NBA

20 NBA storylines for 2021-22 season: LeBron James vs. Father Time, Ben Simmons saga, Nets minus Kyrie Irving

The 2021-22 NBA season is finally upon us. On Tuesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks will get their championship rings before taking on the Brooklyn Nets. In the nightcap, the Los Angeles Lakers will host the Golden State Warriors. As is the case with the start of every NBA campaign, there are all kinds of storylines that should be front and center on your fan radar. Below I have listed 20 of them, starting with the mess in Philadelphia. 

This might feel a bit tired at this point, but when the clock is ticking on a big-name player being traded, it’s going to be high drama until it happens. And make no mistake: it’s going to happen. Simmons is gone from Philly. In the meantime, can the 76ers afford to let him play? Perhaps only on the road? Doc Rivers says he’ll play when he’s ready, but that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. If he does suit up at home, those Philadelphia fans are going to be brutal, and if it gets in Simmons’ head and he plays badly, that can only hurt his trade value. Where Simmons ultimately ends up, and what kind of package the Sixers get in return, are the two biggest questions in the league entering the season. 

The Lakers really went out on a limb in trading for Russell Westbrook, who, as a high-usage non-shooter, does not appear to fit AT ALL alongside LeBron James. Westbrook should be able to thrive alongside Anthony Davis in non-LeBron lineups, strengthening the Lakers’ bench and thus lifting their regular-season profile. But when the ball inevitably ends up in LeBron’s hands and Westbrook, one of the worst 3-point shooters ever, is relegated to an off-ball role, how is this going to go? One way or the other, it’s must-see. 

3. The beginning of LeBron’s end? 

It feels blasphemous to even suggest that LeBron James might not be one of the top two or three players in the league, but it has to happen at some point. LeBron isn’t going to fall off a proverbial cliff, but there will start to be signs here and there that he’s in decline (there already are if you look closely). This will be LeBron’s 19th season. He’ll turn 37 before the turn of the calendar. It’s true, before he and Anthony Davis fell to injuries, LeBron had the Lakers humming last season and was a top-five MVP candidate. Some of that, I think, was media created, but there surely weren’t any dramatic signs of decline. That said, LeBron doesn’t power through defenders on his way to the hoop quite the same way anymore, and once he has to rely on his 3-point shot more (he’s already doing this), that’s where we could see a much less dominant version of LeBron emerge. Again, it has to happen at some point. The Lakers are hoping it gets put off another year. 

It doesn’t sound like it. Irving appears fully committed to not getting the vaccine, and the Nets, for now, aren’t going to let him play until he can be a full participant — meaning he is cleared to play in both road and home games. I suppose the Nets could change their stance as well, but for now we have one of the best players in the league throwing a proverbial wrench in the championship aspirations of arguably the league’s best team on paper.

5. Will the Warriors make a trade? 

They have the young pieces to make a significant move. But will they? Even if Klay Thompson comes back at or near 100 percent of his old self, Golden State still feels one player away from true contention. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe Jordan Poole really is Steph Curry Lite. Maybe Otto Porter Jr. will shoot 42 percent from 3 and play defense. Maybe Draymond Green will be a scoring threat. Maybe James Wiseman will be playable. But in the end, the surest way for the Warriors to become a top-tier contender again is to sacrifice some of the future for a win-now veteran while Curry is still in his prime. Will they pull the trigger? 

6. Is the Giannis takeover upon us? 

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s game went to another level this past postseason, when he finally found his place as an off-ball powerhouse. No more standing at the top of the key with a live dribble trying to force his way to the rim. He became the screener. The roller. He was unstoppable as an offensive rebounder. He found his free-throw stroke. He ditched, for the most part, the 3-pointers and became a 15-foot face-up threat. He’s always been a destructive defender and transition force. If Giannis, who is still just 26 years old, builds on all this and takes his dominance to an even higher level, there might not be anything any team in the league — super or otherwise — can do about the Bucks repeating. 

