It’s hard to believe the start of a new NBA season is already here. It was only 12 months ago that the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 championship inside the bubble, and less than three months since the Milwaukee Bucks won four straight games against the Phoenix Suns to capture the 2021 championship. The start of another season brings fresh possibilities to the teams and players hoping this is the year they can find national relevance.
Rarely has the NBA felt this wide open. The league has been defined by dynasties since its inception, but four different teams have won the championship in the last four years. More teams that ever feel like they have a chance to win it all after watching the Miami Heat and Suns make Cinderella runs to the Finals the last two years. We could see a field with more legitimate contenders than any in recent memory.
To mark the start of a new season, SB Nation asked its network of contributors to answer a few questions to predict the season. Picks are being made by writers Sabreena Merchant of Clips Nation, Brady Klopfer of Golden State of Mind, Christian Rivas of Silver Screen and Roll, Marina Drab and Leo Tochterman of Sactown Royalty, Paul Hudrick of Liberty Ballers, and Sydney Umeri, Jacolby Hart, and Ricky O’Donnell of SBNation.com.
1. Who will be this year’s biggest surprise team?
Sabreena: The Wolves. With the ownership transition and a new head of basketball operations, it feels like this is the year that Minnesota finally figures it out or the front office blows up the team. And since a “surprise” for the Wolves would only require them to make the play-in, I’m betting on the former. Karl-Anthony Towns should be back to his All-Star level after a year from hell. The Wolves were a top-10 offense once Chris Finch came around, and forgive me, I am buying their defensive improvement during the preseason. There is too much talent on this team for Minnesota not to make a jump.
Ricky: The Chicago Bulls. The Bulls turned over almost their entire roster, going from one of the youngest teams in the league to one now stocked with proven veterans. Zach LaVine became an All-Star for the first time last season, and should continue to grow as one of the best scoring guards in the game. Lonzo Ball is a perfect fit next to LaVine in the backcourt and will help juice Chicago’s transition attack. Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan will be focal points for what should be a top-10 offense. Billy Donovan’s defenses are historically above average. While Chicago is largely being pegged as a play-in team, I think they can make a run at a top-five seed in the East.
Brady: The Toronto Raptors. Sure, it was an awful 2020-21 for Toronto, and yeah, the best player in franchise history is staying in Florida after the team’s temporary relocation. But Pascal Siakam should bounce back to All-Star form, and OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet are exceptional players. Nick Nurse is one of the league’s top coaches, Chris Boucher provides the opportunity to roll out some truly funky lineups, and Scottie Barnes looks ready to contribute from day one. They won’t be competing for a title, but they’ll be solidly in the playoffs, rather than on the outside looking in again.
Sydney: The Heat, but only if they can stay healthy. It’s strange to think that we were talking about the Heat being championship contenders just two seasons ago because their performance in 2021 left no trace of that. They dealt with so many injuries, and by the time they faced the Bucks in the playoffs, it looked like they were ready to roll over. Well, I refused to believe they’re washed. With Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and their newest veteran edition, Kyle Lowry, I feel like the Heat will surprise us with a playoff run this postseason.
Colb: The Chicago Bulls. It feels a little strange to call the Bulls a surprise after all of their offseason acquisitions, but this team has the perfect balance of veterans and young players with upside to go with their star Zach LaVine. After adding Lonzo Ball, Demar DeRozan and Alex Caruso this team should end up being one five best teams in the East and quite possibly the most fun team in the entire NBA.
Christian: The Golden State Warriors. I get that most people think they’re going to be good, but I think they have the talent to be “best team in the NBA good.” That’s not even taking into account Klay Thompson’s eventual return, or the possibility of them going all-in for an All-Star, or a breakout season from one of their young players; I simply like the pieces they have now. A lot.
Leo: The Wizards. Getting rid of Russell Westbrook for multiple Lakers role players hurts the game to game ceiling of the Wizards but sure as hell should make them a much more consistent team throughout the season. Spencer Dinwiddie is going to be a more steady presence from game to game than Russ was and should be a nice fit next to Bradley Beal They have 10 or 11 legit rotation guys this season and should comfortably go over their projected 33.5 Las Vegas win total. Also, it seems like Beal is content in Washington for now, so I think they hold onto him for the season which helps this prediction.
