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The 2021-22 NBA Entrance Survey

Awards predictions, NBA Finals picks, the most intriguing teams and players, and more

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Welcome back to regularly scheduled NBA basketball. After two seasons disrupted by COVID, the NBA tips off a normal-ass 82-game schedule on Tuesday. Before the games begin, our staff nominates the most intriguing players and teams, makes awards and NBA Finals predictions, and more.

Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Whose situation will be resolved first: Kyrie Irving’s or Ben Simmons’s?

Wosny Lambre: Simmons has suitors and the Sixers have incentives to move on, which makes it feel like they’re going to resolve that sooner rather than later. Kyrie, on the other hand, is on a mission to lead the lost people of our world to the Promised Land. Seems like that may take a while.

Seerat Sohi: If we learned anything from Kyrie Irving’s Instagram Live and Nets coach Steve Nash’s response to it, both sides are dug in. My guess is either Portland or Washington (potential suitors for Simmons who had 0-4 preseasons) implodes before one of the following happens: Irving gets the jab, city ordinances around vaccine mandates change, or the Nets change their mind. The Sixers will want to give a revamped Simmons-less team time to jell before the playoffs, while the Nets really only need Irving for the playoffs.

Chris Ryan: Tough choice since both stories have been so inspiring! I’m going to say that Simmons will be “resolved” insomuch as he will either play, be put on ice, or get traded before Irving decides … whatever it is he’s trying to decide.

Justin Verrier: Irving. Given how convoluted his thinking on the vaccine is, would it be much of a surprise if he changes his opinion in a week or two?

Rob Mahoney: Simmons. Precarious as the Sixers’ negotiating position may be when it comes to trading their second-best player, working out transactional logistics just doesn’t compare to changing the heart and mind of an unreachable player. Irving is set in his ways with tortuous logic. If he’s going to get the vaccine this season, he’ll have to untangle himself from what he sees as a principled stand and the basis for it—something that can come only in Irving’s own time.

Jonathan Tjarks: Irving. Hasn’t the situation already been resolved? Unless he changes his mind again. And there’s no way to predict that.

Dan Devine: I’ll say Irving. I don’t necessarily expect Kyrie to reverse-pivot off of his principles tomorrow, but I think it’s more likely that he has a change of heart soon-ish for one reason or another than it is that Daryl Morey either suddenly locates the superstar deal he’s spent months searching for, or suddenly finds the Simmons situation so untenable that he feels compelled to pull the trigger inside the first 10 or 15 games. It feels like a lot of minds would have to change for a Simmons deal to hit the fast track; in Kyrie’s case, though, maybe only one mind does.

Logan Murdock: You can make the argument Irving’s situation is resolved: He hasn’t gotten the vaccine so he won’t play. No matter what he decides, the Nets will be title contenders with KD and Harden on the roster. Simmons’s situation is also pretty tricky, in that all parties involved were more concerned about leverage than actually putting together a deal. That being said, I think Simmons gets moved when either Dame or Bradley Beal becomes available.

Zach Kram: I don’t know, but I hope they’re both resolved soon so the basketball world can move on to talking about the other 28 teams and dozens of interesting story lines around the league!

Golden State Warriors Open Practice Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

What’s the most intriguing team heading into the 2021-22 season?

Murdock: The Warriors, if only because there’s so much variance in where the team can finish in the standings. Will Thompson be 80 percent of his old self? Will James Wiseman become David Robinson 2.0? Will Draymond be locked in for 82 games? Will Steph replicate last year’s MVP-caliber play? Find out starting this week. I’ll bring the wings.

Kram: The obvious answer is the Lakers, who are trying to integrate Russell Westbrook into a team with two better stars; the less obvious answer is the Hawks, who almost made the Finals and are so young that most of their most important players could theoretically improve compared to last postseason. The 76ers, Heat, and Celtics all have arguments for being the third-best team in the East—but why not Atlanta, with another season for Trae Young and the core to jell?

Tjarks: The Celtics. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum mostly focused on getting buckets last season. Can a new coach help them raise their games as playmakers? The Celtics have too much talent to be stuck in the middle of the pack in the East.

Verrier: The Hornets are in the best part of an up-and-coming team’s life cycle: exciting as all hell, yet too young to be burdened by expectations. LaMelo Ball will pull off a Jason Kidd–level pass once a game, there are athletes up and down the roster to push in transition and catch lobs, and Terry Rozier will go off for 40 when you least expect it. Any success is still found money, but if Gordon Hayward stays healthy, this team could have enough teeth to avoid the play-in altogether.

