Basketball is back!!
Although it feels like just yesterday that the “Greek Freak”, Giannis Antetokounmpo, was dominating the Phoenix Suns in the championship series, three months have passed and the NBA season is here. A promising set of prospects has found their new homes, a group of All-Stars has exchanged uniforms, and most importantly, 95% of the league’s personnel has received a COVID-19 vaccine.
To put that accomplishment into perspective, the NBA halted operations just a month before the playoffs, became the first pro sports league in America to resume action, held its postseason tournament in isolation, began the following season after just two months off, and completed another postseason tournament in less than a year. The league’s leadership throughout this unprecedented time, when they faced the greatest financial challenge, is why sports have been able to come back in America, fans as well.
After all their hard work, the NBA will now operate its third season in one calendar year. But unfortunately, the league is unable to close its doors completely on COVID-19.
And with that, we look at the 10 biggest storylines of the 2021-22 NBA season, for diehard NBA fans or those casually checking in…
- Year 3 for Zion and the Pelicans
The Pels hit the jackpot of all jackpots when they landed the #1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery, paving the way for them to select Zion Williamson out of Duke, who was largely believed the be the best prospect since LeBron James.
Year 1 proved to be very exciting with Zion producing at a historic rate for a rookie, despite missing several games due to a foot injury, but Year 2 shut down durability concerns as Zion played most of the season at an even better pace, taking over as lead playmaker and earning his first All-Star nod. Yet as we move into Year 3, alarms are beginning to sound with Zion reportedly unhappy with the front office, who haven’t brought in enough talent to compete with and hired their third coach in three seasons.
It’s unlikely Zion will ask to be traded, but his morale is still something to follow throughout the year. If the team’s acquisitions don’t mesh well with him and they miss the playoffs once again, it will create a very uncomfortable Year 4 that will likely lead to an early exit from the team.
- The Bulls go running
Chicago has spent years being mediocre, not making any significant steps since their Jimmy Butler trade, but that’s all set up to change after acquiring an All-Star at the trade deadline and spending big money in free agency.
In an effort to add stars alongside Zach LaVine, they traded for center Nikola Vucevic, signed All-Star forward DeMar DeRozan, performed a sign-and-trade with New Orleans for point guard Lonzo Ball, and inked a long-term deal with the tenacious Alex Caruso. This has effectively accelerated their timeline, and suddenly the below-average Bulls are loaded with playmaking and scoring talent, but will the players fit well together and will defense be a problem?
The front office has invested a lot long-term, and having three All-Star caliber players still doesn’t guarantee them a playoff berth. The most fascinating part of the equation is that their best player and youngest All-Star, LaVine, is an unrestricted free agent next summer, putting a lot of pressure on the coaching staff and new core to win right away.
- Deandre Ayton isn’t extended
The Phoenix Suns went from 10 consecutive seasons missing the playoffs to being just two wins away from their first NBA championship, and a huge part of their turnaround and postseason success was the much-improved play of center Deandre Ayton.
The third-year player wasn’t moving the needle during the regular season, but he was amazingly efficient and a defensive anchor in the playoffs, who helped knock out the defending champs, send home the MVP, and lift the Suns to the NBA Finals. Despite the defeat, it was clear the former #1 overall pick had taken a giant step forward, and was an unquestionable part of the team’s future…or was he?
All summer long, Ayton negotiated for a maximum extension which fit the Suns’ timeline perfectly, except the Suns weren’t comfortable giving Ayton superstar money, instead locking up Chris Paul for the foreseeable future, and as of last week, locking up forward Mikal Bridges for the next five years. With only one year left on his deal and plenty of his draft classmates cashing in before him, including Bridges picked 10th overall in 2018, Ayton must feel disrespected and unwanted, and things could get ugly just when the Suns turned the corner.
- The Bucks defend
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton battled for nearly a decade to reach the NBA Finals, and both made enormous leaps on the grand stage that earned them both the Championship, but now the once-lowly Bucks have a major target on their back.
It’s no secret that many of the league’s stars broke down last year due to limited offseason rest and an intense regular season schedule, creating a scenario where the much healthier and much improved contenders feel well-equipped to overcome the defending champs. The biggest question is if the Bucks can outlast the Nets, the title-favorites who nearly beat the eventual champions without Kyrie Irving for the last three games and with a hobbling James Harden in Game 7.
Last season, the Bucks lost their two-year grip on the top-seed, but ironically, they won the title in the year that they were the 3-seed, winning three series-clinchers on the road and overcoming a 2-0 deficit out in Phoenix. So, it’s obvious the Bucks didn’t need home-court advantage, but everyone expects Milwaukee to regain the top-seed, now that Giannis and Middleton have each leveled up and that the team became the strongest mentally.
- Klay Thompson returns
The last time the Golden State Warriors played with Klay Thompson and didn’t reach the NBA Finals was 2014, and now he’s on track to play his first NBA game since the 2019 championship round.
Thompson tore his ACL in the closeout Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors, sidelining him for the entire 2019-20 season, but when fully recovered and practicing on Draft Night, he ruptured his Achilles, sidelining him again for the entire 2020-21 season. After two catastrophic injuries and two years watching his team miss the playoffs, Thompson is slated to return mid-season.
There is no doubt he will be a major lift to the Warriors, who’ve struggled scoring in his absence and have since gotten much more inexperienced, but there’s a big question as to how effective he will be once he’s back on the court. Three-time champions Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, still very much in the prime of their careers, feel his return will elevate them back to championship-status, except they don’t know if Thompson will be able to provide the same off-the-dribble scoring and lockdown defense after two brutal leg injuries.
