of what the Clippers have known since drafting the versatile swingman No. 48 overall in 2019. Mann has big potential and continues to grow as an impact player. His 39-point explosion in Game 6 of the second round to help the Clippers eliminate the Jazz feels like an outing that was just scratching the surface. Mann can play several different positions, which gives coach Ty Lue a matchup weapon. With Leonard sidelined indefinitely, Mann has plenty of opportunity to showcase his game.
Stephen A. Smith is pessimistic about the Clippers’ chances to return to the Western Conference finals this season.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Can Paul George carry the Clippers?
The Clippers got a taste of what life could be like with Leonard and George playing some of their best playoff basketball for 11 games last postseason. Then Leonard suffered his knee injury and the Clippers’ dreams of winning a championship have been put on pause ever since. The Clippers entered last season wanting to prove to everyone that they were better than their meltdown in Orlando the year before. They did that. Now the Clippers will try to prove they can be as competitive as they were last season in the games without Leonard.
The Clippers want to show they’re a playoff team without him and a title contender if he is able to return this season. This will be George’s ship until then, and he gave a preview of what he can do without Leonard, averaging 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in the Western Conference finals. And Lue showed several times last season he can get plenty out of his team without one or even both of his stars last season.
One game you can’t miss: Dec. 13 vs. Suns (NBA TV)
The last time we saw these two teams on the floor in the Western Conference finals, Patrick Beverley shoved Chris Paul in the back in frustration. While Pat Bev is gone, there was no love lost between the Clippers and Suns.
When we last saw them … After a quick playoff exit, the Celtics — one of the NBA’s most stable franchises — made drastic changes, led by Danny Ainge retiring, former head coach Brad Stevens becoming the president of basketball operations in his place and Ime Udoka being hired as the next coach.
Celtics in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Hiring head coach Ime Udoka
While the Celtics made a host of moves this offseason — including swapping Kemba Walker for Al Horford, trading for Josh Richardson and signing Dennis Schroder — Udoka’s impact on the team will be constantly monitored in Beantown. Even after a disappointing 2020-21 season, the Celtics had still made the Eastern Conference finals in three of the previous five seasons. And with All-Star wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on the roster, there are still hopes of playoff success this season in Boston.
Breakout candidate: Robert Williams III
After signing him to a contract extension this offseason, the Celtics are clearly hoping Williams can blossom into a quality starting center. He might begin the season starting over Horford, and Boston is banking on him becoming a core member of this team alongside Tatum and Brown. Williams’ talent isn’t in question. What is, though, is his ability to stay on the court; he has played in exactly half of Boston’s games (113 of 226) over the past three seasons. If he remains healthy, he could have a big season.
Jayson Tatum drives the baseline and elevates to punch home a dunk on Wendell Carter Jr.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Too much change for one offseason?
Ainge, who led the team for almost two decades, is out, and Stevens stunningly replaced him. That, coupled with the hiring of Udoka and trading away Walker, has left Boston in a radically different position than it was last season.
There is room for optimism: The Celtics have one of the best combinations of under-25 two-way stars in the league in Tatum and Brown, and the additions of Horford, Richardson and Schroder deepen a bench that was woefully thin last season.
Still, this season will hinge on whether Tatum and Brown take significant steps forward as scorers and playmakers. And can Boston, which has the potential to be a top-five defensive team, actually get there?
If some of those answers are yes, then Boston has a very good chance of being a top-four team in the East. If not? It could be a return to the play-in tournament.
One game you can’t miss: Oct. 20 at Knicks (ESPN)
The combination of Walker playing against the Celtics, and making his home debut at Madison Square Garden, alongside fellow former Celtic Evan Fournier, and Udoka’s first game as coach, makes this a hugely important game to kick off the season for Boston.
When we last saw them … After a terrific regular season, the Knicks were humbled by Trae Young and the Hawks in the first round. They added Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier to rectify what cost them in that series: woeful offensive production.
Knicks in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Can Kemba Walker stay healthy?
If Walker’s knee can hold up, his arrival could be a massive boost for the Knicks. Take a look at coach Tom Thibodeau’s track record with small point guards. He has gotten tons of production out of guys such as Nate Robinson and D.J. Augustin in the past; imagine what he could do with Walker if he’s anywhere close to his All-Star form. Walker’s knee has been a problem for two calendar years, at least in spurts, but he was excellent in the 2020 playoffs in the bubble.
Breakout candidate: Mitchell Robinson
It’s a huge season for Robinson, who so far has not been signed to a contract extension, meaning he could be an unrestricted free agent in 2022. The 7-footer is an elite shot-blocker and dunker, but he’s coming off an injury-shortened season and the Knicks gave Nerlens Noel a healthy contract in the offseason. Robinson is going to have to earn his time. If he does, the Knicks could have a weapon on their hands.
Stephen A. Smith gets hyped up explaining why he expects the Knicks to be a top-five seed and reach the second round of the playoffs.
Pivot point for 2021-22: What’s left for the encore?
Last season was a massive surprise in New York. While everyone expected the Knicks would play hard and play defense under Thibodeau, few people were anticipating them breaking through the way they did, finishing with the fourth seed in the East and getting home court in the first round of the playoffs.
Then again, the reason people didn’t think that could happen came to the fore when New York went up against a young, but talented, Hawks team: New York just didn’t have the talent to keep up.
Still, after maximizing every bit of what they had last year, it was impressive to see the Knicks go into the offseason and, once again, show restraint and smarts in building their roster. They gave out only two- and three-year guaranteed deals, including getting Walker after he was bought out by Oklahoma City, maintaining their flexibility going forward. And, unlike so many times in the past, New York didn’t try to skip steps.