Sohi: The Warriors 2014-15 championship core is back, but replete with questions: Can Klay Thompson come back healthy? Does Andre Iguodala have anything in the tank? Is Jordan Poole’s preseason and play-in form sustainable? Can one of Jonathan Kuminga, James Wiseman, or Moses Moody make contender-level contributions? Each answer will tell us just how many toys Steph Curry has to help catapult his team back into contention.

Mahoney: The Nets. Forgive me for going basic here, but I’m just a simple man who wants to watch Kevin Durant and James Harden play as much basketball together as possible—in part to find out just how overwhelming that combination can be. Those two shared the floor for only 577 total minutes between the regular season and the playoffs last season, and demolished pretty much everything in their path. What happens if they unlock another level after a bit more time working in tandem?

Ryan: The Warriors, for the StephVP watch, whether or not the kiddos can contribute, the cult of Juan Toscano-Anderson and Jordan Poole, This Week in Draymond, Komeback Klay, and whether or not they can climb back toward the top of a relatively soft Western Conference.

Devine: This might be a nerd-ass answer, but I’m really curious what the Raptors look like back at home. Last season’s model won just 27 games, thanks to rough injury luck, bad crunch-time play, a brutal bout with COVID-19, and the dislocating effects of a season-long road trip in Tampa. They finished in the middle of the pack on both offense and defense; I think there was a real team in there, even if we didn’t get to see it too often. Is there one here, too, even with longtime linchpin Kyle Lowry gone to Miami? Maybe! Fred VanVleet nearly made the All-Star Game last season; OG Anunoby seems confident he’s about to make that kind of leap, too. If they and the not-bought-out-nor-traded-yet Goran Dragic can keep the offense afloat until Pascal Siakam finishes rehabbing his shoulder, and mad scientist Nick Nurse can wreak havoc with long-armed, multipositional defenders everywhere—including no. 4 draft pick Scottie Barnes, who looked good in preseason—the Raptors could be … pretty decent? Legitimately good? I don’t know. Excited to find out, though.

Lambre: The Lakers have constructed the funkiest team this side of Parliament. So many personalities, so many wonky fits, all on a team that generates the most headlines every year. The Lake Show will be must-see TV.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Who’s the most intriguing player heading into the 2021-22 season?

Sohi: For most of his career, Russell Westbrook has been considered a fixed entity: if you want the poster dunks, you take the clanked layups off the backboard. If you want the triple-doubles, you take the ball dominance and turnovers and missed defensive assignments. But in Houston, we saw something give in the second half of the 2019-20 season: Westbrook stopped pulling up for ill-advised 3s, relinquished the ball to Harden, and cut more. In Washington, he even set a few screens. These are the kind of concessions required to enter and thrive in LeBron’s universe. The question is just how much Westbrook can adjust while maintaining his true essence.

Devine: Giannis Antetokounmpo. I’m not sure you need to add a whole hell of a lot to your game when you’ve already won two MVPs, Defensive Player of the Year, a championship, and Finals MVP before age 27, and when you capped the previous season with one of the greatest individual performances in the history of the sport. Evidently, though, Giannis disagrees:

Yeah, yeah, yeah: It’s only preseason. But if Giannis really went into the lab this summer and came out of it with the kind of repeatable shot mechanics and confidence in them that can produce smooth, consistent off-the-dribble jumpers, both inside and outside the arc … well, then we might be about to find out just how much better the best can get.

Kram: It’s not too much of a hyperbole to say that if he’s healthy, Karl-Anthony Towns could approach a 50-40-90 season with 30 points and 10 rebounds per game. His offensive gifts are boundless. But can the Timberwolves play even competent defense with Towns as the anchor? This is a crucial season for Minnesota, which seems like it’ll otherwise be stuck in the play-in conversation, at best, for years to come.

Verrier: Luka Doncic. The Mavs wet-farted another offseason, yet Doncic may have just enough shooting around him now to single-handedly lift Dallas to the top of the West. Giannis deserves all of the praise he’s getting for his postseason run, but let’s not forget that Luka nearly beat the full-strength Clippers by hitting stepback moon shots from 30 feet out.

Tjarks: Michael Porter Jr. Now that he’s signed a max contract, everything is set up for him to have a monster season. Porter scores as easily as any player in the league. There’s no ceiling on how many shots that he can take with Jamal Murray out.

