The final installment is here, the contenders. To recall, the first tier examined lottery bound teams. Then, we looked into those teams on the bubble, close to making the playoffs, but also close to falling out. On Friday, we shared the playoff locks. Yesterday, it was the borderline contending teams.
Here’s the breakdown of the tiers as I see them:
Contenders - Assuming health, these teams have a great chance of making a conference finals run
Borderline - These teams can become contenders with a trade or two and internal improvement
Playoff Locks - These teams should make the playoffs but may not have a high enough ceiling to make a realistic run at the conference finals
Playoff/Play-In Bubble - These teams could reach the 6th seed but will realistically be amongst a group of teams competing for a place in the play-in tournament
Lottery Teams - These teams have already begun scouting the 2022 draft class
Utah Jazz (51.5)
At times last season, Mike Conley was very clearly the most important player on the Jazz. Whenever Donovan Mitchell struggled with his outside shot, Conley’s ability to run pick and rolls and punish teams that went under proved to be incredibly important. Teams had to respect his outside shot and that allowed Rudy Gobert to thrive as a rim runner. Even without Mike Conley, the Jazz should have had enough to get past the clippers.
Once again, the Jazz failed to live up to their own expectations and ours. Their playoff failures make it easy to overlook them as a contender but Mike Conley’s pre-injury greatness cannot be overstated. His health could be enough to propel them into the finals for the first time since 1998. Additionally, Hassan Whiteside isn’t the player the Heat thought they were signing to a massive extension but he provides valuable depth for minutes where Gobert sits. Rudy Gay is also past his prime but will provide some valuable scoring in spot minutes for them.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. The Jazz could easily make their believers look crazy but a finals run should not come as a surprise to anyone.
OVER 51.5 Wins (PLAY)
Los Angeles Lakers (52.5)
By definition, any team with Lebron James is a title contender. This could be the year that stops being true but until his game falls off a cliff, it would be disrespectful to him to have Lebron in a lower tier. Outside of that, it’s tough to see how this version of the Lakers is better than last year’s team.
The Laker acquisition of Russell Westbrook elevated the team’s regular-season floor while lowering it’s postseason ceiling. Westbrook gives the Lakers insurance in case one of it’s other two stars suffers a minor injury. If AD is out, let Lebron spot up around Westbrook pick and rolls. If Lebron is out, allow Westbrook to run pick and pops with AD. That should be good enough to get by on most nights during the regular season. In the postseason against good defenses with time to properly game plan, handing Westbrook the keys to the offense could prove detrimental to the teams’ success.
In truth, the LeBron/AD pick and roll is unstoppable when surrounded with adequate shooting. If Westbrook is on the perimeter, opposing teams can simply ignore him and shade a 3rd defender over to disrupt the action. That will put a ton of pressure on players like Trevor Ariza to make defenses pay. Most teams would gladly live with the result of a Trevor Ariza three point shot. The over is an easy call but this team’s season will be defined by what happens in the second round of the playoffs.
OVER 52.5 Wins (PLAY)
Brooklyn Nets (55.5)
This team is absolutely loaded and injuries to James Harden and Kyrie Irving robbed them of what was likely an easy championship. Oh, and this year’s team is better. Patty Mills was an underrated signing that provides them with Kyrie Irving insurance. Lamarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap give the teams more bodies to throw at Joel Embiid. Cam Thomas’ next pass will likely be his first but his ability to score on the perimeter is undeniable. In short, as long as two of the team’s 3 stars stay healthy, this team will cruise to the 2022 NBA championship.
OVER 55.5 Wins (PLAY)
Milwaukee Bucks (54.5)
Every criticism of the Bucks before the playoffs was accurate. In fact, those criticisms were true for parts of the postseason as well. The Bucks tore through the Heat but that Heat team was nowhere near as good as the team that eliminated them in the bubble. The criticisms reared their ugly head when the Bucks faced the Brooklyn Nets. Despite a disparity in talent, the Bucks struggled against a team of role players and Kevin Durant. The Bucks were literally inches away from being eliminated and should have been. They were fortunate to make it past the Nets. If Durant’s foot is behind the line, Coach Bud is probably fired and Giannis’s future would be the talk of the offseason.
At the same time, Giannis did what many said he couldn’t do and led his team to a championship. No one can take that away from him. Many around the league put the Bucks in the same tier as the Nets but the Nets are probably in a tier by themselves. The gap between the two teams is significant. The Bucks had a thin margin for error last year and they are probably worse heading into this season. A conference finals fun is likely but it would take a heroic performance from Giannis for the Bucks to eliminate the Nets for the second year in a row.
OVER 54.5 Wins (FADE)