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A Reintroduction to the NBA Title Race

The cases for and against the eight teams with the best shot at the Larry O’B in 2021-22

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With training camp and preseason play already underway, we’re now just two weeks from the start of the 2021-22 NBA season—from 30 teams taking their first steps on the long road to championship glory.

OK, not 30 teams. A handful of rebuilds are in their infancy, several other franchises harbor humble hopes of toddling toward relevance, and many more are likely to top out at “on the fringes of play-in tournament contention.” But while true parity remains a pipe dream, there are plenty of teams that enter the new campaign with a puncher’s chance of claiming that big-ass golden ball at the end of the 82-game rainbow. Or, at least, that’s how the handicappers see it.

Heading into training camp, FanDuel Sportsbook listed eight teams with championship odds of 20-to-1 (+2000) or better. All eight boast one or more All-NBA-caliber superstars, strong supporting casts … and more than a little bit of intrigue as they enter the season. Let’s reacquaint ourselves with the NBA’s expected upper crust by reviewing the cases for and against each of them hoisting the Larry O’B come season’s end, starting from the odds-on favorite and working our way down:

Brooklyn Nets

The case for: I just double-checked the Nets roster, and it says here that they have Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. A league source who spoke on condition of anonymity tells The Ringer that being able to have those three players play offense together at the same time is “pretty fuckin’ cool, man.”

Brooklyn’s Big Three shared the court for just 332 total regular- and postseason minutes in 2020-21; in them, the Nets outscored the opposition by 98 points. Durant-Harden-Irving lineups unleashed an obscene offensive onslaught, averaging 128.7 points per 100 possessions, according to pbpstats.com—about 10 points-per-100 higher than Brooklyn’s full-season offensive rating, which not only led the NBA last season, but was the best in league history.

All three superstars return—we think, anyway; more on that in a minute—and they’ve got company. Joe Harris, the most accurate 3-point shooter in the NBA over the past three seasons (minimum 500 attempts), comes back to make defenses pay for treating KD, Harden, and Kyrie isos like extinction-level events. Patty Mills enters from San Antonio; the 12-year veteran gives the Nets a perpetual motion machine with a ratchet release from 3-point range, a hand-in-glove fit providing shot creation and perimeter playmaking in the second unit. LaMarcus Aldridge returns with a clean bill of health from the heart scare that ended his first stint in Brooklyn; he joins Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, and Nic Claxton in a deep, versatile, talented frontcourt that head coach Steve Nash can mix and match to support his brightest lights, while Bruce Brown, James Johnson, Jevon Carter, and DeAndre’ Bembry gladly do whatever dirty work needs doing.

Brooklyn went 48-24 last season—a 55-win clip over a full 82-game slate—despite having Harden for only half the season, Durant and Irving combining to miss 55 games, and about as much rotational upheaval as any team in the league. Even after a severe ankle sprain shelved Irving and a strained hamstring rendered Harden barely ambulatory, Brooklyn came within half-a-hightop of outlasting Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference semifinals, thanks largely to Durant’s reestablishing his claim—firmly, loudly, indisputably—to the crown of best basketball player alive. This year’s model is deeper, more malleable, and has even more weapons to deploy. Woe betide whoever’s standing in the way when they become fully operational.

The case against: It probably starts with the possibility that they’ll be fully operational for only about half the season.

Irving has reportedly not received the COVID-19 vaccine, and demurred on questions regarding his vaccination status during a Zoomed-in appearance at Nets media day. If he’s not able to comply with the executive order issued in August by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio requiring athletes who play in indoor arenas to show proof they’ve received at least one vaccine shot, he’d be ineligible to suit up for Brooklyn’s home games, scratching a dynamic scoring and playmaking maestro off of Nash’s lineup card. The Nets sans Kyrie might still rank among the best of the best—Brooklyn brutalized opponents by nearly 20 points-per-100 in KD-Harden minutes without Irving last regular season—but wouldn’t have nearly the same top-end talent advantage over most opponents as they would with the seven-time All-Star available.

Beyond vaccination-related questions, though, Brooklyn’s main prospective issues remain the same as they were last season: defense and health.

