(Approximately) 60 Thoughts on 30 NBA Teams, 2021-’22 Edition
And just like that, we’re back. Let Thugger up there keep you company on our misguided tour of the NBA going into the new season.
Atlanta Hawks: Forever one of the counterpoints to a player drafted after him, Trae Young fully arrived last season, erupting in the playoffs and earning equal parts hate and admiration. As the standard-bearer of the Generation Steph Begat, Trae fire-bombed his way through the Knicks and stunned the Sixers before falling to the eventual NBA champion Bucks in the conference finals. John Collins’ return, long an item of interested speculation, may offset some of the expected return to the mean, and the Southeast looks all the better for the foreseeable future with a ready-made rivalry against the Heat seemingly brewing.
Boston Celtics: I almost wrote here that Danny Ainge’s run as general manager of the Celtics lasted roughly seven years too long, and that the KG-Pierce trade almost didn’t result in several consecutive playoff disappointments. It almost didn’t entirely happen at LeBron’s hands, and the Celtics almost have two top-fifteen or so players at the most vital rotation slots. They’ll always have not trading four draft picks to the Hornets for the rights to draft Justise Winslow.
Brooklyn Nets: [The Sickos meme wants you to remember that Kyrie Irving hit a Finals-winning shot that sent the 73-win Golden State Warriors packing after blowing a 3-1 lead with the first unanimous NBA MVP on the roster, and that that same person might be legally barred from participating in half of his employer’s games if he doesn’t square up with the actual shape of this planet’s repercussions] Kevin Durant is probably the best basketball player alive right now, and the Nets were probably a shoe size away from a ring. If everybody plays by the rules – that is everybody, and all the rules – they are your 2022 NBA champions. That if grows more italic by the day, along with all the rest.
Charlotte Hornets: James Bouknight is here to tell you that UConn guards will always matter to Charlotte Hornets basketball. With Kemba a long-distant memory, and another exceptional guard in LaMelo Ball already running the point with aplomb, the one they call Bouk is even more reason for excitement as this team continues to figure itself out. The Martin twins are split, which, if the Morris twins are any example, might be for the best, but it still feels weird. Terry Rozier’s contract manages to look better by the day, a dual testament to both the player himself and the franchise that felt it fit to carry him away from Boston.
Chicago Bulls: Trading Wendell Carter was a choice, but the Bulls may end up okay anyway – DeMar DeRozan has gone everywhere and just kept scoring, so it shouldn’t be any different in Chicago. As a matter of fact, pretty much everyone here should be able to score capably (that is, more or less, where Patrick Williams theoretically comes in, but we’ll see). That doesn’t really help Zach LaVine much; apart from Alex Caruso and defense-first careerists who may never see the floor, there is a lot of offense, which you do not need a ‘D’ to spell. In any case, it is the best help anyone’s given him since he arrived in the Windy City. Speaking of which: Nikola Vucevic figures to play a part in this year’s most enticing play-in saga, one way or another.
Cleveland Cavaliers: At some point, perhaps in the not-at-all distant future and/or before this piece even sees the light of day, the SexLand backcourt will cease to be – maybe it’s fate that the best guard tandems have a habit of breaking up and finding new glories elsewhere, but as far as post-LeBron anti-plans go, you can do worse than get a pair of players as talented as these. Throw in Jarrett Allen, finally late of the win-now-but-what-is-winning,-really? Brooklyn Nets, and the Cavs have all of the promise of a Lorde single. Even better? It seems that SexLand can be stoned at the nail salon without penalty from the league. Praise be.
Dallas Mavericks: For all their recent internal dysfunction, the Mavericks do have the single most important on-court commodity in the league, a perennial MVP candidate. Other teams spend years rotating would-be saviors around their preferred cores, but through Luka, all things are possible, at least in theory. Take it from someone who has watched too much Knicks basketball, though: Kristaps Porzingis as a five is not the one last thing Dallas needs, unless he suddenly becomes Tim Duncan. The odds do not favor it.
Denver Nuggets: While the rest of us were watching Giannis enlarge in real time, the reigning MVP was riding chariots in Serbia. Such is life when you are Nikola Jokic, the best playmaking big man ever and someone whose whole ethos screams Saturday pickup following a graveyard shift at the factory. Denver did what it had to do with regard to Aaron Gordon’s contract, and Michael Porter’s Kyrie cover band act is exhausting from an onlooker’s standpoint, but the Nuggets are exactly where they want to be otherwise. With any luck, Jamal Murray will return from ACL rehab around the start of the new year.
