The 2021-22 NBA regular season wraps up next week, with just a handful of games for each franchise to play before the play-in tournament…
The NBA season tips off on Wednesday (AEST) with drama, as ever, guaranteed. In a two-part series here on The Roar, we analyse the contenders and favourites from the two conferences, starting in the west.
Los Angeles Lakers
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka obviously uses NBA 2K14 to drive his player analytics. Trading for Russell Westbrook and signing Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, DeAndre Jordan and Rajon Rondo set his team rating to full 99s, and a guaranteed chip, when placed alongside Anthony Davis and LeBron James.
Sadly, he will get a real shock when he upgrades to the latest version of the game to find out that these dudes are OLD and come with decreased injury and athleticism ratings. If Davis can hold his fitness for the season, and into the playoffs, he alone can drive the retirement bus to the championship dais for collection of soup and rings.
The Suns are running it back with the same group, and why not after making it to the NBA Finals last year? You can see the logic in minimal player movement: their core group of Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Devin Booker are all young and capable of further growth. Sure, you could package one of them up with some picks to fatten the depth, or upgrade a position, but then you jeopardise the chemistry built on the back of a big-time playoff run last season.
Banking on internal growth is smart. Another season of Chris Paul genius will be required. And paying Ayton his extension could help too.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) October 17, 2021
The general feel is that the Jazz don’t have the mental fortitude to succeed in the playoffs. That they’re regular season GODS who don’t have the diversity on both sides of the ball to take them to next level of NBA Champs. But what impact does a full fit Donny Mitchell and a fit Mike Conley make to last year’s playoff wash out against the Clippers?
The Clippers’ style of small-small ball took the Jazz away from their defensive schemes, dragging Rudy Gobert away from basket, allowing Terence Mann to morph into Steph Curry. That won’t happen again. The Jazz deserve another chance before being written off as playoff busts.
Aussie Watch: Joe Ingles – will continue to shoot 3s at a high level, play physical defence and talk a pile of trash.
Luka Doncic led a team of postal workers to within a blocked layup from the gold medal match of the Olympics. He is that good. What can he do with a Kristaps Porzingis coming off an actual pre-season of work, and not rehab? A KP who is showing in the pre-season he is ready to roll to the basket after setting a screen rather than pop his 7’3 frame exclusively to the perimeter. Was it a system error? A Rick Carlisle problem? A Jason Kidd fix?
The Mavericks were crippled last year by COVID, blizzards and the failed Josh Richardson trade. Of all the teams in the Western Conference, it feels like they have the most improvement in them should they get a good run of luck and a healthy and energised Kristaps.
Aussie Watch: Josh Green – his defence will see him crack the early season rotation, any growth in his offensive game will see him stick.
— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) October 17, 2021
The Joker, Nicola Jokic, won the MVP last year, maybe because he went full shake diet through the middle of the year and dropped close to ten kilograms, but maybe not. Sometimes chubby people can really surprise us with their excellence! For season 2021-22 he enters the new season minus another 98 kgs. Good news is that Nikola hasn’t lost that much weight. The bad news is that the 98 kgs is his running mate, Jamal Murray, lost to a long-term knee injury.
Committing a boat load of money to Michael Porter Jr suggests the Nuggets front office believe he is a high-end superstar. But with that level of defence – constantly lost on team schemes – is he really a Doncic/Trae Young level offensive star? It’s that level of money. Jokic, Murray and Porter Jr are a big three, but without Murray’s playmaking and the defensive gravity he holds, Porter Jr is a .6 and that makes for a big 1.6 to start the year – not enough for contender status.
Kawhi Leonard is lost to a long-term knee injury and will return when Uncle Dennis says so. The team now belongs to Paul George, who blew up Indiana because he wanted to be Robin; found Westbrook at OKC who loves playing the lead role of Batman, left OKC for Batman 2.0, and will now need to throw away his green briefs for the black leather suit.
This year is about everything Paul George has tried to avoid, the responsibility of being ‘the guy’. Can he carry the Clippers to the playoffs? The answer is no. They’re locks because Kawhi is superhuman and will be back sooner than we all expect.
Your surprise team of the Western Conference. Ja Morant proved last season – the play-in and the playoffs (averaging 30 points and eight assists) – that he is cut from the tough cloth. Surrounding him last year was a young core of role players, career year Kyle Anderson, career year Dillon Brooks, and defensively limited Jonas Valanciunas. He saw the freakishly long, and defensively impactful, Jaren Jackson Jr, for the last 11 games of the year after he sat out 85 per cent of the regular season recovering from knee surgery.
Trading defensively limited for defensive minded – Valanciunas for Steven Adams – is a good move. And adding a fully fit Jaren Jackson Jr to all the above is cause for major improvement.
Golden State Warriors
I know, Klay Thompson is back, Steph Curry is unreal, and Draymond Green is a defensive god, but the NBA 2K file has been upgraded. Klay hasn’t played an NBA game of basketball since Billy Ray Cyrus returned to our car radios with Old Town Road, Draymond’s mouth moves faster than his legs these days and yes, Steph is unreal.
The additions of Otto Porter and Nemanja Bjelica are handy. Bjelica more so, he’s a former Euroleague MVP who will shoot and pass his way seamlessly into the team’s system. Andre Iguodala is back to provide some more old man craft and these three additions will provide bench depth that hasn’t been there the last few years. James Wiseman and a second-year breakout could provide a boost, but a lot needs to go right for the Warriors on a health and internal development front for them to be a genuine contender.
