Which NBA teams and players could disrupt the races for home-court advantage and awards during the 2021-22 season?
After the New York Knicks’ surprising run to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference last season, could head coach Tom Thibodeau’s crew pull off that feat again in an improved East? Are Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball and the Charlotte Hornets real threats to make a leap? Are the Toronto Raptors, back north of the border after playing their entire home schedule in Tampa, Florida, last season, primed for a bounce-back campaign?
Despite Kawhi Leonard’s injury absence, are our Western Conference projections sleeping on the LA Clippers? Are Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers due for another run up the standings?
And are there sleeping giants lurking outside the favorites for the races for MVP and Rookie of the Year?
With less than two weeks until opening night tips off, our NBA insiders are breaking down who could alter the landscape of the new season, and also how one recent rule change could disrupt the league in a far different way.
Lowe’s NBA tiers: Every team, from the top to the very bottom
1. Which West team outside ESPN’s top-six projections has the best chance to disrupt the race for home court?
MacMahon: The LA Clippers. After Kawhi Leonard went down last season, the Clippers closed out the Jazz in the second round and were competitive against the Suns in the West finals. Paul George is a perennial All-Star with something to prove, and he has a supporting cast of quality veterans around him. Terance Mann could be a Most Improved Player candidate after his breakout postseason. There’s also the possibility of Leonard coming back for the stretch run.
Sedano: The Clippers. I feel like we’re sleeping on them. George showed us in the playoffs that he can still be an elite two-way player and carry a team. Granted, the Western Conference is a slog and absurdly deep, but I think PG can thrive again being the No. 1 option. This Clippers team reminds me of a more modern version of the Pacers teams he played for.
Bontemps: The Portland Trail Blazers. Unlike the East, where the top six teams appear to be pretty defined, the West could go in a lot of different directions. But of the teams projected to finish outside the top six, Portland has the best bet to jump up. Damian Lillard is one of the league’s elite players, and is always healthy. The addition of Larry Nance Jr. could be a huge boost, as he gives Portland the ability to play small with him at center as a versatile defender who can hit 3-pointers when healthy. If CJ McCollum can regain his form from the beginning of last season before he got hurt, the Trail Blazers will be a dangerous team in the regular season.
Pelton: The Trail Blazers. If Portland’s bench additions, a full season from Jusuf Nurkic and scheme changes by new head coach Chauncey Billups can get them to merely average on defense, a return to the top four is well within the realm of possibility.
Snellings: The Trail Blazers. Portland has the talent to compete for a top-four seed in the West, especially if Damian Lillard remains locked in and the team can stay healthy. The Trail Blazers finished third in the West in both 2017-18 and 2018-19 and made the conference finals in the latter, built around the triumvirate of Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. During the past two seasons, McCollum (29 games) and Nurkic (101 games) have missed a combined 130 to injury. When all three are healthy, Portland has 50-plus-win potential.
2. Which East team outside ESPN’s top-six projections has the best chance to disrupt the race for home court?
Tim MacMahon: The Charlotte Hornets. Can LaMelo Ball make the leap from Rookie of the Year to superstar in his sophomore season? If so, the Hornets might have sleeper potential. Any hopes they have of making the jump into the middle of the East playoff pack would also require a full healthy season from Gordon Hayward, which isn’t a great bet given his recent track record.
Tim Bontemps: The New York Knicks. Not only did the Knicks finish fourth last season, but by adding Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, they helped shore up their biggest weakness: an offense with a tendency to get bogged down in the half court. Walker’s knee troubles from last season could be a problem, but if he’s able to stay relatively healthy, head coach Tom Thibodeau’s long track record of success with smaller scoring point guards should continue. Also working in New York’s favor is a fairly deep roster, which should guard against injury issues derailing its season.
Kevin Pelton: The Knicks, though they don’t feel particularly disruptive since they were in this spot last season. In all likelihood, the bar for home court in the first round will be set higher, but New York could get there with offensive upgrades in the backcourt. My real surprise pick? The Raptors, back home in Toronto.
Jorge Sedano: The Indiana Pacers. They have a nucleus built around Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner that should keep them afloat in the playoff picture. I love the Chris Duarte pick. And if Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren are healthy, Indiana will be quite formidable. Plus, bringing back Rick Carlisle gives the Pacers a head coach with a championship pedigree.
André Snellings: The Pacers technically had home-court advantage in the 2019-20 bubble playoffs but struggled with injuries and the fallout from a coaching change. They brought in Carlisle this offseason to right the ship, and when healthy, they have one of the strongest starting lineups in the East. They could definitely disrupt the East race.
3. Which player has the best chance to disrupt the MVP conversation?
Snellings: James Harden. With apologies to Paul George and Jayson Tatum — both of whom I expect to have monster seasons that could enter them into the MVP conversation — the answer is Harden. Harden is a proven MVP-level producer who finished top three in the MVP vote every season from 2016-17 through 2019-20. With major questions about Kyrie Irving’s availability this season, Harden could end up carrying the playmaking load for a Nets team favored to contend for a championship. Durant will also receive credit, but Harden has the game to play himself right back into MVP consideration this season.
Pelton: Harden. The Beard played at an MVP level after being traded to Brooklyn last year. I think Durant would probably need to miss a substantial portion of the season to allow Harden to get MVP buzz. But if so, he has shown he can keep the Nets in contention as the team’s primary star.