Detroit Pistons: Preseason basketball is exactly that, but Killian Hayes has thus far shown all the flashes of a second-year jump: after a relatively disappointing rookie season, during which he threw paper airplanes into camels’ eyes and just as readily ejected the regulation basketball from the court of play, Hayes’ shooting is picking up. That part isn’t entirely unexpected – he seemed to usually be in the right place and getting the right shots off, and they just weren’t sinking due to a combination of adjusting to NBA length and distances. He seemed like he knew what he was supposed to be doing, anyway, and for most rookies, that’s half the battle. Of course, the lion’s share of attention will be on Cade Cunningham, which might benefit everybody else, Hayes included. Jerami Grant’s Eastern Conference busting out went better than anyone, non-Detroit executive division, expected, but the Pistons figure to be a year away from being a year away, but for a trade and/or breakout redux campaign from someone else.
Golden State Warriors: For all their bad-franchise-gone-right attitude, the definitive franchise of the past decade in NBA basketball stands at a crossroads: the original core of Curry, Thompson (upon his return from twin ACL tears), Green and, once again, Iguodala remain, and they certainly style themselves as championship contenders. How long will it be, though, until GM Bob Myers and company push the chips they think they have in younger players and draft picks to the middle of the table and make the absolute most out of the autumn years of the Splash Brothers+? James Wiseman is out for the time being as well. The Warriors front office in this era has always viewed itself as creative. For a moment, Andrew Wiggins was the biggest story in sports, but once monetary forces revealed themselves, he returned to his home as a non-issue. Don’t expect that to change too much.
Houston Rockets: In some sense, it has to be nice not to have to worry about what James Harden thinks, professionally. Just watching him on TV tells you that you’d probably rather not have that be the singular driving force of whether or not you have insurance tomorrow. The Rockets made out relatively well in dealing their Svengali away, with Christian Wood and Jalen Green now poised to helm a different set of controls toward the heart of (the Suns?). There is plenty of talent in Houston, but I can’t trust that any of it will be there for very long, up to and including coach Stephen Silas, who was dealt the rawest deal last year prior to the Westbrook and Harden trades by signing up for this in the first place. John Wall and Eric Gordon are not long of this franchise, if they have their ways.
Indiana Pacers: There is an astounding amount of flavor here, but I am not convinced of the integrity of the sponge.
Los Angeles Clippers: It seems odd to say this, but this is the first time we’re going into a season during which Paul George is the go-to number one option on a team since he left Indiana. OKC belonged to Russell Westbrook – even if George was largely the better and more effective player during their time together, at least during the regular season – and George’s second-fiddling to Kawhi Leonard has been evident in Los Angeles. Let’s see what a completely Paul George-led team can do until Leonard gets back.
Los Angeles Lakers: As the best basketball player walking the planet for most of the time that I’ve been alive, LeBron James made it a habit to call out his need for secondary playmakers in addition to the shooters and defenders that everyone but him seemed to recognize he needed. His best teams – the middle Heat and second-chance Cavs – had him doing different things, but he always met the challenge, or you’d end up watching an openly frustrated guy burn the rest of his rope to the sound of Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy recognizing his plight. He won the bubble championship, which might actually be the greatest accomplishment of his career so far; now, of course, the Lakers are depending on health. Anthony Davis may very well need to be the best player in the league, or something close to it, for the Lakers to make more of themselves than the 2004 Karl Malone-Gary Payton edition, but Russell Westbrook – it’s always Russ, isn’t it? – will have something to say about that, and a renewed Carmelo Anthony, fresh off of two solid supporting years in Portland, may be just the crunch time antidote that they need to head off defensive worries at the pass. Which, make no mistake, with Alex Caruso and Markieff Morris gone, the Lakers will have to expect to score more than the other team on most nights in order to win. Most of the time, that shouldn’t be a problem, and this has the chance to be LeBron’s late period signal post. And anyway, don’t you have the weirdest feeling that Trevor Ariza is going to end up mattering in the context of this team, where he basically doesn’t have a place?
Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant is the show, and, with any luck, he will be on the Grizz’s next trip to the playoffs. Whether that means now, with Steven Adams in tow and a bunch of fun-but-hesitant young’ns perhaps, maybe, ready to show themselves in full, or later on, when this gaggle of entertainment disperses, it nevertheless falls to Ja: we’re all calling you, right now.
Miami Heat: It might be a year too late, but Kyle Lowry belongs on the Miami Heat. With Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo already in tow, Lowry figures to be the kind of pacemaker Miami needs to get back, if not to the Finals, then somewhere close. But then, who’d ever want to venture too far from Miami? At least, for as long as it’s still there. Victor Oladipo could provide serious punch once he returns from a torn quad. There are a handful of counterpoints, but Erik Spoelstra is probably the pound-for-pound best coach in the NBA, and he seems to have better tools at his disposal than the Bubble Heat team that made the Finals. Look out, Eastern Conference: here comes Bigface Coffee. For real this time.
