The Brooklyn Nets enter September as the betting favorites to take home the 2021-22 NBA title — and for good reason.
The superstar trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving form the most-feared big three in the league. But that group played just 14 games together during the regular season and playoffs combined. Can they stay healthy throughout the entire season?
The Los Angeles Lakers, the current favorite to join Brooklyn in the Finals, face questions about their revamped yet “veteran-heavy” roster and the potential growing pains of introducing Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo to last season’s No. 7 seed led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
But what challenges are lurking just beneath the surface? How will these contenders overcome them? Our NBA insiders are diving into some off-the-radar concerns the league’s elite could battle in 2021-22.
Note: The following teams are the top seven in terms of 2022 NBA title odds, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
Brooklyn Nets: How good is the PG insurance policy?
The Nets had the most efficient offense in league history last season, putting up a smoking 116.3 points per 100 possessions.
It happened despite them frequently having to patch together a backcourt. Steve Nash gave starts at point guard to Tyler Johnson, Mike James and Chris Chiozza during the regular season and trusted no one on his bench in the playoffs. With James Harden laboring on a Grade 2 hamstring strain, Nash played him an average of 46 minutes the last three games of the series against the Milwaukee Bucks because he didn’t have anyone else he could play.
The reality is Kyrie Irving’s reliability will probably be a question mark going forward as it was in the playoffs. Not just because of his history of injuries, but also because he’s made it clear basketball isn’t always going to be his main focus. That might mean he could take more leaves of absence in the future.
This is why, despite having All-Star point guards Irving and Harden, GM Sean Marks made getting another reliable and stable point guard his top focus in free agency. Landing Patty Mills was a big get for the Nets. He has championship experience from a decade with the San Antonio Spurs, is an established low maintenance leader and a rock solid performer that has been tremendously durable during his career. He’s missed 11 total games in the last six seasons.
Using their mid-level exception on Mills cost the Nets Jeff Green, who took the same money to go to Denver. Green was a do-everything player for the Nets last season and a glue guy at the defensive end, the team’s weakness.
That Marks prioritized Mills for point guard insurance while letting Green’s departure open other holes tells you a lot about just how important Marks felt it was.
— Brian Windhorst
Los Angeles Lakers: Will AD embrace the 5?
From the moment Anthony Davis officially stepped into the spotlight as a member of the Lakers, he made it clear he wasn’t keen on continuing the L.A. legacy at center that George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal built.
“I like playing the 4, I’m not even going to sugarcoat it,” Davis said ahead of his first season in L.A. “I like playing the 4, I don’t really like playing the 5.”
Davis proved during the Lakers’ run to the title in the Orlando, Florida, bubble, however, just how effective he is at center. So much so that even with Frank Vogel getting Dwight Howard back in the big man mix with Marc Gasol for this season, the Lakers’ coach should probably continue to go against Davis’ wishes. L.A.’s best five-man lineup last season — by a landslide — featured Davis at the 5, surrounded by LeBron James, Dennis Schroder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso.
That group outscored its opponents at a rate of a ridiculous 49.2 points per 100 possessions. Not to mention with Gasol already 36 years old and Howard being 35, it could come down to the 28-year-old Davis to preserve them and not the other way around. While Davis’ offensive numbers have been slightly better at center rather than at power forward since coming to L.A. — averaging 28.5 points per 36 minutes on 52% shooting, compared to 24.9 points per 36 on 48.6% at the 4 — it’s his impact on the other end that’s noticeable.
Davis has repeatedly stated his aspiration to win the Defensive Player of the Year award, and with the Lakers losing some of their better wing defenders in the offseason, using the pursuit of the trophy as a carrot to convince him to anchor the Lakers’ defense from the inside out more often could be just what L.A. needs.
— Dave McMenamin
Milwaukee Bucks: Will mileage become a factor?
The turnaround between the end of the 2021 NBA Finals on July 21 and the start of the 2021-22 regular season being a little less than three months later isn’t quite as brutal as what the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat faced last offseason, but it’s still a month shorter than the usual break for champions.
Proving a relationship between that quick turnaround and the Heat and Lakers losing in the first round was challenging. Despite injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James, there wasn’t a link between offseason length and health last season. Still, there’s reason for concern that the Bucks might experience a championship hangover. After all, in some ways, their path was even harder.
First, Milwaukee played more games en route to the championship (23) than either Miami or the Lakers (21 apiece). Add in a pair of overtime games and the Bucks’ 5,570 playoff minutes rank third in the past eight postseasons behind the 2019 Toronto Raptors (5,810) and 2016 Golden State Warriors (5,785).
Second, a pair of Bucks stars (Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton) subsequently hopped on a plane to Tokyo the day after the championship parade to join the U.S. Olympic team. Holiday ended up playing an additional 154 minutes in the Olympics, second only to Kevin Durant, while Middleton logged 93 minutes off the bench. Neither began their offseason until after returning from Tokyo on Aug. 8 — barely seven weeks before the start of training camps.
Fortunately for the Bucks, star Giannis Antetokounmpo was able to get some downtime in his native Greece after the Finals, and four new additions to their roster should be fresh. Nonetheless, whether Milwaukee feels lingering effects of a long playoff (and Olympic) run will be worth watching.
— Kevin Pelton
Golden State Warriors: Will these bench moves pay off?
Aside from the concern around Klay Thompson‘s return from ACL and Achilles injuries, a potentially big issue for the Warriors is whether their revamped bench will be able to improve more than the inconsistent unit that failed to provide Stephen Curry with the necessary help needed to reach the playoffs last season.
