The last few years of NBA basketball has taught us never to assume we know anything going into the season. The Toronto Raptors weren’t supposed to win the 2019 title. The bubble was totally unpredictable in 2020 before the Los Angeles Lakers rose to the top. The Bucks were a contender but not exactly a front-runner entering last year’s playoffs.
This season is already off to an unpredictable start through the first quarter of the new campaign. The reigning champion Bucks have been hampered by injuries, the Lakers look slow and old, and the Brooklyn Nets don’t look like the juggernaut they were expected to be without Kyrie Irving. Meanwhile, the Warriors and Suns are playing at an incredibly high level out West, while the Wizards and Bulls are surprising success stories in the East.
With the 2021-2022 season now officially 25 percent done, we decided to take stock in the championship race. We can’t wait to see how things change from here.
30. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are suddenly on a three-game winning streak. Unfortunately, they lost 15 games in a row just before that. Head coach Stephen Silas is reportedly already on the hot seat. Rookies Jalen Green, Alpren Sengun, and Usman Garuba have shown some promising flashes, but any team this young is going to struggle to win games. The most compelling storyline the rest of the way for Houston is what they do with their veterans. Will the team finally allow John Wall to start playing? Will there be a trade market for Eric Gordon, Danuel House, and others? At least Rockets fans can enjoy themselves by watching top draft prospects Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren, and Jabari Smith the rest of the way.
This season really feels like it ended before it started for the Pelicans. Zion Williamson hasn’t played a game as he recovers from foot surgery, and Brandon Ingram also missed a couple weeks due to injury. New Orleans’ young guards haven’t blossomed like they hoped, but a couple rookie forwards (Trey Murphy III and Herb Jones) have shown signs of real value. This team needs lottery luck in the worst way as speculation about Williamson’s future will continue to swirl.
28. Detroit Pistons
There’s something brewing in Detroit even if it’s still in its earliest stages. Cade Cunningham is going to be really good despite a slow start. Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart should be long-term rotation pieces with the upside to be solid starters. Jerami Grant has been cold shooting the ball to start the year, but he’s still a valuable piece. It’s just going to take time in Detroit. The only real cause for concern right now is Killian Hayes’ continued struggles. Imagine how good Tyrese Maxey would have looked next to Cade if they had chosen him with the No. 7 last year instead.
27. Orlando Magic
We’ll start with the positives: Cole Anthony is having a breakout sophomore season, rookie forward Franz Wagner looks awesome, Wendell Carter Jr. is making serious strides as a shooter and passer, and Mo Bamba finally looks like a real player. On the flip side, No. 4 overall pick Jalen Suggs has been slow to adjust to the NBA game, and Orlando still ranks near the bottom of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. It’s too bad they can’t play the Knicks every night, or this might be a playoff team.
Dejounte Murray is having a true breakout season with averages of 19 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, and two steals per game. Devin Vassell starting to take a leap in Year 2 as a solid two-way wing who can hit 40 percent of his threes and get into the passing lanes. That’s a promising start, but San Antonio still has so much work to do. The Spurs rank dead last in both three-point rate and free throw rate to start the season. It already feels like the draft lottery will be the most important day for San Antonio the rest of the year.
The popular sentiment entering the year was that the Thunder might win six games all season. It turns out they won six games just in the first month. Oklahoma City has a star guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a promising rookie in Josh Giddey, an ace role player in Lu Dort, and an impressive young coach in Mark Daigneault. Here’s hoping the Thunder don’t outright tank at some point this year. We want to see how good SGA and crew can be over a full season.
Playing for the play-in
24. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers have been cursed by the injury bug to start the year. Caris LeVert and Malcolm Brogdon have each missed time, and T.J. Warren still hasn’t debuted as he recovers from a stress fracture in his foot. Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner have both been good in their own ways again, but it feels like the Pacers are no closer to figuring out if their front court pairing can be successful long-term. This season feels like it’s going to be a slog for the Pacers, but at least rookie wing Chris Duarte looks good!
To sum up the Wolves’ season in one play:
Karl Towns knows Anthony Edwards ain’t passing it pic.twitter.com/5yeYLCrq6a— hoops bot (@hoops_bot) November 14, 2021
Can someone please explain why Karl-Anthony Towns is third on this team in field goal attempts? There are some fun pieces in Minnesota, but it’s not amounting to much once again.
22. Sacramento Kings
The Kings haven’t made the playoffs since 2006, and this likely isn’t the year the streak stops. There are some positive things going on here: Richaun Holmes is a super fun offensive big man, Davion Mitchell is a total maniac as a point-of-attack defender, and Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield are shooting the hell out of the ball. Unfortunately, De’Aaron Fox can’t hit a jumper right now, and it doesn’t feel like the rest of the roster complements his strengths. Luke Walton has already gotten the axe for this team’s slow start, but the problems are much bigger than just the head coach.