Portland Trail Blazers
It’s sad that the most likely scenario here is that this team gets blown up. In the six years of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum being their back court starters, and the team’s ‘big two’, they’ve seen a high level of regular season success, but only twice have they moved past the first round of the playoffs. In 2018-19, they crept into the Western Conference Finals, where eventual champions, Golden State, would sweep them into the bin.
Defensively, Lillard and McCollum are a couple of turnstiles. Even with a consistent defensive anchor to protect the paint – Jusuf Nurkic is that guy via the analytics – and Robert Covington guarding the wings, they’re still bad. The addition of Larry Nance will help, but it will all be much the same for Portland until the Lillard and McCollum pairing is split.
Karl-Anthony Towns is an excellent all-round basketballer – top ten in the league – and deserves better than the last six years of Timberwolves irrelevance. Anthony Edwards provided some hope in the last half of the year, averaging 23 points, five rebounds, three assists, 1.4 steals and 0.6 blocks, that he can be the Robin to Towns’ Batman.
D’Angelo Russell will finally be in the right role as a complimentary piece to a couple of reliable basketballers and if he fails again, then the deal of Andrew Wiggins and Jonathan Kuminga for Russell (future second to come), plus the cost of paying out on all the physio and hospital cover Russell uses, will look more and more like one of the worst trades in NBA history.
Additions of veterans Ricky Rubio, Patrick Beverley and Taurean Prince bring defensive presence and offensive genius. Great for mentoring and for collecting wins. I’m team Beverley D’Angelo, the National Lampoons/American History X actress, but I think this is the year Minnesota make a charge.
San Antonio Spurs
Any team coached by Gregg Popovich will be competitive, which might be a bad thing. Would they be best to blow it up properly and aim for a top three draft pick? In the last three years, they’ve held first round picks no.12 (Josh Primo), no.11 (Devin Vassell) and no.19 (Luka Samanic, recently waived). They need a superstar talent.
Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker are nice, but none of them are the foundation for something special. Popovich and nice pieces are enough to be on the cusp of the play-in again. You can see the organisation wanting to respect Pop’s competitiveness by not killing his flow. But the inevitability of mediocrity is upon them. Once Pop retires, it’s tank time.
Aussie Watch: Jock Landale – unfortunately entered concussion protocols after some positive signs in his first three pre-season games.
The Kings haven’t made the playoffs for 15 years. They’re motivated! But they were motivated last year, and it didn’t help them. They finished last in defensive efficiency, and then when they did force a miss, they couldn’t get a defensive rebound finishing last in that statistic too.
The additions of Alex Len and Tristan Thompson address the rebounding, but given the way the modern NBA is played, keeping either of those players on the floor for extended run will be an enormous challenge. Marvin Bagley is both the answer and the problem. Kings need to call Ben Simmons, ask him which players on the roster he likes (hope he doesn’t say Bagley) and then trade the rest to Philadelphia.
New Orleans Pelicans
Zion Williamson is a problem. His legs are so big they each hold valid passports and were accepted into a Year 9 Volleyball team. This kid is enormous and getting bigger by the year. No-one tries, or wants, to be injured, but even a food lover like me knows 136kgs and 200cm is disproportionate and a problem. Even more problematic is GM David Griffin thinking a piano performance for Zion would win over his heart long term.
I can tell you from experience, this plan will only win you ridicule, as none of the girls I have played my piano treble for – Chariots of Fire, Chopsticks and Lean on Me – have ever made it to the second act of the treble, leaving me to Lean on Myself for high school romance.
The Pelicans are in real trouble. Zion is out for the start of the year after having foot surgery – gulp! They swung big for Kyle Lowry by sending draft capital to Memphis to rid themselves of the Adams and Eric Bledsoe contracts, then landed Devonte Graham, they lost Lonzo Ball for a piano re-tuning and now their star is holder of three individual passports and a future one-way ticket to New York.
The future is bright in Houston, but not so for John Wall, who will sit out to preserve his health and trade value. His salary, of course, is akin to having a broken neck, so don’t expect a trade any time soon. The first-round draft selections of this year, Jalen Green and Alperun Sengun, have shown enough through Summer League and pre-season to suggest they’ll be an integral part of Houston’s future.
The other first rounder, Usman Garuba, could take a little longer to develop, particularly with Christian Wood, if fit, being a productive front court player and the free agent signing of Daniel Theis. All the pre-season talk has been around Kevin Porter Jr learning to play the Point Guard position, and if ever there was a sign that a team isn’t planning many wins, it’s the teams wildest off-court decision maker learning to make the key decisions on the court.
Aussie Watch: Dante Exum was recently waived. The former No.5 pick will find a home. His form in the Olympics guarantees it.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Remarkably, this is a team that drafted three league MVPs – Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook – and they all played on the same OKC team! Domantas Sabonis, now Indiana Pacer and two-time All-Star is an OKC draftee too. They had Serge when he was ‘Iblocka’. And now, they are quite literally hunting all the picks. Heading into the 2021 NBA Draft, they held 18 first round picks and 18 second round picks over the next seven years.
Spare a thought for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is likely to be held out of games for being too good. Another rough year on the cards for the Thunder, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Aussie Watch: Josh Giddey – it is straight love in the US for the man they’re calling the “Wizard of Oz”. With pre-season averages of 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists, on 50/40/57 splits. Makes you wonder, could that level of production have benefited the Boomers at the Olympics?