In the year 2021, I find it funny that the NBA still has divisions. Other than geography and scheduling (traveling), which has become infinitely easier over the years, they serve absolutely zero purpose anymore. Quick, can you tell me who won the… Southwest division last season? Do you even know which conference it’s in? Doubtful right? The short answer is that the Southwest Division resides in the Western Conference and at 42-30 last season, the Dallas Mavericks were the division “champions.” Congrats, I guess? That particular division also features the Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans, and Houston Rockets.
My point is, the NBA has informally shifted to a conferenced-based setup. Even if you “win” your division, that doesn’t guarantee you a top three seed in the conference come playoff time. For example, in 2021, the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, and New York Knicks finished as the #1, #2, and #4 seeds respectively. They all play in the same Atlantic division. See? Divisions are pointless.
Regardless, with the 2021-22 NBA regular season having tipped off last week (I’m still claiming to be in “preview mode” still inside the first week), let’s predict some win-loss records for each CONFERENCE, and toss out some brief logic.
- The Bucks have won 71.4% of it’s games the past three seasons combined. Bringing back almost the same roster, I have no reason to think anything will change. Though, I’ll knock them down a couple of wins because of the East’s overall improvement. There’s something to be said for continuity, and the Bucks will have it. Giannis looks like a goddamn bodybuilder these days. Oh, and they’re the defending champs, so let’s put some respect on their name. The Bucks should be a juggernaut this season once again.
- There’s no doubt that with this kind of roster depth and a couple (maybe more) of superstars, the Nets are potentially the favorites to come out of the East. But because there’s the possibility of some, let’s call it, “baggage,” the Bucks get the top spot. We don’t know about Kyrie’s long-term status, and we don’t know how often Steve Nash will rest Kevin Durant and/or James Harden. These are very real factors. But the Nets will still be at or near the top of the conference.
- Much like the Bucks, the Hawks have that continuity piece as well. It’s easy to forget that the Hawks were in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Trae Young leads the way. The team also re-signed John Collins and Kevin Huerter. And they have depth at all positions to the point where figuring out a solid rotation has become tricky . Atlanta will be plenty dangerous this season.
- People are definitely sleeping on the Pacers. I actually have them winning 50 games. I think they’re neck-and-neck with the Hawks. After last season’s disaster under one-and-done coach Nate Bjorkgren, they brought in one of the savviest coaches the game has seen in Rick Carlisle to right the ship. And that he will. Indiana is still oozing of talent across the board with Sabonis, Brogdon, Turner, Warren, LaVert, and quality role players like Holiday, Lamb, McConnell, and Brissett.
- The Heat made a splash by trading for long-time Toronto Raptor Kyle Lowry to pair with his buddy Jimmy Butler in South Beach. Bam Adebayo will make a run for Defensive Player of the Year. This Miami team has a little bit of everything within it’s starting unit and while I wouldn’t be completely shocked if they keep pace with the East’s best teams, I do worry about their bench depth.
- Look up “tumultuous” in the dictionary and you’ll find a picture of Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers. This saga is all over the map, and there isn’t a resolution in clear sight. The Sixers are still a good team and I think Joel Embiid, with or without Simmons, is a legitimate (and underrated) MVP candidate. Whatever they might recoup for him in a trade will make them stronger, but ultimately, I’m down on Philly a bit more than the next guy.
- The Bulls have transformed themselves over the past two seasons, with no shortage of turnover coming into this season, with DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball being the featured acquisitions. They join cornerstone Zach LaVine and last season’s big addition, Nik Vucevic to form a very impressive starting five (ast least on paper). Defense will be an issue, but they’ll be fun to watch. They should get into the playoffs, or at least host a play-in game.
- Predictions on the Knicks seem to be all over the spectrum. The additions of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier should help offensively, whereas New York was actually pretty sound defensively last season. While I don’t think Julius Randle will produce the same level of output, he won’t need to. This team should be playoff-bound.