On one hand: For as much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments as there was over Brooklyn’s 22nd-ranked regular-season defense, the Nets held Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Co. to just 106.4 points-per-100 in their second-round series, a very strong mark. On the other: Irving and Harden each missed about half of that series, playing fewer minutes against Milwaukee than Bruce Brown. With another full season to develop defensive chemistry and a broader array of rotational options at Nash’s disposal, the Nets may well be capable of being just stingy enough to let the offense carry the day. It’s possible, though, that shaky rim protection and defensive rebounding could make Brooklyn susceptible to interior bullying when it counts.

The biggest concern, though, has to be getting everybody to the postseason in one piece. Durant, 33, was transcendent in his first season back from a ruptured Achilles tendon, but he did miss half of last season, average more than 40 minutes per game in the playoffs, and then head right into the Summer Olympics. After missing just 33 games over his eight full years in Houston, Harden, 32, was legitimately hobbled by that balky hamstring, the first significant injury of his career. Irving, who turns 30 in March, has missed 107 games over the past four seasons with a variety of ailments (among other reasons). Griffin, Mills, Aldridge, Millsap, and Johnson form a rotation long on experience and skill, but with plenty of miles on its collective odometer, too.

A Nets team with all three of its superstars and a full complement of helpers would likely steamroll to a championship. A version with two stars and most of its bench would still be heavily favored to win the East (especially provided Durant is one of the two). A solo-star mission with a whittled-down reserve corps, though, would once again put everything up for grabs.

LeBron James #6 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers pose for a portrait during NBA Media day at UCLA Health Training Center on September 28, 2021 in El Segundo, California.  Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Los Angeles Lakers

The case for: The Lakers blitzed opponents by 14.2 points-per-100 when LeBron James and Anthony Davis shared the court last season, according to Cleaning the Glass. That stat should serve as a reminder: As much injury, illness, and rotation-shuffling drama as they dealt with during an up-and-down campaign, they were still elite whenever they had their two superstars on the floor. But because an illness- and injury-addled squad fell in Round 1 to the eventual conference-champion Suns, the Lakers, who looked midway through last season like a threat to repeat, will walk into this one with, essentially, a completely new team.

Outside of James and Davis, the only holdovers from the bubble squad are third-year swingman Talen Horton-Tucker and once-and-future Lakers Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo, both of whom spent last season elsewhere. The rest of the rotation has been remodeled, headlined by the arrival of a new statement piece to tie the backcourt together: Russell Westbrook. The Lakers acquired the former MVP hoping that he can help supercharge the offense and ease the offensive burden on James as he enters his 19th season and nears his 37th birthday.

L.A.’s high-octane trio will be flanked by a fleet of shooters, from veterans Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza to youngsters Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn, imported to create the space for LeBron, AD, and Russ to rampage into the paint and to knock down the drive-and-kick looks they create. (“It’s definitely shooter’s paradise,” said guard Wayne Ellington, who drilled 42.2 percent of his 3-point tries last season.) Concerns about how head coach Frank Vogel would construct quality two-way lineups while playing big with either Howard or DeAndre Jordan up front were mitigated a bit on media day, when Davis—long reticent to submit to the pounding of playing the 5 full time, despite how earth-shatteringly dominant he can be (and how much better his teams tend to play) when he does it—said he plans to mostly play center this season.

If Davis can get back to his Defensive Player of the Year–caliber form in the middle, LeBron and Russ settle into a playmaking partnership, and all those shooters knock down all those shots, we might be treated to another reminder: that the last time LeBron and AD walked into the playoffs healthy, they walked out with the trophy.

The case against: While the optimist would note that this Lakers core boasts plenty of experience, the pessimist would tell you that, AD aside, it is old as shit. Five players (James, Anthony, Ariza, Rondo, Howard) are 35 or older. Four more (Westbrook, Ellington, Jordan, Kent Bazemore) are over 32. Relying so heavily on such, shall we say, seasoned players makes the Lakers the subject of plenty of over-the-hill jokes. (LeBron has seen your memes, and he’s laughing at them, earnestly and sincerely; he thinks you’re very clever.) It also makes them a team that could be unusually susceptible to the sorts of bumps, bruises, sprains, and tears that tend to derail older players over the course of a full season—and if the wrong two-way wing types (like Ariza or Bazemore) aren’t available, it could become much more difficult to play smaller with AD at the 5.