Milwaukee Bucks: He became a freakin’ champion. After years of fluctuating expectations, two MVPs and teammates and coaches that didn’t quite fit, Giannis opened his condor-esque wingspan and took the Bucks to the title last season. His 50-point closeout game against Chris Paul, of all people, required some of the best free throw shooting of his career, and he delivered. The Bucks’ supporting cast is mostly back, with PJ Tucker having taken his talents (and gigantic shoe collection, or at least some of it) to South Beach. Khris Middleton became exactly what Milwaukee had long needed him to be, curling around picks for pops on one end and flying from one defensive cover to another on the other. They won’t be favorites in the East, but that never stopped Giannis before. Look over there – it’s Grayson Allen!
Minnesota Timberwolves: KAT is there – at least offensively, he’s become the best version of who we thought he might be coming out of Kentucky in 2015 – it’s just that, he might need a change of scenery. His past two years have been tragic at worst, and especially fraught at best. I don’t know if a change of governorship – going from one bland magnate to the guy who was overly enthusiastic on national TV about a city that hates him – is going to move the needle. His usage rate was 28.4%, per Cleaning The Glass, but his points per shot attempt were at an alarmingly all-time low: he went from 130.9 in 2019-’20 to 122.9 in 2020-’21, falling from the 85th to the 65th percentile among centers. Not great, Karl! Is it even within the realm of possibility that Ben Simmons fixes things with KAT? I mean that twofold: looking at each other, does either of Minnesota or Philly have what it takes to satisfy the other side, and if they do, does that deal do anything for the Timberwolves?
New Orleans Pelicans: It’s still a weird roster fit-wise, and Zion still has to recover from a broken right foot, but the Pelicans may end up alright, especially depending on Zion’s recovery. Devonte’ Graham comes over from Charlotte, along with Jonas Valanciunas from Memphis, both of whom figure to pair with Brandon Ingram reasonably well on offense to begin the season. As ever, though, this team’s fortunes depend on the would-be generational force that is Zion Williamson, and how well they can keep it together until, and after, he returns.
New York Knicks: I’m not talking myself into this. I’m not talking myself into this. I’m not talking myself into this. I’m not talking myself into this. I’m not talking myself into this. I’m not talking myself into this.
…but then again, Kemba! IQ! RJ! Julius! #KNICKSTAPE! Is basketball back in New York City? Can it be? I’m not talking myself into this.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is awesome, and he’s looked it basically from day 1. He averaged nearly 24 points and six assists a year ago, and he shot over 41% on almost five three-pointers per game. Even in a loaded West, his first All-Star selection this season is not entirely out of the question. It’s…the rest of the Thunder that may push SGA over the edge, given he’ll have to do a lot of work to keep them viable. Even so, there seems to be a lot of unrealized talent around him, and there is a (likely injury-plagued Western Conference) reality in which the Thunder return to the playoffs via the play-in game.
Orlando Magic: Wendell Carter, Jr. always had some of the juice, but finding him the right place seemed a troubling prospect for the less-than-tweener Chicago Bulls. No matter; he ends up here, in the shadow of All-Star Nikola Vucevic and of subdued expectation. The Magic surrounding him have a distinct aroma about them – Markelle Fultz has shown mesmerizing signs of life at times, RJ Hampton started to feel something like we thought he could be after a trade last season, Jonathan Isaac probably loves Admiral Schofield on principle – but its aftertaste remains one of regularity, even without mediocrity. The Magic might be at least a little bit good; they also might not, and could be impossibly bad. How has anyone ever felt about the Orlando Magic?
Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons has four years left on a five-year max contract extension. Although he has already lost some money off of the initial maximum value of that extension, and although he doesn’t appear to care that much for his teammates or the franchise as a whole, he will probably lose this battle – unless the Sixers find a suitable trade partner, of which there have been reportedly few-to-none so far. There’s just…something about Ben Simmons in the playoffs that signals looking at your hands, dryly, without explanation. Signing-and-trading Jimmy Butler away is starting to have the lightest, airiest aroma of trading James Harden to the Rockets. Joel Embiid was The Process all along; he knew.
Phoenix Suns: As of the time of this writing, contract talks between the Suns and Deandre Ayton have completely stalled, or whatever linguistic hoop you’d prefer to use to say that the team is not paying the young center who emerged as a force during said team’s unexpected and delightful run to the Finals a season ago. Failing to pay the former no. 1 overall pick in time for the season to begin was an organizational catastrophe. How governorship sorts out his and Paul’s and Ayton’s contracts seems like a high-net worth income problem, which is one I don’t have and thus to which I cannot relate, but that also didn’t stop the Suns franchise from paying Mikal Bridges. The wallet is fat enough, and fans know it.