Marina: The Chicago Bulls. Their offseason overhaul should pay dividends, particularly their investments in Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball, both of whoam are criminally underrated on both ends of the floor. Zach Lavine will have to assimilate to the new-look Bulls, but having former All-Stars in Demar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic should give this team the potential to catapult to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Paul: Boston Celtics. It pains me to write that. But Boston has two of the best young wings in basketball in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Marcus Smart. As a longtime Philadelphia sports fan, I have zero doubt that Al Horford and Josh Richardson are going to be great for Boston because of course they will be. They could finish third or fourth in the East.
2. Name a player who will be a first time All-Star this season.
Ricky: LaMelo Ball. Ball was a rookie sensation last year, and should establish himself as a legitimate star this year. The All-Star Game is also always better with creative passers, and there’s no one better in that regard than Ball. This should be the first of many All-Star games for him.
Colb: Darius Garland. The starting point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers is the best player that nobody is talking about right now. He averaged 17 points and 6 assists for the Cavs while shooting 39.5% from 3 last season, and he’s just scratching the surface of the player he can become. He’s also my pick to win Most Improved Player, and everyone will know who he is after this season.
Leo: De’Aaron Fox. This may be a complete homer of a pick, but Fox put up legit All-Star numbers last season, and would have probably made it had the Kings been average. This year, I think the Kings are closer to average and Fox makes another leap and is finally given national recognition.
Marina: It’s De’Aaron Fox. The time is now for Fox to make his All-Star ascension, and coming off a career year, there really seem to be no signs of stopping.
Paul: Ja Morant or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Yes, I’m cheating. Both of them can’t make it in the loaded West, but one of them will. They’re two of the most exciting young guards in the game and it will be the first of many for either guy. I might just pick both guys every year until they break through.
Brady: I think LaMelo Ball is the obvious pick here (though his brother is a good sleeper choice ... no, not LiAngelo), but I’ll offer up something slightly more bold: CJ McCollum. The slithery McCollum spent many years not being as close to All-Star status as many national pundits would have you believe, but he took a genuine leap a year ago before injuries truncated his season. McCollum averaged a career-best 23.1 points per game, while shooting 40.2% from three-point range on 8.9 attempts per game, by far the highest volume of his career. The dirty secret about McCollum for years had been that, despite his aesthetically-pleasing game and big PPG numbers, he usually scored with below-average efficiency; that changed a year ago with a nice 57.7% true-shooting percentage
Christian: De’Aaron Fox. Fox is coming off of a season in which he averaged 25.2 points, 7.2 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. That’s really good, and had the Sacramento Kings been just a little bit better, he likely would have been an All-Star last year. Fortunately for Fox, the Kings may just be good enough this year for Fox to make his first All-Star experience.
Sabreena: OG Anunoby. Anunoby was quietly awesome even as the Raptors season went down in flames last year. He’s going to have a lot of opportunities to put up stats, especially with Pascal Siakam out to start the season, and Anunoby has managed to consistently improve his efficiency even as his usage has increased since his rookie year. There are spots to be had in the Eastern Conference, and if Toronto is hovering around .500 when the rosters are selected, Anunoby has a chance.
3. Who is your MVP pick?
Brady: Luka Dončić. The MVP coronation came a touch too early for the 22 year old last season, but now he’s ready. The West is wide open between injuries to Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, and Klay Thompson, and the Lakers being … that … so the Mavs have a chance to rise near the top of the standings. Their best chance to get there is by letting Dončić have the freedom afforded to James Harden in his Houston days; if Jason Kidd provides that, give Luka the trophy right now.
Sabreena: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Did we not just see what this man did on a hobbled knee during the Finals? The Bucks still have a stacked roster, the playoff pressure is gone, and incredibly, Giannis is still only 26, which means he should be getting better.
Sydney: Joel Embiid. Last season we watched him finish with ease around the rim, knock down mid-range jumpers without a problem, and draw several fouls, getting him to the line at a rate that made him fifth in the league for free throw attempts. The big man has game, and if he can stay healthy and on the floor for the regular season, I think the MVP title is his to lose.
Ricky: James Harden. Kevin Durant is generally considered the best player in the world, but it’s important to remember he only played 35 games last year. If Kyrie Irving is going to be sidelined the entire season because he won’t get the vaccine, the burden of creating offense for the Nets will largely fall on Harden. Harden has won this award before, and finished in the top three of balloting four other times. I think he has one more MVP run in him.
