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NBA Season Preview

With the NBA season now in full swing, our writers decided to evaluate how the season could pan out. Taking into account each team's offseason moves and the state of their current rosters, our writers produced a projection for how each conference could look at the end of the regular season. Will the Lakers rebound from an early playoff exit? Do the Knicks have any magic left? Find out what our writers think below:

Eastern Conference

1. Milwaukee Bucks (2020-2021 Record: 46-26)

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo

X-Factor: Jrue Holiday

Key Addition: Grayson Allen

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s how I would describe the Milwaukee Bucks. Everything is looking up for the reigning NBA champions as they have kept their roster intact after the offseason. Giannis still remains as that dude and remains debatably the best player in the NBA. The Bucks also still have their 2 dominant guards, PG Jrue Holiday and SG Khris Middelton, who perfectly complement Giannis’ play style.Holiday is a lockdown defender and floor general while Middelton is a consistent knock down shooter. Alongside the big 3 in Milwaukee, the Bucks have great complimentary role players in center Brook Lopez, scoring guards in Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton, and an energetic forward Bobby Portis off the bench. Additionally, the Bucks traded for promising talent Grayson Allen this offseason from the Memphis Grizzlies and signed former Celtics forward Semi Ojeleye to add even more depth to an already balanced roster. Overall, I just see the Bucks being a gritty team that will be so hard to beat on a nightly basis. They may not be the team with the biggest names in the east, but they play so well as a unit that I have them as the top seed come playoff time.

2. Brooklyn Nets (2020-2021 Record: 48-24)

MVP: Kevin Durant

X-Factor: Patty Mills

Key Addition: Patty Mills

This might come as a surprise to some people as the Nets are not ranked #1 in my eastern conference standings. So let me explain my reasoning. First off, no one knows whether or not Kyrie Irving will play this season due to his refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Next, I just don’t think the Nets are able to play as a team to the extent that the Bucks can, with each player knowing their specific role. Even though you may say, “oh Durant and Harden can just drop an easy 60 points on your favorite team every night”, there’s just more to that in basketball. Defense is an extremely important aspect to the game. As we saw last year, the Nets defense is non-existent and I expect that to be the same case this year, as the Nets will focus on simply trying to outscore whoever they play. That said, their offense with KD, Harden, and Kyrie is truly so special, as each guy could lead a team on their own. Matching their play with the role players of 3 point specialist Joe Harris, F Blake Griffin, veteran Paul Millsap, and the return of Lamarcus Aldridge coming back from health concerns, the Nets can very well be the best team in the league. In addition, the Nets added PG Patty Mills, who is a solid all around player that could play a big role in the absence of Kyrie. However, speaking solely on the regular season, I see the Nets as a heavy “load management” type team with their superstar players. I think this will play a significant factor in preventing them from earning the top seed for the postseason.

3. Miami Heat (2020-2021 Record: 40-32)

MVP: Jimmy Butler

X-Factor: Tyler Herro

Key Addition: Kyle Lowry

Wow. Maybe one of the best off-seasons by a team in recent memory, as the Heat did not mess around in free agency. Miami’s front office realized after a disappointing season last year that they need to do everything they could to win now with Butler still in his prime and with the emergence of a star in C Bam Adebayo. The Heat added All-Star PG Kyle Lowry, solid PFs in P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris, and resigned guard Victor Oladipo. Overall, if you can match that with consistent shooting from Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro playing more like his 2020 self, the Heat look like a real scary team. This deep roster will be extremely tough to beat on any given night. As long as the new players get comfortable playing with one another and the Heat design team creates a sweet rendition of the Miami Vice jerseys, I see Miami having the third best record in the east.

4. Philadelphia 76ers (2020-2021 Record: 49-23)

MVP: Joel Embiid

X-Factor: Tyrese Maxey

Key Addition: Andre Drummond

As a Sixers fan myself, I have a lot to say about this team. After a disappointing result in the playoffs last season and the whole debacle with PG Ben Simmons holding out of training camp for a trade,, this will be one of the most important seasons for the Sixers in franchise history. Why in history you may ask? Well, it’s been 4 straight years of not being able to get over the hump and make the Eastern Conference Finals. So if the same result happens again this year, do we keep the same centerpieces and hope it eventually works out, or do we weigh our options and see what we can do to get to the next level ? But to get to that conversation we must get through this season, so where do the Sixers stand this year? After holding the #1 seed for most of last year, the Sixers were able to retain much of the same core, as they only lost Dwight Howard in free agency. However, this loss led the Sixers to bring in C Andre Drummond, who is a huge upgrade from Dwight and will easily be Embiid’s best backup since entering the league. This signing is even better for the 76ers considering Embiid’s extensive injury history since Drummond can definitely handle his own role as a starting NBA center if Embiid misses time again this year. The Sixers brought back Danny Green to pair with Seth Curry to provide three point shooting and to help spread the floor on offense. Tobias Harris still remains solid as a fringe All-Star talent that acts as the glue for this team. The Sixers also have solid depth with defensive machine Matisse Thybulle, who is a sleeper to win Defensive Player of the Year, explosive young guard Tyrese Maxey, and solid scoring backup guard Shake Milton. As long as Joel Embiid, who is the most dominant center in the league in my opinion, can get into the arena, the 76ers have a chance to win every night. Ultimately, I see the Sixers going as far as Ben Simmons takes them this season. Will the same old Simmons come back this season and still be

incapable to hit FTs and physically not allow himself to attempt any jump shots or three pointers? Or will we see Ben finally wake up, taking the next step in his game this year? Only time will tell. To say the least, it’ll be quite an interesting year in Philly, but I can comfortably predict they’ll be able to secure the 4 seed.

