The 2021–22 NBA season tips off tonight. The Crossover staff will be analyzing all of the biggest story lines ahead of what promises to be an unforgettable campaign. You can find our NBA preview stories here.
Howard Beck: Nets over Nuggets
If we’ve learned anything by now (admittedly questionable), it’s that no NBA season unfolds as expected. On talent alone, everyone predicts Lakers and Nets. But odds are, one or both will fall short due to injuries, happenstance and/or general weirdness (hello, Kyrie). It says here the Nets will be just fine with two superstars instead of three, with an incredibly deep and versatile supporting cast. I’m less confident in the Lakers, due to age/health concerns throughout the rotation (including LeBron) and the possibly awkward fit of Russell Westbrook. If the Lakers falter, the West is wide open. And the Nuggets, with the reigning MVP, ample firepower (Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon) and the potential late-season return of Jamal Murray, have as good a shot as anyone.
Chris Mannix: Nets over Jazz
Don’t get lost in the drama in Brooklyn—even without Kyrie Irving the Nets have two MVP candidates, the NBA’s best floor spacer and a roster loaded with an interesting mix of championship-hungry veterans (welcome back, LaMarcus Aldridge) and springy young players (Cam Thomas can’t contribute this season … right?). And it’s way too early to say if Irving’s season is a wash. I’m rolling the dice on the Jazz out West, that Donovan Mitchell can take another step, that Mike Conley can stay healthy, that Jordan Clarkson will duplicate last season’s success. I think Utah will emerge from a loaded conference … only to run into a buzz saw from Brooklyn.
Michael Pina: Nets over Clippers
Even without Irving in the lineup every night (or ever again), it’s still so easy to pick the Nets as champions. They’re deeper and more experienced than they were last season, which, even as a never-ending experiment that cycled big-name talents in and out of the rotation all year long, finished with a better record than the Bucks and the greatest offense in NBA history. Consider this: Durant and Harden missed a combined 73 games and the team’s true shooting percentage (61%) was still higher than LeBron’s (60.2%). Brooklyn is the favorite and it’s not particularly close.
The Clippers, on the other hand, are a harder sell. When healthy, Kawhi Leonard is a top-five talent—but a partially torn ACL will keep him out for quite a while. At the same time, it’s hard to picture L.A. sustaining last year’s hot three-point shooting for another year—they shot 41.1% from deep, which is fourth-best in league history—especially with Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow in the rotation. But if Leonard returns sometime before the postseason begins, they have enough depth, versatility and talent to hang around as a serious threat—the seven seed nobody wants to see in Round 1.
In a conference that’s up for grabs, maybe they finish better than that. Continuity is their friend, with almost every other key contributor from last year’s conference finals run back in the mix, including Paul George, who is freaking awesome. Ty Lue is a tactical genius. All they need to do is get into the playoffs with Leonard healthy enough to log 35 minutes a night. If that happens, all bets are off.
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Jeremy Woo: Nets over Nuggets
It’s very hard to sort out the preseason hierarchy in the West—there are plenty of dangerous, quality teams, but it’s hard to identify a great one on paper. I’ll roll the dice with Denver and bank on Jamal Murray’s healthy return. In the East, it’s hard not to go with the Nets, with or without Kyrie, though I suspect Milwaukee will be right there. I don’t feel great about any aspect of this, which bodes well for an intriguing regular season.
Chris Herring: Bucks over Jazz
This pick is simple: I’m going with the champs until proven otherwise. They have three things most of the other contenders don’t: 1) Giannis, 2) relative cohesion, and 3) the confidence and experience that comes from winning a championship together.
Will those things carry the Bucks through June to another title? Honestly, who knows? There’s too much up in the air still, between Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons—whether those two are traded, and who their teams get in exchange for them, or if they return.
Based on that, there’s no point in overcomplicating it. Milwaukee is capable, and may do it again.
Rohan Nadkarni: Nuggets over Bucks
I don’t understand why Nikola Jokic is being slept on. He’s the reigning MVP and he’s only 26 years old. Why isn’t he being talked about as someone who can take another leap? The West feels wide open this year. The Lakers have a weird roster. Kawhi is hurt. The Jazz turn into BBQ chicken alert when it’s playoff time. And the Suns’ best player is an aging point guard. The Nuggets have Jokic, an incredibly solid glue guy in Aaron Gordon, a breakout candidate in Michael Porter Jr., and Jamal Murray, who should return in time for the playoffs. Denver is primed for a run.
As for the Bucks, their best competition in the East, the Nets, are wasting a max roster spot on a player who was asked to go home because he won’t get the vaccine. Brooklyn’s margin of error is a lot smaller without Kyrie, and they don’t really have a great defensive option against Giannis. I like Milwaukee coming out of the East, but I think the Nugs have the right combination to succeed against the Bucks’ defense.
Michael Shapiro: Nets over Jazz
Count me among those actually concerned by the Lakers’ sluggish preseason, and with an imperfect field, perhaps this is the year Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz break through to the Finals. But ultimately, the Eastern Conference finals will once again serve as the true decider of the championship.
I’ll take the Nets this time around in a rematch against Giannis Antetokounmpo & Co. The clock is ticking on Durant and Harden’s primes, and even with the Irving uncertainty looming, the duo's resolve paired with a legitimately improved rotation should lift Brooklyn over the top.
Pickman: Nets over Lakers
Even though it remains unclear whether Kyrie Irving will play for the Nets this season, I’d still take Brooklyn to take home this year’s title. The Nets enter this year’s campaign with perhaps the deepest roster in the league and, of course, also have two of the most dangerous players in the sport. What was perhaps a riskier Finals pick ahead of last season appears to be a much safer pick entering the 2021–22 season.
I wouldn’t be shocked if Phoenix made another run to the Finals out of the Western Conference, and perhaps if Jamal Murray returns late in the year and gives the Nuggets anything then Denver could also be a legitimate title contender, but it remains hard not to pick the Lakers to win their conference. Yes, there are questions about what their rotation will look like and specifically about which veterans will and won’t actually play, but if LeBron James and Anthony Davis remain healthy many of those worries can be a moot point. If we did see this matchup, it would surely be an exciting finish.
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