Christian: Joel Embiid. Nikola Jokic probably would have still won MVP last season even if Embiid didn’t get hurt, but he looked like the runaway favorite for the first half of the 2020-21 season, and if he’s as pissed about the whole Ben Simmons situation as I think he is, he’ll be among the favorites again this season.
Paul: Joel Embiid. It’s a homer pick, but Embiid just seems different this year. Before last season he seemed to mature following the birth of his son, Arthur. Throughout training camp and the preseason it appears he’s grown even more. He also looks leaner than he has in years. We all waited for The Process to become a perennial MVP candidate. I think we’re here.
Colb: James Harden. If Kyrie Irving is going to be sidelined for the entire year, or even a large portion of it, that just means more opportunities for James Harden to put up crazy stats for one of the two best team’s in the Eastern Conference. Harden has won an MVP already but, if Kyrie is out, I believe it will be impossible to deny the impact he has on the Brooklyn Nets this season.
Marina: Kevin Durant.
4. Who is your Rookie of the Year pick?
Marina: Scottie Barnes has the potential to bring the Toronto Raptors up a notch this season. Whether they go full tank or compete for a play-in spot is to be determined, but there’s no reason why Barnes can’t pull off a Rookie of the Year campaign outside of the usual suspects in Jalen Green and Cade Cunningham. He’ll be a contributor right away for this squad.
Sydney: Jalen Green is my pick for Rookie of the Year. The No. 2 overall draft pick has such a high upside and is on a team that could use his scoring ability. He gave us a glimpse of what they could look like during summer league, and while summer league is not the same thing as the regular season, I feel like he’ll hit his stride well before midseason and show us why all the hype around him from middle school until now is warranted.
Ricky: Jalen Green. Post-season awards often go to the player who scores the most, and no one is a better scorer in this rookie class than the No. 2 overall pick. The Rockets are going to be bad and will likely be in for another high lottery pick a year from now, but Green looks like a foundational piece as a three-level bucket-getter with elite burst.
Brady: Well someone has to be a contrarian, so I’ll say ... nah, who am I kidding, it’s Jalen Green. Picking a Rookie of the Year requires toeing the line between who will play the best basketball, and who will have the most opportunity. Green fits that compromise perfectly. He looked close to NBA ready at Summer League, and his height (6’6”) will help cover some weaknesses. He has an NBA body already, and is joining one of the worst teams in the league — with John Wall not playing. The Rockets will be awful, but Green will get ample playing time and make the most of it.
Colb: I’m noticing a pattern here but it’s Jalen Green. Green has the potential to be one of the best scorers in the entire NBA at some point in his career, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to put up gaudy scoring numbers on a horrible team.
Leo: Jalen Green. He’s going to be getting a ton of shots and points on a Rockets team that is at the bottom of the West. The award typically goes to the guy who finishes with a combination of the most points per game as well as the most highlight moments, and Green is sure to have both.
Paul: A healthy Cade Cunningham would’ve been the pick, but with the uncertainty surrounding his ankle injury, I’ll go Jalen Green. Green should have the ball in his hands a ton and score a lot of points for the Rockets. If defense matters —it typically doesn’t — a sneaky pick might Davion Mitchell.
Christian: Austin Reaves. Just kidding — it’s Jalen Green’s to lose ... to Austin Reaves.
5. Will the Lakers trade for Russell Westbrook look genius or foolish at the end of the season?
Colb: “Genius” is a bit strong but the move is going to work out well. Trading for Russell Westbrook, instead of Buddy Hield, was definitely a high-risk/high-reward move by the Lakers. Westbrook gives the Lakers someone on the roster without the last name “James” that can create opportunities for others and that’s what they needed desperately last season. Westbrook is a very polarizing player, for every positive there’s a negative to go along with it, but LeBron and Anthony Davis will more than likely cover up for anything negative Westbrook brings with him.
Brady: Foolish. The Westbrook experiment may play well in the regular season, but it’s been a long time since one of his teams experienced postseason success, and that’s not a coincidence. When the playoff game-planning comes, teams follow the blueprint that the Warriors set when facing Tony Allen in 2015: just don’t guard the player who doesn’t shoot well, and ask him to chuck up poor shots. Westbrook’s fatal flaw is a willingness to oblige in that scenario, and the Lakers — especially if Anthony Davis repeats his awful three-point shooting performance from last year — will find themselves wishing LeBron were surrounded by less-decorated players who could make open threes.