5. Atlanta Hawks (2020-2021 Record: 41-31)

MVP: Trae Young

X-Factor: Cam Reddish

Key Addition: Sharife Cooper

The squad down in Atlanta exceeded expectations drastically last season, as they made it to the conference finals with a bunch of young and inexperienced players. With that said, this young core in Atlanta is quite good. PG Trae Young is an offensive juggernaut, SG Kevin Huerter is a great offensive talent, SF Bogan Bogdanovic can shoot from anywhere, PF John Collins remains a solid player on both sides of the court, and C Clint Capela found a great fit in the Hawks scheme as a rebounding and lob catching machine. To go alongside this main core, the Hawks have great offensive depth in veterans Danillo Gallinari and Lou Williams and young developing players in De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. Overall, this Hawks roster just seems to be able to attack from all places on the court and I can see them potentially repeating what they did last year in the playoffs.

6. Boston Celtics (2020-2021 Record: 36-36)

MVP: Jayson Tatum

X-Factor: Dennis Schroder

Key Addition: Al Horford

After a disappointing season last year, the Celtics knew that they had to make roster adjustments to maintain the level of winning that Boston is known for. Head coach Brad Stevens stepped down from his role as head coach and moved up into the front office as the team’s general manager. On the player side of things, the exit of PG Kemba Walker led the Celtics to bring in veteran guard Dennis Schroder to backup Marcus Smart, who will likely take over the starting PG role. To me, this was one of the more sneaky-good under the radar pickups of the offseason, as Schroder has the ability to score on his own or make plays for the Celtics’ star players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The team also brought back center Al Horford, who has a history of playing well in Boston when he was there just two seasons ago. Along with the main core, the Celtics added some depth bringing in defensive minded guard Josh Richardson from the Dallas Mavericks and solid role player Ryan Archidiacono from Chicago. Pairing these new additions with the young talent already on the roster, such as C Robert Williams and G Payton Pritchard can allow the Celtics to be a consistently good team over the course of the season. The only reason why they’re a little lower in my standings than some people may think is because this is the only top tier team in the east with a new head coach, which could take some time to adjust before they start winning games.

7. Chicago Bulls (2020-2021 Record: 31-41)

MVP: Zach Lavine

X-Factor: Coby White

Key Addition: Demar DeRozan

Alright, similar to the Heat, the Bulls general manager stepped into the front office free agency meeting, erased whatever was already on the white board and just wrote “win now”. The Bulls seemed to do whatever they could to bring in talent to compete this season. However, I’m a firm believer that the only thing they will be competing for is a first round matchup against the Nets only to be swept with ease. Look, don’t get me wrong, the Bulls look the best they have in a handful of years with a nice 3 of Zach Lavine, Nikola Vucevic, and DeMar DeRozan. Notice I didn’t say the common NBA lingo “big 3” to describe these guys because I really don’t think DeRozan is the same player he was in Toronto and the fact that Lavine and Vucevic aren’t quite superstars. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all good players, but I can’t say these 3 will be making as much noise as some people would think. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bulls ended up being one of the teams involved in the play-in tournament. I know... I know… they brought in Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, but they are near the top of my list of my most wildly overhyped players in the NBA. With all that said, I do like young guys Coby White and Patrick Williams to have nice seasons, but this squad will at best sneak into the playoffs.

8. New York Knicks (2020-2021 Record: 41-31)

MVP: Julius Randle

X-Factor: Derrick Rose

Key Addition: Kemba Walker

Speaking of teams that haven’t been good in some time, we have the New York Knicks. After ending a 7 year playoff drought last season, Knicks fans have regained hope in their beloved team and for the first time in a long time have expectations of making the playoffs. To be fair, I think they have some fair reasoning to believe so. The Knicks brought in hometown favorite Kemba Walker to run the point in the Garden and brought in SG Evan Fournier to provide shooting for the team. I like these new additions playing alongside the current roster led by forward Julius Randle. Overall, the Knicks are just made up of a bunch of hungry and gritty players that head coach Tom Thibodeau will have playing hard every night, therefore making them my 8 seed.