The Hawks took everyone by surprise by making it within two wins of the NBA Finals last season. Now they have to follow that up with a bullseye on their back. I think they will, and that’s a different kind of validation for Young. Atlanta, by my estimation, is a top-three team in the East. Young is going to put up monster numbers, and with the formula there for Atlanta to jump into the realm of legit contenders, it is well within reason for Young to crack the MVP conversation. 

8. Luka and KP

We know Luka Doncic, the betting favorite to win MVP, is going to be spectacular. It’s intriguing enough just to see how far he can single-handedly take the Mavericks. But the X-factor of all X-factors is Kristaps Porzingis. He’s been largely written off, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was a dominant offensive force in the 2020 Bubble playoffs. I have a funny feeling KP is going to come out on fire, and if he does, and keeps it up, the Mavericks are super dangerous. 

9. The non-super Nets

Super teams are dumb. It’s nothing more than the best athletes ganging up at recess against the chess team in an effective effort to avoid having to compete. Real competitors split up, at least to some degree, and go at it. You’ll never change my mind on that. Now, I’m hard pressed not to call a team with Kevin Durant and James Harden a superteam, but the loose definition of such a squad has become three legit stars playing together. You almost have to have two stars these days, or one superstar and two All-Stars. Three prime superstars is when it becomes totally weak from a competitive standpoint. 

Kyrie Irving, at least for now, has pulled the plug on that tri-star gang-up, and now, to me, the Nets become a much more interesting team. They’re still probably the most talented roster in the league with Durant and Harden leading a deep group of really good role players, but the discrepancy between them and the Bucks, or perhaps even the Hawks in the East, let alone the top teams in the West, would not appear to be so wide that they can coast to a title on talent alone. They’re going to really have to earn this. That’s going to be fun to watch as Durant, whom many people have elevated best-player-in-the-league status, still has to establish his championship merits sans Stephen Curry. 

10. Steph Curry hunting history

Stephen Curry enters the season 142 3-pointers shy of breaking Ray Allen’s all-time record of 2,973 career makes. It took Allen 1,300 games to get there. Entering Tuesday night’s opener. Curry had played just 762 career games. Last season, Curry made a career high 5.3 3-pointers per game. If he keeps that pace this season, he could have the record well before Christmas. 

11. Same old Blazers?

Portland hired a new coach (Chauncey Billups) and once again tried to tinker around the edges of its roster rather than make a splash move, but has that team fundamentally changed? If the preseason is any indication, they still stink at defense. Perhaps a trade is still a possibility (CJ McCollum for Ben Simmons, anyone?), but until that happens, the Blazers, unless Larry Nance Jr. truly transforms them defensively, appear to be cut from the same cloth as always: Damian Lillard and McCollum having to create and make enough extremely difficult shots to compensate for their inability to stop anyone on the other end. That formula, we’ve seen, has a cap, and though we’ve put this story to bed for the moment, we’re still one Lillard trade request away from a potential Portland teardown. 

Chicago looks like a blast offensively. Zach LaVine is ready to take the Devin Booker leap — which is to say dumb people are going to have to stop reducing his elite scoring prowess to the good-stats-bad-team barrel of irrelevance. If Chicago can be a good team, that is. That comes down to defense. If the Bulls can piece together their backside protection, there is reason for optimism on the outside with Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams all good defenders and LaVine capable of pulling more than his weight. 

13. LaMelo Ball is life

There is no way not to be pumped to watch LaMelo this season. If his confidence wasn’t already overflowing, it surely has to be now after the rookie season he turned in. The game is just easy for him. Unlike his older brother, Lonzo, who was also heralded as a highlight passer coming into the league but had turned out to be more of a meat-and-potatoes half-court passer, LaMelo drops “SportsCenter” dimes in his sleep. His shooting was way better than anyone expected last season, which forces defenders to crowd his space, and that opens up the passing. LaMelo had a six-week stretch last season during which he looked like an All-Star. He might not be far off from that distinction. 

14. Can Zion win the scoring title? 

Last season, Zion Williamson averaged 29.3 points per 36 minutes — the same number as Kevin Durant. If he can get to the free-throw line a few more times per game, and convert those freebies somewhere closer to 75 percent (just under 70 percent last season), he will have an honest shot to win the scoring title despite having to do all his damage from inside the arc. Zion is must-see TV for his blend of power and athleticism, and he’s nifty with his footwork and change of direction in ways that a man of his build should have no business pulling off. One of the five most fun players in the league to watch. 