Leo: During the regular season it will look like a solid trade, as Russ will be a solid innings eater and bring a constant effort game in and game out. By the time the playoffs roll around and teams are sagging 10 feet off of Russ, it won’t look as smart.
Marina: As the last few seasons have shown, Russ isn’t poised to make a seamless start on a new team. With that aside, I think come playoffs Westbrook alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis will be a force to be reckoned with. Health is imperative for this team, so as long as their ‘Big 3’ can stay on the court, the trade should check the genius box come the end of season.
Paul: I’m conflicted. My first thought is I don’t think it will work, but is it foolish? It was likely worth taking a shot instead of running it back with the same team that was bounced in the first round last season. Westbrook will be rejuvenated playing in L.A. with LeBron, but energy has never been an issue with Russ. Will he shoot well enough to give James and AD the space they need? We’ll see.
Ricky: I’m going to say somewhere in the middle. The Lakers look like the best team in the West coming into the season, and their ability to get there mostly rests on the health of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers are championship-or-bust every year with LeBron, and while I think they can get to the Finals, they wouldn’t be my pick to win it all. Westbrook should be excellent in the regular season — we’ll predict a second half surge for him — but his shot-happy approach to offense may get old deep in the playoffs.
Sydney: It’s tough to tell. I think there will be many times throughout the season when the Lakers and their fans will wonder what they got themselves into bringing Westbrook on board. He will inevitably take away some of LeBron’s moments to shine, but I also think Westbrook will do what he does best, and that is be productive. The man leads the NBA’s all-time triple-double list, and I’m certain he has many more games like that left in his tank. In the end, the positives he brings to the franchise will outweigh the negatives, and I think the Lakers will be glad they traded for him.
Christian: “Genius” in the sense that he’ll be more valuable than the pieces they gave up? Sure! “Genius” in the sense that he’ll suddenly be a more valuable than he’s been in recent years and help the Lakers get back to the Finals? Probably not, but anyone that “no” with confidence hasn’t asked themselves the quintessential question when it comes to Westbrook: “why not?”
6. Will Ben Simmons end the season in Philadelphia?
Paul: No. I will say I’m leaning more towards the idea that Simmons will play for the Sixers again since he’s reported to the team. But I have to imagine that Rich Paul will still be pushing for a trade behind the scenes. There has to be one star player on another team that gets pissed off between now and the trade deadline, right? Daryl Morey is banking on it and will be ready to pounce.
Christian: No. The moment that one of his rumored suitors sees their ship sinking, they’re going to call Daryl Morey and give him close to the type of package he was asking for. That, or the situation is goin to so toxic that they’re forced to end their professional relationship on less-than-ideal terms for both parties. Either way, there’s no chance he finishes the season in Philadelphia.
Sabreena: Yes. I predicted that Simmons would end last season in Houston, however, so take that with a grain of salt. The 76ers are too stubborn to relent on a trade package, and they’re likely emboldened to keep him now that they won the war of attrition on Simmons’ holdout. Once Philadelphia starts winning some games — and they should, given how well-built this roster is for the regular season — it will be easier to forget the awkwardness of this summer.
Ricky: Yes. Trying to predict Simmons’ future is a fool’s errand, but it sure seems like the 76ers are no closer to trading him today than they were at the end of last season. Given the total lack of smoke around Simmons trade rumors to this point, I’ll take the likely unpopular position and say he’ll still be in Philly at the end of this season before a trade in the summer.
Sydney: Yes, simply because the price that the Sixers want to sell Ben for is far more than many franchises are willing to pay. We’ve spent a whole offseason anticipating where he might end up, and yet he’s still on their roster. Whatever agreement Simmons, Klutch Sports, and the 76ers came to will probably be good enough to put the Simmons saga on hold for a while, or at least a season, before we hear rumblings of a Ben Simmons trade again.
Marina: Absolutely not.
Leo: No. I think Simmons does the James Harden move from last season where he plays the beginning of the season but he pouts and is enough of a culture problem for the Sixers that they have to trade him in December or so.
Colb: Yes. Unless a team gets desperate and meets the 76ers asking price in a trade, he’ll be in Philadelphia until next season at least.
Brady: Yes. Simmons reporting to Philly — and early at that — tells us a few things: a trade isn’t imminent; he doesn’t want to lose game checks; and he knows that being off the court is hurting his value. He’ll have no choice but to play if he wants to keep his value up, but the Sixers are unlikely to get a trade haul that tempts them. Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers will bet on a successful season being enough to keep Simmons around, and the two sides will revisit things next offseason.