The Lakers’ age might not matter much in the season’s biggest moments, when veteran savvy and basketball IQ are worth their weight in gold. But the Lakers just stumbled to the no. 7 seed, had to win a play-in game just to make the postseason, and, as a result, started the playoffs by facing off against an excellent Phoenix team that sent them home early. That should drive home the point: The regular season does matter, at least when it comes to seeding in the characteristically vicious West. The 20-year-old Horton-Tucker, 23-year-old Monk, and 26-year-old Nunn give Vogel some fresh legs for the 82-game marathon. But the prospect of counting so strongly on so many players who’ve shouldered such heavy workloads for so long—to maintain what’s been an elite defense over the past two seasons and to stay healthy—has got to give Lakers fans at least a little bit of pause.

Milwaukee Bucks

The case for: Well, for starters, they’re the defending NBA champions, and they’re still led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of only three players in history to win Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, and Finals MVP. (The other two? Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. So, y’know, decent company.) By the way, Antetokounmpo is still somehow only 26, and theoretically just entering his prime. I’m not sure how much better you can get than “50 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks, and 17-for-19 from the foul line in a closeout game to win the freaking title,” but it’s at least possible he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet ... which ought to terrify everyone not wearing a Bucks uniform.

Giannis isn’t the only returning champion; after re-signing freshly minted Wisconsin folk hero Bobby Portis, the Bucks bring back six of the top seven players from their playoff rotation. And while the departure of P.J. Tucker could ding Milwaukee’s defense and depth, the return of Donte DiVincenzo—a versatile and dependable two-way fixture before tearing a ligament in his left ankle during the opening-round win over Miami—means the Bucks still boast a starting five that outscored opponents by 10.7 points per 100 last season, making it one of the best big-minutes lineups in the NBA.

With nearly two-thirds of Milwaukee’s salary cap devoted to the contracts of Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Holiday, general manager Jon Horst spread out the Bucks’ limited financial flexibility to take a few cracks (George Hill, Grayson Allen, Rodney Hood, erstwhile “Giannis stopper” Semi Ojeleye) at bolstering the reserve corps. The result could be an even deeper iteration of a roster that ranked in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession last season, led by a Big Three capable of going toe-to-toe with the best of the best on both ends of the floor. Combine that with the confidence that comes from surviving the postseason crucible and winning the whole thing, and the lack of pressure that comes with the Nets taking the pole as the odds-on favorite in most eyes, and the Bucks enter the season in kind of a perfect spot—and maybe in position to run this thing back.

The case against: Considering the Nets were an oversized shoe away from knocking off the Bucks despite Irving exiting the series midway through Game 4 and Harden playing games 5 through 7 on one leg, it seems reasonable to give full-strength Brooklyn the nod over Milwaukee in the East. Unless Ojeleye can show significant growth as a kind-of-3-and-kind-of-D small-ball power forward, the Bucks’ frontcourt rotation past Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, and Portis looks a little light. Factor in that neither Hill nor Allen covered themselves in glory in their playoff cameos in Philadelphia and Memphis, and it’s possible that the Bucks will wind up going into battle with roughly the same group they had last postseason, minus Tucker. It was enough, with some ill-timed injuries to opponents and some brilliant clutch play, to win it all once. Will it be again?

Utah Jazz

The case for: Utah brings back the entire top seven from a team that had the NBA’s best record last season. The 2020-21 Jazz had the highest net rating of any team since the maiden voyage of the Durant-era Warriors; they finished with the 17th-largest average margin of victory ever. This had the look of an all-time-caliber team ... before ill-timed injuries to All-Star guards Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley exacerbated their perimeter defensive woes, and the small-ball Clippers drummed them out of the postseason.

Rudy Gobert’s back, with a silver medal from his summer work with the French national team joining the three Defensive Player of the Year awards in his trophy case. Conley’s back, at a cost of $68 million over three years, to pair with Gobert in what’s become a devastatingly effective pick-and-roll game, and provide smarts and disruption on defense. Mitchell’s back, having provided even more evidence he’s a bona fide no. 1 playoff option—he averaged 35-5-5 on .598 true shooting against the Clips on a bum ankle—and eager to prove the claim he made to Sam Amick of The Athletic: “No slight to Phoenix or Milwaukee or the Clippers, you know, [but] I feel like if we were healthy, we get to the Finals.”