One game you can’t miss: Christmas Day vs. Hawks (ESPN)
Young’s return to Madison Square Garden will be electric. After he took on the mantle of Garden villain in a way no one has since Reggie Miller, fans will be ready to go at him on the sport’s biggest regular-season stage.
When we last saw them … Damian Lillard was expressing frustration that his 34.3 points per game and 10.2 assists per game weren’t enough to help the Blazers knock off the short-handed Nuggets in the first round.
Blazers in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Hiring Chauncey Billups
Billups replaced Terry Stotts as coach. General manager Neil Olshey laid the blame for the first-round loss and finishing 29th in defensive rating at Stotts’ feet, saying those outcomes were “not a product of the roster.” That puts pressure on Billups, a first-time head coach with only one year on the sidelines as an assistant.
Portland has high hopes for recent first-round picks Simons and Little. Simons developed into a reliable 3-point threat last season (43% on 4.4 attempts per game) and will get more ball-handling duties after primarily spotting up alongside Lillard and CJ McCollum last season. Little is the Blazers’ most athletic wing defender with size and the team hopes he can continue to develop as a shooter after hitting 35% of limited 3-point attempts in 2020-21.
Damian Lillard denies reports he’s requested a trade, but says he’s made it clear to the Trail Blazers he wants to compete for a title.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Can the Blazers win enough to keep Dame in Portland?
There will be heightened interest around the league in Portland’s record because teams are eyeing Lillard as the next superstar to change teams.
Although Lillard aired his unhappiness, he never took the step of requesting a trade and indicated his commitment to the Blazers at the start of training camp. That could change if Portland struggles, putting additional pressure on Billups to win now. He’ll have a better defensive group to work with than Stotts, as the Blazers replaced the backup frontcourt of Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter with veteran center Cody Zeller and trade target Larry Nance Jr.
Portland also enters the season healthy after starters McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic missed a combined 60 games last season. When those two were in the lineup with deadline addition Norman Powell, the Blazers’ current starters outscored opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions, second-best among units with at least 350 minutes together according to NBA Advanced Stats.
One game you can’t miss: Nov. 14 at Nuggets
The Blazers will learn whether they have solved last year’s issues during a pair of matchups against the Nuggets in November, with the return game (Nov. 23) on TNT.
When we last saw them … The Grizzlies’ young core took a step forward, earning a playoff spot by emerging from the play-in tournament and punching their postseason ticket on the Warriors’ floor.
Grizzlies in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Trading for Steven Adams
Adams replaces Jonas Valanciunas in the Grizzlies’ starting lineup after the bruising big men were swapped for each other in a multiteam deal that allowed Memphis to move up seven spots to No. 10 in the draft to select forward Ziaire Williams, who will have a hard time cracking the rotation as a rookie. Adams might be a defensive upgrade, but Valanciunas leaves big shoes to fill, averaging 17.1 points and 12.5 rebounds per game last season.
Breakout candidate: De’Anthony Melton
The biggest benefit of trading Grayson Allen, a part-time starter at shooting guard last season, is that it opened up minutes for Melton, a favorite of the front office. Melton, 23, is known in Memphis as “Mr. Do Something” because of the versatility he has displayed in a limited role. He’s an active, disruptive defender who made major progress as a 3-point shooter last season (41.2% on 4.1 attempts per game, compared to 28.6% on 2.3 attempts per game the previous season).
Ja Morant stuffs the stat sheet in 24 minutes of action vs. Charlotte, scoring 16 points, dishing 8 assists, and grabbing a steal and 2 blocks.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Can Jaren Jackson Jr. be a star?
Can Jackson reestablish himself as a centerpiece the Grizzlies can build around alongside Ja Morant?
Jackson, selected between Luka Doncic and Trae Young in the 2018 draft, agreed to a four-year, $105 million contract extension just before the deadline this week. It’s a deal that splits the difference between Jackson’s potential and his production to this point.
Injuries have interrupted Jackson’s development, especially the meniscus tear he suffered in the bubble that required surgery, sidelining him for the majority of last season. He has the tools to be a terrific sidekick for Morant, as the 22-year-old Jackson is a still-growing 7-footer with rare athleticism and shooting range for his size, although his poor rebounding (4.7 per game career average) is concerning.
For the Grizzlies to be a real threat in the playoffs, they need Jackson to stay healthy and perform like the star he was projected to be.
One game you can’t miss: Jan. 14 vs Mavericks (ESPN)
Count on the Grizzlies pushing Dillon Brooks, who will be sidelined early in the season with a broken left hand, for All-Defensive honors. Memphis doesn’t get much national TV time, so that makes the Jan. 14 game against the Mavericks that much more important. Brooks defends Luka Doncic as well as anyone.
When we last saw them … The Hornets made the play-In tournament but were bounced right away by the Celtics. The hope for the Hornets is that their young, talented roster, led by veterans Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward and second-year guard LaMelo Ball, can get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
Hornets in NBArank
LaMelo Ball (47)
Gordon Hayward (58)
Terry Rozier (81)
Miles Bridges (87)
Most impactful offseason move: Adding Kelly Oubre Jr.
The swingman had an up-and-down season a year ago with the Warriors, but his energy and ability to change the game on both ends of the floor could really help a Charlotte team trying to find more wins. If Oubre, 25, can find some more consistency in his own offensive game, he will provide a nice lift.
Breakout candidate: Miles Bridges
The 23-year-old has shown glimpses of big-time talent, as evidenced by his last four regular-season games, when he averaged 22.3 points and five rebounds. With another year to grow alongside Ball and a capable surrounding cast, Bridges has a chance to take another step.
LaMelo Ball stuffs the stat sheet with 19 PTS, 8 REB and 9 AST in a one-point loss to Miami.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Will Charlotte be more than just a fun team to watch?
