nba 2021-22 season preview
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-22 NBA season is finally upon us. Let’s take a look at the projected standings, awards, and the biggest questions ahead of tip-off.

Danny Small

Ah yes, the 2021-22 NBA season is finally here. The offseason is fun during the draft and free agency, but otherwise, it’s slow. Preseason basketball is a way for fans to whet their appetite, but let’s be honest, preseason anything sucks.

But basketball is finally back and we couldn’t be more excited. The defending champions will meet their toughest opponent of the 2021 Playoffs on opening night.

That’s right, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks will host Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets in the 2021-22 season opener. Even though the Bucks are defending champs, the Nets have the target on their backs entering this season.

The season is starting with a bang and without further adieu, here is ESNY’s 2021-22 NBA Season Preview.

NBA Projected Standings

Eastern Conference

  1. Brooklyn Nets
  2. Milwaukee Bucks
  3. New York Knicks
  4. Atlanta Hawks
  5. Miami Heat
  6. Boston Celtics
  7. Philadelphia 76ers
  8. Chicago Bulls
  9. Indiana Pacers
  10. Charlotte Hornets
  11. Washington Wizards
  12. Toronto Raptors
  13. Detroit Pistons
  14. Cleveland Cavaliers
  15. Orlando Magic

Western Conference

  1. Los Angeles Lakers
  2. Utah Jazz
  3. Denver Nuggets
  4. Dallas Mavericks
  5. Golden State Warriors
  6. Memphis Grizzlies
  7. Phoenix Suns
  8. Los Angeles Clippers
  9. Portland Trail Blazers
  10. Sacramento Kings
  11. New Orleans Pelicans
  12. San Antonio Spurs
  13. Minnesota Timberwolves
  14. Houston Rockets
  15. Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA Finals: Nets over Nuggets
NBA Finals MVP: Kevin Durant

Awards & All-NBA

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Rookie of the Year: Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Sixth Man of the Year: Patty Mills, Brooklyn Nets
Most Improved Player: Jaren Jackson Jr. Memphis Grizzlies
Coach of the Year: Steve Nash, Brooklyn Nets

First Team All-NBA

G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
G: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
F: Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
C: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Second Team All-NBA

G: James Harden, Brooklyn Nets
G: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
F: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
F: Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
C: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Third Team All-NBA

G: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
G: Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
F: Julius Randle, New York Knicks
F: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Three “One Things” on the NBA

One Thing I Like: Parity

Now, let’s define “parity” in the NBA because it’s different than other pro sports. Yes, in terms of true championship contenders, there are only a handful of teams that qualify — the Nets, Lakers, Bucks, and maybe one or two other teams will emerge.

But the NBA’s middle class is strong. Teams like the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Knicks, Bulls, and Hawks, just to name a few, are trending upwards. They might not be championship-caliber teams yet, but they won’t be pushovers. The East is still Brooklyn or Milwaukee’s to lose, but the conference is as deep as it’s been in years.

The West is always a party. If the Lakers stay healthy, they’ll top the conference. But after that, it’s a total crapshoot. Fasten your seatbelts for that playoff race.

One Thing I Hate: Injuries

Can we please go through one full season without a million injuries to star players? We can only hope. The short turnaround from the 2020 Playoffs to the 2020-21 season resulted in key injuries to major stars.

Now, we aren’t going to attribute all the injuries to the short offseason, but here is a list of some of the stars who missed significant time (regular season or playoffs) last season — Klay Thompson, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Mike Conley, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, and the list goes on and on.

If the basketball gods are reading this, please go easy on us with the injuries this year.

One Bold Prediction: The Nuggets Will Make the NBA Finals

Picking the Denver Nuggets to emerge from the loaded Western Conference qualifies as a bold prediction. Even though Jamal Murray will be out for much of the year, there is a strong chance that he is healthy for a playoff run. Nikola Jokic is more than capable of guiding the Nuggets in the regular season.

Not to mention, Michael Porter Jr. is due for a breakout year and Aaron Gordon will have more time to find his role. The Nuggets are well into the luxury tax so it’s now or never.

Obviously, navigating the Western Conference is no easy task in the playoffs, but Denver has plenty of experience. They have won four playoff series in the last three seasons, advancing to the Western Conference Finals in 2020.

Three “One Things” on the Knicks

One Thing I Like: Depth

The Knicks have depth on depth on depth. That plays up in the regular season and it’s the reason why I have the Knicks so high in my projected standings. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau is going to coach every regular-season game like it’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

The Knicks made significant improvements to the starting lineup by replacing Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock with Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. They kept their bench unit largely the same with Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin, and Nerlens Noel. With a full year to develop cohesion, this group could be the best second unit in the NBA.