7. Are the Nets still the favorite to win the championship if they don’t have Kyrie Irving?
Sydney: Yes. Kyrie is good, and the idea of the big three was exciting, but people don’t give the rest of the Brooklyn Nets roster credit. They are a deep. As a whole, the team knows what it’s like to only have two of their big three in key games, and honestly, it’s worked out fine. The biggest concern is what that could look like late in the season if injuries come into play, but we’re hoping for the best. With Harden and Durant, the Nets championship dreams are still alive. Kyrie will be missed, but his absence isn’t enough to derail the Nets from being the favorite this year.
Colb: No. The Brooklyn Nets could absolutely still win a championship without Kyrie Irving. Kevin Durant and James Harden are two of the seven best players in the NBA. However, if Kyrie does not play this season I believe the Lakers become the favorites to win it all and the Milwaukee Bucks chances to make consecutive NBA Finals increase dramatically.
Ricky: Yes. The Nets would be an overwhelming favorite with Irving, and their margin for error sure gets smaller without him. Injuries are the Nets’ biggest concern. If one of James Harden or Kevin Durant is limited in the playoffs, the Nets will likely be in major trouble against an improved crop of Eastern Conference contenders. With Harden and Durant both at full power, though, the Nets have the most offensive talent in the league and enough defense to win games. The road to a championship is a lot more treacherous without Kyrie, but Brooklyn still has the 1-2 punch to get it done.
Brady: No, but it’s funny to think about how much different the narrative would be if Kevin Durant and James Harden — arguably two top-five players — linked up organically, instead of already existing with Kyrie Irving, only for Brooklyn to lose one part of the triumvirate. The headlines surrounding Brooklyn are justifiably pessimistic, but they still have Kevin Freaking Durant and James Freaking Harden (and yes, those are their legal names). But being top-heavy with a lack of depth usually comes back to bite teams in the playoffs, and while I’d love to believe in Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge … I don’t. Brooklyn’s margin for error is too slim when you consider how injury-prone they are, and how bad their defense is likely to be.
Christian: Going with the assumption that they would be the favorites with Kyrie Irving (which I don’t necessarily agree with), then yes, I think they’d still be the favorites. Irving’s a great player, but I don’t think he’ll be the difference in the Nets winning the championship and not — I couldn’t say the same about Kevin Durant or James Harden if they got injured.
Sabreena: Yes, but I like Milwaukee’s chances a lot better when there is one less perimeter superstar for Jrue Holiday to have to guard.
Paul: Yes. In KD and Harden the Nets still feature two of the greatest offensive players to ever walk the earth. Sean Marks picking up Patty Mills looks prescient. Mills is not Kyrie, but he’s a very good guard that can and will adapt his game to star players. The questions will come on the defensive end, but they could actually just outscore everybody.
Marina: It’s hard to bet against KD when he’s at the top of his game, but I can see the Milwaukee Bucks sneaking in for a back-to-back run in the NBA Finals. Despite being one shoe-length away from the ECF, Brooklyn struggled with Irving being out of the lineup in their series vs. Milwaukee. I’ll give the Bucks the edge in this one, but Brooklyn is still head and shoulders above the rest of the East, even without Irving.
Leo: It becomes a tougher question without Kyrie, but I still think a healthy Nets team should be considered the favorite. Last year they probably would have gotten by the Bucks if they had at least two of their three superstars healthy. Harden and Durant are two of the five best offensive players in the league still and the Nets have enough depth and shooting to get through the East without Irving in my opinion.
8. Which of these Eastern Conference teams finishes with the best record: Hawks, 76ers, Heat, Knicks, Bulls, Celtics?
Marina: Atlanta. Trae Young is continuing to ascend, and while prior to the Ben Simmons saga I’d lean toward Philly, there’s real potential for the Hawks to develop on last year’s Cinderella run.
Brady: The Heat. Yes, 2020-21 was a disappointing year for Miami, but the Heat still have a core that took them to the NBA Finals last October, and now they’ve added Kyle Lowry to it. A defense with Lowry, Jimmy Butler, and Bam Adebayo is one no one wants to face; an offense with those three surrounded by sharpshooters Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro should be able to put up crooked numbers. Victor Oladipo could be one of the season’s biggest X-factors, and Erik Spoelstra remains arguably the best coach in the league.