On top of better health, that’ll require cleaning up the defensive issues that L.A. feasted on. Some of that might come via offseason additions. Rudy Gay could be particularly important as a small-ball center who allows the Jazz to be nimbler and more malleable against lineups that’d pull Gobert or Hassan Whiteside out of the paint. But a lot of it will likely have to come from Utah’s top guns being healthy and able to execute at the season’s biggest moments. Quin Snyder and Co. have built a regular-season juggernaut that knows exactly why and how it’s come up short in multiple postseasons. Now’s the time for them to get over that hump.

The case against: It’s not just that the Jazz lost to the Clippers in the conference semifinals; it’s how they did it. Losing four straight after taking a 2-0 lead, including the final two after superstar Kawhi Leonard suffered a season-ending knee injury, is the kind of thing that you can’t necessarily just hand-wave away due to Mitchell’s ankle and Conley’s hamstring.

Royce O’Neale is a very good 3-and-D wing, but he had nothing for Paul George (32-9-5 over those final four games) when it mattered most. Plus, there’s only one of him. To outlast the best of the West, Utah will have to beat teams with multiple elite perimeter creators, and it’s yet to prove that it can reliably do that beyond the first round.

While the enduring images of the Clippers’ victory include Terance Mann weaving around Gobert 25 feet away from the rim en route to a basket, much of Mann’s explosion came as the downstream effect of leaky perimeter defense earlier in the possession. Utah needs Conley, about to turn 34 and coming off three injury-curtailed seasons in the past four years, and Mitchell, already shouldering a massive offensive load, to prevent jailbreaks at the point of attack; even then, though, they’re 6-foot-1 guards in a conference teeming with big, bad playmakers. If the Jazz can’t find a way to overcome that size and defensive talent disadvantage on the perimeter, this roster’s ceiling might not be any higher than its predecessors’.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPT. 27: Golden State Warriors Klay Thompson (11) photobombs teammate Stephen Curry (30) during his photo session at media day at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, May 21, 2021. Jose Carlos Fajardo/MediaNews Group/East Bay Times via Getty Images

Golden State Warriors

The case for: Stephen Curry, after being limited to just five games in 2019-20, proved definitively that he still wields the Power Cosmic, authoring no small number of “holy shit” performances:

Curry and Draymond Green (third in DPOY voting, tied for third in the NBA in assists per game) remain one of the league’s most excellent one-two punches: Golden State outscored opponents by 7.6 points per 100 when they shared the court last season. That mark nearly doubled when dependable vet Kevon Looney flanked Green up front—important, considering rising sophomore James Wiseman, 2020’s no. 2 pick, will likely “miss some unknown chunk of games” to start the season as he works his way back from a meniscus tear.

Perhaps even more important: The Dubs’ net rating was just as impressive when they shifted smaller, with Green at the 5 and hard-charging ball-mover Juan Toscano-Anderson at the 4. Those lineups—which Steve Kerr deployed a lot later in the season, after Wiseman went down—flew all over the court on both ends, opening up acres of space for Steph to run roughshod and setting the table for a 15-5 finish that punched the Warriors’ ticket for the play-in tournament. With Andre Iguodala returning to the fold, shooters Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica joining up, and rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody potentially entering the wing rotation, Kerr seems ready to lean into that small-ball identity this season, potentially making Golden State an awfully tough out on most nights. If Klay Thompson is able to look something like his old self when he returns to the lineup, “likely in December or January,” the Warriors may be a hell of a lot more than that.

The case against: Sunday’s news that starting small forward Andrew Wiggins has received a COVID-19 vaccination and will be able to play in Golden State’s home games took care of one of the Warriors’ biggest elements of uncertainty entering the season. It wasn’t the only one, though. What if Thompson’s return is delayed, and/or he doesn’t hit the ground running after missing more than two years with ACL and Achilles tears? What if the young dudes—Wiseman, Kuminga, Moody, Jordan Poole—aren’t quite ready for prime time, putting even more of a burden on Curry, who had the highest usage rate of his career and led the league in scoring last season, and could still drag the Dubs only to 21st place in offensive efficiency? And, as is the worry with every 33-year-old superstar—especially one who’s not a 6-foot-8, 265-pound tank—what if Curry gets hurt?