9. Indiana Pacers (2020-2021 Record: 34-38)

MVP: Domantas Sabonis

X-Factor: T.J. McConnell

Key Addition: None

This Indiana Pacers team is looking super suspect this season and are once again mirroring the classic Pacers motto in recent memory of “let’s not be one of the worst teams, but let’s not be one of the better teams either”. Besides All-Star forward Domantas Sabonis, who I think is criminally underrated, the Pacers are full of a bunch of average starters that will likely not get them into the playoffs. This consists of Malcolm Brogdon who is solid, Myles Turner who has shown flashes of being great occasionally, and T.J. Warren who can sometimes pop off on the stat sheet. Also, besides T.J. McConnell, whose bandwagon I have been actively leading since entering the league, the Pacers have 0 depth in my eyes and failed to sign anyone somewhat decent in free agency. Therefore, I see the Pacers just out on the playoffs.

10. Charlotte Hornets (2020-2021 Record: 33-39)

MVP: Gordon Hayward

X-Factor: Lamelo Ball

Key Addition: Mason Plumlee

I’m a believer in what the Hornets are building down in Charlotte. They’re on the right track, but I still don’t think this is their year to break into the playoffs yet. I loved what I saw from Lamelo Ball last year. His crafty playmaking ability made an instant impact on the team. The Hornets also have some great veterans to help the young guys including Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, and offseason addition of Mason Plumlee. Even though I don’t have the Hornets making the playoffs, they are for sure a fun team to watch and with some progress in guys like Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington, and Kelly Oubre Jr., they will be headed in the right direction in no time.

11. Toronto Raptors (2020-2021 Record: 27-45)

MVP: Pascal Siakam

X-Factor: Chris Boucher

Key Addition: Scottie Barnes

I see this being another building year for the Raptors after their 2019 Championship run. They’re definitely headed in the right direction with Siakam and VanVleet leading the way, but they also have some nice pieces that can hopefully build on their game such as O.G. Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa, and Chris Boucher. I’m also really high on rookie Scottie Barnes finding a role on the team and am curious to see how he develops. Overall, I just don’t see this squad up north making much noise this season.

12. Washington Wizards (2020-2021 Record: 34-38)

MVP: Bradley Beal

X-Factor: Rui Hachimura

Key Addition: Montrezl Harrell

No joke, Bradley Beal may average 35 points per game. This is the first time Beal has not had a clear #2 running mate in Washington and will be flat out shooting a ton this season. I’m looking at their roster now and there’s just not much offense anywhere to be seen besides Spencer Dinwiddie, but I can’t be too confident in that assessment with him coming off an ACL tear. Washington does have some nice role players such as Montrezl Harrell, Davis Bertans, and Rui Hachimura, but besides that there is not much to work with on this team. Note how I didn’t include Kuzma in that last sentence because he is just so inconsistent throughout a season. That’s all there really is to say about the Wizards. They find themselves in a tough spot where they haven’t fully committed to either rebuilding or trying to win, so maybe this will be the year when we see where they lean.

13. Cleveland Cavaliers (2020-2021 Record: 22-50)

MVP: Collin Sexton

X-Factor: Jarrett Allen

Key Addition: Lauri Markkanen

Well, as long as LeBron isn’t walking through the doors of the Cavs locker room, then I predict another tough year for Cleveland. There’s just not much talent to go around on this roster. Don’t get me wrong, they got great young players in center Jarrett Allen (who is also criminally underrated in my opinion) and PG Collin Sexton, but I still need more development from guys like Darius Garland, Issac Okoro, and Lauri Markkanen, who they brought in this offseason. Overall, there just won’t be much to look forward to from the Cavs this season, as it will likely be another season of trying to rebuild themselves into a playoff contender.

14. Detroit Pistons (2020-2021 Record: 20-52)

MVP: Jerami Grant

X-Factor: Saddiq Bey

Key Addition: Cade Cunningham

Oh man. Just top to bottom very, very, very rough looking roster in Detroit. There’s not much to say about the Pistons except that they’re in the midst of a massive rebuild. Besides their clear best player Jerami Grant, they have some okay sophomore players in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, but then after that it’s just a really tough look. Hopefully Cunningham and Garza can be some rookie studs and provide a bright spot for the franchise, but that’s really the only thing the Pistons should be caring about this year.

15. Orlando Magic (2020-2021 Record: 21-51)

MVP: Cole Anthony

X-Factor: Jonathan Isaac

Key Addition: Jalen Suggs

Not even the powers of Mickey Mouse can save this mess in Orlando. Not falling far behind Detroit we have the Magic, who, to say the least, will struggle this year. Their lineup is just full of unproven young players that haven’t made much noise, if any, in the NBA. Besides Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, and

Cole Anthony having shown some flashes in the past, there’s really no other names on this roster to feel good about. Maybe centers Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. will look decent with an abundance of playing time, but there’s just nothing to hang your hat on. So, besides the nice weather, things are not looking great in Orlando. Easy 15 seed in the east.