- Lowry, Herro, and the Heat
Miami made a miraculous run to the 2020 NBA Finals in the Orlando bubble, and once re-exposed to the coronavirus outbreak, they endured to a long stretch of health problems before falling flat in the playoff’s opening round.
Jimmy Butler and management recognized a need to upgrade the offense while the championship window was open, so they recruited and landed the best player on the open market via a trade, long-time Raptor and recent champion Kyle Lowry. With a trio of All-Stars, including Bam Adebayo, who are exceptional on both ends, and a supporting cast of skill specialists like Duncan Robinson and P.J. Tucker, the Heat are primed to make another push, except one of their supporting players sees this season as the time to take over.
Tyler Herro, as a rookie, went on a sensational scoring stretch that lifted the Heat to the NBA Finals, yet as a sophomore he failed to sustain the high play and found himself in between the point guard and sixth man role. The third-year guard is making bold statements saying he belongs in the same breath as young superstars Luka Doncic and Trae Young, and the only way he can get to their level is by becoming the centerpiece of the team, which means his ambition to develop individually might end up being a bump in the road that turns the Heat off-course.
- Kidd and Billups take over
Luka Doncic and Damian Lillard are MVP-caliber talents, who perform at unbelievable heights come playoff time, however they’ve failed to advance past the first round in each of the last two seasons.
While inferior supporting casts may be the main reason for their team’s failures, the sacrificial lambs have been the head coaches Rick Carlisle and Terry Stotts, leading to their replacements Jason Kidd and Chauncey Billups. The two new coaches are both Hall-of-Fame point guards and NBA champions, creating an ideal situation for the superstar point guards they’ll be working with, but are they the right hires to get the team over the hump?
In one case, Jason Kidd has already had NBA coaching experience, leading several teams to the playoffs, however Luka is growing impatient with the team’s progression as he’s developed way further than any of his teammates, and in the other case, Chauncey Billups has never coached a professional basketball game in his life, only adding to the pressure to trade Damian Lillard for the same reason. These are two teams that need to get to the playoffs and above all else, advance to the next round, or there may be a franchise-altering move taking place.
- Ben Simmons and the 76ers
No NBA player was covered and discussed more this offseason than the 76ers’ Ben Simmons, who completely unraveled in the Semi-Finals series loss versus the Hawks, which included the infamous passing up of a layup in Game 7, and has since communicated that he would never play for the team again.
Simmons is a former #1 overall pick and the golden child of “The Process”, developing into a perennial All-Star and All-Defensive player as one of the cornerstones of the 76ers franchise. Him and Joel Embiid are the greatest young duo in the NBA, but because of poor fit offensively between them, his desire to be a playmaker instead of a scorer, and the harsh reality of being a star in Philadelphia, Simmons has demanded a trade to, literally, anywhere else.
With Simmons’ value at its lowest (in the second year of a $178 million contract) and the 76ers refusing to take a loss trading one of their cornerstones, the course of action that made the most sense was for Simmons to hold out until management found a trade they liked or lowered their standards. Last week, entirely out of the blue after weeks away from the team, Simmons returned to avoid further fines, and to this day, it’s still very much unclear if Simmons will play for the 76ers or if he will be traded anytime soon, or at all.
- Kyrie Irving vs. All
The NBA, like the rest of their associated pro sports leagues, has decided not to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for players, allowing them to perform and travel at their own risk, except California and New York City have superseding jurisdictions that state athletes can’t play home games there without being vaccinated.
This is largely a non-issue as the overwhelming majority of NBA players signed to those regions have been vaccinated, but it is an issue for those surrounding Kyrie Irving, who at this time refuses to participate in the city’s mandate. Irving had been hoping to practice with the team and play sporadically during the team’s road games (sans Knicks), however the Nets have decided they’re not going to adhere to his plans and instead will operate without him until he is able to play.
This was the right decision since the Nets can focus entirely on the players they do have and Irving can focus entirely on fighting the mandate or doing more research, except it’s highly likely this situation becomes more problematic, with Irving being one of the league’s most outspoken players and the Nets relying on him for their championship push. Irving is free to do as he pleases, even at the expense of millions in salary (and donations), yet his decision will continue harming the league’s public relations, the National Basketball Players Association, and his relationship with his close friend Kevin Durant, and the fight may end up leading to an early retirement in a similar fashion to Colin Kaepernick.
- Russ joins the Lakers
Russell Westbrook was one of the brightest lights of the 2020-21 NBA season, resurging the Washington Wizards to the play-in tournament by chasing the all-time record for triple-doubles, and with both sides looking to head in a different direction, he landed himself a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers.
From California and an alum of UCLA, Westbrook was always linked to the Lakers ever since he left the Oklahoma City Thunder, and now he’s finally a member of the team, which will be his fourth in four years. The future Hall-of-Famer has had the capacity to lift teams to the playoffs on his shoulders, and now he has the luxury of playing alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the quest for his first NBA Championship, but will it work?
The three agreed to decrease their share for the benefit of the Lakers, and while in theory James should thrive in another All-Star trio, he has never had to play with Westbrook, who is a poor shooter, horrid floor-spacer, and most effective when he drives the offense, causing a troublesome situation by design with the ball-dominant James. It’s easy to pick the Lakers to come out of the West and maybe win the title, since they have the best 1-2 punch in the NBA and one of the scariest trio of talents in recent memory, however you can also foresee major issues offensively with “Lakers 360” (Davis #3, James #6, Westbrook #0) since none of them are sources of consistent three-point shooting, and all of them will want the ball in the crunch time.