21. Toronto Raptors
The Raps are officially spunky. Toronto plays a breakneck defensive style often without a true center on the floor. Rookie forward Scottie Barnes has been a revelation, bringing non-stop defensive energy, some serious passing flashes, and a little more scoring than expected from day one. OG Anunoby is leveling up into a possible All-Star on the wing. Championship era holdovers Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet are still really good. I could write a poem about Dalano Banton, but I’ll spare you. This team is cool and fun even without much in the way of real expectations. Ain’t that right, Fred?
Evan Mobley doesn’t just look like the Rookie of the Year — he looks like a future superstar in the making. The Cavaliers should be thanking their good graces that he fell to No. 3 in the draft. Point guard Darius Garland is looking like a future All-Star in his third season. Signing center Jarrett Allen to a big contract extension is looking like a wise move. The vibes here have been overwhelmingly positive, but Collin Sexton’s season-ending knee injury is a certified bummer. Just give us all of the Ricky Rubio minutes, please.
No. 6 seed or bust
19. Boston Celtics
This Celtics season has felt just a little off from the jump. Jayson Tatum’s shooting percentages and overall impact has plummeted. Jaylen Brown has emerged as a tremendous scorer, but needs to improve as a playmaker. The guards don’t get to the rim enough, and no one passes enough. There’s too much talent here for this team to miss the playoffs, but an improved East means they may have to go through the play-in tournament to get there. Boston is currently flirting with being a top-five defensive team, and proving to be dominant on that end is their best chance to reach their ceiling this season.
18. New York Knicks
The Knicks followed their 5-1 start by going 3-6, and they feel like they’ve been threading water ever since. Julius Randle has been struggling as of late, and Kemba Walker just went from starter to completely out of the rotation. A defense that ranked No. 3 in the league last year is now ranked No. 17. The recent changes to New York’s rotation is hugely overdue, because the bench had been wildly effective while the starters stunk:
This one is wild. The disparity between the Knicks' starters and bench is nearly as extreme as it can be.— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) November 13, 2021
The starters are minus-16.7 per 100 possessions, according to @cleantheglass, worst of any qualifying lineup in the NBA.
The bench is +27.6 per 100, 2nd-best in the league.
The challenge for the Knicks has been boosting their offense while maintaining their great defense. It’s still a work in progress.
The Grizzlies are a certified ‘young team on the rise,’ but the league’s worst defense threatens to derail their progress. Yes, Ja Morant is playing at an All-NBA level. Jaren Jackson Jr. has been healthy but he hasn’t taken the full star leap a lot of people (like me) expected from him just yet. We love the Desmond Bane and De’Anthony Melton duo on the wing, but this team missed Dillion Brooks to begin the year. It sure would be nice to have Jonas Valanciunas, too. Morant is so good that he could carry them to the playoffs this year, but we wish he had a little more starpower around him.
The Hornets have been awesome to start the season, and this certainly feels a little too low to rank them. LaMelo Ball has superstar written all over him as he begins his second year. Miles Bridges has taken another leap and could be nearing max contract territory. Gordon Hayward still brings a lot to the table. The defense usually stinks, and could really use an upgrade at center. It’s still been all positive vibes this year in Charlotte, but this team hasn’t fully arrived just yet.
The Blazers remain very good on offense, and very bad on defense, which is exactly where they were at before they fired Terry Stotts for Chauncey Billups. Damian Lillard has gotten off to a brutal start. So has Jusuf Nurkić. Portland hasn’t gotten much from its offseason additions yet, either. In general, this is one of the more frustrating teams in the league. Maybe the struggles here are a product of the roster, Neil?
A real chance of making noise
If the playoffs started today, the Wizards would be a top-3 seed in the East. Just like everyone predicted, right? This team has been rejuvenated by the depth it got back in the Russell Westbrook trade. Montrezl Harrell has been spectacular to start the year, and Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have brought length, shooting, and defense to the wing. Deni Avdija is starting to show why he was a lottery pick, too. It’s wild the Wiz are doing this despite a slow start from Bradley Beal. Wes Unseld should be the front runner for Coach of the Year right now.
So why are they No. 14? While the Wiz are undeniably a high floor team, it’s hard to see them having a more of a championship ceiling than the teams ahead of them. Just one man’s opinion.