15. The Heat is back on

After following up their 2020 Finals run with a relative dud last season, the Heat look primed to challenge for a top-four seed in the East and once again be a nightmare matchup in the playoffs. Kyle Lowry does so much for this team. Assuming he doesn’t fall off dramatically (which is always a possibility for a guy who will turn 36 before the season is over), Lowry gives Miami the off-the-dribble 3-point threat that Jimmy Butler doesn’t pose as a pick-and-roll initiator, and he’s a great off-ball player, too, which fits perfectly with Butler and Bam Adebayo still controlling much of the half-court offense. Tyler Herro should be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and Duncan Robinson will be as lethal as ever. Here’s to hoping Lowry’s presence as an offensive organizer nudges Butler back toward a score-first mentality. 

George has become a media punching bag, and for the most part it’s ridiculous. He’s made some questionable comments and he’s had a handful of dreadful playoff performances, but he is a such an incredible basketball player. He was awesome without Kawhi Leonard in last year’s postseason, and with Leonard likely out for the entirety of this season, this is George’s chance to remind people that he is absolutely a lead-dog superstar in this league. 

I would argue, in fact, that he is better as the clear No. 1 of an offense than as a 1B, which he has had to balance alongside Leonard and Russell Westbrook dating back to his short tenure in Oklahoma City. It’s not to say George hasn’t played well as a 1B; he finished third in 2018-19 MVP voting playing with Westbrook, and he’s shot better than 41 percent from 3 in both his seasons with the Clippers. But I think he can be ever better this season, and the Clippers could surprise a lot of people who are expecting this to be a lost season without Leonard.  

17. The rookies

This is going to be a wildly entertaining rookie class. Cade Cunningham gets Luka Doncic comparisons for a reason. Jalen Green is going to have a permanently green light in Houston. Jalen Suggs has control of the Orlando offense. Evan Mobley might end up the best player of them all. And if you haven’t watched much of Josh Giddey in Oklahoma City this preseason, I suggest you get that on your to-do list. 

With Jamal Murray out for potentially the full regular season, Jokic has the tall order of carrying the Nuggets into the playoffs through the brutal Western Conference. He’s not alone by any means. Denver is deep. Michael Porter Jr. might be a star. Aaron Gordon gives the Nuggets two-way athleticism and a third scorer. But Murray is irreplaceable, and Jokic has the added expectations of matching his MVP season from a year ago. We’ve gotten used to the Nuggets being penciled into the top-half of the West, but that is in real jeopardy this season. 

19. Sleeping on the Suns

Remember that team that went to the Finals last season? It doesn’t seem like we’ve heard much about them when it comes to title talk. You get the impression people think the same of the Suns that they thought of the 2019-20 Heat, which is to say their Finals run was, dare I say, something of a fluke in a weird season. I don’t think that’s true, but I also don’t think Phoenix is one of the five best teams in the league. The Suns just signed Mikal Bridges long term, but Deandre Ayton wasn’t extended and you wonder how, or if, that will impact his approach as he aims for a max offer in restricted free agency next summer. Like LeBron, an aging Chris Paul can’t remain elite for the rest of time. 

20. No crying in Boston

Along with 3-point shooters no longer being rewarded with a bogus foul call for their contorted shooting motions meant only to draw defensive contact, new Celtics coach Ime Udoka making it clear that his team will not be a bunch of crybabies with officials might be the best thing I’ve heard in a long time. Whining to officials is an NBA epidemic. Udoka isn’t having it. He benched Grant Williams for griping to the refs in a preseason game, and one can only hope he sticks to his guns when the games count, though I doubt he will if it’s Jayson Tatum complaining. Still, you have to love the sentiment.

“You guys play through plays and move onto the next thing and let me be the guy that complains to the refs,” Udoka said early in training camp. “But that’s not the team we want to be and that’s not who I am, so I don’t want the team to start crying about every call.”

Praise the basketball gods. 



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