The past two NBA seasons have been changed by the health and safety protocols that playing amidst a pandemic requires. They’ve also shaped one of the most intriguing league-wide landscapes in recent memory. Now, with 96 percent of players vaccinated, fans can look forward to a relative return to normalcy. Here are some of the most interesting storylines to watch from the NBA’s championship contenders:
Twice during last season’s playoffs, the Bucks had their backs against the wall. Twice, it appeared that even with a strengthened roster, they had failed to win with Mike Budenholzer at the helm. But they did not flinch either time and won their first championship in 50 years. Is that the type of team Milwaukee is now? Or will the Bucks fall back into their old ways, which had many calling for Budenholzer’s job and questioning how the front office was supporting Giannis Antetokounumpo?
Phoenix emerged as the breakout team of last season’s playoffs but fell flat after taking a 2-0 series lead in the finals. One of the most glaring problems, when the Suns lost four straight games to Milwaukee, was the drop in play of Deandre Ayton. As Ayton pursues a max contract from the franchise, it will be interesting to see if the top pick in 2018 manages to elevate his game to a level that justifies such a contract and keeps his team at the top of the Western Conference.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Kawhi Leonard-Paul George pairing face a year of reckoning in their third season as a duo. Year one saw the entire team, most notably George, massively underwhelm. Year two saw them advance to the conference finals behind the improved play of George play much better, but with Leonard lost to an ACL injury, the Clippers just did not have enough to get past the red-hot Suns. Will this be the year the Clippers capture their first championship in franchise history?
The Hawks’ process of shaping a contender out of a group of young talent was successful ahead of schedule after Nate McMillan took over as head coach in March and led the team to the conference finals. Atlanta’s front office bet on that success being sustainable, extending McMillan, Trae Young and John Collins in the offseason. Will Atlanta’s ascent continue at the same pace and justify their offseason moves?
If Kyrie Irving decides to take the COVID-19 vaccine, it will be fascinating to see if the super team experiment in Brooklyn produces results with all three superstars finally healthy. If Irving decides not to get vaccinated, the question will be how his decision impacts his team’s chances of winning. Will he be traded for depth to support Kevin Durant and James Harden? Do the Nets not (or fail to) trade him and try to win a championship with just Durant and Harden and little depth? Does Brooklyn have enough around their two vaccinated stars to win if they choose the latter?
Nikola Jokic is otherworldly at basketball and now has an MVP to his name. Jamal Murray is set to return from an ACL injury at some point in the regular season. That duo beat the Clippers and played the eventual champion Lakers very well last time it was healthy in the playoffs. Factor in an improved – and well compensated – Michael Porter Jr. and the Nuggets are to be taken very seriously in the West. But with Murray coming back from injury, and Porter Jr. still young and inconsistent at times, the question is: do things come together in time, or at the right time, for Denver to contend amongst the best in the West?
Philadelphia’s “Process,” despite a new general manager, head coach, and a reinforced roster, came up short once again in the postseason. This time, Ben Simmons has taken the brunt of the blame for the 76ers’ failures. How his situation ends up playing out could define the 76ers season. Does he end up playing for them, and if so, how well does he play? But the more realistic question at this point in the Simmons-76ers relationship is: what type of trade haul does Philadelphia get for Simmons, and will it be enough to push the 76ers past the second round?
For the past five seasons, despite strong regular season showings, Utah has been a perpetual early-round playoff exit. Will this be the season the Jazz finally earn at least a conference finals appearance? Will it be the season where Rudy Gobert isn’t forced off the court by the opponent’s gameplan in the biggest moments? What happens if it isn’t? Will it mean the end of the Quin Snyder era in Salt Lake City?
After some offseason drama, the Mavericks got Luka Doncic a new head coach, Jason Kidd, but not the supporting star he desperately needs. Will Dallas acquire that star through an in-season trade, or does someone on their roster emerge as that before they make a trade? And if neither of those happen, is it fair to expect Doncic to lead the Mavericks to anything more than a respectable showing in the first round of the postseason?
Los Angeles Lakers
With an average age of 30.9, the Lakers’ revamped roster is the oldest in the league. Will loading up on notable but old players be a successful strategy? How does Russell Westbrook fit as the third star alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis? Will Lakers management regret not using their trade capital on a prolific shooter like Buddy Hield instead?
After their “run it back” strategy failed miserably early in the 2021 season, Miami took the opposite approach at the trade deadline and this offseason. The most noteworthy part of that strategy was trading their beloved point guard, Goran Dragic, for Kyle Lowry, another floor general whose style of play meets Miami’s needs more than Dragic’s did. Will the addition of Lowry translate to improvements from their young players and a top-three finish in the East?
Golden State Warriors
At some point this season, Stephen Curry will finally get his fellow splash brother, Klay Thompson, back from consecutive season-ending injuries. It might feel like an eternity ago, but the last time that duo led Golden State was led by that duo, they won a championship in 2015 and were a win away from another the next year, when they posted the best regular season record in NBA history. They also return Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala from the 2015 title team. Factor in recently-vaccinated Andrew Wiggins, and you have one of the most intriguing teams in the West, as the Warriors try to recreate their pre-Kevin Durant winning ways.
Chicago started its efforts to grow a contender around Zach LaVine at the trade deadline by acquiring Nikola Vucevic and doubled down on those efforts with big spending in free agency, signing Demar Derozan, Lonzo Ball, Derrick Jones Jr. and Alex Caruso. Expect to see the Bulls in the playoffs for the first time since 2017. If all of their newly acquired talent, along with their young core of Patrick Williams and Colby White, meshes together well, the Bulls could give the favorites in the East all they can handle in the later rounds of the postseason.
Year three of the post Warriors’ reign of terror in the NBA is poised to reach new levels of intrigue and competitiveness. Will last season’s breakout teams reach the pinnacle of the sport again, or will teams led by the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant reclaim their spots atop the league? As to who makes the finals, and who wins it all, your guess is as good as mine or any expert’s – and that’s when the NBA is at its best.