Western Conference

1. Los Angeles Lakers (2020-2021 Record: 42-30)

Key Addition: Russell Westbrook

X-Factor: Anthony Davis

MVP: LeBron James

This season, like any other season for a LeBron James led team, is championship or bust. A little over a year ago, the Lakers hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy in the Disney Bubble. Last season the Lakers suffered a first round exit at the hands of Suns, who would end up going on to lose to the Bucks in the Finals. If the Lakers want to have any hope of winning their 18th title, they are going to need Anthony Davis to be healthy and play like he is capable of playing. Last year, Davis was dealing with a nagging injury which never fully healed from the bubble. Davis was shying away from playing his game and looked more like a 6'10" shooting guard. When healthy and locked in, Davis is arguably the best player in the league given his contributions on both sides of the ball. Over the summer, the Lakers experienced lots of roster turnover and ended up acquiring two guards who I believe will play crucial roles in deciding how far this team goes. Russell Westbrook's fit with James and Davis certainly is an interesting one, given how poor floor spacing may be, especially if Davis remains against playing center full-time even though it is his best position. Westbrook's playmaking cannot be denied though, and being able to relieve that burden from LeBron at times will prove to be very beneficial for them in the long run. Malik Monk is my favorite new addition to the Lakers because he is a player who is just scratching the surface of his potential. Last year, Monk showed out in Charlotte because he got to play with an elite playmaker in LaMelo Ball. Playing alongside playmakers like Westbrook and James should open up Monk's game even more. Monk can definitely be the Lakers sixth man, providing a spark offensively on any given night. Heading into year 19, LeBron James is still arguably the best player in the league, which is absurd to think about. Before getting his ankle rolled up on by Solomon Hill last season, James was performing as if he was on his way to winning his 5th MVP. When James returned last season, his ankle clearly was not fully healed, leading to a noticeable drop in his performance. Now with James fully healthy and well rested, the Lakers should be back in title contention once again.

2. Golden State Warriors (2020-2021 Record: 39-33)

Key Addition: Andre Iguodala

X-Factor: Jordan Poole/ Klay Thompson

MVP: Stephen Curry

Last season was uncharted territory for the Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry was the main scoring option for the Warriors offense. Curry averaged 32.0 PPG, 5.8 APG, and 5.5 RPG, all while shooting 42.1% from 3, playing arguably better than he did in his unanimous MVP season. Draymond Green reminded the NBA that he is still one of the best defenders in the game, but his offensive game somehow took another step back averaging 7.0 PPG on 44,7% FG and 27.0% on 3s. This wasn’t the weird part for the team, however. The weird part is that Curry was the only consistent scorer on the offense. There were no secondary scorers to help supplement Curry’s attack. Green's offensive flaws would not be difficult to mask if he was the only non-shooter on the floor, but the issue is the Warriors selected C James Wiseman second overall last season. Wiseman had a rough rookie season, and when he was finally starting to pick up a little steam, he tore his meniscus. Despite their struggles, the Warriors did appear to find some supplementary talent in SG Jordan Poole. While he can’t fill Klay Thompson’s shoes completely, as that would be difficult for almost anyone, he should be able to provide a secondary option to Steph Curry on the perimeter. A familiar face will be back in the Bay this season, as Andre Iguodola re-signed with the team, returning to the place where he won Finals MVP and 3 rings. Iguodola's biggest impact this year may not be the numbers he puts up on the court, but by mentoring rookie forwards Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody who the Warriors believe can extend their title window by a few years.

3. Utah Jazz (2020-2021 Record: 52-20)

Key Addition: Jared Butler

X-Factor: Mike Conley

MVP: Donovan Mitchell

During the 2020-2021 regular season in the NBA, no one was better than the Jazz. They were setting crazy records offensively for 3pt makes and were rolling defensively, led by elite rim protector and now 3x DPOY Rudy Gobert. Gobert faces his fair share of criticism, but his impact as a defender cannot go underappreciated. His ability to alter shots and lock down the paint is remarkable. The player who truly leads the Jazz is star guard Donovan Mitchell, who has improved his craft every year in the league and is able to take his game to a whole new level each postseason. Mitchell’s next step forward as a player is to become a better floor general, although he will always be a scorer first. Mitchell can still play this way thanks to Mike Conley, who has had an up-and-down tenure in Utah, but last year he showed he still is who the Jazz believed they were getting from Memphis. Conley made his first career All-Star game in 2020-2021, averaging 16.6 PPG and 6.0 APG. Whether or not Conley can stay healthy will be a very important determining factor in whether the Jazz can overcome their playoff failures and take the next step. Quin Snyder is an elite coach and hopefully he found a solution to Utah’s lackluster 3-point defense, which was exploited by a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard in the postseason. Gobert’s difficulty guarding the perimeter must be addressed so teams aren’t able to shoot 43.3% from 3 against them.

4. Denver Nuggets (2020-2021 Record: 47-25)

Key Addition: Jeff Green

X-Factor: Michael Porter Jr.

