NBA 2021-22 predictions: will Kyrie Irving return from exile to give the Nets a title?

·10 min read

This will be the year of …

Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s kind of nuts, but the reigning NBA finals MVP is only 26, and he may just be hitting his stride. I expect this to be his best season yet on a Bucks team that will be as competitive as last year and confident coming off their title. JN

The ball dominant scorer. Not only has the NBA shifted towards allowing bigger players like high-scoring forwards and centers to be the main ball handler in an offense, but there are also a handful of traditional young point guards expected to lead their team in scoring. TF

Chaos. Absolute chaos. It wouldn’t surprise me if this regular season presented fans with an avalanche of narratives rather than a single overriding trend. This preseason has already featured Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons handing the role of “NBA main character of the day” back-and-forth. HF

Adjusting to new rules. The NBA’s Competition Committee is looking to eliminate the “abrupt, overt and abnormal” offensive moves, like jumping into the defensive player on a shot, that stars like Steph Curry and James Harden have used to deviously prolific effect over the years. It’s the NBA’s biggest cleanup initiative since David Stern’s war on flopping nearly a decade ago and an extended adjustment period is expected, though fans should be pleased by the change. BAG

Kyrie Irving is ...

Doing irreparable damage to his career. I doubt at this point that he’ll get vaccinated, and whether that means he’ll sit out the season or be traded, he’s affecting his NBA future in a big way. JN

Related: Nets’ Kyrie Irving says refusal to get vaccinated is about ‘what’s best for me’

Going to cause another media circus midseason. Regardless of what happens with the Nets and the vaccination drama, Kyrie will find a way to have everyone’s attention focused on him. TF

Running out of time in Brooklyn. At the moment it feels unlikely that the Nets could find a landing spot for him in a trade but any team in a state without a vaccine mandate could get themselves a fringe-MVP candidate at a discount. Caveat emptor, however … just ask Boston or Cleveland. HF

Maybe the most severe case of brain worms in the modern history of professional sports. BAG

One bold prediction …

The Sixers will get an extremely mediocre return for Ben Simmons whenever they trade him ... but still finish near the top of the Eastern Conference. Will they make a deep run in the playoffs? I doubt it, but Joel Embiid and his supporting cast, even sans Simmons, will be just fine in the regular season. JN

Related: How Ben Simmons went from Philly’s next big thing to an outcast

The Knicks will prove to be legit. New York had an impressive and very unexpected season last year before crumbling in the playoffs. After adding Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier they will prove last year was no fluke. TF

Wherever he ends up, Ben Simmons is going to have the best year of his career. It feels like the big man’s reputation couldn’t get any worse after the Philadelphia 76ers’ brutal playoff exit but if the whole debacle encourages Simmons to become a more aggressive scorer – particularly in crunch time – it will benefit whichever team he happens to land on. HF

Zion Williamson will lead the league in scoring. The 21-year-old finished eighth in scoring during last season’s sophomore campaign with 27.0 points (including 20.3 in the paint) on 17.0 shots per game. If he can stay healthy, the New Orleans star will only build on his promise and expanded range in year three. BAG

Rookie of the year …

It’s so hard to predict, but let’s go with Jalen Green. The second pick in this summer’s draft, Green’s path to the Rockets is fascinating – will playing last season in the G League rather than college have a tangible effect on his game? – and on a team in total rebuild mode, he should get plenty of minutes to show off his stuff. JN

Jalen Green. He will likely be asked to carry Houston’s offense on his back, so I hope he invested in a good bookbag. The Rockets may not win many games this year, but Green should have the chance to surpass the tremendous impact Anthony Edwards had in Minnesota. TF

Cade Cunningham will probably be favored here but it’s boring to nominate the No 1 overall pick. Let’s go with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley, who has impressed during the preseason. He already looks like an NBA-caliber defender and has shown flashes of offensive usefulness. HF

Josh Giddey. The sixth overall pick in the NBA draft will likely start alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the Thunder backcourt, ensuring him the heavy usage from day one that lifts first-year players on to the shortlist. His experience with the NBL’s Adelaide 36ers and Australia national team will have him ready to go out of the box. Look for Giddey to put up the numbers to take the top rookie honors barring monster campaigns from either Cade Cunningham or Jalen Green. BAG