Third-year guard Jordan Poole will be expected to take another step in his development after a sophomore season in which he averaged 14.4 points after the All-Star break and an early season stint in the G League bubble. Veteran Andre Iguodala returns for a second tour with Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green, but this is not the same player who won a Finals MVP in 2015 and was a defensive stalwart during the Warriors’ glory years. Iguodala averaged just 4.4 points in 21.3 minutes per game last season for the Miami Heat.
Stretch forward Nemanja Bjelica averaged 6.5 points but played in just 37 games for the Sacramento Kings, and it remains unclear how large of a role he will have in coach Steve Kerr’s system. The Warriors are hoping that Otto Porter Jr. can have a strong bounce-back season after two injury-riddled campaigns in which he played just 42 games. Porter said after signing with Golden State that his body is feeling good again, and there’s reason to believe he will fit nicely alongside Curry and Thompson given that he shot 37.5 % from beyond the arc last season in the 28 games he did play, but it remains to be seen how much his body will allow him to stay on the floor. Juan Toscano-Anderson and Damion Lee have both shown flashes of being productive bench players, endearing themselves to teammates and coaches because of their work ethic, but both players need to find a little more consistency within their respective games to solidify spots in Kerr’s rotation this season.
Speaking of consistency, the Warriors’ biggest wild card of the year figures to be the talented young core of their future in 20-year-old, second-year center James Wiseman and rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. Wiseman, the 2020 No. 2 overall pick, had some strong moments in his first year, but his inability to stay on the floor due to both foul trouble and struggling to pick up defensive positioning at times cost him minutes before a meniscus injury ended his season.
Kuminga, 18, and Moody, 19, likely won’t be counted on to contribute right away, but their development is critical to the Warriors’ depth this season — and any potential deal for a proven star that might appear on the horizon later this season.
— Nick Friedell
Phoenix Suns: Can they stay unusually healthy again?
Staying healthy was an underrated key to Phoenix’s surprising run to the 2021 NBA Finals. During the regular season, Suns players missed just 99 games due to injury, rest and non-COVID-19 illness, according to my tracking, the third-lowest total in the league behind the Dallas Mavericks (77) and Milwaukee Bucks (88).
In particular, Phoenix’s starting five was unusually healthy. Mikal Bridges played all 72 games, while Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and Chris Paul missed a total of 10 games combined. As a result, only the Chicago Bulls lost fewer wins above replacement player due to injuries, according to my player value metric.
Coach Monty Williams was able to use just nine different starting lineups, the league’s second-lowest total according to Basketball-Reference.com, behind only the Utah Jazz (six). Not coincidentally, those teams finished with the NBA’s top two records during the regular season. The Suns did show the ability to withstand injuries during the postseason, when Chris Paul suffered a shoulder injury in their first game and later missed time in the NBA’s health and safety protocols before dealing with a wrist injury that required surgery after the season ended. Phoenix also lost backup center Dario Saric to an ACL tear in Game 1 of the Finals.
Because that Saric injury will likely sideline him the entire 2021-22 campaign, the Suns will start the season behind in terms of injuries. If Saric misses all 82 games, that would nearly match Phoenix’s entire total missed during the shortened 72-game 2020-21 regular season. Surely, that won’t be the last injury the Suns have to overcome. As a result, the Suns could face a more challenging path to securing a top-two seed next spring.
Utah Jazz: An elite defense with a small asterisk
For Utah to be a true contender, the Jazz must figure out a solution for a defense that has crumbled in the past couple of postseasons.
Anchored by Rudy Gobert, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, the Jazz again ranked among the defensive elite last regular season. Utah finished third in defensive efficiency, allowing 107.5 points per 100 possessions.
But that number soared to 121.7 during the playoffs, a large step in the wrong direction after defensive issues played a significant role in the Jazz’s inability to close out the Denver Nuggets in the bubble the previous year. Utah allowed 116.8 points per 100 possessions in that series, when the Jazz blew a 3-1 lead.
Think that’s ugly? The Clippers — despite Kawhi Leonard missing much of the series — scored 127.7 points per 100 possessions while dismissing the Jazz in six games during the Western Conference semifinals.
Some reached the conclusion that the Clippers, primarily playing small ball, exposed Gobert’s inability to defend on the perimeter. But that isn’t an accurate assessment of why the Jazz’s defense broke down. The Clippers consistently put Gobert in the impossible position of having to protect the rim as a help defender after blow-by drives and then recover to the corner. LA attacked the paint at will, creating a feast of layups and open 3s.
The signing of Rudy Gay at least gives the Jazz the option of countering with a small-ball lineup, but as he enters a five-year, $205 million contract extension, Gobert must be a centerpiece of any potential Utah path to a title. His presence has influenced Utah’s personnel decisions in the sense that they count on him to mask teammates’ defensive deficiencies, but that cost the Jazz against the Clippers, as did All-Star guards Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley being compromised and/or sidelined by leg injuries.
— Tim MacMahon
Forget about Ben Simmons for a second. Remove the thought of whether he’ll be on the team. And even if he is on the team, sidestep the questions about whether his jumpshot finally improved in the offseason.
Philadelphia’s success hinges on Joel Embiid. And it’s also known that the big man benefits — both through floor spacing and assist opportunities — from the Sixers’ snipers pouring in 3s around him. But Philly ranked 23rd in 3-pointers made last season, and while the team was 11th in 3-point percentage, it wasn’t a squad reminiscent of Daryl Morey’s free-wheeling Houston Rockets rosters.
The Sixers added Georges Niang in the offseason. The forward shot 42.5% from 3 for Utah last year. They also drafted Jaden Springer late in the first round out of Tennessee, where he shot 43.5% from 3 as a freshman. Perhaps the biggest room for 3-point growth in the Sixers’ rotation — again, forgetting about Simmons — will be Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle. Both guards hovered around the 30% mark from 3 last season, diluting the impact of Seth Curry‘s outstanding 46.7% clip from the outside.