- I can’t hide my feelings toward the Celtics. I just don’t see “it.” I think they have two tremendous superstars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but then there’s a steep drop off in talent and depth, especially with their bigs. Let’s not forget, they were only a .500 team last season, to which I think they finish around that mark again. They’ll be clawing for a playoff birth.
- Finding themselves on a season-long COVID-19 “road trip,” no team faced as much adversity at the Raptors last season, not even playing home games in their own country. Their struggles with the pandemic and injuries are well-documented, as they only managed 27 wins (in 72 games). But there’s still plenty of talent scattered across the roster, even with the departure of Kyle Lowry. Scottie Barnes already looks the part and his energy alone is a motivating force. This team is play-in game bound, with the best case being 7th and the worst case being 10th. It’s a transition season for The North.
- I think the Cavaliers will be one of the most improved teams in the league this season from a win total perspective. They’ve collected enough talent to finally compete on a nightly basis. Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen, Lauri Markkanen, Isaac Okoro, and now Evan Mobley form a nice young core. And there’s some savvy vets on the squad as well (Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Cedi Osman). I think they realistically have an outside chance at a playoff spot.
- The Wizards were one of the league’s biggest surprises last season, finishing only four games under .500 after people had written them off. They’ve since restructured the roster in dealing Russell Westbrook to Los Angeles for solid rotation guys in Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. They also added Aaron Holiday and Spencer Dinwiddie. I think the Wiz could be better than 12th, but there are just too many teams ahead of them that I think are better.
- LaMelo Ball certainly proved his legitimacy last season. The Hornets underperformed overall, but they showed flashes. I think they’ll be a tough out every night, but like the Wiz, there are just too many teams ahead of them to validate a higher finish. I’ll let them prove me wrong.
- Just like that, Cade Cunningham became the face of the Detroit Pistons on Draft night. While he should be exciting, the Pistons still have a ton of question marks and holes in their roster. I don’t expect much for them, as the rebuilding process will take more than a season (or two). They’ll be stuck at the bottom of the East for now.
- It’s going to be a long, long season for the Magic, who are in full rebuilding mode. The have a few exciting young guys (Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony, Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Mo Bamba), but it’s going to take some literal magic for them to even reach 20 wins. I don’t think they get there.
- Call it boring, but I think it will be the Utah Jazz, not the Lakers, that claim the West’s best record (again). They’re bringing back the whole crew, along with Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gay, and Eric Paschall. They’re deep, and a nightmare to play at home. Mitchell and Gobert will lead the Jazz to another excellent season.
- There’s little doubt that the Lakers will be near the top this season, but man, that’s a lot of egos and personalities to manage and have gel. I also think the “rest” factor is lurking. How much/often do they rest LeBron and Davis? We know Russ isn’t succumbing to some lame load management initiative. It’s just not in his blood. They do need more shooting and to be more sound defensively. But LeBron will just push the magic button when this team is ready to get serious.
- I have an almost unhealthy love affair with the Portland Trail Blazers. I love their starting five and the additions of Larry Nance Jr. and Cody Zeller. Dame Time is my favorite time in the league (along with watching Steph Curry get unconscious). There isn’t much room for error in the West, but with some good health, I think the Blazers could settle in as Top 4 team in the standings.
- To this day, I’m still not sure hot he Warriors pulled off a 39-33 record last year. So impressive. Clearly, the simple answer is Steph Curry, who took home the scoring title. This year, with some depth, young guys ready to step up, and the eventual return of NBA 75 snub, Klay Thompson, the Warriors could win 50+ games. There won’t be any lack of excitement from this team.
- No disrespect to the defending West champion Phoenix Suns, but it’s going to be hard to pull off the same magic that got them all the way to the NBA Finals. They added some depth with JaVale McGee and Landry Shamet, but I think it’ll be a challenge to push that 50-win pace again.
- I’m very interested to see what the Nuggets do this season. They have defending MVP Nikola Jokic, a freshly paid Michael Porter Jr. ready to break out, and a cast of quality veteran starters and rotation guys. I think the distance that Denver will go will depend on when and how much of an impact Jamal Murray can make returning from a major injury. But this will be a playoff team regardless.