The Hornets have talent, they have a solid mix of youth and veteran leadership. Now they need to see young players like Ball, Bridges, P.J. Washington and draft picks James Bouknight and Kai Jones improve while hoping for some luck in the standings. With Ball, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, leading the way, it’s not out of the question to believe that this is finally the year.
In order to make it happen, it will be crucial for Hayward to stay on the floor. He averaged 19.6 points last season but played in just 44 games after signing a big deal during the offseason. Aside from questions about how the youth of this group will evolve together, Hayward’s ability to contribute will go a long way toward answering whether the Hornets can be a playoff team.
One game you can’t miss: Jan. 19 at Celtics
It will be interesting to see what kind of reception Hayward gets from Boston fans in his first return to Massachusetts with fans in attendance. The Celtics also pose an interesting challenge given they figure to be one of the teams fighting with the Hornets in the back half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
When we last saw them … The Pacers were optimistic that a coaching change would help maximize their roster (this might sound familiar later), but instead they finished under .500 and got bounced in the play-in tournament.
Pacers in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Hiring Rick Carlisle as coach
Once again, the Pacers are counting on a coaching change to solve some of their biggest problems. They fired Nate Bjorkgren after one disastrous season during which he struggled to connect with players and staff. Carlisle will almost certainly be an upgrade on the sideline. He is one of the most respected coaches in the league, and he could help maximize their offensive potential and improve a defense that slipped last season.
Breakout candidate: Myles Turner
Turner has been an awesome rim protector for a few years, but he was even more of a block star last season. He led the league by erasing 3.4 shots per game before a foot injury in April ended his season. Trade speculation has followed Turner because of the questions of his fit next to Domantas Sabonis in the frontcourt, but the two could continue to make it work, especially if Turner can make improvements as a rebounder and as a dive man on pick-and-rolls. Staying healthy and continuing to expand his offensive game will be key to a breakout this season.
Relive Caris LeVert’s best plays with the Pacers and Nets from last season.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Can the Pacers take a step forward?
Here’s how the past six seasons have ended for the Pacers: a first-round playoff loss in 2016, a first-round playoff loss in 2017, a first-round playoff loss in 2018, a first-round playoff loss in 2019, a first-round playoff loss in 2020 and a loss in the play-in tournament in 2021. They’ve never finished higher than fourth in the Eastern Conference or lower than ninth during that span.
It’s the embodiment of solid, yet unspectacular.
The Pacers still have a lot of talent on their roster, even if they lack true star power. Turner, Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren have the look of a playoff starting five. They’ve had a plethora of injuries that have kept this team from reaching its ceiling and are once again betting on the benefits of a coaching change. Indiana still has some upside with its roster as currently constructed, but if it finds itself stuck again after years mired in the same position, this team could be a candidate to shake things up at some point.
One game you can’t miss: Dec. 21 at Heat (TNT)
Warren never got to follow up on his breakout performance in the bubble in Orlando, Florida, including a first-round playoff series in 2020 against the Heat. He will miss the start of this season with injuries again, but the Pacers are hoping his absence will be measured in weeks, not months.
When we last saw them … The Bulls made a win-now move at the trade deadline to acquire Nikola Vucevic, but it didn’t lead to nearly as many wins as anticipated in the second half. Zach LaVine missed 11 games down the stretch after testing positive for COVID-19, and the Bulls limped to a disappointing finish to miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
Bulls in NBArank
Zach LaVine (33)
Nikola Vucevic (39)
DeMar DeRozan (45)
Lonzo Ball (57)
Most impactful offseason move: Adding Lonzo Ball
The Bulls decided to double down this offseason in an effort to get the team back into contention. They have almost completely revamped their team — only LaVine, Coby White and Patrick Williams remain from the roster that began the 2020-21 season — and executed two key sign-and-trades to bring in Ball and DeMar DeRozan. Ball, who immediately becomes the team’s best point guard since Derrick Rose, is a solid defender on a team short on them, and his passing should help this offense flow.
Breakout candidate: Patrick Williams
Williams was a bit of a surprise as the fourth overall pick in the 2020 draft, but as one of the youngest players in the NBA he had some impressive moments during his rookie season. His potential as a two-way player will be key to raising the ceiling for this Bulls roster in the next few seasons, but the team is hopeful that a full offseason and playing in summer league will help him take a leap.
Alex Caruso splits the Grizzlies’ defense for a two-handed dunk in the Bulls’ final preseason game.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Was this all worth it?
The Bulls cashed in many of their chips in order to make over their roster, but it remains unclear just how good of a team they’ve built. The team has certainly improved after its rebuild through the draft grew stagnant. However, in a loaded Eastern Conference, the Bulls still seem likely to be fighting to stay out of the play-in.
The roster does have a good mix of veterans in their 30s (DeRozan, Vucevic) and young players (Williams, Ball, Coby White) who could all improve and change the trajectory of this team. These Bulls should score a lot of points. Their depth and the other side of the ball is a huge question mark.
And then there’s Zach LaVine, who could be the headliner of the free-agent class next summer. A successful season could go a long way in ensuring he signs in Chicago long term. This will easily be the most talented team he has played on since coming to the Bulls. It’ll be worth watching to see if he can turn that into the first playoff berth in his career.
One game you can’t miss: Feb. 9 at Hornets (ESPN)
Lonzo vs. LaMelo Ball in one of their three matchups this season. The Bulls and Hornets are both teams who believe they are on the rise in the East — they also might be two of the most watchable teams in the NBA.
When we last saw them … The Raptors had a nightmare of a season, having to play a full year on the road in Tampa, Florida, having a COVID-19 outbreak among players and coaches, and missing the playoffs. Then, franchise icon Kyle Lowry left in free agency — though they did get lottery luck and moved up to draft Scottie Barnes fourth overall.