If everything goes right, Golden State very well could have a puncher’s chance at a championship run. If it doesn’t, though, the Warriors might find themselves sprinting like hell just to try to stay out of the play-in this time around.

Phoenix Suns

The case for: Well, they just won the West and still have, like, all of their dudes. Seems like a pretty good start.

After re-signing Chris Paul, Cameron Payne, Frank Kaminsky, and Abdel Nader, the Suns bring back more than 93 percent of the postseason minutes from the squad that knocked off both L.A. teams and swept the MVP en route to the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance in 28 years. GM James Jones and head coach Monty Williams have built a balanced roster—one of just two teams last season (along with Utah) to rank in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency—led by a pair of elite offensive engines and crunch-time assassins in Paul and Devin Booker and featuring excellent young two-way players in Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges (both of whom are eligible for lucrative extensions of their rookie-scale contracts).

The Suns can carve you up in the half court or punish you in transition; they can grind you out on the defensive end and win with depth. (Landry Shamet, acquired from Brooklyn in a draft-night deal, could be a nice source of complementary shooting and playmaking for a second unit that might need a bit more of both with backup center Dario Saric still recovering from a torn ACL.) The only demerit on their championship-contending résumé heading into last postseason was that they hadn’t made a deep playoff push together yet. Now they have, and with so many other Western contenders dealing with injuries or rotational overhauls—and with the 25-and-under core of Booker, Ayton, Bridges, and Cameron Johnson all eminently capable of more internal development—that combination of experience and continuity could vault Phoenix right back up to the top of the conference.

The case against: As with Milwaukee, if you’re so inclined, you can look askance at Phoenix’s path to the Finals—the Lakers with a hobbled AD, the Nuggets without Jamal Murray, the Clippers without Kawhi—and wonder whether the Suns would be able to replicate their run against a full-strength slate of opposition this time around. (I wouldn’t, personally, but hey, this is just about making a case.)

As impressive as Ayton and Bridges were throughout their postseason debuts, progression isn’t always linear; it’s possible they don’t just pick up where they left off and continue on an upward trajectory as defensive cornerstones capable of efficiently shouldering increased offensive roles. A second unit that was one of the NBA’s best last season might struggle to reorient itself in the move from Saric, who served as something of a playmaking and floor-spacing backup center, to a more interior-bound rim-running reserve 5 in newcomer JaVale McGee. (This is why I’m into the Suns’ reported pursuit of Thaddeus Young, though how real those rumblings are remains to be seen.)

And while Paul’s been phenomenal through the past two seasons, bouncing back from his injury-plagued stint in Houston to miss just four regular-season games in Oklahoma City and Phoenix, there’s always the danger that a 36-year-old small point guard could begin to break down. (Recall, if you will, that Paul suffered a wrist injury during the Finals that wound up requiring surgery—one that might not have played as large a role in him turning the ball over 19 times through the final five games against Milwaukee as the suffocating defense of Holiday, but that probably didn’t help matters.) An unavailable, or in any way lessened, Paul increases the burden on Booker, and could hamper a Suns offense that’s most effective when both of its top playmakers are firing on all cylinders.

Los Angeles Clippers

The case for: This one, honestly, is a little tougher to make.

Coming off of the franchise’s first trip to the Western Conference finals, the Clippers brought back Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum and brought in Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow, which should only help fortify a rotation that was one of the NBA’s deepest and most versatile last season. Tyronn Lue remains one of the best head coaches in the business, and he’s adept at making precisely the right adjustments to put his players in position to succeed. And after all the slings and arrows he suffered after the bubble, Paul George issued a bold-faced reminder in the 2021 playoffs of just how good he is, averaging 26.9 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 5.4 assists in 40.9 minutes per game to lead the Clips past top-seeded Utah and push Phoenix to six games without Leonard in the fold.

Maybe George builds off that postseason run with the kind of season that returns him to the ranks of bona fide MVP candidates. Maybe Bledsoe and Winslow, both of whom struggled during their stays in the Southwest Division, have the same sort of resurgence in L.A. that Jackson experienced last season. Maybe that, plus healthy runs from vets like Batum, Marcus Morris, and Serge Ibaka, plus steps forward from young rotation pieces like Ivica Zubac and Terance Mann is enough to keep the Clippers in the running for home-court advantage in the West late in the season. And then, maybe, Kawhi completes rehab on his torn ACL in time to return to the lineup by the playoffs, he looks like every ounce the All-NBA world-breaker he was when last we saw him at 100 percent, and the Clippers finally fully form the superteam we’ve been waiting to see.