See my answer above about the year of Giannis – not that last year wasn’t also his. I just don’t see this guy doing anything but dominating, especially as the Bucks seem poised to contend yet again in a wildly dysfunctional top of the Eastern Conference. JN

Russell Westbrook. He has averaged a triple double in four of the last five seasons. If Westbrook puts up those kind of numbers next to LeBron and AD on a winning Lakers team, there’s no reason he shouldn’t win the award. TF

Jayson Tatum. This season, the MVP race could be more open than usual. That means it would be the perfect time for the Celtics forward to make that final leap into superstardom. When we last saw Tatum he was having multiple 50 point games in the postseason so all he has to do is continue where he left off, right? HF

Kevin Durant. It’s a two-horse race between KD and the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic. Look for Durant to bring home the NBA’s top individual honor for a second time after leading the Nets to the league’s best regular-season mark. BAG

The most underrated team this year is ...

It’s not that Miami Heat are wildly underrated, but they are not talked about in the same hushed tones as the three teams most people are betting will finish at the top of the East: Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. But the Heat’s roster is in great shape... and they lack the drama of some of their conference rivals. JN

The Charlotte Hornets had a relatively quiet offseason, leading many to doubt they can compete in the East. However, the growth of a young core lead by LaMelo Ball should take a massive step forward after finishing 10th in the East last year. TF

Not enough people are talking about the Los Angeles Clippers. The question is whether they can stay afloat as they wait out Kawhi Leonard’s ACL injury absence. They finally made the Western Conference finals last year after many, many attempts and if they have Leonard ready for the stretch, we know how far he can carry a postseason team. HF

The Chicago Bulls. Few teams have undergone a more complete transformation than Chicago, who have retained only four of the 15 players that were on last December’s opening day roster. Second-year coach Billy Donovan welcomes a glut of talent into the fold including star swingman DeMar DeRozan, small forward Derrick Jones Jr along with point guards Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. DeRozan will team with Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic to give the Bulls three All-Stars in their starting five. BAG

Final eight Eastern Conference playoff teams …

Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors. JN

Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls. TF

Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls. HF

Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers. BAG

Final eight Western Conference playoff teams ...

Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans. JN

Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers. TF

Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors. HF

Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers.

Eastern Conference finals ...

Milwaukee Bucks 4-3 Miami Heat. JN

Brooklyn Nets 4-3 Milwaukee Bucks. TF

Milwaukee Bucks 4-3 Boston Celtics. HF

Brooklyn Nets 4-3 Milwaukee Bucks. BAG

Western Conference finals ...

Phoenix Suns 4-2 Denver Nuggets. JN

Los Angeles Lakers 4–2 Denver Nuggets. TF

Los Angeles Lakers 4-2 Los Angeles Clippers. HF

Los Angeles Lakers 4-2 Utah Jazz. BAG

NBA finals …

Phoenix Suns 4-2 Milwaukee Bucks. I know. A rematch. No fun. But the Bucks have Antetokounmpo and most of last year’s team and show no signs of slowing down. That’s enough, in my book, to get them back to the finals. And Phoenix boast the player I think is most likely to give Antetokounmpo a run for the MVP, Devin Booker. But they also have insane depth, which should lead to another long playoff run. JN

Los Angeles Lakers 4-3 Brooklyn Nets. The Lakers have assembled the best group of veterans in the league and filled out the rest of the roster with athletic players who excel at both shooting and defending. If LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook are able to stay healthy then no other team except Brooklyn have a big three that can compete with them. And that’s assuming Kyrie is even playing in Brooklyn … TF

Los Angeles Lakers 4-3 Milwaukee Bucks. It’s difficult to make back-to-back finals appearance, but there is no reason to believe that Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and the rest of the Bucks can’t find a way (also it would be hilarious if the Celtics lost in the Eastern Conference finals yet again). Meanwhile, after a first-round exit earlier this year, a fully healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis should help lead the Lakers to what could be an epic seven-game series where Los Angeles just get the upper hand. HF

Brooklyn Nets 4-2 Los Angeles Lakers. The fourth meeting between Kevin Durant and LeBron James in the NBA finals will play out much like the previous two. The creaking Lakers have nine players over 30 and six at least 35 or older, but the raw talent of James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and co will be enough to see them through to the NBA finals ... where the unstoppable Durant and James Harden will stop them in their tracks with or without Kyrie Irving. BAG

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