NBA 2021/22: 10 chief contenders for championship ring
As the NBA regular season prepares to kick off, we take a look at the 10 teams that look most capable of winning the title.
At the start of last season, no-one could have expected an NBA finals involving the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns. The Arizonans hadn’t even reached the playoffs since 2010, while the Bucks seemed closer to the disintegration of the Mike Budenholzer/Giannis Antetokounmpo project than a first championship in 50 years. A year earlier, hardly anyone would have bet on an LA Lakers-Miami Heat matchup in the finals. Few fancied the Heat even when they made it through to the postseason and, as for the Lakers… They had LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but began the 2019/20 season with major doubts hanging over their rotation and, on paper, were well behind the heavily-fancied LA Clippers, who for months were seen as the major candidate to lift the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. And in 2019, another franchise came out of nowhere to win the NBA title: the Toronto Raptors.
All of which means it’s very difficult to guess the championship winners before the weeks begin to go by and we’ve had a chance to see how each team’s chemistry compares, who has come flying out of the blocks and who’s getting lucky with injuries. Having said all that, however, 10 teams appear to stand apart from the rest as the franchises with the most realistic aspirations of claiming the title. In ascending order, they are:
10. Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia come with a giant asterisk, in the shape of the future of Ben Simmons. The relationship between the Australian and the 76ers broke down in their traumatic playoffs elimination by the Atlanta Hawks, in game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Without him, the complexion of the Sixers’ current project changes. If they trade him, any judgement on their chances will depend on what they get in exchange. If they remain as they are, they look to be behind the Bucks and the Brooklyn Nets in the East. Joel Embiid will be 28 by the time the playoffs start and, given his injury record, doubts remain over how long his prime will last. But he’ll be a contender for MVP, the leader of a fearsome defence (even without Simmons), and the focal point of an offence brimming with sharp shooters (Curry, Green, Korkmaz…) and which tends to lose Tobias Harris at the worst possible time.
9. Los Angeles Clippers
Another major asterisk: Kawhi Leonard’s knee injury in last season’s playoffs not only scuppered his team’s chances then, but also dictates their hopes this term. If he doesn’t return at all, it’s impossible to imagine the Clippers winning the title. If he makes it back close to the playoffs and in need of time to get up to speed, much the same can be said of their prospects. But if he makes a quicker comeback and is firing on all cylinders by the postseason… Leonard’s history of lower-body injuries means the expectation is that the Clippers will be careful not to rush him back. In the meantime, they’ll be tough and hard to beat, led by Paul George.
8. Denver Nuggets
Like the Clippers, the Nuggets’ aspirations are also majorly impacted by an injury. Jamal Murray’s ACL tear in April did for Denver, just when they seemed to have assembled a team capable of big things. After the arrival of Aaron Gordon in the winter market, the Nuggets’ star five of Murray, Will Barton, Gordon, Michael Porter and 2020/21 MVP Nikola Jokic - were dispatching their rivals with out-of-this-world ratings. As with Leonard, caution can be expected from his team’s medical staff, but if Murray returns in time and is fit and firing in the postseason, the Nuggets have the potential to be one of the picks of the playoffs. It would also help them if they improved in defence, of course.
7. Miami Heat
Last season was hugely disappointing for Miami. The magic of the Orlando bubble disappeared and the Heat fell well short of the form that took them to the 2019/20 finals, with injuries to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and players such as Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro performing very poorly. But ahead of this season, the Heat have been very aggressive. They have picked up PJ Tucker and Kyle Lowry and have dug deep to hand Butler and Duncan Robinson new contracts. They have a deep pool of players ideal for the style of basketball played by head coach Erik Spoelstra. Who in the playoffs would want to come up against a five of Lowry, Butler, Robinson, Tucker and Adebayo, with the likes of Herro, Oladipo, Strus, Dedmon and Markieff coming off the bench…?