MacMahon: Harden. He was a top-three finisher in MVP voting in five of the previous six seasons before he successfully pushed to be traded to the Nets, and there haven’t been any signs of decline in his game. Can he emerge as a legitimate MVP candidate when most believe that he isn’t Brooklyn’s best player? That probably depends on how often Durant actually suits up during the regular season.
Bontemps: Anthony Davis. There are a surprising number of possibilities here, but AD feels like the answer. If he plays the majority of his minutes at center — throughout which his production and team success have increased — and he gets back to the level he was playing at in the Lakers’ run to the 2020 title, he could easily be the engine that drives the Lakers to the best record in the West and put himself into the MVP conversation. His biggest impediment could be playing alongside LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, who will command plenty of touches in L.A.’s offense.
Sedano: Davis. Despite AD not being among current MVP favorites, the Lakers’ chances to win a championship rest on his shoulders. People forget that the Lakers were 21-6 last season prior to his injury. I think he comes into this season with a huge chip on his shoulder (between that chip and the Lakers’ championship hopes, clearly his shoulders will have a lot on them). Lakers head coach Frank Vogel immediately noted the incredible shape Davis was in upon arriving at camp. Also, I was a fan of Davis’ evolving leadership in the Lakers’ preseason loss to the Nets: He called out himself and his teammates for their lack of focus on defense in a preseason game? I like this version of AD already.
4. Which player has the best chance to disrupt the Rookie of the Year conversation?
MacMahon: Davion Mitchell. The Sacramento Kings have a crowded backcourt, but it seems like he is too good not to play a lot of minutes right away. Mitchell, the co-MVP of the NBA summer league after leading the Kings to championship in Las Vegas, won’t be a primary offensive option, so it’s unlikely he’ll have the kind of statistics that sway Rookie of the Year voters. But he might be one of the best on-ball defenders in the league. And if that helps the Kings end the league’s longest playoff drought, it would be difficult to ignore.
Sedano: Mitchell. I covered almost all of his summer league games and came away more impressed every time. Sure, there were games where he carried the scoring or the playmaking burden. However, his defense was elite from the tip of every game he played, and I believe he’s a future DPOY. I was fortunate enough to chat with his college head coach, Scott Drew, who raved about Mitchell’s skills, leadership and competitiveness. He added that the latter was a driving force for those Baylor teams. I saw a similar reaction in Vegas. Plus, he’s got the greatest nickname I’ve ever heard for a rookie: “Off Night.”
Snellings: Mitchell. He is an unorthodox contender because he isn’t known for big box score contributions, but he is a known winner whose defensive mindset and leadership could have an organization-level impact. In the summer league, Mitchell spearheaded a stifling defense that led the Kings to the championship. In his first preseason game, he finished with a team-high plus-20 in the win. Sacramento has been a perennially poor defensive team, but if the rookie is able to come in and motivate a defensive culture that translates to wins, he could get in the ROY conversation.
Bontemps: Mitchell. I could see a world in which Mitchell plays incredible defense, adds some scoring and finds the Sacramento Kings a way into the play-in mix, leading to some surprising Rookie of the Year buzz.
Pelton: Alperen Sengun. He already has disrupted the odds, ranking among the top contenders alongside the top five picks despite sliding to 16th on draft night. That reflects oddsmakers taking notice of his strong production in his native Turkey and during the summer league. It would probably take an injury to one of the Rockets’ frontcourt starters (Daniel Theis and Christian Wood) to give him a real chance, but Sengun has produced any time he has been on the court.
5. What will be the impact of the league’s 3-point foul changes: Nothing, something or everything?
Bontemps: Hopefully it’s something. No one likes watching guys fling themselves into defenders to get calls, moves that would get them laughed out of a pickup game. The NBA’s competition committee approved these changes, and the league’s head of officiating, Monty McCutchen, has gone on a media blitz to make sure everyone knows they are coming. Here’s hoping those plays are removed from the game permanently. However, it isn’t going to dramatically impact the game in terms of the number of free throw attempts players get; the elite guys (like Harden and Trae Young) will still get to the line all the time. But, it’s a welcome, and hopefully lasting, change.
Sedano: It’s definitely something. There are plenty of players who have made this an art form, and it will be an adjustment. I do worry about the subjectivity to the rule. NBA officials are the best in the world, but making these calls in real time won’t be easy. There’s likely going to be a lot of chatter about this rule throughout the season.
MacMahon: Something. I’m not sure how much of an impact it will have on specific stars’ production, but the introduction of common sense into the officiating of these plays will certainly improve the NBA’s product. Nobody wants to watch players shoot free throws awarded for non-basketball movements.
Pelton: Everything for our viewing experience, but closer to nothing in terms of impact on players and teams. The whole reason some star players were able to take advantage of these rules as previously enforced is that they were talented and crafty enough to exploit an edge. Those same factors will allow them to adjust now that the game is being called differently.
Snellings: Something … if it lasts. The NBA has a history of making offseason proclamations that don’t last until the All-Star break. (I’m looking at you, flopping-will-lead-to-technicals rule.) If the league really does stop calling the pump-and-jumps, it could change outcomes in a noticeable way. The 4-point play used to be rare, but seemed to happen in every game last season. Analytically, this rule could allow defenders to be more aggressive while simultaneously lowering the efficiency of the 3-point shot, thus changing the way team offenses operate. But again, only if it lasts.
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