Portland Trail Blazers: While likely necessary after so many seasons, the coaching change away from Terry Stotts…left something to be desired, to say the least. While it wasn’t Damian Lillard’s responsibility to know everything about Chauncey Billups’ background and, specifically, his rape allegation from 1997, during the coaching search, it does fall on the league to have carved Billups out to be a top coaching candidate in the first place without much second-guessing. So Lillard, to both his credit and detriment, just wants to ball. In the most roundabout way, Damian Lillard has become the bridge between generations of the NBA – on the one hand, he is lauded for being the guy that sticks around and manages to drag his teams farther than they thought, sometimes singlehandedly. On the other, he has not yet appeared in an NBA Finals, which his Portland predecessor Clyde Drexler did manage. How much do we commend him on the one hand, and slog him off on the other? The Inside The NBA pundits are the worst examples of those who drag these sorts of conversations out in a public space, and Dame has done as good a job as anybody of managing his own legacy, on his own terms. Whether that means CJ McCollum, wine magnate, ends up elsewhere at some point, or that Dame himself does, remains to be seen, but with a healthy Jusuf Nurkic involved, one more crack at seeing things through seems worthwhile.
Sacramento Kings: As captivating as De’Aaron Fox is, the Kings have a stench of the whole being lesser than the sum of its parts, almost always. Every year, Sacramento puts a foot forward in trying to figure some things out, and it ends up doing so, but to no avail differently than it would’ve been if they hadn’t. Tyrese Haliburton’s second year will either be an extravaganza or a comedown, and having otherwise Bay Area-familiar talent in Damian Jones, Harrison Barnes and – *ehm* – Tristan Thompson should help, but almost all of these names may very well end up being available at the trade deadline, for the right place.
San Antonio Spurs: Paddy Mills, the last player link to the last championship edition of the Spurs, is gone, having left for the Brooklyn Nets, of all places. Is this when the Spurs become an exactly average team? It is just so unbecoming of Gregg Popovich. It is extremely weird to begin a rebuilding project at 72 – I’m not sure that’s what’s happening, but I’m also not sure the Spurs don’t have enough to trade themselves into contention for one final, really this time, run, either this year or next – but the drive to educate the youths can be strong, and the pull of something resembling Ben Simmons may be enough to try and entice Pop into figuring it out, yet again. He’s here for as long as he wants to be.
Toronto Raptors: The hype surrounding Scottie Barnes is so concentrated that you might’ve forgotten about the other one-time next-best things: Pascal Siakam remains out with a torn labrum, and OG Anunoby sat out the end of last season dealing with his calf. The Raptors faced the weirdest challenge in the league last year by having to play home games in Tampa; nobody could blame them, then, for missing the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade. Nick Nurse has righted wronged ships previously, but this season will test him. I trust that his guitar is packed up and ready to roll. He’s got a passport and a couple of visas, too, at this point.
Utah Jazz: Now that former Fordham Ram and A10 Rookie of the Year Eric Paschall is here, the ceiling is the roof. Everyone up to and including Zach Lowe thinks this is a make-or-break year for this iteration of the Utah Jazz, at least to some degree; Donovan Mitchell is the player who seems like he wants to make-or-break it himself, whatever “it” ends up being. Rudy Gobert can carry this team as far as we’ve seen; Mitchell can take them higher. It won’t only be up to him, which is a problem.
Washington Wizards: I believe Bradley Beal when he says he wants to stay in this nation’s capital. I also believe that Bradley Beal wants to win, and that’s why this team swung for some fences in recent memory. I do not believe the Wizards are a playoff team as currently constructed, but Kyle Kuzma has proved me wrong in the past. Wes Unseld Jr. deserves this chance to shape something exciting.
 In lieu of “positions,” here, which seems inappropriate for Brown and Tatum
 Maybe one-and-a-half-fold: that deal works something out for the Sixers, in any iteration.
 Not thinking about James Dolan’s hands-off approach working with Leon Rose in 3…2…2…2…2…2…
 The age-old question: who doesn’t make it? To which I say: before Jamal Murray’s injury, wouldn’t you have been compelled to pencil him in as a first-time All-Star? That’s not to compare Murray to SGA as players, but someone would’ve had to drop. The easy answer might have been the also-sidelined Kawhi Leonard, and the spot remains open with both of them out.
 Wildly different circumstances strictly in terms of franchise-building, and by then, Butler had been on three teams already. Nevertheless, obvious and young talent breaking up due to “internal decisions” still has that vibe, almost a decade after the fact.