MVP: Nikola Jokic

For a majority of last season, hopes were extremely high in Denver for how far their team could go after reaching the Western Conference Finals the year before. Unfortunately, their season took an unexpected turn for the worst when Jamal Murray went down for the season with a torn ACL. In his absence, Nikola Jokic had to take an even bigger role in the offense. He did not disappoint, as he was named the league’s MVP. Jokic can punish defenses with his exceptional passing ability. There are very few centers, if any, that are better than Jokic at passing. That’s not to discount Jokic’s scoring ability, as he can score from essentially anywhere on the floor. He is not someone you would want to face in a game of H-O-R-S-E. The Nuggets will need him to maintain this level of production if they would like to be competitive while Jamal Murray continues to recover. Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris will be the main individuals tasked with filling in for Murray’s production. Porter Jr. was widely considered to be one of the most talented prospects in his draft class, but he slid on draft night due to injury concerns. He has showcased this talent, making many regret passing on him. He is an elite scorer who is putting up 3-point shooting numbers comparable to only Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, all while being 6’10”. Monte Morris plays a complementary style, as he is more of a floor general guard. Morris's best skill is not turning the ball over, which is shown through his otherworldly 5.06 Assist-to-Turnover ratio for his career. Taking care of the ball is certainly an underrated skill and Monte Morris excels at it. The Nuggets biggest move this summer was signing Jeff Green, who was one of the more coveted players in free agency after he had a phenomenal postseason with the Nets. Green can provide major minutes off the bench for a team whose bench is thin.

5. Los Angeles Clippers (2020-2021 Record: 47-25)

Key Addition: Re-signing Reggie Jackson

X-Factor: Terance Mann

MVP: Paul George

In the 2020-2021 season the Los Angeles Clippers went farther than they had ever gone before. During their playoff run to the Western Conference Finals, the Clippers learned a lot about themselves. Paul George finally exorcised his playoff demons and balled out with 26.9 PPG, 9.6 RPG, and 5.4 APG. George had to do much of this without the help of superstar SF Kawhi Leonard, who went down with a torn ACL in the second round of the playoffs against the Jazz. The Clippers were forced to use multiple depth pieces to make up for Kawhi’s missing production. The two most important contributors were Reggie Jackson and Terance Mann. Jackson averaged 17.8 PPG while shooting 7.5 3PA per game at a 40.8% clip. Mann put the world on notice when he dropped 39 points in the closeout game 6 vs the Jazz and is looking to show he wasn't just a flash in a pan. With the leadership of coach Tyronn Lue, the Clippers should be in good shape even without Kawhi Leonard. Lue was voted as the best head coach at making in-game adjustments by the 2021-2022 NBA GM survey. This was a no-brainer after his coaching performance against the Jazz, specifically after losing his best player in Game 3. Lue's greatest strength as a coach may be his willingness to change the lineup and pull players when they are performing poorly. Some coaches ride with their guys even when things look sluggish, but Lue isn't afraid to change his rotations at any given moment and play his best performers.

6. Phoenix Suns (2020-2021 Record: 51-21)

Key Addition: Javale McGee

X-Factor: Mikal Bridges

MVP: Devin Booker

Last year nearly everything went right for the Phoenix Suns, aside from losing in the NBA Finals. Devin Booker finally had capable talent around him for the first time in his career and second year head coach Monty Williams was the perfect man to lead them. Chris Paul made his impact felt providing high-level leadership, especially towards Deandre Ayton. Ayton was fed easy baskets thanks to playing with an elite floor general in Paul, allowing him to truly show off his skillset that got him selected 1st overall in 2018. Ayton was not the only Sun to shine last season, as Mikal Bridges took another leap forward, proving he is an elite 3&D wing. Bridges' scoring increased from 9.1 to 13.5 PPG and his 3FG% improved drastically from league average 36.1% to an elite 42.5%. Bridges has lots more room to grow offensively, which is scary to think about given how great of a player he already is. The aforementioned Devin Booker was the most impactful player for the Suns during the postseason, putting up 27.3 PPG, 5.6 RPG, and 4.5 APG, while also being the guy who they relied on in the clutch. Expect Booker to continue to improve because that is what the greats do, especially after coming up just short. One player who I am looking forward to seeing for the Suns this season is Cam Payne, who went from out of the NBA to being the sixth man on an NBA Finals runner-up. Payne’s quickness provided a change of pace from Chris Paul, which proved very beneficial for Phoenix time and time again during the postseason.

7. Memphis Grizzlies (2020-2021 Record: 38-34)

Key Addition: Steven Adams

X-Factor: Jaren Jackson Jr.

MVP: Ja Morant

In the previous two seasons, the Memphis Grizzlies are a team that has completely overachieved. The main proponent of their success is their franchise cornerstone Ja Morant. Morant is a special and unique talent that is different from most other young guards. While he is not a great three point shooter, Morant does excel at slashing and getting to the basket. Pair this with his insane athleticism and very few defenders can stop Ja from getting to his spots. His pairing of athleticism and slashing make Morant extremely difficult to defend. The next step for him should be working on his midrange game. It would be a perfect complement to his driving ability. If Memphis hopes to take the next leap as a team, one player they need more from is Jaren Jackson Jr. Last season he only managed to play in 11 games, battling injuries most of the campaign. When he plays, Jackson is a stud, as he can play the small ball 5 while stretching the floor. He shot 39.4% from 3 the prior season. Jackson's main issues come defensively, particularly with fouling. During Jackson's absence last season, Dillon Brooks stepped up in a big way, providing much needed scoring for them. Brooks can become a much better player if he works on improving his shot selection, considering how many shots he puts up per game (15.4 FGA). He is also in a similar position to JJJ, in that he must improve his discipline on defense in order to take the next step as a player.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves (2020-2021 Record: 23-49)