Raptors in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Drafting Scottie Barnes
The guess heading into last season wouldn’t have been Toronto winding up with a top-five pick, but that’s what happened. And with Pascal Siakam out to start the season after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, Barnes is going to get a chance to carve out a big role right away. Coach Nick Nurse has said during the preseason that he wants Barnes to get plenty of opportunities.
Breakout candidate: OG Anunoby
With Siakam banged up, and Lowry in Miami, the stage is set for Anunoby to take a big step forward for the Raptors. Anunoby has always had the highest upside of the Raptors’ established players. If he realizes that upside this season, things could go a lot better for Toronto than many expect after the tumult the team went through in the offseason.
Drake gets hyped as Malachi Flynn beats the third-quarter buzzer with a 3-pointer.
Pivot point for 2021-22: What path does the franchise take?
For the first time in more than a decade, the Raptors will not have either DeMar DeRozan or Lowry on their roster, truly marking the end of one era.
There is some thought the Raptors are about to enter a full rebuild. But if that’s going to be the case, it’s going to be hard to do that with a remaining core of Anunoby, Siakam and Fred VanVleet, plus Nurse pulling the strings on the sideline. So if team president Masai Ujiri chooses to, Toronto could easily be a team that’s in the mix for a top-six spot in the East while developing Barnes.
Or, Toronto could look to go the other way and try to turn some of those veterans into more long-term assets and focus the rebuild around Barnes and whatever picks come down the line. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the situation Ujiri inherited in Toronto almost a decade ago — though, at that point, Toronto hadn’t had any kind of success, let alone a group like this that remains the backbone of a championship team two years ago.
One game you can’t miss: Feb. 3 vs. Heat (TNT)
Kyle Lowry will make his return to Toronto for the first time in almost two years. It will be an emotional night and a prelude to future statue and jersey retirement ceremonies.
When we last saw them … No one knew it at the time, but Game 5 in Philadelphia in the first round was the final game for the Bradley Beal-Russell Westbrook duo in D.C. Now, the Wes Unseld Jr. era begins with several new veterans around Beal.
Wizards in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: The Westbrook trade
Westbrook was a Wizard for one record-breaking season in which he moved past Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson for career triple-doubles. But Westbrook wanted to go to his hometown Lakers, and the Wizards turned that opportunity into adding Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell. Kuzma and Harrell will be eager to prove what they can do with a fresh start. They, along with new point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, provide Beal with a solid cast of veterans around him.
Breakout candidate: Daniel Gafford
There’s an opportunity for Gafford to show what he can do with more minutes. He made an impact during the Wizards’ run to the playoffs last season after he was acquired from Chicago. If he can stay on the floor, Gafford has double-double potential with rim protection. Harrell will get minutes and Thomas Bryant is working his way back from a torn ACL, but Gafford should still get chances to make plays inside the paint.
Spencer Dinwiddie rejects comparisons to past Wizards point guards, but says he’s ready to bring his winning mentality to D.C.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Will all these moves keep Beal happy?
While they no longer have a bona fide backcourt star next to Beal after trading Westbrook, the Wizards do have a combination of veterans and young players eager to prove themselves. Dinwiddie is looking to show he can return to his old self after his knee injury. Kuzma, Harrell, KCP and Aaron Holiday are ready for a fresh start. Davis Bertans hopes to bounce back after struggling with his shot last season. And Washington has young up-and-coming players in Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, Gafford and Bryant.
With new coach Unseld Jr. following in his father’s footsteps, the Wizards hope all of these pieces mesh and get Beal back to the playoffs — and more importantly, keep him content with a contract extension hanging in the balance.
One game you can’t miss: March 11 at Lakers
Forget about Westbrook vs. Beal. This will be mostly about Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope and Harrell returning to face the Lakers. It could be an emotional return for Kuzma, who played his first four seasons in L.A.
When we last saw them … The first full season of the Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell duo didn’t lead to much success for the Timberwolves, but No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards began to emerge in the second half. Minnesota finished far out of playoff contention, however, and lost its first-round pick to Golden State.
Timberwolves in NBArank
Karl-Anthony Towns (24)
Anthony Edwards (52)
D’Angelo Russell (63)
Most impactful offseason move: Firing team president Gersson Rosas
Without any real cap space to work with, Minnesota made moves along the margins during the offseason, perhaps most notably bringing in Patrick Beverley. Its biggest splash of the offseason came about a week before training camp, when Minnesota fired Gersson Rosas, the lead basketball executive. The Timberwolves have made the postseason just once in the past 17 years and turmoil is becoming the norm for this franchise. Can VP of basketball operations Sachin Gupta be the one to steady them if he’s given the opportunity?
Breakout candidate: Jarred Vanderbilt
Three of the starting lineup spots — Towns, Edwards and Russell — are set in stone for the Timberwolves. Their two forward spots, however, are huge question marks. Jaden McDaniels, Taurean Prince, Jarred Vanderbilt and Josh Okogie are among the players competing for those spots. While Vanderbilt is unlikely to produce eye-popping numbers on offense, he kept finding his way into the rotation thanks to his defense and rebounding. Vanderbilt was among the team leaders in win shares in limited action, and could go from under-the-radar contributor to consistent rotation member this season.
Karl-Anthony Towns goes up and over Jaxson Hayes for the poster dunk.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Is there any hope around KAT?
Towns is one of the most talented big men in the league and has been since he entered the NBA. Yet as he enters his seventh season in Minnesota, the Timberwolves have not experienced much success building a winner around him.