Ricky: Hawks. Atlanta was one of the best teams in the league last season after Nate McMillan took over as head coach on March 1. I don’t think their playoff run was a fluke. Trae Young is nearing superstar status, and veteran teammates like Clint Capela, Bogdan Bogdanović, and Danillo Gallinari make his life a lot easier. I’m excited to see what three young players — DeAndre Hunter, Cam Reddish, and Onyeka Okongwu — can do to get the Hawks to the next level.
Christian: The team with Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler — always pick the team with Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler.
Sydney: As a long-time Hawks fan, my heart is telling me they’ll end up with the better record, but so are the stats. The Hawks are fully reloaded, with much of the team back and a few new and talented editions. Also, for the first time in a while, they have experience on their side. With Trae Young heading into year four, John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanović heading into year five, and Clint Capela and Danillo Gallinari as veterans, I fully believe they’ll have the best record when it’s all said and done.
Colb: The Celtics. I hate to rain on the Atlanta love fest but Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are the best young wing duo in basketball and both them will be healthy this season. The Celtics brought back Al Horford, signed former 6th Man of the Year Dennis Schroder and gave Robert Williams a new deal. The Celtics will finish as a top four seed in the East this season.
Leo: The Hawks might have the most depth of any team in the league, and for that reason they are my pick. I’m heavily buying their late season run and have just loved about every transaction they have made over the last calendar year and I think Nate McMillan is a pretty established in terms of getting his teams to win regular season games.
Paul: Sixers. Another homer pick?! It actually ties in with me picking Embiid for MVP. As long as their franchise center is healthy, the Sixers have a chance. The Sixers got more shooting to surround him with and his progression in beating double teams continues. They’ll be better with Simmons or a suitable replacement, but they’ll always be pretty damn good with Embiid.
9. Which of these Western Conference teams finishes with the best record: Warriors, Mavericks, Trail Blazers, Nuggets?
Sabreena: The Warriors. They’re just too hard to guard during the regular season, especially now that they’re jacking up 55 threes per game. Steve Kerr said they’re going for wins this year, and if the excise the youngins from the rotation early, this team has a chance to be pretty formidable. Golden State can’t afford any down years anymore; I imagine they play with more urgency than the rest of this field.
Brady: The Nuggets. You could go any direction with this answer, but I’m sticking with the team that has been the best over the last two seasons. Yes, the Nuggets are without Jamal Murray, and yes, that hurts. But Michael Porter Jr. should only be better this year, and Aaron Gordon is now fully integrated into the system. They’re as deep as they are interesting, and there’s a lot of chemistry on the roster. It’s hard to see them winning a title without Murray, but they can still have a sensational regular season.
Ricky: Mavericks. Luka Doncic is already one of the best players in the world, and keeps getting better every year. I like the offseason additions of bringing in more wing defenders who can space the floor in Reggie Bullock and Sterling Brown. Kristaps Porzingis has a bounce back year in him, I think. Dallas’ division also might not have another above .500 team. If Dallas gets a top-3 seed, Doncic is probably the MVP.
Sydney: The Nuggets. They were pretty effective last season, and with another year under their belts playing together, I think Nikola Jokić, Aaron Gordon, and Michael Porter Jr. will thrive. Also, they’ll get Jamal Murray back once he’s healthy, so I can see them having the best record of the teams mentioned.
Colb: The Nuggets. Getting Jamal Murray back and adding him to the reigning MVP Nikola Jokic makes them one of the three best teams in the conference. The Warriors will be better but we don’t know when Klay will comeback or the kind of player he’ll be when he does. The Trailblazers are the worst team of the four. Luka Doncic is a top ten player in the league but the Mavericks have questions. It’s the Nuggets.
Paul: Warriors. The emotional boost from eventually getting Klay Thompson back will be big, even if he’s not the player we’ve come to know. I know they missed out on the playoffs last season, but I have a hard time betting against Steph and Draymond. I’m also a big Jordan Poole fan. I think he takes another step forward this season.
Christian: The Warriors. I’m telling you: they’re going to be so good!
Marina: The Denver Nuggets. Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic has shown that he can successfully facilitate without the likes of Jamal Murray despite their playoff flameout. More time with Aaron Gordon and the growth of Michael Porter Jr. should land this team in the upper echelon of the West.
Leo: The Warriors are the best of these teams in my opinion. They have a ton of solid depth on the wing now and have Jordan Poole who has looked like a MIP candidate this preseason. Plus getting Klay Thompson back healthy sometime in the middle of the season should provide a major in season boost to the team. Oh, and they also have Steph Curry, the best shooter of all time and one of the best players in NBA history, who is still in his prime.