Key Addition: Re-signing Jarred Vanderbilt

X-Factor: Karl-Anthony Towns

MVP: Anthony Edwards

Last year was great for Minnesota, even though their record doesn’t show it, because not only did they find a future star to pair with Karl-Anthony Towns in Anthony Edwards, but they also managed to find an absolute steal in Jaden McDaniels. Edwards, like LaMelo Ball, had an immediate impact on the organization and earned the right to be called a culture changer. Despite early struggles, Edwards performed well after the All-Star break, averaging 23.8 PPG and 5.4 RPG in 36 games. Pair that with how he has been a pest defensively during the preseason, a true breakout season may be awaiting him. Edwards has certainly lived up to the expectations of being a #1 overall pick to this point. Even though Jaden McDaniels did not put up the gaudy stats people want to see from rookies to prove they belong, he did just that. McDaniels was a standout defender and a huge bright spot on the 23 win T-Wolves. If he continues to improve his 3-point shooting he can become an elite 3&D player, which may even be selling his talent a bit short. Karl-Anthony Towns is going to be a big factor in whether or not Minnesota will be able to make a leap to the playoffs this year. Towns' struggles have always come on the defensive side of the ball, so hopefully he can improve by increasing his focus and effort on defense. Towns has always been an elite offensive talent at the Center spot with his ability to be a playmaker at 7ft tall and being one of the best 3pt shooting big men of all-time. If Towns and Edwards both can break out as efficient two-way players this season, Minnesota will be in a great position.

9. Dallas Mavericks (2020-2021 Record: 42-30)

Key Addition: Re-signing Tim Hardaway Jr.

X-Factor: Kristaps Porzingis

MVP: Luka Dončić

The biggest move that the Mavericks made this offseason was not a signing or a trade; it was a hiring. Dallas parted ways with Rick Carslile who had been at the helm for 13 seasons, including winning the franchise's only title in 2011. They replaced Carlisle with a member from that 2011 team, Jason Kidd. Kidd has been a head coach twice prior to joining the Mavericks, having coached the Nets from 2013-2014 and the Bucks from 2014-2018, and was most recently an assistant coach with the Lakers. To be honest, the Kidd hiring does not move me that much based on what he showcased in his last two stints, but perhaps he has grown and developed since being with Frank Vogel and LeBron James. The main piece for Dallas is, of course, Luka Dončić who has continued to take the basketball world by storm with his dazzling offensive skills and highlight reel plays. For Dončić to take his next step forward as a player, he needs some help from his teammates. If Dončić wants to become a better defender, his team needs to be less dependent on him to create most of their offense. Dončić is forced to work hard on the offensive end every possession, leading to him taking a breather while on defense, creating lapses in the defense. While he may not have the athletic ability to guard on the perimeter, he should still be a good team defender, especially with his high IQ. Kristaps Porzingis is the player on the roster with the best chance of helping Dončić lessen his load offensively. Porzingis needs to better utilize his 7’3” frame on the inside instead of only standing on the perimeter to catch and shoot. The Mavs need him to return to his former self if they hope to be better as a team.

10. New Orleans Pelicans (2020-2021 Record: 31-41)

Key Addition: Jonas Valanciunas

X-Factor: Nickeil Alexander-Walker

MVP: Zion Williamson

This offseason was very active for the Pelicans, as they parted ways with head coach Stan Van Gundy, veteran guard Eric Bledsoe and traded Lonzo Ball. The Pelicans brought in the highly regarded Willie Green from Phoenix to replace Van Gundy, whose outdated coaching style and questionable rotation decisions led to the shakeup after one season. Devonte' Graham was brought in to replace Bledsoe, who was not a fan favorite due to his poor play throughout the season. Graham turned into the odd-man out in Charlotte after the emergence of LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier. Graham is a great catch-and-shoot player, which should allow him to excel next to Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. The player who will be tasked with filling Lonzo Ball's shoes is Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who people inside and outside of the Pelicans organization have raved about over the summer. Alexander-Walker is both long and athletic, which helps him get to the rim with ease and provide good on-ball defense for a team that desperately needs it. The next step he must take in order for him to truly be able to fill the void left by Ball's absence is to become a better 3pt shooter, as he is only a 34.7% shooter from three. If the Pelicans want to end their playoff drought, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram must show improvement. Offensively the duo is flat out special, but they dramatically fall short on defense. During their time together in New Orleans, Ingram and Williamson have never been part of a good defensive team. That was one of the main reasons for hiring Van Gundy, which in the end proved quite ineffective. If the young duo can commit to putting in as much on the defensive side of the ball as they do on offense, the Pelicans should be in business this season.