There wasn’t much expected of the Sixers until the Ben Simmons situation was mercifully resolved, but Philly has been pretty dang good without him. Joel Embiid was off to another killer start before catching Covid. Tobias Harris has been really good. Tyrese Maxey is leveling up as a scorer and has given the offense extra juice with his rim pressure. Georges Niang looks like a home run as a bargain free agent. Seth Curry basically never misses. The latest on the Simmons’ front is that this could go on for years, which sounds horrifying. We’re still skeptical of the Sixers’ playoff ceiling without Simmons, but this has proven to be a formidable regular season team as long as everyone else is available.
12. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks started 4-9 thanks to a difficult, road-heavy schedule before running off a seven-game winning streak. There’s still a ton of firepower on a top-three offensive unit led by Trae Young. John Collins has been super efficient to start the season with a 64.6 true shooting percentage. The Hawks don’t turn the ball over and they shoot it well from deep, though they should up their volume from three-point range. The defense has struggled to start the season, and needs Clint Capela to return to the form he showed last season. Danilo Gallinari will get cooking eventually. The Hawks still feel a little dangerous.
11. Denver Nuggets
A fully healthy Nuggets team would have a case to top this list — seriously. Unfortunately, the Nuggets are not fully healthy. Jamal Murray is likely to be out all year as he recovers from a torn ACL. Michael Porter Jr.’s back injury is reportedly worse than originally feared, and he could miss the rest of the season, as well. PJ Dozier tore his ACL, too. Nikola Jokic is again playing at an MVP level and remains as a short list contender for the title of best player in the world, but he just doesn’t seem to have enough help right now. He’s even turned into a truly impactful defender:
Jokic is working on defense. pic.twitter.com/xWwZAiAAJ7— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) November 16, 2021
Let’s hope we get to see what the full version of this team looks like next year. Until then, Denver is essentially in a holding pattern.
10. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks have a negative point differential despite a 10-8 start. Dallas is currently below league average in both offense and defense. Luka Doncic’s efficiency has dropped off a cliff (52.8 percent true shooting), and Kristaps Porzingis has been in and out of the lineup. If Doncic can get back in the MVP discussion, he could take Dallas up the standings with him. For now, we’ll say it feels like the Mavs’ year could go either way.
The Clippers entered this season knowing Kawhi Leonard was likely out for the year as he recovered from a torn ACL, but Los Angeles has still looked like a contender in its best moments anyway. Paul George is back to playing like the superstar who finished third in MVP voting with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Reggie Jackson has emerged into George’s co-star and is showing that his playoff success last year was no fluke. Nicolas Batum is invaluable versatile defensive weapon who can stretch the floor. The Clippers currently rank No. 2 overall defensively, and they have enough shooting to finish around league-average offensively.
If Leonard makes a surprise return in time for the playoffs and can be even 80 percent of himself, the Clippers look like a real championship threat. If Leonard can’t come back, this is still a team that can possibly still win a series but probably doesn’t have enough firepower to go further than that.
Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley took over as the Bulls’ new front office and turned over almost the entire roster heading into this season. They look like geniuses right now. After compiling the worst record in the NBA over the last four years, the Bulls are now sitting on top of the Eastern Conference. It’s no fluke: DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine are one of the league’s best scoring duos, Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball have provided elite defense, and the bench has found success with small ball lineups that put Derrick Jones Jr. at center.
The Bulls have a sustainable formula for winning games. They could finish top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, they get to the free throw line, they rarely turn the ball over, and they’re consistently great in fourth quarters. If Chicago gets a little luck with favorable playoff matchups, it isn’t hard to see them as this year’s version of the Phoenix Suns or Miami Heat: surprise teams who broke into the NBA Finals.
Championship contenders with something to prove
The Lakers blew up the core of their 2020 championship team over the offseason to go all-in on the Russell Westbrook experience and fill out the rest of the roster with bargain signings. The early returns are troubling. The veteran roster LA built has been consistently hampered by injuries — including LeBron James already missing 10+ games. The defense has been below average all year, and is missing the length and quickness of Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the wing. Anthony Davis is playing more center, but the Lakers are having trouble putting two-way lineups around him. The Lakers have mostly beat up on bad teams for their wins, and have struggled against above .500 teams.
For as bad as the Lakers have looked so far, they still have LeBron and AD. Westbrook has been a slow starter over the last few years, and he’s already starting to turn it on. Now the Lakers need to figure out which players pair with their three stars the best. It’s been ugly so far, but if James and Davis are healthy, the Lakers will still have a puncher’s chance in the West.
6. Utah Jazz
The Jazz torched the league in the regular season last year, and they’re doing it again this season. Utah is top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Jazz rip threes, get to the foul line, and take care of the ball on offense, and have Rudy Gobert tying everything together on the back line defensively. At this point, the regular season is kind of boring for the Jazz. All that matters is playoff success and the chance to finally advance past the second round.