6. Utah Jazz
In a way, the Jazz are out to be the Bucks of the West. A team which, after years of exceptional achievement in the regular season, manages to make that step forward in the playoffs. In the past five years, the Jazz have only once registered a regular-season win percentage below 60%, but not once have they made it to the conference finals. Their strategy is to maintain the spine of their team, and they have managed that by giving Mike Conley a three-year, $68 million deal. So Utah will try again with their usual setup, with head coach Quin Snyder overseeing a well-drilled team led by Donovan Mitchell in offence and Rudy Goebert in defence. Rudy Gay has arrived with the task of offering solutions that the Jazz haven’t so far had in the playoffs. They’ll have to show in the postseason that they can be more than what we’ve seen in recent seasons.
5. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors came unstuck in the play-in last season and Stephen Curry, despite having an absolutely extraordinary campaign, watched the playoffs on television. Part of the solution looks like being Klay Thompson, who has his sights set on a December return after missing two seasons with injury. If the shooting guard is still able to perform to his best, Golden State could be a hugely potent team: Andre Iguodala has returned, and Otto Porter looks like the perfect accompaniment for Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green. Jordan Poole is a more and more valuable rotation player, Andrew Wiggins continues to work on his basketball IQ, and the major doubt surrounds how to bring on two talented players for the future in James Wiseman and Jonathan Kuminga at the same time as ensuring the Warriors compete big in the here and now.
4. Phoenix Suns
The Western Conference champions have kept their spine intact, having guaranteed Chris Paul’s future by handing him a four-year, $120 million contract. The Suns’ strength in depth has been boosted by the signings of Elfrid Payton and Landry Shamet, but they’ll feel the absence of Dario Saric, who suffered a serious injury in game 2 of the finals. Phoenix went 2-0 up that day… and failed to win another game without Saric. Winning the first NBA championship in the franchise’s history is the challenge for the Suns, who once again are in the hands of Paul, the terrific Devin Booker and two youngsters on the rise in Mikal Bridges and DeAndre Ayton, whose contract situation hangs over a project that last season really hit gear.
3. LA Lakers
Where to put the Lakers? They’re a team who could just as easily be an overwhelming success or a horrific failure. And there are enough warning signs to point towards the latter: they’re an ageing team (with LeBron James to the fore), they face the question of how Russell Westbrook can be useful, and then there’s Anthony Davis' regular injuries. But if he can stay fit and LeBron has at least one great campaign left in him (and that’s what it’s looked like in preseason), and if the pieces come together, the Lakers have it in them to be the West’s chief challenger. They have better shooting, more points in offence and, in theory, much less defensive strength than in previous seasons. We’ll have to see.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
The champions have kept their spine pretty much intact, save for the departure of PJ Tucker to the Miami Heat. An important player for the Bucks, his absence will, in part, be filled by the return of Donte DiVincenzo, who didn’t play in the finals because of injury. The unexpected hero Bobby Portis has renewed, and Grayson Allen and the returning George Hill have arrived. But, once again, everything will be in the hands of the ‘big three’: Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton as wingmen for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was historically good in the finals and has room to keep on improving. The Greek will be chasing his third MVP award… and his second championship ring. If things go wrong with the Nets…
1. Brooklyn Nets
They’re an impossible team to work out, different to all the other star-studded projects the NBA has seen. It’s Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving’s third season in Brooklyn, but Durant missed the first because of injury and Irving has had his own fitness issues, too. Now, he begins this season banished from the roster because of his refusal to get the covid-19 vaccine. There are plenty of doubts hanging over the Nets, then, but one certainty is that, whatever happens with Irving, Durant and James Harden alone are enough to make the team a major candidate for the ring. Furthermore, the likes of Joe Harris, Blake Griffin, Patty Mills, Jevon Carter, Bruce Brown, Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nic Claxton give the Nets significant strength in depth. Last season, the injuries to Irving and Harden were a huge blow to the Nets’ chances - yet, led by Durant, they very nearly beat the Bucks in the second round of the playoffs. If all goes well in Brooklyn, they’ll be the team to beat.