11. Sacramento Kings (2020-2021 Record: 31-41)

Key Addition: Davion Mitchell

X-Factor: Tyrese Haliburton

MVP: De'Aaron Fox

Will this season finally be the season that the Sacramento Kings end their 15-year playoff drought? While I cannot answer that question, I can tell you that they are in the best position to end their drought in over a decade. The Kings are led by their terrific young guard pairing of De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton. Fox is one of the most underrated players in the league, as he is coming off a season where he put up 25.2 PPG and 7.2 APG. Haliburton was part of early Rookie of the Year conversations due to his playmaking and shooting, although there are some who still question his unorthodox form. He is a player who not only can fill up the stat sheet, but is also a very intelligent athlete who uses his size to his advantage, making him a solid team defender. Last season Richuan Holmes had a breakout season with the Kings, proving he is one of the better offensive centers in the league. His unique and signature push-shot is extremely efficient while also being very difficult to stop. This season may be Kings' head coach Luke Walton's last chance at being a head coach following consecutive seasons of disappointing performances. The Kings have mostly disappointed during his tenure, particularly last season when they finished with a 116.5 defensive rating, which is the second worst mark in league history. So far during the summer league and preseason it appears that the Kings will already be better defensively this upcoming season because of impressive rookie Davion "Off Night" Mitchell. Mitchell certainly lives up to his nickname, putting opposing guards in a torture chamber on a nightly basis. Combining Mitchell's defense with Haliburton and Fox's offense in a three guard lineup could become a very intriguing option for Luke Walton to use.

12. Portland Trail Blazers (2020-2021 Record: 42-30)

Key Addition: Larry Nance Jr.

X-Factor: CJ McCollum

MVP: Damian Lillard

One of the biggest storylines this offseason was the Portland Trail Blazers decision to hire Chauncey Billups as their head coach. While there was backlash due to off-the-court questions, I am intrigued to see what Billups can do for Portland after being with the Clippers the past few seasons. Billups will need to do what Terry Stots could not, which is figure out how to make the Blazers a good defensive team with CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard sharing the floor together. Many officials around the NBA believe the Blazers should have moved on from McCollum, citing that the team has already peaked with the duo leading them. Dame and CJ are just so abysmal together defensively that the special offensive prowess they provide is basically negated. While I do not disagree with this opinion that Portland should have blown it up, I do believe that Billups can help flip the narrative about them. Larry Nance Jr. will be a tremendous help to improving the Blazers' defense after showing great skill in Cleveland last season. Another big who should provide aid to Portland is Cody Zeller, who comes over after spending his entire career in Charlotte. Even if Zeller does not have the flashiest game, his presence as a veteran paint protector will provide something Jusuf Nurkic simply does not. Neil Olshey's seat as GM should be flaming hot this season, especially if the Trail Blazers show no signs of improving defensively.

13. San Antonio Spurs (2020-2021 Record: 33-39)

Key Addition: Josh Primo

X-Factor: Keldon Johnson

MVP: Dejounte Murray

After over 2 decades of continued success, the San Antonio Spurs are in basketball purgatory. They are not bad enough to be in contention for a top 5 pick, but they also are not good enough to make the playoffs. Some of this fall off can be attributed to poor roster and front office moves, specifically trading Kawhi Leonard to Toronto for pennies on the dollar. DeMar DeRozan, who was the big piece returning to San Antonio in that deal, is no longer a Spur. Part of this blame can be passed onto coach Gregg Popovich, whose stubbornness has arguably put them into this position. Things are not all bad for the Spurs though, as they have a very underrated point guard in Dejounte Murray who without a doubt is one of the best defenders in the league, causing havoc for opposing offenses nightly. Murray is not too shabby offensively either, averaging 15.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG, and 5.4 APG. Josh Primo, who was selected 12th overall in this year's draft, is another bright spot for the Spurs. Primo is the youngest player in the NBA. During the Summer League and the preseason, he has shown great poise and promise as a shot creator. When watching Primo play you would never think that he is 18 because he plays with terrific confidence, which is vital for a young guard in the NBA. Keldon Johnson showed the most promise out of the Spurs roster last season. He was playing at such a high level during the season that he was chosen to join Team USA at the Olympics and ended up becoming a gold medalist. His play in Tokyo proved he belonged with the best and that he did not just make the team because Popovich was the coach.

14. Oklahoma City Thunder (2020-2021 Record: 22-50)

Key Addition: Josh Giddey

X-Factor: Luguentz Dort

MVP: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

If there is anything to look forward to for Oklahoma City Thunder fans during the 2021-2022 season, it has to be Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was so good for the Thunder last season they had to decide to stop playing him for the year because he was preventing them from effectively tanking for a high draft pick. Shai is one of the elite young slashers in the NBA and showed growth as a shot creator and playmaker, even though he was surrounded by mostly non-NBA players and the worst spacing in the league last season. Lu Dort was a breakout player for OKC last year showing he is more than just an elite perimeter defender, jumping from 6.8 to 14.0 PPG and from 29.7% to a 34.3% 3PT shooter. The rest of OKC's roster is somehow even younger than SGA and Dort, yet one player who can provide some immediate impact is 2020-2021 NBL ROY Josh Giddey, who was selected 6th overall. Giddey is a lanky, 6'8" playmaker who drew comparisons to LaMelo Ball when he was coming out of Australia. Giddey has shown flashes of his elite passing during the preseason, which is reason enough for Thunder fans to be excited for this upcoming season. Although, the Thunder and Sam Presti may have plans that include not trying to win so they can tank and claim a higher pick just as they did last year.

