The NBA draft is over, as is the overwhelming majority of free agency. That means the league’s hierarchy may not be etched in stone, but it’s at least pretty clear with training camp starting next month.
Brooklyn — with it’s Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving presumably healthy — is the prohibitive betting favorite to win the championship. Milwaukee, the team the Nets lost to in an overtime Game 7, claimed that title last season.
That duo will be ahead of LeBron James and the venerable Lakers, making the Eastern Conference stronger than the West for the first time since Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo was about 16.
Of course, a lot could change. Last year’s litany of injuries showed that. And a Damian Lillard move could be seismic. The following is The Post’s projection for opening night of 2021-22, not final standings at the end.
THEIRS TO LOSE
They were the favorite going into free agency and got incrementally better. Sure, Jeff Green leaving for a well-deserved raise hurts, but keeping Blake Griffin softens the blow. Besides, it was injuries to Harden and Irving that cost them a title, and incoming Patty Mills provides a perfect backup and championship-proven supporting piece. Adding cheap defensive help on the perimeter just makes the Nets an even bigger favorite.
The Bucks are due their respect as defending champions. Giannis Antetokounmpo followed up NBA MVPs the prior two years with a playoff run for the ages and an NBA Finals MVP. They lost tough forward P.J. Tucker — to Eastern Conference rival Miami, no less — but essentially swapped in Grayson Allen, George Hill and Rodney Hood, and came away even deeper than they were before.
Yeah, the Lakers are old, but they’re also damn good if Anthony Davis stays healthy. And they had a solid offseason. James finally got Carmelo Anthony on board as a teammate. Russell Westbrook is going to pile up stats and wins, backed up by Kendrick Nunn. Don’t forget Dwight Howard, Malik Monk and Talen Horton-Tucker. The defense took a hit losing Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but if AD is right, it won’t matter.
Phoenix won the West, and managed to keep Chris Paul in the desert — albeit with a huge four-year deal. There should be natural evolution from Devin Booker and Cameron Payne, and the Suns added a rim-protecting backup big in JaVale McGee. If off-guard Landry Shamet — acquired from the Nets—- can find consistency and shoot like he did the second half of last season, he’ll be a plus.
Quick, who had the best record in the league last season? Utah, which went 52-20 and managed to keep Mike Conley with star Donovan Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert. The Jazz lose Derrick Favors, but they added Hassan Whiteside, and can also spread those minutes to Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall in their attempt to go further than last season’s second-round exit.
Miami might be the most-improved team in the league, at least as far as legitimate contention goes. Heat personnel who spoke with The Post said adding Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade gives them an element at the point they haven’t had in years, and will let Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo shine as secondary playmakers. P.J. Tucker brings tough defense that fits the Heat culture, and they added Markieff Morris. Pat Riley has himself a legit contender.
Atlanta had a 27-11 record and the NBA’s seventh-best NetRating under Nate McMillan, throttling the Knicks in the first round and beating the 76ers in the second to get to the Eastern Conference finals. The offseason went about as well, succeeding in priority No. 1: bringing back restricted free agent John Collins. With rising star Trae Young and a young roster, the Hawks are poised for the long haul.
Denver has reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets overcame the loss of Jamal Murray to beat Damian Lillard’s Trail Blazers, thanks to Jokic’s 33 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the first-round series. With Murray’s return, Michael Porter Jr.’s growth and the arrival of ex-Net Jeff Green, watch out.
Golden State had a great offseason, building balance around and depth behind the re-signed Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins. The Warriors drafted lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, and managed to get shooting wing Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica and even former Warriors Finals MVP Andre Iguodala on minimum contracts while holding onto their mid-level exception if something else pops up.
Philadelphia has high-end talent with Joel Embiid. But the all-world center isn’t the question, Ben Simmons is. If he comes back in the right headspace, ready and willing to shoot (or GM Daryl Morey gets a haul for him), the 76ers can top Miami and challenge the Nets and Bucks. But if Simmons is still struggling, or Philadelphia gets fleeced, it’s hard to see the Sixers truly contending, despite keeping Danny Green and adding Andre Drummond and rookie Jaden Springer.
Luka Doncic averaged 27.7 points, 8.6 dimes and eight boards, then looked all-world in Tokyo. Try to remember he’s just 22. Reggie Bullock is a 3-and-D upgrade on Josh Richardson. But can ex-Knick Kristaps Porzingis stay healthy and fulfil his unicorn potential?
Kawhi Leonard signed a four-year deal, but what about this upcoming season? He’s going to miss significant time after ACL surgery last month, but will he miss all of it? Even without him, the Clippers won games behind Paul George. Now they’ve kept Nic Batum and Reggie Jackson, and added Justise Winslow and rookie Keon Johnson. But the key is when or if Leonard can return this season.
After going from 21 wins to 41-31 (and a No. 4 seed), Garden fans were already delirious with “We’re back” bravado, and that was before bringing hometown-hero Kemba Walker back to the city. But his knee looked shot in Boston’s playoff loss to Brooklyn. Can he bounce back and join fellow newcomer Evan Fournier in giving Julius Randle the help he needs?
