The 2021-2022 NBA season is just around the corner. The preseason kicks off on October 3rd, where the Los Angeles Lakers will host the Brooklyn Nets. In just a few short weeks after, the Nets will travel to Wisconsin to battle it out against the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks on October 19th. The start of a new season comes with fresh storylines, new players to root for, and gives the hometown fan an additional reason to enjoy the grueling 82-game schedule. A new season also leaves us with questions: Who will win MVP? What future star will win Rookie of the Year? Who will take home the Larry O’Brien trophy and claim the throne as NBA champions?
2022 NBA Rookie of the Year
The 2021 rookie class has a lot of expectations coming into this season. While some are expected to fit in and follow their role, there are a select few who are tasked with carrying the franchise on their back. While the top half of the draft is almost always the frontrunners for this award, could this be the season that a late-round gem takes home the trophy?
Devon Withers: Cade Cunningham
As a freshman at Oklahoma State, Cunningham was averaging 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists while also shooting above 40% from three-point range. The Detroit Pistons relied on Jerami Grant (22.3 PPG) as their primary scorer last season, but Cunningham comes in as a potential All-Star candidate in his rookie season.
Isaiah Hansen: Cade Cunningham
If healthy, this is an obvious answer. This year’s Rookie of the Year may be decided quite similarly to last season. Cunningham is being casted as Lamelo Ball, while Jalen Green would be Anthony Edwards. Green will warrant an argument, but in the back of everyone’s mind, they will know that Cunningham is the guy. He will have plenty of time to rack up stats, while Green will be the flashier of the two.
Gary Sonneberger: Jalen Green
When it comes to end of season awards and voting, it’s no secret that scoring is a heavily valued stat. Fortunately for Jalen Green, the Rockets need his scoring versatility and impact immediately. The Rockets were 27th in Offensive Rating last season, and with John Wall most likely parting ways at some point, the Rockets focus on development will give Green the green light to shoot as much as he wants.
2022 NBA Defensive Player of the Year
With Rudy Gobert taking home his third Defensive Player of the Year award last season, he is currently the betting favorite to win again this season. Can anyone beat out the defensive minded 7-footer this season for the right to claim themselves the NBA’s best defender?
Devon Withers: Anthony Davis
Oddsmakers are preparing for the Lakers plan to pivot Davis to the center position ahead of the 2021-22 season. Davis has spent six seasons as a power forward, but during his time as a starting center in the 2018-19 season, he averaged a career-high 1.6 steals per game. He will be among the elite big men this upcoming season, and with Ben Simmons’ future currently unknown, his biggest competition for the award will be Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert.
Isaiah Hansen: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Antetokounmpo is coming off the best season of his career and one of the most memorable NBA Finals performances in the modern era. He showed energy on both sides of the floor, even stepping out of his element when the moment called for it. As great as it was, even Antetokounmpo is telling fans to take a step back with the praise. He is going to continue playing as he was before, and perhaps could elevate his play to a new level we have yet to see.
He showed his value defensively with several key moments, including a sensational block on DeAndre Ayton in a crucial game five during the NBA Finals. With already one DPOY under his belt, I expect Giannis to continue to elevate. I’m not convinced we’ve entered his prime just yet, but he’s left his mark in voters’ minds and he is a strong contender to take the award home this upcoming season.
Gary Sonneberger: Draymond Green
While there may be some debate on Draymond Green’s ability to shoot, not once has anyone ever questioned his defensive prowess. The three-time All-Star can lockdown nearly all five positions, and is still one of the smartest defenders the NBA has ever seen. At +3300 odds, Green seems to be quite the underdog for this season’s award. Last season, with just an average defense support group in Golden State, Green was able to make the Warriors a top-five defense and sneak his way onto DPOY ballots; finishing third in voting. Bringing Klay Thompson back in the lineup and having a healthy team will be key, as Green could potentially lockdown his second DPOY trophy this season.
2021 NBA MVP
With the Serbian-born center Nikola Jokic taking home last season’s MVP award, he has a case to make for being the frontrunner again this year. While few expected the historic run by the young center, he looks to come back stronger, and slimmer, for a repeat this season. Can the 26-year old big man go back-to-back, or will another challenger arise? Will it be a new face, or a veteran reclaiming their spot atop the league’s featured talent?
Devon Withers: Kevin Durant
The Brooklyn Nets are slated to have a healthy lineup ahead of the new season, and while most would assume that the play of James Harden and Kyrie Irving will hurt Durant’s chances, they won’t. When all three were on the court last season, Durant averaged 28.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per contest. He is one of the top pure scorers in the NBA on a quest for an award that is primarily focused on offensive output.