15. Houston Rockets (2020-2021 Record: 17-55)

Key Addition: Jalen Green

X-Factor: Kevin Porter Jr.

MVP: Christian Wood

One thing is certain for the Houston Rockets this season: they will be one of the most fun and exciting teams to watch in the league. While this exciting play may not translate into many wins, that does not matter as much to this extremely young Houston Rockets team. This season will be a success for Houston if they get to verify that #2 overall pick Jalen Green is the real deal and if he and Kevin Porter Jr. can be their backcourt pairing of the future. Green and Porter Jr. are both highly skilled scorers and special athletes who should gel well with each other. Another big win for Houston this season would be getting a fully healthy Christian Wood for the whole year. Last season prior to injuring his ankle, Wood was putting together a very impressive campaign averaging 21.0 PPG, 9.6 RPG, and shot 37.4% from 3, and was the frontrunner for Most Improved Player. Wood is the prototypical stretch big for the current NBA and should fit in well with the duo of Green and Porter Jr. Another young piece that I was very impressed by last season is Jae'Sean Tate, who put up 11.3 PPG and 5.3 RPG, and was chosen as a member of the All-Rookie 1st Team. There are a few interesting veteran pieces in Houston, including John Wall and Eric Gordon, who could both be bought out or traded as the Rockets aim to truly put the James Harden era into the past.

Season Awards

MVP: Luka Doncic

Luka Doncic is going to have to do so much for this team to make the playoffs that I think it will make him an easy MVP candidate for this season. Just look down this Mavs roster and you’ll see there’s just not much for Luka to work with. Kristaps Porzingis hasn't been the same guy he was on the Knicks in quite sometime and the role players he has are decent, but he’s going to be the clear leader in Dallas. So if the Mavericks can sustain a solid position in the western conference standings throughout the season, I see Doncic having a great chance to win MVP. I also believe that the NBA award voters would be fond of the idea of having a foreign born player win MVP to promote the league overseas. Runner Up: Kevin Durant

Defensive Player of the Year: Joel Embiid

I really hope that this is the year that voters finally make Joel Embiid their defensive player of the year because I am tired of seeing Rudy Gobert be given this award year after year. Mostly because of the fact that any player who is Gobert’s body type could win the award, it just so happens he’s the only player that tall and lengthy. With that said, Embiid has been receiving votes for this award ever since he entered the league, but I think this can be the year Joel finally puts everything together to win it. With the whole Simmons debacle still up in the air as of now, Embiid may have to step up and serve a larger role for the Sixers on defense. With that being the case, if he can continue to make his opponents struggle on a nightly basis, be an absolute block machine in the paint, and also play enough games for that aspect to not play a factor in voting, I like Embiid’s chances of winning defensive player of the year. Runner Up: Rudy Gobert

Rookie of the Year: Jalen Green

I already addressed Green’s potential in my rookie rankings blog, but I will reinforce my thoughts here. Jalen Green is going to have so many opportunities on offense as the Rockets number one scoring option that he will stuff the stat sheet every night and make NBA fans’ heads turn. And even though the Rockets won’t win many games, it won’t hurt his chances because I don’t see any of the top rookies being able to win many games either. So move over Cade Cunningham, because Jalen Green will be this year’s rookie of the year. Runner Up: Cade Cunningham

Sixth Man of the Year: Kevin Huerter

Since it appears that SG Bogdan Bogdanovic will start and Huerter will come off the bench this season, I have to name him my Sixth Man of the Year. Huerter is an efficient scorer and will be able to provide the Hawks with great minutes off the bench. Now I do see Jordan Clarkson as a candidate for this award as well, but since he won last year, I don’t know if voters would give it to him again. Runner Up: Jordan Clarkson

Most Improved Player: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Now, I'm not sure how much more Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can get better because he is already great, but he is the only consistent talent in Oklahoma City making it easier for him to prove his talents to voters. He may even be able to squeak out an All Star selection with an impressive first half of the season by stuffing the stat sheet every night. With that thought alone, I think Shai has a solid chance of winning most improved player. Runner Up: Kevin Porter Jr.

Coach of the Year: Monty Williams

I'm going all-in on the Phoenix Suns this season. If they can hold their own as the 1 seed in the west as I predict them to, then I think Monty Williams would be deserving of the coach of the year award. I think the voters will recognize the value that Williams brings to Phoenix if he can repeat last year’s output, especially since he was deserving of the award last year as well. Runner Up: Nate McMillan

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