Mahoney: Klay Thompson. When and how Thompson returns has the potential to reshape the Western Conference landscape. A near-standard Klay could tilt the Warriors from quite good to overwhelming, their default mode for so much of their previous championship runs. A lesser version of Klay might give Golden State only the punch it needs to be yet another quality team in a busy field.

Lambre: Call me a homer, but Rob Mahoney’s recent piece on MPJ perfectly encapsulates why Porter’s season is going to be fascinating to watch.

Ryan: Joel Embiid. After this upcoming season, I would believe any of the following: Joel Embiid is the best player on the best team in basketball; Joel Embiid is the best player on a play-in team; Joel Embiid showed us that Ben Simmons was holding him back; Joel Embiid showed us that Simmons was more important than anyone knew; Joel Embiid is the MVP; Joel Embiid wants out of Philly.

Murdock: I’m gonna go with Bradley Beal. The chances for Beal to win D.C. a title in the next three years is slim. Does he finally force a trade or does he stick it out? Either way, it’ll be worth your time.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Utah Jazz v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

What’s the most intriguing non-Kyrie, non-Simmons story line heading into the 2021-22 season?

Mahoney: Whether the Jazz can keep healthy for the playoffs and manage to stay out of their own way. Utah’s roster is balanced enough to keep rolling on, even after three consecutive playoff disappointments. But yet again, they’ll have to endure a long regular season just to have the chance to prove themselves. Some teams have to manage the stakes of playing 82 games that really matter. The Jazz have the opposite problem: big, looming questions that can’t really be answered until April or May, and a season until then to either fine-tune or fall apart.

Sohi: Trae Young, John Collins, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Clint Capela are locked in to deals for the near future, and Kevin Huerter agreed to a four-year extension on Monday, but wings De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish are still eligible for extensions next summer. The Hawks are stacked with young talent, most of whom should be better this season than last, but scarce touches (and money) don’t always mend well with big ambitions. Who will they pay? Who hits the trade block? It’ll be worth checking in on their wing rotation through the season.

Murdock: Is this the Suns’ last best shot at a title? Owner Robert Sarver refused to pay a key contributor for the umpteenth time (sorry, Deandre Ayton), and Chris Paul is 36. If I’m Ayton, I’m trying to ball out and try to get a contract elsewhere in restricted free agency. It would suck to see this fan base suffer all because Sarver doesn’t want to drop a bag.

Ryan: Everything Pelicans: Zion-Watch, Ingram-Watch, Griff’s emergency of the week, first season Willie Green.

Kram: With Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, and Klay Thompson injured; with the Jazz and Trail Blazers stuck after more playoff disappointment; and with tremendous uncertainty around the Lakers’ new rotation around LeBron James and Anthony Davis (that 0-6 preseason showing probably doesn’t mean much, but it’s not encouraging!), the West doesn’t have a clear favorite. Will one team grab that mantle between now and April, or will we enter the playoffs with just as much chaos at the top of the conference?

Tjarks: How do teams handle the return to a normal season? Load management was accelerating even before COVID-19. What does the new normal look like in terms of how often teams are resting players?

Devine: How the top of the West shakes out. Will the Lakers’ high-end talent trump questions over fit, age, and injury concern? Will the Jazz make like Milwaukee and use the regular season as a laboratory rather than chasing the no. 1 seed? (Can they do both?) Are the Suns ready to run it back after a storybook 2020-21 season came up two wins short of a championship? How will the arrival of Jason Kidd impact Luka Doncic’s attempt to propel the Mavericks into the title picture? Can one of the several Western squads toting elite talent but carrying a significant injury—Golden State, Denver, the Clippers—vault up into the top two or top three? You could make cases for a half-dozen or more teams representing the West in the Finals, and with tipoff only a few hours away, I’m not sure I have any idea which one it’s going to be.

Lambre: How will the Bucks, and more specifically Giannis, respond to last season’s success? Will they rest on their laurels or will they want to prove to skeptics that last season was no fluke?

Verrier: In an era when players are increasingly prioritizing money up front, Chicago chose to invest in a supporting cast rather than lock up Zach LaVine. That might make the Bulls (marginally) better this season, but it also sets them up for a no-win situation in the long run: If they stink, LaVine can force a trade before the deadline; and if they do well, LaVine might walk in free agency anyway.

2021 NBA Finals - Phoenix Suns v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

What are your preseason awards predictions?