At one point, Towns might have been considered the player “you’d most like to build a team around,” but that shine has been lost in recent years. Some of that is because of injuries and unfortunate circumstances off the court. But Towns is still a centerpiece and a player every team would love to have. There remains optimism around this current roster, especially if Edwards continues to blossom. But Minnesota would like to compete for a back-end playoff spot in the West.
Towns is under contract for three more years and hasn’t shown signs of wanting out of Minnesota. But the Timberwolves have made the playoffs only once in his career and he will turn 26 in November. Seeing at least some signs that better days are ahead would be a huge step forward for this franchise.
One game you can’t miss: Oct. 30 vs. Nuggets
Any matchup between two of the league’s most elite centers — Towns and Nikola Jokic, the reigning league MVP — is worth watching. And the two have never been shy to go at one another on the court.
When we last saw them … Sacramento finished the season 31-41, two games out of the play-in tournament after losing four of its last six games down the stretch. It was an identical record as the season before for the Kings, who also failed to make the play-in round after being a bubble invitee.
Kings in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Drafting Davion Mitchell
The Kings selected Mitchell out of Baylor with the No. 9 pick in the draft. The rugged, defensive-minded guard joins a crowded backcourt with De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield already in the fold. Mitchell’s defensive mindset should earn him playing time from the start on a Kings team that was last in the league, allowing 116.5 points per 100 possessions last season, if Sacramento is serious about wanting to improve on that end.
Breakout candidate: Terence Davis
The Kings traded for Davis midseason and the 6-foot-4 shooting guard showed a scoring knack, averaging 11.1 points in 27 games for Sacramento before earning a two-year extension in the offseason. After going undrafted out of Ole Miss, the former high school football standout showed that he has something to prove on the hardwood, scoring 20-plus points five times in his short stint with the Kings.
Summer League MVP Louis King comments on his progression and the Kings’ win over the Celtics.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Can Marvin Bagley III stay healthy?
Fox had his finest season as a pro last year, averaging 25.2 points and 7.2 assists, but it wasn’t enough to stop the franchise’s playoff-less streak. It has been 15 years since the Kings last appeared in the postseason and they’ll have their hands full trying to reverse that trend this season.
Former No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III’s availability, or lack thereof, could be the key. The big man has missed 108 out of a possible 226 games since coming into the league. The Kings have insurance should Bagley struggle to stay healthy again, with Richaun Holmes and Tristan Thompson serving as a couple of trusty bigs around the basket, but missing on a pick like that can set a team back for years. That’s not to say that at 22 years old with career averages of 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, Bagley is destined to be a bust. It’s just that the Kings could really use him to fortify their inside game to go along with their solid group of guards.
One game you can’t miss: April 3 vs. Warriors
The Kings host the Golden State Warriors in Game No. 79 on the schedule. With about 90 miles between the two cities, it will surely be a raucous crowd mixed with both fan bases if these two teams are in the postseason hunt with the regular season winding down.
When we last saw them … It was another disappointing finish for the Pelicans and Zion Williamson as they missed the play-in tournament. Williamson, Brandon Ingram and others suffered late-season injuries that derailed New Orleans’ hopes of a playoff push.
Pelicans in NBArank
Zion Williamson (23)
Brandon Ingram (26)
Devonte’ Graham (86)
Jonas Valanciunas (94)
Most impactful offseason move: Adding Devonte’ Graham
The point guard position is under new ownership with the Pelicans swapping out Lonzo Ball for Graham. Ball was dealt in a sign-and-trade to Chicago, where he signed a four-year, $80 million deal. Meanwhile, the Pelicans acquired Graham in a sign-and-trade on a four-year, $47 million contract. Two seasons ago in Graham’s breakout year, he averaged 18.2 points. His scoring dipped last season with LaMelo Ball’s presence in Charlotte, but Graham has already said in training camp that his responsibilities are more like they were in 2019-20.
Breakout candidate: Nickeil Alexander-Walker
Alexander-Walker, the No. 17 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft, thrived in a short-term starting role a season ago. In 13 starts, Alexander-Walker averaged 19.0 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists while shooting 45.9% from the field and 41.2% from 3. While Graham could hold down the starting point guard spot, Alexander-Walker could slot in as the starting shooting guard. If coach Willie Green opts to go with someone else as the starter, Alexander-Walker becomes the surefire bet to be the sixth man who will still get major minutes.
The Debatable crew all are panicked about Zion Williamson’s right foot injury that will sideline him for the start of the season.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Can Zion get healthy?
For the second time in three seasons, the team’s expectations are tied hand-in-hand with the immediate health of Zion Williamson. At media day, Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin announced that Williamson underwent surgery on his right foot in the offseason.
While Williamson is out to start the season, the Pelicans will have to lean on their other All-Star, Brandon Ingram. After making the leap to being an All-Star two seasons ago, Ingram averaged the same 23.8 points last year while averaging a hair under five assists.
How long the team needs to be dependent on Ingram remains unclear. But the Pelicans do appear to have more depth than they did a season ago. Graham, Alexander-Walker, Garrett Temple, Tomas Satoransky, Josh Hart and Kira Lewis will combine for backcourt minutes.
On the perimeter, rookie Trey Murphy should provide a huge shooting spark. Murphy, who shot 50/40/90 at Virginia last season, shot 44% from 3 in summer league and followed that by shooting 53.1% from deep in the preseason.
That shooting will go a long way in helping to improve the spacing on an offense that badly needed more room for Williamson and Ingram to operate at times last season.
One game you can’t miss: Feb. 15 vs. Grizzlies
A Zion Williamson-Ja Morant matchup is always fun to watch. The top two picks from the 2019 draft were famously on the same AAU team and have remained close since they’ve been in the league.
When we last saw them … For the second straight season, the Spurs failed to make the playoffs as they stumbled to a 33-39 record. San Antonio did make the play-in tournament, finishing 10th in the West, but lost to Memphis in the 9-10 game.