The case against: The Clippers’ championship chances seem to depend an awful lot on Leonard pushing his way back by the postseason and immediately reestablishing himself as one of the baddest men on the planet. And, in fairness, Kawhi did leave the door open to such a return, explaining on media day that he locked in a new four-year, $176.3 million extension this summer rather than waiting to potentially go after a more lucrative deal in a year’s time in part because “I wanted to be able to come back if I was able to this year.” That’s a massive “if,” though; considering that Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank has already said that “no one knows” when the two-time Finals MVP will be able to suit up again, and that Kawhi has been at the vanguard of the load management movement ever since his disastrous injury-wracked final season in San Antonio, it’s probably best not to write his name into the playoff starting five in permanent marker.

If Leonard isn’t there to serve as both a no. 1 option and an elite perimeter defender, the Clippers’ ceiling necessarily drops. George was sensational as a top dog in Kawhi’s absence for a couple of weeks, but can he maintain that level of play for a full season? As well as dudes like Jackson, Batum, Morris, and Mann played after Leonard went down, it’s worth remembering that, in a much larger sample across the whole of the 2020-21 season, the Clippers were a net negative when Kawhi was off the floor. Lue and Co. will surely have a fresh game plan in place to try to maximize the effectiveness of the players the Clippers will have on the court, one that should produce a return to the playoffs and maybe even a run past Round 1. Without any production from Kawhi, though, it’s tough to see the Clips once again reaching the final four, let alone being the last team standing.

Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers talk during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on January 27, 2021 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Philadelphia 76ers

The case for: It starts with Joel Embiid building on last season’s leap with an even more dominant turn—the kind that vaults you from second place in MVP voting to the top of the ballot.

After averaging 30.4 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 2.0 blocks per game in the second round against Atlanta with one functioning meniscus, Embiid secured a four-year, $196 million supermax, ensuring that the 76ers would continue to be built around him for the foreseeable future. That reality, as you might have heard, has caused some consternation in the City of Brotherly Love! But while resolution continues to elude all parties in the Ben Simmons standoff, the Sixers might be poised to just keep pressing on without the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up.

Lineups that flank Embiid with shooting should continue to cook, and second-year live wire Tyrese Maxey could impress given a greater role. More growth from Maxey, Shake Milton, and Furkan Korkmaz could help soften (if only a bit) the loss of Simmons’s playmaking; ongoing development from All-Defensive second team menace Matisse Thybulle could mitigate (somewhat) the absence of Simmons’s multipositional perimeter ball-hawking.

Philly won’t be more talented without Simmons in the mix, but if Embiid is as good as he was last season, Doc Rivers should still have enough in the cupboard to win a whole bunch of games while everybody waits for the other shoe to drop. If everything breaks down exactly how Daryl Morey hopes, and there’s a Dame or Beal at the end of the Simmons rainbow, the Sixers could shoulder their way into the Brooklyn-Milwaukee diptych at the top of the East.

The case against: [Cracks knuckles.] Let’s see:

The ongoing Simmons imbroglio winds up both tanking his trade value and poisoning the well for the team, resulting in a crummy start to the season and no superstar savior coming in return for the former no. 1 draft pick. A frustrated Embiid and Tobias Harris (a near All-Star last season!) play just a bit off of their 2020-21 form, and neither Maxey nor anyone else is quite ready to pick up the slack. Even if Andre Drummond and Georges Niang are a little better than Dwight Howard and Mike Scott, that’s not enough to keep the Sixers offense from once again cratering whenever Embiid hits the bench.

Rivers can’t find the right answers to fix what ails Philly’s slumping lineups, and the whole thing becomes like a supersized version of the Iverson era, with the Sixers capable of taking down giants when their superstar is at his best, and scuffling along with also-rans when he’s misfiring. It’s a recipe for a middling squad, the kind that winds up outclassed and overrun by more functional opponents in the first or second round of the playoffs. It’s precisely the sort of outcome that the Process was intended to avoid; history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly called the Nets-Bucks 2020-21 playoff series the Eastern Conference finals. It was the semifinals.

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