There was something nice about seeing new teams and young stars competing deep into the NBA playoffs this past season. Trae Young stamped his superstardom by leading his Atlanta Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals, Chris Paul and Devin Booker resurrected the Phoenix Suns to steer the franchise to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993, and Giannis Antetokounmpo powered the Milwaukee Bucks to their first championship since 1971 while reminding the world he just might be the best player alive.
While it was fun to celebrate some fresh faces, the biggest story of the playoffs was still the injuries. Here’s a short list of the players who missed all or most of multiple games due to injury in the postseason: Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, CP3, and Mike Conley. That doesn’t include Joel Embiid, who played on a torn meniscus, Luka Doncic’s nerve damage, or bum ankles from LeBron James and Donovan Mitchell.
A new season is now right around the corner with the draft behind us and every major free agent signed. Opening night will feature two games on Oct. 19: the Lakers vs. the Warriors, and the Nets vs. the Bucks. As the 2021-2022 season moves closer, the way last year’s playoffs ended feel more and more tied to the unique circumstances of the season.
If we don’t get a Lakers vs. Nets matchup in the 2022 NBA Finals, it’s going to feel like a massive upset.
The Nets are the heavyweight favorite entering the season
Before training camps open, Brooklyn has already emerged as the odds-on favorite to be the best team in the NBA. The Nets’ championship odds of +220 are the best of any team, and they’re also projected to win the most regular season games with a win total set at 55.5.
We never got to see the Nets fully unleashed last season. The team traded for James Harden a couple weeks into the season, meaning he never went through a full training camp with the team and had limited practice time during a schedule condensed by the pandemic. Harden hurt himself in the first minute of the first game of Brooklyn’s second round matchup with the Bucks, and when he returned in Game 5 he clearly didn’t have the same explosiveness.
Kyrie Irving also went down in the playoffs against the Bucks, suffering a leg injury in Game 4 that kept him out the rest of the postseason. Irving is the most overqualified third option in the league, and he’s going to be even more dangerous with two superstars diverting defensive attention away from him.
Then there’s Kevin Durant. KD was incredible in the postseason, and might have powered the Nets to a championship if his foot wasn’t on the three-point line in the final moments of Game 6 vs. the Bucks. Giannis called him the best player in the world, and that feels like a majority opinion at this point. Since that series, Durant willed Team USA to a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics and looked completely unstoppable as a scorer.
The Nets have depth, too. Joe Harris, Blake Griffin, and Bruce Brown is a solid trio of role players around the stars who each bring something different to the table. Offseason additions Jevon Carter and James Johnson should bolster the defense. There’s also some young talent on the roster with Nicolas Claxton and first round pick Cameron Thomas, who was great in Summer League.
The Nets came a few inches away from the conference finals last year even with one of their superstars out and another one seriously hampered by injury. The rest of the league has to pray that happens again.
Who is going to beat the Lakers in the West?
The Lakers have been the most active team this offseason following a first round loss to the Phoenix Suns. LA has totally reshaped its roster starting with its bold trade for Russell Westbrook. Westbrook’s arrival brings obvious spacing concerns in the halfcourt, but he gives the Lakers another ball handler to take pressure off LeBron James and an added boost in transition.
The moves the Lakers made after the Westbrook trade are almost as jarring. LA stacked the roster with wing shooters and defenders: Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn, Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza, and Carmelo Anthony are all new to the team. Dwight Howard is back for a third go-around in LA, too. Talen Horton-Tucker was re-signed. The Lakers know they have LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Westbrook as crunch-time lynchpins. The other two players in those closing lineups will be determined by matchups and who has the hot hand.
The Lakers have the second best championship odds in the league at +350. The next closest team in the West is the Warriors at +900.
It’s anyone’s guess to who will be the Lakers’ biggest challenger in the West. Kawhi Leonard’s status for the season is unknown after suffering a partially torn ACL in the playoffs. Jamal Murray may not be ready to go until late in the season coming off his own ACL tear. Those two injuries would seem to knock the Clippers and Nuggets from serious contention before the season even begins.
The Phoenix Suns might be the most likely pick to become the Lakers’ biggest challenger. Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson are all young players who should keep improving. Chris Paul will be another year older, but it’s easy to believe in the Suns after what they showed in last year’s playoffs. The Utah Jazz, who had the best record in basketball last year, could also be a force in the playoffs if Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell can stay healthy. The Warriors didn’t even make the postseason last year but will eventually get Klay Thompson back after missing two straight seasons with injury.
Someone will emerge in the West as a major challenger to LA. But for now, the Lakers sure seem like the conference favorites coming into the season.
A Lakers-Nets matchup in the NBA Finals could have stars on stars on stars
LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwight Howard have 52 All-Star appearances between them for the Lakers.
Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Blake Griffin have 33 All-Star appearances between them for the Nets.
Only Davis will still be in his 20s by the time the playoffs roll around, but both the talent and the veteran experience in this matchup would be off the charts. Both of these teams will consider their season a failure if they don’t win the championship.
Of course, a Nets-Lakers Finals isn’t a sure thing
While both teams look stacked entering the season, each of the stars is at a point in their careers where injuries have to be a major concern.
Davis has a long injury history, and the Lakers can’t afford to miss him in the postseason. James will be in Year 19 as he turns 37 years old, and he’s coming off a bad ankle injury last year. Harden, Irving, and Durant are injury risks, too. We saw what could happen to the Nets’ superteam when injuries piled up last year.
Here’s another issue: the rest of the top contenders are really good! The Bucks just proved themselves on the biggest stage, and could easily repeat as champions. It’s possible the Suns keep getting better and better given how young the team is outside of CP3. The Warriors and Jazz will enter the season thinking they have a legit shot in the West, too.
Two months before the start of the season, anything less than a Nets-Lakers Finals feels like it would be a surprise. What a matchup it would be.