Spurs in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Losing DeMar DeRozan
Based on some of the players they brought in, it’s not necessarily a full-blown youth movement in San Antonio, but the Spurs did part ways with veterans DeMar DeRozan (sign-and-traded to the Bulls), Patty Mills (signed with the Nets in free agency) and Rudy Gay (signed with the Jazz in free agency). DeRozan’s three seasons in San Antonio were mostly uneventful, and moving on from the 32-year-old allows the Spurs to embrace the younger players on the roster moving forward.
Breakout candidate: Keldon Johnson
San Antonio might have three viable candidates for Most Improved Player this year in Johnson, Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, but let’s focus on Johnson. San Antonio’s last remaining first-round pick from the 2019 draft, Johnson played in 17 games in 2019-20, but had a strong showing in the bubble that parlayed into a strong campaign last year in which he averaged 12.8 points and 6 rebounds.
As the Spurs get ready for the 2021-22 season, relive some of last season’s top plays from Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Developing the young core
The expectations for San Antonio are dependent on several players making the leap. Caesar’s Sportsbook set the over/under win total on San Antonio at 29.5 — the lowest total ever under coach Gregg Popovich in a full 82-game season and the third-lowest total in the Western Conference.
The Spurs were at 28.5 in the 72-game season a year ago and hit the over (33) on their way to the play-in tournament. But if they want to hit that total again, some questions have to get answered. How big of a leap will Murray and White take? How do the new players (Thaddeus Young, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes) fit in? McDermott and Forbes help bring shooting to a lineup that badly needs above-average shooters.
The Spurs ranked 17th last season in defensive efficiency and that number should go up with some of the moves they made. And if they want to make a major push this season, defense will be their calling card.
One game you can’t miss: Jan. 26 vs Grizzlies (ESPN)
This is the only time this season the Spurs will be on national TV outside of a handful of games on NBATV, so you get a chance to see the young Spurs take on a good Grizzlies squad. It will also be part of back-to-back can’t-miss games, as the Bulls and DeMar DeRozan come to town just two days later.
When we last saw them … The Cavs were continuing their rough stretch since LeBron James bolted for L.A. — Cleveland has managed to win just 60 games over the past three seasons. Still, the Cavs’ young core appeared to be trending in the right direction last year.
Cavaliers in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Drafting Evan Mobley
All of those losses landed Cleveland the No. 3 pick in a top-loaded draft and the Cavaliers got their man in Mobley. The 7-footer out of USC is seen as an impact player on both ends of the floor and could be the type of special talent the franchise can hinge its hopes on. Pairing the 20-year-old Mobley with the 23-year-old Jarrett Allen shores up the center position for the Cavs for years.
Breakout candidate: Lauri Markkanen
Once considered a rising star before injuries took a toll, Markkanen arrived in Cleveland at an interesting stage of his career. The Finnish forward came to the Cavs as the part of a three-team trade with Chicago and Portland and will look to reclaim the promise he showed during his sophomore season, when he put up 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game for the Bulls. At 7-feet tall with a more outside-oriented game, he should fit right in as a stretch big alongside Mobley and Allen.
Cleveland’s Evan Mobley throws down a big-time dunk late in the second quarter.
Pivot point for 2021-22: What does the future hold for Collin Sexton?
Collin Sexton occupies a unique role for the Cavs franchise. After James left Cleveland the first time, Kyrie Irving became the face of the future. It was a role suited for Irving’s game and his aspirations. When James left the second time, the Cavs looked to Sexton — the 6-foot-1 guard selected with the first-round pick Cleveland acquired from trading Irving to Boston — to be their budding star.
Sexton averaged 24.3 points on 47.5% shooting last year, placing him just outside the league’s top 20 scorers. But here’s the thing: Even though Sexton has improved and the team has propped him up as its central piece, the front office has been reluctant to give him a max extension. All of this is relevant, of course, because as the Cavs look to establish an identity to pull themselves out of irrelevance, they’ll have to make a decision on Sexton. If he’s not part of their future plans, they’ll have to find a way to replace his value so that the past three years of their rebuild weren’t a waste.
One game you can’t miss: March 21 vs. Lakers
The Cavs welcome the Los Angeles Lakers to town in what will be James’ first trip to the renovated Rocket Mortgage Center with a packed house of fans. The truth is, with James in Year 19, there won’t be too many more games he’ll play in Cleveland — so each one left is worth watching.
When we last saw them … The Pistons were resting key veterans, most notably Jerami Grant, with an eye on the lottery. The emphasis paid off when Detroit landed the No. 1 pick and drafted Cade Cunningham.
Pistons in NBArank
Jerami Grant (53)
Cade Cunningham (76)
Most impactful offseason move: Drafting Cade Cunningham
Adding Cunningham gives the Pistons a potential focal point for a team that landed two quality role players in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart in last year’s draft. Although Cunningham struggled at times with efficiency in his lone season at Oklahoma State, his combination of size, playmaking and shooting ability gives him a high floor as a contributor and the potential to emerge as the latest star wing who excels with the ball in his hands.
Breakout candidate: Killian Hayes
Thrust immediately into the starting lineup at point guard as a teenager, Hayes was predictably inefficient and turnover-prone before missing three months because of a hip labrum tear. Hayes was more effective in 19 games after his return but still must improve his 3-point shooting (28% as a rookie) and cut his turnovers (4.5 per 36 minutes) to keep his development on track. If not, Hayes might find himself behind a Pistons timeline accelerated by Cunningham’s arrival.