Speaking of Boston, they brought back Al Horford but lost Kemba Walker. Now this is truly Jayson Tatum’s and Jaylen Brown’s team, for better or worse. They needed a playmaker and waited out Dennis Schroeder, whose hubris cost him. After rejecting four years and $84 million, the guard had to take a one year, $5.9 million deal from the Celtics.
ON THE HAMSTER WHEEL
More than any other player, Kyle Lowry represented the Raptors DNA, and he’s gone. They’ll miss his playmaking, and now there are rumors swirling around Pascal Siakam. Rookie Scottie Barnes is a solid defender, but seemed a reach at No. 4. Goran Dragic is a fine point guard replacement, but the real boost may have to come just from being back home in Canada.
Chicago is all-in for better or worse. It could be worse. The Bulls added 32-year-old DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, after having traded for 30-year-old Nikola Vucevic last season. Forget what they (over)paid for the former, the bigger worries are: 1) Who’s going to guard after losing Garrett Temple and Thad Young? And 2) Where’s the upside in the stacked East?
Rick Carlisle inherits a sneakily solid roster that includes Domantas Sabonis as well as guards Caris LeVert and Malcolm Brogdon. The questions are how much can Indiana get from rookie Chris Duarte (more seasoned than most) and returning TJ Warren.
Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball did something first-year pros rarely do: tangibly impact wining. Gordon Hayward, Miles Bridges and PJ Washington are a solid core, but add a rookie class of James Bouknight, skywalking Kai Jones (who had the dunk of summer league) and JT Thor should make James Borrego’s bunch a must-see on League Pass for the high-scoring shenanigans.
Ja Morant is a budding star and now should get a full season playing alongside Jaren Jackson Jr., with Memphis having moved Jonas Valanciunas. The Grizzlies also got rookie Ziaire Williams (and Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams) in that deal, and could be a team on the rose.
20. TRAIL BLAZERS
Portland will be must-see drama for another reason. All eyes will be squarely trained on Damian Lillard, as his will be on the front office. The Blazers did nothing to tangibly improve this roster, and every Lillard tweet is going to be psychoanalyzed to see if he’s the next disgruntled superstar to want out.
Speaking of teams that need to do a better job building around their stars, we have New Orleans. The Pelicans lost Lonzo Ball for essentially nothing. Sure they freed up money elsewhere, but that had better just be the first step. Down the line they’ll need to use that cap space — wisely — to keep Zion Williamson happy, because right now they look like a lottery team. Again.
Russell Westbrook (and his bloated $40 million deal) out, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Spencer Dinwiddie (along with future flexibility) in. Bradley Beal supported Dinwiddie, or it wouldn’t have happened. Wes Unseld’s name is golden among Bullets fans. Can his son take the team to the playoffs as a coach?
After years of retooling, San Antonio is rebuilding. DeMar DeRozan is in Chicago, Rudy Gay is in Utah, and Patty Mills in Brooklyn. And the Spurs are going to pair Joshua Primo — the league’s youngest rookie — with guard Dejounte Murray.
Sacramento has De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton. What the Kings didn’t have was a good 2020-21 season, or a good offseason. They couldn’t get a solid return from L.A. for disgruntled off-guard Buddy Hield and spent the No. 9 pick on another guard (Davion Mitchell). GM Monte McNair surely has a plan, but it’s hard to see.
We know what Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell are. But with Ricky Rubio gone, now Minnesota has to bank on Anthony Edwards’ strong second half to his rookie campaign carries over. After a 14-42 start, they closed 9-7. Can that upward trend continue?
Ricky Rubio will provide a veteran presence for young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. And former Nets center Jarrett Allen — shipped to Cleveland in the James Harden deal — got the $100 million bag, just like Ed David predicted he would. The Cavs will be better, but how much?
It’s foolish to put too much stock into summer league, but Cade Cunningham sure looks the part. Detroit also added stretch big Kelly Olynyk and kept Cory Joseph. But this team still has a long, long way to go.
Oklahoma City is collecting picks and assets at a rate that would’ve made Danny Ainge blush. OKC is adding Josh Giddey to rising young stud Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but expect more highlights than victories.
With his hotel/restaurant empire taking a beating in the pandemic, Tilman Fertitta preferred picks to young players he was going to have to pay. Well, Houston has four teenaged draft picks led by Jalen Green. Don’t worry about the No. 2-overall pick’s summer league injury. He’ll join Christian Wood, KJ Martin and Kevin Porter Jr. in giving Houston some nice pieces. Just not many wins, after dropping 45 of their last 51.
Orlando got Jalen Suggs with the No. 5 pick and could be in line to pick at least that high again. The Magic might even get the top-overall pick, because right now offense is going to be hard to come by. This roster will test even new coach Jamahl Mosly’s reputation for player development.
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