Most Valuable Player

Devine: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Kram: James Harden
Lambre: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Mahoney: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Murdock: Devin Booker
Ryan: Steph Curry
Sohi: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Tjarks: Kevin Durant
Verrier: Luka Doncic

Leading vote-getter: Antetokounmpo (4)

Rookie of the Year

Devine: Jalen Green
Kram: Jalen Green
Lambre: Jalen Green
Mahoney: Jalen Green
Murdock: Jalen Green
Ryan: Jalen Suggs
Sohi: Cade Cunningham
Tjarks: Cade Cunningham
Verrier: Cade Cunningham

Leading vote-getter: Green (5)

Defensive Player of the Year

Devine: Bam Adebayo
Kram: Bam Adebayo
Lambre: Draymond Green
Mahoney: Bam Adebayo
Murdock: Anthony Davis
Ryan: Matisse Thybulle
Sohi: Draymond Green
Tjarks: Anthony Davis
Verrier: Anthony Davis

Leading vote-getter: Adebayo and Davis (T-3)

Sixth Man of the Year

Devine: Patty Mills
Kram: Jordan Clarkson
Lambre: Luke Kennard
Mahoney: Patty Mills
Murdock: Talen Horton-Tucker
Ryan: Tyler Herro
Sohi: Joe Ingles
Tjarks: Patty Mills
Verrier: Derrick Rose

Leading vote-getter: Mills (3)

Most Improved Player

Devine: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Kram: Michael Porter Jr.
Lambre: Jordan Poole
Mahoney: Michael Porter Jr.
Murdock: Jordan Poole
Ryan: Malik Monk
Sohi: Jordan Poole
Tjarks: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Verrier: Keldon Johnson

Leading vote-getter: Poole (3)

Coach of the Year

Devine: Monty Williams
Kram: Steve Nash
Lambre: Nate McMillan
Mahoney: Nate McMillan
Murdock: Ime Udoka
Ryan: Ime Udoka
Sohi: Billy Donovan
Tjarks: Ime Udoka
Verrier: Steve Nash

Leading vote-getter: Udoka (3)

Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

What are your NBA Finals predictions?

Devine: Nets-Lakers. I’m aware that it’s chalky and boring, and that I may well be just one injury to one of several 30-somethings away from this going to pot. All things equal, though, I don’t think I’d feel good picking any team in the East beating a healthy Durant and Harden or any team in the West beating a healthy LeBron and Davis; in the safe-mode pocket dimension of this group post, before new major damage tilts the table, I don’t have to.

Sohi: Nets vs. Warriors. It’s a coin flip between Brooklyn and Milwaukee, but I just think the Nets have more room to improve this season. And the openness of the West in recent years has been contingent on the Warriors’ injury-forced sabbatical; even without Durant and with the questions about their health and supporting cast, they’re still the best problem-solvers in the NBA. (Nets in six or seven, by the way.)

Kram: Brooklyn over Phoenix. As long as the Nets have Durant plus one of the star guards healthy and available, they’re the title favorite, with too much starpower, too much depth, and too much roster balance to pick against. The West paints a much hazier picture, but the Suns provoke fewer questions than any other contender. Sure, they were undoubtedly aided by injuries to other teams in the 2020-21 playoffs—but they were impressive in the regular season and in convincing playoff victories, too. And if Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, and Deandre Ayton build on that run, they should still be able to go toe-to-toe with anything else the conference has to offer.

Tjarks: Nets vs. Lakers. For as many holes as Los Angeles has, I’m not convinced anyone in the West can slow down Anthony Davis in a seven-game series. Brooklyn should be fine without Kyrie as long as they have Harden and Durant.

Ryan: Nets over Lakers. Shout-out Sam Presti, who drafted three of the stars in this possible series. This is my pick whether Kyrie plays or not. I’m just betting on Durant until I see anything to suggest I shouldn’t.

Lambre: Gimme Lakers and Nets. The Lakers have the easiest road to reaching the Finals because of bad injury luck to teams like the Clippers and Nuggets. The Nets will, by season’s end, be the most talented team in the East and will therefore vanquish all challengers come playoff time.

Mahoney: Brooklyn outlasts an improved, more streamlined Milwaukee team to make it out of the East, in part because Irving took leave from his post as a voice for the voiceless, got his shots, and joined the team midseason. The absolute chaos of the West winds up working in the favor of the steadiest team in the conference: the Phoenix Suns, who play with a similar polish but more pop owed to the further development of their young core.

Murdock: Lakers-Nets. Assuming everyone’s healthy, these are the two best teams in the league. And, more importantly, it’s what everyone wants. Make it happen, NBA.

Verrier: Nets and Lakers. The 2021 Finals was the first without either KD or LeBron in a decade. I wouldn’t bet on that happening again this year.

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