Kendrick Perkins and Dave McMenamin analyze who has the higher ceiling between Anthony Edwards and Cade Cunningham.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Another step in Detroit’s rebuild
With a starting lineup that could feature three 20-year-old players (Cunningham, Hayes and Stewart), Detroit clearly isn’t in win-now mode. The primary goal for this season should remain developing the young talent and figuring out which of the veteran pieces around them fit best going forward. Coach Dwane Casey’s ability to pivot after being hired to coach a veteran Pistons team trying to reach the playoffs earned him a contract extension late last season. He brought along Bey and Stewart well, resulting in All-Rookie selections for both players (Bey on the first team, Stewart on second team). As compared to last year’s team, which started 1-7, Detroit should be more competitive this season if Cunningham is immediately effective.
The Pistons have a more experienced bench anchored by newcomer Kelly Olynyk, who will add a stretch option at center after an impressive 27-game stretch with the Rockets to finish 2020-21 saw him average 19 PPG, 8.4 RPG and 4.1 APG while making 64% of his 2s and 39% of his 3s.
One game you can’t miss: Nov. 10 at Rockets (ESPN)
The first matchup between the top two picks, Cunningham and Jalen Green, should be fun. They squared off in Las Vegas, when Detroit trapped Green, atypical for the summer league.
When we last saw them … The Rockets, forced into a rebuild when James Harden demanded a trade, finished with the NBA’s worst record. Houston got some good fortune in the lottery, landing the No. 2 overall pick when it was a coin flip whether they’d fall to No. 5, which would have gone to Oklahoma City in a three-team swap.
Rockets in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Drafting four first-round picks
The Rockets believe they landed two high-lottery talents on draft night: shooting guard Jalen Green at No. 2 overall and center Alperen Sengun at No. 16, who was acquired by sending the Thunder a pair of heavily protected future first-rounders via the Pistons and Wizards. All four of the Rockets’ first-round picks — including forward Usman Garuba at No. 23 and guard Josh Christopher at No. 24 — are teenagers, so patience will be required. But Green arrives as a franchise centerpiece, and Sengun will be a rotation player right away.
Breakout candidate: Kevin Porter Jr.
The Rockets believe Kevin Porter Jr. just scratched the surface of his potential by averaging 16.6 points and 6.3 assists in 26 games for them, highlighted by a 50-point, 11-assist performance in a late-season win over the Bucks. Houston converted Porter, 21, from wing to point guard after acquiring him for essentially nothing (top-55-protected second-round pick) from the Cavaliers, seeing star potential in the reclamation project. The Rockets understand the reason Porter’s cost was so low, and they’ve gone to great lengths to help Porter deal with off-court trouble stemming from an arrest and multiple charges.
Jalen Green got the better of first overall pick Cade Cunningham with 25 points against the Detroit Pistons.
Pivot point for 2021-22: Can Jalen Green and the young talent develop?
This season is all about development, which is why the Rockets are willing to pay John Wall his $44.3 million salary to stay out of the way.
The Rockets don’t plan to just punt on the season, which is why they signed center Daniel Theis and still value guard Eric Gordon, believing the veterans can help the kids develop good habits. But Houston fully understands that relying so heavily on a college-aged core will likely result in the Rockets taking a lot of lumps and losses.
The hope in Houston is that this young core — including 25-year-old big man Christian Wood, first-team All-Rookie selection Jae’Sean Tate and 20-year-old forward K.J. Martin — can grow into a group that returns the Rockets to relevance in the not-too-distant future. General manager Rafael Stone amassed a stockpile of first-round picks during his first year on the job, and it’s probable that the Rockets’ own pick will be high in the lottery again next year.
One game you can’t miss: Dec. 18 at Pistons
Green invited boos from Detroit fans by declaring that he didn’t want to go to Motor City, anyway, after the Pistons passed on him in favor of Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 overall pick, adding some spice to the Rockets’ Dec. 18 visit there.
When we last saw them … The Magic finished 21-51 in a season marred by the hangover from Jonathan Isaac‘s knee injury in the bubble and Markelle Fultz‘s knee injury at the beginning of last year. On top of getting both promising young players back, the Magic are banking on new coach Jamahl Mosley to help the franchise find a new direction.
Magic in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Drafting Jalen Suggs
The addition of Suggs to the Magic’s young core gave at least the mirage of hope to an Orlando fanbase that is waiting for its team to become nationally relevant again. The Gonzaga alum’s star power, after knocking down one of the most famous shots in Final Four history, gave a jolt of energy to a team that badly needed one.
Breakout candidate: Chuma Okeke
After sitting out his first season in the league while rehabbing from an ACL injury and missing a portion of last season because of a bone bruise in his knee, Okeke comes into this year with a chance to show he belongs after showing flashes of potential a year ago. If Okeke can stay healthy, he gives Mosley another solid option from a roster that needs to show more development.
Mo Bamba swats Romeo Langford’s shot and stares him down afterwards.
Pivot point for 2021-22: What kind of players will Isaac and Fultz be after knee injuries?
The Magic invested in the respective futures of both players but have had to deal with the injury struggles that define NBA seasons. While it remains to be seen what kind of impact Mosley can have on development in his first year, the far bigger issue is whether or not Isaac and Fultz can be the kind of difference-makers the Magic need them to be.
Isaac, 24, and Fultz, 23, still have plenty of time to turn their careers around and come back stronger, but the Magic made a bet on both that appears a long way from cashing.
Aside from Isaac and Fultz, the Magic also need growth from second-year guard Cole Anthony. The North Carolina alum had some nice moments during his rookie campaign, but he must now carve out a niche for himself on a roster where Suggs will get plenty of chances to succeed.
One game you can’t miss: Nov. 1 at Timberwolves
Suggs gets a chance to play at home for the first time as a pro in an early-season game that should give the Magic a measuring stick against another young team full of hope that hasn’t provided many strong results in recent years.