10. Which projected non-playoff team needs the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft the most?
Leo: The Spurs are a roster full of mid-level guys that would be perfect to surround a superstar with. Unfortunately for them, it’s hard to see that superstar or even star present on their roster. It’s hard to imagine a Greg Popovich team tanking a season, but for their long term health as a franchise, getting the No. 1 pick in the draft would go a long way.
Marina: If the Oklahoma City Thunder don’t get the No. 1 overall pick come next summer, they’ll stay in basketball purgatory for the next hundred years. Their efforts to tank have been so blaring the last two seasons; it’s honestly impressive that they haven’t done it yet. OKC is wasting Shai Gilegous-Alexander’s potential, and an opportunity to draft No. 1 overall might give him the exit to join a competitive team that he deserves.
Ricky: I refuse to say the Thunder for this question because they have no interest in trying to win. Instead, I’ll go with the Kings, a team that is seriously hoping it’s not in the lottery again. Sacramento hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006, and somehow they’ve never landed the No. 1 pick. If they don’t make it this year, I’d love to see them finally get a crack at the top choice in the draft.
Sydney: I agree with Ricky. The Kings need the first overall pick in 2022. It’s been a long time coming for them, and getting the No. 1 pick is what they need to turn their franchise around.
Sabreena: The Magic. There are so many players I like on Orlando who will probably never be All-Stars. But Paolo Banchero with the rest of that crew is pretty, pretty intriguing.
Colb: The Cleveland Cavaliers. I know what you’re thinking, “The Cavs got the first pick like a billion times in a row!” and you’re not wrong! With that said, the Cavs need the first overall pick to finally make it out of the lottery for good. They’ve got fun young players in Darius Garland, Collin Sexton and Isaac Okoro that we need to see playing for something meaningful.
Brady: In an ideal world I’d say the Kings, but they’re going to mess it up regardless, which leaves us right back where we started. So instead I’ll say the Cavs. Yes, Cleveland has drafted Darius Garland and Evan Mobley in recent years, and that provides reason for optimism. But does anyone really think that’s a championship core? The Cavs have gotten very lucky in the draft over the last two decades, landing LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. They also watched both leave in heartbreaking fashion, and now they’re left with Kevin Love acting like the spoiled kid who is upset they didn’t get more birthday presents, Collin Sexton seeming to have his days in The Land limited, and … Ricky Rubio? Give them a No. 1 pick and things can get interesting. Otherwise they’re bound for the usual: a heaping plate of mediocrity, with a side dish of heartbreak.
Paul: Orlando Magic. I love Jalen Suggs. I’ll love it even more if the Magic stink and they can get him a running mate with the No. 1 overall pick next year.
Christian: The New Orleans Pelicans. They’re one really good piece away from pushing Zion Williamson’s inevitable departure from the organization back a few years. As constructed, they’re going to stink.
11. Give us your Finals prediction: teams, winner, and number of games.
Ricky: Nets over Lakers in five. Yes, it’s boring, but it also feels like the most likely outcome. My backup pick is the Hawks over the Nuggets if you want something more fun.
Sydney: Nets over Lakers in six.
Colb: The Los Angeles Lakers defeat the Brooklyn Nets in a hard fought, but wildly entertaining, seven game series.
Brady: Heat over Suns, seven games. Yes, this is slightly outlandish pick. But I already bet on the Lakers failing, I don’t expect Kawhi Leonard or Jamal Murray to return this season, I don’t trust the Jazz or Jason Kidd, and I need to see it to believe it with Klay Thompson and the Warriors. That leaves the Suns in the West. The Nets feel like a ticking time bomb in the East, and I can’t predict an NBA Finals rematch with the Bucks. So we’re left with something unconventional.
Christian: The Lakers over the Bucks in six games.
Marina: My prediction: the NBA Finals will be a six-game series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks, with the Bucks going back-to-back and winning it all.
Leo: Nets in six over the Lakers. Super boring and chalky, but it really seems like both of these teams are on a collision course to play in The Finals this season.
Paul: Nets over Suns in six. Brooklyn’s firepower is too much for any team in the East. I think people are kind of discrediting what Phoenix did last season, but I love its roster, coach and team makeup. With that said, the Suns won’t be able to hang with the Nets.