Isaiah Hansen: Stephen Curry
Just about everyone expects the Golden State Warriors to improve drastically with the return of Klay Thompson, but I don’t think we realize what their ceiling could be. Everyone has a role on this roster, and life will be easier with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson spreading the floor. Curry will reap the benefits of the return of Thompson, propelling him into MVP considerations. That doesn’t even necessarily require the Warriors to be at full strength, health wise.
Gary Sonneberger: Joel Embiid
There is no doubt that the 76ers have had quite an offseason. Ben Simmons rumors are flying off the handle and the team seems to be in a bit of chaos. Before Embiid’s injury last season, there was buzz about him inching out Nikola Jokic as MVP early in the year. Even with his injury, Embiid averaged 28.5 points per game on 51% shooting from the field. When he was on the court, the small-ball teams that run rampant in the NBA had no answer for him. Soon, Simmons will be out of the picture, and the paint will be open for a dominant season from Embiid.
The only thing standing in the way of Embiid is playoff seeding. Most, if not all MVP candidates are normally from teams who finish high in the standings. It will take a lot for Philadelphia to make a push passed the top of the East. However, if they can land the right pieces in a trade for Simmons, don’t be too surprised to see ‘The Process’ holding the MVP trophy later this year.
Eastern Conference Outlook
While the Milwaukee Bucks finished third in last season’s Eastern Conference standings, the team ultimately came together to push past the Phoenix Suns for the title. Fresh off of a championship run, will this be a relaxed season for the Bucks, or will they look to come out strong to defend their title? Will a new challenger arise? Will Brooklyn’s firepower lead them to a top seed this season? So many new questions surround this fascinating Eastern Conference playing field.
Devon Withers: With an MVP-caliber season from Durant, as long as the Brooklyn Nets can remain healthy, they are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. Even when superstar talent was missing for stretches of time in the regular season, Brooklyn played well enough to earn the second seed in the conference. Other teams that will contend as a top seed include the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat.
Isaiah Hansen: If we are assuming health, along with guaranteeing full participation throughout the upcoming season, the discussion begins and ends with the Brooklyn Nets. Unfortunately, we can’t. The Bucks have figured out how to win this past season. Even considering that they have consistently finished at the top of the division, I believe we are just now entering the Anteokounmpo’s prime. As scary as that thought is, I expect him to be healthy and play at an elite level.
The Miami Heat are definitely an intriguing option, but I believe there are too many moving parts for them to finish atop of the division. However, I expect them to have enough talent to potentially finish second. When considering all of the factors, I expect the East to end in this order: Bucks, Heat, Nets, 76ers.
Gary Sonneberger: It shouldn’t be hard for Brooklyn to come out on top in the East, even giving the looming questions about the availability of Kyrie Irving. Luckily for Brooklyn, they have the greatest star insurance in basketball: James Harden and Kevin Durant. As for Anteokounmpo and the Bucks, it’s safe to assume that they might take a breather after last year’s title run to try and repeat this season.
The next six spots are incredibly intriguing: You’ve got a defensive Miami team, followed by the young, yet shockingly experienced Boston Celtics, who have made it to three Eastern Conference Finals since 2017. With Philadelphia and potential MVP candidate Joel Embiid rounding out this trio, the second tier of teams in the East will be clawing at each other all season for the third seed.
After their incredible runs last season, the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks look to continue their trajectory into the top of the East. Trae Young has shown improvement, while the surprise rise of Julius Randle has launched each of these teams into the brink of the conversation. Rounding out the bottom of the East, Chicago’s improved roster leaves them a prime candidate for the seventh spot, leaving the eighth spot open for the taking. While I’m not ready to trust the rest of the team, LaMelo Ball and the Charlotte Hornets just might have what it takes to get last season’s ROTY his first taste of playoff experience.
Western Conference Outlook
The powerful Western Conference is a toss-up almost every season. An injury-riddled year found the Los Angeles Lakers struggling at the bottom of the playoff standings, while an up-and-coming Phoenix Suns team, led by veteran point guard Chris Paul, was able to find itself in the NBA Finals. Will there be more surprises this season? What team will emerge from mediocrity to make its way into the playoffs, perhaps for the first time?
Devon Withers: The Western Conference is deep with competitive rosters, but the Utah Jazz appear primed to make an NBA Finals run. In the offseason, the front office retained Mike Conley, while also adding important pieces such as Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside. Other teams to contend in the conference include both teams in Los Angeles.