When we last saw them … Oklahoma City was historically bad in April and May, going 2-23. Still, beating the LA Clippers in the season finale proved costly, as the Thunder dropped to a tie for fourth entering the lottery.
Thunder in NBArank
Most impactful offseason move: Drafting Josh Giddey
Although Sam Presti stayed active in the trade market, continuing to accumulate future draft picks, the lottery was the biggest night of Oklahoma City’s offseason. Not only did the Thunder drop to sixth, the Houston Rockets jumped to second — meaning Oklahoma City was unable to exercise an option to swap the Miami Heat’s pick (No. 18) for Houston’s. Adding a talented prospect at No. 6 in Australian guard Josh Giddey helped soften the lottery blow.
Breakout candidate: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
It’s reasonable to believe that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander already enjoyed his breakthrough season in 2020-21, when he boosted his scoring average from 19 PPG to 23.7 while simultaneously improving his efficiency and nearly doubling his assist rate. Gilgeous-Alexander played just 35 games before missing the season’s final two months because of plantar fasciitis that also sidelined him from the Canadian national team. Now healthy, Gilgeous-Alexander could establish himself in All-Star consideration. Our summer forecast gave him the second-best odds of winning Most Improved Player.
Josh Giddey gets rolling late with 14 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists in the Thunder’s win over the Nuggets.
Pivot point for 2021-22: How badly do the Thunder want to improve lottery odds?
The biggest question about the 2021-22 Thunder is how hard they’ll push for lottery positioning. Oklahoma City proved more competitive in the first half of last season than expected, leaving the team in a suboptimal spot despite the dreadful finish.
The Thunder still have up to 12 extra first-round picks coming through 2027, not counting swaps, but none of those are sure to be near the top of the draft. Oklahoma City has more control over its own pick, the best chance of landing the kind of top-four selection that yielded the Thunder’s last generation of homegrown superstars (Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook).
Buying out Kemba Walker after adding him in a June trade means Oklahoma City now has just two veterans with ample experience on the roster (centers Derrick Favors and Mike Muscala). Still, Gilgeous-Alexander might prove too good for the Thunder to truly threaten the league’s worst record despite the NBA’s youngest rotation by a wide margin.
One game you can’t miss: April 10 at Clippers
The schedule gods have blessed us with a rematch of last year’s epic tank-off on the season’s final day. Sadly, the Clippers might not have incentive to lose this season.
NBA experts’ picks for the East finals, West finals and NBA Finals
It’s opening night of the 2021-22 NBA season, but our experts are already looking ahead to the postseason.
Last year, the playoff series between the two juggernauts came down to Kevin Durant‘s foot, and the Nets lost Game 7 to the eventual champion Bucks. Are these two teams destined for a rematch? And will a healthy Durant-James Harden duo be enough to topple the defending champions?
Are the retooled Los Angeles Lakers a lock to reach the Western Conference finals? Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook joined LeBron James out West, but will that be enough to contend in a tough conference? Will Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz finally turn a corner and reach the NBA Finals? Will Klay Thompson‘s return lift the Golden State Warriors back to the top of the West?
And which team is primed to take it all? Will James win his fifth title? Can the Nets win a championship without a third star in Kyrie Irving? Will reigning Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo defend his title? Our experts predict the matchups in the conference finals and NBA Finals.
Eastern Conference finals
Tim Bontemps: Bucks over Nets
Jamal Collier: Nets over Bucks
Nick DePaula: Nets over Bucks
Nick Friedell: Nets over Bucks
Israel Gutierrez: Bucks over Heat
Tim Legler: Bucks over Nets
Andrew Lopez: Nets over Bucks
Tim MacMahon: Nets over Bucks
Bobby Marks: Heat over Nets
Dave McMenamin: Nets over Bucks
Kevin Pelton: Bucks over Nets
Jorge Sedano: Nets over Heat
Ramona Shelburne: Nets over Bucks
André Snellings: Bucks over Nets
Marc J. Spears: Nets over Bucks
Ohm Youngmisuk: Nets over Bucks
Results (East champion): Nets 10, Bucks 5, Heat 1.
Western Conference finals
Tim Bontemps: Jazz over Suns
Jamal Collier: Suns over Lakers
Nick DePaula: Warriors over Suns
Nick Friedell: Jazz over Lakers
Israel Gutierrez: Lakers over Jazz
Tim Legler: Lakers over Suns
Andrew Lopez: Lakers over Jazz
Tim MacMahon: Nuggets over Lakers
Bobby Marks: Jazz over Lakers
Dave McMenamin: Lakers over Suns
Kevin Pelton: Lakers over Suns
Jorge Sedano: Lakers over Nuggets
Ramona Shelburne: Lakers over Jazz
André Snellings: Lakers over Nuggets
Marc J. Spears: Lakers over Warriors
Ohm Youngmisuk: Lakers over Warriors
Results (West champion): Lakers 10, Jazz 3, Nuggets 1, Suns 1, Warriors 1.
Tim Bontemps: Bucks over Jazz
Jamal Collier: Nets over Suns
Nick DePaula: Nets over Warriors
Nick Friedell: Nets over Jazz
Israel Gutierrez: Bucks over Lakers
Tim Legler: Lakers over Bucks
Andrew Lopez: Nets over Lakers
Tim MacMahon: Nets over Nuggets
Bobby Marks: Heat over Jazz
Dave McMenamin: Nets over Lakers
Kevin Pelton: Bucks over Lakers
Jorge Sedano: Lakers over Nets
Ramona Shelburne: Lakers over Nets
André Snellings: Bucks over Lakers
Marc J. Spears: Nets over Lakers
Ohm Youngmisuk: Nets over Lakers
Results (NBA champion): Nets 8, Bucks 4, Lakers 3, Heat 1.
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