New York is still one superstar away from really making noise in the playoffs, but they are built for regular-season success. Don’t be shocked to see the Knicks near the top of the East.

One Thing I Hate: Expectations

The Knicks shocked everyone and their mother by finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference last year. They won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around. Anyone who expects this team to win a championship is looking for too much, but they can’t stagnate — or worse, regress.

Winning a playoff series should be the goal for the 2021-22 Knicks. They broke the seal by making the playoffs in Thibodeau’s first year, but making the playoffs is only the beginning.

One Bold Prediction: RJ Barrett Averages Over 20 PPG

There are two lines of thinking with RJ Barrett entering this year. Some believe that the additions of Walker and Fournier will cut into Barrett’s numbers. With Julius Randle, Walker, and Fournier in the starting lineup, Barrett could be relegated to the fourth option on offense.

Not so fast, my friend. Adding Walker and Fournier will do more to elevate Barrett’s game than overshadow it. We already saw that Barrett can be an elite three-point shooter when he is open. He’ll have way more open looks without Elfrid Payton on the floor.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Knicks plan to play at a faster pace this season. A faster pace means more opportunities for Barrett in transition. If he can keep his 40% three-point shooting for another season, Barrett will average over 20 points per game.

Three “One Things” on the Nets

One Thing I Like: 1-2 Punch

I don’t just like Brooklyn’s 1-2 punch, I love it. With all the hoopla surrounding Kyrie Irving, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the Nets have the best duo in the NBA. Kevin Durant might be the best player on the planet and James Harden is not that far behind him. The Nets have two historically great offensive players.

If Durant and Harden can stay healthy, the Nets are the favorites to win it all. It’s not much of a question even. They nearly beat last year’s eventual champion with Durant and a half-speed Harden.

No matter what happens with Irving, the Nets are going to be appointment television because of that 1-2 punch.

One Thing I Hate: Frontcourt Depth

If there is anywhere that the Nets are vulnerable, it’s in the frontcourt. LaMarcus Aldridge is the closest thing they have to a traditional center and he is in the twilight of his career. Nets coach Steve Nash seems to be comfortable with running a frontcourt rotation that includes Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Nic Claxton.

It’s safe to assume Durant will play a lot at the four and some five in a pinch, but there are still questions surrounding this group. Can Blake Griffin hold up as the starting center for a full season?

One Bold Prediction: Steve Nash Wins Coach of the Year

If the Nets finish first in the Eastern Conference without Kyrie Irving, Nash will win Coach of the Year. There’s no denying the fact that Nash looked like a first-year coach at times last year. But with a full year under his belt, Nash should be much more comfortable on the sidelines.

Sure, it helps to have Durant and Harden. Coaching offense is much easier with two future Hall of Famers, but Nash will have his fingerprints all over Brooklyn’s success this year.

Three Questions

Who is Going to Trade for Ben Simmons?

This question is aimed at our friends in Philly. Who is going to take Ben Simmons? The melodrama of the offseason is bleeding into the regular season and even though Simmons is back at the practice facility, it’s a bizarre situation overall.

Projecting the 76ers is nearly impossible this year. Obviously, they should be a playoff team as long as Joel Embiid stays healthy. However, after that, it’s tough to know where they might end up. If Simmons is shelved for much of the year with no trade in sight, Philly will suffer on the court.

On the flip side, if they can flip Simmons for the right return, the 76ers could be a contender in the Eastern Conference.

Can Julius Randle Run it Back?

Julius Randle had one of the best year-to-year improvements of any player in recent history. He was a runaway winner for Most Improved Player and was named Second Team All-NBA. Can Randle follow that up with another All-NBA season or was that a one-year anomaly? I tend to lean towards the former.

Randle’s shot profile was insanely difficult last season, but he still managed to be efficient. He won’t need to take as many difficult shots with the additions of Walker and Fournier combined with the growth of Barrett. While his overall numbers might take a dip, he is still going to be New York’s go-to guy. Don’t expect much regression from Randle.

Will Kyrie Irving Return This Season?

We might as well end this NBA 2021-22 season preview with the biggest storyline of the preseason. Well, will Kyrie Irving return to the Nets this season? That’s the million-dollar question with no answer right now.

Chances are, Irving gets bored and eventually gets vaccinated. I would be shocked if Irving sat out the entire season in his quest to be the “voice for the voiceless.” He already stated emphatically that he will not be retiring. I get the sense that Irving will be back with the Nets at some point this season.

But again, who knows with Irving?