- Slotting them at 7th in the Conference might be a little too cautious with the Mavericks, but I need to see it consistently. Behind Luka and a serious MVP push, the offense will be great, but perhaps not as ridiculous as last season. The team has exceptional length (Porzingis anyone?) and should be better defensively, so I’ll hold my ground to see if that develops. For now, 46-50 wins seems reasonable.
- The Clippers are an enigma and a team that I’m a bit down on this season. We don’t know if we’ll even see Kawhi Leonard at all in 2021-22 and frankly, as incredible as I think Paul George will be this season, it won’t be quite enough. Their depth should keep them over .500 and get them into the playoffs, but they don’t have the chops to hang with the West’s higher-ups.
- Like the Mavs above, the Grizzlies are a one-superstar unit behind Ja Morant, who I think will win Most Improved Player this season. You could make a weak case for Jaren Jackson Jr. as a star pairing, but he hasn’t played enough or accomplished much yet. Memphis and their band of “mostly unknowns” among the casual fan base will play hard every night and should be a fringe playoff team.
- The New Orleans Pelicans are one of the hardest teams to peg this year. Zion Williamson is still a little way out from seeing the floor, which is critical to their success. I thought the Devonte Graham signing was one of the worst of the offseason and an instant downgrade from Lonzo Ball. In his first three seasons, he’s shot 34.3%, 38.2%, and 37.7% from the field. Not good. I did love the Jonas Valanciunas signing and still like what Brandon Ingram does nightly, but this team will have trouble staying afloat in the West. A play-in game berth might be too optimistic.
- I think the Timberwolves are finally a team on the rise and I’m expecting to see a nice jump in their win total this season. I would even interchange them with the Pelicans above. I think Minnesota was pleasantly surprised with what they got from #1 overall Anthony Edwards, especially in the second half. Add in D’Angelo Russell, Jaden McDaniels, Malik Beasley, and superstar Karl-Anthony Towns has some real personnel to work with.
- The poor Sacramento Kings are still stuck in win-loss purgatory. By now, this team should be better, but it seems they have better individual pieces than a collective unit that can win. It won’t surprise me if De’Aaron Fox is an All-Star this season, as he might finally get his public due. If I had to guess (and this certainly isn’t a stretch), Sacramento will be the primary trade market come the trade deadline.
- Oh yeah, the Spurs! How times have changed for this proud franchise. But hey, all teams go through the rebuild cycle. There’s some very exciting young talent on the roster, but overall, the rotation is thin. I love Dejounte Murray and look forward to seeing what he becomes, as this is practically his team now. To end what was an incredible Spurs era, I think Popovich rides off into the sunset after this year.
- The Thunder and their 14,560 draft picks will be a rough watch this year. But that’s how it’s supposed to go when you’re as deep in the rebuilding hole as OKC. And there’s no shame in building through the draft.
- The Thunder and Rockets will battle to stay out of the West’s basement. Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood will be a fun watch some nights, but this team is terrible inexperienced. You’d have to think vets like Eric Gordon and D.J. Augustin will be moved sooner rather than later. The long road ahead begins now for Houston.
Eastern Conference Playoff teams:
Bucks, Nets, Hawks, Pacers, Heat, Sixers, Bulls, Knicks, Celtics, Raptors
Western Conference Playoff teams:
Lakers, Jazz, Blazers, Suns, Warriors, Nuggets, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Clippers, Pelicans
Nets over Bucks
Lakers over Jazz
Lakers over Nets
I actually hate going with the chalk pick here featuring the Lakers and Nets. Bleh, it bothers me. Much like last season’s weird version, I’d personally prefer a wildly random NBA Finals like say, Knicks-Blazers.
But even with the Lakers and Nets struggling out of the gate, each of these teams possess something that most teams do not: the power of superstar recruitment. If times are any bit tough nearing the trade deadline, any of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, or James Harden will snap their fingers and have management acquire whoever they want. And because there will be mid-season moves made to improve each of these teams if needed, the final (playoff) versions will be much stronger than the ones we’re seeing right now. I’m expecting a star-studded NBA Finals, both on and off the court.