Utah’s perimeter defense betrayed them in last year’s playoffs. Maybe Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell will be more healthy this time around. Maybe Rudy Gay will be an effective small ball center option behind Gobert. Maybe the other West contenders will be too dinged up to make the Jazz pay for their weaknesses. The Jazz are obviously really good, but we’ll take a stance of believing it when we see it in terms of their championship chances.
5. Miami Heat
The Heat check a lot of boxes for a championship contender. They’re hovering around top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They led by veterans like Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry who have been to the NBA Finals before. They have a young star in Bam Adebayo who brings immense versatility for a big man at both ends and continues to get better. They have a pair of knockdown shooters in Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. The Heat get to the foul line, kill it on the glass, share the ball, and thrive when the game is slowed down. We’ve already seen Butler and Adebayo take the Heat two wins away from a championship when they got the right mix of matchups and luck, and it could certainly happen again if things break the right way.
The Heat’s biggest problem right now is a lack of depth. Barring a mid-season move for reinforcements, Miami will need its top players to be healthy and playing to the best of their ability come playoff time. If Lowry can still perform at an All-Star level and PJ Tucker knocks in some corner threes, the Heat feel like the team no one will want to see in the East.
The Larry OB favorites
The Bucks haven’t looked like themselves yet coming off a short offseason after winning the 2021 championship. That’s fine. We know what this team is at its best, and we don’t need to see their best until playoff time. Giannis Antetokounmpo remains the league’s greatest two-way force. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday just proved themselves on the biggest stage possible. Grayson Allen is suddenly looking like one of the summer’s most underrated acquisitions. Brook Lopez has been out since opening night, but remains incredibly valuable as a role player if he can get fully healthy.
The Bucks’ regular season record doesn’t really matter — what does is their road through the playoffs. It’s looking increasingly possible that the Bucks and Nets won’t end up with the top two seeds in the East, which means they could have to meet before the conference finals again. The rest of the conference is hoping for it.
The Nets entered the season as the heavy favorites to win the NBA championship. Then Kyrie Irving benched himself by refusing to get the Covid vaccine, James Harden struggled to adjust to both the new rule changes and the hamstring injury he suffered in last year’s playoffs, and Joe Harris needed to undergo ankle surgery. The Nets certainly don’t look as unbeatable as we expected, but the team is still sitting on top of the East right now. The rest of the conference should be worried that we haven’t seen anything close to this team’s best yet.
Kevin Durant is playing as well as he ever has in his 15th year in the league. Patty Mills was a brilliant signing for backcourt scoring punch, and LaMarcus Aldridge is giving Brooklyn some good minutes in the front court off the bench. Harris was shooing 46 percent from three before the injury and certainly can’t shoot worse than he did in last year’s playoffs. Harden is coming on lately and is starting to resemble his true self. It’s possible Irving will get the vaccine or New York City will change its mandate before the playoffs. This season remains very much championship-or-bust for the Nets, and their upside remains higher than any other team.
2. Phoenix Suns
Yes, the Suns got some favorable matchups during the playoffs last year, but their run to the NBA Finals was no fluke. Phoenix is again proving they’re one of the league’s elite teams this year with a 16-game winning streak that has them right where they left off, as the West’s No. 2 seed. While Chris Paul is another year older (he’ll turn 37 before the playoffs), Phoenix’s core is made up of young players who continue to get better. The Suns also seem to have improved their front court depth this time around.
Like the Jazz, the Suns don’t have much to prove in the regular season. Phoenix is going to win a ton of games. It feels like they have fewer question marks than most of the other contenders. We know what we’re getting from the Suns, and we know their best is just about at a championship level. Phoenix was two wins away from the title last year. They might be better this season.
Last time we saw the Warriors, they were getting eliminated in the inaugural play-in tournament against the Memphis Grizzlies. Those days already seem so long ago. Golden State has opened the season looking like the juggernaut that once made five straight trips to the NBA Finals. Stephen Curry is the front-runner for MVP, Draymond Green is still playing at an All-Defensive First Team level, and the supporting cast around the two stars has been substantially improved. Did we mention Klay Thompson is coming back, too?
The Warriors have done a great job surrounding Curry and Green with veterans who know how to play. Otto Porter Jr, Nemanja Bjelica, Gary Payton II, Jordan Poole, Kevon Looney, and Damion Lee each bring a specific skill set to the table that allows head coach Steve Kerr to run the read-and-react system the franchise once had so much success with. The Warriors are going to be a different team when they integrate Thompson (and to a lesser extent, James Wiseman) into the lineup, but through the start of the season, this looks like the best team in the NBA.