Isaiah Hansen: Everyone understands how deep the Western conference is, but it’s deeper than that. The Denver Nuggets are just a handful years away from winning a championship, if not less depending on the recovery of Jamal Murray following his torn ACL. Extending Michael Porter Jr. only confirms their intentions.
The Golden State Warriors are back. If I could assume full health from their key players and confirm that Andrew Wiggins will remain in play as it pertains to his vaccine status, I might consider placing them atop of the division. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers may not finish within the top two seeds, however, they will be expected to avoid the play-in tournament this time around.
Gary Sonneberger: The West, as always, is a bloodbath. Fortunately for the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James and Anthony Davis will be looking to make a statement after their loss in the first round last season. Now that Russell Westbrook is in town to claim the point guard duties, look for a hungry Lakers team with something to prove taking the top spot in the West.
With a healthy Golden State team back and ready for action, expect to see Steph Curry and Klay Thompson splashing their way into a top four spot in the conference. Utah and Phoenix have some room in this conversation, but don’t count on Phoenix making the same run they made in the previous season. Although they have Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the team is one injury away from potential doom. Look for Dallas to make their way up in the standings if Kristaps Porzingis can play consistently, leaving Luka Doncic with potential to build on the magic that made ESPN rank him as the fourth-best player in the NBA.
It’s safe to say that without the talented Jamal Murray, the Nuggets might find their way down the standings, despite Nikola Jokic’s best efforts. The Clippers fall into this trap as well, with Kawhi Leonard most likely being out for the entire season. Paul George is still a monster on both ends of the court, but don’t be shocked to see the Clippers near the bottom of the standings.
2022 NBA Finals Predictions
With Milwaukee taking home the Larry O’Brien trophy last season, some might see them as surefire title favorites. Will another team come to take the throne, or will Giannis and his city hang another banner after this season? Will the Nets and Lakers challenge the defending champions, or will a new team arise to go at the powerhouses in each conference?
Devon Withers: With the Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz meeting in the NBA Finals, I believe the Nets will find the winning formula to bring in the Larry O’Brien trophy after a six-game series. The NBA has become a superstar-driven league, and with Brooklyn winning the championship, it will force multiple front offices to hit the panic button.
Isaiah Hansen: If I could assume full health to both sides, I would predict that we finally get that Nets/Lakers showdown with the Nets to win it all. However, I don’t believe that will be the case. As much as I’d love to see Carmelo Anthony win a ring, I think the Jazz will make it to the Finals. They will ultimately meet their fate in a seven-game series when they fall victim to the Bucks.
Gary Sonneberger: With all due respect to Brooklyn, I can’t bet against the former champion Milwaukee Bucks making it back to the Finals. Antetokounmpo just couldn’t be stopped last season, but if there was a team up to the task, look no further than the Lakers. Los Angeles is loaded with defenders to throw at Antetokounmpo and have quite possibly the best basketball player ever in LeBron James. I expect the Lakers to take home the Larry O’Brien in seven games against the Bucks.
The NBA has always been “where amazing happens”, but many would say that the league is where anything can happen. Events such as ‘Linsanity’, Kobe Bryant reaching 60 points in his final game, and a “washed up” Chris Paul leading the Phoenix Suns to the Finals prove that the NBA is an unpredictable behemoth. Still, it’s always exciting to predict the crazy, and anticipate the dramatic. Every season has it’s surprises. What could be in store this season?
Devon Withers: The Chicago Bulls had made some alterations to their roster, including the free agency signing of Lonzo Ball. This will set up a career-best season for Zach LaVine, who will finish in the top three for three-pointers made per game. Last season, LaVine averaged 3.4 3PM; seventh in the league. He was only 0.6 shy of that top three mark during the 2020-21 season.
Isaiah Hansen: This wouldn’t have been a bold prediction last year, but I expect wherever Ben Simmons is traded to, they will instantly become a playoff team. While he won’t be the reason a team wins a championship without a developed jump shot, he is an elite superstar during the regular season. As long as Simmons is traded before the regular season, he will be an All-Star talent and will re-establish himself as one of the best players in the league.
Gary Sonneberger: A lot of NBA fans seem to be incredibly high on Zion Williamson, and don’t get me wrong, I am too. What I am not so high on is the roster construction of the New Orleans Pelicans. The team has massive defensive holes, a rookie head coach, and a seeming disgruntled superstar. If Brandon Ingram doesn’t play up to his All-Star level, don’t be surprised to see the Pelicans fall below their own expectations. If they plummet enough, there might be a bit of a shakeup in New Orleans’ front office to try and keep Williamson happy. No one knows what his plan are moving forward, but a losing season won’t help the Pelicans chances of retaining him long-term.
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